Superhero movies are the big champions of the cineplex these days – the most steadily reliable big-buck earners Hollywood studios can put out. Casting these films is therefore a big deal; a studio has to both please a core fanbase that is very finicky about the depiction of the characters, and pick someone who can carry a mega-budget film on a global stage, drawing in big crowds all along the way.
When you lay it out like that, superhero movie casting is a really big deal for all parties involved (fans and studio) – and lately, frankly, we’ve been tossed quite a few curveballs. “Race-switch casting” has continued to court controversy, as actor Michael B. Jordan will play a black version of The Human Torch in the new Fantastic Four movie and Jamie Foxx a black version of Electro in Amazing Spider-Man 2. Even without race-switching controversy, comic book fans have been almost as perplexed about actors like Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Jesse Eisenberg being cast as characters like Batman, Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor in DC’s Batman vs. Superman movie; Michael Douglas playing an elderly Hank Pym in Marvel’s Ant-Man; or Channing Tatum possibly playing Gambit in the X-Men movieverse.
Indeed it seems that, at the moment, superhero movie casting involves more twists and surprises than an M. Night Shymalan movie – and those unpredictable choices are causing rifts all over the fanbase. For every person who is intrigued and/or patient for forthcoming evidence of an actor’s performance or a film’s quality, it seems like two more are outraged to the point of boycotting a film they have never seen, based solely on the fact that it does not fit their mold of what that comic book movie should be. But let’s be honest here: superhero movie casting is, at its core, a pragmatic and business-oriented process – one far simpler than the criticisms and conspiracies that many angered fans find catharsis in flinging all over The Internet.
If you don’t frequent Internet movie sites or their subsequent comment forums, then maybe (hopefully) you’ve been spared a lot of this. In case you aren’t aware, here are the top complaints fans make about Hollywood’s mis-casting of superhero movies:
- The filmmakers are idiots who have little knowledge and/or respect for the source material.
- Casting directors are idiots who don’t understand these characters – or the obvious casting choices that fans post online everyday (which should be followed without hesitation).
- In the case of race-switching, it is political correctness pandering meant to foster the illusion of diversity, which is disrespectful to the tradition of these characters AND the general public.
You hear these three reactions (in slightly varied forms) every time another surprising or canon-altering superhero casting announcement is made; and yet, nearly all of those same complaints seem to miss the simplest and (to me at least) most obvious fact about the casting process: It’s all about business and making the most bucks possible, and it’s a strategy that has traditionally worked.
THE TRUTH ABOUT MOVIE BUSINESS
If you’ve never heard the term “demographics” allow me to elaborate: in the eyes of a business (like major movie studios) society is broken up into a pie chart. Children, adults, males, females, minority, non-minority, etc., etc… the divisions vary, but the core idea of the demo pie chart remains the same: know the playing field. Now, some businesses thrive by focusing on one sliver or section of the chart as their target demo – but major tentpole movies are NOT one those businesses. A movie that costs $100+ million ($200+ million in some cases) is trying to take as big a bite out of that demographic pie chart as possible – and casting plays a huge role in that agenda.
I don’t make the rules of human behavior (I sometimes like to pretend I do), but it is not a groundbreaking revelation to point out that things like the race, gender and the age of a cast of actors are major factors in a movie’s appeal. For example: most gross-out raunch-com movies are seen by younger people, while mature rom-coms tend to skew more toward adults. And before you say race isn’t a factor in all this, ask yourself: how many movies with majority black casts achieve “crossover success” at the box office? (Hint: the fact that the term “crossover success” is an actual term is a sign in and of itself.) For a major tentpole, the filmmakers need to recoup every dollar possible in their race for big profits (a race that now seems to have a billion, not million-dollar finish line) – and that means tapping every pocket from as many demographic quadrants as possible to get it.
Now, a case can be made for why ‘pandering to PC standards’ or ‘affirmative-action casting’ are the enemies of true progression; but then again, there is plenty of evidence that diversity actually sells when it comes to blockbuster films. The Fast & Furious series is one of the most successful non-superhero movie franchises currently in business, and we’ve already pointed out that having one of the most diverse casts in Hollywood (black, white, Latino, Asian, and everything in between) is probably a strong indicator as to why those films are now inching toward the billion-dollar mark worldwide (key word) with each new installment. Sure, it could be the mindless action and pretty faces selling those tickets, but something tells us that allowing gearheads all over the world to see their segment of the sub-culture represented onscreen doesn’t exactly limit the movie’s appeal.
…Which brings us back to the more recent example of the Fantastic Four reboot.
THE TRUTH ABOUT MOVIE-MAKING
People like to fantasize that if Marvel Studios held the rights to ALL of its characters (like F4) then all would be well. That’s a nice fallacy, but Marvel Studios is probably the one place where they know better than anyone how problematic it is to sell a modern Fantastic Four - and no doubt Fox has had similar concerns about the overall viability of the property.
According to Diamond Comics, in January 2014 Fantastic Four was number 76 out of the top 100 comics sold for the month – which is more or less the tier it seems to be stuck on, these days. That’s to say: the readership is not all that strong. If the core source material is not scorching-hot with comic book fans, why would a studio gamble on that exact same concept selling as a major blockbuster film? It might seem strange and/or offensive to say this, but a story about an all-white family of superheroes just may not have enough wide appeal to make it in the modern global film market. That concept and setup didn’t attract a large audience to a show like ABC’s cancelled superhero family TV series No Ordinary Family - which was essentially a re-tooled Fantastic Four. After a one-and-done TV concept and low comic book sales for the “classic” version, it’s fair to say that all-American superhero families aren’t quite the draw they used to be.
As cynical as it may seem, casting Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm has generated massive interest in this project (angry comments ARE interest, remember) – and though it may be regrettable to admit, seeing a Fantastic Four movie with a black actor in a lead role WILL secure a certain audience that would not see the movie, otherwise (“Oh, Human Torch is black now? And it’s the dude from The Wire? I’m in!“) Add to that a respected young British actor (Jamie Bell) as The Thing, and a spunky up-and-coming actress (Kate Mara) to give females a more grounded and relatable Sue Storm (as opposed to super beauty queen Jessica Alba) and already one can see where the filmmakers are going with their demographic reach: all over the chart.
DC’s Batman vs. Superman movie is pulling star-power (Affleck), international appeal (Gadot), indie/greek cred (Eisenberg) – with rumors of more diversity in the works – in order to open up their mega-tentpole to as many people customers as possible. Peel away the makeup and CGI from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy gamble and you’ll find a full-service demographic chart, including popular actors of color (Zoe Saldana, Djimon Hounsou), A-list star-power (Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel), indie/comedy cred (Chris Pratt, John C. Reilly), etc. Captain America 2 follows the same pattern with Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford in the mix; Amazing Spider-Man 2 has Jamie Foxx and Dane Dehaan to help spread its reach… This wide-net demographic (catering, pandering, servicing – call it what you will) is simply part of the blockbuster movie game plan, and superhero movies are simply the biggest blockbusters of the day.
In short, this is all just Hollywood business as usual: doing what it “takes” to make big bucks.
With a film like Fantastic Four - where there are fewer characters to work with – the deviations in casting are much more apparent than, say, having Bradley Cooper’s voice behind a CGI space raccoon – or a having a character like Electro (who virtually no one has ever nominated for a “Best Supervillain” award) suddenly switch races. Regardless, the underlying principle is the same: a blockbuster film needs to have MUCH wider reach than a comic book, and when hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line, the “obligation” to “honor” the source material comes in at a distant second.
…And why not? After all, in the end, how much is fanboy happiness really worth?
THE TRUTH ABOUT COMICS & FANS
Photo Credit: Callie Cosplay | David Love Photography
As stated before: the Fantastic Four comic book hasn’t exactly been a hot seller. Generally speaking, as a modern-day concept, F4 is shaky – whether on the comic book page or the big-screen. But then, this isn’t the first slump Fantastic Four has found itself in – and the “stunt casting” for this property started LONG before Michael B. Jordan came along. In fact, the Fantastic Four comic has been swapping original members for other (often more lucrative) Marvel superheroes for years.
Those who still read the books will tell of recent stories where Spider-Man and even (gasp) Doctor Doom were part of the team; in the early ’90s, we got a completely New Fantastic Four that was made up of Spider-Man, Wolverine, Hulk and Ghost Rider (guys you still see in the movies today, get it?); within the last few years, a “New Fantastic Four 2.0” included characters like Red Hulk, Venom, X-23 and Ghost Rider (again). Those rotations usually help to reinvigorate the property when the core Four have lost reader interest – and such alterations to the team lineup over the years illustrates an important reality:
Comic books change all of the time.
Comic fans know the term “retcon” well; it’s a term that refers to the (often drastic) changes that a new comic book creative team makes to existing canon. In terms of creative vision, comic books are like seasons: with each new creative team, a book can change to a whole different climate. Some are harsh and bad climates, others fun and pleasant – but within the medium it is generally accepted that change is not only a reality, but the norm. Somehow, that aspect of comic books is being lost in translation to film.
When looking at casting choices, story directions, costumes or pretty much any other aspect of comic book movies, it seems there are a lot of fans who demand to see something set in stone within their minds. However, a stone monument to a comic book property is hypocritical when comic books themselves aren’t fixated like stone, but are instead fluid like water. In other words: if comic books can shake things up, change, and present new visions of their characters and stories, why can’t comic book movies?
If Chronicle director Josh Trank drops a trailer for a wildly different (but awesome-looking) Fantastic Four movie, hardcore fans may hold out and boycott it for not sticking to canon, but a lot of average moviegoers – from a wide range of demographics – might be inspired to go see it. The same goes for the new Batman, Wonder Woman and Lex Luthor of Batman/Superman, or those strange critters from Guardians of the Galaxy. If the new movie version looks cool, the old canon will be quickly forgotten by the masses – if it was ever really known at all. Which brings us to a pivotal point regarding the future of these films.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THE FUTURE
Superhero Movie Math: x > y
At the moment, when it comes to the success of comic book movies, many fans assume “x” to represent “the core fanbase,” and “y” to represent “the general moviegoing public.” However, that’s specious reasoning. A film like this Fantastic Four reboot, if it snags mainstream appeal in a wide net of demographics – but is boycotted by the hardcore fanbase – it could be a solid success, which would forever redefine the equation above. If studios see box office results that prove “x” to be “the general moviegoing public” and “y” to be “the core fanbase”? It will be all-too apparent that radical changes to the material won’t doom a comic book movie’s chances at mainstream success; ergo, catering to fan demands will be seen as a very distant second to creating a version of the property with global appeal as a blockbuster movie.
Some fans may not realize it, but we’ve already entered into this transition, and the results aren’t looking good for fanboys: Iron Man 3 pissed a lot of comic book fans off (that whole Mandarin issue) – but that didn’t stop it from reaching a billion-dollar box office payout. To many non-comic book fans, Shane Black’s version of Iron Man was a hit and the anger about the Mandarin was short-lived; Thor: The Dark World showed little sign fan backlash as it clocked over half a billion dollars worldwide. When the money is still on the table – even though fanboy love is not – studios have little motivation to cater and cow to the wishes of a niche group – a realization they seem to be quickly coming to.
There is no sacred mold to adhere to, anymore. Superheroes have hit the mega-mainstream and like all things in the pop-culture zeitgeist, there comes the obligation to appeal to as many people as possible. That is almost the exact opposite philosophy of the intimate niche worlds comic book writers and artists create for readers of a certain era and context – before the books inevitably evolve and change to create new and different intimate niche worlds for new generations of readers. As comic book movies age, they will carry on in the tradition of their source material inspirations and evolve and change in attempt to meet the different contexts of different eras. Superman may get edgier, Lex Luthor scrawnier, Johnny Storm blacker, or Hank Pym older, but one thing will remain constant:
People won’t pay to see a crappy movie.
After all this serious talk, that’s really the punchline: much of this deep, social/economical/racial/philosophical debate will ultimately be decided by what these respective movies look like when the trailers and/or other promotional materials are released. If they look badass, the world (including many of the sworn boycotters) will line up to buy tickets to the No. 1 source of blockbuster movie entertainment; however, if the trailers and promo materials look like garbage – faithful to the source material or not – then even the most ardent supporters will turn on the film like Caesar at the Senate. And if/when the box office returns are low, it’ll be back to the drawing board for the studio.
As always seems to be the case, dollars will decide – so spend wisely, rather than dogmatically.
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