Friday, August 23, 2013

Hunting For Goodwill When Ben Affleck Is Batman


- The internets collectively exploded late yesterday, as news broke that Warner Bros. had cast none other than Ben Affleck as Batman in the new Batman vs. Superman movie. There was shock. There was disbelief. There was nerdrage. 

I'll say for the record: I don't like this casting. But let's look at this point by point here:

"But Ben Affleck was Daredevil, and Daredevil sucked!"

- You know what, I don't even care about this. Daredevil was pretty bad, but the casting in it was basically fine. I blame this movie's general mediocrity on the script and director and the studio. Plus, I don't even think Daredevil was *that* bad. 

"Ben Affleck is actually a great actor. Just watch him in __________!"

- Guys, Ben Affleck is a pretty good actor, in certain types of roles. But a great one? Not convinced. Here's the thing: Ben Affleck does a couple of things quite well. For one, he's good and actually underrated at comedy, in my opinion. I actually was a big Affleck fan back in the day through Kevin Smith movies alone. More so, he excels when playing variations on the "regular guy" trope. In his best dramatic movies: Good Will Hunting, The Town, Hollywoodland - he is a variation on the regular-Joe, local-kid archetype. In Hollywoodland, he plays a celebrity who is essentially a guy overwhelmed by his abnormal lifestyle and success. Even in Argo, he does well as essentially a Joe Schmo who happens to work in a pretty dangerous and crazy line of work. Think about the scene in Argo where Affleck is brought in to pitch his fake-movie idea to a room full of government officials. Affleck is the jeans-and-flannel guy in a room full of suits. Affleck is good as the jeans-and-flannel guy. Well, guess what people ...


Now, look at Affleck in his more "movie-star" esque roles, where he plays the action hero even though we've now learned it doesn't really suit him. Have any of those action-hero, blockbuster turns from Affleck been praiseworthy? No, not a one. It's frustrating, because Affleck really has been on a hot streak with the double-whammy of The Town and Argo. Both fantastic films that he directed, both featuring two of his best acting performances to date. These star turns show Affleck in low-key mode. He's still doing a variation on jeans-and-flannel guy, but he is able to reign himself in and perform in a more nuanced, subtle, and refined way than in his earlier career.

Those directorial efforts seemed to be the start of a new era in Ben Affleck's career. An era in which he stopped taking roles offered to him because of star-wattage alone, and instead took roles that suited him, that played to his specific strengths, that were perhaps less glamorous, but ultimately had much more merit. As a director, Affleck's been knocking it out of the park. The days of Ben Affleck: star of Pearl Harbor and Armageddon, seemed like a distant memory.

Until this. Until Batman. Let's be honest: in order to be a great Batman, BEN AFFLECK IS GOING TO HAVE TO TURN IN, LITERALLY, THE PERFORMANCE OF A LIFETIME.

Why do I say that? Because Ben Affleck is not, naturally, Batman. Batman is tough, gritty, grizzled, and full of pain, rage, and angst. He's a badass. He thrives on fear and pain. He is, always, the smartest man in the room. He's a genius, a scientist, a detective, and a hero. Does that sound like Ben Affleck? Does that sound remotely in the vicinity of any role that Affleck has ever (successfully) played? 

For Batman, you need someone who has that darkness and rage and slight bit of madness in their eyes. Bale had it. Michael Keaton had it. Hell, Kevin Conroy's voice has everything you need to know about Batman in its inflection alone. But Affleck? Affleck is the 'bro next door. Even at his most grizzled and gritty, in, say, The Town, he's still a 'bro, jeans-n'-flannel (or in that movie's case, track-suit). 

Let's talk about Michael Keaton for a second. His name is being tossed around a lot as justification to use a wait-and-see approach. Sorry, but no. Keaton's casting was out-of-the-box, but it was also oddly appropriate. Keaton was a comic actor who had a certain undeniable darkness in his performances, and a Batman-esque madness in his eyes. He was weird. And Tim Burton's Batman was a weird and gothic movie that needed an appropriately offbeat lead. Keaton worked. 

In some ways, Affleck is a natural to play a superhero. He's a big dude with a square jaw. He might even make sense in, say, the Marvel-verse, where so many characters are regular joes who happen to have extraordinary powers. He'd fit in well with guys like Mark Ruffallo and RDJ, cracking wise and smirking and snarking his way through a world-conquering threat. But Batman is anything BUT a regular joe. And that's why you need someone to play him who's slightly off, slightly menacing, just a little bit dangerous. Is Ben Affleck any of those things? Not really. And is he enough of a chamelion-like actor that he could believably *become* those things? Not that I'm aware of. Like I said, he will literally have to put in the performance of a lifetime - and go to places and depths (physically, mentally, emotionally) that we've never seen from him yet on-screen - to pull it off.

Some reports indicate that Warners was intent on casting Batman with an eye towards someone with a Robert Downey Jr.-esque cult of personality. But why? Iron Man was a second-tier property that needed an injection of star-power and charisma to take-off, and RDJ was the perfect fit. He basically was Tony Stark. It was a match made in heaven. In contrast, if ANY movie sells itself, it's Batman Vs. Superman. So why the need to cast a marquee "name" ...? 

On that ... let's look at this in comparison to other divisive comic book casting. When Michael Keaton was cast as Batman, there was absolutely no element of box-office draw to that decision. The draw was Jack Nicholson as The Joker. Keaton was a left-field pick, but at the least you could assume that Tim Burton saw something in him that convinced him this was the way to go for his vision. When Heath Ledger was cast as The Joker in The Dark Knight, yes, he was a draw for the female audience, and he had a following. But this was a quasi-teen idol cast as a make-up covered homicidal villain. There was certainly no element of "safe" about that choice. Again, you had to believe that Christopher Nolan saw something unique in Ledger - and as it turned out, Ledger nailed it. Chris Evans as Captain America is the other one that felt really left-field to me. But Evans was not a big enough star to make his casting a purely box-office-driven decision. Again, you had to think that Marvel screen-tested him and saw something special. And again, they were right, and Marvel's track record in casting remains pretty damn good. They've earned our trust.

But WB and DC ... who knows what's going on there. They struck gold, I think, in Henry Cavill as Superman. In fact, the whole of MAN OF STEEL was seemingly perfectly-cast. Whatever reservations you might have had about the film, you've got to cop to that. But this Affleck casting reeks of a purely corporate-driven decision. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that Chris Nolan and Zack Snyder have a Ben Affleck screen-test that's mind-blowingly awesome. I hope that this is, somehow, a role that Affleck will play by reaching deep down and showing us something we never thought we'd get from him. But the first instinct is naturally to be cynical, and look at how this house has been out-of-order for a long time now.

And why not be cynical? Already, sites like Deadline are waxing about what a brilliant business move this was for WB. Affleck's casting generates buzz, ropes in the tabloid-crowd who might not ordinarily see the film, and hey, all those dorky fanboys are just going to see the movie anyways, right? The abundance of these types of editorials make me even more cynical. As often happens, creative concerns are intermixed and confused with discussion about box-office potential. But a casting decision made primarily for box office is a cynical one, and cynical decisions often lead to underwhelming movies. Again - look at Marvel as Exhibit A of smart casting in which the name on the marquee was never more important than the CHARACTER. And they've done pretty okay, I think.

I'm a DC fanboy to the core. I'll defend MAN OF STEEL until I'm blue in the face. And I want nothing more than for Batman Vs. Superman to kick ass. But so much of what's going on right now feels utterly reactionary and short-sighted. I wonder if Zack Snyder is upset about this. I mean, Snyder seems to have an eye for good casting. Look at Man of Steel. In 300, he gave Gerard Butler a break-out role (and man, HE could have been a good Batman) and Lena Heady as well. In Sucker Punch - even if you hate it, how could you not love the casting of Emily Browning, Abby Cornish, etc? Watchmen even had some really interesting casting, a lot of it out-of-the-box - a lot of risks that, mostly, I think, paid-off (Jackie Earl Haley, anyone?). Snyder, if nothing else, knows badass. And so you've got to wonder about his reaction here. And that of Nolan, whose casting of the great Christian Bale helped wipe away horrible memories of the Val Kilmer and George Clooney years. Was Bale perfect as Batman? No, but man, he was pretty damn good. I never did like his Batman voice. But Bale pulled off the emotional and psychological beats of those films to perfection. Bale is exactly the sort of actor you want as Batman.

And that's the capper ... even if, IF, Affleck shows us psychological range that he's never-before displayed on-screen ... he'll still be Ben Affleck. And again, I like Ben Affleck. But the voice, the look, the smirk, the demeanor, the persona ... every bit of him screams "chill dude to have a beer with," and not " tortured soul / relentless genius / guy who scares the crap out of you."

We shall see.

And what kills me is that somewhere out there is some up-and-coming actor who was basically born to play Batman. 

So yeah, what only a few weeks ago seemed like a can't-miss movie event now feels like a potential disaster-in-the-making. I hope I'm wrong. But yeah, we shall see.

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