For far too long, Batman has been WB’s break-glass-in-case-of-emergency IP, the gravitational force at the center of all things DC. As a result, WB struggled for literal decades to imagine a movie universe without him. It briefly tried with Man of Steel, and then quickly panicked in the face of solid, but not spectacular ticket sales. Now, thanks to Wonder Woman, Aquaman and a slew of promising projects, WB finally doesn’t need Batman anymore. That’s why right now is a great time to try something new with the character.
Let’s back up.
Kids Know Everything About Batman. That’s What Makes It So Tempting to Keep Making Batman Movies.
My 6-year-old niece knows the rare mineral which hurts Superman is called kryptonite. She knows Bruce Wayne is secretly Batman, but she thinks the name of the city Batman lives in is, in her overly excited words, “Oh, I know this! It’s the The Batcave! The Batcave!”
Oh, so close. The real answer, obviously: Gotham City. But, really, considering she learned most of those answers through The Lego Batman Movie – which playfully equates Batman in the Batcave to a brooding teenager hiding out from the world in a basement – I can totally see why she’d get that one wrong.
I learned all of this last night while playing Trivial Pursuit: Family Edition with, well, the family. It serves as a reminder of how even little kids these days know the general details about all of the big superheroes, which is understandably why a Hollywood executive would want to lean on the most recognizable brands. Why deviate from the Batman and Spider-Man’s of the world when so much of the marketing has already been done for you?
But Ben Affleck Wants Out
That’s sticking in my mind this morning as I process the news that WB has apparently finally confirmed the worst-kept secret in Hollywood: Ben Affleck is out as Batman!
That’s right. You won’t have Batfleck to kick around any longer. 2017’s Justice League is now officially his sad swan song. Now, writer-director Matt Reeves, he of the recent Planet of the Apes movies, is moving forward with The Batman, dated for 2021 – 6/25/21 to be exact – and said to focus on a younger version of the character who is far more in the detective mode than we’ve seen before in any of the prior movies.
Twitter Mourns/Mocks Batfleck
Twitter, as per usual, had some thoughts, ranging from the “Hey, I really liked Batfleck” to “Let’s start a petition to get Michael B. Jordan cast!” to, finally and quite inevitably “I’m so sick of Batman.” Sam Adams, senior editor at Slate, is a big proponent of that last one:
To be fair, WB is building in a nearly four-year gap in-between live-action Batman appearances, that is assuming the Caped Crusader doesn’t pop up in anything between now and 2021.
When Was the Last Time There Wasn’t Someone Playing Batman?
Still, point taken: for going on 15 years now, we’ve been stuck in a world in which someone is always playing Batman. Sure, there was technically also a four-year gap in-between Christian Bale’s last on-screen appearance and Ben Affleck’s first, but Affleck was first announced as the new Batman just over a year after the release of The Dark Knight Rises. That means we actually lived with the idea of Batfleck almost longer than we did the reality of it.
On top of that, we also have Will Arnett’s hilarious Lego Batman, who in addition to getting his own movie is also a major character again in The Lego Movie 2. David Mazouz’s Muppet Babies version on Gotham is finishing up his final season. WB’s animation division keeps cranking out those direct-to-video Batman movies, making him a ninja in one movie and putting him on the case of Jack the Ripper in Victorian England in yet another. Now there’s talk of WB developing a Batman Beyond animated movie to be released in theaters, likely in the vein of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s starting to seem like just about everyone from the Batman universe other than Batman himself will eventually up in the Arrowverse. Plus, isn’t there always another Batman: Arkham Whatever video game around the corner?
That’s a lot of Batman content. The fans have been well fed. Surely we can afford to take a break from the guy in the live-action movies.
Because this is Batman, however, we assume the character will soldier on in movies in perpetuity like James Bond. If The Lego Batman Movie can make a joke out of how many different people have played the character, why not add another name to the list. His refusal to ever go away is simply an accepted fact now.
It’s the Merchandise Sales, Stupid
In the past, we could blame economics and history. Batman was and continues to be DC’s best-selling, most-known, and most-marketable property. Plus, if Superman showed Hollywood comic book movies were possible Batman showed Hollywood how to turn such movies into events. Getting to be the first at anything forever makes it a challenge to convince comic book illiterate studio executives that comic book movies can star anyone other than Superman or Batman.
This is why it’s so often been said that Marvel Studios’ happiest accident was being forced to build its cinematic universe using the B-squad since the heavy hitters – Spider-Man, X-Men – were already promised to other studios. Being deprived of such recognizable brands forced Kevin Feige and the group to hunker down as storytellers.
In a way, WB is currently dealing with that problem, but it’s a problem of their own making. By so badly misreading the market and doubling down on grimdark when light and fun was called for, Batman v Superman and the better, but schizophrenic Justice League turned the Caped Crusader and Big Blue Boy Scout into toxic entities. Now, both Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck have begged off future projects, a new leadership group has been put in place to oversee all of this, and the studio is rebuilding its DC Universe – which is officially called Worlds of DC, emphasizing a more stand-alone approach with multiple different worlds instead of a shared cinematic universe like the MCU – around anything other than Batman and Superman.
The New Faces of DC Movies
Going forward, here are the new live-action pillars:
The highest-grossing DC comic book movie of all time, more so than even Nolan’s Batman movies. Unless you adjust for inflation, but why would you want to? The headlines aren’t as eye-popping after you do that. You don’t have to squint at the numbers, however, to be impressed by James Wan’s improbable feat of taking DC’s most ridiculed property and converting it into a global sensation. Plus, an octopus plays drums. Who else will join the band in the inevitable sequel?
Wonder Woman, unlike Aquaman, did actually sell more tickets than just about every other DC comic book ever, trailing Dark Knight, Batman, Superman, and Dark Knight Rises. Expectations for next year’s Wonder Woman 1984 are through the roof, and Patty Jenkins is already thinking about what to do in a third movie.
Big meets Superman in Shazam!’s ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy, adding up to easily the most kid-friendly live-action DC movie in years. Early box office projections promise at least a modest hit which fits the film just fine considering its reportedly modest budget clocking in at just a third of what it cost to make Justice League. According to a recent Total Film cover story on the table going forward for Shazam!: A sequel and/or spin-off centered on Dwayne Johnson as comic book villain Black Adam.
Unlike the others, I don’t include the Joaquin Phoenix Joker here as a pillar because I think it will be a mini-franchise to itself, especially since the question still remains: how do you make a Joker movie without Batman? No, if The Joker turns into a pillar it’ll be because of what it opens up. If this hits in a sufficient way, WB will likely feel emboldened to pursue additional harder-edged side projects which can entice premiere talent. After all, if a group as improbable as Scorsese, Todd Phillips, and Phoenix can team together and produce a solid, R-Rated DC comic book movie and make a hit out of it, who knows what might happen next.
HARLEY QUINN & THE SUICIDE SQUAD
Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn, like Affleck’s Batman and Cavill’s Superman, is stuck in the unenviable position of having starred in a movie (Suicide Squad) which sold plenty of tickets (good enough for a $746m worldwide haul) but wasn’t particularly well-liked.
WB’s solution? Empower Robbie to both star in and produce her own Birds of Prey movie with a female writer and director, transporting Harley closer to the beloved Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner comic book version of the character in the process. Harley, after all, regularly ranks near or at the top of not just DC’s best-selling female-led titles but all titles, period. There is a clear desire to see her put in a movie worthy of that fandom. They’re off to a good start with this, which also introduces the other members of the titular Birds of Prey:
Birds of Prey is due February 7, 2020.
Suicide Squad, meanwhile, is soldiering on, possibly without Harley. In-coming writer-director James Gunn is reportedly hitting the reset button and planning his own Suicide Squad movie which will be less a sequel and more a fresh start with a new crew. It’s due August 6, 2021.
They Don’t Need Batman Anymore
That’s just over a month after the planned release of The Batman. Maybe by then, the world will be dying to see the third different live-action relaunch of the character since 2005. Or maybe it’ll be just one of many DC comic book movies, no more important than any of the others.
I say that while biting my own tongue because, in truth, I struggle to picture a world in which a new Batman movie will truly be seen as just another comic book movie. As he’s so often fond of saying:
That means something culturally and is why hit movie or not Batman is always the top-selling comic book brand in annual merchandise sales. Because of that, WB and DC are always going to want to get a live-action Batman franchise going. Given recent box office victories and future prospects, they don’t need the next Batman to hit in a big way, though. That’s a significant change, arguably for the better.
Freed from the pressure to save an entire cinematic universe, Matt Reeves’ The Batman is now relieved of crushing expectations. Just make the best Batman movie possible. Take some big swings. If you miss, meh. WB and DC can roll with it.
What do you think? Should Batman be retired for far longer than just 4 years? After all, when a character has been around long enough to lampooned so viciously in The Lego Batman Movie maybe that means an extended break is called for? Or is there still a better, different kind of Batman movie to be made that you’re dying to see? Let me know in the comments.