It is something of an irony that the role of Batman, while being perhaps the most sought after in comic book movies, requires its vessel to downplay any showy tendencies to capture the enigmatic spirit of DC’s caped crusader. Michael Keaton, not previously known for soft-pedalled subtlety on screen, knew that Jack Nicholson’s Joker would get all the great lines in 1989’s Batman, and Heath Ledger stole the show so completely as the clown prince of Gotham in 2008’s The Dark Knight that some of us wondered privately if Christopher Nolan ought to have renamed the movie.
It is to Christian Bale’s credit that he remains by far the most celebrated Batman despite employing an eloquently taciturn approach to the role: always at the centre of the action, yet never crowding the mise-en-scène. Throughout Nolan’s trilogy of films, Bale seems to slip in and out of the shadows at the optimum moment – always there to drive the narrative but never overpowering the storyline. In many ways, it is a self-sacrificing turn worthy of Batman himself: he is the eternal straight man to a cavalcade of sneering, leering villains who gleefully mop up all available attention.
How then, to react to the news that the the Welsh-born actor is finally set to return to comic book movies, eight years (though it somehow feels like more) since casting off the cape and cowl for the final time following the climactic events of 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises? Bale is being touted for a high-profile role in Thor: Love and Thunder, the much-anticipated latest instalment in Marvel’s revamped saga of the Norse god.
This may not be the Sean Connery-style latter day return to playing Batman that fans of Nolan’s triptych would love to see – Robert Pattinson looks a shoo-in to retain the role for at least the next few movies after signing on for Matt Reeves’ The Batman. But it’s undoubtedly a fabulous time for Bale to be joining the Marvel series. Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok reinvigorated Chris Hemsworth’s son of Odin, playing brilliantly on the Australian actor’s newfound comedy chops and establishing him as the kind of freewheeling cosmic adventurer that the Guardians of the Galaxy might easily find themselves bumping into (they duly did in Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame). Thor himself handed the mantle of king of Asgard to Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie at the end of the latter movie, which means the known cosmos is suddenly his infinite oyster.
Marvel is also borrowing tantalisingly from the daring 2014 comic book storyline Original Sin, in which Thor’s human, cancer-suffering sometime-partner Jane Foster takes up the hammer Mjölnir and becomes the new Thor. How that affect’s Hemsworth’s role – in the comics he is reduced to the role of “Odinson” – remains to be seen. Natalie Portman, so under-used as Foster in previous instalments, will return to the role in the new episode.
Bale is being mooted to play Thor’s uncle Cul, otherwise known as the god of fear, as Marvel continues to expand the boundaries of the Norse deity’s extended family following the debut of Cate Blanchett as his nefarious sister Hela in Thor: Ragnarok. In the comics, Cul joins Thor’s angry father Odin in his battle to retrieve Mjölnir from Foster – in the movie it is likely to be Cul alone who vies to retrieve the sacred weapon, given that Anthony Hopkins’ Odin died in Ragnarok.
Blanchett had all kinds of fun playing the goddess of death as a slinky, gothic, all-powerful queen of the underworld, which perhaps explains why Bale is keen on joining Marvel’s pantheon of crazy. Not since American Psycho has the Oscar-winner had the chance to play a truly operatic, bombastic baddie, a role of scenery-chewing fury – the anti-Batman. Perhaps he will now get his opportunity.