I used to have a friend who I’d get into gigantic arguments with over comic book heroes, and whether they needed to be in movies. His position, one I disagreed vehemently with at the time, was that Warner Bros. didn’t need to make superhero movies, largely because they can make more money by doing nothing with those characters, because of licensing.
With news of the latest misstep in the long, drawn out saga surrounding the DC Comics Entertainment Universe, this time focusing on whether Ben Affleck wants to stick around as Batman, even after he “gave up” directing, and later writing the upcoming titular film.
It was in that moment I thought my crazy friend may not be so crazy after all, at least about this, anyway.
It’s pretty much a given that before Marvel’s blockbuster sale to the Walt Disney Company, Warner Bros. made more money, far more money, just by doing very little with their comic book properties. Sales of toys, keyrings, t-shirts and coffee mugs with Batman or Superman logos on them is a lucrative business, one where the costs are all leveraged on the licensees.
In 2015, TimeWarner counted nearly a billion dollars in Warner Bros Consumer Products revenue, a significant portion of which came from DC Entertainment properties.
Making movies is an expensive proposition, and when you’re trying to compete with Marvel Studios, now backed with their own massive success and Disney money, that proposition becomes even more expensive.
Trying to create a shared universe on par with Marvel, and in a shorter period may prove to be too much for the creative teams employed by Warner Bros, and it’s easy to see how that level of overreach affects the talent involved.
When Affleck was announced as Batman prior to production of the ill-fated (but still somewhat profitable) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, he was jeered almost immediately. Fans didn’t want Affleck, and although he turned that around with a very solid turn as the Caped Crusader, it was all for naught, as the film itself wasn’t very good.
Couple that with a Justice League film that is equally believed to be built on quicksand, and a poor showing at the box office for his film Live by Night, and it’s clear that no one in charge has enough faith in the product, or rather the turning around of the product, to allow a franchise to grow with the same strength as anything coming from Marvel Studios.
Honestly, I don’t blame Affleck if he does bolt, but if he does, several people at Warners should be blamed, and it just feels like the whole deal was almost meant to fail.
But how could that be? Who would spend millions and millions of dollars just to get something wrong?
Being that Hollywood is a bit of a cannibal, never hesitating to eat both its young and old, conventional wisdom is something that sticks like glue, and even though “a better way” might exist, old habits are hard to shake or break, and when you’re used to making money on something by doing nothing, or very little, it’s hard not to look at the thing you’re blowing money on and look at it more as a liability as opposed to something that can be fixed.
That said, why would someone with an actual career like Ben Affleck be forced to go down with the ship? Outside of contractual obligations, Affleck is not motivated to watch his career go to seed just because someone wants him to see the disaster through in the cape and cowl.
Compared to Justice League castmates Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa and others, Affleck has a career outside of acting, and by all accounts, he’s better off as a director. By no longer directing or writing The Batman, the actual value of him sticking around outside of continuity purposes becomes less and less evident.
For now, this is all rumor and innuendo, but many of the rumors coming from these DC Entertainment productions have all come to pass in varying degrees, so it wouldn’t be all that wise to dismiss them just because.
Is it likely that Affleck bolts a role that is sure to pay well and guarantee him even more cash down the road? Maybe. What is clear is that no one in charge at Warner Bros. and DC Entertainment knows what to do with a cinematic universe that never really took off to fly. While even their awful movies still make money, the question those in power should be asking is whether the potential damage to future licensing is worth entertaining a slate of half-baked films just because they can.
But fans don’t care about possible losses in licensing, they just want good films, and if Affleck, who is clearly not used to the level of pressure and scrutiny that comes from these high-profile franchises, doesn’t want to stick around, maybe it’s time to pull the plug and wait another decade for Warners to get their act together and make memorable superhero movies worth seeing.
Somewhere, my crazy friend is shaking his fist and telling me I just don’t get it. Well, neither does Warner Bros., and we’re all the worse for it.