Film

Have Superheroes Killed the Movie Star?

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Looking back at this dismal summer of superhero adaptations, I am reminded of something Chris Rock said during the 77th Academy Awards: “There are only four real stars, and the rest are just popular people.” This was February 2005, mind you — a few months before Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins would hit theaters and three years before Marvel would kick-start its cinematic universe with Iron Man.

Stardom was already changing pretty dramatically thanks to reality television. But Rock’s somewhat exaggerated statement is truer now than ever before. Yes, social media, YouTube vloggers, and reality TV have greatly altered who becomes a star and what it even means to be one. But movie stardom — once an integral part of the Hollywood ecosystem — has arguably taken its biggest hit ever, thanks to the current dominance of onscreen superheroes.

Just take a look at the careers of actors like the various Marvel Chrises (they’re interchangeable enough so choosing any will do). Each has achieved some level of popularity and even a somewhat dedicated fandom. But they have also been unable to translate the visibility their characters bring them into success elsewhere.

Watching one superhero film after another, it becomes undeniable that the actors aren’t the stars — the characters and property are. Most ticket-buyers don’t go to Deadpool because they’re enamored of Ryan Reynolds’s charm or see Suicide Squad because of Margot Robbie’s skills. Perhaps that’s why it’s disorienting to see traditional, undeniable stars like Will Smith and Ben Affleck play characters like Deadshot and Batman. Stars of their caliber alter the films they’re in by their mere presence, as if they have a gravitational pull. And there are moments in their respective turgid superhero epics where their levity suggests much better films than the ones we get.

With true movie stars, we bring baggage to every performance we watch — the emotions we attach to their early performances, their triumphs and their downfalls.

But superheroes and nostalgia-tinged reboots have replaced the alluring mythology of movie stars themselves. That isn’t because we don’t need stars. If anything, Hollywood needs a new crop and to expand on what stardom means in the first place.

What Is a Star?

Bankability is often the easiest answer to the question of what makes a movie star. But box-office results aren’t everything. Hollywood history is littered with actors whose films made bank but have little lasting cultural impact. Chris Pratt — now trading in the rugged American machismo that drew us to Harrison Ford — has found success leading Jurassic World and Guardians of the Galaxy. But it’s hard to argue that he is successful on his own and not just replicating a bland approximation of actors before him. Is he truly bankable, or is he just choosing the properties that guarantee some level of financial success? Pratt is a good model of someone who is popular but has yet to become a true star, the kind who is either bankable in original films or in possession of a star image that alters the film around him.

So, what makes a movie star beyond box-office appeal? Looking at the careers of everyone from Bette Davis to Michelle Pfeiffer to Angelina Jolie, you can get a sense of the alchemy involved. A true star, in essence, is a potent mix of sex appeal, mystery, and relatability all spiced with the ability to surprise and a certain something extra that no one else has. This adds up to an identity that audiences come to recognize and seek out time and again.

When we go to a Brad Pitt film, we know we’re getting a character actor in a leading man’s body often wrestling with what his beauty means. When we see a Keanu Reeves film, we know we’re getting an actor who asks us what it means for a man to be heroic in the first place, one who makes vulnerability central to his performance and who often interacts with the camera in ways that we expect of female sex symbols. Of course, there’s always a level of trial and error with this. Even after figuring out who they are on-screen, the best stars often subvert, fight against, or deconstruct their own image.

Having this sort of crafted narrative is important; without it stars don’t exist. That’s the danger of new, hot actors joining comic franchises that lock them into absurd seven-picture deals: They don’t have the ability or time to craft their own star image. The superhero characters they take on subsume their image. The moviegoing public has a hard time seeing these actors beyond the comic book and legacy franchise characters they play. These performers get stuck playing characters that all seem crafted from similar molds: the emotionally bruised white dude full of snappy comebacks. Or the badass, leather-clad heroine who has more of an interesting moral landscape than her peers but still gets little to do. The stalwart all-American hero who is proud and true. If even stars as big as Will Smith now rarely bring the kind of box-office results that justify their huge paydays, do the studios really even need them? From the perspective of the executives, what is the point of a movie star beyond marketability?

Why Stars Matter

The studio system during Hollywood’s golden age had one surefire commodity: the stars themselves. Whole genres were born out of the necessity to market these figures. Stars were under contract with the studios who groomed them, changed their names, created stories around them, and thrust them in front of the camera until they found a formula that they could package over and over again.

That may make movie stars seem, to today’s audiences, unimportant. Many of the most popular stars from decades ago are unrecognizable to audiences today for a variety of reasons, including changing tastes. But when we look back on the stars with true legacies — the Cary Grants, the Paul Newmans, the Marilyn Monroes — it’s clear they weren’t ever just products of Hollywood’s star system like their peers in the first place. They often had a clear hand in shaping their images, with actors such as Bette Davis notoriously reworking scripts, giving advice on direction, and making choices that directly affected the production of their films, even to the chagrin of directors and producers.

The great stars challenged the studios and America itself. Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and River Phoenix helped us question what it means to be a man in this country. The stardom of Sidney Poitier gave white audiences a peek into the black experience and perhaps the ability to see the humanity of African-Americans. The activism of Harry Belafonte and Angelina Jolie brings attention to causes that many would like to forget. Stars can start trends in fashion, affect political conversations, and leave an important footprint on American culture. But most powerful is how they affect the medium itself.

Critics’ conception of cinema’s “canon” perhaps bends far too much toward directors. Great stars are often responsible for some of the more unforgettable images in film. And stars can be auteurs in their own right — playing with their images from film to film, always in conversation with the expectations of their audience. The rise of superhero films has taken some great actors off the table for years, skewing their ability to craft any sort of image outside the familiar heroes that they play.

What Has Been Lost

The rise of comic book movies is an integral part of the disappearance of an important kind of film: the mid-budget adult drama, where actresses like Sandra Bullock, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Meryl Streep cut their teeth. Going farther back, I can’t help but think of the women’s picture — a strange, somewhat feminist subgenre during the era of classic Hollywood that existed because the studio heads needed vehicles for their actresses. An actress can’t become a star if she has no meaty leading roles, a truth that Hollywood seems to have forgotten. Mid-budget studio films are often where stars have been able to craft themselves. It’s also where we most often see the consistent star and director collaborations. But now directors seem to jump directly from small independent films to gargantuan would-be blockbusters, and with so much money on the line, there’s no room for experimentation or for directors to push themselves and their actors in bold directions.

Ultimately, I’m not worried about the white male actors — like the Marvel Chrises — when it comes to the changing and charged landscape of modern Hollywood. They will get chance after chance to prove their worth as stars even if they can barely inhabit the superhero roles they play, let alone figure out and craft their own public images. Just ask Jai Courtney. Or any of the interchangeable white, blond-ish, sharp-jawed men that Hollywood can’t get enough of despite audiences’ difficulty in differentiating them.

Actors like Chris Hemsworth may never figure out what brand of stardom suits them, but their careers will be just fine. Although, with his turn in Ghostbusters and the more comic approach to Thor in the DVD-extra short film packaged with Captain America: Civil War, Hemsworth seems to be realizing what kind of star he truly is: someone a bit funnier and more subversive than the straight-up heartthrobs his physicality may lead us to expect of him. When it comes to the frustrating lack of mid-budget pictures — where true stardom finds its beginnings — the actors I’m worried about are the ones rarely given a chance to play superhero characters in the first place.

The ecstatic reaction to the casting of Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther, a film with nary a light-skinned or white actor in sight, isn’t just because of the character’s history or the rarity of seeing black people headlining a major film where slavery isn’t the thrust of the narrative. It’s also a reaction to the dearth of black actors (especially dark-skinned black women) who become movie stars in the first place. And it’s indicative of what a movie star can do for the culture and film itself. It’s actors like Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o who offer the most interesting opportunities for the evolution of movie stardom. But with no mid-budget pictures to give them the chance to create their own legacies — rather than adapt those of characters that have existed in comics for decades — will we see them get that opportunity? Will we see them collaborate with a writer/director over decades in a way that is both risky and rewarding? Will they be able to develop the intimacy with their audience that a great star turn can achieve if they’re stuck vacillating between big-budget films that offer little to no narrative risks, very small independent films (if they’re lucky), television, and the stage?

To say that who becomes a star doesn’t matter is to forget that Hollywood is a microcosm of America itself, and to forget how stardom has shaped the history of the medium. What is Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest work without the way Cary Grant riffs on his own image in North by Northwest and Notorious? What is the arc of the antihero in cinema without Vivien Leigh’s infuriating yet enchanting Scarlett O’Hara or the way Bette Davis wrestled with female anger? What is the history of the musical without the elegance of Fred Astaire or the bristling heat of Gene Kelly? Movie stars can make good films masterpieces, electrically charge a close-up, and alter our understanding of a film due to their image. They are often the reason certain genres like the women’s picture exists in the first place. Film needs its movie stars. And television shouldn’t be the only place they’re allowed to breathe. Until Hollywood remembers this, the medium itself will continue to suffer.