James Marsden is Awesome and Deserves a Better Career
So hey, did you watch that Sonic the Hedgehog trailer? I know, right? I have seen that trailer more in the past 24 hours than I care to admit, but no amount of study can prepare me for the overwhelming confusion that seeps into my brain with each click of ‘Watch Again.’ This seems like a movie that shouldn’t exist, or one that should only exist in a world where a meteoroid striking the earth created a parallel dimension where that Super Mario Bros. film from 1993 was a hit. I could be here all day trying to understand that trailer - Why does Sonic have tiny human teeth? Who chose Gangsta’s Paradise as the perfect musical accompaniment to a bleeding Sonic movie? Who else does Doctor Robotnik think is basic? - but my thoughts consistently return to one specific element: What did James Marsden do to deserve this?
In Sonic the Hedgehog, Marsden plays Tom Wachowski, the sheriff of Green Hills, Montana (get it?) who discovers this horrifying blue thing and soon aids him in his battle against Doctor Robotnik. It’s a common movie trope, the dynamic of one cop and their wacky sidekick. Tom Hanks had Hooch, Whoopi Goldberg had Theodore Rex, Justice Smith will have Detective Pikachu, and now Marsden gets what people keep telling me is Sonic the Hedgehog. Roles like this don’t have to be thankless, and some of the best on-screen performances have featured this trope being executed in a mish-mash of technological experimentation (see Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but watching Marsden banter with Sonic didn’t inspire much hope. And yet I still let out a small laugh at one of Marsden’s lines about keeping a child in his bag. Even during hopeless moments, there’s something about James Marsden that proves wholly appealing.
Looking at James Marsden’s filmography offers a fascinating insight into a jobbing actor’s work as well as helping us to understand what happens when Hollywood can’t decide on your type. A former Versace model who popped up in various TV movies and sitcoms, Marsden seemed like your typical hot ’90s dude who could easily slide into an explosion heavy action movie or Julia Roberts rom-com. He’s definitely got one of those faces that inspires a kind of old-school romantic hero narrative, very clean cut and hair slicked back without one fray follicle out of place. Clean cut, however, often gets dismissed as boring, a criticism Marsden faced frequently during his tenure as Cyclops in the original X-Men movies.
So we all knew that James Marsden was a model for Versace in the '90s, right? pic.twitter.com/SrEAQs57RO— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) May 1, 2019
Scott Summers is a notoriously tricky character in X-Men canon, one who it’s a little too easy to root against (not that he ever made it hard to do so, given the ups and downs of his relationship with Jean Grey). The Bryan Singer X-Men movies also didn’t seem to care all that much about Scott, aside from his potential to be a futile foil to Wolverine. If Scott Summers is supposed to be you, then Logan is that guy that Jean told you not to worry about. That’s not to say Marsden is bad in the role. He’s actually immensely charming and has fun bouncing off that archetypal hero structure, at least as much as he is allowed to. That ‘other guy’ nature followed him for a few years, as he was Rachel McAdams’s fiancé in The Notebook who got dumped for Ryan Gosling, then he played Lois Lane’s fiancé in Superman Returns, although his screen-time was shortened due to X-Men: The Last Stand reshoots. The dynamic was clear: James Marsden’s the nice handsome man you take home to meet your parents when you have to settle for something over the really exciting and forbidden alternative.
2007 was a banner year for Marsden that let him embrace a new niche: The goofball. There was his small role in the musical Hairspray as Corny Collins, the TV host who fires off double entendres (‘Hey baby, you look like you could use a stiff one!’) and shows off his impressive pipes; in 27 Dresses, he was one of the decade’s best rom-com love interests, demonstrating top notch chemistry with Katherine Heigl; but the peak of the year was clearly Enchanted. What do you do with an actor who looks and sings like a Disney Prince? Marsden is a total scene stealer as Prince Edward, a golden retriever of a man who has no idea what he’s supposed to do beyond be a handsome prince. He’s hapless but not callous, naive but not rude. He’s a man who’s always posing for a heroic portrait and has no idea when to cut it out or why he ever should. Marsden, for his part, relishes the challenge, and it’s easy to see him doing this sort of role several decades ago for a Doris Day movie.
I genuinely thought Enchanted would be the movie that catapulted Marsden to a new level of fame and opportunities, but he just kept doing what he always did, bouncing from project to project. There are glimmers in the rubble, but boy you have to dig deep for some of them. What endures is that there are always interesting shades to be found in the seemingly narrow confines of being mega handsome. You can douchebag it up (The D Train and Anchorman 2), you can return to your goofball traits, you can lean in hard on romantic (the token Nicholas Sparks movie The Best of Me), or you can be noble in your dramatic commitment (Shock and Awe). However, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Marsden’s best part in years was basically a riff on his Enchanted character. As Criss Chros on 30 Rock, Marsden is the perfect man for Liz Lemon and possibly only Liz Lemon. He’s silly and weird and utterly committed to Liz in a way she is both thrilled by and utterly unused to. Marsden is on solid ground as the guy perfectly centred between the two extremes of Disney Prince and absolute numpty. He’s the version of Jon Hamm’s character who’s self-aware enough to know he lives in the real world, but still giddy enough to write bad romantic songs and run a hot dog stand from a dodgy looking van. Tina Fey’s always had a really good eye for a goofball hottie and she lets Marsden go to town with that trope.
James Marsden would make a really good Chris, but we already have plenty of them taking up the big action roles. He also reminds me a lot of peak era Brendan Fraser in his physicality as a slapstick stud, but there aren’t that many projects around that give such an actor room to breathe with that trope. Marsden almost seems too perfect for leading men roles, if that can even be called a disadvantage. Get him back in Disney Prince mode or maybe have him back in those retro stylings. He’s a handsome straight white man and Hollywood will always find room for people like him, but when you see him shine with such ease in roles like Corny Collins, Prince Edward and Criss Chros, you can’t help but feel deflated when you see him playing second fiddle to Jean-Ralphio as a CGI hedgehog-man. Let him be that seemingly perfect guy who’s actually an absolute weirdo in the most endearing way possible.
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