Why the Newest Superhero Movies Can’t Seem to Make Their Actors Into Superstars

“Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World”..Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and a Kronan…Ph: Film Frame..© 2013 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2013 Marvel. All Rights Reserved. Photo: Marvel

As we spent the last few months gathering data for our annual Most Valuable Stars list, we noticed something unusual: Many of the actors who had starred in the biggest superhero movies of the last several years — including Chris Hemsworth, who takes up the hammer yet again in this weekend’s Thor: The Dark World — were consistently cursed with the lowest awareness scores of anyone on our entire list, according to a statistic furnished to us by nationwide surveying company E-Score. Most of the people questioned by E-Score had surely seen or heard of blockbusters like Thor, Captain America, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Man of Steel, but when asked if they recognized the names of Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Andrew Garfield, and Henry Cavill, these regular folks drew a blank. Admittedly, it’s harder than ever to grow a bona fide new A-lister — that’s why the industry seems to be clinging to the ascendant Jennifer Lawrence like a life raft — but this specific data raises a question that should be troubling for any well-muscled young actor hoping to don a cape and tights someday: If $300 and $400 million–grossing blockbusters can’t make you famous anymore, what can?

Consider the evidence: According to E-Poll, Hemsworth’s awareness score is 22 out of 100, even though he starred in Thor and prominently co-starred in one of the biggest movies of all time, The Avengers. His comrade-in-arms Chris Evans has an even worse score, 18, despite the fact that before he made Captain America, he’d been kicking around Hollywood longer than Hemsworth. Man of Steel was this year’s third biggest hit, earning nearly $300 million domestically, but star Henry Cavill can only manage an 11 awareness score, one measly point higher than Andrew Garfield, our current Spider-Man. And then we come to the actor on our Most Valuable Stars list who had the rock-bottom lowest awareness score: That would be Michael Fassbender, who Fox picked to co-lead 2011’s X-Men: First Class, though two years later, he still can’t manage an awareness number higher than 7.

Superhero movies are bigger than ever, so why aren’t these actors’ names just as big? Here are three things to blame for this downturn in star super-power.

The comic-book movie market is oversaturated.

Why didn’t last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man make Andrew Garfield as famous as the first Spider-Man movie seemed to make Tobey Maguire? Perhaps that’s because the thrill is gone: In 2002, when Maguire’s first crack at Spider-Man came out, big-budget comic-book movies were still a welcome rarity. Spider-Man was the highest grossing film of the year in 2002, the first superhero film since 1989’s Batman to pull off that box-office benchmark, but in the last seven years alone, Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3 have all topped the annual box office in the years they came out. Even as recently as 2005, when Christian Bale (awareness score: 47) donned the bat-cowl for the first time in Batman Begins, his film was the sole comic-book entry in the top-twenty highest-grossing films of the year. 2012, by contrast, had three superhero movies in the top ten. There’s simply no time to really dig into these comic-book blockbusters — and become obsessed with the men who star in them — if another is coming along just a few weeks later.

It’s also important to note that when Maguire first starred as Spider-Man, the era of modern effects-driven cinema was still just getting started. The original Spider-Man was a major leap forward in CG-driven action scenes and provided web-slinging sights that felt fresh and exciting. The halo effect of that thrill — the feeling that the movie was showing you something special that you’d never seen on a screen before — couldn’t help but bestow movie stardom on its lead actor. The effects work on last year’s The Amazing Spider-Man was accomplished, and it’s impressive what a team of top-flight artists have realized in Thor: The Dark World, but these movies feel more like a refinement of skills than a great leap forward in moviemaking; is it any surprise that no comic-book movie has won the special effects Oscar since Spider-Man 2 in 2004? Americans will still line up in droves for these comic-book movies, but they don’t stick in the mind as long afterward, and sooner than ever, the names of their actors are forgotten, too.

It takes more than a movie to make a movie star.

Chris Hemsworth is a terrifically charismatic person onscreen (he was a delight in Ron Howard’s racing drama Rush), but off-screen, he hasn’t quite captured the public’s imagination — even a recent Esquire cover story on Hemsworth had to invent several fantasy interludes just to make the actor sound more dynamic. Maybe that’s why his younger brother Liam has a higher awareness score than Chris, despite the fact that Liam’s main claim to onscreen fame thus far has been about ten total minutes in The Hunger Games: Liam dated the controversial Miley Cyrus for years, which garnered far more headlines than a simple film role would have.

If you want to be a well-known movie star these days, it helps, then, to bring a little something extra to the table. Actors like Evans and Cavill aren’t known for much else besides their superhero roles; neither of them lands on the pages of People or Us with any regularity, and when they’re not doing press for their films, they don’t attract much additional attention or awareness. The instructive thing is that in virtually all of these superhero films, the female leads have far higher awareness numbers than the men they’re supporting: Compare Natalie Portman’s 53 to Chris Hemsworth’s 22, or Emma Stone’s 39 to Andrew Garfield’s 10, or even Amy Adams’s 29 to Cavill’s 11. It’s no wonder that Scarlett Johansson has assumed the female lead in next year’s Captain America sequel since she positively dwarfs her co-star Chris Evans when it comes to awareness scores, earning 52 to his 18.

All of these women have plenty going on besides their superhero films — you can’t go a day without seeing one of them in a makeup ad or on a magazine cover, and if they break up with a beau or get engaged, it’s headline news — which makes audiences more curious about them and more aware of who they are, solidifying their star power. In an era when reality shows and social networks define a new normal that’s all about oversharing, it’s clear that our most recent superheroes have a lot to learn about getting press (since we still have a lot to learn about them).

These stars feel too expendable to get attached to.

Marvel famously asks its stars to sign multi-film contracts, but if Hemsworth and Evans begin to sour on the superhero process or attempt to play financial hardball, is there any doubt whatsoever that Marvel will have them replaced with other actors before you can say “Avengers assemble”? We’ve already seen it done with breathtaking speed over the last few years, as Andrew Garfield abruptly snatched the Spider-Man mask from Tobey Maguire after a planned Spider-Man 4 fell through, and Christian Bale barely had any time to bask in his Dark Knight Rises swan song before Ben Affleck was announced as the new Batman. If we now get the feeling that a star is simply the temporary custodian of the super-suit, is it really worth learning who’s playing who?

There are a precious few exceptions, of course. Robert Downey Jr. out-rates all of his fellow superheroes with an awareness level of 69, and he’s so identified with the Iron Man franchise that Marvel has respectfully put a temporary hold on those films while Downey Jr. mulls over whether he really wants to make more stand-alone movies about Tony Stark. (He’s signed up for two more Avengers sequels at present, and that’s it.) Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman boasts an awareness score of 59, and he’s played Wolverine so indelibly and for so long that Fox just signed him for yet another film about the character, rather than recast a role that Jackman has been playing since the first X-Men movie was released in 2000. Both men broke into comic-book movies when those efforts still felt fairly fresh, and both are reliable headline-getters besides; it’s no wonder that they have a tighter claim on their super-suits than low-awareness actors like Cavill, Evans, and Hemsworth.

Or has this awareness crisis been part of Hollywood’s nefarious plan all along? With new movie stars seemingly coming fewer and farther between, studio executives now like to say that their intellectual property is the real star, meaning that audiences will still pay to see Superman or Thor regardless of whether the studio has booked a big name to fill the role. And if these superhero parts now create fewer superstars, that makes talent negotiations even simpler: The actors can’t demand additional money if nobody really knows who they are, and if the audience still doesn’t recognize these would-be stars even after several sequels, that makes the actors easier to replace when their contracts run out. In the end, then, the biggest threat that these superheroes will face has nothing to do with an overpowered arch-villain: Instead, it will come from the executives who are all too eager to move on, and from the audiences who aren’t invested enough in these stars to protest.

Why Superhero Actors Aren’t Superstars Anymore