Tom Holland doesn’t want to play Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man forever. To put a finer point on it, Holland doesn’t want to be playing Spider-Man in as few as five years. He said as much while promoting the biggest Spider-Man movie of all-time, last year’s Spider-Man: No Way Home.
“Maybe it is time to move on,” Holland told GQ in November, ahead of the release of No Way Home and this month’s Uncharted. “Maybe what’s best for Spider-Man is that they do a Miles Morales film… [but] if I’m playing Spider-Man after I’m 30, I’ve done something wrong.” Holland turns 26 in June.
Admittedly, these public comments could be perceived as strong-arm tactics intended to persuade Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios into a significant pay rise going forward. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering that many Marvel Studios leading men and women have attempted to step away from the secure, yet also form-fittingly tight image of the Marvel logo. It is, after all, good business to diversify your image, particularly if one is in need of proving their movie star bonafides. And this weekend’s Uncharted is nothing if not a chance for Holland to prove audiences love to see him in more than just a red and blue onesie.
At various times most Marvel actors have tried to launch a second franchise, some to success and others to painful derision. We’re here to look at both the most and least successful attempts to step outside of Marvel’s shadow.
Robert Downey Jr. Is… Sherlock Holmes
Perhaps one of the simultaneously both successful and more muted attempts to escape Marvel’s snug box office armor is from the biggest star the MCU ever minted: Robert Downey Jr. As the brilliant talent who imbued life into the whole Marvel project with an improvisational injection of humor and wit in Iron Man, it can be argued Downey gave voice and shape to the whole Marvel Studios formula that followed. Downey’s interpretation of Tony Stark was so winning that it even became the first character to demonstrably prove a rising tide lifts all boats.
Indeed, Tony was the centerpiece of the first Avengers movie in 2012, which was also the first Marvel movie to cross $1 billion; and afterward his appearances in not only Iron Man 3 (2013) but also Captain America: Civil War (2016) made those the first “solo” Marvel movies to also cross $1 billion each.
Before any of those latter efforts though, Downey cashed in on his newfound movie stardom immediately after the first Iron Man by leading Guy Ritchie’s revisionist and Hollywoodized take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. With as much in common with James Bond movies as 19th century detective novellas, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes is an exercise in all steampunk style over substance with Downey’s Sherlock being aggressively fisticuff-focused and committed to the art of the one-liner.
It also was a respectable hit for the late 2000s, earning $500 million at the global box office in spite of mixed-to-positive reviews. Yet when the immediately fast-tracked Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) failed to substantially grow the audience—it grossed only $19 million more despite costing an estimated extra $35 million—the franchise fell by the wayside for Warner Bros. and Downey (although a threequel is still allegedly in development).
In fact, after Downey’s attempt at doing an old fashioned middle-budget drama likewise failed to bring in an old school large audience via The Judge in 2014, Downey pivoted to doing exclusively Marvel movies for the rest of the decade, finally retiring from the Iron Man role in 2019. The following year he attempted a second franchise that was again away from Marvel via Dolittle. The infamous box office bomb and critical disaster worked even less well. However, Downey is doing just fine as he partners with an old rival of the Marvel method for his next movie: Christopher Nolan.
Chris Pratt Is… a Raptor Wrangler!
Probably the most successful attempt to launch a second leading man franchise outside the auspices of the MCU has been Chris Pratt’s success with the Jurassic World movies. And perhaps tellingly, as with Downey’s first success in Sherlock Holmes it came back-to-back with his Marvel stardom.
As hard as it is to remember now, there was once a time when Pratt was not considered the hunky leading man of space operas and dinosaur adventures. Rather he was the lovably schlubby Andy Dwyer on Parks and Rec, a sitcom which once famously poked fun at Marvel and Star Wars being acquired by Disney just a few years before Pratt toned up and starred in Marvel’s own spin on a Star Wars yarn. Guardians of the Galaxy made Pratt a household name when it grossed over $770 million in 2014 despite being based on a C-list property with a talking raccoon. And to Universal’s credit, they cast Pratt before Guardians came out as Owen Grady, a veritable velociraptor trainer in 2015’s Jurassic World. That first of the modern “legacy sequel” trend then went on to open bigger than The Avengers from three years earlier.
Pratt instantaneously cemented himself as an A-list movie star with the one-two punch (or three if you’re also keen to include his vocal work in The Lego Movie). And he’s pretty much kept that perch despite misfires like 2016’s ill-conceived sci-fi romance, Passengers, and the ire of social media. He even leveraged that stardom, alongside the entire cast of the Guardians films, into pressuring Disney into rehiring James Gunn as director of the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 after Gunn was fired under dubious circumstances.
In addition to another Guardians movie and this summer’s big ticket item, Jurassic World: Dominion, Pratt has lined up replacements for The Lego Movie animated franchise going dry by signing on to voice both Garfield the Cat and Super Mario the Plumber.
Scarlett Johansson Is… Not the Ghost in the Shell
There was once a time when Scarlett Johansson’s action star status was dazzlingly ablaze. Her Black Widow had just stolen almost every scene she was in during The Avengers and she followed it up by co-leading one of the generally best reviewed Marvel movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and turning B sci-fi actioner Lucy into a surprise summer hit in 2014. It seemed inevitable Marvel would now cash in on her A-list status and set Johansson up with a Black Widow solo movie.
… And that movie never came. At least not until the character had been killed off nine years since her first appearance in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. The arguably too-little-too-late prequel Black Widow was well overdue when it released last summer, and a victim of the apparent neolithic views of Marvel Chairman Ike Perlmutter, who for years pushed against a Widow movie because he didn’t think women-led action movies sold tickets. But in that long interim between 2014 and 2021, Johansson tried to take her action popularity to another franchise when she signed onto Ghost in the Shell (2017). Much to her probable regret.
Ghost in the Shell was Hollywood’s live-action and Westernized adaptation of the cult manga and 1995 anime film of the same name. And in a bid to appeal to both longtime fans of the anime as well as the perceived homogenized whiteness of most American moviegoers, the choice was made by Paramount Pictures to set the new movie in Japan… while casting white actors in most of the lead roles, including Johansson as the cyborg ass-kicker Major.
For what it’s worth, the director of the original Ghost in the Shell anime movie, Mamoru Oshii, said at the time that there was “no basis” for accusations of whitewashing since the Major character was a cyborg. But that seems to paper over what appears on the outside to be a cynical choice by an industry where the then-ancient conventional wisdom was that only a white actor could carry an American movie based on Asian media. Worse still, the Hollywood movie makes the awkward choice to reveal that in her previous human life before “dying,” Major was actually a Japanese woman who was put in a synthetic body that looks like Johansson. In practice, it plays as both icky and desperate.
The final film received largely negative reviews and opened in third place during its first weekend in the U.S., behind Beauty and the Beast in its second weekend and… The Boss Baby. No sequel was made. Don’t weep for Johansson though, who pivoted back to the indie and prestige world where she first broke through in the industry. In fact, she received her first two Oscar nominations in the same year for Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit in 2019.
Chris Hemsworth Is… The Huntsman?
Chris Hemsworth is the first of the original Avengers actors to lead a fourth MCU solo movie via this year’s upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder. Which is pretty impressive since there were rumors not too long ago that he might be done like Downey and Captain America star Chris Evans after Avengers: Endgame. However, in a recent interview for The Story of Marvel Studios book, Hemsworth revealed he personally thought Thor was being written out of the MCU in 2015 when the character was not included in Captain America: Civil War.
But while Hemsworth has stayed the longest in the Marvel machine, it doesn’t mean he hasn’t explored other blockbuster opportunities. Indeed, the same year that the first Avengers came out, Hemsworth co-led another summer blockbuster, Snow White and the Huntsman (2012). That fractured fairy tale reimagined the story of Snow White as an action movie where Kristen Stewart’s princess joined forces with the Huntsman (Hemsworth) who was initially sent to kill her. It then culminates in a Lord of the Rings-inspired battle against the Evil Queen (Charlize Theron).
Despite mostly negative reviews, Snow White and the Huntsman did big business, even out-grossing Disney’s spin on the classic yarn from the same year, Mirror, Mirror. However, due to a salacious behind-the-scenes controversy involving Stewart and that film’s director, rather than make a traditional sequel with the winning ingredients of the 2012 movie, Universal Pictures opted to make a Snow White movie without Snow White in 2016’s spectacularly misguided The Huntsman: Winter’s War. Hemsworth’s character became the marquee draw in the film’s title, but even the added elements of Theron’s movie-stealing villainess returning from the dead, as well as adding the formidable star power of Emily Blunt as her Elsa-like ice queen sister, plus Jessica Chastain in a role inspired by Katniss Everdeen, The Huntsman proved to be a poorly conceived example of studio committee planning.
The finished film received the worst reviews of any movie mentioned in this article, with a current aggregate score of 20 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and did worse at the box office where The Huntsman grossed just $164 million, failing to open at even No. 1 in the U.S. In that light, sticking it out with Thor, as well as Netflix’s sure thing in the Extraction franchise, appears like a safe bet. Although Hemsworth will soon crossover into another non-MCU franchise with the actor slated to appear in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road prequel, Furiosa.
Tom Holland Is… Nathan Drake in Uncharted
Which brings us back to Holland and the Uncharted franchise. This adaptation of the hugely popular Naughty Dog video game series has been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that Mark Wahlberg was attached for years to play the leading role of Nathan Drake before deciding to instead play the part of Drake’s mentor, Sully. And in that time, actor Tom Holland grew from the wunderkind who starred in Billy Elliot the Musical on the West End and in disaster movie The Impossible (2012) to being the face of Spider-Man to a whole generation of moviegoers.
Feeling like a youthful blast of fresh air when he first played Peter Parker at only age 19 in Captain America: Civil War, Holland has matured into a natural leading man who is looking for perhaps a broader career than just playing Spidey—though we’d personally be surprised and disappointed if he didn’t don the webs for at least a few more movies. In the meantime, Holland has signed on to play legendary song and dance man Fred Astaire. As Astaire starred in some of the greatest musicals of all-time—and in some of the greatest dance sequences—it will be a chance for Holland to return to his roots. Yet, perhaps to step outside of Marvel’s shadow or maybe just raise his asking price in it, Holland is also set to launch his own second franchise with the Indiana Jones-like Uncharted.
Will he succeed? Time will tell. The movie has received largely negative reviews thus far, but audiences are always the deciding voice on whether a studio tentpole works or not, and if it will be holding up that tent for many years to come. If Uncharted does, Holland may succeed where a number of other Marvel actors have stumbled.