The news that Ben Affleck is starring in and writing (and possibly directing) his own stand-alone Batman film won’t come as a surprise to most. Rumours have abounded that he had written his own script since even before he made his debut in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
Most fans and nearly all critics were disappointed by what was essentially a confused and muddled Man of Steel 2 with Batman shoe-horned in for good measure. Next to a universal panning of the film there was near universal acclaim for the casting of Affleck as Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, which he pulled off with natural aplomb.
Like Daniel Craig in the years before the release of Casino Royale, Affleck got a cyberspace savaging about the appropriateness of the casting choice with most citing 2003’s nowhere-near-as-bad-as-they-remember Daredevil as the source of their acrimony.
Yet Affleck gets a tough time anyway and usually lives in the shadow of his friend Matt Damon. If Damon had never existed then neither would Affleck. Or so they say. Although both men shot to success with 1997’s Good Will Hunting (for which they both won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay), it’s Damon who is considered the breakout success likely because he was in the starring role.
The issue was compounded because Affleck struggled to compete with his friend’s early success. Only recently, beginning with 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, has Affleck found a winning streak. He won his second Academy Award for directing and starring in 2012’s Argo, garnered widespread critical acclaim in 2014’s Gone Girl and his role as Batman in 2016 was critically praised.
There is something apt then about Affleck playing an older, world-weary Bruce Wayne. There is also something infinitely enticing about a fine actor, but an even better director, taking control of his own superhero film when he creates critically lauded films as long as he is his own boss directing them.
Psychologists might dub Zack Snyder’s decision to have a long-dead Robin in Dawn of Justice as a metaphoric snub to those that have determined Affleck is the junior of the Matt and Ben story. Affleck, with creative control, could very find a natural home with Batman in the same way Damon found success with the Bourne series. No other live-action iteration of Wayne/Batman has ever looked like so much like the character from the comics. Certainly no other has actor has so successfully carried the handsome playboy-look in similitude with a Batman costume that makes you believe he really could take down ‘two-dozen hostiles’ ferociously, skilfully and brutally.
The only other series and the only other actor to do so is Kevin Conroy. For an entire generation, he is the definitive voice of the eponymous Batman in Batman: The Animated Series and more recently the Arkham game series. With Affleck’s record as a noted director and screenwriter, as well as his long-time association with director and Batman aficionado Kevin Smith, there is no real possibility of a live-action version of Batman that is true to its source material.
Full creative autonomy, as well as creative influences from Batman fans like Smith, would give Affleck licence to make his own Batman that could very well give audiences a Batman more akin to the comic books. While the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight series is rightly considered a masterpiece and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman an inaugural demonstration of how seismic a Batman film could be neither film series was a faithful adaptation of the comic in the same way 1979’s Superman was.
The surprise breakout success of 2016’s Deadpool has confirmed that audience appetites are wanting a story which is true to itself. Critically, the superhero genre is moving away from the gritty realism of the Nolan-era and into more faithful adaptions of the original material.
The mistake that a Warner Bros. and an Affleck film shouldn’t make is to conflate a love of Deadpool’s violence and humour with audiences wanting more of that in DC films. Marvel films have not made this error and the results are telling. They remain dominant in the superhero genre precisely because they have adapted cinema to tell the stories of comics rather than trying to adapt comics to the real world.
There is tremendous scope to explore who Batman who is in the comics without the rigmarole of another origin story. In fairness to Snyder, he has been brave in establishing two decades worth of backstory for this world-weary Bat and now it’s time to explore it all without all those cliched first introductions to villains and characters we’ve met plenty of times in the last 70 years.
A significant problem with Batman v Superman is that many of the plot points and supposed easter eggs had to be explained at press junkets because they were used as an enticing backdrop in the film but never accounted for. Why is Robin dead, why is Wayne Manor abandoned and just what happened to make this Batman more brutal? To name a few.
In this respect, Affleck has his job cut out for him to unravel the gordian knot of Snyder’s attempt. To put it another way, the prospect of Argo meets a Batman that combines the Snyder visuals with a story which is true to its source material is a palpable optimism. It also gives rise, given Affleck’s age, to the very real prospect that in ten or so years someone will make The Dark Knight Returns and not just a cheap homage like Dawn of Justice.
Until then, it’s up to Affleck to lay the groundwork, to move the character away from the ensemble-driven mess of the Snyder world and give some meaning to a character that is at risk of being underdeveloped.
If the ‘sad Affleck’ meme encapsulated the criticism of Batman v Superman then we should also take solace that the film cast him perfectly. If Affleck remembers he was guilty-by-association to Dawn of Justice, but embraces the praise for his iteration of the Dark Knight, then fans might finally get the hero they deserve (and the one it needs right now).