We all saw the Sad Ben Affleck memes last year, but they belied a significant question: Just how sad was he? Only sad enough to need a nap during the grueling Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice press tour? Perhaps sad enough to think about reworking his approach to the Batman solo flick he was on tap to direct and co-write? Or could he have been sad enough to think about putting away his Batarangs forever? The last option seemed unlikely back in March, but according to a report from Collider’s John Campea, a Bat-tirement is suddenly being murmured about as a distinct possibility.
Such a move would be disastrous for Warner Bros. — but a cleansing disaster is exactly what the studio needs right now. Same goes for the star. In fact, Ben Affleck quitting the DC Entertainment superhero universe could be the best thing that’s happened to either in a while. In the still-turbulent wake of BvS’s critical drubbing and financial underperformance, it’s clear that something has to change in order for the DC cosmology to effectively compete with its rivals at Marvel Studios. This could be that change. It might be time for Batfleck to hang up the pointy-eared cowl so he and DC can rethink everything.
Before we go any further, it should be said that Affleck might actually be perfectly happy with Warner right now, or that happiness might be right around the corner. A positive critical and/or box office showing for Wonder Woman or the Affleck-starring Justice League could improve morale among the DC team and provide Ben with hope for the future. These rumors could also merely be the negotiating tactic of a mostly contented man who just wants fatter paychecks going forward. Maybe the Dark Knight is smiling.
But it seems plausible that all is not well in the Batcave. Just a few weeks ago, Affleck became the latest director to step down from a planned DC project, abandoning the helm of the long-brewing The Batman. This wasn’t a full-on divorce: As of now, he’s still producing it and there’s no evidence they’ve thrown out the script that he co-wrote with longtime DC Comics writer and current DC Films co-chief Geoff Johns. We don’t know for sure what happened to bring about the shift, but it’s hard to imagine how it could be born out of a smoothly progressing production. Happy directors don’t generally leave their fold-up canvas chairs.
Indeed, it looks less and less like the DC Extended Universe is a happy place to be for anyone, what with the fact that The Flash has already lost two directors while Shazam can’t seem to land even one — despite bizarrely already having a planned spinoff. That’s where we get into the first reason everyone might win if Ben walks: He would be happier. It was always a little odd that an acclaimed director and formidable dramatic actor would try to squeeze himself into the focus-grouped constraints of a superhero franchise. He theoretically had the chance to make The Batman the rare truly auteurist spandex flick by writing, directing, and starring in it, but that option’s now off the table. What else does he have going for him in staying Batman, other than money he probably doesn’t need?
Instead, a liberated Affleck would be able to get back to putting all of his energies into making high-profile, non-franchise pictures, which is something that’s sorely needed these days. There are very few people in Hollywood who can get a major studio to give them tens of millions of dollars to make a realistic movie about ordinary people, but Ben is one of them. He just experienced his first massive directorial bomb in the form of the panned Live by Night, but it would be very easy for him to make the argument to future backers and producers that it was only a flop because his DC commitments were draining and distracting him.
It’s hard to imagine anyone punishing Affleck for leaving the widely mocked franchise — indeed, he’d likely be praised for his courage at leaving superhero money behind and taking whatever hit he’d need to for ending his contracts. He could go back to being the the kind of hero Hollywood truly loves: a beloved star with a new lease on his creative life.
Meanwhile, as Affleck told the world that he was getting back to doing the stuff he really loves, DC and Warner could move forward, throwing off the shackles of their existing approach. It’s certainly possible that his leaving would have no effect on the DC machine and they’d move forward with everything more or less as planned, either replacing Affleck or writing Batman out of the scripts he was supposed to appear in. More likely, however, is that the loss of Ben would be a massive shock to the system.
As of now, the extremely rocky arrivals of BvS and Suicide Squad have not resulted in any major shake-ups at DC Entertainment. Zack Snyder is still directing Justice League and remains a key player in the overall franchise’s creative approach. Squad director David Ayer is still on tap for the Harley Quinn spinoff. May brought an announcement that Johns and producer Jon Berg were being put in charge of Films, a then-new entity, but sources have told me that they were more or less already doing what they’re currently doing — the announcement was primarily cosmetic. Nothing has forced a major reconsideration of the DC Extended Universe.
Ben’s walkout could be the tipping point. It’s hard to overstate the bad press that a Bat-departure would trigger: Affleck’s charmingly grizzled pathos was generally considered the only saving grace of BvS; he’s certainly the biggest star in the DC stable at the moment; and Batman is arguably the most famous superhero in the history of the genre. In order to convince shareholders and financiers that they were taking care of the situation, heads would have to roll at Warner. Who lost Ben? would be the new Who lost China? People would likely be fired, demoted, and sidelined.
In their place, there would be an opportunity for new leadership with new perspectives and new aesthetics. The Batman could be rewritten to sync with the oft-used comics trope of new people assuming the Bat-mantle after the death or disappearance of Bruce Wayne. But there’s another creative option: just blowing the whole damn world up. There are already plans to make at least one DC superhero movie — Greg Berlanti’s Booster Gold — completely free of shared-universe continuity and connections; perhaps that idea would be taken to its logical conclusion and Warner would just scrap the whole universe in its planned future films, and start again from the ground up. This could be a divorce that gives both ex-lovers a vitality they lost in their troubled marriage. It’s an outlandish notion, sure, but outlandish notions are what the entire superhero genre is built on.