How Michael Keaton Can Retool the DC Film Universe

Batman - 1989- Michael Keaton- Photofest still - H 2020
Warner Bros./Photofest
The trailblazing comic book movie actor has the chance to open the door to the multiverse nearly 30 years after retiring the cape and cowl.

Holy Flashpoint, Batman! In news that was impossible to see coming from any direction, Michael Keaton will once again don the iconic cape and cowl in Andy Muschietti’s upcoming The Flash, starring Ezra Miller. Keaton, famous for playing Bruce Wayne/Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), is in talks to reprise the role in more DC films beyond The Flash, becoming an integral part of the DC film universe as the franchise opens up the doors to the multiverse.

Keaton, who stepped away from superhero films after Returns, even parodying his tiresome association with the superhero in the Oscar-nominated dark comedy Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), famously made his return to the world of comic books with the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). With the door open for Keaton to return as Adrian Toomes/the Vulture in future Sony-produced Spider-Man films (he's already set to appear as the character in next year’s Morbius), the actor has his feet firmly planted in multiple comic book worlds. The news of his return as Batman opens up numerous possibilities and questions as Warner Bros. looks to deliver on the full potential of its DC library and properties.

After Muschietti's ambitious two-part adaptation of Stephen King's It, it only makes sense that he would swing for the fences with his Flash film. Scripted by Christina Hodson (Birds of Prey), The Flash is said to be significantly inspired by Geoff Johns and Andy Kubert's Flashpoint (2011) event series, which saw Barry Allen thrust into an alternate reality after the Reverse-Flash alters the timeline in order to get revenge on his nemesis. Within this alternate timeline, Cyborg is the world’s greatest hero, while Aquaman and Wonder Woman war for control over the world. Superman wasn't found by the Kents but government scientists who kept him in isolation away from the sun, where he grew up emaciated and powerless. And Bruce Wayne was killed instead of his parents in Crime Alley, leading Thomas Wayne to become Batman and Martha this universe's Joker.

Beyond the central event series, a number of miniseries fleshed out this world, creating a reality rich with possibilities, one that DC fans have hoped to see brought to life on the big screen one day, following an animated adaptation, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox (2013), and a very loose adaptation on The CW's Flash series in 2016.

There's been plenty of speculation about the chance of the Flashpoint world coming to the DC movies, especially given the casting of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan as Thomas and Martha Wayne in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), who are dead-ringers for Flashpoint's depiction of Batman and Joker. Rumors pointing to Morgan's reprisal of Thomas Wayne have circulated for months, as have fan hopes that Cyborg (Ray Fisher) would return. If the film incorporates the warring alternate versions of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, The Flash could be far more of an event film than previously expected, falling much closer to the character count and scale of Captain America: Civil War (2016) than Doctor Strange (2016) for comparison's sake. It would seem that Warner Bros. has seen the potential of having multiple iterations of its characters existing simultaneously, an area that DC Comics has thrived on for decades.

The comic book multiverse is the next "big idea" in superhero movies and television, with Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) leading the way, followed by The CW's Crisis on Infinite Earths last year, and the upcoming The Flash and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. For Warner Bros., which has been in the superhero movie game the longest, there's perhaps no better response to the dissenting opinions about the best and most accurate version of DC's most iconic characters than to allow all of them to exist simultaneously. This means Keaton's Batman, Affleck's Batman and Robert Pattinson's Batman can all stand on equal footing. And if that’s the case, then hopefully this all-encompassing approach extends to characters beyond Batman.

So how will Keaton's Batman fit in, and what role will he serve in the DC film universe? Burton's movies will presumably exist within a separately established timeline, and perhaps the Batman from that universe will be brought into the current DC film universe by way of Miller's Barry Allen. What's interesting about this is that it provides a means for Batman to continue to exist in the DC film universe established by Zack Snyder. With Zack Snyder’s Justice League arriving on HBO Max next year and serving as Ben Affleck's final turn as Batman, questions about the continuation of this franchise and continuity were raised given Affleck's retirement from the role. While some fans suggested The Flash could provide the means for Pattinson's Batman to join Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman and Jason Momoa's Aquaman in future Justice League films, all current signs point to Reeves' proposed trilogy being stand-alone akin to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight trilogy. But now, it seems likely, given the word that Keaton's Batman will be in multiple films, that any future team-ups of the JL will feature the Tim Burton version of Batman. So what happens to Affleck's Batman? Well, Snyder's original five-film arc had Batman sacrificing himself at the end. Perhaps the events of his death will be moved up and he'll fall victim to Darkseid, as he did in Grant Morrison's Final Crisis. This would give the character, and Affleck, a proper sendoff without creating a continuity conflict, or a world without a Batman.

Keaton's Batman is expected to serve in a mentor role, perhaps showing up in Batgirl, a project also being penned by The Flash screenwriter Christina Hodson. It's easy to imagine his role in this regard being similar to Bruce Wayne's in the animated Batman Beyond, though Keaton, younger than that series' Bruce Wayne, would likely still be able to get in on the action. It's impossible not to wonder if Keaton's role in the DC movie universe also promises a return of other familiar faces from Burton's Batman films. As awesome as it would be, there's a slim to none chance that Jack Nicholson would come out of retirement to portray the Joker once more, but the possibility of Michelle Pfeiffer returning as Selina Kyle seems possible given the actor's interest in reprising the role over the years.

For decades it felt like Warner Bros. was only scratching the surface with its DC properties or playing catch-up, but now they have the opportunity to dig deeper than they ever have before, and tell stories impossible for Marvel Studios to tell in the same way. Warner Bros. has the benefit of multiple iconic versions of their characters, and rather than let that be a means to divide and confuse the goals of their cinematic universe, it's now a means to celebrate its infinite possibilities.