Batman, Spider-Man and the Golden Opportunity of a Multiverse


In certain geek circles, the news of the week (or month) came early Monday when it leaked that Warner Bros. is approaching Michael Keaton to reprise the role of Batman, or at least Bruce Wayne, in their upcoming Flash movie. If he agrees, the actor whom ‘90s kids will insist is the best Dark Knight will wear the cowl for the first time in 30 years. It’s an obvious play toward nostalgia, but it could also be only the tip of the iceberg.

The plot device that would allow Keaton to brood once more in the Batcave is nothing new. Indeed, a version of it already exists in Flash lore. In the comic book Flashpoint, Barry Allen travels through time to prevent the murder of his mother, but in the process creates an alternate timeline (think Back to the Future Part II). It’s a particularly favorite storytelling crutch among comic book writers, the “multiverse” is a pulpy reduction of actual quantum mechanics theories about “many worlds” in which every choice you’ve ever made branches off into infinite possibilities and variables. In comic book terms, this means every wacky idea a writer or artist has entertained, no matter how aesthetically discordant with “canon” and other creatives’ work, can co-exist across multiple timelines.

It’s an idea on which worlds have turned on at DC Comics, as that company tends to reboot their sprawling continuity every 10 or 20 years for new readers while not throwing away the “alternate reality” versions of the characters their older fan base grew up on. It’s also already begun to be mainstreamed with wit and intelligence by Phil Lord and Chris Miller in the delightfully warped Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. By using a “multiverse” of infinite Spider-Mans, Lord and Miller carved out an excuse to explore what a middle-aged Peter Parker might look like while playing him off a young new lead in Miles Morales. Heck, they even found room for Spider-Gwen, Nicolas Cage doing a Bogie impression as a 1940s noir Spider-Man, and a talking cartoon pig named “Spider-Ham.” What else would you call him?

As an animated film, Into the Spider-Verse actually embraced the tonal chaos this storytelling technique creates, turning it into a self-aware virtue. But it also proved, like Marvel Studios’ incredibly nerdy Avengers: Endgame, that mass global audiences are ready for convoluted sci-fi ideas that create interesting stories… and commercial possibilities.

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Thus more than a decade after WB pulled the plug on George Miller’s Justice League movie, in part because they were afraid of having competing visions of Batman while Chris Nolan finished his The Dark Knight Trilogy, the studio is now courting the first major big screen Batman to reprise the role while simultaneously preparing to launch Robert Pattinson in Matt Reeves’ The Batman. If one is being cynical, you could say studios are finally catching on from comic book writers how to have your cake and eat it too, but it’s also seeding major new narrative avenues.

Hence the next most obvious opportunity is Raimi agreeing to direct Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness for Marvel Studios. Raimi of course directed the original Spider-Man Trilogy, which in this writer’s opinion features the best live-action Spider-Man movie to date, Spider-Man 2. Told with a sense of earnest awe and soap opera grandiosity, there’s a core element of those early Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita Sr. comics in Raimi’s movies that no later Marvel movie has matched. Sadly, they ended on a sour note in Spider-Man 3.

While that third movie certainly has qualities that endear it to this day to children of the 2000s, such as Raimi’s still uniquely kinetic visual eye during the action sequences, it was a messy movie that sent Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst’s Peter Parker and Mary Jane off on a downbeat note. But as the title for Doctor Strange 2 suggests, we’re about to enter the “Multiverse of Madness.” Just as The Flash may bring Keaton back as Batman, Doctor Strange could easily bring Maguire and Dunst back as Spidey and MJ.

In fact, I’d suggest making that work would be even easier since Raimi is at the helm and often talks as if he has unfinished business with the wallcrawler… which is weird to say since technically Spider-Man movies are still produced and distributed by Sony Pictures, but Marvel Studios holds so much sway with fans that Disney was able to renegotiate with Sony the profit-sharing terms of future Spider-Man sequels. Further Marvel has also tacitly accepted the Raimi movies’ legacies by bringing J.K. Simmons back as J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man: Far From Home. Hell, if they write it correctly, there could even be a scene of the two Jonahs meeting, mustache to mustache.

Fan service though it may be, it could also be a gateway for better movies overall at WB and Disney. Sure, seeing Keaton as Batman again would be a thrill, as would seeing Raimi and Maguire’s Spider-Man getting a proper sendoff. But more importantly, the general acceptance of the multiverse is an excuse for these companies to take wilder risks with these eternally copyrighted characters and not worry about hurting the brand.

WB already began exploring this aspect with R-rated and “off-brand” movies like Joker and Birds of Prey—and the now defunct 20th Century Fox beat both other major superhero-producing studios to this punch with Logan and Deadpool. Still, these kind of risks tend to be exceptions that prove the rule of superhero movie formula. Marvel Studios is particularly famous for a quality control that is the envy of all other blockbuster-minded studio executives… but it’s one that creates a general homogeneity to all their products. By introducing the multiverse in Doctor Strange, it could begin as a fan-pleasing exercise of revisiting the first major live-action Spider-Man franchise and then expand beyond that by allowing Marvel to get weirder.

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And if one steps away from the big screen, Warner Bros. Television is already charting this territory for teen audiences and superhero diehards with the CW’s “Arrowverse” TV shows. Their recent adaptation of seminal comic book event Crisis on Infinite Earths merged timelines and alternate realities from across DC movie and TV history, including  elements of Keaton’s Batman films and an on screen meeting between Miller’s movie Flash and Grant Gustin’s TV version. Thus with Crisis, Warner Bros. can now claim that all of their disparate DC properties exist in different corners of the same multiverse, something they may seek to double down on with the Flashpoint movie.

Which brings us to Keaton and the specific Batman films he starred in: They were late 20th century love letters to  German Expressionism by Tim Burton that operated on a fairy tale logic where the dead could be resurrected by supernatural cat bites, and Gotham City could, as its script suggests, appear as if “Hell erupted through the pavement.” This is a far cry from the self-seriousness of Zack Snyder’s DCEU movies, from whence Ezra Miller’s Flash hails. And it’s safe to say that no one would make such a dreamlike superhero movie today.

But why not? With the multiverse, Keaton’s esoteric Batman can exist in tandem with Snyder’s grimdark and whatever Matt Reeves gets up to. And conversely, Marvel can experiment a little bit more with their brand to create a comic book movie universe as colorful and weird as, well, their own comics… or at least Into the Spider-Verse, which already showed just how liberating a plot device the multiverse can be.

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