''Batman'' gets a makeover -- The franchise returns to its comic book roots and a new animated series, ''Batman Beyond''
Want to go back to Gotham City in 1999? Take heed of new signs warning of construction ahead. Major renovations are in the works for pop culture’s most crime-ridden metropolis and its leading avenger, Batman, that will have significant ramifications for Time Warner’s multibillion-dollar Bat-business. But, for the first time in a decade, it’s not a new Batman movie driving the change. The Warner Bros. film franchise is still in the shop for repairs after 1997’s Batman & Robin, a movie so reviled by Batfans that its director, Joel Schumacher, concedes, ”I owe the Batman culture a real Batman movie.”
The agents of change at work now are TV and the comics. January 16 sees the debut of Batman Beyond, a new animated offering from The Kids’ WB produced by Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Alan Burnett, the creators of the Emmy award-winning Batman: The Animated Series. In a stylish Gotham set vaguely in the near future, Bruce Wayne (voiced by Kevin Conroy) is 80 and retired from crime fighting. A 17-year-old Terry McGinnis (Will Friedle of Boy Meets World) has stolen a high-tech Batsuit, sleek and black with red retractable wings, to avenge an injustice. Wayne sees in McGinnis a kindred soul and decides to train him to become the next Batman. Gotham needs one, with new evildoers like the radioactive menace Blight and a familiar-looking street gang called the Jokerz running around.
Batman’s future will arrive as his present reaches a crossroads in the comics. A yearlong story series called ”No Man’s Land” will chronicle Batman’s efforts to protect what’s left of Gotham after a devastating earthquake-and-plague doublewhammy. The DC Comics epic will require four monthly Batman titles to tell and the talents of Back to the Future scribe Bob Gale and mystery novelist Greg Rucka.
”No Man’s Land” is but the prelude for a millennium-timed comics makeover. ”We will relaunch the entire DC line in 2000,” says Denny O’Neil, DC’s Batman majordomo. ”In six months, my staff and I will determine where we take the entire (Batman) franchise, from the visual look to the color of the logo to characterization of the minor characters.” For inspiration, O’Neil is looking to the Batman animated series, ”the most successful translation of the character into any other medium,” says O’Neil. For example, the show ”deliberately mixes time eras — the props are very 1930s but there’s also computers — which gives it a timeless, mythic feel,” says O’Neil. ”That’s one visual idea I’d like to borrow.”
Will any of this Bat-activity help rejuvenate the film franchise? Sources say Warner Bros. approached Dini, who will write for ”No Man’s Land” next year, about writing the next Batflick. After all, the best of Batmedia does tend to cross-pollinate — Tim Burton’s 1989 goth-noir blockbuster owes a debt to Frank Miller’s watershed 1986 Batman opus The Dark Knight Returns.
It’s unlikely the studio will stick with the shticky tone of Batman & Robin. But if it does, count Schumacher out. ”The only way I would do another Batfilm is if we went back to the basics,” says Schumacher. His ideal Batman movie would be based on Miller’s Batman: Year One, a prequel to The Dark Knight Returns, a no-frills account of Batman’s first year of crime fighting. ”It would be nice to take the bigger-is-better concept out of it,” he says, ”and just go pure.”