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Casting Ben Mendelsohn Was Captain Marvel‘s Stroke of Genius

Ben Mendelsohn in Star Wars and Captain Marvel

***Spoilers for Captain Marvel***

As I continue to ponder the many elements that made Captain Marvel a success, I have to give Marvel Studios credit for casting actor Ben Mendelsohn the way they did.

No matter the issues I can have with MCU movie plots or scripting, one area where I never stop singing Marvel Studios’ praise is the casting department. Each actor seems to fit their role so well now that it’s nigh-on impossible to imagine another person embodying our primary superheroes.

While some long-established names sign up to chew the scenery and cut a big paycheck in a supporting role—I’m looking at you, Anthony Hopkins, Forest Whitaker, Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Rachel McAdams, Angela Bassett, Tilda Swinton, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, Cate Blanchett, et al—the MCU also shines in elevating lesser-known folks to prominence.

Actors like Tom Hiddleston, Danai Gurira, Sebastian Stan, Letitia Wright, Idris Elba, Winston Duke, Benedict Wong, Karen Gillan, Dominic Cooper, Michael Peña, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Dave Bautista, and many more have been propelled into the worldwide spotlight from Marvel’s launchpad. The MCU’s casting for villains is always excellent, even if the villain isn’t so great: when you have the likes of Daniel Bruhl, Hannah John-Kamen, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Eccleston, Robert Redford, Kurt Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Mads Mikkelsen, Lee Pace, and James Spader’s voice playing your baddies, that’s casting done right.

But I don’t think there’s been a more ingenious casting move in the MCU to date than Ben Mendelsohn as Talos in Captain Marvel. (Captain Marvel was cast by Sarah Finn, who cast all of the MCU movies and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carterand who deserves a bonus or maybe a temple at which to worship.)

Mendelsohn’s Hollywood career is totally dominated by villainous roles. He was impossible to miss in Rogue One in a flowing white cape as Director Orson Krennic, generating buzz for that movie since its first teaser trailers. Steven Spielberg then cast him as Sorrento in Ready Player One, a character Mendelsohn described as “one of those reprehensible types with Stalinistic leanings.” He’s the Sheriff of Nottingham in the new, unlamented Robin Hood, and he was Daggett in The Dark Knight Rises. He’s a psychopath on Netflix’s Bloodline, for which he won an Emmy. Mendelsohn is arguably the go-to actor of the moment when you need a villain equal parts sly and steely. He’s the go-to actor to play villains, period.

“It’s more fun to play the bad guy,” Mendelsohn told The Independent in March of 2018. “You get to behave in ways you might want to behave in normal life, but can’t. So I don’t mind being a specialist in bad.”

Talos makes the Hulk cry

Thus it was no surprise that Captain Marvel would snap up Mendelsohn to star as their bad guy. Every headline about Mendelsohn’s casting trumpeted him as the main villain of the piece. This was never in doubt—Talos is a villain in the comics, capable of making the Hulk cry. And the first two-thirds of Captain Marvel does a good job convincing you that Talos is just that. They even execute the brilliant move of having Talos shape-shift into Nick Fury’s boss, Teller, so that we get to see Mendelsohn’s human face ostensibly being evil and doubling down on the bad guy-ness. He’s fantastic in the dual role.

Then Captain Marvel pulls the rug out from underneath us plot-wise and reveals that the Skrulls aren’t evil after all—they’re persecuted refugees. Talos is doing what he does motivated only by the desire to reunite with his family. He spends the last part of the movie as an ally and a charming good guy, to the extent that when he’s shot on Mar-Vell’s spacelab, I exclaimed “No!” at my first viewing, and there were gasps in the audience around me.

Luckily, Talos survives, which is good news because he’s probably my favorite Captain Marvel character when we’re not counting Goose. I very much hope we might glimpse him again in Carol Danvers’ future adventures.

While some of the ways Captain Marvel handled their casting news—especially concerning Jude Law—baffled me, Mendelsohn was the perfect choice to throw us for a loop, and the press around him was perfect for concealing the surprise twist in his role. Why would we expect him to be anything other than the bad guy? Of course Ben Mendelsohn is playing the villain, what else does he do?

Ben Mendelsohn as Talos/Keller in Captain Marvel

As it turns out, he can do quite a lot. The actor embodied menace, humor, and warmth in equal degrees, and he’s convincing even under layers of green makeup and elongated ears.

I hope Hollywood was taking note: while Mendelsohn may have the market on villainy cornered, he’s also excellent on the light side of the force. “Typecasting” him as Talos, only to reveal the breadth of his range, was the biggest reveal that Captain Marvel managed to blindside me with. And it was one of Marvel’s most inspired casting accomplishments to date, save for four of Captain Marvel‘s other big names.

Goose the cat actors in Captain Marvel

(images: Disney/Marvel Studios, Marvel Comics, screengrab)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.