In 2002, shortly after wrapping filming on Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, acclaimed Irish Actor Richard Harris passed away. Known for numerous rolls dating all the way back to the 1950s, Harris was fondly remembered in his later years for his stoicism and calm, commanding presence - most notably featured in his roles as Albus Dumbledore and Marcus Aurelius (Gladiator, 2000). His fellow actors mourned his loss with reverence and respect.
In 2004, Harry Potter and Prisoner of Azkaban released and Michael Gambon took on the mantle of Albus Dumbledore. He received expected criticism and praise for his rendition, and he did his best to honor the groundwork laid by the late Harris. The collective audience also mourned Harris, and we understood; it sucked, but the show must go on.
Actors are people. And sometimes those people die.
Characters are immortal.
On August 28th, 2020, accomplished and iconic actor Chadwick Boseman passed away. Unbeknownst to the larger public, Boseman had been battling colon cancer throughout most of his career. His charisma and professionalism was intoxicating on and off the set, landing iconic roles of heroes real and fictional alike. Most notably before his death, Boseman was instrumental in bringing a faithful and powerful face to Black Panther in 4 films, one of which his own flagship.
Black Panther both as a film and a character were startlingly successful. Not unlike Robert Downey Jr., who no one could see as anything but Iron Man, many people had cemented Boseman in the role of Black Panther. At the eve of his death, amidst the mourning, came the question: Who would replace him? The character's story was meant to continue - who could wear the mantle?
But in Modern Hollywood, actors are intrinsically bound to their characters. If Boseman weren't around to play him, then there would be no T'Challa.
Now, comics offer storytelling branches too numerous to count. Ways to lift the mantle of Black Panther and place it upon another; these stories do it all the time. The character of Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), for example, takes on the mantle at some point in the character's history - so this is certainly an option, and, spoilers, is precisely what happened.
However, in the 20 years between Harris's death (who was beloved as Dumbledore) and the release of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever in 2022, something fundamentally changed. I think Wakanda Forever still did its best to honor Boseman and what he brought to the character...but something just didn't sit right about it.
Actors are NOT their characters.
In Star Trek: Beyond (the third film in the Abrams reboot franchise), the character of Hikaru Sulu was shown to have a husband and a daughter. It wasn't a big deal in the film, just a few passing shots, but it struck a strange chord with people. John Cho, the new Sulu, leaned into the idea without issue. However, the change was in homage to George Takei, the original actor known for the role, who is now openly gay. Thing is, Takei calls the adjustment, "unfortunate." Hikaru Sulu is canonically straight in the original Star Trek series. To make him gay just because the original actor is, is weird and misplaced. In fact, Zachary Quinto, who plays Spock in the reboot, is openly gay, but his character is in a heterosexual relationship with Nyota Uhura. The former is strange, the latter is fine. The difference is in blurring the lines between actor and character.
Now, it's a reboot, so romances, sexualities, even genders can be changed, swapped, whatever. It is not, inherently, a bad thing. But it did set a strange precedent.
Blurring The Lines Between The Screen
I wonder sometimes on the parasocialism of television and film. How engrossed some of us are in the visions depicted on screen: who is acting, who they are, their lives and struggles, separating them from the character they portray, or mixing it all together. When a portrayal really connects, do we unconsciously place an undue weight upon it? We enjoy them so much, that if they were to ever leave...it would be akin to a death in the family. And that to live through that pain would fill us with fear that we may never connect in such a way again.
I understand the difference between life and fiction. I grew up in the theater - I was an understudy often, stepping up and stepping in when others were sick. I did scene work, and props, and sets. I sang backup, I sang lead, I harmonized. Portrayals change all the time. Each one is a gift and a curse, and each one I welcome.
There is a nuance to acting, and there are many actors.
Am I sad that Chadwick Boseman left us? Absolutely.
Do I think he is the only person on this planet that can play T'Challa? Absolutely not.
And I am concerned about the death grip that some studios tighten on actors for the characters they play.
For 17 years, Hugh Jackman depicted the role of Logan/Wolverine in all X-Men films. His star power became the key draw to the franchise, launching the character to center stage. After Logan (2017), it seemed that Jackman could put the character to rest. Currently 54, Jackman had been undergoing intense physical training just to MAINTAIN the strength and aesthetic of The Wolverine, which has only become MORE insane as time has gone on.
Jackman, during a late night talk show after Logan's release, was asked how he achieved the "ripped and beaten" look of his character, to which Jackman replied, "Well, there's thing called dehydration..." I laughed, but the audience was silent, so Jackman continued to explain to the idiot audience that he would DEHYDRATE himself to the point where the layer of moisture in his skin would deplete, so we can see all his muscles. The extra bit we don't get in the interview is the fact that he would act in his scenes and then take a tiny thimble of water so as not to PASS OUT. (the male fitness standard for Hollywood is mile-high stupid)
Not until the announcement of Deadpool 3 did we think Jackman would return.
But here's the thing: Wolverine is a character. What happens when Jackman is really done? Can the mantle be passed?
This viewer hopes so - give the guy a break, would ya? Let him drink some water, too.
When Robert Downey Jr. announced his last hurrah as Tony Stark, his character was killed. When Chris Evans moved on from Captain America, his character passed away. I don't know if that's an act of respect, like "no one could replace you," or an act to avoid the vocal minority of a fanbase that grew too attached.
Or MAYBE. We just need a break. Steve Rogers and Tony Stark had one hell of an arc; no question. Endgame put a powerful, and graceful bow on that. I'm pretty satisfied with it. AND. If they were to return, could I see another actor wear the shield or put on the suit - unequivocally YES.
I just want to make sure that our actors can be ACTORS first, and characters when they want to be. It is our job as audience members to keep them separate; they have lives too, and we would want to grant them the grace we all deserve. To step down from a role, to pass the torch with a blessing, to keep their lives separate from their work, and to pass on with peace and grace.
I don't know what my point is today, or tomorrow, but thank you for reading.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
Honestly, I write what I want when I want. Often monster lore, sometimes miniature showcases, and the occasional movie/show review.