That great level playing field of dreams, where all that we see and all that we dream in our most intimate thoughts find a voice, a playing out. It is the last great bastion of magical idealism left open for the masses – books are too exclusivist, sadly, and television in this country, well, the less said about that the better.
Hollywood has been dream merchant at a noticeably greater scale than our Hindi film industry, if you set aside cultural preferences (you know, we have colours and a hundred different traditions, and song and dance at our weddings. And chiffon sarees.) And, of late, they’ve gone all out after discovering that big-budget superhero films – in which everyday people (like us) have extraordinary powers (that everyday people like us wish we had) and available beautiful women (that everyday people like us wish we had), make do without really working at a mundane job (that everyday people like us wish we could) battle villains who aren’t really menacing and have a long-drawn, almost bound to fail due to its sheer scale and idiocy, plan to conquer the world or thereabouts, which is usually some version of New York City.
See, that’s what I said earlier: their scale of being a dream merchant is greater! Being the master marketers they are, they’ve hit upon the perfect formula: take the quarter/half life crisis fantasy of the majority of the population, and show them the awesomeness they could have unleashed. Instant, seven-figure bling! Sadly, much like all other excesses of capitalism, the product of these efforts are quite poor. Paper thin plots, mostly repeated and rehashed by several other films, plastic acting, and the inevitable victory of the hero over a villain.
Anyway, the point of this post isn’t to malign the superhero film genre (it is one by now, no?), it is to celebrate it. More specifically, its thespians: adults who have worn tight suits, mouthed things that don’t really mean anything most of the time, and battled with more bad guys in a movie than they have met normal guys in their lives, but done so with a great deal of dedication, courage, and even a little panache.
It is the end of the year, and the season of lists (in addition to the season of celebrations, of course). A little over a couple of years ago, I made a list of the most beautiful women I’d encountered in cinema, this is a list of the most inspired casting in superhero films. All images, of course, are used only for representation with no commercial gains, and their rights belong to their respective owners.
In some specific order, then:
First up, I’ve included this based largely on the first movie, ‘The Amazing Spider-man’. Secondly, even when the second one was quite bad, Andrew Garfield was fairly decent in it. Lastly, he at his worst is much better than many other actors who’ve taken to this genre.
In fact, while many find Tobey Maguire to be a better Spidey, I’ve never been quite fond of him. He had an awkwardness and clumsiness that did not work for me. Garfield, on the other hand, is a better odd, nerdy, goofy, and yet, aware kid.
While Guillermo del Toro is one of my most favourite directors, thanks largely due to his command of visual presentation, in Ron Perlman, he also gave us one of the most unlikely superheroes.
Perlman’s Red is part-Wolverine, part-Tony Stark, and all round fun. It’s just a pity we won’t be seeing this trilogy complete, because studios have to instead fund crap like ‘The Green Lantern’.
The only reason Hugo Weaving’s V is coming in this low in the rankings is because, technically, you don’t really see him act. However, I think only other actor has done a better job of not being very seen, and yet, making us love him based entirely on his voice and physical acting.
And what an impact has this movie, despite being panned by critics and some, that the Guy Fawkes mask is now the global standard for rebellion, even becoming the calling card of hacktivists Anonymous.
Maybe Robert Downey Jr. was considered and offered the role of billionaire Tony Stark because the story of a famous man’s redemption is something very personal. Just like Tony, RDJ received early in life, then crashed into drugs and abuse, before cleaning his act up. Romantically enough, ‘Iron Man’ became the biggest success of his comeback, and overall, his career.
While he is suave, confident, funny, and a total geek – or, in his own words, “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” – there’s no real reason why he’s coming in at 11. Maybe because I find his movies and character, in general, to be lacking darkness.
The movie that defined what CGI could do, and was about to do, in cinema and subliminally taught India’s Srimad Bhagvad Gita to the world, ‘The Matrix’ was a path-breaking, genre-defining movie. Perhaps identified more for its stunning visuals – and the Wachowskis too, along with del Toro, feature in my favourite “visual” directors – this film perhaps owes much to Keanu Reeves’ Neo.
Rarely do we see such a life-changing, literally, transformation in a character as we see in him in the first film in the trilogy. From a doubtful, searching, bumbling boy, we see him become a man, and then virtually a god. And he still retains his humanity. While all three leads – Carrie Ann-Moss and Laurence Fishburne the other two – were good, Keanu Reeves was exceptional throughout the series!
For almost everyone on the planet, and mostly studio executives, Hugh Jackman is Wolverine! He hasn’t become it, nor become famous for it – we think that this is what Wolverine is, does, and looks like. They can change Spider-man, they keep changing Superman, and even have gambled with Batman – but they will have a tough, tough time replacing Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine. Here’s statistical proof: he has played the character in 7 movies!
More importantly, he has made Wolverine everyone’s favourite X-Men. He has highlighted his strength, given light to his struggles with immortality, brought humour with his deadpan dialogues, and even shown us a side that is vulnerable to love. What’s more, he makes us want to keep watching him!
Loki, perhaps, is the only character here that’s more beloved than the hero he battles on-screen. While’s Chris Hemsworth’s God of Thunder is idealistic, and therefore, boring, Loki is unpredictable, witty, scheming, and… fun, mostly!
Tom Hiddleston went from being a virtual nobody to one of the most known actors in the world. He has brought guile and charm to the role of a villain, with a steely determination as a foundation. This was especially the case in ‘The Avengers’, particularly in Black Widow’s interrogation scene. While I found his performance to have dipped in the second Thor film, as the film itself was quite a dip, his continued presence in the Marvel universe brings hope to those of us who expect our villains to genuinely offer some challenge to our heroes.
Severus Snape, by the time the Harry Potter film series was coming to a close, was arguably the most loved character of the entire series, perhaps more than Potter Himself.
While his cause was helped by a character written especially to make an impact on film – the dark, brooding, misunderstood sociopath who redeems himself in a manner no one saw coming and that too for love – it is Alan Rickman’s masterful portrayal that won us over. We all – all of us – hated him in the beginning, we all loved him by the end. Silent, subtle, underplayed, and wonderful!
Magneto is, as far as I know, one of the most powerful mutants in the X-Men universe. Michael Fassbender is, arguably, one of the most powerful young actors around. I think of all the entries in the list, this one is perhaps the most inspired casting call of all. In fact, I confess it was seeing him in the eminently enjoyable ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ that gave me the idea for this post.
Fassbender brings a raw authenticity to the character of Magneto. When he’s being trained by Charles, you see him weak and unsure, though this rage simmers underneath. His gradual growth as a mutant and realising the strength of his powers toward the end of ‘X-Men: First Class’, and his masterclass as a one-man army in its sequel make you wish that 20th Century Fox continues with this generation of mutants for the forseeable future.
I don’t really have a Batman bias, and I can lie quite easily!
While most feel that ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ was an inferior film to the seminal ‘The Dark Knight’ – after all, no one calls it the ‘Batman Begins’ trilogy – I find it much superior in some respects. The film addressed the political struggle that is almost an inherent accessory to any struggle for power in the real world. I find it tremendously interesting to witness Bane turning his fight into a class struggle – the poor criminals of Blackgate against “the rich, the corrupt” of the rest of Gotham in that epic scene.
Which, if you think of it, is the high-watermark of Tom Hardy’s portrayal of the villain. Nolan reimagined the character from being a victim of bizzare scientific experiments in the comics to a petty thief transformed by, of all things, love. It is amazing how much sheer physical change Hardy went through – gaining an incredible __ for the role – and then used his body to talk to us. Most of his face is covered, so all of the fear Bane brings to Gotham, and us in the audience, is through his eyes and body language. In fact, pay attention to the scene at the rooftop where Batman and Catwoman escape in the Batpod, and he’s facing them: hands on his coat, staring into a bloody jet!
It is, without doubt, one of the best portrayals of unbridled confidence and power I’ve seen!
One really feels for Christian Bale – he was overshadowed by Heath Ledger in ‘The Dark Knight’, and by the mammoth expectations of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. However, he has been absolutely brilliant in the trilogy.
From a lanky teenager to the full-grown adult prime to the weakened, battered, greying Bruce Wayne, Bale brought a physical realism almost unseen in this genre. In addition, his performances were so understated that his sadness, fear, anger, and nobility almost felt like those of Batman. For almost throughout the series, I’ve not seen him as a separate entity – much like Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine – and so have other fans. When Ben Affleck was announced as the next Bat, the outcry to return the role to Bale were real and present!
In my mind, no villain has been as villainous and evil as Agent Smith from ‘The Matrix’ trilogy. And for a world audience seeing him for the first time, Hugo Weaving became almost synonymous with evil.
For nearly the length of three movies, Weaving’s Smith doesn’t smile, laugh, or do one kind thing – unless he is doing it with sarcasm. His fury, the hatred for humanity that pours forth in each word he utters, the expressions with which he shares his distate, and overall, the way he communicates this all – with exceptional dialogue delivery and force. I don’t think an absolute villain of his sort will be seen soon.
If your point is that Sherlock Holmes isn’t a superhero, and that Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are, I kinda pity you. And if you think Benedict Cumberbatch – who I think is a fairly good Holmes, or rather, Sherlock – is better than Jeremy Brett, than I pity you and will laugh at you.
Brett is the purists’ Holmes, the definitive Holmes, the ultimate method actor. Long before Ledger’s famous locking himself up to create a Joker unlike any other, there was Brett’s reading Holmes all the time – all, even when not shooting on set – to absorb Holmes. He is known, in fact, to have created a backstory of the life of Holmes to better portray the detective, and thought so much about him that he had nightmares featuring Holmes. The bipolar disorder he suffered in his later days is known to have been influenced by his role. Now that’s suffering for your art!
Could there be any other? Will there be any another? What superlative can I use that hasn’t been used and used up already?
I’ll just say this: wherever you are, Heath Ledger, know that we love you and remember you for doing something extraordinary on camera, wearing paint on your face!
I wish you all a very happy 2015!
Special mentions go out to Jack Nicholson (The Joker), Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Sir Patrick Stewart (Professor X), and Sir Ian McKellen (Magneto). These are only my favourites. If you have yours, please share them in the comments below.