It was supposed to be the Riddler. That’s who Warner Bros. wanted as the villain in the sequel to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, according to David Goyer. The Batman movie screenwriter—who helped Jonathan and Christopher Nolan crack the stories for all three films in The Dark Knight Trilogy, and who co-wrote the first one—admitted this way back in 2012 when he told the press that studio executives came to Nolan and said, “It’s gonna be the Riddler, and we want it to be Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Well, that obviously did not happen in The Dark Knight Rises, but with the arrival of WB’s The Batman trailer, it feels like the studio and the fans are finally getting The Dark Knight sequel they wanted the first time.
Director Matt Reeves’ film is also of course its own animal, and if anything looks poised to be an even darker, more ruthless interpretation of the Batman’s mythology than Nolan’s previous “grounded” and hard-nosed vision of Gotham City. While the sounds of Michael Giacchino’s Gothic score suggest some of the character’s more operatic qualities are returning, and Colin Farrell is certainly channelling Dick Tracy levels of scenery-chewing in his take on the Penguin, the film still features many of the elements we saw in Nolan’s seminal Dark Knight reimagined. They’ve just been taken to an even darker and more violent extreme.
Take for instance Robert Pattinson’s first line in the trailer: “Fear is a tool and when that light hits the sky, it’s not just a call, it’s a warning.” That bit of dialogue is not too far removed from Gary Oldman’s Lt. Gordon standing next to the Bat Signal in The Dark Knight and saying, “He often doesn’t [show up], but I like reminding everybody that he’s out there.” Similarly, it’s hard not to think of Christian Bale’s infamously guttural screams during his interrogation of Heath Ledger’s Joker—or demanding “where’s the trigger” of Tom Hardy’s Bane—when Pattinson’s Batman likewise questions a villain protected by plexiglass. “What have you done?!” he seethes with a decidedly less throaty inflection.
Even the political subtexts of Nolan’s trilogy appear to be getting a facelift for 2021, with the Riddler’s reign of terror against the city’s elite causing him to become front page news. Except this time, instead of being called “a terrorist” who’s sent a tape of his latest atrocity into a local news station, Paul Dano’s Riddler is tagged with “serial killer livestreams” by cable news.
Noting these similarities is not a criticism. It’s just worth acknowledging the parallel since, in many ways, The Batman appears to be the spiritual successor to The Dark Knight that fans and studio executives clamored for in the wake of the 2008 blockbuster that many (myself included) considered to be the best superhero movie ever made.
Back in 2009 through 2011, you couldn’t run into a comic book fan who wasn’t speculating on either Marvel Studios’ slow walk to The Avengers or The Dark Knight sequel. For many of them, The Dark Knight had left them on an adrenaline high. Ledger’s Joker promised, “You changed things forever… there’s no going back,” and by the film’s end, the entire power structure of organized crime in Gotham was decapitated by both Joker and Two-Face’s actions. The time seemed ripe for the “age of the freaks,” as the influential Batman: The Long Halloween called it on the comic page. Could the next film see a whole rogues gallery with, say, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Penguin and, sure, DiCaprio as the Riddler? Maybe Catwoman could even play both sides of the underworld against each other?
Other than that last bit about Catwoman and her flexible loyalties, none of this came to pass. Nolan is a filmmaker who doesn’t like repeating himself, and he rather infamously dismissed the Riddler as a lesser version of the Joker. Whereas many fans wanted a similar hero versus villain battle that would be for the soul of Gotham, with the Riddler even taking on a possible serial killer vibe, Nolan sought to tell a story that had (almost) never been attempted in comicdom: a story where the Dark Knight’s crusade ends and Bruce stops being Batman. Further, he went with a villain in Hardy’s Bane who was as far from the Joker’s brand of chaos as the Joker was in turn from Liam Neeson’s Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins.
The Dark Knight Rises was a different beast, one that has its admirers and detractors. While the finished film has problems, we admittedly enjoyed the film’s grandiose ambition, and appreciate that it attempts to ask this fundamental question: Could Bruce Wayne give up the mask? And yet, if the last decade has taught us anything about general fan culture between this movie’s reception, and those endured by The Last Jedi and even this month’s No Time to Die, those are questions some fans never want answered. Generally, the most universally praised aspect of Rises is the one thing most fans wanted to see: Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman becoming Batman’s elusive confidant and ally.
All of which is interesting to consider when watching The Batman trailer this weekend. While Reeves is clearly carving his own path, and with a version of Bruce Wayne who appears far more broken and dissolute than Bale and Nolan’s interpretation—and this Batman is on good terms with Jim Gordon and the fuzz—it still looks like the movie so many wanted back in ’08. It is going to expand the Batman lore instead of contract it, build the mythology rather than skipping to the preferred bits to fit a single narrative. It’s even already set up several HBO Max spinoff shows.
It is easy to speculate that the Joker already exists in The Batman’s setting with criminals dressed as clowns running around, waiting to get their beating. But if the Clown Prince of Crime has begun his rule, his apprehension didn’t end the madness; it hastened the age of freaks, with more flamboyant criminals like Penguin ruling the streets. It’s a new class of criminal. Thus enters Dano’s Riddler.
With his Zodiac Killer-inspired mask and his being described in the press as a straight up “serial killer,” it already feels likely this Riddler will be more disturbing and vicious than Ledger’s Joker, at least in terms of how his acts of violence are shown onscreen. He may also be targeting police commissioners, district attorneys, and mayors like Nolan’s Joker—look closely at that chalk outline riddle that Bruce discovers in the new trailer—but one suspects he’ll deal with them much more gruesomely.
And even Catwoman, one of the generally agreed upon highlights in The Dark Knight Rises, looks poised to get a more comic accurate update in The Batman. Hathaway’s Selina was a criminal looking for a way out of the underworld after stealing enough jewels, and her (brief) romance with Bruce led to her finding that escape hatch. Without even seeing The Batman, it’s safe to say this is just the beginning for Zoe Kravitz’s Selina. She and Batman are equals starting at the same time, as opposed to her being a bit of a fangirl in his presence. She also will hopefully have a lot more screen time to flesh out an evolving relationship with Batman, just as the two characters find their new rhythms as heroes and villains.
Ultimately, The Batman promises a larger, darker, and crazier Gotham than we saw in The Dark Knight Trilogy. One with no ending in sight. One suspects that’s music to the ears of fans—and stockholders of WarnerMedia’s parent company.