The Importance of Superhero Casting: What's in a Look?

Posted by: Jerrica

Appearances aren't everything. But, they usually count for something. One of the most common complaints about Nicolas Cage having laid a claim to the role of Superman once upon a time back when Tim Burton was set to direct was that no one could picture him playing the part. Though, some might say that's the genius of thinking of him to play it, going against the grain and painting a very different portrait of World's Greatest Hero. Therein lies the point; casting makes all the difference because the look of a character is something people have pre-established notions about due to their pre-existing exposure to the character. And, therefore, one difference can change more than appearances but perception.

A prime example of things falling into place well would be "Spider-Man." Blue eyes, brown hair, young, short, and wiry. That doesn't just describe physical traits most fans would attribute to Peter Parker, because it also describes Tobey Maguire, who was physically, and of course professionally, well cast for that part. Kirsten Dunst died her usual blonde locks flaming red for the part of Mary Jane in the "Spider-Man" movies. For "Fantastic Four," Jessica Alba died her dark hair bright blonde to more accurately copy the look of Susan Storm. More than that, Alba sported blue contact lenses to lighten her dark brown eyes for a more precise likeness.

For the upcoming "Superman Returns," Brandon Routh, the new Supes, also wore blue contacts over his brown eyes, because Superman has a history of having bright baby blues. Christopher Reeve had blue eyes in the classic "Superman" quadrilogy, and now the new Man of Steel has them too thanks to painstaking attention to detail in translating the overall appearance of a superhero from comic page to theater screen. In fact, in some shots, from some angles, there is a certain striking similarity Routh shows in some physical aspects to Reeve as Superman/Clark Kent. It's about the way the character has traditionally been presented for decades; tall, muscular, square jaw, chiseled face, blue eyes, jet-black hair.

This combination of physical features represents a traditional archetype that not only defines the character but is how comic superheroes are often recognized as being themselves. This is particularly true since they originate in a medium where artists who draw them are constantly rotating and changing the style in which the characters are depicted. These long-held ideas of what the characters look like are so powerful as to make Superman, the first and most distinguished comic superhero ever, so extraordinarily difficult to cast. This is so often the case that every single time he has appeared in a television series or movie (anything where he had to be played by a live actor), a virtual unknown has been awarded the role.

Superman remains one of the hardest characters to cast to a good degree of satisfaction without going for a completely fresh face in answer to this perpetual dilemma. Batman, however, seems to be quite the opposite. One of the greatest surprises to many was how well Michael Keaton fit the role of the Dark Knight in "Batman" and "Batman Returns." He had the roughened voice for Batman and the icy blue eyes to stare out of the cowl, chilling the blood of common criminals. Ironically, beforehand, there was something of a small uproar about "Beetlejuice" playing Batman, but now many consider Keaton one of the best Batmans to date. But, last year "Batman Begins" brought a new Bruce Wayne to the throne for a new generation.

There are the casting choices that defy the comics' conventions, however minuscule the deviation might be. Keaton had some aspects of the look for Batman, though there were some who believed he wasn't as good a Bruce Wayne as they could have gotten. On the other hand, fans were blown away by Christian Bale in "Batman Begins," and there were no questions about him having the look and charisma to be a convincing billionaire playboy as well as an exceptional Caped Crusader. The one distinct difference physically between Keaton and Bale besides the negligible difference in their heights is that Bale has brown eyes, and they were left as such. This thereby changed the color of the normally blue-eyed Wayne and thus the feel of Batman’s stare that became darker than it was cold.

All of these things are seemingly superficial, and for the most part, they often turn out to be imperceptible details. Naturally, there are times when the difference is more noticeable than others. In the "X-Men" trilogy, Anna Paquin looks and acts on average a far cry from the Rogue of the comics. Though Wolverine is seriously built and Hugh Jackman is plenty ripped for the role, Logan is not as tall as Jackman. On the other hand, Professor X looks just like he does in the comics thanks to the ideal casting of Patrick Stewart. It's all relative to a tempered balance of acting first and foremost and then the overall appearance of the character.

On The WB's television show "Smallville," Clark Kent is extra tall and has green eyes and dark hair, fitting inside a slightly broader mold, but for the first time in Superman history, Lana is a brunette rather than a redhead. It's a minor surface observation, but to several fans, it's a break with convention that takes some amount of adjustment and that usually only comes with proving the ability to carry the role on talent first. Are fans more willing to accept someone in the part of a comics character if they look more like the character they know and love from the comics? It's certainly not impossible, and the lengths to which more and more actors are going these days to assume the trademark physical look of their characters is proof that it matters more than we might think and not just to the target audience.

For the most part, these things are shallow and insignificant compared to the task of accurately portraying a known character that has fans with expectations of quality performance and entertainment. Verisimilitude is still a certain guide for casting any character translated from anywhere that comes with a predisposed fan following, and that seems to work for it more than against it. Tiny things can have an impact whether it's realized or not, even if it’s just making sure that Lex Luthor is bald by making Michael Rosenbaum shave his head every day on the set of "Smallville" or keeping Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey’s head shiny like Mr. Clean for the new movie, because when Gene Hackman played Lex in the old "Superman" movies he technically was bald but really wasn't (Lex was supposed to be wearing a toupee, which allowed Hackman to have hair for the part and avoid donning a skullcap for any longer than one scene).

Expectations can also be a pivotal guiding force for actors and filmmakers alike when reincarnating a superhero or a comic in motion picture form, like a North Star by which to set their course, and more often than not this means that the best of the source material will come through in the finished product, at the very least in spirit. In the end, it's really all about the big picture, and depending on how much of a stickler you are for those finer points, it's also about opening your eyes to see one particular vision of a superhero or comic, whether it's seen through colored contacts or not.

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