When director Matt Reeves announced he had tapped Robert Pattinson to play Batman in his much-anticipated franchise reboot in 2019, fans from every corner of the internet immediately began sharpening their knives.
Never mind that Pattinson had spent years taking a sledgehammer to his tween-heartthrob image in a series of unglamorous arthouse roles, from a small-time bank robber in the grungy “Good Time” to a lonely 19th century lighthouse keeper in the hallucinatory “The Lighthouse.” For many, the idea of the onetime “Twilight” vampire tackling one of the superhero canon’s most iconic characters in “The Batman,” which opens Friday, seemed like a potential bat-astrophe in the making.
Pattinson took the initial backlash in stride. “I was actually mocked less than I usually am,” the actor, seated alongside Reeves, said over Zoom on a recent afternoon. He laughed. “I was quite shocked. ‘Only 70% negative? A-plus!’ ”
Nor was Reeves, who had stepped into the project after its initial star and director Ben Affleck dropped out, particularly concerned. “When you go into a Batman movie, you just have to kind of harden yourself in the beginning,” said Reeves, who had earned the job largely on the strength of his two critically and commercially successful installments in the “Planet of the Apes” series. “It’s an 80-year-old character. Every time you step into it, you’re stepping into something where everybody already has a preconception.”
Pattinson’s casting is far from the only aspect of “The Batman” likely to shake up preconceived notions. Clocking in at three hours, with a dense narrative and a style that veers from gritty noir to angsty psychodrama to serial-killer horror, Reeves’ movie returns Batman to his roots as “the world’s greatest detective.” Dispensing with the overly familiar origin story, the film tracks Batman’s pursuit, aided by Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), of the elusive Riddler (Paul Dano), who is sprinkling clues about a sprawling conspiracy of corruption — along with dead bodies — throughout the troubled city of Gotham.
Arriving at a moment that’s fraught with peril and anxiety not just for the movie business but for the entire world, “The Batman” has received largely positive reviews from critics. But it remains to be seen how audiences will receive Reeves’ twisty, violent and deadly serious film, which is closer in spirit to ’70s classics like “Chinatown” and “The French Connection” than to your stereotypical glossy, slam-bang superhero fare.
The Times spoke with Reeves, 55, and Pattinson, 35, about fashioning a new take on an old character, creating a Gotham for our times and trying to safeguard not just the future of the Batman franchise but the movie business as we know it.
Rob, you’ve spent the past decade working with directors like David Cronenberg, Claire Denis and the Safdie brothers on smaller, artier films. It didn’t appear you were on a trajectory toward a comic-book movie. So what grabbed you about the proposition here?
Pattinson: Even like five years ago, I was the last person I would think would be cast as Batman. I’m never normally in consideration for superhero parts at all. Usually [in those roles] you’re either a total unknown or someone who just, I don’t know, seems more obvious.
I don’t understand what it was about Batman, but I got really fixated on it and kept pushing my agent about it. I loved Matt’s work on the “Planet of the Apes” movies so much, and a lot of Matt’s work. and I was thinking, if you can get that performance out of a monkey … . [laughs] Then I met Matt and just he had such an interesting take on the character, and it just felt very different and kind of dangerous. It felt like a big, big mountain to climb.
Reeves: Because of all those movies you mentioned, I thought Rob might not be interested in being on that [superhero casting] list. But for some reason, in my mind, it was Rob. From the work I had seen him doing, I just was like, ‘Wow, he’s such a chameleon.’ Specifically in the Safdie brothers movie [“Good Time”], there was a kind of desperation and drive and also a vulnerability that I thought was very Batman, and I thought that mix was so powerful.
Given all the previous iterations of the character in movies, TV, video games and comics, what were your initial thoughts about how you could approach Batman in a way that felt fresh?
Pattinson: In our first meeting, Matt mentioned Kurt Cobain was one of the linchpins of the character. Just that put something in my head. There’s something about this kind of self-imposed torment that I always found really interesting and also inheriting a life that you’re not entirely sure you want but also feel like you cannot give up at all. I remember we also talked a lot about Michael Corleone.
Reeves: One of the great things about Batman is, because he doesn’t have any superpowers, it’s extremely psychological. He’s really doing this as a way of coping, because something happened to him [in his childhood] that he’s never gotten over. He’s exorcising these demons night after night after night.
He is a character who essentially is stunted. He’s sort of stuck emotionally at being 10 years old, and that’s exacerbated by the fact that he has this safety net of being incredibly rich. But he chooses to do this very brave, daring, reckless, almost suicidal thing, trying make meaning out of his life by going out and taking the law into his own hands.
This is a three-hour movie with dark, adult themes and an intricate plot that requires close attention. Are you confident that the comic-book genre as we’ve come to know it has evolved to the point that audiences will embrace a movie like this?
Reeves: There‘s a point with these kinds of movies where you have to put them in front of an audience to know whether or not they work. And I remember I had to show the head of the studio, [Warner Bros. Chairman] Toby Emmerich, the first cut of the movie in front of a test audience. I wasn’t anywhere near done with the cut, and it was much longer than it is now. And I thought, “This is suicide. This is the moment where it becomes clear that the idea of challenging an audience in this way is insane.” And they loved it.
The one thing I felt in the beginning was there was no way we could make a Batman movie that felt like it was just another Batman movie. We had to fulfill the things people expect from it: you know, the Batmobile chase and all those things that get a tremendous response. But it was incumbent upon us to do something different. And I was really excited that the test audiences actually really loved the parts of the film that they didn’t expect. So in that sense I am confident.
Any big movie is challenging, but here you were making this brooding, Kurt Cobain-inspired take on Batman, shooting often at night and in the rain, in the midst of a global pandemic. At one point, the production had to shut down because Rob contracted COVID. I have to ask, were you actually having any fun?
Pattinson: There’s a weird pleasure to spending long amounts of time in the suit and in the dark. You’re quite sealed off from everybody else when you’re inside the cowl, and it’s quite meditative. You’re alone a lot of the time. No one is chatting with you because you’ve got the mask on and you can’t hear. It allows you to slip into this quite Zen state.
There was so much chaos going on in real life every single day, as soon as you got out of that studio and looked at your phone, you had to really silence a lot of that stuff to even focus on what you were doing in the first place. The same as Bruce putting on the suit, you go into this kind of strangely simplistic state where you can really just focus on one thing. You’re just thinking, “If there’s still a world after we finish this movie there’s still going to be Batman fans in it, so you’d better not mess this up.”
The fictional world of Batman has always been rife with violence and corruption. But over the five years you spent working on this film, the real world has felt increasingly chaotic, fractured and out of control. Did all of that feed into your conception of Gotham?
Reeves: I started working on the script in 2017, so it was a long time ago. There were real events I was thinking of, but it was like Watergate. I thought the idea of doing a film that was kind of like “All the President’s Men,” where there was a conspiracy that went all the way to the top of the city, was exciting.
The whole idea was to make Gotham a heightened version. Then as we were making the movie, there was so much going on in the world that there were moments where the world felt more heightened than Gotham. And we thought, “Wow, is this movie going to be too light?” [laughs]
I remember shooting the scene where Jayme Lawson [who plays a Gotham mayoral candidate] is giving that speech about how we need to rebuild not just our city but our faith in institutions and each other. At that moment, these things just suddenly seemed to resonate in a way that I never intended that directly.
AMC on Tuesday introduced the idea of variable ticket pricing for movies, an established practice in Europe.
The stakes for this movie would already be enormous, but it’s being released two years into a pandemic that has wreaked havoc on the movie business and put the future of the big-screen experience in doubt. Does that raise the pressure even higher on this film to prove that movies still matter?
Reeves: For sure it does. It is absolutely an existential situation. If you look back even five years at the movie business, it’s just radically different. When I first started my career, the movies that were being made were so different in so many ways. Now there are all these huge questions: What’s going to work on the big screen? What’s going to be in the streaming space? Will there even be a theatrical experience?
This movie was made as an immersive big-screen experience. It was meant to put you into a subjective experience — a propulsive experience, a psychological experience — that really is meant to overwhelm you. So it absolutely would not be, and will not be, the same on streaming. I really hope that we are one of the movies that can prove that there still is a viable theatrical film business.
Hopefully when the pandemic starts to recede even more, then it won’t feel so existential. There is a sense that maybe we’re starting to be on the back side of it, and “Spider-Man” and “Venom” and other superhero movies working is very encouraging for us. But at the moment, it does. You want to believe that that big-screen experience, which was the reason we wanted to make movies in the first place, is still going to exist.
Pattinson: Every movie is a complete gamble, every single time. But it’s an entirely different thing when no one cares or knows what you’re doing and you need to drum up interest. When people are expecting something, there’s definitely some trepidation. It feels like you’re going into the ring. You’re going into the Colosseum.
Robert Pattinson leads the cast of director Matt Reeves’ take on DC Comics superhero Batman, also starring Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano and Colin Farrell.
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