I am very much a fan of superhero films. Some are poor, others are average, others are good, and there are very few that are excellent. I have always noticed one similar trait that most superhero films have in common and that would be the “Heavy”. What’s the “Heavy” you may ask? Well a Heavy is an actor who is well established in the industry, who brings much clout and a sense of seriousness to the film. I believe the Heavy is brought onto a project to bring sincerity to the studio as well as to the audience. The Heavy stars opposite the hero, more times then not the actor brought in to play the hero is either and relatively unknown, or someone who is untested in bringing home a box office success and start a franchise. Let me start from the beginning…
Richard Donner’s “Superman” was the first serious attempt at bringing superheros to the big screen. Cast as the Man of Steel was the unknown and untested boyishly charming Christopher Reeve. So how else does Donner let the studio and audiences know to take this film seriously? By casting a few Heavies in the film, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman (both of whom at this point had won Oscars in leading roles). Brando was cast as Jor-El Superman’s diplomatic father who foresees disaster that is intimate to their plant of Krypton and pleads with the Council (lead by veteran English character actor Trevor Howard) to start evacuating Krypton. Though his premonitions are true, Jor-El is banned from notifying the public by Howard and threatened with banishment. So Jor-El sends his only son, Kal-El to a distant planet to be saved. Think about how crazy this idea is! Take the thespian (though not known at the time to the public how insane Brando really was) and put a white wig on him, with some sort of disco era sequined spandex and a bizarre emblem stamped on his chest and you have Marlon Brando as Superman’s Father, Jor-El. The more surprising part of the ordeal is it works. It works beautifully. Brando brings sincerity to the role and brings much authority, telling us, the audience, that we need to pay attention to this film because Marlon Brando is in the opening (and only) scene in the film.
The next Heavy brought into the film is Gene Hackman playing Superman’s arch nemesis Lex Luthor a criminal mastermind that wants to take Superman’s power and share it with the world but not without taking a cut of the action for himself. Hackman had already won his Oscar for Best Actor in Lead role for Popeye Doyle in “The French Connection” and been nominated twice for supporting performances in “Bonnie and Clyde” and “I Never Sang for My Father“. Hackman is commanding as usual in a role he must have relished while playing. His performance was sometimes a little too comedic for my tastes but it’s still a role that he will forever be remembered for. To play off of Hackman Donner brought in Ned Beatty who had already been established in the industry and to America as a valued and well versed character actor. Veteran character actor Glenn Ford was brought in to play Superman’s surrogate “Human” father.
Batman – 1989
Tim Burton’s now overshadowed “Batman” is one work of cinematic genius and the first film I remember seeing in theaters. It stars the franchise blockbuster untested Michael Keaton who previously starred mainly in comedies and – Jack Nicholson. My fear is this version and Keaton’s Batman and possibly Nicholson’s Joker will be forgotten in time due to Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and his unbelievably masterful “The Dark Knight”. Keaton had previously worked mainly in comedies “Mr. Mom”, “Gung-Ho”, “Night Shift”, “Beetle Juice” and “Johnny Dangerously”. As great as those movies are, and as great as Keaton is in them, he was truly untested to take on the dual roles of playboy millionaire Bruce Wayne and the dark and vengeful Batman. So how does Burton handle this? Jack Nicholson. I must say that Heath Ledger will always be the definite Joker but Nicholson still makes the role his own. Nicholson plays Jack Napier, a mobster double crossed by his boss, crime kingpin Charles Grissom (played by Jack Palance and Tim Burton said himself in the DVD commentary that no other actor could have believably played Nicholson’s boss).
During the double-crossing at Gotham City’s Axis Chemicals Napier tries to flea the scene, only to be cornered by Gotham PD and Batman and eventually falling into a vat of chemicals that magically transforms his skin white, hair green, and with a wicked a sadistic ear to ear grin. Nicholson steals every scene he is in, with his memorable one liners (“Where does he get those wonderful toys”, “Wait till they get a load of me”, “Descent people shouldn’t live here, they’d be happier some place else”, “You wouldn’t hit a guy with glasses would ya?”) and his over-the-top acting. But with all the fun that Cesar Romero originally brought to the role, Nicholson takes it one step further, one step darker. He masks the deeply psychopathic and sadistic side of The Joker with campy humor. For as great of a tour-de-force Nicholson can be as a dramatic actor, the role of The Joker stands out as one of his best.
Spider-Man – 2002
In 2002’s “Spider-Man” Sam Raimi brought us a fresh and new superhero franchise. A superhero we had never seen on the big screen before. Tobey Maguire stared in the title role. Maguire’s previous work was very good, playing supporting roles in great films such as “The Ice Storm“, “Wonder Boys” and “Pleasantville“. He, like Keaton and Reeves were untested in holding down a potential blockbuster franchise. In walks two time Academy Award Nominee Willem Dafoe as the egotistical scientist turned Green Goblin, Norman Osborn. What makes Dafoe’s performance differ from that of Hackman’s and Nicholson’s is that Dafoe’s performance is better then the film. Don’t get me wrong, I think “Spider-Man” is a good film, but Dafoe is the best part of it. Dafoe successfully pulls off the feat of carrying this film on his back, and giving a wonderful showboat of a performance as Norman
Osborn/Green Goblin. Dafoe’s character is given more depth than Hackman’s Lex Luthor and a little more then Nicholson’s Joker. Osborn is a self-made man who is inherently good and trying to supply the military with the best arms and weaponry he possibly can. After the Military threatens to cancel their contract, and after the Board of Directors of Oscorp oust Osborn he partakes in an unsupervised experiment of a serum that he created that he takes himself to make him super human (much like the Super Serum used to create Captain America) and the experiment goes detrimentally wrong and turns a businessman into a mass murdering super villian, The Green Goblin. Willem Dafoe is one of those great character actors that has the ability to break-out when needed, and can step up and give scene stealing performances like he had done in “Platoon”, “Born on the Fourth of July”, “Wild at Heart” and “Shadow of the Vampire” (just to name a few).
End of Part 1. Coming in part two of “Lets bring in the “Heavy” is “The Hulk”, “Iron Man”, “Batman Begins”, and “Superman Returns”.