in 2020, following the show’s second season premiere, “it might not have transcended the trope.”
Instead of a staid cliche, Dead to Me’s twin twist forced us to consider how much we might have misjudged Marsden throughout the first decade or so of his career. A history of ostensibly dull, disposable characters—the hapless Prince Edward in Enchanted; the humiliated Cyclops in the original X-Men trilogy Lois Lane’s doomed ex-boyfriend in Man of Steel—belies that Marsden has been quietly killing it the whole time. Looking back, there’s a huge amount of range in James Marsden’s career: action movies, comedies, romance, dramas, even a musical. While he never stood out above the pack in these movies, he never stood out as a weak link, either. Instead, even when he’s being upstaged, Marsden has always felt at home on our screens.
Though maybe upstaged is the wrong word. Dead to Me convinced me that Marsden has been doing something else all along: bolstering his cast mates. Throughout the show’s three seasons, we’ve fawned over Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini—is this not everyone’s default state, with Dead to Me or otherwise?—but Marsden consistently provided a seabed in which to anchor their performances. It’s unselfish, generous acting, as he allows himself to recede into the background in order to elevate everyone around him. This is Marsden’s modus operandi as an actor even when that someone might be a blue, computer-generated, anthropomorphic “hedgehog.”
It’s even more impressive when taking into account how Marsden’s two characters, despite being twins, are completely opposite of each other. The guilt that Jen feels every time she sees Ben, for instance, is multiplied by how well Marsden sells Ben’s devotion to her. (Jen’s guilt comes from killing Steve, after learning that he and Judy were driving the car that hit and killed Jen’s husband; Jen later dates Ben.) He convinces us of Ben’s ineffable kindness and sensitivity, just as well as he sold us on Steve’s slimy shiftiness—a man so vile that we’re glad when Jen nuts him with a wooden bird at the end of Season 1.
His linchpin acting abilities are much easier to see than ever before in Dead to Me—perhaps because he’s playing two characters. But we’ve had ample opportunities to watch him flex this unique muscle throughout the year. Despite Westworld’s diminishing returns, Marsden’s earnest Teddy was a core foil to Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) in Seasons 1 and 2. After missing Season 3, his return for the show’s final outing was greatly appreciated; absence makes the heart grow fonder.
“Yes, it’s easy to forget about James Marsden—but that’s why he’s so great.”
This month’s belated Enchanted sequel, Disney+’s Disenchanted, may or may not be mostly pretty bad, but it also provided another fun romp for Marsden to flop around in. That he’s reprising his role in a fan-favorite film is also a good sign that he’s got career longevity.
There was also Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in April, which somehow transcended the CGI/live action-hybrid doldrums of Disney remakes and other messes to become something special. As Sonic’s father figure Tom, Marsden plays opposite an almost entirely computer-generated cast. Yet, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 leans into everything that makes Marsden so solid an actor, letting his soft, calming presence become a straight-man foil to Sonic’s haywire adventures.
Yes, it’s easy to forget about James Marsden—but that’s why he’s so great. He melts into performances in an utterly convincing way, even when juggling more than one character in the same show.
It takes a good actor to make a character believable. But it takes a great actor to do that and elevate their cast mates to that same level. Perhaps those years of serving as a supporting actor were actually intentional—they were just James Marsden being supportive. He is not the kind of actor who wants to hog the limelight; instead, he works for the betterment of those around him, and the film or show. He’s just done this subtly enough that it took now for us to notice.
In 2022, it’s clearer than ever, with Marsden boosting those around him not once but four times, in four wildly different contexts. This year, more than ever before, has been a benchmark of just how the features of his acting that have been used to criticize him are, in fact, what make him so good at what he does.