Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
BART: Fans may be lining up to see Batman V Superman this weekend, but I think the more interesting pair-off is Ben Affleck V Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds’ hilariously blasé performance in Deadpool re-ignited his career. On the other hand, I never understood why Affleck decided to play the brooding Batman – a role that has defeated actors going back to George Clooney in 1997 (he famously called Batman & Robin “a waste of money.”) The wires are running photos of Affleck supposedly wincing as he learns of his negative Batman reviews. Did Ben need the payday? He has three Warner Bros. films coming out this year and his career (even his personal life) grabs headlines.
FLEMING: Why are you hating on Affleck? He’s the best thing in a far from perfect movie, and he is a major reason I have hope for this whole Warner Bros DC superhero initiative. That wire service thing you mentioned? It was a video parody, a complete misrepresentation of Henry Cavill answering a question about bad reviews (a Simon & Garfunkel tune obscured the sound) and Affleck agreeing with him. Both trades ran it with THR actually inferring Affleck agreed the movie was bad. It was egregiously bad weekend trade journalism. Please don’t try to build a case with it here, our readers are much smarter than that.
BART: The nasty reality: He is a boring Batman. But maybe Batman is boring. Comic book writers and filmmakers have been desperately re-inventing him since May, 1939—he was the rich straight guy in the ‘40s, became campy in the ‘60s (didn’t everybody?), broody again in the ‘70s, even sporting a degree from Yale Law School. On the talk show circuit last week Affleck waxed tediously about Batman’s wounded psyche, but no one ever asked him whether he wouldn’t prefer to play the weirded out former Special Forces operator in Deadpool.
FLEMING: I couldn’t disagree with you more on this. First, you are going to have to get over your sudden fan boy fixation with Ryan Reynolds, Peter. Good actor who failed in a spate of movies, and then one finally hit. One that even the folks at Fox didn’t really see coming and who can blame them? It could have landed like Howard the Duck. Batman is the only hero in the DC universe who isn’t boring. Christian Bale is of course now being canonized for his trio of Chris Nolan movies. Honestly, I couldn’t understand most of his gravelly garblings. He was physically slight, in that costume. Affleck’s hero was an oversized bad ass; for the first time, this mortal man seemed to have the requisite hatred and brawn to be a threat to a Gotham villain, even Superman, who by the way has always been boring in his indestructibility.
BART: The bigger question, of course, is whether Warner Bros and director Zack Snyder can get away with a retro re-invention of the DC comics superheroes – all noise and no wit – while Marvel and Disney keep adding flair and humor to their cast of characters. And while Robert Downey Jr and Ryan Reynolds have capitalized on the Marvel characters’ eccentricities, will the DC heroes survive being blah and broody?
FLEMING: Now, there we find common ground. Snyder seemed so hell bent on carrying themes of anger and terrorism that he forgot to tell a story, the kind where plot and tension build and surprises result as characters reveal themselves slowly. Batman and Superman sneered at each other a couple times before the big brawl. What they needed was the Heat coffee shop scene, which is a far more interesting way for bitter rivals to engage with one another, building toward an inevitable showdown. Snyder and his writers seemed to forget a time tested adage: in all successful Batman and Superman movies, or even in pictures like Dick Tracy, the heroes are the earnest grounding figures. The villains, from Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger to Michelle Pfeiffer on down, steal the show by revolving around these dull heroes. They chew the scenery and inject humor and wit. Besides that giant monster at the end that seemed like a leftover Middle Earth prop from Lord of the Rings, what we got is the most annoying bad guy in the history of cinema: Jesse Eisenberg playing a version of his Social Network’s Mark Zuckerberg as a super villain. He was annoying from jump street, and not fun at all. He made you hope Gotham City has the death penalty and that it carries out the sentence before the next DC movie. None of this was the fault of Ben Affleck.
BART: Reynolds decided to take a flyer with Deadpool because several of his ‘serious’ pictures had tanked. The management manual for movie stars calls for a difficult navigation of roles, alternating the serious with the frivolous. George Clooney seemed the master of this starting 15 years ago when he darted from Ocean’s Eleven to such superb films as Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana. But as canny as he is, Clooney, with the exception of Gravity, has failed to make a major commercial hit in a very long time – Tomorrowland, Hail Caesar and Monuments Men all performed disappointingly. Ben Affleck, by contrast, has moved from Argo to Gone Girl to The Town as a filmmaker, yet now is diverting his time and energy in Batman, Justice League and other meat-and-potatoes DC fare. An immensely affable and intelligent man, Affleck has the smarts to build a substantial career as a filmmaker and movie star, much as Clooney did years ago. I hope they both get back in gear.
FLEMING: Clooney tried on the superhero costume back when he was building his post-ER star, decided he didn’t like the fit, and forged a terrific career path with thoughtful movies. His upcoming turn in Money Monster, which will play Cannes, looks compelling. Try to recall where Affleck was with Warner Bros a couple years ago, after Argo won Best Picture. That completed a career resurrection that Affleck authored with his own hand. I’m talking about Gone Baby Gone and The Town, the two superb pictures he co-wrote and directed before Argo. Then, he and partner Matt Damon — whose Pearl Street is Warner Bros-based — were understandably pissed when the studio acquired the Scott Cooper-Johnny Depp Whitey Bulger picture Black Mass. Boston’s own Affleck and Damon had their own version of the Bulger story that Affleck planned to direct with Damon playing the mobster. Jeff Robinov, who helped Affleck reclaim his star as a multi-hyphenate, had just left Warner Bros for Studio 8. Clearly, he would have loved to grab Affleck as his cornerstone filmmaker. Then, a Hail Mary save for Robinov’s successors at Warner Bros: Affleck sparked to playing Batman in this movie. Then, he agreed to co-write to direct a new Batman movie. If this comes to pass and he spearheads the next iteration of the Batman franchise — clearly the most important DC franchise film — it’s the best thing that could happen to Warner Bros and DC. Though Affleck’s first two directing efforts came from books and Argo from a Wired Magazine article and declassified documents, he a real storytelling filmmaker who’ll bring his own stylish imprint on the franchise, differently but as distinctively as Tim Burton and Nolan did. And Warner Bros kept Affleck in the fold for a long time.
Batman V Superman was to me a disappointing, overwrought first salvo in what will be a succession of DC Comics superheroes that will define the Kevin Tsujihara – Greg Silverman era. I didn’t find a suspenseful moment or surprising plot twist in the entire film. Everybody was pissed off, and the plot didn’t make sense. Gotham City doesn’t really exist; why show every single TV talking head, from Anderson Cooper to Nancy Grace, on a TV screen describing some calamity? It was distracting and annoying. Did Henry Cavill or Affleck smile once? I hope the takeaway for Warner Bros brass and Snyder is that these movie better be brilliantly plotted (Nolan’s Bat trilogy) or contain enough fun and entertainment (Burton’s first two Bat films) to please audiences. Maybe they don’t have to be campy and silly like Deadpool, or even The Avengers or Guardians of the Galaxy. (it would be nice if Suicide Squad has some of that spirit). But the audience has to enjoy them or they won’t come back. Warner Bros and Snyder got away with one here, because the movie still opened huge despite its problems. BvS was preceded by a trailer for the The Nice Guys, co-written and directed by Iron Man 3 helmer Shane Black. This trailer was so irreverent and funny, more entertaining than BvS in its entirety. Maybe they should have Black do a pass on the Justice League script? His light touch was exactly what Batman V Superman needed. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was more fun than this, and had surprising plot twists. Make the next one fun, guys, and thank your stars that Affleck is inhabiting the Bat suit.
BART: Hollywood increasingly is at war with the religious right – but at the same time wants to cozy up to it. Can it get away with it? Let’s start with the cozy part. The so-called Faith-based market has gained sufficient strength so that some majors have started dedicated units – witness Sony’s Affirm Films. The titles are becoming more on-the-nose, like Miracles From Heaven from DeVon Franklin. Or Heaven Is For Real, starring Greg Kinnear, which grossed $91 million. Some church groups are buying out ‘Plexes in advance, thus creating a built-in assured audience. The kids are going to see godly films if that’s all there is to see.
FLEMING: Film companies have found a sweet spot with low-budget wholesome inspirational films that are safer bets than period Biblical pictures. These movies aren’t overtly religious, just aimed at a demo that is. Hollywood is effectively serving a niche audience. I’m not sure where the war is.
BART: There’s the other side of the war being fought on two fronts. Most of the majors threatened to boycott production in Georgia over anti-gay legislation and that may spread to other states that have already passed, or may still pass, similar laws – Arizona, N. Carolina, and Indiana for example. Hollywood does not want to shoot films (and accept tax incentives) from states that can legally refuse service to gays. At the same time this is being fought out, a powerful group funded by the ever- congenial Koch brothers has launched a state-by-state drive to veto tax breaks for films. According to Americans for Prosperity, incentives to filmmakers is “government cronyism.” Translated, that means the hard core religious right hates Hollywood and doesn’t want to help the majors – even if that hurts local economies.
FLEMING: You are tarring a lot of believers with this brush. You have to commend studios, so cowardly during the Sony hack, for standing up here against prejudice. I just don’t buy into the idea that the moviegoers who saw Miracles From Heaven universally ostracize gays and lesbians and want it turned into the letter of law. I sat in St. Patrick’s Church yesterday in Bay Shore, where I try to go most Sundays, and I sure don’t feel that way. We Catholics now have a Pope who lives in this world, shows tolerance and isn’t shackled to ancient ideals that don’t fit in the 21st Century. The corporate appeals for decency were heard by the Georgia governor and he says he will veto the bill, thank goodness. It was a bad idea, trying to turn back the clock and make it okay to be exclusionary. Look at all the problems in the world caused by taking religion too far. Is there a bigger problem facing the world right now?
BART: In one battle ground, North Carolina, movies were been awarded some $61 million in tax credits last year attracting films like The Hunger Games and Iron Man 3. But now the Koch brothers are running ads in that state opposing any incentives. The ads show photos of Tom Cruise and ask voters whether their tax dollars should support “millionaire celebrities.” The state has lately drastically reduced its grants. Nine other states also have followed suit in reducing or eliminating similar programs.
FLEMING: You are mixing business with religion here. If states cut back on incentives, line producers will find other locations to shoot, ones with more favorable financial enticements. I don’t see this as a morality play.
BART: The culture wars pose an intriguing question for Hollywood: Can the community both profit from the religious right and at the same time do battle with it?