Around this time a quarter-century ago, director Tim Burton and actor Michael Keaton prepared to film "Batman" amid fanboy grumbling that the "Beetlejuice" team would shroud the Dark Knight in disgrace not seen since the campy 1960s TV series.
Complaints back then were largely confined to fanzines and heated conversations in comic book stores. Still, the initially negative undercurrent became, in a sense, part of the "Batman" story arc – adding drama to Burton and Keaton's eventual triumph and paving the way for the franchise’s enduring hold on moviegoers.
Now many fans, outraged by last week’s announcement that Ben Affleck will play the Caped Crusader in the upcoming “Man of Steel” sequel, are using the power of the Internet to try to write their own story – threatening to overwhelm perceptions of the film long before the first preview of coming attractions is released. While the devotion is admirable, someone needs to play Alfred and say it’s time to give Ben Affleck a Bat break.
After all, we're hopefully getting the Affleck not of “Gigli” or even of the middling “Daredevil,” but of “Argo”– a mature, finally subtle actor and savvy filmmaker smart enough to know he's playing Bruce Wayne, not just a would-be do-gooder in a cowl.
Give him credit for taking on the thankless challenge of replacing Batman-for-the-ages Christian Bale, who redefined the character in director Christopher Nolan’s brilliant trilogy. Also credit Affleck with enough sense to learn from the failures – and successes – of other big stars who took on the risky job of playing a superhero.
It’s a good bet that before signing on, Affleck chatted with his buddy George Clooney, who rode the bat pole to its nadir in 1997’s “Batman and Robin.” Affleck also likely looked to the more positive example of Robert Downey, Jr., who defied some naysayers’ expectations to prove he was born to be Iron Man.
We suspect Affleck understands the current backlash, even if its ferocity is probably a surprise. He is, no doubt, among “Batman” fans – the filmmaking prodigy wasn’t quite 17 when Burton and Keaton rescued the Dark Knight in 1989 from lingering memories of the TV version, which was more Andy Warhol than Bob Kane. He’s no doubt spent enough time with director/fanboy Kevin Smith to know Batman is sacrosanct to legions.
Much of the online reaction, thankfully, has come out in form of humor with the inevitable memes pegging Matt Damon as Robin (The Hollywood Reporter collected some of the best here). But the message is serious: Fans are using the web to express feelings of ownership over cinematic depictions of Batman. That’s a sign that Batman is approaching the pop culture grip of the “Lord of the Rings” movies and “Star Wars,” where fans of a certain generation regularly express heartfelt fury over George Lucas’ three prequels to the original movies. Every bit of news about the upcoming extension of the series generates strong online reactions.
Affleck’s challenge dwarfs the one that faced Burton and Keaton. But like Bruce Wayne, he has an opportunity to reinvent himself as an anti-hero. All he needs is a chance to get out of the Bat Cave.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.