Nowhere in Hollywood can the question "What suits your talents?" be applied more literally than in the world of superhero casting. Cartoon costuming and character traits are so closely interwoven that actors not only must fit the uniform, but also possess an acting style that befits their comics-sprung crimefighter.
For Exhibit A, we turn to Ryan Reynolds, who zips up for a major comeback attempt this weekend. Five years ago, Reynolds' then-sizzling career cooled off significantly after he donned Hal Jordan's emerald attire for DC's mega-bomb, The Green Lantern. Reynolds didn't write the troubled script, but the role did sometimes seem to freeze the actor in comic Carbonite.
This time around, though, Reynolds has chosen wiser. Just because he's leading-man handsome doesn't mean he should lose touch with his Van Wilder-comic timing. Reynolds is often at his best when a smirk sits above his strong jaw, snarking away like a chiseled Jason Lee sped up close to Vince Vaughn RPM's. With the new Deadpool film, Reynolds smartly returns to that hyper-drive of one-liner delivery.
On the flip side of the superhero coin, there are characters whose gravel-voiced gravitas lend themselves to a stonier acting style. Which is why Ben Affleck, having misfired as Daredevil, steers smartly into his post-"Hollywoodland" style by suiting up next month as a middle-aged Caped Crusader in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. His vocal inflections match his thickly muscled frame: He sounds like grumbling granite opposite Henry Cavill's Man of Steel.
With these two superhero films set to do box-office battle, we size up the casting dance of acting styles for superhero films - a veritable Spandex Ballet. Here is how we plot a dozen points along the long spectrum from loosest to stiffest actors to portray a male superhero in a major feature-film franchise:
1. Ryan Reynolds
Perhaps only the animated Dash from The Incredibles possesses a faster and looser superhero-comic approach than Reynolds's flesh-and-bloodstained mutant mercenary in Marvel's Deadpool. The snark-happy Merc With a Mouth quips as quick as the semi-animated Jim Carrey in The Mask, firing off rounds of punch lines like ammo. He nimbly bends to the needs of the script, which relies massively on his fleet comic brio.
2. Andrew Garfield
Even more than Tobey Maguire, Garfield brought limber linguistics and a teen's flippant ease to his amazing Spider-Man. To play the webcrawler's origin (yet again), his ricocheting emotions needed to come across every bit as loose as his rubbery frame.
3. Robert Downey Jr.
It's the gift that never abandoned Downey, even during his own darkest "demon in a bottle" days. Whether playing an '80s cokehead or "the dude playin' the dude disguised as another dude," RDJ works best when his character's mind zooms on overdrive. It's why his Iron Man is the kinetic heart of the big-screen Avengers.
4. Michael Keaton
Keaton's gifts seem to embrace that key trait of Robert Redford's Sundance Kid: "I'm better when I move." Keaton had the jaw and the scowl to pull off wearing Batman's cowl, but director Tim Burton knew he also wanted that post-Beetlejuice looseness to play his dark yet spirited Bruce Wayne.
5. Samuel L. Jackson
Jackson has never been as loose a superhero as when he was the animated Fro-Zone in Pixar's The Incredibles. But it's as Nick Fury in another Disney world, the Avengers cinematic universe, that Jackson has to deftly strike that perfect soldier's balance, booming with vocal solidity while retaining some of his liquid charisma.
6. Christopher Reeve
Has any performer worn the demands of a DC Comics super-suit as perfectly as the Juilliard-trained Reeve? He could radiate steely strength one globe-spinning minute, then deliver twinkling love-story lines with Cary Grant-panache the next. In a role that requires both looseness and solidity, Reeve displayed a high-wire walker's balance.
7. Hugh Jackman
Perhaps no major superhero actor wears such divergent top hats so well: On stage, the Aussie can embody the high-kicking Boy From Oz and do a limber-limbed song-and-dance opposite Neil Patrick Harris. But once he gets Adamantium in his bones as Wolverine, Jackman can tense to a perfect degree, flexing deep acting fibers to become the furry mutant.
8. Christian Bale
The gifted Brit is famously capable of eclectic transformation. Although he may never be able to recapture the child-star looseness of belting out a Newsies tune, he still can reflect a certain actorly ease. Yet prior to Affleck, no Batman was as purposefully stony as Bale's Bruce Wayne. Bale bore deep into the character as if penetrating bedrock. Director Christopher Nolan wanted a beating heart as dark as a Bat-cave; Bale delivered one tortured and stoic soul.
9. Chris Hemsworth
If you wield the hammer Mjolnir, then you're signing up for a sometimes monosyllabic turgidity. Somehow, though, as Marvel's Thor, Hemsworth is able to play a big lug with a teasing ironic twinkle. His performance registers as being as imposing as Norse lore carved from marble, yet he remains suitably playful beneath the armor.
10. Henry Cavill
Trying to play all-powerful can be an actor's Kryptonite. Cavill seems a stiffer actor when donning Superman's rubber suit. But opposite Affleck in the new film, he may comparably seem as loose as Chris Rock voicing Osmosis Jones.
11. Vin Diesel
Speaking of near-monosyllabic, Vin was necessarily rooted in a rigid performance by voicing the imposing CGI tree Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. Next to him, Dave Bautista's Drax looked as loose as the screws in Harley Quinn's head (as we'll see in Suicide Squad this summer).
12. Ben Affleck
If there's one actor whose performance is looking even more wooden than a talking tree's, it's Affleck's as the new Batman - at least based on footage so far. Affleck has gradually acquired a self-aware stiffness since "graduating" from the highly entertaining indie Chasing Amy to blockbusters, even as he's become a gifted director. That stiffness worked rather ideally in "Hollywoodland," in which he portrayed less-than-naturalistic '50s TV Superman actor George Reeves. Now, in Batman v Superman, we'll get to see whether a rigid delivery is what's best-suited for a new super-role.