The crusade against Ben Affleck as Batman shows no signs of letting up despite calls from the likes of Joss Whedon, Val Kilmer and Adam West to give the guy a break. An online petition to rescind the casting decision, when last we checked, has even surpassed 70,000 signatures.
We at Pop Mythology, in a desire to helpfully offer some of that ultra-rare commodity known as “perspective,” decided to have a roundtable discussion looking back at other casting choices that were unpopular or controversial at the time but that turned out quite well.
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine/Logan (X-Men et al.)
Beginning with his first full appearance in The Incredible Hulk #181, Nov. 1974, Wolverine has been characterized as unstoppable, unrelenting, unpredictable and short. For almost thirty years the most influential X-Men artists illustrated Wolverine as small, 5’3” to be exact, almost as wide as he is tall, covered with body hair, sometimes with graying temples, and generally unpleasant looking.
Joe Madureira, likely the most influential Marvel artist of the late 90’s, even devolved Wolvie to a pupil-less, fanged beast. Sure he had his share of love interests, but even Big Pun had groupies. Fans of the X-Men books knew this Wolverine, we liked this Wolverine. We knew that a possible X-Men movie franchise meant compromises, but suddenly, with 2000’s X-Men, Wolvie sprouted several inches in height.
This may have been excusable if first choice Russell Crowe, two months removed from his ascension into badassdom with Gladiator, had taken the part, but who the hell was Hugh Jackman?! Not only was this a violation of the character’s nature as a small, feral animal (you know, like an actual wolverine), it was a violation to fit some guy no one had ever heard of at the time! A nobody!
But five features and one wonderful cameo later, Wolverine’s image is forever changed. He’s still a brooding, brutal, conflicted war machine. But now he’s a tall, handsome, conflicted war machine. Yes, we fanboys were wrong (we often are), and Jackman has rewarded us with a redefining portrayal and complete commitment to the character.
Sissy Spacek as Carrie White (Carrie )
In Stephen King’s novel Carrie, the eponymous heroine is overweight and ugly, and this, along with her religiously extremist upbringing and naivete, ensure the torment she receives from her classmates. And so when Brian de Palma cast 27-year-old Sissy Spacek for the titular lead in his adaptation, people doubted if she’d be able to pull it off. She was too old, for one (Carrie’s a teenager in the novel), but more pointedly, she was just too beautiful (the same criticism of which was leveled at Chloe Grace Moretz when the latter was cast in the remake).
But her wholesome beauty and awkward charm actually worked in the character’s favor as it made audiences immediately like her and wish her well. And the almost angelic innocence and yearning that she brought to the character made her eventual transformation into a bloody, buggy-eyed monster all the more tragic and heartbreaking.
Willem Dafoe as Jesus Christ (The Last Temptation of Christ )
If there is any movie character more iconic than Dracula, it’s Jesus. Fitting as both have masses of lore, millions of believers, are technically undead, and any actor who portrays them will be met with criticism. Previous to Scorsese’s film, Jesus had traditionally been depicted as a beautiful figure, beyond the effects of the world, so perfect as to be unrelatable to humans, while the generally unattractive Willem Dafoe was mostly known for playing the villain in To Live and Die in LA. His casting as Christ was one of several which sparked doubt for the project, including Harvey Keitel as Judas and David Bowie as Pontius Pilate.
However, these were minor compared with the overall controversy of the film, which included a sequence where Christ is lowered from the cross by a beautiful child, weds Mary who later dies while pregnant, and then fathers several children with Lazarus’ daughters Mary and Martha before learning on his deathbed that the child which tempted him down was Satan in disguise. The film was banned in several countries including Mexico where it was only released 16 years later in preparation for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Theatres screening the film were protested and attacked, the largest from a militant group tossing Molotov cocktails at a French theatre.
Once the smoke cleared the film was praised for making Jesus into a relatable human figure while Dafoe’s performance was considered honest and Christ-like in portraying the faults and doubts of his character, the first time Jesus was actually a man.
Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk/Bruce Banner (The Avengers )
When you think “10′ tall, green, muscle-bound, rampaging monster,” the first name that comes to mind is indie-darling Mark Ruffalo, right? No? Well, how about “tortured intellectual, living with a disease capable of harming those around him, trying desperately to fearfully live out his life and cure himself before the world suffers the consequences?” Naturally, as you know, in the odd case of Dr. Bruce Banner, both of those descriptions are entirely accurate, requiring some serious acting chops to embody the Jekyll & Hyde nature of this complex character. Which is exactly what filmmaker Joss Whedon was counting on.
The fans, however, felt very differently at first. Ruffalo would be the third actor in ten years time to portray the good doctor on screen, very soon after audiences had enthusiastically embraced Edward Norton in the role. Whether it was an overwhelming frustration at yet another breach in continuity, or that they simply couldn’t see Ruffalo as the one turning into the “big green guy,” isn’t entirely clear.
But what is clear is that the fanboys & girls would soon be eating their words upon the release of The Avengers, citing Ruffalo’s brilliantly nuanced performance as the highlight in a film chock full of superheroics and extravagant action setpieces. Ruffalo himself even went on to thank his initial detractors, stating that all the negativity drove him to dig deeper into the core of the role, improving the end result, and giving us the most layered Banner that the big screen has seen yet.
Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games )
As soon as a Hunger Games movie was announced, fans of the book series began debating who should play the 16-year-old narrator. Leading contenders included teenage actresses such as Hailee Steinfeld and Saoirse Ronan. So when then 20-year-old Jennifer Lawrence was cast, a torn fanbase rushed to voice their opinions on Twitter, because that’s what teenagers do. Some described Lawrence as too old to play a teenager, too blonde to play a dark-haired, olive-skinned citizen of the Seam, or, most foolishly, too fat to be a slim girl who five years before nearly died of starvation. Others were disappointed that a Caucasian actress would play what they saw as a metaphor for women of color, or at least of mixed descent.
This criticism paled to the uproar when Amandla Stenberg was cast as Katniss’s ally/forced competitor Rue; once again unleashing the ugliest side of humanity upon Twitter, the unfiltered id of the Internet. Learning that the dark-skinned, brown-haired District 11 contestant was African American caused some fans to declare the book ruined or that the character’s death was no longer sad. Their picture of the innocent child was shattered by that child being black. But Stenberg’s performance proved so kind that when her death came it further fed Lawrence’s own steely-eyed turn as Katniss. Lawrence’s performance was praised as tough and heroic, strong but emotional, a heroine on par with Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley. The Hunger Games would go on to earn almost 700 million in worldwide box office.
Daniel Craig as James Bond (Casino Royale et al.)
For many 007 fans, James Bond will always be Sean Connery. Following 2002’s unremarkable Die Another Day, many speculated that the Bourne Trilogy made Bond passé. It would be six years before the new Bond, Daniel Craig, arrived. In the same year that the U.S. elected its first African American president, entertainment headlines asked, “Is the world ready for a blonde Bond?” Craig was derided as unlike Ian Fleming’s original “tall, dark and suave” agent: too ugly, too bulky and, most of all, too blond. They called him “James Blond.”
Craig’s first showing, Casino Royale placed him as a young agent; sloppy, reckless and less likely to take advantage of women than be taken advantage of. His small eyes and flat nose made him look like he’d been in a few fights, but the hulking physique made him look likely to win. Here was a Bond who could order a vodka martini, shaken not stirred, down it in one sip and then kill a man with the toothpick. Casino Royale became the highest earning Bond film to date and the most critically acclaimed since Connery’s run. Roger Moore, whom many considered the second-best Bond, proclaimed that Sean might have to move over.
2012’s Skyfall then surpassed Royale in both box office and accolades, and Craig’s performance added an emotional level absent from previous Bonds. For the first time, Bond movies were taken seriously. Still, even after all his success, Facebook groups and websites like danielcraigisnotbond.com cling to the old ways. Some fans simply can’t stop being Dr. No.
Tom Cruise as Lestat (Interview With the Vampire )
Novelist Anne Rice herself, perhaps unwittingly, spearheaded the furor over this one when she expressed her disapproval of the fact that Tom Cruise would play her flagship character, Lestat, in the film adaptation of Interview With the Vampire.
In an interview with Movieline at the time she said: “The Tom Cruise casting is so bizarre, it’s almost impossible to imagine how it’s going to work, and it’s really almost impossible to imagine how Neil and David and Tom could have come up with it. I have one question: Does Tom Cruise have any idea of what he’s getting into?”
He not only knew what he was getting into, he got into it with relish, including (or perhaps especially) all those steamy, homoerotic scenes with Brad Pitt. It’s true that a European actor might have been better in the end since Lestat is, after all, of French origin. But Cruise rose to the occasion for this, his most atypical role at the time (though he’d eventually go on to do many more such atypical roles in films like Collateral and Magnolia).
Rice was so impressed, in fact, that she famously called Cruise to express how good a job she thought he had done.
Michael Keaton as Batman/Bruce Wayne (Batman, Batman Returns )
It’s hard to imagine a blockbuster superhero movie today being helmed by a filmmaker as inexperienced and eccentric as Tim Burton was known for being at the time he had been confirmed for Batman. But the bigger shock came when it was announced that Michael Keaton would be wearing the iconic cowl.
Keaton, whose filmography until then had only consisted of several lightweight roles in comedies, was arguably even more maligned at the time than Affleck has been of late (and we didn’t even have Twitter back then). And he didn’t have nearly the number of things that Affleck has going for him now, having made far fewer and less diverse movies than the latter has. And let’s not even get into his thin, balding physique.
Of course, both Keaton and Burton proved the naysaying wrong, first in Batman and then even more so in the excellent Batman Returns. Brooding, melancholy and soft-spoken, Keaton created what would prove to be an off-kilter yet charismatic portrayal of the Dark Knight on the silver screen. Compared to the gritty “realism” of the Nolan trilogy, Burton’s Batman films may seem somewhat cheesy and dated today, but both they and Keaton’s performance were, at the time, a bold, skewed and deliciously gothic counterpoint to the colorful campiness of the 60s TV series.
Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark (Iron Man et al.)
There’s rarely a career in Hollywood that can be compared to that of Robert Downey, Jr. Looking at his face and name plastered across magazine covers, movie posters and theater marquees alike, he’s that rare combination of a seasoned character actor as well as a bona fide bankable movie star. It’s sometimes difficult to imagine that not all that long ago, opinions of the man, as well as his ability to even land a role in an independent film, were drastically different. Whereas, by today’s standards, you couldn’t consider Downey, Jr. anything less than than famous, ten years ago in Hollywood he was nothing if not infamous.
Repeated arrests for drugs, as well as a well-publicized and lengthy prison stint, RDJ could barely land a gig in the movie industry. Not for lack of talent, of course, but because he was seen as being completely unreliable and could barely be insured by the studios that hired him. So when it was announced he would be the one to don the red and gold armor of Iron Man in the newly-formed Marvel Studios’ inaugural film, there was plenty of bitching, moaning and worrying in fan forums (“The movie is guaranteed lame now.” “This is some bulls**t! WTF were they thinking?”)
It’s hard to believe, nearly a decade and four successful turns as the pitch-perfect Tony Stark, that there ever could have been such a negative reaction to his being cast in the role, but it just goes to show that Stan Lee’s immortal catch phrase (“Excelsior,” or “ever upwards”) still lies at the core of what Marvel’s all about, and that they still have the potential to make “true believers” of us all.
Heath Ledger as the Joker (The Dark Knight )
Despite the fact that hearing Heath Ledger’s name almost assuredly conjures up images of the ghastly, grinning nightmare that was The Joker, the role that finally cemented the tragic young actor as a true icon and even earned him a posthumous Oscar, there was a time (unbelievable now as it may seem) when the Internet hate machine had its sights set solely on Mr. Ledger. After the foreshadowing stinger that Batman Begins closed on, the public began casting the role of The Joker immediately. Well, a name that I’m sure was almost never entered into that equation was that of Heath Ledger. Young and known for his good looks, he was the last person anyone would’ve thought to step into the psychotic clown shoes last filled by the likes of a larger-than-life Jack Nicholson on the big screen. And when Warner Brothers officially announced their decision… “hell hath no fury” would be putting it mildly.
The fans were outraged. At best, they said that the decision was “a bad joke.” At the worst, they claimed that Ledger was “an embarrassment to all Australians” and called for a worldwide boycott of the film. But much like The Joker’s magic trick involving a pen, Ledger’s brilliant and terrifying performance not only managed to speak for itself, it shocked everyone into silence. All the naysayers quickly changed their tune, singing near-universal praises of Heath’s portrayal of the Joker and elevating it to one of Empire’s 100 Greatest Movie Characters ever to grace the screen.
So now, in regards to premature fan skepticism in general, we can look back and chuckle at the irony of The Joker’s prophetic question, a question which we now direct to fans still foaming at the mouth over Batfleck:
“Why so serious?”
Anne Hathaway as Catwoman: “terrible actress,” “everything she’s been in sucks,” “not sexy enough” (?!) “horrible news,” “awkward-looking”
Chris Evans as Captain America: “worst casting ever!” ‘ridiculously lame casting,” “you can’t cast the same person for multiple superhero roles”
Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man: “too wimpish,” “too reserved”