Before Miller, Before Moore, Before Burton, there was Tom Mankiewicz’s The Batman

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In the early 80s, DC comics and Warner Bros were riding high off the one-two punches of Superman and Superman 2, both of which had been massive hits at the box office. Much can and has been said elsewhere about how that franchise quickly derailed, but it led the publisher/studio duo to finally sit down and work out an approach for bringing their other A-list property, Batman, to the big screen.

In the mainstream, Batman had become a bit of a sour name as the once beloved campy television series of the 60s became a subject of ridicule during the grim cultural revolution of the 70s, and comic fans especially were quick to avoid it as the team of Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams came along and stripped the funny from the caped crusader’s funny pages, partially going back to his roots as a stoic vigilante detective, prowling the crime-ridden streets of the town which claimed his parents, partially re-inventing the book with a rich mythology (Ra’s al Ghul was introduced during this run) and complex psychological studies of both the crazed rogue’s gallery of villains, as well as the tormented hero himself. Frank Miller and Alan Moore are often miscredited with throwing Batman back into the dark waters of trauma and urban horror, but that road was already being well paved in 1970.

Alas, this deep, gritty Batman was still largely only known among the comic fans, as it was the ’66 tv series, still playing in reruns, which had flooded the mainstream and set the broader image of what people believed Batman was and should be. So as the studio moved forward, the question arose as to what angle they should aim for: gritty or campy. The swaying between, and often awkward merging of the two, is evident in every single one of the four films which were ultimately made, from 1989’s Batman to 1997’s Batman & Robin.

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The first writer they brought in was Tom Mankiewicz. I know many of us here are familiar with his work on the first two Superman films. I thought I knew his work there, but was surprised upon reading the earlier script by David & Leslie Newman and Robert Benton, just how much wasn’t written by him, at least for the first film (nearly the entire plot, beat by beat, and even most of the dialogue came from their draft, he just tidied it up a little – hence, his deserved place in the credits). For the second, he rewrote a much more significant amount, albeit mostly in material only found in the Richard Donner cut, as the Newmans returned with new director Richard Lester and brought back much of their earlier draft.

I’m getting sidetracked, but I’m just trying to place for us where this man was at the time. He did a polish on the first Superman, for which he was denied credit, then a heavy rewrite of the second, which was mostly discarded. Thus, I’m surprised not only that Warner went to Mankiewicz with Batman, but that he signed on. Maybe it has something to do with their disputes with the Salkinds, who ran off with the Superman property for a while, and snapping up a noted writer those awful producers discarded was a way of sticking it to them. However it went, Mankiewicz is by no means a bad writer, but nor have I found him to be particularly great, as evidenced by additional work I’ve seen on Diamonds Are Forever, Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, Mother, Jugs, & Speed, and Dragnet (the film, not the series). Tom had a gift for snappy little comedy bits, likeable romantic leads, and catchy oneliners (hence my surprise how few of those were his in Superman), but his taste levels widely vary, with comedy slipping in where it shouldn’t, awkward dramatic beats, and generally uneven plot construction.

Bringing us to The Batman. There is an earlier draft floating around, a revised first dated October 1983, but I’m focusing on the later revised second draft, dated January 1984. Skimming the first, I only see some minor changes between the two.

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We open on the Waynes in 1960. Thomas, a doctor, is running for City Council, and decides to hit the town with his wife, Martha, and son, Bruce, before his likely win leaves him unavailable. Sure enough, they’re gunned down by a thug named Joe Chill, in a hit designed (by a giggling, shadowed man in a purple suit) to guarantee the councilman spot will be won by Thomas’s rival, Rupert Thorne. Bruce, bent on vengeance, begins his training, and from childhood, through his teen years, to the start of college, he sculpts his body with all forms of athletics and martial arts training, while also honing his other senses and filling his mind with as many skills as he can. He also shoots up the ladder at his father’s company, left to him in a trust, when it’s discovered he has a shrewd business sense and a good eye for potential stocks (mainly, McDonalds).

Shortly after college, he hits a snag as he’s distracted by two things: women and sex. He is, after all, able to quickly master any skill he sets his mind to, even the stimulation of female genitalia. He’s just not very good at building relationships, so he keeps skipping from stimulated genitalia to stimulated genitalia, leaving him a favored subject of the tabloids. He’s shocked out of this one night when he witnesses another couple and their child dragged into an alley by muggers. The father is killed before Bruce can intervene, but he chases down the thugs and beats them senseless in the street for the police to find. Later, while dwelling on old memories in his childhood room, part of the wall breaks away to reveal a pit leading down to a cave filled with bats.

The Batman suddenly appears, montaging his way through Gotham’s crime as a harried Commissioner Gordon (David instead of Jim) struggles to keep up, especially with the Mayor and Councilman Thorne always hounding him. Batman breaks into his office one night, though, and the two strike up a partnership, culminating in the controversial use of the Batsignal, which catches the department flack for not being able to manage crime on their own. They quickly switch to red phones.

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One night, Batman comes across an aged Joe Chill, but instead of killing the man, Bruce instead tries to get from him the name of who ordered the hit on the Waynes. In his fright, Chill dies of a heart attack before he can tell.

That’s just the first third of the script. After the Chill encounter, Bruce starts falling back on his nights as Batman, wondering what he has left to achieve, especially as he starts falling in love with Silver St. Cloud, the assistant and mistress of Rupert Thorne. During all of this, the Joker has started to appear, and along with his gang of Keystone Kop-dressed thugs, starts spreading chaos around town, drumming up negative publicity against the Mayor. The Mayor is ultimately killed by the Joker, leading Rupert Thorne – Joker’s partner, of course – to be placed as interim Mayor.

With Bruce stepping back from his costumed battles, this also leaves an opening as another Batman starts appearing around town, often at events where Bruce is also present. He’s making a bad image of the dark knight, again drumming up public agitation, culminating in the deaths of the Grayson family during a fundraiser at a circus. Batman now has warrants out charging him with murder, and when Bruce takes young Dick Grayson under his wing, he’s distressed to learn the boy has dedicated his life to seeking revenge… by killing Batman.

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Some other stuff happens, with Thorne and Joker having some tiffs when we realize Joker is the ultimate mastermind here, not Thorne, Silver is kidnapped, and Dick follows Bruce and Alfred into the Batcave, witnessing his foster big buddy’s identity change, and slipping on his own makeshift costume to pursue.

The climax recreates the classic ’58 comic story “The Million Dollar Clues” in a museum filled with gigantic desk supplies – ruler, pens, erasers, thumb tacks, phone, pencil sharpener – with much of the action centered on a giant typewriter, where Silver is stuck on the ink ribbon, and Batman on the lettered ball slamming into the giant paper as Joker gleefully shoots one key after another. Robin swoops in and frees them, and a huge fight breaks out, during which Thorne shoots Silver in the back, and Batman sends him down into the pencil sharpener.

Silver survives, though, carted off to the hospital, fully aware of who Batman is beneath his mask. Joker is taken away in cuffs, the city once again embraces their hero, and our final shot is the dynamic duo atop a skyscraper.

I was surprised by this script, which I expected to be funnier. While it is littered with zingers and comedy bits, and does have moments which echo the ’66 tv series (particularly a montage bit of Batman accepting the key to the city and making a speech, as well as those red phones), Mankiewicz largely plays it straight. When Batman is doing his Batman thing, he’s a scary, brooding figure who knocks heads and longs for his lost parents. Even in the climax, the giant props just make for a unique setpiece as Batman being slammed around on the typewriter is genuinely played for peril instead of laughs. The humor is a little uneven, especially in much of the writing of the Joker, who has some chilling bits, but is largely just spouting Mad Magazine oneliners or hooting like Caesar Romero; there’s even a bit where he’s chasing the Batmobile around by the literal seat of his pants as he has a toy helicopter hooked to the back of his belt. Some of this could have been smoothed over, and there’s also some uncomfortable bits of the times, like sexist jabs at the ladies, and Gordon going on in a prolonged bit about “kooky transexuals” when he hears the first descriptions of Batman’s appearance.

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The plotting is also kind of a mess. We’ve seen from Superman and Batman Begins that burning through the entire backstory in an extended first act lasting just under half the length of the film can be done, but it feels like more could have been worked out here to ease us into the main story, as the Joe Chill encounter kinda comes out of nowhere and is over very quickly, when it could have had more of a dramatic punch had they sat on it longer. And threads like Joker framing Batman, while better executed here than in Batman Returns, feel under explored, the reveal of Rupert Thorne and Joker’s partnership is drawn out when it’s pretty obvious by ten pages in, and the Graysons literally come out of nowhere in the last quarter of the script, with their scene placed where a climax should be, only to wander the story off in another direction until the actual climax shows up. There’s too much going on here, and despite this being several drafts in by this point, very little of it is constructed very well. They have all the pieces, but they still feel like separate elements, without enough interweaving to tighten things up. As I said before, this is one of Mankiewicz’s unfortunate hallmarks.

And yet, it’s still not a bad script. It does need work, but for an early draft, this does build a firm foundation another writer could have cleaned up, and all the elements are there for a story. In fact, the romance with Silver St. John is much richer than I expected, as she’s a smart character who’s constantly active in the plot, given her simultaneous relationships with both Bruce and Thorne – which I appreciated her never being judged or criticized for, especially given all the women Bruce burns through by an hour in – and her shooting while saving Batman is a hard dramatic punch, with her survival feeling earned instead of cheap.

And the Joker, while his jokes fall flat most of the time, is actually quite menacing and strategic. In moves very closely resembling what Nolan would do in The Dark Knight, he’s a mysterious figure who rolls in without an origin, intent on spreading chaos, turning the public against the system and bringing down law and order. So we have very Nolan-esque scenes of him and his goons crashing a party Bruce is holding in Gordon’s honor just to show they can break into a place swarming with cops, or holding the entire city hostage with the promise of killing one random person every time Batman is merely sighted, which Joker makes good on by starting with the Mayor. And even the revelation that he’s the one who put Thorne in power, just so he can ultimately have even the Mayorship at his beck and command, is chilling.

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I’m not saying this directly inspired the Nolan films, but there were so many times where it felt like I’d uncovered an early draft of what would become the first two installments of his trilogy. Batman and Gordon first meeting in the cop’s office. The deflated attempt to face Joe Chill. A chase where the Batmobile, a tricked out mix between a humvee and drag racer, is leaping from buildingtop to buildingtop, with Bruce’s love in the passenger seat. There’s so many little moments that parallel the two films, that I’m impressed how well Mankiewicz tapped into the material, hitting many of the same points as Nolan and his collaborators.

Which I again credit to Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams, as it was their material both adaptations were ultimately calling back to. It’s worth noting that two of the most important Batman stories, which also not only influenced the Nolan films, but Burton’s ultimate adaptation, had not yet appeared by the time Mankiewicz wrote his drafts. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns wouldn’t hit until 1986, and Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke came in 1988. These are two of the most famous and influential Batman tales ever told, and it says a lot that, even without them, Mankiewicz was able to capture much of what would later come to be credited to their inspiration.

Alas, when Burton came into the project, he did what he usually does and threw the script out, starting over from scratch with new writers. I looked hard, but there’s not a shred of this script which made it to the finished film, no snippets of dialogue, no little moment or scene, beyond what came from mining of the same source material. This script has nothing to do with Burton’s muddled film. Yet, the fact that it played so many of the notes later mastered by Nolan still makes it a captivating glimpse of what could have been. Imagine seeing much of what came in the gamechangers that were Batman Begins and The Dark Knight instead making it to the screen 20 years earlier. Yes, in a different form, and lacking in Nolan’s puzzles and dry depth, but this still leaves me wondering what wildly different of a franchise we’d be looking at today had we started with Tom’s take.

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Noel Thingvall is a blogger and podcaster from Minnesota, and can be found at The Noel Network.

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