The race is on to see which bored, rich white man will drop out of a job he doesn't really want first: our current president, Donald Trump, or two-time Oscar winner Ben Affleck. Following the announcement that Affleck dropped out of directing his so-called passion project, The Batman, rumors are swirling that he’s lost interest in the character completely. Which is why Christian Grey would make a great Batman.
I realize that the Fifty Shades films should hardly be the blueprint for anything besides a way to consume two bottles of sauvignon blanc in a two-hour time span, but one thing the franchise understands is that intimacy is the greatest cure for men who live their lives in the shadows. Think about it: Christian Grey has everything he needs to be Batman. He's got the dead parents, the slew of “gadgets,” the billionaire playboy persona — not to mention the fact that he can survive a fucking helicopter crash without a scratch on him. Affleck's channeling of Bruce Wayne's psychodrama is appealing, but in the wake of last year's election, I find myself wanting to try a little tenderness. Grey’s brooding nature, juxtaposed with an unrestrained sexual appetite, is the deliciously disturbing return to the character we need.
This is also the premise of The LEGO Batman Movie. With a Bernhard Goetz–esque vigilante policing the streets on his own, the film dives into the psyche of its Batman better than any of the previous Batman movies. In LEGO, Wayne is a lonely, emotionally arrested man who watches Jerry Maguire on a constant loop in his bathrobe while chowing down on microwaved lobster. His relationship with the psychopathic Joker is less of a bloody, violent affair and more of a deeply confused love story. Batman insists that he doesn't care enough about the Joker to declare him his archnemesis, but the Joker wants otherwise. His greatest desire in life is for Batman to admit that he hates Joker more than anyone else he's fought. There is, as we know, a very thin line between love and hate. For Batman to admit that he loathes the Joker is tantamount to admitting that he loves him, that he cherishes the moments when they confront each other in battle.
The LEGO Batman Movie hinges on Batman's relationships more than its action-driven predecessors. Batman struggles with his own tragedy of becoming an orphan (Batman's parents were gunned down in front of him, which led to his origin as a masked vigilante), he struggles to accept help from his friends, and he struggles to admit his feelings for Barbara Gordon, the new commissioner of Gotham. Previous romances in Batman films have been superfluous, save for Michael Keaton's Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman in 1992's Batman Returns. For a brief moment, the two entertain the idea that a romantic relationship could save them both from a life of torturous solitude. They didn't share a happy ending then, but in 2017, Batman is much more in touch with romance than ever before.
Last month in Batman #15, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman) stripped down on a moonlit rooftop and gave in to their passion. As The A.V. Club critic Oliver Sava wrote, “while superhero comics have grown up over the years and ventured into more mature subject matter, positive sexual experiences are still a rarity.” In a historic moment for the series, the sexually and emotionally repressed Batman confesses, “I love you,” to Catwoman. It's fitting that the release of this issue coincided with The LEGO Batman Movie, because both introduced audiences to a Batman who expresses feelings.
DC Comics's approach to its films has been gritty, dark, and drenched in a depressing Instagram filter. There was little more to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice than the business of misery. Perhaps that's what has caused Affleck to distance himself from the role of Batman. Paparazzi photos of the soon-to-be divorced Affleck have presented him in various stages of being unshaven, vaping in a car, or general solitary despondency. If Affleck himself is reliving the sadness of his post-Gigli public life, why would he want to bog himself down in the role of a friendless orphan who hides in his mansion and rails against the injustices of the world? Affleck used to speak of blockbusters as “adolescent aspiration,” but while that might have been true for the bright and shiny flop Daredevil, it's hardly true for Zack Snyder's parade of superhero melancholy.
Which brings me back to Fifty Shades Darker. Jamie Dornan portrays Christian Grey as the archetypal Bruce Wayne we've come to know over the years. He's wounded figuratively and literally by the death of his mother and the lingering scars of cigarette burns from his abusive stepfather. It might seem odd to find any common thread with the kinky sexscapades of Fifty Shades and The LEGO Batman Movie, but when Grey finally allows his girlfriend Anastasia Steele to touch his scars, it mirrors the intimacy that Barbara Gordon pushes Batman to embrace in the animated film: to forgo fear and let himself be loved by others.
If there's a reason why The LEGO Batman Movie has been compared favorably to Tim Burton's excellent films and less so to Christopher Nolan's byzantine trilogy, it's because we've now come to understand what Prince once told us in 1989 when he scored the soundtrack to Burton's first Batman film. On the track “The Arms of Orion,” in which Prince speaks as if he were the Caped Crusader himself, he croons, “Since you've been gone / I've been searching for a lover.” It's taken some time, but maybe now Batman knows that his greatest weapon isn't in his utility belt. It's his heart.