The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a lot of advantages, but chief among them are its casting decisions. While not all the scripts are the same level of quality, and many of the directorial decisions cater to creating a relatively cohesive look across films, the performances of the lead actors always stand out and raise the film to a higher level of quality. Beginning with casting Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Marvel Studios has always been bold its efforts to find the best actor for the role, even if they seem surprising. They create the new “it-list,” instead of trying to cater to who the Hollywood trades say will be the next big star. Marvel made Downey Jr. one of the most profitable stars in the world, made household names of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, and convinced us all that Chris Evans, a guy who’d been typecast as the jock asshole and already played a superhero, could be the shining example of heroism. Sure, there have been a few missteps on the supporting role side of things (Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins, much as I love them, don’t seem to be in the Thor franchise for much more than a paycheck.) But in terms of our essential players — the ones that get action figures, bedspreads, and collectible mugs — they’re cast to near-perfection. But the Avengers, as they exist now, can’t remain forever. Contracts will end, people will move on to other projects, and fans will be left to wonder, ‘what’s next?’
I don’t envy any of the casting directors Marvel Studios employs. They’re faced with the unenviable task of pleasing studio heads concerned with profits and contracts, directors concerned with bringing their ideas to the screen in the smoothest way possible, and the multitude of fans concerned with, well, everything. From the perspective of a comic fan, I understand the desire to see these characters brought to life on screen exactly as they exist in their multi-paneled worlds. But the reality of it is, it’s impossible for any actor to be exactly like the comic character they’re portraying. There are too many rotations in writers and artists for even the comic books to deliver a consistent depiction that pleases everyone. So in terms of casting, the most we can ask for is someone who can take the essential character makeup and imbue them with enough of their own ideas and personality to create something that translates on screen and connects with audiences.
Marvel set the course for this with Iron Man. Before Downey Jr. took over the role, Tony Stark didn’t have much of a personality in the comics. He was intelligent to a fault, an alcoholic, and a ladies’ man. But such traits do not a personality make. There’s a reason that when Marvel Studios first announced its plans for a cohesive universe, many non-comic fans believed they were breaking out the B-listers. With the exception of the work from a handful of great writers, many comic characters are written with interchangeable personalities and who’s-who bullet point traits pinned to them. The success of many mainstream superhero comics before our modern age relied more on powers and big concept ideas than deft characterization. Marvel’s success in casting has had a clear influence on their comic book properties as the writers are now utilizing the personalities the actors bring to the table. Right now, the relationship between the MCU characters and their comic counterparts is as strong as it’s ever been, and fans have mostly embraced these depictions. But when new actors come in to take over these well-loved roles, that relationship is going to change and that embrace may become a little looser. From editorial to marketing, comic book culture is a culture of comfort. There’s a reason why dead characters don’t remain dead, aging and marriage doesn’t last, and line-wide events are used to reset the status quo. But in order for the medium to survive, both in terms of print and film, a change is gonna come.
The fact that Marvel Studios recast Rhodey with Don Cheadle Replacing Terrance Howard, and recast Bruce Banner with Mark Ruffalo replacing Edward Norton, is often cited as Marvel’s willingness to recast. But here’s the rub: Rhodey isn’t a major character in the films, and in the first Iron Man he didn’t even have the War Machine guise to make him popular. And Marvel has unfortunately treated Norton’s The Incredible Hulk like the black sheep of the family. So while Marvel Studios can claim they have a James Bond recasting mentality, they’ve yet to be faced with a real recasting issue. Every time we think RDJ is done with Iron Man, Marvel manages to raise his salary and suddenly he’s staring in Captain America: Civil War and at least one more Avengers movie after Age of Ultron. Hemsworth seems content to play Thor as long as he can make a Ron Howard movie every year, but Chris Evans has already said he wants to move into directing after his Marvel contract is up. If Hemsworth is the only one of the big three to renew his contract after the end of Marvel’s Phase III, there are enough other characters to populate the MCU in the absence of Iron Man and Cap. Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, and Mark Ruffalo don’t seem eager to go anywhere and without scheduling pressures of their own franchises it seems they’re locked for the foreseeable future. With a cadre of other heroes from Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, The Inhumans, Guardians of the Galaxy and waves of others in development, Marvel doesn’t need to recast. But they will.
The idea of Marvel imitating the James Bond franchise in their recasting decisions is intriguing, but the Bond movies play fast and loose with continuity and reboot without drawing attention to themselves. I think the MCU has much more at stake in terms of building a mythology and keeping an ordered timeline than Bond has ever attempted. I’d hate to see the slate wiped clean because of the need to recast key characters, and I think studios have realized that we’re at a point in superhero movies where origin story retellings have become tiresome. So if the MCU doesn’t reboot, and I don’t think they will, what will we be looking at in ten years’ time? We may see legacy characters take up the mantle of their predecessors for a little while (Bucky-Cap, a female Thor, Rhodey as Iron Man, just to name a few possibilities) but those iterations won’t last forever. Remember, comics culture is by default a culture of comfort. Marvel Studios will want to get as close to comfort as possible, which means we will see someone else suiting up as Tony Stark, someone else Hulking out, and someone else in Black Widow’s leather jumpsuit. There may be a uniform recasting to the MCU or story elements created in order to explain why some characters look different and suddenly younger, but best case scenario is that the actors are individually replaced when their time is up and the change isn’t even addressed.
Our favorite characters’ personalities will shift as each new actor hopefully brings something new to the table and the comics will change too in an effort to be as contemporary as possible. Sure, fans will bitch and moan about how so and so was better, and whatshisface’s hair isn’t the right color, but on opening day, butts will be in seats and they will eventually settle into comfort once again. So should we worry about the inevitable recasting of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? We could, but it goes against the entire reason we as a culture love superheroes. The characters are so much larger than the talent of an individual actor. We could waste our time worrying that the best days of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are approaching their end, or we could put our trust in the studio to do as the Skrulls do and “embrace change.”