There’s no doubt that Spider–Man: No Way Home—not only the highest box–office earner during the COVID–19 pandemic, but also the sixth highest–grossing movie of all time—was a success of epic proportions. However, its appeal may not have been the emotional storylines, young stars, Tom Holland and Zendaya, or even the beloved character at the center of it all, but rather something that’s increasingly changing the face of Hollywood as we know it: de–aging technology.
In the movie, actors Alfred Molina and Willem Dafoe, Doc Ock and Green Goblin respectively, are aged down to appear exactly as they did in Sam Raimi’s Spider–Man trilogy, which began in 2002. The effects of the CGI are immaculate. In an interview with Variety, Molina even cites de–aging technology as a factor in his decision to return to his Spider–Man role. Now, the film is undeniably more than just fan service; nevertheless, the return of actors from the past two Spider–Man trilogies is a huge part of what makes it so interesting.
No Way Home isn’t the only recent foray into de–aging technology. In The Irishman, a movie that spans decades, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci are de–aged throughout, Will Smith is made to look half his age in Gemini Man, and in Captain Marvel, Samuel L. Jackson has decades taken off of his face.
From a logical standpoint, such use of de–aging technology makes for an incongruous viewing experience. In The Irishman, for example, De Niro ages throughout the decades as his mob career is recounted; however, while his face changes, he maintains the physicality of a man in his seventies, which is especially noticeable in fighting scenes. However, as one of Netflix's most–watched original movies, these limitations don't seem to matter much to audiences. De Niro is a huge name in Hollywood and his on–screen appearance with other acting greats Al Pacino and Joe Pesci is what makes the movie tick, regardless of whether his transformation is entirely believable.
So, is this recent technological innovation all it’s made out to be? There’s a certain danger to such accurate technology and such positive audience reactions, and the implications for young, up–and–coming actors aren’t promising. With the click of a mouse, Hollywood can now enforce the harsh beauty standards that have defined it for decades.
Almost every trend in movies today seems like it’s based on nostalgia. From the remake revolution to CGI reviving dead actors like Peter Cushing and James Dean, Hollywood can’t seem to stop bringing back the past. Though recycled plotlines and remakes aren’t new to the movie ecosystem, Hollywood's nostalgia–baiting has never been so noticeable, and it shows no sign of slowing down. While in years past, the use of de–aging technology was relegated to just another tool of the makeup department, No Way Home has certainly turned it into a gimmick, or even a selling point.
Although de–aging technology enhances flashback scenes, it also allows prominent actors to remain forever young. An actor approaching his eighties like De Niro can appear to be twenty years old in the next blockbuster film, and why wouldn’t one capitalize off of De Niro’s name? While casting younger actors may have been more believable, The Irishman uses the famed actor for its duration, to the point of prioritizing technology narrative. Though, acting–wise, De Niro is as brilliant as ever, in some scenes, such as when the 40–year–old character assaults a man who pushed his daughter, it's abundantly clear he isn't the age the film portrays him to be.
Aging is becoming a thing of the past. Though actors no longer need to sit through the strenuous process of getting movie–ready, perhaps it's become too simple to recreate their youth. Unrealistic beauty standards in Hollywood have never quite gone away, and neither has the ageism imposed on female actors. With cosmetic changes being so easy to implement in post–production, is there any reason for the film industry to represent ages beyond thirty in blockbusters of the future? While this may help middle–aged actors maintain their careers far past what Hollywood considers to be their prime, the industry's toxic beauty propaganda is undoubtedly something that will live on.
In the near future, these actors may not even have to be available to shoot to appear in their next movie. Assuming the cost of de–aging technology decreases over time, there will be little incentive for big companies to explore new talent, especially when coupled with their ability to raise actors from the dead. While this technology can most certainly lead to grandiose fan service scenes, such as those in No Way Home, there is a price to using it as an eye–catching novelty. While the movie would've been successful either way, especially given the dominance of comic–book movies at the box office, it’s opened a door that can't be closed. The longevity of big–name careers may be greater than we think, and much like the Fountain of Youth, this effective immortality may not be as appealing as it first appears.