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Author: Mark Hughes
April 8, 2011
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By now, we’ve all heard the news: THE DARK KNIGHT RISES won’t just be Christopher Nolan’s final Batman film, it will be the end of the current Batman franchise, and after this film Warner Bros. will wait a while and then reboot the whole franchise again. Meanwhile, WB plans to develop a Justice League film that will include Batman.

There are some fans who are excited about a Justice League film, and who want it to contain Batman, so the news about the Batman franchise is only of secondary importance to them. For other fans, they rejoice because they aren’t as fond of the Nolanverse Batman as most of the rest of the public and fans, so they look forward to a reboot that might make the films more fantastical in nature and ditch the “illusionary realism” of Nolan’s Batman.

But for most Batman fans, and for the mainstream public, this is bad news.

Really bad news.

Because the current franchise is the best -- not just the best Batman, which it is, but the best comic book and superhero adaptations, transcending the genre and building a world for Batman that we want to see explored in far greater detail and that sets a foundation upon which a great, long-term series could be built.

From every direction you look at it, this is a baffling decision. WB is going to shut down the most critically acclaimed, most popular, and most excitingly original franchise with the most promise of long-term viability in the entire genre -- a genre that dominates the box office and is only just getting started. On every level, it seems, the best decision would be continuation of the Nolanverse as the foundation for future Batman films.

I know many people argue that once Nolan leaves, nobody would want to follow in his footsteps to continue the series. However, that logic applies to a reboot as well -- in fact, it should apply even more to a reboot, which will have to not just follow Nolan, but actually top Nolan’s films in the establishment of a new Batman mythos after the Nolanverse set up a nearly perfect beginning.

Another argument is that removing the Nolanverse allows new filmmakers more latitude and creative freedom to make Batman their own way. This, I feel, is a weak argument that assumes these supposedly talented filmmakers are not creative enough to operate with what would in fact be a pretty flexible framework of the Nolan verse -- it takes far more creativity and originality to adapt characters in ways that make them appear to work in a more illusionary realistic environment, than to simply lift them right off the page of the comics, for example. A counter point to this has been the claim that a reboot can still attempt to retain the popular notion of illusionary realism, but just a less strict version of it. However, one of the biggest mistakes any reboot could make would be to try to once again go for illusionary realism and come across as mimicking what Nolan did. If they are going to reboot, then they better make it obvious why a reboot was necessary in the first place.

The only other reason anyone can seriously offer for a reboot (besides “nobody will follow Nolan” or “it’s the only way to give filmmakers creative freedom”) that makes any sense, in my opinion, is if Nolan plans something for the next film that would make it impossible to continue his existing franchise. And that means, of course, killing Batman or having him retire. If Batman retires, then that’s easy enough to undo with a new film, so really only a death would be a solid reason to end the franchise. (I don’t think “Batman gets caught” will happen because it isn’t enough of a true resolution if Nolan is trying for a real ending to his storylines).

I have a great deal of trouble believing Nolan would seriously kill Batman off, for a number of reasons. First, Nolan has always shown a lot of care for the fate of his characters and where they might go after his films end, and I feel that he has built toward a heroic redemption for Batman not just as a man, but as a symbol, and fulfillment of that destiny seems slighted if it’s achieved via death. I know we have no idea yet what the story details and many themes will be of the upcoming film, but based on what we know so far about the character and themes and Nolan’s style and choices, I don’t feel a death fits with the fulfillment of Batman’s arc.

Second, Nolan set up some concepts that speak toward continuation of Batman’s life and role in Gotham, and I don’t feel he will ignore or abandon that, as would clearly be the case in any death storyline for Batman. Rachel’s message that there will never be a time when Bruce doesn’t need to be Batman, The Joker’s message that they are destined to battle for Gotham’s soul forever, the message that Batman is the hero Gotham deserves but not the one it needs yet, are all examples of foreshadowing a destiny in which Bruce retains his role as Batman because he needs to always fight for Gotham’s soul as a reflection of fighting for his own soul and for his parents’ memory, and he will never give up that fight however impossible the odds might sometimes seem. Bruce needs Gotham as much as Gotham needs Batman, and the battle reflects that and must continue forever, as another example of fulfillment of Batman’s arc (“fulfillment” being that he accepts his destiny and begins to prepare fully for it, which by the way has other implications I’ll get to shortly).

Third, I don’t feel Nolan will kill off Batman because quite frankly, it would mean a Batman world in which most of his villains and most his entire epic history in Gotham, and many important supporting characters, never even existed despite how crucial they are to the mythos and how easily they could fit into the Nolanverse. To end Batman’s career so totally by ending his life means that when the credits role, fans cannot imagine that left out there in the unseen future is a day when Batman meets those other characters and challenges, and it relegates his entire career to a few years, total, in which Batman never became the truly seasoned expert crime fighter he’s been slowly becoming through the films so far. While some fans would argue that he became that seasoned expert in THE DARK KNIGHT, I would strenuously argue that in fact he still had not fully grasped the new type of criminal mind in Gotham, was still learning how to deal with them, and only first faced the sort of challenge that would shape him into that future crime fighter who fully understands the limitations of his “rules” and how to fight the emerging criminal threats in Gotham. If he doesn’t become that crime fighter, in some eventual future after the credits role, then his arc still isn’t fulfilled.

Lastly, I don’t think Nolan will kill off Batman because I think he’s been involved in this franchise and with fans enough to know how upset most fans and audiences would be if he kills Batman. I understand all of the arguments for how big and epic and dramatic and well-written and awesome it might be on film, but ultimately if the credits role over a dead Batman, then I am convinced a large segment of the audience and fans will rebel and say, “It doesn’t matter how well done it was, it’s a well done version of something I still don’t like, which is a dead Batman!”

I trust Nolan’s judgment, and I trust his ability to create magnificent films that fulfill character arcs and speak to the core of those characters and stories. And it’s because I trust him so much that I don’t believe he will kill off Batman.

But I could be wrong, and it’s the only way I can imagine WB agreeing to ditch the existing franchise. There is still far too much potential with far too many other characters to simply end the series after only three films. From a business perspective, if you create a product that is this widely loved and financially successful, and that sets up future successful products (films), it just doesn’t seem to make any sense to end it. Unless the filmmaker insists, unless he says he will only return for a third installment if it’s the final film in the series he created. That’s the only way I can possibly imagine WB agreeing to end the franchise after only three films.

What this tells me is that a lot of this decision probably centers around Justice League. WB wants to make that film, but agreed to postpone it until Nolan was done with his Batman films. Nolan wants to protect his Batman series from any influence/spill-over/incorporation/etc. with Justice League. So a deal was hatched -- Nolan comes back for one more Batman film, but WB agrees to let him end his Batman franchise so it will remain forever apart from any future decisions with Justice League and Batman. Nolan gets to finish his series, WB get a final Nolan film, fans get a complete Nolan Batman trilogy, WB gets to make their Justice League film, and some fans get the promise of a new type of Batman film series down the road while fans of the existing series get the promise of Nolan producing those future films. I can see why this appears to have “a little something for everyone” and might appeal to Nolan and the studio and to some fans.

But I think it’s a mistake, and I’ll tell you why. Everything there could still be achieved without rebooting the franchise, including offering Nolan protections for his stories. I want to stress one more time that we are talking about the most critically acclaimed, most widely popular superhero series at this time in history. It remade the perception of what this genre could be, it caused a big restructuring of the Academy Awards nominations, it made more than one billion dollars, it set a long list of box office records, and it has so far only used a handful of the potential characters and stories. If WB can find a way to continue that kind of series, then it makes absolute sense to continue it, from a business and artistic perspective. How, then, can they do so, while fulfilling the above-noted considerations to try to give “A little something for everyone?” Let’s take a look.

Some of it is easy -- Nolan making another film, Nolan finishing his series, and fans getting a complete Nolan trilogy are all inherent in Nolan making this third film. Likewise, if future films in the franchise retained the very basic background of Nolan’s Batman and assumed “the first three films happened, but now we can expand and explore a wider universe and push the envelope” then plenty of Nolanized villains could come into the series (I already discussed some ways to do this in a previous op-ed) while some others could push the boundaries of the fantastical at times, in order to start introducing the idea of a wider, more eerie world. Going from point A to point B would not be difficult at all, any more than it’s hard to make horror or sci-fi/fantasy films that start off in the supposed “real world” before the fantastical elements begin to appear. So, people wanting a less strict illusionary realism can still get that promise of a different kind of Batman even while the series retains the Nolan history.

What’s left is the Justice League situation and those few points related to keeping Nolan’s films “safe” while allowing for a Justice League film that doesn’t impact the Batman franchise. I feel that there are numerous ways to deal with this that would be ideal, even if I accept the operating notion that Batman has to be in the Justice League film (I assume that’s an absolute mandate from WB) and it has to be set in a time and place where sequels are possible and Batman is in his prime (as opposed to a retired, middle-aged Batman). The easiest option is to create a Justice League that has its own feel and imagery and characterization, so far removed from the Batman franchise that its’ clear this is a different character.

While I personally have reservations about it, if Batman has to be in the film and it’s a question of how to do this in a way that avoids any mixing of the two on-screen Batmen, just go the obvious route of firmly and immediately establishing them as totally different in every way -- put the Justice League Batman in a suit that uses cloth, that has the yellow oval, that includes trunks, etc. Give him the calculating master-genius-planner personality who is always calm and cool, and make his abilities far more like watching James Bond in the 1990s (“There’s no real way any dude could know and do all of that, but he’s awesome anyway”). Then give him a clear past -- show him training at home, studying science and law, etc. in college, all in maybe 20 seconds of flashback where he’s talking about how and why he became Batman, so we know “This isn’t the Batman who trained with Ra’s al Ghul,” and even show a flash of him droppingTthe Red Hood into a vat of chemicals to create a Joker who lacks the cut-smile and who is “perma-white.”

The combination of the extremely different physical appearance, the very different personality and methodology, and investing 20 seconds to establish his past as completely different, will be about as much as anyone can do to separate the Justice League Batman from the solo-franchise Batman. Then, just make sure to release them in totally different years, with a marketing campaign designed to firmly differentiate between the franchises. Since they are already talking about the Justice League films still being separate from the solo franchises even after a Batman franchise reboot, that means there will still be two different Batmen on film anyway -- so the only issue is making sure Nolan accepts that the Justice League Batman won’t in any way interfere with the solo Batman, and that a clear distinction will exist. If Nolan is willing to continue producing future Batman films that are apart from the Justice League films, then I feel there has to be room to compromise on the nature of those future solo Batman films, and it must be possible to show him how the franchise can continue with the Nolanverse as its foundation while the separate Justice League films keep a safe distance.

There is so much potential left in the Nolanverse, it is so incredibly popular with mainstream audiences and fans, it is so critically acclaimed, that I am stunned WB is planning to end it. I think that the oft-noted problem of “confusion” among fans is clearly only going to be far worse, because not only will they be introducing a Justice League Batman, they will also be starting over with yet another new Batman in the solo films as well. If there was concern over audiences mixing up the Nolan Batman with the Justice League Batman, how can anyone think that a reboot will decrease confusion instead of increasing it?

There is far too much left to say and do in the Nolanverse. Imagine a David Fincher Batman film that uses Nolan’s films as their “history” but takes a new, creepy crime-thriller direction akin to SE7EN or ZODIAC, using Calendar Man and Clayface, for example. Imagine a Guy Ritchie Batman film with The Penguin and The Riddler blowing Gotham apart in their attempts to destroy one another. Imagine Guillermo del Toro’s Batman film adapting a mix of “Monster Men” and “Prey” perhaps. And what if Terry Gilliam came in to do a Batman film with Mr. Freeze? Take my Nolanized versions of these characters as a starting point, and let those directors go wild, and I can imagine an incredible run of films that retain the basic framework of the Nolanverse but go wild with it. That’s three or four great Batman films, if we got one film from each filmmaker.

And that’s without the obvious chance to bring back The Joker (in a Fincher trilogy of films, ideally) and the fan-dream of a returning Two-Face (Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese in an all-out “Two-Face goes to war against the mobs” storyline). Add those two concepts into the mix, and we’re talking about at least half a dozen great stories to tell in this series, fitting wonderfully into the existing continuity.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, there’s a point about Batman’s future and destiny, as it relates to why Batman shouldn’t be killed off and should be seen to have a long future in which he prepares for his eternal role as Gotham’s savior. Whatever some of us might think about the concept of a sidekick, there should be very little doubt that Robin is a pretty major part of Batman’s history, and that he does in fact bring a very important and dramatic element to Batman’s arc and his consideration of his future in Gotham. I won’t go into all of the nuances here, but suffice to say that while I prefer solo-Batman and never liked kid sidekicks, I also think that inevitably Batman needs to have a Robin in his future – even if the Nolan film have to be a total ending, they should keep Batman alive just so we know that, among the future events in his destiny, somewhere out there is Robin.

Continuing the franchise allows for at least one film to eventually consider and address the Robin matter, in a way that it should be addressed on film. Robin is too significant a core element of Batman’s mythos, to exclude from any series that has a chance to be a truly definitive adaptation of Batman. So I would argue that along with all of the other reasons for keeping the Nolanverse alive, is the point that it is in fact probably the single best framework in which to explore the best version of Robin in the best story to consider how and why he comes into the stories, and most importantly how and why he exists the stories.

The future of Batman on film is, in the immediate future grand -- another Nolan film, an epic storyline, great characters, and the fulfillment of a trilogy. But the long-term future is in question, and for now we hear that WB has plans to end this amazing series just when it’s really established itself as the finest, most popular, most critically acclaimed series in the genre. It has so much potential to remain not just the best, but to keep pushing boundaries and setting new standards.

With that in mind, why would anyone want to bring such a franchise to a close? I think it’s a mistake, and I am hopeful that with time and a lot of fan energy, we can perhaps convince Nolan and WB to rethink their plans and keep the Nolanverse alive

Longtime BOF'er and site contributor Mark Hughes is a screenwriter living in Maryland.
He is an avid film fan and a longtime collector and reader of comics.

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