The Dangerous Dance Between Movie Stars and The Expanded Universe

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Chris Pine

Paramount Pictures

Imagine this: Chris Pine, sitting down with his agent to discuss what superhero franchise he’ll star in. One option is Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman’s hunky pilot love interest. It’s a major role and it’s got “plenty of action to keep him busy,” per The Wrap. But there’s not exactly a ton of crossover value outside of Wonder Woman sequels (Avengers: Age of Ultron stretched the very limits of superhero crossover potential, and all love interests like Jane Foster and Pepper Potts could muster was a quick namedrop).

There might also be a part in Green Lantern Corps on the table. Maybe Hal Jordan. Maybe nothing but a rumor. But that would be a starring role and an actual superhero. That’s bound to come with packaged with sequels, Justice League team-ups and juicy, multi-minute cameos. But Green Lantern Corps isn’t slated until 2020… and the DC Universe is still in its infancy, building on a shaky foundation. What happens to Pine if it crumbles in 2019?

I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when Pine mulled his comic book options (if he mulled them at all).

In the current age of the cinematic universes, casting a simple love interest has become a many-headed, multi-armed monstrosity. Because it’s not just a love interest or just a single role, is it? Those parts don’t exist in superhero movies anymore, other than the villains who get heart-shot or neck-snapped in a climactic moment (and even then, they’re comic book villains, so all it takes is a two-line retcon ‐ “I wasn’t really disintegrated! You FOOLS!” ‐ and we’re good as new).

By signing on as Steve Trevor, Chris Pine just locked in the entirety of his live-action superhero career. No more DC roles for Chris Pine. The DC Universe stretches to 20, 30, 100 movies? He’s Steve Trevor, in as many appearances as that earns him.

No Marvel movies, either. When comic book movies were just movies, Ryan Reynolds could hop between Green Lantern and Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (or Halle Berry doing Storm, then Catwoman) without complaint. That’s not how it works today ‐ while I’ve never seen concrete proof it, there’s some unwritten rule that once an actor stakes him/herself with one of the Big Two, crossing to the other side is strictly forbidden. Marvel develops a Starfox movie in 2024? Too bad, Chris Pine. You tied yourself to Steve Trevor nine years ago, there’s no getting out (and Starfox- a charming/creepy space Lothario with the ability to make people feel pleasure ‐ would be a dream fit for Pine).

I have no idea if Pine and his agent really weighed his superhero options like I imagined in those first two paragraphs. But it’s common sense that every actor up for a superhero part these days is weighing the long-term effects.

Scott Eastwood was also up for Steve Trevor at one point ‐ as reported by Variety, he had the choice of testing for Steve Trevor or locking in a smaller, yet guaranteed Suicide Squad role, no testing required. There’s an inherent gambling-with-your-career quality to that, isn’t there? If landing a superhero movie is like winning the lottery, this is the choice between a guaranteed (yet smaller) lump sum today or the yearly dividends that might just add up to more… if the tax rates work out.

Eastwood went with “small” and “right now” (so did Pine, actually). He’ll be playing some guy not important enough to name yet, looking vaguely like a military attache to the movie’s dozen or so gnarly villains (what are the odds he actually survives to the end?). Eastwood’s definitely wagering that a “will probably be eaten by Killer Croc” bump next year is worth more than a potential stake in the franchise later.

Rachel McAdams

HBO

Another example: on Monday, Variety confirmed that Marvel is courting Rachel McAdams to play the female lead in Doctor Strange. But other than the Variety-stamped confirmation, that’s nothing new; when the rumor first broke, it was, “has been offered the female lead.” This week, it’s “is the choice to land the female lead.” Zero progress in nearly a month, as far as Variety can tell.

Here’s the twist: on Tuesday, LA Times writer Amy Kaufman tweeted McAdams’ full response to the Doctor Strange question (the Times only published a part of her response)- including the key sentence “I always wanted to make Black Orchid.” Black Orchid is a relatively obscure superhero given a nifty 1988 revival by Neil Gaiman. More importantly: she’s a DC superhero. Which means the second McAdams signs onto Marvel’s Doctor Strange, Black Orchid (if it ever gets made) becomes an impossible movie in enemy territory. I can’t help but wonder if that’s factoring into her slow decision-making, somehow. And if it is… we’ve reached the point where signing onto today’s blockbuster today means abandoning tomorrow’s passion project. Even if tomorrow is 15 years from now (I can’t imagine Marvel ever plans on ending the MCU, so long as it stays popular).

Can you imagine how complicated this must be for an actor? If the gamble pays off, congratulations! The majority of your career for the next several years is now staked in this one franchise. If you’re just starting out, obviously that’s a career-making boost. And one beset with horrifying, late-in-the-game consequences. Jennifer Lawrence was still at “indie darling” status in 2010 after making waves with Winter’s Bone. She took the gamble twice, and hitched herself to X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games (not necessarily a superhero franchise, but the YA boom ‐ which blossomed with Twilight in 2008, right alongside Iron Man — behaves the same way, focusing on staying relevant with getting a new installment in front of audiences every single year).

Lawrence then spent the better part of five years ‐ essentially her entire star career ‐ shooting Hunger Games and X-Men sequels, jetting through months of blockbuster-necessary press touring, then shooting more sequels. It got bad enough that in early 2014, she needed a year-long break from acting, just to recharge. A break she might not even get, in earnest. Lawrence’s schedule still has a fair amount of movies on it, and David O. Russell referred to the sabbatical as a “vacation” from blockbuster roles, making movies only for her instead. Better than nothing, I guess.

Once you’re part of the expanded universe, it seems like there’s a very strong pull to stay loyal. Over the course of a single interview, Lawrence quips “I love doing these movies,” but also explains how she’ll decide on a fourth X-Men film. “I want them to ask me, and then I’m just going to see how I feel in the moment when they ask… if I get a pit in my stomach and feel like I’m going to throw up, I’ll say no.”

You hear the same love-hate relationship with Chris Evans. Initially, the actor was adamant: he was not going to be Captain America. Marvel cut the offered nine-picture deal to six; Evans said no. Robert Downey, Jr. called Evans personally, dangling the carrot of money and opportunity- “this can afford you all sorts of other freedoms.” Evans said no. Eventually Evans caved, and a few years later he sounded so sick of Marvel movies that he was going to quit acting altogether. Men satisfied with their career choices don’t say things like “I can’t see myself pursuing acting strictly outside of what I’m contractually obligated to do.”

But by Avengers: Age of Ultron press junket time, Evans had that same turn towards a well, maybe… state of mind. “I think it’s almost like high school,” Evans told Gay Times Magazine (via Nerd Reactor). “You’re kind of always looking ahead, about when you’ll graduate, but then when graduation day arrives you kind of don’t want to leave… And if they’d have me back, yeah, I’d probably consider it.”

Cinema Blend’s Catarina Cowden states that “signing up for a Marvel movie is signing up for a life change.” I think this description is spot-on. It’s not just the chunk of time devoted to endless sequels (god forbid you grow tired of playing a character halfway through your contract), the months of laborious, repetitive press tour time attached to every single one. Which is why Ethan Hawke isn’t Doctor Strange (probably). And, I’m guessing, the explanation for this summer’s sudden explosion of embarrassing press tour gaffes. I’m guessing that Jeremy Renner calling Black Widow a “slut” was about 1% Renner and 99% sleep deprivation and coffee fumes.

Paul Rudd

Marvel Studios

Getting cast in a Marvel movie also means Marvel owns your body for the foreseeable future. Paul Rudd abstained from carbs and alcohol for a full year to get those Ant-Man abs- abs that, as far as I can remember, were only visible for that one scene where he takes his shirt off and Evangeline Lilly gives him a quick leer. Chris Pratt spent four hours in the gym every day to pack on Star-Lord levels of man-bulk. Both guys have stated in interviews that they’re not planning on gaining their comedy beer bellies back any time soon, but it’s not like they have a choice. There’s always a Marvel sequel on the horizon.

Did Marvel at least let Rudd crack a few beers in between shooting Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War? That’s what I really want to know. As long as he doesn’t have any slow-motion ab reveals, he could probably get away with a few extra percentage points of body fat in all that Ant-Man leather.

This is what’s on the table when Marvel courts an actor to join their massive movie world. Also DC. And Fox. Almost any YA franchise. Star Wars, to some extent, considering Lucasfilm is going after the same one movie every year game plan. It’s not like there aren’t positives to joining up. There are obvious, massive positives. Downey, Jr. and every Marvel Chris (Evans, Hemsworth, Pratt) are bona fide stars because of the cinematic universe machine. Jennifer Lawrence might be suffering brain damage from blockbuster exposure, but when she finally gets a real break and settles into a livable routine, she’ll still be a movie star. Probably for life.

Nobody outside of How I Met Your Mother fans would care who Cobie Smulders is, but she’s gotten (and will continue to get) so much exposure because she’s Maria Hill, and Maria Hill is one of Marvels’ strongest pieces of cameo-friendly connective tissue. “I will be a part of anything they ask me to be, because I love doing Maria Hill and I love working with superheroes. Who wouldn’t? … I will do anything they ask of me,” she said to HitFix. She has nothing but good things to say about the company.

But not everyone does. And there’s a fairly large cadre of actors that are balking at the massive up-front commitments that cinematic universes require.

Jon Hamm, speaking to Radio Times: “For me to sign on now to do a superhero movie would mean I would be working until I am fifty as that particular superhero… If you want to spend all day pressing the same key that… seems an odd choice.”

Keanu Reeves, speaking to Collider: “From a practical standpoint the idea of a longtime contract is sort of ‘errr’ because you want to make sure the material is up to a certain level. Like the good or great level.”

Here’s Ethan Hawke again: “There’s a problem that comes along whenever Marvel’s gonna approach Joaquin [Phoenix] or me or anybody who’s in love with acting, because there’s a tremendous amount of salesmanship that is now really important to a studio like that. It’s a tremendous amount of time of your life where you’re working and you’re not acting.”

The days where Will Smith could star in a single Independence Day and call it quits are pretty much done (as much because of the decline of real ticket-selling stars as the rise of cinematic universes). But because the concept of a cinematic universe is still so young, the real aftershocks from Marvel’s three and six and nine-picture contracts (not to mention all the salary snafus) might not be felt for years. They might not be felt at all. Maybe 30 years from now the MCU shrivels and dies because the pool of actors willing to make this kind of deal has completely dried up. Or maybe the Jon Hamms of the world finally cave and agree to play Superman in a DCU Kingdom Come spin-off ‐ because if there’s going to be an Old Superman movie, it’s Hamm or bust. And right now it’s bust.

One thing’s for sure: if I ever get the chance to interview Chris Pine, I’m going to have a thousand things to ask him.