Ben Affleck out as Batman after a 2-year exit strategy leaves behind a legacy of missed opportunities

Warner Bros.

Ben Affleck is done as Batman. Warner Bros. and Affleck made it official yesterday with the actor looking forward to seeing (not playing) director Matt Reeves’ The Batman in June 2021. The truth, though, is that Affleck retired his cape and cowl a long time ago.

Affleck’s official retirement as The Dark Knight came two years to the day he officially stepped down as the director of the solo film that eventually morphed into Reeves’ The Batman.

“Performing this role demands focus, passion and the very best performance I can give,” Affleck said. “It has become clear that I cannot do both jobs to the level they require. Together with the studio, I have decided to find a partner in a director who will collaborate with me on this massive film. I am still in this, and we are making it, but we are currently looking for a director. I remain extremely committed to this project, and look forward to bringing this to life for fans around the world.”

Despite Affleck’s public statement that he would continue playing the role, I wasn’t convinced. We released an episode of the Batman News podcast that night in which I said that Affleck would not play Batman again after Justice League, which had already been filmed (but not reshot) at that point.

Affleck’s public declaration that he was still Batman meant little. “I’m going to direct the next Batman,” Affleck said on Jimmy Kimmel Live! just three weeks before he stepped down. That was PR spin and so was Affleck saying he was still Batman when he jumped out of the director’s chair.

Fast forward to July 2017. It’s the Friday of San Diego Comic-Con, less than 24 hours from WB’s Hall H panel where the cast of Justice League was scheduled to appear. The Hollywood Reporter ran a story that the studio was working on a graceful exit for Affleck, as he was not going to star in Reeves’ film, or series of films.

THR’s article was the elephant in the room, clearly visible for over 6,000 fans in Hall H the next day. “Let me be very clear: I am the luckiest guy in the world,” Affleck said when asked about the report.

“Batman is the coolest f*cking part in any universe… DC, Marvel. It’s incredible. I’m so thrilled to do it. I know there’s this misconception that because I’m not directing that I’m not enthusiastic about it. It’s f*cking amazing. Matt Reeves doing it… I would be a f*cking ape on the ground for Matt Reeves. Nevermind being Batman. It’s incredible.”

It was tempting to interpret this as cause for optimism, and many did, but it was Jimmy Kimmel Live! all over again. During the Justice League press tour a few months later, Affleck told USA Today what he was merely “contemplating” starring in The Batman. “You don’t do it forever, so I want to find a graceful and cool way to segue out of it,” he said.

There wasn’t any hope to reasonably cling to after that. Affleck was publicly looking for an exit just days before DC’s first big team-up movie was set to hit theaters. It was not the best time for a non-committal statement, but Affleck might have found it easier to be honest in front of a single member of the press as opposed to thousands of fans.

That’s just the last two years, but the writing was on the wall well before that. It was on Ben Affleck’s face in March of 2016. In the meme-launching “Sadfleck” interview, Affleck sat silently as Henry Cavill eloquently responded to a question about the harsh criticism Batman v Superman was receiving. All Affleck could muster was a quick “I agree,” but the look on his face said more than anything. He was clearly frustrated and probably wanted out right then and there.

There was little that could be done at that point, however, as Justice League was set to start production within weeks of BvS hitting theaters. In the wake of BvS, Warner Bros. decided it was best to scrap the idea of two Justice League movies in favor of one while trying to fast track Affleck’s solo Batman film. If Affleck wasn’t already plotting his post-JL exit, it may have been the pressure WB put on him to complete his Batman script in 2016 that burned him out.

It is easy to forget just how busy Affleck was in 2016, unless you’re him. To speak nothing of the personal issues he was dealing with at the time, Affleck was doing far more than 24-hour days permit. He had to promote BvS, spend half the year filming JL, and write a script for The Batman, all while trying to complete post-production on Live by Night.

Live by Night was a passion project for Affleck that ended up being his first critical flop as a director. His previous film, Argo, won a Best Picture Oscar®. His other directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone and The Town, were critical darlings. Live by Night falling well below the bar Affleck had set for himself was likely the result of not being able to give the film as much time as he wanted and needed to give it.

Ben Affleck was not supposed to be writing a Batman movie in 2016 for production in 2017. That was not the plan when he signed on in August 2013. Justice League was supposed to be two parts, with Affleck’s Bat-film arriving afterward. If Warner Bros had stuck to that plan, Affleck would have been able to start writing his solo film after he had delivered Live by Night, not while he was trying to finish it.

The studio panicked, though, and decided the best move was to chop the Justice League story arc in half and push Affleck for his Batman script. The studio was moving forward, setting aside the biggest soundstage on its Burbank lot for the spring and summer of 2017. All Affleck could do was try his best to catch up and it went about as well as one would expect.

That brings our nonlinear timeline up to early 2017 and the two-year exit strategy we’ve watched unfold. The question now is what will be the legacy of Affleck’s time in the cape and cowl.

For some, Affleck was the best Batman ever from the moment he showed up in Batman v Superman. For others, “Batfleck” is the guy who murdered mercenaries while attempting to steal a weapon with which he planned to murder Superman, among other sins. Affleck didn’t write that Batman, but that’s the one he played.

The most accurate assessment of Affleck’s Bat-legacy, however, is one of missed opportunity. He played the character three times, and only briefly in one of those (Suicide Squad). Justice League was the cobbled together result of Warner Bros sticking with Zack Snyder temporarily, only to abandon his vision, which the studio stopped believing in while BvS was in post-production.

We only saw one worthwhile performance from Ben Affleck as The Dark Knight in the polarizing Batman v Superman. We never saw any of the other performances we were supposed to and we will never get that Affleck-helmed Batman movie. Warner Bros and Affleck are moving on and so shall we, but as the news of Affleck’s official departure sets in, it’s hard not to lament the unrealized potential that we saw in August 2013.