From hero to zero?
Remember that scene in This is Spinal Tap where the band sings “Gimme Some Money” in its Beatles invasion era digs? Then that scene where the band sings “(Listen to the) Flower People” in its Woostock era bell bottoms and flower prints? Of course, we know this is all just a precursor to their current incarnation as a heavy metal act, churning out songs about Druids and ample posteriors. Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story similarly skewers the changeability of the music industry, showing its lead radically switching clothing styles, hairstyles and musical styles as the fickleness of the public seems to demand it.
Adapt or you’re out. It’s a concept Madonna’s entire career has been based on. You either change your style, your appearance, your shtick to what’s hot , or you become irrelevant. You are either in the moment or you are so, so not.
The movie industry has not typically been prone to the same phenomenon. Therefore, its closest equivalent to rock stars – movie stars – have not typically undergone the same constant reinvention. In an industry that keeps adding and then reusing genres, nothing is terminally old-fashioned, and even if it were, the creators of that art are not so inextricably linked to that type of art that they can’t easily adapt. In fact, the very profession of acting is based on the idea of being different every time out. You take on different roles throughout your career, and no sea change – save something like the advent of sound, which put a lot of silent film actors out of work – will radically alter your fortunes.
However, we do sometimes see certain trends that dictate the behaviour of these actors within their chosen profession – calculated decisions designed to keep them at the forefront. And just like with those bad hairstyles and regrettable moments of conforming to popular music, these actors may have occasion to look back and shake their heads at what fools they were.
People, I’m talking about superhero movies.
We are living through something of an unprecedented era at the movies. One single style of movie is dominating the box office like no single style has dominated in the past. Superhero movies are such a sure bet that any exec who fails to greenlight one will probably be out of a job on the spot. Superhero movies rule, and just when we start thinking the bubble is about to burst, another one sets a new box office record, ensuring that we’ll have them coming out the wazoo until at least 2030.
And so it is that actors – even actors who might have once considered themselves “above” the superhero movie – are turning to that type of movie in droves. It’s getting so that we no longer bat an eyelash at the latest announcement. We wouldn’t be surprised to hear that even some august acting talent like Daniel Day-Lewis was donning a cape and mask to play Batman at age 60.
It’s reasonable to wonder, then, if it’s something they will all look back on and laugh. “Remember when we all were wooed into appearing in those movies? Remember when we considered the truckloads of money they were throwing at us more important than the chance to do good work? Remember when we actually though that was good work?”
And maybe they do think this type of work is no different than a Shakespeare adaptation. We make a mistake if we think that everyone who is good at acting is also driven by the desire to make good art. The holy dollar is likely just as strong a motivator for these people, and you can’t discount the fact that these movies also give them a visibility that ensures their continued popularity and ensures these continued paydays.
But there’s a certain adapt or die quality to actors, too. It may not involve changing the way you look or sound, but It does involve continuing to work regularly, and also prominently. If you take a year or two off, suddenly you’re yesterday’s news. Superhero movies are an especially good way of ensuring you don’t have too many years off, as many of them require committing to somewhere between 11 and 14 sequels. More generally, you just have to stick with what’s popular.
But when that bubble does burst in 2030 – or a good decade earlier than that if there’s any justice – will guys like Oscar Isaac and Benedict Cumberbatch look back and wonder why they agreed to be in X-Men: Apocalypse or Doctor Strange? Did they yield to a competitive impulse to remain at the forefront of relevance? Did they just feel like they had to keep up the Joneses? Or were they, as they will invariably say in all the press junkets, really, actually comic book fans from when they were wee little lads?
If there’s any justice, those of us who have become numb to the latest nugget of casting news will one day get to see these people plant their faces in their palms and laugh about those bygone days when they thought wearing tights and wielding a magical hammer was the pinnacle of thespian achievement.
Or at least the best way to make a quick buck.