Ben Affleck’s Best Superhero Movie Is Completely Ignored
Ben Affleck starred as Superman actor George Reeves in the 2006 noir Hollywoodland.
Ben Affleck has always had a complicated relationship with superhero movies. After the 2003 debacle that was Daredevil, he famously vowed to never make another, only to be tempted into the role of Batman by Warner Bros, and ultimately slowly drift away from the chaos that is the ongoing DC Universe. However, Ben Affleck’s best movie involving a superhero is almost completely unknown: the neo-noir Hollywoodland, which was released in 2006 and is now available to stream on Starz.
Hollywoodland stars Ben Affleck as George Reeves, the real-life actor who portrayed Superman in a 1951 film titled Superman and the Mole-Men and the subsequent television series The Adventures of Superman. However, in this movie, Reeves is more of a mystery than a protagonist. The actor died of a gunshot wound to the head in 1959, in what was ruled a suicide, but darkly rumored for decades to have been a murder in a crime of passion or an arranged assassination.
While Ben Affleck plays a real-life character, the true lead of the film is the fictional Los Angeles private investigator Louis Simo (played by Adrien Brody), a divorcee with a fraught relationship with his ex-wife (Robin Tunney) and a distant one with his young son. Between assignments to spy on possibly-philandering housewives, Brody discovers that the Superman actor’s death may be being swept under the rug, and decides to begin his own investigation.
Hollywoodland is structured as a story within a story, with Adrien Brody investigating the death of a famous man, while in flashbacks, Ben Affleck reveals George Reeves’ depression, humanity, and fear over being typecast as the most iconic of American heroes. Ben Affleck falls into an affair with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), the wife of powerful MGM studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins), which he begins to worry may damage his flailing career even more.
Eddie Mannix, notably, was a real-life figure played by Josh Brolin in the Coen Brothers’ 2016 ensemble comedy Hail Caesar!, in which he is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man trying to keep the wacky hijinks of old-timey movie stars from blowing up the studio. In Hollywoodland, Eddie Mannix is a more distant, intimidating figure, yet one whose anger at Ben Affleck is balanced by his love and support for his wife. In two versions of the same historical figure, they could not be more different.
Hollywoodland arrived in 2006, long past the wave of 1990s neo-noir like L.A. Confidential and Miller’s Crossing that briefly made gritty, melancholy period piece crime thrillers popular again. At the time, Ben Affleck was at perhaps the lowest point of his career, having released one bomb after another like Daredevil, Gigli, Paycheck (the title of which gave a thousand critics an easy dunk), Surviving Christmas, and Jersey Girl. In 2006, it was very possible that Ben Affleck and George Reeves had the same fears that their careers were washed up.
It is not difficult to see what Ben Affleck locked into with his portrayal of Reeves. Affleck had gone from boy genius screenwriter with his buddy Matt Damon to a joke in Hollywood in less than a decade, better known for big loud blockbusters like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor than his Academy Award for co-writing Good Will Hunting. Just like Reeves, success as an action hero had taken its toll on Ben Affleck.
Interestingly, despite the parallels, Ben Affleck was not the first choice to play George Reeves in Hollywoodland (which was originally titled Truth, Justice, and the American Way until DC Comics’ lawyers stepped in). Everyone from Hugh Jackman to Kyle McLachlan to Viggo Mortenson was considered for the role, but it seems that Affleck himself campaigned hard for the part, his first in two years.
Hollywoodland barely cleared its modest $14 million budget and was mildly received by critics, even if Ben Affleck himself did win the prestigious Volpi Cup for Best Actor (foreshadowing his imminent Renaissance as an acclaimed director). It currently holds 68 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, but Hollywoodland deserves a reevaluation as an examination of the film industry, Ben Affleck’s rollercoaster of a career, and the sad fate of George Reeves. A lesser movie would turn his life into a whodunit, but Hollywoodland does not allow anything to be that easy. It knows there are no simple answers to a tragedy, and doesn’t pretend to give any.