He made his name playing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, and cemented his status playing Shakespeare’s Hamlet on stage, but now Benedict Cumberbatch is dipping into a whole new library: comic books.
These days, drama schools create more super-heroes and villains than a nuclear plant with an iffy safety record. Seemingly every British acting luminary – from Tom Hardy to Idris Elba, Tom Hiddleston to Sirs Stewart, McKellen and Kingsley, and even Benedict Cumberbatch’s old mate Martin Freeman – has signed on for a superhero blockbuster. This generation who grew up with comic-book heroes has taken over the box office.
So let’s talk about “the canon”. For an actor, the canon has always meant the great roles in the great plays – Lear, Macbeth, the stuff that gets your name up there with Olivier and your picture in the National Portrait Gallery. Earlier this year, Cumberbatch played Richard III in The Hollow Crown on TV, and last August he was Hamlet for a three-month run on stage in London. His take on the student prince as a lanky man-child won rave reviews and packed houses. It was a riskier approach than many expected from a guaranteed hit, his performance skirting close to absurdity. But the moment he stepped off stage at the Barbican, one old canon collided with a new one.
Head in hand: Cumberbatch as Hamlet at the Barbican
For nerds like me, this new canon is the byzantine world of comic books and superheroes – a rich mythology that Marvel has successfully brought to the movie screen. The studio was so determined that Cumberbatch play surgeon-turned-sorcerer Doctor Strange that they pushed production back until he had hung up Hamlet’s crown.