Whilst we're celebrating the arrival of what should hopefully be a great Batman movie, it's hard to forget it was on a printed page that the Dark Knight first came to life. With that in mind, six of our writers have looked at some of their favourite stories in an attempt to figure out why they're so good and why they're so suitable for adapting to film. Take it away, boss...
It’s difficult to select a favourite story from among the wide-range of wonderful tales that The Dark Knight has enjoyed since his introduction in 1939. I can think of a good dozen that deserve the accolade, but in order to break the deadlock, I have resorted to topicality. I was tempted to choose Batman: Venom, the superb five-part tale that thrusts the non-super-powered Dark Knight into such dark circumstances that he takes the experimental Venom steroid in order to become more than a man (and betray his origins) but, instead I’ve gone for a story with a broader scope and one that ties in very nicely with Christopher Nolan’s vision for his triptych.
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is set in a dystopian near-future, the date unspecified, and, as looks likely to be the case in Nolan’s film, Batman has been absent for years. Ronald Reagan is President, the Cold War is raging and superheroes have either retired or disappeared, excoriated by the media and forsaken by a public that no longer trusts them. The only one left is Superman but he has become something of a government stooge. Batman is mourning the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin, and in his absence a group of criminals called The Mutants has run amok, terrorising Gotham’s streets.
Bruce Wayne broods with his memories, cushioned by his wealth, seemingly abandoning Gotham to its fate, until the return of Harvey Dent nudges him out of his stupor. He is old, and weak, and is saved from a beating at the hands of the Mutants by 13-year old Carrie Kelly who quickly becomes the third Robin. Batman defeats the Mutant leader in a rematch and the group disband into an array of competing gangs including the vigilante ‘Sons of Batman,’ who set about clearing the streets using ultra-violence as their favoured tool.
Batman’s return wakes The Joker from a decade-long coma in Arkham Asylum and he wreaks his usual brand of murderous havoc. He turns Gotham Police Department on Batman, who quickly becomes public enemy number one. Superman is dispatched to take Batman down and the scene is set for an epic confrontation.
How would I approach this as a film? Who would direct it? That’s easy: Christopher Nolan.
He's already on board, and will be delivering it in July as The Dark Knight Rises. The similarities are pretty blindingly obvious. We’re not going to get the involvement of Superman, I suspect Dent and the Joker are dead and will remain so, but there are plenty of harmonious chords: a Batman in retirement, forced away by a public who suspect him; Wayne Manor razed to the ground; a female sidekick (read Selina Kyle for Carrie Kelly); anarchy on the streets of Gotham; a seemingly unbeatable foe.
Without giving too much away (and strangely for a Frank Miller story) The Dark Knight Returns ends on a reasonably upbeat note. Will Nolan’s? His vision for Gotham has been bleak, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends in a similar fashion. It’s clear that the Nolan brothers own well-thumbed issues of Miller’s work, and that they’ve drawn their inspiration from his singular vision for the Dark Knight. Some people have speculated that they will end their involvement by killing their protagonist, but I don’t think that will be the case. My money is on Bruce Wayne surviving, and marshaling his resources so he can fight another day.
Arguably the definitive Joker story in the Bat-canon, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke is a classic one-shot Batman graphic novel which charts the origins of the Joker’s madness and explores what can happen to both good and bad people after having ‘one bad day’. In Moore’s disturbing vision of the Clown Prince of Crime’s descent into madness, the Joker starts out as an unnamed worker at a chemical plant who quits his job to pursue a career in stand-up comedy. After failing miserably, he becomes desperate to support his pregnant wife and so takes a job with some unsavoury characters, acting as their guide when they break into the chemical plant where he once worked. Tragedy strikes however when he learns from the police that his wife has died in a household accident. His criminal employers are unmoved by his awful misfortune though and refuse to let him drop out of the break in.
When the job unfolds, security almost immediately thwarts their scheme and then Batman shows up too for good measure. The worker escapes through a waste pipe leading out of the chemical plant, only to find the toxic chemicals have permanently bleached his skin white, his lips bright red and his hair luminous green. This final injustice pushes him over the edge and sees him completely lose his mind as his transformation into the Joker is complete. The bulk of the story then sees the Joker kidnap Commissioner Gordon and hold him hostage at an amusement park where he attempts to drive him insane with the intention of showing that anybody can be driven insane after ‘one bad day’. The most shocking moment of the novel comes when Joker shoots and paralyzes Commissioner Gordon’s daughter Barbara (aka Batgirl) and then taunts Gordon with graphic pictures of her in great distress. After a prolonged assault on Gordon’s senses, Batman finally arrives at the park and manages to subdue the Joker, with the two sharing a memorable head-to-head over life’s injustices and how different human’s will react to them.
Narratively speaking, it’s a chilling and twisted novel which pulls no punches and revels in the demented nature of its antagonist. It’s an intense story which really drives home the psychological damage suffered by both Joker and Batman. The only difference being that one utilised it for good, the other let it push him over the edge and into darkness. Visually it’s a stunning piece of work, with the Joker never looking more menacing and the whole sequence played out in the amusement park is as creepy and disturbing as any Batman story out there.
Obviously, there have already been some pretty legendary Joker performances on the big screen. Jack Nicholson gave us a charismatic and over-the-top showman, while more recently Heath Ledger gave us an edgier and more deranged version of the character. To bring something new to the cinematic Joker, my advice would be to make an incredibly dark, psychological film which borders on being a horror movie. No concessions should be made in terms of on-screen violence, the Joker must be a truly insane and unpredictable character who will permanently paralyze a young girl just to wind up her father. The scenes shot at the amusement park should be a waking nightmare with creepy carnival music and imposing bright lights. Visually it should play tricks on the viewer and become almost dreamlike in its portrayal.
For my vicious and deranged Joker I’d go for known eccentric Crispin Glover, who, let’s be honest, could easily reach that level of batshit mental. The role of Batman is harder to cast as in this story he really would take a back seat to his arch enemy. It’s a fairly thankless task, but someone like Chris Pine or Jake Gyllenhall could make a decent fist of it. To direct, there’s plenty of solid choices out there, but I think I’ll have to go with Darren Aronofsky. He’s a director who has explored darkness and the power of madness before in Black Swan, and also depicted violence and despair in The Wrestler and Requiem for a Dream. He wouldn’t flinch from showing visceral violence and would revel in producing disturbing shocking visuals. The Killing Joke by Darren Aronofsky….now that would be a brilliantly dark movie.
There are many great Batman stories but, more often than not, those stories tend to lean closer to the crime genre. Gangsters, murderers and the like, you rarely get a great Batman story that involves a lot of superheroics. Batman exists in a shared universe, surrounded by the most powerful beings in the universe, and so very few Batman stories deal with that reality. How does one man stand among gods?
Tower of Babel, published in Justice League of America #43-46 and written by Mark Waid with art by Howard Porter, tackles that very idea. In the event that his super-powered comrades ever turned rogue, Batman devised counter-measures to stop them. Developing elaborate methods of defeating the world's most powerful heroes. The problem is, Batman's old nemesis Ra's al Ghul steals Batman's plans and actually put them into effect.
We see Superman exposed to red kryptonite, rendering his skin utterly transparent and incapable of filtering the sun's radiation properly, causing him to "overload" with power and effectively crippling him. Aquaman is infected with a variant of Scarecrow's fear toxin, making him scared of water, the very thing that keeps him alive. Wonder Woman is placed in virtual reality simulation of a fight that can never end, ultimately leading to a cardiac arrest. There are many more and each as ruthless as the last, it shows how unsentimental Batman can be when formulating strategy. Batman, meanwhile, is incapable of preventing this attack because Ra's also went to the bother of stealing the bodies of Batman's parents. It's a bad week to be the Dark Knight.
This may be a Justice League story, and the main storyline is more concerned with a plan to destroy human language (anything that rids the world of internet comment pages is OK with me) but the most fascinating elements are all about Batman. It's thrilling to see the likes of Superman and Green Lantern taken down by cunning, not brute strength, and seeing them bounce back, but it's almost tragic when you realise who helped perpetrate the attacks and how it will impact his relationships with his closest allies. Batman's pursuit of his parents bodies also leads to an interesting ultimatum that really captures what makes Batman tick. He's not a man out for revenge, he's a man trying to honour and defend all the good left in the world; an ideal embodied by the memory of his parents. Tower of Babel exposes Batman's weaknesses, and shows how he turns them into strengths, which humanises a character so often depicted as irritatingly perfect.
A story like Tower of Babel is bigger in scale than your average Batman story, it is unapologetic about being a full-blooded superhero story, so a director would need to embrace the more outlandish concepts and be unafraid of going broad. They would need to be comfortable working on a big scale, working with a large cast of characters and have a keen eye for executing fantastical images while taking them seriously.
For my money, one of the only directors who could do this is Gore Verbinski. Despite some missteps with the Pirates sequels (largely due to scripting issues), he is comfortable working with big budgets and producing visually exciting and highly polished blockbusters. I would struggle to think of many directors better qualified to work on this level. As long as he doesn't bring along Johnny Depp to play Plastic Man or something.
The Long Halloween, released between 1996 and 1997, has been cited by Christopher Nolan as one of the major comic influences on Batman Begins. So why pick it as my comic to pitch as a film? It's been done, surely? Nah. While it's influence is surely felt on Batman Begins (and The Dark Knight, for that matter), by no means has it's story been told on screen, and it's an amazing story. My favourite, in fact. It involves the Falcone crime family, money laundering, Harvey Dent's descent into some serious schizo business, and a who's who of Batman villains. Roll up, roll up, for the Batman freak show, featuring: The Riddler, The Joker, Solomon Grundy, Catwoman, Two-Face and Calendar Man. It's the first time we really see a relationship develop between Batman, Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon. It's a gripping crime thriller as well as being a Batman comic, and has an almost film-noir quality to it. It follows a year long case of Batman tracking down a serial killer, the 'Holiday killer', and it's this aspect which I find most interesting, and which could bring the most to the screen. This is Batman, but not as we know him.
The Long Halloween is a creepy crime thriller, with a spree of murders at it's core. This isn't the Joker's mindless killing, or Scarecrow's mind tricks. This is a villain that's realistic, the kind we see in the news everyday. A right nasty bastard. So what if it were to be made into a film? Who to direct it? Michael Mann would be an easy choice - he knows crime like the back of his hand. Howabout Brian De Palma? Again, easy choice. I've always fancied the idea of giving Terry Gilliam a crack at Batman's world, and he'd for sure get the creepiness of the comic in there, but not quite the crime. Personally, I'd elect Tomas Alfredson for the job. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was a gorgeously stylised, perfectly executed movie, with relationships between characters at it's core, and a damn confusing plot was well explained. It'd be in the same sort of world as Nolan's Gotham, but grittier, seedier, more in line with Batman Begins than The Dark Knight. What about Batman? Give Ryan Gosling a few years, and I think he'd be perfect. At the moment, he's just too damn good looking, and this needs an older, wiser Batman, with a few lines under his eyes. Rounding out the cast would be Marion Cotillard as Catwoman (I think she'd be perfection, and I know she's in TDKR but I don't care), Djimon Hounsou as Calendar Man, James Franco as The Joker, Wes Bentley as Harvey Dent, and just to screw things around a bit, let's throw John Malkovich in there as Alfred. Imagine a Batman film where Alfred wasn't just some cuddly old geezer, and was in fact a terrifyingly unhinged batty old bastard. That'd shake things up.
Originally intended as a one-off edition, Gotham by Gaslight spawned an entire series, Elsewhere, that placed familiar superheroes in unfamiliar situations. It gave writers free rein to play with much-loved characters; saw the Man of Steel raised in the Ukraine, the Justice League in the Old West and Commissioner Gordon as a 1940s noir detective.
In Gotham by Gaslight Bruce Wayne returns to Victorian Gotham from a grand European tour, only to be drawn back into fighting the forces of evil in the city. However, when a Jack the Ripper copycat starts slaying young women, our hero is unable to account for his nocturnal whereabouts and finds himself in the frame for murder. As his execution date looms closer, will he be able to solve the case before he dances on the end of a rope? Of course he can; he’s The Batman.
The opportunity to move away from Wayne’s much-loved modern gadgetry is what makes this comic special. The Batmobile and Kevlar Batsuit are dropped in favour of horse-drawn carriages and steampunk contraptions. With its dank alleyways and grimy streets Victorian London lends itself well to Gotham. The result is a slick piece of story telling with a twist on familiar themes, beautifully drawn by Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and written by award-winning editor Brian Augustyn.
Having successfully explored the Victorian era in The Prestige, Christopher Nolan is an obvious choice to translate this to screen. However, this is a very different Batman; he’s a detective more than fighter. Gotham by Gaslight needs the pressure of a crime thriller, the attention to detail of a period drama and the action of a blockbuster. David Fincher would be a trusted pair of hands. However with his eye for subtlety and ability to build tension Tomas Alfredson would be an interesting choice.
Robin. Poor Robin. Whether it's Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, Tim Drake or Damien Wayne, he's never really received anywhere near the love his mentor gets, with Todd in particular getting the Bat-sneer from fans. So when DC decided he had to be removed from the tights, they had a lightbulb flash: "we'll let the fans decide" they said, and set up two premium-rate telephone numbers for people to call, one for Robin to live, one for him to die. It was no massive surprise given previous reaction to Todd that the latter option won, albeit only by seventy-two votes, but that was what the fans wanted. So in Batman #428, written by Jim Starlin with art by Jim Aparo and Mike DeCarlo, Jason Todd's Robin met his end, unsurprisingly at the hands of Batman's number one foe, The Joker. Two iconic images stick in my mind from the book, which horrified me in my youth. First of all, the Joker brutally beating Jason with a crowbar, after using the line "This is going to hurt you a lot more than it's going to hurt me." It was a classic Joker line, brilliantly funny yet with a biting edge encapsulating the truly psychotic mind of the character. The only thing scarier were the panels, showing the huge grin on the Joker's face as he held the crowbar aloft and beat Robin again and again and again.
And secondly, the most famous image from the series and a part of the Bat's iconography; Batman cradling Jason's broken body, lost in a fog of anger and sorrow. A monologue precedes the discovery where Batman blames himself for wanting a new Robin, and it's a rare outpouring of emotion from the caped crusader that has helped this story remain one of his most infamous. The story itself is okay, Robin learns his mother may still be alive and goes off without Batman's permission to find her, only to discover she's being blackmailed by the Joker into working for him. The Joker's big plan here is to sell a stolen nuclear missile, and after Jason's death he receives diplomatic immunity after joining the Iranian government. Inevitably however, it ends in a big fight after he tries to gas the United Nations with Batman and Superman taking him on, only for the Joker to be presumed killed in a helicopter crash.
Some of it's a bit outlandish, although what was far-fetched back in 1989 is a lot more relevant, namely the WMD smuggling. There are some on-the-nose coincidences, and I'm not convinced Superman really needed to be in it. However, this would provide an interesting if morbid approach to Robin, which could be achieved with flashbacks, which the series actually contains, with Batman re-running his life with Robin while searching for the body. This approach could work well, with the standard story of Batman going off to find Robin interspersed with flashbacks of their meeting, training, and experiences. These flashbacks would then provide a base for the emotional climax of Robin's death, and the subsequent crusade by Batman tro take out the Joker - having never had something like this happen to him before. Raw emotion, a Batman on the edge, this is a really heightened emotional state that would need a director as good with character work as they are with great action. Step forward Kathryn Bigelow, who has proved time and again she can handle fantastic action with real emotion and intensity. Starring as Batman would be Viggo Mortensen, an older Bat who has a charismatic and heroic side to him, but also the darker glint hiding underneath. For the role of Robin, I'd actually throw a gender twist on it and have Maisie Williams as Jessica Todd. A rebellious age and having already shown in Game of Thrones that she is not only a brilliant actress but that she can take care of herself, it would add an extra dimension to Bruce's mentoring of her, and subsequently be even more devastating upon her death. The Joker as usual is a hard one to choose, but for the sheer brutality of this incarnation Vincent Cassel could do the job. Just remember: no Superman!