Creatures Of The Night: The Batman, M, and Hunter VS Hunted
There’s something about how well the medium of film can tell a story about the night. Whether it be following Count Dracula around as he stalks a new victim, or watching high school kids avoid three witches who want to suck the lives out of all the children in Salem, or being in a Taxi driven by Jamie Fox with a murderous hitman played by Tom Cruise as his passenger for the evening. The dark, creepy, and dare I say exotic things that can come from the night are perfect plots and subplots for a movie.
Included in that is the hunter and hunted aspect that can come from a “good guy” hunting down a “bad guy” with only street bulbs and the glow of the moon to help shine a light on an evil do-er using the darkness to his or her benefit. A few weekends ago, I was able to watch two films in regard to this aspect.
Both are films about someone up to no good at night having to be flushed out into the light, but both are different genres, from different generations, have significantly different runtimes, and give us a different perspective on which of these two options we get to see the story’s POV from. In one film, 2022’s The Batman, we get to see this story play out from the perspective of the hunter. In the other, 1931’s M, we get to see this story mostly play out from the perspective of the hunted.
Be forewarned that some spoilers are included in the following analysis…
– The Hunter: The Batman (2022)
Released earlier this year to wide critical and financial success, The Batman gives us yet another new take on the cape crusader as he tries to hunt down a serial killer version of the Riddler who seems hell-bent on terrorizing Gotham’s elite. Taking place from Halloween day up until election day the following Tuesday, the story is mostly told at night with backdrops of seedy clubs, abandoned orphanages, rooftops, and even an election night gathering. While it is yet another addition to the superhero subgenre, it also plays out like an old school noir, perfectly fitting for the city that is Gotham and for a character that is arguably just as much a detective as he is a superhero.
As the hunter in this scenario, this version of Bruce Wayne (Batman himself if you’ve been living under a rock) is a man conflicted as to exactly what his role is as the city’s friendly vigilante. He’s clearly a man with anti-social behaviors, still haunted by the scars left by his parents’ murders, and struggling to keep a balance between his public image as a billionaire and his night-time crime fighting. As the three hour runtime plays out, we see Bruce’s hunt for the Riddler test him and try as hard as he might not everyone will come away from the madman’s rampage unharmed.
Because this takes place early into his existence as Batman, Bruce and the city have an incredibly shaky relationship with one another. Save for Jim Gordon, yet a commissioner in this tale, he’s openly referred to as a freak by some of the officers he’s helping. The underground crime world hasn’t come to fear him yet, they see him as a novelty and when the character of the Penguin meets him for the first time he regards him as a nuisance more than a worthy foe. To make matters worse, a popular up and coming politician running for Mayor attacks his presence during a debate with the current sitting Mayor she’s challenging. In time dark secrets about his family’s past come out and his own life is put in danger, thus Bruce finds himself wondering whether its worth continuing on as the Batman.
The movie playing out almost exclusively at night matches up with this version of Bruce perfectly. Unlike in other versions of the character on screen he isn’t a playboy, he isn’t involved in business meetings, etc. I’ve seen him referred to as “emo” by some but I think that’s a simplistic take. He’s an obsessive young man who has dedicated himself to something he’s still not fully comprehending as to where he fits into. He’s aloof and naïve at times, especially when paired with Selina Kyle who is infinitely more street smarts than the guy who spends his nights lurking in the shadows looking for criminals to beat up. He is almost like a man trying to wade through a darkness in his mind to figure out who he is and what the point to all this crime fighting is for him.
To Bruce’s horror as he continues to try and hunt down the Riddler he realizes that the serial killer actually admires him. When they eventually meet face to face, the fine line between a vigilante who has a strict rule about never killing and someone who is out to destroy the system by literally picking off its toxic roots through murder is shown. Bruce doesn’t prevent bad things from happening try as he might, he makes mistakes, he’s outsmarted more than once, and he fails to save lives sometimes. But he does by the film’s end realize what he is to the city. His determination to protecting it, to sticking by his personal morals, and gaining most of the city’s appreciation comes with a less than perfect journey.
As a creature of the night that basically hunts down the negative elements of what the darkness brings, this version of the Batman is enduring not just a search for the identity of the Riddler and what his motives are, but in some sense he is also searching for his own identity. Through this perspective of the hunter, we don’t see a perfect do-gooder but we do see the clearly good intentions of a flawed Bruce.
– The Hunted: M (1931)
Juxtaposed to that is a classic that is frequently mentioned among the masterpieces of cinema. 1931’s M is a German film directed by the iconic Fritz Lang and starring the arguably even more iconic Peter Lorre in his breakthrough performance before he would end up in the states after fleeing the Nazis and playing other great horror villains and being mimicked by Bugs Bunny. Unlike The Batman which mostly follows the POV of the hunter in a scenario of detective versus criminal, M gives us the POV of the the hunted serial killer of children that has an entire town in mortal fear for their kids. The film is mostly set at night, especially the second half with ends up taking place all in one evening.
Hans Beckert is an unassuming man who lives alone during the day; in fact when he shows up on screen for the first time he blends in with segments of other townspeople going about their day to the point first time viewers might not even notice they just saw the killer. Like Bruce he is struggling with what he is, but in Hans’ case his demons are that of a man whose tongue starts to dry up in thirst whenever he sees a child he takes a shine to. Not even a shot of alcohol can stop him from thinking about his evil desires. As he confesses at one point in the film, he doesn’t think about the repercussions of his actions until his underage victim lays before him no longer breathing. This evil craving is so instinctual in him at the point we meet him that he finds himself whistling the tune of “Hall of the Mountain King” when he’s on the prowl.
Whereas Bruce finds himself on shaky grounds with the people he wants to protect, whereas he’s not taken as seriously as one might expect the Batman to be, Hans is a whole other story. As the monster of this tale, as the one being hunted, the town whose children he’s ripping away from absolutely fears this killer. To the point we start to see scenes of suspicions and wrongfully accused individuals. It gets so bad that even the underground criminals have a meeting to decide that they cannot handle the heat that Hans is sending their way, and thus an entire network of mobsters, swindlers, and robbers band together to try and find this evil toxic virus that is Hans and serve him with their own brand of “justice”. The parents fear for their children, and the police put their all into tracking down the killer unknowingly aware that they’re basically in a race with the mob for who will find Hans first. Bruce was doubted, Hans strikes fear.
When Hans is eventually found out thanks through an ingenious plot by one young man to label him via chalk, the film dramatically shifts from that of a town trying to weed out the killer among them to that of a desperate man who knows he’s being hunted, who knows he’s done wrong, and now is the one in mortal fear for his life as mobsters trap him into a building and we watch him attempt escape after escape. Up until this point we rightfully loathe Hans. He is an evil man who stalks the literally most vulnerable of our society. He’s taking these innocent, young lives and he needs to be stopped. But as we follow Hans as our main POV and watch his desperation as he tries to outrun his pursuers, you can almost find yourself identifying with his fear.
If The Batman‘s almost exclusively night-time setting fits perfectly with the concept of one trying to wade through the darkness clogging their mind to figure themselves out, M‘s mostly night-time setting fits perfectly with the concept of our fears that secrets we keep in the dark are about to be shined on back at us. Hans’ terror as he finds every escape attempt fail, the realization when the flashlight shines on his face and he is found, is that of a man who knows the light has landed on and revealed what kind of evil things he is responsible for.
By the time Hans is brought to face a kangaroo court put together by the mobsters, you can sense the danger for him. He stands before a group of tens of hundreds of villagers, including the family members of those whose lives he took knowing they’re about to rip him to shreds, limb from limb. He pleads his case, first feigning ignorance and then eventually bursting into a full blown confession. His provided Lawyer tries to make the case for the man, pointing out he’s being judged by the very mobsters who they themselves are wanted by the police for murder.
But as the realization dawns that Hans is and always was going to meet his end at the hands of these people, his hopelessness and dread starts to affect the audience. We know he’s a good for nothing evil man, we know he did the worst imaginable things to those young girls, we know he deserves some kind of retribution against him, but Lang’s direction and Lorre’s performance makes us actually almost if not outright fear for his life. As the cops start closing in on him just as the kangaroo court is taking place, the audience might find itself wanting him to face justice but fearful about what this ravenous crowd out for revenge is going to do to him. There’s no sympathy for Hans, but we can put ourselves in his shoes in terms of the idea you’re being hunted down by a group of people and you just know that they have no other mission than to harm you.
Hans is a creature of the night that hunts little girls, but once he is trapped in by an entire town looking for revenge he becomes the hunted. Like stopping and thinking of one’s eventual passage from this world to the river styx, we watch a young man knowing justice and perhaps even his execution are about to happen to him all in one night. Whereas Bruce found his identity in the darkness in The Batman, M ends with Hans facing the inevitable end of his reign of terror, his evil deeds no longer hidden in the dark.