Solving the Batman conundrum

The Internet fanboy echo chamber worked itself into a tizzy on Tuesday after Drew McWeeny of Hitflix reported that Joseph Gordon-Levitt will be playing Batman in the upcoming Justice League movie from Warner Bros. Which is to say, he’ll be playing the new Batman — the one that was created at the end of The Dark Knight Rises when Gordon-Levitt’s character, Robin John Blake, stumbles upon the Batcave, clearly ready to inherit the cowl. It would actually be Blake in Justice League, not Bruce Wayne.

So is it true? Who knows? I certainly wouldn’t take McWeeny’s word as gospel, though I don’t doubt Warner Bros. has at least considered the possibility. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was such a massive worldwide success that you can’t blame them for trying to find a way to keep that universe alive, even without the involvement of Nolan or Christian Bale.

Truthfully, though, porting Gordon-Levitt’s “new Batman” over to other movies strikes me as a terrible idea, not the least of which is Bruce Wayne is, was and will continue to be THE Batman. The ending of The Dark Knight Rises, with Blake assuming the mantle, works well in the context of a finite series with a definite end. But once you try to extend the character past that, you’re just messing with the brand, screwing with fanboys and creating a strange dissonance a comic-book franchise doesn’t need. Nobody wants the first big-screen pairing Superman and Batman to be a team-up of Clark Kent and Robin John Blake. NOBODY. On top of that, you run the risk of retroactively doing damage to Nolan’s trilogy by screwing with the Blake character — and perhaps not just Blake, as McWeeny hints that at least one other actor from Nolan’s films could appear in Justice League — and tying the Dark Knight films into a new series of DC Comics’ movies that are completely different tonally. (And it also wouldn’t benefit any new film or films to be weighed down by reminders of Nolan’s brand of comic-book realism.) So, if McWeeny is wrong, or if Warner Bros. figures out that continuing on with the Blake character would be a pretty stupid plan, then what would be the best way to continue Batman’s movie adventures? Therein lies the dilemma.

For starters, there’s the matter of Justice League mucking everything up. What happened was The Avengers made 400-gajillion dollars, and Warner Bros. execs looked at that and said, “We want one of those.” The thing is, thanks to the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies, Marvel already had a shared universe in place that organically led into The Avengers, which resulted in that movie being a more satisfying concoction. Warner Bros. doesn’t have that. They have a completed Batman trilogy that was always meant to serve as its own universe and an upcoming Superman film — Man of Steel — that may or may not be any good. Now, where they’re lucky is that a Justice League film may not need as much lead-in as The Avengers did, as League will be headlined by two A-list superheroes whose histories are pretty much embedded into the DNA of every American boy and girl. Iron Man was a well-liked, established character by the time The Avengers arrived in cinemas because he had already appeared in two recent hit movies, the first one of which was pretty damn great. Batman and Superman we already like because they’re goddamn Batman and Superman. Some of the heavy lifting is done. But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be beneficial to Justice League if we identified with the actors playing those characters before we see them on screen together. We may get that with Henry Cavill’s Superman (although that’s not even a lock). We’re not going to get it with Batman if Justice League comes before any Dark Knight reboot. Honestly, that’s probably why just porting Gordon-Levitt over to the film is being considered, but, again, giving us “faux Batman” isn’t the answer either.

The right answer is for Warner Bros. to have some patience and reboot an individual Batman series before giving us Justice League. Yeah, I know it’s unlikely to happen because of the dollar signs you can see flipping behind Warner execs’ eyeballs as they look at box office numbers for The Avengers. But just for the sake of argument, let’s say Warner’s has a change of heart and goes in that direction. Then the question becomes: How do you go about rebooting Batman in the wake of Nolan’s genre-busting series? Well, I’ve got two strong recommendations:

1. Model the Batman franchise after the James Bond franchise. For starters, no more Batman origin stories. (It took the Bond people 21 films before they rebooted, and it was a soft one at that.) Also, no more retirements or gone-into-hiding cliffhanger endings. From now on, Batman movies should open with Bruce Wayne already serving as the Caped Crusader and close the same way. I promise you there are plenty of great stories that can be told by just letting Batman be Batman. And if the actor playing Bruce Wayne decides to depart the franchise, find the right replacement and slide him on in there. That’s what they did with Val Kilmer in 1995’s Batman Forever, and everyone was just fine with it. Try to limit the one-and-dones though. When you’re recasting Batman, make sure you get someone who wants to do a few films and put his stamp on the character. You can string a general continuity through the films, but let’s make it a loose continuity like the one the Bond people employ, even looser than what runs through the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher films. When writers and directors sign up for a Batman film, we don’t want to handcuff them with dangling plotlines from previous movies. Specific villains can come in and out and back in again as needed. There’s no need to kill them, as Burton did to the Joker and Penguin, Schumacher did to Two-Face and Nolan did to Ra’s al Ghul, Two-Face and Bane. Batman’s not big on killing anyway. Nolan gave us an epic multi-part Batman saga. It’s time again for some inspired, single-film adventures.

2. Break the story mold. Every Batman movie since Burton’s 1989 opus basically has the same structure: There’s a new villain (or two) threatening Gotham City, and it’s up to Batman to eliminate the threat and save the day. Why not do something different? Instead of a “Gotham is about to be destroyed” plotline, why not a Batman film that has the world’s greatest detective solving a more intimate series of murders, a la Batman: The Long Halloween? Or how about a movie that finds Batman trapped inside Arkham Asylum and fighting for his life against not just one, but a plethora of costumed crazies, a la Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth or the Batman: Arkham Asylum videogame? The point is, a relaunched Batman series that tells single-film stories could get a little more creative with the stories being told. They all don’t have to follow a template. And, hey, if one doesn’t work so well, no biggie. Do something more traditional the next time out. It’s Batman — killing the franchise is nigh impossible.

If Warner Bros. would follow this advice and crank out at least one solid post-Nolan Batman film, then they’d be properly set up to do a Justice League movie, uh, justice. (Especially if Man of Steel ends up being a success and everyone loves Cavill in that role.) If Justice League features versions of Batman and Superman that fans are familiar and happy with, it really won’t matter who’s playing Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and whomever. It’ll likely be successful. (And Warner Bros. can then feel free to spin off the supporting heroes into their own films after the fact.) But you really need Batman and Superman to work. The joy of a Justice League movie will be in seeing the dynamic play out between two heroic characters who go about their job in two very different ways. If you go into that film with a version of Batman we’ve never seen before or a version of Batman who’s not even the real Batman, just some beat cop following in Bruce Wayne’s footsteps, then you run the risk of that dynamic not developing properly or not being capitalized on as well as it could be. That would be a shame.

So let’s not mess this up, okay, Warner Bros.? Take your time. Do this right. Hire smart people to work on it. Don’t rush out Justice League just because The Avengers went supernova. Don’t try to extend the Nolan Bat-universe with Gordon-Levitt just because it was such a success. And don’t be afraid to try something new with the eventual Batman reboot. I know following what Nolan pulled off is tricky, but it can be done and done well.

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