Comedy Actors In Superhero Movies

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Most of the time, in comic book movies, we like our superheroes mighty and daring, but, also likeable and often witty. In our villains we want an evil calculated side whilst desiring a sense of humour that is smart and fiendish. Both of these traits suggest that there should be more comedy actors in superhero and villain roles. Comedy is often mentioned by great actors as being the hardest thing to do right. However, the past has proven that it can be an absolute disaster to hire a comedic actor to play your superhero or villain unless they are mocking and parodying.

The most notorious case of a villain being cast in a comedic role was Jim Carrey as The Riddler in Batman Forever. In 1995, Carrey could of been in whatever movie he so wished. He was unequivocal box office gold and producers knew anything he was in would make massive amounts of money. However, Batman Forever was a critical disaster and almost ruined the franchise before Batman and Robin plodded along to finish the job several years later.

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That’s not to say that Carrey was the worst thing in Batman Forever, the massive influence from the campiness of the 1960’s show that strayed away from the world created in Batman and Batman Returns by Tim Burton and the horrible chemistry between the leading actors Val Kilmer, Nicole Kidman and Chris O’Donnell, also has to take the blame somewhat. Carrey has a body of work that any actor would envy, both in comedy with The Mask, Dumb and Dumber and the wickedly dark and massively underrated The Cable Guy, and drama, for Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind and The Truman Show in which he should have won best actor ahead of Roberto Benigini in 1999.

However, looking back at Batman Forever, you see how miscast he was. It was like director Joel Schumacher let him do whatever he wanted on set and just rolled the cameras whilst he improvised continuously. His moments and jokes in the film go on too long and make The Riddler little more than a farce rather than a threat. The Riddler should be Batman’s psychological equal and challenge Bruce Wayne’s intellect with his genius and cunning. Instead, he just dances around the room with Tommy Lee Jones’ Two Face and doing weird accents whilst prancing and laughing.

There is a big parallel for me with Richard Pryor’s casting in Superman III in which director Richard Lester let him improvise for huge amounts of time which turned the film’s tone into something strange and centred the movie on the story of Pryor’s character as opposed to that of Superman. Superman very much became the second string character in his own movie because Richard Pryor was beloved by the American public and directors thought he could be shoehorned in to lend humour to the franchise. It would be like Kevin Hart or Rob Schneider being the sidekick to Henry Cavill’s Man of Steel in the upcoming Batman v Superman. Just writing this now, I remember, with regret that Rob Schneider already played a sidekick to Sly Stallone’s Judge Dredd…

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Other cases include that of Seth Rogen in The Green Hornet. Like Jim Carrey and Richard Pryor you could say that Rogen is also the comedian of his generation, he is always guaranteed to make a huge amount of money at the box office with his comedies and he is massively well liked, some would go as far to say he has been the era defining comedian of the past decade. Unfortunately, the move to a superhero film didn’t suit him. It’s a lot more likely that the disastrous outcome of the film was not because of Seth Rogen and his inability to be serious or understand the tone of the movie. It’s a lot more to do with the many production and personnel issues on the movie.

Rogen has stated in interviews that when he wrote the movie with co-writer Evan Goldberg they had an idea that started well and began to change as the budget escalated. The screenplay was often heavily scrutinized by studio executives, nipping needlessly at pieces of dialogue. This explains the confusing tone of The Green Hornet which is constantly changing. Director Michel Gondry, better known for his excellent independent films, had also never worked on a big budget movie before. Even though the same can be said of Jurassic World’s Colin Trevorrow, at least he had the support from Steven Spielberg and studio executives who knew what they could expect and just wanted to make the best film they could.

The Green Hornet was not Rogen’s fault, like Batman Forever wasn’t Jim Carrey’s, but they’re the ones who get left with the mess while the director’s, the writers and the rest of the cast go about their careers without any criticism by the mainstream audiences. Because they are actors more known for another genre, they are pinpointed and given the most criticism as clueless hacks tell them to go back to “what they do best”. Although not strictly a comic actor you could argue Ryan Reynolds got a similar treatment as both Deadpool in the abysmal X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which he is atoning for with his forthcoming standalone movie, and the perennially derided The Green Lantern.

Which brings me to Marvel’s newest offering Ant-Man. It’s been over a ten year wait as the baton of director has been passed from Edgar Wright to Peyton Reed but throughout the entirety of Ant-Man’s production history the lead actor has always stayed the same. Paul Rudd is an actor of immense quality and is known mostly as a comedy actor; it is the genre that he has appeared in most and if you were to think of three Paul Rudd films off the top of your head the chances are they would be comedies.

Both the filmmakers and Rudd are taking a huge risk with Ant-Man because if this film flops, it will flop hard, considering Marvel are currently on such a winning streak. Sadly is would be harder for Rudd to recover than Marvel, it won’t ruin his career but it will be a blot on an otherwise wonderful oeuvre. He will forever be known as Ant-Man which would always have those negative connotations and would be the face of the Marvel movie that didn’t quite meet the standards of the others. Some people survive the bad reviews, comedic actor or not (George Clooney in Batman and Robin) and some don’t (Brandon Routh in Superman Returns and arguably Halle Berry in Catwoman) we will see what the audiences think in a few weeks’ time.

What Marvel are great at doing in terms of casting is hiring actors who are deemed serious actors, and then add the comedy as opposed to hiring comedians and then writing the script to suit them. The Marvel writers make the characters witty and funny, and that is due to great writing and the charisma of the actors, especially the likes of Robert Downey Jr. But it’s fair to say Paul Rudd could boast the same amount of charisma as any of The Avengers.

These days you don’t see too many comedians in these films. When people like Kevin Hart, Adam Sandler, Ricky Gervais, Jonah Hill and Jason Segel are making millions and millions of pounds with their movies why would they want to risk sullying their career with a massive flop of a superhero film. They don’t need that grief, especially as the superhero movies now move into the deep echelons of darkness; there may not even be room for these talented actors within the genre.

I think Paul Rudd is going to excellent as Ant-Man, whether the film will be equally great is another matter. He can take a ray of light from the fact that before The Guardians of The Galaxy last year, Chris Pratt was primarily a comic actor with Parks and Rec, The Five Year Engagement and What’s Your Number, with only really cameo appearance in films like Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty to flex his acting chops, but has now established himself into the go to action hero for casting directors in Hollywood.

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Stepping Into The Superman Series

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We all have gaps in our film watching knowledge. Whether you’re unfamiliar with La Nouvelle Vague, or haven’t seen a Woody Allen movie, there is always that allusive movie or series you keep meaning to spend a weekend with but never get around to it. With the best intentions we try and sit down and spend our precious time with the unfamiliar but ultimately it is so much easier to put on a Blu-Ray of Jurassic Park and just slump on the sofa.

Personally, I like to think I have a good grasp of a wide range of movies, but obviously there will be massive chasms of knowledge that I may have to fluke my way through. For example, you could count the number of Bollywood films I’ve watched on one hand and please don’t expect me to know a great deal about The Japanese New Wave movement because I’d probably just start to change the subject onto Star Wars. It’s not that I don’t enjoy and respect these movies, they’re purely gaps in my ongoing film education and I’m sure I’m not the only one out there to admit this.

I even have these gaps in popular film. It wasn’t until the last year in which my wife’s obsession for all things 007 compelled me to watch the entire series of James Bond films. Previously I had only seen Goldfinger and the Bronson/Craig movies post 1995. Looking back, I’m very glad I had somebody to share their enthusiasm otherwise I may have continued without watching them and wouldn’t have found out that the Timothy Dalton movies were actually really good and how politically incorrect many of them were. It’s great to watch something, especially something that a huge amount of people have seen already and make your own assessment of it.

This brings me to another very popular series in which I was only recently introduced to in its entirety. The Superman series of films that began in 1978 with Superman:The Movie and commenced with Superman IV: The Quest For Peace. I had already seen Superman Returns, that besides Kevin Spacey I didn’t enjoy very much and 2013’s Man of Steel, that besides the ridiculous amount of wanton destruction in the final third, I did enjoy very much. So, I went into Superman: The Movie with a basic idea of the mythos, the characters and Richard Donner’s other work but not much else. Here are my thoughts on Superman I-IV:

Superman: The Movie:

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Unlike today, movies weren’t afraid to have really long opening credits. A massive amount of names come speeding towards you in a space of 5 minutes as John William’s amazing score gets the audience ready for something epic. I’m really surprised that the opening scene shows General Zod (Terence Stamp) and his accomplices sent to The Phantom Zone where it is not referenced again until the next movie. It’s a really brave move to spend five minutes setting up a sequel in an already very long film with lots of exposition and although both Superman movies were shot simultaneously it is still an interesting move.

From there we get the origin story that looks like it inspired pretty much all that came after it and before you know it we have our Superman who is played sublimely by Christopher Reeve. In fact the whole film is excellently cast; Gene Hackman, Marlon Brando, Margot Kiddo and Jackie Cooper are all really inspired choices.

The special effects are really amazing for its time and although I’m watching it out of the period it was made and have therefore seen hundreds of bridges collapses and helicopter crashes in movies it still holds its own.

Unfortunately many of the dramatic and romantic scenes do feel very much of their era and feel a bit overlong. However, it’s a very likeable movie and although tonally it is all over the places sometimes it very much feels like a pioneering piece of work.

Superman II

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I watched the 1980 sequel without knowing much about the controversial shoot that seems to have haunted the production of Superman II. It’s a strange thing that there were so many issues on set between Richard Donner and producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind and it doesn’t show in the movie.

In fact I think Superman II is better than the first, it brings us two of the greatest villians in movie history Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) and General Zod (Terence Stamp) and combines their two motivations to create a real force for Superman to deal with. There seems to be more at stake throughout the romantic scenes as Kal El must choose between his powers and Lois Lane and it’s ultimately sharper and funnier than the previous film.

They must have had an excellent editor because it really sounded chaotic behind the scenes. Richard Donner, director of the previous movie, and most of this film (he claims 75%) had a row with the producers over the final cut amongst other issues. They, in turn, hired another director, Richard Lester, who has his name as director on the finished movie. After this, many of the cast and crew including Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando, both of whom finished almost all their scenes under Donner refused to return. After Brando sued the Salkinds for $50 million, he had his scenes removed and Hackman had his role reduced and everything else was filmed with a body double.

We still don’t know for sure how much footage was shot by Donner or Lester, however in 2006 a Richard Donner cut with Brando’s scenes reinstated was released. What we do know is Richard Lester did come back for the sequel…

Superman III:

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Oh boy did Richard Lester come back for the sequel. A huge amount of what Richard Donner was trying to do in the first Superman was incorporating verisimilitude, which is placing a reality into the narrative of cinema, making it feel real, making it feel like a man can fly without it looking like he’s floating on wires. What Richard Lester incorporated was a slapstick, comedy tone. Superman III is a very different movie. No Brando, no Hackman and Margot Kiddo, another supporter of Richard Donner, is only present for about five minutes before she is sent off to cover a news story for the entirety of the film.

The opening scene is as campy as they come; I thought I was watching The Great Muppet Caper with the amount of pratfalls. Then we get to the “story” which is essentially Richard Pryor’s story, In fact it might as well be a Richard Pryor movie with Superman in the background. Don’t get me wrong, I love Richard Pryor, he is a comic genius, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Brewster’s Millions are classics in my eyes but there is a time and a place for his comedies. For instance, you wouldn’t see Ricky Gervais as the lead in Avengers: Age of Ultron because it would dramatically alter the tone. On the making of documentary you can clearly see everyone, especially director Richard Lester is overawed by Pryor and let him improvise for minutes at a time despite how it might change the movie. It is very much a case of the star being bigger than the movie and the crew not knowing how to use his abilities.

Anyway, Richard Pryor, through a series of events embezzles money from his employer Ross Webster (Robert Vaughn) and ends up building a super computer for him. Meanwhile, Superman goes bad after encountering some kryptonite and starts acting like a dick, blowing out the Olympic Torch and straightening up The Leaning Tower of Pisa for a laugh. It all culminates in a fight between his two selfs in a scrap yard.

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Probably, as a comedy it would be regarded as a classic but it looks like a series of films that as declined and died due to the greed of the producers and the self indulgence of some of the cast and crew.

Superman IV: The Quest For Peace:

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Not to worry, every franchise has that film where the standards are not as high. Superman IV promised so much more with Gene Hackman and Margot Kiddo back as Lex Luthor and Lois Lane respectively and the director of The Ipcress File, Sidney. J. Furie at the helm. Surely Superman III was just a blip…unfortunately Superman IV is just as bad if not worse. It clocks in a half an hour shorter than the other movies and pretty much every member of the cast and crew knew it was going to be a disaster. The Salkinds had already sold the franchise, thinking it had run its course and the budget was being slashed in every way by the new production company Cannon Films.

What little story there is one big, heavy handed Cold War metaphor. Lex Luthor is broken out of prison by his annoying nephew, they then steal a strand of Superman’s hair and attach it to a nuclear missile that Superman throws into the sun. From this, comes Nuclear Man, a one dimensional muscle man. He fights Superman a few times and then I think his powers are taken away when there is an eclipse. Oh, and there is a subplot where The Daily Planet is taken over and made into a tabloid newspaper. Apparently there are an extra 45 minutes of footage including another Nuclear Man. Luckily I will never witness it in my life.

Well, there you go. My first viewings of this classic series and it is very much a case of two great films and two terrible films with a massive production battle in the middle. Whatever the outcome I still enjoyed the movies for myself and if, next year, Superman v Batman references Superman III at all, I’ll get the reference!

Fire, Theft and Acts of Zod

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(Warning: Man of Steel Spoilers)

Last week, like so many, I indulged myself in Zack Snyder’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel. Despite being a relative novice when it comes to all things Kal-El, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although it has a lot to do before comparison with The Dark Knight trilogy, apart from the Nolan/Goyer/DC connections, there is still plenty to like. Henry Cavill really bought a great subtlety to both his Kryptonian and Earthling characters, Russell Crowe was on top form as Jor-El, Michael Shannon’s Zod had genuine antagonistic motivations and the story was very watchable and easy to become involved in.

However, one thing I have problems, in many superhero and sci-fi films lately, is the sheer amount of needless destruction and civilian deaths. Films like The Avengers, Transformers and Star Trek into Darkness have shown that it’s ok if thousands, if not millions of people are killed in an intergalactic crossfire. It’s like they have been competing for how many skyscrapers they can digitally bring down. Nobody cares about a couple of towering office blocks that may contain a huge number of innocent women and children anymore. As long as we complete our mission we can mourn for the fallen people later after the shawarma.

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Man of Steel is hugely guilty of a biblical scale of wanton destruction. The last act alone must accumulate a body count in the thousands as General Zod and his Kryptonian brethren reek havoc on Metropolis. Worse than that, in trying to stop him, Superman inflicts just as much damage on his city. Skyscrapers turn to rubble, local amenities in tatters and local leisure facilities are no more. At least a claim could be made and the insurance companies could pay out? Well, I’d wager their offices are nothing but dust.

Now, I know the destruction of one city is insignificant considering the entire of Krypton was destroyed. But, in the final scene where Zod is threatening a family of four, Superman can’t do enough to help them, but the faceless thousands in the tower blocks will have to live with their fate.

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Maybe it’s indicative of a post 9/11 America that all skyscrapers will fall without a second thought. I’m sure that the sheer amount of these Superhero films found success, in part, because America is in a period of their history where terrorism is a constant threat and the need for a hero is greater than ever. Man of Steel also shows its own armed forces joining Superman to fight which gives an extra patriotic aspect.

Some will argue that the destruction is an attempt to show the threat of the villain and what they are capable of. Some will argue that it’s an excuse to use a huge amount of CGI, and since it’s become so widely available and easy to use, filmmakers just can’t help themselves going over the top. I don’t agree with the last point too much because Snyder is known from going over the top but we see from 300 and Watchmen he has the ability to use CGI in a way that helps with the story instead of merely using it as a distraction from it.

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Maybe the destruction in these films is for a different purpose. One great theory I heard was that Metropolis would be built up from nothing by Lex Luthor, which would in turn set up the next movie. There were already trucks with LexCorp hidden throughout the movie and it would be a very logical step to take.

I know that many were surprised and deafened by the obliteration of Metropolis, however, I still found the story entertaining, I liked the scenes between Kal-El with Amy Adams’ Lois Lane or his parents in Smallville and it made me want to know more about the Kryptonians and as I sit here considering a second viewing it’s leaving me wondering one thing, do insurance companies even pay out for acts of Zod?