This article contains The Batman spoilers. We have a spoiler-free review here.
The Batman features a fairly radical reinvention of classic Gotham City villain, The Riddler. For most of Riddler’s pop culture history, he’s been a relatively harmless criminal genius. While lives have definitely been lost at his hand, he’s usually depicted as someone more interested in outsmarting Batman and the authorities than he is of taking lives. Sure, there have been exceptions (the serial killer Riddler in the Batman: Earth One series by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank springs immediately to mind), but he’s generally not a terribly bloodthirsty criminal.
In The Batman, however, the Riddler is a far more ominous figure. And while his mission is one that ultimately would seem to align with Batman’s, to rid the city of corruption, his methods are still chilling, and it leads to some graphic murder onscreen. And from the very first trailer for the film, it was clear that The Batman was drawing inspiration from a real life serial killer for its version of the Riddler: the infamous Zodiac Killer who terrorized California in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and whose crimes remain unsolved to this day.
The similarities to the Zodiac are peppered throughout the film, both in terms of his actual crimes and even the cinematic depictions of those crimes. Director Matt Reeves (who also co-wrote the screenplay) knew early on that he wanted this movie to be about “a series of murders” and then inspiration struck.
“I read this book, Mindhunter, which was profiling all of these serial killers,” Reeves says. “And then of course I revisited the Zodiac story and I thought, ‘gosh, when you look at the Zodiac who was leaving all of these ciphers and puzzles and taunting the police and the newspapers…that sounds like the Riddler’…That idea came very early on and I knew it was important that he not just be a serial killer. I knew that this character had an agenda too…like a political terrorist and the target was a city, because he felt that this place was unjust. So he was both a terrifying killer who was toying with people with his puzzles, that clearly meant a lot to him, but he was doing it for an agenda, which was to reveal why this place was so corrupt. So I thought, this could be a larger than life, terrifying character who has echoes of an actual serial killer. That’s kind of how that was born.”
Perhaps the biggest similarity between the Riddler in this film and the Zodiac Killer is his use of coded messages to communicate with Batman and the GCPD. The Zodiac Killer used letters and greeting cards to get his “message” out, but several of those also contained elaborate coded messages. Those ciphers, when decoded, were often just extensions of the Zodiac’s general mission statement, additional threats, and promises that he would reveal his identity.
Those ciphers are so complex that two are still unsolved to this day, and one was only solved recently. The only one that was solved contemporaneously was solved by two private citizens, who began their work at their breakfast table on a Sunday morning when the cipher was printed in the Sunday edition of the San Francisco Examiner. When we see Andy Serkis’ Alfred Pennyworth working to decode the Riddler’s cipher at the breakfast table, it’s likely a subtle tribute to this real life event.
THE WAY HE SPEAKS
In the first of his video messages, the Riddler opens his chat with “this is the Riddler speaking.” Many of the Zodiac Killer’s communications began with the similarly ominous “this is the Zodiac speaking.”
OK, fine, that’s pretty obvious, but Riddler also refers to the Gotham City Police Department as “pigs,” which still comes up in some circles, but it’s a term that really had its time during the counterculture heyday of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when Zodiac was active and had his own fondness for referring to police as pigs. Zodiac’s Nov. 9,1969 letter included phrases like “I enjoy needling the blue pigs” and “hey pig” to taunt the police. A disputed communication from Oct. 5, 1970 also uses “pig” as does a likely forgery from April 24, 1978 which refers to “that city pig toschi” (referring to Zodiac hunting detective Inspector Dave Toschi, who Steve McQueen studied for his role in Bullitt, funny enough…and The Batman does feature a Bullitt-worthy car chase). Finally, there’s an unverified letter from May 1978 that refers to “chief piggy” and “ex chief piggy” in its list of potential victims.
But The Batman even tries to capture the way the Zodiac Killer actually spoke, despite the fact that only a handful of people ever heard his voice and lived to tell the tale. One, however, was Vallejo, California Police Dispatcher Nancy Slover, who on July 5, 1969 took a call from a man who was definitely the Zodiac. The caller was reporting one of Zodiac’s early crimes, providing details that only the killer could know. Slover has described the odd way the killer said “good bye” in a weirdly musical, drawn out fashion. It’s not quite what Paul Dano delivers as the Riddler at the end of his first video message, which is an oddly cheerful sign off, but there’s definitely something to this.
One of Riddler’s communications is marked “my confession,” which may be a reference to the potentially first victim of the Zodiac Killer, Cheri Jo Bates, who was murdered in 1966 in Riverside, California after which police received a rambling, typewritten missive containing details of the murder titled “the confession.” Bates is still a disputed Zodiac victim in some circles, but this letter sure reads like the work of the killer.
“UNTIL OUR DAY OF JUDGMENT”
The Riddler teases a “day of judgment” he’s awaiting at various points in the film. As it turns out, he’s referring to Earthly concerns rather than anything religious or metaphysical. However, the Zodiac often alluded to an afterlife in his letters, hinting that the murders were his way of collecting slaves who would join him in the hereafter, which he reffered to as “paradice.”
THE GREETING CARDS
The Riddler is fond of communicating with Batman through riddles and cyphers enclosed in greeting cards all through the movie. The Zodiac Killer was known for sending letters to newspapers and individuals to get his message out and make threats, often taunting the recipients with alleged clues to his true identity.
But the Zodiac also had a fondness for greeting cards, and on three occasions sent them to the San Francisco Chronicle. One of those in particular bears a striking resemblance to two of the cards the Zodiac used.
In the film, one of the cards begins with “from your secret friend,” which is certainly inspired by an ominous Halloween card mailed to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery on Oct. 27, 1970. That card began with the words “from your secret pal.” This is certainly no accident, and Matt Reeves and company did their Zodiac homework for this one.
That same card inspires another communication from the Riddler in the film, in which a pun-y greeting card featuring a mad scientist reads “I’m mad about you, want to know my name? But that might spoil the chemistry!” This too seems specifically inspired by the Avery Halloween card, which contained a similar play on words, “I feel it in my bones, you ache to know my name, and so I’ll clue you in…but then why spoil the game?”
It’s expected that a Gotham City supervillain like the Riddler would wear a costume, but it’s not something you usually associate with those in real life. On at least one occasion, the Zodiac committed a murder wearing a costume that would be appropriate for a Batman villain. On Sept. 27, 1969, the Zodiac attacked a young couple at Lake Berryessa near Napa, California, stabbing them both multiple times after tying them up. One of the pair lived to tell the tale of how Zodiac arrived wearing a black hood that covered his entire face, and black fabric covering his face and chest, with the “gunsight” symbol that he often signed his letters with emblazoned on the front.
“[Zodiac] made a costume that frankly, isn’t so different from Batman,” Matt Reeves says. “It’s just a little cruder. It’s not as cool looking, but it’s terrifying. Because you have a guy who basically went around in a black hood, dressed in black, with an insignia on his chest. It was utterly terrifying to think that somebody did that. I thought, ‘well, maybe there’s an iteration of the Riddler then that does that.’”
There’s another echo of Zodiac’s Lake Berryessa attack in The Batman. When the costumed Riddler kills the mayor with a carpet tucker, the brutal stabbing/bludgeoning is almost reminiscent of the way David Fincher depicted Zodiac’s Lake Berryessa attack and murder in his film version.
THE GIL COLSON ATTACK
Riddler’s attack on Gil Colson in his car outside the Iceberg Lounge faintly echoes another Zodiac murder: that of cab driver Paul Stine. We see Riddler lie in wait in the back seat of Colson’s car, ambush him, and then after he’s subdued, begin rummaging around to prepare him for the next stage of his plan.
On Oct. 11, 1969, Zodiac attacked cab driver Paul Stine, shooting him in the head from the back seat of Stine’s cab. Witnesses to the aftermath of the crime from a house across the street saw Zodiac fumbling around in the cab. What he was doing was wiping the car clean of fingerprints, and taking a trophy, in the form of a piece of Stine’s bloody shirt.
THE FIRST SHOT
Even the very first shot of the film has a vague Zodiac connection as does the first of his murders that we witness. The movie opens with Riddler spying on Gotham’s mayor from a nearby rooftop, watching the unsuspecting man and his family get ready for Halloween. As we see this unfold through the killer’s eyes, specifically through either a pair of binoculars or perhaps a telescopic gunsight, it echoes the opening shot of Dirty Harry, in which that film’s similarly Zodiac-inspired villain, Scorpio, sights his next victim via the scope of his rifle, right before shooting her dead.
So while all of these similarities certainly aren’t coincidental, the actor who plays the Riddler still had to make the role his own.
“Matt Reeves is so thorough and meticulous,” Paul Dano says. “Even though this iteration of the character maybe seemed like a bit of a risk, just based on fan expectation, I had so much confidence in him. From our first conversation, I knew that we could hopefully do something special with this film. Matt did reference the Zodiac Killer, but that really only took me so far. For me, it was more about the backstory…who he was and why he perhaps felt so full of shame and self hatred and un-nurtured by Gotham City. And hen for somebody who’s so powerless in that backstory to then don this mask that I think does release power. So for me, the emotional backstory was way more important than any real life serial killer reference.”
The Batman is now playing in theaters.