Bat Affleck: The Controversy that Ignores the Point
So. Ben Affleck is Batman.
It has been a long time since the casting of a superhero role caused as much of a collective groan and snarl from the legion of both filmic and comic fans (I think the last big one was the casting of Keanu Reeves in Constantine…)
Immediately the Internet was alight with nerd rage, amplified by the fans of the Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy, whose only point of comparison for Batman is Christian Bale. Instead we get Affleck. Gigli‘s Ben Affleck. Hero of the Michael Bay-verse for much of the early 2000’s. Star of the horrendous Daredevil film. Most recently, guy who directs movies about Boston accents and who forgets Canada had a role in that whole Argo affair (that was, you know, facilitated by the Canadian ambassador…)
“Why the hell is Ben-fucking-Affleck playing Batman?” the Internet demanded.
But to my mind, we’re asking the wrong question: everyone is so fixated on who got cast, that we’re ignoring the greater question (particularly in-light of the Man of Steel film): what kind of Batman are we getting and why?
If we’re getting the Batman I think we are, Affleck is a pretty damn good choice; but we can argue about that later. First, let’s take a look at what we know…
50 SHADES OF BATMAN
Batman has been around a long time and a lot of artists have had a hand in crafting the stories that have become the legacy of the bat. For example…
This is the original design for Batman, as imagined by the credited creator of the Dark Knight, Bob Kane. It wasn’t until un-lauded hero Bill Finger suggested a re-design that we got the Batman we now know and love. As a result, there have been many, many incarnations of Batman across the mediums, from comics, to cartoons, to films (and perhaps most importantly, in the imaginings and play acting of kids…who grow up to be fans…and write blogs…). Consequently, every incarnation chooses which elements to focus on and develop, allowing for a large amount of variation, despite the character being fundamentally the same. Grant Morrison offers this helpful summation of the eras of Batman in comics:
“[I was researching Batman’s rich history] from the savage, young, pulp-flavored ‘weird figure of the dark’ of his early years, through the smiling, paternal figure of the 1940s and the proto-psychedelic crusader of the ’50s, the superhero detective of the ’60s, the hairy-chested globetrotting adventurer of the ’70s, to the brutally physical vigilante of the ’80s and snarling, paranoid soldier of the ’90s.” (Morrison, Batman Incorporated Special #1)
The 60’s show brought us the wacky antics of the Golden Age comics (Batman meets the Native American Man of Bats!) In the films, we get a vaguely militaristic Batman in the 1989 Tim Burton film, a quirkier, cartoonist Batman in Forever, and buddy cop Batman in Batman and Robin. The cartoon takes an interesting mix, bringing more of a noir/detective sensibility to the character and also bringing us a more developed and present Bruce Wayne (one of the most singularly interesting facets of which was both Bruce and Batman referring to all his villains by their first names, rather than their super villain names. It’s a small touch, but an important one as Batman refuses to put up with their super villain non-sense…despite the whole ‘being dressed as a bat’ thing).
Which brings us to the Nolan Batman. Nolan’s Batman draws its inspiration most heavily from Frank Miller’s seminal Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, both of which are regarded as cornerstones of the mythology. Year One features a younger, less experienced Batman training in martial arts and beginning to fight the mob corruption of Gotham (sound familiar?). Dark Knight Returns, on the other hand, explores the opposite end of the spectrum, with a retired Batman returning to seize control of a Gotham in chaos, eventually faking his death in order to continue his work in secret (sound familiar as well?). In order to create his trilogy, Nolan draws from many of the strongest arcs and villains in the Batman universe: we get Ra’s Al Ghul and Talia Al Ghul, two of the most important (though generally unknown to non-readers) villains in the rogue’s gallery (Talia is the mother of Bruce’s ill-fated son -and most recent Robin- Damian). The multi-issue arc No Man’s Land saw Gotham cut off from America by an earthquake and becoming its own nation ruled by gangs (one of which was led by Commissioner Gordon) in lieu of an absentee Batman…until people start marking the walls with his logo signalling his return. With Bane, he brings in the Knightfall arc, which involved Batman’s spine being broken and cataloged the psychological toll recovery took on him (of particular note was his sudden reluctance to leap off buildings. A nice touch in an otherwise ham-fisted story). These are many of the fundamental stories about Batman and make for a fairly fascinating survey of the past few decades of stories…so what do you do now?
My guess is that you explore Detective Batman. Bale’s Batman was very much a brawler and a thug, like Daniel Craig’s Bond in Casino Royale: Bale’s Batman lets others (namely Lucius Fox) do the thinking for him, rushing headlong into many fights full of piss and vinegar, leading to Rachel’s death in the second film and his back breaking in the third. There’s very little detection, but plenty of reaction; it’s a passionate, fierce performance, but lacks the intelligence element of Batman. This is a superhero who can, at times, operate more like Sherlock Holmes than Bruce Lee. So, when rebooting a character so soon after an iconic take, it would make sense to explore this element of the character -as yet untapped in the live films- particularly when placing him next to a physical powerhouse like Superman.
With as iconic (and complete) a trilogy as Nolan’s Dark Knight series, you cannot simply reboot the character with a focus on the same elements: this is a fundamental issue in the new Spider-Man films; which present a better take on Peter, perhaps, but generally a worse universe and one not dissimilar enough from Raimi’s to warrant the reboot. They’re telling many of the same stories, but with a few details and players changed. Not good enough. Many people discussed the potential for a Batman Beyond film, something so different from Nolan’s that it could stand on its own.
Including Batman in the Man of Steel series is a clever workaround: it allows us to examine Batman through a different lens, not as THE hero of the film, but A hero of the film; something that is frequently visible in team books like Justice League and help us re-examine what specifically makes Batman Batman.
Thus, in order to figure out what kind of Batman we’re getting, we need to examine the film we’re getting him in: what kind of Batman lives in the Man of Steel universe?
Well, Zac Snyder has given us a pretty damn good clue:
REMEMBER MY HANDS
“I want you to remember, Clark, in all the years to come, in your most private moments. I want you to remember my hand at your throat. I want you to remember the one man who beat you.
In the press conference announcing Superman/Batman, the above line was spoken following the logo reveal. This immediately set the Internet alight, as the fight that line concludes is one of the most epic ever featured in a comic book: Batman and Superman come to blows in a fight to the death. Crazy. (There’s a passable film version, if you’re interested, but please ignore Peter ‘Robocop’ Weller’s horrendous Batman voice). The line is delivered after Batman has defeated Superman, re-emphasizing that using his brain and technology, a human has defeated a god. This is the grand climax of The Dark Knight Returns and the best example of a Batman and Superman fight ever.
That this line is the one used signals a lot of info about what we can expect (particularly given that Frank Miller is said to be consulting on the film). I gave Dark Knight Returns a re-read the other day and was surprised at how much has already been used in the Dark Knight Rises; we’ve seen reclusive, reluctant old-man Batman return to the fight and Nolan even included a verbatim set of lines (when the old cop tells the young cop that they’re in for a show) in the film. What’s left is the entire political undertone and Superman plot, which are an incredible, incredible resource, particularly given the close relationship Man of Steel has developed with the US military.
In a nutshell: Reagan (who is ancient and uses an avatar to do his PR appearances) has been using Superman -the last, licensed superhero- to help win the Cold War (think Dr. Manhattan in Watchman). The rest of the heroes were out on trial and generally decided to go their separate ways (Wonder Woman returned to the Amazons, Green Lantern to space), with only Superman still working…justifying the acts of war he is carrying out by the ‘doing the most good for the most people’ argument. Batman, meanwhile, has been defiant, retiring out of guilt over Jason Todd (the second Robin)’s death (which was determined by fans calling in to vote. LOL)
Now, his return and large scale vigilante actions (he recruits an army) has forced the government’s hand and Superman is sent in to take him down.
The dynamic at work here is awesome and fairly characteristic of how Batman and Superman differ: Superman, the big blue boyscout, is not concerned with the big picture, failing to grasp the greater politics at work (as Bruce says, “You let them do it. I always knew you would…I’ll assume Russia has taken the lead in the arms race. I keep track of these things, Clark. One of us has to.”)
Batman, on the other hand, has been keeping track of the global situation, but simply doesn’t care, focused instead on his personal crusade in Gotham. Superman works with the authorities, Batman defies them. Superman is a trusted weapon in the army’s arsenal, Batman ends up spending half his time fighting the police force in Gotham.
This dynamic is a useful basis for what we can reasonably expect from Superman/Batman given the heavy military presence and co-operation in Man of Steel (drone killing excepted): we already have a Superman who could reasonably be expected to co-operate with the military, so we will likely see a Batman who is on bad terms with the law and has perhaps detected something sinister about the motives of those commanding Superman (think Tony Stark’s paranoia about S.H.I.E.L.D. compared to Captain America’s trust and faith in The Avengers).
This is not to suggest that Superman is blindly naive (though he can be) nor that Batman is an infallible genius (though he can be), but to suggest that emphasizing Superman’s faith in people and in doing the right thing against Batman’s paranoia and push to seek the truth yields great dramatic results and ultimately makes them great partners (and friends!)
But what could bring Batman to Metropolis and who could maneuver Batman against Superman?
Well, there’s this bald guy…
My good friend -and film aficionado- Andrew Kelly presented a useful scenario: both Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne are giants of industry; people who would likely be instrumental in the rebuilding of a city…say one that has just been decimated by General Zod.
Also, since the relaunch in the New 52 (and indeed many of the Batman comics leading up to it, notably The Gates of Gotham and The Return of Bruce Wayne) Bruce Wayne has been focusing his non-crime fighting hours on building a better Gotham; like Luthor, he is now a viable business man to compete for or assist in the rebuilding of Metropolis. This leads me to think we’ll need a more competent Bruce Wayne than Bale’s, who despite some entertaining moments seemed a bit like an afterthought. In this, Affleck makes a lot of sense; the aging playboy with natural charm, though a bit rough around the edges. Maybe Gotham is in New England?
As to Luthor and Batman: Luthor makes perfect sense in any mythology as a business man, but he is also is particularly well suited to the ‘alien paranoia’ argument presented throughout Man of Steel. Luthor is always at his best when his overwhelming frustration at observing a being that is beyond human perfection drives him to commit evil acts: Luthor considers himself close to human perfection, but he cannot be Superman, an alien who is essentially cheating with powers to be the best. This ‘us-vs-them’ mentality fits the Kryptonians showed up and tried to commit planet-wide genocide events of Man of Steel and thus opens us an interesting angle for Batman as well: Luthor can likely bring the ‘there’s a super powered alien playing judge, jury, and executioner running around Metorpolis…how do you feel about that?’ argument, which is awesome. In Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ incredible Kingdom Come, Luthor forms a Human Rights League to band together and defeat the meta-humans, even convincing Bruce Wayne to join (albeit, as a feint), which again presents a very Man of Steel friendly scenario.
Also, Luthor is probably going to be Bryan Cranston. Awesome. Maybe Batman will come to Metropolis to break up Luthor’s meth operation?
This brings us around to another major point of contention we have now (and really, only in this mythology): Superman is now, very publicly, a killer. If there’s one thing Batman can’t abide, it’s killing.
In Kingdom Come, there is a beautiful argument between Superman and Batman, with Superman trying to convince Batman to aid him in putting a stop to the out-of-control younger generation of meta humans, who are killing wantonly.
“We aren’t killers, that’s why…” Etc etc
In fact, in the comics, Wonder Woman is the part of the DC ‘Trinity’ who crossed the line in the Infinite Crisis, killing a villain to huge debate from the League (this is a key point in Kingdom Come as well). As an Amazonian warrior, the ‘war’ with super villains takes a different tone that both Batman and Superman actively oppose. But now Superman is the killer, in a war scenario, but a killer nonetheless. This above statement (one that sums up many fans’ frustrations with Man of Steel), is not valid in this new mythology: how our new Batman reacts to this will be instructive.
In a recent statement, a DC exec said we’ll be seeing a ‘QUOTE’, which seems to support the arguments above. It dodges the pitfall of having to rehash an origin we’ve all seen one too many times (how awesome would more ‘super hero in progress’ movies be? Here’s a hint: unless it has Nazi-hunter Magneto, pretty damn awesome) and allows us to explore a jaded, but established Batman in opposition to the newly minted Superman of Man of Steel. Affleck’s role in The Town, which was well played though ultimately forgettable (partially because I liked the movie more when it was called Heat), was quite similar to this and he was great in it. He’s an actor who has seen a lot, hit the bottom careerwise, and earned his way back with great roles, great direction, and greater humility. We will not be seeing Daredevil era Affleck; we’re getting an actor we know has charm and presence, but has also seen some rough times. He’s at a perfect place in his career (now out of the woods) to be able to use those hard times to inform a long-fighting Batman who is already kind of tired when a super powered being arrives on the scene. I suspect we’ll be seeing a greater emphasis on Bruce Wayne and Affleck seems like a good fit; his slightly weary bearing is a great counterpoint for the steely optimism of Henry Cavill’s Superman. It is also instructive that Josh Brolin was also up for the role-he would make a great world-weary Bruce Wayne, but I have a harder time thinking of him in the cowl. From Daredevil, we already know Affleck can carry that (and to be fair, the cast -aside from Colin Farrell- was not the problem with Daredevil…the script and pacing were horrendous, but Affleck and Clark Michael Duncan were solid).
Ultimately, I don’t envy the casting directors who have to pick a new Batman. It’s a delicate balancing act, let alone all the concerns of a new script and reboot, and you’re casting for a decade, not a film (don’t be surprised if Wonder Woman shows up at the end of the film…maybe played by Samuel L Jackson). Superman/Batman is the next step toward Justice League (which was kicked further down the field by the absolute failure of Green Lantern, which was trying pretty hard to be a Marvel movie and was meant to be the start of the shared DC universe). Affleck obviously has big boots to fill, but he’s filling them as part of a team and ensemble, not alone. A lot of the pressure will be mitigated by having the focus shared between Superman and Batman hopefully offering him a chance to make a Batman all his own.
There is, of course, a chance that he will be terrible. Or merely okay, which could be worse, but there was a time when the world was pretty upset that that kid from A Knight’s Tale was going to be playing the Joker.
Whether Affleck succeeds or fails remains to be seen, but it’s a mistake to assume he’ll be playing the same character as Christian Bale: we’re getting a new Batman.
And I’m pretty damn sure it’ll be better than Constantine.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN…
There’s also a neat script floating around the Internet about the failed Superman/Batman film from a few years ago, which involves Bruce Wayne’s wife dying, Lex Luthor unleashing a clone Joker, and ends with Batman suggesting they get a beer and Superman asking to go for soda instead. It’s a really strange buddy cop film with superheroes. Read all about it over at Geek Tyrant.