Few if any franchise characters are more vital to their corporate parent’s bottom line than Batman is to Time Warner’s. If there was a moviegoer out there who somehow hadn’t already grasped this, he got a pretty good inkling with the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins,” back in 2005. At the time, it had been just eight years since George Clooney’s turn in the cowl, “Batman & Robin,” had infamously grounded the once high-flying screen property. Yet Warner Bros. was so determined to get back in the game — driven in part by the huge box office that rivals were generating with Spider-Man and the X-Men — that the studio gambled another incarnation didn’t have to wait. Their gutsy, ultimately successful call paved the way not only for the $500 million-grossing “The Dark Knight” and Nolan’s trilogy-capping “The Dark Knight Rises,” arriving Friday, but also for the entire Hollywood reboot trend.
As shrewd as Warner’s strategy proved to be, it’s one thing to have made the moves that the studio made when its icon had become a punch line. It’s quite another to try to stay actively in the Batman business when Nolan and Christian Bale have delivered such a popular, definitive, and (reportedly) emphatically resolved take on the character. Warner might want it badly — and so might its shareholders — but where could the studio possibly go from here?
Of course, those involved with earlier Batman projects may have asked themselves the same semi-rhetorical question, never mind the tendency we’ve gradually developed to dismiss those incarnations. True, the 1960s Adam West TV show is a brand of camp that’s nearly impossible to fathom now — even a self-reflexive satire such as “Kick-Ass” feels super-cool by comparison — but it made Batman a cultural icon. (Just a couple of years prior, the character’s profile was sufficiently shaky that publisher DC Comics considered canceling its Batman titles.) So where to go from there? No, Tim Burton’s 1989 “Batman” doesn’t have the scope of Nolan’s version, or the plausibly inhabitable Batsuit. But its reverential-yet-funky aesthetic rightly spawned a blockbuster-era phenomenon, Michael Keaton’s Caped Crusader was surprisingly effective, and Jack Nicholson’s Joker was, in every way, a hoot. So where to go from there?
The diminishing creative returns of the ’90s Bat-sequels prove that answers can be hard to come by (although Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer managed a divertingly loopy trick morphing Catwoman into an S&M provocatrice for “Batman Returns”). Assuming that Nolan and Bale won’t somehow surprise us all in a few years with “The Dark Knight Rises Again,” we humbly offer this list of suggestions for how Batman could — and should? — make his inevitable reappearance.
Marvel Comics first threw together Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk way back in 1962. But even before that, DC had forged the superhero team concept with the Justice League of America, featuring Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and the Flash. DC corporate boss Warner has been eyeing a Justice League movie for several years, and presumably is making an even more urgent development push following the blockbuster success of “The Avengers.” We’re all for the idea, as long as the project is overseen by someone with group-dynamic chops comparable to “Avengers” director Joss Whedon’s. (Oh, but maybe not someone so close to the material that he feels compelled to revive the Justice League’s first-ever nemesis, starfish-from-space Starro the Conqueror.) One reported obstacle up to this point had been concerns within the studio about presenting a version of Batman that might conflict – and directly compete – with Nolan and Bale’s. Problem now solved, no?
BATMAN AND SUPERMAN
DC’s two flagship heroes have been paired countless times throughout their history, with stories over the last couple of decades in particular playing up the contrast between them: Superman as godlike boy scout and Batman as, well, Dark Knight. Publicly worshiped protector and shadowy, polarizing crusader. The American way and my-way-or-the-highway. With superhero movies regularly knocked for lacking true character development, a Batman-Superman team-up vehicle sure sounds like a meaty opportunity to delve into the themes and psychology behind the costumes — Nolan’s approach multiplied by two. If you’re someone who finds the whole superteam prospect a tad busy, this might be the Batman follow-up to root for. Warner, for the record, has considered it: A decade ago, when the studio was struggling with both franchises, it ventured some distance down the road with director Wolfgang Petersen (“The Perfect Storm”) on a script titled “Batman vs. Superman.” The encore would have been a no-brainer: “Batman and Superman Hug It Out.”
After Warner Bros. Animation scored a hit in the ’90s with the acclaimed, deco-styled “Batman: The Animated Series,” the ’toonsmiths created a futuristic spinoff featuring a new teenage Batman mentored by a jaded, retirement-age Bruce Wayne. A live-action version was another of the proposals that studio brass looked at when they couldn’t seem to buy a clue; we say it’s time to look again. (Some fans will likely argue that if the franchise is going to be spun forward, then Frank Miller’s seminal, post-apocalyptic “Batman: The Dark Knight Returns” is the way to go. We’d counter that, thematically and aesthetically; Nolan has already covered Miller, if indirectly.) Maybe Warner and Ridley Scott could even do each other a favor and get together on “Beyond,” since the premise is essentially Batman relocated to the veteran director’s “Blade Runner” landscape. Scott has reportedly been mulling a “Blade Runner” sequel anyway, and seeing what he delivered with “Prometheus” — sci-fi that was stylish, but not so fresh — a fusion-cuisine creative recipe might serve him well.
One of DC’s more intriguing reads in recent years was this short-lived crime procedural focused on rank-and-file detectives of the Gotham P.D., and the many ways that “the job” is colored and complicated by Batman’s shadowy presence. Not surprisingly, Warner at one point reportedly discussed a TV version, which seems like the right place for it: more opportunity for character development, and to give a sense of the case-to-case grind. Would a small-screen showcase be a comedown after the “Dark Knight” trilogy? Not necessarily, if the material is handled as compellingly as in the comics. And, yes, our hero’s strictly peripheral involvement would probably need to be addressed, but we’ve got a plan: When sweeps periods roll around, run event episodes pulling Batman into the spotlight. Play up the character’s forensics prowess, which has generally gotten short shrift onscreen, and the shows wouldn’t even need to cost what “Heroes” did. For more than 70 years, Batman has starred in a title called “Detective Comics.” This could be a great chance to remind audiences why.
And now for a real wild card from Nicholson’s Joker deck: What about a low-stakes 3-D theatrical reissue for Burton’s original movie? Sure, “Batman” looks its age by this point, but it also deserves to be appreciated, not dissed as a movie that Nolan’s work rendered irrelevant. For its time, it was as bold a departure from misguided industry Bat-thinking as “Batman Begins” would later be. And give Nicholson his due for creating the bridge the franchise may have needed to get from Cesar Romero to Heath Ledger. The stiff action might not support a dimensionalized retrofit very well, but the inspired atmosphere and scenery chewing could be a kick to watch through the funny glasses. “Wait’ll they get a load of me”? You said it, Jack.
Tom Russo can be reached at email@example.com.