Franchise Retrospective: How Batman Became DC’s Biggest Hero Pt. 3

The second half of the decade saw Warner Bros. double down on their gritty dark interpretation of Batman. While that sounded like a good idea on paper, they may have gone too far and the caped crusader would go through some quick reinventions.

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice/Suicide Squad, 2016

batman v superman

By the time Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice hit theaters, Ben Affleck had been cast as the Dark Knight for three years. That meant the audience knew it was coming but didn’t quite know what his Bruce would be. What they got was an older Batman and one who was very different from what anyone was expecting.

Snyder’s interpretation of the character takes the dark brooding avenger and cranks it all the way up to 11. In this incarnation, Batman has been a long-established character and an older incarnation of the character akin to The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder borrows a lot from that comic, from the suit he wears to fight Superman to even lines of dialog. It’s an odd choice to make your starting point for a cinematic universe an older Bruce who likely won’t carry over through the franchise.

Even more shocking is using a Batman that wields guns and is willing to kill, a major departure from most incarnations of the characters (yes other film versions have killed, but there seems to be a certain amount of disconnect as opposed to Affleck’s who goes out of his way to murder). While many fans loved this version of the character because a certain subset of fans will always love the super serious ones, a good portion also rejected this incarnation of the Dark Knight.

The movie itself did not go over well. Despite three years of anticipation and the first meeting between the two biggest superheroes in the world, the film failed to match the $1 billion dollars gross WB expected. It opened strong with $181 million over the Easter weekend, but in its second week saw a drastic 69% drop at the box office (although it still did manage to stay number 1). It ended its run with $330 million domestic and $873 million worldwide. Reviews were not kind to the film, as it received a 27% on Rotten Tomatoes as criticism was leveled at the runtime, its treatment of the iconic characters, and its overt self-seriousness that was seen as a slog to get through and everything wrong with the type of influence the Nolan trilogy brought on.

Affleck’s version of the character also shows up in a cameo role in Suicide Squad, which also was not critically well-received but was a box office hit. This is Warner Bros.’s attempt at launching a shared cinematic universe and despite the money, the poor reaction to the first three movies certainly left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth and would be something the DCEU continues to shake off to this day.

Affleck is a good actor and shows potential to be a great Bruce, but he was unfortunately given poor material to work with. It is a shame he never got a full Batman movie because it would have been interesting, and as a talented writer and director, he likely would have offered a very unique take on the material.

DC Rebirth, 2016

batman catwoman rebirth

In 2016, DC Comics undid the New 52 with their Rebirth Initiative, which was going to undo some of the more controversial decisions made by the New 52 and restore a sense of optimism and legacy to the series. New creative teams were brought on board and Tom King, from hit comic series The Visions (the partial inspiration for WandaVision), became the new head writer on the Dark Knight’s solo title. King had a 100 issue run set to be released twice monthly; however the plan changed to 85 issues, 3 annuals, and a 12 issue Batman/Catwoman mini-series to finish.

King’s run is both praised and controversial. The writer digs into aspects of Bruce’s psyche like trauma and guilt in ways very different from other writers. The way King uses Batman’s various enemies feels fresh, and the overall plan by Bane through the series is arguably the best the character has ever been written. The relationship dynamic between BatCat (as they are affectionately known) felt fresh and new with Bruce finally proposing to her.

But the controversial wedding issue, which saw Selina leave Bruce at the alter after much hype for the wedding, left many fans unhappy and spoke to a larger issue with the Batman franchise. How much can he really grow and move on, since he is a fictional character meant to sell comic books and must always be Batman? Had King been allowed to complete his storyline, this question may have been answered fully but due to delays, the Batman/Catwoman storyline is still waiting to be completed.

Overall this relaunch of the Batman title came at a moment when the character himself was going through a major change behind the scenes at Warner Bros. While not the bright optimism of the 1960’s Batman, Tom King’s Batman run did stand in contrast to the regressive takes on the character that seemed so tied to the 80’s Batman comics with projects like Batman V Superman and The Killing Joke. While Batman may have been disappointing audiences on screen, there still was a form to enjoy a new type of story with the caped crusader.

Batman: The Killing Joke, 2016

The Killing Joke, one of the most celebrated and iconic Batman storylines of all time, a major inspiration for Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan’s take on the Joker, was finally getting the animated film adaptation. To make things better Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, arguably the most popular versions of the Joker and Batman respectively, were set to reprise their roles to give the iconic storyline the iconic voices. Originally intended to be direct to video, the film was so anticipated it was given a one-night theatrical release simultaneously with the film’s digital release on July 25, 2016, which would be three days after the movie premiered at San Diego Comic-Con. With all these pieces in place, what could go wrong?

As it turns out, a lot actually. While The Killing Joke is an iconic comic, it is one that even its original creator Alan Moore has distanced himself from. The movie decides to expand on the controversial decision to have Barbra Gordon aka Batgirl be shot by giving her a very long semi-pointless prologue that does not tie back to the main plot. It also makes the terrible decision to have Bruce Wayne and Barbra Gordon sleep together, implying she is bad as Batgirl because she is too emotional. So basically they made every possible worst decision with this, as well as adapting The Killing Joke in 2016 when by this point all the beats of it have been stripped and mined in other Batman material that it feels trite.

Something interesting also happened, as the film was the first DC Animated movie to receive an R rating. Combine this with the movie’s poor reception, and the overall tone and overly self-serious nature of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice just a few months earlier, there was a sense in the air that DC and Warner Bros. may have gone a bit too far with Batman and taken the wrong lessons from The Dark Knight trilogy (which were rated PG-13). The past few Batman stories had been so dark that it almost felt like a parody of itself, something that The Lego Batman Movie would seemingly mock when it was released the following year. DC would take a lot of these criticisms and go in a different direction, with a wide array of tones, but they still had one R-rated Joker project in the works that would yield them great success.

Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders/Batman vs. Two-Face, 2016/2017

After years of pop culture treating the Adam West Batman television series as an embarrassment, fandom finally came around and showed appreciation for the colorful take on the character. This was likely prompted after having spent nearly a decade with the grim and gritty Batman of the games, films, and television series. The fact that Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders was released the same year as Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and that Batman vs. Two-Face was released a month before Justice League shows an interesting time in the Batman fandom.

Both films take place in the continuity of the original series and see Adam West and Burt Ward reprise their roles. The films have fun playing on the Batman world of the series while adding elements of recent Batman pop culture into the world (The Batman slap Robin meme and the line ‘you want to get nuts?’ for example). William Shatner also voices Two-Face, a character that was not used in the series due to being too scary but is a perfect bit of time period casting it makes you wish it happened in live-action.

Adam West sadly passed away in June 2017, a few months before Batman vs. Two-Face was released. While the man is gone it is nice to see him not only get a reassessment in the fandom, but for his version of Batman to be treated with the same respect as his successors. Without him, it is likely this entire retrospective wouldn’t exist.

Batman and Harley Quinn, 2017

Released in August 2017, between Batman: Return of the Caped Crusader and Batman vs. Two-Face, Batman and Harley Quinn is done in the animation style of the popular Batman: The Animated Series, and creator Bruce Timm says it is in canon with it. The film essentially acts as 48hrs style film where Batman and Nightwing need to team up with Harley Quinn.

The film received a poor reaction from fans and critics, who did not like the more comedic tone which contrasted with the prior Batman: The Animated Series tone as well as the risque and adult humor. In terms of the Batman franchise, this film is a slight blip on the radar, although it is interesting that it features The Big Bang Theory star Melissa Rauch voicing Harley Quinn, where her co-star Kaley Cuoco would voice the character two years later.

Justice League/Zack Snyder’s Justice League, 2017/2021

batman justice league

Justice League is difficult to talk about, as there are two drastically different versions with a lot of behind-the-scenes drama impacting both cuts of the movie. The review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League can be read here. What is important in regards to Batman is the contrast in how the two cuts play him, and why neither one is bad and both make sense with where Batman V Superman left off.

In the theatrical cut of the movie, released on November 17, 2017, the reshoots to the film make this a more quippy light-hearted Batman. While this is a major tonal shift from the brutal character seen in Batman V Superman, this does make a certain amount of sense for his characterization in the film series. If Batman V Superman was the character being at his lowest then this film is him working to be better. As the one assembling the Justice League, he is acting as the mentor figure to many of the more inexperienced heroes. His line to Barry about ‘save one person’ when Barry is scared shows a Batman that the audience would believe has mentored a Robin. The movie basically has Bruce realize it is okay to make friends and ends on a note that establishes Bruce Wayne/Batman has undergone a change in character that reflects the comic. The dark brooding avenger of the 80s has now become a more Silver Age version. That is a fine story arc that does track and builds on the set foundation.

In Zack Snyder’s Justice League, released on March 18, 2021, it picks up with the more world-weary Batman found in Batman V Superman. While there are glimmers of hope found in him, he is still someone who carries a lot of guilt in his heart for his actions with Superman. It maintains the serious nature found in the previous film but does show a Batman who is learning to open himself up and realize he does not have to work alone. It’s a more subtle character arc but one that tracks with the overall plan laid out (although where Snyder wanted to take Batman in his sequels is certainly a choice that would have been controversial for many reasons).

However, it was during this time filming and reshooting Justice League that Ben Affleck’s passion for his Batman movie began to fade. He first dropped out of directing, although that announcement was not made until after Justice League was released, as they did not want to negatively impact that film’s box office. Regardless, Justice League ended up grossing $657 million worldwide, and while certainly a hit, due to the budget for reshoots it is one of the most profitable flops of all time. This made a ripple effect on the entire DCEU, splitting the fandom where a massive Release the Snyder Cut happened and finally saw the light of day in 2021. It also made DC look at their plans and change not only tone but focus on telling individual stories rather than an interconnected universe. This meant finding out what to do with their Batman franchise, which now did not have a director or a star.

The larger Batman franchise would also need to undergo a larger reinvention. In the final installment of this retrospective, we’ll examine how the Batman franchises expanded both the characters but also tones.