This is part 8 of an 8 part series discussing the production, influence and overall quality of the modern live-action Batman films. With The Batman (2021) approaching release, it’s the right time to take a look back at how we got here, examining the highs and lows of Batman’s cinematic career.
Following the release of The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Warner Brothers was in a fascinating place. The studio had just wrapped up their Harry Potter film series (2001 – 2011), which naturally created some internal tension. For a 10 year period, Potter was basically a cash register, delivering near billion dollar success almost every year or two. Therefore, Warner Brothers could keep the lights on even with a major flop here or there. With Nolan’s Batman Trilogy and the Potter series concluded, the studio began to panic as they were left without a consistent hit-making franchise. The spectre of Marvel Studios was looming, so Warner Brothers decided their best course was to create a cinematic universe based on the world of DC comics. After a few false starts, the modest success of Zack Snyder’s Superman film, Man of Steel (2013), was enough justification to kickstart their plans. Given the film’s lukewarm reception, the studio figured the best way to ensure the success of Snyder’s sequel was to include Batman and pave the way for their shared universe. Thus, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) was born.
At this point it’s clear that each cinematic portrayal of Batman has been influenced by the reaction to the previous entry. This version of Batman was no exception, but there were also corporate needs outside of Batman’s own cinematic legacy. Despite being successful and artistically praised, the Nolan Trilogy made the studio believe they should only make dark, brooding and dead serious takes on superhero content. This problematic lesson was applied to the classically cheerful Superman, which resulted in Man of Steel’s dour tone. The film had its fans, but there was something uncomfortable about a depressed and horrendously violent Superman who opts to break the villain’s neck in order to win. The fact that there were widespread discussions around whether or not this Superman was suitable for children says it all. The mixed response confused the studio, as the dark and brooding approach had spun cinematic gold out of Batman. Instead of trying to fix Superman with a (far more appropriate) lighter tone, the powers at be figured that adding Batman would solve the issue and justify the darkness.
While there had been talks of Batman and Superman going head to head in the past, the ultimate irony is that no one at the studio seemed to understand why that match-up is hypothetically interesting. The enjoyment would be derived from seeing a contrast between two opposing perspectives: hope and optimism as symbolised by Superman, versus cynicism and depression symbolised by Batman. While in theory this is what was intended, the fact remained that the already established Superman we saw in Man of Steel was a cynical and depressed character, so there was no real contrast between the two. That apparently didn’t matter, as the studio famously thought that a Batman versus Superman film would be an instant hit regardless of the script’s quality. When broken down, it was clear that every creative decision was made based on the studio’s false algorithm.
You can see this corporate approach in nearly every aspect of the film. The most financially successful superhero films Warner Brothers had released were dark and serious, so the tone was dark and serious despite not being appropriate. Those same financially successful superhero films all had Batman, so naturally Batman needed to be included. In terms of the comic book influences, the most consistently successful story was The Dark Knight Returns, a famous book where Batman fights Superman in a suit of armour (thus setting the stage for what the film’s title fight would look like). They even looked at the most consistently successful Superman book, which of course was The Death of Superman. Therefore, the film included elements of that story. As the final note, the studio was watching Marvel make a financial splash with their superhero team-ups, so why not add in Wonder Woman and have the film directly lead into the Justice League (2017)? From a corporate standpoint, this was all the studio needed to believe Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice would be the ultimate box office juggernaut.
While the film made a decent worldwide haul, the response was almost a net negative. The strange confluence of ideas felt like a complete mess, as there was no clear narrative, plot, stakes or character arcs. Granted, Zack Snyder and his team clearly had these elements in mind, but the lack of focus dulled the thematic layers, kept the characters at arms length, and completely flattened the emotional resonance. The reaction was so extreme that many key moments of the film have been iconically ridiculed and parodied across the entire superhero genre. Even with Batman’s inclusion, the film struggled to impress as predicted, but that didn’t stop viewers from endlessly discussing the portrayal.
Unlike previous versions, this Batman was not a newcomer nor was he in his prime. Instead, this Batman was older, having been operating as a crime fighter for 20 years or more. Therefore, his anger and bitterness reached levels beyond anything we’d previously seen, resulting in a Batman who was barely heroic. This version seemed to accept that by traditional standards, his vigilantism makes him a criminal and he had no issue with violently killing those who stood in his way. To see Batman go so far over the edge was quite a shock, but also one of the most interesting parts of this otherwise messy film. There’s an argument to be made that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice intentionally twisted Batman in order to comment on his place in our culture, as the character’s arc was about him realising he has gone too far. Conversely, a case could also be made that we are supposed to take this depraved Batman as the true Batman, given that Snyder clearly wanted us to think this version was cool.
For all of its faults, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice did accomplish its mission as far as Batman’s inclusion was concerned. As expected the casting choice was controversial, with Ben Affleck receiving criticism upon the initial announcement. Once released, fans and critics praised Affleck’s performance even as the rest of the film was lambasted. Viewers’ interest in the Justice League film was (at the time) minimal, but people were keen to see Affleck as a more traditional Batman in his own film. Affleck was even positioned to write, direct and star in his solo Batman film, which would have also been connected to the wider DC universe of films. However, as Affleck’s interest in the role continued to fade, his involvement behind the camera completely disappeared. The job had been poisoned for him due to how badly Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and the eventual Justice League were handled.
With Affleck now having no interest in returning to the role, his solo film was given to director Matt Reeves, who reworked the concept into a new standalone outing featuring a younger Batman. After all that time and effort spend by Snyder and the studio to make Batman a team player, we never got to see what a Batman film would look like in as part of a DC cinematic universe. Having the character be part of a larger story was the only thing left to do with him, yet it was sadly bungled before it even started. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the last time we see the character, but we are now waiting with bated breath to see if Matt Reeves’ The Batman (2022) brings something new to the table. With the film’s release upon us, we will know very soon.