About a year and a half ago, I wrote a column entitled, “When Movie Stars Just Don’t Happen,” covering the reasonably new phenomenon of one talented actor after another vying for the role of Genuine Movie Star, and coming up lacking. I used Chris Hemsworth as an example then, but he was hardly the only one. It’s become something of an epidemic, with no one stepping up to fill the holes left behind by the aging out of the roles by the likes of Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis, Julia Roberts, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, just to name a few. Now, with the utter and complete failure of last week’s The Snowman, it’s time to revisit this whole concept, but focus on the unfortunate recent box office returns for movies starring Michael Fassbender.
It’s not that the Movie Star doesn’t really exist anymore, because I think that is tough to argue. It’s pretty clear that we’re living in the first era since the invention of the motion picture in which a new generation of stars has failed to arise, when not even someone as lauded as Jennifer Lawrence can escape several disappointments in a row. What’s really at issue here is something else, and we can use Fassbender as a perfect example of it.
It was the studios that made the concept more important than the actor, focusing on the monster or the superhero or the video game or the robot or one kind of special effect fighting another kind of special effect instead of the people involved, and now that this has taken hold, it’s tough to go back. The thing is, the studios continue to spend money betting on the bankability and appeal of actors like Fassbender. Money that keeps being frittered away because the movies in question don’t seem to attract any serious viewership. Meanwhile, they ignore the central problem that they created, that this post-Movie Star world in which we live is entirely their fault. They don’t seem to understand the way that they, themselves, have changed things. They keep trying to convince us that someone like Fassbender, or Hemsworth, or Charlie Hunnam, or Dylan O’Brien, or Amy Schumer, or whomever, is the Next Big Thing, even though they forget that, with the business practice they have undertaken of late where concepts are the biggest draw, there is no real room for such a person.
But Fassbender is sort of a perfect way to talk about this in a different form. It’s not a knock against him, per se, because I think he’s a very good actor (he has two Oscar nominations to his credit and arguably deserved a third), it’s just that his situation is typical of the overall issue. We can talk about how movies like Assassin’s Creed, The Light Between Oceans, and The Counselor, just over the last few years, have all come and gone, none of them having met the expectations that came with them, or how his presence in two X-Men movies — one a success, one not — and a failed Alien film was sort of incidental to each film’s fortunes, or how his Oscar-nominated turn in Jobs fizzled at the box office. We can also take a shot at his taste in projects, which definitely needs work based on both the critical and commercial responses to his recent fare, all of which goes into being a Star. But this isn’t a hit piece, meant to pick on him because of the way his career is going. On the contrary, all of that would just be ignoring the elephant in the room, that he is just a symptom of a larger issue that plagues the business. An issue, mind you, that doesn’t appear to be going away.
This is definitely one of those times when it’s not really possible to have one’s cake and eat it, too. The industry was built on the backs of stars, genuine talents who became idols to millions and had those fans flocking to the theaters to watch them in action. In an earlier time, Fassbender, with his classic good looks and charm, would absolutely have been one of those guys. But the thing is, slowly but surely over the course of the 21st century, a major shift occurred, and to deny it is silly. No longer is a Star like him the prime attraction, but that doesn’t stop the studios from trying to force new ones down our collective throats. This, despite the fact that there appears to be little upside to the plan.
Think about it: even if Fassbender were to succeed and become the kind of star the studios might desire, what then? Will the studios once again start making the kinds of movies they mostly stopped making some time ago because he wants to? It’s not like other, more established stars are easily able to get those projects off the ground these days, so why would he be any different? The Snowman is based on a best-selling novel, by a world-famous author who has written a whole series about the character, so it probably wasn’t seen as having too much of a risk (in fact, it was probably seen as a franchise starter). Will the studios give him more than one opportunity to carry something that does? Something without any of the bells and whistles on which those same studios so heavily depend, and on which he has built his career?
I’ve always been a fan of the phrase, “hoisted on your own petard,” and I’m not sure if there’s a better example of this than right now. The studios have forsaken the star system for something else, which then prevents them from creating the very stars that they still believe they need. This, despite the fact that they only seem to invest in intellectual properties that, by their very nature, are sort of star-proof, or, at the very least, star-ambivalent. By making stars like Fassbender mostly irrelevant, they end up spending unnecessary money to push the very entities they built their business to no longer need.
It’s sort of a shame, really. In theory, Fassbender has all the tools he needs to be the exact thing he wants to be: he’s handsome, talented, got charisma in spades, and is totally watchable whenever he’s on screen. The problem is, he hit the big time a couple decades too late.