Now that we know for sure that Andrew Garfield’s days as Marvel’s one and only webslinger are over, the fandom machine will kick into high gear once again with speculation on who should don the mask of the Amazing Spider-Man next. Apparently, names are already emerging in the trades, and fans are already doing their best to photoshop their casting choices into the iconic costume to prove that their choice is the best one. Fan speculation for casting can be really fun and exciting, and that goes doubly so for casting choices revolving around beloved characters like Spidey. Oftentimes, though, it can also get frustrating.
One of the often disconcerting elements of fan casting is that it’s done entirely to make a good picture in someone’s head. “That person looks exactly like the Peter Parker/Clark Kent/Bruce Wayne of the comics! They should play that character in the new movie!” Sure, that actor might look good in a superhero costume, but that doesn’t automatically make them right for the part. To a lot of fans this is painfully obvious, and most moviegoers aren’t the types to post their photoshop casting sessions on forums or on reddit. Instead, to make the best casting choice, we should hope that Sony looks back at one primary element of lasting superhero casting: a talent being largely unknown.
In the mid-1970s, when Alexander and Ilya Salkind were developing the massive project that would become Superman: The Movie, they originally envisioned a star actor to take on the role of the eponymous hero. Their hired director, Richard Donner, had a different idea though. In interviews with the director in years since, he often expressed that he just “couldn’t see” someone like Robert Redford taking on a part like Superman, because it would mess with the illusion. That would be Robert Redford in a Superman costume, it wouldn’t be Superman. So, on a whim and based on his acting ability, Donner hired a skinny unknown kid named Christopher Reeve to play the part of the Man of Steel, the first live-action actor to embody the part since the late, great George Reeves. The result? Casting that stuck. Instead of seeing an actor in a costume, audiences saw Superman himself, and turned out in droves to watch the movie that made them believe a man could fly.
The following decade, as Tim Burton was casting his dark, brooding take on the superhero film with the transformative Batman, Burton went against the grain entirely by hiring noted comedic actor Michael Keaton to play the part. When the news hit the papers, many fans automatically assumed that the new film would be a spiritual successor to the 1960’s TV iteration of the character, where camp and comedy took precedent over the character’s dark roots as imagined by Bill Finger and Bob Kane. Of course, that’s not what happened at all, as Keaton’s Batman was a brooding and reclusive creature of the night, with silent resolve and intimidating presence inside the Bat suit. One casting director noted in a later interview that Keaton’s eyes are what earned him the part, since they could be very intense when the actor wanted them to be.
In the late 1990’s, director Bryan Singer was given the reins by 20th Century Fox to develop Marvel’s X-Men into a feature film, and the most important role to cast would obviously be Weapon X himself, Wolverine. In the comics, Logan is a mere 5’3″ tall, being short and stocky. When original choice Dougray Scott bowed out of playing the part, Singer cast 6’2″ Australian actor Hugh Jackman, who initially caused an uproar among fans for his height and background in musical theatre, among other things. Jackman, though, took the role very seriously, studying how he could best convey intense emotion in his few lines by watching Clint Eastwood’s performance in the Dirty Harry films, and Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior. To get a sense of his savagery, he watched the early work of boxer Mike Tyson that he found appropriate for Wolverine’s fighting style. The result is, arguably, the longest lasting casting choice in live-action superhero cinema ever, as Jackman has played the character in every major X-Men film over the last 15 years.
The point of this whole exercise should be clear by this point. These three superhero casting choices represent some of the best, most lasting iterations of these characters in other media outside of the comic books. Each of them bucked the trend of what was expected in some fashion. The next Spider-Man will need to be a lasting, definitive choice: just as Robert Downey, Jr. has been for Iron Man, and just as Chris Evans has been for Captain America. They need to find the right person for the part, whoever that is, even if we can’t see it in our heads a year before we see what they can do.
Here’s hoping that they make the best decision that they can.
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