After Man of Steel, and the highly polarizing reputation it gained from the second it hit theatres, Zack Snyder and the burgeoning DC Extended Universe seemed at a loss on where to take the Big Blue Boy Scout next. Using the kind of thinking that would come to define how the DCEU was handled, Snyder and Warner Bros focused on box office gross, reasoning that Batman’s presence alongside Superman for the first time in live action would get them that billion-dollar run that The Dark Knight trilogy brought to the studio. Then they threw Wonder Woman in there to fast-forward their way to Justice League.
The results have been underwhelming, with Justice League flopping, and much of the criticism being thrown at Batman. In the space of two films and a cameo in Suicide Squad, Ben Affleck’s Caped Crusader went from possible franchise-maker to whipping boy. The problem isn’t with Affleck’s casting, although he does seem to have mentally checked out, but with the way that Batman has been used since his introduction in Dawn of Justice. The very presence of an older, grizzled, and disconnected Batman has been more about papering over the cracks than adding a truly interesting version to the character’s cinematic cannon.
To see the problem clearly, we have to look at the other cinematic versions of Batman. It’s a question of context and continuity. Going back to Batman’s first appearance, the feature film version of the Adam West TV show, the character has the backbone of that show to take the character in ridiculous directions that fit with that version. The Tim Burton films, which redefined blockbusters of that time, had a loose continuity between the first two films. Batman acted as a standalone story, but gave enough flashes of Bruce Wayne’s origin. Batman Returns continued this continuity with Michael Keaton’s Batman becoming less isolated thanks to his previous romantic connections to Vikki Vale. The Joel Schumacher films exist in a warped toy commercial world of their own, but they are based around Batman’s relationship with Robin. All four films take place during times when Batman has been actively battering criminals for some time.
The Dark Knight Trilogy tells the most complete Batman story and, until Logan, the most complete story of any cinematic superhero. Christian Bale played a version of Batman that, by necessity, couldn’t be around forever. The Dark Knight had him hoping to retire the cape and cowl so that Harvey Dent could continue the fight against crime in a legal setting. In The Dark Knight Rises he even died for Gotham, depending on which theory you believe.
The flaw at the heart of Batfleck is that if Batman is still fighting criminals like the Joker into his 40s then he isn’t really that good at what he does. In Christopher Nolan’s films the criminals stayed caught. Apart from that is the fact that Zack Snyder relied on the audience’s relationship with the character to fill in the gaps instead of fully characterising him himself. We have some clue as to what drives Batman in the DCEU: he’s obviously addicted to being Batman, even at the cost of the people he loves (a dead Robin for example). Like Superman, neither Dawn of Justice or Justice League do enough to distinguish Affleck’s version from any of the others, especially the change in the character between these films.
Part of this is to do with Ben Affleck’s obvious apathy in the role, so much that it looks like he will be replaced before Matt Reeves’ The Batman starts shooting. This would be a shame because a solo movie is what this version sorely needs. Just look at how having her own movie helped Wonder Woman to become the best character in this universe. There is a reason the Burton and Nolan films work better than the Schumacher and Snyder films. Batman works alone.