While the newly merged Warner Bros. Discovery is still attempting to straighten out its tumultuous DC Extended Universe, it’s important to point out that Todd Phillips’ Joker tapped into an exciting new avenue for DC Films in 2019. Much like DC Comics’ Black Label imprint, more isolated “Elseworlds” stories could have a place in the Hollywood blockbuster space.
Given the Joker’s status as an iconic pop-culture villain, the argument can be made that the movie’s mass appeal was unique. Nonetheless, it’s a formula worth experimenting with when it comes to Batman’s dense backlog of supervillains. It’s an opportunity for some exciting creative liberty in the comic book movie genre, and the likes of Clayface and Man-Bat would arguably make the best of alternate-universe one-offs.
Director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, War for the Planet of the Apes) and Robert Pattinson (Tenet, The Lighthouse) ushered in a new era for the Dark Knight in The Batman, one that’s dripping with crime-noir tones that home in on the vital yet often neglected “detective” element from the source material. That propensity for groundedness began thanks to Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, but there’s arguably still some wiggle room for the eccentric.
The likes of Mr. Freeze don’t seem to be out of the question for The Batman‘s sequel, but villains like Clayface and Man-Bat would likely do best in their respective sandboxes where they’re allowed to get as weird as possible. Fleshing out the DC Films catalog with anthology-style movies would, in a way, be the best of both worlds when it comes to Batman and Batman-adjacent representation in live-action. Non-Joker villains would arguably fit the latter better because the Caped Crusader’s lesser-known cast of rogues could be developed and explored without the need for them to be in direct conflict with the Dark Knight — that can wait until The Batman 3 or 4.
While making an outright Batman movie rated R wouldn’t be palatable, Joker could justify characters like Clayface venturing into more creatively risky territory. Having an R rating doesn’t guarantee commercial success by a long shot, but it could let a hypothetical Clayface movie dabble into the horror genre. making it distinct in a marketplace dominated by superhero films.
It’s an exciting concept on paper and the backstory and affliction that Basil Karlo/Clayface deals with could fit the genre seamlessly, should the right director/writer come along. The story could have a sort of Phantom of the Opera atmosphere to it, with Karlo’s story being a blend of horror and tragedy.
Likewise, it could deliver some clever metacommentary with Karlo himself being an actor, and an actor gradually losing his mind and sense of morality under the weight of expectation and his own ego.
Similar to other villains like Mr. Freeze, the tragic villain angle could work wonders in live-action. DC Comics writer James Tynion IV’s run on Detective Comics would be a great blueprint for this, as his storyline involved Karlo becoming a reformed hero putting his affliction to use for the greater good. While a solo movie probably shouldn’t be turning him into a superhero (Sony is already floundering with that formula), the way the ghosts of Karlo’s past come back to haunt him in that story arc would make great reference material for the “tragedy” element.
And, perhaps even more so than with Joker, Karlo’s origins and backstory could warrant a “period piece” approach. His being an actor is the crux of his character, with his clay-like morphing skin serving as a dark irony of his greatest passion, and this would fit well within the ’60s or ’70s are of Gotham City.
If a Clayface movie would only partly be a horror movie, then one centered around Kirk Langstrom/Man-Bat would be a full-blown horror/monster feature. There’s still excitement over Reeves being able to create grounded versions of more sci-fi/out-there villains like Freeze in his Batman universe, but Man-Bat admittedly seems like too much of a stretch for what the director is going for.
A one-off disconnected movie is a perfect way to bring him into live-action nonetheless, and where Clayface would have a Phantom of the Opera-like tragic element, for Man-Bat it could be akin to Frankenstein.
One of the best on-screen depictions of Man-Bat — though it’s neither in TV nor film — is found in Rocksteady’s trilogy-closing game Batman: Arkham Knight. His side mission was one of the best ones to show how to dial up the horror factor with such a beastly character, and not just from the infamous jump-scare introduction of Man-Bat.
After that pulse-pounding initial encounter, seeing Batman gradually investigating Langstrom’s lab and piecing together the experiment gone wrong was equally harrowing and heartbreaking. Under tactful direction and writing, taking a page from that side story and fleshing it out into a tragic “creature feature” could be thoroughly compelling through the eyes of the man himself.
There’s no question that someone like the Joker has a level of star power and box-office pull that most villains, in general, can’t carry on their own, but the success of Phillips’ movie should be an inspiration for how thrillingly bizarre WBD can be with characters like these.
DC Films’ Joker is available to stream now on HBO Max.
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