The DC Extended Universe has a Batman problem.
Of course, depending on who you ask, that problem's not new. It started the moment Ben Affleck was cast in the role. Or it started when Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice came out. Or it started when Justice League tried to take at least a somewhat lighter tone. Or it started when Affleck opted to back out of directing duties on his own movie, and new director Matt Reeves began mulling a different direction.
Whatever the case, even if you like Affleck in the role, it's safe to say there's a problem now, even if it's just one of optics. So many reports have swirled about either Affleck wanting to leave the role or Reeves wanting to replace him that even if the two of them do make a movie together, there will always be questions over how much of that collaboration was forced. So, yes, there's a Batman problem in the DCEU, but at this point you probably shouldn't even bother to place it on a timeline.
Ben Affleck as Batman was always going to be a problem.
I'm not speaking from a standpoint of celebrity gossip here, or Hollywood contracts, or fan response pulling in one direction or another. This is not about that. It's about the stories Affleck was tasked with telling, how the material he was given often pointed him in contradictory directions, and how eventually this version of the character was always going to run out of room a little too quickly.
Affleck arrived in the Batcowl with a sizable chunk of fans still seething over the decision to cast him in the role at all, and came out of Dawn of Justice as a bright spot (not as bright as Gal Gadot, but that's lightning in a bottle we're talking about) in a gloomy film. He's a good Batman, and an even better Bruce Wayne, with a boyish smirk that's great for conveying that he either really loves being a billionaire playboy or he's just really good at putting on that mask, both of which work well for the character. Director Zack Snyder had a very specific vision for his version of the character, one that draws heavily on Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and Affleck somehow managed to fit that mold in a mostly satisfying way. His Batman is tired, disillusioned, even paranoid after two decades of crimefighting, and while certain aspects of his portrayal still drive me crazy (why are there machine guns on the Batmobile), Affleck himself comes out of that film having convinced us that he can play a scarred, aged version of The Dark Knight.
Then came Justice League, and things began to get a little murkier. The gruff old Batman is still there, doggedly trying to complete his mission even as his body fails him, but there's an added dimension of humor that wasn't there before. Now, we can chalk some of that up to the hope he's been given by the presence of Gadot's Diana, but there are also all of those rewrites to consider. Justice League feels like two movies for much of its runtime, and Batman is the character pulled in two different directions more than any other member of the ensemble.
That's not the biggest problem here, though. Even through the silliest moments of Justice League, Affleck is still doing the best he can with the material he's been given. Yes, sometimes he seems a little tired and a little like he's going through the motions, but that works. This Batman has been at it long enough that he doesn't expect to have to teach someone like Barry Allen how to be a hero, and his gruff resolve in that moment actually lands with some emotional weight. The bigger problem is something that's structural, and there's nothing Affleck can do about it.
When we first meeti Affleck's Batman, we know a few key things about him: He's been working in Gotham for 20 years, he's lost at least one Robin to the Joker, he feels he's out of allies, and his body can barely take being Batman anymore. Now, if you want to present us with a Dark Knight Returns-style Batman who feels his only recourse is to armor up and go fight Superman, that's perfect. Even if the stakes aren't the same as they are in Miller's comic, the notion of Batman with his back against the wall, at the virtual end of his crimefighting career, facing a fight like that is pretty powerful. The same holds true for Justice League, when Batman has to play the adult in the room to shepherd a band of heroes into battle, even as he can barely hold it together anymore. This Batman still runs this mission. That's powerful.
Unless you're a filmmaker stepping into a rocky, murky DCEU who wants to tell a story about a younger Batman eager to team up with his own Batfamily, and you've got a star who already might not be too satisfied with his role anymore. Then that starts to look a little confining. Even beyond the production logistics, though, there's something confining about this version of Batman that's embedded in each of his major films so far. "Gruff old hero who still soldiers on" is something that works for Batman, but at a certain point that's all you have left. What does a Batman solo movie look like for the character when he's already been on the job for 20 years and just got done fighting a bunch of Parademons? Is he going to sigh and just keep up with the old gig in Gotham? Is there something new and compelling he hasn't seen there? Maybe, but everything about this version of Batman that we've seen so far has told us that even if the filmmakers want us to believe that, Batman doesn't.
So we've arrived here, stuck with a Batman that's already in the homestretch of his career in the middle of a DCEU that, flaws and all, is dripping with future ambitions. How can Affleck, or any other actor, find a way through that? Maybe they can't. Affleck has spoken many times about the allure of playing a "broken, f*cked up" Batman, and it's easy to see why that would be appealing. The problem with the broken Bat, though, is that he's hard to piece back together, and even if Affleck wanted to, he might never get the chance.