The torrent of abuse and praise for the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel has not yet cause the Internet to explode, although it has come pretty close. With everything from petitions to stop the casting to actual death threats (seriously, people!), it probably says more about the passion people have for this comic book hero than it does about the actor himself.
Yet extreme fan reaction is nothing new. Nobody seems to have ever liked the casting of a Batman film, and this is perhaps because the character is bigger than any one person. Our idea of the Bat is an amalgam of all of our favourite Batman stories from over 70 years worth of comics, and even the best films can only ever hope to scrape the surface of the character. It doesn’t stop people from complaining though.
Let’s put this in perspective with a quick trip down memory lane.
In the days before the Internet, and before Batman t-shirts and tattoos were all the rage, people weren’t too happy about the casting of Michael Keaton as The Dark Knight. Lest we forget, this was the height of comic book fandom, and some of the best work from Alan Moore and Frank Miller was hitting the shelves in the back half of the 1980s. Warner Bros. reportedly received 50,000 protest letters from angry fans who didn’t seem to think that the actor, then known mostly for comedic roles like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice, had the gravitas to play the Bat.
Even the likes of Bob Kane, Sam Hamm and Michael Uslan also heavily questioned the casting. (Although Kane was later quite positive about the film in the publicity tours). One fan, quoted in The Wall Street Journal at the time, exclaimed:
“If you saw him in an alley wearing a bat suit, you would laugh, not run in fear. Batman should be 6-2, 235 pounds, your classically handsome guy with an imposing, scary image.”
Of course, the success of the film and Keaton’s performance hushed the naysayers, as it was the first film to earn $100 million in its first ten days of release. In fact, it was the highest grossing film based on DC Comics until The Dark Knight in 2008, and remains the fourth highest. Keaton returned as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman Returns (1992), arguably the strongest film of the four that emerged in this era. In The Films of Tim Burton (2005), Alison McMahan writes “fans of the Batman franchise complained when they heard of Michael Keaton’s casting. However, no one complained when they saw his performance.” In the end, the biggest problem Keaton faced was being overshadowed by the villains in his film, including Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito.
When Val Kilmer was cast in Batman Forever, it was amidst a bit of controversy for a whole bunch of reasons. Keaton and incoming director Joel Schumacher reportedly didn’t see eye-to-eye, with Keaton reportedly not happy with the direction that and Schumacher was taking. (In retrospect, he was right.)
Entertainment Weekly has survived despite this prognostication of success for the casting of Kilmer.
His arrival is good news for Batman‘s longevity — Kilmer will get a fraction of Keaton’s take, and, at 34, he’s young enough to keep the franchise alive for years to come.
The lesson to be learned here is that everything one writes has a habit of coming back to haunt you.
Remember that George Clooney was Batman? Yeah, that happened. As Clooney himself once put it, “With hindsight, it’s easy to look back at this and go, ‘Woah, that was really shit, and I was really bad in it!”
Things had not been rosy on the set of Batman Forever. Schumacher referred to Kilmer as ”childish and impossible”, citing on-set problems with “He sort of quit,” Schumacher said, “and we sort of fired him.” Clooney was a rising cinema star, coming off the back of television’s E.R., and making his big-screen splash in From Dusk Til Dawn, the sequel Batman and Robin was set to be the first of a multi-picture deal. To this day, fans still point to it as the worst example of comic bookery on screen in the history of both cinema and comics.
Critic reaction after the fact was even harsher: Mick LaSalle, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, said, “George Clooney is the big zero of the film, and should go down in history as the George Lazenby of the series.” The film also earned a slew of Razzies, not least of which was for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s PUN-ishable performance. Also: rubber nipples on the Batsuit. ‘Nuff said.
Christian Bale…and Heath Ledger
Coming off the back of Batman and Robin, fans were understandably jaded and not expecting much from another Batman film. That said, the announcement of Christian Bale in Batman Begins was a minty fresh taste following Clooney, and fan reaction was generally positive. There are still examples all over the web of people clinging to the old guard (“I’m still pissed that Warner Bros. ever kicked Tim Burton off the franchise.”) Our favourite from 2005 has to be: “cristian bale (sic) as the batz?! no way! gosh, is there no one that can fit the part like micheal keaton did? i can think of no one right now.” Oh, how times change. Another punter commented that Bale is “a cold and boring actor. But his face is rather batlike.” All critics were silenced in the subsequent years, when any talk of the Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale films being anything other than masterpieces was seen as heresy.
Bale’s casting was not the only one to raise eyebrows. Geek Tyrant reminds us that nobody really thought the late Heath Ledger could fill the shoes of Jack Nicholson. While the actor tragically died before the release of the film, he posthumously won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance, and was heralded as one of the high points in the film. After all, it was the performance that spawned a million memes and cosplay outfits.
Ben Affleck (aka #Batfleck)
The latest announcement has happened at the height of the information age, when fan reaction can be extreme and immediate. So strong was the reaction, that Twitter had the hashtag #Batfleck trending almost immediately, and for days following the announcement. Just Google “Ben Affleck” and “Batman” for any number of abusive comments. Presently, there are over 64,000 signatures on the online petition site Change.org. The hilarious description of the petition follows, which is careful to point out that they respect Affleck’s work:
His acting skill is not even close to being believable as Bruce Wayne and he won’t do the role justice. He’s not built, nor is he intimidating enough for the role of Batman. His portrayal of Daredevil was atrocious and he’s not remotely close to an action star. Please find someone else.
Update: 8/23/2013 3:39PM EST
I would like to add that this petition was not meant in any way to harm Ben Affleck or his career. I respect Affleck’s work, I just feel he is inappropriate for the role.
Take that, Keaton.