The last episode of The B-Movies Podcast here on CraveOnline was our all-Batman spectacular. In order to celebrate our excitement about The Dark Knight Rises, William “Bibbs” Bibbiani, Athena Stamos and I took a flavorful walk-through of all the Batman feature films to date. And while I have never been a fan of the Batman comic books, I find that I am a big fan of just about every one of the Batman feature films. Yes, I even have kind words for the frequently maligned Batman & Robin.
It’s now more than a rumor that Warner Brothers, following the release of The Dark Knight Rises, is planning to make yet another Batman feature film (making it the tenth), this time with a new cast and a new director, and largely ignoring the events of the last three Batman films. Yup, we’ve wandered back into the wasteland of the calculated reboot. The idea is to tie in this new Batman with a new Superman feature film, maybe a film with The Flash, and a few others, and eventually make a film about The Justice League of America. Since The Avengers made so much money, DC comics would be foolish not to imitate that model (i.e. make a bunch of prequel films, all leading into a monster-mash crossover event). And if Hollywood doesn’t care that it’s feasting on its own innards like the talking fox in Antichrist, then I guess I shouldn’t fret too much either. Reboot Batman we shall.
But how? Batman has been envisioned in so many ways, with varying degrees of success. We’ve seen the campy fun Batman, the noir Batman, the tragic Batman, the mainstream Batman, the crazy Batman, the early Batman, the introspective Batman, and the political Batman. What sort of Batman would work best next? What should Warner Bros. do with the character next, seeing as they intend to keep him alive anyway? Here are a few uneducated suggestions from a man who is fond of Batman movies, but who hasn’t read Batman comics.
I should perhaps state outright that my two favorite Batman films to date are Batman: The Movie and Batman Returns. Those two are pretty much polar opposite approaches to Batman (one being a broad comedy, the other a dank and kinky tragedy), but they cleave so closely to my interests as a filmgoer. What can I say? I like weird. So my first suggestion is to make the world of Batman less “real” and more “oddball.” Christopher Nolan has, with his three Batman films, added real palpable crime elements, and seemed to add real weight and emotional heft to the character. If the next film tries something similar, then it will only be compared to the excellent Nolan films, and inevitably fall short. No, a new aesthetic will be required. Make Gotham City a little unreal. Don’t explain Batman’s origins, and don’t depict how he built his gadgets. Make it more like the 1989 film, and less like the 2005 film. Show, don’t tell. Batman should already be a career vigilante at this point, and he should have his methods down. No more watching Batman find his feet, and question himself constantly. That’s what the Nolan films were for. By now, he should be secure.
By that same token, Batman should be an adult. Late 30s. He’s not a kid anymore. He’s figured out what he wants to do, and he does it. This is a conceit from the 1989 Batman that made that film stand apart. Batman had already gone through all the insecurity, and was now an adult who was doing what he had to do.
I’m serious about this: Shoot in black and white. Not necessarily the long expressionistic shadows of the Tim Burton films, but give the film a silvery texture. Think of the flat grey machines in The Elephant Man. That’s the look I’d like to see. An old-fashioned look. Batman is an old character, and an old-timey look could emphasize that. He hides in shadows and attacks without warning. Batman should be more like a ninja this time around. Rather than showing himself to evoke fear, he should intentionally remain obscured. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman fights out in broad daylight. No more of that. I would even go so far as to suggest the costume should look less like the techno-armor, and more like the original drawings from 1939. I would go so far as to set the film in 1939, but I know that wouldn’t fly with most people.
Make Batman more resourceful. The guy carries a utility belt, and over the course of the nine movies to date, his gadgets have become increasingly elaborate. I would like to see a skulky Batman who can use lock picks, door jimmies, drills, and other practical heist tools to get around. He should be able to build stuff on a whim. Yes, I want Batman to be more like MacGyver. The gadgets seem to, these days, be all electronic scanners and computerized devices. That makes Batman too much like RoboCop. I’d rather see a guy using his hands to fight crime. Isn’t that one of the appealing elements of the character anyway? That he fights crime without the benefit of superpowers? By giving him elaborate technogadgets, you’re kind of giving him superpowers anyway. Make him a more hands-on superhero.
Give him little dialogue, especially when he’s in costume. I would prefer him to remain kind of mysterious.
Don’t reuse any of the villains we’ve seen before. I know that the main rogue’s gallery has been exhausted at this point, but we know all the others too well. Start fresh with a more obscure villain. That worked well in Batman Begins, as they selected The Scarecrow and Liam Neeson as the bad guys. For Batman Part 10, go for, hm… how about False Face, who was played by Malachi Throne in the 1966 TV series? He was a master of disguise, and could look like anyone. A nice character to have in a noir-ish old fashioned detective story. Don’t have Robin. If you want a compatriot, use Batgirl. Make the bad guy kind of fleshy and mildly unreal. Like an escapee from a Cronenberg film.
No love interest. Aside from Michelle Pfeiffer, no female counterpart has really seemed like a good romantic match for Batman/Bruce Wayne. Most of the films features Batman trying to gain a romantic regard with a woman who didn’t know he was Batman. And while the love story can give Bruce Wayne depth (the love story was particularly important to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm), they’ve all seemed like a distraction from the main point of the movie, especially in the very male-centric Nolan films. No girlfriends this time around.
The point of this new Batman film is to establish that he can live in the same world as Superman, right? And that Batman will be inducted into the Justice League, right? Well, if he’s established as being a rather inscrutable weirdo who can work on his own, it will better turn Batman into the proper “dark” character that the team requires. He should be the one who doesn’t speak a lot, and seems to be the one no one can quite understand. No one should know what he’s doing on the team. He should be the “small” character in a room full of superpowered friends.
Will Warner Bros. take any of these suggestions? Of course not. I have a feeling that the studios (and the fans) have an M.O. that skews less toward an atmospheric movie, and more toward an established fan-adored “mythology.” I can’t speak to Batman mythology, but if I were to make a Batman film myself, it would look like The Elephant Man, would feature a gross scene where the bad guy peels off his own face, and a quiet, mature Batman who leaves you feeling a little uneasy. Screaming Mad George could do the effects! Surely I can’t be the only one to want something like that.
From the Desk of William Bibbiani:
Wow, Witney. I disagree virulently. That might make a cool movie – actually, strike that, it would make a cool movie – but I don’t think that it’s the Batman movie we’ll need going forward. It’s certainly not the Batman movie we’re going to get. I like this black and white, Cronenbergian neo-noir Batman in theory, but it’s such an implausible direction that I don’t think I can wrap my head around it. If they’re really going to reboot Batman (and let’s be honest, they are), they’ll need a more mainstream direction. The key is to make it “more” mainstream rather than simply “mainstream.” Batman is too weird and dark these days to work as straightforward “fun,” but they will definitely need to tone it down a bit if he’s going to cross over and exist in the same universe as Superman.
The tone I think we’re looking for is "Batman: The Animated Series." A world wherein dark character drama can coexist with larger scale stories. Sure, Christopher Nolan's Batman movies operated on a large scale, but beyond the villains schemes that scale was focused on the depths of immorality that lied within the villains. In the animated series the entire stage was broader in scope, and the interactions of the players within it – hereos and villains alike – took on archetypal significance. We need, once and for all, to introduce a Batman to the world where all the characters coexist simultaneously. The Joker will be running around in the same world, at the same time, as Two-Face, Catwoman, The Riddler, and your other favorite villains of choice. Batman can still be psychologically tormented, but he'll have to balance that pain with the external struggle of keeping Gotham City safe from villains he arguably brought into this world, accidentally or not. The first film will be responsible for laying the groundwork of that universe, keeping it grounded but also allowing for the franchise to finally approximate the richly populated comic book universe we all hold so dear.
I do agree with Witney that Batman, more than any other superhero besides maybe Superman, does not need his origin retold. Tim Burton’s Batman got away with it just fine in a brief flashback and a couple lines of dialogue. Batman can spring fully formed into the new comic book universe; only a few mysterious lines of dialogue about the untimely deaths of his parents, his years of training and his billions of dollars will be necessary to reveal how he got there. This will allow the new Batman movie to get right to the action rather than wallow in unpleasantness for half an hour or more before anybody even puts on a costume.
In fact, the Tim Burton Batman is actually a great jumping-off point from a chronological perspective. Batman is already a presence in Gotham City, spoken of in the hushed tones usually reserved for the likes of Keyser Soze. “Who is the Batman?” is the question on everybody’s lips, but nobody has even taken a picture of the guy. Speculation mounts as to whether he’s an urban legend or a real-life nut job wearing a bat-costume. But that’s just the set-up. You can’t make the mystery the whole storyline; otherwise the protagonist would have to be somebody solving it. Bruce Wayne is the hero of the film, whose emotional journey drives the motion picture. The mystery is just the preoccupation of the world he lives in, and that recognition – along with the wave of fear rolling over the criminal underworld – should make him a little cocky. He’s spent years of his life preparing to take Gotham’s criminal element down, and after only a year or so behind the mask it’s been smooth sailing.
Until the villains show up, that is, transforming his victory over the criminal underworld into a failure he’ll spend the rest of his career trying to correct. As I mentioned on this week’s podcast, my favorite Batman comic book story to date is The Long Halloween, which was on the surface a murder mystery, but beneath that also detailed the events through which Gotham City’s organized crime syndicates were taken over by psychological deviants. The Long Halloween isn’t the best storyline for the first film in a franchise – it’s far too sprawling, and depends on too much familiarity with prominent existing characters who would be difficult to shoehorn into a single film – so instead, let’s take the basic premise of Gotham City transformed into a malevolent carnival sideshow and make that the focus of the film. To that end, I propose that the first villain in the new Batman franchise be none other than Dr. Hugo Strange.
He’s a little esoteric to casual fans (unless they're fans of the video game Batman: Arkham City, which they really should be), but long-time Batman enthusiasts will recognize the evil psychologist as one of the first Batman villains ever introduced, way back in Detective Comics #36, less than a year after The Dark Knight’s first appearance. As for his evil plot, we’re going to extrapolate on an idea that Christopher Nolan introduced in Batman Begins but wound up doing little with: Arkham Asylum is run by a madman, who drives his inmates even more insane rather than making them healthy. Every time Batman catches a criminal, they’re sent to Arkham Asylum by a corrupt legal system and unwillingly driven mad by Strange, who then releases them back into the populace to wreak more destruction than ever before.
It works in my head, anyway: Strange is no physical threat to Batman, but he has an army of psychos at his command to throw at the hero. We’re not going to go so far as to claim that he created The Joker, or The Riddler, or any of Batman’s most prominent villains. But Strange could at least justify the sheer volume of mentally unstable criminals roaming around Gotham City, and give the hero a few incidental fan-service villains to fight over the course of the first movie, at least in passing. Bad guys like Firefly, Victor Zsasz, Copperhead and even The Circus of the Strange – who probably couldn’t carry their own films – could take the place of “Criminals #1-5” that Batman happens to take down over the course of the story, who pose a threat but from a structural perspective just serve to lead Batman to the man pulling the strings, Hugo Strange, whose greatest weapon against the caped crusader is his dastardly mind. The entire movie will exist to place doubt in the hero’s mind, and make him question whether he can really fulfill his mission alone, freeing the series to expand through supporting characters like Robin, Oracle, and down the line even the Justice League.
This is all academic, obviously. I’ve been thinking about this for a day or two now, and whomever actually winds up in charge of the inevitable Batman reboot is bound to spend a lot more time coming up with the details. But as much as I love Christopher Nolan’s movies, all of them, they’re pretty much done now if reports are to be believed. If we have to move on, this would be where I’d start.
What do you think? Where would you take the Batman movie franchise if you had to start all over again from square one?