I come not to bury “Batfleck,” but to…. well, mostly to bury him, actually.
After two blockbusters, Ben Affleck is officially hanging up his Bat cowl. Affleck tweeted on Jan. 30 that he will not be reprising his role in the next standalone film, “The Batman,” scheduled to premiere in the summer of 2021. The film will reportedly focus on Batman’s earlier life.
Some fans will miss him, but many won't. When Affleck was announced as the new Batman back in 2013, fans expressed widespread skepticism on social media. Those fears were, alas, largely born out. In 2016's “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” Affleck portrayed the "caped crusader" with a mix of dyspepsia and constipation.
As Bruce Wayne he was cranky and stiff; it was unclear whether he had a grudge against Superman for making humans look inadequate, or a grudge against the world for making him appear in this film. As Batman in action he was bulky and graceless, and his rasping whisper ("Tell me, do you bleed?!") came across less as menace, and more as mildly embarrassing self-parody.
Affleck's efforts to lighten the character in 2017's “Justice League” weren't especially convincing either. Adam West in the 1960s television show turned even innocuous lines into laughs with his air of distracted, staccato self-regard ("To the Bat poles!") He was both the comforting fuddy-duddy dad and the snot-nosed kid parodying the fuddy-duddy dad. Affleck, in contrast, doesn't find the humor in the character; he just shows up to deliver the one-liners. When Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the Marvel Universe boasts about his wealth and genius, he comes across as the charming, charismatic rogue you love to hate and hate to love. But when Affleck's Bruce Wayne tells Flash that his superpower is being rich, he just sounds smug. You might chuckle at the joke, but you don't want to spend any more time with him.
To be fair to Affleck, it's not easy playing Batman. Emoting from inside that cowl is difficult. The gothic costume, which can be eerie and cool when drawn on the comics page, has tended to look ridiculous and bulky when translated to the screen. There's a reason that the Marvel Netflix shows, featuring street-level vigilantes, mostly abandoned the colorful superhero tights. It's hard to be convincingly gritty and threatening when you're wearing pointy ears and a cape.
Nor is Affleck the only performer who has struggled to find a through-line that links suave, wealthy Wayne and his brutish, vigilante alter ego. Michael Keaton in “Batman” (1989) adopted the role of the absent-minded billionaire with relish, but his iconic "I'm Batman!" sounded nasal and not especially intimidating. Christian Bale tried to solve this problem when he took up the part in the "Dark Knight" trilogy (2005-2012) by turning his voice into a gravelly rasp — an over-the-top choice which seemed oddly out of character for his low-key, approachable Bruce Wayne. So while Affleck's decision to play both Batman and Wayne as brooding jerks didn't really work, at least he wasn't alone in having trouble with the (dual) role.
Perhaps the biggest problem Affleck faced, though, was that his Batman had the misfortune of featuring in terrible movies. Keaton's Batman is remembered with fondness in part because he got to swing around director Tim Burton's marvelously imagined comic-book gothic sets. Christian Bale's Batman basks in the reflected awesomeness of Heath Ledger's amazing Joker. Even the much-maligned George Clooney version of Batman from “Batman and Robin” (1997) has some fun scenes with Poison Ivy, played with hyperbolic, campy fabulousness by a scenery-devouring Uma Thurman.
Perhaps the biggest problem Affleck faced, though, was that his Batman had the misfortune of featuring in terrible movies.
“Batman v. Superman” and “Justice League,” though, are largely joyless endeavors, with flaccid writing, confused plots, and the misguidedly grimdark atmosphere Zack Snyder has brought to all the DC films he's overseen. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman in “Batman vs. Superman” and Ezra Miller as Flash in “Justice League” manage to convey some joy and humor, respectively, but it's clearly an uphill struggle. Most of the ensemble, like Affleck himself, sink helplessly into the pervading malaise. Even the antagonists aren't any fun. With all the villains in the DC Universe, why choose an unknown tall guy with bad headgear to fight the combined Justice League? Even the name "Steppenwolf" is ridiculous.
Still, even if Affleck's Bat-failure is understandable, it remains a failure. As such, his lackluster turn in the bat suit can perhaps serve as a warning and a guide. Matt Reeves is reportedly looking for an actor to cast in his 2021 movie “The Batman.” How can he avoid another Affleck-level mediocrity?
Obviously, a better script would help. Redesigning the costume so you can actually see facial expressions would be a good idea as well. Beyond that, I'd love to see, for once, a Batman who is actually able to move like Batman and handle the physical part of the role with some panache. Daniel Wu might be a great choice — though he's probably too old to play the young Batman that Reeves is reportedly casting. Other actors who have been discussed around the internet are Michael B. Jordan and Armie Hammer, both talented and charismatic performers who would likely carry the bat ears well.
Perhaps the most important qualification for the role, though, is someone who wants to play it. Even in the middle of movies that are dour slow-motion train wrecks, Henry Cavill as Superman and Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman manage to make it feel like saving the world is a pretty cool thing to do. Affleck, though, seemed like he desperately wanted to be in some other universe, on some other rooftop that didn’t require him to wear a stupid mask. You get the feeling that, relieved as fans are, no one is as pleased to see the back of Batfleck as the Batfleck himself.