According to a rumor from Splash Report earlier this week, War for the Planet of the Apes director Matt Reeves won a very important battle in his negotiations to director Warner Bros. Pictures’ upcoming Batman project: creative control. Provided that the rumor is true, what does that mean and how does it change the way Batman movies are made? In the case of big studio pictures, creative control essentially means the director has the right to develop the story, shoot the film, and deliver a cut to the film all the while taking studio notes into consideration without having to really follow them. Of course, producing $200 Million pictures is not easy and some of the notes have to be respected for reasons of studio politics outside of the director’s contract. But in the best possible scenario, the studio will accept the director’s cut of the film and move forward into releasing and marketing it without asking or demanding any changes.
That level of control is highly coveted by filmmakers and in the case of Warner Bros Pictures, only director Stanley Kubrick ever really had the autonomy to make his movies his way. And considering he never entertained the idea of making a Batman movie – go ahead and imagine what that would have been like – his level of creative control has to be a pipe dream for anyone helming a very important studio property.
In the case of the six Batman films produced by Warner Bros, history has shown complete creative control is not a requirement for a good Batman movie, but the lack of it inevitably leads to the less creatively successful enterprises.
At the time the planets aligned for the first Batman film, this issue of control came to a head as director Tim Burton began making the film without a finished script. Producer Jon Peters was interested in a quick delivery, and so scenes were designed and mounted without a clear picture of how they would fit in the final cut. Burton later recalled shooting the scene on the church steps without having the faintest idea what awaited Joker and Vicki Vale at the top. A director with greater control of the project would be in a position to wait until the script was satisfactory. Instead, time was of the essence and it is a minor miracle the film ended up as solid as it is.
By the time of the second film, Burton was an important man at the studio and credited with the success of Batman. With that clout, he entered into Batman Returns with greater creative freedom and delivered a film which is unmistakably the product of his individual sensibility. From the Christmas setting, the transformation of the Penguin into a literal monster and the exploration of the principle Batman characters as outsiders, the film is a darker and more considered story than its predecessor; which for all its qualities is more of an action romp. Looking back at the film for its creative mertis, opinions vary as to how successful it is as a Batman film, but it certainly a very strong picture owning to amount of influence and control the director had over it.
Burton would not return for a third outing as the studio determined the film was a little too dark and mature for their consumer products efforts, particularly in regard to toy sales. In his place came A Time to Kill director Joel Schumacher.
Unlike the strong visual flair of Burton, Schumacher’s sensibility changes with the script and mission statement handed to him. This craftsman approach is fine when a strong creative producer has a vision, but as Schumacher admits on the Batman Forever commentary track, he was asked to make a toy commercial. With this edict and a stricter studio hand, the film became one of the lesser efforts of the initial Batman series.
As a Batman fan, it is easy to see the creative issues. Like the Superman sequels of the 1980s, a camp corniness sneaks in as the filmmakers’ memories of what we now call Batman ’66 crept in. That tone was certainly welcome to the consumer products people, but it left those impressed with Burton’s take on the Dark Knight fairly cold. Jim Carey’s performance as the Riddler was wildly over the top and Tommy Lee Jones played Two-Face closer to the Batman ’66 Joker. But character fidelity – and some would argue quality – was not part of Schumacher’s prompt. Charged with making a Batman film with broader appeal and little creative control, he made the more cartoonish film the studio wanted.
Nevertheless, it was financially successful and Warner Bros. Pictures continued to see the Batman as an important property. But on Batman & Robin, Schumacher was asked to go even further with the toy commercial aesthetic. As he explained on the commentary track for that film, making the picture “toyetic” was the primary studio concern even as he wanted to go in the grittier and monochromatic direction of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Batman: Year One.
One aspect of the film he did have control over was the choice of villains, though. And having seen episodes of Batman: the Animated Series, he chose Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy. Sadly, the appealing qualities of those characters failed to carry over once they became “toyetic” and the film went on to be wildly panned by critics and box office receipts floundered. In the commentary track, Schumacher apologized for failing to make a movie Batman fans would enjoy. But considering he did not have the control to make the film he envisioned, the blame can partially mitigated.
Following Batman & Robin, the studio became unsure of their star property. Schumacher pitched his Year One project and scripts for a Batman Beyond and Batman vs. Superman films were commissioned. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky signed on to develop a loose Year One adaptation which would have seen a radical reinterpretation of Batman and his world. Eventually, Christopher Nolan became the filmmaker to bring the grittier Batman origin to the screen. Eschewing the color and caricature of the Schumacher and Burton films, Batman Begins was a creative and financial success.
It is unclear just how much creative control Nolan really had. Already acclaimed for his indie hit Momento, Nolan first came to Warner Bros. with his remake of Insomnia and proved he could make a solid film and work within studio strictures. At the same time, Batman was still seen as a massively important project and he no doubt faced substantial scrutiny. Regardless of creative control issues, his sensibility aligned with the desires of the studio and the success of the film led to what is not only the best Batman film to date, but the first one in which Nolan clearly had the creative control.
The Dark Knight is one of those rare triumphs in regards to pure filmmaking, commercial success and comic book adaptation. It also cemented a relationship between Nolan and Warner Bros. Pictures which continues to this day. While he may not have the autonomy of Kubrick, Warner Bros. backed and marketed films like Inception and Interstellar because the relationship with Nolan was advantageous. It probably helps, though, that his work on Batman made him a brand name.
At the same time, Nolan’s level of creative control does not guarantee a good or financially lucrative movie. Both The Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are not as widely regarded as The Dark Knight. Similarly, Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut is one of his lesser films. Creative control, while being something filmmakers should have, is also the freedom to fail.
In some ways, the history of the Batman films is similar to the history of Warner Bros. itself. The studio was known for grittier pictures in the days of the studio system and it pioneered the superhero movie itself. It also went out of its way to forge relationships with brand name filmmakers like Kubrick and Clint Eastwood. In the age of cinematic universes, the studio even claimed it would itself apart as a place for filmmakers to work with beloved comic book characters. But the DC Extended Universe has proven that high-minded ideal is tough to live by when billions of dollars are at stake. The creative freedom director Zack Snyder enjoyed on Man of Steel has eroded to the point where Suicide Squad was heavily reshot to alter its planned serious tone, The Flash feature film lost two directors and Aquaman director James Wan was rumored to be ready to quit.
Perhaps in the rush to establish the DC cinematic universe, the director’s role has been diminished. Like the need to make toy commercials during Schumacher’s reign, the need to establish this world and upcoming projects led to an environment in which the normal creative control of the director was diminished. The change in tone of Suicide Squad definitely points in that direction. The news coming out of Burbank suggests Warner Bros. – or at least the office spearheading the DCEU initiative – became a place filmmakers no longer want to work. And should it prove true that Matt Reeves has wrestled creative control on The Batman, maybe the studio will become a place for directors to tell their stories once more. Even stories set in the world of Superman and Batman.
Of course, it remains to be seen what Reeves will do with that freedom. What do you think he should do? Continue the tone of the DCEU or lead The Batman into new territory?