Back in August of 2013, comic book movie enthusiasts, hardcore comic book fans and even the casual movie goer were united in their skepticism (and outright rage in some cases) regarding the casting of Ben Affleck as the next Batman. Social media sites blew up in opposition to the decision, terming this generation’s Batman as ‘Batfleck’ in a seemingly distorted means of mockery, with many a DC fan pointing to the horrendous Daredevil movie Affleck had starred in for Marvel as evidence as to exactly how bad his casting was. Some 18 months later – one year before his debut as the caped crusader in Batman v Superman (2016) – I wrote an impassioned article in defense of ‘Batfleck’ titled ‘Why It’s Time To Finally Get Over Ben Affleck Being Batman‘. In the piece, I compared Affleck’s recent movie history to that of Christian Bale’s before the latter’s casting in The Dark Knight Trilogy and pleaded with audiences to forget Affleck’s darker years and instead judge him for the accomplished filmmaker and actor he had become in the 2010s (Argo – 2012, Gone Girl – 2014, and so on). The article found a fair bit of traction but it would be fair to analyse the reaction to it as “negative”. It seemed that Affleck wasn’t winning over any of his naysayers even with my support, yet here we sit in 2016 with Batman v Superman having being released theatrically and on DVD/BR, and the common consensus is as follows:
“The actor we all assumed would be the worst part of this movie is actually, by far, the best part of this movie.” – Screen Junkies’ Honest Trailers.
So, what happened? How did Affleck and company manage to produce such a turn-around?
Well, perhaps the most important part of the answer to that question is that the audiences wrongly used Affleck as the personification of their Batman v Superman anxieties in the first place, and that’s certainly understandable. Actors are the eyes through which we see the universe of any film (in the Hollywood system particularly); they’re the people we find empathy, respect or even deep-routed hatred for throughout the course of any movie. In the public eye, Affleck had deteriorated from indie darling to tabloid gossip idol, lessening the respect fans and the industry had towards him as a serious artist – something that never happened to Christian Bale in the aftermath of his infamous Terminator: Salvation rant. Even with Affleck’s 5 or 6 years of consistently good performances under the tutelage of great directors such as David Fincher and Terrence Malick in the build-up to BvS, he struggled to shake his incredibly rough 2000s and made things even worse when he divorced his second wife after an affair with their maid; something that placed him firmly on the front page of the gossip magazines once again. Respect for him wasn’t what it was for Bale, Clooney, Kilmer or Keaton (the other ‘Batmen’) – at least not outside of the film industry – and this was combined with his poor Daredevil performance/movie to spark fear in the anticipatory masses. The point of this is that audiences feared a bad movie much more than they could ever fear a bad performance and, to them, Ben Affleck was evidence of DC, Warner Bros and Zack Snyder doing potentially everything wrong. The audience’s collective attitude was: ‘if they get the casting wrong then they’re surely going to get the whole movie wrong. It could be terrible’. Fortunately, things often don’t work like that and, as seen with Chris Pine in Star Trek and Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love, so-called ‘bad casting decisions’ can sometimes work terrifically well, and other times bad performances can be covered up by otherwise solid movies – Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained, Orlando Bloom in Pirates of the Caribbean. Batman is, obviously, a much more beloved character than the random Australian gentleman from Django Unchained is or Will Turner from Pirates of the Caribbean is, but the point remains. So, it wasn’t that it was Ben Affleck the actor as Batman, it was more that it was Ben Affleck the former personification of a terrible Daredevil movie and all-round unlikable sleazebag in real-life, that made it seem like Snyder, Warner Bros & DC Comics were making terrible decisions, thus the anxieties that should have been leveled elsewhere/towards the film were instead leveled at the resurgent Affleck who, unlike many of his contemporaries, had proven himself to be capable of pulling the character off.
The second reason as to why Affleck won over critics is perhaps just as important as the first reason: he was very good in his portrayal. Affleck had been carrying a deeper maturity into his films since the release of The Town in 2010, a movie he directed, and his maturity was probably the most enticing of all of the new Bruce Wayne’s character traits. Wayne/Batman was more seasoned, certainly than protagonist Lex Luthor, and he’d been through a lot more – the death of Robin (it seems), for example – than previous Batmen had. This deeper and more mature type of performance that spoke a lot more with the movement and shape of his eyes than with his mouth or more obvious facial movements (such as large scowls or sarcastic smiles) told of a much more troubled character whose battle with Superman seemed only to scratch the surface with regard to the story DC & Warner Bros are set to tell when Affleck directs his own standalone Batman film. The gif below evidences this, as Affleck uses his eyes to portray his character’s analysis of the potentially threatening Clark Kent, of whom he believes could be his ultimate foe (in his minds eye at this point in the movie) Superman.
The dotting of the eyes from one space to another really drives this home and his maintained glare connotes darker thoughts of what he may do to the Superman or even, perhaps, the memories of his character’s experiences at seeing people die at the hands of the opposing character (as seen at the beginning of BvS). The wry smile is added as a means of telling the story of Batman being ‘clued in’ to Clark Kent’s suspicions and wanting to avoid any tell-tale signs. Alternatively, it could be seen as suggesting Wayne knows of what’s to happen between both men [well, man and alien] in the future and the way in which their current situation is not suitable for anything more than a momentary analysis of one another. The scene is, in many ways, the old cowboy standoff, only the shooting comes later. Wayne moving from being viciously defensive in the moments prior to the shot the gif represents, to analytical and potentially dangerous within this shot, and then through to the smile that concludes this shot, indicate an “another time” type of conclusion that the audience can react to, and in saying nothing Batfleck has moved the story forward, and added many a layer to not only his character but also his list of character motivations.
The portrayal, overall, had the sort of depth that had audiences clamoring for more of his story even within the comic book movie genre that seems so often to over-explain things (especially regarding character motivations and so on) within character dialog, and this of real testament to the quality of his work.
The final reason I’m going to present with regard to why Affleck was able to win over audiences in his portrayal of the Batman character is probably the most contentious of the three points I’m making: the production itself, and especially the director, gave Affleck enough attention and time to pull it off.
Publicly supporting Zack Snyder’s work on any film that isn’t 300 seems like a risky road to take in the modern age of internet hate where the gross dislike large portions of nerd culture have towards the man is often expressed in impassioned terms. However, it is somewhat undeniable that Snyder made Batman the star of the BvS and, in turn, dedicated large portions of screen time to develop his character to be somewhere near the same level of Superman who’d had an entire movie’s worth of character development occur in the movie’s predecessor, Man of Steel. Being a protagonist, it was expected that the Caped Crusader was to get more screen time than other new characters (such as Lex Luthor), too, but in a movie that was so often flipping from one place to the next, and in and out of dream sequences, the shots of Batman and Bruce Wayne (particularly) were held for longer and were often more steady than those in the rest of the movie. The director and his director of photography consciously crafted the picture to heap importance onto Batman and his portrayal, allowing Affleck to work the sort of magic he is shown to be working in the shot analysed above. Snyder needed a good Batman and he created the platform for Affleck to deliver it. It is obvious that without the quality of Affleck’s portrayal, Snyder’s work at creating the space to develop the character wouldn’t have worked and the director’s contribution would have been even more strongly opposed in the aftermath of the film’s release than they already have been, but it didn’t work out like that and Snyder must therefore be praised… at least in this respect.
What’s more is that the writing allowed for a deeper Batman than was expected to be on display. The character was more investigative than he ever seemed to be in any of the other Batman movies this century, which clearly added something new for Affleck to explore and portray on screen, and clearly the character’s motivations (Superman’s destruction of Metropolis and the death of Robin particularly) were fresh reasons for Batman’s actions, elements which Affleck used to his advantage.
Conclusively, while Batman v Superman was by no means the financial success DC/Warner Bros were hoping for and the movie wasn’t very well received by the majority of its legions of fans, it seems universally accepted that Ben Affleck exceeded expectations and was actually very good. The actor was given the content and the time needed to offer a new and interesting silver screen Batman; something he succeeded in doing through the use of well crafted techniques and a recently established maturity in his performance. 2016 may well have been the resurgence of Affleck as a major Hollywood studio star and certainly seems to be the year of a new, darker, and older, Bruce Wayne. Whether the movie was good or not is a topic for another day, but right now it can be confirmed that Ben Affleck was the right man for the job.