THERE IS a moment in the new “Justice League” when the Caped Crusader urges Wonder Woman in the ways of team leadership — Batmansplaining, if you will, but with a well-intentioned purpose. And in that scene, it is easy to wonder: Is the Dark Knight simply grooming the Amazon to be his replacement boss — or is Ben Affleck also trying to hand the franchise reins over to Gal Gadot?
In other words: As “Justice League” opens Friday, could this signal Affleck’s exit from DC’s cinematic universe?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, of course. When Affleck signed on to the DC Entertainment mothership in 2013, he was not only going to don the cape and cowl and star opposite Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel with his own winning charm in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” As a hot director fresh off his Oscar win for “Argo,” Affleck also was going to help guide DC creatively, perhaps even direct a Batman film or two. (Along with Affleck, DC was also getting his creative partner, Chris Terrio, who won an adapted screenplay Oscar for “Argo” before turning to “Batman v Superman.”)
Now, though, Affleck seems to be eyeing the door, trying to figure out how he can make a clean, “Argo”-esque escape from the DCEU.
The clues? Well first, there are his sly asides while doing press for “Justice League.” When asked about how many more times he might play Batman, Affleck employs evasive maneuvers in interviews (even though he has been announced as starring in the next “Justice League”). Affleck talks like a man not even committed to DC much beyond this film, though he is in preproduction — as star, producer and early screenwriter — for director Matt Reeves’s “The Batman,” which at one point Affleck was slated to direct. (Reeves, who’s also a co-writer, has moved on from Affleck’s script, according to trade reports.)
Second, there are Affleck’s performances in three DC films so far, including last year’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and, in a smaller role, “Suicide Squad.” As some critics have reminded about Affleck in recent days, he can be an appealing actor in the right role — often when he’s not having to shoulder much of the narrative heavy lifting. Yet with each Batman performance, Affleck seems to be growing more conservative in his choices (or perhaps as a result of the director’s vision) — as if the increasingly bulky Bat-suit is embalming his natural charisma.
Then there is the reception of his first two DC films. Both “Batman v Superman” and “Suicide Squad” were mostly drubbed critically, and neither topped the magic $1 billion mark in worldwide gross — a cash-register ding that helps drown out the pans. So far, “Justice League” is faring only somewhat better with critics — and it’s entering a competitive holiday marketplace sandwiched by such Disney films as “Thor: Ragnarok” and (soon) “Coco” and “The Last Jedi.”
When Affleck was first cast as Batman, nearly 100,000 people signed a Change.org petition asking DC to reconsider. Maybe those Bat-fans saw something that Warner Bros. and DC didn’t, beyond simply Affleck’s underwhelming run as Marvel’s Daredevil.
Or perhaps Affleck — on such a winning streak prior to joining the DCEU — has just hit an unfortunate spell marred by underachieving directors, inferior scripts and the heat of unrelenting success over at rival Marvel Studios.
Whatever the reason, Affleck, at 45, carries himself like a man ready to move on and let the incandescent Gadot, 32, take the wheel.