Matt Damon is a big movie star. That’s not in doubt. While he worked regularly before then, he seriously broke out in 1997 with Good Will Hunting, which he starred in as well as wrote with friend Ben Affleck. And while he kept making starring appearances in movies like Rounders, The Talented Mr. Ripley and more he never seemed to be a bankable star on his own. He’s usually been part of an ensemble, a great cleanup hitter in a lineup featuring a wide array of stars.
Damon stars in this week’s new release The Great Wall, a story of a European mercenary (Damon) who becomes embroiled in the fight by an elite army in 11th Century China against the latest wave of giant alien monsters who threaten the world. And that makes this a great time to revisit the distinct phases of Damon’s career and how his role in the poster marketing specifically has evolved.
Phase 1: The early years
Of the seven major films he was in up to 1997 - School Ties, Geronimo: An American Legend, Glory Daze, Courage Under Fire, Chasing Amy, the Rainmaker and Good Will Hunting - Damon only appears on the one-sheets for three of them, Hunting, Ties and Rainmaker. In the rest he had such minor roles that he didn’t warrant one-sheet placement, though that’s a bit surprising when it comes to Courage Under Fire. While his role there wasn’t big - certainly not as meaty as stars Denzel Washington and Meg Ryan - he wasn’t as bankable a face or name at that time.
For his breakout role in Good Will Hunting, it’s notable that despite playing the title role - and being involved in the movie’s creation - he isn’t alone on the poster. Instead he shares the spotlight with Robin Williams, who also gets top-billing here. Again, this is indicative of Damon’s place in the Hollywood ecosystem at the time, where his face and his face alone wasn’t enough to sell the movie, so Williams needed to be part of the pitch to audiences as well.
The Rainmaker came out just a few months before Hunting hit theaters and the press for that movie was already in full swing, so the fact that he appears on the poster makes sense, even if he’s only seen from a distance and is still not on his own but alongside costar Danny DeVito. Even there, though, the focus is on the story’s origins with hit novelist John Grisham and that Francis Ford Coppola directed the movie.
Phase 2: That kid from Good Will Hunting (1998-2001)
Suddenly everyone knew who Damon was, so his profile in the poster campaigns of the movies he was in started to rise. That started with Saving Private Ryan, where he played the soldier in need of rescuing and so appeared alongside star Tom Hanks on the poster. Still, he’s in the background, which stands to some reason considering Private Ryan is essentially the Macguffin of the movie, the thing Hanks’s Captain and the rest of his squad is chasing across German-occupied France.
Two of his five collaborations with writer/director Kevin Smith fall into this period but he appears on the posters for just Dogma, where he plays one of the fallen angels trying to get to New Jersey. His cameo in Jay & Silent Bob, where he plays himself alongside Affleck, simply wasn’t large enough to warrant inclusion. And he doesn’t show up on the one-sheet for Finding Forrester.
The ones where he was a prominent part of the poster marketing include Rounders, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Talented Mr. Ripley and All the Pretty Horses. It was there he started to become an integral part of the marketing campaigns as his roles started to become bigger and more important, building up a body of work that would sustain him as a working actor while collaborating with Robert Redford and more of Hollywood’s top directors. He was beginning to become a household name and, more importantly here, face.
Phase 3: The Ocean and Bourne years (2001-2007)
Damon was now firmly established in Hollywood and not only began starring in his own action franchise but also in a quick succession of sequels in a popular heist series.
First up, he was part of a star-studded ensemble in 2001’s Ocean Eleven. The movie starred George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, three of Hollywood’s most well-known actors and huge box-office draws in their own rite. Damon was just one part of that ensemble but his profile was high enough that he made the cut of the five members of that group to appear on the one-sheet, with Andy Garcia rounding out that number. That’s a big step from Damon’s position as “the first one to get cut” in previous years. No one’s face appears on the one-sheet for the 2004 sequel and everyone shows up on the poster for the final entry in the trilogy, 2007’s Ocean’s Thirteen. We’ll have to see if he’s on the poster for Ocean’s Eight, the Sandra Bullock-starring sequel slated for next year, but his role has been labeled a cameo in comments to date so it’s unlikely.
Amidst the heist comedies Damon was also headlining his own action series, beginning with 2002’s The Bourne Identity. As the lead in that franchise it only makes sense that he shows up on all the posters, running on the one-sheet for the original, taking aim through a rifle’s scope for The Bourne Supremacy and walking through a crowded street for The Bourne Ultimatum.
In-between all that he kept appearing in big roles in other movies and his placement on posters was commiserate with those roles. So he’s one of the three faces, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson, on the poster for The Departed. He’s partnered with Heath Ledger on the poster for 2005’s The Brothers Grimm and with Greg Kinnear for 2003’s Farrelly Brothers comedy Stuck On You. And he appears prominently on the one-sheets for The Good Shepherd and Gerry, two movies he had significant starring roles in.
All that while also making small appearances in the movies of his friends, including Jersey Girl, Syriana and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, all of which he’s absent on the posters for.
Phase 4: Matt Damon’s big face in close-up (2008-2017)
If there’s a dominant theme to the last nine years of Matt Damon movie posters, it’s that studio marketers found people love a close-up shot of the actor’s face. That’s been the dominant theme of many of this era’s releases, staring with 2009’s The Informant!. That poster’s sole feature was a smiling, oblivious-looking Damon with horrible mustache looking excitedly at something just above the camera.
But it really exploded starting with 2015’s The Martian, which again was dominated by Damon’s face, this time decked out in a space helmet. It continued with last year’s Jason Bourne, which had a black-and-white photo of him glaring into the middle distance and has culminated with the poster for The Great Wall, which makes him a bigger feature of the one-sheet than the Great Wall of China itself.
That doesn’t mean it’s a universal feature of the campaigns, though. Damon has continued to play leads in other movies like Invictus, Promised Land, The Monuments Men, The Adjustment Bureau, Hereafter and other movies where he appeared in normal human scale on the posters. And he kept showing up in smaller movies, making important appearances in Margaret, True Grit, The Zero Theorem and Interstellar, his absence from some those campaign notable because they would have spoiled important story points. Finally, his appearance as one among many on the poster for Contagion shows Damon is still comfortable as part of an ensemble of high-profile players.
Looking back over the last 20 years of Matt Damon movie posters allows us to track the actor’s evolution from “third friend from the left” roles to starring turns where he’s in almost every frame of the movie, as well as almost every square inch of poster real estate. That’s quite a change and has provided us with a better look at Damon in almost every conceivable sense.