state of the arts

From Oscar Isaac to Robert Downey Jr: Why are today’s great actors trapped in dismal franchise serfdom?

Many of the world’s best and brightest talents have been enlisted into blockbuster franchises, often for years at a time. With Isaac having slipped his Star Wars shackles only to commit to the Marvel universe with ‘Moon Knight’, Louis Chilton asks whether franchise fever is denying great actors the great roles they’re built for

<p>Show me a superhero: Oscar Isaac in ‘Moon Knight’, arriving next week on Disney Plus</p>

Show me a superhero: Oscar Isaac in ‘Moon Knight’, arriving next week on Disney Plus

He’s just like a young Al Pacino, they’d say. It’s a phrase that Oscar Isaac has probably heard more than anyone on Earth, bar maybe Pacino’s three children. The comparison was first made when the Guatemalan-born actor broke through in Hollywood in the early/mid-2010s, through compelling roles in films such as Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year, and David Simon’s miniseries Show Me a Hero. Why Pacino? Isaac’s unmistakably Corleone-ish turn in A Most Violent Year certainly fuelled the fire; likewise, Pacino’s history of dabbling with Latin-American roles (most famously in Scarface). But there was also something ethereal to it. The way both actors could chill a room with one reproachful glare; their prodigious, mercurial charisma. Isaac would have been ill-suited for Serpico, just as Pacino would have made an unholy Llewyn Davis – but as far as generational equivalents go, Isaac seemed, for a time, like a talent from a bygone age.

In 2015, the comparison became a little harder to justify. Isaac took on his highest profile role to date, third-wheeling it in a galaxy far, far away as Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ frothy fighter pilot Poe Dameron. A role as a CGI-swaddled villain in the execrable X-Men: Apocalypse followed, as did two more Star Wars sequels. Over the half-decade he was in the Star Wars machine, his smaller work also largely failed to impress. Suburbicon (2017) and Life Itself (2018) were outright detested by critics; his better projects (Annihilation; At Eternity’s Gate) saw him feature only in unshowy supporting roles. After Rise of Skywalker came out, Isaac began speaking more candidly about his frustrations with the franchise, joking that he would only return to Star Wars “if I need another house or something”. “It’s not really what I set out to do,” he said. “What I really set out to do was to make handmade movies and to work with people that inspired me.”

After washing his hands of Star Wars, Isaac looked to be making a convincing return to form, with meaty character roles in HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage series and Paul Schrader’s The Card Counter. But the reprieve was short-lived. From Wednesday, Isaac can be seen as the lead of Marvel’s latest Disney Plus series, Moon Knight. Anyone who even passingly knows Marvel will know that his obligations are almost certainly not going to end with Moon Knight’s six announced episodes. There will likely be film crossovers. Additional seasons. Maybe even animated voice-overs. It’s not just Marvel that’s got its hooks in him, either. He’s also set to star as Solid Snake in an adaptation of the hit video game series Metal Gear Solid – another project that will probably yield sequels. Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.

Isaac is one of the best actors to have been mired in franchise purgatory, but he has plenty of company. For the 11 years he was spearheading the Marvel franchise as Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr delivered almost no other performances of note (save for Sherlock Holmes – another franchise). Many of the best actors around – including Tom Hardy, Mark Ruffalo, Florence Pugh, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, and now Mahershala Ali – have committed to long-running superhero franchises (though their other work hasn’t suffered as starkly as Downey Jr’s). Timothee Chalamet has been regarded as some kind of puristic aberration for his refusal to sign on to a superhero vehicle – though that didn’t stop the lad from being suckered into a Willy Wonka prequel and a planned hat-trick of Dunes.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with big-budget franchise films. When done well, they can be as riveting and meaningful as any other form of cinema. The majority, however, are not. The great tragedy of our modern franchise fascination is one of omission – the unrealised masterpieces that have to make way so everyone gets another eight helpings of Jimmy Crime-fighter. Imagine if Pacino had been tied down to a five-picture Batman deal after The Godfather came out. Or if Robert De Niro followed up Taxi Driver with a trilogy of Power Rangers prequels.

Pretty much every filmography has its weak spots – God knows De Niro has seen his share of stinkers. But there’s a reason why the great actors of the 20th century are still held up as the gold standard. Why everyone bemoans the extinction of the A-list movie star. Once an actor is subsumed into the great franchise machine, it becomes their whole thing. It becomes the thing they get asked about in interviews. It becomes the thing they get recognised for in the street. It becomes the thing that will headline their obituaries.

Of course, great actors have always taken on lesser roles for a quick buck, or because they felt like it, or because of myriad other factors. But we still have to question what legacy today’s great actors are leaving behind. How much lasting virtue is there in watching thespians be pulled through the mechanism of a rigid, all-too-familiar comic book franchise?

In ‘Moon Knight’, Isaac plays Marc Spector, a man who harnesses the power of an ancient Egyptian moon god

This is not to say that Moon Knight will be bad, that Isaac and his co-star Ethan Hawke won’t manage to turn in some worthy character work despite the shackles of Big Disney (though his ropey English accent has given him a bit of an uphill battle). Nor can we really blame anyone for gravitating towards this kind of work. It’s just dispiriting to consider that a big-budget character piece starring Isaac and Hawke would never get made if there wasn’t the possibility of him shaking hands with Spider-Man sometime down the line. Maybe Isaac truly is the next Pacino – but for the foreseeable future, he’s just going to be Oscar Isaac: star of Moon Knight.

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