Why Isn't Idris Elba a Bigger Movie Star?

It’s not for lack of trying

British actor Idris Elba attends the world premiere of "Beast" at the Museum of Modern Art on August...
About 15 Years of Longing

Look at Idris Elba’s filmography and you’ll see a graveyard. In each burial plot is a film that at one point was surely going to be the one to turn him into a proper movie star. Here lies Beasts of No Nation. He Didn’t Even Get an Oscar Nom.

Elba has all the trappings of the perfect movie star. Like the stars that came before him, he’s handsome, charismatic, a little rugged, and very talented, everything you could ever want in a leading man. So why isn’t he one? It is certainly not for lack of trying — the man works constantly, has collaborated with some of the most A-list directors and actors, has been floated as the new James Bond for what feels like a decade, and is generally very famous. But something, somehow, is not adding up. Because here is the thing — when Idris Elba stars in a movie, it’s usually bad.

Do not yell at me about Pacific Rim. I know you love Pacific Rim, but if that were the broad consensus we’d be on Pacific Rim 4: Even More Kaijus by now. In general, when Elba has been in a good movie, it has been in a supporting role, and even those are few and far between. In fact, you could argue that Elba has been in about four good movies in the last decade (I’m counting Zootopia) and he hasn't been the true lead in any of them.

The problem seems to be that no one knows what Elba wants to be, perhaps he doesn’t either. Is he a genre actor, as evidenced by his roles in the Thor movies, Star Trek Beyond, and a poorly received adaptation of The Dark Tower? Is he a serious actor who can handle the weight of a biopic like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom? Or is he a freaky dude who wants to prance around in Cats? It’s impossible to tell. Oddly, he has never tried the most glaringly obvious option: the lead role in an adult drama. (Apologies to The Mountain Between Us. “The what?” you might ask. Exactly.)

The closest thing he’s done to one of those in the last few years is Molly’s Game, in which he plays the lawyer to real-life celebrity poker maven Molly Bloom. And guess what? He’s really good in it. It’s another one of those pesky supporting roles, but he has great chemistry with Jessica Chastain, and you remember why people keep trying to make him a star. Just like you do when watching Netflix’s 2021 western The Harder They Fall, perhaps his most critically acclaimed performance in recent years, which had the bad luck of coming out the same year Netflix’s zero-sum Oscar campaigning was laser-focused on The Power of the Dog and The Lost Daughter. All the talent is there, but it just doesn’t seem to be sticking.

In Elba’s defense, it is nearly impossible to become a true movie star these days. Any semblance of a monoculture has disappeared, and the kinds of movies that launched people into the stratosphere in the ‘90s and early 2000s don’t exist anymore. As a result, fewer and fewer people have the power to open a movie based solely on the fact that they’re in it, and even those people are having a hard time. Brad Pitt can barely get Bullet Train to $70 million in domestic box office, and he’s Brad Pitt. It does help if the movie is good, as we have seen with Tom Cruise and Top Gun: Maverick, which is currently the sixth-highest grossing movie of all time at the U.S. box office.

Surely armed with all of this information, Elba keeps trying. Last week, Beast opened, a movie about him and his daughters being hunted by a lion. It grossed a paltry $10 million and the headline for the New York Times review read, “More Bore Than Roar.” This week, he will co-star alongside Tilda Swinton in George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing, which for his sake I hope is incredible, despite mixed early reviews. He needs a win.

But one win won’t solve Elba's main issue, which is that he usually takes roles in bad movies aiming to be blockbusters, or Oscar bait whose buzz dies down in a matter of weeks. He has joined Angelina Jolie as one of the best actors who regularly stars in completely subpar projects, but at least she got in the game early enough to earn the title of “movie star.”

It’s time to reroute. Perhaps a few years away from green screens and stunt coordinators would do him good, and give us all a chance to recall why it is that we like him so much. He could return to television — where he’s given his two best performances on The Wire and Luther — or just do a few films where he plays a regular human man who doesn’t have to confront a wild animal. And of course, there’s always the possibility of James Bond.