The Outsourcing of Superheroes

In 2016, Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing an American superhero like many British actors before him. And fans are ecstatic...

Last week, we received the casting confirmation many fans long anticipated and cherished: Benedict Cumberbatch will be playing Doctor Strange in the Marvel movies.

It is an exciting revelation that marks the first time since probably the internet days of “Bale, Dammit” that fans got exactly what they wanted. And indeed, much like Christian Bale as the Batman, Benedict Cumberbatch appears to be the perfect choice for Doctor Strange. Yet nonetheless, this is also the fourth in 10 years that to realize an icon of American culture, Hollywood had to look across the sea. Conversely, Ben Affleck has hardly seen an end to his year-long fanboy attacks for taking on the role of the Dark Knight. Even though we can point to seven other actor castings that fans were hugely wrong about, the disdain is still present.

Is there a reason that American audiences struggle increasingly to see our leading men in these roles?

The story that broke Twitter also seemingly broke countless fans’ hearts. Literally overnight, several petitions appeared online to politely request WB find another actor. Some snarky (or exceedingly deluded) fans even attempted to petition the White House, so that U.S. President Barack Obama could step in on their behalf to avert this purported tragedy. By God, Mr. President, an American might be playing a superhero!

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For the first time in nearly a decade, one of the “big three” American superheroes of most outrageous popularity—Batman, Superman and Spider-Man—actually has a yank cast in the role. And by and large the fans have not approved. Indeed, it is a total inversion of the Christian Bale experience in 2003. Cast in September, literally less than a decade ago, fans were mostly jubilant that the RIGHT guy got the role. Having long plastered the Internet with phrases such as “Bale, Dammit,” well before director Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers made the official announcement, the geek community welcomed the English actor, who was born in Wales to a father originally from South Africa, with wide-open arms.

Still, so as to not confuse general American audiences and fans, when he promoted the 2005 Batman Begins, Bale intentionally used an affected American accent in all interviews, maintaining the illusion that Batman is a full-blooded USA citizen.

Why all the effort to keep up the ruse? Reportedly, Bale did not want children to know, but somehow I wonder if producers at the time worried about how certain members of the target audience would react. Fortunately, it became an afterthought by 2008 when Bale was allowed to use his natural accent during promotion for The Dark Knight. Perhaps it is because they saw the changing winds in the culture.

Today there will still be the occasional media article wistfully crying foul that Andrew Garfield, the Boy A raised in Surrey, is Spidey or that Henry Cavill of the Channel Islands is Superman, but fortunately most have overcome such jingoistic fatuity. If an actor is well cast, it should not matter what side of the pond that they are from, no matter the role. Nonetheless, it is a curious trend that not only are American actors not even considered for most of these square-jawed leading men roles, but that when they are, fans balk in anger. After all, only 70 years ago David O. Selznick and MGM had to pressure gossip columns to sing the praises of English-born Vivien Leigh’s casting in the role of an American icon. Yet, it’s surely a culture change when U.S. audiences prefer a deliberately studied accent that sounds comfortingly familiar over someone who might have the real thing.

One of the most enduring action heroes who used to light up movie screens around the world remains John “Duke” Wayne. The burly build; the deep drawl that affecting pause, suggesting a man deep in thought between words; the mischievous smile over empathetic eyes that still perpetually threatened the promise of turning mean in an instant. Duke Wayne was viewed as an icon larger than life: The American spirit made flesh, if only in the sepia toned dreams of moviegoers. What a marvelous and totally manufactured image.

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Born Marion Mitchell Morrison, Wayne changed his name in Hollywood after dropping out of USC because a bodysurfing accident cost him his football scholarship. Falling in with John Ford, one of the greatest pioneers and auteurs in Hollywood cinema, the two eventually carved the iconic image that Wayne became known for, even if Ford tended to shout such terms of endearment as, “Christ, if you learned to act, you’d get better parts!” The squint, the gait, everything was carefully deliberate for an actor who preferred the golf course to a thoroughbred.

Conversely, even at his most mythical, there was a certain dignity and serenity to a man whose favorite director often called him a “big bastard.” In the final shot of The Searchers (1956), Wayne’s Ethan Edwards stands a man apart from his fractured family whom he just barely reunited. Having returned his long-missing (and completely alienated) niece to her remaining Texan family, Edwards stands in the doorway and grips his arm in a gesture that paid homage to his own hero, former John Ford muse Harry Carey Sr. But when Wayne did it, the pose struck a nerve with viewers that is still raw from the vulnerability laid bare as the rugged individual is banished from civilization.

Carey’s widow would agree, as she was on the set that day playing one of Ethan’s kin. She described the moment on as, “Everybody thinks I’m crazy, but I think Duke has the grace of [Ballet Dancer Rudolf] Nureyev. He really is the most graceful man I’ve ever met.”

This marriage of roughhewn masculinity and individual righteousness gushing up from a well of humanity is the myth Americans like to tell themselves, even to this day, whether it be the Duke, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, Harrison Ford in his fedora hat or a soaring Christopher Reeve winking at the camera. A cultural fantasy writ large.

I would argue that the fantasy is as prevalent as ever. And in the decade since 9/11, it has taken on a new visage at the movies: the superhero. Whether they wear capes or cowboy hats, it is ultimately the same idea of mass escapism for a nation through popular genre dressings. The only thing that has changed is the handful of actors who embody that longing image in the doorway. Where are the Clint Eastwoods? Where are the Harrison Fords? They’re still out there too, but Hollywood has to outsource for them.

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Granted, not all masked marvels are played by Australians—although who didn’t get a shiver of Eastwood during The Wolverine when Jackman throws that guy out the window?—but alternatives are becoming harder to find. When one goes down the list of The Avengers, most of the American actors (Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Samuel L. Jackson) are either over 40 or 50. The major exceptions to this rule include Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and Chris Evans as Captain America. The first of whom is a refreshing departure from this archetype as a woman, but curiously is the only female in the group, and painfully the single major hero (Hawkeye doesn’t count) without her own movie.

The other is literally a walking advertisement for American mythmaking…and is played by a guy who was already a superhero in the dippy Fantastic Four films. Evans is terrific, but is the American leading man pool really so small? At least Joss Whedon is expanding the roster in The Avengers: Age of Ultron…to Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a terrific English actor who also so happens to have already been cast in Kick-Ass by Matthew Vaughn and Tarquin Pack. Indeed, when Pack cast that part, he said they originally wanted “a big American hero, goddammit,” before deciding the kid from Buckinghamshire was better. One can also leave the genre to easily see roles that were once performed by Charlton Heston and Van Heflin are now both played by Christian Bale, across from Russell Crowe in the Glenn Ford part.

This is not a criticism. Personally, I find Bale and Jackman to be perfect in their roles, and Cavill to have easily surpassed the three previous American Supermen on the big and small screens following Reeve. This is merely an observation as to why, much like the Broadway stage, so many movies targeted to the American heartland appear reluctant to roll call from them.

Perhaps, culturally we are finally struggling with that communal imprint of the lone hero leaving the comfort of civilization. We still have our individualist fantasies, but in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy, it takes a village to build the Batman persona. Bruce Wayne is Batman, but he cannot do it without a network of allies who are all vital to the cause. Being the righteous loner who walks away might be seductive to our collective individualism and the contradictions therein, but in the 21st century world of social media and NSA wiretapping, it can often at times appear to be a little quaint. Modern cinematic heroes must be punished for their altruism, whether by having a girlfriend blown up by the Joker or losing another to time traveling out of the 1940s, that mythology from yesteryear must be stripped raw.

The latter example from Captain America: The First Avenger is not even that surprising, as all these heroes spring from that mid-20th century mindset that bore the John Wayne image just as much as the Superman one. Arguably, the newest generation of American actors is not stepping as readily into this type, because they’re from a society that loves dreaming about that fantasy before putting it away with the rest of their toys. In a community where the issues of the day are grayed by globalization, economic inequality and the information revolution, which provides far greater insight into other points of view than ever before, not to mention the culture wars from the Boomer years, dividing the world into white hats and black hats (or red capes and bald heads) tends to be frowned upon.

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It would appear as each generation physically and spiritually moves away from the John Wayne mold, finding actors to enter it becomes exceedingly difficult, to the point where one could question a metamorphosis in the national identity. Meanwhile, in striking irony, it’s the worldwide box office that is now the bigger market for CGI-enhanced hero pictures. They have long seen Hollywood as America’s flights of fancy, but now those distant fairy tales cannot be served up fast enough. If other cultures are willing to buy this well-worn story, why not their actors?

Director Ridley Scott once famously stated when he cast Oliver Reed in Gladiator, that there are almost no more Robert Shaws left in this world. When you narrow the search down to North America, it would appear that rugged result is even scarcer. Hence, when a native thespian gets one of the “Gold Standard” superhero gigs, a first in the last three outings, there is only nervousness and derision among the fans. Batman is as red-white-and-blue as Johnny Appleseed, but it appears many no longer like them apples. They don’t like them at all.

***A version of this article was first published on August 26, 2013.

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