What if Bruce Wayne wasn’t an orphan — would there still be a Batman? And how would the superhero be different if Wayne were a Black man, instead of the rich white scion of one of Gotham’s elite families?
Variety recently spoke with Winston Duke, star of “Batman Unburied,” the original podcast drama from DC/Warner Bros. exclusively on Spotify, and series creator and executive producer David S. Goyer about reimagining one of comic-dom’s most famous characters.
“I really had no idea what to expect in terms of the reception of it,” Goyer says. “It exceeded all of our expectations.”
“Batman Unburied” has been a global hit, reaching No. 1 on Spotify charts after its May 3 debut and remaining near the top since then. With the podcast’s success, fans should expect to hear Duke’s Batman/Wayne in a follow-up project although Spotify, DC and Warner Bros. have not announced anything official.
Duke, whose credits include “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Avengers: Endgame” and “Us,” recorded his scenes for “Batman Unburied” in Atlanta while filming “Black Panther 2.”
At first, Duke thought the history of Bruce Wayne and Batman as a white male would present an obstacle. “Bruce Wayne historically has been a product of white privilege — that’s almost been his superpower, his wealth. That felt like its own wall to me. How do I connect to a character who is so grounded in his whiteness?”
As he immersed himself in the story of “Batman Unburied,” Duke found “a lot of really direct, cool allegories of Bruce Wayne as a person of color.”
“What happens when it’s mild privilege instead of extreme privilege?” says Duke. “He ends up coming off as more relatable. That was my intention.”
As a podcast, “Batman Unburied” was “liberating” for Duke “because it wasn’t focused on my body and what I looked like in a frame… Being a Black man shaped who this man was. But my body doesn’t have to be the focus.” He worked closely with director Alexander Kemp in recording his part for the podcast — which he did without the benefit of interacting with his castmates.
Ultimately, the Wayne/Batman in “Batman Unburied” represents “a social-justice advocate’s wet dream,” says Duke: “How would I, as a powerful person of color with billions of dollars, change the world… and a justice system that feels like I couldn’t come out on the right end?”
Goyer says that, from the get-go, he envisioned the series’ Wayne/Batman character as a person of color. “That was literally the first exploratory conversation [with DC/Warner Bros. execs] — I said, ‘Are you open to that?’”
Duke was on Goyer’s shortlist for the lead, and the production also ended up casting other actors of color in key roles, including Hasan Minhaj as The Riddler and Gina Rodriguez as Barbara Gordon, the Gotham PD detective who’s the daughter of former police commissioner Jim Gordon.
The deal for the podcast came together after Goyer’s agent reached out to the Spotify podcast originals team around the time Spotify inked a multiyear development deal with DC/Warner Bros. for a slate of exclusive series. Goyer is no stranger to the DC superhero: He wrote the story for 2005’s “Batman Begins” and was a writer on the two other films in “The Dark Knight” trilogy. The companies offered Goyer the chance to create the inaugural podcast for their partnership.
“I asked for parameters. They didn’t give me any,” says Goyer.
To Goyer, the biggest creative roll of the dice with his “Batman Unburied” pitch was setting the story in a world in which Bruce Wayne doesn’t suffer the trauma of his parents’ murder. “I knew it was a big swing, and kind of a wild swing, but Spotify, DC and Warner Bros. were all supportive of it,” Goyer says. “We were recontextualizing the Batman story from a different angle… I said, ‘There’s no point in doing this story — there’ve been so many Batman stories told — if we’re not doing something different.’ I was intrigued with the idea of, What would happen if Bruce Wayne’s parents hadn’t been killed?”
“Batman Unburied” explores the origins of Wayne’s darkness in the absence of the canonical death of his mother and father. “That darkness may have been trauma passed down from one generation to the next,” Goyer explains. Or maybe Wayne is just born with it: “We look at nature versus nurture.”
Like many, Goyer became hooked on podcasts during the pandemic. “It’s like the old days of radio drama,” says Goyer, who is currently in postproduction on Season 2 of “Foundation” for Apple TV+, back in L.A. after filming in Europe the last several months.
Creating “Batman Unburied” required a different set of muscles than for a TV show or movie, Goyer notes. There are certain things podcasts are not good at, like car chases or fight scenes. But podcasts are great as creating psychologically unsettling scenes, with eerie soundscapes as characters enter into dark rooms. Goyer says the writing team had to figure out different ways for characters to provide exposition. For example, the audience hears Bruce Wayne, a forensic pathologist at Gotham Hospital, recording observations while examining corpses in the morgue — where he’s tasked with examining the victims of cannibalistic serial killer The Harvester (Sam Witwer).
Duke, for his part, has been gratified by the fan reaction to “Batman Unburied,” marveling at the outpouring of fan art and positive feedback about his portrayal of Wayne/Batman. “People said how relieving and comforting my voice is,” he says. “Someone said, ‘I love that Bruce Wayne has a hint of a Caribbean dialect!’”
The actor’s family moved from Trinidad and Tobago to Brooklyn when he was a young kid. “I was an immigrant into this country, and one of my ways to understand American culture was reading comics,” he says. Growing up, Superman and Batman were two of his favorite superheroes.
Duke recalls that there was a local comic book store in Brooklyn called — no kidding — Winston’s Comic Book Shop. “It was a real mom-and-pop shop,” he says. “They let me choose three comics, and I would bring the money whenever I could.”