Superheroes in the Age of the Super-celebrity

2016-07-05 12:32

The practice of casting the same well-known actors in prime time TV roles was a topic that preoccupied social media users in South Africa earlier this year. The contention that plum roles are reserved for a select group of well-known actors does not seem to be limited to the local silver screen. Judging by the latest Hollywood blockbuster releases, it seems to accord with the general trend of having established A-list stars play the roles of comic book characters; including that of the titular hero or lead characters, villains and lesser- known supporting characters; in big budget superhero movies.

The list of megastars who have played comic book characters includes Hugh Jackman, who plays Wolverine of the X-Men, and Christian Bale, who plays Batman. Tobey Maguire played Spiderman, whilst Robert Downey Jr plays Iron Man. Edward Norton, Mark Ruffalo and Eric Bana have all played the Hulk. Of the lesser-known characters, Paul Rudd played Ant Man, Nicholas Cage played the Ghost Rider while Josh Brolin played Jonah Hex (or “Jonah who?” as some readers might be wondering). Bradley Cooper played Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie in which the policy of reserving roles for well-known actors was all the more noticeable in that the voice for the five words of dialogue grunted by the character ‘Groot’ was provided by Vin Diesel.

The dominance of these plum roles by A-list stars is not confined to white men; black and female actors have also gotten in on the act. This can be seen in the casting of Wesley Snipes as Blade in the nineties, when he was at the peak of his popularity. This year, Anthony Mackie plays the Falcon and Chadwick Boseman plays the Black Panther in the latest Avengers movie. Samuel L Jackson memorably plays Nick Fury in several movies that are set in the Marvel universe. The list of actresses who have played superheroes includes stars such as Halle Berry, who plays Storm in the X-Men franchise, Scarlett Johansson, who plays the Black Widow, and Jennifer Garner who played Elektra.

It also appears as if poor reviews and fans’ opinions are no obstacle to their being awarded these roles. By way of support for this assertion, Ben Affleck plays Batman in his latest incarnation even though fans widely derided his earlier portrayal of Daredevil. Similarly, Ryan Reynolds played Deadpool after playing the title character in the Green Lantern, a film which received less than flattering reviews. Before Chris Evans played Captain America, a role with which he is now virtually synonymous, he played Johnny Storm in the critically-panned, though commercially successful, first two movies of the Fantastic Four series. Nor did Halle Berry’s universally lampooned performance in Catwoman harm her prospects of playing Storm in subsequent instalments of the X-Men franchise. Perhaps immunity from the consequences of failure is a superpower with which they are imbued.

At this point, many readers will probably be asking, “What’s the big deal all about?” After all, it’s just harmless entertainment or so it would seem. Of those who might not be as quick to dismiss this observation as trivia, some would insist that there are more important issues concerning diversity in Hollywood and the entertainment industry in general that attention ought to be devoted to. Think of the #Oscarssowhite furore and the boycott of this year’s Oscars ceremony by some black actors that dominated entertainment news headlines earlier in the year for example. Others will opine that it has always been this way in that famous actors have always played these characters. Earlier, Adam West played Batman in the cult sixties television series for example, the same character whose cape George Clooney donned during the nineties. Some too will wonder why famous actors should not be awarded with the best roles if these are the reward for being the best at their craft. Others will point out that studios are in the business of making money and use this to justify the casting of bankable stars on the grounds that studios have to maximise profits and returns on their investment.

Though each of these explanations seem, at face value, to contain valid points, they are unsatisfactory as they ignore certain features of the wider contemporary sociocultural landscape. These features may render casting choices a far from trivial matter. Most pointedly, the times are very different to those before television became the dominant form of mass popular entertainment. Nowadays, the reach of the movie and entertainment industry and its influence on popular culture is greater than it has ever been. Speculatively, this influence is also much more pronounced as traditional sources of value formation and socialisation; such as families and extended kin networks, religious institutions and political ideologies; hold much less sway over society (younger people especially) than they did previously. Given this social and cultural milieu, choices regarding the casting and awarding of superhero roles to superstars are likely to be far from trivial.

At some level, it is also deeply ironic to watch superheroes being played by stars whose faces are instantly recognisable. Consider that one of the main reasons why superheroes initially assumed costumed identities was to protect themselves and enable them to ‘fit in’. This ability allowed them to lead ‘normal’ or everyday lives. The desire for normality reflects their beginnings as ordinary men (and women) who were frequently given powers they did not want. In this way, they came to embody the hopes of the powerless and to reflect a belief in the power of the everyman to rise above his circumstances and make a difference in the world. This is their greatest power and the characteristic which, above all, ensures that the nerdy Clark Kent (Superman) has such enduring appeal or why Peter Parker (Spiderman) will always remain popular with the awkward teenager whom the girls pay little attention to, if any.

Few, however, would mistake the stars who portray these characters in the latest superhero blockbusters for ordinary men. Famous the world over, they are amongst the best rewarded workers on the planet and, for all the progressive causes they champion, rank among the elites of the 1%. Star power and celebrity status enable them to wield vast amounts of power which extends far beyond the realm of fantasy and mere entertainment. To get a glimpse of this power, one need only note how celebrity endorsement seems to be essential for success in a host of areas, be it the launch of a new product or a political campaign such as a bid for the US presidency.

Given their elevated profile, continuing to cast members of the same group of megastars in these blockbusters is unlikely to be viewed as a strictly business decision but could be interpreted as a commentary on existing social relations, as all meaningful art is supposed to. Specifically, in a world where economic inequality is widening and class tensions are increasing, casting choices could be used to colour the debate about the relationship between class and ability and, by extension, to explain the persistence of socioeconomic inequality in society. Moreover, the policy of reserving these roles for A-list stars who are members of the elite may, unwittingly, send the message that only members of the elite are worthy of personifying the values which superheroes do or aspiring to their lofty ideals. This may lead to a conflating of wealth and material success with virtue in the popular mind. This is likely to have a number of implications in this era of #hashtag activism, where a celebrity’s embrace of an in vogue humanitarian cause is often enough to ensure that it is elevated on the popular agenda and the adoption of a baby from a developing country is seen as a badge that is necessary to establish one’s humanitarian bona fides. The association of riches with virtue may provide affirmation that it is only the rich, as opposed to ordinary folk, that can ‘save’ members of the most vulnerable groups in society and our way of life as a whole. Pursuing this line of reasoning, could this messaging be responsible, in part, for the recent rise to the brink of the Republican presidential nomination by the unashamedly rich and publicity-seeking tycoon Donald Trump? Or could the star quality of the Clinton name and the Clintons’ well-known connections to the Hollywood movie industry explain Hilary Clinton’s rise in the polls amongst the Democrats?

Like the best comic book storylines, this article ends with a cliff-hanger. Alas, those readers who await answers in the next issue might be sorely disappointed as even attempting to provide these answers is far beyond the powers of this author, mere mortal that he is. As we anticipate the adventures that await our heroes, it might instead befit us to recall the phrase popularised by one of comic fans’ most beloved superheroes as we ponder the ramifications of entrusting the portrayal of these cultural icons to members of the elite: with great power comes great responsibility.

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