The Real Reason to Worry About the New Batman

It's not Ben Affleck, it's Warner Bros.' history of mishandling of superhero films.
The cover of Superman/Batman issue #48. (DC Comics)

The announcement that Ben Affleck will play Batman for the sequel to this year's Man of Steel came as a shock to Bat-fans, in part because Affleck doesn't immediately come to mind as the rich playboy Bruce Wayne or his masked identity. But despite how much attention has been paid to that one casting decision, it isn't the big issue at hand in the film's development.

Affleck might be miscast. It’s too early to say, really. He’s a talented actor, and with the right direction and writing, could be amazing. The question is, how true to the character will director Zach Snyder and writer David S. Goyer be? Given their and Warner Bros.' history of mishandling of superhero films, there’s reason for worry.

First, a caveat: The studio's history of mishandling excludes Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy. Those films were critical and financial hits that captured the essence of the hero, a truly human character who rises above tragedy to help others. That’s part of what makes Batman great -- he represents what man can accomplish.

After the success of Batman Begins, Warner Bros. gave Nolan more control over the franchise, which is at odds with how it handled its other big superhero. After Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, a critical and financial success in 2006, somehow went down as a flop in the popular consensus, Warner Bros failed to create a sequel and then chose to launch a reboot of the Superman films with Man of Steel.

Man of Steel, though, felt reactionary: The film seemed to want to apologize for elements of the character, while pandering to more base pleasures. After an unapologetically optimistic, worldly and still action-packed character study of the character in Superman Returns, the reboot instead was full of long fight scenes, a strangely nationalist American viewpoint, and a cynical streak. In a strange inverse of the “show don't tell” rule for writing, the film kept saying how Superman is an inspiring figure, but he did little justify that. He seemed more passive than anything. Part of that is Snyder's direction, part of it is a weak script—both problems that could easily mar the sequel, given that the same filmmakers are involved.

There are other reasons for pessimism, based on what we know about this forthcoming film.

The creative team is taking inspiration from Frank Miller's 1980s miniseries The Dark Knight Returns, which imagined a Batman in his 50s who came out of retirement for one last attempt at stamping out crime in a dystopic future. The climax involves Superman, who is portrayed as a government patsy, fighting the rogue Batman, who manages to take on the man who's stronger than a locomotive. The comic was hailed as a bold new take on the Batman character, and dispelled and of the lingering camp from the ‘60s (a good thing—Adam West’s Bat-doofus cynically made the character into a hypercompetent joke, forwarding a dismissive view of the entire superhero genre). But it also removed the Gothic overtones and humanity from Bruce Wayne. Instead of finding drama in ambiguity, it focused on extremes, making Batman into a militaristic vigilante reliant on brute force rather than cunning, with the physique of the Hulk.

Presented by

Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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