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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has redefined movie stardom

MCU actors may find they’re in the MCU for life

MCU stars Sebastian Stan and William Hurt stand together, glowering to the right in the non-MCU film The Last Full Measure.
Sebastian Stan and William Hurt in The Last Full Measure
Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/Roadside Attractions

The new post-Vietnam drama movie The Last Full Measure, currently playing in limited release, feels like it could have been made at just about any time since the end of the Clinton administration, which is when the movie is actually set. But since it’s coming out right now, with this particular cast, plenty of attentive viewers will notice that it stars three actors from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes) plays a Pentagon staffer investigating a request that a deceased soldier be given the Medal of Honor. Along the way, he interviews veterans played by William Hurt (General Ross) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury). (Technically, co-star Bradley Whitford also appeared in an MCU project, when he acted in the first Agent Carter short.)

Obviously, it isn’t unusual for well-employed actors to appear in big-ticket franchise movies between meatier challenges. Countless performers have done time in the Star Wars, DC, and Fast & Furious universes, among others. Margot Robbie got great press for the likes of Bombshell and Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, but far more people saw her in the critically derided Suicide Squad. So the same weekend she’s attending the Oscars as a returning nominee (for Best Supporting Actress in Bombshell), she’s also starring in Birds of Prey, where she again plays Harley Quinn — presumably not for the last time. She clearly has no problem with Harley becoming her signature mainstream role.

So in that respect, the Marvel apparatus isn’t unusual for locking actors into high-profile roles. It’s just unusual in its sheer volume. More than 20 movies since 2008, in a series of interconnected and overlapping mini-franchises, have created a massive A-list repertory company in its wake. (Remember the staggering litany of big names from those Avengers: Endgame credits?) Given all that, it’s more surprising to pick out the Last Full Measure actors who haven’t dipped into Marvel movies (Ed Harris never played some S.H.I.E.L.D. higher-up in 2011?) than it is to note The Last Full Measure’s alternate-universe versions of Bucky, Fury, and Ross sharing scenes, talking about military business that doesn’t involve Captain America.

Samuel L. Jackson slouches in a tacky beige-and-green diner booth opposite Sebastian Stan in The Last Full Measure.
Samuel L. Jackson and Sebastian Stan in The Last Full Measure
Photo: Jackson Lee Davis/Roadside Attractions

Even allowing for these actors’ ample on-screen history beyond their supporting turns in the MCU, and the fact that, say, Hurt’s “Thunderbolt” Ross isn’t exactly a key piece of Marvel cinematic iconography, it’s still pretty amazing just how many performers now have comic-book backstory as part of their onscreen image. The MCU isn’t just changing movies by adjusting audiences’ blockbuster expectations or inspiring imitators; it’s realigning careers in surprisingly complicated, maybe permanent ways.

There’s no greater example than Robert Downey Jr., who stepped away from the series with 2019’s Avengers: Endgame (barring any surprise future cameos, anyway). He recently returned to theaters attempting to start a new franchise, or at least save some face, with Dolittle, a family adventure film. It’s Downey’s first non-Iron Man role in five years, and he was clearly intended to personally enliven a previously established character, just as he did with Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. The gambit failed spectacularly, but it couldn’t have happened without him. While any number of factors contributed to the Dolittle mess, Downey’s stardom is why it pushed forward.

Specifically, his casting and performance both operate on a faith that he can power a dubious movie into watchability. (The first two Iron Man movies weren’t exactly smooth sailing in production, either.) Overconfidence in a star’s appeal is a Hollywood tradition at this point, but in this case, Downey’s actual performance feels inspired by his MCU domination, even as he gins up a new batch of tics. His work as Dr. Dolittle labors to appear as distinctive and personality-driven as his Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes work, while he’s also laboring to differentiate himself from Tony Stark. His primary tool on both counts is a semi-comprehensible, mutter-y Welsh accent that’s like something out of later-period Johnny Depp (and, it must be said, lacking Depp’s sometimes-deranged conviction that this weirdness is absolutely necessary).

While Downey’s Tony Stark sometimes stood outside the MCU superhero spectacle to comment on it, his Dolittle feels emotionally cut off from the busy, CG-heavy action in his wake — even after the character undergoes a spiritual reawakening. Downey, a huge talent, is in the unenviable position of having to both prove himself in non-Stark roles and carry on as if he, rather than Iron Man, is the biggest movie star in the world. As much as, say, Michael Keaton may have been subjected to elevated expectations after playing Batman, he never had to figure out how to carry a $180 million tentpole without the cowl.

A bug-eyed, muttonchopped Robert Downey Jr. stares down a bespectacled, ragged brown CGI dog in Dolittle.
Robert Downey Jr. in Dolittle
Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

If standing front and center of the MCU since its inception has made Downey both a massive star and somewhat beholden to his famous alter ego, Scarlett Johansson may have reaped the most obvious benefits from her superhero role. Though her lack of an MCU solo vehicle has been the source of frustration for quite some time (and it’s about to be rectified in May, with Black Widow), Natasha Romanoff’s ability to duck in and out of various Avengers and Captain America movies has let Johansson pursue a variety of other projects while staying in the public eye. In the same year that Romanoff had to lamely sacrifice herself in Avengers: Endgame, Johansson also appeared as half of a fraught, divorcing couple in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, and as a caring mother secretly working against the Nazis in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. She recently received Oscar nominations for both roles — her first two nods in one shot.

While Johansson’s performance in Jojo Rabbit is enormously likable and touching, it isn’t her finest, compared to Lost in Translation, Ghost World, Under the Skin, Lucy, and, yes, Marriage Story. Her devastating career-best work in that last film seems like it should overshadow Jojo, in that she’s playing a far more nuanced and richly detailed mother to a young boy. (“Mom” is not an interchangeable stock role, of course, but it’s striking that Johansson played her two most prominently mom parts within a few weeks of each other.) But Johansson’s work in Jojo arguably feels rangier because it’s so warm and maternal, whereas she became extra-famous playing the icy, calculating Natasha Romanoff.

Black Widow is in sync with Johansson’s persona in some of her other best-loved work: she’s remote, almost otherworldly, with glimmers of humanity that add some modulation to her monotone. (It’s no accident that Johansson so often plays beings who aren’t quite human: an alien in Under the Skin, the voice of a computer program in Her, an ever-expanding consciousness in Lucy.) Her characters in Jojo Rabbit and Marriage Story aren’t much like that: They’re more emotionally open and direct. And as steadfast as Johansson is in Jojo, it’s hard to imagine the character resonating as much without the counterpoint of Johansson’s ongoing Black Widow visibility.

Scarlett Johansson in a bright striped top and Roman Griffin Davis in an oversized brown coat push bicycles through the street in Jojo Rabbit.
Scarlett Johansson and Roman Griffin Davis in Jojo Rabbit
Photo: Kimberley French/Twentieth Century Fox

The Last Full Measure is neither a Dolittle-sized disaster nor a Marriage Story-level triumph. It’s just a square, somewhat tedious war picture with some good actors trying their best to string along the thin material. This makes it a perfect test case for the MCU Effect on its actors, because it doesn’t have enough style or substance to be a distraction. Jackson actually gives one of the movie’s more compelling performances. He draws on the same authority that makes him a natural Nick Fury, but puts it into playing a cranky vet, disillusioned with what the war did to him, but also awed by a fellow soldier’s sacrifice. Most of the other characters are more predictable, though, and given that Jackson, Stan, and Hurt all played military-centric parts in their Marvel movies, their interactions have an additional layer of movie-ness that this serious-minded project could have done without.

Though their MCU parallels might not have been as noticeable in a movie with a more interesting script, the ubiquity of Marvel casting isn’t Last Full Measure’s fault. Even discussing a movie like this in terms of superheroes feels a little insulting; the fact that this mainstream, accessible drama with big names isn’t showing on 2,000 screens is at least in part because of the escapism-centric marketplace that the MCU helped redefine. But the movie is a perfect example of how such a massive consolidation of box-office dollars can have unanticipated creative ramifications, potentially realigning the whole idea of stardom.

Most stars develop some kind of persona, whether they want to or not. By putting out two or three massive movies a year, the MCU has codified those personalities into specific characters with rigorously defined backstories and interactions. Suddenly, major movie stars have the same persistence of image as stars of long-running network TV series. Harrison Ford is best known as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, but he’s played those two parts combined about as often as Downey, Johansson, or Jackson have suited up for their MCU roles, and he’s spread those performances out over a much longer time period, mixed in with plenty of other big hits. Marvel has undeniably made Downey enormously wealthy and beloved, given Johansson leeway as she’s worked on her craft, and afforded Jackson the opportunity to keep playing character parts in smaller movies. But as Marvel continues to hire more performers, those actors may find themselves working for the MCU long after their nine-picture deals have expired.