The James Clayton Column: Holy casting concerns, Batman!

In the wake of the controversy over Ben Affleck's role as Batman, James wades into the issue of casting concerns...

Naomi Watts is Princess Diana. Once upon a time this – the casting and the very existence of Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film biopic Diana – would have generated tremendous amounts of controversy. It would have been huge news, creating the same amount of hoopla that greets the announcement of a fresh Spider-Man or Batman reboot and the subsequent re-casting of the Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne role. Instead, my Spidey-senses and Bat-devices detect only a few indifferent ripples.

There’s not much to shout about here. Instead, it’s a shrug, and that’s partly due to the passage of time (Diana has been dead over 15 years) and partly due, I reckon, to the fact that audiences have had their fill of flicks about aristocrat Brits. After The Queen came The Young Victoria, The King’s Speech, Madonna’s W.E., Hyde Park On Hudson and several other flicks that flounce around the royal family.

The world has moved on and the Diana obsession has waned as people have a fresh regal fix in a new royal wedding and royal birth. That baby is played by a real baby (an amazing performance from an untrained actor), and the masses are probably more interested in that real newborn royal than in Naomi Watts’ impersonation of Lady Di.

To be honest, I’m not really interested in any of ’em, and wish to discuss more serious, significant things (like the casting of Batman) but it’s worth sticking with Diana for a moment because it may be relevant later. Not so long ago ‘the People’s Princess’ would surely have stood as a taboo topic deemed too sacred for filmmakers to touch. They would, of course, have touched it and then uproar and outrage would have followed. For an actor, the title part in such a project was the riskiest role you could possibly take on.

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Today, though, that’s not the case. Our 21st century world has produced several semi-sympathetic pictures of Hitler and the William & Kate tele-movie was aired before the royal wedding happened in reality, so I get the sense that the unwritten rules have all been rendered utterly irrelevant.

So many sacred cows have had their lives translated to screen and received full blockbuster treatment that we’re now inured and apathetic. The hyper-intensification of celebrity culture has also eroded any ‘untouchable’ ideas and ‘sensitive subject’ studies like Diana and The Iron Lady have become a commonplace feature on the movie landscape.

Audiences are now desensitised, having experienced everything from Meryl Streep as Maggie Thatcher to Michael Douglas as Liberace (Behind The Candelabra). You can add Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Amanda Seyfried as Lovelace to that list and just keep on going and going. These portrayals impress audiences and perhaps take them aback for a moment but they don’t provoke the cinemagoing public as they once did.

The castings that really cause a commotion are fictional pop culture icons – not real life figures of flesh, blood and noteworthiness in the ‘proper’ news programmes of the actual world you inhabit. People are still intrigued to find out who gets to play Nelson Mandela (Idris Elba for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom), Steve Jobs (Ashton Kutcher for Jobs, or Justin Long for iSteve) or Walt Disney (Tom Hanks for Saving Mr. Banks) but the most interest is reserved for familiar franchise castings. That’s where you’ll find the most strength of feeling and frenzied passion.

Picking performers for your feature has always been an important part of moviemaking, but a phenomenal thing has happened in recent history due, in part, to seismic sociocultural shifts and the growth of geek culture into the mainstream. In the minds of fans, where once the quality of special effects or plot were the pressing concerns ahead of a franchise release, now casting is the most crucial, contentious aspect.

This, readers, is where we get to talk about the issue of who gets to play Batman because – Holy Adam West! – we really care about who gets to play Batman. We care so much that we’re still here fretting about it almost a month after Ben Affleck was picked to succeed Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader.

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Figure that there isn’t really anything else to discuss at the moment and you’d be wrong. Earlier this week the actor himself spoke a little about Batman and internet backlash on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsugihara made a statement recently explaining that this version of Batman will be “tired and weary and seasoned and been doing it for a while”. Those updates aside, the Affleck announcement is old news and, with a July 2015 release, there’s a hell of a long way to go before we get to see the finished article that will be Superman Vs Batman (or ‘Batman vs Superman’, ‘The Dark Knight vs Man of Steel’ or ‘Good Clark Hunting’. We’ll find out the official title, no doubt, when Chris Nolan, Zack Snyder and everyone else involved have worked out exactly what they’re doing with this thing).

Even so, there’s still a lot of reaction roiling out there and the raised hullabaloo shows no sign of abating. It will rumble on and continue to peak as potential stars are pitched and then confirmed or not-confirmed for unfilled roles like Lex Luthor, Alfred and Robin. (We can speculate about whether Robin is going to be in this just so we can throw a few names into the circus ring and engage in rowdy arguments about what and who makes the perfect Boy Wonder).

If you’ve missed the ‘Ben Affleck is Bruce Wayne’ brouhaha or just aren’t mithered about Superman vs Batman, don’t worry. You can trouble yourself with some other recent major castings, like those for Guardians Of The Galaxy, for other Marvel spin-offs or for the leading parts (ha ha) in the 50 Shades Of Grey adaptation.

Of course, there’s also Peter Capaldi as the 12th Doctor and, Affleck aside, that was the summer’s biggest casting reveal. You’ve still got time to grab onto that proposition and put forward your thoughts before anyone actually gets to see his first appearance as the Timelord in the Doctor Who Christmas special.

Alternatively, you can look to roles that haven’t yet been cast and consider other major franchises that are currently gearing up for future sequels, spin-offs and reboots. Star Wars VII is going to require several fresh faces. The dinosaurs of Jurassic World will need some human actors to attack. At some point those overseeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe are going to have to decide who gets to be Ant-Man and a new Fantastic Four will have to be found ahead of the reboot due in 2015.

Altogether, the ‘who’s acting in this?’ question fuels a hell of a lot of hype and that’s a double-edged sword for filmmakers. It generates great interest and anticipation way in advance of release but, conversely, it can harm a film and ensure that projects are being heavily scrutinised before a single scene has been shot. It also skews the way we think about movies and makes us focus too much on the famous faces fronting them, possibly at the expense of all the nuances and other elements that make up the cinematic experience.

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The ones bearing the brunt of this pressure are the actors themselves. Take on an iconic role and you suddenly inherit near-impossible responsibility and open yourself up to mass judgement. We live in a very judgemental culture and the internet has amplified and emboldened it. Now actors are being evaluated – both as screen performers and off-screen personalities – on the basis of jobs they haven’t done yet, might not even actually be doing or never would consider in the first place.

Batfleck provides a prominent, pretty damn perturbing example of this in action. Powers that be pick the person they believe to be the right man for a role. Prior to this casting the rumour mill has been running and many media outlets have been making great mileage out of the gossamer threads of gossip. Post-confirmation, the world goes batcrap crazy and – though there are measured responses and some worthwhile analytical comment – there are a mass of kneejerk reactions.

Ben Affleck is both praised and damned – sadly the negative feedback and hateful abuse possibly eclipsing the enthusiasm. There is then a backlash (“Argo fuck yourself”) and the discourse continues on as seemingly everyone (because everyone has to have an opinion) gets their word in on this affair before Affleck has got anywhere near wearing a cowl or even reading the screenplay. Matt Smith’s departure from Doctor Who and the issue of ‘Who next?’ was a similar exemplary fiasco.

Even though these cases strike me as highly bizarre, I acknowledge that you can have fun with fantasy film casting, though ultimately it’s an inconsequential, futile endeavour. It just happens that 21st century changes like the rise of social media have transformed idle personal whimsies into important international conversations.

At least, it seems important, and that’s a falsehood. All this noise is pretty irrelevant and serves only to distort reality, reinforce judgementalism and solidify an absurd sense of self-entitlement. I can’t recall any occasion on which a film has been cast according to the whims of fans. Acknowledge that and you begin to ask whether all the hot-air blowing over “Who do we want as Batman?” is worth it.

In my ideal world, every casting announcement would be greeted with “Great choice!” or “Hmm. Odd choice but, hey, we’ll wait and see what they do with the role”. (My ideal world has no pessimistic cynicism.)

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After that reaction everyone moves on and generally keeps quiet about casting until the release of the finished film. Then we’re responding to something tangible rather than rumours, assumptions and spurious speculation.

Save your breath, I say, and save all your energies for the Doctor Who Christmas special or the release of Superman vs Batman. (Or save it for when you actually get to play Batman yourself.)

James Clayton is playing himself. It’s terrible casting and he’d rather have been played by Ben Affleck but he has no influence on these things and his opinion is irrelevant. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter. 

You can read James’ last column here.

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