You know the scene: the Batman stands before a gang of skull-faced goons who think this weirdo in a costume is a joke. “Who the hell are you supposed to be?” asks their leader, who’s about to find out, one punch at a time, that Robert Pattinson’s unhinged, hyper-violent Dark Knight is no laughing matter.
“How it was initially staged was the guy says, ‘Who are you?’ And Batman says, ‘I’m vengeance,’ and then beats everybody up,” reveals a much friendlier Pattinson, who cracks up while explaining how he helped tweak the scene to make it even more horrifying. “I said to Rob [Alonzo, second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator], ‘I really want to say it into the guy’s face when he’s basically dead.’”
Savage beatings are one way this Batman wants to “spread around [his] mythology,” Pattinson tells Den of Geek by phone on a cold, gloomy day in January. “It’s not theatrical,” he says of the Dark Knight’s approach in the “vengeance” scene. “You just want someone to be terrified after it.”
Before Pattinson signed on to play the World’s Greatest Detective, Ben Affleck was set to direct and star in a very different Batman solo movie. But those plans didn’t pan out. Cloverfield and Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves was tapped to helm a new version of the project, but he faced the same conundrum as his predecessor: after so many iterations of the character on the big screen, what could Reeves do to make his take fresh?
Reeves, a lifelong Batman fan, found the answer in comics chronicling the character’s early days, including Year One, as well as in classic noir films, such as Chinatown, Taxi Driver, and The French Connection. The director envisioned The Batman as a noir detective story set outside of DCEU continuity, and it wouldn’t star Affleck’s seasoned, graying Dark Knight but a vigilante entering the second year of his crime-fighting career, someone who was past his origin story but still in the process of figuring things out.
“I didn’t want the arc to be ‘he becomes Batman and faces off with this particular rogues gallery character,’” Reeves explains. “I wanted you to see an imperfect Batman who would be driven to do what he’s doing in a way that was almost like a drug. He’s addicted to being Batman because it’s really an attempt to cope with those things in the past that we don’t see. I thought that was really fun to see a version of him that definitely hadn’t mastered himself, that was definitely in the process of becoming.”
To prepare for the role, Pattinson read nothing but Batman comics for months, even while shooting Christopher Nolan’s Tenet. A fan of Christian Bale and Michael Keaton’s portrayals of the character, Pattinson nevertheless planned to explore something new with his version. He found his way in through stories that took deep dives into the psychology of Bruce Wayne and the toll that being Batman had on his mental state.
“In the movies, Batman’s always been portrayed as quite practical, matter-of-fact, in the reasons why he becomes Batman, but in the comics, a lot of them are about quite esoteric subjects,” Pattinson says. “A lot of them he’s hallucinating and completely dissociating. That has not really been done so much in the movies.”
Gus Van Sant’s Last Days was one major inspiration for this take on Bruce Wayne, with Reeves comparing that movie’s fictionalized version of tragic ‘90s rock star Kurt Cobain to his Dark Knight. But there was an even bigger comic book influence: the late Darwyn Cooke’s trippy, supernatural Ego, which examines the deep divide within Bruce and the crisis of identity he constantly faces because of his Batman persona. In The Batman, Bruce has yet to learn how to balance his true self with the mask he’s supposed to wear as a billionaire playboy.
“The Bruce part of it in this movie is probably the most different because he’s a weirdo as Bruce and as Batman,” says Pattinson, who plays Wayne as a cold, slightly unkempt, recluse. “He’s fully committed to being Batman and he’s just not seen by the city at all… He has no desire to be Bruce in this and he wants to just throw it away. He thinks this is the way he can save himself, by living in this kind of Zen state as Batman, where it’s just pure instinct and no emotional baggage.”
This Bruce isn’t interested in keeping up appearances at all by day, as long as he can exact vengeance at night.
“Every single person he is fighting is the person who killed his parents,” Pattinson says of the motivation behind Bruce’s nightly activities. But he also thinks there’s a part of Bruce that just enjoys the violence. “You’re going out every night fighting. You have to like it to some degree.”
Pattinson’s Batman is indeed a brawler, and that meant the actor not only had to get into incredible shape but learn how to actually pull off the brutal moves the Dark Knight employs in the film. He spent a lot of time working with Alonzo to master the long series of combinations needed for the movie’s many combat sequences.
“We based everything around [an] Indonesian style of fighting where you have these two sticks, and it all was based around movements with weapons, and then you take away the weapons afterward,” Pattinson says.
But to actually perform these stunts, Pattinson needed a costume that offered more maneuverability and flexibility than past iterations of the Batsuit, such as the nightmarish, “boiling hot” Batman Forever costume he had to wear for his screen test. The Batman suit is a big improvement by comparison, according to the actor.
“I think I immediately started doing somersaults in it just because you could,” Pattinson says of the first time he put on a prototype of his costume. The actor was especially happy that he could move his neck in the suit, an issue that has plagued past actors in the role.
But the suit also had to fit the film’s “grounded” aesthetic. Since Pattinson’s Bruce doesn’t have a team helping him build all of his tech, his Batsuit had to look like something Bruce could make himself in the Batcave.
“[The costume designers] really looked at stuff from the Vietnam War, military tactical stuff that one guy could put together and allow him to fight better,” says producer Dylan Clark, who previously collaborated with Reeves on the Planet of the Apes films. This movie’s pared-down Batmobile, which Clark describes as a “muscle kit car,” needed to evoke the same DIY, grease monkey spirit as the rest of Pattinson’s Batcave.
With the Dark Knight’s look and story arc now in place, it was time to turn to the other pivotal part of any Batman story: the villains.
Riddles in the Dark
“It’s funny because I thought of Rob as I was writing,” says Reeves, who penned the script with Peter Craig (The Town). He was also thinking of Paul Dano while creating his version of the Riddler.
“[Paul] is such an inventive actor. He brought so much to the role,” Reeves says of Dano, who’s best known for playing outsiders or characters whose realities are slightly askew. “He and I are similar in a certain way in that our process is to go on a search.”
For Reeves, that search began with Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, in which a serial killer terrorizes Gotham and incites a mob war that even Batman’s deadliest rogues can’t escape. But there was an even more grotesque, real-world inspiration for this Riddler.
“When you look at the Zodiac Killer, who was leaving all of these ciphers and puzzles and taunting the police and the newspapers, I thought, ‘That sounds like the Riddler!’” Reeves says. “[Zodiac] made a costume that, frankly, isn’t so different from Batman. You have a guy who basically went around in a black hood, dressed in black, with an insignia on his chest. And it was utterly terrifying to think that somebody did that. And I thought, well, maybe there’s an iteration of the Riddler that does that.”
Like the Zodiac, Dano’s Riddler not only leaves puzzles at his crime scenes but also a pile of bodies, including that of now-former mayor Don Mitchell (Rupert Penry-Jones). But the villain, whose real name in the movie is Edward Nashton, isn’t just playing games with the Bat; he’s on a gruesome quest to reveal a dark secret about Gotham City itself.
“The crimes that the Riddler is committing, they’re all meant to describe a history of [Gotham],” Reeves explains, hinting that other members of the city’s elite are also on the Riddler’s list. “In the wake of each of these murders, he leaves information about these supposedly legitimate characters and shows you how they are illegitimate, and how they’re corrupt. And this story of corruption goes way back and actually becomes something that touches onto Bruce’s past and becomes very personal.”
According to Reeves, the Riddler digs up things about the history of the Wayne family that “brings an awakening” to Bruce and “shocks him to his core.”
The Cat and the Penguin
Batman and Riddler aren’t the only masked figures stalking the streets of Gotham. There’s also Selina Kyle, who is played by Zoë Kravitz. Like in the comics, Kravitz’s Catwoman is a master thief who blurs the line between villain and antihero.
“[Bruce] is committed so hard to Batman and this kind of really binary worldview,” Pattinson says of the inner conflict Wayne feels when faced with this new, morally gray ally. “There are only bad people and there’s only total innocence. There’s no one in between at all. And then Selina comes along and it throws this massive wrench in his worldview. He’s constantly trying to put her into the box of being a criminal. He’s just got this quite simplistic worldview about everything and meeting Selina is the first crack in it all falling apart.”
Alan J. Pakula’s neo-noir Klute heavily informed Bruce’s relationship with Selina, according to Pattinson and Reeves. That 1971 picture follows a straight-laced private detective played by Donald Sutherland who becomes infatuated with a call girl (Jane Fonda) tied up in the murder he’s investigating. The film earned Fonda her first Academy Award for Best Actress.
Reeves saw clear similarities between Sutherland and Fonda’s gritty, dangerous love affair and Bruce and Selina’s own dynamic: “Klute’s such a straight arrow and he seems so naïve. I think he judges her and he assumes because of the world she’s in that she is a certain kind of person. And yet he can’t help but be drawn to her and he can’t help but be affected by her. He’s putting himself above her only to discover that he’s deeply connected to her.”
In the most recent comics, Bruce and Selina are now married after decades of romantic tug-of-war and even have a child together. Pattinson and Kravitz aren’t quite there yet, but there could be a future for them.
“There’s that raw tension between them because they’re not aligned, but they’re interested in each other,” says Clark. “There’s just this great undeniable heat between them.”
But even three major villains aren’t enough for The Batman. After all, what’s a noir without some mobsters? John Turturro plays Carmine Falcone, who runs the biggest criminal empire in Gotham. It’s through him that we meet infamous gangster Oswald Cobblepot. In The Batman, Oz hasn’t quite yet become the Penguin we know and love.
“You have these great gangsters that would be in The Godfather or they’d be in Goodfellas,” Clark says of the film’s more traditional criminal element. “And we just loved the idea that Oz was this mid-level gangster working for Falcone and doing his side hustle.”
Oswald is played by an unrecognizable Colin Farrell, who dove right into the role.
“His behavior and personality changed once the prosthetics were applied,” says Clark, who absolutely loves what Farrell’s Oz brought to the movie. “He’s so delicious. He’s the most entertaining. He’s scary. He’s got menace, he’s got charm, he’s slightly unappealing, but he’s also weirdly handsome because he’s Colin Farrell deep down underneath there. So you’re like, Jesus Christ, this is a whole meal of a character.”
A disaster of almost Biblical proportions awaits Gotham in the form of a great flood. In one scene, we watch as Batman wades through the chest-deep water that covers the city streets, bright red flare in hand to cut through the darkness of his apocalyptic surroundings. It’s a moment inspired by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Zero Year, Reeves confirms. There are hints of other excellent Batman stories too, including ones that go all the way back to the Dark Knight’s debut in the 1930s.
“I looked at the Bob Kane/Bill Finger comics because I really wanted the movie to be very noir,” Reeves says. “I looked at the Neal Adams stuff and then I read a ton of the Scott Snyder run.”
Coincidentally, Pattinson mentions another Snyder and Capullo tale when asked which villains he wants to fight next in a potential sequel: “I’d love to do something like Court of Owls,” referring to the 2011 DC Comics horror story about a hidden society that’s secretly ruled Gotham from an underground lair for centuries. All of a sudden, Batman doesn’t know his city as well as he thinks he does.
It goes in line with something Pattinson says about his own Bruce, words that could predict where this Batman story might go next: “He thinks it’s his city in a weird sort of way. He thinks he’s kind of built it.” But Pattinson knows this is an illusion. “You’ve got the money and the castle, but you have absolutely no control or power over anything in the city.” In The Batman, Bruce has to learn that the hard way.
The Batman opens in theaters on March 4.