Whatever Next For The Caped Crusader?
When it was announced in 2003 that Batman would return to the big screen, the news was not initially welcomed with open arms. Indeed before Batman Begins was even released, the whole concept of a new Batman film was met with a reception frostier than Mr Freeze’s welcome mat, and justifiably so. After all, even eight years later could anybody have truly escaped the nightmarish pain of Joel Schumacher’s turd that was 1997’s Batman & Robin? A conversation about why that film and Batman Forever were pants would be ended by one basic fact: neither of them felt like Batman comic books. The recent spate of comic films, particularly the Iron Man trilogy, Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class showed us how well the comic book world can transfer to cinema. They were smartly written, they looked fictional-but-just-realistic-enough, and above all they captured the heroes’ and villains’ motivations and personalities. It will be very difficult for a new Batman director to distance their work from Nolan’s trilogy, and as such this article will not to focus on the pros and cons of those films. With the trilogy over and Man of Steel picking up supersonic pace however, Hollywood will inevitably return to the Batman franchise very soon.
When it comes to cinematic adaptations of literature, the filmmaker always treads a fine line: do they stay rigorously faithful to the work and maintain its values, like Kubrick did with the right horrorshow A Clockwork Orange? Or do they diverge to such an extent that the source material and its meaning is smothered, a la Baz Luhrmann’s lacklustre The Great Gatsby? As with any text that is revered by its fans, adapting it for cinema is a process that should always keep in mind what the reaction of those fans will be upon seeing their beloved characters and locations realised. When it comes to adapting comic books, a genre with an enormous and highly devoted fanbase, one of the biggest obstacles a director faces is ensuring that the fantastical and sometimes ludicrous elements of a comic – superpowers, extraterrestrials, magic rings – translate onto film in such a way that the audience feels engaged and emotionally attached to the characters they hold so dear. Thor is a good example, because he was stripped of his God-like powers, and in turn developed a strong empathy with the human characters. This was crucial in showing the audience that comic-book heroes can show strength, even when they are at their weakest.
What a new Batman film must do is depict the eponymous hero as the dangerous winged avenger we all love, but one who remains, ultimately, just a man. This human side of Batman’s legend was something that Nolan touched on, and whatever you thought of The Dark Knight Rises, good or bad, it’s hard to deny that seeing him broken by the unintelligible Bane was a stark reminder that Batman is not superpowered like his cohorts but remains mere flesh and blood, just like the audience. Now, this gritty realism of Nolan’s films was a big divergence from the previous Batman offerings, even Tim Burton’s excellent Batman and Batman Returns (more on these later), and took the hero down a realism route that echoed the Bourne films and most recent James Bonds, particularly Casino Royale. An issue that will be hotly debated is whether the decision is made to take Batman back to basics or not. It is fair to say that people are pretty tired of reboots and ‘origin’ stories by now. 2012’s The Amazing Spiderman springs to mind, because it felt like a restart that was entirely unnecessary. It came far too soon after Sam Raimi had showed us how Peter Parker became Spiderman, and effectively re-painted the same story elements that every avid comic reader knew already.
In terms of rebooting Batman, Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma, much like Peter Parker’s, is already well established and has been touched upon in just about every Batman film since 1989. It is unlikely then that a filmmaker would force upon us yet another re-hash of a story where a kid sees his parents murdered, and subsequently dresses up as a flying rodent. Okay, so given the incredibly camp flourish and bat-nipples that temporarily ended the Batman franchise in 1997, Batman Begins was a much-needed reboot that reminded everyone of the darkness within Batman’s soul, and of the raging anger that drove him to take his fight to the criminals. But now that everyone remembers where The Dark Knight came from, surely it is time to throw him in at the deep end as a fully established hero of Gotham equipped with all his high-tech gadgetry, facing down his Rogue’s Gallery for the city’s soul. This is where the comic book element should be implemented. Sure it was cool watching Christian Bale exploit his company for a six-wheeled monster tank, but now the fans want to see Batman operating at near-superhuman levels of strength and stamina, taking out a room full of thugs with his little toe. An adaption of the surprisingly good Batman Beyond TV series, in which an aged Bruce Wayne passes on the cowl to brash youth Terry McGuinness, would bring with it a futuristic Gotham and a batsuit that can actually fly. As such it’s unlikely that the wider audience are ready for a Batman who is not Bruce Wayne, and who does not exist in a world that they can relate to.
If a director wants to ensure that a Batman film feels like a comic book, then they would have to look to Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns for inspiration. What made these films so great was that they had a pitch-black tone that reflected both the darkness within Batman, and the bat-guano craziness of his Rogue’s Gallery. Remember how psychotic Jack Nicholson’s Joker was? That guy acted exactly as you would expect the Joker of comics to act – he liked pranks, he dressed flamboyantly, and he loved to murder innocent people with a seemingly-harmless balloon parade. You can debate Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s’ Jokers all you like (I’m not touching that argument with a ten-foot stick of dynamite), the point here is that Burton focused on portraying Batman and his enemies as a part of comic book mythology and put simply, it worked. If comics are the source however, you have to consider what storylines might be incorporated. Both Burton and Nolan took inspiration from a great deal of Batman comics, all of them good, and all of them fascinatingly diverse depictions of Batman’s psyche and his villains. Year One, The Killing Joke, Knightfall, and The Long Halloween to name but a few are all excellent storylines that lend themselves to showing that whilst Batman exists in a universe where melted-face maniacs and psychotic clowns are in abundance, the hero has humanity enough to allow him to accept when his foes can best him.
We need to consider of course DC Comics’ role within a new Batman film. It is impossible to theorise on The Dark Knight’s next adventures without tying the character to both the upcoming Batman: Zero Year comic series, and most importantly the possibility of a Justice League film. Zero Year forms part of DC’s ‘New 52’, a massive reboot (again with the reboots!) of their entire character list started in 2011. ZY takes Batman back to his origins but retains some key elements of the canon, so although we get to see his first year rehashed, we will also witness changes to Gotham, the Batcave, and even Batman’s character. If New 52, and in this context Zero Year, are set to shake up DC Comics however, what does this mean for DC film adaptations? A Justice League film will surely be the catalyst not just for new Batman films, but will pave the way, for example, for The Flash, Wonder Woman and Martian Manhunter to get their big screen debuts. Proposed for who-knows-how-long, Justice League of America (as it might be called) is the film that DC Comics want to use to take the fight to Marvel and their trillion-dollar success story The Avengers. If a Justice League film really is going to happen however, then it needs an array of characters who have been introduced to- and hopefully accepted by- cinema-goers. Marvel had a huge advantage here, in that The Avengers had all been given their own film to make a name for themselves. Everything was, and is, planned well in advance for the entire franchise. In order to level the playing field, DC will have to get their act together and organise themselves into delivering annual films, and do so very quickly.
Man of Steel is the first step to creating a cinematic Justice League, and depending on the success of that film DC may have their entire diverse backlog of characters at their disposal. Despite the acknowledgement that Man of Steel is very much a reboot of Superman, and a necessary reboot at that, one noticeable trait gleaned merely from the film’s trailers is the suggestion that Superman comes to terms with his human qualities, and realise ‘what it means to be a hero’ and so on. The sorrowful tone and saturated colours of those trailers would imply that the realism route trod by Nolan’s Batman is being walked once again, in an attempt to show everyone that the greatest of heroes, even the Man of Tomorrow, needs to be reminded of his fallibility. So if Superman is being started from scratch, does this mean the same fate for the World’s Greatest Detective? The humorlessness of Man on Steel would suggest that any DC film following it will adopt a similar stony face that reflects DC Comic’s more mature tones, and this is an aspect that suits the brooding Batman better than George Clooney’s laughable bat-buttocks.
The single most important factor in a new Batman film, as this article sees it, is whether he will be an established hero or not. Will the next Caped Crusader be a moody teen who gradually discovers meaning in his angst-ruled life? Or will he be a grizzled and experienced vigilante who can dive from skyscrapers with his eyes closed? Will he have a super-powered super-villain to face off against, or will he spend his time polishing his boots and joyriding the Batmobile? There are so many questions to ask, and so few details to give fans the slightest hint as to where Batman is headed. Rumors that Joseph Gordon-Levitt may don the Batman mantle, an action suggested by TDKR‘s ending, have been explicitly denied. That gives us one definite, and admittedly super-obvious, aspect of a Batman film- Bruce Wayne will be the man behind the Bat. How far into his crime-fighting career he is must, for now, be the subject of wild speculation.
The Dark Knight re-wrote the rule book for action and comic films, and indeed inspired Bond’s Skyfall outing to tremendous success. This means that whatever direction Batman is taken in, the new film will be ruthlessly measured against Nolan’s work and potentially to such an extent that the filmmaker is shot down before anything even enters production- just like Batman Begins was, in fact. Man of Steel is looking like a very strong prospect for revitalising DC’s cinematic fortunes, and if Zach Snyder pulls off a super-sonic one-two with that film then the possibility of The Dark Knight returning yet again may look ever brighter. When, where and how remains to be seen, but rest assured that DC are highly unlikely to throw away the chance to take the fight to their biggest rivals Marvel, and would do so with a sparkling new Superman and Batman partnership.
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