Last night, at a screening and Q&A to promote the home video release of War for the Planet of the Apes, director Matt Reeves spared a brief moment to talk about the general approach he’s taking to his next movie, The Batman, his standalone-but-not-standalone contribution to Warner Brother’s increasingly nebulous DC cinematic universe, in which—we think—Ben Affleck will once again reprise the role of the Caped Crusader. While the substance of what Reeves had to say wasn’t any different from things he’s already said about the movie—it was almost impressively verbatim, in fact—being there in the room listening to him talk got me thinking about the challenges Reeves faces, and the unfortunate shadow DC’s initial missteps with this cinematic universe casts over future installments.
Here are the important parts of what Reeves had to say about The Batman:
The thing that I like about Batman is the same thing I like about Caesar which is that in both cases…he’s an imperfect character, who’s struggling to figure out a way to do the right thing in a corrupt world, right? And that’s very much like Caesar, too.
[I’ve] discovered that in certain areas, if you’re able to use the metaphors of [the] genre, you can be very personal, and not only that, you can also be very relevant…That’s what draws me into even a big film. I think you can really do something that you relate to, and hopefully audiences will relate to, and that’s sort of the point.
My primary reaction to those statements is simple agreement. The way that Reeves talks about Batman, and the utility that he thinks Batman stories can have, lines up perfectly with my own feelings about the character. He understands the emotional underpinnings of Bruce Wayne and the ability of genre to speak important truths about the world.
On paper, then, it seems like Reeves is on course to deliver exactly the kind of Batman movie I want to see. Where things get complicated is in how Reeves’s apparent intentions for The Batman butt up against the version of Batman that Affleck and Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder have established.
Snyder made it clear from the beginning that he was drawing heavily on the version of Batman seen in Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns for his interpretation of Bruce. While I think Snyder’s interpretation of Superman is mistaken on every level, I think the Dark Knight Returns approach to Batman is absolutely a valid interpretation of the character. The problem, in the context of a multi-film cinematic universe/franchise, is that it’s not really a sustainable interpretation.
The DKR version of Batman works because the idea of Batman as a rage-fueled killing machine is not much of a stretch from the idea of Batman as a rage-fueled punching machine, and it doesn’t violate the core tenet of the character: that this guy’s parents are killed and he decides to spend his life putting the same fear into the hearts of criminals that they put into him.
That said, the rage-fueled killing machine version of the character has serious limitations. Most significantly for the DC cinematic universe, how is that version of Batman supposed to function as a member of the Justice League? He really can’t; not unless all the other members of the League are also turned into killing machines, anyway, and at that point we’ve strayed pretty far from what the Justice League is supposed to represent.
That’s why Miller’s comic is a “what if?” tale and not a part of Batman’s official canon, and why Miller’s own attempts to extend the story of that version of Batman—through The Dark Knight Strikes Again and DK III: The Master Race—are largely considered to be creative misfires. This interpretation only really works as a discrete, finite examination of what an extreme version of Bruce might look like, not as a part of an ongoing world where he has to interact with other heroes on a regular basis.
What does all this have to do with Matt Reeves and The Batman? Let’s refer back to what Reeves said he likes most about Batman, the idea that he’s “an imperfect character, who’s struggling to figure out a way to do the right thing in a corrupt world”. Now let’s compare that with how Batman has been presented so far in the DCEU. The bad-guy-murdering version of Batman that Snyder introduced in BvS is certainly imperfect, but it’s pretty hard to argue that he’s putting much thought into trying to “do the right thing” if he views cold-blooded slaughter as a valid solution to his problems.
For Affleck’s Batman to work in Justice League, then, they’re gonna have to do some serious massaging of his rough edges. It’s why I always questioned the thinking behind using The Dark Knight Returns as a reference point for the movies, even though that version of Batman can be valid in the right context. Why do it if you’re just going to have to walk most of it back in the very next movie in which the character appears?
Then, after Justice League, comes The Batman. Based on Reeves’s comments so far, the version of Bruce Wayne we see in The Batman will be a far cry from the one we were introduced to in Dawn of Justice. Viewed from the perspective of that single film, that’s totally fine, especially if it results in a great Batman movie. But when you look at The Batman in the context of its place in a larger cinematic narrative, things get a little more problematic.
Justice League will be the real test. If Affleck, Snyder, and Joss Whedon transition Bruce from the deeply angry man that he is in BvS into something mellower in a way that’s logical and organic, and not in such a way that it clearly comes off as a meta-textual reaction to what people didn’t like about BvS, then the road is paved for Reeves to do whatever he wants in The Batman.
But if the Batman we see in Justice League still ends up being a far cry from the one we ultimately see in The Batman, then the flaws in the way Warner Brothers approached this universe will be starkly revealed. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, having producer Kevin Feige keeping firm creative control over every movie has resulted in a longterm consistency of character that is truly remarkable. Warner Brothers’ approach—which they have repeatedly described as “filmmaker-driven”—may result in more personal films, but could also result in a loss of that consistency of character.
For Wonder Woman, this wasn’t a problem. As a character in Batman v Superman, Diana (Gal Gadot) was left nebulously defined. All Snyder really has her do was walk around with her breasts half out in a couple scenes and then punch Doomsday a bit; the movie didn’t really do any character work. That meant that, even though we’d seen the character already, Gadot and director Patty Jenkins had a functionally blank slate to work with in Wonder Woman. They could do whatever they wanted, did so, and in the process created a very workable template for Diana moving forward in subsequent films.
Technically, Reeves can also do whatever he wants, and based on all the reporting that surrounded Reeves deciding to board The Batman, that freedom was a deal-breaking condition to secure his involvement. But, while Reeves is just getting his hands on the character, the DCEU version of Batman has been much more concretely defined than Wonder Woman. Given the freedom to tell exactly the kind of story he wants, it’s entirely possible that Reeves will tell a story that doesn’t seamlessly line up with how Batman has been portrayed in Snyder’s films.
This is the gamble Warner takes with the more filmmaker-centric approach. As these different directors filter these heroes through their personal lenses, they might end up pulling the characters in wildly different directions that mar the kind of consistency that might come with more Marvel-like producer-led creative oversight. If the movies weren’t all part of a single narrative universe that wouldn’t be a problem, and that’s why the idea of Warner moving back to self-contained movies (like the rumored, outside the DCEU, standalone Joker movie) makes sense. It’s just a shame that for filmmakers like Reeves, stepping into the established cinematic universe, their interpretations of these characters will have to contend with the unfortunate shadows cast by previous films’ mistakes.