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The Leading Man Has Left the Building

The superstar actor you can rely on to open a movie is a dying breed. So what’s left for the actors of 2016? This weekend’s premieres — a superhero film, a comeback war flick, and a civil rights tearjerker — make for a good place to start.


Welcome to Future of Movies Week. Too often this year we’ve been left baffled at the multiplex. It’s been 10 months, and we’re struggling to come up with a viable top-10 list. Streaming platforms are encroaching on Hollywood’s share of our collective attention, preexisting intellectual property is providing diminishing returns, and moviegoers largely skipped Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Wild days.

November will be different. It’s packed with interesting releases — Oscar contenders like Loving and Arrival and Manchester by the Sea, blockbusters from Marvel (Doctor Strange) and J.K. Rowling (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), a Disney movie with Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Rock (Moana), and old-fashioned fare from big-name directors like Robert Zemeckis (Allied) and Warren Beatty (Rules Don’t Apply).

This week, we’re looking at the future — of film school, horror, the Marvel Universe, movie stars, and the medium itself.

What does “a leading man” mean? More specifically: What will “a leading man” mean in the future? Actually, you know what, more specifically yet: What will “a leading man” mean this weekend?

This last question we find ourselves oddly equipped to answer. Friday marks the release of three wildly different films, starring three relatively established actors, each with a distinct — and in many ways, distinctly uncertain — claim to leading man-dom: Doctor Strange, starring Benedict Cumberbatch; Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield; and Loving, starring Joel Edgerton.

Are any of them “leading men?” Based on the historical definition — a movie star who can carry a film to box office success — none of the three actors is close. These aren’t household names, in the strictest sense — there’s no Hanks here, no Washington, no Pitt, no Cruise; not even an Affleck or a Damon. And if you haven’t been an avid moviegoer over the past few years, then you might not know them at all.

But on the other hand: in 2016, you might not need to. The current definition of “leading man” is much murkier — and might not even exist. (When was the last time you went to the movies to see an actor?) You might say that all three of these actors could be considered leading men in 2016. At any rate: Each of them will topline a movie (or movies) that people care about this fall; two of them may earn Oscar nominations this winter; and two of them will have toplined superhero films by Friday. They’re fairly niche; their box office successes are almost exclusively tied to supporting work or big-ticket IP; and they might be sitting next to me, right now, watching me type this. (Just kidding, I would recognize them. Everyone but Edgerton, 100 percent, I know what they look like.) But either way, from the modern perspective of movie-stardom: niche, and IP-bound, and casually anonymous, is probably enough.

It’s 2016; the leading man is dead. And this weekend — starring a new superhero, an ex-superhero, and [please don’t let Joel Edgerton become a superhero] — may just be a snapshot of the future.

Benedict Cumberbatch: The Marvel Track

Last Box Office Hit: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies ($255M domestic, $956M worldwide)
Last Awards Run: The Imitation Game, 2015
Next Projects: Magik, Avengers: Infinity War, Jungle Book, How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Doctor Strange, in structure and tone (to say nothing of timing), feels like Marvel’s bid to recreate the magic of 2008’s Iron Man. It’s hard to blame it. While the studio has made plenty of savvy choices in the aftermath of Robert Downey Jr.’s breakout success as Tony Stark (casting the Chrises, building to The Avengers, blowing out Captain America: Civil War, killing off the robot that controls Aaron Taylor-Johnson), nothing has come even close to matching that initial jackpot; everything else, while still successful, has largely taken place in its shadow. This seems fair. Downey is an all-time comic actor, a credible action hero, a brilliant dramatist (when he wants to be), and a functional romantic lead — and as Tony he managed to put together that total package: playing the class nerd, and jock, and clown, and heartthrob. Stumbling into “2008 Robert Downey Jr.” wasn’t just catching lightning in a bottle; it was finding FOUR BILLION DOLLARS in your pocket.

But now there are other pockets to search through — and the Marvel universe, as it exists today, can get along just fine without Downey’s star power. That’s because the star now, quite clearly, is Marvel itself. This is a studio that can turn Ant-Man (starring Paul Rudd) into over $500 million worldwide; that can turn Guardians of the Galaxy (starring a then-unproven Chris Pratt) into almost $800 million. At those numbers, the lead actors are essentially custodians: ambassadors for the IP that you actually care about. And while ambassadors aren’t interchangeable, they also aren’t irreplaceable. For a smash hit to happen at Marvel, a likable-enough actor who you maybe-recognize from television is more than enough.

And by this standard … Benedict Cumberbatch is pretty much as good as it gets. Consider everything that Cumberbatch brings to the table: years and years of playing a Cocky Alpha on Sherlock; hero status in the sensitive-boy mines of Tumblr; comic ambition (he’s hosting SNL); an Oscar nomination (The Imitation Game); an established (like, “there’s a post about them”–established) fan base; an elusive, “if you love him, you love him” appeal. He’s 40, but he seems 30. He’s about 6-foot, but he seems — OK, I guess that seems about right. He’s traditionally handsome by any measure, but people still feel quirky for saying so. (I feel quirky right now.) And he’s starred in his own, small handful of big-budget successes, too. As the Marvel Track goes, Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t a blue-chip prospect; he’s a unicorn.

Which makes his foregone success on that track bittersweet. On one hand, he earned it: Who can blame someone for working their way up to the top — and then, when presented with the opportunity, saying, “Yes, absolutely, I will accept astronomical success as it is currently defined.” On the other hand, though: One wonders if this “track” cuts both ways — if the dearth of leading men, and the surplus of Marvel leading men, are products of the same zero-sum game.

What does that make Benedict Cumberbatch? To find out, we would first need him to star in something that’s his. And maybe he will … but why would he? There’s money to be made, colossal fame to be had, and bald Tilda Swintons to magic-fight. It’s 2016.

Andrew Garfield: The Superhero Dropout

Last Box Office Hit: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($203M domestic, $709M worldwide)
Last Awards Run: The Social Network, 2011
Next Projects: Silence, Under the Silver Lake, Breathe

Between Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge in November and Martin Scorsese’s Silence in December, Andrew Garfield’s post-Spidey comeback is in full effect. Hacksaw — have you seen the trailer? — looks like a meaty, bloody, slightly godly star turn. And as for Silence (which hasn’t been seen yet) (but already has “best Marty to date!” buzz*) (*from its own producer**) (**I trust him): Our dude was Scorsese’s hand-picked choice to lead his most decades-in-the-making, most struggle-beard-requiring, most passionate passion project — and not much more needs to be said. That’s a coup.

But Garfield has been on the “that’s a coup” side of things before — way back in 2012. And things didn’t go so well — giving us his CV’s major black marks: [Tobey Maguire voice while splashing the pot at Molly’s game] The Amazing Spider-Man and [Tobey Maguire voice while splashing the pot at Molly’s next game] The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

Worse than the reputational cost of flopping as Spider-Man, though, was the opportunity cost of having taken the role at all. There’s just no way around this IMDb page: Between the 2010 release of The Social Network and Friday’s release of Hacksaw Ridge … Andrew Garfield made only one non-Spider-Man movie. One (one!) — 99 Homes — between the ages of 27 and 33. Which leaves us in the really rather amazing position of having a famous actor, in the Best Actor conversation, at 33 — and the last role that most adults will have seen him play is a college junior whom Jesse Eisenberg made sad.

And maybe Andrew Garfield’s case is a flip of the superhero course onto its underbelly: a guy who tried it and failed; got it out of his system; made his money; and probably has no regrets. (OK, maybe he has one or two regrets — who doesn’t.) But it’s also 2016 now, and not even being the lead in a Martin Scorsese Movie™ can change the fact no one is out there trying to see “an Andrew Garfield Movie” — and that Andrew Garfield might be no closer to being a leading man than he was when you heard his name for the first time.

If Marty’s Monk Movie really is an all-timer, then who knows: Maybe “Japanese Eloquence” Garfield gets to play the Scorsese roles that Leo aged (or save-the-world-ed) out of for the next few years. But if it’s not? Then, well — actually, still who knows: Maybe he self-exiles, post–Prince of Persia Gyllenhaal-like, into one self-consciously strange role after another. Maybe he returns to his niche as a dystopian clone simultaneously dealing with a love triangle and a knitwear fetish. Or maybe … he just … disappears (and then I write this article again in 20 years when his Birdman comes out). But whatever happens — fuck: That’s six years in spandex for you, I guess. What’s Tobey Maguire now, like, 29?

Joel Edgerton: The Leading Man As Character Actor

Last Box Office Hit: The Great Gatsby ($145M domestic, $351M total)
Last Awards Run: N/A (currently nominated for Best Actor for Loving, 2016 Gotham Awards)
Next Projects: Bright, Red Sparrow, It Comes at Night

Did you know that Joel Edgerton and Benedict Cumberbatch were born only 25 months apart? Cumberbatch is 40, Edgerton is 42. So why does Edgerton feel so much more … I don’t know: mature? Though “mature” might fall short of encompassing the difference. Compared to Cumberbatch and Garfield, Edgerton almost feels like another species. There’s something so throwback about him: a basic grit, or stoicness, that comes across as out of time. His newest movie, Loving, is literally that: a ’60s-set civil rights drama directed by the kind of auteur who brings to mind the movies of a bygone, star-making era. The film, and his performance, will be nominated for plenty of awards — but not because Edgerton is a shiny, magnetic actor. He’s a worker.

Or, to put it another way: Teens go crazy for Benedict Cumberbatch. Now try to imagine, with a straight face, a teen going through a “Joel Edgerton” phase. Wouldn’t that seem weird?

Or maybe just consider the roles that have comprised Joel Edgerton’s ascent: an outlaw (Animal Kingdom); an ultimate fighter (Warrior); a Navy SEAL (Zero Dark Thirty); TOM fucking BUCHANAN (The Great Gatsby); a pharaoh (Exodus: Gods and Kings); a crooked FBI agent (Black Mass); a cowboy (Jane Got a Gun); a dad (Midnight Special). One could imagine this filmography existing within the broader leading-man lineage: late-’70s/early-’80s Harrison Ford could have put together a higher-profile version of this run; ’00s Matt Damon could have done it; so could ’80s Richard Gere. Edgerton isn’t at the level of those stars — but he gives off the impression of someone who could be.

It’s a feat of mid-’90s branding — take only the serious roles, show them you’re a real actor — except it’s 2016 and they don’t make serious movies anymore. Joel Edgerton is running out of time — and options. If he did a superhero movie, who would he even play? I’d bet on a villain: a Shannon role, or a Brolin, or an Isaac, or a Blanchett. And that makes sense, but it is also to say: The sideline in a superhero movie is still a sideline.

And to the extent that adult characters still exist, and still feel essential to the stories that movies in 2016 are trying to tell, I think it’s as just that: as characters. Maybe there aren’t leading men anymore because the “leading man” role has simply begun to downshift, and migrate — and will continue to downshift and migrate — into what we traditionally have thought of as “character” work. And this, to me, seems like the most plausible resting place for Joel Edgerton’s career: not as a leading man, per se, but as a character actor — playing the character of a leading man.

Unless, that is, Joel Edgerton — interested in writing and directing and playing strange, compelling roles — goes elsewhere. Unless he lights out for the territory where movie stars who won’t slide onto the cape-wearing tracks we’ve laid out for them might yet migrate; and might yet craft the weird, and round, and interesting, and magnetic characters that their lineages suggest. Where leading men can be [Joel Edgerton’s natural Australian speaking voice] leading men: saluted and respected; talked about and, yes, watched.

Which is to say: Congratulations on Loving, Joel. See you on TV.