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Beyond the Grave: Resurrecting the Dead for Cameos

6 min read
The Flash (2023)

This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

With the dust now settled on the expensive and controversial The Flash and its home now well and truly on home video, there is one final discussion on the subject to be had. Be warned… there will be spoilers ahead.

Andy Muschietti’s messy, trippy comic book romp uses the en-vogue premise of the multiverse to do what comic book movies with a vague jibber-jabber about the multiverse does best — cameos. Not only does the film sees two versions of Ezra Miller’s Barry Allen a.k.a The Flash team up with Michael Keaton’s Batman, reprising his role from Batman and Batman Returns, but in one key climactic sequence sees Barry witness the implosion of the multiverse.

The sequence is probably noted for its questionable CGI, as is most of the film, but the sequence allows the filmmakers to show off some cameos from DC faces of the past. As the multiverse implodes Barry witnesses the worlds of past DC adventures. We witness a digitally de-aged Helen Slater as Supergirl (reprising her role from the derided 1984 film), float shoulder to shoulder with Christopher Reeve – reprising his role from the four films that stretched from 1978 until 1987. Other visions include the likeness of Teddy Sears from The Flash TV series as Jay Garrick the original Flash, and a deep-faked Adam West as Batman reprising his role from the 1966 film and 1966-1968 television series.

Perhaps the most fun is the appearance of Nicolas Cage as a de-aged Superman fighting a giant spider, an in-joke for movie buffs given the plot line of the aborted Tim Burton-directed Superman Lives that was due to be made in the late 90s, giving Cage his chance to finally play Kal-El. But worryingly George Reeves appears, resurrected from beyond the grave to reprise his role as Superman from both the film Superman and the Mole Men and The Adventures of Superman which ran from 1952-1958.

Reeves’ cameo stands out among the other ones for a very simple reason. Despite Christopher Reeve’s accident that found him confined to a wheelchair, and his reputation as only being Superman after the film series Reeve held great affection for the role, even appearing in Smallville as Dr Virgin Swann in what might be considered a passing of the torch role. Swann was Reeve’s last on-screen role, allowing him to cap off his career rather nicely, and one that even he himself appreciated.

Similarly Helen Slater, despite the negative reaction to Supergirl, has never turned her back on DC. Slater has been a staple of live-action and animated DC projects like Batman: The Animated Series in which she voiced Talia Al Ghul. But perhaps most notably has appeared as Superman’s mother Lara in Smallville, voiced his adoptive mother Martha in DC Super Hero Girls and its spin-off movies and played Eliza Danvers, the adoptive mother of Supergirl in the tv series Supergirl.

Adam West spent his career trading on the goodwill people hold of his campy TV series, voicing characters in Batman media like The Animated Series in which he plays Batman’s inspiration The Grey Ghost (perhaps the series’ most endearing and emotionally rich episode), Thomas Wayne in The Brave and The Bold and reprising his own version of Batman in two animated film – Return of the Caped Crusaders and Batman vs Two-Face. Much like Reeve, West’s career ended as it began with him being adored by fans of his legacy.

Even Cage, a self-confessed comic book geek played the role in Teen Titans GO! To the Movies and named his son Kal-El, it’s unsurprising he would be up for a cameo to please fans who have for years considered that unmade film a golden goose of “what ifs.”

But George Reeves is different. Reeves often feared he would only be seen as Superman. His work outside of the series was often relegated to small roles – like his uncredited turn as Sgt Stark in From Here to Eternity. Reeves’ death at age 45 might be the basis for many Hollywood-centric conspiracy theories — a few make up the fantastically thoughtful Hollywoodland – but the most likely, and accepted, outcome is that Reeves took his own life.

Reeves’ disappointment with the way his career was going, and at age 45, the chances of him having a late-career resurgence dwindling makes including him all the more disrespectful. There are many for whom Reeves is a fantastic Superman and holds long-lasting and fond memories of his tenure as the man of steel, but none of them were Reeves himself.

To bring him back for cheap nostalgia feels like the opposite of what Reeves would want, given he was concerned he would only be remembered as Superman, the fact that some sixty-five years later that’s all he is seen as feels particularly disrespectful. This speaks to a bigger issue in the film industry. De-aging and deepfaking are nothing new.

Famously a “death mask” was used to complete The Crow following the accidental death of Brandon Lee. Similarly, Gladiator faced an issue when Oliver Reed died suddenly, meaning CGI and alternative takes were needed, the use of CGI and his brother was used to finish Furious 7 after Paul Walker died in a car accident. But these are sudden deaths for films the actors had agreed to be a part of. In a way, this is a case of working around the problem to honour those people.

Unused takes were used in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker to finish Princess Leia’s arc, completing the final outing for Carrie Fisher. But this was a role that Fisher held great affection for and was already signed on to play before she also tragically died.

A new problem is not the case of re-casting but hiring a stand-in and CGIing the face of someone who has died for a film they have not agreed to be in. Rogue One, in which the late Peter Cushing was brought back by putting his face over Guy Henry’s drew a lot of criticism for how uncanny it felt but it’s deeper than that. If a studio owns your likeness – and many do – then you have no consent even in death.

The debate flared up when there were questions of if T’Challa would be recast for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever following Chadwick Boseman’s passing, his brother claims it’s what his brother wanted, for the role to carry on, while others feel it’s disrespectful but the fact remains, without Boseman’s exact words from his mouth, it’s conjecture. Family members, or executors of estates are still people with their own desires and motivations. Not everyone who is involved in a person’s legacy has that person’s best interests at heart.

In the age of AI and deepfaking, the de-ageing and not casting of a new version will continue, but respect should still be paid to the actors. Harrison Ford has never enjoyed Star Wars so the idea that ten or so years after he passes Disney might drag him up for a cheap cameo is deeply concerning.

This circles back to Reeves and The Flash, given the multiverse is a chance for people to cameo and give shout-outs to past roles people have loved it begs the question why would you choose Reeves? There are one hundred years of Superman media out there, and many of the actors are still alive — Brandon Routh, Dean Cain, Tom Welling, and Tyler Hoechlin. It’s a tradition that the Arrowverse TV series has long kept.

Instead of resurrecting the dead, its crossover TV event Crisis on Infinite Earths saw multiple people from TV and Film return — Brandon Routh, Burt Ward, Robert Wuhl, Kevin Conroy, Tom Welling, Dina Meyer, Erica Durance John Wesley Shipp and Ezra Miller himself all reprised their roles from across TV and film.

As the deepfake trend continues (and the SAG-strike fights against this), audiences need to be aware that if a person is dead, they cannot consent to appear in something, they have no control over how they will be presented and ultimately, nothing can be done. Reeves’ however, wasn’t taken by an accident while filming a movie. Reeves was the victim of mental illness and fear, and even sixty years on those fears are being exploited and used for cheap, and not even well-achieved, nostalgia. With hundreds of different Superman portrayals at DC’s disposal, the choice to drag him up seems all the more cruel and at odds with what Superman stands for — truth, integrity and respect.