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Burning Questions: Are Franchises Hogging All The Talent?

Michael C. here. 

I'm feeling left out because I couldn't share in the excitement over the Avengers teaser which played during the Super Bowl Sunday night. In fact, if I’m being honest, it bummed me out. I never want to be that guy yelling, “Sell out!” when the performer I love hits the big time, but seeing the likes of Downey, Ruffalo, and Renner headlining the comics franchise to top all comics franchises, it’s hard to get pumped about how kick-ass it’s all going to be when all I can think about are the more interesting films these guys passed over to shoot this one.

Now I have no intention of dismissing a movie before it’s released, or to turn up my nose at big budget blockbusters. A franchise with Joss Whedon at the helm is a great bet to have the intelligence and wit the genre so often lacks. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to ask:

Are franchise films monopolizing the talent?

Take the case of Mr. Renner. It feels like no sooner had we been given a taste of just what he was capable of then he was carted off to shoulder no less than three major franchises – Mission Impossible, Avengers and Bourne. On top of which, he dropped out of his most promising project, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. I don’t deny that all those films have the potential to be good or even great entertainments, but let’s be honest here. It is a rare role in such a mass appeal product that is not broadly simplified with any rough edges sanded off. We are going to be waiting a long time before we get to see Renner tackle another role as riveting as Sgt. William James. 

When will Renner ever do a non-franchise drama again?


Of course, the accepted practice has been for movie stars to adopt the “one for them, one for me” approach where they knock out an Ocean’s 11 every few years and then cash in that bankability on a riskier project. When that strategy works everybody’s happy, but I fear the balance has been tipping in recent years. Franchises so dominate the landscape that it seems the only way for invaluable actors like Angela Bassett to appear in a major studio film is by playing second banana in Green Lantern. And then there are the actors like Liam Neeson who one imagines has accumulated the credit to get a more challenging feature made but whose upcoming roster is crowded with titles like Battleship and Taken 2 (Okay, The Grey was not bad at all, but when’s the last time he had a Kinsey-level challenge?) 

Maybe this is all because I’m still sore over Downey’s recent comments about preferring big budget crowd-pleasers to “indie films that everyone says is fantastic but kinda sucks and is boring.” It’s one thing if he is referring to Charlie Bartlett or Fur. Might as well go for big and flashy over self-serious and drab. But I fear he was talking about ditching projects like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Good Night and Good Luck all for the privilege of dressing up like Tony Stark and telling Loki where to stick it. 

I’m aware that bankable movie star is a rare level to reach and even harder thing to maintain. I’m further aware that it is just plain fun and thrilling to be cast in a superhero blockbuster. I don’t intend sit back and pass judgment on somebody living the dream. Not every actor needs to be Daniel Day Lewis wandering off to the Italy to cobble shoes while waiting for worthy projects. But it’s worth remembering that it’s often the small, unexpected roles that are remembered over the big budget event film. I know I’m going to treasure Robert Downey’s Jr.’s work in Zodiac or Wonder Boys long after the Avengers hype has faded.  

So I just learn to stop worrying and love the franchises? Or am I soft-pedaling the problem? I'm curious to hear your take in the comments. You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm or read his blog Serious Film

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Reader Comments (26)

I forgot how sexy Jeremy Renner is.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoey

I'm all for actors like Renner joining franchises. It's nice whenever these films that focus on explosions and quips can get some talent that rises above the content. The thing that excites me about The Avengers is the talent like Renner and Mark Ruffalo who can rise above the character on the page and lift a film from a solid actioner to a great overall film. Very Dark Knight-esqe.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBen

I don't know about this. Classics of every stripe get remembered, whether pop-tastic or not. I think, for example, the Nolan Batman films will still be remembered in thirty years and The Avengers is another that I think might stay in the consciousness if it's good enough, even if some of the individual "lead-up" movies (Thor and the Ed Norton Hulk are most probable candidates) are eventually forgotten.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I agree with Volvagia that films of all stripes get remembered long after they have played in cinemas. That being said, I think we'd all do what these guys do in these circumstances and take the big pay days consistently, at least for a few years. It may just be that our favorites are starting to get the big pay days rather than in the 1990's when people like Mel Gibson or Demi Moore were getting the big budget projects. I love the balancing of big budget blockbuster with smaller, independent films, but since such few actors are able to do that (the likes of Clooney or Ralph Fiennes being the rare exceptions), might as well have them become blow-out, Grade-A movie stars for a few years, and once that subsides, the talent will still be there to create the independent movies. Plus, being a Grade-A movie star, even for a while, will likely mean you get cast in films forever in some capacity.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Like Michael -- i wouldn't midn this at all, in fact I'd enjoy it, if it was just occassionally. But Renner has given himself over completely to it. And that I think is what's worrisome. When that happens, at least for me, I immediately think of the actor as a business person rather than an artist. I mean people like Nicolas Cage were once considered artists but it became very clear once successful that art was the absolute last thing on their minds. See also: Samuel L Jackson.

I hope Renner calms down a bit and starts alternating because three franchises consecutively? how much money does one person need?

February 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

It's just the state of the industry at the moment though, isn't it? Franchises, sequels, reboots, prequels, preboots etc. tend to be the only big budget films being made so I'm not going to expect my favourite actors to be above it all and turn down the money...

....but I sometimes wish they would! I hated X-Men First Class- I don't need to see them have another go at at. Even something like Iron Man- which I liked and thought was a perfect vehicle for Robert Downey Jr.- one of them was enough for me, thank you very much. And of course the Hulk, three talented actors in the last ten years have gotten to play a man trying to keep calm in order to avoid turning into a cgi blob. What an age we live in! And it's really bad for actresses- Gwyneth Paltrow, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman all get to play the fabulous role of "girlfriend".

Of course, that's not to say all franchises are bad but there's just too much of them at the moment- it has to reach saturation point at some stage, right? I'd just ignore them but there's little alternative for much of the year.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSVG

I like this post. In general I don't like to think of the two kinds of movies as "blockbuster" and "indie." I prefer to think of the two kinds of movies as "good" and "bad," and I want to see more good actors in more good movies. I might actually be more worried about what movies directors give up when they take on a blockbuster. I love David Fincher, but I think it's been asked on this sight that if he does three Dragon Tattoo movies, does that mean the world misses out on three more Zodiacs or Social Networks?

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertimothy

Nathaniel: Isn't it the Waltz-in-Green-Hornet effect, though? When you've been paying your dues for so long, suddenly being in a position where people are throwing money at you is edifying and hard to turn down. If there's an artist in them, they'll be back. (See: Waltz in Carnage.)

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterColin Low

I'm more on the Timothy/Michael/Nathaniel side of things, but these sorts of films just don't appeal to me to begin with. (Maybe Terminator 2 or Aliens were exceptions - but that was a different age, telling a story with an assist from cool special effects, instead of ALL FX and hey, maybe there's a story there, maybe not, who cares?

Ruffalo? My heart just broke when I read that sentence.

Although I can't say I would deny underutilized actors a chance at a paycheck they might not get otherwise, and a chance to be seen more often. On the other hand, Do I really want to watch Ruffalo in something like this? No. Is this going to lead to more jobs in really good films - or just more franchise work. Being able to pick your projects is such a gift, I think, as well as having an enviable body of work.

The upside is someone like Fassy who has alternated X-Men Whatever with Shame and Hunger, so I'm probably misproving myself. But he is actually alternating, not just loosing himself over the way Renner seems to have, and Downey definitely has. (Nic Cage by this point is just a long lost cause. I remember he broke off his relationship with Sean Penn many years back when Penn said publicly "He used to be a good actor". Ok, that was maybe a dumb thing to say about a friend, but who got the last laugh there?)

Re: Downey, that was just plain stupid, I'm sorry. The comment is vague "some boring indie film"? So you've just insulted a bunch of people you've worked with/for, and boring to whom? The audience, or a boring experience on set as an actor? In either case, if I were a director looking to cast him in anything but one of these franchises, I'd say "Screw you" and look elsewhere. it's fine that you have a preference for one type of film over another, but don't shit all over other people's work in the process. There's way to be classy about it, he isn't.

I do wonder also - how much money to some people need? Ruffalo, ok, I'm sure a lot of the indie projects pay scale. More money than I'm used to, but not a reliable income either. But if you're already rich, how much richer do you need to be?

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I couldn't agree more with this article. I fear we've lost Renner for at least the next four or five years. It's when someone double-dips into franchises (like Downey) that I worry. I suppose Damon sort of pulled it off (Bourne/Ocean's...), but the man works so much and is so happy to do something risky or small, he seems to the exception, not the norm.

Equally, I hate losing filmmakers to these franchises too. For as much as I found the idea of a del Toro Hobbit interesting, I'd ten times out of ten would prefer to see something original by him. Same goes for Whedon. My only hope is this gives him enough clout to make something with his hands in it more.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Z

We've already seen MI4. It was mediocre at best, more of a James Bond parody than a serious franchise entry.
The franchises aren't the problem. Hollywood means franchise-hopping. The problem is that Downey, Ruffalo and Renner are garden gnomes that even someone like me could clobber. Actors should look their parts, and I really wonder how much disbelief I'm expected to suspend.
Okay, maybe the actor's physical appearance doesn't matter that much with Iron Man and The Hulk, but the case of Renner is slightly more egregious: the studios fully invest in a pug-faced midget hoping they'll create the next big action star. What connections does he have?
I've come to the conclusion that Jeremy Renner is Hollywood's joke on action movie fans.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

And don't forget the women, either! Jennifer Lawrence has Hunger Games and X-Men (if they continue with it), and poor Scarlett Johanson hasn't had the opportunity to really act onscreen in YEARS.

I wouldn't feel so bad about it IF the films were any good. So far, they haven't been much more than serviceable.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

I very much appreciate this post, Michael. Underneath it is another "burning question": Don't we as dedicated filmgoers have to right to ask the industry that our most talented and charismatic actors wind up in projects that have meaning?

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

Yeah, i think the most telling detail of the whole thing is leaving a PT Anderson project. I'm sorry. NO amount of money could be worth that. PT Anderson is one of those filmmakers like Kubrick or Spielberg or Allen or whatever that people will still be watching those movies after the actors in them are long dead. It is absolutely crazy to pass on that type of opportunity for a blockbuster that will be remade in 10 years time (see spider-man)

February 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nat, Jeremy Renner also turned down Super 8 for MI4. I don't think that Super 8 is a great film, but it looks very good when compared to a generic action movie that even felt the need to mock its own franchise.
By the way, I don't want to defend Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson, but at least they look as if they belong into action-orientated movies. Babyface Jeremy looks as if he belongs into the kindergarten.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Jeremy Renner is doing the new James Gray film here in New York with Joaquin Phoenix and Marion Cotillard. He's playing a magician in the 1920's.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDevin D

Devin D, good for him. I mean, James Gray...
Renner has said in an interview that he has to film The Bourne Legacy until the end of this month, and that he only has a small role in the Gray film. So, who knows what's next in line? Robopocalypse doesn't start shooting until July. I'm just saying.
Then again, I should be glad about everything that keeps Renner from playing Steve McQueen.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Willy: Huh? Renner's not playing a fist fighter in The Avengers. He's playing Hawkeye, an ARCHER. Y'know, someone who doesn't need massive muscles to KILL YOU. And I expect his role in The Bourne Legacy is going to be gun based as well. And Witch Hunters is presumably going to have him be an archer again. And Nat: I'm not the most confident that PT Anderson is going to remain relevant. A scientology critique to follow There Will Be Blood? Really? Two issues with that. 1st: Director's usually follow up their most aggressive and bombastic movie with something more sedate. And 2nd: Scientology criticism is VERY old hat at this point. So, really, even if I was a fan (TWBB, in all it's "what the hell does this guy think of asexuals" glory made sure of that) I'd be in wait for the reviews mode.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Volvagia, I was always willing to believe that Sean Connery would KILL ME, but I doubt that Jeremy Renner would be capable of killing even my hamster.
Renner generally doesn't look overly convincing in big action sequences, and the Bourne franchise is well known for its hand-to-hand combats.
By the way, Jeremy already has massive muscles. They make him look even more ridiculous.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Volvag -- most of the world class auteurs repeat themes in new settings so i wouldn't worry about PT Anderson remaining relevant. He has yet to make a film that wasn't completely worth making... which is more than can be said for most.

everyone-- i'm kind of startled by all the anti-Renner sentiment. I love him and I buy him in bad ass mode (hello HURT LOCKER?!!!?!) . That's why it's so tragic if he stops being a real actor soon.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathanielR

Michael you lost me after your jab at Fur.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered Commenter//3|RT

Nat, only one poster is anti-Renner. I thought he was plenty bad-ass in MI4 and definitely The Hurt Locker. Plus whenever I see him as Hawkeye, I swoon just a little bit.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone getting involved with the new Spider-Man flicks falls under here too a bit, but both are young and will certainly have plenty of chances to do non-franchise flicks.

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRyan T.

Ryan T., I'm not anti-Renner, I'm against Renner as an action star (and as Steve McQueen). Excuse me, but I'm still willing to use my brain even when Hollywood tries to take me for an idiot.
Sergeant James isn't a badass, he's an adrenaline junkie. That's a huge difference.
MI4's best, or rather, only good laugh came when Jeremy Renner - fighting like a girl, as usual - had to be rescued by Benji (!).
Nat, your Renner love is painfully obvious. I think I know how you'd talk about the most shameless free rider the movies have at the moment if he'd bear the name Leonardo DiCaprio.

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

I entirely agree with Michael's post. I tend to be sick of franchises. I still go see some of them from time to time, however, a few years ago I would go based just on the cast, and I have stopped doing that, I go only when there are good enough reviews. Because if we keep going to see those movies, we're not sending the message that we're sick of them...

February 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterstarfish

Awww, man, the irony in that your 'Hurt Locker' image is from 28 Weeks Later, which his character is a normal basic action hero as well.

I think we have to be fair, after years of indie films you need to give him his space to be an action hero while he's still ship-shape for the roles; he's probably tired of them and wanted a breath of fresh action franchise air. Besides, as long as the characters are 3-dimensional and fabulous, I don't think it matters if the movie is big-budget or independent.

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAshlee

They usually do fashion shoes which means no support but a few of their shoes actually are pretty good on support.

March 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBlack Oakley Frogskins
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