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The Four Types Of Idris Elba Movies

Idris Elba is having a moment. He voices the ferocious “Shere Khan” in “The Jungle Book,” which came out last weekend and is the second of several films featuring the British actor scheduled for 2016. He voiced a supporting character in “Zootopia,” a bona fide hit this year. And he stars in the forthcoming film “Bastille Day”; takes another voice acting turn in “Finding Dory,” out this June; and plays the baddie in the hotly anticipated “Star Trek: Beyond,” which will be released in July. Meanwhile, the “should Elba be the next James Bond?” question has become the background radiation of the pop culture universe. So it’s about time we took a more in-depth look at Elba’s career using our Hollywood Taxonomy methodology, with box office data from OpusData and critic scores from Rotten Tomatoes, and checked out where Elba is going next.1



“Cheer up, my man. Soon, you will be free.”

— Moreau, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”

Films: “The Gospel” (2005); “Daddy’s Little Girls” (2007); “The Reaping” (2007); “Prom Night” (2008); “Takers” (2010); “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” (2012); “No Good Deed” (2014); “The Gunman” (2015).

Elba was in “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” — the sequel to “Ghost Rider” — and this will never not be hilarious to me: What did the producers of this enterprise believe they failed to say in their first foray into the Ghost Rider mythos?

Anyway, the point here is that nobody is perfect. Elba has cultivated a career standing astride two parallel shores, one that has a whole bunch of good movies and one that has a whole bunch of sci-fi and fantasy movies. But sometimes a movie misses both beaches, and in Elba’s case, those respective misses are a retelling of a biblical parable, a Tyler Perry romantic comedy, a horror movie, a prom night slasher movie, a Hayden Christensen post-Star Wars vehicle, Ghost Rider 2, a prison escape film and a Sean Penn action film.

Well-Regarded Unseens

“It has been a lonely road, and it is not over yet.”

— Nelson Mandela, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”

Films: “Buffalo Soldiers” (2003); “28 Weeks Later” (2007); “This Christmas” (2007); “RocknRolla” (2008); “The Losers” (2010); “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013).

What’s so interesting about this batch of movies is that many are not all that different from the films in the previous group. For example, “RocknRolla” is a heist comedy, but unlike “Takers,” it was directed by Guy Ritchie and was pretty good. The main reason these movies are clustered together is that they were well-made films but didn’t enjoy success at the box office. “Buffalo Soldiers,” for example, was a good movie but flopped commercially, possibly because its U.S. release date was pushed back after the Sept. 11 attacks (the film doesn’t exactly portray the American military in the best light). And “28 Weeks Later” is considered a great zombie movie, but if you don’t follow the franchise, you may have missed it. “The Losers” was released around the same time as “The A-Team” and didn’t stand out.

But then there’s “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” a project that Elba starred in and emptied the tank on. Whatever flaws that film may have had, it’s without a doubt one of Elba’s best performances, making it a shame that the only people recognized for the film were U2.

For another actor, Mandela would be a career-defining role. But Elba’s been far more iconic.

Ensemble Sci-Fi and Fantasy

“Keeping the bridge open would unleash the full power of the Bifrost and destroy Jotunheim, with you on it.”

— Heimdall, “Thor,” in a line that sounds better out loud than in print

Films: “Thor” (2011); “Prometheus” (2012); “Pacific Rim” (2013); “Thor: The Dark World” (2013); “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015).

I have a theory: When Elba closes the door and is alone at home, his suave, cool-guy shtick goes away, and he becomes a gigantic nerd. I have little hard evidence for this theory, besides his film history, the projects he’s booked for the future and some comments that he’s made about those projects. But here goes …

Elba’s specialties include strong dramatic roles and superhero fare, which has led to an interesting tension in his career. There’s a hilarious anecdote he told The Telegraph about the emotional whiplash he suffered when doing a reshoot for “Thor: The Dark World” right after painstakingly filming “Mandela”:

I’m actually falling down from a spaceship, so they had to put me in harness in this green-screen studio. And in between takes I was stuck there, fake hair stuck on to my head with glue, this f—— helmet, while they reset. And I’m thinking: ‘24 hours ago, I was Mandela’. When I walked into the set the extras called me Madiba. I was literally walking in this man’s boots. [Within] six months, the crew, we were all so in love with this film we had made. I was him. I was Mandela, practically. … Then there I was, in this stupid harness, with this wig and this sword and these contact lenses. It ripped my heart out.

Still, science fiction and fantasy have been pretty good for Elba. He had great, meaty roles in “Prometheus” and “Pacific Rim,” and his run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has led to his reportedly playing a larger role in the forthcoming “Thor: Ragnarok.” And if nothing else, his time in “Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance” may have led Elba to want to play a conventional superhero at some point in his career. Besides “Thor: Ragnarok,” Elba has also signed on to play the protagonist in an adaptation of Stephen King’s dark fantasy story “The Dark Tower.” Sure, Elba is held in the highest regard when it comes to his dramatic turns, but it looks like he has some love for genre fiction. I mean, he’s in the next damn Star Trek movie. I’m sensing a pattern here: He has a nerdy side. (Or he’s just cashing in — one of the two.)

Wake Up, Academy

“You know, Avon, you gotta think about what we got in this game for, man. Huh? Was it the rep?”

— Russell “Stringer” Bell, “The Wire”

Films: “Beasts of No Nation” (2015); “Zootopia” (2016).

Television: “The Wire” (2002-04), “Luther” (2010-15).

Beyond all of that — the flops, the good movies that never caught on, the nerdy stuff — Elba is essential these days because of his turn on the small screen. Elba was unequivocally snubbed when he failed to receive a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for “Beasts of No Nation,” which had the majority of its run on Netflix (the small screen, so to speak). That role was a career high for Elba — and was a far more daring and interesting performance than the eventual nominees’, if you ask me. That the film didn’t have a conventional theatrical run may have played a part in Elba’s being left out of the Oscar running.

But Elba’s roles on the small screen are always the strongest in a production. I don’t need to be the 10,000th person to note how good his turn as anti-hero Stringer Bell was on “The Wire.” The numbers speak for themselves: Metacritic, which tends to have more depth than Rotten Tomatoes when it comes to television reviews, gave the first season of “The Wire” 79 out of 100 and the second season 95. The third season received a 98 and was the best of any show that aired in 2004, according to the ratings aggregator. Elba’s more recent run on the small screen, “Luther,” has been equally exciting; he has received sterling reviews from critics across its four series and won a Screen Actors Guild award for his performance.

Elba has done outstandingly well for himself despite arguably lacking opportunities for big starring roles on the big screen. Even the movies that aren’t considered great, he’s been great in. He doesn’t wear a cape in the MCU, but maybe someday he’ll get the chance to. And it seems like 2016 could really be Elba’s year. It’s about time.


  1. Despite working for years, Elba hasn’t had a ton of starring roles and has been more regularly cast, at least on the big screen, as supporting characters. In the end, I limited this analysis to films in which Elba was billed in the top 20.

Walt Hickey was FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.