Saturday, September 06, 2008

Getting 'em all in: Batman comics heavy on the villains, for film adaptation purposes

No sooner had 1989’s Batman started doing blockbuster business then speculation of which villains would be in the inevitable sequel began. I distinctly remember reading Danny DeVito suggested as The Penguin (which came true) and Robin Williams as The Riddler (which didn’t).

The same happened when Batman Begins rebooted the franchise (using some of the last big name Bat-villains yet to be used), and, in fact, tends to happen every time a new superhero franchise starts.

Heroes with a lot of good villains, like Spider-Man, are kind of frustrating to think about, because even the best and most successful franchises can only have so many entries in them, particularly before the quality starts to dip (The first Batman franchise, for example, made it all of two movies before it started falling apart).

And no heroes got better villains than Batman; thanks to the live-action TV show, he has four household name archvillains, and the first set of movies added Two-Face, Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy and Bane to the list of Bat-Villains Someone Will Know Of Without Ever Having Read A Single Comic Book.

In his second Batman movie, Christopher Nolan tackled two from that list, and because it made something like $500 zillion, a third one will certainly be around the corner. Odds are, however, the franchise will run out of steam before Nolan, or anyone else, gets to Man-Bat, Killer Croc, The Mad Hatter, Ventriloquist and characters of their cachet.

Maybe the solution, then, is to try and get as many villains on screen as possible in a single movie.

Now, few superhero movies can survive the Two Villain Rule (which states that no superhero movie can excel while having two or more villains). Think Batman Forever (2), Batman and Robin (2-3) or Daredevil (3). Even pretty good two-villain movies—Batman Returns, Spider-Man 3—tend not to be as good as their one-villain fellows.

The reason for this is that you can only spend so much time detailing characters’ origins and motivations in a single movie, and throwing too many characters at a film audience at once has a tendency to destroy the narrative (In the Schumacher Bat-films, for example, not only was time spent detailing new villains, but also new heroes on top of the new villains).

But with Batman, maybe it doesn’t matter so much, since the mainstream movie-going audience is already so familiar with so many of his rogues. Catwoman’s a woman who dresses like a cat, Riddler’s a guy who tells riddles, etc.

So I was thinking of Batman comics that were chockfull of Bat-villains, comics that could potentially be good starting points for future Batman movies that try to get as many Bat-villains in as possible and still be somewhat coherent. Most of them seem to involve Arkham Asylum, as it’s essentially a warehouse for Batman bad guys; the toy box where the comics writers choose the villains they want to use for a story, and put them back when they’re done playing with them.

Presumably, that would work pretty well for film purposes too; viewers wouldn’t need a 10-30 minute origin story for The Mad Hatter or The Cavalier if they’re encountered in the confines of “an asylum for the criminally insane.” Who are these guys dressed like a storybook character and a musketeer? Why, they’re criminally insane guys, of course.

Here’s what I came up with…


By: Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

Villains: The Joker, Two-Face, (a) Clayface, Maxie Zeus, Killer Croc, The Mad Hatter, The Scarecrow and new characters Amadeus Arkham and Mad Dog (seen in flashbacks)

Other characters: Just Commissioner Gordon

Plot: When the inmates gain control of Arkham Asylum and hold the staff hostage, their demands include Batman coming in to hang out with them. He does so, and ends up playing a pretty dangerous game of hide and seek with his foes, while readers learn of the sinister history of the asylum itself, and the fate of its founder Amadeus Arkham.

Advantages: Oppressively dark and obsessively psychological, its aesthetic is tonally close to The Dark Knight, only maybe multiplied by ten or twenty.

Additionally, the everything-is-a-symbol storytelling lends itself to a real arthouse kind of take on Batman. There are certainly some neat, filmic visuals—that fossilized bat skeleton comes to mind—and the story is flexible enough that a film adaptation could toss in any additional criminally insane Bat-villains the filmmakers wanted to.

Disadvantages: The 1989 book is surprisingly dated today, perhaps in large part because the specific interpretations of many of these villains given here have stuck, so however unique it might have seemed to present some of these goofballs like this in the late '80s, it now just seems commonplace.

Also, aside from the aggressively gay, ass-slapping, sexual-harassment Joker (maybe the only Joker more inappropriate for the kids than nihilist terrorist Joker of Dark Knight), particularly challenging-to-adapt aspects include the flashback ghost story thread, and the magical symbolism involving a Batman destined to be Batman and fight and then create and re-fight all these crazy people.

Finally, there's precious little in the way of action scenes—just a few one-on-one fights between Batman and the likes of Clayface and Croc—so the necessary car chases and explosions would need to be added in.

“THE LAST ARKHAM” from Batman: Shadow of the Bat#1-#4

By: Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle

Villains: The Joker, The Riddler, The Scarecrow, Two-Face, Black Mask, The Mad Hatter, The Spook, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, Maxie Zeus, Poison Ivy Clayface III, Cornelius Stirk, Crazy Quilt and new characters Mr. Zsasz and Amygdala

Other characters: Nightwing, Gordon, Robin and new character Jeremiah Arkham

Plot: Batman starts acting nuttier than usual, punching out and seemingly killing a policeman at a crime scene, and is therefore arrested and deemed to be criminally insane and put in Arkham. It's a plan he cooked up to get on the inside, though, since he suspects new Asylum chief Jeremiah Arkham may be colluding with a serial-killing inmate. A series of murders match the MO of an inmate perfectly, but said inmate appears to always be safely locked up in the newly remodeled and redesigned, high-security Arkham. (Fortunately, the new Arkham doesn't believe in stripping inmates of their costumes and codenames until their ready, so Batman can keep his secret ID).

Advantages: Like Arkham Asylum, which influenced the story (new character Jeremiah is a descendent of the Amadeus Arkham from Morrison and McKean's book, and when we first meet him he’s tossing his uncle’s journal, which was the vehicle for much of the narration in Arkham Asylum, into a pile of burning trash), "The Last Arkham" provides an easy opportunity to use pretty much Batman's entire rogue's gallery in some capacity, and the unique setting of a gothic Victorian asylum—although here remodeled into a maximum-security labyrinth abutting the original façade.

It is much less dated, however, mostly because it doesn't seem to be trying quite so hard to be deep, dark and mature. It's also set up as a pretty effective mystery—who is committing these murders, and how? Is this Arkham in on it, or just a dupe?—with a few twists along the way (Has Batman really lost it for real this time?).

Finally, it introduced a brand new villain to Batman's rogue's gallery, Mr. Zsasz. Grant and Breyfogle were quite good at coming up with new characters. Some didn't stick as well as others (Pagan, Somnus, The Human Flea, Feedback), but the ones that did proved pretty popular for a post-Crisis Batman villain (Zsasz, Scarface and The Ventriloquist, Anarky). He has the advantage of being a character that's never really made it into a movie or cartoon (that I know of; I've only seen two of the five seasons of The Batman; I think he may have had a cameo in Batman Begins).

Disadvantages: The good guy-pretending-to-be-a-bad guy-in-prison angle might be overly tired, even with a fresh coat of Bat-paint, and it sounds like Warner Bros. is already developing the same story as a Green Arrow vehicle in that goofy sounding Super Max movie I hope never actually gets made. Despite the fact that Batman fights the whole asylum in one three-page sequence, there might be too little action for a big-screen movie (again, no car chases or explosions), and the Nightwing part would need to be either excised or rewritten to include a character from the current Batman movie-verse. Robin or Catwoman would work if they get introduced any time soon, or, I don't know, maybe Commissioner Gordon, Alfred or Lucius Fox if Gary Oldman, Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman are ever like, "Yeah, I'll do another movie I guess, but next time can I have a scene where I crawl through a ventilation shaft, get in a fistfight with some orderlies and, I don’t know, maybe get in a knife fight in a sewer?"


By: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Plot: During Batman's very busy first year (which had at least five October 31sts in it), the old Gotham criminal underworld of mobsters is giving way to a new Gotham criminal underworld of masked crazy people with codenames and gimmicks.

Our hero has a shot at stopping both forces, essentially “winnng” his war on crime, with staunch allies James Gordon and Harvey Dent in his corner, provided that neither of them get shot to death by Holiday, a mysterious serial killer who takes a life on each holiday.

And then Dent becomes Two-Face and Gotham is fucked forever.

Villains: Carmine Falcone, Boss Maroni, The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, The Riddler, Poison Ivy, Solomon Grundy, The Mad-Hatter, The Scarecrow, Calendar Man, Two-Face and "Holiday."

Other characters: Gordon, Dent, Alfred

Advantages: Pretty much every name Bat-villain gets a chance to shine, even if only briefly in a set piece or two, and they are worked into the plot quite coherently (in the two previously mentioned Asylum stories, they mostly function as cameos).

The story does have a little of everything movie producers like, from romance involving Batman/Bruce Wayne and Catwoman/Selina Kyle to big action set pieces like Batman vs. The Joker on a bi-plane on New Year’s Eve to special effects like Poison Ivy's powers or Grundy's appearance. The central mystery is pretty effective—I remember really puzzling over it when these single issues were originally coming out—although I'm still not sure if I completely understood the resolution of it (I'm sure a good screen writer could straighten it all out in the process of making the story less episodic).

Finally, there's a sequel all ready and waiting to go in Batman: Dark Victory, which similarly uses all of the same characters and also has a fairly effective mystery, while adding Mister Freeze and Robin to the mix (the latter in a way that allows Robin to be in the movies without actually being in the movies, since Dick Grayson doesn't become Robin until the very last pages…which include the best panels of Jeph Loeb’s career).

Disadvantages: Christopher Nolan and company already covered a lot of this ground in their last two movies, albeit in a more "inspired by" sort of way, with Dark Knight focusing on the Harvey Dent-to-Two-Face character arc. Therefore if Long Halloween and/or Dark Victory were ever going to be adapted into Batman movies, it would likely mean another franchise reboot.

"Knightfall" from pretty much all the Bat-books in 1993

By: Like a million guys

Plot: Santa Priscan bad-ass Bane, who was condemned to prison as a baby for crimes he didn't commit and did sit-ups for 30 years until he was strong enough to avenge his fallen teddy bear Osoito, comes to Gotham City with one task in mind: Breaking Batman and becoming the de facto King of Gotham City. He does so by breaking everyone out of Arkham Asylum, figuring that will tire Batman out, and then beating him up and breaking his back. The end.

Villains: The Joker, The Scarecrow, Two-Face, The Ventriloquist (and a sockpuppet), The Mad Hatter, Mr. Zsasz, Poison Ivy, Firefly, The Cavalier, Bane, Bane's running crew which never appeared again for some reason, Killer Croc, Amygdala, probably some others I'm forgetting

Other characers: Gordon, Alfred, Robin, Azrael

Advantages: Batman fighting pretty much every villain ever, including a few which would make for good movie action scenes, like winged Firelfy burning shit down or Batman all freaking out and hallucinating on Scarecrow gas while getting his ass handed to him by Bane. Additionally, unlike the other Batman vs. Arkham Asylum stories on this list, this one gets the inmates out into the streets of Gotham, so the settings are more varied and visually interesting than just being in the asylum the whole time.

Disadvantages: The story is kind of repetitive and video game-like, with Batman basically having to clear a level by rescuing some civilians and defeating a boss, working his way up to the big boss, Bane (I got a similar videogame vibe reading Arkham Asylum, except Batman mostly had to just listen to the level bosses speechify).

The complete story took a few thousand pages to tell, including setting up who the hell this Azrael guy is and who the hell this Bane guy is before running Batman through this gauntlet. To make it into a film, it would require a great deal of tinkering to either remove Azrael completely or introduce him more smoothly.

An I wasn’t exaggerating when I said a few thousand. There’s also the matter of “Knightfall” ending with Batman losing; he's beaten within an inch of his life and paralyzed from the waist down, being forced to pass his mantle on to someone else. So a film adaptation would have to have its eye on a sequel or two, or else commit to cramming “KnightQuest: The Search”, “KnightQuest: The Crusade” and “KnightsEnd” all into the same movie (which worked out just awful in that direct-to-DVD cartoon that crammed the death of Superman story, "Funeral for a Friend" and "Reign of the Supermen" all into less than 90 minutes).

“Hush” from Batman #608-#619

By: Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee and Scott Williams

Villains: The Joker, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, The Riddler, Clayface II, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Ra's al Ghul, Talia, Two-Face, new character Hush and perhaps a resurrected back-to-life Jason Todd (depending on who you ask)

Other characters: Gordon, Alfred, Robin, Oracle, Huntress, Nightwing, Superman, Lois Lane, Krypto the Superdog and Harold

Plot: One-time childhood friend of Bruce Wayne's turned evil plastic surgeon Hush begins manipulating various elements of Batman's rogue's gallery long enough to give Jim Lee the opportunity to draw all the Batman characters he wanted to draw. It's also kind of a mystery, but I never really understood the answer.

Advantages: There are a lot of characters in this thing, many of them of the sort that are difficult to get into the same story (Joker and Ra's al Ghul, for example), there are some big action scenes (the skydiving Batman scene) and new designs (like a more reptilian Killer Croc) and it does introduce a new marquee Bat-villain, one who's never, ever been in any of the mass media adaptations.

Disadvantages: That new Bat-villain is one of the lamer Bat-villains, in the same neighborhood as Feedback and Metalhead (The Ten-Eyed Man, Signal Man and Killer Moth may be lame, but they're lame in a way that is actually kind of cool; Hush just kind of sucks).

I've read the story at least twice now, and I still don't understand what Hush's deal was (Was he just trying to drive Batman crazy and kill him for revenge?) or who was Hush at various points (I think it was another of those combination deals, with different characters being Hush at different times?)

Some aspects would probably never make it into a movie, like Superman and Krypto guest-starring, and the likes of Nightwing, Oracle, Huntress and Harold would likely make for way too much backstory in a superhero movie. It's really a comic book story that plays to things comic book readers like about comic books.

Harold’s appearance, for example, is an out-of-left field surprise that would only really matter if you remember reading Batman comics from the brief time in which the hunchbacked handyman was a supporting cast member.

Or, for perhaps a better example, when people who have been reading Batman comics for 20 years saw a grown up Jason Todd appear, minds were blown. That scene probably wouldn't even make it into a film, because who outside Batman comics readers actually knows/cares about Jason Todd?

Those are the only ones I could come up with. Most of the bat-crossovers in the time since “Knightfall” tended to involve Batman and his allies, but relatively few villains. Most of the villains appear at some point in the “No Man’s Land” era, but that was more of a long-term status quo change than a single story. And I guess “War Crimes” had most of the villains and heroes in it at some point, but it is also, like, the worst thing ever.

Any other suggestions for Bat-comics with a substantial swathe of Bat-villains involved?


LurkerWithout said...

Dan Slott's Arkham Asylum: Living Hell is chock full of crazy. Also Jason Blood and Harvey Bullock. Kind of Batman light though. But it does add a couple minor crazies as well as the character of Great White...

Anonymous said...

ZZazz is in Batman Begins IIRC. He's the guy freed by the then sane Prof Crane.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"Finally, there's precious little in the way of action scenes—just a few one-on-one fights between Batman and the likes of Clayface and Croc—so the necessary car chases and explosions would need to be added in."

I dunno. Given how much Nolan just upped the dark-and-psychological quotient for a super-hero movie, is it so hard to imagine another one that's a suspense/ horror/ claustrophobic-caught-in-a-haunted-house-with-serial-killers movie instead of a blow-em-up? Say that Nolan and Bale decide they've got just two more movies in them-- one redemption movie that follows Dark Knight, and then one more that will be like no super-hero movie before or since, that will make a lot of money without having to make a series-sustaining billion dollars. I can see it.

The only problem is: it should really have Joker, Two-Face, and Scarecrow as signature characters, and two of these are unavailable for future movies in this series.

Anonymous said...

How is it that people can discuss Arkham Asylum without mentioning the part where Batman sneaks up and kicks a wheelchair-bound Doctor Destiny down a flight of stairs? That's the one part that sticks with me, and it's what I always think of when people say Batman fights dirty.

Knightfall would be a great movie the way I'm thinking of it. The last seventy minutes should be a non-stop barrage of fighting an army of various supervillians until Batman gets crippled, but Batman's contingency plan takes Bane out shortly thereafter. The movie ends with a big Batman sacrifice(with a hint at how it can be undone) and Batman's smarts take Bane out when seventy minutes of brute force couldn't.

seth hurley said...

Burton, Schumacher, and Nolan had a shot, now somebody else. It would be like when the comic's creative team changes.

They could do pulpy gangland with mob bosses like Penguin & Mad Hatter.

Mystery & suspense with Riddler and Catwoman.

Then less crime and more crazy science in another go-round with Hugo Strange (his monster men could be Man-Bat & Killer Croc), Mr. Freeze or Clayface.

Treat it like the Bond movies, giving each era it's own tone & angle.

Anonymous said...


Don't forget Batman #400, m'man.

Granted, the Joker plays a big part, but that could be shuffled around. And the climax all leads to a R'as-urrection, very appropriate given "Begins".


Jayunderscorezero said...

I also think that Knightfall might make a great Nolan-Batman film. It'd be great to see a Chris & Jonathan Nolan take on the character of Bane, whom I think would actually work really well as part of the current universe and aesthetic, providing they kept him close to the very original comic book appearances and about as far away from his B&R look as possible.

After all, both the Nolan-Batman films so far have villains who could best be described as anti-Batman types (Ra's also wanted to change the world, but in his own, twisted way; Scarecrow also wanted to strike fear into people; etc), and Bane would also carry that idea forward.

JohnF said...

I love your "25 words or less" description of Bane.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Speaking of Bane: how the heck quickly is Venom supposed to work? I thought that I remembered it as a super-steroid, which multiplied the effects of Bane's and Batman's ongoing training regimens. In 'Tec last week it acted like a magic potion, instantly turning a little boy into the Hulk.

Hdefined said...

Caleb, Dark Knight was very much an adaptation of Long Halloween, not just in terms of the use of Two-Face and the crime bosses, but in terms of the themes (Batman alienating those from him and feeling more alone than ever; Batman having failed; Batman always being one step behind the bad guys).

Expect the sequel to have more in common with Dark Victory's themes, particularly some sort of redemption involving a new supporting cast member.

The Mutt said...

I'd like to see Hugo Strange.

What if his monster men were Manbat, Killer Croc and Clayface?

Tony said...

Clayface could really play into some themes of identity. They usually use him as a heavy, rather than the "Clayface could be anyone" angle.

I could see the next movie being something about loss, and dealing with loss, and learning to move forward.

They could contrast the loss of Rachel with the original loss of his parents.