The bat and the beautiful

WB revies 'Batman' while rivals rummage through the attic to dust off franchises

Steven Spielberg liked the script. George Lucas, his partner, didn’t. So last week, the umpteenth attempt to revive “Indiana Jones” at Paramount got stalled one more time.

All of which raises a parallel question: Can Batman fly again?

This may seem like a “who cares?” query to some, but studio chieftains are scrupulously watching Warner Bros.’ efforts to revive the “Batman” series.

The reason: Hollywood finds itself running out of so-called “franchise” movies and increasingly is turning to film series that seemed extinct — which explains efforts to raise franchises like “The Pink Panther” and “Indiana Jones” from the dead.

WB is doing a daring variation on this. It’s one thing to reinvent a franchise after a few decades. It’s another matter to resurrect a series that became overly stylized, even kitschy, and petered out only seven years ago — and to convince the public that a new film could be something entirely different.

After a disappointing fourth installment, and three false starts at a fifth version, Batman will be born again. But don’t call this the latest in the series. Consider it “Batman: Year One.”

This time around, it’s about the genesis of Batman: How billionaire Bruce Wayne makes a series of decisions that turn him into the Caped Crusader. Batman will be more realistic and less cartoonish. There are no campy villains. Wayne — younger, more vulnerable, more human — will be getting as much attention as his masked alter-ego.

“I felt like doing the origins story of the character, which is a story that’s never been told before,” says Chris Nolan (“Insomnia,” “Memento”), who takes the reins of “Batman” from Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher.

Humanity and realism, says Nolan, is the crux of the new pic.

“The world of Batman is that of grounded reality,” he says. Burton’s and Schumacher’s visions were idiosyncratic and unreal. Nolan says, “Ours will be a recognizable, contemporary reality against which an extraordinary heroic figure arises.”

Nolan, a self-confessed James Bond fan as a child, is keen on reinventing Wayne as more of a modern-day Bond than hapless playboy — an action-adventure hero who has mythic qualities and battles the odds to save the world.

With “The Matrix” series over, Warner Bros. is anxious to whip up a franchise to rival Fox’s “X-Men” and Sony’s “Spider-Man.” Since the old Batman quartet was running out of gas, the goal is to rethink the whole thing.

WB Pictures prexy of production Jeff Robinov says, “There’s an emotional component to the film which grounds it and really tells us about Bruce Wayne’s struggle.”

While the new Bruce Wayne is getting emphasis, Nolan, scripter David Goyer and WB have focused on fixing problems that plagued the other pics. For example, Bruce Wayne was too dark and impenetrable and had lost the humorous side found in the comics. The character was basically just dead screen time until Batman appears — which in the new film may not happen until 40 minutes after it begins.

“If we’re successful, the thing that will be talked about a lot and on what we worked on the hardest is that the audience will really care about Bruce Wayne and not just Batman,” Goyer says. It doesn’t matter how much you spend on special effects — if it feels hollow, no one gives a damn.”

Nolan starts helming the film next month, and its summer 2005 release will prove whether WB has been able to breathe new life into the Caped Crusader — and to rescue its biggest franchise outside of “Harry Potter.”

The studios have had a hard time creating successful franchises recently. Some have ended because they had built-in expirations, such as “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix.” Others seemed to have run out of steam quickly, like “Lara Croft” and “Men in Black.” And while a few attempts to start up new franchises have been spectacular — “Spider-Man,” “X-Men” — many more have fizzled: “The Hulk,” “The Saint,” “Lost in Space,” “The Phantom,” “The Shadow,” etc.

And if it’s not audience reaction, it’s the creative and fiscal considerations that can make franchises such a headache. The principals got such rich deals on “Men in Black 2” that Sony had to work hard to make a profit. “Indiana Jones” reminds that with several key players, it’s difficult to tailor a project that suits everyone.

So, instead of starting from scratch, studios have begun to breathe new life into old franchises: Aside from Par, there are MGM with “The Pink Panther”; New Line, “Nightmare on Elm Street”; and Universal, which resurrected “The Mummy” after 70 years and is hoping to similarly revive Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolfman with “Van Helsing.”

WB’s wants to tap into the “Batman” fan base and bring back audiences that wandered away from the original quartet. The 1997 “Batman & Robin” failed with critics, fans and the B.O., becoming the series’ worst performer, with just $107 million domestically.

So the new, untitled “Batman” is getting a complete overhaul, backed by a roughly $150 million budget.

Rather than pit Batman against a new set of supervillains, the new film focuses on how billionaire Bruce Wayne becomes the Dark Knight.

“It’s almost impossible to reinvent Batman,” says Robinov. “Chris is reintroducing Batman, and it feels smart and cool and fresh. That’s no disrespect to the other movies, but it’s really Chris’ vision of Batman, and that’s what we’re supporting.”

Christian Bale will don the cape and cowl inherited from Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney. Michael Caine (as Alfred), Katie Holmes and Cillian Murphy also star.

There’ll be a new Batmobile, a new arsenal of gadgets, a new Batsuit (sans nipples) as well as a new musical theme.

Even Gotham City is getting a facelift. Previous pics made the city seem dark and claustrophobic or garishly stylized. Instead of lensing on sets built inside huge soundstages, the new film will be shot on locations in New York, London and Iceland, assembling pieces of each city to recreate Gotham as a modern-day metropolis.

“Gotham will seem like this great city in a contemporary world and will be created through various cities,” Nolan says. “We are trying to avoid a villagey feel for Gotham, as it starts to get claustrophobic.”

Goyer — who penned the successful “Blade” series for New Line and was a former staffer at “Batman” publisher DC Comics — adds: “As the Batman films progressed, they became increasingly more cartoonish and more like the campy TV show. We think the audience is tired of that, and it’s at odds with the way Batman is depicted in the comicbooks over the last decade. Batman is a classic figure whose story is wrapped in tragedy.”

Nolan jumps on that theme: “Few superheroes have the sense of purpose and destiny that Batman has. He is driven by an incredible sense of rage, sadness and grief because of the tragedy of his parents’ murder at an early age. To me, Batman is the most interesting superhero because he doesn’t have any superpowers. He is very human.”

Nolan has assembled his “Insomnia” team, consisting of production designer Nathan Crowley (“Behind Enemy Lines”) and director of photography Wally Pfister (“The Italian Job”) to create Batman’s new world.

Additionally, costume designer Lindy Hemming (who worked on the last four James Bond films plus the “Harry Potter” and “Tomb Raider” pics) will redesign Batman’s suit; Chris Corbould serves as the pic’s special-effects supervisor (credits also include the 007 and “Tomb Raider” films).

The casting of Bale, Nolan hopes, will not only give audiences a younger Batman to root for but also a weighty sense of his true character.

“Bruce Wayne is strong, and the things that are done to him to make him become Batman are all psychological and character-based,” Nolan says. “We needed an actor capable of taking us along on this journey and showing the different psychological layers which inspire Bruce to become Batman.”

Fans fearing that the new Batman has taken his passport and moved across the pond shouldn’t fret, however. Nolan may be a fan of Bond, and the new installment may be made up of a mostly British cast, crew and locations, but Batman’s remaining American.

DC Comics not only provided Nolan and Goyer with key elements of Batman’s background, it also gave the filmmakers a list of what Goyer jokingly dubs “the 10 Commandments,” a set of guidelines that should appear in every Batman story (see separate story).

“Before they sat down with us, they had already done a tremendous amount of homework,” says Paul Levitz, prexy and publisher of DC Comics. “Working with them has been a delight. We haven’t been dealing with questions like, ‘Is it “Bruce Wayne” or could it be “Bob Wayne” instead?’

“We started on the same emotional and intellectual level. We all want to make a movie that appeals to the most intense Batman fan as well as the person who’s never seen a Batman movie or TV show before.”

In terms of whether the movie will be too dark, Robinov says the film’s more about conflict than darkness: about Batman’s internal conflict and what drives him to suit up as a superhero.

The director’s feeling the pressure to succeed. “It’s an awesome responsibility,” Nolan says, “because the fan base for Batman is extraordinary, and there’s a lot of emotional investment in the character.”

Warner Bros. also is understandably eager not to alienate or disappoint auds and hardcore fans with Batman’s latest adventure.

The studio had attempted to launch a new Batman film three other times in the past.

In 2000, “Remember the Titans’ ” Boaz Yakin had been attached to helm “Batman Beyond,” an adaptation of the animated series. Darren Aronofsky was developing “Batman: Year One,” based on the comicbook. And in 2002, Wolfgang Petersen also was in talks to helm “Batman vs. Superman” before opting to make “Troy” instead.

A shroud of secrecy has surrounded the new pic since it was unveiled last year. Nolan and the new film’s key creative team are reluctant to reveal too many details of the planned visuals or plot.

But daily updates and details of the new film’s plot, characters and production designs are finding their way onto Web sites such as Ain’t It Cool News, Batman on Film, Dark Horizons, Chud and Superhero Hype. (Finicky fans praised Bale’s casting.)

The last thing Warners wants is a repeat of the early negative buzz that erupted on the Internet after Ain’t It Cool News posted its scathing review of an early test screening of “Batman & Robin,” which the studio said could have hurt the film’s B.O. performance.

If the new film succeeds, WB’s “Batman” franchise will have found a new direction for its sequels to take and compete with Sony’s juggernaut “Spider-Man” and Fox’s “X-Men” adventures.

“I’ve always been a fan of Batman,” Robinov says. “I love the character, and Batman was always a piece of a puzzle that (WB prexy-chief operating officer) Alan Horn wanted solved. He always saw Batman as a very valuable property to the studio both in terms of liking the character and wanting the character out there.”