Cinema is Changing. Theatre is Disappearing. What’s the Batman related Connection?
Cinema came from Theatre. What happens to one art-form will change the other. No different, now. There were tides of evolution predating the current crisis, though that did escalate matters. We need both platforms in our lives. Civilisations, inspirations, innovations hang in the balance.
To open Theatres must be a priority. It CAN be done, safely. Ditto, Cinemas. But both arenas were changed by streaming. Live recordings of plays were a popular tool long before lock-down. And movie studios were moving far more in favour of proxy competitions via straight to subscription services: consolidating, spinning off, revamping, relaunching old titles via new content.
How does all that come back to Batman? Well, Michael Keaton is an actor I have admired, forever. He’s a consummate, versatile professional. The man married theatricality to cinematic styles. His is the definitive Dogberry for Shakespeare on film. An innate ability to bring imagination, thought and references to more elevated art into mainstream blockbusters, without ever being pretentious about it.
Notice his Bruce Wayne is part Pacino in Godfather, part Gatsby. It’s a man in struggle with his own inner thoughts, via actions he himself does not quite understand yet commits to with total and ruthless efficiency. Keaton makes you research and want to watch more widely, think more deeply, discover a unity of creative purpose between art-forms. So, naturally, I was delighted to hear that he MIGHT be returning as Batman, 30 years since he last donned the cowl.
Where does that connect to my thesis on Theatre?
Think two Tims. Tim Burton. Tim Dalton. One a director, one an actor. Dalton played James Bond around the same time as Keaton was Batman. He made an interesting suggestion to treat the future Bond films more like Theatre. Give many actors a season as Bond. None of this being tied to one set cinematic era after another. Makes total sense. Indeed, I once tried to bring 007 to the stage when I was at Oxford.
My pitch was adapting the short story, Quantum of Solace. EON were very nice about it, especially Barbara Broccoli and the legal team and management: John Parkinson, Amanda Schofield et al; happy memories!). It didn’t happen, naturally. Too many rights hoops to jump. But Bond on stage could happen, same way Inspector Morse, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who and many more pulp heroes can come to the theatre, for a season.
At a less literal level, Dalton’s idea is now in play, in so far as the fans widely discuss possibilities for audio stories and video games headed by old Bond actors or those who almost got the call but did not make the cut. It could happen. Think Big Finish and Doctor Who. And that is where Batman seems to be going; not directly to the stage (though yes and soon, please: cf, Phantom of the Opera?). More the idea of seasonal refits of the character and IP without being tied to one iteration every few years, whilst avoiding overkill, by spreading the platforms a bit.
That other prophetic Tim (Burton) foresaw it, too. ‘Why call them Batman 1, 2,3, forever etc? why not just ‘Batman”. As in, he could think of the individual episodes on film as works of art that were distinct and separate; enough connection to lure audiences in but enough trust in the viewer to avoid imposing needless canonical distinctions. It makes total sense, especially given that comic books are our source material and they have endless takes and else-world variations on even the most beloved of characters.
So if Keaton DOES return? It is the dawn of Cinema as Theatre. He is your Batman for that season. Next month, get the understudy/replacement/alternative take. Just as you do with countless Hamlets (Sir Ian McKellen is about to play the Danish Prince as an elderly avenger; think Dark Knight Returns?). And Batman is very Hamlet. Defined by revenge; destined for greatness; surrounded by tragedy: yet somehow, still a romantic hero in the midst of a relentless thriller, hinging on detection via theatricality. The Nolan Dark Knight films even call that out: ‘theatricality and deception’.
Some verisimilitude remains important, though. Adapting Batman Beyond is pointless, because that was itself a one and done cartoon take (how many people want to see the old trope of mentor /pupil and a character called ‘terry mcguinness’ : clue..very few?). Dark Knight Returns has been done to death. Let’s just have a flesh and blood sequel to Burton’s Batman films, with Tim back as director. Michelle Pfeiffer back as Selina Kyle, Kim Basinger as Vicki Vale; Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent /Two Face? Nicolas Cage’s version of SUPERMAN: He is busy BUYING CASTLES..so steals Wayne Manor? Danny Elfman score and a timeless paradox of Anton Furst /Bo Welch production designs a must, too. Hire a proper writer, like Daniel Waters.
You can cameo many villains Burton was planning a take on. You can have a story about regret and missed opportunity. No need to either de-canonise Joel Schumacher (RIP, btw) or prematurely usher in Christian Bale if Keaton says ‘no’. Bale’s Batman simply does not ‘fit’ with a multi-verse. Heck, give Val Kilmer and George Clooney another turn, too? They could have been great had they enjoyed a better class of writing in their tenure.
In any event: DON’T make it all about being old. One of the few things that Crystal Skull film did so well for Indiana Jones was hint at his being older but not make it the sole theme of the film. NOBODY wants to be miserable. And the Burton Batmans, though ‘dark’ are bizarrely pacy and fun, too.
Still not enough for you? No problem. There are the two animated Adam West reunion films (great fun; a must have/watch: they arguably led the way to this new approach?). There is the Snyder cut of Justice League enables Ben Affleck to segue back into his own mini series on HBO Max. And we STILL get the Pattinson Bat-trilogy AND limitless possibilities for standalone baddie movies (Lex Luthor? Bane?) in the wake of the recent JOKER success.
We;come to the Theatre of film..