Captain Colman? How a Marvel movie – not an Oscar – became every serious actor’s dream

Susannah Goldsbrough
·7-min read
Olivia Colman already has an Oscar – now she wants a superhero suit - Paul Drinkwater
Olivia Colman already has an Oscar – now she wants a superhero suit - Paul Drinkwater

There’s a moment that every child who aspires to movie stardom dreams about. They practise it in front of the mirror: graciously thanking their parents, their first drama teacher, their favourite hamster; smiling; waving; trying valiantly to cry. No, it’s not an Oscar’s acceptance speech – at least, not anymore; it’s the moment that super-producer Kevin Feige offers you his hand across a conference table and tells you you’ve landed a Marvel movie.

Yesterday came the first reports that Olivia Colman is in talks to slip into full-body lycra and join the MCU, via the studio’s next small-screen series Secret Invasion. The news follows a recent clutch of arrivals of actresses of a similar age and calibre to Colman to other Marvel projects, including Kathryn Hahn’s show-stealing turn in WandaVision, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ surprise appearance in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

Such casting choices may once have sounded insane. Why would the woman who just three years ago won an Academy Award for her grief-stricken, crumbling performance as Queen Anne in The Favourite, and who is up for another one this weekend for The Father, choose to submerge her pristine brand as the reigning monarch of British acting, both on-screen and off-, in a barrel of brightly-coloured, pop-sountracked, quippy-scripted comic bookery?

Secret Invasion sounds even more deranged than the average Marvel project: it will likely focus on the race of green, reptilian aliens called Skrulls (Ben Mendelsohn will reprise his role as Skrull commander Talos from Captain Marvel), as they invade earth by shapeshifting to imitate superheroes. Colman as an alien reptile? It’s hard to think of a more unlikely piece of casting since Judi Dench dressed up in a catsuit.

But over the last decade, a foundational piece of Marvel’s strategy has been signing-on not just fresh-faced stars like Chris Evans and Tom Holland, but some of the world’s most serious performers: inde darlings (Mark Ruffalo, Tilda Swinton, Brie Larson), BBC-drama-grown Brits (Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch) and awards-laden powerhouses (Annette Bening, Scarlett Johansson, and even Anthony Hopkins, Colman’s co-star in The Father, who is also up for an Oscar) have all rocked up in the MCU. Much as the Harry Potter franchise once was, the films have become a who’s who of Oscar after-party invite lists.

Kathryn Hahn got to 'hambone it' in WandaVision - Disney
Kathryn Hahn got to 'hambone it' in WandaVision - Disney

So why would the great and good of Hollywood acting willingly attach themselves to a franchise that one of the greatest directors of all time not so long ago declared to bear a greater resemblance to theme park rides than cinema? Marvel films are delightful but they are also frequently silly (inevitably, in the transition from cartoon comic book drawings to full-sized, three-dimensional adults leaping around on-camera dressed in skin-tight lycra suits and capes, some space for ridicule is opened up).

The studio is fully aware of this, which is why these films are comedies, but that does not make them any more obvious as vehicles for artists interested in rendering psychological depth on-screen. In 2012, Kiwi wunderkind director Taika Watiti told Interview magazine that he was suspicious of the way feature films can often “turn into commodities”. Yet five years later, his own Marvel movie, Thor: Ragnarok, hit cinemas.

The financial incentives to any actor are obvious and no doubt play a part but there is something even more valuable to someone like Benedict Cumberbatch – not exactly strapped-for-cash following Sherlock, The Imitation Game, and The Hobbit films – inextricably wound-up with those mega pay packages. That something is audience size. Avengers: Endgame, the highest-grossing film of all time until Avatar’s re-release in China in March last year, took $357 million at the domestic box office on its opening weekend.

Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange
Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange

In America, the average price of a cinema ticket that year was about $9 – that means, by the roughest of calculations, that within 48 hours of the film’s release, 12% of the population, or some 40 million people, had seen the film. An actress like Colman has not exactly been confined to niche audiences – The Crown is not a small show – but even so, the prospect of such unparalleled exposure must be seductive.

The dream of a Marvel movie has not replaced the dream of an Oscar – it all but guarantees it. A symbiotic relationship is emerging between the franchise and the Academy, as the popular reach of one feeds and is elevated by the prestige of the other. There is no better example of this than the tragically-curtailed career of the late Chadwick Boseman.

From a handful of critically-lauded but quietly received biopics (42, Get on Up), he was propelled overnight to global stardom by his MCU roles as Black Panther, Marvel’s first black superhero, culminating in the Black Panther film in 2018. Now, just months after his death from cancer, he is a shoo-in to win a Best Actor award this week for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. The opposite of a Marvel film in almost every sense – it’s claustrophobic, literary (it’s based on an August Wilson play), and tragic – it was Black Panther nonetheless that secured him the part.

Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther role launched his Oscar-nominated, if all too short, stardom - Marvel Studios
Chadwick Boseman's Black Panther role launched his Oscar-nominated, if all too short, stardom - Marvel Studios

This give-and-take between superhero flicks and prestige dramas extends beyond actors: Watiti, who has just wrapped shooting on another Thor film, was nominated for an Oscar in 2019 for his German Resistance drama Jojo Rabbit, while Chloé Zhao, who is sure to win Best Director this weekend for Nomadland, has just wrapped her own Marvel movie, Eternals, which is slated for release in November.

Kathryn Hahn, meanwhile, was brought into WandaVision by director Matt Shakman, better known for directing prestige shows like Mad Men and Succession. His vision, in collaboration with the writer Jac Schaeffer, led to a formally wildly innovative show, providing the opportunity for Hahn and the show’s pair of stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany – both outstanding actors – to flex their comic and creative muscles. Such starpower behind the camera is itself an attraction for actors of Colman’s calibre, and while there is as yet no word on who will direct Secret Invasion, there are many exciting possible names in the mix.

A few powerhouse industry figures were instrumental in fostering this mutually-beneficial relationship. The first was Robert Downey Jr, the original posterboy of the franchise. When he agreed to star in the first film, 2008’s Iron Man, it was a huge gamble – director Jon Favreau had to battle the studio to accept him – as he emerged from a wilderness decade marred by drug addiction, but it was also a huge coup. Downey Jr had just been nominated for an Oscar for Ben Stiller’s comedy Tropic Thunder and had recently starred in David Fincher’s instant cult-classic Zodiac; his personal reputation may have been in tatters, but as a serious actor, he brought chops.

His Iron Man would become the emotional and dramatic heart of the franchise over its next three phases. Kenneth Branagh, who directed the 2011 film Thor, also bridged the gap between the big flashy studio and his own thespy circle: he brought his protégé Tom Hiddleston, who at that point was best known for his British TV and theatre work, onboard to play Loki, a decision that Feige apparently described as the most important the studio would ever make. Hiddleston capitalised on rather than abandoned his roots: he approached the character like “a comic book version of Edmund in King Lear, but nastier.” It paid off: Hiddleston is a global superstar, frequently touted as the next James Bond, and his dedicated Loki spin-off show is the Marvel TV release of the summer.

Of course, there’s one thing that Marvel offers its actors that money simply can’t buy: a bit of fun. “If my actors aren’t having a good time on set, then I’m doing something wrong,” Waititi told Polygon in 2016. Reflecting on her playfully heightened performance in the early episodes of WandaVision in a recent interview with the New York Times, Hahn said that her husband said her performance had reminded him of her younger self in her college days. “I haven’t seen that part of you in so long – just you, hamboning it,” he told her. Colman, who is by all accounts is a mischievous on a film set, may simply want to bust out of those period costumes, slip into a bodysuit, and have a good time.