Saturday, June 2, 2012

Our Obsession With Particular Actors for Particular Roles

One of the developments that I really liked after seeing The Avengers was how the character of Bruce Banner was so amazingly handled.  I truly enjoyed Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of the character, and think his rendition of Banner will be considered the definitive modern portrayal of the character.  He was charming, intelligent, and just a bit bumbling as the gamma-irradiated doctor who's learned to control the beast raging within him (to an extent, at least).  It was truly a joy to watch, and I have no problem saying his performance in The Avengers dwarfs Edward Norton's portrayal of him in The Incredible Hulk.

Of course, that's not to say I didn't like Norton's version of the character, either.  His Banner was also intelligent and charming, but had a little bit more of an obsessive edge and an action hero feel to him than Ruffalo's (who was mostly a nerdy guy out of his element among superheroes,  until he turned into "the other guy), which I can honestly see a need for in a movie where Banner has to be the main hero.  I'm glad his star power and recognition helped that film do what it needed to do to be successful, and I respect that it allowed the character to come to The Avengers and take a different direction.  It reinforced, in my view, the idea that different actors can play the same part when a project needs it, and each contribute to the overall success of the whole thing.

But some people just can't avoid picking a fight.

I can't tell you how many snide comments I'd heard--mostly before the movie was released--of people claiming that Edward Norton's absence was going to ruin the character and, somehow, the whole rest of the film.  It was like continuity itself had taken a hit, and would alter the entire trajectory of the movie, simply because Bruce Banner would be sporting a new face and frame.

While these naysayers have been for the most part roundly silenced by the success of The Avengers, it reminds me of the obsession so many moviegoers and television watchers have with associating one actor so exclusively with one single part.  I remember, on more than one occasion, fans of the Harry Potter films claiming that if Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, or Rupert Grint ever left their roles, that they would stop watching the films because, as they put it, those actors were "the only ones" who could play those parts.  The audiovisual establishment of a character in a movie or a television show is, apparently, a sacrosanct thing that can not be violated for any reason for these people.

Umm, no.

In the Harry Potter films, Richard Harris plays the character of Albus Dumbledore for the first two films, and then is replaced by Michael Gambon for the rest of them due to Harris's death.  In the awesome 2009 Star Trek reboot film, the parts of the Enterprise crew members are portrayed by a number of new actors, for the simple reason that the surviving originators of those parts are too old to play their characters as young as the movie needed.  What do these situations have in common with Ruffalo's succession of Norton as Bruce Banner?  Simply, they collectively stamp the reality that parts change actors in the film industry with regularity, and for a number of legitimate reasons.  Contractual disputes and creative differences are just as valid reasons for shifting parts to another actor are as death and aging are, which is something I feel many fans need to remember and respect about their favorite films.

Was Ruffalo a better Bruce Banner than Edward Norton?  In many ways, I think so.  But even if I'd favored Norton's performance, I wouldn't be (and wasn't) upset that Ruffalo replaced him after The Incredible Hulk.  I loved Richard Harris's Dumbledore, but also thought Gambon did a wonderful job with the role, and that he contributed largely to the franchise's success.  And as for Star Trek... come on.  That was just a no-brainer.  If you're rebooting the franchise after several decades, you have to go with another cast.

As The Amazing Spider-Man approaches release, I'm seeing more iterations of this obsession, as people bemoan Tobey Maguire's absence and claim that Andrew Garfield just won't be anywhere near as good as Peter Parker.  It's difficult for me to sympathize with them, not because I didn't like Maguire--on the contrary, I thought he was great--but because I understand that these are films, with there own sets of rules and conditions that go into their production; and that these stories are separate from the films that preceded them.

Tobey Maguire, while a great Peter Parker and Spider-Man for the Sam Raimi films, was never the only Peter Parker to me.  He embodied a lot of the qualities of Peter Parker, but not all of them.  There were different looks and attitudes I'd seen of the character in the comics.  There was Peter Parker as drawn by Mark Bagley in the 1990s.  There was Ultimate Peter Parker, also drawn by Bagley.  There's also the post-One More Day iteration of Peter Parker, who's similar but not quite like the others.

What I'm liking so far about Garfield's Peter Parker is that he brings a bit more sass and edge to the role.  While I know some old-school purists will decry that aspect, I think he's channeling a lot of Ultimate Peter Parker in that respect, and I think for this day and age, it makes a lot of sense.  Even nerdy kids feel the need to lash out or quip back at a world that often seems out of their control, and I think a lot of the decisions I've seen Garfield make as an actor make for just as valid an interpretation of Parker as Maguire's.  He's bringing us a different Peter Parker who's just as much the real thing as the others.

I think we need to occasionally step back from our obsessions with this aspect of storytelling, and take pleasure in simply enjoying the stories.  It's perfectly fine to like one actor's interpretation of a role better than another's.  And it makes perfect sense to be upset or bummed when an actor leaves a particular part.  But making categorical statements like, "I won't go see these films anymore if Maguire's not Peter Parker!" or claiming that Norton, Harris, or Shatner's absences from the roles they originated will ruin all subsequent films or shows is simply absurd, and doesn't make for a good appearance to others.

If nothing else, remember that these are fictional characters.  Mythological figures, if you will.  They may seem real, but they're not.  The actors who play them are real people, with their own talents, lives, flaws, and motivations.  I think it's showing a measure of respect for them not too obsess too much over their portrayal of one particular character.  In the end, they're portraying this one character in addition to hundreds or thousands of others.  Enjoy those portrayals, but make sure it doesn't come at the expense of your enjoyment of the rest of the story.

You may find that, once you get into the overall experience of the story, one actor's departure from it may not be so bad.

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