Franchise Retrospective: How Batman Became DC’s Biggest Hero Pt. 4

The final part of this retrospective looks at how after going all-in on the ultra-dark Batman which ended up backfiring on Warner Bros, the following years saw them diversifying the type of Batman stories that could be told. The character was taken to different time periods, crossed over with other properties, and the Batman brand really expanded by not just the titular hero but his supporting characters and villains.

Batman: Gotham By Gaslight, 2018

batman gotham by gaslight

2018 is the year Warner Bros. decided to play around with the Batman concept, as both major animated films around the caped crusader were set outside the main continuity and showcased the hero in different time periods. While not intentional, as animated films take years to make, it does feel like an attempt to break away from many of the Batman conventions that had been played out and show an audience that Batman can be many different things.

The first was Batman: Gotham by Gaslight, an adaptation of the 1989 standalone graphic novel of the same name by Brian Augustyn and Mike Mignola. Gotham By Gaslight is often credited as the first Elseworlds story, which would be stories outside of the DC Universe canon that could see drastic reimaginings of famous characters. The film was released on January 23, 2018, and while not a major signifier, it does begin a trend of Batman moving away from the box he had found himself in at the beginning of the decade.

Batman: Ninja, 2018

batman ninja

Batman: Ninja is the second 2018 Batman animated film to see the caped crusader in another time frame. Here Batman, his allies, and enemies are all transported back in time to feudal Japan. The film is an entirely original story, not based on any prior works. Combine that with Takashi Okazaki, the creator of Afro Samurai, as the lead character designer being allowed free rein to reimagine and interpret characters as iconic as the Batman roster, makes for a DC story unlike any other.

Batman: Ninja and Batman: Gotham By Gaslight in the same year, combined with The Lego Batman Movie and the Adam West animated films the year prior, helped speak to a wider trend that DC was going for. They are moving away from one interpretation of Batman and embracing that he can be many things and imagined in many different ways, probably more so than any other superhero.

Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, 2019

batman turtles

There are crossovers, and then there are CROSSOVERS which feel like dreams that should not be but somehow come together. Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is exactly that. Based on the crossover comic Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (from 2015 to 2016), this animated film finds the heroes in a half shell and the caped crusader teaming up to fight the combined forces of Ra’s Al Ghul and Shredder, who have combined their two ninja clans together.

The movie really just is a delight, contrasting the style between Batman and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It also shows how both properties have walked in both extremely cartoonish and overly self-serious styles, and argues the two franchises benefit from somewhere in the middle. The fact that this crossover happened in the comics between DC and IDW and then in animation between Warner Bros. and Nickelodeon is a huge deal and one that certainly stands as a celebration.

Pennyworth, 2019 to Present

In 2018’s Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, there is a joker where Robin is in the theater getting frustrated that every other part of the Batman franchise is getting a starring movie before him, and one of those fake trailers is one for Alfred. What makes this joke funnier but also sadly more poignant is a year later, Alfred would be given his own television series on Epix titled Pennyworth.

Pennyworth is a weird show in the wider Batman mythos, as it is from the same creative team as Gotham and was originally intended as a prequel but it’s still unclear if it is. The series is one of many attempts to tell a different type of genre story using Batman IP as a way to make it more appealing to mainstream audiences, something Warner Bros. would later do with Joker. The fact that the series airs on Epix, a premium cable channel that is lesser known than the big ones like HBO, Showtime, Starz, or Cinemax makes the fact that this series made it to two seasons very odd. The series has now moved to HBO Max where it will air its third season, so maybe it will find a bigger audience.

Titans, 2019 to Present

“Fuck Batman.” This single line made Titans into a headline show, but not in the way the creatives may have hoped. The series, a gritty reimagining of the Teen Titans franchise, had been in development for years at TNT before becoming the launch series for the DC Universe App. The image of Robin, the Boy Wonder, in a bloody fight swearing seemed to be an encapsulation of a particular moment of trying to take these characters that were designed as being a power fantasy for children and superficially making them gritty and “hardcore.” It seemed like the ultimate taking the wrong lesson from Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.

The series has run for three seasons, with season 4 set for HBO Max sometime in 2022. While a Teen Titans series, a great deal of emphasis is put on Batman. The series main cast of characters includes not only Dick Grayson as Robin and his transition into Nightwing, but also the Jason Todd Robin and eventual Red Hood. Season 2 actually features Bruce Wayne, although he never suits up as Batman. Season 3 sees the introduction of Barbra Gordan aka Oracle, Scarecrow is one of the season’s main villains, and the action all takes place in Gotham City. Despite having a rich tapestry of characters’ origins to draw from, Titans often fall back on the Batman mythology which maybe they will steer away from in season 4.

Batwoman, 2019 to Present

Introduced in 2018’s Elseworld series, Batwoman featured Kate Kane (Ruby Rose) taking on the mantle of a new caped crusader after Batman has gone missing. After season 1, Rose departed the series after a very public falling out with Warner Bros. and the CW regarding the working conditions of the set, and the series created Ryan Wilder (Javica Leslie) to take on the role of Batwoman. Season 3 introduced a clever concept of reimaginings of classic Batman villains with a new twist, due to citizens of Gotham finding the villains’ trophies. It has allowed the series to create its own unique spin on popular characters like Joker, Poison Ivy, and Mad Hatter while keeping in DC tradition of acknowledging legacy.

While in the past the idea of a Batman-related series would have been unheard of, DC and Warner Bros. have become more relaxed about allowing multiple incarnations of the same characters across different media. The Arrowverse is arguably the more successful shared universe of DC characters they have running at the moment, so while they didn’t quite use Batman, Batwoman allows them to tell reimaginings of Batman stories and introduce the audience to a brand new hero who likely will gain her own passionate fanbase.

Joker, 2019

Almost to the end of the decade and Warner Bros. released Joker, a standalone film that used the Joker as a loose framing device to tell a mainly original story. While changes to comic book source material and lore are often something that would anger a hardcore fanbase, Joker wisely played up the fact that this would be ‘adult’ and ‘not for kids’ to generate goodwill from audiences beforehand. Todd Philips makes homage to Taxi Driver and King of Comedy but uses Batman’s most famous villain to draw in audiences who may not have typically seen it otherwise. This didn’t need to be The Joker, and it didn’t need to have any relationship to Batman, but the fact that it does is telling to how not only audiences pick what movies to see but also how valuable Batman is to them.

This experiment worked for Warner Bros., as this R-rated $70 million awards contender became a box office smash and grossed $1 billion worldwide, topping the gross of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League. The film earned 11 Oscar nominations and won Best Original Score and Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix. While it is still too early to tell the long term impacts of Joker other than Warner Bros. being more willing to give R ratings to Birds of Prey and The Suicide Squad, one has to wonder if this will have a similar impact Batman Begins had where everyone tries to make villain-centric origin stories.

Harley Quinn, 2019 to Present

The final entry of the decade, but a high note. Premiering on the DC Universe App on November 29, 2019, just a month after Joker, Harley Quinn is an adult animated comedy series that focuses on Harley Quinn and her journey to grow beyond the Joker’s girlfriend and into her own fully realized person. She assembles a team of low-level super villains to be her friends and develops a friendship and eventual romantic relationship with Poison Ivy. Everything about Harley Quinn is great, from its voice cast to its comedic interpretation of the characters (Lake Bell is so great as Poison Ivy they need to get her in a live-action movie ASAP). It finds a way to flesh out joke villains like Kite-Man and Clayface into fully realized characters. Also while the King Shark in The Suicide Squad is great, the version on Harley Quinn still remains the best.

Harley Quinn also features the return of Diedrich Baider as Batman, after previously voicing the character in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. The series was renewed for a third season on HBO Max and has generated a passionate fanbase due to its clever humor (in many ways it plays out as a dirtier version of the 1960s’ Adam West series), playfulness with the source material to create new character dynamics, and a refreshing LGBTQ storyline at the center. Harley Quinn is the best example of taking the Batman iconography and running wild with it in the best way.


Here we are at the end.  Yes, we technically did skip over Birds of Prey from 2020 and the adaptations of Batman: Soul of the Dragon and Batman: The Long Halloween in 2021, but a lot of that is repeating what has already been mentioned above and this was a specific focus at almost two decades of Batman stories. We also did skip over the Superman/Batman movies because that was when Warner Bros. was really trying with Superman before giving up for a while. Had COVID-19 not been delayed the film The Batman would have been released in 2021, and would have arrived 16 years after the release of Batman Begins, which itself arrives 16 years after Tim Burton’s Batman. This new Batman will be the new big-screen version for an entire generation and will be their first Batman.

Looking over the past 18 years of Batman-related media, essentially the entire childhood of a person, one sees how the Batman franchise has evolved and grown. At one point he was one of many heroes DC offered, then he was their golden jewel and was forced into everything, and now while still an important part of DC and Warner Bros. plans, the studio has a more vested interest in other heroes. Now they have a Wonder Woman franchise, Shazam!, Aquaman, The Flash, Green Arrow, Supergirl, Doom Patrol, Peacemaker, and more have been given the spotlight like never before. Gone are the days when Batman was the only hero DC paid attention to and also hopefully gone is the idea that there is only one way to do Batman. Batman is many different things, and there will always be something for everyone.