Op/Ed: Is a 'Dark Knight Return' in Batman's Film Future?

Original cover to Frank Miller's 'The Dark Knight Returns #1'

So as The Dark Knight steamrolls to $500 million dollars in domestic box office receipts, breaking all manners of all-time records along the way, the only real remaining "storyline" for the film is how close can it get to all-time box office champ Titanic, currently the only movie in history sailing the $600 million dollar seas.

There are the Oscar questions, of course - will Heath Ledger receive a posthumous nomination for his turn as the Joker, and can the film perhaps secure Best Picture and/or Best Director nominations? But we won't have any answers to those until early next year.

Comic book message boards abhor a vacuum, however, and these days in absence of anything that compelling to dissect about The Dark Knight, the focus of uber-fan energies is turning to the inevitable (the-sun-rises-in-the-morning sort of inevitable) next film in Warner Bros'. franchise.

Rumors and speculation focusing on possible villains and the actors who might play them are the fan forum fodder du jour, with names like Johnny Depp (The Riddler), Angelina Jolie (Catwoman), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Penguin), and even Aaron Eckhart (as a Two-Face who apparently would enjoy a remarkable recovery) emerging from the pack.

And then there was that now infamous little exchange during last month's Comic-Con International: San Diego. Watchmen/300 director Zack Snyder reportedly mentioned that he'd like to see writer Frank Miller's seminal Batman graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns" adapted into a big screen feature, with Miller later responding to Snyder's comment, "You can do it anytime you want to, Zack."

And Internet fandom was off and running…

As any self-respecting comic book reader knows, Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" – first published in 1986 in a watershed moment for comics publishing – is a work whose influences are already pervasive in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. Set in a not-too-distant future, the story – which helped give birth to (or at least popularize) the "grim and gritty" movement in comic books – finds a middle-aged Bruce Wayne emerge from a ten-year retirement as "the Batman" to battle his old nemeses Two-Face, the Joker – and even Superman.

So while a big-screen adaptation of one of the industry's holy grails is already near the tops of any fanboy's greatest "Hopes" and "Fears" lists, speculation is now turning towards whether something that few thought would ever happen could actually become reality sooner, rather than later.

Today we're going to discuss the merits of the "sooner" camp…

The very "sooner" camp, in fact.

Now adapting "The Dark Knight Returns" for the screen would be a bold and audacious move for any director and the studio, as well as a road fraught with some treacherous obstacles. For one, the story's entire third act featuring a Superman under the thumb of the Federal government would almost certainly have to be abandoned, if for no other reason (and there are quite a few) that Nolan's vision for the first two films is far too "grounded" to suddenly introduce a super-strong, flying man who can survive a nuclear explosion (as he does in the story).

So whether it's an unlikely "faithful" adaptation, or the more-likely "loosely" adapted version, placed together in context, the clues are there that some manner of adaptation of "The Dark Knight Returns" is precisely the direction Nolan is going in for a third film.

Let's run through the clues one-by-one. And we'll be talking about The Dark Knight in very story-specific detail, so you three people left on Earth who have yet to see the movie, consider yourself "spoiler" warned.

What's In a Name?

OK, OK, this is the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence but sometimes the most obvious clues are the most telling.

What do you call a sequel to a film (which curiously broke the naming precedent of the five "Batman" films before it) called "The Dark Knight"? A film in which in its closing moments, the protagonist runs off into the night, literally chased by dogs, his future as the protector of Gotham City in doubt?

Why, if you want it to actually star the Dark Knight, you call it "The Dark Knight Returns" of course.

And if you're going to go through the trouble of calling it "The Dark Knight Returns", well then…

In a Word – "Escalation"

One doesn't have to speculate whether Nolan and his co-writers David S. Goyer and brother Jonathan Nolan understand the concept of "escalation" – they introduced it into the series themselves in the closing moments of Batman Begins. In fact, they wrapped the entire existence of Heath Ledger's the Joker around it.

The Dark Knight was clearly an "escalation" over Batman Begins in both theme and tone. The landscape was broader, the stakes higher, and the tragedies greater. Operatic in tone and grandiose in scale, Nolan has left himself one direction to take this story, and that's to its necessary end.

No matter how high-rent the actor (and the franchise can now afford very high rent), no other villain or villains are going to feel appropriately menacing – or satisfying – after the nihilistic embodiment of chaos Ledger and Nolan created.

The Joker killed Bruce Wayne's great love and destroyed the one person Batman thought could make him obsolete. He nearly seduced the very soul of Gotham City itself.

How in the world do you top that? How do you make the audience feel the stakes raise and not have the next installment feel like a breather?

By actually finishing that story, that's how. Which brings us to…

The Three Act Structure

There is little doubt Christopher Nolan understands what a three-act structure is, and every reason to believe he understands any storyteller is pushing their luck with any more than three (good luck Sam Raimi). Yes, a compelling argument can be made that Warner Bros. isn't going to put this cash cow out to pasture, and will want a new Batman movie every few years, but they can still have that, which we'll address later.

We'll also take Nolan at this word that he hasn't signed on for a next installment yet (and God bless him and the upcoming due reward he'll receive if he hasn't), but given his talents as a storyteller, it would be shocking if he a) was telling a story he didn't already know the ending to, breaking the cardinal rule of storytelling; and b) left the franchise without finishing the story by his own hand.

Nolan famously completed Batman Begins without "knowing" whether he'd do a second installment. That didn't stop him from laying the seeds for The Dark Knight in that first film's closing moments.

By leaving the Joker (literally) hanging at the end of The Dark Knight, Nolan left open-ended a story that begs to be finished. Even Tim Burton knew he had to kill Jack Nicholson at the "end". Nolan himself killed Ra's at the end of Batman Begins and he even tied-up a loose end regarding the Scarecrow in The Dark Knight. These are both clear signals Nolan knows the story has to have an end and has some idea for that end already in mind.

Nolan further foreshadows the future in The Dark Knight's climatic moments as well. Remember when the Joker tells Batman the two of them can "do this for years"? Filmmakers of Nolan's talent don't throw away lines like that, especially in a moment like that. That was the director signaling to the audience that he understands one of "The Dark Knight Returns'" main themes - that the Joker's very existence is primarily to be Batman's nemesis and their fates were inevitably intertwined, as well as a signal that their final showdown will in fact come years down the road.

Which brings us back to the three-act structure: Act One (Batman Begins) was the first Batman story. Act Two (The Dark Knight) was a classic tragic turning point.

So what does this demand Act Three be?

Well, not only the final battle of Batman and the Joker, but also the last Batman story, of course.

The Joker/Ledger Factor

By leaving the fate of the Joker open in The Dark Knight knowing the performance he had gotten from Ledger, Nolan also knew he was casting a shadow over the next film and any future installments until the character's story is finished – whomever happens to be behind the camera when it is.

While perhaps a marketing department's worst nightmare and admittedly macabre, Nolan could have made a different pragmatic decision in post-production and made the Joker's fate more "final". By leaving the character alive, Nolan knowingly left the next director the choice of either having to somehow make villains like the Penguin, the Riddler, or Catwoman more of a menace than they've ever been in the comic books, or using the Joker again.

And even if the former approach could be achieved, are moviegoers really going to be satisfied with the idea the Joker is simply sitting in prison somewhere, particularly given his jailbreak in The Dark Knight? The next film would be anti-climatic before it ever began.

It would make sense, however, that if Batman goes further underground (as suggested in The Dark Knight's ending), that the Joker would simply not even try to escape, his reason for being removed, a major element of "The Dark Knight Returns".

So that leaves this pragmatic question – given the circumstances, how do you finish the Batman/Joker story? Well, it would still be difficult, but by telling a story set 10, 15, 20 (?) years in the future, Nolan would buy himself some much-needed leeway to recast the Joker as an older man.

It would still be an unenviable task for both the director and whatever actor accepted that challenge, but it just might provide some measure of wiggle room.

So here's the recapped case for the next film being an adaptation (on some level) of "The Dark Knight Returns".

1.) The Dark Knight's title and ending makes the next film being called "The Dark Knight Returns" logical.

2.) The next film needs to further "escalate" the series, and be even bigger and bolder than The Dark Knight.

3.) Nolan seems to be crafting a three-act structure, and left the Joker's fate open to be a major element of a final act.

4.) The “Dark Knight Returns” future setting gives Nolan some "room" to help recast the Joker.

And the Case Against?

As mentioned, in the context of the world Nolan has created in the first two movies, some parts of "The Dark Knight Returns" are un-filmable. Superman's role in the story and the whole third act are impossible to make work. To refine this theory, we're effectively talking about liberally adapting the main elements of the first two acts of Frank Miller's story.

A 14 year-old girl running around in a Robin costume doesn't make much sense in the Nolan Bat-verse either, although given the 'Batman imitators' element the director introduced in The Dark Knight, a young disciple who could serve a similar role as Carrie does in TDKR wouldn’t be too hard to imagine.

Then there is the question of finality. The Dark Knight is on its way to becoming the second-highest grossing film of all time. Why, oh why, would Warner Bros. produce a film that could potentially be perceived by audiences as the last story in the franchise?

Well, here’s the thing - that's happened once already, unintentionally. Joel Schumacher's Batman & Robin almost killed the big-screen Batman.

The success of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight prove moviegoers are a forgiving lot, and (like comic book fans) understand the nature of a self-contained story arc. While in-story internal logic requires "continuity", doesn't Nolan's relaunch of the franchise indicate fans will accept new creative visions that aren't necessarily related to previous ones? That fans want a good story; not necessarily a next one?

Perhaps the wisest thing Warner Bros could do is let talented filmmakers like Nolan tell their own stories in the classic, satisfying three-act structure, instead of just trying to keep films rolling out in serial fashion to higher costs, even higher expectations, and eventual lesser returns. To let new filmmakers relaunch and reinvent the adaptable franchise again (and again, and again) on his or her own terms.

We just can't shake this feeling that this is exactly what they're going to do.

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