One prevailing theory of the past awards season is that, having been overlooked for a directing Oscar nomination, Ben Affleck enjoyed a surge of industry goodwill and public indignation on his behalf that ultimately pushed “Argo” into the winner’s circle. General opinion of Affleck has, of course, been steadily on the upswing since 2007, when he helmed a flinty, tough-minded Boston crime drama called “Gone Baby Gone” — his first and still finest achievement as a director — and proved that, however little respect he may have engendered as an actor, he had found his true calling as a filmmaker to be reckoned with.
His next two efforts, “The Town” and “Argo,” fulfilled that promise handsomely, cementing his reputation as a maker of crackerjack suspense thrillers grounded in a strong sense of place. They also revealed him to be, like Clint Eastwood and other thesps-turned-helmers before him, a skillful director of actors (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner and Alan Arkin drew Academy Award nominations for their work in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” and “Argo,” respectively). It has been, for Affleck, an altogether astonishing reversal of fortune, the sort of grand comeback story that Hollywood loves but rarely scripts for itself: An industry golden boy, having reached the limits of where his talents could take him via the accepted channels, had dared to reinvent himself, pulling off an improbable career move with a startling degree of success.
At this point, if it had been revealed that Affleck were in talks to direct “Batman vs. Superman,” the news might well have been greeted with a certain measure of optimism, perhaps even modest praise. But yesterday’s revelation that he had been cast as Batman instead is, to put it mildly, another story entirely, one that has elicited little short of blind outrage and perhaps threatened to undo his public favor; there are precious few casting announcements that could inspire thousands of moviegoers to sign Change.org petitions urging a studio to reconsider. (You’d think Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor or Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs might have pushed our concerned young consumer-activists to launch a protest movement or two, but real-life personalities don’t engender the sort of obsessive protectiveness reserved for comicbook superheroes.)
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Industry goodwill does not, it seems, have any bearing on fanboy approval, and the generally high regard for Affleck up until yesterday’s announcement seems predicated on an enthusiastic appreciation for his directing abilities and a mild tolerance at best for his acting work. That he has become a more persuasive presence behind the camera than in front of it seems hard to argue against — we like his daredevil streak, but not his Daredevil — and if his newfound cachet as a filmmaker has led many to forgive the likes of “Gigli” and “Jersey Girl,” it has not exactly obliterated their memory.
Affleck, of course, never stopped acting even as his directing career soared. He gave himself key roles in both “Argo” and “The Town,” and executed them solidly if unmemorably. His recent acting choices have shown a smart, adventurous sense of range, from 2009’s “Extract” and “State of Play” to the recent “To the Wonder.” And he’s clearly ramping up again: The Batman news is only his second major casting of the year, following his attachment to David Fincher’s hotly anticipated “Gone Girl.”
It’s also worth noting that Affleck has done marvelously subtle work as an actor in recent years, something easy to overlook if your moviegoing diet consists exclusively of cape-and-cowl fare. In 2010 he gave a finely shaded dramatic turn as a high-powered corporate executive brought low by the economic crisis in John Wells’ “The Company Men.” And in Allen-Coulter’s 2006 true-crime story “Hollywoodland,” Affleck delivered perhaps his finest performance to date, as the ill-fated 1950s actor George Reeves — a revelatory change-of-pace role in which he captured the bitter trajectory of a wannabe star gone to seed.
There is a measure of irony in the fact that Affleck did his best acting in the part of a none-too-respected actor, and it’s amusing to consider that the man who showed us the tragic face of TV’s Superman will now star on the bigscreen opposite Superman himself. To speculate prematurely on the outcome at this point, as so many doomsayers have done already, would exceed the limits of professional discretion. But in a spirit of unpopular optimism, I will offer that Ben Affleck has impressed us most as an actor by projecting not gravity but vulnerability, and vulnerability is an essential, often-overlooked quality in any bigscreen superhero. And if the enormity of the public outcry against him is any indication, he may well have succeeded in slipping back into a role he has played better than just about anyone else in recent memory: the underdog.