The Hollywood Reporter recently reported on a deal that will allow Disney to use late Marvel Publisher Stan Lee’s likeness in Marvel films and in Disney theme parks, both through the use of digital technology and through existing archival footage. Its report cautioned that “new deal does not necessarily pave the way for the return of Lee cameos in movies, at least not in the way fans traditionally knew them,” but it might give Disney the ability to do so. With their recent uses of digital technology to digitally-revive deceased actors Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in “Star Wars,” I’m not entirely sure Disney isn’t above using CGI to one day continue Lee’s popular cameos in Marvel films.
So here’s a plea to Disney. Please don’t.
Ever since my first newspaper column discussing the ethical concerns of Disney’s aforementioned use of special effects to bring back Fisher and Cushing in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” I’ve been mostly against bringing dead actors back to life in movies. For one, there is no way to get proper consent from those who have passed to use their likeness; secondly, it feels wrong and the end product always reeks of the uncanny valley. It’s also much more expensive and time-consuming than simply recasting the roles of the actors who’ve passed.
Recasting of course does not make sense in Lee’s case, as while he plays multiple different characters in the MCU through his cameos, what makes them special and notable is the fact that he played them. This is why it’s best to do away with his cameos for good, because no matter how convincing digital and voice technology gets, Lee will never truly be behind performances that use this technology. Digital technology might be able to bring back the physical likeness and sound of a dead actor, but it can never truly bring them back to life, or replicate the myriad of individual creative choices that actor would have made over the course of a genuine performance.
Sadly, the technology to digitally-resurrect dead actors is readily available, and its uses are only mitigated by backlash from moviegoers. Morgan Neville, who directed a documentary against deceased chef and international culinary personality Anthony Bourdian, notably used AI to reconstruct Bourdain’s voice, in order to get soundbites of words he wrote but never spoke. He initially teased that viewers weren’t going to know which lines from Bourdain were recorded by him and which were fabrications made by the AI, though some of the AI voiceover scenes are known now.
Neville faced some backlash for his decision, and while he stands by his work, his attitude towards the use of new technology to digitally-revive dead actors is a precarious one. Replicated on a much grander scale, using such technology and not disclosing when and where it is used to resurrect dead actors is dishonest and leaves the door open for its most egregious abuses. We’ve now reached a point where we can make the dead say and do whatever we want, and technology is approaching a point where fabricated scenes using digital facsimiles of the dead will be indistinguishable from genuine performances.
It begs the question that if this technology progresses far enough, would live actors even be necessary in the filmmaking process? Why take the risk of hiring a no-name actor looking for their big break when you can just use a digital clone of a well-known dead one that you can program to do whatever you want?
I hope Marvel limits their uses of Lee’s likeness to archival footage, and does not try to fabricate new performances using digital technology. Any new on-screen depictions of Lee should be reserved for biopics featuring him, in which he is portrayed by fresh actors portraying him as a historic figure.