As principal photography on Daredevil wound down last July, writer-director Mark Steven Johnson got up his nerve. He'd heard the speculation that Ben Affleck, with whom he'd been laboring to turn the comic-book tale of a blind, satanically costumed vigilante into a potential film franchise, was dating singer-actress-perfume mogul Jennifer Lopez. Affleck wasn't talking. But the story had just begun percolating in the media, and Johnson couldn't resist giving in to curiosity. - ''The rumor was they'd [already] gotten engaged,'' says the filmmaker. ''So I e-mailed him and said, 'What's the deal? Are you or are you not?''' As Johnson remembers it, Affleck issued a noncommittal, tongue-in-cheek response: ''He wrote, 'Learn my s -- - at the checkout counter like everybody else.''' - And who knew there'd be so much to learn? In the time it's taken Daredevil to speed through postproduction on its way to a Feb. 14 release, the 30-year-old Affleck has morphed from just another well-chronicled Hollywood actor into the paparazzi-bait main attraction of an information-age circus, lately dubbed The Bennifer Show by average folks who just can't get enough of it. ''It's staggering to me,'' says Affleck, taking a break on the Chicago set of the comedy Surviving Christmas. ''I'm confounded by it. If ever the question has been explored of whether there's a limit to what people want to hear about a couple, we've explored it.''
The PDA-loving duo first met as costars last winter on Gigli (pronounced ''Jeely''), a Mob comedy directed by Scent of a Woman's Martin Brest that's not scheduled to reach theaters until August. After Daredevil wrapped, the couple played husband and wife in Jersey Girl, a portrait of parenthood written and directed by Kevin Smith that contractually cannot debut before Gigli (it's slotted for fall 2003). Meanwhile, myriad details of the pair's offscreen courtship -- the divorce petition that Lopez, 32, filed against second husband Cris Judd, the official announcement by Lopez of her engagement to Affleck, the ring, the lavish family gifts, the creepily voyeuristic ''Jenny From the Block'' music video in which Affleck caresses J. Lo's celebrated rump -- have played out like a whole new brand of reality entertainment. Call him The Ben-chelor.
''No one can say I'm living an unexamined life,'' says Affleck, congenitally quick to deprecate himself. ''Of course, it may remain unexamined by me. But the tabloids have certainly examined it thoroughly.'' That they have, with headlines on the order of ''Ben & Jen Get Married!'' (They didn't -- it was just make-believe for Jersey Girl.) And in December, People magazine, which had put Affleck's stint in alcohol-abuse rehab on its cover in August 2001, elected Affleck the ''Sexiest Man Alive.''