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Can Good Acting Save Lame Comic Book Characters?

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Mar 21, 2014 | 6:15pm EDT

Iron Man 2Paramount via Everett Collection

You don’t mess with a geek’s favorite comic book characters. Ben Affleck was cast as Batman and it almost broke the Internet. Halle Berry was cast as Storm and Catwoman and people are still dealing with it in therapy. Yet, the new Fantastic Four’s cast of Kate Mara, Jamie Bell and That Awkward Moment co-stars Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller has actually drummed up some excitement for a reboot. Although offbeat choices, the actors are actually making the generally lame Fantastic Four seem... interesting.

It’s hard to cast iconic roles like Batman, Superman, and Spiderman because everyone has an opinion. They are beloved, timeless, and it can be challenging to decide whether to cast an unkown or a major star. But the Fantastic Four are hardly as iconic as either of DC's top dogs, or any of Marvel's other heroes. The distinct casting choices might actually save the Fantastic Four reboot, after the critical failures of the first go 'round.

For instance, Bell might not look like a big goon like Ben Grimm, but he might better capture the alienation of turning into a big rock than Michael Chiklis could. Mara is a vastly different choice than Jessica Alba was for Sue Storm. The House of Cards star may be able to give her more of an edge than she usually gets in the comics. Jordan is perfect because he can blend comedy with drama. He stretched his dramatic muscles in Fruitvale Station and showed the human side of superpowers in Chronicle. These casting choices add another vital layer to a comic book that’s about a family unit. But families are more complicated than road trips to Venus and the drama of sharing a bathroom. The former films focused too much on keeping the look and cheesy tone of the original comics. Alba may have been the physical match for Sue Storm, but her character didn't have the necessary flare.

The Avengers is a prime case for lame characters saved by good acting. Thor is an obnoxious thunder god who decides to spend his free time on Earth? Chris Hemsworth captures that cockiness but also brings the superpower of abs to the table. Robert Downey Jr. patented blend of sarcasm and humor saves a character whose super power could have read like a glorified Inspector Gadget. The Hulk is such a hard sell it took two movies and three actors to get him ready for The Avengers. Thanks in no small part to such gifted actors, the movie ranks as one of the highest grossing in history.

Conversely, Affleck went to a much darker place than the comics might have allowed for the role of Daredevil. Matt Murdock is a blind lawyer with vastly enhanced senses. Affleck did a great job and, shockingly, proved he could play Batman. Affleck’s character was battle-worn, addicted to painkillers, and cut off from society. All that and he actually had super powers. This film is like one long screen-test. It was actually disappointing that Affleck couldn’t just put on the black leather outfit and pointy ears. A blind superhero who uses sonar to “see” seems to undercut the character succeeding over adversity. Also, he, Bullseye, and Kingpin aren’t interesting enough characters for their own movie.

Likable actors who give great performances make the difference. They not only ground the magic and science-fiction and the ever-revolving high stakes but they also make the movie fun to watch. They are also able to find another access point to the character. On paper, these characters are just archetypes but the right actor can make them full-fledged people. If you have any questions as to the complexities of playing comic book heroes be sure not to ask Brandon Routh, Ryan Reynolds, or Jennifer Garner.

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