DC's Batman movies need to stop taking their cues from Frank Miller's "Dark Knight" series.

DC Doesn’t Understand Batman

August 04, 2014 / by / 12 Comments

Happy belated Batman Day! That’s right, among the many idiosyncratic, uncelebrated semi-real holidays that dot America’s hidden calendar, somewhere between Rat-catchers Day and National Tequila Day, there is apparently a day dedicated solely to celebrating the Dark Knight of Gotham City. Perhaps in recognition of this momentous annual occasion last week, Zack Snyder (director of the forthcoming, preposterously-named Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice) released another official photo of Ben Affleck in full Batman costume.

I must say, he looks rather haggard. That lines up nicely with what Snyder has already said about Affleck playing an “older Batman.” An older, hardened Batman fighting Superman? Sure looks like Snyder’s movie is going to be taking several cues from Frank Miller’s seminal Dark Knight Returns comic, similar to how Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins adapted Miller’s Batman: Year One.

At this rate, you’d think the only version of Batman that existed was the one drawn by Miller. Both Dark Knight Returns and Year One are amazing. Their gritty depictions of a hardened, soldier-like Batman fighting down-to-earth enemies helped erase memory of the campy 1960’s TV show and re-energize the entire Batman concept. Anyone who loves Batman should be forever grateful to them for that. Of course,  they are far from the only Batman comics out there, though you wouldn’t know it by listening to Hollywood.

As Vulture noted last week, Batman movies have always relied way too heavily on Miller’s version of the character. Even Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman movie was heavily influenced by the 1985 release of Dark Knight Returns, which is why Batman uncharacteristically kills people in Burton’s version. With each Batman film ripping off Miller more shamelessly than the last, the casual audience member would perhaps be forgiven for forgetting the crazier sides of Batman: his colorful sidekicks, his insane enemies armed with freeze guns and mutant plants, his Batcave filled with T-Rexes and giant pennies. Batman has come to represent different things during different decades, and writer Grant Morrison’s recent epic 10-year run of Batman comics drew a lot of storytelling fuel from the premise that all these different Batmans are in fact the same person (a person who, therefore, is batshit crazy). Those different versions of Batman have just as many interesting stories to tell as Miller’s.  The movies make it seem like Batman is a one-dimensional character, when in fact he is the exact opposite, a hero with more twists and turns than anyone else in the DC Universe, maybe in all of comics. I’m not saying I want a movie adaptation of the comic where Batman briefly became a mermaid, but there are a wealth of stories out there that could make for great cinema without keeping Batman trapped in the “dark, gritty soldier” box.

Batman’s not the only one suffering here. The biggest problem with Batman V Superman is that its name makes no sense (this is a superhero team-up movie, not a Supreme Court case), but the SECOND biggest problem is that it takes Miller’s dark-and-gritty version of Batman and applies it to the entire DC Universe. Last weekend, at The Event Formerly Known as Comic-Con, Snyder followed up his Batfleck previews with a shot of Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, eschewing her traditional red-white-and-blue getup for dark bronze armor. Yes! Because that’s what everyone wants from a Wonder Woman movie! Grit and realism!

Ever since the beginning, DC has envied the Marvel superheroes for their realistic flaws and relatable personalities. Perhaps you can’t blame their envy for taking over once again, as Marvel’s cinematic empire continues to rake in billions and DC’s non-Batman movies continue to flop harder than European soccer players (remember that Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern movie??). Unfortunately, DC seems woefully incognizant of the fact that their superheroes have their own strengths, and are at their best when capitalizing on these rather than pathetically imitating Marvel’s down-to-earth style. To wit: DC’s heroes are larger-than-life, mythic heroes – “supergods,” as Grant Morrison called them. Spider-Man can make us laugh, but Batman and Superman can teach us things, no different from the world’s other great legends. Nolan’s films demonstrated that Batman, at least, could come to exist in a fairly realistic world, but even his Dark Knight Rises asks for several suspensions of belief. For these DC characters to really shine on the big screen, both their creators and audience will have to agree that nothing like this could ever happen in the quote unquote real world, and move on from there.

For the record, Miller himself agrees. He once said that superheroes “work best as the flamboyant fantasies they are. I don’t need to see sweat patches under Superman’s arms. I want to see him fly.”

This is why DC superheroes have always translated so well to cartoons. When people ask who my favorite Batman is, I completely eschew Christian Bale and Val Kilmer and go straight for a perhaps unexpected answer: Kevin Conroy. Conroy voiced the animated Batman on an amazing sequence of cartoons from 1992-2006, starting with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992 and culminating gloriously 14 years later in Justice League Unlimited. This Batman manages to be dark, detective, and still cartoony, without ever facing the pressures of realism that go hand-in-hand with a live action depiction.

If DC really, truly wants to make a live-action Justice League movie, they would do well not to shamelessly ape the Avengers, a different team that works in a different world with different dynamics and (most importantly) represents different things. There are ways to make DC’s stories emotionally believable and mythically relatable without forcing everyone to wear dark clothes and look mad all the time. The company should take the advice of one of their best creations and introduce a little chaos to their staid formula.