It’s hard to think of a level on which Knives Out wasn’t a rousing success. Rian Johnson’s 2019 whodunit was beyond funny, becoming endlessly quotable and memeable, and past witty to the point of being socially trenchant. Johnson dropped an Oscar-nominated script in front of a team of Hollywood all-stars and let them cook. The result: great reviews and a box office gross nearly eight times the film’s $40 million budget.
Because mainstream American cinema can’t let an original work stand on its own—more so because of economic expediency than creative bankruptcy—there’s now a Knives Out sequel in the works (well, a couple, in fact). But while the compulsion to turn everything into a franchise can be frustrating under normal circumstances, it serves Knives Out well. Benoit Blanc, Daniel Craig’s drawling detective, seems to suit serialization as well as any literary detective. Plop him down amid a new group of untrustworthy weirdos every 18 months until Johnson gets tired of writing or Craig gets tired of doing Hercule Poirot with Shelby Foote’s accent, and I’ll buy a ticket every time. So will millions of other moviegoers.
But Craig and Johnson are only part of what made the first Knives Out film so successful. The Murderers’ Row (so to speak) of supporting players deserves the lion’s share of the credit. The Thrombey family saga featured two genuine Hollywood icons (Jamie Lee Curtis and the late Christopher Plummer), one of the biggest movie stars on the planet (Chris Evans), two longtime critical darlings (Michael Shannon and Toni Collette), and three up-and-coming actors on the verge of stardom (Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, and the show-stealing Ana de Armas). Not to mention the half-dozen other recognizable supporting players who completed the all-killer/no-filler lineup. (Frank Oz was in this movie!)
That’s a loaded cast, one of the deepest you’ll find this side of a superhero movie, and a tall order for Knives Out 2 to top. But it’s trying. For months now, Knives Out 2 casting rumors have been scorching the internet. Everyone and their mother will be interrogated by Benoit Blanc in an upcoming film. Here’s the list so far: Craig, Kate Hudson, Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., and Dave Bautista.
It’s a great group, more than up to the challenge of flinging poetic vulgarities at one another for two hours. But it’s hardly worthy of the memefication the casting process has inspired. There’s no one with Plummer’s or Curtis’s historic gravitas, no one with Evans’s white-hot star power, no one with Stanfield’s potential. Norton and Hudson were superstars 20 years ago, but not now. Bautista was piss-your-pants funny in the Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy films, but is by no means the star. And Hahn was born to play a wealthy sleaze in a talky dramedy, but isn’t famous enough to open a summer blockbuster. Regardless, each new name in the cast has been headline news.
Knives Out 2 is far from the only forthcoming critical darling to make outsize waves from its casting. Recently, HBO announced that its hit show Succession will add Adrien Brody, Alexander Skarsgard, and Sanaa Lathan to the cast for Season 3. (Brody will also play Pat Riley in HBO’s series about the Showtime Lakers, which for some reason is not generating “Greatest Crossover Event in History” references despite the obvious basketball connection.) Then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos’s Poor Things, a take on the Frankenstein story, which will feature Willem Dafoe, Emma Stone, Mark Ruffalo, Ramy Youssef, and Jerrod Carmichael.
In normal instances, casting information is considered mundane, workaday news that usually gets broken in trade publications rather than the mainstream press. So why, now, is the announcement of the seventh lead in a Netflix movie turning into meme fodder?
First, as much as comic book movies have become a monoculture, the acceptance of prestige TV and streaming films as an alternative to traditional studio movies means we’re getting a fascinating collection of collaborations. Angelina Jolie playing a supporting role in Eternals isn’t unprecedented—Marlon Brando did Superman more than 40 years ago, after all—but it’s intriguing enough to spark watercooler talk.
And thanks to social media, the watercooler has grown to a global scale. Anyone with an internet connection can now comment on that mundane industry news and express enthusiasm and support, which creates a self-reinforcing cycle of hype. It’s easy to raise an eyebrow at fancasting—are they ever going to actually make that Rihanna–Lupita Nyong’o heist movie from Twitter, or no?—but with a bottomless well of film and TV, everyone has some dream combination of cast and story that they can never quite let go of. Maybe the movie in your head-canon will never get made, but finding out that Norton and Monáe will share a screen with Benoit Blanc scratches some of that itch.
But the biggest reason that movies and TV shows are putting so many famous people on screen together is that there are more famous people than ever to go around.
Consider how much television has grown this century. A generation ago, there were only a couple dozen slots for network television programs. By 2009, that number had climbed above 200, according to FX, which has kept track of the number of scripted TV shows on offer each year since the late 2000s. And two years ago, it peaked at 532. Nobody watches every show, but someone watches every show. And presumably, every show that makes it to Hulu or Paramount+ or AMC is somebody’s favorite.
Just last year, Ramy Youssef won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a TV Musical or Comedy for his work on his self-titled show, Ramy. He bounded up to the stage at the ceremony, thanked God and Hulu, and then—barely able to contain his laughter—said, “Look, I know you guys haven’t seen my show.” Now, he’s on a marquee alongside some of the biggest stars in the movie business, working for a director whose last film was nominated for 10 Oscars.
There are obvious advantages to a more democratized film and TV model; Ramy probably doesn’t get made 20 years ago. Nor does WandaVision, which catapulted Hahn from popular supporting actress to the kind of name who gets rolled into a meme with Norton and Hudson. There aren’t enough Ramy diehards to turn Poor Things into a $500 million box office smash, but there are enough Ramy diehards to create a noticeable wave of excitement when he gets cast alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest hitters. Ditto Carmichael, and Hahn, and Janelle Monáe. In the future, everyone will be Jerry Seinfeld for 15 minutes.
Is that wave, even in combination, enough to drive a larger audience to theaters? Maybe not. But doling out casting information piecemeal and feeding the stans gradually to maintain their hunger and excitement is a trivial undertaking for studio marketing pros. These days, every band is a supergroup. And we’re all pumped for Knives Out 2.