Christopher Nolan is about to make his final trip into Gotham City with The Dark Knight Rises – a film that will bring closure to a trilogy that started with Batman Begins in 2005 and continued with the massively successful The Dark Knight in 2008.

The notoriously tight-lipped filmmaker is keeping the details of his latest Batman movie a secret, but there’s one question even Nolan doesn’t have the answer to — what happens to the Batman franchise after he jumps ship?

The character of Batman means so many different things to so many different people that a definitive celluloid interpretation is impossible. Yet, Nolan seems to have come closer than any of his predecessors and his films will surely cast an intimidating shadow over anyone tasked with succeeding him. For a large number of fans, putting someone else in charge of this series is a nerve-wracking proposition.

There will be more Batman films after The Dark Knight Rises, though — it’s too lucrative a franchise to abandon. And you know the higher-ups at Warner Bros. and DC Comics have had at least a few discussions about a post-Nolan game plan. Which is why a few of us here at Screen Rant think there might be more to the title of this latest film than meets the eye.

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Now obviously The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a name that was carelessly picked out of a hat. The Dark Knight didn’t just look cool on a poster — it actually meant something when those three words appeared on screen at the end of that film. So as bland as the new title may sound to me, I’m sure it ties into the story (presumably it references Batman’s redemption in the eyes of Gotham’s citizens).

However, like a lot of you, I was surprised by the repetition of Batman’s nickname. After expecting something as unique and distinctive as The Dark Knight, this strikes me as a very curious move. Now, this is PURELY SPECULATION, but perhaps the studio is eager to brand this franchise and instill name recognition in the large portion of its audience that isn’t familiar with the comic books.

Why would it be so important to hammer the name “Dark Knight” home? Well, it seems to me that this film could just as easily have been called The Dark Knight Returns. Sure, they probably wanted to avoid confusion with Frank Miller’s comic of the same name (or a potential DCU animated adaptation) — but maybe… just maybe… DCE/WB is open to the possibility of a live-action version of Dark Knight Returns somewhere down the road.

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The Dark Knight Rises not only leaves the door open for using that other title in the future — it would help make The Dark Knight Returns immediately identifiable as a continuation of the previous films. With Nolan’s departure from the Batman franchise likely on the horizon, this would actually be a logical time to use The Dark Knight Returns as a template of sorts for subsequent Batman sequels.

After The Dark Knight Rises, the studio is left with two choices if they want the franchise to carry on: reboot it again or bring in a new director to work within the guidelines of Nolan’s established universe. Neither approach sounds particularly satisfying to me. Fortunately, bringing The Dark Knight Returns to the big screen solves both problems.

For those of you not familiar with the comic, it tells the story of a 55 year-old Bruce Wayne putting on the cape and cowl after ten years of retirement. He squares off against old enemies, makes some new ones, takes a female Robin under his wing, and discovers that Gotham City is now a very different place for vigilantes.

Although I think Miller’s Year One series is the superior comic, The Dark Knight Returns remains a fan-favorite for good reason: it’s packed with one memorable moment after another and culminates with one of the most iconic fight scenes of all-time: Batman vs. Superman.

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Adapting The Dark Knight Returns verbatim would never work as a continuation of Nolan’s films. Harvey Dent plays a prominent role (although some would argue his fate in Nolan’s universe is still unknown), training a new Robin would be a little strange without any predecessors, and of course there’s the previously mentioned red and blue elephant in the room — Superman.

The politics of The Dark Knight Returns are an integral part of its narrative and the idea of Superman being reduced to a pawn of the United States government is powerful stuff. All of the Cold War-era paranoia could be effortlessly updated, but even in a semi-futuristic setting, Supes is just a little too fantastical for this universe. Fortunately, the idea of vigilantes being outlawed would still work without him.

I think the bigger issue is how much of The Dark Knight Rises is devoted to covering similar ground and how much influence The Dark Knight Returns might ultimately have on that film. Luckily, even if they eschew the majority of that subplot there’s still a lot left to work with.

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For me, the most resonant part of The Dark Knight Returns is the premise itself. Typically, when Batman crosses over into other mediums it’s to detail the beginnings of his war on crime. Quite honestly, I think the character becomes so much more compelling when he’s at the inevitable end of that journey. The qualities that make him so tragic are amplified and I love the idea of this old man forced to make peace with all of his decisions and sacrifices.

The specifics of the story are important, but not essential — at least not for me. What makes The Dark Knight Returns work is watching Bruce Wayne accept who and what he is. Connecting it to Nolan’s films would give it a sense of history and purpose that it wouldn’t carry as a stand-alone effort. I think any adjustments that need to be made to the narrative in order to accomplish that would be well worth it.

And, like I said, the decade-long gap between where established continuity ends and Returns begins would allow a new director to put his stamp on Batman without resorting to a reboot. You could drastically change the look of Gotham and the tone of the film without it feeling incompatible.

How about a Gotham cityscape that’s reminiscent of something out of Blade Runner? It’d actually be a natural evolution, as Nolan was greatly inspired by that film’s visual palette when he made Batman Begins.

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The same goes for the cast — what if Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine aren’t interested in returning if Nolan’s not calling the shots? No problem. Not only does The Dark Knight Returns allow new actors to take over the lead roles, it almost demands it.

Continue to actors who could play Batman in The Dark Knight Returns

Clint Eastwood Hoover biopic After Nolans Dark Knight Rises: A Dark Knight Returns Movie?

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:

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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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