Friday, February 4, 2011

Superman, Masculinity and the American Actor as Action Star (in which I talk somewhat unapologetically about dudes being manly)

As mentioned, British actor (actually, Welsh, I hear) Henry Cavill has taken the role of Superman in the upcoming reboot of the Superman franchise. This is setting off some alarms as, after all... Superman is considered an American icon. How can we have a non-American playing Superman?

Colbert takes exception:

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Heck, even Castro thinks Superman is an American icon. When political pawn Elian Gonzalez returned to Cuba, Castro had a statue created in which Gonzalez was depicted as a child hurling away a Superman figure to dispose of American gifts/ ideals. No, seriously.

Oh, Castro.  You so crazy.
Personally, I believe that since the 1960's, Superman has been an international figure not just in the comics, but in that the character's fanbase and the writers who have worked wonders with him are an international bunch of folks.

Some great Superman tales have been written by Scotsman Grant Morrison, Brits like Alan Moore and others. The Superman Homepage is managed out of Australia. And Superman enjoys a fanbase all over the planet, from Austin to Indonesia.  So the casting of a Brit doesn't really bother me so much, so long as he can pull off a convincing American accent and doesn't mistake calm confidence with smirky jack-assery.

But the casting is kicking up some unexpected dust.  The tone seems to not be one so much of "they can't do that!" so much as "man, what is the story with the lack of American male actors that we'd put in a cape?"

The LA Times ponders the casting of Brits as superheroes in the wake of the Superman casting.

The Onion AV Club is a bit harsh, drops some cultural hand grenades without serious consideration and gets out, but makes their case with the picture of Jessie Eisenberg

Even "Cole the Kid Critic" thinks Hollywood made a mistake

When Spielberg and Lucas announced the casting for the lost progeny of Indiana Jones in the recent Indiana Jones debacle, announcing that Shia LeBeouf (an actor who's very name should tell you this is a mistake) had the role, as well as claiming the lead in a Transformers movie...  I remember thinking: "wow, something really weird is happening here". 

I'm a product of the 1980's, a period in which the movie Commando was something literally every boy I knew had seen.  Our action stars were the 'roid ripped he-men of a post John Wayne/ Robert Mitchum/ Lawrence Tierney era, who had out-flexed out-punched or out kickboxed hundreds of others to land roles.  Heck, I remember thinking Seann @#$%ing Connery was a bit of a dandy in Goldfinger the first time I watched it.

In 1980's movie terms, this is a moment of quiet contemplation.  Note the lovely flowers.
I suspect that when the star of your movie is really the giant robot or Harrison Ford (who Spielberg and Lucas had cast only when they lost uber-macho-guyTom Selleck to Magnum PI), then casting Shia LeBeouf, a poor man's Ben Savage, has some internal logic somehow.  But, @#$%, man.  The phrase "men want to be him, women want to be with him" was created to apply the the leads in action films.  I can vouch that at least half of that statement does not apply.

In fact, this summer's The Expendables was a sort of interesting paean to exactly the sorts of actors one saw in the 1980's til the mid 1990's, more than than it was a tribute to the characters themselves.   Now, I'm not suggesting Stallone was an ideal Superman, so that's not where I'm going with this.  But when Shia LeBeouf is your action lead, we're pretty far gone from the days of Rambo.

For clarity, I'm not stating that I'm just discussing physique.  If anything, the 'roid freaks of the 1980's were the hyper-realization of the ultra-masculine concept.  The 1970's had no trouble buying Reeve in his spandex, Charlton Heston never needed to be all ripped for Planet of the Apes or Omega Man.   And Lord knows John Wayne got away with being kind of paunchy, bow legged and slow moving through a good chunk of his career.  The 1980's heroes never seemed to physically work for their physiques (except for Rocky), but just had them because they were bad dudes.

Certainly the focus on FX as the source of action seems to have been part of the change.  When the giant robot/ truck is doing your fighting for you, then it does seem like a pretty minor detail whether you can buy that your protagonist knows how to throw a punch.  Add in dubious ideas Hollywood trades in like "guns equalize any situation" and "karate is magical and means tiny children can kick the asses of gorilla-like thugs", and it really doesn't matter who gets cast as your leading man.

I'd also argue that the past decade or two has seen the rise of male body consciousness and unrealistic concepts of perfection, a sort of myopic lesson taken from a generation raised on Arnie and Stallone, once they figured out how one got those biceps (it is not, it turns out, just from being a bad dude).  Many of us have seen Zack Snyder's 300, a movie that trafficked largely in guys in helmets and diapers with spears.  If anyone was wondering, the actors more or less spent every minute not in front of the camera working out.  And, while it goes unspoken, I think there's something interestingly at odds with the gym-rat sort of sculpted masculinity and traditional masculinity in America that relied much more on not giving a damn, rabbit punching jerks, and the heaviest lifting you did all day was the size of the bottle you were pouring from. 

That said:  Superman's creators were actually really into the entire concept of body building, what with being skinny, wimpy kids wishing they were not skinny wimpy kids.  Apparently they were a bit into Charles Atlas and whatnot, if you're looking for the sort of other influences they had (wouldn't it be great to be all muscley?  But, gee, this working out is hard.  Maybe if I were from outerspace...).

In some ways, casting Superman sort of peels back what you can and can't do when it comes to replacing action heroes with FX.  Yes, a Superman movie should be a special FX wonderland.  But the key figure still has to be someone you'd see in blue tights and want to take seriously.  As Nicholas Cage's screen tests proved, no amount of makeup and special effects is going to just hand that over.  And why it worked for unknown actor Brandon Routh and Christopher Reeve, I have no idea.*  And that when Tom Welling finally puts on the tights and cape this (final) season on Smallville, I suspect a million TV viewers will jointly share a moment of clarity regarding Tom Welling and how they've portrayed Clark Kent for the past decade.

No doubt, Superman comes from a different era when ideals of masculinity in Boy's Own-style adventure stories were filled with lantern-jawed tough guys.  Superman's precursors include Doc Savage, Zorro, Tarzan and Hugo Danner of the novel Gladiator.  Applying that same sensibility was almost jokey in the trade press even back in 2001 when casting agents were trying to find someone to play a young Clark Kent in Hollywood and came up with nothing until they more or less settled on Tom Welling (a guy hitting his mid-20's hired to play a 14 year old).

It was almost as if the lesson of putting Michael Keaton in a batsuit or outfitting Kneau with Kung-Fu and machine guns had been that, somehow, Hollywood had decided that action heroes were much more about their toys than about the character themself.  

Is there really nobody in Hollywood of the appropriate age who could have taken on the role of Superman?  I have serious reservations believing that to be true, and simultaneously respect that Cavill may have just been the best man for the part for any number of reasons.  That what is valued for young male actors coming up in Hollywood in 2011 is not what a director needs...  that, I might also buy.  And I guess I'm basing that on what I see on TV and movies.  And the sorts of business decisions and screwed up attempts to criss-cross demographics and try to magically put butts in seats that can lead to some really bad choices.

For example:  if you bring up Ashton Kutcher when casting Superman - you should be fired.  Immediately.  You lack clarity of vision or sense of judgment.  Also, you just tried to make people look at Ashton Kutcher en route to see something they otherwise wanted to enjoy.  Do not bait and switch the audience.

For me,  the bottom line is:  something odd is going on.

Wolverine (a Canadian) - Australian
Green Lantern - Canadian
Batman - British (he is.  People forget that.)
Spider-Man - the new one is British
Thor - British, I believe

And you can't tell me you aren't looking at all-American Chris Evans in his Cap get-up a little cock-eyed.

This isn't a call to action or anything ridonkulous like that, but its worth noting that the movie that's coming to theaters with the most promised punches per frame this year is Sucker Punch, a movie starring a slate of 20-something women immersed in a CG, genre-laden world, draped with machineguns and wearing just their underthings.** I'm positively thrilled that women are now also the stars of action movies.  That took about 100 years too long.  But it would be nice to see Hollywood consider why it is that when they look to their 20-something talent pool, their biggest stars are supposedly the likes of Jessie Eisenberg, Shia LeBeouf and Michael Cera.***

Unlike Randy, I quite liked Inception.  I'm just not sure Hollywood knows this but:  Leonardo DiCaprio is not an action star.  He's a bankable actor, sure.  And he's got the chops you need to sell something like Inception without making it sound like the Late, Late Movie.  He can hold a gun and all that.  But the man became famous not because he's a good actor but because he's utterly non-threatening to the young girls who saw Titanic 35 times in the theater, propelling it to box office legend.  Now, he's 36 and I'm not sure he even needs to shave.

You know who was awesome?  Sterling Hayden.

We can usually talk about actors from by-gone eras without getting our politically correct hackles up****, but...  its hard to imagine Hayden letting someone like LeBeouf onto a set with him unless LeBeouf was delivering 3 pounds of raw steak for him to eat.

Sterling Hayden cannot believe we are even having this conversation.  Or that you are letting the communists sap your precious bodily fluids.
Frankly, Hollywood appears to be a town where a lot of people make a lot of casting decisions based on very much the wrong reasons.  It happens all the time, it has always happened, and likely will continue to happen*****

The desire of males of all ages to see dudes who look like they could punch them in the face without blinking hasn't disappeared, but I would argue that its been subsumed by actually letting adolescents fill those shoes in Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto.  While those dollars might filter back ultimately to the corporate umbrella, its also not supporting the movie industry and its training 48+% of your population to look elsewhere for their entertainment.

Curiously, Clark Kent is the prototypical American nerd.  Its an act, of course, but if you go back to those early issues of Superman, Clark is nice enough, but he's a nebbish who is secretly a manly-man.  Perhaps the idea of the "hero within" has been transmorgified to say "the hero is within, even if you don't secretly look or act like Superman" to "oh, you're a special snowflake and you ARE a hero, you adorable, ineffectual guy.  Clark Kent is the real hero!".  I don't know.

Nobody likes feeling inadequate.  Superman debuted right around the same time as Walter Mitty, I might add.  But in beating the drum in Hollywood to make characters relatable, in insisting that heroes can be anyone, maybe we accidentally screwed this up. 

It won't end up being a business problem for Superman that their star isn't American.  But it does bring up some interesting questions about what sort of movies we're seeing, who is in them and why.  Do we need to associate traditional ideals of masculinity with our Americanness?  Is it an aspect of Americanness?  I suspect the answer may be a bit deeper, and would lead to conversations on how important nerds are these days.

So, that's probably enough on that.  I really encourage you to read the LA Times link and the Onion AV link.  Its interesting to hear industry folks kind of admitting what I sort of suspected, but doing it off the record because you really aren't supposed to even talk about things like "why the @$#% is Shia LeBeouf an action hero?"

*or George Reeves, who wore the suit remarkably well
**curiously, I'm still not sure that's an endorsement of the movie
***note to former high school nerds working in LA:  quit making movies about more charming version of your dorky @#$%ing selves.  For God's sake, you decided Seth Rogen was a reasonable choice for a superhero.
****John Wayne, our eternal exception
*****I actually do believe the internet has been a good sounding board for telling casting agents when they're going completely the wrong direction


Randy said...

I liked INCEPTION a lot. It was just not as good the third time around.

The League said...

You only liked it in the first layer of the dream of seeing Inception.