Saturday, August 24, 2013

On Ben Affleck as Batman

Ben Affleck has just been signed to appear as Batman in the sequel to this summer's Superman movie, Man of Steel.

I am not sure that anything disqualifies Affleck from the role, strictly speaking, but the news, and the reaction to it, does say a lot about his journey in Hollywood.

The entertainment press--and those who hang on its every word--has a tendency to go overboard in exalting a star, and then equally overboard in heaping opprobrium upon them, usually after some trivial misstep that serves as excuse more than cause. Think, for instance, of the grossly exaggerated reaction to Tom Cruise's couch-jumping, or the sheer vehemence of the reaction against Megan Fox after her unkind remarks about Michael Bay's directorial style.

The equally exaggerated blowback against Ben Affleck over Gigli--a film that, bad as it is, is merely par for the course where indie crime films are concerned--was perhaps even more severe. Indeed, unlike Cruise and Fox, he had to conduct much of his recovery from behind the camera, as the director of a string of critically acclaimed films that culminated in last year's Best Picture winner, Argo.

Interestingly, Hollywood did not deign even to nominate him for Best Director--rather unusual for films that take that most prestigious of Oscars--but the win for the movie still reflected his return to Hollywood's good graces. And his casting as Batman is an even more powerful expression of that than an extra little statue.

Still, there is a real risk for Affleck's career here. While his previous big-screen appearance as Daredevil was initially well-received, and went on to become a $100 million hit at a time when that meant more than it does today, the subsequent hostility to Affleck (and the commercial failure of the spin-off, Elektra, and the torrent of better superhero films that followed) lowered its standing in many eyes, so that now it actually appears on many a "worst-ever superhero movies" list. That opprobrium, in turn, has attached to Affleck, and the idea of his turning up in another superhero movie. (Indeed, "Did they see Daredevil?" was the first reader comment to appear at the page on Hero Complex reporting the decision.)

At the same time, for all their flaws (and those flaws were grave indeed in the last installment), the success of Christopher Nolan's Batman films has made fans of that franchise that much more skeptical about a replacement for Christian Bale. In fact, there has already been something of a backlash among comic book fans displeased with the decision (a petition for his removal already gathering 10,000 signatures at the time of this writing.)

Additionally, "Man of Steel 2" may not be the sure thing that it looks. While it has certainly been a big earner this past summer (its take at the global box office now stands at some $650 million), it is not entirely clear that audiences are hungry for more of the same. The dark, relatively humorless approach of the film widely attributed to Nolan's participation has already attracted wide criticism. (Ironic, that.)

Naturally, Forbes' writer Scott Mendelson has already raised the question of a sequel's falling into what he calls the "Tomb Raider trap," namely that
if your first film makes a lot of money due to front-loaded interest despite being a film that no one ends up liking, then you still run the risk of losing. Even if you make a better film than the original, people will still remember that they didn’t like the previous entry and they won’t be so eager to sample the next chapter.1
If Man of Steel 2 grosses just half of what the first film did, this will amount to some $300 million--a flop by the standards of the megabudgeted blockbuster.

Ben Affleck's turn as Batman, whether it proves good or bad, is unlikely to decide Man of Steel 2's fortunes. However, if the movie succeeds, and Affleck is well-liked in the role, it may lead to his playing Batman again--in a third Man of Steel movie, in a Batman reboot, in other D.C. franchises, perhaps even to include the Justice League films long talked about but never realized. But if that movie tanks, it will be a significant blow to his still ongoing rehabilitation as a headliner for blockbusters of this type.

1. It is so named because of the underperformance of what many felt to be the superior Tomb Raider sequel, after the lucrative but not particularly well-liked first film. Mendelson also names the Narnia and Robert Langdon franchises as victims of that trap.

The Film Industry
The 2013 Summer Movie Season in Review
A Note on Independent Film
The Cult of the Film Star
Looking Back: The Politics of The Dark Knight Rises
New and Noteworthy: (Dark and Gritty, Burnt by the Sun 2, Charles Stross, Cory Doctorow)
A Summer Box Office Update: The Would-Be Blockbusters
New and Noteworthy (Oscar Edition)
On The 85th Academy Awards
New and Noteworthy (Oscar Night, TMNT Movie)
David Walsh on the Oscar Contenders
My Posts on Superheroes
The Irrelevance of Oscar Night?


Anonymous said...

Given that its now more promoted as Batman/Superman then a Man of Steel sequel, its seems Warner itself doesn´t trust the MOS-franchise very much.

Nader said...

That certainly seems the case-
with the turn to Batman reflecting an obvious desire to seize on what has been far and away DC's greatest big-screen success. However, that makes the casting of Affleck as Batman seem that much more risky.

There is an alternative explanation, though: that a combined Batman-Superman movie is intended as a step toward a Justice League franchise.

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