Did you hear? Ben Affleck is set to play Batman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel sequel. This is hardly the first time there’s been a surprise casting choice for a superhero movie. Let’s look at some of the most controversial.
I honestly thought the Ben Affleck news had to be a joke when I first heard it. It felt like an unfunny April Fool’s Day headline. But reality set in when I saw the press release and official confirmations on major news websites.
I think Affleck’s a decent actor and an even better director, but he’s probably the last person I would have expected to get this job. And apparently, I’m not alone. Maybe he’s grown as an actor since Daredevil, but that’s the barometer we can’t help measuring him against.
But then, there have been many times when unexpected actors were cast in superhero flicks. Sometimes the results were as bad as we expected, but there have also been plenty of times that certain actors were proven to be inspired, ingenious choices. Below is a collection for the most memorable ones. Maybe it will help us all keep the Batfleck situation in check — whether we’re on board with it or not.
When Tim Burton reignited interest in Batman in 1989, he made a rather unorthodox casting choice. He decided to hire the star of his 1988 film, Beetlejuice, as the caped crusader: Michael Keaton. Keaton’s most high-profile gigs to that point were comedy Mr. Mom and the decidedly quirky (but also comedic) Beetlejuice. Batfans went bonkers at the thought of a comedy actor — and an oddball one at that — taking on the mantle of the dark knight. And this wasn’t just any Batman movie. This was the first time the character would be seen in live action form in over 20 years.
Needless to say, Warner Bros. had a lot riding on this big-budget adaptation, and the thought that this farm was bet on Keaton was more than some fans could handle. More than 50,000 protest letters were sent to WB’s offices, and the film’s scriptwriter, Sam Hamm, and even Batman creator Bob Kane both publicly questioned Burton’s casting choice.
Things looked bleak for the film, until moviegoers got a glimpse of footage in the first trailers. It went on to bank over $250 million — in today’s terms, that would be around $513 million — and cemented both Burton and Keaton as major Hollywood fixtures. And virtually all of those fans who protested the film before it was made ate their own words. Today, Batman is considered a modern classic.
Winner: Michael Keaton.
This one became more disputed after it came out than it ever was during production. It adds up to this: one of the worst actors of all time, dressed in one of the worst costumes of all time, starring in one of the worst movies of all time. What more is there to say? Hey, kudos to Shaq for giving it a shot — and for doing all of his own stunts — but no one can argue that this was anything resembling good casting.
Winner: every single person who never saw the movie.
You don’t need me to list all of the many, many horrible things about Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Simply put, it’s a travesty of film, and every copy in existence should be burned. Mr. Schwarzenegger signed on to play the baddie in this fourth big-screen Batman outing after Junior, Eraser, and Jingle All the Way had tanked one after the other. The lucrative Bat-franchise probably looked like a can’t-lose chance to win back the box office gold he last seen with ’94′s True Lies.
It’s hard to say which was worse: Schwarzenegger’s performance or the movie itself. Both have become the stuff of bad movie-making legend. Probably the movie, since it was inexplicably designed from the get-go as an over-the-top return to the campy stylings of the Adam West TV series. The script sucked, the characters were uber-cheesy, and the production design looked like a candy-colored nightmare (and not in a good way). The performances were bad across the board, but viewers remember the Governator’s screen time the most due to Mr. Freeze’s endless bad puns and horrible characterization. (See Batman: Arkham City for a Freeze done right.)
In the end, all Schwarzenegger conveyed on screen was how desperate he was for a hit.
Winner: anyone who doubted this travesty of filmmaking long before it came out.
It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when the thought of Tobey Maguire playing Spider-Man was nearly sacrilege to Spiderfans. Maguire’s biggest roles prior to Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man were “serious” dramas like The Cider House Rules and Wonder Boys, not to mention his leading role in Pleasantville. Maguire was a respected actor, and those older films were well received, but he had no action movies to his credit. On the other hand, no one doubted he could pull off the “nerdy Peter Parker” stuff.
So Maguire hit the gym — hard — and a few months later, a press conference was held to introduce the movie’s cast. And all anyone could talk about was how ripped Maguire was. Then, Sony released the first image of Maguire in costume as the wall-crawler. Everyone’s concerns seemed to vanish overnight. The movie became a huge box office hit, Marvel fans were won over, and the rest is history.
Winner: Tobey Maguire.
There’s no small amount of irony that the man of the hour was controversially cast ten years ago as the character widely considered to be “the Batman of the Marvel universe.” At the time, so many fans were griping about director Mark Steven Johnson’s choice, that Affleck’s friend Kevin Smith publicly defended Affleck’s work prior to the movie’s release. Hindsight is 20/20, and we know now that plenty of Daredevil‘s issues were owed to Johnson’s disappointingly pedestrian script. But there’s no denying that Affleck was miscast in the title role as well.
It’s not that he didn’t try. He did show off some perfectly serviceable, if not terribly interesting, acting skills. And he even wore that hideous leather costume — which, let’s face it, is a red bondage suit — and buffed up to fill it out. But if the test of any movie is whether it stands up over time, then Daredevil is downright unwatchable today, and Affleck simply never does anything compelling with the role.
Winner: every cynical comic book fan in the world.
Look, it pains me to say anything bad about Jennifer Garner. She rocked on Alias. And not just in the action stuff; she proved time and again on that show that she was a terrific actress with a broad range. But she just wasn’t right for the role of a ninja assassin of Greek descent. Garner’s about as “All-American girl next door” as you can get, with such an easy smile, so seeing her playing a dark character named “Elektra Natchios” never rang true. Her portrayal in both Daredevil and spinoff film Elektra was way off from her comic book depiction.
It’s understandable why Johnson cast her in the role — at the time, she was one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities, and she had a proven pedigree when it came to action-heavy work. She was the object of many a geeky fantasy, so I’m sure it sounded like a great idea. But looking back, her casting has become a cautionary tale about finding the right actor to fit a role.
Winner: a slew of disappointed fanboys.
A case could be made for several characters in Fantastic Four being miscast. Jessica Alba, for example, was too young (at 24, she was nearly a decade younger than her on-screen romance, Ioan Gruffudd) and too sexed-up to make for a believable Sue Storm. But the worst choice, in my opinion, was Nip/Tuck‘s Julian McMahon as Marvel’s most iconic villain, Doctor Doom, that took the cake. McMahon portrayed Doom as an evil Tony Stark, a suave billionaire playboy with a lust for power. It felt wrong from the very first frame, and McMahon never redeemed himself — not even in the sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer.
He’s a fine actor, but he didn’t have the gravitas to pull this off. When Doctor Doom enters the frame, viewers shouldn’t be able to take their eyes off of his commanding presence. Instead, we barely noticed it.
Winner: Marvel fans who stayed far, far away from this anemic, paint-by-numbers snoozer.
You know the story: once promising young actor spends endless stints in rehab after one addiction binge after another. When he finally breaks the cycle and gets his life back in order, most of Hollywood is too burned to take a chance on him. Enter Marvel Studios, working a master plan to bring the Avengers to the big screen via a series of solo superhero flicks. Iron Man was deemed the easiest and most accessible character to translate to modern film, and Marvel did the unthinkable: they took a great big chance.
Marvel fans hated the idea of has-been Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark — though even the biggest detractors couldn’t deny the parallels between the actor and the role — and made no shortage of noise about what they saw as a monster-sized casting mistake.
Thankfully, Marvel didn’t listen. Downey embodied Iron Man so perfectly that today it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the armor. He’s appeared in three solo movies and The Avengers, and is already signed on for two more of the latter. Downey’s career was restarted in a big way, and today he’s one of Hollywood’s best-loved actors.
Winner: Robert Downey, Jr.
When Batman Begins ended with a wink-and-a-nod toward Batman’s arch-nemesis, everyone knew that the Joker would be the big villain in the sequel. But I don’t think anyone imagined that director Christopher Nolan would choose Heath Ledger as his clown. Ledger was known as a good actor, but he’d shown a rather eclectic career trajectory, starring in movies as diverse as The Patriot, A Knight’s Tale, Lords of Dogtown, and Brokeback Mountain. Heck, I thought the choice was so far out of left field that it might as well have marked The Dark Knight as a Batman & Robin-sized pariah.
But then, whispers started emerging from the set that Ledger was taking a big risk with the role, stretching himself like never before, giving the performance of his career. Co-star Gary Oldman praised Ledger’s work publicly, reporting that he was in awe of what Ledger was doing. A photo was released showing the grotesque facial scars sported by Ledger’s Joker, and it became instantly clear that this was going to be a huge departure from Jack Nicholson’s still fondly-remembered turn in Tim Burton’s movie.
Just as the hype was building, tragedy struck. Six months before the movie was set to hit theaters, Heath Ledger was found dead, the victim of an accidental medication overdose. After the shock wore off and Ledger’s body was laid to rest, there was even higher expectations piled onto The Dark Knight than before. For better or worse, this would be the movie that Ledger would be most remembered for.
We all remember what happened next. The movie got rave reviews, and much of the praise was aimed squarely at Ledger’s fierce, fearless performance as a psychotic disciple of chaos. He wasn’t just good, he was astounding. Ledger disappeared completely, transforming into the Joker. Make no mistake: the film was brilliant, the actors solid, the writing and directing top-notch. But Ledger was something we’d never seen before, and the film positively crackled every time he entered the frame.
Winner: the legacy of Heath Ledger — and dreams of what else he could have done as an actor if not for his untimely death.
So what’s the lesson in all this? Sometimes we wary fans are right, sometimes we’re wrong — very, very wrong. I think the takeaway is not to pre-judge. The thought of Ben Affleck as Batman doesn’t excite me. But maybe he’ll be great. It’s been 10 long years since Daredevil — and a lot can happen in 10 years. I hear he’s really good in Argo (haven’t seen it myself).
Here’s hoping for a Batfleck surprise.