For many, their first exposure to the intense, glower-made-manifest that is Karl Urban came in his role as Eomer in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. This wasn’t Urban’s first time draped in fantasy-themed attire—the New Zealand native appeared as roughly an entire cast’s worth of characters in the Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess shared universe. (Seriously, he played Cupid, Mael, Kor and Julius Caesar.)
In a way, his role as Eomer is a perfect example of a signature “heft” Urban seems to bestow on any role. Creating a fantasy world on the big screen requires more than special effects, solid scripts and even “star power”—you need your secondary players to serve as compelling additional anchors. In that way, Urban’s presence in a cast is like that of a high-quality ingredient in a meal—he may not be the signature dish, but his inclusion suggests this will be a good, hearty meal all the same. It’s part of the reason why The Chronicles of Riddick is such a satisfying space opera. It’s why Urban’s assumption of the role of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy in JJ Abrams’ Kelvin variant of Star Trek passed muster with one of the most vocal corners of fandom. It’s also even a small part of why Thor: Ragnarok rejuvenated the least loved of the mini-franchises within the MCU. And that’s just it—Urban may seldom be the reason a project succeeds, but he’s always one of the reasons it succeeds (and never the reason it fails).
Of course, as his most recent role as Butcher in Amazon Prime’s The Boys shows, Urban is able to take the lead when given the opportunity. Not surprisingly, he’s especially effective when it’s a role that requires a certain submergence; Urban’s turn as Judge Dredd in 2012’s Dredd did as much to expose how badly Sylvester Stallone and company flubbed the property as, well, Stallone himself.
It all comes back to that glower, or to borrow from the rebooted Jumanji series, the “smolder.” Crassly but directly put, Urban observes like a mother fucker. He ponders a dilemma with more intensity than a bomb disposal expert concentrates on which wire goes boom. In doing so, the subject of his gaze, the focus on his concentration or whatever his character is thinking about, just … solidifies.
It’s why Karl Urban stands out in an era where big name actors no longer eschew fantasy and sci-fi roles as bad career moves (and instead embrace them as “SET FOR LIFE, BABY!”). With franchises like Star Trek, the MCU, the Xenaverse and even the Doom videogame checked off the list, it seems like Urban’s next logical, inescapable destination lies in a galaxy far, far away (perhaps as a Knight in some Old Republic?). All I know is, wherever Urban goes next, there’s going to be some serious smoldering going on.
Michael Burgin is the Movies Editor for Paste. He appreciates Karl Urban.