How 'The Batman' Director Could Craft a Detective Superhero Movie

Batman Zero Year - Publicity - H 2019
Greg Capullo/DC
What could a movie look like where The Dark Knight is a sleuth, and whom should he face off against?

Matt Reeves’ Batman movie will be the ninth solo outing for the DC superhero in his 80-year career, and it will offer a take that hasn't been seen in big-screen adaptations of the hero.

"It's very much a point-of-view-driven, noir Batman tale," Reeves told The Hollywood Reporter's West Coast TV editor Lesley Goldberg as part of a Creative Space interview published Wednesday. "It's told very squarely on his shoulders, and I hope it's going to be a story that will be thrilling but also emotional."

Reeves continued by touting the detective aspect of the tale: "It's more Batman in his detective mode than we've seen in the films. The comics have a history of that. He's supposed to be the world's greatest detective, and that's not necessarily been a part of what the movies have been. I'd love this to be one where when we go on that journey of tracking down the criminals and trying to solve a crime, it's going to allow his character to have an arc so that he can go through a transformation."

Sure enough, the comic book Batman is often referred to as “The World’s Greatest Detective,” a fact that’s been pretty much ignored to this point in his cinematic incarnations; ironically, outside of the 1990s animated series, perhaps the most detection-heavy version of Batman to appear onscreen might be the 1960s series starring Adam West.

The reason for this is pretty obvious: Detective work isn’t necessarily very visual, and given the choice between punching villains and showing a man in a bat mask furrowing his brow while he thinks about things a lot, it’s understandable that the Movie Batmen of the past 50-plus years have tended to eschew the heavy mental lifting for the heavy physical lifting that makes a Bat jacked.

Reeves appears to want to change that, and the mention of noir is telling; he may be planning to draw visual inspiration from the classic film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s to replace the spectacle of supervillain fights, a fitting — if ironic — selection, given the inspiration Batman has taken from film noir throughout the years, acknowledged or otherwise, not to mention the lifting of the term for a line of black-and-white reprint collections. (Indeed, if you can’t make a striking noir-esque visual from a man with a bat-silhouette, you’re barely trying.)

In the noir genre, of course, detective stories are commonplace, and this could allow Bruce Wayne’s more analytical side to finally flourish on the big screen. What this means for the storyline of the movie could be interesting, however; for all the fun of the hero’s many comic book villains, few would fit into a traditional detective story — good luck trying to make Man-Bat or Kite-Man fit in easily — but would audiences really be into watching a Batman movie devoid of any supervillain threat? (Reeves has said there will be a rogues gallery of villains.)

The solution might be found in the pages of the 2011 Batman comic book series, and in particular, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s “Zero Year” story arc. Ostensibly a retelling of the beginning of Batman’s career, the story works even better as a reimagining of the origin of the Riddler that transforms him from the occasional figure of fun that he was in the past into a much greater threat to Batman for one simple reason: He’s arguably the one man who can out-think the superhero, and he knows it. Indeed, the conflict between the two is played out as an intellectual conflict that just happens to involve the villain taking over the city more or less as a by-product.

Using the Riddler as a villain would allow Reeves to keep the movie grounded — he has no superpowers, nor even the fantastic visage of the Joker; he’s just someone that’s particularly smart — and also give the story a supervillain to use that pushes the hero to rely on detective work and his brain to save the day. If done right — and I’d argue that Snyder and Capullo’s “Zero Year” is an example of doing it right — the mental gymnastics can be balanced by stunts and set pieces as part of the Riddler’s various plans. The comic includes Gotham City being flooded and left a post-apocalyptic shell, albeit temporarily. Why not do something similar in the film?

That said, whether or not Reeves chooses to use the Riddler or some other villain, or avoids the familiar supervillains altogether in favor of something entirely different, the very fact that movie audiences will get to see that Bruce Wayne’s training involving more than simply learning new ways to fight promises that there could be something uniquely exciting about the next Batman movie — and a reason for it to exist beyond simply brand maintenance.

Speaking of villains, given that Reeves is planning on multiple foes, it's worth noting that of all the superheroes in comic books, Batman has perhaps the best rogues gallery of all, with the arguable exception of Marvel’s Spider-Man or DC’s Flash. It’s not simply that the Caped Crusader has some of the biggest names in supervillainy — Catwoman, the Riddler, the Penguin, and many, many more, not to mention, is there really a supervillain more famous than the Joker? — but the depth of the Bat-bench is pretty much unparalleled. Consider the fact that, of Christopher Nolan’s three Dark Knight movies, two of them feature bad guys that are, technically, second-tier when it comes to the Batman mythos, or at least latecomers.

Ra’s Al Ghul and Bane fans, I apologize, but it’s not untrue; both appeared decades into Batman’s comic book career, in 1971 and 1993, respectively, and have far fewer appearances than, say, the Joker or Catwoman, both of whom have also anchored their own comic book series — and, with the release of this year’s Joaquin Phoenix vehicle, their own movies, too.

That said, the notion of a pic featuring a “rogues gallery” is a curious concept. Fans have already had at least one, with the 1966 Adam West movie featuring a gaggle of no-gooders including the Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler and Joker as well as assorted henchmen. In theory, many of the 1990s films could count as well, in that they featured team-ups of bad guys in every installment, but surely a rogues gallery of villains in one movie would mean more than just two working in conjunction with each other…? (And, no, that doesn’t mean the three-villain pileup of 1997’s Batman & Robin.)

There are at least three approaches such a movie could take, drawn from the comic book past of the Dark Knight:

All the Villains Are Working Together as Equals
Who doesn’t love a good team-up between bad guys? Especially when there’s an inevitable double-cross down the line when things start going south. There’s a long history of bad guys working together in comic books, and outside of big-name villain teams — most famously, in DC comics lore, the Suicide Squad, the Secret Society of Super-Villains and the Injustice League — there are multiple groups of minor villains who work together to cause trouble in Gotham City. Might we finally be about to see the cinematic debut of the Royal Flush Gang or the Misfits…? Probably not, but we can dream…

All the Villains Are Working for a Mysterious Big Boss
This is a surprisingly common trope, perhaps most famously used in the 1990s storyline “Knightfall,” wherein Bane freed all of the inmates of Arkham Asylum as part of a plan to wear Batman down in advance of his own showdown with the Dark Knight. It’s a good format to use when attempting to juggle a large number of villains and also a core narrative; if there are that many bad guys, what’s the plot that puts them all in play? Why, they’re all being used by an ever bigger bad guy for their own purpose, and they might not even know about it. (As is the case in “Knightfall”; Tom King’s current Batman comic book run goes the other route, showing multiple examples of villains gathering together intentionally under someone else’s guidance because of the shared objective of screwing with their common enemy.)

All the Villains Are Separate, and The Batman Has to Deal With Them All at the Same Time
Of course, having a rogues gallery doesn’t have to mean everyone’s working together. If Reeves wanted to be ambitious, he could include multiple plotlines featuring their own villains that Batman has to deal with simultaneously thanks to a number of unfortunate coincidences in Gotham on a particularly bad night. It might be messy, but that could be the purpose. After all, what are the odds that all of the different criminals are sharing the same Google Calendar to make sure that their fights with Batman don’t conflict? Crime should be just a little chaotic, especially considering some of the ne’er-do-wells that Batman has to deal with. Think of it as reading a year’s worth of Batman comics in one two-hour cinematic sitting, only without the ads in between.

Which is the better route? It all depends on personal taste, and just how willing Warner Bros. and DC are to open their pocketbooks to pay for as many actors as needed. But for my money, it’d be fun to see Batman have to deal with the organized trouble of the middle option, just to see how he manages it.