The biggest difference I see between Marvel and DC’s film adaptations is one of tone. Warner Bros. and DC saw an audience cynical about justice and power, and decided to make their characters fit those expectations, matching their expected audiences’ mindset in kind. Marvel saw that same audience and decided to give it heroes.
Warner Bros. saw the success of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and took away the surface elements without seeing what lay underneath. Yes, those films were dark and gritty, questioned the role of heroes in today’s world, and generally delved in the greyer areas of morality. Nolan’s Gotham was corrupt as ever, run by crime, and home to all sorts of psychopaths. It looked and felt true to life and possible. It felt grounded.
But above all that was Batman. Nolan’s Batman was one of the grounded adaptations of the character for sure. He wasn’t a super-genius, and was more fallible as a fighter and hero. He would brood over his seeming lack of progress in cleaning up Gotham, and would doubt the effectiveness of Batman at all. But in spite of that, Nolan’s Bruce Wayne was still an idealist. Even if he sometimes doubted his ability to reach his goals, Bruce Wayne knew that this Gotham needed a symbol, a hero, to believe in; and sacrificed his well-being to become that symbol. In spite of their surface level darkness, each of Nolan’s Batman movies, and his trilogy in general are optimistic. Each film ends with Gotham in a better place than Batman found it in the beginning because Batman gave those people hope. The Dark Knight showed this Batman to be incorruptible by the darkness that permeated Gotham, and ended with the other Gothamites refusing to fall to the darkness in kind. And The Dark Knight Rises proved that this Batman had become unconquerable; that in his ultimate sacrifice, he had finally given Gotham the hero it needed to fight for itself against the crime and corruption.
But the Warners didn’t register the light beneath the dark. They only saw the critics and audiences praising the films for their darkness, and when planning their own cinematic universe to rival Marvel’s, jumped into that murkiness with both feet. In their films even Superman, the paragon of idealistic superheroism, would doubt himself when doing good. Instead of rising above, their characters would succumb to the jaded mindset that WB thought its audience appreciated, and would become almost unidentifiable as heroes at all.
Now, in the fallout of Batman v Superman, Warner Bros. seems to have finally come to terms with the fact that their approach to their superhero film universe isn’t working. Over the past weeks we’ve heard news of Man of Steel and BvS director Zack Snyder being given less influence over the shape of the DC movies, while Ben Affleck has been promoted to executive producer on Justice League, and was announced as the director and co-screenwriter of the upcoming Batman film. Affleck’s co-screenwriter on Batman, comics writer Geoff Johns, has also recently been announced as the co-head of “DC Films,” Warner Bros’ newly formed arm created to deal with their comic-to-film adaptations.
Geoff Johns is likely the best man for the job, and despite some reservations regarding his more current comics work (Johns was one of the architects behind DC’s 2011 reboot “The New 52”), I couldn’t imagine a better person to take charge on the film front. His work on The Flash and Green Lantern comics are proof enough he knows how to distill these decades’ old characters into their best parts and expand on their universes in novel interesting ways, and his work as producer on The CW’s Arrow and The Flash show he’s got what it takes to lead adaptations. In addition to his on-paper credentials, personally listening to this guy talk at several comic-cons gives me faith that Johns really, deeply cares about these characters and these properties, and hates seeing them fail. Even if some of his work might not have the best results (The New 52), he’s coming from the right places, and that sort of effort has a way of giving a glow to even bad work (ie. Deadpool).
But the one face I’m really looking to show up in the DC movies isn’t one who’d be working behind the scenes, or even a real person at all. He’s a character that, when he shows up in the DC Films universe will be a signal that this project is finally turned towards the light and found its center. That character is Dick Grayson, aka Robin; kid sidekick to Batman since 1940, and scourge of Batman movies since 1995. If Batman is going to be the center that holds the DC cinematic universe together, and that’s what things are looking like, than he’s going to need a Robin.
Batman was not Batman before Robin. He was The Shadow in a bat costume. The first year of Batman comics saw the masked vigilante in pulp-detective adventures, killing with abandon, and even using guns to take care of criminals. The costume was there, and so were some of the gadgets; but the heart of what would make Batman a superhero rather than just another pulp detective was missing.
And that missing thing, the element that would turn Batman from a copycat into an icon turned out to be a teenager in a bright red tunic. Robin would become more than an attempt to cater to the young male audience that picked up comic books, he would be the caped crusader’s moral compass. Robin gave Batman stakes, someone to care for and protect, and someone who looked up to him. With a kid around, Batman had to transform from dark avenger to role-model. He had to teach young Dick Grayson not just how to fight crime, but how to fight crime righteously. This new Batman couldn’t kill in front of his protégé, for one. He wouldn’t use guns, as they had become symbols of criminality, the tools criminals would use out of desperation. Robin gave Batman the moral high ground needed to rise to hero status. Because of Robin, Batman would have a code. Because of Robin, Batman would be better than some guy with a gun and a vendetta. Because of Robin, Batman would become a symbol to aspire to and believe in, a role-model to look up to and admire for his courage and righteousness.
And as much as creators have tried to drop Robin, he always pops up in one form or another out of necessity. Dick graduated and became his own hero only to be replaced by Jason Todd. In the wake of Jason’s death, Tim Drake made it his responsibility to fill the tights. After Tim came Damian, and it looks like Damian won’t be the last. And that’s not even including the numerous Batgirls and other members of the Bat-family. Even the Batman of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, the benchmark of dark-and-gritty Batmen, deputizes a new Robin in Carrie Kelly shortly after coming out of retirement.
But why should all of this necessarily have to apply to a film adaptation? Because Robin, and Dick Grayson in particular, would represent that WB and DC have realized what it needs to depict a cynical world suspicious of its heroes, and one where those heroes could shine through the darkness to become actually heroic.
Dick Grayson, like Bruce Wayne, was born of tragedy. His parents were also killed by senseless violence, leaving him an orphan. Dick’s origin requires a dark, cynical world. But Dick finds hope in heroes. He’s adopted by Bruce Wayne and immediately sees Batman as a role-model, someone to aspire to. To Robin, Batman represents a way through the darkness; which is exactly what he should be to audiences.
As long as Robin is around (and isn’t killed), WB and DC would be able to make as dark-and-gritty a movie they wanted with the assurance that Robin’s hope in Batman, and Batman’s desire to be a good role model for Robin, would keep the film morally centered. Robin would represent that unflinching spark of optimism that Batman fights to keep lit against the currents of crime and cynicism.
Just as he’s always done; it’s Robin who would make a Batman that DC Films, and the audience it hopes to reach, needs to show them the way forward.