Batman Then, Now and Beyond
By: Lawrence Napoli
Comic book adaptations continue to take the world by storm, and Hollywood’s desperate need to use “superheroes” as a crutch won’t see that trend ending anytime soon. So we know (think) the Justice League adaptation is coming in an effort to mirror Marvel’s success with The Avengers, but no one seems to know how DC’s team of super folk ought to be adapted to the screen. Does everyone get their own film to establish origins as well as a following? Do we present the team first? Oh, and what do we do about Batman? Yes ladies and gentlemen, that last question is the one that’s truly plaguing the executive brass over at Warner Bros., and DC because Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy remains too familiar within the social consciousness of the present and a depiction of that character (DC’s most valuable license) that isn’t as proficient will directly translate to millions (if not billions) in lost profit all over the world.
I’ve never liked the concept of “rebooting” and I never will, but that’s not to say some efforts have been made in good faith to really deliver some marquee entertainment that attempts to show an audience something we haven’t quite seen before. Nolan’s trilogy is a perfect example of this, but if Justice League is to happen then Batman not only needs a new face to fill out the cowl, but he needs someone who will be as dedicated to the role as Henry Cavill is apparently for Superman, as Robert Downey Jr. is for Iron Man, and as Christian Bale was for Batman before. If Justice League was truly a project attempting to carbon copy The Avengers, this production should have considered recasting Bale as Batman to maintain some viewer familiarity with that role as Downey Jr. has for Tony Stark. Not everyone saw the Captain America, Incredible Hulk and Thor films, but most saw the Iron Man trilogy thanks mostly to the performance of the title role. Bale’s presence could pay similar dividends for JL, but Bale has solidified his Hollywood legacy, he’s won his Oscar and made tons of money; he’s going to take a break now.
So, what is the corporate conglomerate to do? Audiences liked Cavill enough through strong showings for Man of Steel at the box office so Superman is set. Everyone hated Green Lantern (and rightly so), but can JL afford recasting another emerald warrior in the form of a brand new Hal Jordon or swapping him out for Alan Scott, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner or (ugh!) Guy Gardner? That character is a toss-up. How about a CG Martian Manhunter? Possibly. Is Wonder Woman simply inconceivable to cast due to the need to make her as physically dominant, yet sexy, attractive and somewhat cute at the same time? Perhaps. Flash, Cyborg, Aquaman: does anyone even care about these guys? Maybe not. The point is that The League isn’t particularly stable, so the two pillars of this fictional franchise have got to work well (butting heads) onscreen. Whoever is given the power to choose the next Batman better not miss.
That being said, we will discuss some possibilities for actors who could potentially do the role (ahem) justice, but before we do, let’s glance at some of Batman’s past renditions to see if we can extract the elements of a performance that are vital to bringing this character back to life for Justice League and beyond.
What worked: He helped bring Batman to the mainstream in the late 60s with a very family friendly performance that employed a decent amount of action for television shows produced at that time. The show kept fresh by employing a number of his iconic rogue’s gallery for several episodes. Heck, they even all teamed up against him; Legion of Doom style and Mayor Adam West confronted them with as much dignity as he could muster.
What didn’t: It’s obvious isn’t it? It was campy and it was foolish, and West had no choice but to play it that way. Seriously? Shark repellent Bat spray??? West is only partially to blame as the man was simply following direction and reading off the script, but his smarmy chuckles, warm smile and Little House on the Prairie interpretation of fathering Robin is far off the beaten trail for this character.
What to keep: Despite the dated nature of this material, West showed that you can generate interest and an audience through shear charisma and the man certainly had that in spades for his Batman. A suave demeanor and face is the shortest route to an audience’s heart, so the next Batman must have this kind of likability because his clashing with Superman over JL decisions (as well as his personal brand of “justice”) might lead an audience to view him as a villain.
George Clooney/Val Kilmer
What worked: I count both men as the same because the only real positive impact they had on this character is the fact that A-list recognition will bring the masses to the box office; completely independent of the story, production value and quality of the performances. It is the primary reason why “stars” fuel Hollywood’s engine in the first place.
What didn’t: There’s almost too much to mention here, but let’s try anyway! Joel Schumacher, anatomically correct rubber suits, dumb stories and stylized settings are only a few reasons why Batman Forever and Batman and Robin ought to remain in the Dark Knight’s closet. However, the number one, unforgivable offense for both of these actors is that neither truly bought in to this character to give it the seriousness it deserved. They treated these movies as only paycheck films and it showed onscreen.
What to keep: Before Robert Downey Jr.’s career took a hiatus thanks to substance abuse and rehab, he was already established, A-list talent that every media entity dubbed as one of the “next big things in Hollywood.” Of course, blow can derail anyone’s career, but he came back with a vengeance thanks to the Iron Man franchise, and he did it by fully investing in his character and it produced a performance that will forever be linked to this man’s legacy. Sure, Christopher Reeve did this as an unknown for Richard Donner’s Superman, but odds are that A-list talent has a higher batting average to hit one out of the park in any role for audiences.
What worked: Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 kick-started the contemporary love affair with and modern adaptations of comic book characters and stories. It had a big production budget, bigger stars and encapsulated it all within a very dark, brooding and serious plot that brought the character closer to its roots than ever before. Many were confounded with the casting of Keaton who was more established as a comic (ha-ha) actor at the time, but Burton witnessed this man’s ability when they worked together on Beetlejuice the year before. Keaton yielded a performance that no one could have possibly predicted thanks to his Bruce Wayne persona that matched the trends of his past roles and a distinct Batman persona that was decidedly solemn, gruff and cold. He also rarely flapped his lips in regards to anything while donning the cape.
What didn’t: Hollywood is good at faking a lot of things. It even made Michael Keaton look like he was some kind of martial arts master; well, kind of. Keaton never has and never will be described as an action star, but the next Batman will always have the need to be depicted as very physical on the screen through stunt work and combat sequences. It’s not necessarily that Keaton’s action didn’t work in ’89, but that it won’t work for Justice League moving forward.
What to keep: Michael Keaton represents the antithesis of the two men who followed in this role. When it comes to the nature of a performance, there’s clearly no equation to separate “successful” from “unsuccessful,” but this is why casting is a tricky art form in and of itself. One makes a decision to fill out a role based on an actor’s history of work and the energy he or she brings to an audition. Open-mindedness is the key lesson in appreciating Michael Keaton as Batman which applies to the casting of either established talent or a new face entirely. I also would like to see the resume of whoever will be charged as the casting director for Justice League because if movies like the Star Wars prequels, Ghost Rider and Daredevil are credited to this person, we should all brace ourselves for JL.
What worked: He’s easily the most skilled actor to ever play this role and outside of his natural talent, has an entire history of completely selling out for just about every role he plays as evidenced by the extremes in physical conditioning he has subjected his body to over the years. He made me fall in love with Batman again thanks to Christopher Nolan’s more realistic interpretation of the character. He’s an Academy Award winning actor who kicks a-- onscreen. There really isn’t much of that going on in Hollywood; ever!
What didn’t: Oh dear, Bale’s “Batman” voice was awful! He stumbled on to it about halfway through Batman Begins and never let go for the rest of the trilogy. I understand the need for the character to obscure his identity, but could we get the man a vocal coach for that? “Swear to me!” Sheesh! It makes me cringe even now.
What to keep: When push comes to shove, the actor must make the character his or her own. It doesn’t take a great actor to yield a great performance, but it certainly takes a great effort to do so. JL’s Batman will have some big shoes to fill, and that person had better not be intimidated in the least, otherwise the performance will suffer and sour the entire franchise. Bale’s confidence as an actor is nigh unmatched, and while the next Batman doesn’t have to be as proficient, I’d like him to at least be on the same path as an accomplished actor. Desire and dedication are absolute musts here.
What worked: What? A voice-over actor you say? What’s he doing here? True Bat-Fans know this man as one of the most iconic voices for comic book characters next to his co-star Mark Hamill’s rendition of the Joker. He’s voiced the Dark Knight in Batman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Arkham City and Asylum, DC Universe Online, and most of the direct-to-video DC animated features like the most recent Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. The best voice-over actors are masters at manipulating their voice, and one of Conroy’s often overlooked skills was his distinct differentiation between Bruce Wayne’s voice and his alter ego’s. His voice brings so much life to Batman that it would be remiss to disregard his contributions to the character and is easily one of the best portrayals of Batman ever.
What didn’t: Animation is limiting due to the obvious nature of the medium, but in Conroy’s case, this is actually a benefit. The man looks nothing like Bruce Wayne/Batman. Voice-actors also have less say in the organic evolution of a performance as they are constantly being given direction over the headset in a sound booth. An actor can only control so much when they are being told to “do it this way,” as opposed to live action where several actors over the years have clashed with their directors/producers over creative differences because their embodiment of their characters gave them more political power during production.
What to keep: Never underestimate the importance of the voice. Christian Bale’s weakness is Kevin Conroy’s strength, and the next Batman has got to own intimidation, the bass, the staccato and the diction. No pressure.
That was the easy part. Now comes what websites all over the globe love to get into and that is the theoretical casting call for who the next Batman could and possibly should be for the Justice League franchise on film. It seems a daunting task because there really isn’t a clear cut choice in Hollywood, but that assumes no one in the current talent pool is capable of a quantum leap in ability and performance.
Here are five suggestions in no particular order:
Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger, The Social Network)
Strengths: I still can’t believe that this is his real name, but regardless, this actor has consistently been in the rumor mill for this role, and it’s pretty obvious for some reasons. Besides the fact he’s 6’5”, 220 and there’s two of him, the man clearly has the right kind of body to step into the cape. I felt that the dramatic acting he displayed in J. Edgar is proof enough that he has the ability to be as serious with a role as he wants to be. His face is also attractive enough to sell billionaire, playboy Bruce Wayne without selling out as a stereotypical Hollywood boy toy that loses Bat-Fans everywhere.
Concerns: The Lone Ranger tanked and he had Johnny Depp’s help. This doesn’t bode well for his ability to aid in the helming of a franchise. Taylor Kitsch knows exactly what I’m talking about, and this leads me to my primary concern for Armie. How much would he really want this role? I see desire as somewhat lacking in this actor because he’s already shown the ability to act in different genres, so who knows how much he would want to buy into a franchise that will monopolize his life for a number of years into the future. Armie Hammer makes a lot of sense on paper for the next Batman, but I’m not sold on his ability to truly commit to this role. Tonto knows what I’m talking about.
Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike, True Blood)
Strengths: This gentleman will be the only member (ahem) of the cast of Magic Mike that should ever be seriously considered to be the next Batman due to the fact that his face, physicality, size, shape, voice and demeanor make him one of the few bodies out there that I could see standing toe to toe with Henry Cavill. He has all the tools needed to thrive in this role, and he has demonstrated the acting ability to be intense for both action and drama.
Concerns: But, can Joe pull said intensity inside to yield the wounded loner and solemn respectability? Can he project intelligence, stratagem, leadership and experience? Supposing Warner Bros. wants this type of Batman to contrast with Cavill’s youth and inexperience, I’m sure Joe is capable once he puts that costume on, but his repertoire is not quite on par with that of Christian Bale. Limited experience and ability are the main concerns here.
Karl Urban (Dredd, Star Trek)
Strengths: Karl has a much better gruff voice than Bale could ever possibly wish for, and he certainly has the acting chops to pull off this role. His look is also right in line with both the Bruce Wayne and Batman personas. He also has a very respectable history of work in these types of action and CG-heavy films that would make him that much more comfortable on set. He owns the concept of deadpan intimidation.
Concerns: Dredd was not a homerun for me, and that character is pretty close to what most Hollywood productions will make Batman look like. Karl will also have to hit the gym to buff out a little because being tone might work for Star Fleet, but even Batman’s body armor needs a bit more. I would love for Urban to use Hugh Jackman’s work out regiment, but that kind of commitment might be outside of this actor’s asking price.
Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Gamer)
Strengths: This gentleman’s name has been tossed around the internet in connection with this topic for a while, and I didn’t quite see the connection at first, but the shear deviousness he demonstrates in Dexter proves he has more than enough “dark” for the Dark Knight. He has also demonstrated the ability to project an ordered and scientific persona which relates to Batman quite well. The overall acting ability is there for Michael to be the next Batman.
Concerns: Michael has recently been undergoing treatment for Cancer and the disease is now in remission, but the physical requirements for this role may be too much of a burden for this actor. Even a modest training regiment could be unreasonable and that instantly hurts his chances. He also comes up a little short in the stature department as well as the look of his face. No offense to him personally, but I’ll come right out and say it: his ears are just too damn big!
Jon Hamm (Mad Men, The Town)
Strengths: If I had to pick one man, right now, to be the next Batman, Jon is it. He’s got the total package: the looks, the ability and the size. He’s a little older than some of the other actors I’ve suggested here, but I’ve always felt Batman should be older than Superman because he’s always seemed to represent the voice of experience in the hero game when these two come together. Jon has the ability to be in any kind of movie he wants which is stunning how his appearances continue to seem limited to me. It could be he’s genuinely not interested in his offers or it could be AMC’s contractual situation has him chained in their basement. Either way, if I was casting, the role would be his if he wanted it. Who knows how to act like a suave debonair better than Don Draper?
Concerns: As good of shape as he is in; the gym is the first stop for Mr. Hamm. However, this is usually the case for just about any role in an action film and something to which I’m sure he’s accustomed. Being well into his acting career might demonstrate a lacking desire and or energy to get involved in such a project, but that would be something for him to decide. He’s also not had an opportunity to demonstrate physicality in terms of hand to hand fisticuffs in many of his projects, but good stunt choreography could address this.
This is not the be all and end all to Batman’s possibilities, and the questions will only begin to be answered when the cast for the Batman/Superman movie is announced. We can all hope that “the right decision” is made, but whoever gets tapped will only begin their challenging journey because the proof will be in the final product. For better or worse, this decision will be binding for Warner Bros. who could ill afforded a series of recasting in this iconic role which would be interpreted by the viewing public as stumbling into the Justice League franchise as opposed to marching in with heads held high as Marvel did for The Avengers.
As for the rest of the rumored actors in line to be the next Batman, I will make short-SHORT commentary in regards to why they should NOT be Batman:
Ryan Gosling (too mopey)
James Franco (too busy looking in the mirror)
Bradley Cooper (too eccentric)
Michael Fassbender (he’s Magneto)
Joseph Fiennes (too old and too British)
Wes Bentley (not enough talent)
Tom Cruise (WAY too crazy, and old)
Andrew Lincoln (too busy with The Walking Dead)
Stephen Dorff (too skinny)
Josh Holloway (isn’t he supposed to be Solid Snake?)
Matt Bomer (too pretty)
Channing Tatum (the male version of Megan Fox)
Sam Witwer (who?)
Hugh Jackman (he’s Wolverine)
Any Hemsworth boy (contractually inaccessible)
Johnny Depp (um, no)
Jason Statham (too bald and too interested in generic action films)
Joel Edgerton (his face is too fat)
Sam Worthington (owned by James Cameron)
Chris Pine (he’s Captain Kirk)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (must have a Barry Bonds body transformation to apply)
Shia LaBeouf (come on, really?)
Ryan Reynolds (didn’t he already fail at a DC hero?)
Vin Diesel (not enough hair, talent or time)