The James Clayton Column: Samuel L Jackson and Iron Man 2

What's the real reason that Marvel and Samuel L Jackson may not be coming together for Iron Man 2?

Iron Man 1: with Samuel L Jackson. Iron Man 2? Er, maybe not...

Once upon a time last summer, a great grin flashed across my face as Robert Downey Jr. faced a throng of reporters and stated, “I am Iron Man,” which was followed by the riffacious Black Sabbath song of the same name that rolled over the credits. With a flourish of classic metal fanfare, the cinema take on Iron Man climaxed and the audience proceeded to leave the cinema auditorium assured that this was a comic book film done very well and that Downey Jr. absolutely nailed the role of Tony Stark.

So Downey Jr. was Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark, and Terrence Howard was James “Rhodey” Rhodes, but, unlike the franchise lead, Howard will not be back in Iron Man 2. The reason why differs depending on source, but the facts are that Don Cheadle will be taking Howard’s place and appearing as Rhodes, potentially getting his own piece of costumed-hero action by becoming War Machine. Repressed deep down in the psyche of every single human is a superhero fantasy, so to have a future playing one such figure taken away must be trauma for poor Terrence’s subconscious. It also doesn’t bode well when we consider a recent bit of rumour concerning the sequel’s pre-production that suggests another actor may not be present in Iron Man 2. War Machine is not who we thought he was; is the same true of Nick Fury?

Those who stuck it out until after the credits of Iron Man for the ‘stinger’ scene got to see an eyepatch-wearing Samuel L. Jackson introducing himself to Tony Stark and alluding briefly to the S.H.I.E.L.D. project. Amping up a mass of excitement about Jackson playing Nick Fury whilst also pointing to a plethora of potential Marvel movie adaptations (including The Avengers and Captain America), there was much optimism and eager anticipation in the comics world.

The latest word from the rumour mill that maybe Sam won’t be suited up as the cyclopaedic superhero in the future is therefore a huge disappointment. What’s the reasoning behind this prospective recasting? “It’s the economy, stupid”. Because of the global recession, credit crunch and atmosphere of financial doom, studios are suddenly not so carefree when it comes to splashing out the cash and numerous grand plans have been put on hold, scaled back or just dumped in the bin marked “seemed like a good idea at the time… before the bailiffs came”.

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I’m not entirely convinced though: citing “contract agreement difficulties” as a developmental block is a clichéd response and I really struggle to believe that such a pop-cultural titan as Marvel can’t stump up the cash or any kind of arrangement for Mr. Jackson. Whilst it’s true that, financially, times are rough I reckon that this potential decision may be due to more clandestine, behind-the-scenes shenanigans than mundane money issues.

I reckon that really, Jackson may not get the go-ahead to return as Fury because of Hollywood’s fear of a condition that accumulates over the course of an unlucky few A-List actors’ careers. This ailment hasn’t been be categorised and catalogued properly by the film industry yet , so for the moment, just to conveniently tag it after the most notable sufferer of the condition, let’s call it ‘Cruise Beyond-Control Syndrome’.

Basically, in this predicament an actor becomes so ubiquitous and plays so many leading parts that eventually audiences become overwhelmed and can’t comprehend the real actor from the on-screen personas as they all merge into one. I challenge you now: name three different film characters played by Tom Cruise or Will Smith. If it took you longer than ten seconds, I take that as testament to the said individuals’ current affliction.

Samuel L. Jackson may be bedevilled by the same thing. When you see him on screen, the reaction is generally “hell yeah! It’s Sammy L. Jackson!” rather than a more reticent realisation of “Ah, here’s Samuel L. Jackson’s character whose name is such-and-such and whose personality and motives I acknowledge and understand as an intrinsic aspect of the narrative.” Could it be that the Masters of the Marvel World are nervous that audiences will not see Nick Fury on screen, but rather Sammy L. with an eyepatch?

The Sammy L. aura is indeed immense, and with his bold presence and habit of dropping the f-bomb in brilliant style, people will sit through the most uninspired material ever just to see Jackson doing his thing. Snakes on a Plane – which in my opinion is anything but uninspired material – was sold purely on the essential basis that Jackson would be dealing with the situation described in the title and at some point would exclaim, “I have had it with these motherflippin’ snakes on this motherflippin’ plane!

Infamous for such outbursts, our man Sam also goes down in geek culture as Jules Winnfield of Pulp Fiction, Mace Windu of the Star Wars multiverse and Afro Samurai. In addition to that he also recently appeared as arch-villain The Octopus in Frank Miller’s blockbuster stab at The Spirit, played the eponymous ultra-hip private dick in the 2000 remake of Shaft and voiced Frozone in The Incredibles and Officer Frank Tenpenny in the groundbreaking Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas video game. How many iconic pop cultural characters can one man lay claim to?

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Perhaps this is all too much for the power-brokers behind-the-scenes, especially if racism is still institutionalised. With Barack Obama now President of the USA, the white supremacists in the hierarchy will be looking to strengthen their glass ceilings elsewhere. Even if it isn’t bigotry, it’s still hypocrisy if we look to other film franchises and the point that actors are meant to play many parts. Clint Eastwood can be both The-Man-With-No-Name and Harry Callahan; Harrison Ford can be both Han Solo and Indiana Jones; Sylvester Stallone can be both Rocky Balboa and John Rambo. There should therefore be no problem with Jackson playing Nick Fury and adding another action-figure hero to his resume. Really, who else is going to bring as much dynamism, energy and damn-straight attitude to the character?

As the man himself says in Jackie Brown: “Accept no substitutes.”

James’ previous column can be found here.

23 January 2009