U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On Shakespeare and Superheroes in Today’s Cinema

levine_highbrow-lowbrowIt is a sincere tribute to the lasting power of Lawrence Levine’s Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) that I found myself thinking about its argument as I recently watched X-Men: Days of Future Past. I had just read that one of the film’s stars, Michael Fassbender, has been cast as Macbeth in a new film adaptation of the play. What is notable about that casting is not so much the choice of Fassbender, who is an actor of unusual range, mixing with ease both Old World sophistication and earthy physicality, but the fact that this casting completes a set: as the notice observed, now each of the four principals of X-Men: DOFP—Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, and Fassbender—will have played the role of the Scottish usurper.

The connection I drew to Levine’s book was in thinking about how Levine might have fit this little nugget into his book’s thesis about the transformation of Shakespeare within the context of the late nineteenth century “search for order” in the US:

The problem that requires thoughtful attention is not why Shakespeare disappeared from American culture at the turn of the century, since he did not; but rather why he was transformed from a playwright for the general public into one for a specific audience. This metamorphosis of Shakespearean drama from popular culture to polite culture, from entertainment to erudition, from the property of “Everyman” to the possession of a more elite circle, needs to be seen within the perspective of other transformations that took place in nineteenth-century America. (56)

I have never been entirely convinced that this expropriation of Shakespeare by a cultural elite ever entirely took place, and the way Levine uses Shakespeare as an index for a more general stratification of culture has some issues, but I think the thesis is particularly questionable today, when the casts of prominent Shakespearean adaptations and blockbuster Hollywood extravaganzas are indistinguishable.

Consider, for instance, some of the principal actors of The Hollow Crown,a recent, acclaimed BBC miniseries adaptation of the Henriad (Richard II; Henry IV Parts I and II; Henry V; Henry VI Parts I, II, and III; and Richard III), along with their superhero credits:

  • Ben Whishaw (the new Q in Skyfall)
  • Jeremy Irons (the new Alfred in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice)
  • Tom Hiddleston (Loki in The Avengers and Thor films)
  • Clémence Poesy (Fleur in the Harry Potter films)
  • Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier in the X-Men films, formerly Jean-Luc Picard)
  • Benedict Cumberbatch (KHAN!!!! in the last Star Trek—sorry, spoiler)
  • Judi Dench (the former M in the James Bond franchise)
  • John Hurt (Harry Potter films, Hellboy II, the last Indiana Jones)
  • Julie Walters (Mrs. Weasley in the Harry Potter films)

As one can see, one of the principal vectors in turning the casts of Shakespeare into the casts of superhero films (and back again) has been the Harry Potter franchise—one can add Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh[1] among many others to the list.

I suppose it is possible to see this phenomenon as a more general Anglicization of the American blockbuster rather than a Shakespeareanization, but I would press the Shakespeare angle. It is, after all, a specific form of Englishness (or what decodes on this side of the Atlantic as Englishness, even if its origins might be more variously Scottish, Welsh, or Irish in addition to English) that is demanded, one that has been credentialed with the gravitas and eloquence that is the classically Shakespearean actor’s stock-in-trade. It is really ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Superhero’ that are merging, not ‘England’ and ‘Blockbuster.’[2]

But what does this say about Levine’s thesis? Are we witnessing some kind of epochal re-suturing of high and low culture, one that is occurring far less self-consciously and less combatively than the marriage postmodernism attempted to consummate? Is what Levine called “a shared public culture” re-emerging, and is this trend evidence of a more general re-appropriation by the masses of high culture, one that might next extend to, say, Samuel Beckett? Given that McKellen and Stewart recently performed as Didi and Gogo in Waiting for Godot, would it have been more appropriate to call the latest X-Men film Waiting for Wolverine?

I’m having a laugh, obviously, but my question is serious. Was Levine right and would he see these Shakespeareans running around in spandex as a victory over the years of a purely academic Shakespeare? Or does this merger of Shakespeare and the superhero genre merely suggest that the theses of Levine and others about the intense stratification of culture across the twentieth-century US were overblown, warped by the pressures and heat of the culture wars, where decrying (and historicizing) the expropriation of Shakespeare by the wealthy and well-educated was a good way to pull the rhetorical rug out from under Lynne Cheney and E. D. Hirsch nattering on about declining standards of cultural literacy or Allan Bloom about aesthetic  and moral sense? “See? You did this to yourselves by destroying a truly democratic appreciation of Shakespeare.”

Or is it possible that Levine’s larger argument—and variations on it, revelations of the utter historical artificiality of the “natural” divide between high and popular culture—has succeeded wildly? Even if such boundary crossings between cultural strata have long occurred (despite Levine’s thesis), is it possible that thanks to Levine and others, we are simply no longer defensive about a culture that casts the same actor for Macbeth and Magneto, no longer even very conscious of a conflict there?

[1] Branagh also directed the first Thor film.

[2] Game of Thrones to the contrary. There are relatively few actors with prominent Shakespearean backgrounds in the series.

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I am curious Andy if you see the crossing between the actors as significant or is it the themes that make the journey as well from high to low? It seems to me that Levine was most mournful over the rabble’s loss to claim Shakespeare in all his messiness as well as glory for their own. The use by Hollywood of famous stage actors is as old as Hollywood and typically the more British sounding the better to our American pedestrian ears. The use of actors from England in action movies is also a product of the formula for making big movies (at least since the 1970s). So there are British actors in smaller movies as well but they should hope to be in a summer hit to make many millions of dollars (just like their agents had hoped).

  2. Ray,
    Thanks so much for these clarifying questions. While you’re very right that Hollywood has been poaching British talent for a very long time, and has always recruited from the stage, I think what we’re seeing today in the casting of superhero films really has few precedents.

    First of all, I think it’s notable that very few “distinguished” actors seem to have any qualms these days about finding work in widely-released, well-publicized commercial fare. In contrast to earlier days, where such actors might have been more likely to turn to B-movies or other less visible ways to make a quick buck, highly accomplished actors are signing up gladly for films 1) that will be advertised with their names and images prominently displayed all over the world, and 2) that, because of the nature of the filming process for these films and their promotion, will require massive time commitments–long shoots, multiple premieres and promotional events such as Comic-Con. For some actors, there is also an additional expectation that they will spend significant time in the gym and will devote themselves to a severe nutritional program, getting their body into superhero shape. There are far easier ways to get a paycheck.

    Secondly, I’m not sure that, for the 70s through much of the 2000s, there really were that many British actors cast in superhero films or other action extravaganzas, and where they were, it was as singular additions to the cast–tokens, more or less, to add a touch of class. But certainly, both the primary heroes and the primary villains through these years (with a few exceptions, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard, and even he wasn’t playing a Brit) were either distinctively American or Mitteleuropean, with maybe a random Aussie every once in awhile. Today, Superman’s robe flows over a Britisher’s shoulders–would that have been thinkable in 1978, when the first Superman was made?

    Thirdly, and I want to stress this again, the selection of British actors for roles in superhero films is not indiscriminate: there is today a particular kind of Englishness that is prized for superhero films, and I think the easiest way to shorthand that desired spirit or mien is by the commonality of a background in Shakespearean acting. Hollywood’s not looking at the cast of East Enders, but the cast of the latest production at the Old Vic for its leads.

    One theory I have that has nothing to do with the collapse of high and low culture is that the turn toward English actors with loads of gravitas is part of its recognition of the importance of overseas markets: these actors decode as more cosmopolitan because of their sophistication. I don’t know what you think about that (or these other points), but I hope I answered your questions!

  3. Interesting. There’s also the Lord of the Rings franchise — but more importantly, I think, there was Star Wars, with Sir Alec Guiness as Obi Wan Kenobi. Was that the Ur-instance of the Shakespearean actor in the “superhero”/summer blockbuster?

    I’m reminded also of the “star system” of the early American theater — both pre- and post-Revolution — with the stars supplied mostly by actors from across the pond. (The first native-born American to play Hamlet was, as I have mentioned before, John Howard Payne, circa 1810.) And then of course the idea of American theatrical talent, of “home grown” stars, gets linked to a nativist/nationalist spirit in the mid 19th century.

    It seems to me that the summer blockbuster, while an American genre (and a fairly new one at that, surely), is also very much a phenomenon of globalization — so it’s about the transcending of national boundaries, national audiences, national markets into a worldwide consumer market for Hollywood hoopla, as you suggest at the end of your comment above. So maybe the Shakespearean training is a little bit of the “something for everyone” — a little splash of refinement and class to appeal to yet another market segment.

    But there’s also this: well-trained actors who have mastered their craft are a joy to watch. If you’ve done a turn with the Royal Shakespeare Company, you are a well-trained actor. So if you are Alec Guiness, you can take George Lucas’s absolutely cartoonish dialogue and unnuanced characterizations and breathe life and power into them by word and gesture and glance. Perhaps it’s not that Shakespearean actors seem to elevate the quality of the scenes they’re in because they’ve been doing Shakespeare per se, but because in order to get to do Shakespeare with the RSC, they have had to become the best of the best at acting, and that “competitive edge” comes through even on the silver screen.

  4. Very interesting. As I understand the Levine argument’s popular form ( I should go back and reread H/L at some point), it is a kind of Bourdieu-an thesis on the way elites took a popular set of texts and appropriated them in order to ratify distinctions between the bourgeoisie and the masses. This would involve a second operation, wherein instead of restricting access to Shakespeare, elites would re-introduce the rabble to the Bard, but through institutions like high school English class, trips to Stratford Festivals, Classics Illustrated comic books, etc.

    This argument makes no sense to me (then again, I find it hard to agree with a single word Bourdieu ever wrote)–but I certainly did experience exposure to “Shakespeare” as a younger person sort of painful and ritualistic, and like most people born after 1900, I found the language difficult to understand.

    This is one of the impressions registered by listening to recordings of folk music of poor people in the US recorded in the 1920s and 1930s–the language is often Elizabethan, and one might guess that it has become progressively harder to “hear” Shakespeare in the intervening decades…

    But–and here is where I thought you might be going with this–the incredible patience with complex storylines about royals and lines of inheritance and wars etc. on display in Game of Thrones or anime fandom suggests, to me, that American proletarians may well be newly receptive to the right sort of adaptation of Shakespeare–one that, say, unfolded over many sea

  5. sons, took advantage of Internet fan culture, etc. The plays are, after all, much better, in so many ways, than George RR Martin or Tolkein books…

    This leads to the final question–if elites aren’t playing games of distinction with Shakespeare and the opera, any longer (if they ever really did): what are they doing? Have they dropped culture all together?

    • Kurt: Your line of questioning brings to mind a long-simmering theory I’ve had about cultural complexity—meaning the appreciation of complexity and subtlety in various forms of culture by all classes. Think, for instance, about the intricacy and complexity that appear in fan-zines and gatherings related to things like muscle cars, HO scale trains, Star Trek, LOTR, Star Wars toys, model cars, “low-brow” films, etc. Making fine distinctions is a cultural sport for all classes. American “proletarians” have always appreciated complexity in various forms, just not Shakespearean complexity, or “great books”-style complexity, or Jane Austen-style British novel complexity. – TL

    • Of course my comment has no clear lines to the use of British-born Shakespearean actors in super-hero summer blockbusters. Except, I suppose, that even those fans of “low-brow” comic entertainment like to see some obligatory British diction in their superhero franchises.

  6. Thanks Andy! So do you know if there has been some kind of concerted effort among studios or producers to get a certain kind British actor for the various superhero movies? I am also curious about your view of the themes or ideas that these action movies take up–they must lend themselves to that overseas market that you reference and perhaps the British actors provide a kind of universal approach to representing such themes.

  7. Fascinating post and discussion. One way to go around this is to think further about how ideas and ideals of Englishness is enacted–gravitas embodied through accent, for example. After all, Hollywood loves to use said accent in historical films. The relationship between film and theatre is also interesting, how (not so great) mainstream movie culture continues to appropriate a genealogy of popularly recognizable theatre–here it is important to consider theories of acting in film, in contrast to theatre, which demands of course a more emphatic use of the body and voice b/c of its immediacy. Thus, in many instances, the inclusion of classically trained theatre actors enters the realm of over-the-top hystrionics (see Kenneth Branagh) that don’t work well in drama and are more suitable for comedies (Raul Julia in the Addams Family). Film reviews of these elements–from the spectrum of the New Yorker and specialized magazines like Film Comment to the many blog reviews that are included in rottentomatoes–could help shed some light on these matters, of course. I agree with Kurt in that this is not about a game of distinction, but of cultural amalgams produced to attract the broader audience possible: Like many, I enjoy watching the X-Men movies just to see Stewart and McKellen do their thing, a performance of gravitas, but with a wink (which corresponds with the genre of the movie).

  8. This is a fascinating post–and the first thing that came to mind was Stewart himself reciting lines of Shakespeare as Capt. Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” on a few occasions.

    I think it’s also worth thinking about the kinds of stories these thespians are trying to tell in the big budget movies. Going back to Stewart, he was especially engaged (pardon the pun, that was totally NOT on purpose) when The Next Generation writers did a two part series on torture, “Chains of Command”. He was thoroughly engaged in the episode, finding its message very important due to his own work with Amnesty International:


    In other words, sometimes actors and actresses may take on a big movie role for a big paycheck, but also because, frankly, the stories being told there speak to the human condition in similar ways to that of Shakespeare or any other legendary writer (although, of course, not in the same way).

  9. Wow, everyone, such great comments! Thanks so much!

    I definitely had Guinness in mind when I was thinking about the few precedents out there of this type of casting, and LOTR is another important series to consider here– although, other than Ian McKellen, were there other classically trained British actors involved?
    I really like what you have to say about the importance of a certain elite level of craft that comes from (or is believed to come from) a Shakespearean training. I think Kahlil’s comment about the kind of affect or tone (the rich melding of histrionics, real pathos, and self-aware humor) that Shakespearean acting seems to embody is almost ideally suited to the genre, with its demands that actors must be at all times capital-A “Acting” even while dressed in the most ludicrous costumes and standing in front of a green screen–and as you say, even when given the most cartoonish lines!

    That’s a fascinating thought, that perhaps there is an untapped receptivity to a Shakespearean adaptation given that audiences are already primed to be patient with enormous casts, tangled bloodlines, and layered plots. But here, I’d suggest that the closer analogues to Shakespeare are serieses like The Tudors and The Borgias and the non-fantasy elements of Game of Thrones, rather than the superhero genre. But perhaps that’s what you meant?
    Your question about elites and games of distinction is really the central, necessary question, and lands us in a remarkable place: we are forced to ask, were distinction games never as necessary for the maintenance of social control as historians (and most elites over time) have believed, or has there been a massive shift in the nature of hegemony such that there are now better techniques for achieving the same ends–keeping the “lower orders” in their place–and cultural distinction is more or less superfluous? Was Bourdieu wrong, or is he just obsolete?

    I’m not really sure if it’s been a concerted effort on the part of the studios or if they’re kind of blundering into it, but I do know Kenneth Branagh was brought on to direct Thor because Marvel wanted a Shakespearean feel to the film (and Hiddleston, I believe, agreed to play Loki because of Branagh’s involvement). I looked up some of the other directors involved in recent superhero films and no one else seems to have a background in directing Shakespeare (although the Wikipedia bio of Matthew Vaughn, director of X-Men: First Class, is fascinating–as is his non-biological father’s, Robert Vaughn, i.e., Napoleon Solo of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). At any rate, I’m not sure!
    And as for themes migrating from Shakespeare to superhero films, I don’t think that’s as noticeable, but you’re absolutely right, I think, to see a connection between the size and universality of Shakespearean themes as well-suited for the task of creating a superhero drama that will connect all over the world.

    As I said above, I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head in isolating the kinds of acting techniques and affects that make Shakespearean actors good for these films. Thank you!

    I think you’re absolutely right to stress the fact that, in most cases, the “distinguished” actors involved in these movies or serieses really want to be there–they see an opportunity that is about more than money. I wonder, actually, if their ability to see that is dependent upon growing up knowing that SFF can convey the same kind of ‘truths about the human condition’ as Shakespeare–do you know if Patrick Stewart or others are SFF fans themselves?

  10. A few more genre credits for John Hurt: Theseus’ tutor (who is really Zeus) in Immortals, The War Doctor in the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor,” Kane in Alien, and Control in the recent film version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

    Speaking of the last, it was Sir Alec Guinness who in the miniseries so memorably played the role of George Smiley, interpreted in the movie by Gary Oldman (another Harry Potter veteran). Heck, Harry Potter basically hired every notable old-time British thespian around, from Richard Harris (the original Dumbledore) to Maggie Smith (Prof. McGonagle).

    In Immortals, Theseus is played by Henry Cavill, last seen flying around Metropolis in Man of Steel. And speaking of Kal-El, let’s not forget Marlon Brando playing Jor-El. He’s no Shakespearean, but, c’mon, Brando.

    “Slumming,” if one wants to use the traditional pejorative, is hardly a new phenomenon. I mean, Laurence Olivier (Olivier!) played Zeus in the original Clash of the Titans. Olivier also shilled for Polaroid, and if he could become a paid pitchman, who couldn’t? (And after him, who didn’t?) John Gielgud won an Oscar playing Dudley Moore’s butler in Arthur. Not a super hero movie, but not Shakespeare, either.

    LD mentiond Sir Alec and Star Wars, which kicked off this phenomenon in its modern guise. (Speaking of which, the main villain in Star Wars is played by Peter Cushing, who has a bit part in Olivier’s Oscar-winning film of Hamlet, where he’s joined by genre stalwart Sir Christopher Lee.) But it’s not really a new one. Producers have always been grabbing prestige names to lend their productions prestige. As Ray noted in his initial comment, Hollywood has been borrowing fron the theater for as long as there as been a Hollywood. The difference is that in the old days just going into the movies was slumming; it didn’t matter what kind. Film as a genre was lowbrow, so if you went from the stage (highbrow, natch) to the silver screen you were betraying your art.

    That attitude’s not nearly as widespread as it once was, but it still can be found if you dig enough. (My recommendation is that if you meet someone who insists City Lights isn’t art is to give them a solid knock on the head. They will be disabused of the notion.) I think the crucial point is the one Andrew makes at the end, that if the boundary between high and low culture ever existed (and I say it didn’t), it’s been so thoroughly permeated as to be essentially meaningless now.

    By the way, I’m a tad disappointed you didn’t tackle the “British accent = bad guy” and “British accent = the past” issues.

    Oh, and speaking of Robert Vaughn, I was quite surprised to learn a few years ago that he wrote a book on the Hollywood Blacklist. It was based on the doctoral dissertation he wrote at USC. http://www.amazon.com/Only-Victims-Study-Business-Blacklisting/dp/0879100818/ref=la_B001JSJJCW_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1402265858&sr=1-1

  11. I’d just like to point out that a large percentage of British actors are “classically” trained as you call it – theatre work is the staple for a good many British actors before they become famous on TV/in movies: David Tennant and Judi Dench are the best recent examples of this – both worked for the RSC for a large proportion of their career before finding fame on the large or small screen. In fact Judi Dench was in her 60s before her screen career properly took off – largely because she vastly prefers the immediacy of the theatre (the audience’s response is live), and also because she has no control over what parts of her performance end up on the cutting room floor when filming.

    You asked if many of the LotR actors had been classically trained. I suggest you look up the biographies of actors such as Ian Holm to answer that – he, for example, is a stalwart of British theatre (and has appeared alongside Judi Dench on several occasions on stage as well as screen.)

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