Thursday morning Warner Brothers announced that Ben Affleck (cf. Argo, The Town) will pick up the Batman’s mantle left by Christian Bale in the Christopher Nolan trilogy. The movie is not in theaters until July 17, 2015, but the buzz and outright rage over the announcement has been covered by Fox, CNN, MSNBC and various other news media outlets. The conflict among fans of the franchise is over the question what will Affleck bring to the franchise instituted by Nolan’s Syncopy and Legendary Pictures. Namely, will he bring the bar set by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan higher or lower? There’s plenty of debate on both sides of the fence but most of the Dark Knight fans are predisposed to thinking he’ll bring that standard lower. Warner Bros. president of creative development, Greg Silverman, responded to the negative reaction in a statement posted to the Warner Bros. Facebook page saying that Affleck’s “outstanding career is a testament to his talent and we know he and Zack will bring a new dimension to the duality of this character.” A confident response from the company man, but widely disputed. Here I want to briefly outline the nature of the conflict about Affleck and make some pithy commentary on the situation.
In the film The Dark Knight (2008) when the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, looks at Bale’s Batman and says “You’ve changed things…forever…there’s no going back”, I, and many other fans of the film, cannot help but see that line as a double entendre of sorts, one that points to where the dynamic duo of Nolan and Bale took the superhero genre. They took the genre from the horrific depths of titles like Batman and Robin, Meteor Man, and Elektra to an Oscar-winning performance from the late Ledger. We cannot help but sense that an art form made for kids entered the realm of the dramatic, the truly theatrical, and became ‘adult’. Nolan and Bale avenged the superhero film and morphed it into a crime drama with “serious” acting and writing. They raised the bar extremely high and made a comic book movie into something else, “something elemental”. And this greatness of cinematic achievement is also the source of conflict. Though these directors, producers, and actors in the Nolan franchise modeled greatness, it does not follow that greatness is easily replicated. We can point to Warner Bros.The Green Lantern (2011) for an example how to fail after repeatedly seeing how to ‘do it right’. Nolan and Bale were a powerhouse for Warner Bros., but it’s been said that with great power comes great responsibility. I would say with great power comes great expectations. And great expectations are exactly what Nolan and Bale gave us, not just of themselves but of the genre. They “changed things…forever”. The great expectations fans have is paramount to understanding the negative reaction. But thats not all.
Speaking of The Green Lantern, let’s talk Ryan Reynolds for a second. We like Ryan Reynolds, I think. I do. He seems like a good fit for the male lead in romantic comedies and perhaps the occasional action flick. Those seem to be his ‘grace zones’ in his acting. By grace zone, I mean that Reynolds is clearly gifted by his Creator for those genres. Like Michael Jordan excelled at basketball, but couldn’t quite cut it in Major League Baseball, he played in the minors, but clearly MJ’s grace zone was basketball. I had to take college math and algebra twice, clearly math is not part of my grace zone. Some would argue perhaps that writing isn’t either. When we work outside of the grace zones God has given us, it’s often a painful struggle than a positive struggle, and what we do usually comes across as inauthentic–and inadequacy is usually the fruit we feel. That’s because we’re trying to be something we’re not. God graces people with talents and they vary in degrees and that’s a good thing. I use wrenches to loosen bolts, not hammers. Can you dig it?
Now, let’s talk about what in the world any of this has to do with the conflict around Ben Affleck. I don’t think Ben Affleck lacks talent in general, is a bad actor, or comes anywhere close to Warner Bros. worst possible options. If making such a ‘worst options’ list, though, who am I to judge? I wouldn’t have thought to put him on it. For example, here’s a headline that would have probably caused outright depression considering the Affleck response: “Clooney Reprises Role as Caped Crusader”. No offense, George. You’re a good actor but playing superheroes isn’t your grace zone. Playing a street smart Vegas hustler in Oceans most certainly is. Ben is a great Chuckie Sullivan in Good Will Hunting, Ben is a good Gavin Banek in Changing Lanes, and he is a good Tony Mendez in Argo, but fans of the superhero genre have difficulty with the blemish of the film Daredevil on his resume. Sure it takes more than an actor to create a bad film but many actors can shine through rough cinematic backgrounds. Micky Rourke in the Expendables, anyone? It would seem that the genre of superhero films may be out of Ben’s grace zone. Obviously, I cannot say I know that for certain. I’m not talking scientific laws here. So hang on my words tightly when I say “it would seem like”. On this I cannot wait to be proven wrong. Coupling the great expectations with what we’ve seen Ben do in the superhero genre, disappointment at the news shouldn’t come as a surprise. That’s my point. I mean, seriously Warner Bros., did you really expect a different reaction? What did you think the reaction would be when you announced Daredevil would be the new Batman? “So cool, Daredevil was awesome!” Said no one ever. And this isn’t some nerdcore thing from a fringe minority. The spin that’s moving that argument is frivolous. Because it’s Batman ‘nerds’ like the Nolan boys that gave birth to something so good.
I want to be proven wrong. The Bat-fan in me hopes Affleck and Snyder blow Bale and Nolan out of the water. But fans get to respond when decisions are made and artists get to deal with that. Such is the nature of the arts + the internet. You put something out there and people react. Yet, though reactions seem so unfavorable towards Affleck, I think in some sense all critics are hoping, wanting, and deeply desiring to see this film succeed not simply commercially, but artistically. We want to see it with good acting, writing, editing, and all the elements that can transform a simple comic book movie into dramatic theatre that moves people and makes them feel something magical even if just for a moment. We’re not excited about the news, but we’re excited to be proven wrong.