Robert Pattinson made his first big impression on me as Cedric Diggory, a Hufflepuff Seeker, in the 2005 blockbuster Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Although the young wizard met an untimely fate, Diggory remains one of the franchise’s most celebrated heroes. Pattinson, with his trademark quiet introspection, perfectly captured J.K. Rowling’s humble yet charismatic Triwizard Tournament champion. Even so, the path to playing Diggory—Pattinson’s first major role—included missing out on another big screen debut. In a 2017 interview with W, Pattinson confessed that his part as Reese Witherspoon’s son in 2004's Vanity Fair ended up being cut from the film, but he wasn’t informed until he showed up at the screening. The casting director felt so guilty that she basically handed him Harry Potter. Pattinson botched his next big film opportunity—another role he admitted was his for the taking—by blowing his audition. Then Twilight came around, and, as he says, there was nothing to lose.
Last week, news leaked that Pattinson is in negotiations to play the Caped Crusader lead in the forthcoming solo relaunch of The Batman, a role previously portrayed by Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, and, most recently, Ben Affleck—it’s one of Hollywood’s most coveted and famously scrutinized roles. Some moviegoers clearly missed Pattinson’s career progression and still connect him to his Twilight fame, because given the strong reaction to the casting, fans and critics cannot conceive of a sparkly vampire playing an iconic character like Batman. There’s even one of those well-meaning but fruitless petitions calling to have Pattinson removed from the lead role. With all due respect, these people are maniacs.
Pattinson’s signature introspection and personality, a dark moodiness coupled with unexpected charm, carried through in each of his roles, emulates Bruce Wayne to a tee. I’m the first to admit that for several years after the Twilight series wrapped, I had a difficult time envisioning Pattinson playing any other character, let alone an adult one that didn’t reek of magic or the paranormal. Then, in 2014, I witnessed him transform from a young actor, still unsure of his footing, to a more mature, and versatile, version of himself as Rey in the Australian dystopian drama The Rover, which explores the fallout after the collapse of society. There, Pattinson captured the internal struggle of a man fraught with emotional difficulties and codependency. In a 2014 interview, director David Michôd revealed, “I thought he was going to be some kind of teen-heartthrob franchise guy, and he was not what I was expecting.”
Healthy skepticism is a comic book staple, of course, and Pattinson isn’t the first actor to face scrutiny from Batman fans and critics. After Adam West gave Bruce Wayne the camp treatment in the 1960s, Michael Keaton stepped into the oversized boots and faced immediate controversy with 1989's Batman. Fans felt Keaton was too weird and scrawny to take on the role and blasted Warner Bros. with angry letters. When Val Kilmer put on the cape and cowl in 1995, he had the ice-cold charisma and physical presence to pull off a convincing superhero, but fans were, again, immediately skeptical and had a temper tantrum after his dark and nearly comatose performance. George Clooney didn’t fare much better, admitting that he completely screwed up the role in 1997's Batman & Robin. Again when Ben Affleck landed the role of Batman, the joke was that Affleck would infect Gotham with a Boston accent.
Pattinson stole hearts and caused a few million eyes to roll when Twilight hit theaters. But during the filming of the five movies, which spanned from 2008 to 2012, he did accomplish a few other things: he surprised audiences as Tyler Hawkins in Remember Me (2010), a heartbreaking drama about 9/11, and Jacob Jankowski in Water for Elephants (2011), a romance in which a veterinary student finds love in a circus performer. Both parts had shades of Pattinson’s reserved personality, yet he took some risks in his delivery. It’s easy to emotionally invest in his characters, thanks to his gift for pathos. If it wasn’t for the overbearing storylines, I would have walked away still attached to the fate of Hawkins and Jankowski. Pattinson brought a deep sense of humanity and heartfelt compassion to both roles, but maybe that wasn’t quite enough to separate the man from the immortal.
After a short lull in screen time, he starred in the indie films Good Time (2017) and High Life (2018), and there’s also premature buzz for his portrayal of Ephraim Winslow, a psychologically unraveled lighthouse wicky in the upcoming thriller hybrid The Lighthouse. Scorn of the Twilight renegade be damned. Pattinson has never held back about his own distaste for the young-adult franchise, although he has recently softened his stance calling it a cool “retro thing.”
Although his film choices have sometimes hinged on paradoxical, Pattinson appears to have taken a methodical approach in honing his acting chops—opting for interesting, albeit lesser known roles, over those in widely distributed blockbusters. It’s possible these obscure parts gave him more creative freedom and liberty over character development, which, in turn, pushed him beyond his comfort zone and made him a better actor. Those still hung up on his franchise days need to let it go. Batman is brooding, complex, and highly introverted. Pattinson has a skill for playing broken and hardened characters. As noted, he exhibits the ideal combination of moodiness and angst to capture the cowl of Bruce Wayne. Pattinson has made awkward darkness his trademark. But he could also bring the instant charm and mystique fans expect in anyone portraying their beloved Dark Knight. If you associate Pattinson only with Twilight, go watch The Rover.
Crystal Ponti (@CrystalPonti) is a freelance journalist and host of the history podcasts Historium Unearthia and Frenzy, premiering this summer.