My advice to Ben Affleck? Don't listen to the fans - they've been wrong before

Most of the "fans" who cried heresy when Ben Affleck was announced as the new Batman are fans of nothing but their own opinions. This isn't the first time they've been wrong.

Being Ben Affleck must be like riding a rollercoaster in a whirlwind. He has known ecstatic highs (winning a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for co-writing Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon) and nausea-inducing lows, notably, when he became a walking punchline after making Gigli with his then-partner Jennifer Lopez—with whom, let us not forget, he also became the first recipient of the now-customary hybrid tabloid brand name. (Yes, before Brangelina there was Bennifer.) He takes all that with extremely good grace, which is why it’s no surprise to see how he has handled the most recent onslaught of opprobrium. This has been directed at him over the announcement that he will play Batman in Zach Snyder’s forthcoming Superman sequel Man of Steel 2.

I know, I know—this was supposed to be the moment when the world gave Affleck a break. How can any year which began with him winning a Best Picture Oscar (for the rather lacklustre Argo, which he directed and starred in) end up with Affleck back in the bad books? Well, it’s only the case if you listen to the most toxic, insidious and ramshackle fraternity in the entire entertainment universe. Not the studio executives. (And no, not the critics, before any of you wiseacres try that one.) I’m talking about They Who Must Never Be Heeded. In other words: the fans.

When the Batman news broke, the “fans”—I’m putting it in quote marks because they are patently fans of nothing but their own opinions—wasted no time complaining. This, to their minds, was the worst news of all time, or at least since they were last distracted from World of Warcraft for five minutes by the supposedly cataclysmic casting decision before this one. 90,000 people with nothing better to do signed their names to a petition calling for Affleck’s casting to be overturned. He dealt with it neatly on a US talk show this week: “I’m a big boy. [The studio] said just don’t use the internet for a couple of days … I’m very tough. I saw the announcement, I look down on the first comment … the first one just goes, ‘Nooooooooo!’”

As Affleck must know, this is the sort of palaver with which any change in the fanboy movie world is always greeted. In the pre-Twitter era, some 50,000 Batman fans were incensed enough to crack open the green ink and dash off letters to Warner Bros when it was announced in 1988 that Michael Keaton had been cast as Batman in Tim Burton’s first superhero film. Now, of course, any sane viewer can see that Keaton’s subtle, even sexy, portrayal of Batman as a tentative loner represented an oasis of contemplation in the midst of that chaotic movie; it also laid the groundwork for Christian Bale’s recent interpretation, which the braying hordes probably consider definitive. It isn’t. Film is cyclical. For all we know, moviegoers of the future will regard Bale’s Batman much as we now regard Roger Moore’s James Bond.

Talking of Bond, Daniel Craig’s casting provided another recent example of wrong-headed pre-emptive outrage. His arrival heralded a brave shift of tone for the Bond series, so it seems laughable now that his appointment was so derided, though in that instant the media were as blameworthy as the fans. “The press complained because he was blond, and said he looked like Vladimir Putin,” said Martin Campbell, who directed Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale. “I asked Daniel, ‘Do you listen to all this crap?’ He said, ‘Yeah. What I do is I make sure I’ve seen it all and that everyone on set knows what’s been in the press, then there’s nothing to hide.’ I thought that was a very perceptive way of dealing with it.”

In retail, the customer is always right. But we should remember that these hypothetical customers are only usually involved at the consumption end of the deal: they’re not patrolling the factory floor saying “Don’t use a screw of that diameter—are you goddamn nuts?” or “Only a freakin’ moron would make a chair like that!” If they are “right,” it is only ever after the fact. And so with the fans. Let them moan and bitch and whinge once Man of Steel 2 is released in 2015. Let them squeal to their shrivelled, unimaginative hearts’ content. Until then: put a sock in it.

Ben Affleck on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, where he assured viewers, "I'm very tough." Photograph: Getty Images.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear