In the wake of news that Ben Affleck will no longer be directing The Batman, an unhappy (though unconfirmed) rumor has come to light: that the Academy Award winner wants to quit playing the Dark Knight altogether as soon as (super)humanly possible.
We’ve talked before about the various ways in which the DC Extended Universe could possibly die an ignoble death this year and, not to put too fine a point on it, Affleck’s departure from the fledgling mega-franchise has the potential to trump them all in a heartbeat. Batman is an iconic character – not to mention the only DC Comics property to ever reach the magic $1 billion box-office figure – and Affleck, by this point, has become such an intractable part of Warner Bros.’ plans moving forward. Losing him would be the equivalent to pulling the cinematic rug out from under the audience. What’s more, given all the recent news about The Flash being delayed and other creative problems going on behind the scenes with the other movies, it might just be enough to break audiences’ last vestiges of goodwill in a shared universe that is still obviously struggling to find both its voice and its stride.
Beyond such negatives, however, there are actually a number of positives that could result from Ben being convinced to stick through the rather messy birthing pains of the DCEU, and remain as the Caped Crusader for the foreseeable future.
DC needs a poster boy
One of the famously-cited reasons for the struggles that the DC Extended Universe has been having is that there is no central visionary pulling all the strings, lining up the overarching narrative, and throwing his weight around when filmmakers start veering off-script – essentially, no equivalent of Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige. The critical and fan fallout from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice caused the studio to adopt some aspects of its rival’s filmmaking apparatus, naming DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns as the co-head of the newly-formed DC Films, but that may not be enough by itself.
The other fundamental part of Marvel’s success is that, partially by design and partially through sheer luck, the studio latched onto one of its stars to be the central driving force behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe, transforming Robert Downey, Jr. into its very poster boy. The move has more than paid off; the last four films Iron Man has appeared in have passed the $1 billion mark, and this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming is well-poised to do the same. By being the first superhero to be built up by the company, fans were able to invest in the character and use him as a gateway to the rest of the MCU.
While the logical candidate for Warner Bros.’ counterpart would be Henry Cavill’s Superman – since he was the first out of the shared-universe gate – the better contender, for better or worse, is Batman. Bruce Wayne is the better draw, commercially speaking, and he’s been arguably better-received than the Man of Steel (though neither suffers from a lack of controversy). It may be too late to have The Batman be the first DCEU film, but the character has made up for it with his appearances in Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad, and there’s little reason to believe that audiences wouldn’t embrace his next solo outing en masse.
That said, the DCEU doesn’t necessarily need a Batman solo movie in order to still have the grizzled vigilante be the gravity point around which everything else revolves. He can just as easily be held in reserve for either the Justice League team-ups or for select movies starring the other metahumans – just as Tony Stark has been for the past four years over on the Marvel side. The important point here is having a central figure that the viewer can most clearly identify with or otherwise root for.
DC needs a cheerleader
It’s just not enough to have a main character in the meta-franchise, however. Warner Bros. needs something far more important: a cheerleader. For marketing efficacy, there needs to be a primary player behind the scenes who can rally fanboy interest, command mainstream media attention, and otherwise serve as the single mouthpiece – whether officially or otherwise – of all the productions moving forward. There is no better example of this in the genre than Ryan Reynolds’s tirelessly enthusiastic promotion of his foul-mouthed, wisecracking super-antihero Deadpool, which propelled the character’s solo debut to pop culture’s center stage.
Ben Affleck had already filled this role in the months leading up to Batman v Superman’s release, giving interview after interview where he explained just how thoroughly impressed he was by Chris Terrio’s script (or, after the movie was released, just how much he learned from its production). But this seems to have actually hurt him more than helped Dawn of Justice, with accounts later surfacing that the actor was humiliated by its critical and commercial response. It could very well be that this burnt him on doing any kind of substantive cheerleading, and may even be the reason why he’s supposedly thinking of cutting all ties to the DC Extended Universe altogether.
Such a convoluted history, however, might actually work to Affleck’s favor should he remain onboard. The typical audience member won’t be clued into the details of all his previous statements, and all those who have been paying attention to the daily ups and downs could end up granting him a degree of honesty and, therefore, legitimacy that most slick PR machines could never hope to attain. With the right champion, this new cinematic take on the Dark Knight – and the larger shared universe he is a major part of – could last for far longer than any of its predecessors.
If Ben can be convinced to tough it out.