Franchise Retrospective: How Batman Became DC’s Biggest Hero Pt. 2

Man of Steel/Batman V Superman Announcement, 2013

batman v superman

While not a Batman movie, Man of Steel is very much influenced by The Dark Knight trilogy, what would follow, and the series of decisions that shaped it and the course of the DCEU stem back from it. In 2006, the summer after Batman Begins opened, Superman Returns hit theaters and was anticipated to be one of the biggest movies of the summer as it was the grand return of the character to the big screen after 19 years. Superman Returns was a hit but it certainly was not what Warner Bros. was anticipating (this will become a running theme) as it grossed $200 million domestically and $391 million worldwide. While that is more worldwide than Batman Begins, Superman Returns also carried a much larger production budget, in part to having to shoulder the cost Warner Bros. spent on past failed attempts to make Superman movies. While The Dark Knight trilogy was prospering at Warner Bros., they were struggling with what to do with Superman.

While trying to crack the script for The Dark Knight Rises, David S. Goyer came up with a pitch for a new Superman movie that would play up the first contact elements of the story. This was pitched to Nolan, who in turn brought it to Warner Bros. Goyer signed on to write the script and Nolan would produce, with the movie setting a June 2013 release date the following year after The Dark Knight Rises. The hope was that Nolan and Goyer would be able to reimagine Superman the same way they did Batman, and similar to Batman Begins, Man of Steel implements a non-linear story structure that flashbacks to the character’s childhood.

Man of Steel‘s teaser trailer was attached to The Dark Knight Rises, and very similar to The Dark Knight trilogy trailers it was a very minimal teaser that gave the audience sense of the film’s tone, which was very different from what audiences had expected from Superman. Every subsequent trailer felt like an event, building on anticipation where it felt like Man of Steel was going to be the biggest movie of the summer. Warner Bros. had high hopes as Warner’s Jeff Robinov predicted the movie was a $1 billion dollar grosser like The Dark Knight. The film opened strong with $116 million in its opening weekend but fell 64% in its second week as the film received mixed word of mouth from audiences. Man of Steel ended its run with $291 million domestically and $668 million worldwide which is a bit of a far cry from the $1 billion WB expected (five years later, Aquaman of all movies would gross $1 billion).

San Diego Comic-Con was one month after the premiere of Man of Steel, and originally Warner Bros. thought they would be going into Hall H as heroes but instead were likely to face a crowd that had issues with the tone and violence of the film. While Zack Snyder had signed on to direct a sequel to Man of Steel before the movie, WB quickly shifted those plans from a standalone Superman sequel to a team-up film with Batman, who as one can see they had a lot of vested interest in. The announcement was shocking as it was only a year out from The Dark Knight Rises, but speculation began on who would play the now-DCEU version of Batman that would be part of the Justice League. In August 2013, just a month after the announcement of Batman V Superman it was confirmed Ben Affleck would play Batman. With the film at that point two years out (it was originally set for 2015), Warner Bros. still had a lot of Batman coming in the following years.

Beware the Batman, 2013 to 2014

Beware the Batman is the often forgotten about animated Batman series, as it only ran for one season on Cartoon Network. This was the first fully CGI animated Batman series and premiered in July 2013, but after four months Cartoon Network removed it from the schedule. Then it was moved to the Adult Swim block where the show quietly ended its run. The series was at a weird transition point for both DC and Cartoon Network animation, as the network had ended many of their more action-centric shows like Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series in favor of more comedic takes on the characters with Teen Titans Go!. Since then, no Batman-centric cartoon has been on the air with the focus being on animated films, however, that will change with the announcement of Batman: Caped Crusader by Matt Reeves, J.J. Abrams, and Bruce Timm which will air on Cartoon Network and HBO Max in 2022.

Batman: Arkham Origins, 2013

After the success of Batman: Arkham City. Rocksteady wanted more time to develop the game, as the two-year period was not enough. So Warner Bros. Montreal was given the task of making this prequel while Rocksteady put four years into Arkham Knight. Arkham Origins is an interesting one because Rocksteady both does and does not acknowledge it as a prequel. The story takes place on Christmas Eve and sees a Batman early in his career being hunted by eight assassin-type characters, including Deathstroke, whose cinematic trailer likely was a testing ground for Warner Bros. eventual plans to make him the lead villain in Ben Affleck’s planned Batman movie.

Batman: Arkham Origins was released on October 25, 2013, and was a hit but it did receive more mixed reviews than the previous two entries of the series did. Nonetheless as one of the only superhero video games released at the time, and only one year after the release of The Dark Knight Rises and hot off the heels of Ben Affleck’s Batman announcement, it was riding that Batman high.

The Lego Movie/Lego Batman, 2014/2017

The Lego Movie features a number of DC characters, but it is Batman (voiced by Will Arnett) who gets to be one of the main stars. The movie justifies this as it is a kid playing with Legos’s so it makes sense that a child would pick Batman given how much Batman media this child has likely grown up with. That element also comes into play with how Batman is characterized, as the movie’s depiction is over the top with his self-seriousness, a comment on how Batman had been portrayed in recent years and how a child interprets it. It is incredibly funny, but also somewhat sad as how Warner Bros. did not get the joke and seemed to make this version of Batman their actual Batman for the DCEU (but more on that later).

The Lego Batman character proved so popular that he was given his own solo spin-off film, released in February 2017. This movie came out in between the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League and serves as an interesting examination of Batman’s mythology. It pokes fun at the character’s vast history in media, while also spotlighting elements that have been sadly absent for most of the film’s depictions like Robin, Batgirl, and the importance of the Bat-family. These elements are often forgotten about in other forms of media to keep Batman a lone warrior and a dark brooding avenger of the night, but Lego Batman embraces these elements as vital parts of what makes the character so everlasting.

Batman of the DC Animated Movie Universe, 2014 to 2016, 2019

Since 2007, DC released direct to video animated films that drew from their rich history of comics and were stand-alone works. But in 2013, the animated films became part of a shared universe that would start with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. The franchise would run from 2013 to 2020 and had 16 films in them and it drew heavily from the still relatively new New 52. Of those 16, Batman is the star of four of them and that is not counting his appearances in Justice League or Teen Titans animated films. The DC Animated Movie Universe is very Batman-centric, in large part informed by the success of The Dark Knight trilogy and the Arkham video games.

The bulk of the Batman movies are a trilogy that follows Batman and his son Damian Wayne as the new Robin which were released once a year. 2014’s Son of Batman, 2015’s Batman vs Robin, and 2016’s Batman: Bad Blood. The final solo Batman film in this universe was Batman: Hush released in 2019 and was an adaptation of the popular comic storyline from 2002. The first three films are very much an attempt by DC as a publisher to push Damian Wayne, a relatively new character in the Batman mythology out to the public as the new Robin. Damian very much is one of the central figures of this franchise as he becomes the lead in the Teen Titans movies.

All three of the solo Batman animated films that make up the Damian Wayne trilogy were released in the time frame from the announcement of Ben Affleck as Batman to the first on-screen appearance as the character. It does very much feel like Warner Bros. both relying on Batman since he is their most popular IP (by their own investment), and the fact that they want to keep him in the conversation somewhat, even if not among mainstream audiences.

Batman: Assault on Arkham, 2014

Similar to Batman: Gotham Knight capitalizing on the popularity for the Nolan incarnation of the character, Batman: Assault on Arkham was capitalizing on the success of the Arkham Batman franchise, which at this point had become the dominant depiction of Batman. The movie is set within the game series continuity and is supposed to take place two years before the events of the game Arkham Asylum. Assault on Arkham is very much an exercise in brand management. It does a lot of business management. It keeps the Arkham brand in the public eye in the year between Arkham Origins and Arkham Knight and is a launching pad to introduce a new group of characters to a wider audience, in this case, the Suicide Squad. In September 2014, just three months after Batman: Assault on Arkham was released, David Ayer would sign on to direct Suicide Squad for WB and set a 2016 release date. The Suicide Squad is the main focus of the film, with Batman being a supporting character and really only here to lend his brand name to boost the popularity of the title, a practice DC would do in other animated films like Justice League Dark, where they found a way to get Batman in there no matter what.

Gotham, 2014-2019

This goes to show how much has changed for Warner Bros. since the early 2000s. Originally they had a rule that kept multiple incarnations of characters from appearing in different media, this decision is actually what kept a young Bruce Wayne show from being developed in the 2000s and instead was replaced with Smallville. Yet in 2014, as it was still going to be two years until Ben Affleck made his debut as Batman in Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, Warner Bros. decided to greenlight essentially the Smallville version of Batman, here titled Gotham.

Gotham is a fascinating show. It can’t be quite described as good but it certainly is odd and in contrast to the other DC series at the time like Arrow and The Flash, it is a property that is really forging a new path with its material. What starts out as a semi gritty crime drama which you think will do a slow burn over the years to the gradual evolution of Gotham’s superhero just goes off the rails real quick. By season 2 many of Batman’s main villains are established long before he becomes Batman. The series is a novel idea, exploring an often overlooked aspect of Batman’s history, but the series never quite knows what it wants to be. That having been said there are some great additions to the Batman lore, like Robin Lord Taylor as the Penguin and Cory Michael Smith as Riddler are great interpretations of these characters, likely due to the fact that this was their first live-action versions of them since the 90’s Batman film and gave them a much needed modern relaunch. Also, like Smallville its insane interpretation of the source material and history is unique and while not always good it does have its own unique identity.

Batman: Arkham Knight, 2015

The epic conclusion to the Arkham Trilogy (because Rocksteady was sure to let you know they did not make Arkham Origins), Arkham Knight was given a prime summer release date of June 23, 2015 (fittingly the anniversary of when 1989 Batman was released in theaters). The game finds Batman battling a number of his enemies on Halloween night after Scarecrow and a mysterious new villain, The Arkham Knight has taken control of Gotham. The storyline draws heavily from the comic arc No Man’s Land, as well as the basic plot of Batman Begins.

Unlike both Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, Batman: The Animated Series writer Paul Dini did not pen the script for this story. It does tend to embrace some of the more bleak aspects of the material where it takes itself dead serious, pushing the material into the most ‘mature’ version it can be (the game even received an M rating). Also, a lot of emphasis is put on making Batman’s gear look like guns and his suit is more of Iron Man’s inspired in an attempt to go for realism as opposed to the more comic book style outfits of the prior games. But luckily the game offers a wide variety of different costumes including Michael Keaton’s 1989 Batsuit and Christian Bale’s 2005’s batsuit available, allowing players to feel like they are playing a lost Batman sequel. Or in the case of the Ben Affleck Batman suit made to tie in with the release of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice play the long-lost Batman movie they will never get.

Arkham Knight was a hit when it was released, and while it did receive positive reviews from critics it did have some technical issues with its Windows version of the game. It also did receive some criticism for the Batmobile element of the game, a highly anticipated element that often is difficult to control, and too many missions in the game are reliant on it. Yet Arkham Knight was supposed to be the kick-off to the build-up of the highly anticipated Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, which would take the dark gritty aesthetic to the next level.

Tune in next time for the third installment of the Batman retrospective, same Bat-time same Bat-website.

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