Somewhere inside The Batman there’s a taut, slow-burning, two-hour crime drama right out of the 1970s golden decade of film. Unfortunately, director Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig gorged themselves on the Batman mythos and wound up creating a sluggish, over-stuffed draft of a mini-series awkwardly crammed into movie form. Falling in love with Gotham itself, they spend a lot of time presenting an interminable link-footage travelogue of characters driving to and fro, forgetting that Gotham on film has always been ’70s-’80s post-bankruptcy New York City, the most over-exposed cityscape in film history. The last thing anyone needs is an extensive tour of such a standard-issue backdrop.
During the film’s production, its creators also appear to have lost interest in their genuinely compelling central storyline, leading them to drown it in an indigestible gooey topping of expendable sub-plots. It’s as if they were thinking, “We need to wedge in an emotional context involving a loyal family retainer here but get it over in as little time as possible! Can we unnecessarily flag biographical connections between characters, please? Oh, don’t forget to shoehorn in the irrelevant late cameo for a popular character! We need urban blight clichés on set, please! Can someone make up a new drug for no reason? Give Wayne a secretary but only give her 20 words. Where are the sad orphans and pitiful drug users I ordered?” The reasons for The Penguin to even be in this film are tenuous at best while most other side-plots never even rise to the level of red herrings.
However, very early in the film’s interminable running time was a scene that stunned me. Unfortunately, that scene was when Robert Pattinson’s Batman (aka Bruce Wayne) spies on Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle (aka Catwoman) as she undresses. It’s a well-worn cliché that has always been tone-deaf to the fact that in real life — even if it was Pattinson himself ogling a woman through binoculars — it would still be creepy, disturbing, and gross. Miraculously, there are still film executives who feel that it is unrealistic, nay impossible, not to include footage dwelling on a hot female body in a way that doesn’t advance the plot, develop a relationship, or add any crucial subtext.
Batman’s presence occurs while looking for a woman, Annika Koslov (Hana Hrzic), who it turns out is hiding at Kyle’s apartment. While failing the Bechdel Test by permitting only the most stunted communication between the two women, the film prioritizes cramming in an insinuation that Kyle is bisexual. The film rejects the potentially more powerful idea that mutually supportive friendships are vital to working-class women with precarious lives, in favor of ramping up the sexualization.
Rather than lending significance to Kyle’s sapphic side, the film rests on the cliché that lesbians can be ‘cured’ by heterosexual exposure, with Kyle converted as soon as a sufficiently hyper-masculine archetype, the Batman, walks into her life. This depthless portrayal is an instance of the strategic use of bisexuality where openness to girl-on-girl encounters is used to appeal to male fantasy. Speaking to Playboy in 2004, 50 Cent succinctly captured this boneheaded double standard, saying: “I don’t like gay people around me…But women who like women, that’s cool.”
This is followed by Batman and Catwoman’s first up-close contact, which sets the tone of the relationship for the rest of the film. When a policeman comes to investigate a disturbance, Batman pulls Catwoman against a wall, places his hand over her mouth, and tells her to be quiet as if she’s not bright enough to figure it out or strong enough to handle it herself. Telling her to shut up, be quiet, do as she’s told is the most common way they interact throughout the film. This scene is also one of two occasions where Batman saves her from peril, despite it being the disturbance or delay caused by his actions that is the only reason she winds up in danger. It’s symbolic that this is the point where, now that the more important man has entered Kyle’s life, her supposed lover, Annika, is erased as a living, breathing presence.
In this same moment, the director makes another seedy choice. He shows us Catwoman suddenly relaxing in Batman’s grip and pressing herself against him. A masked man who, at the start of the film, has explained that he terrifies criminals and innocents alike, creeps up on Kyle, surprises her, fights her, grabs her…But the most crucial cue to the audience is to let us know women can’t help but feel sexy when terrifying men loom out of the dark and immobilize them involuntarily. The moment is sexual, without being sexy. It shows female sexual response clicking on like a light switch, the instant accessibility presented in pornography, completely independent of anything here that would provide – let alone being intended for – her pleasure.
A further scene returns to the issue of the male gaze, holding out the hope that the director knew there was something to say about this…But the film merely doubles down on creepiness. Batman persuades Kyle to wear special contact lenses that allow him to see what she sees so he can surveil a club. One take could be that it allows the callow and virginal knight, Batman, to gain insight into the experience of a woman in an environment trading on female flesh — there’s always been a reason women, particularly white women, receive priority entry to clubs.
The problem with that generous interpretation is that Batman exhibits not a single moment of empathy with Kyle’s experience, he’s merely another man acting as puppet-master over a woman’s body to fulfill his desires. In one stark display of power, despite her discomfort and her pleading that it will attract attention she’s not seeking, he dismisses her protests and orders her to turn her head and look directly at a particular man. There’s no time pressure, it’s a crowded room, there are plenty of ways he could safeguard her and still observe the man, but he wants it his way and he wants it now.
The scene proceeds with Kyle ultimately rejecting Batman’s commands to pursue her own agenda. This is a persistent no-no for women in films: Batman is our hero so he gets to decide when, where, and how to endanger the female lead. Her refusal to subordinate herself to the aggressive bossiness of this man she barely knows must be punished so she walks directly into a menacing and uncomfortable encounter with a ‘friendly’ man of past acquaintance. To emphasize the message, later in the film when Kyle disobeys Batman again, she comes close to death at the hands of the very same man. It’s a portrayal going all the way back to Tippi Hedren as Melanie Daniels in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds: women’s untamed emotionality leads them and others into danger requiring salvation in male form.
Fleeing to the bathroom after the first encounter, Kyle looks into the mirror allowing Batman to observe her while he berates her. Reeves fails to acknowledge that what occurred was the everyday power imbalance between the rich and those employed to pander to them, a form of low-level harassment in which Kyle would be risking her job or maybe her life by refusing to consent. Batman — with no context — pointedly accuses her of having a commercial and/or sexual relationship with the individual he’s watching. One interpretation could be that he’s jealous, but that’d still be a pretty grim response to the object of his desire. Another is that this is an immature Batman still learning to control his emotions, but that just creates a contrast between Kyle’s emotional responses requiring her punishment, while Batman’s excesses of emotion invite no consequence upon his head, it’s just part of his journey.
It was impossible not to think back on this moment when, after a fairly minimal amount of ongoing connection, Kyle’s character inevitably kisses Batman because no woman can resist swooning into the arms of a man whose first show of passion toward her is calling her a whore. To make clear that his words were no out-of-character accident, upon learning that Annika is deceased he takes the time to let Kyle know he deems it Annika’s fault for being employed in an industry where she associates with ‘bad men’. This ignores that the ‘bad men’ are the same men populating the corridors of power and respectable walks of life from the mayor, to the district attorney, to the chief of police. Where is Annika meant to go when ‘bad men’ are everywhere? Even her death arises not from her actions, but from a man’s loose lips.
Pattinson’s Batman, at this point of the film, has been taciturn, controlling, dismissive, and insulting toward Kyle — the kiss is not a logical outcome of anything that has occurred. This is one impact of the overburdened plot of The Batman, which forces everything to an artificial resolution: an entire affair wham-bammed from first meeting to lovelorn parting without Batman ever earning that affection.
Just following the comic books would have created something more realistic. The story of ‘the Cat and the Bat’ has been an endless series of unresolved moonlit flirtations and — most crucially — genuine warmth between star-crossed lovers. There was a lost opportunity to make this a gentler kindling of mutual feeling, amplifying Kravitz’s Catwoman as the worldly-wise spirit coaxing the inexperienced Wayne out from behind his mask of shyness.
Instead, we get Wayne/Batman ticking off red flags on the checklist of emotional abuse: he’s physically controlling, blocks her input, uses anger to dominate her, ignores her wishes, has sharp mood swings, criticizes her for not meeting his expectations, acts entitled and superior, and never apologizes or even acknowledges his failings toward her. This isn’t some bold anti-hero, the director still rewards his abhorrent behavior with Kyle’s kiss in a way that denigrates her character by making her look mercenary as if she’s emotionally manipulating this brute by rewarding him with affection and obedience in exchange for his physical might. The film also devalues Annika still further by giving Kyle not one but two motives, the new one pushing the feminine deeper into the background and prioritizing men as the drivers of fate.
For the rest of its runtime, The Batman coasts along on the usual ‘damsel in distress’ model of romance, safe in its delusion that a woman kicking ass in a choreographed fight-dance makes a film redemptively pro-female. In its later sequences, The Batman piles on its disrespect for Kyle by showing more than once that she is strong enough to beat beta-male low-level hoodlums, but when faced with a fight of true consequence, she needs saving by the alpha male lead. This doubles down on the idea that Batman’s appeal to Kyle is founded on the provision of male physical protection and the fantasy that one proves oneself a suitable mate for a strong woman by demonstrating you can physically subdue and overpower her.
The only other woman with significant dialogue (also the only woman not employed in a service role) is mayor-elect Bella Reál (Jayme Lawson), who gets just enough time to give a token speech before being shot and then saved not once, but twice, by James Gordon and then by Batman. The fate of women in this film is never in their own hands: they die or live because men permit them to.
The Batman is ultimately another boys-own coming-of-age film in which the boy, Wayne, is helped on his quest to become a (Bat)man by a woman subservient to his quest and forgiving of, indeed loving, his thoroughly toxic behavior toward her. While not seeking to ascribe bad intentions to Reeves or Craig — nor underrating Kravitz’s genuine screen presence — there’s a possibility that two men who came of age amid the cultural norms of the ’80s might need help conceiving of a more egalitarian positioning of relationships or how to realistically personify a female perspective.
Perhaps it’s Hollywood? There are certainly entire realms of the business world where men cannot conceive of meeting a woman outside of a transactional exchange, whether related to career, status, power, money, or sex. While the usual online rent-a-mob might wail about ‘woke Batman’ or feminists ruining a masculine icon, it wouldn’t degrade Batman if his 2022 incarnation had remained true to the canon by presenting a competent Catwoman whose independence and force of will were appreciated and respected by Batman. Instead, The Batman is an incel fantasy of entitlement, another film where a woman can only be good if she devotes herself to fixing a man.