How 'The Batman' Cast Will Shape a New Gotham

Jonah Hill and Jeffrey Wright - Split-Getty-H 2019
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images; Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images
The casting of Jeffrey Wright and Jonah Hill hints at a new direction for Matt Reeves' Dark Knight.

Matt Reeves’ Gotham City is steadily coming together brick by brick, with new casting discussions increasing the already high anticipation for his upcoming The Batman. Robert Pattinson was officially cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman in May, and since the news broke, speculation has run rampant as to who would be joining him and if they would share any ties to the Gotham City featured in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) or Justice League (2017). On Monday, we learned Jeffrey Wright and Jonah Hill are in talks to join Pattinson in The Batman, with Wright taking on the role of James Gordon and Hill up for either the part of the Riddler or the Penguin. Wright's casting of Gordon further cements that Reeves' Batman will stand apart from the continuity established with Ben Affleck's take on the character. These latest casting talks also provide some perspective on what we can expect from Gotham this time around when it comes to cops and criminals.

James Gordon is, of course, a mainstay in the Batman mythos, and his role in Reeves’ upcoming film doesn’t come as a surprise. The character was most recently portrayed by J.K. Simmons in Justice League, though the most well-known live-action portrayal of the character was Gary Oldman’s in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Oldman’s portrayal was just about as comic accurate as casting could get, and his relationship with Batman defined a significant amount of the emotional crux of those films. Wright, a wonderful chameleon, will undoubtedly bring his own voice and weight to the role. He’s no stranger to playing men who seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, and he has eyes that convey a constant sense of "having seem some shit." Given Pattinson’s casting as Batman, we expect that Wayne is early in his career, but more seasoned than a Year One (1987) or Batman Begins (2005) take. Nolan's Dark Knight films chronicled Gordon’s rise from police sergeant to commissioner, and in the comics his career in Gotham began as a detective. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see Wright’s Gordon already begin the film as police commissioner, leaving the detective angle up to Batman himself.

Throughout Reeves’ filmography, he has displayed an interest in partnerships and friendships, mutually beneficial relationships through which peace, sometimes temporary, is built. We saw this in Let Me In (2010) and more recently in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017). One of the core aspects of Batman is that he never works alone, and since the beginning of his crusade he has always been reliant on the cooperation and participation of others. Where Nolan tackled this by showcasing how Gordon and Batman were able to rise together, Reeves has an opportunity to shift the perspective of that narrative with a more beleaguered Gordon who believes he has seen the worst of what Gotham has to offer, and a Batman who still believes he can change the city from within. Gordon and Batman are two pillars of Gotham, the foundation through which heroism is built. The third pillar, crumbling, crooked and threatening to bring the whole city down, is the criminal element.

Reeves’ has confirmed that The Batman will feature a rogues' gallery of villains, and while there’s yet to be confirmation on how many, Penguin, Riddler and Catwoman are all expected to play a part. Reeves has also shared his interest in creating a mystery, a story that puts Batman’s detective skills to work in ways that have never been seen on film before. The noir-emphasis and existence of multiple potential suspects in the form of Batman’s rogues immediately calls to mind the Batman works of Jeph Loeb, whose arcs The Long Halloween (1996), Dark Victory (1999), and Hush (2002) are defining gateway Batman stories. With Hill up for either the role of Penguin or Riddler, those stories may provide some clues to what we can expect from those characters.

Penguin, aka Oswald Cobblepot, is often utilized as the bridge between the old crime families of Gotham and the “freaks” who began to emerge more frequently with Batman sightings. While there’s no telling how grounded Reeves will be in his approach, I expect his take on the Penguin to be entirely unlike Danny DeVito’s incredible and monstrous interpretation in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992). A crime boss with his own taste for the theatrics, operating out of his club The Iceberg Lounge, seems to be the most likely bet. Penguin’s role as a crime boss who hides his illegal activities through his club and keeps Gotham’s criminals in line has resulted in a temporary peace between him and Batman. And once again, going back to Reeves’ thematic consideration of contemporary peace established by warring parties, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Batman and the Penguin as reluctant allies. Recent portrayals of the Penguin have also focused on his relationship to Bruce Wayne and the parallels between them as sons of two of Gotham’s oldest families. If Reeves is looking for a Penguin closer in age to Wayne, then it may suggest closer ties between the two and a portrayal not far removed from the version seen in Telltale’s Batman game. It’s entirely plausible that Penguin is central to life of both Bruce Wayne and Batman.

As for the Riddler, Loeb’s characterization differs from how the villain is commonly portrayed, but the payoff is grand. In The Long Halloween and Dark Victory, Edward Nygma is portrayed as a neurotic coward, hardly a physical threat to Batman. Later in Hush, it’s established that Batman never took the Riddler as seriously as his other adversaries, and so when the villain found out he had a brain tumor and only months to live, he hatched a plan utilizing Batman’s rogues in an effort to separate Batman from those he cared about and prove himself as Batman’s greatest threat. In 2006, the Riddler reformed and became a consulting detective whose genius and legal methods threatened the existence of Batman. Hill is an unexpected choice for the Riddler, and that’s what makes him perfect for the role, even more so than the Penguin. The challenge to take Hill seriously as a villain would mirror Batman’s own thoughts about the character, which could lead to a thrilling revelation and performance shift. Of all of Batman’s villains, the Riddler feels the most in need for a return to the big screen and an actor who could offer a surprising take on the character that forces him to be taken seriously by general audiences again.

Casting for The Batman is only just beginning in earnest and the Reeves’ vision will become clearer with each announcement. But for now, we know Gordon will appear, and it is likely both Riddler and Penguin will play a role, alongside Batman, in shaping this latest iteration of Gotham City and the future of the franchise. If Reeves’ past directorial efforts can be looked at as evidence, then we can expect the relationships between these characters to result in an incredible payoff that will help define Batman and his mythos for the next generation.