Originally written for the Spring 2020 issue of Birth.Movies.Death magazine and published on the now-defunct BMD website.
Ben Affleck had a rough run as Batman. He only got to make substantial appearances in two movies, and they weren’t exactly the best in the DC movie back catalog. Even in those films, he didn’t really get a starring role, instead forming part of an ensemble, meaning his development necessarily yielded to other characters. He also had a tough time with the role personally, ultimately leading to his departure from it. But while Affleck’s Batman never managed to get his day in the sun (er, moon), he might’ve shone as bright as the best of them if he had.
Not that you’d guess that based on fan reaction, which at the time of Affleck’s casting announcement was overwhelmingly negative. Just as they did with his successor Robert Pattinson, and with The Dark Knight’s Heath Ledger, many fans revolted vocally at the notion of Ben Affleck appearing in their favorite franchise. Who could possibly live up to Christian Bale’s recent popular and iconic take on the character? Certainly not the guy from Dogma and Gigli.
Affleck’s back catalog worked against him in this area. He’d suffered multiple high-profile flops, and comparatively few mainstream moviegoers had seen his more cerebral work as either actor or director. To fans, Affleck was still the animal crackers guy from Armageddon, and thus the idea of “the Batfleck” became pilloried on social media. Early set photos didn’t help either, and it was only with the release of his Bat-debut Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice that fans got a chance to see what Affleck was actually doing with his performance.
In truth, Affleck’s Batman is one of the more dramatically interesting takes. Director Zack Snyder may have painted his Batman as a brutal Frank Miller-inspired figure, but his Bruce Wayne is a surprising mix of wit and melancholy. Batman V Superman does not meet Wayne at the birth of his career as Batman Begins did, or in his prime, as with the earlier films. This Wayne is older, heavier, and more world-weary, his chosen path having brought him great sorrow over the years. In this universe, Bruce Wayne has not only watched his parents die, but his ward Robin too. His track record is dotted with failures, making him not necessarily softer, but certainly more vulnerable.
Every Batman actor gets precious little time to explore Bruce Wayne outside the Batsuit, but Affleck did a striking job with what scenes he had. His public Bruce was less wild playboy than debonair charmer, in keeping with his more advanced age and worldliness. Likewise, his private Bruce was crankier and more emotional than most, especially when wrangling a Justice League full of comparative youngsters, and unlike Christopher Nolan’s version, actually expressed human sexual desires. This Bruce’s relationship with butler Alfred was almost like that of James Bond and Q, with the elderly Brit even working as the voice in Batman’s ear on sorties. There’s intrigue and non-action thrills in Affleck’s Batman that have never appeared in any other incarnation thus far.
That’s not to say Affleck’s Batman didn’t deliver on action when needed. Snyder, known for highly stylized fight sequences, would never allow that. Affleck’s Batman traded in Bale’s caustic rasp for a deep baritone growl; his theatricality for an efficient blunt-instrument approach. This Batman’s fighting style was less stylized than that of the Burton and Schumacher Batman films, and less rigorously finessed than Nolan’s. Rather, the emphasis was on brute strength and impact, befitting the rough-hewn performance turned in by Affleck. In fact, this Batman was so emotionally wrecked, he frequently crosses the line into cruelty. Things got rough out there in Gotham.
The Batfleck hit hard, but his fight scenes were choreographed to ensure that Batman took almost as many hits as he gave. How many superhero films have their protagonist shot point-blank in the head, yanked around by their cape (highlighting just how counterproductive capes are in combat), and beaten to the ground by half a dozen guys? This is a Batman who suffers, in and out of the suit, driven by raw emotion at all times. Why else hide your eyes behind thick steel armor, if not to secretly cry?
Perhaps even more potent is the tragic backstory of Ben Affleck playing Batman. Fan hate aside, Batman’s sadness mirrored Affleck’s own, and the role may have exacerbated the actor’s real-life issues too. Affleck frequently appeared miserable in interviews, as the films received bad press and he struggled to formulate a decent script for his solo movie. After over a year of public back-and-forth, the challenges of both directing and starring in the nascent The Batman led Affleck to drop out as director and writer. Affleck also faced personal troubles, as a divorce heralded a relapse of alcoholism, and eventually he vacated the Batsuit entirely.
The Batfleck never got to come into his own. He was, at best, a co-lead; at worst, a cameo. Had Affleck been able to explore the character further, in a film that lived up to his performance, his legacy in the role would surely be brighter. Cinematographer Robert Richardson has stated that Affleck’s solo project would have taken the Dark Knight inside the infamous Arkham Asylum to explore the more psychological elements of the character. That would have been markedly different to other Bat-films, and must have appealed to an actor going through considerable mental health difficulties himself. We won’t get to see that movie. We can only dream.
Batman V Superman and Justice League are not the crown jewels of the DC movie back catalog. But each one got a couple things right, and chief among them is Affleck’s performance as Batman. Like Val Kilmer and George Clooney, Affleck only got to hint at his potential greatness before having his tenure cut short. But when you consider his unique, mature approach to the character, he delivered the best parts of the movies he did manage to make. Let’s hope the Patt-Man gets better opportunities than the Batfleck.