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The new DC cinematic universe may break the firmest rule in Batman cinema

Dumb and Dumber? This is Dark and Darker

On Jan. 31, James Gunn, freshly named as DC Studios co-CEO, announced his slate of projects for the new version of the DC Universe. After a decade of tumultuous overhaul, he presented a slate that’s intended to provide a coherent universe across movies, TV, cartoons, and video games. And among re-imaginings of Superman, Swamp Thing, and Green Lantern came the newest movie incarnation of Batman: Brave and the Bold.

For comic book and cartoon fans, the name recalls a famed title in the annals of DC. In a Brave and the Bold story, familiar DC characters team up, most famously with Batman. A lot of the fun comes from seeing the various outlandish characters of the DC universe bounce off the Dark Knight’s tight-lipped countenance. What little we know about the new Batman film indicates that it will also be a team-up movie, only he won’t be hanging out with heroes like Plastic Man or Metamorpho. (At least not yet.) Instead, according to Gunn’s announcement, it will feature Batman dealing with his own biological child, Damian Wayne. For those who don’t know, Damian is the secret love child of Bruce Wayne and Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia, and he eventually takes on the mantle of Robin.

Anyone expecting Brave and the Bold to feature a new, peppy partner turning Batman into a brighter, less conflicted character may be very much surprised.

Hollywood hasn’t ever seen this Robin

batman & robin - chris o’donnell and george clooney Photo: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

At least at far as Batman movies have been concerned, Robin’s role has been to inject some levity into a usually grim storyline. That isn’t exactly faulty thinking — Robin’s role when he was first introduced in the comics was to gather and maintain younger readership. That dynamic carried over to films like Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, and most recently, The Lego Batman Movie, which forced Batman to come out of his cave and crack a Dad joke or two. Brooding is a bachelor’s game.

The films (and their marketing) have become obsessed with this kind of sliding scale of “dark” and “light” Batman adventures. When Robin isn’t around, Batman is allowed carte blanche to be an angsty hero who spends a lot of time contemplating his own existence. As soon as the Boy Wonder shows up, Batman has to shift his focus from internal to external, and from brooding to training and teaching — in effect, he gets a pep talk in the form of his adopted circus orphan.

In the comics, which have gone through several of their own “brooding Batman to Dad Batman” cycles, the stories are more varied, thanks to characters like former Robin Jason Todd (a former Robin who fans murdered via phone poll) and the development of Nightwing (a former Robin who retired from the sidekick role to go be a solo hero.) Movies, though, have not gotten around to any of that.

With Damian Wayne, though, they could. Damian was invented by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert after Morrison received acclaim for All-Star Superman. Their new take on the Man of Steel took advantage of the fact that while Supes wasn’t a particularly complex character, he could contain complexities. He was both gentle and titanically strong, driven by simple ideals, but extremely intelligent. Morrison brought the same expansive notion of comic book humanity to the Batman and Son storyline, the start of their and Kubert’s seven-year run in Batman’s world.

Good-cop Batman vs. bad-cop Robin

Damian Wayne brandishes a sword at a surprised Tim Drake/Robin, who asks “Where did you get that sword? Did Alfred let you out?” “The servant left hi sprint on the keypad — it wasn’t hard to work out the combination,” Damian replies, in Batman #657 (2006). Image: Grant Morrison, Andy Kubert/DC Comics

On the surface, Damian’s role in Bruce’s life (and the life of every hero he’s paired with at the start) seems like the opposite of whatever buoyancy a Robin is supposed to provide. The kid represents both the ghosts of Batman’s past coming back to haunt him, and his actual surprise son, who isn’t really sure whether he wants to impress his father, or murder him and take his place. Damian initially tries to slaughter then-Robin Tim Drake. When Bruce Wayne dies (he wasn’t actually dead, but don’t worry about all that) and Dick Grayson takes on the Batman persona, Damian finds him to be a total square. The youngest Robin is angry, resentful, churlish and completely lacking a moral code. In short, he’s pretty awful.

But thanks to Morrison’s execution, Damian reveals multitudes, stretching far beyond the cinema’s idea of Robin as a mere Batman palate-cleanser. As time has gone on in the comics, the idea of a Robin hasn’t so much provided Batman with a little buddy as it’s given him a new challenge. Is Batman fit to take on a ward, and to be both a father and a crime-fighting partner? Is he fit to have a partner at all? Can Batman’s purpose as a symbol in an eternal war on crime coincide with steering a deranged adolescent toward being a good person?

Every Batman writer probably has a different answer to these questions, but in Morrison’s hands, with a Robin who’s literally Bruce Wayne’s child, we get what may be the most optimistic ones. Damian provides the ultimate teaching lesson for these older heroes, and they pass with flying colors.

Putting the ‘dynamic’ in Dynamic Duo

“Why can’t I get a laptop?!” Damian rages in Wayne Manor, in a room full of video games and weight lifting equipment. “What have you done with my sword?” “You’ll get a computer and the sword when I decide it’s safe,” Batman replies calmly, in Batman #657 (2006). Image: Grant Morrison, Andy Kubert/DC Comics

Morrison’s comics range from lighthearted to intensely violent, another range that would be cool to see explored in a Batman film, which tend to tone down anything that’s disturbing as soon as Robin shows up. But if Gunn and Co. can bring in a movie version of Damian who retains the character’s power, it might flip viewer expectations for Robin going forward. Robin doesn’t have to be Batman’s Prozac — the character’s stories can still contain all the internal goings-on that he’s famous for. In fact, it’s better if they do. For a character who’s always been known in the DC pantheon as the “realistic” or “grounded” one, it makes much more sense that the addition of a son to care for wouldn’t solve his or anyone else’s problems, but would instead force some meaty contemplation of their new roles, and how they fit into his old mold.

Optimism doesn’t always come in the form of a clear happy ending. Sometimes it simply comes from people doing good work that needs doing. Most parents will tell you that — raising a child is work (even if your child isn’t a four-foot-tall homicide machine) but it’s good work that someone has to do. And on a less important scale, this is the work Batman needs on his next film for a wide audience. Damian probably won’t be what audiences expect, but in a cinematic world with multiple Batmans, multiple Jokers, and a fairly stereotyped view of what a Batman family is supposed to look like, the thing we don’t expect is the thing that needs to be done.

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