What Kind of Batman Does the Next Movie Need?
Last week came word that Matt Reeves' The Batman has a finished script, and that while it is still undergoing some tweaks, is aiming to start shooting in November. There's been a lot of "will he?/won’t he?" speculation in regards to Ben Affleck re-donning the cape and cowl. The actor-director, who was previously set to write and direct The Batman before stepping down nearly two years ago, has a number of projects lined up, including starring in the recently announced I Am Still Alive. This isn't to say that Affleck won't return as Batman, but reading the tea leaves and the frequently circulating rumors that Reeves' script will feature a younger Batman, it seems safe to assume we'll see casting news for a new Bruce Wayne/Batman this year. Blogs have thoroughly mined the question of Affleck's return for the past year, and it's not particularly interesting. What is interesting is considering what kind of Batman Reeves' film will feature, whether he be played by Affleck or a newcomer.
The great thing about Batman is that he's versatile. Put him in any situation, any time period, any tone, and the character still works. The character celebrates his 80th anniversary this March, and across those eight decades, the character has been stretched, pulled and reconstituted. He's a silly-putty hero built for changes that readers and audiences embrace more often than not. On film, we've had a good run of Batmen, which has highlighted different aspects of the character that speak to his overall appeal. From Leslie H. Martinson, Tim Burton, Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski, Christopher Nolan, Zack Snyder and yes, even Joel Schumacher, we've had filmmakers who emphasized significant traits of the comic book hero and make us consider why Batman has lasted so long. Reeves doesn't face an easy task. Unlike the box office sensations Wonder Woman or Aquaman, who didn't have solo movies behind them, Batman has a wealth of good to great adaptations that have all offered something unique. Martinson gave us the camp Batman of the '60s, Burton the gothic fairy tale, Timm and Radomski the timelessness, Schumacher the queer camp comedy, Nolan the mediation on man and myth, and Snyder the psychological consideration of Batman's failures.
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For Reeves, the question of who will be his Batman will undoubtedly come down to what kind of Batman he wants to present. If Affleck actually does return, his Batman in Reeves' film won't be the same one we saw in Snyder's film, even if they are part of the same universe. Liken it to the differences between Frank Miller's Batman and Grant Morrison's Batman — still the same character, existing in the same universe, but handled very differently and possessed by different demons. In terms of distinct and directly traceable modern impact, Miller and Morrison are the best place to start in our consideration of the contemporary Batman and what a new take on the character could offer. Miller, who helped redefine Batman in the pages of The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987) took a very grounded approach to the character, one that still operated on comic book logic but offered a film noir aesthetic and rouges that felt born of Warner Bros.' classic gangster movies like White Heat (1949). In many of the Batman stories that followed, Miller aimed for a similar tone, grounding him in urban sprawl and criminals that, while super-powered, weren't so distant from our reality that they shattered the illusion that Batman could reasonably exist in a world not unlike our own, Justice League membership and alien invasions be damned. Burton, Timm and Radomski, Nolan, and Snyder all drew from Miller's Batman to varying degrees. Arguably, Miller's Batman is the most oft-utilized source material when it comes to film adaptations.
Morrison, who took over Batman in 2007 for a six-year run, took the approach that every Batman story was canon. He didn't buy into the idea that modern Batman stories had to use Year One as their starting point, but that everything since Detective Comics #27 (1939) was canon. This meant that Batman had fought aliens, been to alternate dimensions, created back-up personalities, worn a zebra costume, and had a son. Morrison's Batman wasn't a man, but a child playing dress-up, whose Batcave was an expensive clubhouse and a means to forge the connections denied to him as a child. If Miller's Batman was Clint Eastwood, then Morrison's was Michael Jackson. It's this Batman, a Batman who evolves within arcs, who faces demons and parallel realities, who time travels, and is at moments grim to the point of being humorous, as seen in the current Batman titles by Scott Snyder, Tom King and Peter J. Tomasi. This distinction between Miller and Morrison is necessary because it's at the center of considering what kind of Batman we want to see onscreen.
It's unknown yet whether Reeves' The Batman will take place in the DC cinematic universe continuity, or if it will be a separate entity a la Todd Phillips' Joker. If it's the former, fans online have suggested having Affleck provide voiceover narration to bookend a story set in the early days of Batman's career. That could work, but it also would limit casting to someone who looks like a young Ben Affleck. While de-aging technology has come a long way, it's doubtful that a case could be made for the expense of de-aging Affleck for an entire film. So putting Affleck to the side for now, we're left to consider whether we want a singular take on Batman, one that places a specific take on the character above all others or if we want a more comprehensive Batman that relies on the strange and obscure.
While we've gotten shades of Miller's Batman, we've never gotten him in full — which, given his fascist tendencies, might be a good thing. It's easy to imagine an up-and-coming action star like Scott Eastwood, Scott Adkins or Richard Madden taking on the gravitas and physicality of Batman should Reeves once again rely most predominantly on Miller's Batman. But Reeves is a filmmaker interested in psychological damage. From Cloverfield (2008) to Let Me In (2010) and his Planet of the Apes films (2014, 2017), Reeves has shown an interest in exploring the toll of lives lived under duress and the worst of circumstances. With this in mind, it seems likely Reeves will be the filmmaker to push beyond Miller, not into camp, but into a world for a Batman stranger and more unexpected than any we've seen before, and hopefully one that leaves room for Robin and the rest of the Bat-family.
The best Batman actors — Adam West, Michael Keaton, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck — were all unexpected choices. It wouldn't be surprising if Reeves continues this trend. To navigate a strange world, Reeves would be best paired with an actor that has tics, an uncanny quality that suggests a man grappling not just with a battered body, but a battered mind. Jake Gyllenhaal has been an online favorite, though his involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Spider-Man: Far From Home may have nipped that in the bud. But the qualities that led his fans to suggest him for Batman in the first place are on point. Oscar Isaac and Rami Malek would be similarly suited for a Batman that relies more so on the psychosocial and detective aspects of the character. Both actors could just as easily play Batman villains, and that's an interesting line of madness that hasn't really been explored in full within the films. Burton touched on it a little, but his interest was more in the antagonists than Batman himself. And Snyder did to a degree, though we didn't see him interact with his rogues in order to fully cement that point. Reeves has the opportunity to really make us question the mental state of the Batman, like some of the character's best stories have done. Whoever plays Batman should be given the chance to fully explore him not simply as a superhero, but as a lonely man-child who happens to be one of the world's smartest people and devotes his time to dressing up like a bat and collecting trophies from men and women in costumes. It's time to see a Batman actor who's equipped to explore the madness of Batman. To quote Keaton's Bruce Wayne, "Let's get nuts!"
by Graeme McMillan