Explosions! Super-powered fisticuffs! Cool sci-fi gadgets! Caped flight! That’s all the appeal of comic-book action movies is about—right? Everyone knows that. Don’t they?
Maybe not. Maybe it was true once, way back when. An 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 whichever actor took the role had to look the part, it was the established character—the reporter secret identity with the dorky glasses, the tights and the cape and the spit-curl 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 super-charming in the role … well, that was just a bonus.
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.
This is a recent thing, though. 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 United States 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 made 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 ultra-charismatic star, Robert Downey Jr., in Tony Stark’s powered armor. Imagining the film without Downey Jr. is impossible; 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 was Christian Bale’s elegant stalking through 2005’s Batman Begins, meanwhile, that allowed us to get to a sequel, 2008’s The Dark Knight—but surely it was Heath Ledger’s unforgettable performance as an enthrallingly bleak Joker that was the real draw.
To see what happens when the wrong actor gets cast in the wrong set of spandex, endure—if you can—2003’s Daredevil, in which Ben Affleck simply hasn’t got what it takes to make us believe a blind man can fight crime with superhearing. Or 2004’s Catwoman, in which Halle Berry embarrasses herself in the title role. Or 2005’s Elektra, whom Jennifer Garner utterly fails to embody. Or Nicolas Cage behind the flaming skull of 2007’s Ghost Rider. None of them are bad actors per se, but badly cast in super-roles that don’t super-suit 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, a role that originally went to Dougray Scott before a scheduling conflict necessitated recasting. It scarcely bears thinking about.