July 26, 2012

Whither Batman?: the Future of the Dark Knight on Film

The Dark Knight Rises is in cinemas, rounding off Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy as one of the best Hollywood's ever produced. It's up there with Star Wars and Toy Story as a massive achievement in narrative filmmaking, each film working on its own as a satisfying action thriller and all three working together as an epic story of Bruce Wayne and Gotham City. It's likely make an awful lot of money, and between the three Nolan films - Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises - Warner Bros' earnings are likely to number in the low billions.

So where to now? Should Warner Bros leave Nolan's trilogy well alone and leave Batman on the shelf for a few years? Should it dive in and start developing a reboot straight away? Or should it attempt the tricky proposition of a fourth "Nolanverse" movie?

Warning: absolutely do not click through to the rest of this article if you haven't seen The Dark Knight Rises. This article will spoil it for you, and it really is a film you don't want to have spoiled.

Option One: Reboot

The safe option for Warner Bros would be to reboot the franchise and start all over again. It's been done before, and inevitably it will be done again. Sony even demonstrated this year with The Amazing Spider-Man that you can reboot a franchise a lot sooner than conventional wisdom might suggest. Now if they were to take this option I think they'd be best off avoiding another origin story. It wastes time, and audiences worldwide already know how Bruce Wayne came to be the Batman. A strong director, a good lead actor and a fresh villain could easily put together a tight, action-packed summer blockbuster by 2015 - or even 2014 if they get their running shoes on. I've always thought Batman was Hollywood's best-suited character to the James Bond approach: an ongoing franchise, with the studio releasing a new largely self-contained action flick every 2-3 years like clockwork.

The safe option is the boring option, however. I'd argue that Nolan has raised the bar on the Bat so high than any self-contained action flick is going to disappoint. He's demonstrated that you can do so much more with the character, and the fictional universe he inhabits.

Option Two: Wait
So a reboot, for me, is out. It feels cheap. It would be an obvious, artless plot for more money. So that brings us to option two: rest the character. It was eight years between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins. It's possible that Warner Bros needs to wait about as long again, to give audiences a chance to put Christian Bale's performance out of their minds and accept a fresh actor and a fresh interpretation. That would put a new film in cinemas for 2020. What can Warner Bros do in the meantime? Well, there's Man of Steel coming next summer for one thing. I'm not a fan of Zack Snyder's hyper-stylised films (Watchmen, 300, Sucker Punch) but his teaser trailer to Man of Steel has an intriguingly different, sort of handheld look. I've gone from intrigued to eager. By next year I may even be keen.

There are also a lot of other decent DC characters waiting around for a chance at their own summer blockbuster. Wonder Woman, obviously. The Flash. Aquaman. Okay, maybe not Aquaman, but there's definitely an argument that Wonder Woman deserves one shot at cinema stardom before Batman gets his tenth (not including serials).

The problem for me with option two is that I'm too big a Batman fan. I really hope Warner Bros do eventually get a Wonder Woman movie off the ground, but that doesn't mean I don't want more Batman as soon as I can get it. I like watching Batman on the big screen.

Option Three: Continue
This brings us to the deeply risky manouevre of option three: continuing the Nolanverse. I'm assuming by this point that you've seen The Dark Knight Rises, which concludes with a presumed-dead Bruce Wayne in comfortable retirement and John Blake discovering the Batcave. How amazing was that final shot? How desperate did it make you to see what happens next? I can't speak for you of course, but personally I haven't been this keen to see a sequel since the end of... well, actually, since the end of Batman Begins.

So this is my pick. This is what I'm desperately hoping Warner Bros choose to do. A second trilogy, set immediately after Rises, tracking the development of John Robin Blake as the second Batman. I think if Wanrner Bros are smart they'll follow the Lord of the Rings route: film three movies in one massive film shoot and then release them one a year over a three year period. I think if they're really smart they'd aim to have the first one out for Christmas 2016 - they have a Hobbit film out for Christmas 2012 and 2013, and if Peter Jackson gets his deeply misguided way they'll have a third out for Christmas 2014. Starting a new Batman trilogy from 2016 allows the studio to have the #1 holiday season blockbuster for the next six years.

One of the beautiful things about Batman as a character is that he brings with him so many great supporting characters and villains. Superman has Lex Luthor and General Zod, and if you're a comic book reader you can probably add Brainiac and Mr Myxlptlk. Spider-Man works much better: he has the Green Goblin, Dr Octopus, the Vulture, Venom, Carnage, the Sandman and the Lizard (among others). Batman tops the list, though: he's got the Joker, the Penguin, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Bane, Mr Freeze, Two-Face, the Riddler, R'as al Ghul, the Scarecrow, and many, many more. There are a vast number of characters not yet seen in the Nolan films that could easily be introduced for three more movies.

Some of the characters I'd be looking at for a Nolanverse continuation would be:
  • The Penguin: with the Dent Act presumably rescinded after The Dark Knight Rises, Gotham would be wide open to a new crime boss making a move on the city. Cast Philip Seymour Hoffman as Oswald Cobblepot and make him a serious, growing antagonist to Blake's Batman over three films. He could be the true villain behind the scenes while Batman fights off a series of other bad guys.
  • Michael Akins: in the comics he replaced James Gordon as police commissioner for several years after the death of Gordon's wife. He doesn't like the Batman, he is against vigilantes and his police force have orders to apprehend the Batman on sight. Let's be honest: after what Bane did to Gotham under Jim Gordon's watch, it seems highly unlikely that Gordon's going to keep his job. Introducing a new antagonistic commissioner for a new Batman gives the franchise fresh material to work with. There's no shortage of strong African-American actors around to play the role: I'd be looking at Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne and even some younger actors like Omar Epps and Mekhi Phifer.
  • With Batman no longer having the commissioner on side, he'll need some other support from within the police force. It's high time they introduced Renee Montoya, giving the film a strong female supporting character and a popular replacement for Gordon. Catalina Sandino Morena would be my pick: she's talented, Hispanic and an Academy Award nominee.
  • Barbara Gordon: she was an unnamed and barely seen child in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Assuming she was about 10 years old, that would make her 18 by The Dark Knight Rises. That's old enough for her to debut as Batgirl if they want to take that route. Certainly I can see Batgirl working better in the context of Nolan's films that Robin - plus John Blake's kind of stolen that name already. Of course they could skip Batgirl altogether and make Barbara more of an Oracle-style supporting character instead.
  • The Joker: that's assuming they could find an actor to match Heath Ledger's performance, and were comfortable revisiting the character. He's been imprisoned in Arkham for eight years, but now he's escaped and is all ready to re-introduce a little anarchy and face off against the Batman. Except it's a different Batman, and this one is more fun (and so on). I'm not 100% on revisiting the character, but I can see many ways in which it could work - particularly if his escape from Arkham is aided by one Harleen Quinzel.
  • There are countless options for other villains, using Nolan's more realistic edge than the comic books: Poison Ivy re-imagined as an ecological terrorist, Victor Fries as a sort of mad scientist figure, and so on. One villain I would love to see some film version of Batman attempt is the Ventriloquist, a sort of mild-mannered accountant who's bullied into a life of crime by a deranged gangster ventriloquist's dummy named Scarface. Played deadly serious, it would be easy to create a sort of frightening cross between The Dark Knight and Magic. Imagine Geoffrey Rush in the part, perhaps.

I think that's probably more than enough fantasy filmmaking for now. Continuing Nolan's franchise is a risky manouevre for Warner Bros to take, and I think they'd want to make sure Nolan himself was happy with that before proceeding, but I honestly think it's the option that brings the biggest potential rewards and would result in the best possible Batman films for the future.

What do you think?


  1. "How desperate did it make you to see what happens next?" So incredibly desperate! I do hope they decide to continue the franchise instead of wait or reboot.

    My fear with a continuation is that they compromise on quality by getting someone like say McG to direct. Batman & Robin was a continuation of the Tim Burton batman after all.

  2. One of the names I've seen bandied about to replace Nolan (whether as a sequel or reboot) is Nicholas Winding-Refn, which is a choice I wholeheartedly support.

  3. Hmmm, so an existential hipster Batman. Could be interesting...

  4. Hrmm...I don't know. It *would* up the chance of Mads Mikkelsen getting some air time in the series, but I'm not sure if *I'm* ready for a series that ....uber gritty reality. Also I like a little hope in my viewing. Is NWR even aware that emotion exists? >.<
    Still, the thought of a Nightwing series with Oracle and Renee does make my heart do happy skippy beats!

  5. I love the idea of a ten years later story with a different Batman and Batgirl. Genuinely exploring the legacy of the character.

    There would always of course be the shadow of the possibility of the old Batman coming back to sort everyone out...

    The ensemble around him is one of those things that's most interesting about Batman, and they've never really done it well because of the constantly changing faces in the movies.

    A friend of mine is firmly of the opinion that the next move should be a high quality, HBO style version of the BatFamily story, taking in all the cool character developments, from early Batman & Robin days through all the Batgirls, Huntress, Robins, and the big story beats & villains, maybe covering 10 years or so of narrative over 5-6 high quality seasons.

    Like the Sopranos with masks!


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