Will Keaton’s classic Batman swoop in to save DC’s flailing superheroes?
Michael Keaton might once again don Batman’s cape and cowl in the film, The Flash.
The news offers a nostalgic hug and self-knowing nod to fans of the DC standard bearer, but when it comes to big ticket superhero movies, few things can be taken at face value. It seems certain that we can read plenty more into one of the biggest surprise casting announcements of the year.
It is fair to say that DC has struggled, in recent years, to emulate the cinematic success of its rival, Marvel. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been met with almost universal praise over more than 20 films, DC has found both critics and audiences harder to convince with its attempts to build its own cinematic universe. Batman v Superman: Dawn of
Justice (2016), DC’s first attempt at bringing its most-loved characters together on screen, was criticised for being too dark in its portrayal of its two heroes and too frothy in its (spoiler alert) ham-fisted ending, in which the two finally bond over a shared mother’s name.
The same year, Suicide Squad was DC’s try at on-screen team building, albeit by a group of supervillains, and that film was roundly pilloried for simply not being very good.
Justice League (2017) was better received, but it was not Marvel’s The Avengers. The team of Batman, Superman, The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Wonder Woman united on screen for the first time and earned only $657 million (Dh2.4 billion) at the box office. That is less than half the $1.5bn The Avengers pulled in five years earlier.
By recasting Keaton, DC is harking back to a time when it was unassailable at the box office. In the 1980s, Christopher Reeve’s Superman ruled the superhero world and his poster adorned the walls of teenagers across the globe. In 1989, Keaton and director Tim Burton teamed up for the first big-screen Batman since Adam West’s 1960s version. Fans and critics were impressed that Burton had created a superhero movie with genuine depth, a trick Christopher Nolan would repeat and improve on with his Batman trilogy, starting, again pre-MCU era, with 2005’s Batman Begins.
During the same period, Marvel’s most notable movies were 1989’s straight-to-video The
Punisher and 1986’s entertaining, but hardly comparable,
Howard the Duck. Back in the days before the distraction of Marvel’s all-conquering universe, DC ruled the roost, and was quite capable of making successful films on its own terms.
DC’s biggest post-MCU successes have come about when it made things a little differently. Wonder Woman (2017) was set during the First World War, a century before the events of the Justice League-era films. It also stood out among all superhero titles by being both female-led and directed.
The hugely successful
Joker (2019), meanwhile, was self-consciously separate from the rest of the DC universe from the outset. It made no effort to tie into other films, revelled in its 18 rating certificate and was nominated for Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Joaquin Phoenix won the Academy for the role of Joker and Hildur Guonadottir for her soundtrack. It probably did not escape DC’s notice, either, that the film raked in more than $1bn at the box office on a modest budget of about $60m.
By bringing Keaton back into the fold, DC has the opportunity to reset its cinematic fare to a period before the rise of Marvel. In fact, it has the opportunity to do almost anything it wants to. A key element of
DC’s comics is the “multiverse” – many timelines and versions of characters which co-exist without the need for continuity or the concept of the “canon”.
It’s a concept that comic fans are comfortable with, though so far, none of the big players have dared try it out on mainstream cinema audiences.
It has been trialled on TV audiences, however, with some success. American channel CW’s Arrowverse featured a cameo from Ezra Miller’s big screen The Flash alongside Grant Gustin’s small screen version.
Now, it looks like Miller could be the first to test the multiverse on the big screen.
The Flash director Andy Muschietti has revealed he will be informed by the comic series
Flashpoint, in which Barry Allen (The Flash) travels back in time to save his mother.
The possibilities are almost infinite. Could The Flash travel back to Keaton’s 1989 Gotham? Could Keaton’s Batman travel forward to meet Miller’s 2020 Flash, and if so, could he serve as a mentor to the 2020 youngsters, such as The Flash and Cyborg, and perhaps continue in that role in future films?
We will have to wait until 2022 to be absolutely sure, but perhaps DC has concluded that its chance to one up Marvel again lies not in copying its intricately constructed universe and interlinked storylines, but in abandoning those completely and doing the exact opposite – by succeeding once again, entirely on its own terms.
By bringing Keaton back into the fold as Batman, DC has the opportunity to reset its cinematic fare to a period before the rise of Marvel
Michael Keaton as Batman in 1989. Keaton is reportedly in talks to appear in ‘The Flash’, due for release in 2022. This would serve as a nod to a time when DC dominated the superhero movie sphere