Earlier this year, Die Hard star Bruce Willis announced his retirement from Hollywood after being diagnosed with aphasia, a condition that affects a person’s ability to speak, write, and understand verbal and written language. According to reports, the star struggled with “cognitive issues” while filming recent movies, could not remember his lines, and used an earpiece on set.
“It was increasingly difficult to have him on screen,” a source told Page Six at the time. “So they’d use body doubles, not just for action [sequences], but for maximising his screen time. He could not act anymore.”
Now, it seems like the 67-year-old legend will continue appearing on the big screen with the possibility of starring alongside late icons like Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant, all thanks to his ‘digital twin’. Signing a historic deal with Deepcake, an AI-powered content optimisation platform, Willis has become the first Hollywood celebrity to sell his image rights to create a deepfake (or digital clone) of himself for use in future films—without ever being on set.
“With the advent of the modern technology, I could communicate, work and participate in filming, even being on another continent,” Willis said in a testimony on Deepcake’s website. “It’s a brand new and interesting experience for me, and I am grateful to our team.”
Willis’ decision follows his first brush with the technology back in August 2021, when his face was digitally grafted onto 48-year-old actor Konstantin Solovyov in a commercial for the Russian telecommunications company, MegaFon. Here, the AI was trained using content from his previous films like Die Hard and Fifth Element to truly nail his likeness.
“I liked the precision of my character. It’s a great opportunity for me to go back in time,” the star added in his statement. While Willis can now recreate projects in just three to five days, his estate has the final say on the content that’s produced with his face.
According to Sandro Monetti, director of the 2022 documentary Tech to the Future, the innovation in question has the potential to change Hollywood forever as Deepcake aims to become the biggest global talent agency in the industry. “They are thinking bigger than just using this tech for cool Instagram Reels,” he said, as noted by Metro. “Deepcake wants a large slice of the Hollywood money pie—and if it can get the rights to stars living and dead, they might well get it.”
“Actors of today now have the chance to share the screen with classic idols like Cary Grant or Marilyn Monroe. If this tech had been available just a bit earlier, we could have seen Elvis in his own biopic,” Monetti continued, referring to the 2022 Austin Butler-starrer, Elvis.
Deepcake CEO Maria Chmir also confirmed that the company is in talks with several film studios and estates of late stars. “We create digital twins of celebrities and the actual production process doesn’t require the physical presence of a celebrity on stage,” she said. “It means comics like Charlie Chaplin and Kevin Hart can interact in one frame now.”
Earlier this year, Marvel signed a 20-year deal to cast the late Stan Lee in films using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and old footage. At the time, several fans slammed the company for elder abuse and questioned if digital resurrections are truly an ethical way to honour the dead. Disney has also previously revived Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story—meanwhile Lucasfilm decided to include unused footage of Carrie Fisher from Episode VII: The Force Awakens in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker after her passing.
Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, was additionally cast as Princess Leia’s younger version in a flashback, with her mother’s face digitally added using CGI.
In Willis’ case, the star has already shot three more action thrillers before the creation of his digital twin, including Detective Knight: Rogue, Die Like Lovers and Paradise City—with the former set to hit theatres on 21 October 2022.
The founding father of Marvel Comics, the late Stan Lee, has made a whopping total of 60 cameos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to date. Though Lee passed away on 12 November 2018 at the age of 95, he had filmed a number of cameos prior to his death—thus being featured posthumously in Captain Marvel, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Avengers: Endgame.
While the latter cast a digitally de-aged Lee, subsequent MCU films and shows have included the late legend through posters and magazines placed cleverly within the frame. But now, it turns out that Marvel Studios has a different plan for the future.
First noted by The Hollywood Reporter, Genius Brands International and POW! Entertainment have signed a 20-year deal with Marvel to licence the name and likeness of Stan Lee—seeking to bring his iconic MCU cameos back using computer-generated imagery (CGI) and old footage. According to the outlet, Lee’s image will be used for feature films, TV productions, Disney theme parks, “various experiences” and merchandising.
Andy Heyward, the CEO and Chairman of Genius Brands International, said the new deal will allow Lee’s legacy to live on. “It really ensures that Stan, through digital technology and archival footage and other forms, will live in the most important venue, the Marvel movies, and Disney theme parks,” Heyward admitted in a statement obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s a broad deal,” he added.
Though Stan the Man has always understood the assignment and electrified audiences with his scene-stealing cameos, the possibility of the late creator’s return using CGI is drawing mixed responses from fans online. “Marvel decided that Stan Lee didn’t experience enough elder abuse when he was alive,” a user wrote on Twitter, referencing the arrest warrant made against Keya Morgan—a New York memorabilia dealer who became a close companion to the comics magnate—for charges including false imprisonment, forgery and fraud.
Meanwhile, others highlighted how people in Lee’s life were once “stealing” vials of his blood to create a special ink meant to be hand stamped as autographs without his knowledge or consent. In 2019, lawyers Kirk Schenck and Jonathan Freund, who represented Lee and his daughter, told The Guardian that since the death of Lee’s wife in 2017, there had been “multiple men” who had tried to “attach themselves to Stan and his various businesses and to manage his affairs.”
Now, CGI avatars of late actors are not a new tactic in Hollywood. Disney previously revived Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a decision that raised many questions on whether digital resurrections are an ethical way to honour the dead. The media giant drew negative backlash from both critics and fans once again when Lucasfilm decided to include unused footage of Carrie Fisher from Episode VII: The Force Awakens in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker after her passing. Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, was additionally cast as Princess Leia’s younger version in a flashback, with her mother’s face digitally added using CGI.
Marvel’s brand new announcement, however, is even more surprising—considering the fact that the studio once stated that it will no longer use cameos of Lee in future projects “out of respect” for the legend.
While the MCU fandom is currently urging Marvel Studios to feature Benedict Wong—who is already confirmed to appear in She-Hulk: Attorney at Law—along with Deadpool in future films instead of Lee, it should be noted that sources close to the situation have also stated that neither Marvel nor Disney have begun planning Lee’s CGI cameos as of today. This means they could tune into the discourse the announcement has made online and decide on the matter accordingly.
Until then, you can certainly expect to witness Lee’s return through figurines, clothing and VR experiences at Disney theme parks in the future.