By Jake Coyle
NEW YORK — Ben Affleck will be the next Batman: How ‘bout them apples?
Well, the Internet, which erupted Thursday night after Warner Bros. announced that Affleck will play the Caped Crusader for its Superman and Batman team-up movie, does not like them apples one bit. Jokes (many of them imagining a Batman from South Boston) flew on Twitter. Petitions with thousands of signatures were launched to urge Warner Bros. to rethink their decision.
Affleck, just months ago the toast of Hollywood for his best picture-winning “Argo,” hasn’t had so much scorn heaped on him since “Gigli.”
The response, roughly equivalent to news of the apocalypse, was undoubtedly out of proportion. After the leaden, joyless “Man of Steel,” adding Affleck — an actor of light, easy charisma and an increasingly capable filmmaker — can only improve a franchise currently in the hands of “Sucker Punch” director Zach Snyder and the beefy but unremarkable Superman actor Henry Cavill.
Affleck is likely to be far from the biggest issue for the film, which is scheduled to begin shooting next year and be released in summer 2015. He has already proven to be a more interesting Superman, too, by playing a bitter George Reeves in the atmospheric 2006 docudrama “Hollywoodland.”
There’s a long history of casting overreaction that’s later turned out laughable. There were plenty of critics when Daniel Craig, who had the audaciousness of being blond, inherited James Bond. Some, too, questioned Jennifer Lawrence’s suitability for Katniss Everdeen in “The Hunger Games.” And who would have guessed that Michael Keaton would make arguably the best of all the Batmen?
But Affleck’s casting speaks to a larger shift in this age of the superhero blockbuster. Affleck will be following in the footsteps of Christian Bale, the star of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy — the artistic apogee of the superhero movies, a series that treated its hero not as cartoon but a vessel for exploring themes of terrorism and justice.
The days of such aspirations, though, seem to be dwindling. Sam Raimi isn’t shepherding Spider-Man anymore. Most of the most popular superheros are on their second or third reboot. After the success of Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers,” Hollywood is looking increasingly to pairing its comics. Another “Avengers” film is on the way. And after the Superman-Batman movie, a “Justice League” film (with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and others) is rumored to follow.
These are the kinds of projects that could be seen as a sign of jumping the shark if this wasn’t a movie genre built on men in tights. The superhero blockbuster, still the biggest draw at the multiplex (with $408.2 million, “Iron Man 3” is easily this year’s biggest box-office hit), has made gimmickry a way of business, not a fault.
In the past, superhero movies didn’t need stars: The brand was the main attraction.
But being a major star, Affleck comes with a lot of baggage that many expect will grate similar to how George Clooney did in Joel Schumacher’s 1997 “Batman and Robin” — a film so bad, it’s often been cited as a catalyst for more serious, dramatic interpretations of superheros.
It’s ironic because Affleck has appeared to ape the career of Clooney (a producer on “Argo”) by shifting into directing and flirting with politics. Affleck, 41, will take on Batman at a slightly older age and in a more established place in his career. But he’ll be best to listen to another piece of advice from Clooney: At least don’t let them put nipples on the Batman suit.
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