In 2016, 'Sad Ben Affleck' was the funniest thing on the internet. Then recently, something changed.

It's 2016 and Ben Affleck is on the publicity trail for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. 

He's being interviewed, alongside his co-star Henry Cavill, when he's asked for his response to the early, and very poor, reviews of the film. 

Headlines at the time described Batman v Superman as "a crime against comic book fans," "a muddled, bloated mess," "terrible," "a total trainwreck," and a "disappointment". 

Both Cavill and Affleck plead ignorance, and Cavill then goes on to respond to a question about how negative reviews might affect the film. 

While millions of people have seen the clip, very few have heard Cavill's answer. Because one YouTuber chose to fade out the actor's audio and instead zoom in on Ben Affleck's resigned, exhausted, sad face. They added Simon & Garfunkel's 'The Sound of Silence', and the footage of Ben Affleck's pained expression, while hello darkness my old friend played beneath it, went viral. 

Of course I do. Image: YouTube. 


Do you know how demoralising that is? Image: YouTube. 


The interview was just one piece of content in a string of memes about Ben Affleck's undeniable sadness. 

There were photos of him in the audience at awards shows, looking like he was about to cry. 

Photos of him on red carpets, with a face that said: my soul is broken. 

There were paparazzi pictures. So many paparazzi pictures. Ben standing on a beach, looking out to sea, with the posture and gaze of a person who feels they've lost everything. Ben smoking a cigarette, as though just being in the world was profoundly painful. 

Mate. Why. Image: Getty.


'Sad Ben' became a viral meme, spawning headlines like The Cut's 'A Miserable Gallery of Ben Affleck Smoking Through the Pain of Existence'. But it was Anne Helen Petersen's feature article for Buzzfeed, aptly titled 'The Unbearable Sadness Of Ben Affleck,' that uncovered what was at the core of our obsession with Sad Ben. 

"Affleck has an issue with shame," Petersen wrote. "Over the last 20 years of stardom, he’s voiced that shame about the roles that he’s taken, the relationships he’s made public, his lack of education, his drinking habits, and, most recently, his tattoo."

Indeed, at the time Affleck had just been photographed with a tattoo of a rising phoenix that took up almost his entire back. It was widely judged to be hideous, and even his ex-wife Jennifer Garner joked about it in Vanity Fair. 

Bizarrely, Affleck then seemed to claim the tattoo was fake - for a movie role - which turned out to be patently untrue. He still has the brightly coloured design on his back.


Petersen argued that in 2016, Affleck was breaking the unspoken rule of fame: that one must be unreservedly grateful for it. Seeing a person "resent their present," that is, have a clear awareness that they're doing bad work, goes against the contract we have with celebrities. They have to at least pretend to be proud and grateful and enthusiastic about promoting the projects their fans are paying to see. 

But it wasn't just the state of his career that contributed to Sad Ben. By 2016, Affleck's marriage to Jennifer Garner had ended. Their divorce would be finalised the following year. Speaking to Howard Stern in 2021, Affleck said it was around the time his marriage was breaking down that he started drinking heavily.

"I was trapped," he said. "I was like, 'I can’t leave because of my kids, but I am not happy. What do I do?' What I did was drink a bottle of scotch on the couch, which turned out not to be the solution."

In the wake of their separation, there were reports Affleck had cheated on Garner with their nanny, Christine Ouzounian. Affleck has since described the story - again, to Howard Stern - as "f*cking horrible lies". 

Listen to Cancelled on Ben Affleck. Post continues after audio.

In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2016, Garner was adamant that the nanny wasn't the reason for the split. "We had been separated for months before I ever heard about the nanny," she said. "She had nothing to do with our decision to divorce. She was not a part of the equation. Bad judgment? Yes."


She went on to describe her former partner as "the most brilliant person in any room, the most charismatic, the most generous. He’s just a complicated guy."

The divorce, the flop of Batman v Superman, and Affleck's struggles with alcohol seem to have been a recipe for what the internet came to recognise as Sad Ben. But as Petersen argued for Buzzfeed, "the Sadfleck look doesn't inspire pity. Instead, there's a palpable desire to punch him in the face."

Sad Ben was the butt of the joke because while the images of a melancholy middle-aged man made us feel a strange mix of emotions, empathy wasn't one of them. He became a symbol of self-destruction. Of bad decisions. Of self-inflicted brokenness. 

But that was then. 

It was pre-Trump. Pre-COVID. An age before a Prince stepped away from his 'toxic' family and the number 1 women's tennis player in the world decided to retire - in peak physical form - at 25. Brene Brown had given her viral TED Talk about the power of vulnerability but the concept hadn't quite cemented itself in mainstream culture. We didn't know what to do with a sad man, especially a sad man who had all the external markers of success: Fame. Money. Freedom. 

So we laughed at him. 

Then, recently, Sad Ben came back. 

First, during his honeymoon with Jennifer Lopez (now Affleck) in mid-2022. Despite having married the woman he was initially engaged to 20 years ago, Affleck was photographed crying during a dinner in Paris, and then on a cruise of the River Seine. 


Then, earlier this year, he attended the Grammys with his wife, and looked patently miserable. 

I know sweetie. Image: Getty.

This time, the internet laughed, but with a very different tone. 


Affleck was an introvert who just wanted to be at home. A guy who was simply too tired for all the fuss. A person who's world-weary, which in 2023, is completely understandable. 

The 'mocking' of Sad Ben seems to have been replaced with a sense of, 'it me'. Because after all, the experience of emotional pain - which might seem at odds with his glamorous, Hollywood life (but is of course widespread within it) - is universal.

In her novel The Bell Jar, inspired by her own struggles with mental health, Sylvia Plath wrote, "wherever I sat - on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok - I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air."

Affleck, too, seems to have been in some of the most beautiful, exclusive places in the world - on European holidays, inside the walls of extravagant, celebrity-filled events - unable to escape his own misery. Because part of being human is existing in your own bell jar, stuck inside a reality distorted by your own perspective.

Ben Affleck is the ultimate reminder that you can have fame and money and success and still be profoundly unhappy. And in 2023, we're far more willing to accept the nuances of that truth.


In a recent interview with CBS to promote his new film, Air (directed by and starring Affleck, and co-starring Matt Damon), the 50-year-old reflects on what he's learnt about happiness. 

"Frankly, one of the lessons about growing older is it's not all about money," he says. "It's not the most important thing. 

"[If] you spend your life chasing money... you might end up with a lot of money, but you'll probably miss out on a lot of things. 

"I haven't found that money changed any happiness that I had. In fact, that's the beautiful thing about [working on Air], that happiness was being able to be here, in Los Angeles every day with my children... work with my best friend.

"There's nothing more that I want in my whole life. This is it. This is what I've always wanted."

Perhaps Sad Ben has evolved into a symbol of how so many of us lose sight of what we truly want as we grow older, and instead pursue what we feel we should want. The result is misery, however that expresses itself. 

In 2016, our response to a sad man who seemed to have it all was one of contempt. We mocked and we ridiculed. But if we look a little closer, it becomes harder to ignore the familiarity of Ben Affleck's dejected, haunted expressions. 

His fame and success has never protected him from the inherent pain of the human condition, any more than a promotion or a pay rise or any external achievement protects the rest of us. 


We no longer want to "punch" a middle-aged man whose personal life is in ruins. At least, I don't. There's a profound authenticity that comes from crying at a restaurant in Paris and having a terrible time at the Grammys. It's an emotional truth that says: I'm struggling with a weight you cannot see. 

On the publicity trail for Batman v Superman, Affleck may have been in a position some people only ever dream of reaching. He'd starred in a blockbuster Hollywood film. He'd received a (wildly) generous pay packet. He was travelling and being gushed over and attending glamorous events. 

But he'd also been through a divorce. He was drinking too much. He missed his kids. And he was promoting a movie he fundamentally wasn't proud of. 

And so he appeared sad. Exhausted. Hopeless. 

Perhaps now, in a world that in recent years was turned upside down, we're grappling more urgently with what makes a meaningful life. And we see Ben Affleck not as an indulgent, self-pitying figure, but someone struggling with the same questions we all are.

Someone who has realised happiness doesn't come from the places you were told you'd find it, but from the quiet passions, connections and values that were there all along. 

For more from Clare Stephens, you can follow her on Instagram

Feature image: Getty.