The past few months have been a rocky road for The Batman. It all started with rumors that Warner Bros. were fine moving ahead with a shoddy script, and while those were later denied that didn’t stop Ben Affleck’s press tour for the under-performing Live By Night being dominated by questions on updates, leading to a string of rumor rebuttals from the clearly exhausted filmmaker. Everything reached a head in late January when Affleck announced he would no longer be directing the film.
A few weeks on and things are looking back on track – Planet of the Apes‘ Matt Reeves is taking on the directing responsibilities and, while those script rumors have returned, all involved have been keen to again downplay them. After the initial shock of Affleck stepping down subsided, it’s generally been accepted it probably wasn’t best for him to be writing, directing and producing alongside the already demanding physical role. Crisis averted.
Or perhaps more like crisis postponed. With this just the latest hiccup in the DCEU’s troubled production line, it’s easy to get a feeling of apathy; The Batman had been the most talked about upcoming DC film by quite a margin, but if it’s going to be this scrappy we’re at the point where it’s worth questioning whether the mega-franchise even needs a standalone Batman flick. That isn’t to say that there should never be another Batman movie ever or (heaven forbid) the Caped Crusader sits out on the action. Quite the opposite – Batman can be essential to the DCEU, but it may benefit the burgeoning series to use him in a different way.
Bumps in the Road
It’s hard to say that The Batman is “behind schedule” because the film has technically never been announced or given a set release date – all info on it comes from random quotes made by those involved rather than in actual statements from the studio. However, what we have heard paints a picture of expectation and hints at pieces falling into place (Deathstroke actor Joe Manganiello has said multiple times to plan was to start shooting in spring 2017). Given that it’s almost four years since Ben Affleck joined the DCEU and he’s totally wrapped up his Argo–reward passion project Live By Night, it’s fair to presume that Warner Bros. would have expected him to be moving ahead on the directing/writing/producing/starring gig now.
That hasn’t happened. The script has been in slow development for a long time now and despite talks of the film being fast-tracked, it’s stumbling at every hurdle. A big part of that may have been Affleck simply having too much on his plate – something that Matt Reeves stepping in will definitely help with.
Still, we’re at a point now where it’s clear that making this Batman film is, for whatever reason, proving harder than previously expected. Fair enough, some ideas are trickier to develop than others, but this is a proven property and these setbacks could be damaging for the wider franchise. In the scope of a shared universe, delays can have a major impact on both the story you’re trying to tell and the wider universe – something the DCEU can’t afford right now.
The way the DC Extended Universe works, no Batman standalone doesn’t mean no Batman. If anything, it can mean more. The Batman is at best eighteen months away and we’ll have already had three appearances from Ben Affleck in the cape and cowl by that point. Perhaps it’s better to let Batman just be a Justice League member who works alongside his pals, with the Bat vigilantism occurring as part of these adventures a la Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, where the full movie pressures aren’t there. In fact, there’s a strong argument that would actually help the character.
The Batman Legacy
Batman movies are generally well regarded – only three (Batman Forever, Batman and Robin and Batman v Superman) are viewed in an all-around negative light, and some are held as the greatest of what the action genre has to offer – most prominently Christopher Nolan’s highly-lauded mid-trilogy entry The Dark Knight. That’s a mighty legacy to uphold and one that, all things considered, may be best left alone for the moment.
That’s not defeatist talk – merely an acknowledgement that Warner Bros. needs a massive step-up to match the reputation of Burton and Nolan’s productions. Any purely standalone Batman will be compared to those and that risks disappointment or negativity even with a fine enough film.
Where the DCEU can really make its mark within the Batman pantheon is with characterization. While the likes of West, Keaton and Bale were the best at capturing their respective versions of Batman, nobody would claim that any of them – and this isn’t a knock – was definitive; they were each products of their time and filmmaker. West is the closest to embodying his era, but that’s not representative of the changes made post-Silver Age. Keaton got much of the iconography right, but was very focused on the Burton aesthetic. Bale hung in the shadows and presented an idealized legend, but Nolan’s realism again limited the breadth of his reach. And none really did more than pay lip service to the “World’s Greatest Detective” moniker.
Ben Affleck, on the other hand, has been praised for his portrayal, especially on the action side. Why not capitalize on that and avoid other concerns; instead of trying to make the definitive Batman film, the DCEU can focus on having the definitive Batman. There are ingrained issues from Batman v Superman that need correcting – his Bruce Wayne is too much like Batman without a mask, and the whole killing fracas needs addressing – but using the Superman motivation as an explanation these can be got past.
The DC Movie Structure
There’s definitely a case for not making a Batman solo movie, but it’s not just character preservation that’s important – it can actually help the rest of the franchise.
So far, what the DCEU actually “is” has been unclear. We’ve had a single Superman film, a face-off/team-up movie in Batman v Superman, and a tonal offshoot in Suicide Squad, but per the slate announcement things now seem to be settling down to the Marvel routine – a run of standalones fleshing out heroes, interspersed with bigger event movies. This is what most shared universe franchises inspired by The Avengers are doing, but copying the proven model may not be the best idea; it worked for Marvel because it was unique – now it’s already been done, any attempt to mimic it risks becoming a pale imitiation.
For the DCEU to succeed, it needs to define its own structure that makes it stand out. Based on the current expansion style, the best fit would be doubling-down on “event” movies – films that bring together multiple heroes or otherwise play into the massive cast at their disposal. Instead of having spinoffs for every single character, Warner Bros. could instead tell a story across several films featuring a grab bag of heroes. That’s how Snyder’s three movies have operated, with the director even describing them as something of a three-act story. They may not have worked that well so far, but it’s a bold, unique narrative idea all the same that has potential.
Marvel is already somewhat evolving in this direction – each movie on their Phase 3 slate has a unique pitch beyond the simple characters involved, often with team-ups (at least seven of the ten announced films in the run have or will have crossovers in some form) – but it’s something DC could own. It’s more fitting of the company’s history of epic crossover events – Crisis or otherwise – with films that exist under larger banners than a single character telling the story in a bigger way. Indeed, you can see this in the free-flowing feature ideas currently being floated, such as with Gotham City Sirens (in some ways an offshoot of Suicide Squad).
It Promotes The “Lesser” Heroes
Batman is a big character. He and Superman are the two undisputed icons of the superhero genre, and that’s proven to be a long-standing barrier for DC; for decades, studios were very reluctant to attempt films focusing on characters outside of the World’s Finest. This is finally changing with Wonder Woman and will grow with Aquaman, The Flash, Cyborg, Shazam and a second attempt at Green Lantern all in various stages of development, but (almost proving Warner Bros.’ fears) the fan focus through all this has been primarily on The Batman.
There are two ways to look at this. On the one hand, it highlights how popular Batman is, and for the studio makes him a safe option with guaranteed financial success. On the other, it works actively against the “universe” part of the DCEU to have everything rest on one character’s shoulders. Isn’t it in DC’s best interest to grow the other characters as well? It’s the contrast between short-term and long-term gains, and right now a Batman film may be too much of a distraction.
Without leaning too much into Marvel comparisons, this is something the MCU has done excellently. When Marvel Studios started out, they didn’t have the rights to some of the biggest comic names, so the whole thing is built on characters who were at best B-list. Over time with quality movies, they’ve made the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Avengers into just as valuable commodities as Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men etc., broadening the brand and ensuring that characters stand on their own merits. When previously A-list heroes appear, it’s on a level pegging – see Spider-Man.
This is one thing that DC can take from the trendsetter – the DCEU’s longevity hinges on people buying into Aquaman and Flash as much as it does their pre-existing love for Batman, so their films need to be legitimate, rather than just treading water until we get more Dark Knight.
But What About The Classic Batman Stories?
So, yes, from a wider franchise perspective there’s a case for less Batman. But what about taking in the Caped Crusader himself? What about all the classic stories that fans want to see? What about Joe Mangelliano, who’s currently getting his sword skills up to play Deathstroke? What about the Robin suit in the Batcave, teasing an adaptation of Under the Red Hood?
Ben Affleck can improve his Batman performance and give his all in Justice League and future crossovers, but where do audiences get their pure Bat-fix? If DC does go ahead with no Batman standalone to better the franchise, that means they’re putting a cap on Batman stories. Some would suggest there are other, outside ways to explore it, such as The Lego Batman Movie, although that wasn’t exactly an all-time great Batman story.
There is the consideration that, because we’re dealing with a Batman older than even Bale’s in The Dark Knight Rises – Affleck is essentially ripped from the pages of The Dark Knight Returns – there’s a limit to what can be shown with the character; it’s either later adventures or flashbacks. As a result, the way around it would be to follow Suicide Squad’s lead and sprinkle the Batman myth throughout other adventures, just viewed from a different, non-Bruce Wayne perspective. That said, it’s more a stop-gap than a long-term solution.
After all its troubles, it’s easy to find little point in doing a Batman movie, especially as it’s fighting such an uphill battle being part of the so far lackluster DCEU. It depends to a degree on what Warner Bros. are planning (if they have a long-term plan at all), but it needn’t be the essential lynchpin to the franchise many presume it to be.
From a more singular standpoint there is more of an argument: Batman is a great character and his adventures in Gotham City are something that would be short-changed by focusing on the wider DC Universe. But it needs to be worth it. One of the oft-cited reasons for excitement in Batfleck’s Bat-flick was the prospect of something righting the beached ship; a bad Batman is, at this point more than any other, worse than no Batman at all.
It’s a tricky balance – a Batman film can restore faith, but taking the time to get it right could lead to more dud films that turn audiences off the DCEU before it can happen. Ultimately, whether the DCEU needs The Batman hinges on one single question: how good will the other films be?