Like many Hollywood actors, Ben Affleck’s career has been defined by epic highs and sweeping lows—over more than 20 years, he’s been an indie darling, a marquee idol, a comic-book superhero two times over, an Academy Award-winning director, and the star of critical and financial flops like Daredevil, Jersey Girl, and Gigli. When Affleck does appear in stinkers like Batman v. Superman, he’s often the most interesting part of the film, but his continued presence in such awful movies prompts questions of just how self-aware he is about his career arc. The best place for answers, strangely enough? The DVD commentary of his 1998 hit Armageddon.
The internet is full of forgotten pop-culture nuggets, and last week, a snippet of Affleck’s sarcastic peanut-gallery performance, recorded 17 years ago, went viral. Over a clip that sets up the disaster movie’s premise (where a team of oil drillers flies into space to blow up an oncoming asteroid), Affleck snarkily recalled the director Michael Bay telling him to shut up when he dared poke holes in the plot. “In a week, we’re going to learn how to be astronauts?” Affleck joked. “This is a little bit of a logic stretch, let’s face it.” It’s practically a buried secret on a special DVD edition of the film, but if you can find it, it’s a wonderfully candid gem that sheds light on the absurdity and appeal of the big-budget blockbuster.
The commentary track is only featured on the Criterion Collection’s edition of Armageddon, which was an odd release even at the time (Criterion usually only puts out obscure art films, great works of foreign cinema, and forgotten classics). The DVD is now only intermittently available for purchase on Amazon. The commentary cuts between Bay, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and Affleck’s co-star Bruce Willis, all of whom contribute general platitudes and back-patting about the film’s tough production. Then there’s Affleck, chiming in with extended parodies of the film Sling Blade, which was about an intellectually disabled Southerner (played by Armageddon co-star Billy Bob Thornton), making silly sound effects during any elaborate stunt scene, and pointing out all of the film’s numerous plot holes.
“Have you ever noticed that everybody in all these movies always has to be ‘the best?’” he muses. “Bruce Willis is ‘the best’ deep-core driller? I didn’t know they rated deep-core drillers. Like, if you went around and asked somebody ‘Who’s the best deep-core driller?’ You know what I mean? Like, ‘I’m the best espresso maker in Manhattan.’ How do you know? Who’s keeping track of these things?”
In 1998, when the commentary was likely recorded (such tracks are usually done right before a film premieres), Affleck was an up-and-coming star, having appeared in Kevin Smith’s indie hit Chasing Amy and won an Oscar for his Good Will Hunting screenplay alongside Matt Damon. His headline-grabbing relationship with Jennifer Lopez and string of flops were around the corner. The following years would bring his comeback directing Oscar-winning films like The Town and Argo, his public divorce from Jennifer Garner, and his subsequent rebound into superstardom as the new Batman.
All of which is to say that Affleck has seen every facet of Hollywood fame. But what comes out most in his Armageddon commentary is his playful inquisitiveness about the business of making such big films, and his respect for (and gentle mockery of) the product that ensues. “It cuts together pretty seamlessly, I must say, for something that I thought would look like total hokum,” he says of one major set-piece, after remembering how chintzy it seemed on set. Of another scene that features a one-second shot of a helicopter, he notes,
This is where you just have a random helicopter in the background, just because you’re a big movie, and you’re expensive, and you can. But you have no idea how much of a headache having a helicopter in the background causes. It’s all safety this, and money that, and so many hours they can fly, and they’re on the walkies, and the wind’s blasting everywhere. If I hadn’t brought it up, you’d have forgot about that yellow helicopter in the background right now.
The irony, of course, is that Affleck was making fun of the excesses of the big-budget Hollywood films that would come to define him—Armageddon was a big hit, but another film he made with Bay, Pearl Harbor, was a relative disappointment. Even after rebounding critically he’s once again been shackled to a large-scale franchise in the new wave of Batman movies. During an interview, he was asked about Batman v. Superman’s terrible reviews, and his pained expression became the internet’s new favorite meme. Vulture eventually proclaimed, “We Are All Sad Ben Affleck,” identifying with his disappointment even though he brought much of it on himself.
And yet Affleck’s commentary isn’t just a Statler and Waldorf routine. He might sometimes seem disdainful of the high-octane cinema style of Bay, who’s responsible for films like Bad Boys, The Rock, and the Transformers series. But he gives credit where it’s due, backhanded though his praise might be. “It kinda looks like a Miller Genuine Draft commercial, but, I like those commercials,” he says of one montage, midway through the film, of children waving American flags in the street. “It’s patriotic, simple, beautiful, just about, you know, America! I’m a cynic, and not incredibly jingoistic, but I find it moving!”
Perhaps that’s why Affleck returned to work with Bay on Peal Harbor, an ultra-jingoistic misfire that abandoned the inherent silliness of Armageddon and bombed with critics as a result. Like many viewers, he may only be able to recognize the flaws in a film after the fact—and for all of Armageddon’s easily-mocked plot holes, it was one of the biggest hits of the decade. “He’s like a kid,” Affleck says of Bay. “I think that’s why his taste is so in tune with the people who go to these movies in droves, cause most of these people are kids themselves.”
That insight is partof the fascination of listening to Affleck jokingly trash Armageddon. As a filmmaker and movie star, he hasn’t ever quite learned from the mistakes he’s obviously aware the film makes. At the same time, he knows the movie was crucial in giving him the fame he’d later capitalize on for bolder artistic endeavors, both great and flawed. Early on in the commentary track, he recalls performing one of his own stunts on camera, a new experience after years making micro-budget indie movies like Dazed and Confused and Mallrats. “That was my introduction to Michael Bay,” he says. “[Bay] said, ‘You just jump off this thing, and it’s slow motion and there’ll be an explosion behind you.’ And I thought, ‘I’ve arrived.’” Indeed, he had.