Why Robert Pattinson’s Grim Batman Is Cause for Optimism

By bringing the character back to his noir-detective origins, The Batman shows that comic-book movies can contain multitudes.

Robert Pattinson as Batman
Warner Bros. / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

In The Batman, Matt Reeves’s long and grim superhero epic, Robert Pattinson plays a brooding sophomore of a dark knight. He wears mascara. He journals. He is vengeance. He is the shadows. But despite all the memes and fanboy hand-wringing generated from the Twilight actor’s casting, Pattinson’s is a back-to-basics Batman. He isn’t the tired, aging crimefighter played by Ben Affleck, nor is The Batman the umpteenth pearl-scattering origin story for the character.

Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne is young and still figuring out his role in Gotham. He pummels streetgangs in clown makeup like any Batman, but he also plods around looking for clues with Jeffrey Wright’s Jim Gordon. The pair makes for a melancholy Holmes and Watson, gumshoeing around a city whose mob boss has fallen but where crime only seems to get worse.

It’s a new kind of Batman, but also possibly the most comic-accurate film portrayal ever. After all, the caped crusader emerged from 1930s detective comics, pulpy noir stories about sleuths and gangsters instead of world-conquering supervillains. But despite Batman’s comic billing as “The World’s Greatest Detective,” past screen versions of the character haven’t relied on his mystery-solving so much as his gadgets and the haunted inheritance that paid for them.

In making The Batman a noir-mystery, Reeves showed both the limits and possibilities of today’s big-budget filmmaking. If you want to make an epic movie, the stars need to be wearing capes. But with audiences so used to superheroes, the film’s success shows there may be room to experiment within the genre.

Staff writers David Sims, Sophie Gilbert, and Spencer Kornhaber discuss The Batman on The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review. What does The Batman show us about the state of superhero movies? How does Pattinson’s Batman compare to past iterations? And, most importantly, is this Batman emo or grunge? Listen to their conversation here:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for The Batman.

Sophie Gilbert: Today, we’re here to talk about The Batman. The newest film iteration of the Caped Crusader is directed by Matt Reeves and stars Robert Pattinson as Batman/Bruce Wayne. The movie is already the highest-grossing film of 2022, but surprisingly, it’s the first stand-alone Batman movie in a decade. The Dark Knight Rises came out all the way back in 2012, which makes me feel really old. There’s been no shortage of comic-book movies in that time, it is true, but it’s interesting to reconsider Batman now and think about the genre without all the weight of universe building and connected franchises. So with this in mind, David, maybe you can share some thoughts on this subject to kick us off: What does The Batman say about the state of superhero movies right now? What should we read from the success of this film?

David Sims: As you say, it’s not like we’ve been in a Batman-free zone since the Christopher Nolan saga came to a close 10 years ago. Ben Affleck’s Batman has kicked around the DC Universe; there was a Lego Batman … We’ve had plenty of Batman conversations, but there is a feeling at the same time like, wouldn’t it be nice to not have to worry about what Aquaman is doing right now? To not have to think about an entire universe of crossovers? Of cosmic chaos and portals opening in the sky? The issue with the cinematic-universe approach to comic-book storytelling is that the stakes always have to be galactically high by the end of the movie, because it’s hard to top yourself when you’re the 24th entry in a series, right? And here we are with a movie that’s not that.

Spencer Kornhaber: The stakes are only municipally high.

Sims: (Laughs.) Exactly! They do try to make things a little more epic at the end, but even that feels a little forced. This is mostly about a guy plodding around looking at clues.

Gilbert: Detective Pikachu, but Batman.

Sims: He even has pointy ears like Pikachu.

Gilbert: To me, it’s liberating. As much as I enjoy the [Marvel Cinematic Universe], it’s exhausting. When you want to see a movie, you feel like you have to see absolutely everything to comprehend it, so this film is at least lighter work for the viewer.

Kornhaber: But even this sets up sequels!

Sims: That’s the pitfall, of course. You could never plausibly, truly say this is going to be the only one. All these things are designed to be followed up on, even the Joker movie, which ends about as definitively as one of these things could. Now they’re talking about making another one. But if you make a billion dollars, that’s what happens.

Gilbert: I want to talk about Robert Pattinson. Spencer, what did you make of his performance? I’m asking you because you’re the emo kid in residence.

Kornhaber: It is a good chance to talk about the differences in waifish white men who listen to rock and roll. I appreciate that Nirvana is his band. So not quite an emo kid. The Batman felt like it was going deeper back to some truly traumatic times of the early ’90s, whereas Suicide Squad is very emo. It has a very Panic! at the Disco aesthetic.

Sims: Right, very Hot Topic.

Kornhaber: Yeah. And as someone who wishes he was from the ’90s, I thought Pattinson completely worked. You love him in this. You just want to cuddle his skeletal frame and tell him it’s going to be okay. You can tell that when Bruce Wayne steps out of the house for a rare funeral, the city’s paparazzi are obsessed with him. Pattinson is one strong ingredient in a movie made up of many that combine to somehow make three hours go by very quickly and absorbingly. He did a great job. This movie is really gnarly.

Gilbert: Yeah, it’s grungy, for sure. And on the paparazzi, there was a sort of Kennedy subtext to the Wayne family that I hadn’t really picked up on any previous outings. The old footage of Thomas Wayne brought Bobby Kennedy to mind. The mother and her unhappy childhood.

Sims: Absolutely, sort of a Rosemary Kennedy thing.

Gilbert: Yeah, I found that really fascinating. But yes, it was gnarly as hell. David, what did you think about Robert Pattinson as Batman?

Sims: You know, I’m a major fan of R-Pats.

Gilbert: Very handsome.

Sims: I think he’s very handsome. I think I’ve had the same journey with him as a star that a lot of people have, where I actually think his performance in the first Twilight is incredible and worth revisiting. He seems baffled by the material and it’s basically like: This is like a freak, right? It’s a Nicolas Cage–level, committed, bananas performance. The only problem is that in the subsequent Twilight movies, he’s clearly quite bored and has a lot less to do because those movies background him after a while. He’s just kind of standing there glowering.

People sort of gave up on him as being a truly promising actor as he was confined to that series for a while. And then he’s had this very interesting phase in the past few years where he’s been taking all these interesting parts, working with very committed, artistically whole directors like the Safdies and Robert Eggers.

And then when he popped up in Tenet a couple of years ago, the Christopher Nolan movie, it was this reminder that this guy is super charming and charismatic and handsome, right? And so when he was cast in The Batman, I thought, Sure, he’s got a bit of an edge. He’s a little emo, a little grungy, whatever you want to call it. He’ll be a good Bruce Wayne. And then this movie barely cares about him as Bruce Wayne. He’s mostly Batman. But I said this in my review: Playing Batman is all about lips and chin. That’s all you’ve got to work with. You’ve got a big mask on your face; you’ve got black eyeliner on. And he’s really good at the scowling and the grimacing and the pouting. He’s very locked in, in my opinion.

Kornhaber: To me, he wasn’t very expressive, and that was kind of the point. His whole take on Batman is that he’s conquered fear, and it seemed like he was making a very deliberate choice not to give the sort of hammy George Clooney frown.

Sims: If I could do a very brief Batman rant …

Gilbert: (Laughs.) Please! Where else but here?

Sims: If you’re talking about the various people who’ve played this role, the pathology of each is really different. Michael Keaton’s take was that this is a fairly bored, rich guy who just cannot wait for the Bat-Signal to go up in the sky. Christian Bale is more this light-and-dark thing. When he’s Bruce Wayne, he’s giving this sort of performance in and of itself as a playboy fool. And when he’s Batman, he’s giving this increasingly bananas performance as the scariest monster you’ve ever met. (Growls.)

Kornhaber: (Laughs.)

Sims: This is a guy who doesn’t totally even know if he’s a person anymore. He’s always acting. And Pattinson’s take seems to be: This guy is sublimating himself into this role, into this work. He’s a fairly young Batman. He’s still kind of figuring it out. So he’s good at glowering and, like you say, Spencer, locking it all down. But it doesn’t seem like he’s figured out what he wants out of all of this right at the start of the movie. He’s good at being Batman and hitting criminals, but I feel like he’s still in search of the larger mission.

Gilbert: I found his Batman very entertaining. I found his Bruce Wayne slightly perplexing. There was one scene where he mournfully chews on a berry, which made me laugh out loud in the cinema. Which may be very popular. The tone of the movie is so humorless, though, that when things were funny, you wondered, Is this intentional levity? Or am I just laughing because everything is so dire?

Sims: I think mostly the latter. The only person in this movie who gets to have any fun, really, is Colin Farrell.

Gilbert: (Laughs.) I do not believe it’s Colin Farrell. I don’t believe it’s Paul Dano. I think they got jobbing actors to just wear the makeup and then they franchise the movie-star names.

Sims: Right, when you first see Farrell buried under all that makeup, you think, Why even cast a well-known actor? But then you see the performance and he’s clearly giving a 5,000-percent performance in this because he’s so constrained that it will come off over-the-top, even if he’s way over-the-top.

Kornhaber: It’s a beautiful corrective to House of Gucci. If Colin Farrell’s 5,000-percent over-the-top, Jared Leto in his own fat suit was a million-percent over-the-top. I love the Penguin. He’s funny.

Gilbert: He felt like an ad for Goodfellas Pizza. (Laughs.) Let’s talk about Detective Batman though. I did not know until we were prepping for this that “DC” stands for “Detective Comics.” What did you think of the orientation of Batman as a sleuth? A noir-ish private eye on the case in this very dark, very bad city?

Kornhaber: I guess I’m not that familiar with Batman’s detective origins.

Sims: He’s the world’s greatest detective, Spencer!

Kornhaber: But I’m someone who has only known Batman glancingly in popular culture over the years, so it was sort of random when the movie acknowledges him as a detective. But of course, part of what is very effective about the movie is that it’s a highly competent detective story. It works in a way that’s very familiar to the obvious David Fincher–directed inspirations like Se7en and Zodiac. I imagine it’s playing with old film-noir beats very competently. But I do need to hear your spiel about why he is a good detective, because it’s not in the canon that dummies like me have absorbed over the years.

Sims: It’s never been too crucial to his cinematic canon, but certainly part of it. He’s got his Batcave, with the computers, of course. But when the character was at his original height in the ’40s, the peak era of the noir, Superman was the big flying hero who fights people in the daytime and Batman was the creepy-crawly guy lurking around at night. Batman’s fighting criminals rather than supervillains. He eventually gets supervillains in his rogues’ gallery, but originally he was really a guy fighting mobsters. That was sort of his conception. And he debuted in a series called Detective Comics, of course.

Gilbert: Like Dick Tracy?

Sims: Yeah, or The Shadow. The sort of pulpy villain-heroes of the ’30s.

Kornhaber: On that note, is the crime-ridden, drug-addled, city-of-1970s-and-1980s cinema back? Did it never go away? I grew up being very frightened of the city because of movies like [Tim Burton’s] 1989 Batman. What portrayals of cities have we had recently that are full of Sweetgreens and condos, because that’s sort of the reality?

Gilbert: (Laughs.)

Sims: That’s the vibe of the Marvel movies. Those are set in recognizable cities, but then Marvel has its monochromatic gray slate for fights that take place in parking lots because that’s an easy place to dump everyone for the special-effects shots. The Batman is a little more reminiscent of a grimy ’70s movie, which is a fun throwback.I like this movie, but it is a little pummeling. I don’t mind though. Director Matt Reeves picked his bit. It’s a serious mystery with a Gotham that’s dark and moody.

The problem with Batman movies—and Matt Reeves has talked about this—is that you always have your first Batman movie about a billionaire whose parents were killed and he becomes Batman, right?

Gilbert: Which I did appreciate him leaving out, mercifully, from this movie.

Sims: Right. But then by the second movie, Batman’s whole deal has been completely settled. He is Batman. And so the sequels are always just villains’ showcases. They take over the movie. And Reeves wanted to do a movie about a Batman who’s still figuring things out, without making the audience watch pearls fall on the floor for the umpteenth time.

Gilbert: (Laughs.) Right.

Sims: We don’t need to deal with all that over and over. And so with this film next going to do a TV series with Colin Farrell’s Penguin, that’s great. That means there’s space for villains to pop up. You can explore more Gotham marginalia, and give a little sense of the city of crime. And then when we go back to The Batman 2, we can have a rich world for Pattinson to play around in. I’m not, like, pumping my fists for a Penguin show, but I could imagine how it would be interesting.

Gilbert: I’m not against the idea of more villains, but I do find Penguin the least interesting of all of them. (Laughs.) How do you do a 10-hour series about a man whose defining characteristics seems to be a silly accent?

Kornhaber: What is Penguin’s power? He uses umbrellas and he also has children in the wells or something?

Sims: That’s all Tim Burton’s take. In the comics, he’s just a gangster who maybe has some fun bulletproof umbrellas. Burton is the one who is like, “This guy should be half penguin.”

Gilbert: He was raised by penguins at the Gotham Zoo right?

Sims: Right, he was an orphan. It’s the classic Batman thing. Catwoman fell into a vat of cats; he fell into a vat of penguins.

Kornhaber: (Laughs.)

Sims: The funniest thing about this movie is it is so damn realistic, but they’re trying to make toys out of the Colin Farrell Penguin. It’s like, “Here, kid, have ‘Middle-Aged Guy in Suspenders.’ Happy Christmas!”

Kornhaber: (Laughs.)

Sims: What kid is going to enjoy any of this? “Here’s Gimp-Suit Riddler; I hope you like it!”

Gilbert: (Laughs.) Okay, but let’s extrapolate what superhero movies are going forward a bit. Because to me, this movie was a well done but predictable iteration of a big superhero-Batman movie. There weren’t too many surprises. Is this sort of where we’re going with this field now?

Kornhaber: I’m not the superhero-movie guy, but I will say that this movie and the last Spider-Man movie, which we talked about on the podcast, were amazing times in the theater for me. I really enjoyed both of them. It felt like filmmakers playing in a well-defined sandbox but doing really creative, high-quality stuff within them. And it just brings me this sort of sad feeling that this is the only opportunity that filmmakers have to use the budget and the resources and the attention to do something ambitious. Matt Reeves has talked about how, in another era, could he have gotten all these actors together into a different kind of movie. Superhero movies are kind of the only game in town if he wants to do ambitious auteur work. And so it’s cool that we got this kind of a Batman movie, but maybe someday we can have just the good Matt Reeves blockbuster of his dreams.

Gilbert: What’s David Fincher doing these days, David?

Sims: Well, David Fincher is a perfect example of what we are talking about, in that he is a very successful filmmaker who’s been nominated for Oscars and has made many hits. And after Gone Girl, another hit that worked really well and had movie stars in it, Hollywood was basically like, “Your movies are too expensive and do not seem to be about superheroes at all.”

And so he became this perfect example of the celebrated auteur who needs a lot of money and time to play around with. David Fincher is probably not going to go off and make a movie for $15 million. He needs a big, expansive budget because he’s meticulous. And so studios just sort of stop bothering with him. The same thing happened to Martin Scorsese. Obviously anyone wants to be in the Martin Scorsese business, but Paramount, his classic studio, wouldn’t give him $200 million to make The Irishman even though [Robert] De Niro and [Al] Pacino were involved. It’s a lot of money for a movie that’s not going to play overseas, that isn’t going to have a sequel or anything like that.

And so where are they all now? They’re at the streamers who want the prestige and who will pony up the money. So David Fincher made Mank for Netflix, and now he’s making a movie called The Killer for Netflix. Martin Scorsese made The Irishman at Netflix. He’s making a movie for Apple right now. Unfortunately or fortunately, those are the companies right now willing to take financial risks on movies that aren’t necessarily going to be tentpoles.

Gilbert: That doesn’t feel fully economically sustainable to me, though, to spend this amount of money, right? Netflix had a share-tumble crisis a few months ago. Will they be happy to do this forever? It does make you wonder what happens to this kind of movie.

Sims: I think Netflix and Co. will always be happy to pony up for a couple projects from very major filmmakers like Fincher. It’s more the Matt Reeves types who are obviously good at their jobs, and quite celebrated, but aren’t the juggernaut names. That’s who I worry about in the grand financial scheme of things. And maybe Matt Reeves has dreamed about making a Batman movie. He probably likes Batman, and he probably wanted to make a Batman movie. But he might have other projects that he’d love to do and he’s either going to use this Batman clout to get it done or he’s going to have to make it for a lot less money.

Only Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, the absolute big boys, are the types who could go to a studio and be like, ”I’m in charge. You’re putting this movie in theaters. You’re giving me as much money as I want. And it’s going to be about whatever I want.” There just aren’t a lot of filmmakers left like that. And maybe the death of big-ego male filmmakers isn’t the worst. Maybe Hollywood is just evolving. I’m not saying “Woe is David Fincher,” but how many Batman movies have there been? And I like Batman!

Gilbert: It is depressing that Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man movies are the ones that truly rake in the cash. But at the same time, I do want to see them! And we talk about them and have fun. There is something about the reliability of the familiar storytelling structure, the familiar hero. When you’re exhausted and tired and stressed about the world, it feels safe in a way that a fully novel story maybe feels like too much work. It’s a little sad, but that’s also the paradox.