I jokingly proposed doing a prospectus on James Marsden a few weeks ago, but then thought, No but seriously—what happened to James Marsden? So I’m answering my own question with this prospectus, because Marsden is a guy—talented, likeable, good-looking—who ought to have a stand-out career, but he’s been spinning his wheels for over a decade as a workaday actor. He books a lot of gigs but he’s never really broken out, despite being involved in some very popular projects. What gives?
First, Marsden’s career spans thirty-one years. Let that sink in. James Marsden has been steadily employed as an actor for THIRTY-ONE YEARS. In all that time, the only year in which he does not have a credit to his name is 1999, and you know what movie was filmed in 1999? The first X-Men movie, in which he had a starring role. There are highly accomplished, much admired A-list actors who don’t have that kind of streak going, so in one sense, Marsden’s career is fine. He works, a lot. Over the last decade he’s averaged three projects a year. And he’s been in some big stuff: the X-Men franchise, The Notebook, 27 Dresses, Enchanted.
But somehow, Marsden never quite broke out. He’s the one guy who didn’t win the superhero lottery, despite playing a major character (Cyclops) in a very popular franchise. Even Ryan Reynolds, despite his inability to stick the landing, kept getting handed franchises again and again. So why not Marsden? He’s handsome, charming, a legit singing/dancing/acting triple threat, and he’s super likeable. He certainly works enough—this is not a case like Eric Bana where he’s deliberately chosen to work less.
There’s a lot of junk on Marsden’s resume (Sex Drive, The Box, teen trash/guilty pleasures Gossip and Disturing Behavior), some obvious paycheck stuff (Hop, 2 Guns), the inescapable “I know this is bad but a friend asked me to” titles (Small Apartments, Walk of Shame), some underrated gems (Bachelorette, Robot & Frank, the Straw Dogs remake), and the big features like Enchanted, Hairspray, Anchorman 2, 27 Dresses. He’s a jobbing actor so there’s more junk than not, but there’s nothing really big. Starring roles are few and far between, and Marsden, though capable of performing in an ensemble, isn’t really a character actor. Even if the movies aren’t great, I’d expect to see more lead roles on his roster.
In pondering the state of Marsden’s career, I keep coming back to one movie: Superman Returns. I think his career is the unknown victim of Superman Returns. Everyone talks about how Superman Returns killed Brandon Routh’s career, but I think it set back Marsden more. Routh is not all that talented (see also: Dylan Dog: Dead of Night, or don’t, because it’s terrible and you may never forgive yourself), so there wasn’t a lot of momentum in the first place. But Marsden had a nice mix brewing in the early aughts, between X-Men, The Notebook and a recurring role on Ally McBeal. It felt like he was about to make the leap.
And then he decided to exit the X-Men franchise along with Bryan Singer—forcing Cyclops to be killed off in a very unsatisfying way—and go play second fiddle to Routh in Superman Returns. There’s no way to say for sure how X-Men: The Last Stand would’ve turned out had Singer stayed on, but Singer’s co-writer on the franchise, Mike Doughtery, once revealed that the rough plan for that movie was to have it star Cyclops—not Wolverine—as he dealt with the loss of Jean Grey. What would his career look like today if THAT’s the X3 we got and Marsden emerged a bona fide superhero star?
Because the thing that Marsden lacks is a defining role. As much as actors fear being pigeonholed, it’s impossible to break out without a defining role. Consider your favorite actor, and I bet you can name that one role that put them over the top. Cyclops should have been that for Marsden, the role that made him memorable to the public, but he bailed and made a sh*tty Superman movie before it really stuck. And now he’s perpetually That Guy in someone else’s breakout movie.
And while he has a lot of work on tap, it looks pretty rough. There are some comedies that may or may not pan out, but there’s also a drecky romantic drama, The Best of Me (Jesus, REALLY?), and the horrible looking The Loft, a movie so bad it’s already sat on the shelf for three years, then had its August release yanked from the schedule without explanation earlier this summer—never a good sign. You can check out the red band trailer for The Loft here. It’s some 1997 realness. If James Marsden never lands a defining part, we may have a lot more like The Loft to look forward to.