Bruce Wayne’s smudged eyeliner makes a dramatic cameo in the first trailer for The Batman, prompting a flood of comparisons to The Crow and Spider-Man 3. But true fans know that Batman’s eye makeup has a long and storied history in the franchise. The live-action movies were just too cowardly to acknowledge it before now.
As fans have noted for years, Batman wears black makeup around his eyes under the cowl, to avoid a ring of pale skin appearing inside the eye-holes. But when he takes off the cowl, the makeup vanishes. This raises the question of whether the makeup, canonically speaking, actually exists. Obviously we can see it when the cowl is on, but we don’t see Wayne apply it or wipe it off—which, for the non-makeup-wearers among you, is a rather laborious process. The films take pains to quickly cut away when Batman removes the cowl, so they can edit back with a shot of his eyeliner-free face.
A bold smokey eye just doesn’t gel with the stripped-down masculinity of recent Batman movies, which portray Wayne as violent, ascetic, and seething with repressed machismo. Visible makeup would’ve been more suitable for the gothic-yet-campy tone of the Tim Burton films. However, there was no “need” to show it there, because those movies invited a more wide-reaching suspension of disbelief.
“Where does Batman’s eyeliner go?” is an intrinsically silly question. It emerges from a brand of film criticism that focuses heavily on continuity errors and plot-holes, picking apart “mistakes” that should rightfully be smoothed over by the viewer’s imagination. It should be perfectly acceptable for Batman’s eyeliner to appear and disappear at will, in the same way that we accept the existence of absurd supervillains like the Penguin and the Riddler. You might as well ask why the Batmobile doesn’t get stuck in traffic.
Questions about continuity and realism highlight the tension at the heart of recent Batman adaptations, where filmmakers (and a significant subsection of the fandom) are determined to make the story as “realistic” and/or gritty as possible. This is a ridiculous and ultimately self-defeating task. In a similar vein to the Uncanny Valley, the more “realistic” you get, the more questions you must answer to satisfy the demands of detail-oriented viewers. This is why I was annoyed to see Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker dye his hair green without bleaching it first. It just wouldn’t work, guys! His hair is way too dark! Naturally, this kind of gripe never occurs when you watch Jack Nicholson fall into a vat of toxic waste and transform into a circus monster.
As with any groundbreaking change in a mainstream franchise like Batman, Robert Pattinson’s visible makeup is not without precedent. In Kick-Ass we see Nic Cage’s character apply facepaint before getting into costume. Then in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Bucky Barnes briefly looks like a very soulful and tragic raccoon when he loses his mask. In early trailers, he wore a lot more makeup as a reference to his domino mask in the comics, but sadly Marvel decided to scale back for the final cut. At any rate, the smudged black greasepaint was an excellent aesthetic choice for the Winter Soldier, a rather emo figure whose role is, for a variety of reasons, less restricted by conservative American views of masculinity.
Robert Pattinson feels like an appropriate choice for Batman’s gothic eyeliner debut. That shot in the trailer plays well with the genre-savvy “where does his makeup go?” crowd, but that’s a tiny fraction of the actual audience. The real effect is to make Wayne look like a member of My Chemical Romance. And whether you like it or not, that really is Batman’s vibe in many adaptations. Christian Bale and Ben Affleck’s versions were too self-serious to acknowledge it on-screen, but that was never going to be a problem for Pattinson. Five years of the Twilight franchise left him with a famously chaotic attitude to his public image as a leading man; a perfect choice, one might say, to craft a more self-aware interpretation of Bruce Wayne’s bizarre double life.
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