By Darren Franich
October 07, 2013 at 06:43 PM EDT
Scott Garfield

It says something about our weird multihyphenate celebrity era that the two lead actors of Runner Runner are both highly regarded for everything besides their acting. Ben Affleck just won an Oscar as the director-producer of Argo, part of a larger career renaissance that started with Gone Baby Gone and The Town. And Justin Timberlake is, well, Justin Timberlake, the omnipresent musician who split his comeback album in two and saw both parts climb to the top of the music charts. It seems unlikely that either of them are smarting over the box office failure of Runner Runner, partially because it still seems unlikely that either of them actually starred in Runner Runner.

And yet, the film’s failure offers an intriguing microcosmic look at the nature of Affleck’s and Timberlake’s star power. Neither of them needed the movie to be a hit, but both of them probably wanted the film to perform well. Upon close analysis, both men had a lot riding on Runner Runner. Let’s try to figure out who was more affected by the film’s failure.

Justin Timberlake: Few people have ever wanted to be a movie star as much as Justin Timberlake wants to be a movie star. In 2002, Timberlake had just silenced all the skeptics with Justified, an album that forever eradicated the idea that Timberlake was a boy band refugee. Making the leap from teen-dreamboat team player into serious solo artist is always difficult. Timberlake celebrated by taking a break from music to take minor roles in a whole assortment of good-on-paper projects: a police drama with Oscar-winning costars, a gritty indie based on true events, an auteurist epic from a cultishly adored young director, a sexy button-pushing drama from a dynamic young director, a voice role in a beloved animated franchise, and a supporting role in a new film from a beloved comedy mastermind.

Every one of those projects made sense — in theory — as a smart choice for a young music star desperate to prove himself as a legitimate actor. Unfortunately, those projects were Edison, Alpha Dog, Southland Tales, Black Snake Moan, Shrek the Third, and The Love Guru. (Frequently, the lone note of positivity in the bad reviews for those films was that Timberlake was actually pretty good.) Timberlake’s ascension continued: In 2006, he released FutureSex/LoveSounds and also performed “D— in a Box” on SNL. The latter was arguably more important for Timberlake, insofar as it cemented a certain notion of Timberlake as Mega-Talent in the pop culture firmament.

In response, Timberlake made a second attempt at movie stardom, this time with more success. In 2010, he had his best role, as a very Timberlake-esque Sean Parker in The Social Network. In 2011, he had three films: Bad Teacher, Friends with Benefits, and In Time. The first two were dark-ish comedies, and they were reasonably successful. In Time was Timberlake’s play at full-on action hero status, and although it made a decent amount of money, it was generally seen as a flop, possibly because Timberlake wasn’t very good and more likely because the movie was hilariously terrible.

Given the success of Friends with Benefits, Timberlake could probably sail through four or five romantic comedies if he wanted to. But the mere existence of Runner Runner implies that Timberlake wants to be the star that In Time failed to transform him into: An action hero. And Hollywood does badly want a new young action star. But after years of trying (Ryan Reynolds) and trying (Taylor Kitsch), Hollywood has implemented the Reboot Protocol, meaning that “new young action stars” are mostly unknowns taking on familiar roles in superhero movies or franchise remakes. This is good news if your name is Jeremy Renner and bad news if you’re Justin Timberlake, who is paradoxically probably too famous (and therefore too expensive) for a superhero film.

Ben Affleck: Affleck and Timberlake come from different backgrounds, but their careers arc in similar directions: Both were famously successful young people who had to prove they were more than just pretty faces. But unlike Timberlake — whose career arc post-2000 has basically been a long nonstop ascension — Affleck had to come back from a period of rampant overexposure and running-punchline movies like Payback, Gigli, and Surviving Christmas.

Affleck started 2013 with a tremendous victory. Argo‘s Best Picture win at the Oscars was widely seen as an apology prize for snubbing Affleck in the Best Director category, and more generally as an apology from the entire world for every doubting Affleck’s chops. It felt like Affleck had entered that rare echelon of respected actor-directors — the sphere of George Clooney and Robert Redford — so it surprised everyone when Affleck announced that he’d be taking on the role of Batman in the upcoming Man of Steel sequel.

Despite the online furor generated by that announcement, the Batman thing is like a net positive for Affleck, at least for now. It guarantees him two solid years of press: Affleck in-costume pics, Affleck-directing-JusticeLeague rumors. (Even if the movie is a travesty, it’s not like anybody will blame Affleck, who’s technically playing second fiddle to Henry Cavill. Also, Man of Steel was pretty bad and made hundreds of millions of dollars, so he’ll be just fine.) Like he needed another guaranteed hit, Affleck is also headlining Gone Girl, the David Fincher-helmed adaptation of your favorite book.

So does Runner Runner even matter for the future Batman? Everything about Affleck’s role in the film vibed like a lark: It was a scenery-chewing villain part, the kind of role that promises lots of time on yachts in Puerto Rico. But Affleck was a big part of the film’s promotion. It’s failure has to be seen, at least in part, as a sign that the Affleck renaissance hasn’t quite made him into a commercially viable leading man. Affleck the Director is more popular than Affleck the Actor.

Result: Neither Timberlake nor Affleck will starve as a result of Runner Runner‘s failure. But it’s much more of a failure for Timberlake — or anyhow, for Timberlake’s dreams of being a big-screen movie star. Barring a groundswell of support for his role in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Runner Runner is probably the last time Timberlake will be offered a starring role in a non-comedy movie. This is sad news only if you are Justin Timberlake, a ridiculously successful human being by any measure. For Affleck, Runner Runner is a minor dark note in a bright phase of his career, notable mainly because it feels beamed in from an alternate universe where Affleck never staged a comeback and stars in movies like Runner Runner.