About a year and a half has elapsed since Christopher Nolan’s fabled Dark Knight reached its conclusion. Such was the success of Nolan’s stewardship of the comic book legend, Warner Bros. was never likely to allow the caped crusader to take too long a sabbatical.
The announcement that Batman and Superman will face off in 2015 was arguable the biggest Hollywood story of the year. There will never be a shortage of eligible suitors looking to craft the next chapter in the Batman story but given the success of Nolan’s trilogy, it’s perhaps easy to forget the scale of the task facing Warner Bros when Batman Begins went into production. Despite providing a gift for YouTube video compilations, such was the trauma inflicted on the world by Joel Schumacher’s radioactive Batman and Robin (1997) that it was always going to take something radical to convince Warner Bros to touch the franchise again in the near future. In Frank Miller’s dark comic book entitled Batman: Year One, Warner Bros thought they may have found exactly that…
In 1999, fresh from his breakthrough feature (Pi), the studio approached New York based director Darren Aronofsky and asked him how he might approach rehabilitating the franchise. His answer, cited in David Hughes’s book Tales from Development Hell, certainly grabbed the studio’s attention – “I told them I’d cast Clint Eastwood as the Dark Knight, and shoot it in Tokyo, doubling for Gotham City.” His pitch of “Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman” was sufficient to convince Warner Bros that they may have found their man.
A screenplay was subsequently commissioned, with Aronofsky and Miller working together on a fundamental revision of the Batman universe. In the words of movie critic 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 Batman: Year One, contrary to the canon of the comics in which Master Wayne is raised in splendour by his faithful servant Alfred, Bruce takes to the streets following the murders of his parents, where he is taken in by ‘Big Al’ and ‘Little Al’, the owners of a garage.
From here he observes the debauched antics of hookers, pimps and corrupt cops in the world around him. Armed with a growing vengeful temperament, which strongly evokes Travis Bickle’s character in Taxi Driver, the young Bruce’s first step on the road to notoriety begins by donning a cape and a hockey mask while beating up on low level street crime. Before long, he has earned the name of ‘the Bat-Man’ because of the supposedly bat-like marks which his punches leave on criminals produced by his signet ring. The formative years spent in a garage (underneath which will become his ‘bat cave’) come in handy as he equips himself with a wide array of home-made tools and gadgets, even upgrading a black Lincoln Continental to become his Batmobile.
Batman’s moral crusade eventually leads to a confrontation with Police Commissioner Loeb and Mayor Noone and along the way there are cameos from the likes of Catwoman, Harvey Dent and the Joker. The character of James Gordon, brilliantly portrayed by Gary Oldman in Nolan’s films, also enjoys a dramatic rehabilitation from his earlier incarnations. Unlike previous portrayals as a bit of a wimp, the Gordon of Aronofsky and Miller’s script was tough, seemingly uncompromising and guided by a desire to eradicate corruption from the police force.
In subsequent interviews, it is clear that both Aronofsky and Miller were determined to make a dramatic break from previous imaginings of the franchise. On the subject of the over-the-top fight sequences in Tim Buton’s Batman, Aronofsky commented ‘I wanted to have real fights, [explore] what happens when two men actually fight, which you just don’t see [in Burton’s version]. Because once you start romanticising it and fantasising it into super-heroics, in the sense of good guys versus bad guys…you’re not playing with the ambiguity of what is good and what is bad.’
Ultimately, it was this commitment to realism and violence on the part of Aronofsky and Miller which caused Warner Bros to pull the plug – not that Aronofsky was too surprised…
‘I think Warners always knew it would never be something they could make. I think rightfully so, because four year-olds buy Batman stuff, so if you release a film like that, every four year-old’s going to be screaming at their mother to take them to see it, so they really need a PG property. But there was a hope at one point that, in the same way that DC Comics puts out different types of Batman titles for different ages, there might be a way of doing [the movies] at different levels. So I was pitching to make an R-rated adult fan-based Batman — a hardcore version that we’d do for not that much money.’
Whatever the merits of this aborted Batman reboot, it’s certainly a shame that it never made it to the big screen. We can console ourselves, however, with the thought that Aronofsky and Miller’s boldness may have laid the foundations for the compelling (and cathartic) reimagining of the franchise by Nolan and his team.
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