I haven't seen this weekend's The Incredible Hulk yet, and will do so a little begrudgingly because it's an implicit (or explicit, depending on whom you ask) diss of Ang Lee's Hulk, a film I admire. But to the extent my interest in the Louis Leterrier version is piqued, it's mostly because of the casting of Edward Norton as the title character's alter ego. It's such an interesting choice -- partly because Norton usually stays away from projects like this, partly because he's so uniquely gifted, and partly because my mind just reels at hearing "you wouldn't like me when I'm angry" coming out of his mouth. I'll watch The Incredible Hulk less because I want to see another movie about Bruce Banner than because I'm curious to see Norton's interpretation of him.
All of which got me thinking about superhero/comic book casting in general. It's a subject that attracts a lot of breathless speculation every time a new movie is in the works, and there's rarely consensus on anything. In this edition of Cinematical Seven, I take a look back at what I think have been the most inspired, interesting, or appropriate superhero (and villain, because why not?) casting choices in recent history -- not so much the resulting performances (though it can be hard to distinguish in hindsight) but the initial casting decisions.
As I like to do with these lists, I tried to mix the obvious with the out-of-the-blue, so feel free to weigh in with what I unjustly left out. In no particular order:
1. Michael Chiklis -- Ben Grimm/The Thing, Fantastic Four.
Almost everyone agrees that Tim Story's Fantastic Four films -- especially Silver Surfer -- leave a lot to be desired. At their best, they're silly, jokey throwaways, a little humiliating to everyone in the cast. In particular, it must have taken some guts for Michael Chiklis -- who made his name playing super-tough or super-clever law-and-order types -- to sign on to play this version of Ben Grimm knowing that he'd mostly get to be the subject of practical jokes involving shaving cream. A large part of the reason I didn't hate the first film was the fun of watching Chiklis make a happy fool of himself.
2. Danny DeVito - Oswald Cobblepot/Penguin, Batman Returns
This is one of those instances where it's hard for me to separate the actor selection from the resulting performance, especially since I wasn't exactly invested in the process when the casting decision was made. I do know I literally cannot imagine anyone other than DeVito playing the Penguin (though maybe I'd change my mind if I saw Burgess Meredith's take on the character in the old Adam West series and movie). Physically he's perfect for the role, of course, and how many other actors can switch from menacing to funny ("I'll murder you momentarily") to pathetic at the drop of a ridiculous top hat?
3. Christian Bale - Bruce Wayne/Batman, Batman Begins
This seems to have been a case of "damn the torpedoes, let's cast as good an actor as we can get," which I strongly support. If that means hiring a Brit to play Bruce Wayne, so be it. I can't think of another instance where a piece of casting news immediately instilled me with near-unshakable confidence in the quality of an upcoming film. Christopher Nolan set out to bring a measure of realism and class to the Batman franchise, and hiring Bale is the smartest thing he could have done to achieve that.
4. Ian McKellen - Eric Lensherr/Magneto - X-Men
Patrick Stewart is known for his ability to give silly dialogue weight by delivering it with absolute conviction. His X-Men co-star Ian McKellen, of course, is no slouch in that department either. Magneto is a wonderful villain because he is supremely self-assured rather than just megalomaniacal -- he's an orator, a populist leader, a rabblerouser, a master of rhetoric. McKellen is so good at that sort of thing that it's almost unfair. Casting him took the X-Men movies -- the first two, anyway -- to the next level.
5. Liam Neeson - Peyton Westlake/Darkman - Darkman
Sam Raimi's Darkman is a tricky, masterful balancing act, constantly toeing the line between poker-faced seriousness and camp. And that's what made casting Neeson such a masterstroke. The actor isn't capable of not taking the role seriously, which Raimi must have known beforehand. And so the casting allowed Raimi to go crazily over the top in virtually every other aspect of the production while Neeson anchored the film. One of the most underrated works in Raimi's -- and Neeson's -- ouvre.
6. Robert Downey, Jr. - Tony Stark - Iron Man
Another obvious choice, and there's not much to say about it that hasn't already been said. I'll just point to the ecstatic reviews and exuberant box-office to make my case. It took guts to entrust the volatile, down-and-out Downey with this movie, but the risk paid off handsomely.
7. Halle Berry - Patience Phillips/Catwoman - Catwoman
No, listen! I hate this movie as much as you do -- probably more! It's atrocious, unwatchable, a disgrace to everyone involved. But imagine a Catwoman movie with an actual script, action scenes that weren't cut together with a machete, and a costume designer who didn't think that Catwoman is a stripper. Who better to play her than Halle Berry? She's perfect for the role; the movie isn't her fault.