Ryan Potter and the Crowd-Sourced Superhero

By  · Published on September 14th, 2016

If I Like the Robin, Who Cares Who You Like?

Who would you cast as Robin in any future Batman movies? Up until a few days ago, this was a question people probably hadn’t thought too much about. Now, thanks to a clever YouTube audition by actor Ryan Potter, it’s all that fans of the DC Cinematic Universe can talk about. On Saturday, Potter – the star of Disney’s Big Hero 6 and Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas – released a one-minute long stunt reel wherein he fought off several attackers as Tim Drake, the third character to wear the mantle of Robin. Potter used his own background in martial arts and his physical resemblance to the character to make the case that he should be the one to play Robin in Ben Affleck’s Batman movie. The video ends with Potter turning to face the camera. “Hey Ben,” he says, “Like Tim said, Batman needs a Robin.”

The video caught on almost immediately, totaling more than half-a-million view in its first few days on YouTube. In a follow-up interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Potter admitted that a big part of his decision to shoot the video was to keep Asian-American actors in the conversation for roles like this. “This was really just to start that dialogue, and it’s clearly done so,” the actor told THR. “Marvel has done a really amazing job lately of adding a lot more diversity to their universe. One thing I noticed about the DC universe is it’s very one note at the moment in terms of age and diversity. I thought it would be absolutely amazing to see an Asian-American face in that cast.”

While Potter’s public audition tape shows a tremendous amount of drive from the young actor, this isn’t the first time that someone has used test footage to garner public support for a project. Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter published a piece suggesting that director Tim Miller was likely behind the 2014 leak of a Deadpool VFX reel. This move could have marked the end of Miller’s career – or at the bare minimum a lawsuit for violating his confidentiality agreement – but the resulting popularity of the Deadpool footage forced 20th Century Fox’s hand. According to the article, the studio was on the verge of reworking the movie for a PG-13 rating or replacing key members of the creative team altogether. Instead, Miller made the movie he wanted to make, 20th Century Fox ended up setting box office records, and Ryan Reynolds finally found his niche as a motor-mouthed and incredibly profane superhero.

On the surface, there are a few key differences between Deadpool and Ryan Potter. In the former, the studio had already committed itself to the cast and crew of the film – albeit in a limited fashion – and gone so far as to commission the test footage as a first look at the property. Potter has no such connections to Warner Bros. studios; the only thing that really separates his video from your typical fan film is the fact that he is a trained martial artist and a known quantity in Hollywood. Dig a little deeper, however, and what we see is an artist doing his best to convince a Hollywood to take a chance on something outside of its comfort zone. Both videos were meant to step outside the normal channels and appeal directly to fans; Hollywood may have no problem saying no to a handful of agents, but it’s a lot harder to turn down tens of thousands of fans in your target demographic.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that the people who make up Hollywood are inherently racist or myopic, but few industries are as unlikely to challenge public opinion – or their concept of public opinion – as Hollywood. That’s why superhero movies with an Asian-American lead or an R-rated comic book movie full of penis jokes can be regarded as more or less on the same level: they are both approaches to the genre that have no precedent, and that makes executives nervous. From their perspective, innovation is not supposed to happen in the core components of your business; if you want to experiment, you do so with smaller properties and roll the changes up into your core business over time. You don’t put something out there completely new unless you have complete confidence in the strength of your product, and after a pretty rough year at the polls, Warner Bros. cannot be feeling too confident about its DC Cinematic Universe right about now. I’m not saying that it’s right – or even that I agree – but it’s a risk-adverse mindset that historically would have made you more money than you lost.

That’s why I would like to see more actors and filmmakers sidestep the studios and appeal directly to fans. Ryan Potter may not end up with the role of Robin in Ben Affleck’s standalone Batman movie – as of right now, no one even knows if Robin will be one of the characters featured in the movie – but half-a-million people have at least seen Ryan Potter go through the paces as Robin and more than a few of them walked away convinced that he would be the right man for the role. Fans who might normally react negatively to headlines about gender- or race-swapped characters in a comic book adaptation were given a chance to evaluate an actor purely on merit. That has value; one of the regular arguments you see from detractors of Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eleven was that they were cynical cash-grabs by the studio (whatever). This type of public audition removes Hollywood from the equation and makes it solely about creators and fans. It’s hard to say that a guy who has self-financed his own stunt reel with zero promise of an audition is intentionally shitting all over your childhood just to make a buck.

You might argue that the onus shouldn’t be on actors and audiences to drag Hollywood into the 21st century. There’s a lot of merit in that. You might also argue that the last thing the industry needs is more opportunities for the tail to wag the dog and fandom to make creative decisions. I hear that too. But Potter has accomplished exactly what he set out to do: start a conversation about how narrow Hollywood decision-making can be and offer an alternative for people looking for change. If other actors and filmmakers are wise, they’ll follow in Potter’s footsteps and give audiences a chance to see a different look before the casting process even begins. These might just end up as the rare situation where everyone walks away a winner.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)