Thursday, May 19, 2022

COLUMN: The Batman's Riddler is an online extremist

April 7, 2022
<p>Illustration of the Riddler in The Batman by Daena Faustino.</p>

Illustration of the Riddler in The Batman by Daena Faustino.

I sat down in the theater a couple of weeks ago and watched "The Batman." Through the movie, I kept seeing something that put me a little on edge.

I saw a man radicalized by his conditions, by his life, by his city. I saw someone gain an online following on a fringe website. On this fringe website, I saw his followers connect with one another, socialize trade tips and advise one another.

I had seen it all happen before. In countless examples, I had heard about things like this happening.

Throughout this film, I continued to see the signs, although subtle, that Paul Dano’s version of the Riddler was a spitting image of today’s online, right-wing extremist.

I saw signs of it through the film, with the first sign coming during the funeral scene for the police commissioner. I initially thought it was a humorous nod to something that is common in right-wing conspiracy theorist groups, but as the (three-hour-long) film continued, it became more and more clear that this was something that the director and screenplay writer Matt Reeves wanted to be present in his movie. 

In this scene, Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne pulls up to a funeral, the camera pans to the people lining the streets outside the funeral hall. They are protestors, some holding cardboard signs that carry the Riddler’s question mark symbol on it, others that have the phrase, “Your day of judgment is soon.” 

This is not a one-off use of the phrase; rather, it is used a number of times. The actual day is the flooding of Gotham City. We see the day come during a scene when Riddler is explaining his plan to his seemingly large group of followers.

During this scene, he says to them, “The day of judgment is finally upon us, and now it is time for retribution.”

Days of judgment, the apocalypse, Day of the Rope, the coming of Cthulhu, these days have many names. These end-of-days are common in movies, but more importantly, they are common among conspiracy theorists and the right-wing fringe.

QAnon’s 'The Storm' is likely the most prominent and well-known example of this. QAnon is a conspiracy theory group that involves a number of right-wing extremists. The conspiracy centers around the belief that a number of large-name celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks are secretly a part of a ring of pedophiles and that Donald Trump became president to put an end to it. The Storm is the group’s end of days – when all of these celebrities will be arrested, and Donald Trump will be reinstalled as president with the deceased John F. Kennedy Jr. as his vice president. 

This day of judgment, which includes the Mayor-Elect being shot and a (seemingly symbolic) flooding of the city, gives the followers of the Riddler to coalesce together and exact their revenge and finally cleanse the city of filth and corruption.

The Riddler’s online presence should not be overlooked either as an example of today’s online extremism.

In the very scene that he explains his plans to flood the city, the audience is introduced to Riddler’s following on his online-streaming site. We see them exchanging advice, telling each other where to find supplies for the impending end of days. 

MSU criminal justice professor and right-wing extremism expert Steve Chermak said many online extremist groups started off on websites like the popular white supremacist forum Stormfront, but slowly have been moving to other social media sites, like subforums on Reddit (more commonly referred to as subreddits) or to encrypted messaging apps like Telegram. 

“They use it the same reason why anybody else does, right?” Chermak said. “You look for like-minded people, share your views, you try a variety of different sites and you don’t stay long at the ones you don’t like and then you commit more time to those that do.”

Something that separates the followers of the Riddler and real-life extremists Chermak said is that these apps and websites are not commonly used for planning, because of a key reason. 

“Planning is a little bit more difficult, just because everybody’s watching, including, if you’re smart, you know law enforcement’s watching,” Chermak said. “The amount of planning that occurs online is not extensive, but networking does occur and connections do occur.”

At one point, a police officer says in the movie the number of followers Riddler has – 500.

When I first heard this, I thought – “500 people? That’s not that menacing of a number.”

But evidently, this is not the issue, and that is what I learned from the movie – you can have 5,000 followers, but they may not be motivated and only look at your content. The Riddler’s 500 disgruntled followers seem to be highly motivated and willing to take the action necessary.  

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Chermak said that the feeling of disenfranchisement is vital to many people’s radicalization. In this situation, it is many people are feeling “passed by” in society.

Chermak said that the way you see this happen for people in White power and anti-government movements, it is typically about confronting some type of privilege they had been granted in society, but is now disappearing.

“Well that pushes a lot of people,” Chermak said. “It makes them feel apart from society. That is, a society they’re no longer attached to – economically, socially, politically.”

As we learn about Gotham’s corruption, we realize their anger is somewhat justified, but this is important to radicalization. This online forum led by the Riddler not only serves as a platform for the disgruntled to socialize with the like-minded but to be indoctrinated into violence. 

All of these signs – the days of judgment, the online presence and disgruntled behavior because you feel overlooked – I have seen many times before. I see it now in the online Telegram channels where hundreds of fringe types exchange ways to make massive amounts of food and store it for the (apparently impending) collapse of the government.

The portrayal of a right-wing extremist Riddler in The Batman was slight and covert, but it's certainly there. A man swinging around in body armor resembling a bat is certainly a work of fiction. But his villain is grounded in a scary reality that is all too recognizable for many people.

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