A decade ago, the announcement that Robert Pattinson was going to play Batman wouldn't have been a surprise at all. As the noughties gave way to that weird decade we never quite came up with a name for, Pattinson was the star of one of the most lucrative movie franchises in Hollywood and was certainly one of the most famous men on the planet, with his every move followed by a rabid teenage fanbase and the flashbulbs of the tabloid press. He even had a quirky showbiz nickname to show for it.
But, actually, it's in Pattinson's reaction to that nickname that we can see the first stirrings of the bizarre, idiosyncratic performer he would become over the subsequent phase of his career. “I don't understand who invented that thing R-Patz,” he told The Guardian in 2012, adding: “I want to strangle them”. Pretty emphatic stuff then, only exacerbated by the fact he was promoting a movie in which he worked with body horror supremo David Cronenberg as a sex-obsessed capitalist crook with a penchant for limousine prostate exams. Not exactly the typical choice for a teen heartthrob.
That's the thing about Pattinson. Since he waved goodbye to the sparkly skin of vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight movies, he has consistently made confounding and compelling choices as an actor. Any attempt to put him in a box has been thwarted by Pattinson's desire to do something bold, brave and baffling every time he steps on to a movie set. The Batman marks his return to the major blockbuster arena, after his supporting role in Christopher Nolan's time-bending heist flick Tenet back in 2020 saw him dip a toe back into that world.
But before Pattinson takes the Batmobile for a spin around Matt Reeves' take on Gotham City, let's have a look at the actor's varied and unusual post-Twilight oeuvre, starting with that Cronenberg outing…
Darkness in the Hills
Cosmopolis premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2012, six months prior to the release in cinemas of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part Two. In some ways, Pattinson's character is another vampire – 20-something billionaire Eric Packer, who has made his money in currency speculation. He rides slowly through New York City in the controlled environment of his plush limousine, hermetically sealed in cold isolation away from the raucous anti-capitalism protests tearing apart the streets outside. Over the course of the single day covered by the film, he barely reacts as currency fluctuations cause him to lose millions of dollars. There's an “easy come, easy go” feel to the way he talks about money.
The film is obviously a commentary on the destructive impulses of capitalism, and the way greed only begets more greed. Indeed, the financial stakes of Packer's investments are so high as to almost become too low. When the numbers are that huge, does it matter?
But the casting of Pattinson – then one of the world's biggest stars – also makes it a musing on the notion of stardom and its power to create a sort of meaningless unreality. While the world outside of Packer's limousine erupts with passion and energy directed towards him and his kind, the trappings of wealth and fame keep him in a sanitised, unexciting world. By the time Packer confronts his would-be assassin in the movie's finale, it seems he's opting to face death just to break the monotony and feel something again.
This idea of destructive fame would resurface once again two years later when Pattinson rejoined a Cronenberg ensemble – in a supporting role this time – for the brilliant, nightmarish Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars. This time around, Pattinson is in the driver's seat of the limousine as budding actor Jerome, ferrying famous faces around as he awaits his own opportunity to shine as a performer. The movie follows the arrival in Hollywood of a burns victim, played by Mia Wasikowska, who seeks to reconnect with her famous family while serving as personal assistant to Julianne Moore's fading movie star.
Pattinson is arguably the least showy member of the entire ensemble, positioned as the ordinary person trying to find a way into the mad world that has so corrupted the central family of characters. But it's clear that these were the sort of projects which fascinated him as an actor at this time. It's not so much that he was trying to distance himself from his teen idol fame in the manner of Daniel Radcliffe, who took weird and defiantly adult roles in the likes of Horns and Swiss Army Man after Harry Potter came to an end. Pattinson, instead, decided to confront his own fame head-on and use his unique aura to directly critique the system which turns somebody like him into a sexy clone fit more for magazine covers than challenging thesping.
Down and dirty
After his Cronenbergian diptych, Pattinson continued to take on a selection of varied and interesting roles, albeit without the mannered acting and smart suits of Cosmopolis. The pick of these is definitely 2017 thriller Good Time, directed by the Safdie brothers in a sort of dress rehearsal for the two and a half hour anxiety attack that Uncut Gems proved to be. Good Time sees a frazzled and unkempt Pattinson play a small-time crook attempting to bust his disabled brother out of hospital, where he is being held after a prison fight.
It's a simple premise and the film is not heavy on plot, simply ricocheting wildly from incident to incident in the way that has come to characterise the Safdies' hyper-stressful style. Pattinson manages to keep the intensity high as a criminal driven not by greed or evil, but by a desire to remain close to his brother. Much of the storytelling burden is placed upon Pattinson's shoulders, with the Safdies allowing the film to unfold almost entirely in suffocating close-ups, and the actor is very much up to the challenge. His eyes are full of manic, desperate energy and there's something about him which makes you root for his success, even though he is clearly and obviously bad news both for himself and for his vulnerable brother.
While the demands of Good Time required grounded work from Pattinson, two of his most memorable recent roles ask him to embrace theatrical silliness. As the Dauphin in historical epic The King, he deploys a ludicrous French accent akin to the one John Malkovich used as the villain in Johnny English. It's a camp, absurd performance amid a mostly serious take on Shakespeare, anchored by Timothée Chalamet's title character but given life by Pattinson's fun-loving work as the ultimately doomed French ruler who clashed with Henry V in the sludge of Agincourt.
He's similarly over-cranked in another Netflix release – Antonio Campos's 2020 literary adaptation The Devil All the Time. Pattinson plays the deliciously named preacher Preston Teagardin in the grotesque, southern-fried slice of Gothic bleakness, which also sees Tom Holland shedding the wholesome trappings of Spider-Man to get some dirt beneath his fingernails. Preston is a loathsome individual, who hides behind the cloak of faith in order to manipulate underage women into sex, and Pattinson gives it both barrels – not least with an elaborate drawl of a Southern accent. In one sermon, he venomously yells the word “delusions” as if it has five syllables. But it's not just the voice that shines, with Pattinson seeming to twist his handsome features and natural charm into something slimy and serpentine.
The exact midpoint between this pair of enormous performances and the more controlled work of his Cronenberg collaborations is Pattinson's acclaimed turn in Robert Eggers' monochrome nightmare The Lighthouse. As the novice lighthouse keeper Ephraim Winslow – another really quite terrific moniker – Pattinson is positioned at the heart of a gradual descent into madness, exacerbated by the black-and-white cinematography and the unconventional, near-square aspect ratio Eggers deploys.
In many ways, it's the logical conclusion of this phase of Pattinson's career, with any trace of R-Patz hidden behind moustaches, mermaids and masturbation. Needless to say, the movie's horrific final image has stuck with me ever since I first saw the film back in early 2020 – and it's not going anywhere in a hurry.
Going for Gotham
Pattinson's role in Christopher Nolan's Tenet feels like a conscious step back into the blockbuster arena, with the actor rediscovering all of the Hollywood charisma he has deliberately eschewed in some of his most critically adored work. Is it a little bizarre that a time-hopping intelligence operative is known by the decidedly unglamorous name Neil? Yes. We're a long way from Preston Teagardin or Ephraim Winslow there. But name aside, Pattinson clearly had a great time in Tenet. He wears beautiful suits, gives great hot guy swagger and even gets to buckle up for some huge stunts.
All of those skills will put him in good stead for his opportunity to step into the expensive shoes of Bruce Wayne and the even more expensive cowl of Batman. It feels like the right time for Pattinson to embrace the spotlight once again, having spent a decade taking creative risks and pushing himself as a performer. In that sense, and given the career he has managed to carve out as an idiosyncratic and varied thespian, Batman might be the biggest risk of all.
With superhero movies exerting a stranglehold over modern Hollywood, it's all too easy to become pigeon-holed and permanently associated with a role as big as Bruce Wayne. Having just shed the sparkles of Edward Cullen, it takes a confident leading man to take on a character who is even more famous and recognisable.
But the signs are good. The first trailer for The Batman was shown at the virtual DC FanDome event in 2020, cut together while COVID-19 restrictions meant the movie wasn't able to finish shooting in line with its original schedule. Fans had plenty of praise for the grounded tone Matt Reeves appears to be aiming for, with Pattinson portraying a younger and less self-assured Bruce Wayne than we have seen in previous adaptations. We'll find out when we finally get to experience every punch, kick and torrential downpour of Pattinson's Gotham on the movie's release date in March. Based on the last decade of the actor's diverse and challenging work, it's going to be quite the ride.
Just don't call him R-Patz.
This article first appeared in issue 10 of Filmhounds Magazine
Photos: © 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.