Rescuing Batman

Special to The Times

When David Goyer, co-writer of the eagerly awaited "Batman Begins," attended a comic book convention in San Diego last summer, the audience of 7,000 was noticeably antsy. It was the first time anyone associated with the film was speaking publicly. "The first question I got," recalls Goyer, "was someone stood up in the audience and said, 'How can you guarantee this movie won't suck?' And everyone applauded."

In a way, that's the dilemma facing Warner Bros. as it gets ready to release the first Batman film in eight years on June 15. The challenge for the studio is to overcome the stigma of the last Batman film, the much-maligned "Batman & Robin" -- a film so disliked it nearly killed off a franchise that has made $1.2 billion in worldwide box office grosses.

Why a company would let a product as profitable as Batman lapse for that long is an example of how bad judgment, studio politics and the vagaries of the creative process can stall even the most commercial projects. While Warner Bros. struggled to figure out how to distance the franchise from "Batman & Robin," the best strategy ultimately may have turned out to be just allowing enough time to pass. What made that solution particularly galling for the studio, which owns DC Comics, was that while Batman and Superman lay dormant, rival Marvel Enterprises comic characters such as Spider-Man, X-Men and Blade were creating hits all over town for competing studios Sony, 20th Century Fox and New Line Cinema, respectively.

Warner Bros. attempted to resurrect Batman four times before it finally decided to go ahead with "Batman Begins." "It took us a number of tries and a number of people to get to the place we got to," admits Warner Bros. president of production Jeff Robinov. "I think it would certainly be more helpful not to say someone failed. All that matters is we found the person who we believed in to do it."

That person was Christopher Nolan, the 34-year-old director of the indie hit "Memento" and the edgy (for a studio) "Insomnia," a remake of a Swedish art house favorite that Warners distributed but declined to finance.

If Nolan's credentials made him an unlikely choice to raise Batman from the dead, he obviously told executives at the studio exactly what they had been hoping to hear. After a 45-minute, point-by-point pitch, Warner Bros. signed Nolan to a pay-or-play deal on the spot without even a treatment or a script in place.

Nolan envisioned Batman as a real person and promised to present a story unlike other comic book adaptations. "What I wanted to do is make the audience believe in the reality of this character," he says. "Batman is unique among superheroes in presenting that opportunity. He really is just a guy that does a lot of push-ups."

A CHARACTER WITH LEGS

That Batman has had such longevity is a testament to the character created by Bob Kane in 1939. The myth, or "canon," as comic book fans like to call it, of Batman describes a child, Bruce Wayne, who witnesses the murder of his parents and, out of regret and revenge, becomes a crime fighter when he grows up.

But how Batman actually became Batman had never been chronicled on film or in the comics, and Nolan saw that as a gap in film history that he could fill. It's a direction Warner Bros. could have taken with the first Batman film, in 1989, but instead it chose Tim Burton's more idiosyncratic vision (designed by Anton Furst).

"That first film didn't really address the origin or frame Batman as an extraordinary figure in an ordinary world," says Nolan. "Instead, the environment was as extraordinary as the character. I think it was basically the studio's way of convincing the public that you could have a very cool Batman film."

Burton's "Batman" got the enterprise off to a promising start, making $411 million worldwide. "Batman Returns" arrived in theaters just three years later, but business fell off considerably, delivering only $266 million. Fearing that Burton's vision was too dark for the mainstream audience, the studio brought in Joel Schumacher ("The Phantom of the Opera") to give the series a glossy shine. With Val Kilmer replacing Michael Keaton as Batman, the series bounced back with "Batman Forever," which brought in $336 million.

Warner Bros. was convinced it was on the right track and pretty much gave Schumacher carte blanche for the next installment, "Batman & Robin" (1997), with George Clooney as Batman. By then the film's tone had departed so dramatically from the character's dark origins in DC comics, with Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his henchman ice-skating around a museum while pulling off a heist, that hard-core comic fans and general audiences alike found the action more kitschy than entertaining, and grosses dropped to a new low for the franchise, $238 million. The addition of nipples and a codpiece to Batman's costume may be the film's lasting legacy. (Schumacher declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Right up until the opening of the film, Warner Bros. was anticipating a blockbuster and expected to keep churning out sequels every few years. "We all thought we were making the biggest Batman ever at the time," says Bill Gerber, then co-president of production. Schumacher started working on the next installment with writer Mark Protosevich ("The Cell"), continuing in the same vein with multiple villains and more silliness.

As a writer who worked on one of the abandoned Batman projects put it, the studio was reluctant to give up its notion of who Batman was -- a guy who makes a lot of money.

Even when the blockbuster failed to materialize, Warner Bros. had plenty of motivation to keep the series going. The franchise was a merchandising bonanza. According to one source, toy manufacturers had been invited to sit in on creative meetings for "Batman & Robin." "Sometimes it looks like a business masquerading as a movie," says Peter Guber, producer (with Jon Peters) of the first two Batman films and co-host of AMC's "Sunday Morning Shootout." "People in house say, 'Make it, make it, so I can sell my ancillary products.' "

The public's rejection of "Batman & Robin" and the studio's lack of a creative solution kept Warner's from racing ahead with a new version. "You wouldn't have just naturally gone from Batman 4 to have a Batman in the theater 18 months or two years later," suggests Robinov. "I do think there was a natural sort of breathing period. It was a question of finding the right approach."

And coming off big-budget flops such as "The Postman" (1997), "Wild Wild West" (1999) and "Batman & Robin," the studio may have been less than eager to risk investing in its franchises without a clue how to make them work. After "Batman & Robin," the only direction Batman could go was forward to the future or back to the original story, and Warner Bros. didn't know which way to turn.

In April 1998, a surprising move signaled the troubled tenor of the studio. President of production Lorenzo di Bonaventura pulled the plug three months before shooting was to start on a $150-million production of "Superman," to be directed by Burton and starring Nicolas Cage, "until such time as the budget is appropriate and the script realizes its potential."

IN THE THROES OF DEVELOPMENT

While Warners labored to mount Batman for the big screen, its television division found the material more manageable, with several animated versions and even plans for a Bruce Wayne TV series. In 1999, "Batman Beyond," an animated kids' program set 40 years in the future, featured a retired Batman who has become the mentor to a young crime fighter. By the following year, the film side of the studio was thinking this might be the way to go for a live-action feature.

Director Boaz Yakin ("Remember the Titans") was brought in and started working on a script with the show's creators, Paul Dini and Alan Burnett. What Yakin had in mind was a futuristic "Blade Runner"-type Batman. His dream casting had Clint Eastwood playing the former Dark Knight.

Dini and Burnett worked on a draft with the director, but the studio soon lost interest in the concept, at least the way Yakin saw it. His idea was a hard-edged, darker and nihilistic Batman with swearing and violence. There's no way it would have been PG-13. Clearly this was not the same Batman Warner Bros. was looking for. Unwilling to bend to the studio, Yakin went off to work on another project, effectively ending "Batman Beyond." As Warner Bros. was cooling to "Batman Beyond," it was warming to the idea of developing a story about the hero's origins. In the late '80s, Frank Miller (writer and co-director of "Sin City") had revitalized the Batman character with a series of dark and gritty graphic novels, four of which were later packaged as "Batman: Year One," dealing with his first adventures as the Caped Crusader.

Much to the shock and delight of most Bat-observers, the studio signed daring indie director Darren Aronofsky, who to that point had released only "Pi," an innovative black-and-white film about a deranged math genius.

Most fans, still smarting from "Batman & Robin," applauded the teaming of Aronofsky and Miller, but few believed that Warner Bros. would actually make the film.

Perhaps the only surprise when Aronofsky and Miller delivered their script was that the studio was surprised by what it got. Their Batman was a brooding hero with a complex psychology, and the action was realistic and violent. "That was the way we pitched it, and that was the script we delivered. They knew what was coming, so their response was definitely confusing," says Eric Watson, Aronofsky's longtime producing partner.

The Aronofsky-Miller script surely would have produced an unflinching R-rated movie, not something the studio could afford to do. "It was clear that making a large film of the nature of 'Batman,' and what it means to Time Warner, they're going to want the rating to be a certain way," says Watson. "They needed a PG-13."

Robinov's recollection of the "Batman: Year One" experience is decidedly different. " 'Batman: Year One' never went very far," he says. "We never made a deal. There was never a script done. It didn't go further than it did because the intention of that movie didn't feel right."

The merger of Time Warner with AOL in January 2001 and the company's subsequent free fall perhaps put further pressure on the film division to rescue the day with one of its superheroes. At the same time, the pressure may have been paralyzing. After veteran studio bosses Terry Semel and Bob Daly departed in late 1999, their replacement, Alan Horn, had promised to build the studio's release schedule around five tent-pole pictures a year.

"When Alan Horn first took the job, he said he wanted to revive the Superman and Batman characters," says Robinov. "That was a priority for him." So the studio was throwing as much as it could into the hopper, hoping something would stick.

As "Batman: Year One" was sinking, the studio decided to try yet another approach. What if Batman and Superman faced off in one film as they had done many times in World's Finest Comics? Wolfgang Petersen ("The Perfect Storm") was hired to direct the project, and he, in turn, brought in writer Andrew Kevin Walker ("Seven") to write the screenplay, later polished by Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind").

Petersen envisioned a clash between a big-city, brooding Batman motivated by anger, pain and guilt, and a Superman who was all-American, small-town and innocent. He promised "a true existential experience with visual fun." If all went well, he said, the film could be in theaters by summer 2004.

But things did not go well. In addition to creative issues, "Superman Vs. Batman" fell victim to cutthroat studio politics that pitted Di Bonaventura against Horn over the kind of films the studio was making, a dispute that ultimately stretched as far as corporate headquarters in New York.

Meanwhile, a script by J.J. Abrams (creator of TV's "Lost" and "Alias") for another Superman film, the first part of a proposed trilogy, had gained favor at the studio. Horn was said to prefer the optimism of the "Superman" script to the darkness of the "Superman Vs. Batman" screenplay. He then took a step that was bizarre even by Hollywood standards: He distributed copies of both scripts to 10 other company executives and solicited their opinions.

According to an executive involved in the debate, Di Bonaventura argued that "Superman Vs. Batman" boiled down the characters to their essence; not going ahead with it, he said, would be "one of the great mistakes of all time."

Robinov agrees that it was an excellent script, but "rather than reintroduce the two characters in one film, we made a conscious decision to try and introduce the two characters independently. I think it gave us a lot more latitude to continue with Batman," he says.

The vote was 11-1 in favor of "Superman" -- Di Bonaventura's was the one dissenting vote. For Di Bonaventura, the "Superman Vs. Batman" episode was just symptomatic of a larger rift, and he resigned his post the following month, in September 2002.

In the eyes of many comic book boosters, Warner Bros. made the right decision. " 'Batman Vs. Superman' is where you go when you admit to yourself that you've exhausted all possibilities," says Goyer, who wrote the screenplays for "Blade" and its two sequels. "It's like 'Frankenstein meets Wolfman' or 'Freddy Vs. Jason.' It's somewhat of an admission that this franchise is on its last gasp."

But the move left Warner Bros. without a franchise film for either summer 2003 or 2004. So it looked again to Batman -- sort of. A production of "Catwoman," a Batman spinoff the studio had been trying to put together for at least 10 years, was hastily assembled with Halle Berry replacing Ashley Judd, who had long been attached to the project. The problem was that the film had nothing to do with Batman or the history of the Catwoman comic book character. The $100-million movie took in a mere $40 million.

STARTING OVER

Although the impulse in Hollywood is often to keep cranking out films and milking a franchise until it's dry, some observers believe the delay in mounting a new Batman was not a bad thing. "I don't think eight years is that long," says Guber, who took nine years to put together the first Batman film. "What they were doing was resting the franchise, and maybe they should have rested it even longer. They needed to get the other film out of the marketplace and out of the consciousness of the core audience."

"After 'Batman & Robin,' it was necessary to do what we call in comic book terms 'a reboot,' " says Goyer. "Say you've had 187 issues of 'The Incredible Hulk' and you decide you're going to introduce a new Issue 1. You pretend like those first 187 issues never happened, and you start the story from the beginning and the slate is wiped clean, and no one blinks.

"One of the reasons they do that is after 10 years of telling the same story, it gets stale and times change. So we did the cinematic equivalent of a reboot, and by doing that, setting it at the beginning, you're instantly distancing yourself from anything that's come before."

In the marketing of "Batman Begins," "We wanted to make sure ads and the teasers and trailers looked nothing like the previous films, and we were very careful about what we released to the public," says Goyer. "We had to reeducate everyone that this is not the same kind of story."

For Nolan and Goyer, Batman, by his very nature, is a romantic character. In their script, a disillusioned Bruce Wayne sets out to the four corners of the world to amass the experience and training that will eventually make him Batman. "I was not just making a darker version of the central character but also a larger, more sweeping version of the origin story," says Nolan. Cinematically he was thinking more of "Lawrence of Arabia" than a comic book.

And Gotham, which for Burton and Schumacher did not seem to exist in the real world, became more familiar. Nolan shot exteriors in London, New York and Chicago, so Batman's hometown now intentionally looks like a recognizable place (mostly Chicago).

Before Goyer started working on the script, he wanted to know if there were any restrictions or mandates from the studio. Among the few conditions was that the film not be R-rated, but the ratings question was a nonissue for Nolan. "My view was that this is a movie I wanted to see when I was 11 years old, so in my mind it's always been PG-13. I never really addressed that issue specifically. I just assumed that's what it would be." When it came to casting the Caped Crusader, the rumor mills were working overtime (everyone from Ashton Kutcher to Jake Gyllenhaal to Billy Crudup), but Nolan wanted the relatively unknown Christian Bale. Still no balking from Warner Bros.

The studio didn't mind if "Batman Begins" was dark as long as they could still market it as a "four quadrant" film, which means appealing to kids and adults, males and females. The last thing Robinov wanted to know was whether Nolan could deliver the film in a specified period of time. "He said, 'Yes, absolutely,' and we said, 'Great, let's do it,' " recalls Robinov.

After eight years of false starts and misfires, the studio finally seems to have figured out how to get one of these movies made: Commit to a skilled team with a vision and then leave them alone. "I think they knew they had to do something different in terms of reinventing the franchise," says Goyer, "and I think they knew it wasn't a film that could be made by committee."

And now that the franchise is up and running again, the studio is keen to keep it that way. Nolan and Goyer have a rough idea where the next couple of films would go, and in fact the last scene of "Batman Begins" could be the first scene of the next film. But Goyer and Nolan won't commit until they see how this one is received. After all, no one -- not the filmmakers or the studio executives -- wants the financial, historical or moral responsibility for having killed off a superhero.

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Contact James Greenberg at Calendar.letters@latimes.com.

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