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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

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?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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  • JoshDM

    Ghost Rider and Kick Ass with Nic Adaptation Cage!

  • JoshDM

    Unbreakable with Bruce Hudson Hawk Willis

  • JoshDM

    Defendor with Woody Cheers Harrelson.

  • Jace

    A well cast lead is certainly a big step but without a good script that lets them really play around with the character and embody it then its doomed to failure. Ghost Rider is a good example, Cage was a decent casting choice (they may have done better but they certainly could have done worse) but the script was so horrible it was going to be bad no matter who was cast.
    Spider Man, Iron Man, and Batman are all examples of writers and directors that understand and respect the source material enough to give the actors the building blocks to make the character live.

  • Brian

    In ’78, the tag line for Superman was “You will believe a man can fly.” Now a college kid with a hi-def camera and some decent software can make you believe a Ford Taurus can fly. You’ve got to believe that a man (or woman) would put on the cape and tights in the first place, and you need an excellent actor to pull that off.*

    The actors who have made the biggest superhero movies of the ’00s successful have not necessarily been big stars at the time they signed onto the movie – but each one was at least an actor with a reputation for total commitment to a role. I think that’s the key. It’s saying, “If this amazing actor can take this role this seriously, so can you.”

    It started with Bryan Singer casting a couple of Royal Shakespeare vets in X-Men. And, of course, Batman Begins was crammed to the gills with Serious Actor street cred. Morgan Freeman! Michael Caine! Gary Oldman! Liam Neeson! Hey, was that Rutger Frakking Hauer? (The less said about Katie Holmes, the better.) Have you ever seen any of those actors (let alone RDJ, Christian Bale, etc.) phone in a performance? Nope. Nic Cage, on the other hand, fairly regularly gives the impression that it’s a miracle he made it out of his trailer. Big difference.

    *And yes, a great writer and director, too.

  • Hank Graham

    Movies are predominantly about the casting, but I have to agree with Brian, too. The script and director matter.

    I would, for example, agree with you about Jennifer Garner being simply wrong for “Elektra.” But with “Catwoman,” I’d say there is no actress on the planet that could have sold that script and that direction. Whoever got that part was going to end up being embarrassed.

  • A couple of reasons why we notice Maguire’s and Downey’s compelling performances when they’re out of their supersuits:

    1) There’s not as much interesting “actorly” stuff to do when the hero is in crime-fighting mode. It’s all flying around and punching and kicking and performing stunts.

    2) When they’re in their costumes, you can’t see their faces. Batman’s mask mostly conceals the actor’s face, too. Depriving an actor of his most potent tool for expression inevitably takes something away from the performance. I suspect this is one reason why the writers always found a reason to rip Spidey’s mask half-off in the movies, just so we could see what was going on on Maguire’s face. And while Ledger was undeniably stellar as the Joker, I suspect he also overshadowed Bale to the degree he did partly because it was hard to see what Bale was doing behind his mask.

    I think the fact that certain iconic heroes wear masks makes it easier for studio heads to consider replacing the actors behind those masks: they think the audience is drawn to the mask and the superheroic derring-do, not the acting. RDJ is certainly proving the value that real acting talent can bring to a superhero character.

    It’s also interesting that Reeve’s and Jackman’s characters didn’t hide behind masks. Their faces and their acting were essential in informing their characters, even in crime-fighting mode. As a result their faces are now part of their characters’ iconic image, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in those roles. It was interesting seeing Brandon Routh’s interpretation of Superman; he was essentially trying to impersonate Reeve, as if Reeve had himself become the iconic mask for subsequent actors to wear.

    Anyway, just theorizing… :-)

  • I agree with much of what’s been said here.

    I don’t think most people go see a comic book movie the first time because of an actor, but I do think good acting is a part of why they watch it a second time, which naturally leads to sequels, so I think RD or CB is more important to Iron Man 2 and Dark Knight’s openning weekends than to that of their first movies.

    I used to be surprised that so many good actors would be willing to be in comic book movies, but eventually I realized that a well written comic book movie really lets an actor spread their wings, to really go for it, in a way that a rom com or art film might not. Besides, there’s good money in it.

  • RogerBW

    I think there are multiple overlapping fanbases involved. The few people who read comics may be vocal, but there simply aren’t enough of them to make a big-budget film profitable. There are people like me, who tend to avoid superhero films because of the usual cliched plotting and writing but who can be sucked in by a good performance (yes, Iron Man) in spite of the superhero baggage; I suspect there may be quite a lot of such people…

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