Friday, June 10, 2011

The Avengers That Might Have Been

With the Avengers roster slowly getting fleshed out in the theater, I've been a bit nostalgic. Recollecting the years when Iron Man was unseen on the big screen, and Thor's biggest cinema debut was that mechanic in Adventures in Babysitting. Sure, there was a Captain America movie, and the lousy Ang Lee Hulk movie, but it was quite a dry spell of steaming piles of bad flicks that seemed to indicate that an Avengers movie would never be made.

The bright side, though, is that when there's no decent movie of your favorite character, you're free to imagine that your ideal actor is cast in the role of a hypothetical movie. As better, more impacting films get made and promulgate through society, it's tougher for you not to imagine the real life cast in place of your own. By way of illustration, those of you who read Lord of the Rings before and after the movies were made should think about the difference between readings. Your original vision of Gandalf might have been one thing, but it probably now resembles Ian McKellan. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it describes how your imagination is irreversibly affected by outside influences.

So, here's my reconstruction of what I used to think would be an ideal cast for the Avengers before I saw the first Iron Man movie, along with a word on what I think of the actors actually cast in the Marvel heroes' tights.

Bruce Banner, the Hulk
My Casting: Even though the Hulk movie Eric Bana starred in was terrible, I don't hold that against him. I mean, there's only so much you can do with a movie that has frakkin' picture-in-picture comic frames. But Eric Bana's played a lot of thoughtful, sensitive roles that really lend themselves to portraying the repressed super-geek Bruce Banner, and his action movie resume prove that he knows how to sell those physical moments leading up to a big green special effects rampage.

Actual Casting: This has been a tough one. First I had to swallow that Ed Norton would not be cast in the role I idealized for him (see below). Then, after his great job in Incredible Hulk, I had to admit that he was pitch-perfect for Bruce Banner, and I really wanted to see him reprise the role in The Avengers. Now, we have Mark Ruffalo set to play the doctor, and I have to say I'm skeptical. I was pleasantly surprised once, though, so I'll hold off to see if Marvel can do it again.

Natasha Romanoff, Black Widow
My Casting: Cate Blanchett. Mmmmm, Cate Blanchett. I'm a Lord of the Rings nerd, through and through, and I think Cate Blanchett is the best actor I hadn't heard of a decade ago. She's got poise and commanding grace, as evidenced by her role as Galadriel, but she's also played a number of un-hinged and kinetic roles, too, showing that she could sell the role of the consummate femme fatale. Plus, her voice talent always made me anxious to hear her inflect in a sultry Russian accent.

Mmm, it would've been nice.

And no, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull doesn't count.

Actual Casting: Scarlett Johansson, what to say? She's one of those stars that seems perpetually young and vibrant, so that certainly fits the bill for the ageless superspy. Scarlett certainly had the action down in Iron Man 2, and her combination of playful cruelty and professional distance fits Natasha to a tee. But they didn't have her say one word in a Russian accent.


Tony Stark, Iron Man
My Casting: It took me a long time to recall that my original choice to play the terminal tinkerer was Jonathan Frakes. Yes, I know what you're thinking: "isn't it a little cliched for a nerd to invoke William Riker for a role?" "What next, suggesting every bald character be brought to life by Patrick Stewart?" Well, silence, ignorant jackanapes! William Riker's already played Tony Stark, thank you very much. Only they called him David Xanatos, and he built a castle on top of a skyscraper in Manhattan, and his steel suit was in the shape of a gargoyle.

Ah, Gargoyles...

So there. Plus, until 2001 he was probably about the only actor who I could accept wearing facial hair, which is pretty much a requirement for Tony Stark. So it's really a no-brainer, right?

Actual Casting: Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark was an incredibly brilliant move. In the history of casting, I think Viggo Mortensen is the only one who can claim to be more perfectly suited for a role. He embodies the sarcasm, intelligence, and vitality that is intrinsic to Marvel's pillar of science in the pursuit of justice. And, more importantly, he plays the charming scoundrel better than any Corellian space jockey with a slave Wookie prince I've ever seen. Being able to watch him indulge his vices while still trying to improve himself is engaging, fun, and adds another dimension to the hero dynamic of the films.

Steve Rogers, Captain America
My Casting: Ever since I saw Band of Brothers, I thought Neal McDonough would be the perfect Captain America. Built like an industrial tank, with chiseled good looks and piercing blue eyes with bleach blond hair, Neal McDonough is perfectly suited to fill the super-soldier's billet. Though, considering the differences in casting for Tony Stark and Natasha Romanoff, it looks like my ideals for these characters are a bit older than the way the studio visualized them. Not to mention that they cast with a vision for the movie franchise over the next decade, requiring them to find cast their protagonists a bit young to ensure they could fit the role over the course of up to nine movies.

The consolation prize in this is that Neal McDonough will still be in Captain America as crack soldier Dum Dum Dugan. Sure, he won't be the Pillar of Democracy, but at least he'll be there, lending his boot to kick in Red Skull's teeth.

Actual Casting: If you only know Chris Evans from his role as the Human Torch in Fantastic Four, you might be dubious as to whether Evans has the depth to play Steve Rogers. But in Sunshine and Cellular, he does a great job of deepening his acting chops and showing he has what it takes to play a legitimately conflicted character struggling with their own inadequacies. After seeing the latest bout of trailers, I'm certain that he'll be a good fit for Captain America, and it looks like they'll be doing a good amount of development on his character before the Super-Soldier process, which is really key to his identity as one of the greatest superheroes of all time.

Hank Pym, Giant-Man
My Casting: From the greatest to the least, Hank Pym is a big fat turd. Depending on the iteration of the comics, Pym is an alcoholic, cheats on his wife, beats her, and ingratiates himself into the superhuman community largely to assuage his own masculinity issues. So I thought of Ed Norton. This isn't a personal thing against the actor, mind you, but ever since I saw the remake of the Italian Job I've permanently linked him to the ultimate compensator: Giant-Man. He can play intelligent, petty, and short-sighted all in one breath, and that's the order of the day for Hank Pym. Needless to say I was disappointed when he was cast as Bruce Banner, if only because he was the strongest association in my mind for the part.

Actual Casting: So far it doesn't look like Giant-Man is going to be in any of the movies, so I'll put forward my runner-up choice: Nathan Fillion. Granted, I want to see him in everything, but I think he has the charisma to play Hank true to form while still making him likable enough that the audience won't be waiting for Captain America to pop him in the mouth for slapping Janet around. And when that does happen, Nathan does the humorous fight scene superbly--as seen in Serenity.

As a side note, it's pretty funny that Giant-Man has yet to be confirmed for any of the movies, since in the early 90s a Giant-Man movie was the favorite Marvel property for film adaptation--even before Spider-Man.

My Casting: In continuing to keep my Avengers cast a bit older and more mature, Brad Pitt is my choice for Thor. As Achilles, he played the brutal beyond-human warrior with ease and ability, but he also lent the role a sensitive depth that belied the limitations of the character's personal prejudices. Perfect for the Asgardian warrior-prince.

Actual Casting: Chris Hemsworth did a great job, as you can read here, even though there wasn't enough over-wrought language, as exemplified here. Again, they cast him quite young to ensure he'd be able to consistently play the highly physical role. But it sure helped that his brief role in the Star Trek atrocity showed that he could play everything the Marvel universe could throw at him as an actor.

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