Sunday, August 25, 2013

Batman Isn't James Bond (Or, At Least, He Doesn't Have To Be)

Unlike a lot of people out there on the interwebs, I don't have much to say about the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.  Personally, I would've been more excited by the prospect of Bryan Cranston trading in his Heisenberg hat for the Dark Knight cowl (as previously rumored before he was apparently cast as Lex Luthor instead), but honestly I found Snyder's Superman reboot to be such an incoherent mess that it's hard to care about the follow-up (whether "vs. Batman" or not).  That said, I find the reaction of the fanbase to the casting news to be excessive, but not for the usual reasons given by the cynics (i.e. "Grow up fanboys, it's just a f*cking movie, and don't you know there are real problems in the world?").  The problem I have with all the nerd-rage has to do with the assumptions we make about comic book franchises, which is sadly encouraged by the way Warner Bros. treats its D.C. properties.

In short, Batman and Superman movies are always constructed in the "franchise" mold premised on shoehorning movies into a single "universe" rather than experimenting with standalone movies that would free up writers and directors from the shackles of continuity.  This is only going to get worse as Warner Bros. does their damnedest to catch up with Marvel's "Phases."  It also means that when Bat-fleck was announced, it didn't effect just Man of Steel 2 - Manner of Steeler, it also meant that we'll likely be stuck with him for a whole series of movies.  (For example, Cranston was apparently signed for "a minimum of six films which could extend to ten" - that's insane!)  Obviously, they could always replace Affleck before the inevitable Justice League movie -- just ask Edward Norton.  But whatever version of Batman will appear in 2 Man of 2 Steel will almost certainly be the version of Batman that sticks around as long as Warner Bros. can maintain its current "DC cinematic universe."

And that's where I think things have taken a wrong turn.

The approach Warner Bros. has taken to Batman-on-film over the past few decades has a rough similarity to the Bond franchise.  With the odd exception of 1983, when James "Octopussy" Bond faced off against James "Never Say Never Again" Bond in theaters, there has only ever been one Bond at any given time.  Sure, they've done soft and hard reboots of the franchise - most recently the latter in the case of Casino Royale (which, appropriately enough, drew comparisons with Batman Begins for re-envisioning the character by starting over from scratch).  But when a new Bond is announced, it's done with great fanfare and the expectation of many, many Bond films to follow in a straight, canonical line within the same cinematic universe.  (Dr. Who is another good example of this phenomenon.)

But why constrain yourself this way when you have such a rich character as Batman?  Why not follow the example of Batman in the comics?  DC currently has fourteen separate Batman-related comics titles ongoing, each operating within a distinct universe having its own continuity.  Warner Bros. has followed a similar model on TV, with at least four distinct Batman cartoons in wildly different styles and directed to different age groups and demographics.

So why not approach Batman on the big screen in the same manner?  Stop following in Marvel's footsteps and tread your own path, Warner Bros!  Give David Simon (or Vince Gilligan) a modest budget to do a grounded, gritty Gotham Central movie.  Let Brad Bird go nuts with an off-the-wall Bat-family movie (complete with Bat-Mite) appropriate for all ages.  Hell, let Guillermo Del Toro adapt "Batman vs. Predator."  Show us Elseworlds that are self-contained in single, memorable, inventive movies and cast whoever the hell you want as the Caped Crusaders.

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