The various cinematic iterations of the Caped Crusader might be different from one another in style and tone, but they share one clear common ground: fans complaining about “controversial” casting decisions ahead of a new Batman release. Michael Keaton’s known for comedies, so he’ll ruin the gravitas of the character. Heath Ledger’s a vanilla heartthrob; there’s no way he can be even slightly intimidating as The Joker. Ben Affleck? Really?! Yet Michael Keaton is still our best cinematic Batman (I give Christian Bale the edge for “best Bruce Wayne”), Heath Ledger’s deserved posthumous Oscar-winning performance is still a pop culture legend, and Ben Affleck was … totally fine. One would think going 0 for 3 score card on the Dark Knight casting bitch-o-meter would give fans pause when criticizing the actor selection for the next reboot, but here we are again with the backlash against Robert Pattinson being tapped as the next Batman.
Of course almost all of the criticism derives from Pattinson’s star-making turn as sparkling emo vampire Edward Cullen in the massive tween fantasy hit and not-so-subtle Mormon propaganda piece that is the Twilight Saga. It’s understandable for those who are only familiar with Pattinson’s work in Twilight to be worried about a one-note Batman, but his interesting and brave choices since the end of the franchise showcases a layered, brave and complex body of work that cultivates him as one of the most interesting actors of his generation. It’s hard to blame mainstream audiences for not being fully aware of Pattinson’s post-Twilight career, since he’s taken a deep dive into the indie and arthouse world since then. For those who haven’t kept track of Pattinson since 2012, let’s dig into five of Pattinson’s under-seen great performances, in chronological order, that show he just might be a great next Batman.
In David Cronenberg’s thematically murky and pretentious-to-the-point-of-parody apocalyptic takedown of unrepentant American capitalism, an almost word-by-word adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, Pattinson is aggressively deadpan as a young billionaire asset manager whose sanity relies on a world ruled by cosmic order and predictability. That’s why, as his predictions for his new investments fail and his stock takes a nose dive during the course of a day spent trying to drive across New York so he can get a haircut, the cracks in his Patrick Bateman-on-downers shtick begins to unravel, revealing a pathetically insecure child desperate to crawl back to some form of humanity. Even during points of great existential confusion, Pattinson rarely directly exposes the character’s true nature, since at least an appearance of self-control against any conflict is his modus operandi. So the entire emotional arc of the piece rests on the shoulders of Pattinson’s impressive ability to communicate an ocean of repressed neuroses through subtle changes in body language, an asset that other auteurs clearly picked up on for his later projects. For those—including myself—who predicted that Pattinson’s involvement in a Cronenberg joint would ruin the film, it’s a tasty bit of arthouse irony that his performance turned out to be the saving grace instead.
We switch from a completely internal performance to an external one, showcasing Pattinson’s versatility. In director David Michod’s underrated speculative fiction drama, which strips all artifice from the post-apocalyptic genre to the point of neo-realism, we’re 10 years past a global economic collapse. The world isn’t Mad Max yet, but it’s hurtling there at great speed. Guy Pierce is Eric, a quiet and broken man who’s hell-bent on retrieving his car from a gang of murderous thieves. He kidnaps one of the thieves’ (Scoot McNairy) brother, the mentally challenged Rey (Pattinson), as leverage. Both men cling desperately to their last connection to humanity in a world devoid of it. For Eric, it’s whatever he has left in his car. For Rey, it’s the belief that his brother loves him, and will eventually save him. As Rey gradually figures out how alone and unprotected he really is, volatile anger and confusion begins to bubble up to the surface. At first sight, it looks like Pattinson’s merely engaging in Billy Bob Thornton/Sling Blade cosplay, but there’s great unique empathy and vulnerability in the performance, more than enough for him to put his own stamp on the character.
Writer/director James Grey’s epic adaptation of David Grann’s book is an intimate character study about the nature of obsession hidden underneath a veneer of Apocalypse Now or Aguirre, the Wrath of God style adventure into uncharted insanity. The real-life story of Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), an explorer who went on three dangerous expeditions to find a hidden civilization in the Amazon, is one of dogged tenacity at all cost. Percy’s zealous passion for his mission is balanced by the calculated composure of his expedition partner, Col. Henry Costin (Pattinson). Both men feel the desire to find the lost city in their bones, but Percy reserves his excitement for the actual moment of discovery, resulting in one of this appropriately gloomy affair’s handful of crowd-pleasing moments. But the moment comes early in the film, leading to Henry’s tragic moral arc as he eventually loses faith not in the city itself, but in his own reasoning as to why he wanted to find it in the first place. On the surface, Pattinson’s performance might seem monotone, since he’s portraying someone who rarely expresses his emotions, but the sadness that overcomes him at the thought of a life wasted at the expense of what might have been a fool’s errand is evident in his take on the character.
In the Safdie Brothers’ aggressively raw and grimy crime drama/thriller, Pattinson disappears in his role as Connie, a two-bit bank robber who dumpster dives into New York’s underworld in order to find some way to get his mentally challenged brother (Benny Safdie) out of jail. The insane and sometimes even patently absurd experiences Connie goes through during the longest night of his life is kept from feeling jarringly episodic structure thanks to Pattinson’s uniformly freaked-out performance. This is such unpretentious powerhouse work from an actor, drenched in copious sweat and fear, that it almost works as a smell-o-vision experience without the tech, since we can almost smell the desperation of the character. Even though Connie is a ne’er-do-well who mostly makes the worst possible decisions during the course of the night, leading to Good Times’ refreshingly anti-climactic resolution, Pattinson makes sure that we’re always in tune with the character’s motivation and drive.
Claire Denis’ hard sci-fi opus on the inherently human need to find purpose in a purposeless existence is almost frustratingly glum and emotionally disconnected, yet it’s also balanced beautifully by a surprisingly hopeful disposition in parts. Pattinson is Monte, one of the handful of death row inmates sent beyond the solar system to … be lab rats for an experiment on conception in space? Human sacrifices for a black hole data-retrieving mission? The practical reasoning behind their forced exodus isn’t entirely clear, and is not really the point. Since the trip takes over a hundred years of Earth time to complete, and no return is expected in the first place, the inmates are fully aware that all of their loved ones are dead, and their entire existence is defined by the literal box that hurtles them through the cold and unforgiving space. Monte tries to deal with his existential hole by abstaining from any sexual activity and tending to the ship’s garden. We get another seemingly stoic yet distinctly subtle and rich performance from Pattinson, which shows his capability for capturing the dual nature of the Dark Knight. As extraneous circumstances force Monte to step out of his comfort zone to acknowledge a tremendous new responsibility, Pattinson expertly expresses an arc that begins at disdain and dread, only to end on a point of pure love and understanding, without any overtly expressive changes in the character’s demeanor.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.