Batman is very serious business in our household. Last night, my fiance woke me up in the middle of the night: “I need to use your phone.” Why did he need to use my phone? Because Warner Bros. had just announced that Ben Affleck is slated to play Batman in the sequel to Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” and he needed to talk to his friends pronto.
As CNN reported, the masses are less than pleased with the choice, convinced that Affleck can never be quite as “badass” as former Dark Knight star Christian Bale. The whole concept of comparing Affleck to Bale brings up different ideas on manhood. What does the casting choice mean for the next ten years of superheroes? For the next generation of role models for young men? For women?
One of my favorite books of all time is Gail Bederman’s classic Manliness and Civilization. The main premise of the text is that Western history can be traced through changes and shifts in male “ideals:” in the Victorian era, men were pressured to behave in a “civilized,” polite, and erudite manner, while 20th Century man felt more of a pull towards raw masculinity, engaging in more physical activities and becoming “buff.” Bederman calls the polite, mannered type of man “manly,” while the more passionate, physical, scruffy man is better referred to as “masculine.”
Today, the pressure remains on men to behave in both manly and masculine ways: men are told they must achieve the highest levels of education and earn a lot of money in order to be “manly,” that they must be the strongest and the most dominant in order to be “masculine.” This pressure extends to women in interesting and complex ways. On one hand, girls are taught to be “cultured,” well educated, and well-behaved in order to compel wealthy business men, and on the other, they might feel pressure to be the hottest girl in da club in order to land the toughest, juiciest guy (clearly, I have never been to a club, but I hope you get where my totally lame self is coming from). Demanding, oppressive female ideals piggyback on the various ideals of manhood.
What kind of man is Batman? Needless to say, Batman, in his crime-fighting, ass-kicking glory, is masculine. But here’s part of what makes the character so compelling: Bruce Wayne is manly. As Bruce Wayne, Batman lives in a posh mansion and uses his astonishing intellect and education to build an empire. Catwoman is similar: as Catwoman, she is sexual, passionate, even violent, but as Selina Kyle, she is a polite secretary or a highly intelligent, cultured, and seemingly well-behaved con-woman (depending on the depiction).
Christian Bale is masculine: buff and passionate (think The Fighter, The Prestige). For the most part, Ben Affleck projects a manly persona: he is sophisticated (the US Ambassador to the UN, the amazing Samantha Power, ate dinner with him last week); he does humanitarian work. Christian Bale was the perfect Batman, building his strength in The Dark Knight Rises and climbing out of an impossibly steep cave, but in order to truly create a poignant Bruce Wayne in the film, Bale used a cane, appeared ill and frail. In my opinion, Christian Bale is too masculine to create as an effective Bruce Wayne portrayal as, say, Michael Keaton. But Ben Affleck isn’t. Ben Affleck is more like the sophisticated, polite, cultured Bruce Wayne. People are outraged at the choice of Affleck precisely because he doesn’t have Bale’s raw masculinity; people think he’s too “pretty.”
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Regardless of how the film turns out, of how Affleck will accept the Batman challenge, I’m stoked to see what he brings to Bruce Wayne. When my young cousin saw the Bale Batman films, he would run around the house saying things like, “surrender your weapons!” and proceed to kick the air. Maybe after he sees the Affleck films, he will drop his costume mask and don a pair of spectacles and carry a briefcase. Maybe not. But the character of Batman/Bruce Wayne, the pop culture phenomenon that he is, has more of a baring on gender ideals than we might give him credit for, and the outrage over the choice provides insight into what the male “ideal” might be today.
What kind of role model are we giving young men today? Do you think Affleck is a good choice for Batman?
Special thanks to my real-life Batman and my collaborator in all things, Tim Kail.