Opinion: How Ben Affleck can be a good Batman, and what the 'Man of Steel' sequel needs to do to be great

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Image Credit: Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

Besides an abiding interest in men who wear masks or spandex (see: Daredevil and Hollywoodland), Ben Affleck shares one more thing in common with Batman: Their big screen careers look exactly alike. There was the sensational start. (Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns; Affleck’s acting breakout with and Oscar-winning script for Good Will Hunting.) There was the embarrassing implosion. (Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin; Affleck in Gigli and the aptly titled Paycheck.) There was the brilliant reboot. (Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy; Affleck’s rightly praised work as actor and director in The Town and the Oscar-winning Argo). Now, their paths converge as they enter the fourth acts of their movie lives: Affleck will play Batman, aka Bruce Wayne, and star opposite Henry Cavill’s Superman in the untitled sequel of Man of Steel, which Warner Bros. intends to release on July 17, 2015.

Affleck’s recent cinematic work suggests he will be quite effective as Bruce Wayne. His next movie, Runner, Runner, in which he plays a badly behaved wealthy criminal, showed us he can do Bruce Wayne’s badly behaved, billionaire playboy act. Argo showed us Affleck can be the righteous hero who works the shadow-world of justice, driven by intense purpose. And fret not, fanboys: the Batman of it all will be fine. He’s got the chin for the mask and he’s got the body for the suit. But I don’t know if he has the voice for a growl. Christian Bale’s theatrical goblin grumble was credible. The story made us understand the tactical purpose for it, the emotions behind it, and Bale just made it work. Affleck giving “theatrical goblin grumble”? I fear camp. Like Affleck doing an SNL parody of Batman. So maybe Affleck shouldn’t growl.

But here’s the thing about that last graph of analysis: It might be totally irrelevant. Affleck’s Batman promises to be different from Bale’s Batman, specifics TBD.  The Warner Bros. press release promises “an entirely new incarnation of the character.” Affleck’s Batman won’t represent a continuation of the Nolan/Bale Batman story, so the actor won’t be beholden to his predecessor’s characterization. Affleck will be his own Batman, and the Nolan/Bale legacy will be unaffected by whatever Snyder/Affleck do together. This is for the best for two reasons: 1. The Nolan/Bale legacy deserves protection and preservation. 2. It’s time to move beyond the Dark Knight aesthetic. It met the times in which the movies were made; it produced some classic, possibly timeless movies. But these are new times, and we need new perspectives on heroism.

Affleck will also be the first 40-something Batman on the big screen — the star will be 42 going on 43 when he shoots the film next year. A quote from director Zack Snyder in the press release says Affleck’s Bruce Wayne will be “older and wiser” than 30-year-old Cavill’s Clark Kent and “bears the scars of a seasoned crime fighter.” He also notes that Affleck possesses “the charm that the world sees in billionaire Bruce Wayne.” With these quotes, Snyder seems to be penciling a figure of the new Batman that looks familiar enough. But judging from how Snyder approached Superman’s mythos in Man of Steel – for better and/or worse — with more sci-fi and psychological “realism,” I wouldn’t be surprised if the filmmaker embellishes and colors his PR outline with interesting new colors and tones. For starters, Snyder could draw from other comic book depictions of the caped crusader’s complex psyche, characterizations that have found ways to allow Bruce to be lighter, less schizoid yet no less haunted or troubled. Specifically, I’m thinking of a memorable version produced by writer Steve Englehart and artist Marshall Rogers in the ’70s: Bruce and Batman were more integrated, the man more of a dashing, romantic matinée idol, the hero more of a detective-adventurer than vendetta-driven war-on-terror vigilante. This is a version of Batman that Affleck could belt out of Fenway, that could provide the necessary contrast to Cavill’s gravely, serious Superman, and that could match the fun-time tenor of Marvel Studios’ more popular brand of superhero movies.

Snyder’s sensibility could portend changes to Batman’s suit (expect more tricks and tech in that utility belt) and the significance of his iconography (will that Batman brand on his chest mean something more or different, a la the way Snyder turned Superman’s “S” into a Kryptonian glyph?). I’m calling it now: Batman’s growl will be generated via a voice scrambler. While I doubt Snyder will alter the core elements of the origin story, I wouldn’t be surprised if the director avers from canon by giving us a Bruce who responded a little differently, perhaps more slowly than the traumatic murders of his wealthy parents when he was a child. Assuming the movie will give us an already-in-progress Batman, perhaps this Bruce has been more secret about his vigilante moonlighting gig, or, inspired by Superman’s public example, has only recently decided to become a costumed crime-fighter.

Speaking of Superman, let’s remember something amid the focus on Affleck’s Batman: We’re talking about a movie that is technically a Superman movie, a sequel to Man of Steel. Interesting that the press release emphasized that the film did not yet have a title. It also couldn’t help but noting that both fans and press have been engaged in much speculation since the news of a Superman/Batman pairing broke. Translation: STOP CALLING THE MOVIE BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN. The title comes from an aborted film project from many years ago that would have been directed by Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm). Geeks and media were inclined to think in this direction because Snyder had the inspired notion of announcing the sequel at Comic-Con by having actor Harry Lennix read an excerpt from Frank Miller’s seminal late eighties comic The Dark Knight Returns, which culminated in a fist-fight between Batman and Superman. But Snyder made it clear that he wasn’t adapting the story, and that the script for the Man of Steel sequel was not even written. I think we can safely assume that Supes and Bats will boss battle at least once in the film (think: Iron Man vs. Thor in The Avengers) – but I think that’s all we can safely assume at this point.

But it’s one thing to assume, and another thing to speculate, and another thing altogether to play fundamentalist fanboy cleric and do the know-it-all, conscience-of-geekdom thing and pedantically tell Snyder what exactly he should be doing with his movie. So let’s do that, too!

The sequel to Man of Steel should first and foremost be about Superman.  It should be less interested in launching a new generation and more interested in using Batman as a provocative, valuable yet not necessarily correct point of view on heroic character in a story about Superman’s evolution toward the kind of aspirational, relevant, archetypal superhero we want and need him to be. More than anything, the story needs to build upon the world created in Man of Steel by taking seriously the surprising, unsettling, polarizing depiction of an unpolished, undisciplined do-gooder with God-like powers who just saved the planet by leveling an entire city and resorting to murder to beat the bad guy. In doing so, in artful, thoughtful fashion, the sequel will continue to please those who were entertained by Snyder’s Superman and assuage the concerns of those who were either appalled by this characterization or believed the filmmakers failed to make that characterization work.

There are any number of ways Team Snyder can do everything I believe they should do – and here’s one of them:

The Man of Steel sequel shouldn’t be another 9/11 allegory. It should be a movie about an allegory for a post-9/11 culture. What kind of world do we want to build upon the ruins of the old? What kind of heroes should populate it? What kind of character do we want them to model? These themes can be expressed through a plot that concerns the rebuilding of Metropolis. Here’s the story: Bruce Wayne will come to town with a plan for reconstruction via his company, Wayne Industries. This is his business; he builds cities. In doing so, Bruce carries on the work of his idealistic, utopian-minded parents, who devoted their wealth and genius rehabbing fallen Gotham back in the day. The model cities that Bruce builds for a living are known for their safety; crime does not flourish in these places. But there’s a reason for this: They are patrolled by shadowy vigilantes – Batmen, if you will. Don’t laugh: This is exactly the premise of the current DC Comics title Batman Incorporated. And don’t laugh at this, either: In the same way that Batman is moving in on Superman’s turf, Bruce Wayne will make a move on Clark Kent’s girlfriend, Lois Lane. Okay, laugh at that, because that’s probably not the best use of Amy Adams’ screen time. But you know that love triangle’s inevitable.

Bruce will have  competition for the Metropolis reconstruction contract: LexCorp, run by Lex Luthor. He’s up to greedy no good, of course. And because he probably lost someone (a loved one?) or something (his hair?) during the Battle of Metropolis, Lex will loathe Superman. He will have his own plan for keeping the world safe — destroying the Man of Steel and superheroes of any sort. To that end, Lex will be in clandestine cahoots with the military to develop the means to destroy Superman just in case the alien demigod decides to go off-the-rails again. Luthor will create Kryptonite, something that can either kill Superman, or at least greatly diminish his powers. But Luthor will struggle to perfect the formula, and he’ll have a whole bunch of monstrous test subjects to prove it, including the Kryptonite-powered cyborg Metallo, a literal man of steel gone wrong.

All of these competing interests and intrigues will produce great conflict and amazing fight scenes, but none more pivotal than when Luthor infects Superman with his flawed Kryptonite. Superman won’t die, but it will screw with him in the ways that Red Kryptonite has screwed with Superman over the years, by making him go a little mad, and more importantly, by dialing down his powers, making him more vulnerable to super-villains — or superheroes — with no super powers at all. This is where we get the Batman vs. Superman fight – except it will be a whole team of Batmen versus a rabid, diminished Superman. Bruce and his Bat-buddies will seem to have Superman on the ropes… when suddenly, Batman/Bruce Wayne will just keel over and die. Superman will suffer some kind psychological shock from witnessing Bruce’s death – he’s probably been suffering from crippling guilt/PTSD from killing Zod all movie long – that will snap him out of Krypto-madness. Which is exactly what Bruce hoped it would do: His fake death will be a ruse (just as it was in Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns), part of a scheme to save Superman and go underground so he can better take down the real enemy, Luthor. More battles will ensue. In the aftermath, Superman will come to feel he has too much power, and will ask Bruce to improve Luthor’s Kryptonite formula in such a way that will dial down his abilities permanently…

And Bruce will decide to stay underground and let the world think him dead. But he will continue to fight crime his own way, via his Batmen proxies. In this way, future DC Universe movies will require less of Ben Affleck, who at this point in his career doesn’t want to be tied up in superhero movies for the next decade the way Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and company have been tied up by Marvel Studios. That said, I do suspect he will play a major role in the film that will follow the Man of Steel sequel – as both star and director of Justice League. Consider his time with Snyder as on-the-job training for how to do the megabudget special effects superhero thing.

I’m probably wrong about everything I just fan-ficked. And really, I’m not interested in being even a little bit right with the theory. But feel free to tell me to “Argof—yourself, Doc Jensen,” anyway. I just want the movie to be good. Super, even. We all do. You have your own opinions and theories; we want to hear them. The message board is yours.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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