Ben Affleck is good at many things. He’s had success as a writer, director, actor, and producer, often donning more than one of those hats at the same time. But with the news that Affleck is stepping down from his role of directing the stand-alone superhero movie The Batman, in which he will reprise his role as the Caped Crusader from Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, we might be seeing Affleck come to a realization: He can do all of those things at once, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he should.
So what begat this decision? Only Affleck and the powers that be at Warner Bros. know exactly what took place, but it isn’t hard to connect a few dots. To start with, this switcheroo could mean a lot or a little. Affleck co-wrote The Batman script with DC head honcho Geoff Johns, and both men will produce, meaning that regardless of who they choose to occupy the director’s chair, they will remain significantly near the helm. This isn’t Affleck necessarily reducing his involvement with the project; it’s more him managing the way he will be involved on a day-to-day level, and bringing in another substantial collaborator to share that responsibility with him and Johns.
Affleck has never seemed to shy away before from directing a film in which he played the lead — his given reason for relinquishing the director’s spot on The Batman; with the exception of his debut, Gone Baby Gone, which starred his brother Casey, Affleck has played the lead role in all of his films. But this dynamic has seen diminishing returns. Easily the most interesting role Affleck has given himself is his part in The Town, where he gets to do most of the things a leading man wants to do: action, romance, dramatic confrontations, shirtless pull-ups. In Argo, however, he functions more as a plot device, enabling the film’s forward momentum but relinquishing all the best scenes and moments to his supporting players.
However you felt about Affleck in The Town and Argo, though, the movies had something in common, a quality they also shared with Gone Baby Gone: They were good. All of Affleck’s first three films were well-reviewed and well-attended, and Argo, of course, even wound up winning Best Picture, though it was the rare Best Picture winner to not see its director nominated.
That’s why Affleck’s flaccid Live by Night felt like such a deviation. The first of his films that he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in, Live by Night was met with a tepid reception by both critics and audiences, and according to Variety, its failure at the box office cost Warner Bros. — also, you might note, the studio behind the DC movies — some $75 million in losses. It was the first time Affleck had struggled as a director, and only weeks after its wide release, he was no longer set to direct The Batman.
Does this mean that Warner Bros. secretly fired Affleck, and the public explanation that he stepped down is just PR? Not necessarily. First of all, memories in Hollywood are short, but they’re not that short: Affleck directed a film that won Warner Bros. a Best Picture statue only a few years ago, and while the failure of such an obvious passion project might curtail his freedom to pursue whatever his heart might desire, it doesn’t erase his accomplishments. Second, Affleck is too important to the DC Extended Universe to just shove out the door. He plays Batman; he’s an executive producer on Justice League; his favorite screenwriter, Chris Terrio, who won an Oscar for writing him Argo, wrote both Batman v Superman and Justice League; and his connections with the two heads of DC Films are extensive, what with Geoff Johns co-writing The Batman and Jon Berg having worked on both Argo and Live by Night.
And third, Affleck stepping down from directing The Batman makes some degree of sense. That kind of obligation to a film is massively time consuming, and Affleck isn’t just involved with DC: He’s developing another directorial effort for Fox, Witness for the Prosecution, in which he’s slated to star opposite Matt Damon, and he’s also attached to a number of other potential projects as a producer, including the next movie by Gavin O’Connor, with whom he worked on The Accountant.
Speaking of which, The Accountant is a good example of the fact that Affleck’s also doing his best acting these days in projects he hasn’t directed. While your mileage may vary on his affected performance in last fall’s thriller, which saw him suit up as an Asperger’s-afflicted assassin-accountant, it was definitely the farthest he’s stepped out of his comfort zone in a while. And hands down his best role in years — maybe his entire career — was the lead in David Fincher’s Gone Girl, which cleverly subverted his image as a golden boy to delve into the dark heart of the American Dream.
Although it makes perfect sense that Affleck originally boarded The Batman as director — what other actor has gotten the opportunity to go full auteur in the notoriously focus-grouped superhero franchise? — it’s similarly logical that he would later decide to shift course, especially with what must’ve been the trying experience of Live by Night behind him. And regardless of who takes over, at least the bar isn’t currently very high.