There were a great many elements of HBO's His Dark Materials to take in during Monday night's premiere: a new adventurous young girl clambering across rooftops for us to root for in young Lyra; a world where cute little animals called "daemons" are an external representation of our souls; Ruth Wilson's Mrs. Coulter knowing full well that wearing a statement color is a great way to distract small children from your villainous intent. And we haven't even gotten to the parts of the season with Lin-Manuel Miranda and armored polar bears. But no single aspect of His Dark Materials could compete with our very first look at James McAvoy playing polar explorer, notorious heretic, and all-around enigmatic uncle Lord Asriel.
What we know about Lord Asriel we learn from snippets and rumors. Here a flashback to him dropping off baby Lyra at Jordan College; there on an arctic expedition, seeing a shimmering city in the stardust of the northern lights; back at Jordan College having a remarkably casual reaction to the news that the headmaster was attempting to poison him. Clearly there's more to Lord Asriel than what we're seeing; his determination to defy the Magisterium is definitely rooted in something serious, and the emotion on his face when he has to once again sail away on his airship and leave Lyra behind is almost heartbreaking. It's not an easy task, but McAvoy manages to be both mysterious and the kind of comforting presence that Lyra deeply wishes would stick around (or let her come adventure with him). He's an enigma and a rather appealing one at that, right down to his snow leopard daemon.
Honestly, whatever Lord Asriel wants to do is cool, but HOW DARE James McAvoy show up to play him with that shock of graying hair up front, reminding us all at once of creeping mortality and that on our best day, we could never look one-tenth as dashing as McAvoy looks now that he's allowing the passage of time to be reflected in his appearance. Never mind that this is coming not a year removed from McAvoy starring in M. Night Shyamalan's Glass as a supervillain whose extraordinary abilities are, and I believe this was somewhere in the script notes, "being super ripped and looking fine as hell in some sweatpants despite being a killing machine." James McAvoy is taking us on a TOUR of what it means to be sexy on screen in 2019.
But back to that gray streak. A streak that looks at the Cruela de Vil skunk stripe that Bodyguard's Richard Madden rolled out during awards season last year and nods, unconcerned. Madden may have the backing of Game of Thrones fans behind him, but McAvoy has a 15+ year career of aging into that gray streak. Having first made his mark in the SyFy miniseries adaptation of Children of Dune, playing the spiritually shirtless Leto Atreides II (who wanders out to the desert, acquires some scaly snake skin, and becomes an immortal god-emperor), McAvoy's path hasn't always seemed to be destined to the distinguished UILF in a fantasy adaptation. Perhaps a distinguished goat in a fantasy adaptation, as he was playing the devoted and unsettlingly sexy Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia. The handful of roles a young McAvoy received where he played a handsome but easily-led-astray young lad met its natural zenith in Atonement, where he was cast as the most handsome man in the history of the world, who was then marched off to war and certain death because Saoirse Ronan didn't know what walking in on your sister getting fingered against a bookcase looks like.
Hell, even the X-Men movies — which made the empirically inferior decision to have McAvoy go starkly bald rather than gradually, sately gray — knew that casting James McAvoy as their second-gen Charles Xavier meant having to finally deal with the white-hot sexual chemistry between Professor X and Magneto that not even the bitchy-old-queens vibe that Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart were able to arrive at.
Charm. Charisma. The acting chops to handle multiple personalities (Split) and Cold War accents (Atomic Blonde) without sacrificing an ounce of his appeal. James McAvoy did not need any help getting audiences to swoon. So what, then, is the purpose of this salt-and-pepper assault on our senses? Particularly when paired with Lord Asriel's penchant for winter knits that — as exemplified in the sweater above — create an entirely unfair set of conditions for viewers at home.
So no, we don't deserve James McAvoy, nor his hair, nor his sweaters, nor his daemon (which is voiced by Draco Malfoy's mom, Helen McCrory). But we've got him just the same, so it's time to at least pay him his due.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.