In the world of absolute morality superhero stories present, in which the conflict is almost always between manifestations of pure good and evil, Batman is a character composed of shades of grey. Throughout the character’s history writers have used Batman as a platform to explore questions about the morality of vigilantism, the nature of justice and the causes of evil, dilemmas at the heart of the character that defy simple answers or universal truths. Whilst Superman strives for ‘truth, justice and the American way’, what Batman fights for is a far murkier affair, a nebulous idea of morality and order born out of personal trauma and arguably fuelled more by a pathological obsession than a desire to help others.
Perhaps this ambiguity is why Batman has remained such fertile ground for writers and filmmakers across the years, with Zac Snyder’s hugely flawed but oddly fascinating Batman v Superman the latest example. The film is a mess, filled with clunky dialogue, lacklustre action and bizarre directorial decisions at every turn, with the resolution to the titular punch-up being unintentionally the funniest cinema moment of 2016. Despite these many flaws, Ben Affleck’s Batman (and hair game) is a huge success that embraces the fascinating ambiguity of the character to a greater extent than Christopher Nolan’s celebrated Dark Knight trilogy arguably ever did.
First and foremost, Affleck is fantastic in both aspects of the difficult dual role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Whilst Christian Bale is a great actor and did an excellent job for Nolan, Affleck just sells his depiction of an older and more violent Batman so well. He manages to pull off the near-impossible feat of being subtle and intense in a movie directed by Zac Snyder, a man who thinks that subtlety is the words at the bottom of the screen for deaf people.
One of the Nolan trilogy’s greatest mistakes was in making Wayne stop being Batman for years in-between The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises because of Rachel’s death, as so much of Bruce Wayne’s character is defined by the fact that he psychologically cannot stop being Batman. In many ways he’s as crazy as the villains he faces, driven by a pathological crusade against crime that can easily descend into the brutality and questionable morality that Snyder depicts. Affleck does an excellent job of depicting this mad fire that drives Batman, and even as Bruce Wayne there is a sense of constant intensity and torture behind his eyes that Bale never conveyed. In this way the film shows far more effectively than Nolan ever did the cracks beneath the facade both Wayne and Batman put up to the world in order to expose the shadowy soul of the character beneath.
Much of the focus in Nolan’s films lay in mythologising Batman and his importance as a symbol, with Batman Begins’ talk of becoming a legend and a symbol of hope leading into his becoming the Dark Knight of the titular sequel. All this made for compelling stuff and an interesting exploration of aspects of the Batman mythos, but where it fell short was in how it served to make Batman infallible. Although his methods are briefly questioned towards the end of The Dark Knight with his surveillance of Gotham to find the Joker, he is still ultimately successful and his Patriot Act-esque methods are shown to be wholly justified.
Batman v Superman on the other hand does not give him this same sense of absolute justification for his actions and is therefore more in line with the moral indeterminateness that defines the character, particularly in the wake of Frank Miller’s seminal The Dark Knight Returns, from which both Nolan and Snyder take clear inspiration. Many have taken issue with the cruelty of Affleck’s Batman, and whilst the film can go too far (Batman killing is a misstep), it has the courage of its convictions to depict him in this questionable light in a way that Nolan never did with his focus on Batman as an absolute symbol for good. Additionally, although the script may lack the strength to carry the weight of its ideas, the discussions of the morality of Batman’s vigilantism and the issues of civil liberties and classism that it may bring are essential concepts that Nolan failed to explore and will hopefully be analysed in more depth by a superior script in the future.
Overall, Nolan’s trilogy is far superior to the mess that is Batman v Superman. The scripts are tighter, the action weightier and more exciting and in general the characters are more rounded and compelling. But whilst his Bruce Wayne is an interesting, well written figure, he fails to challenge the nature of Batman by addressing the difficult questions at the heart of the character in the way that Snyder does, albeit in a somewhat flawed manner. The best Batman stories are those that seek to question him and expose a facet of his soul, and I hope that Affleck’s upcoming standalone Batman film will continue Snyder’s precedent in a more focussed and compelling package.