Has the shine worn off the Affleck/Damon wunderkinds?
Maybe you didn’t notice, but Matt Damon and Ben Affleck chose an oddly appropriate time to publicly struggle. In the same week that Damon’s long-controversial Chinese co-production The Great Wall hit theaters to negative reviews, rumors began to spread that Ben Affleck was miserable as the star of Warner Bros. standalone The Batman film and doing everything he could to get out of his commitment. It seemed only fitting that negativity should surround both men at the same time; after all, the entertainment industry has – fairly or unfairly – linked their respective careers together since the breakout success of Good Will Hunting. The narrative practically writes itself.
There was a time not so long ago when it seemed that both men were Hollywood’s most endearing and enduring success story. Both were regarded as talented young men who had brashly worked their way into the inner corridors of Hollywood. Matt Damon was the intellectual’s action star, bringing his signature intensity to movies like The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Bourne Identity. Affleck, meanwhile, was a more traditional movie star, anchoring big-budget movies and living a very public lifestyle in the process. The two men even remained professionally close, acting together in a handful of Kevin Smith films and working behind-the-scenes on HBO’s landmark reality television series, Project Greenlight. And then things began to sour.
Let’s start with Damon. The actor’s once-impenetrable persona has taken any number of hits within the past few years. In July of 2016, in an attempt to explain Damon’s curious return to his once-beloved franchise, ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer wrote a piece titled, ‘Why Did Matt Damon Go Back to Jason Bourne?’ In the article, Singer notes that Damon’s reputation as an earner is disproportionately due to his participation in the Bourne franchise; those movies represent nearly one-fifth of his entire box office growth since The Bourne Identity was released in theaters. Singer compared these numbers to other Hollywood leading men of the same era, discovering that Damon’s per-film gross was surprising low when compared to his competition. Muscle memory says that Matt Damon is a movie star; the numbers paint a different picture.
The slow decline of Damon’s star power corresponded with a not-so slow decline in his perception as a progressive Hollywood icon. The entertainment industry loves it when actors make headlines with their politics, and for years, Damon stood as the perfect example of an actor who used his celebrity to advance social progress. Remember his 2011 interview where he adamantly defended teachers? Sadly, much of that goodwill has been squandered over the past two years. In 2015, Damon caused a stir when he sparred with producer Effie Brown on an episode of Project Greenlight over the issue of diversity hires. In the past few months, Damon has taken a public beating over his comments in defense of The Great Wall, a big-budget adaptation of Chinese mythology that stars… well, him. None of this is to suggest that Damon should be cast out among the #unwoke heathens, but when mainstream audiences stop seeking you out and your core demographic turns against you, it’s tough to get a feel for your long-term prospects.
And then there’s Affleck. For a while, it looked like Affleck had managed to surpass his Good Will Hunting friend as the more talented of the pair. I’ve written about Affleck’s surprising transition to powerhouse Hollywood director before, but it bears repeating that Gone Baby Gone, The Town, and Argo are as good an initial trifecta of film as any aspiring filmmaker could hope for. In the early part of the decade, Affleck was once more a Hollywood success story, this time as the wild Hollywood star who had repaired his image, become a committed family man, and surprised us all by making films mature beyond his years. Instead of being a washed-up pretty boy, suddenly Affleck was the next Clint Eastwood, an actor-turned-director whose onscreen explorations of masculinity and violence made him one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.
That was then; this is now. Since reaching the height of his power with the award-winning Argo, Affleck has suffered a streak of personal and professional failures. He found himself once more a tabloid favorite with the public dissolution of his marriage to Jennifer Garner. More importantly, his image as a serious filmmaker took a hit with the consecutive critical struggles of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Live By Night. The former was Affleck’s attempt to resurface his movie star persona; while he succeeded in the role, the film’s overall struggles and the subsequent controversy surrounding his standalone The Batman film have threatened to undermine his imagine. Similarly, the critical and commercial failure of Live By Night took the shine off Affleck’s reputation as a Hollywood golden boy, with plenty of people suggesting that the money Warner Bros. lost on the film led directly to Affleck’s decision to step down from the director’s chair on The Batman. For some, the most pervasive image of Affleck from the past five years is his Simon and Garfunkel moment during both movies’ press junkets.
Now, none of this is to suggest that either Damon or Affleck should retire or be locked up by the morality police – seriously, if Mel Gibson can be courted for Suicide Squad 2, then a few public missteps by liberal actors should be the least of our worries – but it is worth noting that the two men have never really been down at the same time. Damon was at his most powerful when Affleck was a faded leading man; Damon’s starpower waned when Affleck asserted himself as an award-winning director. With both men struggling a bit in recent flops, one can’t help but wonder what the future holds. There comes a time in every actor’s career where he or she can no longer play the action hero and instead transitions into more mature roles; how well Affleck and Damon embrace this transition determines whether they become the next Gene Hackman or the next John Cusack.
And I love John Cusack! There is no doubt in my mind that Damon is capable of becoming the next poignant middle-aged actor. There’s also no doubt in my mind that Affleck can stand behind a camera and make beautiful and violent movies until the day he retires. I’ll be the first to root for another box office hit, another season of Project Greenlight, another round of Tom Brady and Sarah Silverman jokes on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Hollywood is a far more interesting place when both men are at the height of their power. But perhaps for the first time in their respective careers, both Damon and Affleck are looking at a Hollywood that doesn’t seem that interested in them anymore. And I don’t particularly like those apples.