Reeves’ Bat-Film: Shared Universe a Deal-Breaker? by Trey Jackson

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Suppose that, sometime within the next five years, you’re sitting in a theater watching Matt Reeves’ Batman movie.  If you’re like me, you’ve got your wife, popcorn, M&M’s (plain, please) and Cherry Coke (it really is the best), and you’re ready for the show.

You know from the trailers and coverage from your favorite reputable sites (BOF and ROTF are all we need) that the premise is that one of Batman’s closest allies (perhaps Dick Grayson?) is missing, and Batman is scouring the city for them. He starts his search at a Sionis Industrial complex, which leads to a visit to the Iceberg Lounge, and from there an interrogation with a laying-low Riddler who nonetheless has informants in the loop on all criminal activity in Gotham. After some, ahem, “intense conversation,” he informs Batman that The Joker and Harley Quinn have taken refuge at an abandoned Arkham Asylum, along with a few other villains sympathetic to their cause. Their goal, as it turns out, is to imprison Batman’s known associates there in hopes of eventually luring him in. Throughout his search, he remains in communication with Alfred and Lucius Fox. Both remind him of the importance of family in his life, even though his biological family was taken in childhood and his adopted family is in danger now. He tries to have them warn Jim Gordon and he goes to warn Selina Kyle himself, but they both turn up missing as well, presumably kidnapped and taken to Arkham. Joker believes he’s drawn Batman into a trap, but thanks to the Caped Crusader’s detective work and his previous interrogation of Riddler, he knows exactly what villains are there and exactly how to prepare. He drives across the bridge to the historic Arkham Island…

And now, fellow Bat-Fans, I pose a question: At this point in the movie, or any other, will it bother you if Superman technically exists in this world? Or if, thousands of miles away, there happens to be an island called Themyscira and an underwater city of Atlantis? Better yet, what about the fact that billions of miles away, at the center of the universe, you’ll find a world called Oa, home to intergalactic guardians of the whole universe? Will any of this affect how you’re feeling as Batman heads to his showdown? Will knowing these things distract you at this pivotal moment in the movie? All these things you know off-screen are real. And yet, they have no bearing whatsoever on what Batman is about to do. He is sneaking into Arkham Asylum, walking the halls that housed his worst enemies, about to take them all on with his will and his intellect, bringing fear to them in a way that only he can.

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Superman isn’t coming. Wonder Woman is no where to be found. This doesn’t concern them. They aren’t mentioned, hinted at, or acknowledged in any capacity. There are no cameos, winks, and nods larger DC Universe. There doesn’t have to be. This is a story about Batman. Those other characters might be real, and Batman might even know about them, but it doesn’t matter right now, to him or to the audience. If you think you need other heroes to show up for people to come see a Batman movie, then you’ve inexplicably lost faith in the most profitable comic book character in history.

So I ask again: For those Bat-Fans that want to jettison the shared universe continuity and dump it in a black hole, will you really be disappointed if Reeves gives us the best Batman movie we’ve ever seen and it doesn’t mention a larger DC Universe one way or another? How much would it bother you that it technically could exist? Do we need some supporting character to say “Gee, I wish the speed force was real, and someone was actually fast enough to access it, but it isn’t, too bad!” Or (more realistically) characters going out of their way to describe past events in a way that makes it obviously incompatible with what we’ve already seen? Perhaps, in a zeal to make sure audiences know that this is a different continuity, we can still be so preoccupied with it that the story suffers? Are we really removing the shackles of prior continuity if the movie has to go out of its way to point out its absence? Or would it be just fine for Reeves to make the Batman movie he wants to make, which isn’t likely to mention or involve the other parts of the DC universe anyway, and leave it at that? I’m genuinely curious. Because it seems like that would be plenty for any Batman fan, but the residue of Justice League is so troubling that some of us fans would go to extraordinary lengths to be rid of it. Understandable, but thinking of continuity first, either to eliminate it or preserve it, is prioritizing it over the story, which is not a great way to approach movie making.

Now that we’ve established that a larger universe of continuity doesn’t have to bear on the stories within it, along comes the obvious question: If this DC movie continuity is so inconsequential, why have it at all?

Glad you asked!

In short, you don’t. Or maybe you do? How about a Schrödinger’s continuity? What that means is that all the DC characters exist in their own series of films, and the focus is on them. Do they all share the same universe? Only if someone comes along and pitches a crossover idea so great that it just has to be made. Until then, they do and they don’t share the same universe. No contradictions between movies and no mandated interactions either. A MAN OF STEEL sequel isn’t going to tell you anything about Themyscira; nor will an AQUAMAN sequel have anything to do with the GREEN LANTERN CORPS. That is, of course, unless the artists involved want them to. What this does is put the focus on the individual characters and their worlds in strong solo outings. DC characters are compelling enough to carry solo stories for the rest of our movie-going days. But it also leaves the door open for an artist with a vision to come along and bring them together, if they want to try and WB (along with their DC directors) believe they can pull it off. Until then, focus on getting the best portrayals of these characters to the screen, in a way that keeps the focus on them rather than the universe they do (or don’t) inhabit.

Anticipating Some Objections

“Let Reeves do his own thing.” Yes, absolutely, I agree. And what is that likely to be? All indications so far are that Reeves wants to tell a personal Batman story from Batman’s perspective. What prevents him from doing that? If DC movie continuity is nothing more than an invisible relationship between properties that doesn’t get mentioned unless all involved artists want to invoke it, how does that restrict Reeves? He certainly doesn’t have to pick up on events that have happened in BATMAN v SUPERMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE, since the latter ended that story arc. Every character in JL is poised to do whatever their director wants at the end of the movie.

But suppose Reeves wants a whole new cast, along with a new design for Batman, his gadgets, and Gotham City. A new cast is a bit of a tall order, since if you’re going to replace Irons, Simmons, Leto, Robbie, etc., then you better be sure that whoever you’re getting is demonstrably better in the role. Otherwise, why replace all those actors and actresses just for the sake of replacing them? As for the design changes, bring ’em on. If Reeves wants to do away with the “Nite Owl Batsuit” and the “WMD Batmobile,” go for it. After JL, many changes would be welcome both for story and aesthetic reasons.

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But hold on, what if Reeves comes out of left field with something like setting it in the 1940’s? If I’m WB, I’m going to want to hear why the 1940’s setting is a must, and why he wants to make such a drastic change to the deal agreed upon (assuming that the previous talks between Reeves and the studio didn’t mention the possibility of a Humphrey Bogart-era Batman movie). All directors, even those with significant leeway, have to honor some of what the studio wants. Christopher Nolan, as much discretion as he had, couldn’t have killed off Bruce Wayne to make way for an Alfred trilogy. Matt Reeves has all of Batman’s world at his disposal. A talented director can give us incredible stories in that world. If you want to tell a detective story with a noir aesthetic, then do it, and don’t worry about setting it in the 1940’s just for the sake of dumping on previous movies.

“Wouldn’t other DC heroes be running around Gotham?” Um, do you think Batman would let them? I don’t. If all of Gotham City and her citizens are in peril, and the story showcases Batman saving them all in ways that only he can, then no one outside of internet message boards is going to be asking where Superman was. And if the absence of other heroes is a glaring omission, maybe that’s a sign that the movie you’re watching has some problems? As always, a good story that is well-executed takes care of this before it even becomes a problem.

“Batman doesn’t work alongside ‘gods'” Yes, I hear you Rick Shew. And no, our preferences shouldn’t limit what talented directors want to do in the future. I’ll be glad to share my popcorn and M&M’s with you if a Justice League sequel ever comes to fruition, and hopefully we’ll get to celebrate it as the work of an artist instead of a studio mandate. Until then, there’s no need for Reeves’ current Batman movie to go out of its way to address continuity, either to dispel or confirm it.

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“Batman’s going to end up in space fighting aliens all the time!” Would that be so bad? (Just kidding). But seriously, I don’t want to see directors forced into making/allowing crossovers if they don’t want to. I want someone who cares about Batman (hopefully Reeves) to take ownership of him in live-action for a long time.

If a pitch for a JUSTICE LEAGUE sequel is good enough for Reeves to sign off on it, then great. If not, try again with a better one, and in the meantime we’ll enjoy great solo movies for all DC characters. – Trey Jackson