So, Chris Evans is retiring from his role as Captain America, the steady gig which has ensured him an appearance in at least one Marvel Studios film a year since 2011.
Truth is, we don’t know. There’s been no actual confirmation Avengers 4 will be Evans’ last time sporting the red, white and blue in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is the final film he’s contractually obligated to be in. That much is true, but will Kevin Feige and the rest be able to sway him back for more? Moreover, do they even want to?
If they do, they might have to seriously back up a dump truck full of cash to his front yard the same way they did with Robert Downey, Jr. a couple of years ago after his original contract expired. Because in his New York Times profile Evans sounds like a man ready to move on to the next stage in his life. “You want to get off the train before they push you off” is the big quote from the piece everyone’s been running with. There’s also this:
“I used to have thoughts of wanting to climb to the top of something, or wanting to be somebody. But when you get the thing that you think you want and then you wake up and realize that you still have pockets of sadness, and that your struggle will reinvent itself, you stop chasing after those things and it’s liberating, because you realize that right here, right now, is exactly all I need.”
“When I think about the times that I’m happiest, it’s not on a movie set. I’ve stopped thinking about my trajectory, or my oeuvre, or whatever pretentious word you want to use. I’m just following whatever I feel creatively hungry for.”
This isn’t the first time Evans has signaled a wanderlust and desire to seek contentment outside of film stardom. At one time, he was going to retire from acting and pursue a career as a director. Now, he’s learning how to tap dance just for fun and is set to make his Broadway debut in an against-type role as a “narcissistic creep” in writer Kenneth Lonergan and director Trip Cullman’s play Lobby Hero.
The play, written 17 years ago, follows the confrontations between two security guards, one black, the other white, and two cops, one male, the other female, over the course of several nights. According to the Times, “A queasy drama, replete with abuses of power and sexual coercion, unfolds between the male officer, played by Mr. Evans, and his partner Dawn.”
So, not Captain America, then. For one thing, Black Widow wouldn’t put up with that shit. For another, Cap would never treat her like that.
But those are comic book characters from movies made to be enjoyed by people of all ages and ethnicities around the world. It’s an entirely different form of entertainment than a Broadway play or Before Sunset-esque romance (like Evan’s directorial debut Before We Go) or South Korean-produced dystopic thriller (like Snowpiercer) or old-fashioned piece of Capricorn about an uncle trying to do right by his niece (Gifted). Part of the entire appeal of being an actor is to be able to channel as many different parts of the human experience as possible (well, that and all the attention you get). After a near-decade of being Mr. Taciturn Do-Gooder, it’s understandable for Evans to want to move on.
Evans isn’t alone. Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Idris Elba, and Mark Ruffalo are but some of the names whose time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe could soon be coming to an end. Some have stayed silent on the issue, either through choice or a Marvel gag order, considering the company’s legendary knack for secrecy. Others have signaled a willingness to keep going, such as Johansson telling EW, “As long as the audience is game to go on [Natasha’s] emotional journey with me, I’ll keep digging deeper.”
Downey, Jr., the true first Avenger in this little universe, is just looking forward to some time off. His wife is producing The Voyage of Doctor Dolittle through their production company, and he will be tangentially involved with that. However, as he told EW, “I have a million ideas, but I can tell you the God’s honest truth. Having done Avengers 3 and 4 back-to-back, and now doing [Dolittle]…When I’m done with all this, if you hear I’m not taking a break, call me and tell me I’m crazy.”
Evans did that once, the “take a break” thing. It was immediately after wrapping Captain America: Civil War. He took an entire year to simply be with his family, make a go of things with then-girlfriend Jenny Slate, remodel his Boston home. It was the type of break you take because you can afford it but also because you know your next project(s) – Avengers 3 and 4 – will take up the next year of your life. Now, he has Lobby Hero. After that, his schedule is completely clear, and he’s cool with that.
But what of Downey, Jr? What happens if he follows Evans out the Marvel Studios doors? Will he finally be freed up to make a third Sherlock Holmes film or has that ship sailed? Will any studios be willing to float him another vanity project like The Judge, the actor’s oft-mocked 2014 awards wannabe the cost $50m to make and grossed just $85 million worldwide? Does he even really want to act anymore? His old co-star, Gwyneth Paltrow, has pretty much retired from acting to focus on a new career as a lifestyle guru. Her surprise cameo in Spider-Man: Homecoming and likely cameo in Infinity War are more like favors to old friends than signs of any actual interest in acting or playing Pepper Potts again.
Of course, this moment has been years in the making. Under the legendarily tight-fisted direction of Ike Perlmutter, Marvel Studios built itself up like a small market Major League Baseball team looking to take advantage of the system. [If you’re not a baseball fan, please forgive the following comparison]. There, teams with limited resources lean on the sport’s peculiar labor laws which forces players into suppressed salaries for their first six years in the league. Only after that six-year period can they begin to actually make what they’re worth through free agency.
It’s a controversial system, but it’s one which promises players a rich pay day after years of hard work. This past off-season, however, the free agents weren’t paid anywhere close to what third-party observers thought they were worth, and it’s all partially because the way the industry values talent changed in a big damn hurry.
That’s what’s happening to these Marvel actors right now. Marvel signed all of them on the cheap to 6-film deals (non-exclusive deals, of course, unlike the MLB scenario). Downey, Jr. is unique in that he’s been around so long he outlived his original contract and successfully negotiated a monumental payday, such as the $40m he commanded for Civil War. Others have re-negotiated in secret or are stuck riding out the deals they signed back when Marvel had all the leverage.
But the industry’s valuation of talent has changed. There is no grand free agency payday, so to speak. You’re in no way guaranteed to ever get another big franchise. Your name means less you think it does in terms of ticket sales. This is, after all, a world where not even Jennifer Lawrence can open a movie anymore, and that’s after the American Hustle pay gap controversy motivated her to push for $20m a movie. Pay her what she’s worth, dammit, but when she opens three box office flops in a row how do you actually know what she’s worth anymore?
Other than Dwayne Johnson, the movie star is dead. Long live the IP.
To some degree, this “what next?” concern for superhero movie actors isn’t new. Since the days of George Reeves, actors in this genre have suffered from typecasting. In other ways, this is very, very new. It’s not that they’re going to be denied roles because of their association with the superhero genre; it’s that there just aren’t a whole lot of non-superhero roles to go around anymore. Heck, Evans, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Keaton, and Ben Affleck are already on their second tours of duty in this space and Ryan Reynold and Josh Brolin are on their third (though counting Jonah Hex for Brolin might be stretching it)
Marvel had the leverage over its actors at one time, but now the entire industry has the leverage over all actors. As Ben Fritz argued, “The franchise film era is, in many ways, a return to the studio system. Only now the major entertainment companies don’t own the most important talent – they own the most important cinematic brands. Instead of fighting for a deal at MGM or Paramount, actors and filmmakers vie for a chance to make the latest spinoff of Star Wars or X-Men.”
In this era, you can go from making a series of biopics hardly anyone sees to being a superhero everyone adores, like Chadwick Boseman going from 42, Get On Up, and Marshall to Black Panther, and at the end of the day it feels nicer to make a movie people are actually going to watch.
But you can be replaced with astonishing ease. In the age of perpetual reboot, audiences have been trained to actually expect it, like Tom Holland succeeding Andrew Garfield or Don Cheadle pushing Terrence Howard aside when he asked for a pay raise and whoever ends up replacing Ben Affleck.
These people maintain many of the same trappings of movie stardom without any of the requisite financial follow-through. To put it another way, a movie star used to be someone whose name put butts in seats. Now, movie stars are just highly recognizable people who make for fun talk show guests promoting movies most of the viewers will wait to watch on streaming unless that movie happens to be part of a big franchise everyone loves.
Yeah, yeah…that’s great Jeremy Renner. Still didn’t get enough people out to see your Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and Bourne films, both of which failed in their goal to be franchise starters (or re-starter, in Bourne’s case).
It was supposed to go like this: you become a Marvel star for exposure and notoriety, not financial gain, and then you parlay that into becoming a big enough name to attract foreign financiers to passion projects and/or land gigs on studio projects. Eventually, you start searching for your next big franchise, like Johansson tried to do with the box office bomb Ghost in the Shell and Hemsworth is now trying to do with a Men in Black revival.
But box office success has been ever elusive for these people outside of Marvel. For every Johansson-in-Lucy or Chris Pratt-in-Jurassic World, there have been an awful lot of rough opening nights and flops, including the actual Johansson film Rought Night. And please raise your hand if you actually paid to see Hemsworth in Rush, Blackhat, In the Heart of the Sea, or that Huntsman sequel. Unless you pull an Emma Stone or Andrew Garfield and make a run at an Oscar (Brie Larson, newly added to the Marvel family, already has one of those), there’s no real career ladder left to climb after life as a superhero movie actor. It begs the question: why would any of them ever want to leave? IP is the law of the land, and Marvel Studios clearly has the best hand.
Maybe because green (or blue) screen acting gets old, as you might imagine from the above B-Roll from Ragnarok. Maybe because they’ve already made enough money to be set for years if not decades to come. Maybe because Marvel’s entire business strategy is contingent upon cost-controlled talent, which means favoring the Tom Hollands over the Chris Hemsworths. Maybe because it’s just time for a change and/or success hasn’t been as fulfilling as they’d hoped. Maybe they just need the next big challenge, whatever that might be, and if Hugh Jackman can go from Logan to Greatest Showman maybe they can too.
There are always indie movies to make (like Renner and Elizabeth Olson in Wind River), Broadway plays to headline, overeager streaming services to pilfer (like Adam Sandler and Will Smith did with Netflix), limited TV series at your beck and call (like Hiddleston in The Night Manager), new careers to explore. Garfield, for example, is starring in Angels of America right now just a couple theaters down from Evans. Margot Robbie will end up having produced and starred in two (I, Tonya and Terminal) if not three awards-contending films before WB gets its shit together and puts her Harley Quinn in another movie. Infinity War’s Joe and Anthony Russo are already trying to make movies in China.
There is life after superhero land and the old, long-since dead version of movie stardom. Chris Evans, for one, is just appreciative of the ride to this point, “I’m not afraid to take my foot off the gas. If someone said tomorrow, ‘You’re done, you can’t do anything else,’ I’d be O.K.”