Ben Affleck is Batman no more. Last night it was confirmed that director Matt Reeves would be looking for a younger actor to replace Affleck as the Dark Knight for the upcoming film The Batman. On Twitter, Affleck wished Reeves the best, and that was it. After signing on to play the role in August 2013, Affleck only starred in two movies—Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League—and had a brief cameo in Suicide Squad. For a guy who was the Caped Crusader for the better part of this decade, that’s not a lot of output, but that doesn’t really fall on Affleck’s shoulders. At one point he was supposed to direct The Batman, but that never really came together, and his tenure as Batman will probably be defined more by what others did than what he did.
The concept behind casting Affleck as Batman—an older, grizzled Bruce Wayne who has seen some things—was sound. Keep in mind that when Affleck was cast, we were barely a year removed from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy. Christian Bale had done a fine job with the role (questionable Batman voice aside), but more importantly, he had left a stamp on it for the first time since Michael Keaton had played the part (Val Kilmer and George Clooney’s turns as Batman were largely forgettable at best). There needed to be some kind of change to make this Batman stand out, and director Zack Snyder felt they needed to echo Frank Miller’s comic The Dark Knight Returns by having an older, world-weary Batman. Affleck, hot off his Best Picture win for Argo, was seen as the best choice.
When you look at Affleck as Batman, there’s a lot of potential in his performance that’s hampered by the story beats. In Batman v Superman, he’s taking on the Lex Luthor role in the comics by seeing Superman as a threat. But his actions make him villainous, and his machinations turn out to be just a part in Lex Luthor’s (Jesse Eisenberg) plot, to the point that Batman as a character comes off as largely incompetent or despicable. He’s either trying to take down Superman because he’s scared that Superman could destroy the world, or he’s branding criminals to get murdered in prison because he doesn’t care about human lives anymore. Perhaps in his own story, this could be an interesting redemption arc, but in Batman v Superman, it makes Batman as a character deeply disturbing—and not in a compelling way.
And yet Affleck as Batman is quite good. In his performance, you can see that his fear is motivated by personal loss. To be afraid of Superman is reasonable, and Affleck’s Batman melds pragmatism with that fear so that he still has the strength of a superhero melded with the humanity of someone who knows he’s not a god like Superman. And as Bruce Wayne, there’s an almost charming chip on his shoulder, especially in his confrontation with Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) at Lex Luthor’s party. He’s got the grizzled thing down as he basically treats Clark like some naïve kid who should let those with experience handle things. Also, when the film finally gives Batman a laugh line (“I’m a friend of your son’s.”) he nails it.
Moving over to the lighter Justice League, it’s a miracle that movie holds together at all, but again, there are glimpses of something better in Affleck’s performance, especially in terms of his relationship with The Flash (Ezra Miller). Rather than the grizzled veteran who acts out of fear, this new take on Batman has him moving into a mentorship role where he uses his experience to help other superheroes rather than work alone and terrorize criminals. Affleck has no problem giving the character warmth when it calls for it, and again, the biggest problems with the movie aren’t because of his performance, but because of filmmaking beyond his control.
What makes Affleck’s turn as Batman so curious is that his Batman exists in this odd No Man’s Land where he’s a part of superhero movies, but he doesn’t have a superhero movie to call his own. That was supposed to be The Batman, but it kept getting pushed back and reworked and meanwhile the brand was souring because of Batman v Superman and Justice League. You have Affleck trying to make the role his own while also sharing the screen with other superheroes, and so he never really gets to take full ownership of the character. There is an arc for Batman in Batman v Superman, but it’s diminished because he’s also sharing time with Superman and his story. It’s difficult to be a definitive Batman when you’re not the sole superhero.
Obviously, as an actor, Ben Affleck is going to be just fine. He’s got Triple Frontier coming out later this year (where I’m sure he’ll be asked ad nauseum about moving on from Batman) and other projects lined up. But looking at his time as Batman, it feels like a missed opportunity. To Zack Snyder’s credit, looking for an older, world-weary Batman was a unique take that audiences hadn’t seen before. Affleck was going to do something new with the character, but all of it was marred by storytelling decisions outside of his control. At the end of the day, Affleck isn’t the writer or director of Batman v Superman and Justice League. He did the best he could with what he was given, but his time as Batman will always be “What if?” What if he had better scripts? What if he had been able to do The Batman? Affleck wasn’t as forgettable as Kilmer or Clooney, but his time as Batman shows there’s more to the character than just who gets cast in the role.