As much as the Joker has become a signature role for actors wanting to prove their dramatic chops, there’s a certain prestige — and pressure — bestowed on those who don the cowl of the Caped Crusader. From Michael Keaton to Ben Affleck, with a brief nod to Adam West and Kevin Conroy (who voiced the character in the 1990s animated series), Batman has been a surefire way to portray moody torment and edgy heroism. But because the character is so beloved, viewers can be very protective of their vision of how Batman “should” be, and if an actor doesn’t live up to that imaginary, highly subjective standard, the fans are quick to tear that person down. (Or, in the case of George Clooney, the actor will simply get in front of the criticism by apologizing profusely until the end of time that his Batman movie was terrible.)
Considering that there have been so many Batmen in recent years — and a fair amount of good Batman movies during that time — I’m not sure where Robert Pattinson’s depiction will ultimately rank for comic-book enthusiasts. But as someone who, with a few reservations, really loves The Batman — and who also, with a few reservations, really loves the career choices the 35-year-old has made since the end of Twilight — I’m pretty delighted by what he brings to the role, while acknowledging that, at this late date, it’s extraordinarily hard to come up with an “original” take on the Dark Knight. The new movie isn’t the best Batman movie since it follows in the footsteps of Christopher Nolan’s tough-to-top trilogy, but it is an invigorating attempt to do a variation on familiar themes, like a fresh rendition of a familiar song. And Pattinson plays it exactly right, bringing his unique essence to the character, adding a few intriguing new colors without ever trying to radically reimagine Batman.
Truth is, The Batman isn’t really trying to reinvent anything — it’s confident that Batman is compelling enough on his own. But for anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the rewarding risks Pattinson has taken over the last 10 years, his performance may be a shock. For us already on the bandwagon, though, it’s merely confirmation that he’s one of the most exciting actors around. Every Batman is brooding, every Batman is haunted, but Pattinson wears the character’s patented ennui like a second skin. He’s been the ultimate sadboy for a while.
Most first became aware of Pattinson from his portrayal of Edward Cullen, the mopey vampire in the Twilight series. (Before that, he was Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) The franchise was, at best, astoundingly mediocre, and Pattinson and Kristen Stewart (who became an item offscreen) have worked pretty hard to distance themselves from it ever since. And both succeeded, with Stewart being excellent in everything from Adventureland to Personal Shopper to Certain Women. (She got her first Oscar nomination this year for Spencer.)
As for Pattinson, he too moved away from blockbusters to focus on auteur-driven indies, first suggesting what he was capable of with 2012’s Cosmopolis, collaborating with director David Cronenberg to tell the story of Eric Packer, a soulless billionaire riding around in a limo all day, with all types of surreal things happening around him. In a way, Eric was like Edward, both of them inhuman bloodsuckers cut off from the real world — except Edward at least had some semblance of actual emotions. By comparison, Eric was chilling in his detachment, and Pattinson seemed energized by portraying someone so controlled, so unlikable. Cosmopolis, which premiered at Cannes just a few months before The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2 hit theaters, made people take notice. Maybe the kid had a future.
Blessed (or cursed) with a beautiful face, Pattinson had to fight the impression he was just a pinup, subsequently teaming up with a who’s who of revered filmmakers such as Werner Herzog, James Gray and Anton Corbijn, often playing troubled individuals. He’s hardly the first actor to go serious in order to prove his depth, but his gutsy portrayals have often been remarkable. In fact, in the span of a couple years he gave us three outstanding performances: as Connie (Good Time), a conniving crook who has to survive one crazy night in New York after a bank robbery goes bad; Monte (High Life), a convict trapped aboard a doomed spaceship; and Winslow (The Lighthouse), a man with a dark past forced to work alongside a demented lighthouse-keeper (Willem Dafoe) as they both slowly go insane. He can be too quirky — he’s practically cartoonish in The Devil All the Time — suggesting that he might sometimes take a part to have a little self-indulgent fun. But when he connects with a character, you don’t feel any sort of acting or showy technique. He’s so incredibly present that whatever he did before — namely, Twilight — vanishes from your mind.
Tenet hinted that Pattinson hadn’t given up on studio pictures — he’s really good in that, too — but The Batman carries extra weight because, well, it’s Batman. And because Pattinson can be irreverent, especially in interviews, I wasn’t sure how he’d play Gotham’s silent guardian. And while there are occasional moments when he tries too hard to sell Batman’s badass side — although I think there’s something deeper going on there, which I’ll get to in a second — I’m relieved to report that his Dark Knight is an acceptably haunted, arresting figure. His Dark Knight also seems to be in over his head.
Directed and co-written by Matt Reeves, The Batman isn’t a Batman origin story, thank god. As the film begins, the Caped Crusader is already doing his thing, assisted by police detective James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), who isn’t aware of the superhero’s real identity but knows to turn on the Bat-Signal whenever there’s trouble. And, as luck would have it, major trouble is brewing: The mayor (Rupert Penry-Jones) has just been murdered in his home, and whoever commited the crime left behind a riddle, addressed to Batman, to solve. There will be more murders, and more riddles, as the Dark Knight tries to track down the man (Paul Dano) behind these crimes.
I’d argue that The Dark Knight, for better or worse, remains this century’s most influential film. Not just a massive hit but also critically acclaimed, the movie cemented the idea that superhero flicks could actually be worth taking seriously, offering not just escapism but also hefty emotional themes. Of course there were thoughtful comic-book movies before, but that 2008 film aspired to be both art and entertainment, delivering on both fronts spectacularly. (On the downside, though, The Dark Knight also convinced Hollywood that viewers wanted nothing but comic-book movies and gritty reboots of popular franchises — not to mention that it encouraged fanboys to equate gloom with Having Something Meaningful To Say.)
The Batman can’t escape this “Why So Serious?” reality — if anything, it leans into it, although not in the aggro-dude manner of Zack Snyder’s post-Dark Knight Rises films. Instead, we’re presented with a meticulous, slow-burning crime drama in which Batman is more of a gumshoe than a superhero — albeit one still dealing with childhood trauma. (Good news: We finally find out what happened to Wayne’s parents.) The images are often quite dark — barely illuminated, Batman resides in the literal shadows — as we are embedded in a Gotham whose best days are clearly behind it. Everywhere you look, crime rules the city, with underworld figures like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) more powerful than the politicians.
And yet, the movie doesn’t feel oppressively “heavy,” and a lot of the credit goes to Pattinson, who seems at home with Wayne’s broken-manchild vibe. In his best performances, there’s always been something a little damaged about the characters, but rather than reacting in an ultra-macho fashion, they tend to be reserved, even delicate. (And when they aren’t, like in The Lighthouse, it’s such an exaggerated, buffoonish version of masculinity that it’s intentionally hilarious.) I never much liked Pattinson in the Twilight movies, but even there he exuded a sensitive, almost brittle essence — his characters feel things deeply, the softness of their demeanor matched by Pattinson’s gentle aura. This isn’t just something that happens on screen: I’ve interviewed the guy twice in person, and what came across strongest both times was his slightly dorky, unpretentious manner. Comfortable with himself, he wasn’t worried about projecting toughness or “intensity” — he was just happy being a very good-looking dude who got to be in movies.
In The Batman, he’s expected to carry a franchise, a daunting task that doesn’t seem to throw him. But then again, any sort of potential apprehension is baked into the character, because what probably separates this Batman from the previous Batmen is that this one isn’t always good at his job. Wayne makes mistakes in The Batman, and sometimes they hurt him, whether psychologically or physically. There’s a humanness to Pattinson’s portrayal, and the moments in which the movie takes a break to acknowledge that Wayne is just a regular (rich) guy are among the most thrilling. Before one action sequence, Batman actually gasps because he realizes he’s about to jump off a pretty tall building — it’s striking how effective that little reveal of nerves is.
Pattinson’s refusal to forget the man under the mask is a refreshing way to think about Batman. Obviously, the character’s murdered-parents backstory has always been his emotional achilles heel — the lingering wound that will never heal, the way to make a man with cool gadgets and awesome villains somehow more relatable. But while that childhood trauma is woven into the story of The Batman — not especially novelly, I’d add — Pattinson doesn’t use it as an excuse to brood at full volume. Rather, in classic sadboy fashion, his Bruce Wayne is more withdrawn than aggressive, more aloof than towering.
From Twilight on, there’s always been a bit of the ephemeral to Robert Pattinson — a feeling that he’s there and not there simultaneously. Playing a supernatural character worked well in that regard, but even in Cosmopolis or High Life, he projects a ghostliness that suggests he could evaporate off the screen. But, weirdly, that wispy quality makes him more compelling, not less — and in The Batman, it’s expertly utilized. When this Batman occasionally self-consciously behaves more like a tough guy, I actually wondered if it was meant to be a bit unconvincing, as if Bruce Wayne was trying to play-act the role of a terrifying, all-powerful vigilante — the sort of superhero he thinks would scare bad guys.
Earlier actors who have depicted Batman/Bruce Wayne have wrestled with the iconic role’s duality — an ordinary man who dresses up as a bat to stop criminals — sometimes going to great lengths to differentiate the two parts. (I adore the Nolan trilogy while admitting that, yes, Christian Bale’s “Batman voice” was silly.) But Pattinson might be the first since Keaton to really give us a sense of Bruce Wayne as the main character — although even Keaton’s Batman was a formidable, cocky hero. Not so Pattinson, who gives us our first insecure Bruce Wayne. As Batman sifts through clues, flirts with Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz) and locks horns with Dano’s Riddler, I couldn’t stop thinking about the eternal loneliness of this billionaire trapped in his mansion, venturing out to take on bad guys in the middle of the night out of some warped idea of loyalty to his parents’ memory.
The easy joke to make is that The Batman illustrates how some playboys will put on a utility belt and a cowl rather than go to therapy. But Pattinson’s performance suggests why some people do work through their problems in roundabout, often unhealthy ways. In this movie, Batman is a coping mechanism Bruce has come up with because he hasn’t landed on anything better, and the story shows us the dangers of such a choice. With Pattinson in the role — someone far more delicate than Clooney or Bale — The Batman makes plain the risk Bruce is taking, which only makes the bravery he shows in this movie all the more heroic and exhilarating.
If you’re someone who scoffed at the idea of the Twilight dude as the Caped Crusader, well, this film is on your wavelength. In The Batman, even Batman can’t always live up to the idea of being Batman.