Ben Affleck cast as Snyder’s Batman; Why does that piss everyone off?

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Since the announcement yesterday that Warner Brothers had cast veteran actor, writer, and director Ben Affleck to play Batman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, there have been a number of large reactions, including but certainly not limited to a couple of petitions put up on petition websites, as if a petition by a couple of crank fans has ever turned the tide in a situation like this one.  Those who love Batman were quick to defend him against the accusation that he might ever have Affleck’s face, figure, or most significantly to me, his uncommonly kind eyes.  I tried immediately to picture Affleck’s soft brown eyes menacing from under a cowl and fell short in my imagination.  I have come to think that this knee-jerk reaction says more about the public perception of this character than it does about Affleck’s ability to tackle the role or his suitability as a choice.

As a long-time Kevin Smith fan I’ve had the opportunity to know more about Affleck than I typically would most actors or celebrities, and first of all I want to make one thing abundantly clear.  He’s one of us.  From the enormous backlash from fans, it’s been made clear that few people actually know this.  Ben Affleck is a serious fanboy; he knows his comics and he knows Batman.  He’s sought out roles like the lead role in Daredevil, and playing George Reeves in Hollywoodland for a reason, because he genuinely loves the work.

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Isn’t that the greatest thing to be embraced about Henry Cavill?  What’s important about Affleck being a geek is that he will protect the work, he will have the sense to protect Batman and portray him with dignity, and perhaps more significantly, he’s unlikely to be comfortable with story lines that do any disrespect to Superman.  I think Cavill definitely brings similar qualities, but he lacked the star power, at least before Man of Steel premiered, to put his foot down when it matters.  The bulk of detractors seem to be aware of Affleck as far as Gigli and Reindeer Games.

He’s also not replacing Christian Bale.  There’s no possibility of Christian Bale playing Batman again in the Justice League franchise, and while I can understand that people are bound to get very attached to a performance, the regularity with which this is brought up is really disheartening.  It shows a kind of ignorance that could be cured inside a 6-hour marathon of the 90s Batman movies, in which the cowl was passed three times.  It’s been made clear by almost everyone involved in the film that the Dark Knight trilogy and the Justice League movies take place in entirely different universes.  That’s not subterfuge, that’s a very deep chasm that Nolan has put down in order to isolate his “Batman vision.”  Snyder will not be picking up where he left off, and while every superhero movie clearly takes notes from the movies to come before it in the genre, he will not be matching the tone or technique.

I think though, that the immediate negative reaction has more to do with how we feel about Batman.  So, since we obviously have zero power to change Warner Brother’s minds about this, let’s speculate about how this casting decision might affect the movie.

  • There might be less Batman than we originally anticipated.  There have been rumors that Affleck has signed a “13 appearance” deal with Warner Brothers, which if it were true, would significantly limit Affleck’s screen time.  It’s interesting to me that for all the Batman/Superman content Synder has been tossing around, nobody has really confirmed that Batman will necessarily have second billing.  The Snyder/Goyer team seems to trust its actors to have the ability to do a lot when given very little (there’s not a lot of chatting about feelings or monologing in Man of Steel) so I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised if Affleck had a few choice scenes and then in typical Batman style, disappear like a shadow.

  • We might be dealing with a number of non-traditional masculinities in this series.  We’ve already got a physically-desirable soft-spoken introvert for a Superman, and when I heard about the Batman/Superman team up movie, my first assumption was that they were intent on contrasting Batman as a more traditional masculinity up against Clark’s more sensitive portrayal for better or worse.  I expected the Batman pick to be someone who’d play gritty, edgy, mean, and dark to Clark’s sunny and naïve.  Affleck isn’t that choice.  He plays an effective smarmy jerk (hmm, sounds like a certain playboy millionaire I know), and I think he would have been a really fabulous choice for Lex Luthor, but he brings an inescapable tenderness to any role he assumes.  Even with the cowl on, I think we are going to see a very enlightened (maybe even feminist?) Batman.  With Batman and Superman setting the baseline, what would that mean for everyone else in the Justice League?

  • Batman is going to be old.  Ben Affleck just celebrated his 41st birthday, so while Cavill is definitely playing a few years older, there’s no way to pretend that these two are near the same age.  Synder has already been quoted saying that his Batman will be a “seasoned crime-fighter,” and this will undoubtedly affect the nature of their relationship, my only hope being that that doesn’t mean a snarky Batman condescending to Superman for the bulk of the movie.  With Affleck, Cavill, Snyder, and Goyer to protect this story though, I’m less and less concerned about that possibility as the days go by.  Nobody wants to do wrong by Superman, and so far, they’ve done a pretty fantastic job.  The choice of an older actor did bring me pause though, because Frank Miller’s Dark Knightmare features a older Batman, but Miller’s Batman is 55, and Affleck doesn’t yet look 40, so it’s still not a sign of a faithful adaptation.  The fact that Batman is so much older might also mean that they are subverting the idea of Superman as strictly the first costumed superhero in the DC universe.  I know Batman has more work to do to get to a role that Clark tripped and fell into, but I’d be very surprised if they wrote a 40 year old Batman without a bat suit.  How exactly has he been fighting crime all these years without a suit?  It’s not like Superman can just inspire him to put ears and wings on the outfit.

  • The acting is going to be really amazing.  Say what you want, I have seen effortless accomplished acting out of this whole cast and adding Ben just shows a commitment to excellence.  A lot of the detractors are saying the reason they are resisting the casting choice is because of his lack of skill or range, but I would challenge you to put that criticism to the test with some of Affleck’s best movies instead of automatically sighting his worst ones.  When he has good material to work with, he brings a consistently excellent performance.  I wouldn’t necessarily mind him getting his hands in the directing and writing of this franchise, either.

  • They might just be taking their female-dominated audience into account. Ben Affleck is not a man for heterosexual men to look at, and Henry Cavill is so beautiful that he likely makes heterosexual men uncomfortable as they re-assess what they thought they knew about their sexuality.  In contrast, Faora’s armor is practical and she is more of a female-power-fantasy than sex object, Lois, despite being played by the absolutely stunning Amy Adams, is never objectified, and Diane Lane is shot in a way that makes it seem as though having a 33 year old son might be plausible thing for Martha Kent.Image

All in all, I think the backlash to this decision has more to do with the idea that the Batman in this franchise might be a complexly flawed human being with a masculinity that isn’t necessarily so fractured that it can’t be called into question.  I personally think that Batman has started to become the Chuck Norris of comic book fans, and that’s not a compliment.  In the whole Batman/Superman controversy, it seems as though a disproportionate number of Batman fans as really really insistent about Batman winning in a fight while Superman fans are sometimes more inclined to ask why in the world that fight might be happening in the first place.  I’m tired of the Batman who has something to prove.  He’s got the dizzying intellect, the sex appeal, the cool exits and entrances, the title of “world’s greatest detective,” really, what is there to prove?

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The Argument to be Made for a Female Doctor

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For those uninitiated, Doctor Who is a British Sci Fi series first launched in 1963 with little besides love, cardboard, and fishing line and ran with growing popularity for the next 26 years. It was recently revived in 2005 as a continuation of the original plot line. When compared to American media, it is nearest in spirit to Star Trek, an unnaturally long-running science fiction series that more or less invented and defined fan culture for a country.  It crosses media barriers with books, comics, a mid-eighties movie and numerous radio shows, has seen outrageous numbers of viewers in the UK, and as of today is unarguably Britain’s most popular television export.

The premise of this show is a time-traveling humanoid alien being who travels time and space with his generally human companions in his cleverly disguised spaceship/time machine.  What makes the doctor so special and adored is surely a question for history to answer and fans to bicker about, but one of the things that gives the series so much longevity is The Doctor’s ability to regenerate.  Regeneration is an affectation of The Doctor’s species, called time lords, all of whom possess a binary vascular system and the ability to cheat death by “regenerating” their cell tissue into a new form.  That new form comes with a new face, and conveniently, a new actor to play the role until the next time The Doctor “dies.”

The news these last two weeks has been the announcement of the 12th actor to play the most significant roles in British science fiction, and one of the most prominent roles in the current science fiction landscape in general.  As context may suggest, I don’t consider this a trivial decision.  Many people, myself included, expressed a sense of disappointment at the news that this actor was, like every single actor to play the doctor before him, white and male, especially considering the significant fan campaigns to have the current production team on the series cast its nets more widely when searching for this figurehead of science fiction television.

I reacted by writing a post that reiterated my lack of support for the current writing team on the series, with special attention to Steven Moffat, the current head writer.  Though my argument was largely based on the detriment that Moffat was doing to the general writing of the series, it was largely received by what I can only assume are folks with very low reading comprehension as a demand for an actress to be cast in the role.  I quoted Jill Pantozzi over at The Mary Sue in that article when she said something to the effect of; many female fans don’t want to see what scary sexist shit Moffat would do with a female doctor.

I can wait for a female doctor, I can wait for a POC doctor, I am concerned that the series will not survive Moffat’s decisions, but all my preferences are beside the point.  The fact is that I have yet to hear an objection to this plot point that isn’t couched in misogyny.

  • First of all, it’s canon. 

The first Neil-Gaiman-written episode titled “The Doctor’s Wife,” confirms the possibility of changing genders between regenerations.  If you don’t know this, and you’re still providing false-equivalencies like this one:

“What? Dr. Who has always been a male character. Would you accept Jane Austen books changing their leading women characters to men? Accusing Dr Who of being racist and sexist but yet you wouldn’t allow a black man to play the role of ‘Emma”. Tumblr Feminism strikes again. Smh”

Then you need to brush up on your knowledge. I don’t think being a fan requires knowing every single fact about something you love, but being a well-informed citizen means not barreling into arguments without any real ammunition to back you up.  From Neil Gaiman:

“I was the one who wrote the line about the Corsair changing gender on regeneration, in “The Doctor’s Wife” after all, and made it canon that Time Lords can absolutely change gender when they regenerate”

  • Gender-essentialism is all but dead. 

Numerous modern studies in the fields of sociology and psychology are proving that the differences between men and women that we have typically held to be true are the result of limited and biased science.  This is one of the first things you realize when you begin to actually study gender, that differences in behavior and psychology in terms of gender are largely socially created and more often than not used as an excuse to further oppress and discriminate against women and people who fall outside the straight/white/masculine norm.  It’s also the root of plenty of femmephobia (the systematic undervaluing and dismissing of traits and values typically coded “feminine”), homophobia, and transphobia, because people behaving outside the commonly-held parameters of their assigned gender can be othered and regarded as unnatural.

If The Doctor really has visited our more-evolved and more scientifically advanced future, gender essentialism should be a trivial archaic idea for him the same way sexual orientation is, and eventually the writers of this show will have to acknowledge that in The Doctor’s utopia male and female are interchangeable values of nearly infinite variation.  The Kinsey-scale for gender is on its way.

  • Representation matters.

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There’s one possible role on Doctor Who for women and girls, and that role is always secondary to The Doctor.  In Moffat’s universe, they can be obsessed with The Doctor, in love with The Doctor, or have their fate and existence completely dependent on The Doctor.  The Doctor is always, and has historically been, a benevolent-if-impatient patriarch, handing out instructions as a doctor to his nurse and giving his companions only enough information to get by.

It has been argued that this is not because his companions are female, but because they are human, and in-context that’s an excellent point to be made.  The Doctor isn’t prone to sexism in any way that’s been revealed, but he does often treat humans as inferior regardless of gender, at least he is very often frustrated by their limitations.  The gender-hierarchy represented on screen, however, is painfully familiar to a history of sexism and will need to tread lighter and lighter as progress marches on and viewers become smarter.  A decades-old series is bound to come up against this question, and the way that that series answers it is a deciding factor in its longevity.

The Doctor can have any face that can be imagined, unless we’re actually to believe that time lords are actually all Caucasian, and yet every single time he rolls the dice, he comes up with something that is in practical terms pretty similar to what he had the last time around.  Either the doctor is doomed to a complete lack of variation, or assuming he has some level of control over his regeneration process either in a conscious or unconscious fashion, The Doctor prefers his current skin-color and gender.  Now you can write that off to the fuddy-duddyness of the character, but it must be interpreted that if that is the case, the show itself feels that there is something superior about maleness and whiteness.

  • We’ve got no way to be sure we’re getting the best person for the job.

What does the casting call or casting list look like for the new doctor these days?  According to Steven Moffat, he says there was ONE name on his list this time around, which makes me wonder how many people he thinks that the UK contains. (62.74 million, as of 2011) So out of 62 million people, there’s no person better qualified than this one man?  Clearly that’s not a question that Moffat bothered to ask, if he’s to be believed about his casting process.  Gaiman says that a black actor was offered the role of The Doctor, but turned it down.  His sound bite on that isn’t specific as to which doctor that was, but regardless I’m pretty certain the case is not  that the United Kingdom has ONE representative black actor and once you query him, you’re pretty much out of luck.

And this may be rather naive on my part, but when do we start to hold the white male actors that are cast in these leading roles accountable?  Peter Capaldi is not hurting for work, and had a line of white and male actors said “no thanks,” would we just not have a new doctor?  Obviously not, casting directors would be forced to think outside the race-and-gender box.  How far does the responsibility as allies extend for these actors, really?  The question of casting off privilege affects the majority of us.

It’s entirely possible that the very best person who could have played the 12th doctor is a white man, it’s entirely possible that that person is Peter Capaldi, but unfortunately we’ll never know for sure.