Why seeing Batman’s eye makeup is such a revelation

Considering only 25 percent of The Batman‘s script had been shot when production shut down in March due to the global pandemic, the first trailer that debuted at the DC FanDome event had plenty of treats in store. Images of a moody-looking Robert Pattinson bathed in red light had already been released by director Matt Reeves via a camera test, while photographs on set in Glasgow show what appears to be Pattinson’s stunt double in a version of the suit.

The new footage showcased a few additional exciting sartorial moments, including a DIY mask most likely worn by Paul Dano as Edward Nashton (aka The Riddler) and Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) adopting a low-key ski mask version of her kitty-themed alter ego. Perhaps the biggest style surprise came courtesy of Bruce Wayne, which showed the superhero sans cowl but with telltale eyeliner in all its smudged kohl glory — a first for a Batman franchise in revealing Bruce’s long-established beauty hack.

No Batman costume is the same, with subtle and bold differences differentiating each version. In some cases it is seen as innovation, while others, like the much-maligned nipple addition, are still being mocked decades later. The cowl has evolved from the blue satin sheen of Adam West’s kitsch 1960s television attire to the somewhat maniacal expression of the recent Ben Affleck costume.

In 1989, Bob Ringwood revolutionized the live-action Batsuit as the costume designer on Tim Burton’s Batman. He subsequently worked on Batman Returns and Batman Forever (designers Mary E. Vogt and Ingrid Ferrin worked alongside him on the sequels), which made tweaks to his original concept.

Since Tim Burton’s adaptation, one aspect each Caped Crusader shares is black eye makeup worn to blend with the mask eyelets — the only color contrast comes from the actual eyes. It has been a given that when Bruce removes his mask, this eyeliner will magically disappear (someone needs to market that makeup remover technique) so as not to ruin the illusion. Matt Reeves is updating the playbook by leaning into this aspect of the costume. There are no tricks here.

The most blatant version of pleading ignorance to the makeup in Bruce’s bag comes courtesy of Michael Keaton’s portrayal in Batman Returns. When he removes his mask to reveal his face to Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman — who sports very visible and very smokey eyeliner — in the shot proceeding this dramatic overture, his eyes are blackened as they have been throughout. But it is very clear this element has been ditched in the shot before the big unveiling. Sure, it might be disconcerting to see him with smudgy black around his peepers in this pivotal scene, and yet it would also stop the inevitable nitpicks.

Suspending disbelief is part of any movie-watching experience, regardless of whether it is based on a comic book. While we will gladly go on a fantastical journey, there are certain factors that can suddenly whip the real world back into focus, such as the disappearing eyeliner act. Continuity errors are hard to avoid, and the goofs section on IMDb can sometimes read like someone turning the lights on in a club at the end of a night — no one needs to see the drink-stained floor — or someone telling the teacher about a minor indiscretion. Sometimes these mistakes are anachronistic, ranging from a character wearing a pair of shoes that weren’t available at the time it is set or the now-infamous accidental Game of Thrones coffee cup and plastic water bottle appearances. These so-called “goofs” take the viewer out of the imaginary world, pulling back the curtain to remind us it is make-believe. The aforementioned Batman moment could be excused as a continuity error, yet it is more likely to be intentional. Were they concerned he wouldn’t look masculine enough? Or are painted faces reserved for the villains of Batman?

Gender boundaries continue to be broken, but makeup is still typically advertised to a female clientele. Regardless, this product has been gender-fluid for several thousand years. Long before the choice between liquid or pencil, eyeliner was worn by pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Queen Victoria claimed those who “painted their face” were vulgar, but actors were allowed to keep their stage makeup. Silent era movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino were purveyors of lining their eyelids before rock stars across the 20th century followed suit. Everyone from Little Richard to David Bowie dipped their toes in the makeup trend. From glam to grunge and punk to emo, the frontmen of bands including Green Day and My Chemical Romance kept up this tradition. Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow was inspired by Keith Richards, including their shared fondness for this rock ‘n’ roll addition.

The Joker is partial to a made-up face, so to see Batman with his customary eyeliner could create an illusion of instability or a villainous aesthetic. Horror movies like Urban Legend and Scream 2 have signified the switch between a calm woman and homicidal maniac via overdone black eyeliner. This cliché visual cue is also in effect in the Batman Returns scene in which Catwoman finds out who Batman is as he tries to stop her from killing Max Shreck (Christopher Walken). Let’s do away with this notion of smeared or extreme makeup equating a breakdown, murderous impulse, or unhinged act.

Perhaps there was a concern Bruce’s smokey eye would distract from the dialogue or tone of the scene. Part of this could be negated if the makeup routine factored into the getting ready process. If we have already seen him apply his warpaint, it won’t be a jarring sight after he removes the cowl. There are plenty of ways to depict the application — think of how cool Sister Night looks in Watchmen as she applies her eye mask using spray paint.

When a woman wakes up with a face full of makeup in a scene with nary an unsightly smudge, skin breakout, or marks on her pillow, it might elicit an eyeroll at the unrealistic standards movies continue to implement. The lack of explanation regarding Bruce’s panda eyes from Michael Keaton all the way through to Ben Affleck is another one of those things we have come to expect. Until now! While we don’t know the context of RBats revealing his blackened eyes beneath the cowl, the inclusion of this image in the trailer ensures the audience is prepared for a different style of Bruce.

While previewing the new footage, Reeves explained that young Mr. Wayne has been on the Batman kick for two years, which means we are joining the action after the disguise has been constructed. The Wayne Enterprise tycoon hasn’t got it all figured out, with Reeves saying “he is so far from being perfect, and we watch him becoming what we all know about him … I felt like that was a way to do something that hadn’t been done.” The eyeliner reveal is definitely ticking the latter box. If we’re gonna get another gritty Batman take, it’s good to know this additional layer is part of the persona. Sure, the emo memes write themselves, and while Bruce has always had a level of vulnerability, it has never been as stark as this image.

If Warner Bros. is smart, by the time the release date rolls around there will be a makeup tie-in and a series of makeup tutorials for the perfect RBats smokey eye. Change is not always welcomed (see the aforementioned Batsuit nipples), but even without further clarification, the suggestion that Bruce does, in fact, sit at his vanity in the Batcave applying eyeliner is revelatory.

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