When it comes to DC movies, presently all eyes are on The Batman, which after securing a director to replace Ben Affleck is finally back on track. Where the DCEU looks most exciting, however, is with another member of the Bat Family: Nightwing. That’s right – according to a recent report, the Blüdhaven-protecting, former-Robin Dick Grayson is coming to the DC Extended Universe. The Lego Batman Movie’s Chris McKay is in talks to direct, with The Accountant‘s Bill Dubuque working on the script.
Little info beyond the mere existence of the project is known (which may be because it was something only pitched recently by McKay), but it’s a very intriguing development. In fact, in the scope of the wider DC slate, Nightwing could be the movie that promises the best chance for the franchise to get out of its current slump.
The long-term state of the Extended Universe is – as it has been since Batman v Superman – unclear. What’s been released so far have been met with polarizing reactions and there’s serious trepidation about what’s to come, no doubt influenced by the onslaught of production issues that have met pretty much every project Warner Bros. float; out of the epic slate they announced in 2014 only one is on track (and that’s freaking Aquaman). There’s hope, but it’s hard to not feel like the series is in the middle of a quagmire.
With problems on a metahuman scale, how can a sidekick save the day? Let’s take a look.
Something Audiences Haven’t Seen Before
For someone so integral to Batman as a character (he was introduced April 1940, only a year after the Dark Knight made his debut), there’s been a real hesitation in putting Robin on the big screen. Burt Ward’s version was inseparable from Adam West, but it took three movies of the Burton-Schumacher series before Chris O’Donnell made his debut (and that’s hardly well remembered). The Dark Knight Trilogy avoided him completely save for paying lip service with John Blake’s birth name, and the most prominent he’s been in the DCEU is a Joker-graffitied costume, leaving The Lego Batman Movie as Robin’s sole 21st century appearance so far.
The problem at the heart of this is that when movie producers hear of Robin, they tend to think of the Golden Age Boy Wonder who makes endless puns, sleeps in a bed with Bruce Wayne and wears a very revealing costume. As most big screen versions of Batman lean into realism, it’s hard to make that work. But, as most people know, that’s not the whole story; while this kitschy characterization is definitely a key part of Robin’s past, there are decades of further development for Dick Grayson after he hangs up the costume and a slew of other Robins that come up in his wake that’re being ignored.
This is where the Nightwing movie comes in. By jumping past the perceived silly versions of Robin, it should give us Dick Grayson as a fully rounded, independent character tackling a new type of crime in a new city. It’s the realistic Robin that has been seen in some of the DC animated outings, but on the big screen has been roundly ignored. Contextually this will be massive; having Grayson move into his Nightwing persona is something most audiences won’t be even aware of, giving a genuinely new narrative direction for the character. Seeing Batman fight criminals? Been there. Superman saving Lois Lane? Done that. Robin taking on his own mantle and moving out of Batman’s shadow? Now that’s fresh.
It would be unfair to say the DCEU is lacking in new elements and twists on existing icons, but much of what we’ve seen takes its cues from comic logic – the illusion of change while things stay the same – and still ultimately rides on the pre-existent convention. So far, this means that when we’re dealing with previously seen characters (as much of the DCEU has been) everything feels sluggish and ill-defined. Nightwing marks genuine character progression and offers the franchise a chance to show that it’s bringing new angles to the framework.
It’s also unique in the wider superhero genre. We’ve got heroes teaming up on the big screen plenty of times by now and darker takes on beloved characters are hardly anything new, but getting the sidekick become a bona fide hero is something yet to truly happen – the closest example is Elektra, and nobody wants to have that stake a claim to anything.
It Turns The DCEU Into A Legacy Series
The biggest “genre” in blockbuster besides superheroes would be the legacy-quel – late-in-the-day follow-ups to a beloved movie or series that mix heavy scoops of nostalgia with a new story about characters who – like the audience – grew up with the legend of the originals. Old casts return and the story fans have been dreaming of (sometimes for decades) continues. The obvious cases are Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, Tron: Legacy, Independence Day: Resurgence, American Pie: Reunion, Terminator Genisys and (best of the lot) Creed but you can also work in the likes of Toy Story 3, Finding Dory, Star Trek and X-Men: Days of Future Past; anything that has a slither of affection can continue a few years later at full force.
Superhero films, with their decades of comic backstory, have always tapped into the reunion aspect of legacy-quels even before it was a thing, and recent Batmen have actively pursued it. The Dark Knight Rises presented Bruce Wayne as a recluse brought out of retirement as a method of wrapping up the trilogy and because Batman v Superman similarly took inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns this element is also already present in the DCEU. Obviously, in both cases it’s a construct rather than organic. This is especially true for the Affleck-vintage, and you’d think the DCEU is a long way off even considering playing a next-generational trick; the series has been around for four years and is only three movies strong, all of which have been met with a mixed response.
However, introducing Nightwing accelerates this. He is by definition a legacy character, created by his father-son relationship before moving in his own direction. That’s intrinsic legacy-quel stuff, and if Warners so chose it they could take things through to completion and have their Grayson eventually take up the Bat-mantle from their aging Bruce Wayne. This will only be compounded by the groundwork the DCEU has laid; we know one of Batman’s other Robins was killed by the Joker and Harley Quinn (based on the comics Jason Todd). As such, we’re dealing with a multi-generational story of Batman’s failures as a father figure, with one a deserted version of him, the other dead.
Making a legacy series out of the DCEU may at first sound ridiculous and hardly a positive move. After all, people don’t turn out for legacy-quels just because they’re vaguely nostalgic, but out of genuine, long-standing love for the core franchise. But because of Batman’s lauded place in comic and cinema history and how brazen the DCEU’s character dissections have been so far, it’s something that greatly strengthens the scope of what they’re trying to build – a mature cinematic universe.
Turning Away From the Gloom
The other thing that really backs the prospect of Nightwing isn’t necessarily intrinsic to the character but will be implicit in this version; coming from a director who cut his teeth on the likes of Robot Chicken and broke into the multiplex with a direct Batman parody, it’d be fair to expect this will be a considerably lighter film than what’s come in the franchise so far. The DCEU’s problems won’t be fixed by simply inserting jokes or making things a bit brighter, but there’s no avoiding that one of the biggest struggles the movies have had so far is their self-imposed seriousness. A lick of awareness and some well-placed levity will work wonders (yes, Suicide Squad tried this, but that movie was totally undermined by its studio issues).
Even if McKay is making a film that maintains Snyder’s visual stylings and Goyer’s conflicted storytelling, though, there’s still elements of Nightwing that would substantially alter it from the franchise’s established tone. The age of its hero and the associated outlook give a more youthful angle, altering the perspective of the brooding. If we’re going to be dealing with Teen Titans, then it could even be an alternative Justice League.
Nightwing has the opportunity to be something fresh. The DCEU has been dominated so far by overly dour, surface-level dissections of its most iconic characters that, for all their talk of definitiveness, coast carefully on popular convention without offering much more. Following a mature Dick Grayson on his own adventures offers plenty of opportunities to combat some of the biggest causes for audience apathy.
Of course, it’s very early days. McKay is just “in talks” to direct the film; at best it’ll arrive in 2019, and what shape it’s in is completely up in the air. But at the core of the idea is something exciting, and from a surprise announcement regarding the DCEU, that’s a rarity.