Will Michael Keaton's Batman swoop in to save the DC film universe?

Recasting the actor is a sign that DC is harking back to a time when it was unassailable at the box office

Michael Keaton in Batman. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
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Michael Keaton might once again don Batman's cape and cowl in new film The Flash.

The news offers a nostalgic hug and self-knowing nod to fans of the DC standard bearer, but when it comes to big-ticket superhero films, few things can be taken at face value. It seems certain that we can read plenty more into one of the biggest surprise casting announcements of the year.

It's fair to say that DC has struggled, in recent years, to emulate the cinematic success of its rival, Marvel. While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been met with almost universal praise over more than 20 films, DC has found both critics and audiences harder to convince with its attempts to build its own cinematic universe.

Batman v Superman (2016), DC's first aim at bringing its most-loved characters together on screen, was simultaneously criticised for being too dark in its portrayal of its two heroes, and too frothy in its (spoiler alert) ham-fisted ending in which the two finally bond over a shared mother's name.

The same year, Suicide Squad was DC's first attempt at on-screen team building, albeit through a group of supervillains, and that film was roundly pilloried for simply not being very good.

Justice League (2017) was better received, but it wasn't Marvel's The Avengers. The team of Batman, Superman, The Flash, Aquaman, Cyborg and Wonder Woman united on screen for the first time and took only $657 million (Dh2.4 billion) at the box office. That's less than half the $1.5bn The Avengers pulled in five years earlier.

By recasting Keaton, DC is harking back to a time when it was unassailable at the box office. In the 1980s, Christopher Reeve's Superman ruled the superhero world and his poster adorned the walls of teenagers across the globe. In 1989 Keaton and director Tim Burton teamed up for the first big-screen Batman since Adam West's 1960s version. Fans and critics were impressed that Burton had created the first superhero movie with genuine depth, a trick Christopher Nolan would repeat and improve on with his Batman trilogy, starting, again pre-MCU, with 2005's Batman Begins.

During the same era, Marvel's most notable movies were 1989's straight-to-video The Punisher and 1986's entertaining, but hardly comparable, Howard the Duck. Back in the days before the distraction of Marvel's all-conquering universe, DC ruled the roost, and was quite capable of making successful films on its own terms.

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows Gal Gadot in a scene from "Wonder Woman."  The Patty Jenkins-directed blockbuster received zero Oscar nominations Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2018, even in a year that was surprisingly friendly to big budget hits. (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)
Gal Gadot in a scene from 'Wonder Woman' (2017). It stood out among superhero films for being female-led and directed. AP

DC's biggest post-MCU successes have come about when it made things a little different. Wonder Woman (2017) was set during the First World War, a century before the events of the Justice League-era films. It also stood out among all superhero films up to that point by being both female-led and directed.

The hugely successful Joker (2019), meanwhile, was self-consciously separate from the rest of the DC universe from the outset. It made no effort to tie into other films, revelled in its 18 certificate and was nominated for Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director, winning them for Joaquin Phoenix in the lead role and Hildur Guonadottir's score. It probably didn't escape DC's notice, either, that the film took more than $1bn at the box office on a modest budget of about $60m.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from "Joker."  On Monday, Jan. 13, Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar for best actor for his role in the film. (Niko Tavernise/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)
Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from 'Joker' (2019). Phoenix won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in the film. AP

By bringing Keaton back into the fold, DC has the opportunity to reset its cinematic fare to a period before the rise of Marvel. In fact, it has the opportunity to do almost anything it wants. A key element of DC's comics is the “multiverse” – many timelines and versions of characters that co-exist without the need for continuity or the concept of the “canon”.

It's a concept that comic fans are comfortable with, though so far, none of the big players have dared try it out on mainstream cinema audiences. It has been trialled on TV audiences, however, with some success. American channel CW's Arrowverse actually featured a cameo from Ezra Miller's big-screen Flash alongside Grant Gustin's small-screen version. Now, it looks like Miller could be the first to test the multiverse on the big screen.

The Flash director Andy Muschietti has already revealed that he will be informed by the comic series Flashpoint, in which Barry Allen (The Flash) travels back in time to save his mother. The possibilities are almost infinite. Could The Flash travel back to Keaton's 1989 Gotham? Could Keaton's Batman travel forward to meet Miller's 2020 Flash, and if so, could he serve as a mentor to the 2020 youngsters such as Flash and Cyborg, and perhaps continue in that role in future films?

We'll have to wait until 2022 to be absolutely sure, but perhaps DC has concluded that its chance to better Marvel once again lies not in copying its intricately constructed universe and interlinked storylines, but in abandoning these completely and doing the exact opposite – by succeeding once again entirely on its own terms.