I’m no comic book expert, nor an avid reader, but were I a smart filmmaker trying to do something radically different, I’d attempt The Dark Knight Returns route. One of the many great attributes of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is that it starts its story in a very well established universe. There is no back story to Bruce Wayne/Batman and the villains are well and truly set in stone. It was written based on the fact that the readers have an assumed, basic knowledge of the Batman characters and proceeds to tell its story from there out.
It also has a wildly fresh aspect to the character. The story follows a Bruce Wayne who is way past his prime, nearing the twilight years of his life and is much more reactive, violent, disturbed character. He is someone who has years of crime fighting behind him and many tragic losses, outside of the murder of his parents, which have malformed his psyche. When reading the comic it feels as if Miller has based his Batman/Bruce Wayne on a Clint Eastwood archetype: A gruff, morally dubious, crime fighter.
The world it inhabits is in sharp contrast to the world that Nolan created. Miller is very much invested in a highly stylized world, influenced by punk attributes with a side helping of post-Blade Runner grunge. The gang called The Mutants, who run rabid in the back alleys of Gotham, are perverse and profoundly exaggerated characters. Their fascism is shown in their actions as well as the character design, with one member having swastikas tattooed on her breasts.
It would be a violent switch from Nolan’s world, more stylised and much more brutal, fitting in with Miller’s view of the character. The only issue with adapting The Dark Knight Returns is that The Dark Knight Rises borrows the retired Bruce Wayne subplot and lifts a couple of lines of dialogue from the comic, so doing that anytime soon would only cause comparison which a project like that doesn’t need.
It also suffers from an incredibly stupid fourth part where Clark Kent/Superman is introduced to the proceedings in one of those franchise crossover moments that the author thought would be cool but in the end doesn’t quite work or make sense. For me, unless handled very well, that part would have to be completely rewritten and restructured in order to deliver an appropriate, plausible final act. It would take someone with considerable balls who doesn’t mind taking crap from ardent fans in order to take that burden on if that’s the direction they go in.
The Dark Knight Returns may be a possibility but its highly unlikely that Warner Brothers would want to go forward with material that would probably be R-rated, not to mention the fact they would face definite skepticism and a probable mauling from comic book fans if the filmmaker hired to bring it to the screen “got it wrong.”
Another direction they could potentially go in is to make a Batman film which doesn’t feature Bruce Wayne/Batman all that much. Instead, why not focus on the villains of the piece? Place The Joker or Two-Face or Falcone or The Penguin in the lead role and give Batman a supporting one. It would be interesting to see if they could pull that off. Telling an origin story of a villain rather than the obligatory origin story to the hero could be neat.
Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke would be the obvious classic to go for if we’re talking a straight adaptation. After all it is a very highly regarded origin story of one of the most famous pop culture villains ever and (like Moore’s Watchmen) it is a rare case of a comic book being highly regarded in the canon of literature and not just graphic novels.
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