Do Audiences Care When Sequels Switch Up Their Stars?

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Journey 2 swaps Brendan Fraser for The Rock, making it the latest entry in the fast-growing recasting canon.

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New Line Cinema

Bad news for Brendan Fraser fans (yes, all six of you): He's nowhere to be found in the sequel to his 2008 hit Journey to the Center of the Earth, which arrives in theaters today. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is ostensibly a sequel—there's a number in the title and everything!—but it's a essentially a SINO (Sequel In Name Only): the only returning actor from the first film is Josh Hutcherson, who played Fraser's son. Fraser has been replaced by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who lends the movie his not-inconsiderable talents (straightforward dialogue recitation, flexing, and raising one of his eyebrows really high).

It wasn't until recently that the recasting of major roles in blockbuster franchises became the norm.

It's hard to imagine that the target audience of the family-oriented Journey 2: The Mysterious Island will be bothered by the major casting change. After all, the real draw here is giant 3D lizards. But New Line Cinema's willingness to go ahead with a Journey to the Center of the Earth sequel without Fraser & company is just the latest example of one of Hollywood's stranger phenomena: the common, sometimes-awkward necessity of recasting major roles in a film for its sequel.

Recasting has long been a staple in television, where the production of dozens and sometimes hundreds of episodes of one series means that the same actors may not always be around to play their parts. Bewitched fans have debated the respective merits of "the two Darrins" (played by Dick York and Dick Sargent) since the part was recast in in 1969. The decades of Brady Bunch spinoffs and reunions necessitated, at various times, replacements for all six Brady children. Roseanne swapped the actresses who played daughter Becky so often that the characters began to make jokes about it.

But it wasn't until recently—commensurate with Hollywood's increasing reliance on sequels—that the recasting of major roles in blockbuster franchises became the norm. Two of this coming summer's biggest blockbusters do it: The Avengers subs in Mark Ruffalo for Edward Norton as the Incredible Hulk and The Bourne Legacy dispenses with Matt Damon. "Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg," Norton says in a recent trailer for The Bourne Legacy. It feels less like a line of dialogue and more like a studio executive whispering in your ear, trying to convince you that a movie called The Bourne Legacy movie doesn't need to star Jason Bourne.

In a cinematic world of sequels and reboots, just how much recasting will audiences accept? With the notable exception of the James Bond series—which has successfully cast and recast its leading man at will for 50 years—film franchises used to be built around ­actors, not characters. Imagine the outcry, even now, if a studio announced a Star Wars sequel with a new Luke Skywalker, or a new Indiana Jones movie without Harrison Ford cracking the whip. The Alien franchise was so dependent on Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley that it resurrected the character for the fourth installment 200 years after her "death" in the previous film.

But there are signs that film audiences may not expect that level of consistency anymore. Of the decade's top-grossing superhero franchises (Batman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and X-Men), only the Spider-Man series has managed to avoid recasting a major character—and Spider-Man is getting a full-fledged reboot this summer instead. With 2006's Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer took great pains to connect his film to the original Superman and Superman II. Audiences didn't care, and a full-fledged reboot, with an entirely new cast, is slated for release next year.

Recasting, like any cinematic trend, has upsides and downsides. It's doubtful that many people would have wanted Christopher Nolan to delay filming The Dark Knight so that Katie Holmes would have room in her schedule to reprise her role from Batman Begins. But there's also something to be said for consistency. It's jarring on a fundamental level to have one familiar face replaced with another, and even a series that improves in the replacement ends up with less of a plausible, cohesive world when taken as a whole. Is recasting worth it? With the upsides and downsides in mind, let's take a look back at Hollywood's best and worst replacement actors:

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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