Ben Affleck showed his mettle as more than a light comic actor and tabloid celebrity in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He defeated those petulant fanboys who were frightened by the prospect of a humanized Bruce Wayne–Batman character (a concept that reshaped Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale’s dour protagonist) — and who tried cancel-culture tactics on social media to get Affleck fired. Comic-book-universe grumblers resisted the mythic revelations that Zack Snyder persistently sought when enlisting Affleck’s sensitivity: the hidden pain that made millionaire Bruce Wayne the same as us, a man struggling with deep personal issues yet focused on optimism in a pessimistic world. To realize the dawning of justice was the drama of Affleck/Batman.
Now, in the mediocre new film The Way Back, Affleck drops superhero status to play Jack Cunningham, an ailing, alcoholic construction worker who drinks to excess after a life-changing setback. Bloated and sad-eyed, Affleck embodies working-man distress, hiding the lost smile of a frightened kid. He’s a “deplorable” who looks like a pro athlete gone to seed, and that’s key to his misery. Jack’s youth as a promising high-school basketball star stings when the local priest asks him to coach the multiethnic team of b-ball Millennials.
This premise, spotlighting society’s left-behinds — the blue-collar, drug-addicted underclass seeking physical and emotional relief — should offer promise, as Dawn of Justice does. But despite being set in a Catholic-school environment, the storytelling ignores aspects of faith that would give Jack’s circumstance mythic resonance. Director Gavin O’Connor and screenwriter Brad Ingelsby choose to emphasize mundane, faithless immiseration. It takes them a full hour to reveal the tragedy that drove Jack to despair. The film sluggishly builds to that moment by emphasizing Jack’s sad, self-torturing routine. (O’Connor constructs a ludicrous montage of Jack repeatedly opening a refrigerator door to gradually drain a stockpile of brew.)
Jack’s enervating recovery in The Way Back is full of drab, predictable pathos instead of the stylized drama in Dawn of Justice. O’Connor and Ingelsby seem to be following the grim narrative familiar from Joker, last year’s Nolan-indebted Batman spin-off. This commercial ploy ruins any potential for empathy in The Way Back. Somebody at Warner Brothers seems to believe that cynicism outweighs promise and that Joker’s billion-plus box-office gross proves that audiences will buy self-pitying victimhood.
The Joker was about the worst in us, through Joaquin Phoenix’s psychotic clown, while Jack’s story in The Way Back should search for the best in us, like Dawn of Justice. Jack gives in to his weakness at a local bar, Harold’s Place, his substitute church — an institution where he drinks and jokes among enablers (the kindly old black man who ushers him home, saying he did the same for Jack’s father, suggests a fragmented subplot, part of the film’s diversity agenda). Even when Jack curses in front of his young charges, encouraging violence on the court (“I will not coach a team that’s been out-toughed!”), the filmmakers resist the world of ethics and responsibility.
Here’s where we see Millennial Hollywood’s confusion. The Way Back borrows conventions from such jock uplift films as Remember the Titans and Friday Night Lights but violates inspirational movie principles. The Catholic team’s presiding priest tells Jack, “Our mission is to develop men of integrity and faith. Don’t underestimate the impact you can have on them.” But the filmmakers ignore the irony.
Dark thoughts, as Jack’s estranged wife (Michaela Watkins) puts it, prevail. “I’ll never stop being angry!” Jack confesses, admitting his loss and grief. But Raymond De Felitta’s Bottom of the 9th rejected self-justifying notions of anger, victimhood, and conveniently altered principles; in that movie, Sonny Stano (Joe Manganiello), a mature former athlete, used a man’s errors and private struggles to build toward moral satisfaction. It was a story of modern, universal recovery; Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice offered an exquisite rendition of this same journey, as well as the finest characterization of Affleck’s career.
The Way Back is being promoted obscenely, using Affleck’s personal struggles with alcoholism and sobriety to sell the film’s premise. This pity party doesn’t make the film more meaningful; it crosses a line of decency that insults our ability to absorb storytelling and learn from it. That’s the same crisis confronted by Zack Snyder in his effort to redefine genre myths for a faithless age. Otherwise, Joker’s nihilism prevails.