The last month or so has been fairly rough on Ben Affleck.
Not only are impatient fans and journalists giving him a hard time about his slow progress with the script for his solo Batman movie, but his period gangster flick, Live By Night, has been a disaster by virtually any measure.
Variety reports that Warner Bros expects to lose $75 million on the film, it’s been shut out of the Oscars, and critics and audiences have given it a lukewarm reception at best, a far cry from the raves received by his previous directorial efforts, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo.
But before anyone suggests that Warner Bros should use the film’s failure as leverage to speed along Affleck’s work on The Batman, let’s just take a step back and think about why Live By Night failed.
Make no mistake – Live By Night looks great. Cinematographer Robert Richardson imbues the tale of a bootlegger descending into the underworld with an appropriately epic sweep, and if you’re a sucker for old Warner gangster movies, it’s almost worth watching this one for the gorgeous costumes and vintage cars alone.
There’s no doubt that Affleck is a strong cinematic stylist, but where Live By Night falls down is the story – it’s a collection of lavish, Oscar-worthy production elements in desperate need of a script.
Although it was a passion project for Affleck, Live By Night has all the hallmarks of a rushed film. Potentially interesting storylines are teased and then dispensed with in mere minutes, as if Affleck couldn’t devote the time to figuring out what his film was really about, and instead settled for throwing a little bit of everything at the wall to see what sticks.
Suffice to say, not much stuck.
Characters flit in and out of the movie at a moment’s notice without being given any real characterisation, and narration is used extensively in a failed bid to smooth over the holes in the narrative. It’s a cliché, but this is a film that does a lot of telling and not much showing.
The ending feels like it comes out of left field – but, in retrospect, it’s hard to think of an ending that could have truly satisfied, given that nothing in the movie is really developed enough to be worth paying off.
It’s telling that, while Affleck mostly devoted himself to his own projects during his golden run of directorial successes (he did appear in a few ensemble films between Gone Baby Gone and The Town, but was entirely absent from screens between The Town and Argo), he has been everywhere between Argo and Live By Night.
Since the release of Argo in 2012, Affleck has had lead roles in To The Wonder, Runner Runner, Gone Girl, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and The Accountant, as well as a bit part in Suicide Squad, and a lead role in the upcoming Justice League.
On a purely practical level, it’s hard to figure out where he would have found much time to develop Live By Night, and that shows in the finished product.
In many ways, Live By Night has the same problem as Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. You can see plenty of potential in these movies, but they feel unfocused and unfinished.
Live By Night is hardly a career-killer for Affleck – you’d be hard-pressed to think of a director at his level who hasn’t helmed at least one flop, and Warner Bros will always be up for backing another film from the director of Argo.
But what the film does show us is that rushing The Batman into production is the absolute last thing anyone should be hoping for.
What’s the rush, anyway?
Not only will Batman play a major role in Zack Snyder’s Justice League later this year, but there have been so many good Batman stories told on film, television and in comics over the last 78 years, there’s virtually no way you could have watched and read them all. Why not catch up on them in the meantime?
Certainly, one of the goals of this blog will be to help you find a few under-the-radar classics you might have missed.
I’m Team Affleck all the way. I think he’s the perfect director to replace Christopher Nolan at the helm of the Batman franchise, and I think he’s already proven that he was the perfect choice to replace Christian Bale in the cape and cowl.
But please, by all that’s holy, let’s back off and give the guy a chance to make the Batman movie that he’s capable of.
It’s the Batman movie that we deserve – but it’s not the one we need right now.