It is highly unlikely that anyone will ever win an Oscar for playing the caped crusader. Somehow, despite the remarkable enduring prominence of the dual role of Bruce Wayne and Gotham’s dark knight, the idea of honouring someone for being very very good indeed at dressing up as a giant bat to scare criminals probably has less chance of finding traction with the Academy than Uwe Boll has of coming out of retirement to win best film. The Joker? Well that’s another matter entirely.
But this does not mean that the pressure is off when portraying Batman, far from it. Pull on the cape and cowl, and audiences and critics will still be mulling over your performance three decades later, as Val Kilmer and George Clooney have learned to their cost. There is no such thing as a cheap pay cheque for a forgotten movie in the era of on-demand streaming video, Twitter and the fanboy blogosphere.
Fortunately for Robert Pattinson, he has signed on to make his debut in the upcoming The Batman at a very good time indeed. The British actor’s admission to GQ this week that he is not even working out in an effort to bulk up for the role of the gilded superhero might once have drawn mild criticism from knuckleheaded corners of the geek community, but now feeds into a continuing sense that Pattinson is setting himself up as the anti-Batfleck. Where Ben Affleck bulked up to ridiculous proportions to play a gun-toting, meat-headed mega-jock of a caped crusader, it is hoped Pattinson will represent a less showy and ultra-violent return to the dark knight’s traditional role of costumed Gotham detective in Matt Reeves’ film.
Pattinson also hinted that he has found his Batman “gap”, the natural space to craft a unique version of the superhero that we won’t have seen before on the big screen. “I kind of like the fact that not only are there very, very, very well-done versions of the character which seem pretty definitive, but I was thinking that there are multiple definitive playings of the character,” he said. “You’ve seen this sort of lighter version, you’ve seen a kind of jaded version, a kind of more animalistic version. And the puzzle of it becomes quite satisfying, to think: Where’s my opening? And also, do I have anything inside me which would work if I could do it? And then also, it’s a legacy part, right? I like that.”
While Pattinson may not have been hitting the gym, it sounds like he’s been preparing for the role in other ways, not least by examining quite where some of his predecessors went wrong. “I was watching the making of Batman & Robin the other day. And even then, George Clooney was saying that he was worried about the fact that it’s sort of been done, that a lot of the ground you should cover with the character has been already covered. And that’s in ’96, ’97?”
All of which brings us to another former Batman who has been reminiscing recently. If Kilmer wasn’t quite so terrible as Clooney in the famous suit, he certainly runs gorgeous George a close second. (We’ll excuse Affleck for now as his performances are still a little too recent to have received a final and definitive critical appraisal.) Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever is memorable these days largely for Jim Carrey’s spectacularly overcooked turn as The Riddler, a typical example of the comic’s ultra-manic early forays into Hollywood. Kilmer is utterly anonymous as Batman/Bruce Wayne, seemingly incapable of bringing anything to the role beyond the odd cheeseball one liner.
In an interview with the New York Times, the actor talks about his preference for character roles – he mentions his turn as Doc Holliday in Tombstone, and even says he would have loved to have been a regular on Saturday Night Live. By contrast, he found Batman to be an empty shell, a realisation crystallised when the grandchildren of billionaire Warren Buffet arrived on Schumacher’s set one day and were completely unimpressed at the sight of Kilmer in full costume, yet fascinated by the Batmobile and the caped crusader’s other toys.
“That’s why it’s so easy to have five or six Batmans,” Kilmer told the newspaper, suggesting that anyone could be in the suit. “It’s not about Batman. There is no Batman.”
The comment makes sense to those of us who recall Kilmer’s supporting turns over the years with such pleasure. His turn as the irascible, ultra-violent Gay Perry in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang turned the tough guy private eye cliche beautifully on its head, while his sweaty, cold-eyed Doc Halliday was a thing of jaded splendour. It’s easy to see how Kilmer felt his talents were being wasted behind a mask. And yet the idea that there is nothing in Batman to create a memorable performance from seems undercut by Pattinson’s determination to find something in the role to value. Perhaps, rather than an empty carapace, the dark knight is a blank canvas on which to paint one’s own ideas.
Christian Bale, widely considered to be the best big-screen Batman, has admitted to being devastated when he found out that Affleck was taking the role. Director Christopher Nolan certainly played his part by delivering an intriguing, real world spin on Gotham in the Dark Knight trilogy, but the Wales-born actor responded with a nuanced, psychologically driven take on the caped crusader that stands in complete contrast to the one-dimensional figure of the Schumacher era.
Where Kilmer opted out of returning as the caped crusader in 1997’s Batman & Robin because he wanted to do some “real” acting with Marlon Brando in the ill-fated The Island of Doctor Moreau, Bale helped transform the superhero genre into a space where high-profile actors no longer dare to phone in their performances. Pattinson will surely take his cue from the latter – honourable mention should also go to the excellent Michael Keaton – though it is a pity Kilmer’s time in the A-list came before the comic book movie really found its feet. He would have made a splendid Batman villain.