The word from Warner Bros. is that Michael Keaton will be back in black for a second encore appearance as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the months ahead – this time in Batgirl, the upcoming HBO Max feature film that features Latin pop singer Leslie Grace in the title role. Keaton portrayed the Caped Crusader in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1991) and makes a high-profile return to the role in The Flash, due in theaters in November.
So that means three different live-action versions of Batman are headed to the big screen, with newcomer Robert Pattinson making his Gotham debut in The Batman in March and incumbent Ben Affleck joining Keaton for a multiple universe mash-up in The Flash in November.
On live-action television, meanwhile, completely different iterations of Batman showed up not long ago on both the finale season of Gotham (on Fox) and over on Titans (now on HBO Max, originally on DC Universe). Titans, by the way, also has three Robins (Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, and Jason Todd) and a fourth likely on the way (the haughty Damien Wayne).
Let's not forget Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, the loyal manservant who has become the title character of his own show, which will jump to HBO Max in 2022 when it returns with Season Three.
To recap, that’s five Batmans, one Batwoman, one Batgirl, and three Robins. But that doesn't even count the wild-card crowd: Joker now reigns as the highest-grossing R-rated film in history and its star, Joaquin Phoenix, is the second actor to take home an Oscar for portraying the Gotham City madman. The Joker’s ex-girlfriend, meanwhile, has been everywhere with Margot Robbie starring in the recent Harley Quinn solo film, the Birds of Prey movie and The Suicide Squad, too.
Also ramping up: HBO Max has announced a pair of spinoff projects for The Batman. One delves into the past of the Penguin (played in The Batman by Colin Farrell) and the other explores the Gotham City Police Department, an agency infamous for corruption and a complicated history with local vigilantes.
Oh, and Ace the Bat Hound will be featured in the upcoming DC League of Super-Pets. I'm not even joking. Granted, that one is an animated feature film, but how could I omit the dog detective in this Gotham City roll call? The canine crimefighter arrives on screen with an impressive pedigree – the masked German shepherd debuted in the pages of DC Comics in 1955, which was a year before Batwoman’s debut and six years before Batgirl’s arrival. And yes, I did say masked. He's a dog that wears a mask. I can't really explain that one.
If I did expand out further into animated projects I’d certainly mention that Harley Quinn also got her own super-raunchy animated series as well as the upcoming Catwoman: Hunted direct-to-video animated film, which teams Selina Kyle with Kate Kane/Batwoman. But I wont get into animated stuff, there's just too much. I mean, there's Lego Batman and the rest of his clickable clique...
My point is that clearly, the Warner Bros. brain trust now knows that when it comes to IP, Gotham City is the studio's most fertile ground this side of Hogwarts. It's gotten to the point where it's become fodder for inside jokes. Consider Teen Titans GO! to the Movies which was released theatrically back in 2018. One of the great meta-gags in the movie is the frustrations of Robin, who wants his moment in the spotlight but is aghast to discover that he's been passed over yet again for a solo movie. The Boy Wonder is further chagrined when he learns that Hollywood is instead giving the green light to the Batmobile. It was a silly-fun joke in 2018 but now it turns out it was more prescient than anyone knew: HBO Max and Warner Animation are now in fact revving up Batwheels, which will be aimed at the preschool audience. That's sound cute enough, I suppose, but if you see Robin don't rub it in. And don't ask him when he will be getting a "Hollywood vehicle" of his own.
It reminds me of a similar Bat-bonanza back in the 1970s. In those days, I was an avid reader of Batman Family, a DC Comics series that was saddled with a somewhat awkward name (as was Superman Family, a Metropolis counterpart of the same era). The series mostly featured stories with Robin the Boy Wonder, Batgirl, Man-Bat, Batwoman, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and also the Huntress, who wore a mask in those days unlike the version that jumped to the big screen in Birds of Prey.
Batman Family had some hokey stuff, most of it in the form of reprinted stories from the 1940s and 1950s that were used as back-up features in the oversized anthology issues. The oddities and castoff characters included Kiteman, Phantom General and Fatman, a rotund circus clown who dresses up as the real Caped Crusader and stumbles into a fleeting crimefighting career. That portly punchline had his lone adventure in 1958 (which was reprinted in Batman Family No. 4) and, thankfully, there’s no revival on the horizon, although Kevin Smith and Marc Bernadin did pinch the name for Fatman on Batman, the nerdcentric podcast that started in 2012 and has now gone north of 275 episodes.
Taken all together, the screen glut of Gotham City heroes and villains may speak to the inherent power and dark charisma of the Batman mythology, but a good number of the projects mentioned above don’t feature Batman and some don’t even mention him directly. It could be the intrinsic appeal of Gotham itself, which has evolved into a haunted cityscape that now manages to evoke both Al Capone’s Chicago and Dracula’s Transylvania. How many fictional cities have landmarks as well known as Arkham Asylum, Crime Alley, the Batcave, etc.?
There’s something to all that, although Titans and Pennyworth are examples of modern Batman Family projects that are based well beyond Gotham City.
The objective observer might say that the Batman Family approach (both in the 1970s and now) is just an example of a corporate tendency to over-mine IP. That observer might even deduce that it was the global popularity of The Dark Knight trilogy that triggered the most recent flurry of Bat-related projects. They might surmise that Warner Bros. will surely dig further and further through the vast DC Comics archive for the next volley of screen adaptations and another after that. After all, the studio has plenty to pull from. The published adventures of Batman date back to 1939 and they continue to expand with multiple titles published every month.
I can’t argue with any of that but I do have a pressing question for the gatekeepers who will be greenlighting the Gotham City projects of the future: When can we get a Man-Bat movie?