Ever since he was announced to be taking on the cape and cowl all the way back in August 2013, it was expected that Ben Affleck was really joining the DC Extended Universe to not just star as Batman, but direct a standalone movie for the Caped Crusader; he was coming off the Oscar-winning Argo, which had cemented him as a better-regarded director than actor. Even though the film wasn’t officially slated along with other movies in the series, it swiftly became an accepted sure-thing and was eventually confirmed in 2016.
While other projects in the DCEU hit production issues – The Flash has been through several directors and Justice League reduced from a two-parter to a single movie – Affleck’s film, which picked up the working title of The Batman, looked to be the DCEU’s steadying presence; a picture everyone could get behind. This was especially true when Batfleck emerged as one of the least divisive elements of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
However, it looks like it wasn’t meant to be. The project has been subject to a lot of controversy in the past few months and it’s finally come to a head with Affleck confirmed to be standing down from directing. For all the recent chatter, it's still a rather shocking turn, a decision that no doubt took a long time to arrive on. So what exactly led Affleck to leave the director's chair?
To Focus On His Performance
While Affleck won’t be directing The Batman, he still will be the star. In fact, the main reason he cites for leaving in his statement is so he can best focus on his performances, something the pressures of directing simply conflicted with.
It’s likely this was somewhat influenced by his work on Justice League. Batman is set to be the team’s assembler and thus shoulder much of the movie, which will have really pushed him in the role. If that proved a heavy experience, it’s likely he wanted to make things as focused as possible going forward.
Affleck definitely knows his actor-director limits. He’s directed himself three times – in The Town, Argo and Live By Night – and knows how much of himself to give in each position on set. The Batman could have really pushed this; Bruce Wayne is a much more physically demanding role than any of those parts and the blockbuster film inevitably much more complex on a technical level.
The Pressures of Making Batman
The other thing that Affleck calls attention to in his statement, albeit not as explicitly as the acting balance, is the pressure of getting Batman right. He’s a comic icon, yes, but also one of the biggest movie franchises ever. Any new entry is going to be high on scrutiny and needs to deliver for fans of various denominations.
This pressure only gets more intense with each reboot. Thanks to the success of the Christopher Nolan's own Batman films and the MCU we simply expect more of comic book films. The days of the simple idea of a Batman movie being enough are long gone, as are the times when anything but pure day-glow vulgarity would keep the franchise going (see: the contemporarily positive reaction to Batman Forever). For Bats, capturing the character in a manner that's focused but acknowledges his 75-year history is essential, but it's a tricky line to balance.
Beyond fan scrutiny, there’s a wider expectation of quality. For all their bombast, Batman movies are, by-and-large, expected to be good; that’s what made the Batman v Superman debate so charged. This new iteration also brings the weight of a bigger franchise with it; muck up The Batman and that scuppers sequels and one of the most bankable parts of the DCEU. Affleck is already an audience-minded director, but this added pressure, especially in the wake of the series' negative response so far, can’t have made it easy.
Indeed, the movies are so high-pressure that even slavish director Nolan he needed a breather from Batman. He took a “break movie” between each of his Bat-flicks – The Prestige and Inception respectively – which allowed him to flex his non-franchise filmmaking muscles (and provided him the opportunity to experiment with new tricks).
His Busy Schedule
Affleck has been busy this past year. There was the release of Batman v Superman, then he moved into the production of Justice League before jumping to promotion for The Accountant. During all this, he was working on Live By Night, which had another massive press push at the tail-end of 2016. That’s a pretty jam-packed schedule, one that offers very little breathing room.
Working on The Batman, presumably angled towards a 2018 or 2019 release date, would mean he wasn’t going to have any time off between work on directing projects either. There's a risk of creative exhaustion, something a two-year start-to-finish production would surely begin. Affleck’s not got any major projects on the horizon beyond his DCEU commitments, which may be a result of trying to find a balance in his work going forward.
The director has talked previously about the length of time spent on Live By Night, so the pressures are definitely there. On that note, it's worth highlighting that the original Variety report points out that the change has nothing to do with Live By Night’s disappointing release - any impact it had comes purely from the logistics of production.
The Ongoing Script Development (And Ensuing Media Storm)
Of course, this isn’t the first time Ben Affleck leaving The Batman has come into the discussion. The releases of both The Accountant and Live By Night were dogged by questions about the film, especially the latter (often in favor discussions of the movie at hand).
The real troubles started when, after a run of vague-but-positive updates, he said "If it doesn’t come together in a way I think is really great I’m not going to do it", which led to speculation the film was in a bad state, especially as rumors in this vein had already been sparked late last year based on third-hand talk from Bret Easton Ellis. Affleck hit back in later interviews, saying everything was going OK and eventually lamented how every word said about the film became a minor storm.
This sort of pressure goes beyond the usual fan expectations and becomes a unique dark side of the filmmaking process. His previous films were rarely the subject of discussion until imminent release, whereas The Batman was being scrutinized and resolutely evaluated when it was still years out.
Regardless of the circus surrounding the film though, this narrative does seem to detail a slow scripting process, with the movie not quite coming together to the director or studio's liking as the right pace. If there's an idealized release date, then Affleck's talk of bringing in a partner to work on the film with is really rather logical and for the best.
- Justice League (2017) release date: Nov 17, 2017
- The Batman release date: Sep 21, 2018