The Real Reason to Worry About the New Batman

It's not Ben Affleck, it's Warner Bros.' history of mishandling of superhero films.
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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.

So if Snyder and Goyer are going for this portrayal, as they've hinted, it looks like Affleck's Batman might be written as a grim meathead, more into punching things than detective work. That portrayal would, unfortunately, fit right in with a continuation of Man of Steel's emphasis on action over character or story.

In Hollywood, of course, picking action over depth happens all the time. But as Marvel’s successes have shown that truly memorable superhero films manage to deliver both action and indelible characters, as with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. Warner Brothers, as Man of Steel showed, still doesn’t seem to understand this. Green Lantern, the first DC superhero attempt outside of the Dark Knight trilogy, was heavily edited to remove character and story-building scenes in the name of a lesser runtime. The idea was that a shorter film meant more screenings, which meant more money. But it didn’t work. Audiences didn't like the bare-bones film and Green Lantern did not do as well as the studio hoped for.

DC/Warner Brothers' formula-beholden strategy is also affecting the development—or lack thereof—of another of DC’s most iconic characters. 

Studio execs have called Wonder Woman too “tricky” to get right. In a viral tweet, writer Brett White called them out for that, noting “DC/WB is all like 'Wonder Woman's too confusing for a movie!' and Marvel/Disney is all like 'Here's a raccoon with a machine gun',” referencing the upcoming Guardians of Galaxy film. Now, granted, Marvel has much more leeway; it already has a small fortune from its previous films, it can experiment with properties that are not familiar to the general audience. But to call Wonder Woman tricky because she doesn’t have a definitive storyline is odd, especially when so many superhero films are more amalgamations of storylines than any direct tale lifted from the pages.

Hopefully, the studio and/or Snyder will go back to the drawing board, scrap the many elements of Man of Steel that didn’t work, and study their source material. DC has an opportunity to create a shared universe with truly iconic characters, and maybe Ben Affleck's Batman might be among them. But it will only work if the focus is on staying true to what made these heroes popular, rather than going for cheap audience demands and a rush for cash. 

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Nicholas Slayton is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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