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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Panel Vision - The Case for a Batman Movie Universe

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As I write this we are approximately one month out from the Suicide Squad movie upon which DC and WB have hung their collective hopes for a cinematic universe.  We’re all still reeling from the sucker punch that was Batman v. Superman ending up something closer to a fever dream farce than a solvent blockbuster and even though the slow drip of new information on WB’s prospective slate of future superhero blockbusters has been encouraging there’s a lot of uncertainty going forward. 

It’s starting to seem more and more like Batman films really are the only superhero movies that WB can actually do well, a concept which got me thinking.  If WB is so committed to its Batman franchise they’re willing to constantly run back to the Bat well when things get rough, why not just cut out the middleman and produce a Batman shared movie universe. 

From the outset I understand why some people might have some reticence to this idea.  The DC stable of heroes is massive and full of a ton of great characters that could make great movies that we haven’t seen yet, whereas we’ve now had 8-9 Batman movies, 3 live action series, and a ton of cartoons and video games.  That’s a fine point and I know there are a ton of DC characters I’d love to see get adapted but that list is actually getting shorter now thanks to the efforts of the CW. 

Starting around 2015 CW’s collection of superhero shows and character adaptations have grown to rival that of Marvel Studios, an incredible roster of characters that adapt classics like Firestorm expertly, perfect flawed concepts like the Atom, and even managed to redeem the universally disliked Vibe, turning him into the breakout character of The Flash.  Honestly, at this point CW is doing an infinitely better job at bringing DC’s characters to life than the films are, especially now that they’re over Supergirl and have their own team show with Legends of Tomorrow. 

Additionally, something to remember about the Batman we’ve grown to associate with the character is that it’s a very narrow conception of him.  Batman has existed for over 75 years and in that time has been re-imagined and reworked countless times and of those times only a fraction has been adapted to screen.  The Batman most people tend to know is a thoroughly stripped down iteration of the ‘80s Batman to arise out of Frank Miller’s Year One comic.  The grim, taciturn rich kid who goes out and beats up the less fortunate between his throw downs with villains so violent and evil they’d pass for Slasher villains.  That’s the popular view of Batman but it’s hardly the definitive one. 

The Batman of the ‘40s morphed from a stark crime killer to a smiling father figure and war hero.  In the ‘50s he took on alien invaders, creatures from other dimensions, and all matter of other strange surrealism.  By the ‘60s Batman had become the paterfamilias to a whole Bat family of crime fighters in the vein of a sitcom set-up with Robin, Batgirl, Batwoman, and Ace the Bat hound.  1970s Batman was a globetrotting super spy, facing off against villains more prepared to face James Bond than a man dressed as a bat. 

This was the era Batman even created his own team of global crime fighters but we’ll come back to that.  As often as ‘80s Batman fought crime and corruption he’d go head-to-head with Russian super assassins or the dark supernatural nature of the city.  In the ‘90s Batman faced down threats on the scale of massive disasters like plagues and earthquakes while 2000s Batman was like a Zen warrior, constantly prepared and unflappable.  

My point is that Batman has been so many things, embody so many character archetypes and genres, that he’s an infinitely versatile character and could be adapted in an infinite number of ways.  All of which is a good argument for more Batman films, perhaps arranged like the rebooted X-Men films moving through various decades, but his vast history also means that there are a vast number of heroes tied to Batman’s mythos. 

The large number of characters that are covered under Batman’s umbrella is one of the biggest side effects of Batman’s massive success through the decades.  Not only does the list of heroes extend to the standard array of Batman related spin-off characters, but it’s also come to include any character with a connection to Gotham City.  

For instance, the obvious line-up of Batman characters that could work in a film are folks like Robin, Batgirl, Catwoman, Batwoman, Huntress, and the Red Hood.  However, Batgirl later became Oracle and set-up the Birds of Prey along with Huntress and Black Canary, which lands all of them under the Batman umbrella and even partially includes Green Arrow. 

Meanwhile, Batwoman is the ex-girlfriend of Renee Montoya, ex-Gotham cop and current incarnation of the Question, making the Question part of the Batverse.  Speaking of ex-cops, the various hosts of the Spectre, a ghostly spirit of heavenly vengeance, were all Gotham cops prior to their death so the Spectre becomes another part of the Batman hero list.  Other heroes of the 1940s who’ve become part of the broader Batman oeuvre are Wildcat, a boxer and ex of Catwoman’s, and Alan Scott Green Lantern, who used to work out of Gotham City. 

That’s already a huge amount of characters without even touching on the various teams Batman has put together.   Aside from the Birds of Prey, Batman also founded the Outsiders as a globetrotting superhero black ops team and later launched Batman Incorporated to support various vigilantes worldwide.  The entire structure of a shared universe is predicated on character and concept crossovers to facilitate a cross-pollination of interest between the various properties. 

That’s part of why Marvel weaves their larger stories through all of their movies, in the hopes that the cameos and shout outs will translate to engagement or even hype for their other projects.  Building teams and exploring their individual members is a great way to do this and the idea of having Batman pop up to recruit people would be a great way to get folks to actually see films about more obscure heroes like Black Lightning or Mr. Unknown.  I mean, Marvel was able to wrangle a hit film out of Ant-Man and it’s biggest cameo was the Falcon so I think DC could use Batman to boost audience interest in like a Batwing movie or something. 

Conversely, the other way to create the kind of cross-media hype of that sustains a superhero franchises is with big, long form story sagas.  That’s why we’re 12 movies into the Marvel universe and we’re still building up the Thanos/Infinity Gems arc or why Jean Grey is already experiencing Phoenix flashes in X-Men: Apocalypse.  

In the case of Batman, the caped crusaders has been thrown into a plethora of large scale, event sized threats ever since 1989’s Batman movie proved he was a solvent property.  Ideas like Wargames, a massive gang war tearing the city apart, or No Man’s Land, an Earthquake leads to Gotham being deemed no longer part of the US, or even Knightfall, where Batman’s back is broke and he’s replaced by a religious fanatic, could work as slow drip story set-ups.  What’s more, Batman’s rogues gallery provides a lot of possibilities for villainous masterminds or looming threats from Ras Al Ghul to the Black Glove. 

I haven’t even approached the concept of giving Batman villains spin-off movies.  Bat foes like Red Hood and Anarchy could work as flawed and brutal anti-heroes while some Batman villains like Man-Bat and Riddler have actually transitioned to be heroes for a time.  

The most obvious transition from Bat foe to quasi-heroic character comes with Deadshot in, of course, the Suicide Squad.  That leads me to the biggest reason I think a Batman shared universe makes sense: they’re already building one.  The current set-up of the DC movieverse is already predicated on Batman showing up in a bunch of movies to collect the Justice League members we saw in Batman v. Superman.  They’re even fitting Batman into Suicide Squad along with a ton of his bad guys who aren’t traditional members of the team like Joker, Harley Quinn, and Killer Croc. 

That’s the same reason Commissioner Gordon is going to be in the Justice League movie or why the Batman movie WB is building up to has been frontloaded with 4 Oscar winners.  The only difference is that this means Batman-ifying various properties that don’t need to be Batman’ed.  

We’ve already seen what happens when Batman’s aesthetic and trappings are slathered over Superman in both Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice and I really don’t want to imagine that same fate befalling Flash, Aquaman, and Wonder Woman.  It’s still possible those movies will be good and I like a lot of the creative teams involved but at this point it seems like it’d just be easier to stop taking chances on WB finally getting their head out of Gotham City; if that’s where they want to be we may as well enjoy it. 
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