Unless somebody somewhere possesses a Lazarus Pit capable of resurrecting the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale version of the Dark Knight to our screens, the next best bet for Bat fans might be that Matt Reeves’ forthcoming The Batman ends up being a kind of live-action take on the wonderful Batman: The Animated Series show from the 1990s.
Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski’s bravura series reimagined Batman’s world through a film noir prism, creating a dark and elegant vision of Gotham City awash with art deco stylings and leering, burlesque villains. It borrowed heavily from Tim Burton’s Batman movies, the second of which was released in 1992 just as the show began its three-year run. But the TV iteration has a shadowy verve and twisted panache all of its own.
The episodic format allowed Timm and Radomski to burnish Batman’s credentials as the “world’s greatest detective”. Many episodes daringly opened not with Bruce Wayne, but with a glimpse of the latest gothic mystery the caped crusader would soon find himself forced to unravel. Only later did the Dark Knight unfold his metaphorical magnifying glass and begin solving the puzzle.
Reeves has suggested he will follow a similar path. “It’s very much a point-of-view-driven, noir Batman tale,” the Planet of the Apes director said in a Hollywood Reporter interview. “It’s told very squarely on his shoulders, and I hope it’s going to be a story that will be thrilling but also emotional. It’s more Batman in his detective mode than we’ve seen in the films. The comics have a history of that. He’s supposed to be the world’s greatest detective, and that’s not necessarily been a part of what the movies have been. I’d love this to be one where when we go on that journey of tracking down the criminals and trying to solve a crime. It’s going to allow his character to have an arc so that he can go through a transformation.”
Reeves said The Batman will feature a “rogues gallery” of Batman villains, though he’s light on the details. Josh Gad’s recent pitch for the role of the Penguin is politely dismissed, though Reeves did say: “I love Josh Gad. We’re good friends.”
Reeves will be well aware that the history of superhero movies with multiple villains is a chequered one. The most refined touch is required to load one’s movie with baddies of the calibre of the Joker, the Scarecrow and the Penguin without unbalancing the film. Nolan did it by underplaying the fantasy stylings of his big hitters, building space in the creative matrix by creating a Gotham City as close as possible to the real world. But other film-makers have struggled.
Sam Raimi came a cropper after Sony forced him to shoehorn the villain Venom into a Spider-Man 3 script already packed with the Sandman and the second Green Goblin. All three bad guys ended up with insipid, forgettable storylines.
The Batman franchise’s nadir was Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin in 1997, which not only introduced Alicia Silverstone’s Batgirl to the dynamic duo but also brought us Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze, Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy and Robert “Jeep” Swenson’s Bane. Only Thurman, hamming it up deliciously as the flora-wielding evil genius, delivers a memorable performance. And then there’s Suicide Squad, featuring a cavalcade of baddies forced to go on a confusing mission to take down Cara Delevingne’s preposterously nonthreatening Enchantress. Somewhere in a notoriously messy edit, most of El Diablo and Killer Croc’s backstory was lost along the way, while Jared Leto suggested an entire movie could be cut from unused scenes he filmed as the Joker.
Might Reeves’ plan be to concoct a plot in which Batman must visit all his greatest enemies to solve the movie’s central mystery? That sounds like a tantalising prospect, if a slightly concerning one. Nolan was wise to leave Batman’s greatest nemesis for part two of his famed trilogy, because no studio was ever going to turn down The Dark Knight and its introduction of the Joker, especially after Batman Begins so effectively introduced the new caped crusader. Reeves will be putting all his bad eggs in one basket, which begs the question whether there will be anything left to kick up the right kind of villainous stink in part two.