Ben Affleck, and the ingredients for a great Batman movie

Following Ben Affleck's casting in Batman Vs Superman, Ryan argues that the actor's just one ingredient in a great Batman movie...

If there’s one thing to be gleaned from opinions on the internet, it’s that all ideas are terrible until proven otherwise. It really doesn’t seem that long ago since Heath Ledger’s casting as the Joker got the web into a frenzy; Ledger was simply too cute, too pretty, critics said, to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

This was the handsome young actor who slid down a pole and sang Can’t Take My Eyes Off You in 10 Things I Hate About You, after all – something Den Of Geek writer Mark Harrison reminded us about when he posted an oft-watched YouTube clip on Twitter. But as Ledger and movie history proved, his casting wasn’t just correct – it was inspired.

The announcement that Ben Affleck will be playing Batman in the 2015 sequel to Man Of Steel has provoked an even sharper reaction, and predictably, Affleck’s previous roles have been used as a stick to beat him with – most obviously, his turn in the poorly-received Daredevil comic book adaptation, and the infamous misfire, Gigli.

Really, though, the internet response isn’t about Ben Affleck, but about uncertainty. Although the outgoing Batman and his director had their critics, the overwhelming opinion of Christian Bale and Christopher Nolan was that they had, between them and everyone else involved in the Dark Knight films, created a particularly fine, distinctive trilogy.

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Attempting to follow those films will be a difficult task for any filmmaker, and the same goes for an actor stepping into Batman’s boots. It seems almost inevitable that any actor cast in the role would have faced criticism, no matter how well liked they are, and the aggressive reception facing Affleck from some quarters is simply an expression of doubt; how can a chap who stumbled about in a red leather costume in Daredevil possibly work as the brooding Bruce Wayne or his dark alter-ego?

Potentially, the answer lies in The Dark Knight: when Heath Ledger first shuffled onto the screen as a chortling, horribly dishevelled version of the Joker, any link with the actor’s heartthrob past was immediately erased. Couldn’t the same also be true for Affleck?

Leaving the Affleck controversy aside for a moment (and Simon wrote about the whole affair in far more detail here), there are lots of other ingredients that go into making a great Batman movie, as well as the actor in the suit.

Direction and design

When the topic of discussion turns to bad Batman movies, the one most commonly picked out is 1997’s Batman & Robin. A film roundly condemned by critics, George Clooney’s performance was one of many aspects singled out for derision, with one writer even describing him as the series’ “George Lazenby”.

Clooney has himself admitted in interviews that he was “weak” in Batman & Robin, but given the strength of his acting in other movies, it would be wrong to lay the problems with his portrayal entirely at Clooney’s feet. After all, Clooney proved that he could play tough, interesting roles both before and after Batman & Robin, in such films as From Dusk Till Dawn, Three Kings and Out Of Sight.

The real problem was that Warner Bros had, in their infinite wisdom, decided to drag the Batman franchise further and further away from the gothic, brooding atmosphere of Tim Burton’s movies, which in turn prompted director Joel Schumacher to revive the camp and colour of the 1960s Batman TV series. The word ‘toyetic’ was commonly used to describe the resulting film.

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The failure of Batman & Robin highlights just how vital production design and direction is for the franchise. Although very much of its time, 1989’s Batman created a coherent, benighted Gotham City that felt right for the version of Batman played by Michael Keaton. The actor and the production design worked in close harmony, with Keaton’s troubled, hesitant performance matching the oppressive claustrophobia of Anton Furst’s noir metropolis.

Both Batman Forever and Batman & Robin kept some of the gothic atmosphere from Tim Burton’s tenure, seemingly for convenience as much as anything, but they simply didn’t gel with the neon lighting, camp scripts and tongue-in-cheek performances; it’s said that before calling action, Schumacher would shout, “Remember everyone, this is a cartoon”. The infamous application of nipples to Batman and Robin’s suits was a symbol, perhaps, of that mindset.

“It just felt like everything got a little soft the second time,” said Robin actor Chris O’Donnell of his experience on the film. “On Batman Forever, I felt like I was making a movie. The second time, I felt like I was making a kid’s toy commercial.”

By contrast, director Christopher Nolan and production designer Nathan Crowley established their own visual style for Batman Begins – and one which, thankfully, married perfectly to both the script and the actor cast in the leading role. Christian Bale played Bruce Wayne as a hedonistic millionaire harbouring a barely-concealed reservoir of repressed anger, which finally had an outlet when he created the persona of the Dark Knight.

Although the look of Gotham would change over the course of Nolan’s trilogy, its atmosphere was always of a piece with Bale’s performance: polished, even gleaming from a distance, but with something much darker lurking below the surface – a violent, twisted undercurrent which threatened to burst forth at any moment.

Man Of Steel’s military Superman

When Ben Affleck makes his debut as Batman, he faces a unique situation: he’ll be in a Superman movie rather than one of his own. Understandably, this meeting of two DC superheroes led to quite a lot of consternation, and that was before Affleck’s name was even linked. Can these two very different characters even mesh satisfactorily on one screen?

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From a production design and direction point of view, it could be said that this year’s Man Of Steel has already put the groundwork firmly in place. Christopher Nolan’s producing hand is there to be seen in this muted, more sombre take of Superman and his universe, and it’s not difficult to imagine a version of Bruce Wayne similar to Christian Bale’s version fitting in here. Henry Cavill’s lonely, self-doubting version of Kal-El has parallels with Bruce Wayne and his own disturbed past, and his Superman is very different from the upbeat character embodied by Christopher Reeve in the 1970s and 80s.

As we mentioned in our article on the film’s production design, Man Of Steel established a more combat-ready, militaristic Superman – one who fought on the side of America against fascist invaders from his own planet. This certainly fits with the portrayal of Superman in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, where we see Superman defending the US from Russian nuclear missiles.

It’s said that the sequel to Man Of Steel will take inspiration from The Dark Knight Returns, and that Frank Miller is also on board in some capacity. This certainly lends weight to the possibility that Superman will play a similar role in Batman Vs Superman, and that, somehow, he comes into aggressive conflict with Ben Affleck’s older, wearier Batman.

This in turn brings up another common topic of discussion: Superman’s overwhelming strength, as seen in the city-levelling destruction in Man Of Steel. How can anyone – let alone a Caped Crusader now in his 40s – survive against power such as that? Without spoiling The Dark Knight too much, the comic again holds some answers.

Superman’s strength is reduced somewhat by the nuclear explosion mentioned above, while Batman manages to improve his odds by employing all his technical wizardry – not to mention his extraordinary wealth. In Man Of Steel, we saw how much of a pummelling Zod’s armour could take from Superman’s mighty fists. Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that, with his contacts and cash, Bruce Wayne somehow reverse engineers this same technology for his own outfit?

The crossroads

As a screen character, Batman stands at a crossroads at least as significant as the one he faced after Batman & Robin in 1997. But as history has proven, there’s more to Batman than the actor beneath the cowl. In the late 80s, a Batman fan argued that, if you saw Michael Keaton in the street dressed as the Caped Crusader, “you would laugh, not run in fear.” When the finished Batman film came out in 1989, that proved not to be the case – in large part thanks to Keaton’s performance, but also due to considered design, direction and lighting.

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Affleck’s proven in movies such as Argo, State Of Play and The Town that he can turn in physical, thoughtful and generous performances. So really, it’s up to the filmmakers around him  – the writers, designers, and director Zack Snyder – to ensure that his is a believable, even iconic incarnation of the Dark Knight.

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