Playing Batman takes a lot out of you. Although it’s become a premier glamour role for a certain branch of strong-jawed white leading men in the same way as James Bond or Jack Ryan, it comes with the expectations of a fervent and split fan base (not to mention casual viewers). That said, it’s still the opportunity of a lifetime. Every actor who fills that bulky suit gets to do something new with the character—Batman changes with each interpretation as well as the baggage each new actor brings to the role. In Matt Reeves’s The Batman, Robert Pattinson gets the call to bring the Caped Crusader to life yet again. Stylistically, while Pattinson is certainly bulked up, his body is leaner and full of bruises and damages from the pounding he’s taken trying to protect Gotham. He wears eye makeup under his mask that smudges easily and his hair swoops into a frontal bang that hangs over his face. For this and myriad other reasons, Pattinson’s rendition has been colloquially termed “Emo Batman’’ online.
It’s an amusing characterization and it’s not completely out of bounds. The Batman drops us in media res as Bruce Wayne is in his second year officially moonlighting as Batman. When we meet him, he already has a partnership with Captain Gordon (Jeffrey Wright), but mostly he’s still getting into the whole vigilante thing, and man, he is just full of gloom and doom. He keeps a diary in which he writes down his daily musings about Gotham and what needs to be done to save it that washes out the handiwork of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Pattinson is effective at channeling true vulnerability and sadness even under a mask. He has very wounded eyes and more of a pout than a scowl, and essentially his Batman is dealing with a lot of feelings—he is a guy that’s damaged and psychologically bruised. Even though we don’t see Thomas and Martha die in this movie (thank God), the little boy that watched them die is very much visible in Pattinson’s demeanor.
You can’t talk about this version of Batman and what Matt Reeves and Pattinson are aiming for without discussing the character’s cinematic history. One of the reasons Batman makes such great movies is because he is the most malleable of superheros. He’s a hero, a detective, a kickboxer; he has a cool car, cooler gadgets and weapons, and billions of dollars to play with. With each Batman movie, different directors have glommed onto whatever aspects they like most. Tim Burton liked the silliness and the gothic oddity of the lore; it could go from scary to funny and back again sometimes within the same scenes, and Michael Keaton had the dexterity necessary to live in that realm. With Zack Snyder, Ben Affleck’s Batman became aggro and muscular—basically a potential Joe Rogan podcast guest—and melodramatically serious and intense. Joel Schumacher seemed to love the Adam West version of Batman, and that’s all that needs to be said about those movies here. But the most obvious through line to Matt Reeves’s vision is between Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which has become the template for later Batman movie visions. With Nolan, Batman became “real”; the character studied and trained for years to be able to fight and use theatrics and deception (powerful agents to the uninitiated); his wealth and connection to the military-industrial complex allowed him the tools and toys that come with being Batman. But most importantly, with Nolan, the question of Batman’s psychology moved from subtext and to main text. In Nolan’s movies, Batman was constantly one ordeal away from not being able to soldier on or even survive. Gotham was physically and mentally beating him down, and it wasn’t clear why exactly Bruce Wayne would want to commit so much to protecting the city. Tackling the psychology of Batman and his villains was probably Nolan’s favorite thing to do in his movies after tackling Bush era war on terror policies.
That idea of gritty realism and Batman’s psychology—and what it would take to drive a man to commit to this warped life of righteous vigilante justice—is the main appeal of Matt Reeves’s The Batman. In the film, the Riddler (Paul Dano) is reimagined as a sociopathic serial killer in the vein of Se7en’s John Doe character who murders different members of Gotham’s political elite and influential and leaves clues (as riddles, of course) for Batman and the police to sift through that bring all of Gotham’s corruption, past and present, out into the light. Battling wits with such an unstable and damaged murderer forces Batman into working through his own issues, which is just as tenuous of a fight. In this version, Bruce Wayne is no longer the suave, naive playboy gallivanting through parties with Gotham’s political and social ruling class—he’s a recluse and loner. He avoids the public eye, he’s disinterested in his family’s wealth and corporations, and the Wayne manor is a literal ghost house—a sparsely decorated, disorganized, aging castle. As far as the Batcave, it’s basically an exaggerated cellar with a couple of computer screens for Batman’s forensics work. Everything about the way Wayne lives and behaves feels gloomy, if not sad and pathetic.
It’s quite the choice, and in the movie’s opening moments when Bruce Wayne rides around in his motorcycle as the needle drop of Nirvana’s “Something in the Way’’ kicks in, there’s a feeling of going all in on this “Emo Batman’’ idea. Reeves has referred to Pattinson’s performance as hearkening back to Kurt Cobain, so it might be more appropriate to refer to this as a “Grunge Batman.” You could also think of him as a “Goth Batman,” with how much Pattinson’s performance and the character design for the film similarly owes a debt to Brandon Lee’s iconic titular role in 1994’s The Crow. The real point though, is that this is a Batman with a lot of feelings and torment. Pattinson even acknowledged as much in an interview with Total Film, saying: “He’s got this enormous trauma inside him, and he’s built this intricate, psychological mechanism to handle it. It’s like a really, really, really bad self-therapy, which has ended up with him being Batman at the end, as self-help.” Pattinson apparently thought extensively about Batman’s psychology, reading a plethora of Batman comics that covered the breadth of the character’s history and even studying the mannerisms of how actual bats fight an opponent ahead of this role.
The film uses the rhythms of a detective story, and Batman interrogates his sense of self as he tries to understand the Riddler and the meaning of these killings. There are the literal ways in which the Riddler has tied him and his wealthy family’s history into his plans, but there is also the shared intensity and the mirrored behavior between the two masked avengers that forces Batman into questioning the purity of his own intent. Again, Pattinson translates so much of what is happening in Bruce Wayne’s head through just his eyes. His Batman is still figuring his way through this life and through Gotham’s seedy underbelly. He’s aggressive, intimidating, and harbors a lot of pain and volatile emotional energy, which comes out through the very violent ways he punches bad guys for an uncomfortably lengthy time. He is not an expert in any capacity: His suit seems professionally made and certainly must be bulletproof, considering the number of point-blank shots it takes, but it’s far from military-grade technology. Every element of this Batman feels either purposefully personal, handmade, or designed. He obviously has been fight-trained, but he’s graceless and raw. He is still getting used to the job and there are moments when he hesitates before, say, jumping off a building to hang glide down to the ground, because he is actually unsure if he can pull it off. Even the Batmobile, as cool as it is, looks like a regular car that’s just been souped up. He has a lot of doubt and uncertainty and is in a true partnership with Gordon, and then later Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), and leans on their help in moments when he might otherwise be stuck. Pattinson has his own brooding, gravelly version of the Batman voice, but his Bat doesn’t yell a lot. He talks low and keeps things succinct, and he seems more interested in punching than chatting at any rate.
The Batman isn’t terribly interested in Bruce Wayne as a stand-alone character, but in the few scenes when he is front and center, Pattinson does an incredible job of suffusing Wayne with a lot of complexity that is clearly not on the page. When Bruce Wayne makes an apparently rare appearance at the mayor’s funeral, he is distant and awkward around people, bothered by the media attention, and unable (or maybe unwilling) to have a real conversation with people. Pattinson plays Wayne like he’s a traumatized little boy—shoulders slumped, eyes low and directed toward the floor, and looking like he wants to hide. Making Bruce Wayne sensitive and antisocial might be bolder than anything you can do to Batman; it’s so much more tempting to lean in on the established mythos of Wayne. You’ll never have trouble selling filmmakers on a character that’s rich, suave, drives nice cars and hooks up with beautiful women. The Batman’s commitment to gritty realism also means committing to a real Bruce Wayne who would potentially struggle with mental illness after the violent loss of his parents, and would also have to get to a desperate place to want to commit to being a superhero in a dangerously corrupt city run almost exclusively by organized crime. The Bruce Wayne of The Batman is a tragic character, and it’s made clear upfront. He is in real pain and he is not dealing with it well; while it’s kinda cool that Batman gets to be a real sad boi in a big-budget IP movie, there’s a real, often effective attempt to acknowledge mental health issues within this film. That said, there are times when Bruce Wayne’s behavior should be called into question. He’s a real dick to Alfred throughout in a way that just feels unfair. Alfred, as his official guardian, is Bruce’s one real connection to his parents, but it seems like he’s Bruce Wayne’s punching bag to get out the vitriol he feels at the world, and even at his parents.
As the Riddler case forces him to confront some dark secrets about his own family history, Bruce Wayne is forced to examine his trauma over his parents’ death as well as the Wayne family’s unearthed past corruption. It’s one of the better subversions in The Batman, muddying the legacy of the Wayne family and corporation and making them much more complicated than simply do-gooder billionaires killed by an unsparing city—a way to comment on the unholy bond between politics and the wealthiest elites in America. This is where Pattinson shines again, effectively communicating the real hurt and disappointment about what he learns about his parents, along with the general disgust he has for the corrosive nature of Gotham politics and how it dirties everything it touches. It’s all written on Pattinson’s face and because of how much of a loner Bruce Wayne is, it can be read only through his gestures and glares.
The result of all this reclusiveness though, is that it makes Batman incredibly awkward at normal interaction. It can be a bit disorienting to watch, but it certainly makes his relationship with Selina Kyle all the more fascinating. Their chemistry jumps off the screen and you can feel Wayne’s instant captivation by her, which makes all the sense in the world. She knows karate, she wears a lot of tight leather, and she looks like Zoë Kravitz. It’s not so much that Wayne changes or becomes cooler around her; it’s more that he clearly enjoys being in her company in a way that doesn’t seem to be the case when he’s around anyone else. Although he is singularly focused on solving his murder case and less interested in helping Selina Kyle out with her own situation, he is clearly happy to work alongside her. In a scene when Batman has Selina infiltrate a mob club using some high-tech video recording contact lenses, he gets visibly jealous and agitated at the fact that one of the biggest gangsters running Gotham, Carmine Falcone (John Turturro), seems to know her very intimately. The interaction is in the same vein of this character’s constant petulance. Mood swings, disinterest, anger, and social awkwardness aren’t exactly what people expect from this character or really any superhero alter ego, but it is much more accurate to what a real Batman would probably be like.
Nolan’s trilogy introduced the idea to the Batman cinematic universe that the villains were also reflections of the Dark Knight. Reeves brings this almost to the point of overkill with the Riddler and Batman, and when they have their first proper meeting near the end of the film, they almost completely recreate The Dark Knight’s interrogation room scene between Batman and the Joker. The Riddler’s outfit is an even more homely, handmade version of someone trying to dress up like a superhero, with saran wrap and army fatigues that have a question mark emblazoned on them. The Riddler talks to Batman as though he genuinely sees himself as a partner of his; through his murders and Batman’s investigation, they are bringing all of Gotham’s deep rot of corruption out into the open. It’s a bit clumsy and obvious, but it does get at something important about Batman: Just as much as he’s a symbol meant to inspire good, he is also an example to the deeply disturbed that they can go out and provide their own version of vigilante justice. This new Bruce Wayne might be our sensitive emo superhero with the best of intentions, but to grapple with the reality of a Batman means tackling the slippery slope of showing people (specifically white men) that they can take the law into their own hands. This is particularly true in this time of misinformation and online extremism and QAnon, which the Riddler seems to be steeped in throughout this movie (this guy needs to get his Twitch followers up, though). But that’s what keeps Batman so exciting: He is as dark as he is heroic, and it makes for a lot of pretty damn good movies.
Israel Daramola is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, BuzzFeed, and Rolling Stone.