Contentious casting: Ben Affleck and a Batman out of hell?

Fans were incensed when Ben Affleck was announced as the new Caped Crusader. Contentious casting can ruin films and careers, but leftfield actor choices often pay off, argues Francesca Steele

Within seconds of the announcement that Ben Affleck had signed up to play the new Batman, the bat-rage began in earnest. How could the star of critically lambasted films such as Gigli, Jersey Girl, and, more pertinently, the comic-book flop Daredevil, fill Christian Bale's shoes as the Caped Crusader?

Forty-one-year-old Affleck may have two Oscars but, after several high-profile flops, his recently restored reputation has been contingent on a move away from big Hollywood roles. Gone was the clean-shaven action man of Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, in his stead a whiskered intellectual more comfortable in the director's chair than on the screen.

Hours after Warner Bros released the news that Affleck would join superman Henry Cavill for the Man of Steel follow-up (it will feature both superheroes), #BetterBatmanThanBenAffleck was trending on Twitter as fans suggested more popular alternatives such as Ryan Gosling. A petition has now been signed by 85,000 people calling for Affleck to be removed from the project. The actor has committed the cardinal sin of, well, of not being what people expected.

With the news this week that Britain's Charlie Hunnan and a relatively unknown US actress Dakota Johnson, who is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith, have landed the coveted roles as Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey, movie casting decisions are under fire again. Fans are reacting on social media with shock and disappointment – even claiming they won't see the movie.

But if Hollywood has taught us anything about controversial casting choices, it is that they often defy expectations. Daniel Craig learned this the hard way when he was cast as the sixth James Bond in 2005. Quickly it became clear that Bond fans were not just shaken or stirred – they were angry. Craig was too small (5ft 11in), too blond (Fleming's Bond was dark-haired), and even too thespian, said some. One group went so far as to set up a website called calling for a boycott of Craig's first Bond outing, Casino Royale. The film's release prompted a mass volte-face, however. Craig was not just a good Bond, claimed past dissenters, but very possibly the best one ever. Even former 007 Roger Moore agreed that Craig was unrivalled. Incredulity gave way to frenzied praise. Since then, Casino Royale and Skyfall have become the highest-grossing Bond films of all time. Had low expectations actually helped propel Craig into stardom?

Indeed, controversial choices can frequently find that vitriol is replaced by veneration, given the right performance. Such was the case for Jennifer Lawrence, whose blonde hair and supposedly heavy frame (she's a size 10) caused consternation among devotees of the book when she was first cast as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games adaptation. Lawrence dyed her hair. The Hunger Games went on to become the highest-grossing film ever for the studio Lionsgate, and Lawrence won several awards. A similar U-turn happened over Robert Downey Jr, a has-been when he won the part of Iron Man in 2006, a global superstar two years later. Ben Falk, the author of Robert Downey Jr: the Fall and Rise of the Comeback Kid, observes: "He was a leftfield casting choice at the time. He wasn't box office, and people weren't convinced he could play a superhero. Now the two are so intertwined that they (wrongly) suggest Tony Stark's playboy attitude was actually based on Robert. But at the time, [the director] Jon Favreau had to fight for him to get the part."

It doesn't help actors cast against type that modern media and sites such as Twitter enable people to share their initial reactions so quickly. Film fans are an opinionated bunch and no more so than with a franchise or adaptation. Surprise can turn into outrage and long before production has got off the ground, campaigns can speed across the globe, resulting in a type of hysteria that previous Hollywood execs did not have to contend with.

But there are some casting errors so misjudged that even a knockout performance can't rescue them. As Jack Reacher, the famously huge military man, Tom Cruise turns in a decent performance but his diminutive appearance was met with such derision that it hurt the film's box office takings. Kate Bosworth was another star whose casting as Lois Lane in the 2006 Superman Returns prompted an online petition to remove her – unfortunately, both she and the film failed to impress.

And even the biggest stars can find themselves in hot water with the wrong part. The classic casting error throughout Hollywood history has been the racial blunder, leading to John Wayne's role as the Mongolian Emperor Genghis Khan in 1956 film The Conqueror, Mickey Rooney's condemned "comic" turn as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and even Elizabeth Taylor's role as Queen of the Nile in the 1963 film Cleopatra. The famous flop's chances were dented by so many things (including some early criticism of Taylor herself for lacking subtlety) but among them was the departure of the original director, Rouben Mamoulian, because he wanted the African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge to play the lead role. The controversy rages to this day as to whether Cleopatra should be played by a black actress. It's rare that such racial miscasting happens today, but when it does disapproval spreads so quickly online from the outset that box-office figures suffer – The Last Airbender and Cloud Atlas, which use white actors to play Asian characters, are two examples.

In any case, it seems unlikely that Warner Bros will take much notice of the Affleck fracas. The Batman franchise is so lucrative that it will not have made this decision in a hurry. And although Affleck may not quite have proven his acting chops yet, the studio will no doubt feel bolstered by the fact that similar things were said of his Gotham predecessors. Heath Ledger, who (posthumously) won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his macabre reinvention of The Joker, had only played gruff loners before the villain; director Tim Burton had to fight for Michael Keaton, for some still the definitive Batman, because he was so well-known at the time as a comedic actor. Even Christian Bale and director Christopher Nolan were not obvious choices for the Dark Knight reboot. When the studio first brought them on board they were best known respectively for indie flicks American Psycho and Memento. it's difficult to imagine anyone else.

History shows we should be patient. And, remember that there's more to a movie than its star. As one of Affleck's advocates, The Avengers director Joss Whedon, submitted: "Affleck'll crush it. He's got the chops, he's got the chin. Now he just needs the material."