Oh good, now this is happening.
We all knew that Warner Bros. would get back to Batman sooner or later. For all the decades that the studio has been ignoring their superhero catalogue (or half-assing it with duds like Green Lantern), Batman has been their one sure-thing at the box office. Even Batman & Robin didn't do "that" bad ($238 million off a $125 million budget, nothing to sneeze at). But with Marvel Studios raising their game with one successful adaptation of a superhero after another - even heroes with infinitely less mainstream appreciation than Bruce Wayne - we all figured that Warner Bros. would take the hint and follow suit with cinematic realizations of excellent heroes like Wonder Woman, The Flash (still rumored to be in development) or hell, even Aquaman. Instead, the big news from Warner Bros. was that Man of Steel 2 - only the second film in their successfully rebooted Superman movie franchise - would simply have Batman in it.
It's easy to take this as a vote of "no confidence" in any hero but Batman, and maybe that's how we should be taking it, but at least Warner Bros. is placing Batman alongside a superhero with whom he has an established and intriguing rapport. Both Batman and Superman believe in essentially the same ideals: heroism, the law (except for the anti-vigilante parts) and inspiring the public by example. But whereas Superman's example involves a public persona, a cheerful and maskless costume, and feats of wonder that make people want to better themselves, Batman inspires the persona through fear. It's only the "criminals" who should be fearful, of course, but it's a more cynical message than Superman's, which seems to resonate with audiences who prefer their heroes dark, tortured and just a hair shy of the very villains they fight.
In the comics, Batman and Superman are friends. Like the best of friends, they are often at odds with each other, at least from an ideological point of view, but they have a mutual respect for each other. Batman admires that Superman lives up to his promise of representing an ideal for mankind, and Superman admires that Batman - independently of ever having met Superman - comes damned close to that ideal on his own. They both have strict moral codes. They both save the day. They are two of the great heroes, divided only by their physical abilities, social positioning (Batman was born rich, Superman was raised by modest farmers) and an ongoing struggle of optimistic vs. cynical values.
But where this Batman/Superman movie seems truly risky, at least from a storytelling perspective, is the currently nebulous status of Batman in the cinema. Warner Bros. has kept decidedly mum about their specific plans for the character after the rightly vaunted Christopher Nolan trilogy of Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, which left the hero, played by Christian Bale, (seemingly) happily retired at the end, having passed the mantle on to a more idealistic counterpart, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose time in the suit remains thoroughly unexplored.
Warner Bros. has several choices to make in regards to the character of Batman, each of which could have serious consequences for future films in their fledgling cinematic superhero mythology. Firstly, they could continue the so-called "Nolanverse," but that only raises two more questions: should the next Batman be Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Robin John Blake, or Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne? Audiences expect Batman to be also be Bruce Wayne, which might make the Joseph Gordon-Levitt version an off-putting proposition for the mainstream, but bringing Christian Bale out of retirement - within the story Nolan & Co. crafted at least - would also taint whatever meaning the end of The Dark Knight Rises culled from its redemptive storyline. Warner Bros. probably wants to connect Man of Steel 2 to the ultra-successful Nolanverse movies, but going in either direction with that concept is narratively risky.
The other choice that Warner Bros. could make is to reboot Batman entirely, ignoring the Nolanverse, recasting the character and introducing The Dark Knight to this new cinematic universe in a Superman movie instead of his own film. On the surface this seems like the wisest option from a practical perspective. Nolan's Michael Mann-ish movies stood on their own, outside of any universe with superpowered beings. Introducing a new interpretation of the character outside of his own, isolated story might even alleviate the sting of yet another immediate reboot, allowing audiences to focus on something other than a strange sense of deja vu by centering the film on Superman instead.
But the risk Warner Bros. takes with that approach is enormous too. Batman is a more forceful presence than Superman, and could potentially steal the whole movie. The obvious solution to that issue would be to give Batman minimal screen time, but then audiences would be upset because they were pitched a Batman/Superman movie that didn't have nearly enough Batman in it.
And what about poor Superman? Henry Cavill's superhero only just came into his own at the end of Man of Steel. He's barely had an opportunity to be Superman, and rather than have a true and proper Superman movie in Zack Snyder's sequel, he will have to share his screen time with another character. While Batman and Superman have a tradition of affirming each other's finest qualities, this new Superman hasn't had an opportunity to properly define those qualities, and a brand-new version of Batman would have to depend on the audience's perception of what Batman should be, rather than an actual character who probably cannot get enough screen time to properly define himself in what is ostensibly a Superman film.
When casting this new Batman, Warner Bros. will have to decide whether to pick a recognizable actor as a form of shorthand, or a relative unknown who may have difficulty making an immediate impression on mainstream audiences. It's an unenviable task. If Warner Bros. decides to go the Nolanverse route, their casting decisions are easy (provided Bale and Levitt actually agree to return). If they don't, they probably have a short list that looks like just about any other in Hollywood, consisting of age-appropriate, roughly physically appropriate actors with various pros and cons should they pass the audition and take the job.
Not every person on Warner Bros.' list (which we assume they have, unless they know something we don't about Christian Bale) will be an obvious choice to play Batman. Many of them will seem like huge risks, and probably won't be pursued too doggedly. A few of them are probably huge stars who would likely bring baggage that Warner Bros. would prefer not to deal with. But we bet they're on the list just in case, because if Warner Bros. recasts Batman, it's bound to be the most coveted role in the entertainment industry.
Here's a quick rundown of ten actors we bet Warner Bros. is considering right now, whether they're a good idea or a terrible one. I don't envy the suits at Warner Bros. the task of reintroducing Batman, and I still don't think it's necessary. Waiting until after Man of Steel 2 would ease the transition to a new Batman, and potentially give Zack Snyder the opportunity to direct a Superman movie that everyone agrees actually has Superman in it. But this is apparently what we're getting, and here are the folks that we think Warner Bros. is seriously considering to do it.
10. Ryan Gosling
WHY: The superhunk and Oscar-nominee has the artistic credibility Warner Bros. could probably use right now for their superhero franchises.
BUT: Ryan Gosling is an unassuming screen presence, preferring to disappear in a scene rather than fill the room dramatically.
THEN AGAIN: Gosling isn't averse to blockbuster projects. He previously signed on to star in a - now (seemingly) defunct - Logan's Run remake.
9. Taylor Kitsch
WHY: "Friday Night Lights" hunk Taylor Kitsch is a handsome leading man with all the intensity Batman needs, at least in the suit.
BUT: After the twin box office failures of John Carter and Battleship in 2012, studios probably think he's box office poison.
THEN AGAIN: Both John Carter and Battleship found audiences on home video, and nobody really blames Kitsch for the films' failed marketing campaigns.
8. Alexander Skarsgard
WHY: The "True Blood" star has been on the short list for a ton of high profile studio projects after breaking out on the hit HBO series.
BUT: There's no word on his version of Tarzan yet, and despite the buzz, none of the other casting opportunities got him into a leading role.
THEN AGAIN: That's what they used to say about Henry Cavill (except for the Tarzan part).
7. Jared Padalecki
WHY: The 6'4" star of "Supernatural" is physically imposing, and he's proven week after week that he can brood with the best of them.
BUT: He's not a major star, "Supernatural" isn't a hit show, and he hasn't done a movie since 2009's disappointing Friday the 13th remake.
THEN AGAIN: He's a handsome devil without any of the pop culture baggage most of his top competitors would bring with them.
6. James Franco
WHY: Oscar-nominee James Franco has proven he can carry a blockbuster (Oz the Great and Powerful), and can clearly handle the multiple personas necessary to play The Dark Knight.
BUT: Audiences see Franco as either an arthouse auteur or a broad entertainer.
THEN AGAIN: Christian Bale was best known for American Psycho and Newsies before he got the gig last time.
5. Armie Hammer
WHY: The dashing young leading man couldn't save The Lone Ranger, but Warner Bros. already hired him to play Bruce Wayne before, in George Miller's (now cancelled) Justice League movie.
BUT: Armie Hammer didn't seem very interested in the role when questioned about it back in early July.
THEN AGAIN: That was before The Lone Ranger bombed, so there's a good chance he'd be willing to change his mind.
4. James Badge Dale
WHY: James Badge Dale's breakout role in Iron Man 3 put him on everyone's short list for hardboiled roles in major movies.
BUT: It wasn't a starring role, and he didn't help The Lone Ranger in the slightest.
THEN AGAIN: He's very hot in the industry now, and someone's going to swoop him up for a leading man role sooner than later. It might as well be Warner Bros.
3. Tom Hardy
WHY: One of the most talented and intense actors working today, Hardy is a recognizable actor with more than enough talent to play Bruce Wayne and Batman.
BUT: He already played Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, which might confuse casual audiences.
THEN AGAIN: He's so good we don't think anyone would care.
2. Richard Madden
WHY: As Robb Stark on HBO's "Game of Thrones," Richard Madden proved himself capable of balancing vengeance and likability. Plus, he looks good in black armor.
BUT: He's an unknown quantity at the box office, and Warner Bros. might consider him a little young for the role.
THEN AGAIN: His schedule just opened up...
1. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
WHY: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's proven himself to be one of the most engaging on-screen presences of his generation, and in The Dark Knight Rises and Looper he finally proved he has action chops.
BUT: Will Warner Bros. want to break with the Nolan franchise entirely? Or if they do, would they be willing to confuse audiences by turning a Dark Knight Rises supporting character into Bruce Wayne?
THEN AGAIN: He'd be really damned good, audiences want him to do it, and Warner Bros. knows that.