Batman Rewatch: How Ben Affleck made his ridiculous Dark Knight a heroic ruin
Every week (more or less) from now until The Batman hits theaters, we're watching Batman's theatrical films in chronological order. This week: Bruce Wayne finds himself in an extended universe. Last time: Chaos agents and face tubes. Next time: When did Lego Batman become the conventional Batman? And here's our review of The Batman!!!
The world ends and Batman is still Batman. He emerges from the bunker in full costume plus apocalyptic flair. Goggles. Scarf. Leg pouches. A machine gun. Capeless, but trenchcoated. There is no obvious reason to wear the mask anymore, certainly no point in using the voice modulator that turns every word into autotuned gator burps. Most movies try to hide the awkwardness of the Batsuit, honoring the comic book ideal of a sky-swinging acrobat. Ben Affleck was already tall before he bulked up for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and then the garment people gave his layers extra layers. The effect is not graceful. He looks like a brick wearing a podium.
Director Zack Snyder deemed this dark future an Imax-worthy showcase scene. It's a dream or a prophecy, so nothing matters on a plot level. We see a couple dozen other people on screen, never identified, personality-free. They exist so the superhero can pummel them. He does that in a near-minute-long single take: punching, stabbing, shooting, and neck-snapping an army, while the camera swirls around him. It's Batman Xtreme, Maximum Pwnage, only missing an Arkham City combo counter. Forget coherence. His machine gun disappears so he can grab another machine gun (press triangle + square) off a bad guy. The goggles do nothing. Quoth the Batman: "NOOOOOOOO!!!" In a film I can't stand, this is one of my favorite Batman moments ever. It was supposed to be cool, but it's mainly hilarious.
Another movie, a very different Batman, same old Affleck: Superman (Henry Cavill) wakes up on the wrong side of the coffin. The Last Son of Krypton picks the Caped Crusader up by his chin — very "Why, I oughta!" — and then tosses him aside. Kal-El has a swoony romantic moment, and flies away to resurrected glory. CUT TO: The goddamn Batman, moaning on the grass. "Yeah," he mutters, "something is definitely bleeding."
This is the critical scene of Justice League, and it is crap in any cut. We know these battling good guys will become teammates, so nothing matters on a plot level. The greenscreen is embarrassingly present: bland gray Metropolis wallpaper in the background, smoke that never hazes right. When Joss Whedon took over the reshoots, he controversially chose to recognize the existence of non-gray colors. Visual clarity destroys this Batsuit. Extra light brings out the pockmarks; Affleck seems to be wearing a 6-foot-4 jogging toe sock. The actor has admitted that his life during production was a personal and professional shambles. He must have spent hours in costume that day to act like a wounded idiot. His groaning contains no epic grandeur, but it's not zesty farce either. He just sounds exhausted. In a film I can't stand, this is one of my favorite Batman moments ever. It was supposed be funny, but it's astoundingly sad.
These two sequences are the ecstasy and the agony of Batfleck. Swaggering pomposity becomes embarrassed self-deprecation. Monstrous assurance shades into bruised nonchalance. Production on Batman v Superman started in 2013, while Justice League's theatrical reshoots took place in summer 2017. Between these two scenes, the world imploded. Best-laid plans for the mega-franchise went out the window. And Affleck's life changed, dramatically. You can sense it in his performance. I think he gets better when he cares less, or when the writing shades closer to his own rueful sarcasm. His Batman is a strange kind of heroic failure. He is bigger (literally) but also smaller, with no solo film to call his own. An air of ruined swagger hangs over his performances — first accidental, then palpable.
In a strange way, Affleck feels more linked to Batman than any actor since Adam West. He played one of the most famous characters in the world during one of the worst periods of his life, against the backdrop of nonstop cultural reckoning. His centrality may not last past this weekend and whatever The Batman is. Never count Affleck out. You get good at comebacks when you have to get good at comebacks.
"I'm happy to be Sad Batman," the actor recently told Jimmy Kimmel. But like, really though. Has any Batman ever been sadder? When The Flash hits theaters, Affleck will become the actor who has played Bruce Wayne in the most movies. That includes Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and Justice League, which are generally loathsome, infamously misbegotten, and (of course) passionately defended. Flash can only be an improvement. But the numbers lie in both directions. In some ways, Affleck has played Batman less than any Batman.
In three movies (including two Ultimate Whatever cuts), Bruce has never had a proper love interest. That might be old-fashioned thinking; he is the first Batman to wake up next to a nameless woman and a bedside table full of booze and pills. But has he ever even had a proper villain? Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) should have been an ideal antagonist, a brash young tech bro versus the Wayne fortune (which, we learn, is as old as the pelt trade). The billionaires only talk a couple times, though. In another future dream, Batman teeth-grits through a chat with the very worst Joker (Jared Leto). The two actors were, apparently, never even in the same room. (What's worse: Jared Leto overacting at you, or pretending Jared Leto is overacting at you?)
His Gotham lacks any obvious visual definition, beyond a few inner-city signifiers that could come out of a tough-on-crime campaign ad. He lives in an expensive no-place with glass walls and spends way too much time on his computer. (The scene where he discovers that Gal Gadot's mysterious Diana hasn't aged in a century is… not a scene, we just read his email about it.) Affleck's Batman has three big action set pieces in an empty seaport and one big action set piece in an empty Russian town, probably because Warner Bros. took the note on Man of Steel's casualty count and mandated zero civilians. Batman's relationship with Alfred (Jeremy Irons) is professional and snippy; they could be the hero guy and the computer snark on some NCIS. He slays various henchmen, and grunts in various cockpits. Characters express concern over his ultraviolence. But Snyder clearly thinks the Bat-missile-launcher rocks, and clearly wants Batman to kill fools stupendously.
Except for Superman. Batman spends two-thrids of a movie trying to murder Superman, and then realizes Superman is his pal. Aggressive pointlessness has been the primary mood of the DC Extended Universe. Various famous characters do horrible things and express constant dislike of each other — and then save the world the same old way they've done world-saving together for six decades. But today I don't care about the universe. I care about Batman.
Affleck took the part at a career height, still glowing in the aftermath of two revival narratives that climaxed simultaneously. After Argo's Best Picture victory, he was an in-demand actor in the prime of his life and an acclaimed filmmaker with a proven track record at the last studio in town that believed passionately in its directors' visions. Then he became Batman. Was that his Icarus moment? When did the spiral begin?
Batman v Superman came out the same year as Live by Night and The Accountant — a terrible bore and a trashy delight, respectively. That's a busy 2016. By the time Justice League arrived in November 2017, everything had changed. Batman v Superman grossed $279 million less than Iron Man v Captain America and $207 million less than Batman v Bane. Live by Night bombed. Snyder departed Justice League following a family tragedy. Whedon came on board, leading to a chain of events that will remain disputed for the next millennium. When Affleck talks about Justice League now, it sounds like rock bottom.
A sense of dwindling permeates his character's journey. He will be the last Batman actor ever allowed to think the role is his and his alone, not something to share with whoever's in line for a nostalgic revival. He wanted to make his own solo Bat-film — the first Batman to direct himself! — but now his most famous turn as the character is a four-hour content lump released by the streaming service Christopher Nolan hates. Affleck wanted to be awesome, Snyder's whole take on the character was "F---ing Awesome Killer Techno-Bat." But in many ways, his peculiar Bat-fandom now seems built around a sense of grievance and possible redemption: the familiar feeling (What, no director nom?) that this attractive, successful man has not yet gotten the respect he deserves.
Maybe The Flash will reckon with all these complexities, or send him off into the multiverse for a decades-long furlough. For now, I treasure his throwaway lines in the slapdash theatrical Justice League, and enjoy how Whedon (whatever his other array of alleged issues and heinous mustache-deleting) prods around this Batman's yearning soul. Snyder is a body guy, to put it mildly, whereas Whedon is all dialogue. The shift in characterization is extreme: from Conan the Barbarian to Conan O'Brien. Bruce really wants to know if Aquaman (Jason Momoa) talks to fish, and cares a lot about what science is for. He notes, sadly, that Superman "was more human than I am," admiring the remote alien with a girlfriend, a job, and life. There are scenes where Affleck comes off tired or unsteady, clearly aware the rewrites have zilch to do with Batman v Superman's moody tin-can devil. We see this guy's bruises and understand just how little this human belongs at the looming godfight. "Alfred, I need the big gun!" he pleas, right before Superman aggressively pulls him into the air.
Affleck is much better with comedy than drama; the last two decades of celebrity scar tissue have left him with a very bleak sense of humor. Don't underestimate the surprising frailty that slips into the margins. "Tell me," the all-powerful Kryptonian says, holding Bruce Wayne's very breakable head in his hands, "do you bleed?" It's the best kind of callback, throwing the previous movie's trailer moment right back in his face. Whedon's merciless camera goes up into Affleck's bug-out eyeballs. Batman has never been so pitiful, never look so scared. Is that a roundabout way of saying he's never looked more human?