A surprising truth: Batman Begins, 2005's $150 million comic book reboot of the famed Caped Crusader, only grossed $205 million at the domestic box office. That's a meager amount in terms of Hollywood blockbusters — for comparison, the movie was eventually outgrossed by the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Wedding Crashers. But director Christopher Nolan's visionary approach to the comic book property wowed the audiences who took it in, and the film earned more and more respect over time. Eventually, every franchise wanted to get the Batman Begins treatment.
And they did. Famous franchises got passed through the "realistic" filter in hopes of similar success. Casino Royale pulled it off with the greatest of gravitas. Terminator Salvation can barely be recalled. Warner Bros., so impressed by Nolan's three-picture work, put him in the producer's chair for their Superman reboot. His style is all over the recent Man of Steel trailer. Audiences and studios alike love them some Nolan Batman. So after the release of the director's final installment, The Dark Knight Rises, where can Batman go now?
In the '90s, audiences embraced (and eventually stomached) the stylistic approach to The Dark Knight, ripped from the imaginations of directors Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher. The colorful, kooky adventures echoed various stages of the comic book character's history, but by Batman & Robin, the camp had reached dangerous levels. Following in those footsteps, Nolan's stripped-down approach reinvigorated both Batman and the Hollywood blockbuster. Suddenly, "bigger" didn't go hand-in-hand with "ridiculous." Every summer action movie was its own cinematic experience rather than an extended toy commercial. Movies tasted fresh again.
Feeling new and modern is what reboot culture is all about. The Spider-Man franchise tried its hand at the same magic earlier this year, brushing off three films' worth of material in favor of taking on a "new spin" with The Amazing Spider-Man (another film heavily inspired by Nolan's Batman). The experiment was a modest success, but most reviews agreed it wasn't charting new ground. Fearing the wackiness ridiculed in the past, films of the previous decade have kept things grounded, even in their rebooted incarnations. The 2005 and 2007 Fantastic Four movies and 2011's Green Lantern took a stab at mixing things up. Marvel's superheroic family took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the adventure movie, while DC's intergalactic cadet flick filled the screen with otherworldly aliens and CG-heavy fight scenes. The attempts didn't work, so it was back to the Batman method.
That means the Batman franchise itself is in a pickle. When everyone wants to mimic the Bat-model, the Caped Crusader has already punched, kicked, and headbutted his way through three of them. When asked by Hollywood.com for his thoughts on Batman's future incarnations, The Dark Knight Rises producer Michael Uslan turned to the foundation of the comic books that have kept the character alive since the early 20th century. "All I can do is point you back to everything I say about, not about the franchise, but about the character, about the comic books. The comic books have been from one extreme to another — many, many interpretations of Batman and the villains, many different tones, many different artistic takes on it. Whenever there was a new editor or new writers brought in, or new artists, things changed. And somehow, the writers, editors, artists, publishers, at DC, have brought people back every Wednesday since May 1939 to see what’s going to happen next to this character."
The malleability of fandom isn't as tested as playing it safe (see: Amazing Spider-Man's box office). In Uslan's mind, there's no event horizon to establishing a character in pop culture. Batman has not become "too real." Warner Bros., the studio behind the mega-successful Batman pictures, just has to forcefully push the character in a new direction and sell it like gangbusters. If the core of the character is preserved, audiences will flock to a new style.
The perfect example of a reboot done risky and right is Fox's 2011 hit, X-Men: First Class. Incorporating elements from the early days of the comics into the established world built in the first X-Men trilogy, First Class recast the ensemble and took the action back in time. Sixties retro is in (thanks, Mad Men!) and the creative team behind First Class knew it; director Matthew Vaughn's reverse-engineered an origin story took everything we love about the band of mutant heroes and slathered on the kitschy fun. "Realism" was never a question because audiences were having a ball.
Batman has done his fair share of time-jumping. Batman: Gotham Noir saw the character return to his roots as a pulpy detective lurking in the shadows. The '30s are kind to the fantastical elements of Batman — Burton dabbled in them to create his gothic Gotham from the 1989 film — and with steampunk all the rage, Batman's appearance and gadgetry could fit right in. The idea of steering away from the classic Batman take has even been seriously attempted before. In 2000, Warner Bros. commissioned a script from Boaz Yakin (Prince of Persia) and cyberpunk novelist Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon) for a live-action version of Batman Beyond, the successful cartoon property that followed a Batman from the year 2019 (mentored by an elderly Bruce Wayne). With nostalgia for '90s cartoons at an all time high, a comic book series that continues to sell, and a design that stands apart from anything in the Batman movie franchise, eventually bringing Batman Beyond to life is a no-brainer.
The live-action adaptations could also take a page out of DC's Animation playbook. To whet the palettes of diehard Batman fans between big-screen endeavors, DC Animation has steadily crafted adaptations of classic arcs that don't waste time explaining backstory and building setup. Anyone with base Batman knowledge can be immediately thrust into a specific, exciting story. A reboot could take the same approach: sticking with the gritty realism of Nolan's world, WB could adapt Batman: Year One, an even more mature take on the origins of Batman. Or throw everything out the window and just tell a great Batman adventure. The character is known for his detective abilities — he's often portrayed as a Sherlock Holmes-type with a cape — and a simple mystery story starring the Caped Crusader could open up the world to new possibilities.
Nolan played with grand themes and action, but a rebooted Batman could scale things down into an intense, intimate tale. The recent run of DC Comics, dubbed "The Night of the Owls," follows Bruce Wayne as he tracks clues and interrogates goons to discover a secret Illuminati organization that has pulled strings in Gotham since the beginning of its establishment. The "Court of Owls" recruit a band of faceless, seemingly immortal assassins to take down Batman as he uncovers the mystery — it's edge-of-your-seat material from beginning to end. Like so many great Batman stories, what "The Night of the Owls" doesn't have is a recognizable villain. If that's a big push for Warner Bros., the continual resurfacing of familiar faces could quickly turn the Bat-franchise stale.
One move Warner Bros. is definitely taking to keep Batman in the public eye is his inclusion in the proposed Justice League film. There have been failed attempts: Mad Max director George Miller was all set to film Justice League: Mortal in 2008 (with Armie Hammer as The Dark Knight) before the powers that be canned it last minute. But the ultimate DC team-up is once again in motion — the revival following the coattails of The Avengers' massive success — with screenwriter Will Beall (Gangster Squad) taking the latest stab at penning the script. Establishing a new Batman in Justice League is a cautious, logical way to revive the character. Reimagine the hero with a new look and vibe courtesy of a new director and the ensemble-first thinking, then spin him off into his own adventures. The caveat is if DC's vision for Justice League is born from director Zack Snyder's Man of Steel… which looks a lot like Nolan's Batman. If the goal is to segue Henry Cavill's Superman into the cast of Justice League, the end result may be more akin to a Nolan-style Batman.
A Batman reboot isn't an "if," it's a "when." With the opening of The Dark Knight Rises touting one of the biggest weekends of all time, The Dark Knight isn't a character anyone is going to let slip away into the darkness forever. He may disappear away for a few years, but in true Batman spirit… he will return.
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]