There’s an old adage in comics (and soap operas) that no one ever really dies… because sooner or later, they always end up coming back. Maybe it’s someone new with the same name, or they’re a clone, or they’re revived, or they’re a version from an alternate reality… in the pages of comic books, literally anything is possible.
From the looks of The Batman‘s trailer, directed by Matt Reeves, we are promised a new, gloomy, and rugged take on the character. After Christopher Nolan’s fully realized vision, and the wildly underwhelming reign of Ben Affleck as the character, Reeves’ approach feels like a tantalizing “back to basics.” But a hero is only as good as his villains, right? In addition to Robert Pattinson’s Batman, also witnessed in said trailer are: Paul Dano as a steampunk Riddler, an unrecognizable Colin Farrell as Penguin, and a predictably leather-clad Zoe Kravitz as Catwoman.
Returning Rivals, Batman!
And while the character has such a rich collective of rogues, these particular ne’er-do-wells have all featured in earlier Batman films. Played respectively by Jim Carrey (Riddler), Danny DeVito (Penguin) and Michelle Pfeiffer/Anne Hathaway (and Halle Berry in the much-maligned standalone Catwoman picture) in the past, these stories have been well explored in this series already, origins and all. So why do we continue to see new versions of the same tried and tested villains?
With Christopher Nolan’s measured approach in his Dark Knight trilogy, a trifecta of films that imagined what Batman would be like in a real-world setting (except for Bane, who was probably pushing it), said villains felt handpicked for their attributes. These were driven maniacs who (again, for the most part) mirrored a Batman that was based within some form of reality. Vice-versa, these were villains that could operate by modern-day, human physics.
At their best, Nolan’s films were great thrillers that just happened to be centered around a man dressed like a bat. As a shot to the system, these films were also created to wash away any memories of Joel Schumacher’s high camp factor in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.
Nolan’s subsequent, grittier take trickled down into every other superhero picture and entirely readdressed how audiences went forward with the genre. Left in the cold were the more zany characters like Mr. Freeze – or Clayface, or Orca, or literally a handful of other possible unseen examples – simply as they didn’t seem to fit the “realism.” Reeve’s Batman seems to, at least for now anyway, continue that trend.
Murdering His Parents, Again
From a Hollywood exec point of view, it also makes sense as well. Why risk creating a brand-new character when they know that both Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock and various Catwomen have worked on screen before (and have a track record in selling toys and merchandise)? Why plump for someone who we’ve never seen before – and may well come off as merely ridiculous – when instead there is stability in name recognition?
The Nolan trilogy ended in 2012, with the release of The Dark Knight Rises – a whole decade ago. Anyone old enough to catch that has grown up and matured, even more so for anyone who was around in the late ’80s to catch Jack Nicholson clowning around as The Joker. These former audience members most likely have children of their own now. Recycling The Riddler, say, is an easy enough chance for risk-averse studios to do enough while still appearing fresh; like re-heating that Batman-themed Happy Meal in the microwave.
Take The Penguin as an example: Most current cinema-goers old enough to be able to purchase their own tickets today will recognize Danny DeVito as the dude from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and probably not for his game-changing role as the all parts pathetic and disgusting Oswald Cobblepot. As such, Colin Farrell is given free rein to jump into that penguin-shaped seat and claim the role as his own.
Nostalgia is a powerful drug. We see these and other antagonists return repeatedly because, if old enough, we remember the characters fondly. Hollywood is currently marketing that same thing and repackaging it for new generations through their reboots of Ghostbusters’, Star Wars’, Halloween, Et al.
This can be seen most recently through Spider-Man: No Way Home, which opted to bring back multiple villains from separate Spider-Men’s pasts for an end-all clash. That’s a trend which has made a wave in the comic/movie world: Take the Batman character himself even, with Michael Keaton’s 1980s iteration set to return for The Flash in 2022.
Another Age, Another Timeline. Anything Is Possible.
With the groundwork of the original comic book source materials (works like The Reign of the Supermen, Flashpoint, and Spider Wars, just to name a few examples), and the on-screen freedom permitted by Enter The Spider-Verse and Days of Future Past years earlier, it seems that all bets are off in terms of who or what can show up and return to our cinemas – deceased or otherwise.
In a more meta respect, the current comic landscape is also mimicking No Way Home‘s success. Danny DeVito himself recently penned an official Batman comic book story, featuring his own ’92 Penguin falling in love with Catwoman and ridding the current-day world of Covid-19. DeVito went on to say that despite being killed in Batman Returns, he would love to see his own iteration of the character return on screen.
Why So Serious?
If the trailer is anything to go by, The Batman promises a nuts and bolts approach to the character–stripped back and mean. For better or worse, the Bat’s more outlandish villains and campy past seem to suffer as a result, while classic (and supposedly more “real world”) baddies are instead revisited, remastered and, yes, aptly… remade.
Eventually, fans have to realize that the comics have such a wide-ranging pool of villains who could be adapted to any scenario (some of whom, admittedly, are destined for no more than the pages of a comic book), and that The Batman has many more options lurking in those back alleys of Gotham City than filmmakers and producers may suggest. Knowing this, fans can’t help but crave more variety for future installments, and can’t be blamed if some villains-in-syndication deserve to be retired.
Jim Carrey terrorizes Robert Pattinson in an edited version of The Batman’s trailer, and it oddly enough works rather well.
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