How To Make Robin Work In Live-Action Film

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On March 5, 1940—via Detective Comics #38—the world was introduced to Dick Grayson, aka: Robin, The Boy Wonder.

Crashing through a circus hoop held by The Batman himself, the opening splash page reads…

“The Batman. That amazing, weird figure of night, at last takes under his protecting mantle an ally in his relentless fight against crime…introducing in this issue…an exciting new figure whose incredible gymnastic and athletic feats will astound you…a laughing, fighting young dare-devil who scoffs at danger like the legendary Robin Hood whose name and spirit he has adopted…Robin, The Boy Wonder!”

Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft as Batman and Robin in THE BATMAN (1943)

And just like that, an incredibly savvy marketing ploy gave birth to not only an exciting new character—it very much literally paved the way for superhero sidekicks to successfully co-exist for generations to come.

Robin has fought by Batman’s side for nearly 80 years in the comics, television and film: he appeared in both live-action 1940 serials, he fought alongside Adam West’s Batman in the 1960s ABC TV show, he raised hell with Val Kilmer’s Batman in 1995’s Batman Forever, and most recently, he appeared in a symbolic fashion in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises (directed by Chris Nolan) where orphaned police officer John Blake represented a hybrid of 3 major Robins: Dick Grayson, Jason Todd and Tim Drake. Nolan’s “Robin” even assumes the role of Gotham’s protector at the end of the film.

I love Robin. I love him in the comics. I love him in the Adam West TV show starring Burt Ward as the Boy Wonder. I love him in both Batman: The Animated Series and the Teen Titans animated series. I love him in The Lego Batman Movie. The list goes on…but so far, I have not loved him in a live-action major motion picture.Well, let’s be clear—I did love what Nolan did with the character, but to be fair (and like I mentioned earlier) he wasn’t really Robin. He was a symbolic representation of the character, but never donned the costume and never really fought alongside Bruce Wayne’s Batman in a traditional sense.

Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward as Robin in BATMAN (1966)

No, the only live-action traditional Robin we have in a major motion picture is Chris O’ Donnell’s portrayal in Joel Schumacher’s 1995 release, Batman Forever. And—to me—it does not work.

Let’s discuss why.

There is a reason that Tim Burton did not use Robin in his two Michael Keaton-starring Batman films (though he tried in both B89 and RETURNS) and why Christopher Nolan only used a symbolic quasi-hybrid “Robin” in his Dark Knight Trilogy…Robin is HARD to pull off appropriately in a serious, live action film.

Let’s face it—in order for Robin to be anywhere near the age he was in the comics, he would have to be in middle school or a freshman in high school. And even though you are not making him an 8-year-old…you’re still making him a child. And allowing him to fight alongside a grown-ass vigilante dude? It would be unadulterated child abuse.

The solution: don’t let him.

Val Kilmer as Batman and Chris O’Donnell as Robin in BATMAN FOREVER (1995)

To be fair, Joel Schumacher tapped into this a bit in Batman Forever. Bruce was very apprehensive about letting Dick fight with him—and even suggested he go to college, not back on the streets with his Batman. But for me, it just seemed so silly. That Robin looked 20 years old. He looked like he should have his own apartment; not shacking up with Bruce and Alfred—and therefore nothing resonated with me on any level whatsoever.

And all I could remember thinking was, “Shit, no wonder Burton never actually put Robin in a film.”

Then when Nolan released his trilogy in 2005—it all hit me, like a 1988 Mike Tyson uppercut: I do not need a cinematic Robin.

Batman was far more interesting and darker alone. Just like he was in the comics prior to Robin’s arrival.

With that said, I still loved the character. I love him in several comic book variations, animation, etc.…but, again, I just thought to myself, “We really don’t need him.”

Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne in BATMAN v SUPERMAN (2016)

Even in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne is obviously mourning the loss of his sidekick (presumably Jason Todd)—but even then, all I cared to see was Dick Grayson’s Nightwing—and whether or not Jared Leto’s Joker murdered the aforementioned Jason Todd.

Beyond that, no Robin running alongside Ben Affleck’s enormous Batman, please. Don’t care. Don’t want it. Didn’t need it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as John Blake and Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012)

But, what if a filmmaker—like a Matt Reeves, perhaps—could really make him work in a live action film?

This brings me to suggestions, and what I think would actually be a really cool story.

Origin

I agree with Bill “Jett” Ramey’s assessment that a circus act is outdated. Ditch it. Or, like Jett suggests, make them at least a part of something like Cirque Du Soleil. I am okay with that, but really, I am also okay with moving past it all together. The bottom line is that the kid is an orphan. And that his parents (or parent) was murdered—just like the Wayne’s. Stick with what matters, and what will resonate with a modern audience. And even though I am 100% on board for a mid-20th century Batman film, I doubt it happens. It’s time to put a 21st century alteration on this character.

In fact, I am not convinced our first Robin even has to be Richard Grayson, per se. We could make him a hybrid Robin, if you will. Take the best qualities of them all collectively to achieve the ultimate goal: A believable, nuanced Robin for 21st Century Cinema.

Age

Let’s make him a 16 or 17-year-old kid. I want him to at least be able to legally drive, but I do not want Bruce—or Alfred—approving of his crime fighting whatsoever.

 Father figure

This must be a kid unhinged: sneaking out at night, searching for his parents’ killers, perhaps.

100% completely reckless.

This Robin needs to make Jason Todd look like Leave it to Beaver.

If a filmmaker also really dives deep into the parental aspect of this relationship—showing Bruce as a true parent—this could be a very compelling and gut-wrenching story.

Every mother and father of a rebellious teenager knows the trials and tribulations of dealing with an unpredictable kid. But, imagine a child that was hell-bent on going out into the deadly streets to confront the worst society has to offer…as a CHILD.This could really open the door to some seriously intense moments between Bruce and his surrogate son.

I would also stay away from any character arc where Bruce learns to accept this lifestyle—and even endorses it. No, let it build in a trilogy. Tell this story in chapter 1. Time jump in chapter 2 and let’s see them fighting side-by-side since Robin will be older, wiser, stronger, etc. But even then, Bruce still has restrictions, still has apprehensions, and still has conflict with his young son.

In chapter 3, let’s see them really shine as the dynamic duo. This will have been earned, it will have been understood, and it will have been accepted by all of us.

Sure, a filmmaker could give us a Damian Wayne (current Robin and son of Bruce and Talia al Ghul) type of Robin; trained by the League of Assassins his whole life- which would cinematically justify a teenage Robin fighting alongside Batman. But even if he would subvert the difficult aspects of translating the character into live action, it is too extreme for my taste. And not nearly as compelling.

If a filmmaker takes the route I have laid out here —if you allow for a 3-chapter story to unfold with a kid and his mentor over a 5-to-10 year span—I think you could have a Batman and Robin story for the ages.

Robin is a permanent fixture of Batman’s past—and his future. They are as commonly stated as Peanut Butter and Jelly or Abbott and Costello. I want to see a live action cinematic Robin work, but I also believe that bold choices need to be made to do so. Build on things that are a part of the history of these characters, but pump certain aspects full of steroids.

The Dynamic Duo has a long history of conflict, turmoil, etc.…but never has a director taken the steps necessary to make these characters gel together in a major motion picture.

It’s tricky, yes—but it can be done. Schumacher took a swing at it, but missed. Nolan did it in a roundabout way, but that is only satisfactory in the vacuum that his trilogy exists in.

Batman and Robin by Lee Bermejo (DC Comics)

We need a Robin donning his classic costume (updated, of course) fighting side-by-side with a serious and grounded cinematic Batman…but it must be done correctly. It has to be a story that takes its time. We must see how a teenager could possibly fight crime (and unlike Peter Parker, doing so without God-like abilities), how his assumed father handles his son’s dangerous and defiant nature, and we need to witness him—over the course of several films—become not only a man, but a crime fighting partner to The Batman.

We need that.

We want that.

And “Holy Potential for Bad Assery, Batman!” I hope we get it. – Rick Shew

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Rick Shew
Rick Shew is a lifelong Batman fanatic and co-host of the BATMAN-ON-FILM.COM PODCAST. He is BOF's Director of PR & Social Media. Rick resides in Plano, TX (Dallas suburb) with his 3 beautiful women (his wife and their 2 daughters), his kitty cat and his dog, Cooper.