In 1989, Batman reinvented the superhero movie. For comic book fans, they were seeing one of the most popular heroes taken seriously on the big screen. It only took eight years for the same franchise, helmed by another director, to give superhero movies a bad name. Batman went from dark and gritty with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson to campy and ice puns with George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It took another eight years before we would get another Batman movie, but in the time between Batman and Robin and Batman Begins, we almost had Batman: Year One.
Written by Frank Miller, the movie was set to be directed by Darren Aronofsky, and he recently revealed that it was going to be like the recently announced Joker origin movie. “I hear the way they’re talking about that Joker movie, and that’s exactly—that was my pitch,” Aronofsky said. The Joker movie is said to be set in a gritty 1980s version of Gotham and be thematically similar to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. The director had plans to shoot in the real world instead of building Gotham as previous films had done and, perhaps that biggest change, use a Lincoln Continental—with two engines—as the Batmobile.
Aronofsky had a specific vision for the Batmobile and how to reinvent Bruce Wayne:
“It was the duct tape MacGyver Batman and some of my ideas got out there through other films. Like the ring with ‘BW,’ Bruce Wayne’s ring making the scar was our idea and I think that was in Zack’s or something. Which is fine, you write these ideas and they get out. We were all about reinventing it and trying to make it more Taxi Driver visceral. That was the whole pitch. But the toy people were like, ‘Oh it can’t be a Lincoln Continental, you have to make a Batmobile.’”
That’s a lot to take in, so let’s look at a what the director said one thing at a time. “It was the duct tape MacGyver Batman,” the first thing he says, seems simultaneously cool and like the worst idea ever. I imagine what Aronofsky is referencing here is MacGyver’s ingenuity, which makes sense. Batman is always planning and seems prepared for almost everything. In JLA: Tower of Babel, the Dark Knight has prepared ways to neutralize his fellow heroes, should they ever need to be stopped. Point being, ingenuity is in Batman’s blood. But MacGyver’s level of ingenuity seems a bit below our hero—or perhaps more so below the man behind the cowl, Bruce Wayne. With all the money that comes with Bruce, his alter ego has the wherewithal to be more sophisticated.
Aronofsky also said, “Like the ring with ‘BW,’ Bruce Wayne’s ring making the scar was our idea, and I think that was in Zack’s or something”. It’s not unusual for ideas from one director or writer to be used by another director or writer, and it should be noted that Aronofsky is completely ok with that process, but it goes to show you how long an idea can last before it’s used. Not exactly the same, but in Zack Snyder’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman brands criminal with the bat logo. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy was a darker, grittier, take on the hero; similar to what Aronofsky was planning with his take on Batman. Sounds like the would-be DC director was ahead of his time.
Sadly, the last thing Aronofsky says, “But the toy people were like, ‘Oh it can’t be a Lincoln Continental, you have to make a Batmobile,’” is likely what halted any further development of Batman: Year One. As we learned with Tim Burton’s 1992’s Batman Returns, if merchandise can be threatened because the film is too dark, changes need to be made—McDonald’s shut down their Happy Meal promotion of the film because of parental backlash from its violence. Superhero movies make most of their money from the licensing deals that studios make with toy companies for toys that are officially movie tie-ins. No matter how cool you make a Lincoln Continental, it’s never going to compare to how cool a Batmobile would be, and kids aren’t going to want to buy it.
Nolan’s trilogy is what many consider the greatest Batman story on film, but one does wonder what could have happened with Aronofsky’s Batman movie. Year One is one of the best stories we’ve ever seen in not just Batman comics, but comics in general. That material in the hands of a filmmaker like Aronofsky, with the tone of Taxi Driver and who knows what magic may have been made. Perhaps it’s something we could see one day, under the Elseworlds banner that Warner Bros. is launching.