Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures
We live in a curiously sexless cinematic time, which is probably tied to the fact that we live in a dominated-by-superheroes cinematic time. When nearly every American blockbuster needs to be rated PG-13 for maximum four-quadrant potential, it’s hard (no pun intended) to work in any horniness. And since so many of these films, either from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) or the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), are about the potential end of the world, they fixate more on life and death than little deaths (pun intended this time ).
What a joy, then, to watch director Matt Reeves create a Gotham City in The Batman that is grungy, grimy, and pervasively sexy. This is a movie about the oppositional thrills of secrecy and exhibitionism, the thrill between watching and being watched, and the visceral jolt of giving into an attraction that can no longer be contained. If that seems like a hyperbolic way to describe a film in which Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne/Batman and Zoë Kravitz’s Selina Kyle/Catwoman only kiss a couple of times, consider the superhero genre’s smash sparsity. The Batman pushes against that with a hot-under-the-cowl flirtation that both honors the characters’ long-standing attraction and frames their parallel motivations.
Within the MCU, the Avengers are defined either by romantic longing (Captain America and Peggy Carter; Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner), established relationships (Tony Stark and Pepper Potts; Wanda Maximoff and Vision; Clint and Laura Barton), or one guy being an asshole (Peter Quill and Gamora). The DCEU has dared occasionally to actually get physical in its romantic pairings, but even then, the list is pretty short: Clark Kent and Lois Lane kissing in the bathtub in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; the sapphic energy of that Birds of Prey team-up fight scene; the winking exchange between “above average” Steve Trevor and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman as he bathes in that Themysciran cave. (Though the charm of that moment was arguably undone by Trevor commandeering some guy’s body to have sex with Diana in Wonder Woman 1984.) And while Batman has been paired with a number of love interests during his lengthy history in DC Comics — journalist Vicki Vale, League of Assassins heiress Talia al Ghul, and the aforementioned Wonder Woman — his recent cinematic depictions haven’t exactly offered lusty or satisfying, romantic moments.
In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the titular crime fighter is less in love with the person who is Rachel Dawes than with what she represents: goodness, purity, and the courage to do what’s right. After Dawes’ death, Wayne eventually fakes his alter ego’s demise and settles down with Selina Kyle, thereby entering a more stable, less dangerous phase of his life. But their relationship is more abstract than lived-in; all we really see of it is the two of them having lunch at a café on a nice spring day. Nice, but boring! And then there’s Ben Affleck’s Batman, who while cycling through films directed by Zack Snyder, Joss Whedon, and David Ayer sometimes flirted with Wonder Woman but more often taunted her about Trevor’s death. Is any of this horny? No. We’re parched.
All of that brings us to Reeves’s The Batman, which positions Pattinson’s Wayne as a man who can only process the world around him from a certain distance. (One of the film’s greatest demands upon our suspension of disbelief is the impossible idea that anyone in Gotham could see Batman’s distinctive, hot jawline and Wayne’s distinctive, hot jawline and not realize that they are the same person.) and the recording contacts that he slips onto his eyes as a form of surveillance keep the self-described “nocturnal animal” at a remove from both his prey and his allies. That brooding veil falls away though, literally, when Wayne shows us the bruising toll that two years of crime-fighting has left on his muscled body, and again figuratively when he sees Kravitz’s Selina Kyle for the first time. Batman looks respectfully from Kyle’s dominatrix-y knee-high PVC boots up to her face, but there’s a hunger there, too: We see a different set of Pattinson’s jaw and a different intensity to his gaze. And in Kyle’s offer to help Batman, she returns his serve right back, setting up the push-pull dynamic intrinsic to these characters and the attraction they can’t quite control.
Every following interaction between these two has a hint of both unpredictability and of recognition. At the crime scene where they spar to a draw before nearly being discovered, Batman pulls Catwoman up against a wall and folds his body around hers as they hide; that forced stillness amid the danger of being caught is arousingly tense. At her apartment, Batman deadpans, “You got a lot of cats,” and Kyle admits she “has a thing about strays,” acknowledging the orphanhood that ties them together. At the 44 Below club, where Batman whispers in Kyle’s ear as she wears that special pair of contacts to serve as his eyes, and during their first kiss near the Bat-Signal: Two bodies become one. They’re always edging toward each other and talking into each other’s mouths, and that is sort of gross, but also hot and appreciated.
Kyle tells Batman he assumes “the worst in people.” But both Kravitz’s and Pattinson’s performances—hers brazen and unapologetic, his constrained and repressed—make clear that their characters are tempted by cynicism, not defined by it. This shared understanding drives the film’s climactic finale, when each saves the other during an army of Riddler copycats’ infiltration of Gotham Square Garden. Amid the flooding and gunfire, Kyle pulls Batman up from the edge of a hanging scoreboard, and Batman injects himself with an adrenaline-like green serum to protect her from another attacker. The camera switches between Kravitz and Pattinson’s faces in centered, extreme close-ups during this scene, letting us see them as they see each other, before they share another kiss. To channel Heat‘s Neil McCauley, they’re alone, but they didn’t fully realize how lonely they were before meeting each other.
It’s not that horniness in the Batman universe is a Reeves-only invention. Saying so would wrongly ignore Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, with its exceptional performance from Michelle Pfeiffer, who unforgettably licks the face of Michael Keaton’s Batman and “mines the role for its horror, tragedy, and feminist thrills with aplomb,” as described by Vulture’s own Angelica Jade Bastién. It would also be a disservice to the decades of comics that shaped the Bat and Cat dynamic: their tete-a-tete in 1980’s Batman #323, in which she purrs, “You and me. Bat and Cat. In the dark. making sparks”; the reimagining of Catwoman as an anti-hero in her own series, which ran from 1993 to 2001 and deepened Batman’s respect for her abilities (“I need you. You’re the only one I think can pull this off. The only one I can trust,” he says after kissing her in catwoman #72); and the time jumping Batman/Catwoman series by Tom King and Clay Mann, which debuted in December 2020 and traces the couple from first meeting to marriage to one of their deaths.
But the sensuality that is integral to these characters, how they relate to each other, and the exceptions they make for one another has been missing from the big screen for as long as Batman was only allowed to be a symbol, not a character who sulks and broods and has a crush and dares to actually feel complicated, confusing things. Blessings upon Reeves, Pattinson, and Kravitz for bringing all that interiority, heart, and thirst back to Gotham.