Whatever your thoughts end up being about The Dark Knight Rises—even if you're like me, say, and think it pales it comparison to the previous two films but still sorta blows you away—Christopher Nolan has wrapped up his trilogy in a fashion that clearly won't damage his legacy: This isn't Spider-Man 3 or The Godfather, Part III. He made the superhero movie his own in a way that no one could possibly duplicate. Now what?
Not only do superhero movies get worse the more sequels you make; they're expected to. It's a cycle. The first film blows you away with a reinvention/reimagining of a comic book character/series. The second film expand on the themes of the first but in a grander way. And then the series goes off the rails in the third (or fourth, or whatever) installment. The number of movies this cycle takes can vary, but the pattern is the same. This sets it up so some other filmmaker can come in and fix all the problems by reinventing/reimagining the character/series, and it can all begin again. The Spider-Man franchise did it, and the Superman franchise did it, and the X-Men franchise did it.
The Batman franchise burned through the cycle even faster and more dramatically. Tim Burton's "dark" version of Batman set the tone for the character—taking a page from Frank Miller's reinvention in the comics—and his first film was so successful that they let him do whatever he wanted in the second film. What Burton wanted was a weird pinwheel-hat dark comedy that featured giant rubber-ducky robots, Siouxsie and the Banshees songs, and Batman pulling off his mask and nearly crying in the climactic scene.
That was ultimately a little too strange for the franchise to sustain itself—one more movie and Burton would have cast Martin Landau as Killer Croc or something—so Warner Bros. gave it over to Joel Schumacher, with the explicit instructions to "little kid it up." I insist the Schumacher films aren't as bad as you remember them being: They're just extremely cheesy because they're not meant for adults. Vulture yesterday had a great anecdote from the production:
According to John Glover, who played Dr. Jason Woodrue, "Before a take Joel would pick up his bullhorn and go, 'Remember, everybody, it's a cartoon.' So that kind of set the tone and style of Joel's Batman." Chris O'Donnell expressed a similar sentiment, saying "I felt like I was making a kid's toy commercial."
Yeah, that pretty much sums it up. Oh, and this, of course.
After that mess, Batman needed yet another makeover, and Nolan hit the exact right note, basing Batman and Bruce Wayne in a recognizable human universe. Batman was as real as a crime-fighting hero in a cape could be, and that the villains were motivated and using logic and materials at their disposal. By the end of Batman Begins, when Ra's Al Ghul was trying to destroy Gotham—like dozens of villains had before him—it somehow didn't feel cliched or even familiar. Nolan made the stakes matter. In that and the next two films, Nolan put such a definitive stamp on the franchise that it's difficult to see how anyone could ever make a Batman movie again.
But they will. There's too much money involved for them to retire the cowl. So what can they do next? There's only one Nolan, and trying to mimic what he does is a one-way ticket to camp. Yet Nolan's world was so vivid that they can't take the character back to kid-friendly territory, even if they bring back Robin. (Don't bring back Robin.) That leaves three options:
1. Steampunk. This is the Sherlock Holmes option. You could probably expect some Matrix-esque cyberpunk business in here too.
2. The Batman Beyond Route. This has a little cyberpunk to it too, but it's based on the animated series that involved an elderly Bruce Wayne training a younger protege in a future Gotham City. Directors always like to envision a dystopian future, and Gotham is made for that. Plus, it would be different enough from Nolan's Batman to secure a legitimate transition. Downside: You have to make Bruce Wayne roughly 84 years old.
3. The Engleheart-Rogers Plan, aka Did Anybody See The Avengers?. One of the essential problems—"problems"—of modern-day Batman is that, well, Bruce Wayne is insane. He's obsessive, he's brooding, he's completely screwed up. But the ultimate inspiration for the contemporary character is an eight-issue run of Detective Comics in the '70s by Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers, in which Bruce Wayne is ... kind of a normal guy. Sure, he's strange enough to dress up like a bat and fight crime, but he still has human relationships, he still has fun, he still tries to have some sort of connection to reality. As Simon Abrams wrote in Press Play earlier today, "[H]e had functional social relationships and could still be defined by his extra-curricular obsessions as a super-rich, tights-clad vigilante. Here was a recognizably human Batman, one that should be looked on as the Platonic ideal whenever superhero skeptics wonder how a superhero comic can be simultaneously pulpy, thoughtful and character-driven." In other words: He can be like the characters in Joss Whedon's The Avengers, normal people who have their faults and issues but on the whole want to engage with the world on a regular, human basis. People who can save the world and then all get together for shawarma afterward.
Call him the Slightly Brighter Than Dark But Certainly Not White Or Anything Knight. (That should fit beautifully on a poster.) You might even get Joss Whedon to direct that too, or find one of the J.J. Abrams crew, maybe Matt Reeves, who's probably the most talented of all of them. The only way to move on from the Nolan Batman is to let in the light a little. Not a lot: Not Poison Ivy/Robin/Mr. Freese light. Just enough to let the character breathe a little bit. Nolan made us believe that Bruce Wayne was human. Now we need to believe he's at least a little like the rest of us.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.