The Caped Crusader is back: On March 4, Robert Pattinson will become the seventh actor to don the cowl in a live-action film with The Batman. To prepare, join The Ringer this week as we navigate the grime of Gotham and explore the history of one of the most recognizable superheroes in the comic-book landscape.
Despite being the buzziest release of 2021, the resounding success of Spider-Man: No Way Home still came as a mild shock. It’s not like anyone would bet against a Spider-Man film making a dent at the box office, but a surge in COVID cases from the highly transmissible omicron variant was expected to dampen the turnout. Nevertheless, audiences came out in droves for multiple iterations of Spider-Man—Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland—uniting for the first time on the big screen. The fact that No Way Home would go on to become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, even as the pandemic raged on, reaffirmed a guiding principle for the industry: For better or worse, nostalgia sells. Granted, there aren’t many pop culture figures—superheroes or otherwise—that can compete with the affection audiences hold for Spider-Man, but Warner Bros. might have the next best thing: a billionaire orphan, and his vengeance.
On Friday, the studio will release The Batman, the highly anticipated reboot from director Matt Reeves, which stars Robert Pattinson as a grungy Bruce Wayne. Reeves and Pattinson have been hyping up their film for months, but considering the Caped Crusader’s enduring popularity across live-action adaptations, animated films, and TV shows over the past 30-plus years, The Batman’s box office success should be a foregone conclusion. Instead, the real question is what fans actually want out of a Batman movie in 2022, and whether a multipronged approach to the character will be as successful for Warner Bros. as Sony’s handling of Spider-Man.
While Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy coincided with the early stages of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—The Dark Knight was released the same year as Iron Man; The Dark Knight Rises followed suit with The Avengers—it wasn’t until Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel came out in 2013 that Warner Bros. attempted to build a cinematic universe of its own. The so-called DC Extended Universe was intended to compete with the MCU, albeit under a different philosophy. Rather than let franchise interconnectivity be the biggest selling point, Warner Bros. backed Snyder’s penchant for helming dour epics. Essentially, the studio put the same faith in the filmmaker for the early days of the DCEU as Disney did in Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige. It was under Snyder’s watch that the studio brought back the Caped Crusader in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, with Ben Affleck donning the Batsuit after Christian Bale’s three-movie stint under Nolan.
Unfortunately, Dawn of Justice’s critical derision—and the DCEU remaining a distant second to the flourishing MCU—led Warner Bros. to lose faith in Snyder’s grand vision, prompting the Justice League fiasco that saw Joss Whedon fill in for the filmmaker and oversee significant reshoots. (Given the significantly warmer reception to the Snyder Cut last year, it’s safe to say that Snyder got the last laugh.) But the negative reaction to Dawn of Justice, coupled with the Justice League disaster, meant that the studio mishandled one of its greatest assets: After the glory years under Nolan, Batman was suddenly in a funk.
Sharing big-screen real estate with Henry Cavill’s Superman certainly didn’t help—Dawn of Justice felt like two movies in one, and had the bloated running time to match—but Affleck’s Batman failed to make a lasting impression. (It’s telling that Affleck’s tenure is better remembered for a press tour meme than anything he did on-screen.) Despite the star power, and hints of a compelling performance overshadowed by all the noise surrounding him, the Batfleck experiment was the biggest misfire for the character since George Clooney and his Bat-nipples.
Affleck himself didn’t seem particularly aggrieved when the Batman stand-alone film originally planned for his version of the character was scrapped and remolded under Reeves as a reboot. At this point, Warner Bros. had largely given up trying to emulate the MCU, and let filmmakers follow their instincts without having to consider the bigger picture—whether it was James Wan’s unabashedly campy Aquaman or Patty Jenkins’s endearingly corny Wonder Woman 1984. Taking that DGAF mindset a step further, Reeves didn’t have to worry about the DCEU at all when tackling Batman: His movie wouldn’t even take place in the same universe.
Following in the footsteps of 2019’s Oscar-nominated Joker, The Batman is a stand-alone project—one under the separate umbrella of a “multiverse” that’s not unlike the MCU’s recent embrace of the comics-rooted concept. As DC Films president Walter Hamada told The New York Times in December 2020, he doesn’t think fans will have any issues piecing together superheroes from separate cinematic universes. “If we make good movies, they will go with it,” Hamada said. To that end, perhaps all fans need as an incentive is a good Batman—or Batmen; more on that shortly—to go with the movies.
First up is The Batman, which arrives with plenty of fanfare and polarizing expectations for Pattinson in the lead role. (My two cents: Anyone familiar with the incredible work Pattinson’s done on the indie scene since Twilight should be all in.) Reeves has already hinted at a sequel—like Joker, it appears there’s always potential for a stand-alone story to expand if the movie is a hit with audiences. It remains to be seen what fans will think of The Batman, but Reeves does take the character in an intriguing new direction. Pattinson’s Batman, in his quest to untangle a series of murders committed by the Riddler and how it relates to widespread corruption in Gotham, is brooding, obsessive, and generally a goth weirdo.
Personally, I’m buying what Reeves is selling, but at the same time, Warner Bros. is hedging its bets somewhat by planning a No Way Home–esque reunion of its own. As has already been announced, the upcoming Flash movie will serve as a bridge between the DCEU and DC’s multiverse, and will feature both Michael Keaton and Affleck returning as their respective Batmen. The exact nature of this crossover is TBD—there isn’t even a trailer out for the film yet—but The Flash will give Affleck the opportunity to receive a proper swan song for his version of Bruce Wayne, while Keaton gets to ride a wave of nostalgia for his own performance in Tim Burton’s superb Batman films. And for Keaton, this isn’t just a one-off role: It’s already been reported that he’ll appear in the upcoming Batgirl film going straight to HBO Max.
Between Pattinson, Affleck, and Keaton, the three Batman actors could do their own re-creation of the IRL Spider-Man pointing meme. The prospect of two of these stars showing up in future projects—one of which will also feature the first starring role for Batgirl in a live-action film—across separate cinematic universes is indicative of the studio’s newest priorities. The new era of DC isn’t concerned with cinematic continuity or overlapping characters, but rather with riding a hot hand and giving fans more of what they want—up to and including movies featuring the past, present, and future of its most iconic superhero. As for what Warner Bros. gets out of this arrangement? It doesn’t take a Riddler to solve this puzzle: Just follow the money.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the upcoming Batgirl movie will be the character’s first appearance in a live-action film.