Sex Or Substance: Female Casting in Comic Book Films

Hathaway just screams spinster
The recent announcement of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman has sparked some interesting debate amongst fans. Specifically a few of my nerdy pals, male and female alike, have questioned Ms. Hathaway's potential "sexiness" for the role of Selina Kyle. She may be a little awkward (see Oscars co-hosting gig), and starring in the Princess Diaries nearly a decade ago is an image not easily forgotten; but more recent films have included roles as a recovering addict, trophy wife to a gay man, and an ambitious would-be journalist.  "She's not sexy enough" hardly seems reason to claim she's miscast. And you know, a lack of sex appeal is totally Hollywood's problem these days, right? Not only is this reasoning an insult to Hathaway's acting abilities, but it also implies that the character of Catwoman amounts to little more than an object of sexual fantasy. Little known secret, Hollywood: "sexy" and "talented" are not mutually exclusive. With most films, it comes down to how well the part is written. I have faith in Christopher Nolan to do the character justice, despite his less than memorable take on Rachel Dawes.

Unlike past female comic book character castings that have ranged from bizarre to downright awful, Anne Hathaway seems like a refreshingly appropriate choice. In addition to a resume that includes Oscar and Golden Globe nods, she is also age appropriate, a rarity in Hollywood where male leads are too easily confused with father figures. Have we really gotten to the point where a critically acclaimed actress is cast in a film and we question their ability to pull it off? Fans will have to wait at least another year to see trailers for the third Batman to decide whether or not she is the best choice for the role. Until then, it is worth noting just how far off the mark casting has been in past (and upcoming) comic book adaptations. These questionable choices may make dubious Catwoman fans a little more grateful for Nolan's choice.

Jessica Alba as Sue Richards in Fantastic Four
Where do I start? When I think brilliant scientist counterpart to Reed Richards, Jessica Alba would not even be in the top 1000 names of actresses to come to mind. I have yet to see Jessica Alba demonstrate any ability as an actress. She is a human prop, and in stating as much I at least give her credit for looking nice as she reads lines. In the final scene of the first Fantastic Four film, Reed attempts to kiss the Invisible Woman and she girlishly squeals, "That's my nose, silly!" This has stood out as one of the worst displays of attempted acting by Alba to date. In addition to the ghastly performance, she was physically a very odd choice for the role. There are merits to casting an actor of a different race as a new take on a character (see Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury, or even in this film Kerry Washington as Alicia Masters) but to turn around and pretend that Jessica Alba isn't in fact Latino and give her an awful bleach blonde haircolor to conform to the traditional all-American view of Sue Richards is superficial at best and insulting at worst.

Jessica Alba as Nancy Callahan in Sin City
You might think that an actress best known for her physical attributes would be well cast as a stripper, but you would be mistaken. Alba's miscasting isn't very obvious when she is gyrating in the background of Kadie's Bar, but it's clear she is out of her element once she starts talking. Part of the tension of the story comes from Nancy being rescued as a child from a rapist by Officer Hartigan, only to become the sexually empowered woman he finds upon his release from jail. Alba's attempts at naivety come off as childlike, giving the relationship a whole new level of uncomfortable. Alba also refused to do any nudity for the film. Although I have the utmost respect for the boundaries of an actress, she did sign up for a role as an exotic dancer. Co-star Jaime King opted for a body double, and I don't think less of her standards. Considering that this iconic role was made famous by Frank Miller's visceral depictions of Nancy, Alba's objections to nudity prevented the authenticity that was lent to the rest of the film's visuals.

Halle Berry as Storm in X-Men, Selina Kyle in Catwoman
I added Halle Berry to this list to remind readers that even a talented actress can't do much with poorly written material. In the case of the X-Men franchise, the character of Storm is underutilized and underdeveloped. Halle Barry can't even decide between scenes what accent she wants to use. Instead of a strong second in command to Scott Summers, we are given a character that is an excuse for special effects, a weak imitation of the force of nature seen in the pages of the comic books. (Could you ever imagine Berry's Storm rocking a mohawk?) The second and third outings may give Storm more lines, but they could have been delivered by any of the larger cast. Had the role been taken on by another actress, even fan favorite Angela Bassett, it is doubtful they could have given the part more depth as there was clearly little to work with.

In the case of Catwoman, however, miscasting is far down on the list of possible explanations for this film's vast failures. I can't even comment on the choice of Halle Barry since I skipped this movie altogether.

January Jones as Emma Frost in X-Men First Class
Hollywood does deliver the goods from time to time. When I first heard about January Jones being cast as Emma Frost, I thought it was a joke because it is absurdly perfect casting. For all of the missed marks in the X-men franchise films, there always seems to be one role that makes up for the rest of the mediocre choices. Alan Cumming as Nightrcrawler. Kelsey Grammer as Beast. Betty Draper as the White Queen. As an avid fan of Mad Men, I was already half-convinced that Mrs. Draper was secretly leading a double life as a member of the Hellfire Club. Whether the movie is as successful as this casting choice is yet to be seen. On an interesting sidenote, Matthew Vaughn, director for X-Men First Class, was originally set to direct X-Men 3. His biggest contribution to that film? Casting Kelsey Grammer before he left the project.

Malin Akerman as Silk Spectre in The Watchmen Zack Snyder really disappoints here. After the wonderful casting of Lena Headey in 300, one would think Mr. Snyder knows a thing or two about strong leading ladies. Then he goes and hires Malin "second coming of Heather Graham" Akerman. One could argue that the role of Silk Spectre is not meant to be played by a commanding young woman as the character is somewhat insecure in her role as crimefighter. But the most Akerman brings to the film is a lot of slow-motion entrances. The mediocrity of her performance would not be nearly as noticeable if she wasn't surrounded by far superior talents like Patrick Wilson and Jackie Earle Haley. Hollywood once again perpetuates the lack-of-female-talent myth with miscasting. 

Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in Superman Returns
So many aspects of this film are off that casting isn't given much thought when debating the merits of the Superman re-bake. For a story that focuses heavily on the relationship of Lois and Clark, the miscasting of Kate Bosworth certainly made matters much worse than would seem at first glance. Even if one believes Ms. Bosworth gives a fair performance (which I don't), Brandon Routh and Kate Bosworth have a palpable lack of on-screen chemistry. Bosworth is also void of the tenacity that Lois Lane is known for. Rather than portraying a flawed, neurotic workaholic, this Lois is naggy and not very likable. As with the case for Malin Akerman, it doesn't help when there are better actors in the supporting cast - Parker Posey has more spunk in one scene than Kate Bosworth has in the entire movie.

Blake Lively as Carol Ferris in Green Lantern
I don't even think there is so much as a screengrab of Lively in the Green Lantern trailer. Is there a Bechdel Test for movie trailers? If not, at least appearing in the trailer, having a line, and being involved in an activity besides kissing the male lead might be some good parameters. Though I may be preemptive in my judgment of the casting of Lively as Ferris, I am already dubious of the 22 year old actress's ability to convincingly portray the head of an aerospace company considering that only last year she was playing a high schooler on Gossip Girl. It's also not a good sign when articles insinuate that she MUST be talented if she beat out far more talented and older actresses for the role.

Jennifer Garner as Elektra in Daredevil, Elektra
Exotic bad-ass ninja? Not Jennifer Garner.

Whether you agree or disagree with the choices of the Hollywood casting system, as fans there is one thing we do control: the creepy photoshopped images that result from early casting announcements. Moratorium on these, anyone?
My favorite! Because it's not even the right character.