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Whatever Will Happen to the Caped Crusader? Thoughts on Batman After Nolan…

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

So, what now?

Christopher Nolan has rounded out his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises, tying up and resolving the arc he set up for Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins almost a decade ago. It has been a long and rewarding journey. I certainly think that Nolan’s accomplishments here deserve to be compared to other truly exceptional pop culture trilogies like The Lord of the Rings or even Star Wars. He told a complete story for the character, from the beginning through to the end. So, a week after he released the final part of his trilogy, people are wondering: what now? How do you follow a series of Batman movies like that? What next for the Dark Knight and Warner Brothers?

Speaking for myself, I can only hope that it’s something completely different.

Out of Nolan’s land…

Personally, I wouldn’t mind getting a little bit of a break from Batman on the big screen. The character has had a near ubiquitous pop culture presence since the sixties, with Adam West’s Batman!, but he’s been especially pronounced since Tim Burton’s Batman in the late eighties. There’s always been several iterations of the character across popular media, and I wouldn’t mind if Warner Brothers were to leave the character fallow for a number of years, waiting for a truly exceptional idea to revive the franchise in the hands of another creator. It was, after all, eight years between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins.

Of course, there are reasons why it’s unlikely to be another eight years before we see the Caped Crusader return to the silver screen. At the risk of being brutally frank, it seems like he’s the only DC character that Warner Brothers understand. There was a rumour that the as-yet-untitled Batman Reboots would appear in cinemas in 2014, two years after The Dark Knight Rises. Thinking about that is actually a little terrifying. After all, it would mean that there would be a longer turnaround between each of Nolan’s three films than between his last film and the reboot. It’s hardly reassuring.

The hero we deserve, but not the one we need right now…

While that date appears to have shifted into at least 2015, there’s still a sense that there’s more big screen Batman just over the horizon. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine the inevitable Justice League movie not heavily featuring the character. So it seems that Batman will be around in perpetuity. The only real question is in what form he might appear. After all, Christopher Nolan has stated in no uncertain terms that he will not – in any way – be involved in the reboot, whether as writer or producer.

It’s understandable that Warners might want to try to continue Nolan’s take. After all, two films in the trilogy earned the third- and fourth-largest openings of all-time (and the first- and second-largest non-3D openings). Nolan’s take on the character has become iconic, and rightly so. I think that Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises form the purest and most distilled version of the Caped Crusader ever seen. Virtually every big idea about the character has somehow been condensed to fit within the trilogy.

How long before Batman Begins again…

So there’s the question of whether the studio might try to continue the films directly. Certainly, some would argue, the ending leaves the possibility open for another actor in the cowl. I’m not convinced that Warners would seriously consider the idea. In purely practical terms, while this move would allow them to do the film without Bale, Nolan or Caine, I can’t see Warners readily convincing Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy and (most importantly) Gary Oldman to sign on to a non-Nolan project. Recasting key roles like that seems like a waste – especially since the actor in the cowl, while fantastic, is hardly a bona fides movie star.

However, more than that, I think that Nolan’s ending isan ending. The last shot suggests that Batman might continue, but that’s the climax of the story – the notion that Batman is truly bigger than one man. That’s not a lead-in to a series of films, it’s the full stop at the end of one. While I’m not convinced that a bad film can retroactively ruin its predecessors, I do think that Warners should make a sincere effort to respect Nolan’s artistic intent. His story has ended.

Police let the next director put his own stamp on the series…

Even if the studio decides to follow Nolan’s trilogy in terms of theme (rather than continuing his story), I’m still not convinced that this is a smart approach. Nolan redefined comic book movies, and produced the three best examples of the genre. It’s tempting to want to capture that success. However, Nolan didn’t redefine the genre by slavish emulating earlier directors. He crafted these unique films by approaching them with his own creative vision. Trying to discern the exact recipe for a successful Batman movie based of Nolan’s ingredients feels a little shallow and superficial.

Nolan produced the best Batman films not because he rigidly adhered to a set number of character conventions or a particular world view, but because he was allowed to tell the kind of stories that he wanted to tell. To argue that The Dark Knight was only so successful because it was “grounded” or “realistic” misses the point. It worked because Nolan was allowed to tell the best Batmanstory he had in him in a way that played his strengths as both a writer and a director.

It’d take some Joker to ignore Nolan’s advice…

Nolan himself, who comes across very polite and considered in interviews, has even made this argument himself, arguing (in a manner that avoids being egocentric) that his successor should not feel confined by his take:

The only advice I would have is… when I first met with Paul Levitz of DC prior to Batman Begins, he explained to me very clearly that Batman, of all superheroes, has thrived on reinterpretation and almost being strengthened by it.

I’m talking obviously about over the years in the comic books but then also through the movies. So when the time is right, when somebody does whatever the next iteration of the character is, they simply need to be true to what they really want to see, do something they believe in, not worry too much about what everyone else is telling them it should be.

That makes Nolan sound like a bit of a class act. I’d also argue that the fact a “clean slate” plays such a crucial part within The Dark Knight Risesillustrates that the director believes that his take on Batman should not become something that burdens later iterations of the character.

Don’t be scared to try something different…

“I’m whatever Gotham needs me to be,” Batman boasts to Gordon at the climax of The Dark Knight, and you could make the case that Batman is also whatever popular culture needs him to be. I’ve dedicated the last month to exploring the character and there are countless takes on him. Some work better than others, but Batman’s strength is his ability to adapt to the world around him. Christopher Nolan turned him into a mirror reflecting the modern world. Tim Burton portrayed a character as emotionally alien as Superman is literally alien. Adam West portrayed a law-and-order rock-and-roll superstar.

That’s before we dive into the comics where Batman has been gritty pulp hero, camp crusader, noir protagonist, time traveller, grumpy old man, vampire, heart-broken socially-isolated manchild, paranoid loner, action adventurer and many things at the same time. Personally, I’d adore a radically different take on Batman in the next few years, something a bit more out there. Although it would never happen, I would adore a version of Grant Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne, where the character travels through time, reincarnated repeatedly in Gotham, literally constructing his own legend as he goes. (Think of it as Cloud Atlasbut with Batman.) Such a film would never be made, but it would certainly make for a massive pallet cleanser.

Find a new approach that suits…

Batman is a survivor. He’s a pop culture icon who has thrived on his ability to be whatever pop culture needs him to be. I think that any solid adaptation of Batman needs to respect that. And I think that any fitting successor to Nolan’s trilogy needs to respect the director and the character enough to go their own direction with the material.

12 Responses

  1. You’ve had a great run with this arc of Batman post for this month, Darren. Extremely well done. And I’d agree, though we know WB won’t do it, that Batman deserves a break, but even more so, a completely different direction to take this iconic character. Daniel over at PG Cooper in Parts 1 and 2 had some interesting ideas for this, too. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks. And those are good articles. I was actually thinking about covering Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, even though I don’t normally review games. I think they’re actually a fantastic adaptation of Batman. Perhaps they lack the clear structure of Nolan’s universe, and I think they do over-emphasise certain aspects of the character, but they demonstrate the incredible vast and rich structure of the world he inhabits. I think Batman is easily one of the most compelling characters in popular culture on his own terms, but I think the world around that just deepens him. No superhero has a supporting cast as strong as Gordon and Alfred. Or a local as defined and evocative as Gotham. Only Spider-Man can come close to the quality of foes that face Batman.

  2. I agree that a rebooted series needs to stand on its own creatively as well as plot-wise, meaning that just like Tim Burton’s films and Joel Schumacher’s films existed in worlds completely different than Nolan’s, the next phase should be different yet again–and that will be hard to do. Maybe make it a period piece set in the ’30s to be true to the character’s origins, so his gadgets will have to be adapted to that time period rather than be modern. But yes, a filmmaker needs to be at the helm who can impart his unique vision.

    If WB decides to continue Nolan’s universe with a spin-off movie featuring John Blake, it is entirely possible to make a completely different movie set within the same setting. Blake (would he be Robin or Nightwing?) would not have the same resources as Bruce Wayne did–he can’t even live at Wayne Manor from the Batcave since the mansion has been turned into an orphanage. He would not be in the same league as Batman since he can’t buy all those wonderful toys. There would be no connection to Wayne Enterprises or Lucius Fox. It could also be written in that Gordon retired from being Commissioner. This cleans the slate, allowing a whole new slew of characters. How would Blake be able to handle his costumed crime fighting without Wayne’s support system? What villains would he face? Ones from the Batman comic book series or original ones? This could be compelling if done right.

    Regarding Batman himself, I also agree with you that they should allow the character to lay low for a few years and let the audience grow to miss him. This worked well for “Star Trek” (something I thought they should have done years before Paramount was forced into it with the failure of “Nemesis” and “Enterprise”). Or do a live-action TV series that explores the Dark Knight mythology in a new manner.

    If a Justice League movie actually gets off the ground, this would be a good way to introduce a new Batman unconnected with any previous mythology. He can return to the darkness and be mysterious without the filmmakers having to worry about his backstory. Everyone knows who Batman is–let’s just see him in action.

    Personally, I think the next set of Batman film, whoever is at the helm, should seriously explore the whole Bat family. We’ve yet to see a good version of Robin, and despite what some have said, it can be done. Can we see Dick Grayson’s evolution from orphaned acrobat to vengeful sidekick to a hero in his own right as Nightwing? Can we see a non-valley girl Batgirl (let’s return to having her be Barbara Gordon, please) who infuses herself into Batman’s crimefighting? Can we see other variations of Robin, like the ill-fated Jason Todd or the very young Tim Drake? How does Bruce Wayne dealing with being a father figure and mentor? We’ve seen his arc in dealing with the death of his parents…to death. Okay, so that’s how he became Batman. Is it still a story that needs to be told? Is it still relevant in future stories? What about Alfred? Can his past be explored in a way that ties in to the plots in a meaningful way?

    Lest we forget about the villains, it would be great to see a stand-alone Riddler story (without the nonsense about stealing brainwaves from the citizens of Gotham), and how would a more realistic Penguin fare? If we return to a more fantasy-like tone, that will allow characters like Mad Hatter, Harley Quinn, Man-bat, Clayface, the Ventriloquist (and Scarface) and an accurate version of Scarecrow to be featured (nothing against Cilian Murphy’s fun performance).

    There is still a lot of material to be mined from the Cape Crusader if handled well. My fear is that they’ll go in completely the opposite direction from Nolan’s movies and be campy and comedic–or worse, try to emulate Nolan’s vision but handle it poorly.

    • You offer some very good ideas there, Jamie. Now, if we could only get yours or Darren’s (or Daniel’s) knowledgeable ideas up to the folks at WB, I think we’d be in great hands. Of course, the studio execs could go looking for this century’s Joel Schumacher (one they’d have total domain over), and we’d be screwed… once again.

    • Very good points.

      That said, I would argue that Cillain Murphy’s Scarecrow is actually my favourite iteration of the character, if only because he’s one of the few characters in Nolan’s Batman films I could see existing with any version of the Caped Crusader. I could see Murphy’s Scarecrow organising a death trap for Adam West, chewing scenery in Burton’s Gotham or even being sinister in The Animated Series. (I also love the fact that he’s the first Batman villain to appear in three consecutive theatrical Batman films.)

      On the subject of other media, I actually think a live action version of Gotham Central would be the bomb. Basically Law & Order: Gotham, with cops dealing with things like stumbling across the Scarecrow’s lab, or getting caught in the crossfire between the Joker and a (rarely seen) Batman. (I think it could also look reasonably good on a limited budget, unlike a straight-up live-action Batman television show.)

  3. I think letting the series lay fallow for 8 years would be ideal. Minimum 6 or 7. I think a more fantastical Batman with supernatural elements would be an interesting take. Killer Kroc, Clay Face, and Solomon Grundy would all be interesting to see. At the same time, I wouldn’t want the fantastical elements to lead to campyness. I feel like the new series would inevitably end up like the Burton/Schumacher films.

    I actually think the “story” of Arkham Asylum/City was a little overrated. They’re fun games but video game narratives are pretty different from film narratives. I don’t think what they did would come anywhere close to working in a film.

    • I agree with the stories. There’s very much an element of “we have to fit in [concept] here!” I think the world itself is beautiful, and the villains are all integrated into the sorroundings very well. (Two-Face and Penguin as gangbosses, the Mad Hatter as a wimp trying not to be eaten alive, Deadshot as an assassin prowling the rooftops, Bane as a character pursuing his own interests, Ivy detached from it all, Azrael watching from the shadows.) The problem is, I think, that the plot has to contort to fit everything in. I think it does a great job handling a nigh-impossible task, but it’s just a little bit clunky.

      (Also, the climax hinges on Batman kinda not caring about the people of Gotham and more preoccupied on the fate of Talia. I get what Dini was trying to do, mirror the sadistic choice at the heart of The Dark Knight, but those stakes are too high. Bruce would save the city, while still feeling immensely guilty. The moment Alfred has to forceably put Bruce’s head “back in the game” feels a little too weird for me. Although I do like that the ending is pretty much the ultimate Batman mindscrew: you work all night to save these people, and then you listen as most of it turns out to be for nothing – climbing the tower as the helicopters slaughter with impunity.)

  4. I think the way forward is to do a stand-alone Batman story like Arkham Asylum. Something that isn’t connected to any other series but is just a brilliant Batman story.

    I also like the way that the animated films are going, creating movies directly from the comics. Maybe WB should just stick with animation for now and leave the live action for a while.

    • I don’t know. I don’t think a story has to be based on a particular comic. Nolan did well drawing from multiple sources but doing his own thing with them. Although I do agree that Warners’ animated films are consistently high quality.

  5. You commonly defend Adam Wests Batman on the grounds of reinterpretation. But if you were to ask IN ALL HONESTY why someone nowadays likes Batman, they would straight up say it is because he’s darker. And now that the next Batman is essentially Frank Miller’s brought to the screen, I can say that is definitely the appeal. I mean his name is “BAT”man.

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