"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Comic Books, Film
This post concerns a movie that (if all goes as planned) won’t start filming until next year, and won’t be in theaters until 2015. I know next to nothing about it past the basic premise, a handful of cast members and a few educated guesses. Nevertheless, once I read the Superman/Batman movie announcement, two words kept popping into my head:
See, I can’t help but think that in the sequel to Man of Steel, the Darknight Detective may get equal billing, but will necessarily have a subordinate role. This is not perfectly analogous to introducing Scarlett Johannson’s super-spy in Iron Man 2 — for one thing, that film wasn’t called Iron Man and Black Widow — but her role there was defined largely by the plot. Batman’s role in the as-yet-untitled sequel seems likely to have similar restrictions.
Indeed, we know some broad restrictions already: Batman won’t be played by Christian Bale, and the Christopher Nolan-directed trilogy doesn’t take place in the same “cinematic universe” as Man of Steel and this (prospective) new set of DC-superhero movies. That probably also means no Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in S/B.
The question then becomes whether the movie-going public is now sufficiently excited by the very idea of Batman — as opposed to the specific prospect of the Nolan/Bale Batman — teaming up with Man of Steel’s Superman. The obvious irony is that in a very real sense, the new Superman (guided by director Zack Snyder, producer Christopher Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer, and played by Henry Cavill) is the Nolan/Bale Batman’s successor, not his colleague. The Dark Knight trilogy has ended, and Snyder/Nolan/Goyer’s “DC Cinematic Universe” is designed explicitly to capitalize on its success. Calling Superman/Batman a bait-and-switch is too harsh, but I wonder how much the public’s enthusiasm for this movie will drop when they find out this isn’t a proper Dark Knight film.
Batman wasn’t that high on my wish list of Man of Steel 2 guest stars. Supergirl would have been good, although her origin now seems a little too similar to the Phantom Zoners’ exile, and Snyder and company would have to ensure she doesn’t come off like a more benign retread of Man Of Steel’s Faora. Green Lantern (not necessarily Hal, and probably not Guy) would fit easily into this more sci-fi-oriented Superman, and would offer a greater cosmic perspective on Superman’s role in the larger universe. The Flash’s “suddenly superheroic” origin could be a good contrast with Superman’s lifetime of coming to grips with his powers.
To be sure, these are probably the kinds of considerations that went into the team-up episodes of Smallville. That show famously couldn’t use Batman (and apparently had issues with Wonder Woman, but I think she deserves a movie all to herself), so I suppose it’s inevitable that the World’s Finest Team comes together in the largest setting.
Superman/Batman will probably need every bit of screen space, too. Because Amy Adams, Laurence Fishburne, and Diane Lane are supposed to return, and because LexCorp cameos hinted at Luthor in a sequel, it’s reasonable to presume this will be a “Superman movie” with Batman in it, and not so much of an equal partnership. Even if S/B introduced a new Batman, his basic origin would be relatively fresh in moviegoers’ minds, and wouldn’t need retelling. (Besides, Warner Bros. could always do a prequel. For example, an adaptation of the current “Zero Year” storyline would set this Batman’s origins apart from the Nolan trilogy’s “Year One”/Long Halloween influence.)
Using Batman in a primarily-Superman setting would be nothing new. The first Superman/Batman team-up (outside of the Justice Society) was in the 1940s’ Adventures of Superman radio show, and their first team-up in the comics was in Superman vol. 1 #76 (May-June 1952). The DC Animated Universe of the ‘90s and ‘00s started in 1992 with Batman: The Animated Series, but the two characters didn’t meet until several years later, in the three-part Superman: TAS arc “World’s Finest.” (For that matter, Superman: TAS saw the first DCAU appearances of Aquaman, the Flash and Green Lantern, among others.) Since then, Superman has appeared in various episodes of The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, while the aforementioned Smallville eventually introduced enough DC characters to populate a Justice League and Justice Society, and to get a good head start on the Suicide Squad.
However, Batman comes with his own entourage. So far, every live-action Batman movie since 1966 has been set largely in Gotham City, and has featured Alfred Pennyworth, James Gordon the Batcave, the Bat-Signal, some form of Bat-vehicle and at least one villain from the comics. If I had to speculate — and I want to get all this speculation out of my system early — I’d bet on Alfred and the Batplane, with not so much of Gordon, Gotham, or the Batcave. If a Bat-villain appears (and that’s by no means certain), I doubt Nolan and Snyder would invite any more comparisons by reusing one from the Dark Knight films. That means no Scarecrow, Rā’s al-Ghūl, Joker, Two-Face, Bane or Catwoman. The Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher films also used the Penguin, the Riddler, Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy, and while I don’t see Snyder updating any of them, it may be premature to rule them out, too. I have to think Lex Luthor is in the lead for S/B’s main bad guy, what with LexCorp’s natural opposition to Wayne Enterprises, and I could see a Bat-villain getting involved with LexCorp somehow.
In fact, I could see Batman coming after Superman directly, taking a meta cue from negative audience reactions and wanting to rein in Superman so he doesn’t inadvertently lead to more death and destruction. This would be a natural fit with Luthor’s traditional view of the Last Son of Krypton as an unwanted influence on human society. Of course, it would fall to Superman (and Lois, probably) to set Batman straight. You’d have Batman vs. Superman, both vs. Luthor generally, Superman vs. Big Explodey Luthor Scheme, and Batman vs. Villain To Be Named Later.
Again, I come back to Black Widow in Iron Man 2, sneaking around and beating people up while Iron Man and War Machine fight killer drones. It wasn’t much different for Black Widow in Avengers, even after she had Chitauri to shoot. Batman may be psychologically complex and narratively versatile, but his adventures tend to happen on a much smaller, and arguably more personal, scale than Superman’s. While Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises each took Bruce Wayne across the globe, none of those trips is really comparable to Superman’s zooming around the planet as a matter of course.
That being said, putting Superman and Batman together didn’t always require all these conceptual contortions. In the Brave and the Bold episode “Battle of the Superheroes,” Batman shows up in Metropolis on the trail of a thief and just decides to stick around for a few days to help out. It’s part of the show’s general “Batman is everywhere the story needs him to be” attitude, but it follows from the comics of the 1950s and ‘60s, when Batman traveling through space and time was pretty common. Indeed, the “sci-fi Batman” was part of a more general trend which had the Caped Crusader looking increasingly like the Metropolis Marvel. Both had secret headquarters and teenaged admirers, but Batman got his own reporter girlfriend (Vicki Vale), dog (Ace the Bat-Hound), and omnipotent other-dimensional pest (Bat-Mite) to go along with Lois Lane, Krypto and Mr. Mxyzptlk. These lasted until 1964’s “New Look” makeover, and the Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams era pretty much put them in mothballs. As those creative teams found success in their revitalizations, they didn’t need to follow Superman’s lead.
Along those lines, one might even argue that the two heroes’ post-Crisis On Infinite Earths split was reinforced in significant part in order to capitalize on the success of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight miniseries, where it first appeared. In the old days Batman and Superman were natural friends, because each was dedicated to the larger task of stamping out evil, yadda yadda yadda. Those stories didn’t have time to dwell on their heroes’ deeper motivations. When Miller broke down and rebuilt Batman, though, the contrast between his pragmatism and Superman’s embrace of the establishment (also pragmatic, but in a different way) informed fundamental differences in perspective between the two characters. It also elevated Batman above Superman in many fans’ minds, and the latter has never really recovered.
Therefore, today a Superman/Batman movie might well be viewed rather cynically, like Batman is some sort of performance-enhancing figure guaranteed to ensure success. On one hand I can’t blame the producers, because Man of Steel needs a strong follow-up to preserve whatever shared-universe mojo DC might now have. Regardless, I was hoping that MOS’s sequel would explore more of what makes Superman a good character. To a certain extent Batman can help with that, but right now, with what little we know, the team-up is a gimmick.
In the end, though, all team-ups are gimmicks, and we consumers of entertainment can only hope that they serve some valid storytelling purpose. In this case, Batman might serve Superman best by staying in the background, moving the plot forward, and occasionally offering his unique perspective. After all, it did wonders for Black Widow.