[UPDATE: Matt Reeves WILL direct The Batman]
Warner Bros. and the DC Extended Universe have been sailing through choppy waters for the past year. After Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and its DCEU companion Suicide Squad received a plethora of negative reviews, the studio has had to fend of rumors of behind the scenes drama and general complaints from moviegoers about the direction of the DCEU. The situation wasn’t helped by Rick Famuyiwa stepping down as director on The Flash due to creative differences last year; a decision that came several months after the project’s original director, Seth Grahame-Smith, left the project for similar reasons.
Now, to add further problems to the mix, Ben Affleck has announced that is stepping down from directing The Batman; though he is still headlining/producing the film and, until further notice, co-writing the script. Affleck is also coming off having directed Live By Night for Warner Bros., a film that proven to be both a critical and commercial bust; fueling speculation that Affleck wasn’t able to properly finish the film while balancing his Bruce Wayne responsibilities (see: promoting Batman V Superman and starring in Justice League), last year. Whatever the case, Affleck seems more comfortable being directed in The Batman than pulling double duty as star and helmsman, leaving DC with the task of finding a director who is willing to take on the challenge of directing The Batman instead.
The top name currently reported to be on WB/DC’s shortlist for replacement directors on The Batman is Matt Reeves, director of Cloverfield and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Moreover, given the current circumstances and the state of the DCEU right now, Reeves feels like the most sensible choice possible here.
Reeves started his directorial career alongside his collaborator J.J. Abrams, with whom he co-created the TV show Felicity and directed several episodes. After a few years of television focused work, he made his big screen directorial debut with Cloverfield, which Abrams produced. The film has since spawned a franchise but before that, Cloverfield was a mid-budget found footage monster film that surprised critics and made over $170m at the box office. While his follow-up, the American remake of Let The Right One In, disappointed financially, Reeves bounced back four years later by taking over the Planet of the Apes franchise, leading Dawn to become the 8th highest-grossing film of 2014 and one of the best reviewed movies of the year. Guy Lodge of Variety singled out Reeves’s work on the film as “conducting the proceedings with more assertive genre elan than Rise journeyman Rupert Wyatt”, so it’s no wonder Reeves was re-signed by Fox to helm and co-write this year’s War for the Planet of the Apes.
Reeves is not exactly a major name, but he’s made a number of profitable movies and has been praised for his ability to handle effects-heavy storytelling without sacrificing character or theme. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes not only changed tone dramatically from its predecessor (moving closer to a war film in its ambitions), it explores the emotional beats of its ape ensemble in great depth; developing them far beyond their admittedly-impressive CGI work (which in and of itself elevated the already stunning work of the first film to dazzling new heights of immersion). Dawn is a cerebral yet deeply empathetic story of the sacrifices of war that just happens to feature humanoid chimps on horseback with guns. It may not be defined as “A Matt Reeves movie”, but it is thanks to the work of Reeves that it can stand tall as a great film.
Perhaps that’s exactly what DC needs right now after Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad, two grim films that bear the fingerprints of Zack Snyder all over them. DC arguably made a mistake in allowing a single filmmaker (and, perhaps more importantly, a controversial one in the geek community) to majorly define the visual and emotional tone of their multi-billion dollar franchise. While Reeves may not be able to completely balance out the problems inherent to DC and Warner Brothers’ DCEU, his experience in big-budget projects, some of which rival a Batman movie in terms of scope and cost, give him sturdier foundations to work with than some of DC’s other director choices. Affleck’s concerns seem to lie in handling those pressures on The Batman, but with Reeves, his record speaks for himself.
Reeves is the kind of director Hollywood is often keen to work with but seldom give deserved credit to. He is not an auteur of distinction, nor is his work imbued with stylistic quirks or trademark signs, but he has the skills and command to take on major projects with technical flourish and kinetic energy – while still working within the parameters of the studio’s limitations.
He seems to understand how such movies are made, not just on a technical and storytelling level, but as a cog in the wider industry machine. There is no doubt that The Batman will be a movie that’s test-screened at every possible opportunity, and whoever is helming the multi-million dollar tent-pole will be inundated with producer notes, time constraints and demands from its leading man, who will retain at least a “story by” credit, if not a full screenwriter one. This is not a story Warner Brothers will be keen to let someone “put their stamp on”, more so since publicity efforts to make Suicide Squad and Justice League seem lighter in tone to audiences tired of the more grim approach favored by Snyder.
That is why Reeves would be a strong choice for Warner Brothers to make, going forward with the Batman series. He has the prerequisite experience studios crave from their blockbuster directors but is also savvy enough to keep within the borders of the often-smothering studio system; something even greats like Joss Whedon have struggled with. Batman is a character whose adaptations have often been helmed by auteur types – Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan – which must have made the prospect tempting for an Oscar-winner like Affleck, but sometimes experience and technical proficiency matter more than earnest but unattainable ambition. While an official announcement may not be made for a while, WB could use a steady port in the storm, and Matt Reeves could provide the calm they need.