His Own Worst Enemy: The Ballad of Sad Ben Affleck
Everyone’s had a job they hate. We cannot help but occasionally find ourselves stuck in thankless occupations whose irritations and boredom inducing monotony we tolerate solely for the money. It’s as much a part of life as death, taxes and superheroes. Some people grin and bear it, while others don’t even bother to conceal their disdain to the world. It’s rare to see that in Hollywood. It’s the dream, right? Why would anyone be unhappy? For us common plebs, the stench of entitlement that reeks from those millionaires who let the world know they don’t want to be there collecting their massive cheques can be smothering. Yet, in the case of a certain Ben Affleck, currently on the promotional trail for Justice League, I have found myself oddly fascinated by his casual disdain for the job of being the motherfucking Batman.
Endless press junkets, interviews and photo-shoots can be grueling, and nobody would fault even the most patient star for cracking a little under the pressure, but to watch Ben Affleck spin the wheels for Justice League is to watch a man who cannot be arsed with anything or anybody. We all laughed at the meme or him staring into nothing with a look of ‘What have I done?’ etched across his face, but now it’s just gotten weird, especially as the rumour mill continues to assert that Affleck wants out of the DCEU as soon as possible. It’s a world away from the Ben Affleck of 5 years ago who had the world in the palm of his hand after a long-fought media narrative of redemption and auteurship.
In 2013, Argo won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It took home top honours for a number of reasons — it was an easy sell to Hollywood, it was a respectably made affair with top notch acting and enough movie-making pizazz to keep audiences hooked, it was a more palatable choice than other films of the year like Amour, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained and The Master — but everyone knew the real reason it won: Ben Affleck had finally been welcomed back into the upper echelons of Hollywood. Even though he wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, he’d put in the time with his head down and mind focused on the work, and the results had pleased the right people. After years as a joke, a jock, a barrel of wasted potential, Ben Affleck became a serious Hollywood player, and he pulled that off because he had the self-awareness to understand that he needed a serious image overhaul.
It seems like aeons ago now, but during the late ’90s and early 2000s, Ben Affleck was an inescapable force of A-List savvy who balanced the line between charm and smarm. He did big movies, dated beautiful women and tore up the strip in Vegas with major money pots, but still retained that essence of the down-to-earth Massachusetts schmo. He had his troubles — completing a 30 day rehab program for alcohol abuse in 2001 — but he was open about the struggles and endeared himself well to the public and press.
Then Bennifer happened. Well, the first Bennifer.
Affleck’s romance with Jennifer Lopez was A Big Deal, covering every tabloid for months and reaching levels of coverage that not even his previous romance with Gwyneth Paltrow managed. Lopez, one of the savviest celebrities of the past two decades, knows how to work the press, and in Affleck she seemed to find a willing partner in the charade. He even starred in her music video for Jenny from the Block, poking fun at the intense media scrutiny they faced. They looked good (he was crowned People’s Sexiest Man Alive during this period, and we all know how that process works), they worked a lot, and they became the poster-child for a new age of celebrity coupledom: Tabloid fluent and proud in their excess.
Yet people got sick of them very quickly. Perhaps it was due to the stories of their lavish spending or because those public displays of affection just looked a little too public. He’d kiss her for the cameras but his eyes always seemed more focused on them than her, which felt like he wasn’t keeping up his end of the relationship bargain. Combine that with co-starring alongside her in two almighty flops — Gigli and Jersey Girl — and things soured pretty quickly. Now the romance wasn’t paying off like it was supposed to, and he began to look rather sad.
His career had hit a few bumps too, with the most notable one being his first foray into the superhero world, Daredevil. It’s intriguing that this is the film Affleck regrets making, and he’s not been quiet about how much he disliked both the making of it and the final product. It’s not even that bad a film — certainly not great and with all the markers of a pre-superhero boom entry into the genre — but it felt like the folly of a bro more than a serious artistic achievement for Affleck. Indeed, it seems to be something embarrassing, and that’s how he defined a substantial part of his career prior to the make-over that changed it all.
Two months after breaking up with Lopez, which she put down to his discomfort with media scrutiny, he was cracking jokes about it on SNL, hoping to turn the narrative from Sad Affleck back to the bro you wanted to be best mates with. He had lost that relatable sheen with Lopez. Change was in the air, and there to assist in that evolution was Jennifer Garner, one of only a handful of major female stars of the era with media savvy as potent as that of Lopez (something written about wonderfully by Anne Helen Petersen at Buzzfeed). This time, Bennifer would be a much quieter affair, but no less tabloid friendly. Before, it was red carpets and yachts: Now it was baseball games and quaint family gatherings for the paparazzi. Make no mistake: As much as Affleck’s gear shift with his own career helped to make him more palatable to audiences who had previously rejected him, it was Jennifer Garner who was steering that ship to success. With the girl next door charm and a genuine passion for the peace and simplicity of life as a wife and mother (albeit on a bigger budget), Garner helped Affleck make the transition from asshole to loving family man. Nothing wipes away years of gossip scandal life the security of tradition.
It also helped that Affleck sought out smaller projects to work on, like his performance as George Reeves in Hollywoodland, which won him the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival. He was also savvy enough to make his directorial debut behind the camera, making his brother Casey the Affleck of the spotlight in Gone Baby Gone. Film roles did follow, but you got the sense this was a man working overtime to subvert expectations of his on-screen persona. No more A-List action roles: Now, it was serious dramas like State of Play or a return to the rom-com genre in He’s Just Not That into You. His next directorial effort, The Town, was a critical and commercial success, and audiences didn’t even mind that Affleck gave himself the lead role. All of this laid the ground for the peak of Affleck’s redemption: Argo.
Affleck’s interviews during the Argo press tour and awards campaign are fun stuff. He knows this rodeo well — remember, he already has an Oscar — and has the self-awareness to know that he’s a major selling point of the entire affair. There’s a sense of penance in these pieces, like his Rolling Stone Q&A where he emphasizes not wanting to be the same man he was the previous decade, and how fatherhood makes you stop caring about the bullshit of the world. Of Garner, he said, ‘Jennifer played such a profound role in making me a better person. We don’t have a perfect marriage, but she inspired me; and finding myself in that marriage and having a child dovetailed with getting to be a little more mature.’ This was a guy who has learned from his mistakes, knew his strengths and played to them with impeccable focus. It didn’t hurt to have good friends on his side, like Argo producer George Clooney and his old pal Matt Damon, but Garner was the dark horse of the spectacle, always on his arm at red carpets, and smiling with such pride when he won Best Picture, even as he made the focus of his thanks to her about the hard work of marriage.
After Argo, the stage was set for Affleck to pursue a new route in Hollywood as a director of clout. People wanted to work with him and see what he’d do next behind the camera, and that seemed to be where he was best suited (he does star in Argo and his performance is good but it’s not a showy role and is easily overshadowed by Alan Arkin and John Goodman). One couldn’t blame him for getting back into acting for the right roles, particularly Gone Girl, for which he is perfectly cast, but then came the Batman announcement, and it felt like Affleck had forgotten the hard earned lessons of the past. I’ve always been fascinated by this particular U-turn from acclaimed director to 21st century leading man, as it seemed to echo what has happened before following Good Will Hunting, only now the scale was beyond huge and we’d seen how this had played out before. It didn’t seem enough for Affleck to be a celebrated figure behind the camera, or a rejuvenated actor of serious focus and skill in quieter dramas: He wanted to be a movie-star again. He wanted to have it all. Not only would he get to play one of the great icons of pop culture, he would be slated to write and direct a solo Batman movie. The character has a certain auteur appeal given the directors who adapted him in the past, so it didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world for Affleck to dive head-first into the DCEU. Man of Steel received a mixed reception, but people expected things to change with the next film, which would finally put Superman against Gotham’s finest detective for the first time on the big screen.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is an unmitigated disaster, yet Ben Affleck almost comes out of it unscathed. He’s not a bad Batman and he’s a damn fine Bruce Wayne, but he’s trying to rise above a catastrophic trash pile that veers between aggravating and baffling. Reviews were atrocious, and the film failed to pass $1bn at the box office as early projections had predicted. It wasn’t a flop by any means, but in the Too Big To Fail world of modern day expanded universes and superhero franchises, the bar is set very high and DC didn’t clear it. That embarrassment seemed to haunt Affleck, and we saw the not-so-triumphant return of Sad Affleck on the promotional trail. Cue the memes.
It didn’t take long for the rumours to fly that Affleck wanted out of the sinking ship before it did any real damage to his career, particularly after he dropped out of directing the solo Batman movie (Matt Reeves replaced him, and threw out his script). Garner split from Affleck in June 2015, but the pair remained a united front to the press, often appearing together with their children in paparazzi shots and being effusive about one another in interviews. As always, Affleck knew who his best weapon was in the press fight, and it paid to keep Garner on his side. She still appears with him in paparazzi shots, often doing mundane family activities that keep the focus on his private life as a normal element of his life even when everything else sours, including being kicked out of a casino for counting cards and re-entering rehab.
There was one element Affleck couldn’t control: The nanny. Christine Ouzounian enjoyed her brief moment in the spotlight after it was alleged she entered an affair with Affleck while looking after his children. She grinned for the cameras, she left clues across social media, and she had way too much fun quietly dismantling the narrative Affleck was working overtime to maintain. There’s a lot to dissect about Ouzounian’s choices during this torrid period, but it was a reminder of the Affleck of old. We’d almost forgotten that for a long time he was best known for being kind of a douchebag. He was always his own worst enemy.
That leads us back to Sad Batfleck of today. Justice League is tracking to a disappointing opening weekend, his most recent directorial effort Live By Night was a massive flop, and every interview with him gives the impression of a drowning man looking for the life-raft. He has a new girlfriend, SNL producer Lindsay Shookus, and he looks more in love than ever. That’s something he’s happy to use to deflect from new scandals, such as re-emerged video of him groping a TV presenter, for which he offered a mediocre apology, and his evidently rehearsed appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert wherein he tried to assert his position as an ally in the battle against sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. This was in stark contrast to his appearance on Today, where Savannah Guthrie refused to lob softballs at him as she bluntly asked about Rose McGowan, who had accused the actor of being complicit in the actions of Harvey Weinstein. His response was lacklustre, but that seems to be the only way to describe this press tour: Affleck looks exhausted, even as he tries to play by his old rules. A moment of scandal comes his way and out comes the paparazzi shots, be it him looking loved up with Shookus or his purchase of a cute puppy, which he conspicuously carried around for all to see after the Rose McGowan Twitter deletion. He doesn’t have his usual players to lean on: Garner contributes but she’s always been better than this at him (remember when she took a delightful walk with Affleck’s mother?); Casey is a no-go for obvious creeper reasons; Matt Damon’s not looking so fresh these days either. Perhaps it’s only inevitable that an element of self-sabotage enter the equation.
It seems only reasonable that Affleck flee the coop of the DCEU after this film. He can be offered a dignified exit in time for Reeves’s solo film and the mantle can be passed down to an actor who genuinely craves the role. After being asked about the rather gaudy phoenix tattoo Affleck now seems to have adorned across his back, Garner said that she refused to be the ashes. Here’s hoping Affleck makes that choice too, for his own sake.
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