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Ignorance Is Bliss, Or The Perils Of Casting Iconic Characters

Well, now we have our new movie Superman, and like Christopher Reeve and Brandon Routh before him, he’s a relative unknown. It’s a good thing, too, because that way it’s easier to feel optimistic about the final movie. When it comes to on-screen translations of our favorite fictional characters, ignorance is bliss. It’s a little something I call the Michael Cera rule.

I admit it: I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything with Henry Cavill in it… or, if I have, he made so little an impression that I don’t remember him, which we’ll chalk up to bad luck, if true. But that’s probably the best case scenario for Warner Bros, who can announce him for the dual role of Clark Kent/Superman and rest assured that the majority of the reaction will be “Who? Well, the photos look all right.” For contrast, think of the reaction when Anne Hathaway was announced as Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, and the internet broke into factions to argue whether she was sexy enough, whether someone who’d been in The Devil Wears Prada was worthy of a Christopher Nolan movie, and just how long they’d been waiting for her to put on a rubber catsuit (Okay, maybe not that last one. Although, you never know). Or, to use my own prejudices against me, Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Here’s the thing: I really, really like the Scott Pilgrim books. And, for that matter, I really, really like Arrested Development. But, when Cera was announced as Scott in Edgar Wright’s movie Pilgrim, I was horrified: How could the awkward, nervous George Michael come up with the kind of stupid, unearned confidence and boldness that made Scott Pilgrim who he was? Also, he was too skinny and his hair was wrong and and and, I kept coming up with more and more reasons why Wright’s choice was just plain wrong and would, of course, ruin the movie as a result.

As anyone who’s seen Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World knows, I was pretty much as wrong as wrong could be. It was a great film, and Cera nailed the role. But withholding judgment until seeing the movie isn’t what we do these days, especially not on the internet, so in place of that, managing expectations by essentially confounding them — How many people are really going to go and rent The Tudors just to see Cavill’s performance? — really might be the best way to avoid complaints about creative decisions creating bad buzz ahead of time. Here’s another case in point: Christina Hendricks is rumored to be a possible Wonder Woman in NBC’s upcoming pilot (although she’s said that she knows nothing about it, and claims it’s the result of fan excitement more than having any basis in reality), and everything about that seems wrong to me. Again, I love Hendricks as much as anyone who’s seen Mad Men — which is to say, a lot — and think that she’s in many ways the heart of the show, and a talented actress who knows how to underplay her scenes to the best effect, but I have become so used to her as Joan that I really can’t imagine her having the… I don’t know, openness and lack of predatory nature, I guess, that I expect Wonder Woman to have.

I’m not necessarily saying that familiar characters should only be played by unknowns — Because, hi, Robert Downey Jr. killing it as Tony Stark — but unless producers are ready to risk the almost guaranteed wrath of the internet, or else have some ideal, impossible perfect casting, it might be the best option for all involved.

… Of course, now wait for Angelina Jolie or someone to be announced as Lois Lane …


  • demoncat_4

    could not agree more with this article. for these characters have been around so long to be icons that its hard when holly wood is translating them to other media to get the actor for the role for they will have to pull off being a fictional icon and if they fall short fans will not let the actor live it down.

  • Cover55555

    Brandon Routh did fine, I want a cameo for him at the least. Article also makes a great point.

  • Randy Watson

    I agree with everything said here, expect I really didn’t care for Scott Pilgrim.

    I also agree with the idea of a Brandon Routh cameo. He did a fine job as Superman and the failure of that movie was not remotely his fault. Let’s just hope Henry Cavill actually gets to punch someone, maybe Brainiac? Darksied? Lex-in-anti-Superman-armor?

  • Rolltideguy77

    I was rather hoping for Anne Hathaway as Lois (or Mila Kunis) and Kate Beckinsale as Selina Kyle.

  • T.

    Sorry, Brandon Routh was awful as Superman. He just didn’t have the gravitas or the weight. He was muscular and all, but he just seemed to boyish or manchildish. He seemed like he came straight off one of those CW-style teen show like One Tree Hill.

    In general there aren’t many young American actors anymore between 18-34 who can pull off adult and manly, they all just seem like manchildren like Routh, with the exception of Channing Tatum maybe. So I can see why they needed to go abroad. Cavill compared to Routh really does seem more adult and mature. Routh just seemed like a pumped up version of Jason Shwarzmann.

  • PauulP

    Go rent ‘The Tudors’. Henry Cavill is an amazing actor and it is an amazing series.

    I think we’re really lucky they’ve cast such a fantastic actor as Superman.

  • Hi

    I’m a bit confused, Graeme. Are you saying that you were worried that Michael Cera couldn’t play not-awkward? Because if you think Cera nailed the role, than all you’re saying about Scott Pilgram’s character is that he’s awkward except for the times when he’s not… which is what happened in the movie. I guess what I’m getting at is that, technically, if you like the actor, it doesn’t matter if they NAIL the role of not. Let’s be honest, you laud Robert Downey Jr. in his role as Tony Stark (I can agree with you there), but before the Iron Man movie, did you ever read Tony Stark with the physicality of RDJ? Did you really read his speech bubbles with the same speed and charming inflection as RDJ? I’d wager you didn’t.

    Perhaps it’s not that ignorance is bliss, but rather charm is bliss. If you like the actor, and so long as the fit isn’t too detached, you’ll think that the casting was justified. If anything, in this case, ignorance ISN’T bliss, because until you find out you like Cavill, you won’t know if you’ll like him as Superman. Chances are, honestly now, if you liked him in a role somewhat related to Superman/Clark Kent (perhaps he played a clumsy man in the past), than you’ll like him in the movie.

  • Jackydoe

    I have to disagree. Michael Cera didn’t nail the role at all. He did a terrible job, and that has nothing to do with me associating him with past projects. I don’t even believe in associating actors with past projects. I mean, hell, look at Heath Ledger and Joker.

  • Atomic Kommie Comics

    Going with a relative unknown (no offense, Henry Cavill) is the best bet. No baggage.
    Would Superman (1978) been as good with Robert Redford (one of the original choices) in the role instead of Christopher Reeve?
    Instead of “Hey, Robert Redford in tights!”, it was “Hey, it’s SUPERMAN!”

    Or, if you’re going to cast a known actor, go with one who has genre cred.
    Think Chris Evans (Human Torch) as Captain America.
    Buster Crabbe as Tarzan/Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers/Thun’da
    Ron Ely as Tarzan/Doc Savage (Hey, it wasn’t his fault the script sucked!)

  • Bbd

    I don’t know if I agree with this because we see actors portray real people in biographies all the time and Carrie became Loretta Lynn, Elle Woods became June Carter Cash, Travis Bickley became Jake LaMotta, etc etc etc.

    True they’re superhero but they are pre-existing images, sounds, movements, etc. just general expectations that the actor needs to fulfill for the viewer to enjoy.

    It’s not known vs unknown it’s just good casting.

  • Schnitzy Pretzelpants

    The real issue is what Zack Snyder does with the film. He’s a visually stunning director, but uninspired and ham-fisted. Now, if Nolan and Goyer’s script for this film is as good as their work on the Batman films, then I can’t see how this film won’t kill, but if Snyder has any input into script alterations I am worried for the film.

    I think Snyder is a great guy, and a technically proficient director with amazing eye, but his films – so far, and I mean all of them, have been truly soulless works with pretty images.

    Superman needs soul.

    I also worry, because I think Snyder has a real tendency to want to please us fans so much that he doesn’t do anything unique with the story that says “Nobody else could have made this film”

    300 could have benefited enormously from someone willing to deviate from the source material, which I think (and I know I am in a minority) is weak.

    Watchmen, I’ll be honest, I don’t care so much that he deviated from the source material (I know a lot of people did, but I don’t). I didn’t like it because it was soulless. There was nothing that made me care for a single solitary character in the film at all – Cruddup’s arc came very close to making me care, but no one else. I think it’s because while the film got the darkness, and the slickness and coldness absolutely bang-on, what it didn’t get was any of the subtitles of Moore’s work – and there were subtitles, but not in the film. Worst was the casting of Malin Akerman, she had none of the nuance of the character in the book.

  • Brian from Canada

    One of the first Spinoffs that’s pretty close to the truth.

    It’s not ignorance is bliss, but rather “Trust the director.” Yes there are odd choices, and often unknowns for them, but the best comics-based films are the ones that really work because the actor recognizes something in the character that can bring them to life. And the worst comics-based films are those that aren’t.

    It’s the same in any other adaptation too. But unlike novels, no matter how popular those novels may be, comics have a greater iconography because of the cartoons, the comics, etc. that we encounter in our daily lives over years. And, unlike novels, the reality of many writers makes it easier to accept multiple interpretations.

    (Not that this is a guarantee of success either; Baldwin’s Shadow and Zane’s Phantom were pretty good, but the films weren’t.)

    Personally, I don’t think Nolan can direct very well — Bale and DiCaprio are far stronger under other directors. But every actor has the chance to surprise you… even Cera.

  • JTMaxwell

    Routh was awesome. Superman Returns was great (and by no means a “failure,” however people want to rewrite history). Michael Cera nailed Scott Pilgrim. and you should definitely check out the Tudors, ESPECIALLY for Cavill. nuff said.

  • Dalghryn

    If you’d seen Christina Hendricks in Firefly, you might have a different opinion. She is fully capable of kick ass.

    As far as Cavill’s concerned, I was thrilled at the choice (surprised, but thrilled). He was excellent in The Tudors and I believe he’ll be able to pull it off quite handilly.

  • Reeve&Routh

    What is wrong with WB? First Princess Diary as Catwoman and now this?? This guy doesn’t look like Superman. Supes is supposed to look kind and handsome. Cavill is too grungy and scruffy looking. He should be cast as Zod or something. What’s wrong with Brandon Routh reprising his role? He totally looks the part. Just give him more acting classes! Not only is WB again making another mistake, they’re also confusing the movie going public with a different Superman.

  • Cruzdiablo

    Well, Christian Bale is not an unknown as far as I know and I’ll wait to see Captain America to agree with you about the Michael Cera rule , did u see the Green Hornet ??????? :(

  • JMC

    You lost all credibility when you used Channing Tatum as an example of “adult and manly.”

  • JMC

    Apparently it was a $391 million dollar grossing failure (it made just about the same as Batman Begins in fact). Which is a stupid thing to think – the film didn’t fail – it was a critical and financial success, especially when it came out a week before Pirates of the Carribean that was the juggerenaut of that year. Fanboys just like to rewrite history and label it a bad film.

  • Jerome Danvers

    I was going to say the same thing!

  • Dawnell_do

    The only real casting choice I care about is Lex Luther.

  • Yanks5179

    It cost 270 million to make and only made 200 million domestically, was roundly trashed by critics and viewers and was viewed negatively within the company itself, which is largely what prompted the reboot.

    Batman Begins did 205 million in the US, but only cost 120 million to make.

    Box Office success isn’t only based on the number, but the profit line and when a movie fails to even make it’s budget domestically, it IS in fact considered a commercial failure.

    It wound up making 390 when adding overseas tallies, but again that’s only 120 million over its cost to produce and doesn’t factor in advertising and miscellaeous costs.

  • Jacob

    The only role I’ve seen Cera play in that I felt he did a good job was George Michael. Everything else he’s done has been George Michael as [Insert Character Here]. He’s really not that good (unless that Arrested Development movie finally gets made).

  • Deetz

    I thought Cera was awful in Pilgrim, and I loved the books and Arrested Development as well. Cera always seems to play himself as a character, not the actual character in the movie.

  • T.

    Notice I said “maybe.” As in, he’s still bad but if I HAD to choose an American between 18-34 that seemed adult and manly, he’d be the closest. If you can come up with a choice that tops that one, feel free. I’d have gone with Jeremy Renner but he’s 40 and out of the age range.

  • T.

    Brandon Routh looks like he belongs on the Vampire Diaries or some other CW type show. He definitely does not look the part.He looks as young as the guy who plays Clark on Smallville.

    Now if they ever decide to make a movie of Emo Superman AKA JMS’s Superman Earth One, I’d definitely support Routh in that role. Just not as normal Superman

  • Raycrisara

    I just don’t understand why we have to keep casting non-American actors in these big roles. Superman stands truth, justice and the American way. It should have gone to am American actor. I have less of a problem with Chris Hensley (did I get that right?) as Thor, since Thor is a Norse God. But Superman grew up in Smallville, USA. I’m not saying that Cavill can’t do an American dialect, but why not cast someone who doesn’t have to FAKE an American accent.

  • a guy

    I don’t understand why they keep casting non-Kryptonians in these roles.

  • Raycrisara

    My point is there are lots of American actors looking for their big break and they are every bit as talented as their British counterparts. I don’t ever see it happening the other way around, not counting period pieces produced or directed by Americans like Martin Scorsese.

  • Rwa2play

    I don’t blame Brandon Routh for “Superman Returns” in the same way that I don’t blame George Clooney for “Batman & Robin.” How can one gauge how good or bad you play the role when everything around you is craptacularly done?

  • Nathan Daniels

    People should actually go watch The Tudors to see Cavill’s performance – he’s fantastic in it, especially Season One.

  • Nathan Daniels

    Routh did Okay, but he wasn’t great. Most of that is probably because Singer wanted him to channel Reeve instead of be himself. But this project needs to distance itself completely from “Superman Returns.”

    However, it would be great to see Routh do an appearance on “Smallville” this season. They’ve already had Christopher Reeve and Dean Cain in the past…would be cool to have Routh.

  • Ed Z.

    Why can nobody ever spell Luthor’s last name correctly? Luther? WRONG!

  • JMC

    The budget didn’t cost 270 million at all – you’ve added the previous film attempts to Singer’s film. Warner Bros. placed the cost at $209 million, after factoring in tax rebates and incentives.

    Domestically, the film was the sixth-highest grossing film of 2006. In worldwide totals, Superman Returns was ninth-highest.

    Based on 254 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, 76% of the reviewers enjoyed the film, while the 43 critics in its “Top Critics” group gave a 72% approval rating.

    The film was neither a box office flop (merchandising alone including toys, clothes, stationary, etc would have been huge) or viewed negatively at all. Stop your fanboy ranting and raving and view the facts.

  • Last Son of Jor-El

    I hope you guys realize that most of the shows you see on TV now are copies of British shows. The US has been this with British products for decades now. So what is wrong with using British Actors, remember too that your new Batman is also British but no one complained about that.

  • T.

    It happens because American actors nowadays between 18-34 have a boyish manchild look that has them usually looking like they came out of a Abercrombie catalog or a CW series pilot like Vampire Diaries or just came off Real World/Road Rules challenge or Jersey Shore. What 27 year old actors does America produce who look like Cavill? The only way we could keep it American is to cast old. Otherwise we get himbo-looking dudes like Routh and Welling.

  • Sugargl1der

    “But withholding judgment until seeing the movie isn’t what we do these days, especially not on the internet…”

    Well, once you’ve SEEN the film, you’ve essentially MADE your judgment. You’ve registered your “thumbs up” with your pocketbook, so that line is not really accurate or fair to those who use trailers and the like to decide whether or not to see a film.

    I just grow weary of this lament that people who express their (sometimes negative) impressions of works before seeing it are being “haters”. Nope, that’s just called ‘being a consumer’. If I see a sandwich advertised on TV that is full of ingredients I don’t care for, isn’t it natural to decline from buying it since the odds are great that I won’t like the whole?

    Sure I’d love to have the ready cash to fork out for every single genre film, book, etc. out there. But I’m not that fortunate and frankly, most people aren’t. Don’t “hate” on people just because they are being responsible with their money.

  • Wyatt Samuel K

    You know that the only thing that you contradicted from the previous post was the ‘cost to produce’ amount. And even when you did that, you entered in your own fuzzy math. If the previous poster cannot add in costs for the total amount sunk into the production, then you cannot take out for tax rebates or incentives. It seems unfair that you are able to change the math but say that he cannot.

    What difference does it make where the movie ranked in grosses for that year. The average fluctuates too much for that statistic to have any real meaning.

    He says that the movie was viewed negatively internally, and you counter with an aggregate rating. Guess which kind of review matters more to the studio…

    The film was certainly not a flop, I will certainly spot you that. But you cannot say with any credibility that it was ‘not viewed negatively at all’ if it is being swept under the rug less than ten years after production.

    It seems as if you are doing the ‘fanboy ranting.’