By Ethan Alter
Ben Affleck has already handed the Batcave over to Robert Pattinson, but Batfleck fans are still wondering what his version of The Batman might have been.
When the actor originally agreed to suit up as the DC Extended Universe’s Dark Knight, he was supposed to headline a solo film that would have spun out of the events of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League.
Affleck himself initially planned to co-write and direct The Batman, only to step away from those responsibilities in early 2017. At that point, director Matt Reeves joined the production and started down the creative path towards the Pattinson version that’s currently filming in London and is set for a 4 March, 2022 release.
As early teasers have revealed, Reeves’s Batman will be more of a detective story that pits a younger Bruce Wayne against a rogues gallery of villains that includes the Penguin (Colin Farrell), the Riddler (Paul Dano) and Catwoman (Zoe Kravitz).
In contrast, Batfleck’s main nemesis would have been the ace assassin Slade Wilson aka Deathstroke, played by Joe Manganiello. While speaking with Yahoo Entertainment about his new film, Archenemy — opening in North America this week, UK release TBC — the True Blood star reveals that Affleck’s abandoned Batman adventure would have had a strong David Fincher vibe.
At the time, Affleck had just starred in the director’s 2012 hit, Gone Girl, and took inspiration from one of his earlier movies. “There were similarities to The Game,” Manganiello says, referring to Fincher’s 1997 cult favourite that starred Michael Douglas as a rich banker who loses everything overnight, and then runs a dangerous gauntlet orchestrated by a shadowy organisation.
In the original pitch for The Batman, Deathstroke performed a similar demolition job on Bruce Wayne’s life, systematically destroying his public status as Gotham City’s leading citizen and his private existence as its Caped Crusader.
“It was a really dark story in which Deathstroke was like a shark or a horror movie villain that was dismantling Bruce’s life from the inside out. It was this systemic thing: He killed everyone close to Bruce and destroyed his life to try and make him suffer because he felt that Bruce was responsible for something that happened to him.”
Watch: The first teaser for The Batman
Besides The Game, Affleck’s proposed storyline also bears strong similarities to “Born Again,” a classic arc from Frank Miller’s run on Marvel’s Daredevil comic book that was loosely adapted to the screen in the third season of the Netflix series.
“It was really cool, really dark and really hard,” Manganiello says, wistfully. “I was very excited for it.” So was Snyder, who teased The Batman in the original version of a post-credits scene that appears at the end of Justice League where Deathstroke pays a visit to Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor.
In the sequence that Manganiello shot with Snyder during principal photography in 2016, the dastardly duo discussed what to do about Batman, thus setting the gears of Slade’s master plan in motion. But when Affleck stepped away from directing The Batman the following January — and Joss Whedon replaced Snyder as Justice League’s director a few months after that — the actor assumed that the scene was a goner and put Slade in his rearview.
Then in the run-up to the movie’s theatrical release in the fall of 2017, he found out that his scene was still in the picture... but it teased a completely different follow-up. “I thought that scene was gone, but [producer] Jon Berg called me up and said, ‘We’ve reworked the scene and put it back in,’” Manganiello remembers.
“I was as surprised as anybody!” Instead of The Batman, the Lex/Slade encounter now laid the groundwork for a second Justice League film, though not necessarily the one Snyder had planned.
Rather than reshoot the entire sequence, the filmmakers opted to rewrite Eisenberg’s side of the conversation. “They reshot all of Jesse’s dialogue to tease Justice League Part 2, which was going to be about the Injustice League,” Manganiello says now. (For the record, Snyder intended to feature the alien despot Darkseid as the primary villain in his Justice League two-parter.)
“All of that dialogue was about Batman originally, and it was changed to lines like ‘Shouldn’t we have a league of our own?’”
Ultimately, that Injustice League-centric sequel followed Affleck’s David Fincher-esque take on Batman into the DCEU dustbin after Justice League’s disastrous critical and commercial reception. Also swept up in that bit of studio housecleaning was Manganiello’s treatment for a standalone Deathstroke film that consumed six months’ worth of his blood, sweat and tears.
“I worked with an Oscar-nominated writer on that treatment, and it was one of those projects that got canceled during that period. There were maybe seven different Deathstroke projects that all didn't happen over the course of four years. It’s one of those funny things in Hollywood and in life where you’ve just got to let it go.”
— JOE MANGANIELLO (@JoeManganiello) November 19, 2020
But here’s another funny only-in-Hollywood plot twist: Manganiello’s Deathstroke will live again in the Snyder Cut of Justice League that’s set to premiere on HBO Max in 2021. Earlier this year, the actor tweeted a black-and-white picture of Slade sporting his signature eyepatch and a wicked new hairstyle, and he confirms to Yahoo Entertainment that the image came from new material that the director filmed for his upcoming four-hour series.
“Zack called me one day and asked, ‘How'd you like to do it again?’ So I said, ‘Sure, man, I'll be there.’ And he told me, ‘OK, we're getting your armour out of storage in England, and we're going to fly it over here. Is there anything you want to do differently?’”
Sure enough, Manganiello had all kinds of fresh ideas that he wanted to put into this last stab at Deathstroke, including a few culled from his never-made treatment. “Some of those elements I snuck into this round,” he teases, specifically citing the character’s badass Mohawk.
“The greatest warriors are the ones who walk into battle already dead or assuming that they’re going to die — they’re looking for someone who could actually kill them. There’s almost an excitement around that, like ‘Is today going to be the day?’ So there was a climatic moment in my standalone story where I wanted Slade to shave his head into this war-like Mohawk knowing that he was going off to his own death. I said to Zack, ‘I always envisioned him with a big white Mohawk,’ and he was totally down for it.”
Along with Deathstroke, Snyder’s version of Justice League will bring back Jared Leto’s Joker in newly-shot footage, and also make room for storylines and characters that were excised from Whedon’s theatrical cut. Depending on how the series is received, Manganiello has fresh hopes of reviving his standalone Deathstroke script.
“Hopefully this will reinvigorate interest from the fans as far as wanting to see this version of the character get told. We landed on an origin story that everyone I’ve ever pitched it to has gone crazy for. There’s been so many versions of this character over the years, and I just wanted to put my own stink on him.”
In the meantime, he’s playing a very different kind of comic book-inspired character in Archenemy, the latest film from writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer. Born a mighty titan in a parallel dimension, Manganiello’s Max Fist is currently exiled on Earth as a homeless — and powerless — city dweller. Throughout the movie, Mortimer asks the audience to question how much of Max’s past life is real, and how much was invented in his own mind.
“A lot of the role was figuring out moment to moment what he believes,” Manganiello says of how he approached his performance. “Is he starting to think that he’s crazy or that it’s some kind of psychosis? There are a lot of layers on top of layers on top of layers.”
The movie also functions as a kind of meta-commentary on the evolving nature of superheroes, with Max taking on different guises as the movie progresses. For example, in his home dimension, he was a Superman-like Boy Scout who expressly never killed the villains he fought. But midway through the film, he dons a Punisher-style costume and takes out an entire room full of low-level thugs with extreme prejudice.
“What I really liked about Adam’s script is it reminded me of a lot of the stories that were being told in comic books in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when antiheroes became in vogue and writers started to psychologically analyze superheroes,” he says, pointing to seminal graphic novels like Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. “Just as the generation who grew up on the 1938 version of Superman had a very different opinion of what heroes should and shouldn’t be, our contemporary discussions of what a hero is has changed as well.”
Speaking of parallel dimensions, there’s another reality where Manganiello — and not Tobey Maguire — was the one to bring Spider-Man to the big screen. As a fresh out of college actor, one of his earliest Hollywood auditions was for Sam Raimi’s 2002 blockbuster.
“I did my Peter Parker thing,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “I brought glasses and a button-down shirt, and tried to be nerdy. I knew I was never going to get the role. Who’s going to bully me? I was 6’5” and 220 pounds!”
As a student of the Spider-Man comics, though, Manganiello knew which role he’d be perfect for: Peter’s high-school nemesis, Flash Thompson. “Unbeknownst to everyone involved, I worked on the Flash portion of the audition scenes, and learned the reverse dialogue.” When it became clear during the audition that playing Peter wasn’t in his destiny, he switched to Flash in... well, a flash.
“I told the casting director, ‘I’m off book and ready to go.’ I took the glasses off, unbuttoned my shirt and had a tank top on underneath. She said, ‘I want you to meet Sam Raimi.’” Talk about your Marvel-ous origin stories.
Archenemy’s UK release is TBC.