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In Praise of James Marsden, Hollywood’s Perfect Beta-Male Movie Star

In ‘Sonic the Hedgehog,’ the former Cyclops gets his ideal role, playing the nice guy opposite a wisecracking CG video game character

If you’re seeing Sonic the Hedgehog this weekend, the most likely explanation is that you have kids. Or maybe you (or your kids) really love Jim Carrey, who plays the film’s zany villain. But I doubt many people scooped up advance tickets for the man who’s actually top-billed on the poster — even though his face isn’t actually on the poster. In fact, it’s possible that when this actor comes on screen, you may have a tough time remembering his name. Oh look, it’s… Mr. Handsome Guy? … Uh, the dude who was in those X-Men movies, right? … God, it’s on the tip of my tongue. … Who’s he again?

That’s none other than James Marsden, and I don’t blame you for forgetting. If anything, his good-looking blandness has been part of his appeal for years — but also his perpetual limitation. Yet in something like Sonic the Hedgehog, his ability to be unassuming is crucial. To tell the truth, he helps hold this utterly disposable kids’ movie together. Let other actors be compelling, gripping movie stars. James Marsden just wants to be your pal. 

In Sonic the Hedgehog, he’s Tom, a friendly policeman who’s lived his whole life in Montana. He likes his quaint hometown — he likes these people — but he feels like he’s got something more to offer the world than rescuing cats out of gutters. That’s why he’s thrilled when he hears back from the San Francisco Police Department, which informs him that he’s been accepted for a transfer. It’s a big change for him and his loyal, smiling wife Maddie (Tika Sumpter), but the idea of solving crimes in a thriving metropolis sounds exciting — at last, he can start making a difference. 

But Tom is actually not the main character — that, of course, would be Sonic, who crash-landed on our planet years ago after evading capture from some nasty interstellar dudes. Voiced by Ben Schwartz, Sonic gets the majority of the script’s zingers and wisecracks — he’s basically the movie’s Poochie — as he befriends Tom, who is understandably distraught to learn that a tiny, furry, talking blue alien has been residing in his neighborhood. They don’t initially get along, but they’ll have to team up if they want to escape the clutches of the evil Dr. Robotnik (Carrey), who’s on the hunt for Sonic. 

I don’t need to describe the plot from there because you can already guess — slapstick, hugging, learning, shameless product placement. (What the hell is Zillow doing in this?!?) Because not a lot of this is particularly funny, you’ll be mostly counting down the minutes until it’s over. Carrey certainly helps — he has a lot of fun as the silly scoundrel Robotnik — but he’s almost operating in his own, better movie, one that seems to hover high above the family-flick banality that is Sonic the Hedgehog

That said, although Marsden’s a lot less flashy, he actually has the harder role: He’s got to invest in the whole goofy enterprise. He has to convince you that you’re actually enjoying this mediocrity. He has to be decent company along the way.

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More or less, this is what Marsden has always done. The 46-year-old actor has fashioned a successful career out of being the other guy in films — maybe not the person you’re most excited to see in that film but, y’know, a person whose presence you also enjoy. (You know how when your friend tries to convince you to go to an event by saying, “So-and-so will be there. And so-and-so. Oh, and Noah  — you like Noah, right?” Well, James Marsden is Noah — he’s not the principal lure, but he’s a welcome addition to any event.)

In the original X-Men movies, Marsden played Cyclops, the least-interesting leg in the romantic triangle that also included Wolverine and Jean Grey. (C’mon, who rooted for Cyclops to end up with the girl?) In Superman Returns, he was Lois Lane’s milquetoast fiancé — basically, he was a plot complication designed to keep Lois and Superman apart. He showed up in The Notebook as Man Who Is Not Ryan Gosling. Almost invariably, James Marsden was the good-looking, charismatic actor surrounded by better-looking, charismatic actors. That means he’s still a superior, more gorgeous member of the male species than 99 percent of the rest of us. But still.

Marsden could have kept going down that underwhelming path, shrinking into irrelevance, or worse, ending up being the lead in an umpteenth NCIS spinoff. Instead, he seemed to make a strategic shift, deciding that rather than trying to pretend to be a leading man, he’d play someone who looked like a leading man but knew he wasn’t. Rather than trying to be an alpha, he went beta, which has been a great look for him.

He charmed as Hairspray’s lightweight, telegenic dance-show host, memorably named Corny Collins. He was a delightful parody of the boring fairytale-prince type in Enchanted. On 30 Rock, he was Liz Lemon’s lovable but unlikely soul mate, a man Jack Donaghy initially distrusted because he didn’t seem enough of a go-getter. (The dude ran a hot-dog stand, so Jack had a point.) And he was superb as a bottom-tier Hollywood actor lured back to his high school reunion by a desperate classmate (Jack Black) in The D Train, one of Marsden’s best and most underrated performances, which allowed him to play the sort of posturing Hollywood douchebag that I hope this professional nice guy isn’t like in real life.

In the last few years, Marsden has been on HBO’s Westworld — where, appropriately, he played a gallant but dim cowboy — but he’s especially appealing as the mildly exasperated normie who has to contend with Sonic, who’s not nearly as funny as he thinks he is. Because Sonic the Hedgehog has been designed to launch a potential new franchise, the movie tries hard to convince you that this blue hairball is super-cool, but I imagine most viewers will quickly get sick of him. 

Weirdly, this works to Marsden’s advantage: He’s an exceptionally good sport in the film, suffering the indignity of having to be second banana to a bundle of pixels, always with an amiable air. Tom is the quintessential regular joe who discovers that he really does make a difference in his small town — and just as a female love interest’s adoring glances at the strapping hero lets us know we should root for him, Marsden spends a lot of Sonic the Hedgehog acting like he’s charmed by Sonic, even though there’s no way he could be. Years ago, James Marsden was being outclassed by Wolverine — now it’s a Sega video game character. Some guys just know their place. 

I realize my praise of Marsden may sound backhanded, which I don’t intend. I never found him that captivating as a conventional movie star, but his pivot to comedy has revealed something a lot looser and lighter in him. There’s a warmth to his recent roles that leaves room for a softer, sweeter kind of masculinity. (In his early career, he played the earnest cuck the audience disliked — now, he’s the self-mocking cuck we can all relate to.) 

Whether it’s Enchanted, 30 Rock or Sonic the Hedgehog, Marsden’s job is to be upstaged, which can’t be an easy thing to do if you have any sort of ego. (And if you’re an actor, you probably have a decent-sized ego.) But the man’s cheerful, low-key aura gives Sonic the Hedgehog its own special glow — there’s a dignity he brings to the movie that it doesn’t deserve. He seems to be there to reassure parents: “Hey, this film you’re taking your kid to isn’t so hot, but I’m here. We’ll get through this together.” 

I truly hope that there are no more Sonic films in my future, but if there are, please tell me James Marsden will be part of them. I’ve grown accustomed to his unassuming face.