It was announced yesterday that Israeli actress Gal Gadot would be taking on the role that feminists and fanboys oft-speculate on: Wonder Woman. Immediately, the internet erupted with two reactions—"Who?" followed quickly by "She's too skinny to play Wonder Woman." And so begins yet another cycle of outcry over a no-name being cast as a beloved superhero. But is casting someone with little to no fan following really such a gaffe?
Marvel has achieved a fair amount of success in casting relative unknowns in screen adaptations of their comic book successes—Hugh Jackman had just two minor film roles before being cast as Wolverine in the 2000 release of X-Men, which would go on to launch Jackman's career as a leading man and spawn five more films, with a sixth currently on the way. Similarly, Marvel "rolled the dice" according to Vulture, when casting Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston in Thor, and passing over stars with name-recognition, like Josh Hartnett and Shia Labeouf. Both Thor and its sequel Thor: The Dark World have been box office successes, and pleased both discerning movie critics and fanboys and fangirls alike. It was Hiddleston's panache at making Loki enchanting and hateable in the same breath, coupled with some active campaigning, that made his character such a focal point of both The Avengers and Thor: Dark World.
The curse of expectations can cripple a comic book-based film well before a single frame is shot. Comic book fans—the really hardcore ones that wait with bated breath for even a morsel of information from their beloved fictional universes—are difficult to please, and rightly so. Their vividly color printed worlds are far richer than a two hour film could do justice to, and have existed for far longer than any hype or notoriety surrounding a film might. By casting someone who doesn't already have box office bankability, producers and studios are paying an homage to both the fans and the character being adapted, by letting the story and the superhero take center stage.
As seen with the backlash around the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman, when an actor with considerable fame is put into an iconic role, it becomes immensely hard to separate the actor's public persona and previous performances from the new role. The idea of seeing freewheeling, wisecracking Affleck, who bombed in his last superhero turn Daredevil, take on the brooding hero played to previous perfection by Christian Bale was a choice that's been met with almost universal derision. It's the same reason that despite rumors to the contrary, Johnny Depp would not have been a good choice to play The Riddler in The Dark Knight—no matter what he could bring to the character, it's still hard to separate that Depp is far more than just boozy Captain Jack Sparrow these days.
For studios, casting a big name is usually a measure to ensure profitablity of a film (or at the very least, return on investment). With comic book film franchises, the audience is already built in. No matter how much vitriol the Twitterverse chooses to heap onto Affleck, you better believe Batman fans will be lining up in droves regardless, to see if he was able to do the character justice. Be it excitement or hate watching, the audience is already strongly built into this world, which lessens the pressure on a studio to cast someone that can pull in a crowd.
There are obvious exceptions to the suggestion: Robert Downey Jr. breathed life into an Iron Man franchise that could have been a spectacular failure, though on the flip side, at that point in his career no one was expecting much from Downey to begin with, so the curse of expectations was far lowered than it was for Affleck. Christian Bale was already well-respected before bringing his considerable gifts to the Dark Knight Trilogy. By and large, however, superhero roles have boosted the career of an actor, rather than the career of an actor boosting the role and box office earnings. By casting an unknown, a superhero film is able to take on a life of its own, rather than a life already dogeared by someone famous donning a spandex suit.
[Art by Sam Woolley]