Riddle me this—in Matt Reeves’ The Batman, did the Riddler come out victorious? A friend posed this question to me as we were leaving my third screening of the movie, and I was temporarily lost for words. On a surface level, the question doesn’t seem so hard, since the Riddler is caught by the end of the movie. But his incarceration was part of his overall plan. In Gotham City nothing is ever simple, and Matt Reeves is following that tradition.
The conflict between Batman and Riddler subverted many of my expectations. It wasn’t until my third viewing (I mean, you have to see this movie multiple times) that I realized that Batman never actually fights the Riddler. Even their interrogation scene separates them with a glass window. The two enemies are never physically in the same space. If this were any other Riddler story, he would battle Batman, lose, and wind up in Arkham. The question over Riddler winning would be clear, yet here it’s a bit more complicated.
To explore the question, I carefully considered the Riddler’s overall goals and how they played out over the course of the film. Who is the Riddler, and what was he ultimately after? How did he become so twisted, and where does he go from here? Like most of the villain’s riddles, I found that the answer wasn’t simple.
One of the best parts about The Batman is how much the film benefits from rewatches. During my first viewing, I assumed that the Riddler sees Batman as an enemy, a preconceived notion that comes from years of seeing their rivalry across comics, television and film. During the third act, I was shocked to learn that Nashton assumed he was working WITH Batman this whole time.
This revelation gives us a lot of insight into Riddler’s head, and it also changes the way we view the movie during subsequent rewatches. The entire time, Batman and the Riddler think they’re in two different movies. The Dark Knight thinks he’s battling an enemy, and Riddler thinks he’s having a team-up. And why shouldn’t Nashton think he and the Dark Knight are working together? As far as he’s concerned, both of them are trying to stop the criminals running Gotham City.
If you’re fuzzy on the details, then I’ll recap. During the interrogation scene we learn that Edward Nashton was an orphan who felt forgotten by society. As a child he heard mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne speak about the Gotham Renewal Fund, and how that would improve life for everyone in the city, including forgotten children like him. After the death of Thomas Wayne, everyone forgot about the orphans again.
Imagine the resentment you would feel if you were used as a prop during a political rally, but nobody cared about you once the event was over. This was a defining moment for young Nashton, who watched the elites of the city rob and exploit the Gotham Renewal Fund. As a child, his sleep was constantly interrupted by rats chewing on his skin. Meanwhile the corrupt rulers of the city were sleeping soundly, getting rich off the money that was meant to help people like him.
As an adult, Nashton decided to strike back, exposing the secrets of the Gotham Renewal Fund and unmasking the corrupt ruling class of Gotham. If you didn’t know I was talking about the Riddler, you would almost think this was an antihero origin story. Modern entertainment is filled with antihero protagonists who operate in similar ways. Make no mistake, Nashton is still a criminal—one who commits murders without thinking about the innocent people caught in the crossfire. But in his mind, he’s a hero, fighting alongside the Caped Crusader. We see him as the Riddler, but he views himself as something more like Robin.
But did the Riddler win? He was arrested, but that wasn’t because Batman caught him. Nashton allowed himself to be caught by the police, and in a prerecorded video, he revealed that it was his plan all along. With the exception of Bruce Wayne, he was able to catch and expose all of his targets. His ultimate goal was to bring Falcone “into the light,” and Batman unknowingly did that. His plan to assassinate Mayor Bella Real and the rest of Gotham’s leadership failed, but he was able to flood Gotham, throwing the city into chaos. When you look at all that, it seems like Nashton got almost everything he wanted.
Despite his victories, Edward seems emotionally wrought during the film’s conclusion. For someone who seemed to win, why wasn’t Edward feeling victorious? The clear answer, to me at least, is Batman’s rejection.
The Dark Knight rejecting his offer of friendship shattered Edward’s entire world. Watch how he comes apart during the interrogation scene. For Nashton, this was about more than exposing the corrupt elites. He finally had purpose and thought he had found a kindred spirit in Batman. After years of being an unloved orphan, Edward was finally part of something bigger. He was cleaning up the city alongside its famous vigilante. Or so he thought.
When Batman rejects him, it takes Edward right back to his childhood. All of a sudden, he’s reliving the trauma of Thomas Wayne’s broken promises and how the orphans were pushed aside after his death. This explains why he falls apart so fast during his conversation with the Dark Knight. It’s about more than Batman spurning his friendship.
Later on in the film, Batman watches a video Nashton recorded for his followers. As Edward addresses his viewers, he talks about how much their support has helped him: “What this community has meant to me these weeks, these months, let’s just say none of us is alone anymore.”
All he ever wanted was a friend.
Maybe it’s not quite so simple, but this idea certainly seems to be supported by the Riddler’s final scene in the movie. When the unnamed Arkham patient offers his friendship to Edward, he seems elated. When you heard Nashton laughing, that isn’t an evil maniacal laugh, it’s the laughter of pure joy. After being rejected by society and by Batman alike, he finally has a friend.
Of course, not all friendships are good, especially if they’re made in Arkham Asylum, but this brings me back to my original riddle. Did Edward Nashton win? All he ever wanted was a companion, and by the end of the movie, he has one. So, perhaps the answer is yes.
Joshua Lapin-Bertone writes about TV, movies and comics for DCComics.com, is a regular contributor to the Couch Club and writes our monthly Batman column, "Gotham Gazette." Follow him on Twitter at @TBUJosh.
NOTE: The views and opinions expressed in this feature are solely those of Joshua Lapin-Bertone and do not necessarily reflect those of DC Entertainment or Warner Bros.