Michael Keaton, the future of Batman, and DC’s Dark Knight plan

Michael Keaton as Batman
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Micheal Keaton’s returning Batman is no longer the centrepiece of the DCEU’s future strategy – what next for one of cinema’s most beloved Batman?.

At first glance, rummage around in the utility belt of Warner Bros and things don’t look too promising. As we enter a new phase in the decade-long battle for cinematic universe supremacy, the studio doesn’t seem to have too many tricks left to out-fox Marvel Studios, its seemingly-unstoppable nemesis.


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Yes, it might possess a slew of characters that are more iconic, but the studio has run roughshod through those big names in the last nine years with three Batmen having suited up, not to mention the incumbent Superman set to be joined by at least one other incarnation of the character, perhaps even two. Marvel on the other hand? Despite being almost 30 films deep, (not to mention the wealth of TV shows,) the MCU hasn’t even introduced two of its biggest hitters yet with the X-Men and Marvel’s ‘first family’, the Fantastic Four, set to make their bows in the next few years. 

Although there is a danger that Warner Bros could overexpose its most valuable characters, word on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new movie take on Superman has gone ominously quiet, as has the rumoured Michael B Jordan take on the character. Whilst that might simply be part of the process of getting Krypton’s Last Son back to cinemas, it is also entirely emblematic of Warner Bros’ handling of the DCEU in general: haphazard oversight, flawed storytelling and a few circumstances largely beyond its control have resulted in the studio assembling a Justice League for the ages. A Cyborg who has heaped damaging allegations upon the company, A Flash mired in legal woes who audiences have little appetite for, A Superman that nobody seems to know what to do with and yep, those three Batmen.

I’m Batman

One of those Caped Crusaders happens to be Michael Keaton’s take on the Dark Knight and we’ll be returning to him shortly. In sizing up the DCEU’s premier super team, there’s a Wonder Woman and an Aquaman in there too that seem to be doing alright, but overall, it is hardly the all-conquering force that Warner Bros was dreaming of when it looked enviously at the monsoon of cash and adulation showering Marvel Studios’ 2012 team-up extravaganza, The Avengers.

At that point in time, Warner Bros was deep in production on 2013’s Man Of Steel, the studio’s own opening foray into a superhero shared universe. Warner Bros were set to kick things off with a Superman movie, the most recognisable superhero of them all, led by a dream team of Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan and things, well, they looked incredibly rosy. 

Of course, we all know how that turned out. Cancellations, controversy and chaos have been the defining hallmarks of Warner Bros’ stewardship of its DC characters in the decade that followed and nowhere is that more evident with its deployment of the Dark Knight. If we don’t count Keanu Reeves’ recent animated take on the Caped Crusader, we currently have three cinematic incarnations of The Batman running in tandem: a ‘prime’ Batman played by Ben Affleck, a ‘Year One’ style alternative portrayed by Robert Pattinson and a legacy version of the character, featuring Micheal Keaton reprising his role as the Batman from Tim Burton’s 1989 and 1992 movies. 

Of these three Dark Knights, Affleck doesn’t really seem to want the job anymore but keeps on turning up in the DCEU nonetheless, with his announced appearance in Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom (now delayed again to Christmas of next year) meaning that his take on the character will remain in continuity until early 2024 at the very least. This is despite him expressing regret at playing the character on a more frequent basis than even George Clooney. On the other hand, in Keaton we have an actor that seemingly really wants to play Batman and yet is seemingly being given shorter and shorter shrift. 

When plans were first announced for Michael Keaton to return as Batman, reprising his 1989 take on the character as a legacy version of the Dark Knight, the response from fans was positive indeed. Perhaps emboldened by this reception, perhaps also seeking some kind of MCU-style Nick Fury character to tie its increasingly disparate cinematic universe together, Warner Bros then made plans for Keaton to appear in both Batgirl and Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom. 

Batman (1989)

You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts!

Unlike Affleck, Keaton has expressed great comfort with once more donning the cowl, stating that returning to the role was like “riding a bike”. Sadly, that’s one bicycle that most of us will never get to fully see because as it stands, Keaton’s role in Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom has reportedly been cut, whilst the cynical cancellation of Batgirl means that the actor’s supposedly sizeable role in that film will also be scrapped (or deleted from a hard drive if you believe the story stemming from The Hollywood Reporter which claims that a complete deletion of the project is the studio’s only way of reassuring the IRS that it can never stand to profit from the film and therefore, write it off as a tax break).

With just one confirmed appearance remaining then (that being in the oft-delayed and rather troubled solo Flash outing), is Keaton’s return, once touted as the DCEU ‘Batman Prime’ moving forwards, now over before it has really begun?

Clearly that’s a rhetorical question that can’t be answered, likely not even by executives at Warner Bros who who are once more reframing the very nature of the DCEU in light of the recent Warner merger with Discovery. The implementation of ten-year plans and Kevin Feige-like overseers have been mentioned, (probably more to appease twitchy shareholders than any other reason,) but what is certain is that the future of the entire DC cinematic universe is on less sure footing than it has been in a decade (and that’s saying something). As such, Keaton’s role within that universe is just one cog that has yet to be decided.

In terms of that decision though, we’d like to imagine that Batman ’89’s fate will be decided by a storyteller rather than marketing executives (not least because it was the latter who effectively did for Keaton’s aborted trilogy turn as Batman back in the 90s after a disastrous marketing tie-in with McDonalds following Tim Burton’s 1992’s kinkfest, Batman Returns). Still though, the more we think about it, the more we wonder if Keaton’s reinsertion into the world of capes and tights was less grounded in storytelling reasons or afforded largely because of commercial possibilities. 

Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman and Danny DeVito as Penguin in Batman Returns

Batman Returns (1992)

Where does he get those wonderful toys?

Excuse us if that sounds cynical because for this writer at least, cynicism doesn’t come naturally, least of all when it comes to Keaton’s Batman, the Dark Knight for my generation. As somebody old enough to be engulfed by ‘Bat-Mania’, probably the first pop-culture craze that placed something I dearly loved squarely into the mainstream, it was a defining moment of my youth, an affirmation that the things that meant so much to little old me could also possess value in the ‘real world.’

The generation of children that giddily succumbed to Bat-Mania are now adults, older, hopefully wiser but certainly in a space ripe for the marketing machine to harvest our nostalgia and sell it back to us for a handsome profit, not least if you happen to be a Batman fan. Want the new Gotham Knights video game, set to release in a couple of months? No problem, that will be around fifty quid please. Want the version where you get to don the 90s era costume for Robin, Batgirl and company? That will set you back an extra ten to fifteen pounds as that ‘bonus’ material is locked to a more expensive version of the game. 

My point here is that Batman fans of that era have entered a phase where Warner Bros marketing bods (be it in the gaming or movie division) believe that, desperate for a hit of nostalgia, they are willing and able to shell out a little more for the pleasure of seeing their version of Batman onscreen. That the announcement of Keaton’s return came around the same time that Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s much heralded return to the Spider-Man franchise was hoovering up every dollar going at box offices? Well that was likely no accident either. 

For the suits who spend time looking at graphs and crunching numbers for a living, you can certainly see why the concept of a Keaton reprise as Batman might be appealing. Legacy characters in vogue right now? Check. 90s revival in full swing? Check. Batman ’89 fans entering the most exploitable stage of engagement? Check.

However, the problem here is that just like shoehorning Justice League character intros into Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice or having Superman kill somebody in the character’s first outing, short-term thinking often leads to narrative cul-de-sacs.

It’s not exactly a ‘normal’ world, is it?

With Affleck believed to have been exiting the role and Pattinson’s Dark Knight situated firmly outside of the main continuity of films, that would have left Keaton as the cinematic universe’s central Batman, a prospect that has to be considered as risky, given the actor’s age and less-well known status to younger audiences. Yes, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield may have made a hugely successful return to their respective roles in Spider-Man: No Way Home, but they wouldn’t be left shouldering the responsibility for the character following the culmination of that film’s climax.

Still, maybe it could work. Maybe there was even a plan, as doubtful as that might sound.

Keaton may not boast the hulking muscular presence of Affleck, nor the hollow-eyed magnetism of Robert Pattinson but a grizzled Keaton would emanate something neither of those actors yet possess. Decades and decades of believable experience. Personally, my favourite Batman stories were always the solo tales (with Norm Breyfogle and Alan Grant’s stories being a personal highlight).

That though, is the sandbox that Matt Reeves and Robert Pattinson are getting to play in (with The Batman 2 on the way), so If I had to take my Dark Knight with a wider pinch of Justice League, then the stories where his undoubted leadership qualities come to the fore tend to be my favourites. Could Keaton work as the leader of the DCEU heroes moving forwards? The character has worked well as the leader in some comic book material, The Outsiders, the Bat-Family, JLA,) Add Keaton’s twitchily-kinetic take on Bruce Wayne, balanced out with a little elder statesmanship, and that could make for some fun interactions with other characters.

On the whole though, Keaton’s Batman as the ‘Batman Prime’ of the DCEU?  I’d have to say no. 

But that’s as Batman. It’s really Keaton’s take on Bruce Wayne that is more interesting anyway. Yes, that’s become something of a cliché to state when discussing Batman actors, but only because it was Keaton’s turn as Wayne that cemented the idea. After all, Keaton is one of a handful of actors to steal a scene from Jack Nicholson and perhaps the only Batman to do so when in the presence of a Joker. That he managed that feat without a Batsuit, but instead as Bruce Wayne armed with a nothing but a prop poker and a few lines of dialogue, make the moment in 1989’s Batman all the more memorable.

Batman (1989)

Batman (1989)

Never rub another man’s rhubarb

So perhaps that’s the way forward for the character. Put him through an ordeal that is so testing that it ends his time in the suit forever. Moving forwards, he can guide the team from the sidelines in the way that Nick Fury did so effectively in the MCU. Reconfiguring Keaton’s Wayne in such a way would allow Warner Bros to then do a version of the Batman Beyond story too, bringing in a younger actor who can gains some shine from Keaton on the way to becoming the eventual Batman Prime of the DCEU. 

Not only would this adapt the enduringly-popular Batman Beyond cartoon, something sure to excite the fans, but it also opens the door for some progressive casting too. Marc Bernadin has explained with his trademark cleverness on the Fatman Beyond podcast why Bruce Wayne can never be anything else but a white guy – it wouldn’t believably mesh with the character’s blue blood background. However, considering the DCEU already has three active Bruce Waynes, the Terry McGinnis protégé character would give Warner Bros a golden opportunity to represent audiences who aren’t used to seeing a Batman that looks like them, right up there on the silver screen. 

Recent reports have suggested that Dan Lin will be the guy coming in to sort out the future of the DCEU so all of these story opportunities will ultimately be up to him, or whomever takes that top job. With sequels to The Batman and Joker in development, don’t expect a tightly-formed cinematic universe like the MCU to suddenly appear, that wouldn’t play to DC’s strengths anyway. Still, if you do want an actor with pedigree and experience to link the disparate storytelling universes of the DCEU, you could do a lot worse than Micheal Keaton’s Batman. 

The recent reshuffling of The Flash and Aquaman: The Lost Kingdom means that having been previously juggled around, the delayed brace of superhero flicks are now once again being released in the order that would allow The Flash to reintroduce Keaton’s Batman before the character then pops up in the Aquaman sequel. When delays to The Flash pushed it behind The Lost Kingdom for a while, Warner Bros brass were concerned by test audiences not understanding why Keaton’s Batman’s was suddenly popping up, an issue which now shouldn’t be a problem any longer.

With Affleck now seemingly having shot a bit for the film, it is anybody’s guess as to which Batman makes it into the final movie. And with a new dawn on the horizon for the DCEU, whoever ends up being under the cowl in that particular film may not be wearing it for long. Still though, they could do a lot, lot worse than Michael Keaton. 

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