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Why Casting Robert Pattinson as Batman as Isn’t so Batty

It’s right in line with the history of the Dark Knight

Robert Pattinson in Remember Me

I’ll admit it, when news broke that Robert Pattinson was the choice to front Matt Reeves’ The Batman, I was skeptical. Like many people, I couldn’t get my head around the idea of the lifeless, romantic Edward Cullen as the caped crusader. Wouldn’t the role be better suited for a more action-oriented leading man? Then, I took some time to think about it and realized, the casting might not be so bonkers after all, especially when you look at the hits and misses of the past when it’s come to casting good the Dark Knight.

Way back in ye olden times of the 1980s, the only Batman people knew was Adam West, the camp hero of the even campier 60s Batman television show. West had typical good looks (really! Take a look back at those old episodes. The guy was a stone-cold fox), but he also excelled at the arch, self-aware tone that made the series such silly fun. When Warner Brothers decided to bring Batman to the big screen under the direction of goth wunderkind Tim Burton, eyebrows raised.

The silver screen supers that folks knew were Greek gods in the model of Superman’s Christopher Reeves, but that film was a decade old when cameras rolled in Gotham. So, when the casting of Bruce Wayne (spoiler: he also Batman!) was announced, those eyebrows shot off faces. Burton cast Michael Keaton. Now, to us, nearly forty years on, Keaton’s Batman is iconic. But at the time, audiences only knew Keaton as a comedian, from Mister Mom and, most recently Beetlejuice. But Burton saw something, possibly a very good chin, with Keaton and Batman, and the subsequent Batman Returns redefined Keaton’s career.  

Keaton was great as Batman, because he was an angsty, calm island in a storm of weirdness, but he balanced the movies rather than weighed them down. The aesthetic of Burton’s films and Keaton’s wry but broken Wayne, laid the groundwork for what is still the best version of Batman on any screen, Batman: The Animated Series.

Still, when Batman Returns caused an uproar among parents and audiences for its overt darkness and kinky undertones, Warner Brothers decided the next film in the franchise had to swing the other way: colorful, toy-driven and campy, like the Batman of old. This meant casting a Typical Hollywood Star as the new Dark Knight.

Val Kilmer was definitely a leading man. He could act, as evidenced by great turns in Tombstone and The Doors, but he also had big action and big genre on his resume with Top Gun and Willow. It seemed like much more of a sure thing. But Val Kilmer’s take on Batman was boring and lifeless. Batman Forever is a very weird movie that’s made bearable by Jim Carey at his peak chewing the scenery as the Riddler, and Kilmer was a match next to a spotlight in comparison.

Batman Forever was a massive blockbuster, and, much like Burton had with Returns, Warner Brother and director Joes Schumacher doubled down on what they thought worked for the sequel, including a “movie star” leading man. The result was the complete disaster of Batman and Robin, starring George Clooney. At least Kilmer made some effort in Forever, whereas Clooney just played himself with rubber nipples. There was neither darkness nor camp in that performance and it’s one of the many things that made the film an infamous cinematic turd.

The Bat-franchise took a long time to recover from Batman and Robin but eventually Warner Brothers, maybe hoping to repeat the Burton success, found a new visionary director who had something to say in Christopher Nolan. It’s unclear if Nolan sought out Christian Bale or if he was attached to the property before Nolan took it on, but like Keaton, Bale wasn’t an obvious choice.

Bale started very young in Hollywood, and audiences knew him best from heart-warmers like Little Women and Empire of the Sun. He sang and danced (badly) in Newsies before growing up to take on edgier fare like Velvet Goldmine, or his breakthrough role in American Psycho. When Bale auditioned for Nolan, he was at a terrifyingly low weight for his role in The Machinist but he was also a leading man interested in craft and commitment. He went on to success as Batman that hasn’t been equaled since, certainly not by the latest occupant of the mask, Ben Affleck.

Affleck was fine as Batman and better as Bruce in movies that were bearable at best. Again, he was a major star that a studio thought they could bet on, and again, it didn’t really land. Pattinson isn’t that. In fact, he’s at a place in his career much close to where Bale was before Batman Begins. Following the success, and infamy, of Twilight, Pattinson has gravitated much more to darker, independent fare and not blockbusters. He’s plugged away at his craft without much ego, which seems like a good move. His latest release is Robert Egger’s follow-up to The Witch The Lighthouse, co-starring Willem Defoe.

Pattinson got raves when the film debuted last month at Cannes, just as The Batman news started to brew. And that should inspire confidence. The Batman allegedly will follow a younger Bruce Wayne in his tenure as Batman without being an origin story. We don’t know who the villain will be, though there are rumors there will be more than one and that Catwoman may make an appearance. It will focus more on Bats as “the world’s greatest detective” which is a great choice we haven’t seen for a while.

Given this plot trajectory, and the choice of Pattinson as a lead, this all sounds very interesting and should inspire more confidence than trepidation. It’s not always the obvious choice that’s the best, and if we’re headed from something closer to Batman Begins than Batman and Robin, all the better.

Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.

(image: Summit Entertainment)

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