Preface: I don’t really have a dog in the entire “who should play Batman next” fight, and as a general rule I don’t find rampant fan-casting to be either productive or a rewarding use of my time*. More than that, I don’t really care for the current big-screen iteration of Batman (outside of The Dark Knight, a film I enjoy but consider flawed, I think Nolan’s Bat-franchise happens to be one of the most overrated contemporary movie trilogies), and I presume that DC’s intention going forward is to rely on those films as canon when building their Justice League brand in time to counter Marvel’s Avengers pictures.
And yet here I am writing about Ben Affleck signing a multi-picture deal to play the Dark Knight anyways. More’s the fool me.
Affleck’s casting, however, actually matters. Had the series gone the way of the expected and summoned Joseph Gordon-Levitt to take up the Caped Crusader’s mantle, I strongly suspect the Internet would not have buckled beneath the strain of being taken aback. Not to cast aspersions on Gordon-Levitt’s popularity or his talent, of course, but seeing John Blake become Batman – or Nightwing, at the very least** – would have been obvious. Casting Affleck, formerly one of filmdom’s big jokes and now one of Hollywood’s crown princes following his critical and commercial success with Argo, may be puzzling to some, surprising to others, and an outrage to others still, but one thing’s for certain: it’s exciting for everybody.
The big argument against Affleck playing Bruce Wayne in Man of Steel 2 – to be titled either Batman vs Superman or Superman vs Batman, a real sizzler of a decision if ever there was one – seems to hinge on the days when his job revolved around standing in front of the camera. Admittedly, those aren’t days most of us want to revisit; if you, like me, sat through Gigli, or Pearl Harbor, or Jersey Girl, you remember the zenith of Affleck’s most unflattering in-frame appearances and roles. There was a time when everyone thought he’d peaked with Good Will Hunting and that Matt Damon – the more dynamic leading man of the two – had a more promising future.
Nobody imagined that Affleck had a Gone Baby Gone or an Argo in him (or even a The Town, a film I didn’t like as much as his other two efforts but still admire nonetheless). But lo, he did, and at this point he can very nearly write his own ticket in Tinseltown. That’s not enough for the diehards and faboys, though; he hasn’t done enough to wash the taste of his awful fledgling acting efforts out of their mouths, apparently, though one can only imagine how high geeks have set the bar Affleck has to leap over to win their approval. (He hasn’t redirected the flow of a mighty river to cleanse the Augean stables; maybe he should give that a try.)
So where does that leave us? With a man who, after a rocky career start that seemed destined to solidify his name as a punchline in the annals of film history, has built himself up into one of the premiere filmmakers of his day. (Maybe a bit of an overstatement – he’s only directed three films – but it’s clear that he’s found new life as a storyteller.) Your mileage may vary as regards to any improvements in his acting; he’ll always be stigmatized as Larry Gigli for a number of moviegoers, but even though his skills as a performer have grown since his salad days, there’s just no pleasing some people.
In cases like this, however, the best course of action may be to ignore them. This isn’t even meant as a lead-in to a “he’ll do better in the role than Bale did” bit of analysis, either. Bale made a fine Batman; Affleck probably will, too. That’s because the basic idea of Batman is immutable, likely a challenge to play in the strictest terms possible but still accessible in the sense that Batman – for every flourish and nuance brought to the role by Bale, Keaton, West, and every other person to portray the world’s greatest detective – is always Batman no matter how he’s reinterpreted. He’s a tragic and complex figure, yes, but the real challenge to playing him may well lie in individualizing the ticks one adopts to bring him to life.
If Affleck doesn’t have the widest skill set as an actor, he still has the essential tools to distinguish his own Batman from Bale’s. Distilling Patton Oswalt’s sharp, insightful defense of the casting news into simple terms, Affleck has life experience on his side; he knows what it’s like to make the long, arduous climb back to the top after plummeting down to Earth on an incendiary trajectory of abject failure. He’s built his persona from the ground up and refashioned his name into a synonym for quality and success. Does that sound like Batman to anyone? Maybe in a straight-up comparison, Affleck doesn’t measure up to Bale as a thespian, but he’s more than capable of bringing the character to life.
But that doesn’t satisfy the other quotient of protestors, comprised of people who actually like Affleck and want to see him keep on making movies like Argo. Between the two complaining parties, this is easier to abide, if only because Affleck has moved into the phase of his career where he’s actually living up to the potential we thought he had in 1997. There’s a problem with the idea that if he gets wrapped up in a handful of Batman films, he’ll never make that Whitey Bulger biopic with Damon or output another Academy-level picture ever again. It’s the Blockbuster Dilution conundrum; the more a legitimate talent becomes involved in “low” art pursuits like comic book movies, the less he’ll produce work with “real” creative value.
Except that’s not necessarily the case. True, this turn of events means he’s cemented into making a handful of Batman films – whether that means two, three, or six is anyone’s guess – but there’s something to be said for currency and clout in Hollywood. Several somethings, in fact, because when you can hang your hat on a billion dollar movie franchise, pitching your ideas for smart, sharp, fresh studio thrillers to a room full of producers becomes much, much easier. Having an Argo on your resume is one thing; having a The Dark Knight Rises is something else entirely. How many Live By Nights do you think that could buy him?
There aren’t many people working in Hollywood who make movies like Argo, especially not at the level Affleck can make them. If he can trade comic book movie revenue for more of the movies people actually want him to make, then that seems like a pretty fair bargain. That may not make the idea of him playing Batman any more exciting, but consider the upside – which happens to be quite great – and his new affiliation with DC’s cineverse becomes that much more palatable.
*In fact, I wanted to subtitle this piece, ‘Shut Up And Stop Whining’.
**This announcement still leaves room for him to do that, too.