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Ben Affleck Leaving ‘The Batman’: Damn Fool Or Serious Artist?

The most enduring images of Ben Affleck, somehow or another, tend to involve him being played. No guessing is required, the reason why is right there staring at you—it’s that grand, doofy face of his. It wears surprise well, his emotional reaction assuming the lead, before his logical, image-conscious brain snaps the mask back on. Think of how you trick a baby, running a flat hand vertically over your face, changing from faux-grumpy to exaggerated happy. Ben Affleck’s mind is the hand; his face is the baby’s.

Much to DJ Khaled’s consternation, being played isn’t always such a bad thing. Take the film that made Affleck, for example, Good Will Hunting. In its ending, Affleck’s Chuckie Sullivan goes through his daily ritual, walking the laneway, knocking the door, calling to Matt Damon’s Will Hunting. Nobody answers. The audience knows Will’s left town, finally gifting Chuckie “the best part of his day,” but only when Chuckie peers into the empty house does understanding dawn. Realization doesn’t smack Affleck’s face, though. It ripples with this dumbstruck expression, an elated but wry half-smile flickering in between.  He’s been played, but he’s happy about it.

Not always, but sometimes you do feel for him in these moments. Like in Chasing Amy, when Affleck’s goateed slacker Holden believes Alyssa dedicates her performance his direction. There again is that striking, dopey face of Affleck’s through the song, so deliriously oblivious this isn’t about him. When Joey Lauren Adams’ Alyssa makes out with another woman, and it becomes obvious they’re in a lesbian bar, Affleck puts any cartoon jaw hitting the floor to shame with his shame.

Really, there’s just so many instances of Affleck caught unaware, not with his pants on the ground, but as if he forgot what pants even were. That paparazzi pic of him drinking in his backyard. Almost all of Gone Girl, which, in truth, explains why that film’s sublime; Affleck lets David Fincher paint him as such a doltish jackass—though perhaps it works because Affleck, like his character, has no idea what’s really going on. Also moments of note: Bennifer, Gigli, the trashy phoenix back tat controversy, and literally anytime he’s smoking a cigarette.

All of that pales in comparison to Sad Affleck. You’ve seen the meme: An interviewer asks Henry Cavill and Affleck a question (regarding the Batman v. Superman backlash) and Cavill responds (saying something fleeting), while Affleck stares forlornly into the distance, the weight of all five oceans crashing over him as Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” plays. It isn’t existential despair filling his face, just despair despair. He isn’t lost in thought, simply lost. He looks like Maury told him “You are the father!” but Affleck can’t recall the last time he had sex.

In other words, he appears as someone realizing they’d been played. These moments are tragicomic because they’re so relatable. A friend pursuing their dreams, but leaving you behind. Misplaced affection. An impulsive, capital-B Bad tattoo. Unflattering pictures in the social media age. Poor career choices. You laugh at Affleck because these are recognizable mistakes everyone, yourself included, can so easily make.

He is a man of extremes, that Sinatra style of all or nothing at all. Though honorable, it leaves him vulnerable to these grand blunders on a large scale. You almost admire his naked hunger, dismissing any respectability politics and just going for it.

In a BBC Radio 1 interview, Affleck finally addressed the meme, saying, “It taught me not to do interviews with Henry Cavill where I don’t say anything and they can lay Simon and Garfunkel tracks over it. That’s one thing I learned.” Which is sort of like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and promising he won’t open jars anymore. It misses the point. But maybe this endemic of most internet follies—us laughing and focusing on something frivolous and fleeting. Still it’s worth noting: It keeps happening. (Hold this thought.)

If it isn’t already obvious, we’re discussing this because Ben Affleck apparently “wants out” of Batman. An easy interpretation is Affleck wishes off a sinking ship. The DC film universe lacks many key variables: structure, vision, stars, plot, a director who isn’t Zack Snyder but granted total reign like Snyder (David Ayer is still recovering from those five buses Warner Bros. rolled over him). The Batman, which Affleck initially was to star, write, and direct, can’t get off the ground. I can’t remember the last time such media fervor revolved around a screenplay like The Batman’s. The word on everyone’s tongues and keyboards is the same: “a mess.”

Ben Affleck’s career is at a crossroads. Like most Americans, he didn’t enjoy a stellar 2016: The outrage-inducing Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad, the passable shrug of The Accountant (a movie that doesn’t work because Affleck isn’t believable as a genius savant; this is why Damon played Will Hunting), and now Live By Night, his pet project that’s struggling at the box office and leaving audiences largely apathetic.

However, his public perception, despite slurred sports rants and relationship woes, still enjoys the goodwill of his late career renaissance. His moody thriller trifecta of Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo provided Affleck a niche for his talents. He’s truly captivating in Gone Girl, even while playing such a trashy fool. Earnest intrigue still surrounds Ben Affleck movies. But he remains plagued by his ego and his need to do everything.

When Affleck first signed on as Batman, it revealed his desire to still become [insert all the glittering emojis] a movie star. (Also, and I’m not making this up, to show off his “heroic chin”). Unlike his contemporaries, Affleck doesn’t boast a truly iconic character to his name. Damon has Jason Bourne, Brad Pitt and George Clooney have their Ocean’s characters (among others), Leo has Jack, and now Ben’s brother Casey should win an Oscar as janitor Lee Chandler. In part, this revolves around Affleck’s strengths as an actor: he best serves as a stabilizing foil to other actors’ unhinged and showier performances (think of how well he supplements the ensemble of Argo and The Town). His characters’ dramatic breakthroughs often occur underneath the surface, pain and suffering often suppressed, rarely unleashed. It’s why his Batman is pretty damn compelling.

None of this matters if the movies stink, which they do. Affleck better thrives within his own ecosystem or a true auteur’s like Fincher or Gus Van Sant. This decision to play or not play Batman is crucial, with nothing on his upcoming schedule outside The Batman and Witness for the Prosecution—a remake of the Billy Wilder film that’s in development.

If Affleck doesn’t resume his role as Bruce Wayne, he’ll likely be lauded, proving he’s a Serious Artist, and it’ll serve as further indictment of Warner Bros./DC’s incompetence. If he does, he’ll be doubling down on a rudderless vehicle, opening himself once again to being played. Those are his potential options: Serious Artist, or Damn Fool, both parts at which Affleck excels.

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