TIME Media

Bennifer 1, Act 2: Comparing and Contrasting the Duo’s Last Decade

"Gigli" California Premiere
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck at the "Gigli" California Premiere at Mann National in Westwood, California, United States. Chris Weeks—FilmMagic/Getty Images

They say living well is the best revenge. So who bested whom: J. Lo or Ben Affleck?

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were in the news a lot this past week, though, sadly, not together. He, it seems, has gotten good at blackjack in a way that brings to mind the term “diminishing returns.” She has broken up with her extremely young boyfriend, recorded the official World Cup song with Pitbull, and her new album, A.K.A., came out last week.

Before we get further into the two as separate entities circa 2014, let us harken back to a time when they were simply Bennifer. Whether you were a fan or not, there was no arguing that as the presiding supercouple of post 9/11, pre-housing crisis, cargo shorts-crazed America, their narrative was a compelling one. After a checkered past that included accompanying P. Diddy to court and two short marriages to nobodies, J. Lo found blissed-out stability with a man who had a decent job and had managed to make it through early adulthood without changing his name, twice. Affleck had shown early promise winning the screenwriting Oscar for Good Will Hunting alongside Matt Damon, but seemed a little bland, a little too white-boy lucky. Hooking up with a woman who’d been divorced, twice, who could dance, and whose boyfriend had just been acquitted of weapons charges, gave him something like gravitas. Let’s call it pre-gravitas.

Cue montage: J. Lo in a Red Sox cap, red carpet smiles, an engagement announcement on Primetime with Diane Sawyer, that enormous pink Harry Winston ring, the unwatchable Gigli, a cancelled wedding in Montecito. Please let’s not forget that Ben Affleck appears in the video for “Jenny from the Block.” Yes, Gigli is the accepted cultural marker for Bennifer’s doomed partnership, but the jaw-droppingly awful music video was way more embarrassing. I bet he wouldn’t mind if the next time you felt stupid about something you just whispered to yourself, “Ben Affleck was in ‘Jenny From the Block,’” to remind yourself that hey, nobody is perfect.

Their rocky relationship ended in 2004. And although we never saw them together again, after a romance and courtship that public (and that disastrous), it has always felt impossible not to compare their lives. And though she rebounded and married more quickly (five months later, to Marc Anthony, compared to Affleck’s marriage 18 months later, to Jennifer Garner) he has always seemed to be a few lengths ahead.

It’s not that J. Lo was doing poorly, of course. She has made a slew of movies and recorded a lot of songs. Some of each have been terrible (the movies Enough and Angel Eyes, the song “Get Right”) but some have been decent (the movies Shall We Dance and Monster-in-Law, and the song “On The Floor.”) and although nothing she has ever done came close to 1998’s excellent Out of Sight, nothing seemed to stop her from becoming a massive superstar.

Meanwhile, Ben was also in a lot of truly awful movies (Surviving Christmas, which didn’t make money, Armageddon, which did) and semi-decent ones, like The Sum of All Fears and Changing Lanes. His long-running bromance with golden boy Matt Damon remained an asset. They worked on Project Greenlight together both pre- and post-Bennifer, and he always managed to seem smart, and on the verge of getting smarter.

But the reason Ben was ‘beating’ J. Lo for so many years has less to do with the quality of the material they were producing and everything to do with J. Lo’sbeing hopelessly encumbered by Marc Anthony. Of course no one knows what actually went on between them, and maybe Anthony is totally awesome. But even in the early days when they were pawing each other at Nobu, JMarc (LoAn? PezThony?) was hard to buy. Sure, he’s got a good voice and a certain well-chiseled, ectomorph-ish appeal, but let’s be honest, if the human qualities residing within Marc Anthony ever attempted to emerge, they would be smashed by his evil robot self.

Yes, Affleck definitely kicked some unquestionably serious ass in the look-who-I-married contest. Sure, you could say some bad things about Jennifer Garner – if you were a really terrible person. She’s pretty. She’s smart. She seems nice. She’s had an impressive yet tastefully restrained career. Alias was just the right combination of good and entertaining, and it made her enough money to take respectable, unflashy supporting roles in things like Juno and Dallas Buyer’s Club. Sure, she’s been in some garbage, too, but who remembers? Plus, it seemed like she never tried to be a big star, and was content to play second fiddle to Affleck, whereas Anthony – not surprisingly, being a dude and all, and part robot – seemed unwilling to settle into a role as Mr. Jennifer Lopez.

Both pairs had children. Ever wholesome, Bennifer 2’s (Affner’s? Garnfleck’s?) brood were always coming and going from farmer’s markets. Anthony and Lopez, in marked contrast, were rarely seen with their children. When they appeared in the press together it often concerned their joint clothing collections for Kohl’s department store.

Affleck just kept pulling ahead, his journey from wunderkind to classy family man going hand in hand with his further Hollywood ascent as the director of “good” movies, like Gone Baby Gone and The Town. (They weren’t actually good, but people said they were.) He won the Oscar for Argo, which was better than good, and would have even been great without that scene of himself getting angst-riddenly wasted in a Tehran hotel room. (Actually, if “Jenny From the Block” had been on the television during that scene, it would have been a perfect movie.)

As Affleck’s prestige in Hollywood increased, J. Lo was getting divorced and putting out movies with poor cost/earnings ratios like Parker. And then she jumped from Anthony to Casper Smart, who was 25. If he’d had a cooler job, this might have been more impressive but he was a back-up dancer. He got along really well with her kids, and this was cute, but if they were all running around on the beach, and all wearing bathing suits, it was sometimes kind of hard to tell that Smart was an adult. There was a brief moment when we might have been like, “Alright, Casper, maybe you’re here to stay,” and, then, as if on cue, he went to a peepshow the day before her birthday. Which isn’t against the law, but it’s not exactly a woman’s dream to have the world know her man goes to peep shows.

Then, in the last year, things started to shift a little. It all started last August when Warner Brothers announced Affleck as the new Batman. Fans were not happy. One even started a change.org petition to get Warner Brothers to rescind their decision. Then Affleck starred alongside Justin Timberlake in the truly terrible movie Runner, Runner. And then there were the reports this spring that he’d been kicked out of a casino in Las Vegas for counting cards.

Meanwhile, J. Lo has managed to kick Casper Smart to the curb. It was said that it was because he was texting two transsexuals, but it’s perhaps more interesting to imagine that what Lopez really could no longer abide was Smart’s tendency to write “lol” in texts when expressing something other than having actually laughed out loud. She jetted off to Brazil to perform the official World Cup Song with Pitbull. It’s not a very good song, but it’s not embarrassing.

Speaking of embarrassing, Affleck’s gambling thing has gone from the background of his life into the foreground. He’s filming Batman vs. Superman in Detroit right now, and he just got kicked out of a casino there, and now, his wife, she of the eternal smile and the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to-go cup, is allegedly really pissed at him. (Though I read the other day that she actually likes that he gambles, because it keeps him from drinking and picking up women, which makes a certain kind of dark sense.)

And with this gambling thing getting worse and not better, one looks back and wonders if perhaps J. Lo was the one who blossomed after the breakup, despite the lack of an Oscar, or a perfect spouse, or the inability to grow an “I’m serious” beard. And while Jennifer Garner has looked so saintly all these years – especially in contrast to the more flamboyant, attention seeking Lopez – one also wonders if she landed Affleck not because she is modest or a paragon of virtue but because she was willing to put up with him.

So in the end, the lesson learned is this: when someone breaks up with you, don’t get mad, don’t get even – slowly and steadily develop a brand as a star of meh movies and a Latin pop singer that makes a ton of money even though you never receive critical acclaim while your ex, despite winning an Oscar, despite musing about a future in politics, sinks deeper into gambling and slowly wears out the nerves of his ever-patient wife. And the week that this all comes out, if you can land yourself on the cover of a magazine wearing red Louboutins, and a matching catsuit, with no pants, all the better.

If J. Lo is ahead now – Forbes placed her earnings at $45 million in 2012, compared with Affleck’s $25 million – it’s just proof that the global brand is much more durable than the flawed individual. She’s kept herself out there, she’s kept it moving, she kept producing, but she has never seemed to try to be anything better than famous, so she seems to be unable to embarrass herself or to let us down. Her performance at the World Cup was sabotaged by a horrible sound system, and guess who cares? No one. Affleck, on the other hand. Well. He better bring it with Batman. Or perhaps Kohl’s wants to put out a Ben Affleck-endorsed, Red Sox-themed clothing line?

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