Happy Batman Day, to all who celebrate. To mark the occasion, Warner Bros. have apparently put Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy back in cinemas.
On the one hand, this makes sense. Nolan’s three Batman movies are phenomenal. They are thoughtful explorations of one of the great icons of modern pop culture. Until last month, The Dark Knight was Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing film domestically. The failure to nominate The Dark Knight for Best Picture had such an impact on the Academy that the changes made to accommodate a more diverse field of nominees came to be known as “the Dark Knight rule.”
On the other hand, it might seem strange for Warner Bros. to build this celebration of the Batman brand around Christopher Nolan’s take on the Caped Crusader. For one thing, Nolan has decamped from Warner Bros. to Universal, and industry gossip suggests that the studio is conflicted about its relationship with him. However, there’s also something slightly surreal in a celebration of a version of Batman that wrapped up definitively more than a decade ago.
Earlier this year, Warner Bros. released The Flash. While it was named for the Scarlet Speedster (Ezra Miller), The Flash featured two live action versions of Batman, played by Ben Affleck and Michael Keaton, and a cameo from George Clooney as Bruce Wayne. The film was heavily marketed as a nostalgic celebration of Michael Keaton’s take on the character, with the trailers built around that version of Bruce Wayne. There were even rumors that Keaton was intended to take over the role of Batman from Affleck within the shared universe.
The Flash seems to have been forgotten in a… very brief period of time. The film grossed $268.5 million on a reported budget of $220 million, with an estimated $150 million marketing budget on top. Given the box office is split between studios and theaters, these figures suggest that Warner Bros. will take a significant loss on the film. Given that Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav has described it as “the best superhero movie [he’s] ever seen,” it’s strange that it’s not at the center of these Batman Day celebrations.
After all, given his return to the role in The Flash, there are now three Michael Keaton Batman movies. If Warner Bros. wanted to celebrate the modern Batman brand by re-releasing a triptych into cinemas, it’s interesting that they didn’t pair The Flash with a nostalgic double bill of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Surely there is a generation of young and enthusiastic moviegoers who have never had the chance to see those films on the big screen.
Alternatively, but perhaps more controversially, Warner Bros. could also have arranged a screening of three films built around Ben Affleck’s take on the Caped Crusader: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, either version of Justice League, and The Flash. Warner Bros. certainly has no shortage of Batman movies to screen in cinemas, even if the company restricts itself to actors who played the role after Christian Bale. In Ireland, cinema chains are organizing screenings of Todd Phillips’ similarly self-contained Joker.
Theoretically, this is part of the appeal of bringing Michael Keaton back in The Flash. Keaton reprising the role isn’t just intended to attract nostalgic audiences to the new release, but is also intended to bolster the value of the company’s library titles. Even the underperforming Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny reportedly helped bolster the viewership of the previous four Indiana Jones films on Disney+. These blockbuster films are also giant billboards for future streaming releases.
However, it seems that there is a limit to this effect. The Flash has reportedly failed to find an audience on the Warner Bros. streaming service Max, where it has underperformed relative to Black Adam. There evidently comes a point where this sort of cynical attempt at nostalgic brand synergy reaches critical mass. The Flash doesn’t appear to have helped Warner Bros. with their Batman brands associated with Michael Keaton or Ben Affleck. It might even have hurt.
Christian Bale has not played the role of Batman in over a decade. However, he remains incredibly popular. In June 2019, a survey by The Hollywood Reporter and Morning Consult named him America’s favorite Batman. In September 2020, he topped a poll at The Radio Times. He took 66% of the vote in a GameSpot poll in January 2022. Two months later, he claimed pole position in a vote held by IGN. For the record, Bale himself cites Adam West as the best take on the character.
In the lead-up to the release of The Flash, there was fervent speculation that Warner Bros. had tried to convince Bale to reprise the role. Fans freeze-framed the trailer looking for hints of Bale’s involvement. It’s interesting to wonder whether Bale’s involvement might have buoyed the movie’s box office. After all, like Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, Michael Keaton’s Batman falls outside modern cinema’s nostalgia window. Christian Bale’s Batman likely lands in the sweet spot to resonate with the audiences who turned up for John Wick: Chapter 4 and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3.
Still, while Bale’s presence might have added value to The Flash, it would almost certainly have devalued his own legacy. It’s a cliché to talk about modern media “ruining [one’s] childhood.” It is also patently absurd. If Bale had appeared in The Flash, his performances in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy would have been unchanged. Those would still exist as fixed objects. However, what would change is the audience’s reaction to those earlier films. It would diminish their value.
Bale has been protective of his work with Nolan on the Dark Knight trilogy. In 2013, just a year after The Dark Knight Rises, there were reports of Warner Bros. trying to entice Bale back to the role with a $50 million payday. Bale has never confirmed the figure, but he has acknowledged that he turned down the invitation to return, stating, “No. We have to stick to Chris’ dream, which was always to, hopefully, do a trilogy. Let’s not stretch too far and become overindulgent and go for a fourth.”
For Bale, it has always been about his loyalty to Nolan. “I had a pact with Chris Nolan,” Bale explained to Screen Rant. “We said, ‘Hey, look. Let’s make three films, if we’re lucky enough to get to do that. And then let’s walk away. Let’s not linger too long.’ In my mind, it would be something if Chris Nolan ever said to himself, ‘You know what, I’ve got another story to tell.’ And if he wished to tell that story with me, I’d be in.” In an industry as cynical as Hollywood, that integrity is heartening.
In some ways, Nolan and Bale are protecting Warner Bros. from themselves. The modern intellectual property boom occasionally feels a little bit like cultural fracking, a ruthless industrialized process that hopes to extract all material worth from a property while destroying anything of value. In the past few years, studios have strip-mined established brands to the point that audiences are exhausted of franchises that they couldn’t get enough of half-a-decade ago.
This is obvious even outside of Warner Bros. Disney has ruthlessly exploited its Star Wars and Marvel brands by flooding the market with substandard product. While there are obviously exceptions, the trends speak for themselves. Avengers: Endgame was the biggest movie of all-time in 2019, but less than five years later there is talk of “superhero fatigue.” There was a time when Star Wars films were something special, but now they are just an endless pump of “content soup.”
It’s reached the point that the studios themselves have acknowledged as much. “We would have liked some of our more recent releases to perform better,” confessed Disney CEO Bob Iger recently. “Not only did [Marvel] increase their movie output, but they ended up making a number of television series, and frankly, it diluted focus and attention. That is, I think, more of the cause than anything.” Hopefully the studios can realize this and take the necessary steps.
Of course, studios are addicted to this intellectual property model. This is capitalism in action. The goal isn’t to build long-term sustainability, it’s to produce the best possible reports at the end of a given quarter. It’s incredibly apparent that Warner Bros. would ruthlessly exploit the Dark Knight trilogy if they could, pumping out endless sequels and spin-offs. It’s only Bale’s dignity and loyalty to Nolan that shields Warner Bros. from their own worst impulses.
Part of what makes the Dark Knight trilogy so compelling and enduring is that it has a definitive ending. Any attempt to build on it would undermine that ending. It would make it more difficult for audiences to think of the three films as a self-contained unit with a fixed (and high) level of quality. As such, it would decrease the value of the property as a whole. In the long term, that value is far greater than the few million that Bale would have added to the bottom line of The Flash.
There is a reason why, more than a decade after The Dark Knight Rises, Warner Bros. can put Nolan’s Batman movies back in cinemas and make a decent return. It’s the same reason that the failure of The Flash prevents them from doing the same with Tim Burton’s Batman or Batman Returns. In an industry that frequently grinds art down to harvest recognizable iconography like scrap metal, Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is allowed to stand as a towering, untouched accomplishment.
It’s a work of art in a sea of content.