When producer Charles Roven recently revealed Warner Bros. hadn’t “taken into consideration if something goes wrong” before announcing its ambitious DC Films slate in 2014, he confirmed the suspicions of many critics of the studio’s recent superhero movies. With 10 features — a number that’s since grown — spread out over four or more years, all sharing characters and story elements, there’s very little room for production delays or box office failures.
It’s an obvious, and perhaps unavoidable, pitfall of the “shared cinematic universe” approach, as studios like Universal Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. and, to an extent, Lucasfilm seek to replicate the Marvel formula, and its commercial success: Filmmakers are yoked to a release date, which may have been announced before a script was written or a director hired, and forced to keep pushing toward that — seemingly no matter what — or else risk jeopardizing the production of other, connected films.
Those cracks may have already begun to show with “The Flash,” which searches for its third director — following the departures of first Seth Grahame-Smith and then Rick Famuyiwa, both over “creative differences” — even as the Ezra Miller-led film careens toward its March 2018 release. In the philosophy of the shared cinematic universe, seemingly nothing can stand in the way of forward movement, not even the absence of a director.
However, Ben Affleck doesn’t seem to subscribe to that philosophy, which should come as a relief to fans of Batman, and a warning to Warner Bros.
An Oscar-winning screenwriter and Golden Globe-winning director, Affleck received praise for his portrayal of the Caped Crusader in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” a film that proved divisive among both critics and comics fans. Between the actor’s performance and the critical and commercial success of Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight Trilogy, it was perhaps inevitable that Warner Bros. would announce a new Batman film, with Affleck to direct and star.
While it’s clear the studio is champing at the bit for another Dark Knight film — why wouldn’t it be? — it’s evident that Affleck refuses to be rushed into production, even after executives staked out a 2018 release date. (And why should he?) If Warner Bros. or fans had any doubts about that, they need look no further than his latest comments about the project: “[I]t’s not a set thing and there’s no script. If it doesn’t come together in a way I think is really great I’m not going to do it.”
That remark has led to a little hand-wringing, with some observers wondering whether the wheel is about to come off this Batmobile. However, if Affleck’s comments caught anyone by surprise, it’s only because they haven’t been paying attention. He’s held that line since the beginning, telling journalists visiting the set of “Justice League” in June — a month after the studio’s Batman announcement — that he has “the highest of standards” for the project, and wouldn’t move forward until he has satisfied with the script. “That’s something that would have to pass a very high bar for me,” he said. “It’s not just, ‘Yeah, that might be fun, let’s go try this out.’”
If it wasn’t obvious from the start that Affleck and Warner Bros. weren’t on the same page, the director has gently applied the brakes to “The Batman” virtually every step of the way. Just last month, amid the announcement of a 2018 release, he bristled at the idea of being painted into a corner, saying, “I’m a real believer in not reverse engineering projects to meet a window or a date. […] “I’m really mindful of that. I’m not in any hurry to jam a mediocre film down the pipe.” If any doubts remained about where he stands, Affleck doubled down in another interview, explaining, “I’m not going to write and direct anything that I don’t think is good enough to be made. I’m definitely going to make sure I have something that is special — there’s not enough money in the world to make a mediocre version of Batman worth it.”
It’s a rather public push and pull between a studio eager to expand its superhero movie slate (and fill its coffers) and a director with enough clout to resist the pressure. Although Affleck has earned praise in recent years for works like “The Town,” “Argo” and “Gone Baby Gone,” he has enough clunkers on his resume to know the risks of being forced into a big-budget, high-profile feature that he’s uncertain about. After all, his name will be all over “The Batman,” as director, star and, with DC President and Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns, writer.
Affleck also undoubtedly realizes that any Batman film — heck, any DC film — is bound to be compared to Nolan’s trilogy, which, for good or ill, has become the standard by which all others are judged. Even Warner Bros. is likely to measure “The Batman’s” critical and commercial success by that of the Dark Knight Trilogy, which earned a combined $2.46 billion worldwide (2008’s “The Dark Knight” and 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises” each grossed north of $1 billion, more than “Man of Steel,” “Batman v Superman” or “Suicide Squad,” all part of the DC Extended Universe).
The studio would be wise to trust Affleck’s instincts, and worry less about the announced release date and “The Batman’s” place within the ever-expanding shared universe, and focus more on the story. If the wishes of the award-winning director and writer aren’t enough to convince executives not to rush the project, they need only look back two decades to what happened the last time they fast-tracked a Batman film: We ended up with “Batman & Robin,” which was so poorly received that it brought an otherwise-successful franchise to a screeching halt for eight years. Even director Joel Schumacher regrets that.
“I never did a sequel to any of my movies, and sequels are only made for one reason: to make more money and sell more toys,” the director recalled in 2014, adding, “They immediately wanted a sequel [following the success of ‘Batman Forever], but I said yes. There’s nobody else to blame but me. I could have said, ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’”
If the studio executives can’t — or won’t — pick up on Affleck’s not-so-subtle public hints to slow down the speeding Bat-train, then maybe they’ll listen to Schumacher.
Expected to begin production in the spring, the tentatively titled “The Batman” also stars Jeremy Irons as Alfred Pennyworth, J.K. Simmons as Commissioner Gordon and Joe Manganiello as Deathstroke.
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