Go big or go indie: stars navigate world outside franchises

It's hard out there for a superhero. What to do when the cape comes off?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Robert Downey Jr. is no longer Tony Stark. He's now... Doctor Doolittle. 

The trailer for "Doolittle" was released this week, and it's not exactly the bold, creative leap fans were hoping for after Downey Jr. wrapped up his time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

This image released by Disney shows, from left, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Karen Gillan, the character Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd and Scarlett Johansson in a scene from "Avengers: Endgame."

Downey Jr. was once a daring, exciting actor. He appeared in projects such as "Zodiac," "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" and "Charlie Bartlett" in the years leading up to the first "Iron Man." Now free, he's choosing to snark his way through franchise fare.

Chase franchises, or take on challenging, quality roles? It's a choice all superheroes eventually have to make, now that franchises have become the stars and the stars themselves have been made secondary to the roles they play or the capes they don.

The star mentality was once a one-for-you, one-for-me approach, where actors would make one indie film for every big studio star vehicle they turned in. Now it's more of a one-for-you, as-many-as-I-can-for-me system, where the franchises are so gigantic the stars can do whatever they want outside of them. Next week's "The Current War," for example, stars Doctor Strange and Spider-Man — or Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Holland, if you will — but it's light years away from the Marvel universe. 

Two actors who know a thing or two about franchises and the opportunities they afford are Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. Since appearing together in the "Twilight" films, both have strayed far from the traditional star model and have appeared in a series of left field art films. Now that their clout could use a little jolt, both have been lured back to the franchise world: Stewart stars in next month's "Charlie's Angels," and Pattinson will take the lead in the upcoming "The Batman." Both will likely earn them another healthy run of arthouse flicks. 

Chris Evans' biggest film roles prior to becoming Captain America were 2005 and 2007's "Fantastic Four" movies, but outside of superhero fare he's a decidedly earthbound actor who hasn't had a film break the $40 million mark at the domestic box office.

His last several roles outside of Marvel land were the child adoption drama "Gifted," the indie romance "Before We Go" and the arthouse hit "Snowpiercer"; none were smashes, but Evans has enough smashes under his belt where he never has to make another one again. He next gets his chance to flex his muscle with next month's ensemble piece "Knives Out," in which he leads a cast that includes Ana de Armas, Christopher Plummer, Jamie Lee Curtis and Daniel Craig.

Johansson has done an exceptional job straddling commercial and artistic jobs, in the last decade starring in the $100 million-grossing spy hit "Lucy" while also scoring with critical successes such as "Her" and "Under the Skin." (We'll gloss over the rocky patch she hit in 2017, with "Ghost in the Shell" and "Rough Night.")

She's poised to have a big fall outside of her Black Widow costume, thanks to appearances in a pair of buzzed-about films: she stars in December's "Marriage Story" opposite Adam Driver and co-stars in next month's "Jojo Rabbit," and is in the Oscar conversation for both roles (lead for "Marriage Story," supporting for "Jojo"). If either come to pass, she'll be the first Marvel actor to earn an Oscar nomination after suiting up since Mark Ruffalo for 2015's "Spotlight." Johansson is the model for having it both ways. 

On the flip side is Chris Hemsworth, who has struggled to prove himself outside of the Marvel bubble. Yes, he was the Hunstman in "Snow White and the Huntsman," but that film was fueled by the girl power of Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron (and was based on a pre-existing property with a built-in audience), and he was a bit player in the all-female "Ghostbusters" reboot.

Hemsworth was front and center in this summer's underperforming dud "Men in Black: International," a film which feels like it has been zapped off the cultural radar by one of those "MiB" mind-erasing devices. He tried chasing one franchise with another, and fell flat.  

Where does Hemsworth go next? He can follow the leads of his co-stars and go small. If that doesn't work out, he can always voice an animal in the "Doolittle" sequel.