It’s not hugely controversial to say that Warner Bros’ universe of DC superheroes got off to a bit of a rocky start. Whatever your personal feelings on Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman or Justice League, the studio’s multimillion dollar franchise has demonstrably never reached the dizzying success of its main rival, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which changed the game when it came to both comic book films and shared movie universes.
In recent years, though, there appear to be some green shoots. Rather than rushing ahead to more team-up movies, WB have been more gently developing individual heroes, hiring respected filmmakers and focusing on what does work rather than what they want to work, making the last couple of years more successful than when they chased pell-mell after Marvel’s crown.
And now, new rumours suggest that Warner Bros and DC may have hit on an idea that even Marvel can’t pull off – truly weaponised nostalgia. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Warner Bros is currently in talks with Michael Keaton, aka the Tim Burton Batman, aka one of the most iconic screen superheroes ever, to reprise his role as Bruce Wayne for the upcoming Flash movie.
Based on the comic Flashpoint, the Flash film is apparently set to introduce parallel universes and alternate timelines to DC’s movies (which could explain why a non-Ben Affleck Batman could meet Ezra Miller’s Flash) and reportedly it could be just the first of many Keaton appearances. Assuming talks go well, it’s suggested that Keaton could fulfil a role in the DCEU rather like Samuel L Jackson did in early Marvel movies, appearing in multiple films to bring disparate heroes together.
Why does this matter? Well, in bringing back Keaton the DC universe is pulling a move the Marvel films just can’t in quite the same way, delving into a rich history of popular and successful films that goes back over 40 years. Marvel films are massive now, but in the ’80s and ’90s it was DC characters that dominated the box office while Marvel was narrowly avoiding bankruptcy.
Keaton’s Batman films are longstanding, popular and critically-acclaimed, as is his Batman, and adding him to proceedings adds an air of legitimacy and (hesitate to say it) class not a million miles away from having Harrison Ford crop up in the Star Wars sequels to tacitly give his blessing. It sends a signal to audiences that the new creations are part of a rich tapestry of longstanding stories, not just cheap cash-ins that besmirch the legacy of older movies.
Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton on the set of Batman Returns (Getty, EH)
Marvel can’t easily do this for the simple reason that their film catalogue doesn’t go back that far. While films like Avengers: Endgame played with nostalgia for the likes of Iron Man and the original Avengers movie, these films aren’t actually that old – it’s not quite the same as having Yoda pop back for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, decades after his debut.
For Marvel, the equivalent could be bringing back Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, or maybe Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine now that they own those characters, but even they’re not as established a part a movie history as the original blockbuster Batman (with apologies to Adam West).
If the Keaton rumours are true, then Warner Bros and DC really are learning to play to their strengths – and their main rival’s weakness – as the great superhero movie war rages on. Now, if someone can just get Danny DeVito back as The Penguin, we’ll really be cooking.
Find something to watch tonight with our TV Guide