You have to feel sorry for the great British actors of the 20th century who were still alive and needing work during an era when movie scripts faltered. One prime example is Lord Laurence Olivier who overflowed with quality films in the first half of his career. By the late 1970s, however, he was cut down to playing smaller character parts and eventually took lesser roles in the 1980 box office dud “The Jazz Singer” and 1981’s “Clash of the Titans” to keep himself cinematically visible.
Had the comic book movie adaptation craze been more intense in the 1970s or 1980s as now, it’s likely Lord Olivier would have been playing a superhero villain in order to pay his bills. And while he likely would have provided some interesting layers to someone like The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3”, the Shakespearean overtones might have been mocked in the time we’re in now.
Yes, that’s the slippery slope that British Shakespearean actors are now on as we see a new spate of them taking on superhero villainy.
Now that Sir Ben Kingsley has been chosen to play The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3”, will this new Olivier of our time be able to pull it off without ham? Take into account that Kingsley has never played in a comic book movie with the closest being fantasy “Thunderbirds” in 2004. We still expect Kingsley to portray characters that were real (or could be real), plus with a visage that gives physical recognition to the actor.
When he plays The Mandarin, Kingsley is expected to have enough green makeup applied to his body to rival Lou Ferrigno’s in the original “The Incredible Hulk” TV series. He’ll also need a little prosthetic makeup to gain the furrowed brow The Mandarin has from the classic Iron Man comic books. Along with some facial hair (typical in Kingsley’s roles), he’ll have to act through a human shield of plastic and paint like never before.
It may be one reason why many of the British acting royalty of today who agree to play a comic book villain keep themselves virtually makeup free. Patrick Stewart, for instance, played Professor X in “X2: X-Men United” nearly 10 years ago in only a wheelchair and not a shred of face paint or facial accouterments. It also was a good performance without Stewart overusing what he learned in his stage roles to give impression he was Richard III.
Sir Ian McKellen did a brilliant job as villain Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr in the first “X-Men” movie series, which nearly stole away the limelight from everyone else. These imbalances of casting might cast a pall on other cast members who realize they have to perform with an acting god. While that didn’t necessarily happen with McKellen, can you imagine Olivier, Richard Burton, or still living (and retiring) Peter O’Toole acting opposite Christian Bale?
Well, maybe you can. The only other British actor from that original pedigree of actors who hasn’t played a comic book villain yet is Sir Anthony Hopkins. He’s already played in a comic book movie (playing father Odin in “Thor” and an upcoming sequel), though he’s still mostly committed to historical figures or people who could potentially exist.
At least most of our great, living British actors have much wider options in acting today. That gives a better rhyme and reason for playing a comic book villain over doing it for financial necessity or for A-list recognition with millennial audiences.