As Warner Bros. and DC begin their search for the next Batman to replace Ben Affleck, one Hollywood truth has become clear in the comic book blockbuster film era: It doesn't take an A-list star for a superhero movie to make a billion dollars.
"The fact is that in the comic book movie genre, the superheroes are the draw," said Mike Avila, senior contributor for SYFY WIRE and the author of "The Art and Making of Aquaman."
Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa — "Wonder Woman" and "Aquaman" — fronted recent comic book features that grossed a combined $2 billion for Warner Bros. — now owned by AT&T — and DC. "Black Panther," last year's highest-grossing domestic film, was led by Chadwick Boseman, who arguably became an A-list actor through playing the comic book character. Before the role, Boseman was a prominent actor but known for roles in critically acclaimed rather than blockbuster films: his James Brown biopic "Get on Up" and his take on baseball legend Jackie Robinson, "42." These two films had a combined domestic total just over $125 million. "Black Panther's" budget was $200 million.
"In today's movie world the [intellectual property] is the star," Avila said. "If the movie hits it big, stardom will find the star."
DC's "Shazam," scheduled for release this year, stars Zachary Levi, who played a supporting character in the "Thor" trilogy and is mostly known for his television work, "Chuck" and "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel."
"The best choice would be someone who is perhaps somewhat known or recognized, but not overexposed or an A-list household name and would thus bring a fresh perspective to the iconic role," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. "An analog to this would be the unlikely casting of Daniel Craig as James Bond that turned out to be a masterstroke and an unexpectedly brilliant choice despite the protestations of naysayers at the time."
Christopher Nolan cast Christian Bale for his revered Dark Knight trilogy back in the early 2000s. Bale may be one of Hollywood's most well-known actors now, but when he was cast for 2005's "Batman Begins," he was predominantly known for indie motion pictures. Nolan's trilogy grossed more than $2 billion worldwide.
With Affleck's departure — the actor himself recently tweeted a farewell to his interpretation of the character — the decision to replace the Academy Award winner is in the hands of "War for the Planet of the Apes" director Matt Reeves, who will helm the scheduled 2021 feature, which currently has been given the working title "The Batman," though Reeves has said that may change. Reeves has said he wants his feature to explore the detective skills that Batman is known for in the comics.
"The casting process will begin shortly. We're starting to put together our battle plan. I'm doing another pass on the script and we'll begin some long-lead stuff to start developing conceptual things," Reeves said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter in late January.
A-listers have had their place in superhero blockbusters. The Disney Marvel Studios' "Avengers" series of film — which has grossed over $4 billion worldwide — has featured an array of critically acclaimed actors, including a few major Hollywood names who were famous well before they took on superhero roles, such as Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson.
Many actors' names already have been rumored as contenders, from Jake Gyllenhall to Jon Hamm, Jamie Dornan ("Fifty Shades") and Robert Pattinson of the "Twilight" movies — though it should be said without any substance to the internet chatter.
"The advantage to a star-driven cast lies within the familiarity audiences have with those actors and the love for their previous movies. That's a value-added instant connection," said Shawn Robbins, a chief analyst for Box Office.com. But he said recent history has clearly shown that superhero movies can succeed with either A-listers or lesser-known actors.
Marvel has taken other kinds of risks in casting superheroes, such as choosing actors known for roles in comedies. Paul Rudd and Chris Pratt have become the faces of the "Ant Man" and "Guardians of the Galaxy" franchises.
Batman has continued to be a box office draw though Affleck's interpretation of the character received mixed reviews. Affleck even admitted that it is fair to criticize the tone of his Batman in "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice." His final appearance as the iconic character, 2017's "Justice League," grossed the least amount of money for the DC extended universe. "Mr. Affleck, a generally appealing actor who can plumb the depths when pushed ('Gone Girl'), needs something more substantial (or just more jokes) if his Batman is ever going to work," went a review in the New York Times.
George Clooney's turn in the cape was also underwhelming, with the Joel Schumacher directed "Batman and Robin" from 1997 grossing over $237 million worldwide, but costing more than half that amount ($125 million) to make, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
The international betting market already has gotten in on the Batman casting action. Irish bookmaker BoyleSports released the early odds on actors likely to lead the casting call for the next "Caped Crusader."
Armie Hammer has the best odds on the bookmaker's site at 7/2. Hammer has recently appeared in several critically acclaimed films, including "Call Me by Your Name." He also was in 2015 action flick "Man from U.N.C.L.E.", which was a box office-disappointment but has developed a cult following and solid Rotten Tomatoes score (73 percent from audiences). Another potential reason for betting interest on the actor: Hammer was once cast as "Batman" for George Miller's cancelled "Justice League Mortal" film.
Jeremy Conrad, a Twitter influencer and editor-in-chief of MCU Cosmic, said there are risks in going with an A-list star. "I think casting unknowns work well since there's no predetermined biased baked in from previous roles that big A-listers could have."
"Batman is more of an idea than a person," said Daniel Richtman, a Twitter influencer and writer for SuperBroMovies.com. "The mask matters more than the man. Therefore anyone could play him. You don't need 'a name' for it."
The new Batman director Reeves has clearly been thinking about what makes Batman tick, saying in another recent interview, "One of the things that I've found interesting, just as we're working on the story, is looking back at Jekyll and Hyde, and the idea of your shadow-self, and the idea of, we are all multiple things. It's different aspects of who we are, and I think there are times when maybe the surface of Bruce is not really who he is, but that's his disguise. There are times when Batman's the disguise, but there are times when his true essence comes out, because by being veiled, a kind of instinctual side comes out that's very pure."
Correction: The Joel Schumacher directed "Batman and Robin" from 1997 grossed over $237 million worldwide.