Recently, our new Batman and all-round chaos machine Robert Pattinson gave an interview to GQ Magazine detailing his coronavirus lockdown exploits. In-between blowing up microwaves with his revolutionary new pasta idea and some semi-trolling details on his upcoming part in Christopher Nolan's Tenet, the focus inevitably fell on his future role as Bruce Wayne himself. Pattinson was partway through production on Matt Reeves' The Batman when the current pandemic forced shooting to shut down indefinitely, leaving Pattinson in a London apartment with his girlfriend, some microwaves he thinks are ovens, and a few pieces of workout equipment. Pattinson admits in the interview that he hasn't been working out constantly since lockdown started, despite his studio-hired personal trainer's pleas. "I think if you're working out all the time, you're part of the problem," he said. "You set a precedent. No one was doing this in the '70s. Even James Dean — he wasn't exactly ripped."
Despite the sheer madness of the rest of the interview (seriously, the f**king pasta!), it was this point that seemed to anger many Batman fans. Pattinson was accused of not taking the role seriously and of dishonoring the cinematic legacy of Gotham's finest. Some fans seemed genuinely aggrieved by the mere possibility of a Batman who lacked sharply defined abs and a tree trunk-sized muscled neck. How could Bruce not have the body of a Greek god, they said? His supposed refusal to fully commit to the physical requirements of the role was compared to the lengths that Joaquin Phoenix went to when he played the Joker, dropping over 50 pounds to become a near-skeletal shadow of his normal self. Frankly, it all seemed a tad overblown given that Pattinson is a notorious troll in interviews and, given that we're all suffering under a literal pandemic, the idea of him taking a few weeks off from his grueling fitness regime doesn't seem entirely unreasonable (honey, we're all in that boat right now). Still, the outcry sparked some interesting conversations on what it is that we expect — not just from Pattinson, but from all men who sign on to star in these lavish nine-figure superhero blockbuster titles.
Cinema, and indeed society as a whole, has never been great about allowing more than a handful of body types to shine. Historically, we have been taught to associate specific types with personality traits: Fatness is depicted as a sign of greed and laziness; short men are frequently shown as possessing an inferiority complex; women of color are overly-sexualized regardless of their body shape or clothing choices; and so on. Some bodies are 'heroic' while others are anything but. There's a reason that you don't see a whole lot of superheroes with beer bellies or even simply regular bodies that aren't muscled to the high heavens. This is one of the reasons that Thor's slacker dude look in Avengers: Endgame ended up feeling so radical, even if the execution stumbled thanks to an over-reliance on yet another "fat equals funny" trope.
This phenomenon is hardly anything new (see every shirtless action dude not named John McClane in '80s cinema), but since superhero cinema became the most forceful foundation of Hollywood, we've seen it evolve into a more prevailing force. Even J.K. Simmons had to get cut to be Commissioner Gordon in Justice League. It's gotten to the point where everyone now seems just a little too big, as if they have become Rob Liefeld drawings. Ben Affleck in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is so immense in his bulk that it looks genuinely uncomfortable to be him. Chris Hemsworth became noticeably leaner between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok after looking just a smidgen too big. Jared Leto's Joker had the body of an Instagram model, a suggestion that felt utterly at odds with the character (can you imagine a version of the Joker who's always on time to his Crossfit sessions?).It's all gotten very boring, to be honest. It's a limiting experience of masculinity that has permeated every aspect of pop culture in a thoroughly dull manner, all while perpetuating ideas about our bodies and the inherent expectations that do none of us any favors.
So, why not let Pattinson change the game? Why not let his Batman be skinner or do away entirely with the defined abs? I'm not suggesting that he needs to go full Adam West with the paunch or anything — although that would be genuinely fascinating — but why not let our smothering constraints of cinematic maleness expand just a little bit? Bodies are deceptive. It is possible to be fat and healthy, to be skinny and unhealthy. You can have the defined muscles and bronzed skin of a Greek statue and that will tell the world nothing about what's going on under the skin, much less the state of one's mental and emotional health. These assumptions are exacerbated when pop culture makes them gospel. Heroes have to look a certain way or they're not heroic. Being muscle-free or fat or inhabiting a body that in any way is deemed unruly by the masses is not. You don't get to be the hero there. You're the schlubby comedy side-kick or the corpulent villain or the greasy tech-nerd who nobody likes. If you're a woman, then you're essentially too ugly to live and become that most terrifying of concepts in patriarchy — you're unf**kable.
Fans argue that Batman is supposed to embody peak physical condition and the obsessive nature of Bruce Wayne to be as effective a hero as he can be. That's certainly one interpretation of him, although someone better let Michael Keaton know that. The great thing about comic book lore is that there can be dozens, or even hundreds, of versions of the same character and they're all valid. Ben Affleck's mountain of muscle is Batman, as is Michael Keaton's lean playboy, as is Adam West's belly, as is whatever the future holds for us. It is not the body that makes the (bat)man, and Pattinson as a skinnier but no less agile athletic force would be right at home in this canon.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't mention that these options, or at least the illusion of them, are seldom, if ever, open to women. In the GQ piece, Pattinson admits that his co-star Zoe Kravitz, who is playing Catwoman, has been working out five days a week during the lockdown. It would be exciting to see Pattinson let it all hang out alongside his Batarang, but it's yet another reminder of how much harsher the standards are for actresses. Could you imagine the mouth-frothing frenzy we'd find ourselves in if they'd cast a plus-size woman as Selina?
The reality of the situation is that RBattz will most definitely be the kind of muscled caped bro that these fans want and expect him to be. Once the lockdown is over, Warner Bros. will have him back in the gym with the personal trainer who only lets him eat unseasoned grilled chicken breast and steamed broccoli. All this hubbub will have been for nothing, but those key questions remain. Why are we so insistent on centering drastic physical transformation as the be-all and end-all of acting, and why do we so fetishize the near-torturous process of attaining it? This isn't a notion reserved for the muscled, although you only have to read a few men's magazines to see how much these agonizing diets and workouts are deified as the masculine ideal. Pop culture is obsessed with celebrating the oft-dangerous ways that actors put their bodies through the wringer for a role, overlooking the bad precedent it sets and pushing it as the ultimate proof of dedication to their craft. Pattinson isn't wrong in wanting to break that cycle. After all, he's a good enough actor to not rely on anything else.