Well, wrong suit, but close enough.
Since Thursday evening, the internet — nay, the whole of Planet Earth, and possibly galaxies beyond — have been abuzz with the news that Batman’s cape and cowl, last donned by Christian Bale, will be taken up by Ben Affleck when the Dark Knight returns to the big screen in 2015′s sequel to this summer’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel. A sequel to a reboot of another character’s series? Those of you who don’t follow these things might find all of this too confusing. So let me take you back about a month.
It’s Saturday, July 20th, day three of Comic-Con 2013, and the San Diego Convention Center’s famed Hall H is awash in the stale, pungent stench that can only result when 6,000+ geeks pack into a large, windowless room, surging with adrenaline and not daring to exit for food or bathroom breaks during or even between panels, for fear that they might lose their seat or miss a major reveal. A reveal, for example, like the one made during that day’s Warner Bros. panel by Man of Steel director Zack Snyder, who teased the crowd with news that in the next Superman film, the hero would square off against the Caped Crusader.
I know that fanboys were creaming themselves at this news — an ejaculation of collective excitement that surely wasn’t helping the air quality in Hall H — but I have to say as someone who was never a comic book reader, I don’t really get the appeal of Superman vs. Batman. I know there is a long history of these two meeting up in the pages of DC Comics — sometimes as friends, sometimes as enemies — and I can see the attraction of having them fight side by side. But why do I want to see them fight each other? They’re both heroes, even if far apart ideologically. From what I understand, the source of conflict between the two — when it exists — is that Batman sees Superman as a boy scout whose vision (aside from being laser) is black in white in a word of grey, while Superman rejects Batman’s M.O. of revenge-fueled, vigilante justice. Maybe the past stories of antagonism between the two always give eventual way to a coming together against a common enemy. I don’t know. Like I said, I haven’t read the comics. But it does seem clear that pitting the two against each other in the upcoming movie is meant to be more than just a brief skirmish before they eventually join up (think Iron Man, Thor and Captain America pummeling each other in a scene from The Avengers). I’ll tell you one thing: if this clash of the titans is anything like the never-ending battles between Superman and Zod in Man of Steel, you can wake me when it’s over.
The Comic-Con announcement was made using a passage of dialogue from Frank Miller’s seminal 1986 graphic novel, The Dark Knight Returns. Snyder introduced Man of Steel actor Harry Lennix to read a brief snippet of dialogue from that book, and those familiar with Miller’s story knew what it meant. Those who didn’t got the picture a moment later when the Superman logo appeared on the screen, encased after a few seconds by the Batman logo. Snyder added that the currently untitled follow-up to Man of Steel would not necessarily be adapted from The Dark Knight Returns, but that the dialogue Lennix read represented the gist of what the filmmakers intended for the next installment. The decision to bring Batman into the Man of Steel sequel seemed to me like Warner Bros. and Snyder lacked confidence that their new Superman could support his own franchise. Before even giving him a chance to thrive on his own, he’s being paired with another iconic protagonist. But maybe the studio and DC are just in a rush to compete with Marvel’s Avengers success by building toward an already announced Justice League movie.
So that’s the background, which returns us to Thursday evening and the announcement that Ben Affleck will be playing Batman in the new movie. Even the Comic-Con bombshell caused less of a shockwave than word of Affleck’s casting. I’m not sure last November’s news that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and would be making new Star Wars movies generated as much fevered chatter as this has. Some are fine with the choice. More appear to be indifferent. Most are outraged, and seem to think that this casting is a crime worthy of trial at Nuremberg.
Me, I’m just surprised. I can’t figure out why Affleck would be interested in such a move at this moment in his career. To understand why it puzzles me, let’s jump back in time again. After Good Will Hunting, Affleck and Matt Damon were Hollywood’s new golden boys. The following year, they each played supporting roles in prestige projects that competed for the Best Picture Oscar (Damon in Saving Private Ryan, Affleck in Shakespeare in Love). They also reunited on-screen in 1999 for pal Kevin Smith’s Dogma. But by and large, those next several years after Good Will Hunting were marked by forgettable movies from Affleck. Boiler Room struck a chord, and Changing Lanes was pretty good, but these were bright spots amidst a spate of bland studio fare and would-be blockbusters that included Pearl Harbor, Reindeer Games, Daredevil (another DC Comics property), Paycheck, Jersey Girl, The Sum of All Fears, Surviving Christmas and the dreaded Gigli. High profile romances with Jennifer Lopez and Gwyneth Paltrow didn’t help his falling public persona, and by 2004 Affleck was both punchline and punching bag (as this example shows).
So he smartly withdrew from the public eye for a couple of years. He married good girl Jennifer Garner, started a family, and re-emerged with a supporting role in the 2006 drama Hollywoodland, earning praise for his performance as George Reeves, star of TV’s Adventures of Superman. But it was the following year that Affleck really silenced the naysayers, impressing critics and audiences with his directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone. Anyone who dismissed his success behind the camera as a fluke was proven wrong by his follow-up, the extremely well-received heist drama The Town. And then came Argo, which swept through the 2012 award season with multiple wins for Best Director and Best Picture (including an Oscar for the latter). As Affleck’s directing career has ascended, he’s worked less frequently as an actor (outside of his own movies), being more selective about the movies he’s chosen to appear in, and balancing lead roles with supporting.
So here he is, director of the reigning Best Picture winner, reigning Best Director recipient from the Director’s Guild of America, back on top of the Hollywood food chain, no longer hunting for goodwill. He’s settled on his next directing gig — an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel Live By Night — and has accepted the male lead in David Fincher’s adaptation of the Gillian Flynn bestseller Gone Girl. With things going so well, I can’t see the upside for him in taking on the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman in a sequel to Man of Steel.
Accepting his Best Director award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts earlier this year, Affleck poignantly spoke of being given a second act by the film industry. He echoed that sentiment when accepting Argo‘s Oscar for Best Picture. So why now, when his directing career is on fire, would he step back into the kind of commercial product that brought his career to a screeching halt in the first place? Man of Steel‘s reviews were pretty evenly split between positive and negative, and although audiences have turned it into a $200 million-plus hit, opinions seem just as divided. (I was disappointed, though the problems I had might not necessarily be an issue with the sequel.) I mention the critical and box office reception to point out that as blockbusters go, jumping onto the next Superman movie is hardly a career killer. It just isn’t something Affleck needs right now, and seems like a distraction from continuing on his post Argo trajectory.
Did he do it for money? Maybe, but come on…a guy like Affleck doesn’t have to make a move like this solely for financial reasons, and I would think that continuing to capitalize on his directing heat would be more appealing than donning spandex and cashing a many zeroed check. Did he do it to strengthen his business relationship with Warner Bros., possibly gaining the cache to direct a less commercial project down the line that might otherwise face an uphill battle to secure funding? It’s been done before. Whether it’s acting in a big studio movie and then a small indie, or acting in a big studio movie and then directing a small passion project, the one-for-them, one-for-me mentality goes back to John Cassavetes appearing in movies like The Dirty Dozen and Rosemary’s Baby, if not further. But Affleck’s movies as a director have been profitable for Warner, and well received by audiences and critics. While not blockbusters, his movies are solidly commercial, so unless he’s eyeing something particularly obscure, I can’t imagine he’d have trouble getting bankrolled any time soon.
It’s more understandable that Warner would want Affleck. His strongest relationship at the studio over these past few years has been with Jeff Robinov, who was president of Warner Bros. Picture Group until studio politics led to his recent departure. Robinov had a reputation as a filmmaker’s champion, enjoying close relationships with people like Affleck, Baz Luhrmann (both of whom commented on his situation as it was unfolding), Christopher Nolan, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Their loyalty to Robinov leaves future collaborations with Warner Bros. uncertain, so it’s no surprise that the studio courted Affleck to take on a cornerstone role like Batman. He’s already been given first shot at directing many of their projects in development, including — apropos of this new development — the eventual Justice League movie, a job which Affleck turned down. But he will make Live By Night for Warner, and he was apparently planning to write and direct the studio’s adaptation of Stephen King’s classic, The Stand. (Less than 24 hours after announcing Affleck would play Batman, Warner revealed that The Stand would shift to Scott Cooper, director of the Jeff Bridges Oscar winner Crazy Heart and this December’s highly anticipated Out of the Furnace. I hope any plans for The Stand involve more than one film, because even a three-and-a-half hour running time won’t do justice to that tome…but that’s another discussion.)
By securing Affleck for a prominent role in a major franchise, the Warner Bros. leadership can show Affleck that they are committed to the relationship. In the announcement, studio exec Greg Silverman said, “We knew we needed an extraordinary actor to take on one of DC Comics’ most enduringly popular Super Heroes, and Ben Affleck certainly fits that bill, and then some. His outstanding career is a testament to his talent and we know he and Zack will bring new dimension to the duality of this character.” Sue Kroll, Warner Bros. Pictures’ president of worldwide marketing and international distribution, added, “We are so thrilled that Ben is continuing Warner Bros.’ remarkable legacy with the character of Batman. He is a tremendously gifted actor who will make this role his own in this already much-anticipated pairing of these two beloved heroes.” Clearly, the studio wants to stay in the Ben Affleck business.
In addition, the studio will no doubt want to spin the Man of Steel sequel off into the next series of Batman films. The clock is ticking on rebooting that franchise now that the Nolan/Bale trilogy is done. After all, studios seem to think that audiences will lose all interest in a franchise if it isn’t relaunched within five years of the previous version – see Hulk, Spiderman, and Superman himself. Does that mean Affleck is committing to carrying on the Batman role in multiple movies, including Justice League? (Maybe they’re hoping he will change his mind about directing that DC answer to The Avengers.) Nothing has been officially announced beyond the Man of Steel sequel, but sources say that Affleck’s deal does include more than one time up at bat. I always take “sources” with a grain of salt, but in this case I’m inclined to believe it. Why would Warner cast Affleck as Batman if they didn’t intend for him to stick around?
That’s another reason that Affleck’s decision puzzles me. Let’s assume Warner Bros. will want him for at least three standalone Batman movies, plus Justice League. That means he’s looking at a long-term commitment that might prevent him from accepting more logical acting roles in between his directing gigs. By logical, I mean acting for great directors he could observe for his own developing method. The late, great Sydney Pollack used to say that even after years of directing, he would still take acting roles in films by the likes of Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick in order to observe them in action. That’s exactly what Affleck should be doing. His decision to star for Fincher in Gone Girl makes sense, as did taking the lead in Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. But what is he going to learn from Zack Snyder? How to fetishize tormented, provocatively attired girls? (That’s not fair; I’ve never seen Sucker Punch. The trailer pummeled me into a brutal migraine, and I worried the full movie might kill me.)
After working so hard to rebuild his image, Affleck has put himself right back in moviegoers’ crosshairs by accepting the role of Batman. As I said earlier, the reaction amongst fans seems to be primarily vitriolic. If opinions are in fact more evenly split, it’s the dissenters that are making the most noise, as is usually the case. Petitions calling for Affleck’s removal from the project garnered thousands of signatures within a day of the news. Then again, these over-the-top reactions are nothing new when it comes to casting an iconic character, particularly in this franchise. When Christopher Nolan told the world that Heath Ledger would be playing The Joker, fans were skeptical at best, incensed at worst. Check out the graphic embedded here, showing various online responses to the news. I would love to see what all those people had to say once they finally saw Ledger take a wrecking ball to their concerns with his spectacular performance. And let’s not forget the response when Tim Burton cast Michael Keaton as Batman back in the 80′s. The internet didn’t exist yet to document the disbelief and disappointment, but word got around nonetheless. Then the movie came out, and Keaton’s performance was roundly applauded. So Affleck may yet have the angry mob eating its words. I hope so. I would love to see him prove them all wrong. I’m more interested in why he would play Batman than I am in whether he can. I don’t know if he has the right stuff for the character. I do know that statements like the ones made by Warner execs Silverman and Kroll, calling him an “extraordinary” and “tremendously gifted” actor, don’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Affleck has a twinkle in his eye and a charm that serves him well in roles with a comedic bent, as well as a penchant for quiet weariness that suited his self-directed work in The Town and Argo. But let’s not pretend his acting gifts are broad and varied. He doesn’t have the range or subtlety of his buddy Damon. That weariness I mention could absolutely work for Batman, while the playfulness could befit Bruce Wayne. I suppose it all depends on how Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer choose to present the character.
Even if Affleck is rejected in the role once people actually see it, I’m confident his credibility will survive thanks to his proven track record as a director. He’ll bounce back relatively unscathed in the long run. But why open himself up to the abuse in the first place? He’s been making the most of the second act that he spoke of in the BAFTA speech above, and this move just doesn’t seem in keeping with that revival. Just like after Good Will Hunting, Ben Affleck is once again a golden boy in Hollywood. I’m not sure why he wants to go down this road, but I’m rooting for him to stay golden.