Anyone who’s ever watched a movie and found themselves with a serious case of déjà vu is far from alone. Hollywood is notorious for recycling plots and rebooting franchises, so why not recycle superhero actors as well? Cases in point: Ryan Reynolds has played two different versions of Deadpool, as well as Green Lantern, and Josh Brolin is a juggernaut of super-heroic characters – hopping from the lead role in the cinematic bomb Jonah Hex, to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where he’s Phase 3 big bad Thanos, and then to the Deadpool 2, where he just landed the role of Cable after an avalanche of speculation and a marathon casting call.
But is it effective to keep signing the same clutch of actors into similar comic book roles? Same name casting sometimes results in unnecessary teases, like when fans wondered if Alfre Woodard’s role in Luke Cage was related to her role in Captain America: Civil War, even though she played an unrelated character. Considering the vast stable of eager and talented actors to select from, it seems like a lot of the same stars wind up portraying superheroes and super villains across the comic book movie landscape.
Reusing gifted and experienced performers is certainly understandable. However, is it more effective to maintain a cluch of recognizable faces, or infuse the genre with fresh blood?
A Case for Familiar Faces
One could make the case that superhero acting is easy (although they’d probably be way off). Sure, the characters aren’t always the most well-developed, and many comic book movies focus more on massive set-pieces and spectacle-laced CGI than backstories. Additionally, most people know the history of Superman and Captain America, so it’s not too challenging to milk pathos from the characters.
On the other hand, modern superhero flicks have to try harder than ever to avoid the mistakes of the past (as there are massive franchises depending upon them), as well as compete with the vast array of other action-fantasy films out there. They require a radically different approach than simply being in peak physical condition and looking good in a cape. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has an established motif and sense of humor, much like the DC Extended Universe is trying to develop their own distinct flavor. Not only that, but both major shared universes are landing top-flight actors in key roles, such as Robert Downey Jr., Ben Affleck, and Scarlett Johansson. Hiring an actor that can keep up with these major players and also feels comfortable in their own skin, much less in spandex, is vital to a retaining an audience’s attention and pulling them into the character in the midst of a good deal of plot and action. Landing an experienced thespian who’s already logged some superhero hours is a big help.
Studios know that fans appreciate actors they’re accustomed to. Ryan Reynolds has an affable personality and is a well-respected actor. Despite the failings of Green Lantern, his second turn as Deadpool was earned after he fiercely campaigned on behalf of a solo movie. Similarly, Ben Affleck, whose own turn as Daredevil wasn’t exactly his coup de grace, has otherwise managed to build an impressive career in the business. Getting another shot at a superhero role can also help actors like Affleck, Reynolds, and Halle Berry (who was marked by Catwoman after her Storm-y turn in X-Men) recoup their comic book movie missteps.
Nevertheless, there are a few problems with putting the same high-profile names (even behind prostheses) in every other superhero flick.
Keeping the Superhero World Fresh
Josh Brolin is awesome, and we’re the first to admit it. He’s already made an impact on the MCU by lending his distinctive voice and facial motion capture to Thanos, and his hiring as Cable also fits the bill. The trouble is, despite the major differences between the characters (Nathan Summers being a time-traveling mutant hero vs. Thanos as an immortal, purple mega-villain), Brolin will still play a significant role in two major Marvel-based franchises releasing in 2018 and beyond. His face will be everywhere, which is fantastic for Brolin, but his dual roles could burn out or confuse casual audiences.
Naturally, the average moviegoer isn’t a fool, but they don’t always have a PhD in a Comic Book Movie-ology. Questions could arise like: “is this the same guy as the white haired character?” or “why isn’t Brolin’s face purple anymore?” While perhaps not integral to an audience member’s enjoyment of the movie or detracting from the plot, there could be a moment or two where someone leans over to their friend during Spider-Man: Homecoming, perplexed about why Batman is terrorizing Spider-Man?
Admittedly, superhero confusion is a minor issue compared to creating quality pictures and deep stories, something vital when dealing with the complex series of interlocking gears inside an expanding cinematic universe. If each comic book movie-verse wishes to maintain its sense of uniqueness, hiring the same stars wily-nily could create a few problems – if not fan-based confusion than with crossover branding and merchandising issues. While there is no doubt that Chris Evans’ Johnny Storm vanished into the glory of his Steve Rogers, swapping in the same actor throughout several different franchises could actually muddy the otherwise distinct lines the studios are trying to build, despite the very distinct universes.
More so, it also means an actor with long list of superhero credits like Affleck or Brolin could occupy a role that might otherwise introduce a stellar relative newcomer such as Chris Pratt or Brie Larson. Certainly, many stars cross in and out of the comic movie subgenre, but there are countless up-and-coming actors and even older, more experienced actors that have yet to grace a superhero flick. In the long run, recasting comic heroes comes down to whether it’s more important to have a recognizable name or fresh blood.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
Whether it’s Superman/The Atom Brandon Routh or Batfleckdevil, the superhero business should always be less about who plays the character and more about whether they’re right for the character. Hiring a famous persona looks good on paper (hypothetically), but it should never preclude lesser-known actors if they fit the bill just as well.
With such a vast and talented acting pool out there, shared universes can and probably should shy away from crowding their films with players from adjacent or prior superhero films and universes. As franchises expand and flesh out their territories, seeking less-experienced if recognizable performers could pull in new blood and energize the unwieldy behemoths as they expand and refine their own character base and mythologies. In the long run, each situation should probably be judged on a case-by-case basis, but moderation in roles much as with everything else, seems to be the key.
By seeking a balance of repeat players and relative newcomers, studios can avoid frustrating or confusing fans and keep their universes as evergreen and as distinct as possible for years to come.