Nightwing seems to be everywhere these days. He’s killing it in the comics with his solo run and leading role in the Dark Crisis storyline, and thanks to all those Dylan O’Brien casting rumors, the character often trends on Twitter. His animated counterpart is finally in the spotlight as Young Justice: Phantoms enters its last episodes. And yet, he remains absent from the big screen.
Not every superhero needs a solo movie, that much is true, but Nightwing isn’t any superhero, and considering B- and C-listers like Shazam and Blue Beetle already received solo projects, it’s strange that Nightwing hasn’t. Ironically, a Nightwing solo film could potentially solve many of DC’s current struggles, providing a familiar and beloved face that fans could rally behind as the DCEU attempts to rebuild. Dick Grayson has a rich story in comic books, film, and television, almost always as Batman’s second-in-command. After years of proving himself as a hero, it’s about time people put some respect in Dick Grayson’s name.
The Boy Wonder
Dick Grayson debuted during the Golden Age of comic books. His first appearance was in Detective Comics #38, dated April 1940, making him the first-ever sidekick in comic books. Known as “the Boy Wonder,” Dick was Batman’s reliable sidekick, always ready to provide a funny quip no matter how bleak the situation. Like Bruce Wayne, Dick lost his parents as a child at the hands of a criminal. However, with Bruce’s help, Dick brings his parents’ killers to justice, thus avoiding the same traumatic and vengeful path Bruce finds himself in throughout adulthood.
As Robin, Dick stayed Batman’s loyal companion for decades, avoiding any real development and remaining stuck in “sidekick” territory. This personality translated into Dick’s first-ever live-action appearance in the 1960s Batman TV series. Played by Burt Ward, Robin kept most of his youthful personality for the show, acting as support for Batman and becoming famous for his silly yet funny catchphrases. Ward reprised the role for the movie, extending his dominance over the character, and while 1966’s Batman is far from the best theatrical movie about the Caped Crusader, it did the character’s reputation a considerable favor at a time when Golden Age superheroes were becoming a thing of the past.
As 1960s comics entered the Silver Age, Dick got the chance to lead a team. Joined by other teenage heroes, including Aqualad, Kid Flash, Speedy, and Wonder Girl, Dick formed the Teen Titans. The group had moderate success initially, but George Perez’s 1980’s run — which introduced Titan mainstays Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy, and Cyborg — became the defining iteration of the team and a bonafide success. Dick entered a more adult phase as the Titans’ leader, noted by his notoriously stormy romance with Tamaran princess Starfire. Feeling stunted in his Robin role, Dick adopted the Nightwing persona to step out of Batman’s shadow.
Most sidekick characters in comics eventually grew up to take over their mentor’s mantle; for example, Wally West became Flash after Barry’s death. However, Dick actively chose to move away from the Bat, opting to become his own hero rather than becoming Batman. Dick’s relationship with Bruce was loving and respectful — indeed, Dick thought of Bruce as a father long before Bruce acknowledged Dick as a son. However, Dick was never blind to Bruce’s many flaws and went to great lengths not to follow in his mentor’s footsteps.
Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Dick went through a series of changes. His Titans tenure saw him acting erratically at times, often lashing out at Starfire and his teammates in keeping with ideas of manliness and leadership prevalent in American comic books at the time. Following a short stint as Batman after the Knightfall saga, Dick received a miniseries in the mid-90s, where he briefly toyed with the idea of retiring from being a superhero. He later received an ongoing series, which proved popular enough to revitalize interest in the character.
The Nightwing comic arrived just as the character returned to the big screen with Batman Forever, played by Chris O’Donnell. Under Joel Schumacher’s notoriously flamboyant direction, O’Donnell’s Dick bore little resemblance to the character from the comics. Despite being an adult, O’Donnell’s Dick behaved like an angsty teenager, creating a bizarre portrayal that contributed to the film’s mixed reception. Batman & Robin didn’t help either, and Schumacher and O’Donnell opted to have Dick actively pursuing the Batman mantle and resenting Bruce for refusing him, in stark contrast to comic book Dick, who could not run away from the cape and cowl fast enough. O’Donnell was far from the worst part in the movie — George Clooney’s awful take on Batman is even more distracting — but his portrayal wasn’t a saving grace either.
Dick fared much better on the small screen, where Batman: The Animated Series reigned supreme. Like his comic book counterpart, the Dick in TAS begins as Batman’s protegé before becoming disenchanted with the Dark Knight and his neverending mission. In one of the series’ most memorable episodes, he abandons Batman and the Robin identity, resurfacing as Nightwing years later and sporting the character’s now-infamous mohawk. The Animated Series provided what was arguably the definitive version of Dick: loyal, lighthearted, responsible to a fault yet never blind to his mentor’s weaknesses. Most importantly, the series established Nightwing as Batman’s equal, something the Caped Crusader acknowledged numerous times.
The Animated Series rescued and did a huge service to Batman’s legacy. However, the character’s cinematic reputation was in the gutter following Schumacher’s films. The Caped Crusader and his family took a long break from the big screen, but Dick continued to shine on the page. Moving to a new city to call his own and ready to prove himself as a solo act, Nightwing’s time to shine was coming.
DC’s greatest force for good
The new millennium gave Dick his chance to become an A-lister. His role as Blüdhaven’s protector granted him a rogues gallery of his own, while his ongoing love triangle with Starfire and Batgirl cemented him as one of the most notorious ladies’ men in comic book history. However, DC became weirdly fascinated with making Dick suffer during this time. The character went through hell and back, being sexually assaulted, witnessing Blüdhaven’s destruction, and getting shot in the head, to name a few tragedies.
These events, which would break or severely traumatize many others, only strengthened Dick’s resolve, shining a light on his true superpower: hope. Dick never gives up and never stops trying. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in his body, no battle he won’t fight or cause he’ll deem hopeless. Dick is every bit Bruce’s equal but without the emotional baggage and trauma. True, Dick isn’t as smart as Bruce or as good a detective as Tim, but he has enough heart and willpower to overcome his weaknesses –has anyone ever acknowledged that Dick would be an awesome Green Lantern?
More importantly, Dick’s civilian persona is more relevant to his heroism than his costumed identity. Unlike his mentor, whose civilian personality took a backseat in favor of the costumed identity, Dick remained Dick in and out of the costume. To him, the mask is nothing but a mask, and his power comes from his tough but not-yet hardened heart. Dick isn’t all about the mission; he understands that he needs to be the best version of himself if he wants to succeed as a hero. Dick never puts himself last: how could he, when so many depend on him?
Portrayals of Dick became limited to animation, but they respected Dick’s new persona and status. Young Justice, arguably the best DC animated show on television, offers a fully-realized version of Dick. He admires Batman without wanting to become him. The Dick in Young Justice leads by inspiring others, acting as a respected member of the superhero community while keeping his integrity intact. Above all, he goes to great lengths to have a personal life away from his heroic duties, something the series constantly shows.
The promising but now-defunct DC Animated Movie Universe presented another self-sufficient and inspiring version of Nightwing, acting independently on Blüdhaven while still supporting Batman and his bratty son, Damian. The underrated gem that is Batman: The Brave and the Bold showcased a goofier version of Nightwing — in the Disco suit, no less — in keeping with the show’s sensibilities. However, this version also established him as a force to be reckoned with and an equal to Batman worthy of his admiration. The even more underrated Batman Unlimited offered a take on Dick similar to his 80s persona: stern and prideful yet still very much his own hero, commanding the respect of the Bat-Family and other superheroes.
Oh, Nightwing, where art thou?
Tom Taylor’s current run of Nightwing cemented the character as a leading force in DC Comics. Bringing out the best in Dick, Taylor crafted a compelling and sympathetic figure that represents everything a hero could and should be. The series actively rejects Batman’s particular brand of darkness in favor of a colorful and lighthearted approach that never forgets the thought-provoking themes, emotional stakes, and crafty storytelling that first made the character a star. With Nightwing’s popularity and cultural relevance at an all-time high, why is the DCEU still benching him?
The struggling cinematic universe is at an impasse, weathering storm after storm and barely holding itself together. Nearly every project to come out has been either a critical success with disappointing financial results — Shazam!, The Suicide Squad, Birds of Prey — or an utter trainwreck that somehow pulls through at the box office — Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad. James Wan’s Aquaman and Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman remain the sole exceptions, but the latter’s goodwill suffered a considerable blow after the release of the underwhelming Wonder Woman 1984. Things aren’t looking so great for Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom either, especially considering all the delays and behind-the-scenes drama.
DC’s upcoming projects, a combination of theatrically-released films and HBO Max exclusives, seem like a mixed bag. The Flash, arguably the most anticipated project thanks to the return of Michael Keaton, recently suffered another delay. Will anyone care by the time it finally hits theaters? Similar disinterest plagues other projects like Blue Beetle and The Wonder Twins, which was just canceled.
With DC trying everything to see what sticks, it might be good that Nightwing is nowhere near such an unstable universe. However, the irony is that Nightwing is the perfect solution to all their problems. If the DCEU wants to let go of its messy past and erase any trace of its initial wave of films, they need an anchor, a familiar face to headline its shared universe.
Some people will have issues with an all-female DC Trinity — which is where DC seems to be heading, thanks to Sasha Calle and Leslie Grace’s castings as Supergirl and Batgirl and Gal Gadot’s continued presence. But a reliable and beloved face like Nightwing might make the transition easier and smoother. There’s a precedent for granting Nightwing a prominent role in the DC Universe; the current Dark Crisis storyline places Dick in the thick of the action, confirming him as the most logical choice to lead a new Justice League.
At this point, the DCEU needs Nightwing more than he needs them. Indeed, the character is perfectly happy in the less constrictive world of comic books. However, the struggling DC Extended Universe needs a strong and capable character to usher them to their next era, where gloom and despair take a backseat in favor of a more relatable and optimistic era. Because darkness does not a good film make, and while the overly bleak tone works for Batman, it doesn’t fit every superhero; Man of Steel is proof of that.
The DCEU needs a leading figure of unparalleled power and charm, someone who’s personable and likable enough to carry an entire universe on his back while commanding the necessary respect to pull it off. Dick has done the work and paid the price; he deserves his chance in the spotlight, and even Superman and Batman would agree. Batman once famously predicted Dick wouldn’t just be a part of the Justice League but would lead it. The time is now. The DCEU needs Dick Grayson if it wants to survive, and it’s time everyone admitted it.
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