Great Britain

Ben Affleck's Batman was hard to like – but the man himself deserves some empathy

There seem to be two essential prisms through which to view the celebrity star suffering in the spotlight. The first is the cynical tabloid editor’s perspective, picked up from decades of watching famous faces prostitute themselves in the name of publicity: the idea here is that those who place themselves in the public eye, who want the attention that comes with fame, are not really entitled to compassion.

The second view, with which it is hard not to sympathise when reading about Ben Affleck’s struggles with alcoholism and his time as Batman in the New York Times, is that no matter how rich and privileged a well-known figure might be, they are flawed human beings like the rest of us who are worthy of our empathy when they find themselves in dark places. Affleck was a terrible Batman, entirely the wrong choice to play Bruce Wayne in Warner Bros’ ill-conceived extended universe of DC comic book movies, but it remains sad to witness how the actor’s struggles with the role fed into his private life.

We should not forget that this was always something of a poisoned chalice. Affleck’s Batman was hard to like from the beginning: a knuckle-headed bruiser who tried to kill Superman – basically the Jesus of the DC universe – because he blamed him for the destruction of Metropolis caused by General Zod in DC’s first entry, 2013’s Man of Steel. Warner Brothers needed this setup, because it allowed them to title the next episode Batman vs Superman, and Affleck ended up being the patsy. That 2016 movie’s subtitle, Dawn of Justice, was always something of a shonky afterthought that essentially gave away the movie’s ending before we had seen the film’s opening frame. Like Zack Snyder’s movie itself, the whole thing smacked of a film-making machine where the marketing men held sway over everything. In the wake of the film’s subsequent derisive reviews, it soon became clear that the movie’s star was deeply unhappy with life behind the cowl and we saw all those “Sad Affleck” memes.

It got even worse by the time of 2016’s Justice League, by which time Batman had been hamfistedly reconfigured as a heroic figure, with Affleck forced into an apologetic performance that seemed to mirror his real-life struggles. It seems that he has been apologising ever since, reasonably so in some cases.

Affleck isn’t the first denizen of Gotham City to suffer for his art. Heath Ledger won a posthumous best supporting actor Oscar in February 2009 for his startling, spiky turn as The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, having died from an overdose of prescription drugs just over a year earlier. At the time the newspapers were filled with reports that the Australian actor had been taking prescription drugs to help himself sleep when he accidentally overdosed in his Manhattan apartment – Ledger had admitted in a New York Times interview that he had been struggling to switch off after taking on the role of Gotham’s clown prince of crime, as well as a part in another film, the Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There. “Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night,” he told the newspaper. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going.”

Is there something particularly dark and intense about the world of Batman that feeds into a kind of existential malaise for actors who find themselves trying to embody its main players on screen? This is a reasonable argument to pursue in the case of Ledger, whose Joker was a poisonous whirlwind of vicious, sadistic nihilism – a venus flytrap for the dedicated method actor. But Affleck’s caped crusader, certainly by the time of his final turn in Justice League, seemed to have morphed into more of a cynical, wisecracking type than the tortured soul of Christian Bale-era Batman. It ought to have been something of a fun role to play, with stand-in director and screenwriter Joss Whedon throwing in trademark japes from the sidelines, yet it never seems to have been enjoyable.

Affleck never really got the chance to pursue his own vision for the character, having ultimately opted out of directing and starring in the forthcoming The Batman in the interests of his own mental health. This week we got to see how the new man behind the mask, Robert Pattinson, is likely to look in Matt Reeves’ film. This is a fledgling, punky Batman, one who might be just starting out on his battles to save Gotham City and who looks all the more intriguing for it. It’s hard not to think that Affleck might be best off away from the role, and the film series better off in a place where it can make a fresh start.

The peculiar thing about Batman is that Bruce Wayne has every gift given to him by life, yet prefers to suffer behind a mask than live out a life of luxury and indolence. Perhaps Affleck, and others who have struggled for their art in the name of Gotham City, would understand that essential paradox.

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