Boy, James Marsden sure does seem to enjoy being in movies alongside CGI animals, doesn’t he?
This strange recurring theme of his career turned a lot of heads when the first trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog dropped online, sending countless viewers into spasms of terror over the sight of a wholly unnatural Sonic with a mouthful of human teeth and uncanny valley eyes that seemed to follow you through the screen. This is what humanity had been reduced to, apparently. Sonic was eventually given a makeover, but the presence of James Marsden remained unchanged. How was it that this actor kept finding himself in movies where he conducted full conversations with computer-generated, often wisecracking animals of fantastical origin? Between Sonic and Hop and Enchanted, this had become a calling card for Marsden. It couldn’t help but feel like something of a downturn for an actor who has curiously never broken out into the mainstream despite several prior opportunities to do so and a face that seemed molded by the gods for A-List glory.
It’s worth noting, however, that whatever you think of movies like Sonic and Hop, Marsden is still great in them. He’s easily the best part of Sonic the Hedgehog (sorry, Jim Carrey), blending the straight-man act with enough knowing goofiness and managing to wring out a surprising amount of chemistry between himself and what was probably a tennis ball on a stick on set. Nobody has ever doubted his talent or his versatility. This is the guy who, in 2007, went from playing the ideal rom-com love interest in 27 Dresses to the straight-outta-the-1950s clean-cut, innuendo-spouting Corny Collins in Hairspray to literal Disney Prince in Enchanted, complete with a strong set of pipes and shoulder padding that would put any power dresser to shame. He was Cyclops in the original X-Men trilogy, he was an android in Westworld, and he even romanced Jack Black in D-Train. Liz Lemon married him, Rachel McAdams dumped him for Ryan Gosling (harsh), and he plays twins in Dead to Me. He has, as the kids say, the range, and he’s been in enough genre fare for us here at Team FANGRRLS to welcome him into the club. And yet, and yet, and yet…
It is oh-so-very easy to love James Marsden. We’re not just talking about aesthetics here either, although we could easily fill up a few paragraphs talking about that! It’s true that Marsden is really really really ridiculously good looking. Remember, this guy used to model for Versace. Donatella knew what was up. He has the sort of stupidly symmetrical face, dazzling smile, and luscious dark hair that wouldn’t look out of place on the album cover of a ’50s heartthrob. To sum it up, he’s hot in the way that Hollywood loves its hot (straight white American) men. You totally get why he ended up playing JFK in a movie. What’s most interesting about Marsden’s hotness is how unexpectedly malleable he can make it. He’s seldom cast as a normal or unattractive dude, but he can use that face so well for whatever the occasion calls for. Do you need a full-on fairytale prince? Or an absolute douchebag fratboy? How about a classic hero-type? Or maybe a slightly scruffy but casually handsome rom-com hottie? This gives him an ability to switch it up with projects, plus he never feels out of place, regardless of the story or genre. It’s an underrated skill and one he uses to its full advantage. Indeed, his talents and his attractiveness are entirely intertwined, which is really the rule in Hollywood and not the exception, but Marsden’s utilizing of it feels oddly overlooked.
Granted, it’s not hard to find endless numbers of hot cishet white dudes in Hollywood with perfect teeth, good hair, and a towering height of over six feet. I’m reasonably sure there’s an assembly line that creates such men, and most of them end up being named Chris. In fact, the current era of the Chris domination may in part explain why Marsden simply never broke out like we all expected him to. I’m not saying that he needed to change his name or anything (but if he were to, he’d immediately become a contender for Top Chris, let’s be honest.) More specifically, the Chris embodies a hyper-specific kind of masculinity that became the desired norm in the new expanded universe superhero franchise age. Blonde and built and with muscles so well-developed that you could use their pecs to shelter under during a sudden rainstorm. It felt like a deliberate call-back to the ’80s era of action men. Marsden is many things, but he’s not Schwarzenegger.
There’s always a shinier new thing around the corner, a hotter and younger dude who can be paid less and who can be spun into the next big star by an eager studio. All the four major Chrises went through this cycle when they became superheroes (or, in Pine’s case, Captain Kirk.) By the time Marvel came to dominate pop culture, Marsden was possibly old news, which is a darn shame because he was considered for the role of Peter Quill in Guardians of the Galaxy, a part he would have been far too perfect for. Let’s just take a moment to mourn that lost timeline…
Marsden may just be too handsome for a lot of Hollywood to note how weird and varied he can be. It’s easy to look at THAT FACE and peg him as a bland himbo who couldn’t pull off the action-comedy stuff of Marvel or esoteric oddities of modern-day Robert Pattinson. Yes, it’s hardly the crime of the century that a hot cishet white dude isn’t more famous but we can’t help but root for him. Who he reminds me the most of is late ’90s Brendan Fraser, that kind of old-school attractive leading man who’s charming but also a not-so-secret slapstick goofball. Only Marsden can also sing!
Personally, I would love to see Marsden in a role like Rick O’Connell from The Mummy, or perhaps another part like Enchanted that uses his Disney prince aesthetic and subverts it with goofy humor and a self-aware smile. As shown in stuff like Dead to Me, he’s also an excellent scumbag, which would be perfect for an Ari Aster horror movie. Coming soon, we’ll see Marsden in CBS All-Access’ adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand, in which he’ll play Stu Redman, one of the survivors of an apocalyptic plague that decimates mankind. It’s a good fit for him and hopefully a role that will remind audiences of what they’re missing when we reduce James Marsden to that guy who’s buddies with Sonic the Hedgehog.