The ‘Super’ Superstar Syndrome

There are very few "super" superstars on the planet. Considering the cost, career wise, being a journeyman seems to have far more perks.

Their names are synonymous with box office gold. Even in arenas outside of film, they find a way to stay in the public eye long after their regional value has been depleted. Put another way, Americans may have long given up on the musical oddball they call Michael Jackson, but before his untimely death in 2009, his planned world tour was predicted to go gangbusters overseas. You see, whether we like it or not, our entertainment has gone global. Let’s repeat that, with proper emphasis, OUR entertainment has gone global. Blockbuster foreign films barely get recognition outside of arthouses and critics groups here in the US, but when an American movie gets released abroad, it can bank significantly more money that it could ever make on our shores. Why? The answer is obvious: star power.

Not just any kind of star power, but SUPERSTAR power. Few actors in the profession can claim such universal adoration. Brad Pitt doesn’t really have it. George Clooney is barely a blip internationally. Look down the list of name celebrities currently prepping for releases in 2014 and you see very few names that light up with pole to pole popularity. In fact, it’s takes more than talents that earn the megabucks no matter the territory. RomComs? Nope. Action-oriented spectacle? Yes siree! Thought provoking sci-fi? Are you kidding? The superhero genre and/or the family film? It’s a billion dollar industry… and growing. But there are names that wield a special sword among all moviegoers, stars that have eclipsed super to become even more super than other.

For example, this week, Disney released its Sleeping Beauty revamp Maleficent featuring the typecast diva Angelina Jolie as the title character. In the United States, her proposed Summer tentpole has earned a respectable $70 million. Granted, this is beneath such early seasonal titles as The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Godzilla, and X-Men: Days of Future Past, but it’s amazing for a movie geared towards a specific demo and featuring a woman in the lead. Hollywood is currently under pressure from pundits to address the raging disparity between movies made by and starring strong female characters vs. the usual lumbering line of “dude” efforts. Now, Adam Sandler may be tanking with the bland Blended and Universal made a major marketing mistake opening Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West right after a similarly styled hit (Neighbors), but there is no mistaking the fact that Ms. Jolie won the weekend… and the world.

Yes, Maleficent has brought in over $100 million internationally, proving once again that its star is a sensation everywhere. Even though she hasn’t appeared in a film for nearly four years (the last time was in 2010’s The Tourist) she is seen, along with another famous face, as being able to consistently bridge the gap between English and non-English speaking audiences. As a matter of fact, that last movie we mentioned in the parenthetical is noted as being a massive hit overseas (earning nearly $211 million) while barely breaking $67 million here at home. It’s also significant because Jolie’s co-star, Johnny Depp, is usually mentioned as the only other famous actor who can open a film around the world. But as his recent career fortunes have shown, buying into such ballyhoo can backfire. It’s a lesson Mr. Depp should have known, and Ms. Jolie should be made aware of.

Go back to the beginning of each of their careers and Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie were pretty faces desperate to prove their acting chops. Before making it big, he was a highly touted talent praised for taking on unusual (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? ) and difficult (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) projects. For him, it seemed to be about the performance first, the paycheck second. Then came Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. While the first film was indeed a hit, the rest of the franchise went through the roof internationally, arguing for Depp’s bankability abroad. Suddenly, the risk taking stopped. While one can piece through his filmography to find a non-commercial commitment here and there (The Libertine), his post-POTC choices have centered around his partnership with Tim Burton (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows), a fantastic family film (Rango) and four more Pirates films.

Ms. Jolie has the same kind of career arc set-up. Until 1998’s Gia, she struggled to be taken seriously as an actress. Then 1999’s Girl, Interrupted changed her professional dynamic, earning her an Oscar and a place among the most talked about tabloid faces on the planet. She tried to jumpstart her own franchise (Tomb Raider), went the kid vid route (Kung Fun Panda) and even proved her venerable action chops with Wanted and Salt. Once she hooked up with current hubby Brad Pitt, her already luminous reputation went supernova. Today, she’s one of the most popular actresses in the world with a relatively non-descript resume. Maleficent proves this, especially when you consider the love it/hate it received from critics (the all important Cinemascore — how actual viewers graded it — is a solid “A”).

Depp’s bankability has taken a beating the last few years. Shadows was a shambles, the unfairly undermined The Lone Ranger was determined to be a dud, and his pairing with Christopher Nolan’s favorite cinematographer, Wally Pfister from a few months back, Transcendence, tanked. In fact, Depp’s star has dimmed to the point where the proposed fifth entry in the POTC series has been tabled for now. At one time, studios had no problem pouring megabucks into a Johnny Depp movie because they believed that they would get that money back, tenfold, once the rest of the world saw it. Sadly, there’s been a shift in the star’s fortunes and if she’s not careful, Jolie could be headed in the same direction.

And that’s the problem. The more money you make for the studios, the more they only think of you in those terms only. If Depp wanted to step out today and direct a movie like The Brave, if he wanted to go back and appear in smaller, more indie oriented films, he might have a hard time within a traditional commercial setting. Put another way, he’s not going to be co-starring in some small film for some high profile company. Instead, he’s locked into a cyclical continuation of his ATM like acceptance. As long as he brings in a significant audience, he’s fine. But now, that’s all he is. In the beginning, he wanted to be taken seriously as an actor and an artist. Now, he’s inventory in a never satisfied shilling machine and that’s dangerous for him, and anyone like him.

Jolie, Pitt and their artistic pals — Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, George Clooney — have avoided such “super” superstar status by branching out. They direct and produce, passing up oversized paychecks and popcorn power to make the movies they want to make. Jolie seems to have taken this professional path to heart, writing and directing In the Land of Blood and Money and this fall, we will see her second stint behind the lens, a film about the life of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini entitled Unbroken. Yet the lure is there, based on box office returns and the number of zeroes that can come at the end of any sequel bait come-on. There are very few “super” superstars on the planet. Considering the cost, career wise, being a journeyman seems to have far more perks.