The talent pool of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown significantly over the years. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson headlined the Infinity Saga, while newcomers, such as Simu Liu, Hailee Steinfeld, and Iman Vellani, are poised to take center stage in Phase 4. However, there are some other top-tier actors who nearly joined the interconnected superhero franchise before dropping out, and one of them is Joaquin Phoenix.
Phoenix's involvement started way back during San Diego Comic-Con 2014 in July, with the actor reportedly entering talks then to play Doctor Strange. However, the award-winning actor pulled out in early October of the same year due to the multi-film deal and extensive press commitments that he didn't want to commit to, thus leading to Benedict Cumberbatch landing the role.
Now, a former Marvel Studios employee discussed the impact of Phoenix turning down the role to Marvel Studios and its head, Kevin Feige.
Joaquin Phoenix's 'Unique' Marvel Situation
Before Benedict Cumberbatch landed the role of Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios was reportedly in talks with Joaquin Phoenix. In an interview, the Joker actor previously opened up about the negotiations that happened, saying that "all parties were satisfied:"
"I think they make some great, fun movies. There's nothing wrong... I'm not a fucking, like, cinephile. I'm not a snob and I'm totally fine with... I enjoy those movies sometimes, and I think they keep the fucking industry going in some ways, so I don't have a problem with it at all. I think that everybody was, is... I'm trying to figure out how to say this most diplomatically, okay... I think everybody was really happy with how things turned out. All parties were satisfied."
In an exclusive interview with The Direct, Marvel Studios' former production lead attorney Paul Sarker discussed the studio's reaction to actors turning down MCU roles. The Marvel lawyer first explained his role during the whole process:
“So, as I said, it's rare that it would be on my radar, because normally. lawyers are only involved when there's a deal that's pretty much close, right? Like the business, the agent, the manager, and the talent have read the script. They're familiar with the role, they've agreed to financial terms, they've agreed to basically the schedule and we just paper the deal. So if someone is interested, but ultimately declines because they don't like it creatively, or it doesn't fit their schedule, it's not going to get to my desk, right? So most of those things that people pass on, that's at the casting stage, and that's a whole other thing."
Sarker then made a run down of the different talents who were almost tapped as MCU heroes, such as Emily Blunt as Black Widow and Tom Cruise as Iron Man:
"So Sarah Finn runs casting for all the Marvel stuff and you can read about it online. Someone like Emily Blunt was supposed to be Black Widow. But yeah, definitely reasons they went with Scarlett Johansson. I think Tom Cruise was supposed to be Iron Man, but he wanted too much money. So they went with Robert Downey Jr. and then hindsight, it looks like that was the right decision. And I think there were a handful of people that were testing for Thor, including Tom Hiddleston. Because they went with Hemsworth, which I think was the right choice, obviously. I mean, he's, he's amazing. I can't even imagine anyone else playing Thor."
Sarker then revealed that the situation with Joaquin Phoenix was "unique" to him since "there was a deal" in place already, but it didn't pan out. The Marvel lawyer shared that this lost deal caused Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige to move away from long-term, multi-picture deals, saying that the studio doesn't want someone "to feel like they're forced" to be in a certain role:
"But to be perfectly honest, the Joaquin Phoenix thing was unique to me, because there was a deal and because it was pretty far along. And we were hopeful that it would close, but it didn't. And that happens. And that to bring it back full circle, things like that may be why Kevin is saying we don't want to do these super long-term deals because we want to see what works and if it works, and people want to do more than we'd love to have [them]. We don't want someone to feel like they're forced.”
Fans can listen to Paul Sarker's Better Call Paul on Spotify and Apple Podcasts every Wednesday, a weekly podcast that covers “the business of show business” and sheds light on how the entertainment industry really works.
Marvel's Talent-Friendly Approach
Though it's unfortunate that Marvel Studios didn't successfully land Joaquin Phoenix, having Benedict Cumberbatch as its Doctor Strange is a welcome return since he is the studio's first choice. While things didn't work out between Phoenix and Marvel, the actor's comment that "all parties were satisfied" means that it didn't end terribly on both sides.
It is unknown if Phoenix will be part of the MCU anytime soon, considering that the actor is currently tied to DC's Joker sequel.
Paul Sarker's comment about it being a unique situation is fitting, mainly because of the fact that it led to a different approach for Marvel Studios and president Kevin Feige when offering deals to talents. Given that Phase 4 is expanding due to the addition of the Disney+ shows, offering short-term deals would be ideal since it gives the talent more flexibility.
In a sense, it also gives Marvel its own flexibility, since a short-term deal works if a certain actor or actress is beloved by fans. Seeing that positive reception would serve as the talent's motivation in signing for more Marvel projects.
Doing these deals also allows the talent to test the compromises and the lengthy press commitments (as Phoenix previously noted) before going all-in for more on-screen appearances down the line.
Ultimately, having a talent who actually wants to be part of the franchise is a requirement due to the MCU's long-term plans.