Clint Eastwood’s name always comes up when fans discuss a film adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns (FYI: the Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact partly inspired the comic), and he would have been a solid choice — fifteen or twenty years ago. This is a story that could easily encompass its own trilogy, so whoever plays Batman would be committing to the role for the better part of a decade. At eighty years-old, Eastwood is just not going to cut it.

I know Frank Miller liked the idea of Sylvester Stallone in the role, but that feels way off-base to me. I like Stallone, but not as Batman. He’s also already explored this same basic premise with his Rocky and Rambo characters. Oh, and go ahead and add Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis to the list of predictable but entirely unsuitable contenders as well.

Two other names that get tossed around pretty regularly are Kurt Russell and Dennis Quaid. That’s definitely getting closer to the appropriate age range, but I’ve got a few other possibilities for you to mull over.

The first is a suggestion from our Senior Editor Kofi Outlaw — Stephen Lang. He’s not someone I immediately thought of, but I can definitely see the potential. His performance as Col. Quaritch in Avatar was a little two-dimensional, but that wasn’t really his fault. Lang certainly has the right level of intensity and physicality for an aging Caped Crusader, and he comes without the price tag of an A-list actor.

This next one may seem like a left field choice, but if you want someone with serious acting chops who could believably play an older version of Christian Bale’s character — I think his Equilibrium co-star Sean Bean might be able to pull it off.

If they wanted to go just a little bit younger than the names already mentioned (for the sake of sequels), my top two choices would be Josh Brolin (we’ll pretend Jonah Hex never happened) and Russell Crowe (who, while promoting 3:10 to Yuma, admitted to Coming Soon that he was jealous  Bale got to wear the cape). Brolin is 41 and Crowe is 46.

We’re still over a year away from The Dark Knight Rises and they’d probably want to wait at least three years before making a new film. They could age Brolin and Crowe up a bit for the first movie and by the time a third installment came around, Brolin would be just shy of Bruce’s age in the comic and Crowe would be a little older.

Miller’s depiction of Batman/Bruce Wayne is vastly different from the more heroic characterization employed by writers like Steve Englehart and Grant Morrison. The Dark Knight Returns paints him as being extremely militant and at times borderline psychotic. It’s not hard for me to imagine either of these actors relishing in that side of the character.

The freedom to recast also extends to the villains — most notably The Joker, who plays a prominent role in The Dark Knight Returns. The idea of someone else taking over the part so memorably played by Heath Ledger strikes some fans as distasteful, but I think audiences would be much more accepting of it under these circumstances.

The idea of The Joker sitting catatonic for ten years in Arkham Asylum, only to snap out of it when he hears Batman is back in action, is not only creepy — it allows for a completely different interpretation of the character. No one would be stepping on Ledger’s toes. So you want to see Daniel Day-Lewis as The Joker? Here’s your chance. If he’s busy, give Brad Dourif a call:

My Photoshop skills suck, but Brad Dourif does not.

If The Dark Knight Returns were successful, it could potentially open the door for other offbeat comic book movies. For example, does anyone else remember how awesome that Green Arrow movie called Supermax sounded?

We’re reaching a critical level of overexposure with comic book movies and if the genre wants to continue to thrive, it has to realize that at some point audiences are going to get burnt out on origin stories that all hit the same basic beats.

The bottom line is that The Dark Knight Returns offers the unique opportunity to develop a new trilogy that doesn’t break Chris Nolan’s continuity, but still stands on its own and invites a different approach to the material, under the guidance of a new director and new actors (at more moderate salaries, of course).

If Warner Bros. and DC Comics haven’t already considered this approach, I really hope that they do. I’m sure opinions will be passionate and divisive, so let’s hear yours below.

Before we ever see a movie version of The Dark Knight Returns, we’ll first be treated to Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises in the summer of 2012.

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