VERY AMERICAN BRITS

At The Cinema: Tom Shone details the latest qualities for a superhero—a super-agent, an accent coach and a British passport...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012

Very little about Spiderman screams "Guildford". We like to picture him swinging through the canyons of New York, not scaling mock-tudor mansions in darkest Surrey, but that is where the actor Andrew Garfield, who plays the spandex-clad superhero in "The Amazing Spiderman", grew up. "With great power comes great responsibility," Spiderman is fond of saying, omitting to mention that with great power comes not just great responsibility but also a ten-minute drive from Woking town centre. 

It's going to be a rough year for the testosterone levels of American comic-book fans—a fragile commodity at the best of times, but particularly when "The Amazing Spiderman" (July 3rd) is followed into cinemas by Chris Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises" (July 20th), in which the role of Batman is reprised by a strapping Welshman, Christian Bale. Holy Green Card-Holders! What's with all the Limey Superheroes?? 

Next year we get Zack Snyder's Superman-reboot "Man of Steel", starring Henry Cavill, and thus giving the world its first Superman hailing not from the long-lost planet of Krypton but the notorious tax haven of Jersey. Is that a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's another high-street retailer feeling 20% VAT. 

To New York magazine's Vulture blog, "the ugly truth is that American leading men just aren't terribly manly any more." In truth, the Ryan Goslings are too busy pursuing indie cred to bother donning red-and-blue tights. So the studios, hungry for fresh faces to front their summer franchises, have tapped into the cheap supply of British actors looking to find some way into the business that doesn't involve playing floppy-haired fops, bad guys or stammering comic foils. The White Linen era of British film-making would seem to be over—let alone the days when David Niven was categorised as "Anglo Saxon type 2008" by the bods at Central Casting. 

"I was a bit of a freak in the United States in those days," wrote Niven in "The Moon’s a Balloon", still one of the best Hollywood memoirs. "The vast majority of people had still never met a Briton nor heard an 'English accent'." A career playing sprightly infantrymen and gentleman thieves awaited: a lifetime of professional Englishness in an alternative universe where everyone wore cravats. Such was the fate of the Brit in Hollywood, up to and including Hugh Grant. 

"The British are coming!" announced the screenwriter Colin Welland in 1982, but the British never seemed to stay. Dipping one toe in the Hollywood pool, they played a few games at the Hollywood Cricket Club, waited for their first rom-com to nosedive, then repaired to the London stage, telling interviewers their first love was the theatre. 

Today's young British stars are different. Gym-toned, buff, flanked by a super-agent and an accent coach, they aspire to trans-Atlantic ambidexterity—more American than the Americans. When Christian Bale loosed a torrent of expletives on the set of "Terminator: Salvation" after a director of photography walked into shot, the shock for Americans was not his language, but his accent. "Christian Bale is British???" spluttered one blogger. 

After playing an English-rose-in-bloom in "An Education", Carey Mulligan couldn't pluck her own petals fast enough, first in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps", then Nicolas Winding Refn's ultra-violent thriller "Drive", and then Steve McQueen's numb sex-addiction drama "Shame"—a record-breaking trip to the dark side, achieving in two years what Helena Bonham Carter managed only after two decades of patient self-graffiti. 

Partly, it's a generational shift. Mulligan and Garfield are the children of globalisation and the internet. Mulligan was born in 1985, the year "A Room With a View" was released—the flagship of the Merchant Ivory fleet. So was Keira Knightley. Garfield and Henry Cavill were born in 1983. The girls were four and the boys six when Tim Burton's "Batman" all but blotted out the moon. The big Brit hits of their youth were "Four Weddings and a Funeral" (1994) and "Trainspotting" (1997), an odd couple on the face of it, but both rooted in a particular world—west London and Glasgow—and possessed of enough double-jointed marketing savvy to view that world from the outside, thus playing like gangbusters for foreign audiences. 

"Slumdog Millionaire" pulled off the same self-conscious exoticism, capturing the flavour of national identity in a global age. Caught in the moon-glow of YouTube, the Disney channel and "The X Factor", kids dream the same dreams now from Brixton to Bangalore. The great question driving the internet, above all others, is "Who are you?"—or, as the first line of "Hamlet" has it, "Who’s there?" 

The web has made Hamlets of us all, soliloquising into the ether, fishing for contact, conscious of our national identity and quick to discard it if it doesn't play, as they say. "I’m not American and I’m not French, actually," Michel Hazanavicius told the Directors' Guild of America when he won a prize for "The Artist" in January. "I'm a film-maker." A canny bit of awards-season politics, perhaps. But also a revealing glimpse into the multi-coloured fuse-box that is the soul of the 21st-century entertainer. Just don’t tell Superman. I think the guy is an illegal alien. 

Tom Shone writes for New York magazine and the Sunday Times. His books are "Blockbuster" and "In the Rooms"

Illustration by Andrew Archer