If you’re a Hollywood actor, the opportunity to star in a big budget superhero action movie can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, who wouldn’t welcome the chance to earn money, to work on a spectacular film set, while being infused with ass-kicking super powers thanks to state of the art CGI? But a superhero role tends to broadly define an actor’s career, for better or for worse. Since superhero movies typically boast an unmatched breadth of movie-going audiences, reputations tend to be forged on these massive blockbusters. Ben Affleck, for instance, boasts more than 60 film credits while earning Oscars for Good Will Hunting and Argo, but many fans best know him for his much-publicized failures as both Daredevil and, more recently, Batman.
The only saving grace for stars of superhero duds who wish to be remembered for work outside of the Marvel or DC Comics universe is how over-saturated the superhero movie market has become. Since 2000, alone, there have been nearly 40 movies produced by Marvel and DC, with another 18 already on the slate for the coming years. With all these big budget films being offered up to action-loving movie audiences, even the biggest comic book nerds would be hard-pressed to recall every superhero and super-villain to hit the big screen.
Indeed, while Affleck may be forever defined by his underwhelming performances once he suited up, other actors have gotten off considerably easier. Despite their marquee stature in Hollywood, not every actor – not even the A-list ones – were able to truly make a mark in their own superhero vehicle, for better or for worse. That means they weren’t quite good enough to be forever connected with their superhero character in the way that Robert Downey Jr. (as Tony “Iron Man” Stark) and Hugh Jackman (as Wolverine) are. But, they also weren’t bad enough to live on in infamy, as was the case for George Clooney (Batman). Whether they weren’t able to make their superhero (or super-villain) seem all that super or whether they had the misfortune of starring in a clunker, you might not recall the superhero movie forays of these big-name actors.
15. Topher Grace – Spider-Man 3
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man films pitted Tobey Maguire‘s Peter Parker against a terrifying Willem Dafoe and a darkly charismatic Alfred Molina as the Green Goblin and Dr. Octopus, respectively, in the first two films. The presence of those two, along with James Franco‘s brooding Harry Osborn, seemed like Raimi knew how to construct a threatening villain.
Then came Spider-Man 3, where Raimi decided that Spidey would do battle with a mopey Thomas Haden Church as Sandman and Topher Grace as Venom. Yes, skinny smart aleck Eric Foreman from That 70’s Show was cast as one of the most fearsome villains in Spider-Man lore. Luckily for him, his stint as a super-villain is, more or less, forgettable.
14. Hugo Weaving – V For Vendetta
When it comes to famed British character actor Hugo Weaving, most fans can identify him through his role as the villainous Agent Smith in the Matrix trilogy or as Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger.
Ironically, his only leading role in a comic book adaptation was also probably his most anonymous. Playing the titular V in V for Vendetta, Weaving finally got to play the hero, albeit one who was wearing a Guy Fawkes mask the entire movie. The role only became Weaving’s after James Purefoy backed out six weeks into filming, citing difficulties in wearing the mask for the entire film.
Unfortunately for Weaving, who reunited with the Wachowskis for the film, playing the hero didn’t save him from suffering the same untimely fate that he already had in so many other of his films.
13. Drew Barrymore – Batman Forever
The initial fame, downward spiral and ultimate redemption of third-generation Hollywood star Drew Barrymore is the stuff of legend, seemingly pulled from the pages of a film script. After emerging as a major childhood star with films like E.T., then falling into an alcohol and drug-fuelled public meltdown, Barrymore was ready for a comeback in the mid-90s.
Strangely, that comeback included a cameo role in Joel Schumacher‘s cheesy Batman Forever, featuring Val Kilmer as the caped crusader. Although, hardly noticeable amidst a colorful cast that included Jim Carrey as The Riddler and Tommy Lee-Jones as Two-Face, Barrymore played Sugar, Two-Face’s nice assistant next to Debi Mazar‘s Spice, the evil assistant.
It was hardly a meaty role. She was given more to do in her Scream cameo the following year, a role which saw her killed off in the opening scene.
12. Shaquille O’Neal – Steel
Sometime around the early 1990s, basketball star Shaquille O’Neal got a taste for the big screen, much to the chagrin of movie-going audiences everywhere. He starred as – what else? – a basketball phenom in 1994’s Blue Chips and it was only downhill from there, with his starring role as the titular genie in Kazaam representing a low point.
If Kazaam is mockingly remembered for its ridiculous premise and terrible acting, Steel is hardly remembered at all. Made on a $16 million budget, the movie about a weapons manufacturer-turned-superhero made just $1.7 million during its theatrical run. Iron Man it was not.
While the film didn’t exactly carry a lasting impact in the superhero genre, it did represent the end of O’Neal’s tenure as a Hollywood leading man.
11. Sharon Stone – Catwoman
Through her roles as a manipulative and sometimes psychotic seductress in Basic Instinct as well as Casino and Total Recall, Sharon Stone has shown that she plays second fiddle to no man. As the villainous Laurel Hedare in the Halle Berry-driven Catwoman film, Stone shows that she plays second fiddle to no woman, either.
Unfortunately for Stone, a movie once thought to be the start of a multi-film franchise was so widely panned and poorly received that no follow-up films were ever made. Catwoman flopped at the box office too, raking in just $82 million despite carrying a budget of $100 million.
10. Sean Connery – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
If you want to build a superhero franchise, there are worse places to start than by casting Sean Connery, who earned his place as an action hero by playing James Bond, Indiana Jones’ dad and a wide variety of other kick-ass roles.
But, could he earn praise as the 72-year-old star of a pointless comic book adaption about literary characters saving the world? Maybe Connery should’ve taken a pass on The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film adaption, which served as his final role before retirement. As the sharp-shooting Allan Quatermain, Connery could not save a poorly conceived film based on a comic that admittedly didn’t boast much of a fervent following.
9. Taylor Kitsch – X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Although the Gambit spinoff movie has seemingly been shelved for the time being, it seems clear at this point that it will be Channing Tatum assuming the role of the rogue X-Men character.
However, Gambit has already debuted on the big screen, and Tatum wasn’t the heartthrob who was playing him at the time. Taylor Kitsch of Friday Night Lights fame took on the part of the card-throwing kinetic energy manipulator in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The role wasn’t a particularly big one and the film was hardly the biggest among the X-Men canon, but you’d think that a fellow budding Hollywood star, who is actually a year younger than Tatum, would merit some consideration for a role he’s already occupied.
8. Charlize Theron – Hancock
In playing kick-ass femme fatale Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road last year and portraying the evil Queen Ravenna in the Snow White and the Huntsman saga, Charlize Theron has gotten her fill of taking on characters with seemingly super-human powers. Only once has she played a bona fide superhero – and even then, she had to take a back seat.
Theron shared the screen with Will Smith in Hancock, with her character setting off a strange mid-movie subplot, in which she happens to possess the same superpowers and immortality as Smith’s character and even reveals that she was in a relationship with him in a past life.
7. Kevin Spacey – Superman Returns
When Bryan Singer cast Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor in his 2006 Superman reboot Superman Returns, it seemed like the perfect marriage of actor and character. Unfortunately, he also cast the blandly tepid Brandon Routh as the titular Man of Steel and made a dull and uninteresting movie that was woefully short on action. Shame, too, as a predictably game Spacey delivered the type of fun and delightfully evil over-the-top performance that was deserving of a more capable foil.
Although a sequel was initially planned, a disappointing box office return prompted the Singer-led project to be cast aside in favor of the Zack Snyder-led Man of Steel, which starred Henry Cavill as Superman and didn’t even include Luthor, opting instead to pit Superman against Michael Shannon‘s General Zod.
6. John Malkovich – Jonah Hex
Much like Spacey, John Malkovich seems uniquely suited to play some deranged criminal mastermind. He certainly has a fair share of experience, playing psychotic baddies in In the Line of Fire, Dangerous Liasons and Con Air while simply playing a whackjob in the RED series.
Unsurprisingly, Malkovich’s first and only foray into the superhero genre came as a crazed baddie, albeit a largely forgettable one. He played Quentin Turnbull, the arch-nemesis to Josh Brolin‘s Jonah Hex in the underwhelming 2010 superhero romp of the same name. Despite carrying a budget of $47 million, the DC Comics film bombed out and raked in just $10.9 million. Interestingly, Malkovich’s Turnbull was aligned with the sadistic Burke, played by future X-Men star Michael Fassbender.
5. Terrence Howard – Iron-Man
Through two Iron Man films, one Captain America and one Avengers film, Don Cheadle has enjoyed a presence within the Marvel Universe through the role of Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, also known as War Machine, but it wasn’t always that way.
Oscar nominee Terrence Howard assumed the role of Rhodes for the original Iron Man film, only to pass on the sequels when he was reportedly asked by producers to return at $7 million less than he had made for the first one. According to Howard, much of that money went back into the pocket of Robert Downey Jr., whom he had helped secure the role of Tony Stark. In the end, Howard left the Iron Man franchise behind and fans didn’t seem to mind as Cheadle stepped in.
4. Catherine Zeta-Jones – The Phantom
Catherine Zeta-Jones has held her own against Antonio Banderas‘ Zorro, stolen the show from Richard Gere and Renee Zellweger as Velma Kelly in Chicago and proved a formidable foe for the Ocean’s crew in Ocean’s Twelve. It’s a wonder, then, that she hasn’t had more of a presence as either hero or villain in the superhero genre.
The only superhero credit Zeta-Jones has to her name came in the little-seen 1996 thriller The Phantom, with Billy Zane in the title role. Although she later aligns herself with the good guy Phantom, Zeta-Jones was still able to flex some femme fatale muscle as the vicious pirate Sala. Too bad the movie itself, which lost nearly $30 million, was such a dud.
3. Seth Rogen – The Green Hornet
Seth Rogen… a superhero? It has been what feels like a long five years since The Green Hornet, Rogen’s biggest film and most disappointing flop of his career. As spoiled playboy Britt Reid, Rogen actually seemed like the right choice to play the entitled and clueless slacker son of a wealthy newspaper publisher. What audiences didn’t buy was his ability to be a believable superhero, one who could take down a Russian mobster super-villain played by Christoph Waltz and could serve as a love interest for Cameron Diaz.
In hindsight, even Rogen calls the experience as “a f**king nightmare”, acknowledging that he and longtime collaborator Evan Goldberg got too cocky in thinking they could find the same success with a $100 million budget as they had with their smaller, edgier films.
2. John Travolta – The Punisher
Say what you will about his personal life and any rumors associated with him, but John Travolta has proven himself to be a versatile talent on the big screen. Travolta has lit up the screen as a disco dancer, a greaser, a vicious hit-man, a crime boss, an FBI agent, an evil alien and even a woman.
Far lesser known, however, was his turn as the sinister Howard Saint in the 2004 Punisher film starring Thomas Jane. As Saint, Travolta got to play bad again and even ordered the whole family of Jane’s Frank Castle to be killed before meeting his own messy demise by being brutally dragged behind a car.
A broad, family-friendly Marvel flick, this wasn’t.
1. Liam Neeson – Darkman
In 1990, Sam Raimi was a young producer still gaining his footing in the movie industry after breaking through with his work on Evil Dead. He tried – and failed – to secure the film rights to The Shadow and Batman, leaving him to create his own superhero in the form of the mysterious Darkman, for whom he had even published a short story.
In Raimi’s big screen adaptation, the titular masked hero, who was also known as Dr. Peyton Westlake, was played by a then-little known Liam Neeson. Because his face was enshrouded for the whole film, this wasn’t exactly the breakout role that Neeson would later enjoy. However, the film was surprisingly successful, making $48 million after costing just $16 million to make. It has also become a cult favorite in the years since.