Masks and costumes help, but are pointless without a hero inside them.
Spoilers for: Iron Man
“ People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy and I can’t do that as Bruce Wayne. As a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed; but as a symbol… as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting. ” -Bruce Wayne, Batman Begins
Superhero movie casting is tricky. How do you find an actor who can portray the God-like Superman and then stoop to play mild-mannered Clark Kent? Who do you get to play Spider-Man when most of his screen time is portraying puny Peter Parker?
People tend to forget one simple thing, that heroes are heroic because of their secret identity. Superman is an overpowered monster without his farm boy upbringing in Smallville, Bruce Wayne’s Batman doesn’t use guns after seeing his parents gunned down, and Captain America succeeds because of Steve Rogers’ patriotism and love for America.
It’s not just those three. Let’s see how superhero movies deal with casting someone who can be both.
DC’s Disguised Champions
Looking at a Superman monument
Kara : “ This is how they see you.”
Clark: “I guess… It’s very flattering, but I don’t really think about it.”
Kara: “ You’re their champion. Bigger than life. No wonder the eyeglasses work — Nobody would look for you dressed like them!” – The Supergirl From Krypton
Superman has always been tricky to cast. In 1940, a radio show called The Adventures of Superman premiered with Bud Collyer playing Superman and Clark Kent. He managed to make the characters distinct by using a deeper voice while playing Superman.
On radio, the producers could have cast two different voice actors, but movies and television changed that for the most part.
When Christopher Reeve played Superman in the 1970s film series, he played Clark Kent and Superman as a dual role. He’d act heroically as Superman and then change his mannerisms, acting nervous, clumsy, and altogether normal as Clark Kent. There was even a scene where Lois Lane removed his glasses to clean them, but thanks to Reeve’s acting skills, he looked like Clark Kent without glasses, not Superman.
How about Batman? He’s a grim and gritty hero, Gotham City’s Dark Knight. But he’s also an arrogant, eccentric fool as Bruce Wayne. How do you have one guy portray both?
In 1989, Batman was released as a serious, gothic movie. So who played the title role? Michael Keaton, a comedic actor best known at the time for Beetlejuice. Fans were outraged, thinking there was no way that Keaton could play Batman. They didn’t realize that Keaton was perfect to play Bruce Wayne, the one person people wouldn’t think is Batman. Keaton wound up being one of the most iconic Batmen in film.
History repeated itself when Batman’s actor was revealed for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The big surprise? Oscar-winning actor Ben Affleck, who had previously bombed as superhero Daredevil in the eponymous movie. Many claimed that he would fail, even creating the derisive nickname ‘Batfleck’. Ben overcame expectations with an excellent performance as Batman. He was one of the only good things in that movie.
Marvel’s Masked Mystery Men
Green Goblin : “ We all wear masks, Spider-Man. But which one is real? The one that hides your face… or the one that is your face?” – Spectacular Spider-Man: The Uncertainty Principle
Marvel superheroes are less concerned with secret identities than DC, and they use that to their advantage. This was perfectly demonstrated at the end of Iron Man. Shortly before a press conference, Tony Stark is going over his cover story with S.H.I.E.L.D. He considers the new status quo, how he’ll need to claim Iron Man is his bodyguard*, the difficulty of simultaneously being a hero and CEO of a major company, and the perils of keeping his love interest safe without her knowing who he is. At the press conference, he simply announces to the world “The truth is… I am Iron Man”.
While Tony Stark was the first to reveal his secret identity, he wasn’t the last. Heroes like Captain America and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen in Age of Ultron) don’t even protect their identities. Jump over to Netflix and secret identities matter even less. While Daredevil struggles to hide his identity, Frank Castle doesn’t care if people know he’s the Punisher. Hell, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage don’t even bother with superhero names, they just go out and kick ass as is.
So what about a hero who cares about his secret identity? Look no further than Marvel’s golden boy, Spider-Man. Spidey’s first movie with Tobey Maguire in the title role was released in 2002. Maguire was a decent Spider-Man, but could get a little too “Dawson’s Creek”, seeming angsty and whiny with none of Spider-Man’s humor or sense of fun.
Maguire starred in two sequels, but was replaced by Andrew Garfield in the Amazing Spider-Man series. Garfield brought a more lighthearted Spider-Man to the table, but got screwed by being in overstuffed movies. With numerous enemies, plots, and planned sequels, there just wasn’t enough room for any Spider-Man, no matter how Amazing.
Tom Holland swung into the Spider-Man role in Captain America: Civil War. Unlike the previous actors, Tom knew to play Peter Parker in a costume, not Spider-Man. His Spidey was awkward, nerdy, and obviously trying not to geek out around all the other superheroes. Holland’s performance was also the most comic-accurate portrayal of Spider-Man ever. Here’s hoping he can keep it up in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
One great casting choice for that movie? Michael Keaton, the former Batman, as Spider-Man enemy The Vulture. I’ll tell you about that in our casting villains article.
Didya get All That?
Remember, masks and costumes help, but are pointless without a hero inside them.
* His cover story from the original comics.