How the “fame effect” ruins comic-book movie characters

I am hugely looking forward to the new X-Men movie, so I was stoked to check out the trailer. And sure enough, it looks like a mutantastic film; in a violation of all known laws of sequel physics, the second X-Men movie actually demonstrated less creative entropy than the first, so I have high hopes for the third. There’s only one problem with it, and it’s this:

Kesley Grammer.

He’s playing The Beast. And y’know, the makeup is pretty good. Grammer’s face does indeed seem sculpted vaguely like that of the comic-book Beast. But there’s something wrong here, and Tycho over at Penny Arcade nails it when he says …

… whenever I catch a glimpse of Kelsey Grammer as The Beast it kind of injures things. It’s just, like, I know you, man. Indeed, it would appear he is well known.

Precisely: It is a mistake to cast a big, well-known, brand-name star as a beloved comic-book hero, because the star’s branded personality tends to overshadow the role. Let’s call it the “fame effect”: The producer and director figure they need big names to sell the movie, but in today’s insane world of 24/7 celebrity coverage — where tabloid magazines bray with Homeric repetitiveness about the personal lives of our modern Gods — we come to “know” the stars with such pseudo-intimacy that it’s like seeing your mother up on stage there. Comics are about mythic characters. You can’t use someone in a mythic role who regularly trafficks their real-life personality to the media like cheap crack and then expect us to ignore it.

This is one of the many (very many) reasons the latest Star Wars trilogy sucked so badly. In the original trilogy, virtually everyone was an unknown — except for Harrison Ford and Alec Guiness — so those actors were genuinely swallowed up by their mythic personae. But in Episode One the effect was precisely reversed. I kept on thinking, jeez, those guys from Trainspotting and Schindler’s List better watch out with those light sabers — they’re gonna hurt themselves.

The same dynamic has spoiled the otherwise-excellent X-men movies. Wolverine “worked” because nobody knew who the hell Hugh Jackman was; Storm didn’t because Halle Berry is numbingly familiar. (Fanboy rant: She also doesn’t look even vaguely like the comic-book Storm. A far better pick would have been the insanely rocking Gina Torres, who pulled off the kick-ass warrior-chick thing with aplomb in Serenity, yet is still unfamous enough to avoid triggering the fame effect. Speaking of which, notice that Joss Whedon — director of Serenity and the various Buffyverse shows — harnessed total unknown actors in craft his thoroughly-believable mythic universes (universii?), and that’s one of the reasons they worked so well.)

Of course, if you really need to use famous stars in your comic-book movie, one way to route around the fame effect is simply to hire actors who can actually, y’know, act. Alec Guiness was globally famous when he played Obi-Wan Kenobi, and so were Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in the X-Men movies — but those guys are actual pros. Not the runway-models-on-the-lam and hey-I’m-playing-me-again thesps who constitute today’s Hollywood elite.

(Thanks to Penny Arcade for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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