Solving the Batman conundrum

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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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  • http://gravatar.com/epinard epinard

    Here Here! Well said.

  • Steve

    The only Batman is Bruce Wayne, plain and simple!

  • Gerardo

    Everyone was ok with Val Kilmer replacing Michael Keaton for Batman Forever?? Yeah right……

    • Robert Brian Taylor

      Forever made more money at the box office than Returns and was received by the general populace fairly warmly. Now, time (and its close association with Batman & Robin) haven’t done that movie any favors, but when it was released, no one got too huffy over Kilmer taking over.

  • andrew

    “Battle For The Cowl ” ‘nough said ,Joseph-Scott /Azzareal- Jason Todd . And if youo’re wondering how he could fool “Supie” – lead lined cowl ; as well as superior audio devices. Which in turn would also resolve any potential sequeal segues.

  • Writer

    I disagree. The new Batman should be Joseph but sadly isn’t going to be. If they did however allow this it could and would still work into the Justice League. Joseph is an already established character with his story pretty much told. (Mother dead, father murdered.) Both Wayne and Robin have basically the same origin.

    You said break the mold and this would be done if Blake took over. It would provide new challenges and different perspectives. Blake would be poor (most likely) and having to fight people with high tech bat gear while also trying to survive off of nothing. Blake was also a detective and this could be Batman’s more detective side. He also is not as experienced as Bruce so he would have to train and such with also the help of Alfred.

    Alfred was also left in charge of Wayne Manor and perhaps he allows Blake to take over Wayne Enterprises? Blake may even find his own “Robin” in his Wayne Manor/Orphanage.

  • trlewando

    Great job. One point you forgot to mention. Bruce Wayne spent years training with the league of shadows in Nolan’s world to become The Batman. Blake was a cop. WHAT IN THE WORLD MAKES ANYONE BELIEVE THAT A COP COULD BECOME BATMAN!! I could understand bringing Blake in to be Robin, that way Bruce could train him. But just having Blake jump into the role is next to suicide.

  • Private_Eyescream

    Last Will & Testament of Bruce Wayne.

    To John Blake,
    I leave my Batcave with sophisticated expensive weaponry that cannot be replaced if damaged in crime fighting (because I’m not leaving you any money).

    Sadly all of my Mobile Heavy Weapons Platform Vehicles either got all stolen & blow’d up by Bane or myself or given away to career criminals like the Catwoman (that only betrayed me 4 times before – gotta have hope). So to you I leave my Bat Bicycle, it’s in the garage of the Estate over the cave if it hasn’t been stolen by one of the thousands of orphan boys running wild up there (good luck keeping the Batcave secret because I literally “fell into it” too).

    I’m not leaving you any martial arts training or tactical skills or superior coordination, those things cannot just be given away by magic. However, I am leaving you my big rubber Batman Costume. Maybe you can make some bucks by playing Batman at Gotham Sci-Fi & Comicbook conventions. Try not to get yourself killed like some incompetent fanboy trying to play Superhero, okay.

    I’m not leaving you my butler Alfred. That whiny douchebag raised me from when I was a young boy, but frankly he split when Gotham City began to burn. Who needs an asshole who gladly will let millions of people suffer in agony just to soothe his weepy emo bullshit? For a butler, he knew way too damned much about Bane and that frankly creeped me out. I’m already leaving you with way too little to take over the role of Batman already and you don’t need Alfred dragging you down.

    Good luck kid, you’re going to need it.
    Oh and watch out for those spring-loaded blades on the Batsuit’s gloves, they can slice your throat like a machete if you push the wrong button.

    –With Love, Bruce Wayne.

  • heinnlinn

    They can make it a plot. A new “batman” struggling to fill the big shoes of the old one. He will have doubts about himself, he will want to give up. People will question his abilities. He will lose a few battles and cause a few causalities. But ultimately, he becomes the hero Bruce wanted him to be. A bit cliche, but if they pull it off, why not?

  • @bennwuest

    I’d be ok for them pulling Blake in to be a cameo Nightwing, but if they DO bring him in as Batman, I totally agree with everything this article has to talk about. But even then, him as Nightwing still wouldn’t explain the NEW Batman that would still be in this movie. Overall, the point is, I agree with you.
    But Anne Hathaway had better be Catwoman again.