Ben Affleck has had a tumultuous history with superhero films, but not because his work was in any way poor or lacking in dimension. On the contrary, the sincerity with which he approaches each role, each character, is unique in a culture that seems to place higher praise on a film’s self-awareness than on quality storytelling. With the victory of the Release the Snyder Cut movement comes a respect for the people involved in creating a film but also a recognition and explicit support for the preservation of artistic integrity. Ben Affleck surely shares this sentiment judging by his clear support for the fulfillment of Zack Snyder’s vision.
During the Zack Snyder panel at DC Fandome, Ben Affleck beamed with joy when speaking to his fellow director and friend, an echo of a video he released shortly after the announcement of the Snyder Cut on May 20, 2020, in which he expressed excitement at the news: “I’m really excited for the fans to get to see it, and I want to say thank you to the fans because it was their enthusiasm and their passion that made it happen.” The triumph of fans and their collective labor over hostile forces symbolized the end (or perhaps not) of a very long journey filled with treacherous executives, charlatan scoopers, consumers blinded by nostalgia and a stubborn refusal to accept anything that diverged from their expectations and preconceptions as valid, and mobs of critics lacking even the pretense of objectivity.
Ben saw the writing on the wall the moment someone began interfering with his take on Batman in Zack Snyder’s Justice League, writing lines that clearly did not adhere to the character’s presence in the previous film. Unlike many actors, Ben is no stranger to seeing a director’s work tampered with in such egregious fashion. His first appearance as a superhero, 2003’s Daredevil, paved the way for tonally dark, ambiguous interpretations of costumed vigilantes. Unfortunately, there is a reason we didn’t see Affleck don another mask until over a decade later. Had it not been for what happened to Daredevil, Ben may have never played Bruce Wayne.
It should be noted that all of Ben Affleck’s appearances in superhero films were unappreciated during their respective releases due to studio interference, first with Fox forcing Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson to cut thirty minutes of character development and plot from his movie in order to fit more showings in theaters, then with Warner Brothers’ Batman V Superman and Justice League, the former also receiving cuts to shorten runtime while the latter fell victim to the abysmal attempts of Joss Whedon, Geoff Johns, and Jon Berg to retrofit the film into a Marvel-Esque slapstick comedy. It is rather telling that those who criticize Affleck for his performances in these films, especially with Daredevil, tend to do so from a place of annoyance with pop culture and celebrity stardom, and less based on his craft as an actor.
Ben’s very first experience with the world of superhero films tainted his view for many years, once vowing to never perform in a mask again after Daredevil, a film for which he was ruthlessly mocked and humiliated by critics—attacks made worse by his sincere love for the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen. While some things—like business suits and opportunists taking advantage of personal tragedy to compromise an artist’s work in efforts to maximize profit or reshape a film in their own image—stay the same, one constant is the ever-shaping nature of people. Sometimes people learn new information or make a discovery that forces them to reconsider previous misgivings. As much as Ben loved Daredevil, he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to become one of his other loves: Batman. Zack Snyder’s grounded vision, as well as his plan for the young DC film universe, convinced Ben to join. His decision to take the part resulted in arguably the greatest film portrayal of the character ever—a sound conclusion despite what a handful of video essays on YouTube said.
Ben Affleck’s choice in his roles reveals a clear affinity for superheroes that inhabit our world. They are aged, broken, beaten, bruised, and battle-weary vigilantes plagued by the effects of their lifestyle on their bodies and minds. They are horned (or bat-eared) gargoyles perched at the edge of rooftops. They hunt at night and take advantage of the public mythos created around their existence to strike fear into the souls of their prey. But they are also very fallible, prone to misjudgment and disillusionment with their cause. I would argue that this approach to the modern superhero—one that refuses to apologize for treating superheroes without a wink and a nod—has never been better represented on film than in Daredevil and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, two films in which the protagonist (or a potential antagonist in the case of Batman V Superman) suffer from crises of faith after several years spent fighting crime.
In Batman V Superman, Bruce Wayne loses his sense of purpose and meaning in the world with the sudden arrival of Superman, an ostensibly all-powerful being whose existence renders his peak condition useless, leading to increasingly violent and disturbing methods to combat crime. Unlike Bruce, Matt Murdock of Daredevil is a Catholic who does not fear a higher power. But, both his faith in God and his purpose as a crimefighter are at their lowest respective points at the beginning of the film. Murdock’s trust in the corrupt criminal justice system he serves as a public defender is crushed by its failures, symptoms of an ineffective system that frees murderers and rapists while victims suffer—either in silence or publicly in court—and rarely, if ever, find justice.
In our world, innocent people are regularly charged on the basis of past history, often along racial lines; such is the case of Dante Jackson, a character integral to the plot of Daredevil, but one that Fox felt unimportant enough to cut for the theatrical release. Others are blocked from access to help due to their working-class status, as many of Murdock and Nelson’s clientele cannot pay for their representation in currency other than fish or sports supplies. It is a world in which heroes seem few and far between, where corruption is the norm, not the exception. The class divide punishes the impoverished and grants free rein to the rich who commit horrific crimes with impunity, flashing money to subvert Lady Justice through the purchase of cops, lawyers, and judges. Despite fulfilling his father’s wish that he make something of himself and become “a doctor or a lawyer” instead of a mere brawler, Murdock questions whether his actions matter in such a lost world, a city ruled by Kingpin.
Having recognized that he cannot make a difference in a suit and through lawful means, Matt creates an alternate persona in order to keep his promise to “help those that others wouldn’t. (To) seek justice, one way or another.” As the conditions in Hell’s Kitchen worsen, and Murdock ages, pulling out broken teeth in the shower, soothing his bruised, bloody body in Epsom salts on a nightly basis, and sleeping in a sensory deprivation tank in order to shut out the sounds of death and cries for help in the city around him, his sense of justice becomes twisted in order to cope with the lack of visible, material success.
While this does not sound very heroic, it complicates and interrogates our often naive idea of superheroes. The reality in the world of Daredevil is that Matt cannot save everyone in court or as a vigilante, and he’s dulled to the pain from the weight his gift and his promise carry. Ben’s Daredevil is older and sees his time coming to an end. The only path to ensure some measure of finality to his adjudication is the only one remaining, one he has not tried—to become more brutal in his punishments, leaving violent criminals to die in gruesome ways, often after losing control of his emotions and restraint. On one occasion he takes out his frustrations with his life by savagely beating one of Kingpin’s men in front of the man’s own son. Matt almost seems to enjoy these moments, for they are small-scale conflicts he can control. Through violence, he has authority and self-determination. He pulls the strings, not Kingpin, in the same way that Bruce dedicates what time remains in his life to an obsession to kill “God” and restore his sense of power and place in the world as Batman.
Where Matt Murdock carries the trauma of his failure to save his father, and his inability to protect the voice of every cry he hears across the city, Bruce suffers from childhood trauma in the murder of his parents, which manifests itself again in his failure to save his own people in the Black Zero event. He cannot save everyone as Bruce Wayne, multi-billionaire in a suit and tie (but he still makes an attempt as seen in the opening of the film) and he cannot protect everyone as Batman. After saving a little girl from certain death in Metropolis, Bruce inquires about her mother. The child raises a finger and points at the ruins of a collapsed Wayne skyscraper. The pain and regret on his face his chilling—another orphan. Bruce escaped his trauma through Batman, the “beautiful lie,” a cause he could adopt, but not even Batman is enough to end corruption or poverty. The trauma returned, and an apathy settled where passion once sat.
“I’m older now than my father ever was. This may be the only thing I do that matters.”
After twenty years of fighting criminals in Gotham, Bruce has grown jaded regarding his righteous cause: “Criminals are like weeds, Alfred. Pull one up, another grows in its place. This is about the future of the world. It’s my legacy.” In contrast to Matt Murdock’s use of heightened senses to detect whether someone is telling the truth despite his lack of conventional eyesight, Bruce’s guilt, self-doubt, and frustration with his lack of power in shaping the course of events blind him to the truth at the heart of Clark Kent’s Superman. Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice is also a film that explores the immorality of xenophobia. Bruce finds an easy target and prepares to kill in the belief that it will secure his sense of purpose once again, carving a monument to stand for all time.
These parallels between Matt Murdock and Bruce Wayne in Daredevil and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, respectively, are extensive and could fill entire essays on the matter. One alone could be written on how Batman and Daredevil both cope with the deaths of parental figures through similar means. For instance, Daredevil finds that he’s punishing evil without regard for the other people it affects, calling back to his childhood trauma of finding his father’s body, beaten to death by a young Wilson Fisk. Matt comes to reason after beating one of Kingpin’s henchman into a bloody, contorted mess, his rage blinding him to the man’s so6n cowering in the corner of the room, begging the Devil to spare his guardian. The child’s father may have been abusive, corrupt, and criminal, but Murdock realizes he is acting like the man who murdered his father in cold blood, a brute with no regard for the damage he causes to the people around him. Did his actions in that scene reproduce another traumatized child, one who grows up with hatred in his heart and follows in the footsteps of the father?
Similarly, the name “Martha,” the last word Thomas Wayne spoke in his death rattle, the name of Bruce’s mother, triggers the vengeful Batman to relieve his childhood trauma. He is overcome with disgust and anger at himself as realizes his blind rage and the “feeling of powerlessness that turns good men )cruel” brought him dangerously close to sharing traits with the very person who took away his own parents: Joe Chill, the murderer who created the Batman. His undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder jolts him back to images of his defenseless parents dying in the gutter “for no reason at all.” He’s suddenly a helpless child hovering over their bodies once more, and he finds himself holding a kryptonite spear before a woman, Lois Lane, shielding the body of a near-death Superman, a man she clearly loves. “Martha” is not why he stayed his spear. It is merely the spark that temporarily brought his trauma to the forefront and enabled him to think and feel clearly for the first time in years.
“Can one man make a difference? There are days when I believe,
and others when I have lost all faith.”
Matt’s character arc is plainly clear in the disparity between how he punishes evil in the first and last battles which we witness. Our introduction to Daredevil suggests he is a devil, a callous soul who answers, “You did” to a rapist’s sarcastic remark, “Who made you judge?” Indeed, when told “Didn’t you hear? I was acquitted,” the Devil chillingly grins, “Not by me.” Daredevil inhabits the roles of judge, jury, and executioner as he dodges a gunshot to the head, disarms the man who escaped Matt Murdock’s justice through the judicial system, and swiftly kicks out the man’s legs. He falls onto the subway tracks as the faint sound of machinery squeals in the distance. Daredevil taunts the man as he screams in fear. “Hey, that light at the end of the tunnel? Guess what? That’s not heaven. That’s the C-train!” The man is bisected. This is a stark contrast to how he spares Kingpin. After kicking out Kingpin’s knees, Matt says, “I’ve been thinking about this day since I was twelve years old.” He drives Kingpin’s cane into the floor. Kingpin says he does not understand Daredevil’s restraint. Matt proclaims, “I’m not the bad guy,” an explicit refusal to kill his father’s murderer, a man he might not have spared as the Daredevil of the movie’s first two acts. He cannot necessarily atone for his prior sins, but he opens the way for reconciliation and rehabilitation, even telling Father Steven, the priest who knows his identity, that he might attend church services again. A relapsed Catholic regains his faith, once again resolute in his belief that an individual can make a positive impact on his world.
Bruce watches Clark Kent’s funeral from a distance, admiring the simple human life his recent ally built on a planet with people who feared and rejected him, or—in Bruce’s case—even tried to kill him. Bruce speaks to Diana about creating a team—many from the death of one—and it is revealed that Batman stayed his hand against Lex Luthor. In his refusal to brand “the man who killed God,” Bruce symbolically rejects the nihilism that held such control over his mind and body. More, Bruce defends mankind to a world-weary Diana after she doubts the plausibility of a united humanity. The new Bruce Wayne, the pessimistic optimist expresses a renewed faith in humanity, resolving that “men are still good” with Kal-El’s ultimate sacrifice: “We fight. We kill. We betray one another. But we can rebuild. We can do better. We have to.” This innate trait of humanity to reconcile and work in unison for a common good is illustrated in the vigil at Heroes Park, where someone has written in chalk around the crest of the House of El, “If you seek his monument, look around you.”
Matt Murdock reaffirms his faith in people, taking flight at the encouragement of Ben Urich, a reporter who chose to delete his biggest story ever which would have revealed the identity of Daredevil to the world, seeing the value in Matt’s sacrifice to protect the innocent in the fulfillment of the common good: “Soon the world will know the truth, that this is a city born of heroes, that one man can make a difference. Hell’s Kitchen is my neighborhood. I prowl the rooftops and alleyways at night, watching from the darkness, forever in darkness—a guardian devil.”