I went to a showing of The Batman (Matt Reeves 2022). Its hard-boiled saga, stretching through the crystal landscape of Gotham, adding a layer of Blade Runner’s 2019 LA to a bedraggled vision of New York, all steel doors, weeping concrete, and classical Deco Gothic. The narrative assumes you already know the batman story. Everything plays out against the truth of Batman’s traumatised childhood. The indulged orphan who became a vigilante because his parents were murdered. Justice is the word on everyone’s lips. It is muttered by all sorts of lawmakers and breakers, complicating the polarity of good and bad.
As I watched and flinched at the percussive thuds of fists and lorries flipped into the air in a steely light where blood was the colour of graphite, I thought of my Batman. He was softer, from a Technicolor era. He was fun and camp, his clothes lilac spandex, serious about fighting crime in a world that wasn’t serious. He associated with the boyish camaraderie of the police department. And his adversaries were the same, only dim-witted. A friendly bunch of misguided people gathered around a bonkers patriarch or occasionally a greedy matriarch. More often than not, in the past, they hankered only for wads of banknotes, not power or infamy. The aesthetic was low-key, the school swat and captain of the team versus the hoodlums. We know now that such closed groupings fermented closed minds and perverse secrets. On the candy-coloured surface, there was the gentle acceptance of the unspoken equilibrium called privilege, the equilibrium of secrets, the equilibrium of sexual violence.
Anyway, Batman was too much for me. I identified with Robin, the sidekick, dressed in a red waistcoat with serious green knickers without a hint of maturity. My older brother would always have to be Batman, towering above me, correcting my stupidity. In the new movie, there is no Robin. It reminded me how sad I used to feel when the two of them were running towards you at the start of the TV show, side by side, going out to fight crime together. The 60s music trumpeted, the two of them fought together, “sock, pow, zok, batman, batman, batman”. Robin and Batman look one another in the eye and shake hands; job well done, united. Then, what’s happening? Robin fades away on a green backdrop; there’s just a single figure, and on his black cape, one word, Batman. All my life, I felt that fade. Substance getting thin. I would never feel the robust touch of satin, the colour of midnight.
Now, The Batman’s counterpart is Catwoman. He is curious about her but it's the curiosity you might feel for the profile on a dating app. Their types match, athletic and agile. Interests: fitness, justice, vengeance, anthropomorphism. But it’s not going to work out between a dedicated protector and one who knows how to look after herself. Their costumes insulate them from the possibility of sensual or erotic exchange and they have few words to say to one another—they fight to communicate. Fight each other or fight one beside the other, and the fighting has to be like boning, and then the movie is rated not suitable for children. The children in the movie are left outside too. They are with their mothers, witnesses, left, screwed, and grieving. There are but few women in this world, few surviving differentiated from men. Few unassimilated into a pervasive culture of success won by force. Towards the end, the defeated criminals, in their gimp like masks, are emasculated, subordinated to the stronger force. The succeeding male is assertive, a free subject, specifically a character whose autonomous idiosyncrasy opposes other consciousnesses. The woman is either a surrogate man or other, a women by association with roles like wife or secretary, ancillaries to the patriarchal power of maintenance and control.
Before her seminal feminist publications, Kate Millet taught through the years when Batman first appeared on TV. Her aim was to give women the critical tools needed to understand their social position. In such a framework, outlined before discussions of sexual politics went out of fashion, The Batman would be a producer and Catwoman reproducer.
At the end of the movie, Batman and Catwoman part. Batman is steadfast. He looks to the future and new forms of power menace. Catwoman is faced with a choice; life in Gotham City that would require a commitment to surrogate masculinity or going out of town, embracing a traditional association of women and nature. She goes, departing on her motorbike encumbered with sacks of banknotes. Her sex, associated too, with these weighty old mercantile tokens, with having exchange value, with being property.
In the old Batman TV shows, Batman, in his cosy costume, did not make others bend to his will. He didn't operate with that type of power. His was power to foster transformative growth. Criminals were rounded up for reform to become fine and valued members of society. This objective contrasts with a telling moment in The Batman’s final spectacular fight scene. He is injured. Catwoman is under attack. It is their last stand. Knocked onto his back and barely conscious, he limply fumbles in his utility belt and somehow manages to find the last reserve of strength to inject his thigh with something, a serum, adrenalin. He is up again, able to get Catwoman out of trouble. But he can’t reign in his violent attack. He loses it.
It’s over, the credits roll, and I wonder, what use is this Batman’s control wielded over others without regulation of himself? What use is a feminist theory of power as energy and competence in his metal world? What use are other versions of power when the Batman dominates?