In the permanently-ongoing coverage of the film adaptations of DC Comics brands and characters (pinch yourselves, comic book geeks of yesterday), the current project embroiled in rumors, gossip, insider scoops and studio interference is The Batman. Once planned to be a starring vehicle for Ben Affleck, developing the script with DC Films boss Geoff Johns and being talked into directing by his colleagues for, likely, years, The Batman will now be entrusted to a new director, with Matt Reeves the frontrunner (but another Hollywood heavyweight apparently in the mix, as well).
The tremors and earthquakes leading up to Affleck's official search for a director to "collaborate" with seemed to promise larger upheavals, despite our breakdown of why the move may not be as shocking as it was made out to be. Since a sign of potential turmoil is almost always investigated as a sign of an even bigger problem, Affleck's departure from the director's chair led to every rumor one could imagine: the script was back to a page-one rewrite, and Affleck was not even interested in playing Batman ever again (making his statement that he was "extremely committed" to the film an unnecessary deception).
Those reports from insiders were soon countered by other insiders, stating that all parties were happy with the existing script, and Zack Snyder's longtime photographer implying things were all business as usual. At this point, claims that Affleck is looking for the door are simply echoing previous rumors, arrived at after months of speculation that any actor or filmmaker would want to flee the sinking critical ship of the DCEU (despite the box office returns thus far). But is there any truth to the idea?
After exploring the actual hesitation and apprehension Affleck showed before stepping into the world of comic book blockbusters, his decision to take on such a leading role suggested a strong change of heart. But as the controversy and ever-present-microscope of online scrutiny has reached its top speed, we have to wonder if Ben Affleck choosing to return to his pre-Batman career should even be that surprising.
He Never Needed The Role
The conversation, sentiments, and perceived "reality" of any blockbuster franchise can change as quickly as the public opinion of an actor involved in one. So it may be difficult to remember when Ben Affleck was announced as Zack Snyder's new Batman, blowing the figurative doors off of every media outlet who had assumed he would repeat his casting of a relative unknown as DC's next icon. The jokes based on Affleck's role as Daredevil, not his Oscar-winning talents behind the camera were soon to arrive, and never really stopped until the film released, showing his portrayal to be acceptable to almost all, and exceptional to some.
What made his casting so interesting, though, was that - jokes aside - it marked the addition of one of Hollywood's biggest celebrities to one of the longest-running comic book properties. And that made it something unique. Sure, the current fame of actors like Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, and Chris Pratt suggest that a superhero franchise should, nay must be led by a certified, bankable Hollywood star... but that's getting things backwards.
When these leading men (and very few leading women) landed their parts, the sheer length of contract required by the studios demanded they be younger actors - or ones who, for one reason or another, needed the chance to return to the spotlight. Or, to make it clear that isn't meant as a slight against those cast, were simply smart enough to pursue a role that would open up career opportunities otherwise unthinkable. But with Ben Affleck, Warner Bros. was pursuing a Hollywood titan who didn't need to prove his talent to anyone, and for whom Hollywood's doors were, and will be open.
Consider it this way: is there another actor or actress who is more likely to step away from the grind of superhero blockbusters, and return to making the films they already were while continuing to direct and produce? The sheer fact that Ben Affleck was pursued by the studio and Snyder, and persuaded to direct The Batman changes the reality of this particular case more than most actually grasp.
He Never Needed The Celebrity
Going hand in hand with the question of professional opportunities made possible by the exposure, the immediate fan base, and the constant relationship with press, is that increased 'status' that playing a major comic book superhero in today's world. There was a time when true thespians perceived these mass market releases as inherently less creative, or even capable of harming the reputation of actors lowering themselves to take the role. Those days are long gone, with Marvel and DC dispelling the negative connotations of a "comic book movie" through slightly different means.
For Marvel, the excitement and enthusiasm of worldwide audiences made it clear that blockbuster films are not to be scoffed at, but taken as the fun, escapist adventures they're intended to be (and possessing some weightier thematic journeys and messages, to boot). Fans have likely lost count of the older, esteemed actors who have taken Marvel roles for the "fun" of it. Glenn Close pointed to her Guardians of the Galaxy role as helping make possible her smaller-scale, but meaningful projects, Robert Redford joined The Winter Soldier to try playing a villain, and the list of respected stars claiming it was their children, or grandchildren who convinced them to take the part grows by the year.
It's a testament to the increased quality of 'comic book movies' that award-winning actors can appear in them as a means to connect to a new, younger audience. Not to mention showing that so-called 'dramatic' actors can have as much fun as anyone. For DC, the grounded, character-focused approach to Man of Steel gathered one of the most acclaimed ensemble casts to that point, cashing in on the cultural significance of Superman in general. Zack Snyder's film attracted even more for the sequel, while David Ayer's approach to the Suicide Squad even changed some of his cast's preconceived notions about what kind of films the comic book genre could produce.
As for Affleck? Well, if he wasn't in need of the increased professional exposure that playing the Dark Knight in Batman V Superman brought, then he certainly didn't need the increased fan base or celebrity. Throughout his career, Affleck has shown a preference for privacy over celebrity, and has never been more active as a producer of countless films, documentaries, and TV shows from behind the scenes. The immediate reaction to his casting, as we mentioned above, was also based on the fact that he's about as famous and established a Hollywood institution as can be.
In other words: he's one of the actors, like so many others who have been recruited into the world of comic book craziness, who can step away from the mainstream markets and have no trouble finding work or celebrity. He just happens to be in a leading role the studio intends to keep featuring, not a supporting one.
He Doesn't Deserve The Restrictions
One of the reasons that Affleck writing and potentially directing a standalone Batman movie so delighted fans, if not the main reason, was his established commitment to his creative vision. With a filmography largely based on grounded, character-driven, thematically dense stories exploring the morally grey or unapologetically ruthless areas of the world and those who occupy them, his approach to Batman would be unlike any other. But it became clear early on that, "filmmaker-driven approach" or not, Warner Bros. and Affleck had different ideas of just how the development would play out.
For an in-depth look at the disparity between what the studio expected and the approach Affleck was taking, you can read our case for why Affleck stepping down as director wasn't just a likelihood, but possibly the best move overall. Suffice it to say, Ben Affleck's creative talents and Hollywood clout are well established... but on the list of properties that Warner Bros. is NOT prepared to make "only when it feels right," the most successful DC Comics superhero stands on his own. Especially not when Marvel is gobbling up real estate in the superhero market at an increasing pace, and DC's films have been, are, and will continue to be directly compared.
Again, that decision - to place the business needs of an artist sculpting the story - can be viewed as an injustice, an affront that Affleck would be right to criticize. But as a producer himself, it seems just as likely that Affleck would understand that it's not meant to be, and openly support the search for a director he can collaborate with - starting with one who turned a similar situation with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes into a critical and commercial hit. After all, he wouldn't be the first director to discover that billion-dollar shared universes aren't exactly built on giving directors free rein (a fact that he seemed to understand for some time).
That being said, Affleck understanding that Batman isn't his kind of franchise, and wishing to part ways with the studio over this particular role are two very different things. Affleck may have the influence with the studio to make it happen, and for the reason mentioned above, escape the media fallout such a decision would bring. Of course, as unthinkable as it may be for Ben Affleck to step away from the role, it was just as unthinkable when Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and even he put on the cowl for the first time. Comic book storytellers have come up with all sorts of reasons to sideline, re-imagine, or outright replace characters where necessary.
And as shocking as Affleck's amicable departure would be, the marketing and gossip surrounding a new Batman, and new Batman movie, would take over before long.
He Doesn't Need The Noise
When it was first reported that Ben Affleck would not be directing his solo Batman movie, there were many who took to social media, or wrote editorials suggesting that the constant hounding by media and press played a role in hampering what enthusiasm he had. It's a somewhat persuasive idea, since no matter how professional or experienced he may be, being asked for updates on a movie that hasn't moved beyond a screenplay dozens of times, while promoting an entirely different film you directed has to take its toll. Was the Live By Night press tour Affleck's first look at the months and years that lay ahead, convincing him that placing another director in the firing line was a better idea?
It may be a testament to Zack Snyder's resilience, or ability to tune out the loudest critics that Affleck's reluctance to face the "pressure" of a superhero movie came not from fan obligations, but sheer media coverage. But where Snyder's exposure to the press is limited, Ben Affleck's was only growing (at the cost of his other passion projects). It would be a shame if that were the case, since Affleck had once laughed at the online reactions to his casting, knowing the finished product would be all that mattered. If the loudest, most hyperbolic critics of his work or that of his peers soured the entire prospect of continuing, then his potential influence was the casualty.
He wouldn't be the first director to take one step into the modern superhero genre and step back out wiser, and less than eager to return. No two writers, directors, or actors are the same, nor are they motivated or attracted to projects for the same reasons. If Ben Affleck is happier writing scripts, developing films, and directing them in relative privacy, then few could blame him. And for all the reasons mentioned above, there aren't many compelling reasons to suffer through it.
Quite honestly, Ben Affleck signing on for multiple films, producing Justice League, and writing a solo Batman film with Geoff Johns, only to change his mind and pursue a way out of his contract implies a breakdown of professionalism we would hesitate to ascribe to someone with as distinguished a career as Affleck. And given his previous enthusiasm for the DC's future plans in general, and Geoff Johns in particular, there would have to be a LOT more to the story for it to make sense. Certainly more than his thinking that DC Films is still doomed with Johns leading it, at any rate.
The story is far from over, and with inside scoops and rumors dropping by the hour, we're certain the landscape will have changed significantly by the time the movie is set to enter production... if it ever does.