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By Daniel N. Gullet, and it includes Batman concept art.
Soon Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy will come to it’s epic conclusion. For the first time in comic book movie history, a franchise has not only been allowed a beginning, middle and end, but has been successful in doing so. With Nolan succeeds with The Dark Knight Rises, the circle will be complete and his film series will be immortalized. Looking back, it was certainly a gamble. After the finical and critical disaster of Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin (1997), Warner Bros. and the world were weary about anything coming from the Caped Crusader for quite some time. The film had left a bad taste in people’s mouths, and even worse, a very big hole in people’s pockets. Of course, Batman had made Warner Bros. too much money in the past for the franchise to be completely abandoned. Batman would return to the silver screen in due time, but if he was going to do so it was clear that a radically different direction was going to be needed to restore people’s faith.
Enter director Darren Aronofsky and comic book author Frank Miller.
In 2000, Warner Bros. hired the pair to draft a script for an entirely and improved Batman film. Aronofsky and Miller worked together in the past on the unproduced Ronin film (a film that was based on a comic written by Miller). With Aronofsky coming off the success Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Miller being the author of two of the best selling and received Batman comics ever, it was good match. They both spent several years developing the project, creating concept art, costume ideas as well as even approaching Christian Bale for the role of Batman. Aronofsky was set to make the film with some of his now-regular collaborators. In an interview with IGN, he said, “Toss out everything you can imagine about Batman! Everything! We’re starting completely anew.” People were excited as they were nervous, curious as they were hopeful. Would it be the Batman movie fans had always wanted? Would it bring in the numbers Warner Bros. expected it to? Could it revive Batman’s name and glory to the box office? Could it be as bad as Batman and Robin?
In the end, we will never know. Warner Bros. pulled out of the project and decided to head in a different direction then the one mapped by Aronofsky and Miller, eventually paving the way for Christopher Nolan with Batman Begins (2005) and later The Dark Knight (2008).
Yet, let us look at what might have been… what if Arnofsky’s Batman: Year One had come to pass?
First and foremost, I personally am a very active and avid reader of Batman comics, and Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns remain some of favourites to this very day. However, Aronofsky was not kidding when he said that it was like nothing we had ever seen or read in the Batman Universe before. In the words of Devin Faraci, “If you think that Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman is ‘realistic,’ Darren Aronofsky’s probably would have made you shit your pants.”
In Aronofsky and Miller’s reimagining, Bruce Wayne disappears after the murders of his parents into the streets of Gotham to be taken in by “Big Al” and “Little Al”, the owners of a garage. Unlike in the comics, were Bruce was raised by Alfred with all the Wayne wealth to support his intense mental, physical, and spiritual training, this Bruce Wayne grows up in the seedy and violent streets. He comes a deeply violent and disturbed individual, spending most of his time in his apartment about the Al’s garage. He is surrounded by confusion and chaos constantly as well as all mains of human vices.
Having a enough of all this and seeking to avenge his parent’s murder, eventually Bruce starts his crime fighting career as a vigilante. Beginning with the thugs and pimps on the street level of Gotham, but with the goal to working his way up and through the city’s webs of crime and corruption to the very top, Bruce begins to shake Gotham to the core. He is given the name of “the Bat-Man” because of the marks that his punches leave on criminals, supposedly being in the shape of a bat. This is due to a ring worn by Bruce which once belonged to his father that bears the engraving, “T.W” (Thomas Wayne). In time, he dawns the full Bat costume, with a wide array of tools and gadgets made in the garage, underneath which becomes his ‘bat cave’. He even upgrades a black Lincoln Continental to become his Batmobile.
There are cameos from the Joker, Catwoman and Harvey Dent, as well as peaks of Arkham Asylum but I highly recommend you read the full script yourself for the full plot. There are plenty of copies of it out there and if you are that lazy, there are heaps of synopses as well. It certainly was a different view on the Caped Crusader and it definitely didn’t have the campy appeal of the Adam West Batman series or Batman Forever and Batman and Robin films. It was also a great departure from the style and sensibilities of Tim Burton that had named claimed to Batman for so long. It was something fresh at the very least.
Ultimately this was not the project Warner Bros. were hoping for. It was too dark and too violent, and it would have been very difficult for them to pull off anything lower then an Restricted/Mature Audiences Rating. It suffered from years of development problems. In the years that Aronofsky and Miller’s script has been out in the public, the reactions have been mixed. Fans of Aronofsky’s work would have loved to have seen what it would have looked and felt like, but fans of the comics have reacted to some of it’s liberties in the Batman mythos as too far reaching and even blasphemous.
As a devotee of both Aronofsky and Batman, I too have mixed feelings about it. It’s certainly not Batman in the traditional understanding, nor is the script beyond criticism. It’s no wonder why they pulled out and to be honest, I am not sure we can really blame them at the end of the day. It would have been impossible for Warner Bros. to fully market. This Batman would not be appearing on children’s lunch boxes or kid’s action figures. It was hyper-violent and hard boiled, it was a purely insane Batman in a world too dark for the mass audiences. I imagine it would have received a cult following and some critical appeal but I doubt it would have been anything as good as The Dark Knight. It would not have erased the past, nor would it have eclipsed it either. It probably would have served as inspiration for further superhero and comic book stories to be more dark and realistic.
In 2009, Aronofsky, when asked about his and Miller’s unmade Batman idea at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, responded with this statement: “I never really wanted to make a Batman film, it was a kind of bait and switch strategy. I was working on Requiem for a Dream and I got a phone call that Warner Bros wanted to talk about Batman. At the time I had this idea for a film called The Fountain which I knew was gonna be this big movie and I was thinking, ‘Is Warners really gonna give me $80 million to make a film about love and death after I come off a heroin movie?’ So my theory was if I can write this Batman film and they could perceive me as a writer for it.”
Some of Aronofsky’s concepts still influenced Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the most obvious one being his pick for Bale as Batman. It didn’t feature super powers or over the top super villains. It focused on corruption and crime in a gritty and noir style. It was a honest attempt to ground the Batman mythos into a world of realism. Of course, in my opinion, the biggest flaw to Aronofsky’s plans was how little I cared for the Batman character. Ultimately, the character Aronofsky and Miller set us up to relate and feel for was the character of Jim Gordon, the lone good cop in a city full of corrupt ones. Not that this was a bad concept, but as it was being sold as a Batman film, audiences probably would have been left either confused or upset. If Nolan has done one thing right, it is making Batman, Bruce Wayne, the central figure of his narrative. Unlike the Burton films that focused on the villains, Nolan perfectly captured what it meant for Bruce Wayne to become who he is and what Batman is all about in a city like Gotham.
To put it simply, Aronofsky’s Batman had the grim and grit for sure, but Nolan’s Batman had the heart and soul to match. When it comes to heroic epics, you need heart and soul otherwise you’re no longer telling a story about a hero but just crazy guy who thinks he is one.