We’ve all experienced it – you’re watching a Marvel film (literally any Marvel film) and you spot an ageing man with characteristic glasses, a thick, white moustache and a discernible New York accent. Some will recognise him and think ‘ooo that’s Stan Lee!’ whereas others remain completely oblivious, waving it off as a slightly weird moment easily forgotten. It’s easy to rationalise why Stan Lee is given time on screen, having created almost all of the superheroes we love, he deservedly gets a nod. This is the ‘cameo role’, something we are all so familiar with, but never question.
So why do we get so excited at cameo appearances? Why do we shout at our TV screens, or poke our friend next to us and point out who it is? Simply – recognition. We go through a process as a viewer – ‘I know know who that is! Why are they there!? They’re not supposed to be there! Cool!’ These tiny roles are a clever tool for creating excitement, and possibly act as a momentary distraction away from the narrative.
Marvel use cameos extremely well, not only featuring fanboy-spots of Stan Lee, but by interweaving other characters of their universe into other narratives. After the credits of 2008’s Iron Man, Nick Fury turned up to speak to Tony Stark about the Avengers Initiative, four years before their own cinematic outing. This is a relatively new reason for cameos, playing on our recognition of characters to essentially advertise and drum-up chat about future films, hinting at new characters and new plot-lines. The post and mid-credit sequence has since become a staple of the superhero genre, and to some, exhausted. For instance, Guardians of the Galaxy’s post-credit sting featured the relatively obscure character ‘Howard the Duck’ in a moment that added to the zany humour of the film, but nothing else. Some people loved it, some missed the point.
Whether the person plays themselves, or a character, these moments are often the most memorable and perfectly placed within the narratives. I mean who could forget the news-team battles from Anchorman and Anchorman 2?
Cameos do naturally carry a comedic nature being idiosyncratic and uncanny in the context of the film. This humour is used in Zombieland, where Bill Murray pops up as himself (another huge type of cameo), pretending to be a zombie for survival purposes, only to be killed by another character who thinks he is actually a zombie. The Muppets films are basically built around short cameo roles for celebrities who each add another moment of excitable recognition for the viewer. Whether the person plays themselves, or a character, these moments are often the most memorable and perfectly placed within the narratives. I mean who could forget the news-team battles from Anchorman and Anchorman 2, comprising of some the most random cameos from Drake to Marion Cotillard; or disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong convincing Vince Vaughn back into action in Dodgeball; or even the brief, silent appearance of a Studio Ghibli Totoro plush in Toy Story 3.
Cameos do exist for another reason – as the authorial imprint of the director or as a recognition of talent. Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in almost all of his films walking in the background for people to spot, subtlety marking his directorial stamp. Similarly, Quentin Tarantino often puts himself in weird roles, making us fully aware of his ‘Tarantino’ brand of cinema. The original writers are often given cameos (Stan Lee), for instance Hunter S. Thompson’s cameo in Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas where he is seen in a flashback scene as an older version of Johnny Depp’s character who plays Thompson’s alter-ago (so meta), or Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, who randomly cameos in the first film, eating at a diner for tweens to shout about.
Cameos shouldn’t be interesting, but they are. Obvious or not, we LOVE pointing them out and getting excited at them. They bring a re-watchability to certain films, and often provide the most memorable, funny moments (the opening cameos, especially Michael Cera, in This Is The End). Whether they are being used for covert advertising purposes, comedy, or recognition of talent, we can’t seem to get enough of them, and therefore they will forever be part of cinema.