Ben Affleck is now the Timothy Dalton of Batman actors. The films in which he appeared were polarizing, the public… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…—
Dan Marcus (@Danimalish) January 31, 2019
Dan Marcus is right in that assessment.
Thinking about Bond’s legacy, Timothy Dalton didn’t have the easiest of rides. He famously replaced the studios’ top choice in Pierce Brosnan (who had to fulfil his contract obligations to Remington Steele after it was reactivated during its brief cancellation). He had to follow in the footsteps of a very popular Bond in Roger Moore whose interpretation was far removed from Fleming’s original intention. However, his natural charm and campy wit won audiences over. Tonally, the fun and lampooning escapism that suited Moore well was never going to fit Dalton’s style, correctly opting to go back to Bond’s roots as a cold-blooded yet complex spy. Just read Casino Royale, and Fleming’s description of Bond is a solid match for Dalton in comparison to Daniel Craig or even fan favourite Sean Connery for example.
Yet his tenure was filled with the criticisms that he was ‘too dark’, ‘too edgy’, ‘too moody’ and ‘not suitable for kids’. After the release of Licence to Kill, the franchise became embroiled in litigation hell, and the studio was forced to restructure due to Cubby Broccoli’s poor health. The never-ending delays eventually took its toll, and Dalton handed in his standard issue Walther PPK and walked away from Bond in 1994.
It’s hard not to see the similar parallels between Timothy Dalton and Ben Affleck. Thrust into the franchise spotlight in challenging circumstances, both actors eventually walked away with an unfulfilled potential, and ‘dreams of what could have been’.
The Batman juggernaut continues to move ahead (as it always does), but the excitement is overshadowed by Ben’s recent announcement. Cryptic it may sound, but it’s the growing sense that he’s hanging up his cape and cowl and passing the torch to the new generation. The decision was anti-climatic for sure, given the off and on again rumours that dogged his tenure. But we’ve now gone from an actor who was going to act, direct and produce to someone hoping The Batman will be covered on their MoviePass subscription in 2021!
Joking aside (and that includes the Sad Affleck meme), I was rooting for Ben as I’m sure most of us were (including the actor himself). He survived the baptism of fire that is B.A.S. (not Batman: The Animated Series but ‘Batman Announcement Syndrome’) where vocal minorities make their specific feelings known about actors joining the Batman universe. Michael Keaton was famously considered a ‘weak choice’ who was ‘too weird and weedy’ in outraged fan letters sent to the offices of Warner Bros. Even Heath Ledger had to navigate the internet cultural storm that was justifying their lack of belief and conviction towards an actor whose previous credits included A Knight’s Tale and Ten Things I Hate About You. Yet as history has shown us, Ledger and Keaton served the fandom a massive slice of humble pie.
The same rule applies to Ben Affleck and to overlook his contribution would be naive. As time becomes a natural re-assessor of things, Affleck (just like Dalton was for Bond) will be remembered as the RIGHT Batman at the WRONG time.
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-2012) proved to be a dynamic and cultural change that re-defined the comic book landscape. Stripping away the ‘fantastical’ element that often defines the sub-genre, Nolan’s infusion of a real-world context not only examined the psychological underpinning of Batman as a symbol but the social fabrics of pyramid classism that fanatically elevated that journey between each film. As an audience, you were forced to take it seriously, and Christian Bale was front and centre of that establishment as Bruce Wayne/Batman – a blended mix of symbolised intimidation as Batman and an eccentric, ‘Howard Hughes’ archetype as Bruce Wayne.
The Dark Knight Trilogy is not the perfect adaptation of the Batman mythos, but it’s unquestionably a well-defined one. It’s an evolved example of Batman’s eighty-year longevity that has transitioned between different visions, styles and artistic interpretations (except for you Batman & Robin – you’re still horrifically bad despite my statement). By that reason alone, The Dark Knight Trilogy was highly accessible in bridging the gap between casual filmgoers and hardcore fans.
Following in the critically acclaimed footsteps is mad enough, especially without a comprehensive plan. Within this period, Marvel was slowly building their cinematic empire that served as the antithesis to DC’s success. DC was at a crossroads, experimenting with the ‘grounded Nolan formula’ in Man of Steel but it didn’t help calm the inevitable fear that they were rushing to catch up with their rivals.
Whatever side of the fence you sit on with regards to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (the extended cut was significantly better than the butchered theatrical) but what Affleck was able to bring to the table was something different. Most likely, I’m in the minority with this opinion, but I enjoyed Affleck’s style towards the Caped Crusader.
I’m not going to go into the whole ‘Batman doesn’t kill’ discussion because it’s a tiresome back and forth statement where there’s a complicated and historical validity on both sides of the argument. Yes, Batman should not morally kill. As a fictional character, he has always been a prominent, conflictual tale of darkness and morality, treading the thin line between justice and criminality. We quickly forget that Batman as a concept is an intimidating weapon, and the classic illustration of that notion is still Batman: The Animated Series. However, the film interpretations have bent that rule to a certain extent. Even Batman’s first introduction in the comics was a gun-carrying vigilante before being censored and placed on the right side of the law with his ‘no gun rule’.
Seeing our idols in unpleasant lights tend to go in one direction. You only have to look at the criticisms towards Henry Cavill’s Superman (killing General Zod in Man of Steel) or even Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as symbolised examples of the outrage. While it doesn’t equate to as ‘re-writing history’, but the flawed exploration of our heroes certainly challenges the fabric of their character but doesn’t deserve the level of toxicity they’ve found themselves in. The mythology shouldn’t be dismissed entirely, but the unifying question that deserves answers relates to progression. Otherwise, how do we judge the growth of a character if we’re still repeating the same, old trends where growth is impossible? How do we thoroughly examine a character if their principles are not pushed to the limit? The discussion is derived from personal perceptions, but if Batman is a great indicator of its history, it has survived those changes.
Removing the obvious criticisms associated, by no means was Affleck a perfect example of that reflecting change. His portrayal was controversial, but only to the circumstance that his Batman was far removed from the traditional origin adaptations of the character, but most importantly, far removed from the Batman we nostalgically familiarise with. This is not Batman in his glory days but a Batman who’s psychologically questioning the validity of his work after twenty years in the field. For a character who used ‘fear’ as a powerful tool against crime, Affleck’s depiction had succumbed to the fear as a disillusioned, paranoid, guilt-ridden and beleaguered Batman who had fallen from grace and lost his way. His fighting style was absolutely brutal, violent, ugly, straight out of the Arkham video games as if it was a rage-filled manifestation in summing up his current existence.
Batfleck’s unlikable outlook was uniquely dystopian in comparison to his predecessors, a solitary examination on legacy and identity resigned to a depressive fate with the absence of hope and the growing erosion of moral codes for heroes. If there was ever a parallel that sums up Batfleck, then it amply lives up to Harvey Dent’s (Aaron Eckhart) iconic words from The Dark Knight – “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.
Just like Cavill’s Superman, Affleck’s Batman was fished through a modern-day societal lens that is highly divisive, politicised and media-driven – almost a reflection of how ugly and tribal the world has become. Based on their duelling stories, it formed a suitable contrast of their principles based on their time-specific entry in their superhero journey (Superman at his beginning; Batman towards his end).
But as physicality and suitability for the role, Affleck fitted the bill. His batsuit was the closest match to the comics since Adam West’s good-natured, 60s decadence. He possessed a chameleon blend of natural charisma and brooding intensity. We spent time with Batman’s alter-ego, allowing more opportunities to see Bruce as the front-facing socialite that balanced the social engagements as well as his undercover skills. However flawed Zack Snyder’s hyper-masculine adventure was (and there are many), to give Affleck the ‘benefit of the doubt’, he brought elements of sincerity, backed by the perspective POV storytelling that articulated a human vulnerability, a sense of powerlessness towards a ‘God-like’ Superman and Bruce’s face-value rejection of the power Superman possesses and what he could do to the planet.
But alas, Batman v Superman was a film full of bright intentions but (subjectively) executed in a fashion where its benefits would have ideally suited two films. It could have ditched the ‘versus’ tag because of its unnecessary expectations of a PPV fight between brand properties and their compromises. But mixed within the narratives, I enjoyed the subtle nuances that were often overlooked in Affleck’s performance. He tried his best but can only do so much with the material provided. It took time to build this distinct version of Batman, only to evaporate on subsequent films.
The sad truth of the matter is that we will never actually know how Affleck’s Batman would have successfully measured up. He wasn’t in the role long enough to establish him as the ‘best ever’, and DC and Warner Bros. ever-changing tone to ‘course-correct’ the DCEU meant inconsistent films. (e.g. the removal of thirty minutes of footage from Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad‘s erratic change of tone and let’s not forget Justice League and its two directors scenario).
The individual and box-office success of Wonder Woman and Aquaman have shown that WB/DC have finally admitted their past mistakes, trusting the director-led creative process of their productions and a focus that doesn’t require an interconnecting network to their next films. It gives the DC brand a renewed sense of confidence, but Affleck is the unfortunate and high-profile causality in the process.
It was not because he was a bad Batman or Bruce Wayne. The circumstances never allowed him the proper opportunity to define his interpretation.
As Patty Jenkins recently said about the possibility of another Justice League movie, she summed up the situation perfectly:
“I think they’re fantastic and they’re well done but taking on all of those characters at the same time in the timeline, I sort of hope that we don’t do a Justice League movie for a little while because I think that each of those characters are really great and I’m super excited to see each of their movies. You never know. I would never say never, but I think everyone should have a moment to shine right now.”
‘A moment to shine’ is the right frame of words. Two amalgamated feature films and a cameo appearance where Batman’s role was to facilitate the unification of the league is not enough to comprehend what Affleck’s tenure stands for. They were snapshots to a convoluted, over-stuffed vision and lack of committed bravery from the powers that be. Batman v Superman attempted at least to provide arguments (both good and bad) about its thematic reality. Justice League was the quiet reversal on its supposed targets, and a rushed mentally to cut their losses.
Could Affleck have pulled off Matt Reeves’ intended Batman-Noir focused vision? Absolutely. Affleck’s talent shouldn’t be underestimated. The Batman‘s potential could have addressed the personal loss that enraged his outlook. But maybe the naivety of redemption outweighed the realistic approach that Batman deserved a fresh start, and that dream ended as soon as Reeves was brought on board as director. It lifts the pressure off Ben and Reeves can now hand-pick a new actor focusing on a younger Bruce Wayne without the tangled complications of the past.
Time will tell whether Affleck will be remembered fondly as Batman. At least with Dalton, you could safely say he was ‘ahead of the curve’, paving the way for Daniel Craig’s brutally emotive Bond. Affleck was better than Clooney, but that was already a given! Maybe we’ll see a cheeky cameo in the new film – you never know. But for the briefest of stints, he showcased a Batman that was both physically imposing and emotionally battle-scarred; a version of Batman that’s scarcely represented on the big screen.
But whatever the outcome, Batfleck deserved better.