Superheroes can usually beat any obstacle with the help of their massive strength and superior weapons, but there’s a new problem on the horizon that none of them can seem to overcome: outsourcing. This week’s announcement that British actor Henry Cavill would play the title role in Zack Snyder’s Superman is only the latest example; he joins the Welsh Christian Bale (as Batman), British-raised Andrew Garfield (as Spider-Man), Australian Chris Hemsworth (as Thor), and even Canadian Ryan Reynolds (as Green Lantern) as foreigners cast who’ve been cast as classic, American-identified superheroes. Only Chris Evans in the upcoming Captain America bucks that trend, but even that casting race came with unusual stipulations — the role was restricted only to American actors (which hindered Romanian-born Sebastian Stan, the actor who got the runner-up prize of the hero’s sidekick), and even then, the production came up blank after months of casting and had to extend a last-minute offer to the reluctant Evans. What’s to blame for the domestic superhero shortage? Vulture asked industry professionals for their takes on the situation.
The ugly truth is that American leading men just aren’t terribly manly anymore, says John Papsidera, the casting director on both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.
“You look at the list of American leading men, and in their twenties and thirties, they’re very boylike,” he says, adding, “Take Jesse Eisenberg: I put him in Zombieland, but he’s not going to play Superman. He’s much closer to what Dustin Hoffman turned into than John Wayne or Steve McQueen. It’s hard to find movie stars that live up to the needs of the story. Leo [DiCaprio] is growing into it, but for a long time, he seemed young and boylike. Inception was the first time Leo seemed to have fully grown into a man. You need to find guys who carry that heroic-ness with them.”
Of course, Papsidera acknowledges are other reasons for the decline of the American-as-superhero: Cable TV networks have defined themselves by high-quality series like Mad Men and True Blood that have taken many potential American leading men off the spandex-suit market, including actors like Joe Manganiello and Matthew Bomer, who were mentioned for Superman but already had series commitments. And having spent billions to acquire the rights to all these comic-book superheroes, Hollywood’s studios are eschewing many of those American leading men precisely because they’re too closely associated with those highly recognized American television roles.
As Louise Ward, an agent at United Talent who represents young leading men like Channing Tatum explains, “The studios are highly invested in these superheroes as brands. As such, they don’t usually want [an actor with] the baggage of another role, and they often can’t have an affiliation with another role.” Papsidera echoes this: “Kids are not so easily fooled anymore. They’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s that guy from Gossip Girl!’ or ‘It’s the girl from The O.C.!’” But he thinks there’s a larger problem at work here.
“I believe there’s been a certain feminization of the American male,” he says. “As a result, there are a lot of ‘mama’s boys.’ Kids are raised like veal. We’re afraid to let them play soccer. That kind of nurturing softens what we’re used to seeing on the screen. American men aren’t men on the screen.”
Papsidera says he’s had to turn to Canada, Australia, and the U.K. to fill our growing superhero testosterone gap.
“There, they’re still raised as men. Heath [Ledger] was a man’s man. Guys like Henry Cavill, there’s an easy masculinity to them. But because of how predominant the sixties and the women’s movement were here, guys in America talk about their ‘feelings’ far more than guys from New Zealand and Australia or Ireland.”
One leading talent agent agrees that American leading men are increasingly less than hypermasculine, but thinks that Papsidera may have it backwards: It’s not that American men aren’t allowed to act manly; it’s that manly American men aren’t allowed to act.
“By the time a kid reaches 12 or 13 in America, if he’s displayed any talent for them, he’s steered towards athletics in high school,” offers the agent. “Kids who want to do theater, or study acting, well, they’re immediately labeled ‘wimps’ or worse, ‘fags.’ Whereas, in the U.K., that’s absolutely not the case: It’s not considered weird to act and play soccer over there, or to sing and play rugby. And so by the time some of the more better-looking, rugged American guys who’ve been, say, modeling decide maybe they’re interested in acting, it’s too late: The U.K. guys have had so much more and so much better training, it’s not even a fair fight. Our guys don’t stand a chance.”
Another top casting agent who works in the comic-book genre adds that there’s a third problem, and it’s the reason that actors like Ryan Gosling unilaterally turn down superhero roles: “The big name guys aren’t interested, because many of them think comic books are soap operas for boys. And since the ascendancy of reality TV, a lot of the younger American actors don’t feel they need to be in [acting] class as much — Stella Adler, or ‘method’ or whatever training or skill you’d normally want to focus on — and if you’re young and particularly good-looking, you might not even have had to. But in the superhero world, people need to believe things that are far-fetched. There has to be some sort of vulnerability or pathos for that person to be relatable. In the U.K., it’s the norm to do a lot of theater, so they know how to act with their entire bodies. And there’s a lot less work there, so they work a lot harder for everything.”
So we’re full circle: These superhero-eligible foreigners have the immigrant work ethic. What’s more American than that?