Everyone knows Batman smells. And while the lines that follow differ from region to region — did Robin fly away, or lay an egg? — the smelliness of Batman is beyond dispute. Jingle bells, Batman smells.
But what does he smell like?
It’s one thing during daylight hours, of course, when living as Bruce Wayne, and disguising his vigilantism behind a facade of obnoxious rich shitheadedness. Then it’s likely to be some sort of combination of expensive cologne and booze. Mix half a pint of Tom Ford Venetian Bergamot with half a pint of Remy Martin and you have a pint of Bruce Wayne. Plus a gnawing sense of dread caused by being in crippling debt, of course! They’re both very expensive liquids!
Other colognes are available, of course — Batman has been portrayed on screen by some very good-looking actors, and where there are good-looking actors there are cologne ads. George Clooney, who played Batman in Batman & Robin, has his own scent, Whatever It Takes. Robert Pattinson, who will don the cowl in 2022’s The Batman, is in ads for Dior Homme. Val Kilmer played a character called John Cologne in 2008’s straight-to-DVD Columbus Day, which is confusing, and Ben Affleck was once in an Axe commercial. So it’s a mixed bag.
Amazon offers a Batman cologne for kids, made by children’s parfumier Marmol & Son, offering top notes of bergamot, lavender, black pepper and carbon dioxide (!?!?), mid-notes of cardamom, geranium and warm patchouli and bottom notes of vanilla bean and musk. The description helpfully points out, “This fragrance for men based on the popular comic TV and movie character of course.” Of course!
Cologne is a Bruce Wayne thing, though. When not swanning about like a big fancy aristocratic dipshit, he’s the goddamn Batman. And, again, there’s a lot going on with Batman.
First, he’s in that fancy suit. Special effects expert Julian Checkley of Order 66 Effects in Ireland is in the Guinness Book of World Records for creating the Batman costume with the most functioning gadgets ever, an incredible-looking replica of the outfit from the game Batman: Arkham Origins, but with a whole load of extra stuff going on, including an inbuilt flask.
Checkley has spent a lot of time in the Batsuit and has firsthand, and first-nose, experience of life as the World’s Greatest Detective. “There are two main fragrance notes that stand out,” he says. “The first is the polyurethane rubber that comprises around 80 percent of the actual suit. We use various grades, depending on where it’s being worn — it needs to be more flexible around the neck and abs and stiffer on the pecs and shoulders. Polyurethane rubber has a curious scent, I always liken it to the smell of cold chocolate with chemical top notes. This is particularly strong when the rubber parts come out of the mold and aren’t quite fully cured.
“The second, more subtle note, comes from the leather in the cape, gloves and boots. The capes we use are enormous so there’s a lot of leather going on. When added to the chocolatey base notes of the polyurethane, the finish is actually quite opulent, something akin to a ‘new sports car’ smell.”
Glorious. Rich, evocative and somehow both practical and luxurious, perfect for a super-wealthy vigilante. However, this is still just the suit — there’s a man in there. And what a man.
Batman is, of course, in incredible physical shape. None of his pursuits of criminals ever end with him leaning against a wall, breathing heavily, spitting on the floor, retching a bit and muttering, “Fucking hell, Jesus, fuck,” feeling like he can taste blood and metal. He’s Batman. Inside that suit is an elite athlete and extraordinary martial artist, but although people talk about figures like Batman achieving great things “without breaking a sweat,” realistically, the man will perspire.
While we think of the sweatiest people as being out-of-shape indoorsy types, there’s a bit of a bell curve going on with perspiration. Schlubby sofa-dwellers sweat like hell because the most minor of moves feels like a large undertaking and increases their body temperature, stimulating a sweat response to cool it down, while elite athletes sweat like hell when exercising because their bodies respond so efficiently to even slight increases in body temperature. For Batman, a brawl with a dozen club-wielding thugs is fairly run of the mill — realistically, even though he’ll deal with them efficiently and creatively, Batman’s going to sweat like an absolute fucking pig.
However, a complicating factor is that Batman fights all kinds of oddballs, some of whom have incredibly powerful senses of smell. Killer Croc, for instance, has amazingly developed olfactory senses, so if Batman is wandering about stinking like shit, he’s going to have his head ripped off. Catman — not the iconic Batman character Catwoman, the other Batman character, Catman, a character that is in more comics than you’d expect and looks exactly as you’d imagine he does and that’s it — can sniff like a motherfucker, and enough of Batman’s foes are just generally powerful sense-wise in a way that would include picking up the scent of a soggy vigilante.
Keeping his identity secret is also incredibly important to Batman, hence the pints of Tom Ford mentioned above. If he smells too distinctive, his secret is out. Everyone has a unique smell, however — odor biometrics is occasionally floated as the security measure of the future, while “nosewitness identification,” as in human witnesses to a crime pinpointing who did it by smelling different suspects, is being seriously investigated.
It would only take one coincidence involving a shrewd-nosed ne’er-do-well — perhaps a disgruntled sommelier who serves billionaires wine by day and robs banks by night, and realizes the wealthy playboy who tipped him generously at lunchtime smelled a lot like the guy who beat the fuck out him later that evening, and they were both six-four and built like brick shithouses, and smelled the same age — for the whole thing to come crashing down. A 2014 paper in the American Journal of Political Science found people were attracted to the body odors of others with similar political beliefs, which raises the question of whether livid superheroism and choosing to work outside the system could be sniffed out.
(Batman also has an incredibly strong sense of smell. While most people find it really difficult to know if they stink, due to our olfactory senses’ focus on difference meaning that a constant honking BO just fades after a while, this is a guy who can identify the geographical origin of a splinter of wood by smelling it, identify obscure explosives by scent, smell fire a mile away while buried underground and notice when someone doesn’t smell. If he was really smelly, he’d know about it. He’d constantly be smelling his own sweaty armpits, ass and balls. Hey, maybe he can, and maybe that’s why he’s so angry all the time! Hang on, no, it’s that thing where he saw his parents gunned down in front of him, isn’t it? That’s why he’s angry. Yeah.)
Ultimately, there are few people in the world of comics more qualified to answer this question — what does Batman smell like? — than Chip Zdarsky. His series with Matt Fraction, the Eisner-winning Sex Criminals, involved a lot more bodily fluids than most, and his extensive work on Daredevil (who has an extraordinary sense of smell, enhanced by the same chemicals that robbed him of his sight) means Zdarsky has spent a lot of time thinking about superheroes’ multisensory experiences. He has recently started writing Batman, with a Batman/Red Hood story beginning in Batman: Urban Legends #1, out in March. If anyone knows what Batman smells like, it’s this guy.
“Batman smells,” says Zdarsky, “like old tires and honey.”
It’s not a combination likely to sell a lot of bottles, but that industrial/luxury mix, like Checkley’s chocolatey leather, just feels intrinsically right. That’s the kind of smell — part luxuriant, part no-nonsense kick-the-shit-out-of-everything — that strikes fear into the criminals of Gotham.
Next time: What happens when the Human Torch needs a shit?