“If you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you, then you become something else entirely…. a legend, Mr. Wayne.”
The Dark Knight Rises is now in theaters and Christopher Nolan‘s final film in his trilogy of Batman adventures that saved the Caped Crusader from damnation in a neon-drenched purgatory conjured by the overweening egos of an studio consumed by greed and contempt for the character’s rich history and massive global fan base is kicking ass at the box office worldwide and is on track to become one of the highest-grossing movies of the year. It’s also garnering glowing reviews from nearly every critic in the business (You can read our own FamousMonster’s amazing review of the film here) and most fans of the Batman movies are coming out of The Dark Knight Rises praising it overwhelmingly. Much like its predecessor, the 2008 Oscar-winning blockbuster The Dark Knight, the movie is also inspiring passionate debate about its timely political themes. Nolan’s trilogy has set a new precedent for how superhero comic book properties are adapted for the screen.
The question now is, what’s next?
The current talk is that Warner Bros., with Nolan on board as a producer, will reboot the series a few years down the road much as Sony did recently with The Amazing Spider-Man. The reason Sony opted for a fresh approach to their Spider-Man franchise in the first place was because talks with Sam Raimi, the director of the first three movies in the series, fell through over ideas for a fourth film that was never realized. Since none of Raimi’s stars would return to the franchise without their director in command the suits at Sony and Marvel made the call to reboot the series, taking its iconic titular web-crawler back to his high school years and completely recasting the story’s principal characters while introducing ideas and plot lines never before attempted on screen.
That movie, released almost a month ago, has racked up impressive numbers at the ticket booths and received some very positive notices. Meanwhile the studio has already began development on a sequel but it appears that Amazing Spider-Man director Marc Webb will likely not return. Like it matters anyhow. To Sony and Marvel the Spider-Man property has always been a highly-valuable commodity that is a license to print money if done well enough to please the majority of fickle summer moviegoers and maybe even win over a few of the skeptics. Plus as long as Sony keeps making Spider-Man movies they won’t see those lucrative rights revert back to Marvel.
Warner Bros. doesn’t have that problem as their parent company also owns DC Comics. Having raised the bar for superhero cinema with the Dark Knight trilogy the possibility that the series will be rebooted strikes me as very odd, considering how The Dark Knight Rises concluded. Here I will present a few ideas about the direction the Batman movie series should take next.
WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS CONTAINED IN THIS ARTICLE! IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE DARK KNIGHT RISES YET, TURN BACK NOW!
So, at the end of The Dark Knight Rises Batman (Christian Bale) has mere minutes to hook Bane’s (Tom Hardy) heinous neutron bomb up to his awesome aerial vehicle the Bat and drop it in the ocean outside of Gotham City before millions of civilians are killed. In the process the city is saved but Batman is believed to be dead. John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a idealistic young Gotham cop who figured out that Bruce Wayne and Batman were the same person (through a questionable process of deduction) and befriended Wayne before the city went to an almost literal Hell, went above and beyond the call of duty and proved himself worthy to carry on Batman’s legacy as Gotham rebuilt itself. The final scenes show Blake, who’s real first name happens to be Robin (people groaned, but I smiled) entering the Batcave after inheriting it in Bruce’s will and discovering its many secrets, while Wayne is shown to be alive and enjoying a life of peace and happiness with his new love Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). Roll credits. End of trilogy.
For many months leading to the film’s release speculation was running rampant that in Nolan’s final Bat-film (as director at least) Batman would suffer a noble end and the cape and cowl would be assumed by another worthy candidate. The film’s tagline “The Legend Ends” seemed to imply as much. Although the mantle of Batman has been taken up by individuals not named Bruce Wayne in the comics a few times before – most notably in the early 90’s comic arcs “Knightfall” and “Knightquest” that introduced the villainous Bane – the idea of killing off Bruce Wayne and installing a permanent successor in the Batcave for the future of the film franchise was a bold and potentially damaging one if improperly executed. While some may see the ending of The Dark Knight Rises as a cop-out, I, along with many others, was very satisfied with the conclusion, especially since it left the door open for a continuation of the series rather than pave the way for yet another reboot in three or four years. Allow me to explain….
Since 1989 there have been seven Batman movies made. We’ve witnessed four actors portray Batman while the roles of Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and the Joker were each played by two different actors. Three separate directors of varying talent were handed the reins of bringing the Caped Crusader’s outsized exploits to the big screen: Tim Burton eschewed realism for a Gothic graphic novel tone equally influenced by 1940’s gangster flicks, the German Expressionist movement, and Frank Miller’s groundbreaking 1986 comic miniseries The Dark Knight Returns; Joel Schumacher’s wildly demonized dual entries in the series traded in Burton’s revisionist take for a tone that lurched embarrassingly from turgid camp absurdity to brief flirtations with the weightier dramatic elements of the Burton films and the best of the comics, burying any traces of nuance and tragedy under a garbage heap of cheeseball one-liners and ear-busting explosions; Christoper Nolan, much like Burton, looked to Frank Miller’s contributions to the Batman mythos – both The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, itself once under consideration for a film adaptation under the direction of Black Swan filmmaker Darren Aronofsky – as well as the epic crime dramas of Michael Mann and Martin Scorsese and the acclaimed HBO series The Wire for inspiration in crafting a more grounded take on the legend of the Dark Knight with screenwriters David S. Goyer and Jonathan Nolan, the director’s own brother.
The major difference between Burton and Schumacher’s approach to making their Batman movies and that of Nolan’s, other than their distinct aesthetics and ultimate reception by fans of the character and the general public, is one of perceived finality. Unlike his predecessors in the Bat-director’s chair, Nolan was able to bring a sense of closure to his trilogy at the same time leaving the series with a plausible launching pad for his vision to continue and evolve under the auspices of another filmmaker readily equipped for the task. With the Blake character poised to assume the cape, cowl, and those wonderful toys in an implied future installment that we will likely never see a reboot would seem like an afterthought. Therefore, why should the Batman series be rebooted at all?
Forget the reboot. Give us a Batman movie with Joseph Gordon-Levitt taking over from Christian Bale. There’s no reason why Bruce Wayne always has to be the Dark Knight. In the last movie his character arc was wrapped up for good: by handing over his role of Gotham City’s nocturnal protector to someone he deemed worthy and leaving the city to begin a new life with the woman he loves, Wayne finally accepted that the job he set out to do was accomplished and the souls of his murdered parents could rest in peace. The Dark Knight Rises ties in thematically in several ways with Batman Begins, the most important being Batman’s well-earned ascendancy into legend. After travelling the world looking to understand and master the demons that had been plaguing him since the night he saw his beloved mother and father cut down violently by a desperate mugger, Bruce returned to Gotham to strike fear into the hearts of the city’s criminal element and inspire others to embrace and follow his example. Unfortunately once he began taking the fight to the crime-infested underbelly of his hometown, Bruce’s actions often resulted in more damage than progress, from the rise of the Joker in The Dark Knight to Batman’s interference in the Gotham police’s pursuit of Bane early in The Dark Knight Rises. But he also inspired a great deal of hope throughout the city, making room for responsible and dedicated public officials and law enforcement officers to take back Gotham from the evil, the greedy, and the plain inhuman forces that had held it in a stranglehold of fear for many years.
It’s old hat in the comics world for the role of a masked superhero to belong to more than one person. How many Green Lanterns have there been? How many individuals have called themselves the Flash? Bucky Barnes once took on the role of Captain America when Steve Rogers was presumed dead, and James Rhodes suited as Iron Man for a while when Tony Stark was sidelined by alcoholism. Hell even Peter Parker was killed off in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man and replaced by a half-black/half-Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales. Most of the time this is because a title needs a sales boost or a major shake-up in the comic to re-energize the interests of readers. The results are usually very effective. Of course to insinuate that anyone but Bruce Wayne could definitively be Batman is tantamount to heresy in certain circles. I disagree.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt far and away gave one of the most memorable performances in The Dark Knight Rises. The actor is on the fast track to become a major movie star and his decision to alternate riskier independent film projects with roles in big-budget blockbusters has paid off tremendously thus far. Christian Bale took a similar tact with his acting career prior to and following his winning the coveted dual role of Bruce Wayne and Batman and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2011 for his performance in David O. Russell’s boxing drama The Fighter. It would behoove Warner Bros. to sign Gordon-Levitt to carry on the role of Batman in future installments since Nolan is staying on anyway to serve in the same producing capacity he’s currently serving on Zack Snyder’s 2013 Superman epic Man of Steel. Bale himself has said prior to the release of The Dark Knight Rises that he would return to the character if Nolan was still the director, but even though Nolan has made it clear that he was done directing Batman movies (at least until Warners backs a dump truck loaded with cash into the filmmaker’s front yard – it worked for Paramount getting Michael Bay back for a fourth Transformers movie) that doesn’t mean there still couldn’t be a place for Bruce Wayne in subsequent Batman stories. He could have a reduced supporting role as a mentor, or perhaps Wayne could serve as the catalyst for a plot development.
Having John Blake as the main character of a Batman sequel could solidify Gordon-Levitt’s burgeoning star status and set the stage for a fascinating character study while continuing to deliver the high-octane thrills the previous three films had in spades. Then there’s the villains. A Batman movie lives and dies by its chief baddie. For Batman Begins Nolan and Goyer made Ra’s Al Ghul and the Scarecrow, two classic Bat-villains never before realized on screen, the Dark Knight’s adversaries; their interpretations of the characters, coupled with the chilling performances by Ken Watanabe and Liam Neeson (as Ra’s) and Cillian Murphy (as Scarecrow), made the villains the most effective Batman has battled in the films since Jack Nicholson got his acid-etched killer grin.
In the subsequent movies the Nolans and Goyer employed four villains who had already appeared in the Burton and Schumacher Bat-films – the Joker, Two-Face, Bane, and Catwoman – and gave them bold new life thanks to their imaginative writing and the inspired, memorable performances Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Tom Hardy, and Anne Hathaway, respectively. Ledger, who died seven months before the theatrical release of The Dark Knight, even won a posthumous Best Supporting Actor Oscar, the first time in film history that such an honor was bestowed upon a comic book-based feature. Continuing the series would allow for the filmmakers to pit Batman against members of his rogues gallery, the finest in comics history, who have never been afforded the opportunity to strut their stuff on celluloid: the Ventriloquist/Scarface, Killer Croc, the Mad Hatter, Clayface, Black Mask, and Hugo Strange to name a few. They could even bring in the Riddler and the Penguin and make them frightening and credible threats again. (See our list of 5 Batman Villains Who Deserved The Christopher Nolan Treatment.)
Plus by keeping the films in the re-envisioned universe of Nolan’s trilogy several of the franchise’s key supporting players could stay on as well. Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman endeared themselves to a new generation of fans in their roles as Gotham Police Commissioner James Gordon and Lucius Fox, Wayne Enterprises’ resident technical genius, respectively. The actors have had their reputations (and bank accounts) increased exponentially since joining the series so there’s no reason why they wouldn’t want to return for more, unless Oldman and Freeman have given public statements or interviews stating the exact opposite. If they did maybe their minds could be changed if the right director inherited Nolan’s old job. Why could that director be?
Gareth Evans did an amazing job directing the recent Indonesian flick The Raid: Redemption. With a great script he could inject some bone-crunching intensity and 100 percent pure adrenaline into the action sequences. How about Rupert Wyatt, the British director whose Rise of the Planet of the Apes revived another moribund franchise much like Nolan did with the Batman franchise? The same could be said for Brad Bird, the Pixar golden boy who made his smashing live-action debut last year with the acclaimed global blockbuster Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, and you’d know he’d go hog wild shooting in IMAX. Joe Cornish has been piling up high-profile directing assignments since his directorial bow Attack the Block amazed audiences and critics around the world last year. Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn blasted his way through American cinemas with his polarizing crime drama Drive, a feast of delirious pulp thrills made for a fraction of the budget of a typical Hollywood blockbuster. Refn has been in talks for several major movie projects since then and was rumored to be eyeing the director’s chair on an adaptation of another classic DC Comics hero, Wonder Woman, and a new version of the visionary sci-fi novel Logan’s Run.
Personally I would hand the gig over to James Gunn, the former writer for Troma Films who broke into the mainstream with scripts for the live-action Scooby-Doo movies and the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead. In 2006 he made his first feature as a director, the low-budget sci-fi horror-comedy Slither, and he followed that up five years later with the gonzo superhero spoof Super. In Super Gunn told the story of an ordinary man driven by a religious vision to become a skull-crushing vigilante and bring righteous justice to the law-breaking scum who infested his city. Amidst the pitch-black comedy and bloodshed Gunn was cleverly subverting the superhero movie genre unlike the fun but overrated Kick-Ass, released the previous year. That movie’s director Matthew Vaughn used the success of Kick-Ass as a springboard for bigger projects and soon found himself at the helm of X-Men: First Class, the well-received prequel to the popular film franchise based on the iconic Marvel Comics characters.
Christopher Nolan started out as a director of independent films like Following and Memento, the movie that launched his career into the big time. In fact, Sam Raimi, Bryan Singer, Ang Lee, Kenneth Branagh, and Jon Favreau all started out working in the world of micro-budgeted cinema before they hit the big time. Indie filmmakers know how to put every dollar on screen and place the emphasis on their characters and stories. James Gunn has earned the right to play with the world’s greatest train set. The fans adore him, the critics think he’s the shit, and there’s no way the man won’t do an A-number-one job if given the chance.
Then there’s the big draw for Warner Bros.: the studio has reignited their long-dormant plans for a Justice League movie and want to make sure their flagship heroes Superman and Batman are on board. Nolan has stated in the past that he will have no involvement in such an endeavor – though he could always change his mind [$$$$] – and Bale has echoed those sentiments. But lead actors without much industry clout in those coveted roles would probably be a little more inclined to unite their franchises and headline an all-star superteam motion picture. That doesn’t mean they will, but if Gordon-Levitt were to be retained as Batman and convinced to co-star with current Supes Henry Cavill in a Justice League film that would save Warner Bros. the trouble of recasting the parts and avoiding confusion among moviegoers. Marvel Films laid the groundwork for their mega-successful The Avengers several years ago by planning the movie way in advance and locking the stars of their individual superhero movies into the project even before a director was hired. DC and Warners want a piece of that sweet action their rivals are still reaping, so they’re going to have to follow the same proven formula if they expect to get a Justice League movie into theaters before the end of the decade. It worked for Marvel, it could work for DC.
There you have it folks, my grand plan for the future of the Batman film franchise. It’s not much of an idea and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who has thought of this, but it would make the necessity of a reboot a distant memory and transform the most perfectly-realized comic book universe ever seen on the big screen into a healthy and long-running series of films that could sustain itself well into the next decade. I would definitely prefer this approach instead of another retread of Bruce Wayne’s origin story, new actors shoehorned into familiar roles that have become calling cards for greater performers, and seeing the spectacular work by Christopher Nolan and his brilliant cast and crew demolished to make room for a cheap and pale imitation. Batman deserves better than that.