Arkham’s Arsenal: A Batman Story meant to go rogue
A little over a week ago, Andy Greenwald of The Ringer was discussing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – the upcoming Anthology film whose recently released trailer affirmed will not be your typical “Star Wars movie”:
While a few familiar faces look to pop up for at least a cameo, and the threat of death by AD-AT seems ever-present, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is not going to be (specifically) about the Skywalker bloodline’s rollercoaster ride through a galaxy far, far away. Instead, it looks more like Saving Private Ryan, just set in the Star Wars universe and told using Star Wars’ Empire v. Rebellion language.
As Greenwald explained, Disney has figured out they don’t always have to burden themselves with continually telling The Star Wars story, as long as they do a good job telling A Star Wars story:
“If we’re going to accept that this is the storytelling language of the current era – in the way Westerns were many decades ago or testosterone-filled action movies were in the 80’s – that that’s just sort of the lingua franca of movies at the moment, then I would hope that we would reach a point where you could tell many, many different stories within that world.
If Star Wars proves to be the most malleable universe for that, then great, I’m all in. Because I am more interested in a well-cast, well-conceived, creative, visually dynamic war/heist movie than I am in figuring out what happened to Han Solo’s kids.”
And if a “well-cast, well-conceived, creative, visually dynamic war/heist movie” outside the traditional canon can work for Star Wars, why not another cinematic franchise whose decades-long ubiquity and world-changing box office numbers now demand a steady stream of creative reinterpretation…
DC Comics learned their lesson back in 1989 when they released the Elseworlds imprint to massive acclaim and success, but the DC Extended Universe has yet to take advantage of the liberating, and most likely very lucrative, opportunity to tell stories outside the Justice League/Arrowverse. And when we’re talking about the likes of Patton Oswalt’s itching-to-be-made Arkham’s Arsenal, we’re talking about films that could potentially change not just the future of a flailing DC cinematic franchise, but what it means to make a “superhero movie.”
It may sound crazy, but in the current world of superhero cinematography it’s the only sensible thing to do…
From 1942 to the mid-1980s, and especially during the Silver Age of Comic Books era, DC Comics published a series of stories that would eventually be called Imaginary Stories, which didn’t take place in their characters’ respective continuities. As you might expect, these ‘imaginary’ stories featured your standard narrative twists – alternate histories (Superman raised by Apes, Bruce Wayne raised by the Kents), tantalizing hypotheticals (what if Bruce Wayne started a family?), etc. – much to the delight of comic fans everywhere. However, it wasn’t until 1989 that DC released Gotham by Gaslight and effectively officially launched the Elseworlds imprint# that would go on to be a defining moiety of the industry; all by asking one simple question:
What would it be like if Bruce Wayne was around in 1889 and had to hunt a rampaging Jack the Ripper through Victorian-era Gotham City?
IGN Comics ranked Gotham by Gaslight #11 on a list of the 25 Greatest Batman Graphic Novels, calling it “a tightly woven mystery that…sticks to what makes sense for the story and pulls off one of the better tales in Batman’s long history.”
And it wasn’t even the highest-ranking Elseworlds story on the list.
That honor belongs to Batman & Dracula: Red Rain, the debut installment of an Elseworlds trilogy in which Batman goes from vampire hunter, to Joker-led vampire cult hunter, to repentant yet bloodthirsty vampire himself…
Under the Elseworlds imprint, the DC characters whom we were so familiar with were elevated to narrative archetypes from which to build from and upon. And when done right, these hypothetical what-ifs were able to reveal more about the superheroes they were employing than the “superhero” stories from which they were being borrowed.
In Superman: Red Son we’re asked to wonder what Kal-El would be like if he landed in Russia instead of the US, and by stripping away the red, white, and blue from the Man of Steel, its writers were able to explore what Truth and Justice might mean to an all-powerful alien when they’re not anchored down with The American Way…
In Batman: In Darkest Knight we’re forced to reckon with why Bruce Wayne – near superheroic in willpower and infinitely more badass than Hal Jordan – could never be the Green Lantern his teammate is, denuding both men in the process.
The concept admittedly became an overused parlor trick – Bruce Timm once quipped, “Pretty soon it was, ‘Oh, Batman’s a pirate” or ‘Oh, Wonder Woman is a revolutionary war character’ – nevertheless, the best of the Elseworlds series proved that DC’s iconic characters were no longer defined, and confined, to their native genre and its limiting narratives. Instead, they were familiar, familial characters who could be deployed with the grace and tact of the finest Greek mythology.
Henry Jenkins, in an interview with Comic Story World, explained the additional, logistical advantages that come with the Elseworlds model:
“I’d like the rest of the industry to pay attention to Elseworlds as a model of what I call ‘Multiplicity.’ A lot of transmedia has been based on the concept of ‘continuity,’ which comes from comics too, of course. But they’re all about ‘can we get all the pieces to line up perfectly?’
In an industrial context, where these are being built by different divisions of companies, perfect alignment is never going to happen. So, instead of going in that direction, imagine playing with what comics have done and saying ‘we can explore these characters through multiple lenses’ and get interesting things to emerge.”
2011’s Green Lantern starring Ryan Reynolds was supposed to kickstart the Justice League gears into motion, but because of its infamous reception DC was forced to hit restart and go back to the drawing board all over again. That’s why, like Stannis Baratheon, they sold their soul to a sexy manipulator of shadows# who, like Melisandre, turned out to be a bit of a one-trick-pony#.
Unfortunately, though, once Batman has gone and shown Superman that a God can indeed bleed, there’s nowhere else to go but darker and broodier – and that’s how you end up with Kahl Drago taking on the role of the Arthurian Aquaman.
If we take a look back at the pages of superheroic history, the fabled Alan Moore, while describing his own Elseworld-ian pitch# in the aftermath of Marvel’s bungled Secret Wars storyline, actually ends up predicting DC’s current cinematic continuity troubles almost 30 years before Jared Leto was ever cast as The Joker:
If you don’t do it right, if your assembled multitude of characters look merely banal, which I personally believe happened with Secret Wars (although that may be mere personal prejudice on my part), then your entire continuity is cheapened in the long term along with its credibility, whatever the short term benefits in terms of sales might be.
When this happens, your only recourse is to greater acts of debasement in order to attract reader attention, more deaths to appease the arena crowd element in the fan marketplace, eventually degenerating into a geek show.”
The televisionary Arrowverse is doing better than anyone could expect, especially given the slate of networks its tethered to, but I’m sure everyone at DC is jealous every time they see their Marvel counterparts laughing over schwarma at their spoils of Tolstoy-approved riches.
Because Marvel erred on the side of nimbleness from the onset, understanding that a Thor origin-story movie shouldn’t look anything like a Captain America origin-story movie, they’re now able to take some pretty bold chances when it comes to the differing, blossiming branches of their narrative tree – Captain America: Winter Soldier can be a conspiracy thriller straight out of the 70’s#, Guardians of the Galaxy can be a cheeky space adventure#, Ant Man can be a heist flick starring the guy from Clueless#. They may all come together every 3-4 years to save the world, and Starlord may eventually swap barbs with Peter Parker as they figure out how to save the universe from a barely comprehendible existential threat, but in the meantime Marvel is content to treat its audiences like normal people who like movies, plural, as opposed to the same old superhero tale cut-and-paste on different CGI’ed backdrops.
“I think the problem we’ve gotten into the past few years,” Andy Greenwald explains in that podcast, “is that a ‘superhero movie’ isn’t really a type of movie anymore.”
Gotham proved that The Batman’s story can be about more than just one man, but we’ve reached the point where it’s about more than just one story, too.
Patton Oswalt, renowned comedian and actor – not to mention, the man behind this display of Random Nerdiness# – actually already has a few Batman bylines to his name. He wrote a fan-favorite one-shot comic called JLA: Welcome to the Working Week in which aliens invade Portland and the Justice League has to teleport the entire population of the St. John’s neighborhood to the Watchtower, and even a festive holiday 5-pager called Batman Smells that once and for all explains how Robin went about laying an egg while the Joker got away (hey!).
However, what would be his ultimate Batmasterpiece, has unfortunately been all but lost to the vast digital ether – until now.
In a blog post published a few years ago, Patton Oswalt laid out two Batman stories he pitched to DC Comics that, as he put it, they didn’t bite on. The first was for a “low stakes, early 70’s noir” story starring C-level villain The Cluemaster whose title was a nod to an old German Expressionist film starring Peter Lorre as a child molester/murderer, which Patton admits in the post is “too esoteric and pretentious to really work as a comic.”
The second story though, Arkham’s Arsenal, is a stroke of industry-saving brilliance…
Globe WAR II. The total planet’s fate hangs on the outcomes of massive and not-so-enormous skirmishes. Guadacanal. Messina. Iwo Jima…
…and skirmishes left moldering in classified files, even these days.
One such story is uncovered by an Army researcher, hunting the whereabouts of numerous MIA “dis-honorables”, who seemingly fell off the face of the Earth in the mid-40’s.
The 12 – acknowledged to Eyes Only researchers as “Arkham’s Arsenal” – allegedly completed a joint US/British mission deep into Germany, exactly where they killed a amount of high-ranking officials at a leading-secret meeting, prior to D-Day.
These 12 had been:
“John Doe”, a specific forces operative gassed by the Germans with an experimental compound which killed his total platoon. He managed to get a gas mask on, but ended up with bleached skin a permanent rictus. Given that his unit was required to undergo missions devoid of dog tags or service flashes, no 1 now understands his identity. It is mentioned that “John Doe” took on the other 15 personalities of his dead platoon, all of them trained killers, all of them slightly psychotic.
Sgt. Dent, half of his face blown off by a grenade.
Pvt. Nigma, an encryption expert, caught promoting codes to the Nazis
Cpl. “Killer” Crockowski
Cpl. Floyd “Deadshot” Lawton
Pvt. Jonathan Crane
Pvt. Maxie “Maggot” Zeus
Pvt. Victor Zsasz
Pvt. Aaron Helzinger (Amygdala)
Pvt. Joseph Rigger (Firebug)
Pvt. Dick Grayson
Col. Bruce Wayne breaks the 12, and turns them into a fighting force.
The War Game, against Wayne’s rival in the Allied alliance – Col. Henri Ducard. Arkham’s Arsenal comes out on best, defeating Ducard’s forces (which will include some cool cameos of other DC heroes and villains)
The Mission – killing the gathered VIPs at the Chateau al Ghul. Some of the visitors – all of them contributing to the Nazi death regime – will consist of Dr. Hugo Strange, Deacon Blackfire, Dr. Victor Fries, Professor Milo, etc.
In the finish, only Col. Wayne and Pvt. Grayson survive.
Well… “Jon Doe” goes missing – but he’ll turn up someplace else. You will see…
Goddamit, I actually wish they’d let me do Arkham’s Arsenal. Oh effectively. I was going to model Bruce Wayne soon after Lee Marvin, and Dick Grayson right after a young Charles Bronson. And The Joker would’ve been Cassavettes (re-view the film, specifically the scene where Donald Sutherland is impersonating a basic – some of Cassavette’s facial expressions are eerily Joker-like).
I would’ve completed that 14-point “attack poem” that Lee Marvin does to map out the mission#. Would’ve produced the “war game” scene in Act II a battle royale in between a lot of severe DV villains. And I would’ve stocked the chateau with lots of cameos by not only other DC character, but Vertigo characters as well.
And John Doe? He would’ve been on a private train car, commandeered from the Calais Coach, entertaining perverted Nazi high commanders as the war wound down, like a demented Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret. Or not. Now that I believe of it, there’s better methods to use him in a coda. That’s the one thing that does not operate about the original Dirty Dozen – that final scene in the hospital room. They deserved a coda. One thing violent and ironic.
Oh effectively. Possibly DC will let me do The Justice Club, my take on Teen Titans as a John Hughes movie.
Who says no that?
If cast right, and with the right director attached, this could even be Oscar bait. It’s not too hard to imagine Joseph Gordon-Levitt (a casting selection that winks to the beloved Nolan-verse) winning Best Supporting Actor for his heart-wrenching take as the Pvt. Dick Grayson; or Adam Driver, a former Marine mind you, stealing the film as the teased-but-never-confirmed “John Doe.”
In a recent press junket for Star Wars: Episode VIII, it was Kylo Ren himself who confessed how much easier it is to make a movie when you don’t need to worry about world-building and can just focus on making a great film:
“I feel like there was so many moving pieces in the first one – just trying to solve it and set the vocabulary for what it was. But a lot of that anxiety is gone, because people have developed a language.”
We know the language of Batman. We know the pearl-scattering origin story, we understand how each villain – the agent of chaos, the cruel hand of indiscriminate chance, the second greatest detective alive – is a specific foil and integral part of the Jenga tower that is Gotham City.
What we don’t know, however, is what Josh Brolin as Colonel Bruce Wayne would be like reciting that 14-point attack poem before taking out a Nazi-symapthizing Ra’s al Ghul. And if the DC Entertainment unofficial motto really is “By Fans, For Fans,” as Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns claims, than I think we deserve to find out.
Patton Oswalt is the hero we need right now…
Like what you read? Share it.
(That helps us.)
Love what you read? Patronize Bryce Rudow.
That helps us and the writer.
What is Patronizing? Learn more here.