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On the Bat Burner

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It’s a dilemma that could ruffle Batman’s usually unflappable butler Alfred: How do you revive a once-heroic film franchise whose wings have been clipped?

For Warner Bros. — which saw its Batman series fizzle when 1997’s $110 million Batman & Robin grossed a mere $107 million domestically — the answer has been to be very cautious about putting on the cape again. But three years after the nipples-and-neon extravaganza that was B&R, Warner is sending up the Bat signal. In a departure, though, Warner exec Lorenzo Di Bonaventura has opted to develop two separate Bat-flicks and has smartly recruited two young Hollywood turks: Darren Aronofsky, helmer of [pi] and Requiem for a Dream, is on board to cowrite and direct comic-book scribe Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, a retelling of the hero’s origins. Meanwhile, Boaz Yakin, who earned indie cred with 1994’s Fresh and box office stripes with Remember the Titans, will go bat to the future for a live-action version of the WB series Batman Beyond (which follows a young turk who takes over for Bruce Wayne).

Not surprisingly, specifics are as tough to crack as the Dark Knight’s secret identity. While the studio is keeping mum, a source close to the projects says neither has the inside track to get a green light first. In either case, production won’t begin until after the projected industry strikes this summer — and given the previous films’ long preproduction time, a 2002 release seems a long shot.

No matter when the films hit theaters, Warner aims to make them as contemporary as possible. By tapping younger directors, the source says, the studio hopes to reinvigorate the superhero for a post-Matrix audience eager for up-to-date effects.

Indeed, Aronofsky plans to retain ”the street edge that often gets lost with such big budgets” — meaning comics fans who rolled their eyes at the overblown Bat merchandising blitzes will feel more at home with this low-kitsch Gotham.

The studio’s approach to the Bat material (including the dynamic directorial duo) is already earning props from the always-fickle comics community. ”It feels as if someone has finally listened to comic-book fans and said, ‘We’ll try it your way,”’ says director and comics aficionado Kevin Smith (Dogma), who worked with Warner in a failed effort to revitalize the Superman franchise. ”Because the last two they certainly did their way.”

Still, purists shouldn’t expect a miracle. Batman two-timer Joel Schumacher recently congratulated Aronofsky on the ”Year One” concept, but offered this warning based on his experience: ”Be prepared to sell toys.” Just no nipple suits.

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