The best surprise cast appearances in movies across the last twelve months (spoilers)

It is entirely appropriate that Spider-Man No Way Home should be one of the biggest box office earners of 2021 as it is a film that is all about its big surprise cast appearances, and the last twelve months, more than any others, seem to have included a long list of movies with high profile cameos and returning actors that you didn’t know were coming back. Some of these were kept under wraps better than others but nonetheless each one was a treat and many were among the best movie moments of 2021. Yes, of course I’d rather see great writing, wonderful performances and excellent film craft but there is still a thrill in seeing a key actor turn up on screen bringing all their movie history with them. It is hard to know which of the many returning Spider-Man characters would have brought the greatest joy had most of them not been revealed in the trailer and posters but as it is, it was the confirmation that the previous Peter Parkers where in the film with the appearance of Andrew Garfield that landed best. I guess at this point there was still a chance that they wouldn’t have Tobey Maguire too but not much of one and the Garfield moment was effectively the glorious realisation that both of them were a part of the movie.

Of course Marvel Studios is famous for big cameos and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings didn’t disappoint either. Anyone who knows anything about director Destin Daniel Cretton’s filmography should have expected Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel to show up, as the actor has already been in three of his four previous movies. The big surprise was the return of Ben Kingsley as Trevor ‘The Mandarin’ Slattery though. His turn here wasn’t as good as it was in Iron Man 3 but it was satisfying to see him, not least because it was the studio acknowledging how they had run from depicting the problematic Mandarin character in the past. They got it right here and to see the two portrayals of this bad guy in a film together, even though they were tonally very different, really worked.

By contrast, the biggest reveal in Marvel’s Eternals wasn’t an existing player coming back, it was a new one making their debut and it was a real ‘what the hell’ moment. This was largely because he announced himself as another Eternal, because he said he was Thanos’s brother and due to the fact that he was being played by Harry Styles, of all people. So many questions that may never be answered.

One of the actors who has most commonly turned up unexpectedly in Marvel films before is Chris Evans, but even though we’d hoped for a glimpse of him in the studio’s Falcon and the Winter Soldier or Loki maybe, we were denied. He did show up in Free Guy though, prompting the biggest laugh in the whole movie. I won’t describe the nature of his appearance here as it won’t work on the page, but it’s worth watching the film for this one moment alone – almost.

None other than Stephen Sondheim featured in tick, tick… BOOM!. I’m not talking about Bradley Whitfield playing the legendary composer and lyricist, I’m referring to the man himself leaving that message on Jonathan Larson’s answerphone using a recording of the actual message that the real Sondheim actually left on the real Jonathan Larson’s answerphone. He’s not the person I’m talking about there though. One of the best sequences in the movie was the performance of the song Sunday, that had a chorus made up of forty plus years of Broadway legends. As someone relatively uninitiated into this world I was able to identify Joel Grey, Renée Elise Goldsbery, Phillipa Soo, Phylicia Rashad, Bebe Neuwirth, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Bernadette Peters, but for the record the others were André De Shields, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Chita Rivera, Chuck Cooper, Howard McGillin, Adam Pascal and Wilson Jermaine Heredia. Pah, and people thought No Way Home was Andrew Garfield’s most star studded film in this year.

The best scene in the patchy Coming 2 America was definitely King Jaffe’s funeral. The appearances of En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa and Gladys Knight are a lot of fun and added to the nostalgia that the whole movie is totally built on. Theirs is not the best appearance though and neither is it John Legend at the end. No, it has to be Morgan Freeman dryly delivering the eulogy. Barb and Star wanted that iconic voice but could only manage an impressionist in their film. Eddie Murphy got the real deal.

The new Candyman film rewrote a lot of the existing mythology in the story but leant heavily on the 1992 movie that started the franchise. (Thankfully it largely ignored the inferior sequels.) This being the case it was uncertain if we would see Tony Todd as the original villain, it really could have gone either way. The story went to great pains to point out that he was only one of many manifestations of the vengeful ghost so it seemed to be steering away from a spectral cameo but then it delivered and it was good to see.

Speaking of spectral cameos though, the greatest joy I had in seeing an old cast member returning this year was Harold Ramis at the end of Ghostbusters Afterlife. You tread a very fine line when you digitally bring actors back from the dead. Technically it is hard to achieve as the CGI can be a little off, as shown with Peter Cushing in Rogue One, and ethically it can be problematic since you are stealing someone’s image and using it as a gimmicky puppet, as shown with Peter Cushing in Rogue One.

Here they got the balance right though and having him turn up as a friendly ghost was the lovely final tribute to the man and the character that the film had been building up to from the start. Crucially it wasn’t quite a perfect recreation of Ramis, deliberately so. It was just very slightly caricatured so that at no point would anyone have thought this was anything more than a computer generated character. They were not trying to make it look like Ramis had filmed these scenes himself like they did with Cushing’s Tarkin or Audrey Hepburn in that chocolate advert, or even Carrie Fisher in the flashback in The Rise of Skywalker. It was right not to have him speak either, it was effectively a drawn image, all be it a moving one, like those that have been used to commemorate revered people who have passed away since paint was first put to canvas. All of this came together perfectly and in the context of surprise appearances or not, it was one of my highlights of the cinema year.

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