It’s probably safe to call The Batman the best superhero movie in many years, and the best Batman in even longer. This is a low bar. Directed by Planet of the Apes fauxteur Matt Reeves, The Batman is a dark, gothic movie that also happens to be almost three hours long. For a good stretch of that time it gets by on audio-visual flair alone. Reeves searches for unexpected camera angles, and unique ways to shoot fist fights and car changes. The set design crumbles grandly, and the skyline of Gotham City is a new achievement in subtle CGI, creating a sprawling cityscape with the density of London and the scope of Shanghai. It’s about as interesting as big-budget Hollywood action filmmaking gets nowadays.
For a while, anyway. In its long final stretch, the story’s many threads fail to cohere, and the ideas it has spent two-plus hours exploring suddenly fall away. The whole thing would probably run a full hour shorter if everyone just spoke in a normal cadence. And after so many patient minutes, the film’s slow pace and human scale are so rapidly inflated that the film’s climax is all hot air.
I wish I could say that Batman himself carries the film to its finish. The casting of hot weirdo Robert Pattinson in the role had been the first thing to interest me in the movie. After a decade spent making independent films, this was to mark Pattinson’s return to the mainstream, and whenever I wondered why we needed another Batman movie, he seemed like reason enough.
But Robert Pattinson seems ill-cast in the role. He fumbles his few purely dramatic scenes as Bruce Wayne, turning the billionaire playboy into a muted, sullen void, without the kookiness of Keaton or Bale’s Bateman-slick facade. He’s better when he puts on the suit, and is the first actor to seem actually comfortable moving about in the armor. But it doesn’t get much deeper. His charisma is nothing beyond the cowl, and eventually the costume overwhelms him.
Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise. There’s a popular cliche that Brad Pitt is a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. But in Pattinson’s case, it’s actually true. With his sleepy eyes and sharply leonine features, he’s so beautiful that he seems lab-designed to lead blockbusters. In what world would he not play Batman? Yet when Pattinson shines, it’s almost always in small projects that seem designed to showcase his own peculiarities. He’s an actor, not a movie star.
Compare this with fellow beautiful oddball Tom Cruise. Cruise is a strange man, but his strangeness is almost mechanical, and his drive so inexhaustible that it crowds out less bankable facets of human experience. Every single time he runs he seems to be abruptly adjusting to earth’s gravity. In Collateral, he delivers an extended soliloquy on the subject of jazz while seeming unfamiliar with so much as the concept of music. And while he’s starred opposite a number of great actors, he never really speaks with anyone so much as drives them verbally off-camera. The void at his core seems big enough to swallow the world.
There’s a popular cliche that Brad Pitt is a character actor trapped in a leading man’s body. But in Pattinson’s case, it’s actually true.
Pattinson’s weirdness is much more idiosyncratic. This is a man who once wanted to be Tupac and sunk considerable pandemic-era days into developing a portable, individual-serving-sized pasta snack. Based on looks alone he should spend the rest of his life at the center of the frame. But his beauty is a trap, drawing you close only to reveal something slightly off, perhaps just a bit juvenile.
Canadian body horror auteur David Cronenberg was the first to figure this out, casting Pattinson a 2012 adaptation of Don Delillo’s Cosmopolis. It’s a strange, shapeless movie in which Pattinson’s hedge fund executive struggles to cross Manhattan in a stretch limo while a series of chaotic events — The President’s visit, an anti-capitalist riot, a record-label managed funeral procession for a Sufi rapper — break out on the other side the glass, and the character’s fortune crashes down around his ears. But Pattinson’s performance creates a beguiling center around which the various digressions gather. He masters both Delillo’s flat affect and Cronenberg’s heightened artifice, giving a performance at once cold and campy.
Cosmopolis set the template for a decade of projects in which Pattinson acted as a support for outré filmmakers cautiously approaching the mainstream. He starred in movies by Claire Denis and the Safdie brothers, and turned in key supporting performances in projects like The Lost City of Z to The Lighthouse. Not every film was a hit — some, like Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert, were barely released — but it was still thrilling to see this one-time golden boy gleefully aiming for the ditch.
His best work is decidedly scuzzy. In the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, Pattinson stars as motor-mouthed bank robber and small-level con-man Connie Nikas. Connie is in constant motion, rushing into risky situations that again and again he must manipulate his way out of, until only jail can slow him down. It’s a grimy, chaotic film and its protagonist a total scumbag, but with his peroxide-fried hair and sneering Queens accent, Pattinson seduces you, just like Connie tricks so many of the people around him. The performance mixes bravado and shame in unstable amounts, and Pattinson has never been so good, before or since.
The few times he has shown up in ostensibly tony productions, it’s to run wild over the project’s pretensions. He reportedly refused any help with accent on 2020’s hicksploitation melodrama The Devil All the Time, and showed up on set having already concocted his own. As a finger-licking, sexually predatory preacher, he runs laps around a completely outmatched Tom Holland, whose transparent desire for respectability can’t compete with his co-star’s irreverence. Pattinson’s hamminess breaks the movie, because who in their right minds couldn’t see through that. But the opposite is also true, as any worthwhile film worthy should be able to incorporate such a gleefully off-the-wall performance. He’s the only thing worth watching.
In more outré fare he acts as a scaffolding for the strangeness, clearing out space for others by ceding them the spotlight. It’s not that his performances are always outrageous or weird; in fact, some of his best work is in quiet, muted roles. He can act as a support in several senses of the word, submitting himself to the material, the director, and to his co-stars, willing to cede both plaudits and vanity to the film. He has become especially adept at playing off other, more experienced actors, providing a muted counterpoint to Juliette Binoche’s space witch, and egging Willem Dafoe on to previously unexplored heights of accent work.
In The Batman, he has only the IP to serve. The film’s convoluted mystery requires that he elevate a lot of clunky exposition, but he can’t quite do it, muttering and mumbling his way through even the most ostensibly emotional scenes. He can’t mine humanity from the script, because so little exists in the premise. Intentionally or not he signals that the project just isn’t worth his time, and perhaps he’s right. So why should it be worth ours?
I don’t know what Pattinson will do next. Shooting on The Batman went on for so long that he was forced to cancel a supporting role in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir Part II, and he has no upcoming projects on his IMDB. For a decade Pattinson avoided the IP machine that has swallowed up mainstream movie culture, and he seems so bored with the results of his integration. After so much interesting work, the thought of him spending the next decade putting on a rubber suit to stand in front of a green screen is pretty boring to me too. I hope he banks his comic book money and makes something even weirder.
Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.