question of the day: Do super actors make super heroes?
Iron Man 2 held on to the top spot of the North American box office this past weekend, adding another $52 million to its coffers and handily trouncing the No. 2 film, Robin Hood, which earned $36 million, even though the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe adventure was new. (They jointly did much better a few years ago, when American Gangster opened to $43 million; adjusted for inflation, Gladiator’s 2000 opening of $35 million would today be around $51 million.)
When it comes to comic book movies, the conventional wisdom today is still that fans are turning out only because we want to see a character we know and love from a comic book… but the conventional wisdom may not be wise enough. Fans these days don’t want just, you know, anyone taking on our favorite fictional characters: we want actors — actual actors, not musclebound meatheads — whom we know we can trust to do those superheroes justice. Fans of Captain America are excited at the moment not because a Captain America movie is in the offing but because Chris Evans — cute, funny, snarky, charming, and irresistible, he was the only thing that made the otherwise terrible Fantastic Four movies tolerable — will be portraying him. In fact, the producers and Evans himself sent out feelers to the fan community before he formally accepted the role, to see how fans would react. Someone, at least, knows the score.
Maybe it was true, once, that all fans needed were explosions! superpowered fisticuffs! cool sci-fi gadgets! caped flight! The unknown Christopher Reeve could step into the role of Superman in the 1970s, the beginning of the modern era of the superhero movie, because while whatever actor took the role had to look the part, it was the preestablished character — the reporter secret identity with the dorky glasses, the tights and the cape and the cowlick of the Man of Steel — that was going to sell the movie. In fact, a known face might have been a distraction to audiences who just wanted to see “Superman.” If Reeve turned out to be supercharming in role, well, that was just a bonus.
And in fact, it seemed, just a few short years ago, that the likes of Tobey Maguire was an odd choice for Spider-Man. But the poignancy he brought to the role translated into mega box office — the 2002 first installment of Sam Raimi’s trilogy about Peter Parker is the second biggest superhero movie to date, earning more than $400 million in the U.S. and Canada. It wasn’t the action that kept us coming back for more (though Raimi is indeed a master of it): it was Maguire’s sweet, soulful performance when he wasn’t in his Spidey duds that makes the film soar.
Likewise, 2008’s Iron Man — the fifth biggest superhero movie to date ($318 million in North America) — actually deflates whenever it hides its ultracharismatic star, Robert Downey Jr., in Tony Stark’s powered armor. Imagining the film without Downey Jr. is impossible… but the irrepressible cheekiness and the dour darkness he paradoxically brings to every role makes the film a must-see not only for fans of the source comic or action lovers in general but simply as an example of movie-star magnetism in motion.
It seems wildly unfair to suggest that it wasn’t Christian Bale who enticed so many people to 2008’s The Dark Knight, because it was his elegant stalking through 2005’s Batman Begins that we got a sequel in the first place. (Begins: 11th biggest superhero movie ever, with earnings of $205 million; Knight: No. 1, $533 million.) But surely it was Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance as an enthrallingly bleak Joker that was the real draw.
And audiences don’t flock indiscriminatedly to superhero movies. Perhaps it’s telling that when the wrong actor gets cast in the wrong set of spandex, the result can be unendurable: in 2003’s Daredevil, Ben Affleck simply hasn’t got what it takes to make us believe a blind man can fight crime with superhearing. In 2004’s Catwoman, Halle Berry embarrasses herself in the title role. In 2005, Jennifer Garner utterly failed to embody Elektra. They’re none of them bad actors per se, but badly cast in superroles that don’t supersuit them.
And then there are the actors who appear to have been born to play a superhero. Imagine X-Men without Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. It scarcely bears thinking about.
Do super actors make super heroes? Is a well-cast lead merely an indication of an all-around better production? Is something else at work that distinguished the fun, audience-pleasing blockbuster superhero movie from the one that flops?
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