Solid B: Marvel and their Superheroes

Marvel’s got superhero casting down to an art form. But the science behind it may surprise you.

One of my friends recently pointed out Marvel’s somewhat ingenious casting process to me via this article at The Daily Dot. The article is lengthy, but essentially boils down to this:

Marvel takes B-list actors, has them sign multi-film contracts (up to nine, in some cases), and can essential end up managing half that actor’s output for up to the next 15 years of their life. The actors can get burnt out, win Oscars, or quit acting in anything other than a Marvel movie, but they’re locked into that contract.

Looking at the roster of actors they’ve included in The Avengers franchise, that statement seems to ring about half true. These actors certainly fall (or fell, at the time of their casting) into that category:

  • Chris Evans
  • Clark Gregg
  • Chris Hemsworth
  • Tom Hiddleston
  • Jeremy Renner
  • Cobie Smulders

However, there’s also a significant list of notable actors who’d already proven their bona fides before they were cast in the Marvel franchise:

  • Jeff Bridges
  • Robert Downey, Jr.
  • Samuel L. Jackson
  • Scarlett Johannson
  • Gwyneth Paltrow
  • Natalie Portman
  • Mark Ruffalo

*Note: I’m not exactly certain where Jeremy Renner falls on this list, but I’ve put him under the B-list. He was nominated for Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker and The Town before being cast in Iron Man 2, but as far as name recognition is concerned, he’s only comparable to Mark Ruffalo. Mr. Ruffalo’s career was much lengthier and has more success than Mr. Renner had at the time of signing (which translated into greater bargaining power). Hence, Mr. Renner is B-list, and Mr. Ruffalo is A-list.

Of the upcoming cast members from sequels or movies expanding on the franchise, the breakdown looks like this:

A-list:

  • Bradley Cooper
  • Michael Douglas

B-list:

  • Josh Brolin
  • Vin Diesel
  • Evangeline Lilly
  • Chris Pratt
  • Paul Rudd
  • Zoe Saldaña
  • Emily VanCamp
  • Patrick Wilson

Between them all, these actors account for 6 Academy Awards and 12 Academy Award nominations, plus a slew of Golden Globes wins and noms, Emmy wins and noms, and a cool collective box office total in excess of $2.5 billion.

So yes, Marvel’s done a fantastic job of mixing foundational members of the industry with up-and-coming actors. But they’ve also unwittingly taken an ongoing trend in superhero movies and turned it into a business model.

The fact of the matter is, most people today don’t see movies because of the actors in them. With their strategy to save money and tie actors to multiple movies, Marvel’s inadvertently illustrated this point in a small but extremely telling sampling of blockbuster season. They banked on the fact that their franchise’s supporting character actors, premise and strong director/producer guidance would get the movies the attention they needed, more than the stars at the ostensible center of the films.

It’s actually a strategy that dates back to some of the oldest superhero movies. Batman had Jack Nicholson ostensibly play second fiddle to Michael Keaton, and Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando both supported Christopher Reeves in Superman. But no one’s been quite as successful at monetizing the trend as Marvel – or as insistent on making sure their roles are filled according to such strict rules.

Other studios are following in their footsteps. Henry Cavill (a C-list star best known The Tudors on Showtime) was cast as Superman with a supporting cast that included Lawrence Fishburne, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, and Russell Crowe (all A-list). Ben Affleck plays the DC Universe’s Robert Downey Jr. in the upcoming Justice League franchise, with B to C list actors like Gal Gadot, Ray Fisher and Jason Momoa. Meanwhile, the A-list supporting cast is being rounded out by the likes of Jeremy Irons and Jesse Eisenberg.

And the X-Men franchise is its own strange hodgepodge of A-list stars combined with C-list personalities that I’m not going near it with a ten-foot pole at this point.

It’s an interesting trend, to be sure. I want to look at it and use it as evidence that the age of the movie star is dying, but I simply don’t have the evidence to back that claim up. After all, these movies are minting A-list stars left and right, with no sign of slowing down.

On the other hand, I can’t say that the age of the movie star isn’t on the downtrend, because I can name on one hand the number of movies I’ve seen in the past five years based largely on the actor in the lead role. In case you’re wondering, MaleficentBlue Jasmine, and The Iron Lady. I’m usually an outlier when it comes to these matters, but in this case, I’m typical (just not genre-wise).

So what’s it all mean? All this could be due to one of the following:

  • Established movie stars are cashing in more often on their credibility by taking bit parts in action movies, as they have for decades.
  • Getting established movie stars to round out the supporting cast of a superhero movie is a sure way to get people in the theater seats (e.g., The Hunger Games).
  • Action movies are getting better, and better material brings a higher grade of actor.

My guess: it’s a combination of all these factors and a few more I can’t think of. But I’ll be watching this trend carefully to see how it continues to play out.

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