Superheroes defeat movie stars

Chris Evans, who stars as Captain America, is almost entirely bound up in superhero work.
Chris Evans, who stars as Captain America, is almost entirely bound up in superhero work.PHOTO: WALT DISNEY STUDIOS

Anybody raised reading comic books has probably wished for two things: the immediate arrival of the next issue and serious flesh-andblood movies of favourite titles.

The first was impossible. The other didn't happen, for me, until X-Men opened in 2000, after I'd become an adult. Halle Berry was playing Storm, who hails from African sorceresses and whose mutant powers include controlling the weather. And that should have hit the spot.

But I left concerned. What did her Halle Berryness have to do with Storm? It was more like she had to fulfil Storm's terrestrial sensuality.

I know, I know: That's acting. And act she did. But after 16 years and at least four dozen movies, I'm starting to think it's something else. My love of comic books is conflicting with my need for movie stars.

The truth about Berry in that movie became the truth about many actors in most of these movies: There are too many people in them for any one actor (who isn't Hugh Jackman) to be put to completely satisfying use.

Right now, stars are beating one another silly in Captain America: Civil War - It's Robert Downey Jr versus Chris Evans versus Scarlett Johansson versus Paul Rudd versus Jeremy Renner versus Don Cheadle. So it went in the Avengers movies, a bunch of X-Men films (including Apocalypse, which is showing in Singapore), and Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice.

As good as comic-book movies have been for making it rain money for the studios - mainly Disney, Warner Bros and Fox - and as much fun as I've had at some of them, the genre has perverted what it means to watch certain actors in movies. When the character is more famous than the actor, how does anybody develop the trademarks of a star?

Evans' stardom, for example, is almost entirely bound up in superhero work. In two lousy Fantastic Four films (2005 and 2007), he played Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch. He could see beyond the source material and managed to give the part a personality. You watched him in those movies and junk such as Cellular (2004) and thought, he's got something.

His prize was Captain America, a guy whose moral rectitude makes him the punchline of jokes that Storm would have made. Evans' primary weapon used to be cocky self-surprise: He couldn't believe he was him. But there's increasingly little room for that sort of lightness in the Avengers galaxy. The brand comes first. Marvel is the star.

Evans' early approach to the movie superhero made a nifty template for fun that Downey shattered, in 2008, playing Tony Stark in what grew into three Iron Man movies. He made Stark a b***hy frontman for a band that didn't yet exist. He was making Robert Downey Jr movies. But an unintended consequence of his exuberant snark is that he was no longer himself. Besides the pile of Stark appearances and two stints as Sherlock Holmes, he's barely been able to do much else.

Almost 20 years ago, George Clooney had to fight off the stink of having been Batman. The part so terribly tortured Michael Keaton that, for an exorcism, he played an actor haunted by his star-making superhero role in Birdman (2014).

Now Batman is the place to be. Batman also doesn't care who plays him. Christian Bale? Ben Affleck? Doesn't matter. Whatever. To paraphrase Keaton's incarnation: He's still Batman.

Everybody else wants in too. This November, Benedict Cumberbatch stars in Doctor Strange, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton. In August, Will Smith joins Suicide Squad with Jared Leto and Viola Davis, among others.

You're not watching a movie anymore. You're watching a 24-pack of bottled water.

Instead of developing new properties to cannibalise for the next 30 years, studios are juicing the life out pre-existing intellectual property, such as Jurassic Park and Star Wars. We're in a perpetual state of antioriginalism, in which taste is dictated by a totalitarian recommendation algorithm. If you liked Star Wars, great. You'll be getting it for, like, ever.

This is different from the old Jerry Bruckheimer era, when a bunch of dudes would stand around and drive, or jailbreak, in, say, Con Air (1997) or The Rock (1996). The fun came from the onslaught of the casting - it rained famous men.

Casting was the point, too, of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's movies: Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon assessed their star pecking order and Julia Roberts' fame became a hilarious heist tool.

The world recently found out that Alden Ehrenreich is set to become a young Han Solo. His cornpone cowboy-movie star was nearly the best thing in the Coen brothers' Hail Caesar! (2016). He's what they call promising. And all that promise is about to get locked up in the franchise reincarnation business.

This isn't to say that he won't be able to do anything else. Jennifer Lawrence has managed to balance four movies as Katniss Everdeen, her X-Men duties and her work for David O. Russell. But she's an exception.

Chris Hemsworth is another. But even when he's racing cars for Ron Howard (Rush, 2013), code-hacking for Michael Mann (Blackhat, 2015) or being man-meat in Vacation (2015), I hate to say it: All I see is Thor.


•Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse are showing in cinemas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'Superheroes defeat movie stars'. Print Edition | Subscribe