With the plethora of superhero movies that have already been released, we now have a significant library of films by which to judge superhero actors. Not only this but for many franchises, multiple actors have been cast to play the very same hero.
This list will countdown the 8 Best Superhero Actors and the 8 Terrible Actors Who Also Played These Heroes. This relationship is perfect as it allows us to show those actors who made their superhero characters memorable and compare these to the other actors who, for whatever reason, just couldn’t get the very same character off the ground.
Perhaps through this list, we can decipher the objective standards and elements which lead to a successful superhero role. All facts and storylines referenced in this article are from either the first-hand memory of the author or from the Marvel and DC Comics websites.
16. Best: Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Robin
A lot of people were disappointed at the conclusion of the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy that there were no actual plans in the works for Robin (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to get his own standalone film. I think this fan backlash highlights how popular Levitt’s Robin was, and how good of a job he did portraying the Boy Wonder.
One of the primary reasons Levitt’s portrayal makes our list of best superhero roles is the inherent difficulties of playing the Robin character. The simple fact is that the characters not very cool. In order to contrast the dark and brooding Batman character, DC comics made Robin your stereotypical do-gooder, with little personality outside of his heroic nature. The fact that Levitt was able to make this bland character entertaining speaks to his acting chops, and certainly places his portrayal of Robin above the next entry on this list.
15. Terrible: Chris O’Donnell – Robin
There are a hundred adjectives which could be used to describe Warner Bros. 1997 Batman and Robin film, and none of them are favorable. Of the many things wrong with this film, one of the most notable was the performance of Chris O’Donnell as Robin. All of the realism and grit that Gordon-Levitt brought to the character was completely lost on O’Donnell, as he proved to be one of the cheesiest aspects in an already cheesy movie.
In fact, O’Donnell’s performance was so cringe-worthy that I’d be willing to bet he’s at least partially to blame for Robin being absent from the first two Nolan Batman films. The good news for O’Donnell is that he’s far from the last Batman and Robin actor to make the wrong side of our list.
14. Best: Henry Cavill – Superman
Some of you may be surprised to see an actor who played Superman grace this list. After all, Superman is your quintessential boy scout, how hard is it to play someone who’s always doing the right thing. To begin with, such is not the case with the Superman from the recent Man of Steel films.
The films are dark and edgy, and I can imagine it being a very difficult task for Henry Cavill to play such an inherently good character in such a realistic setting. Not only this, but the way that Cavill plays Superman as pompous and arrogant is probably pretty realistic. I can’t imagine a guy who’s able to “jump small buildings in a single bound” being very humble.
13. Terrible: Tom Welling – Superman
So I will give Smallville some points for being a TV show about superheroes way before it was popular. However, that doesn’t forgive the fact that this show simply isn’t very good. It’s oddly written (a generous term) and the producers don’t do a good job with mixing its real world setting with the extraordinary world of superpowered folks that the young Clark Kent is entering into.
Added to this, is the fact that Tom Welling would likely have been more comfortable as the confident, all powerful full grown Superman, as opposed to the adolescent Clark Kent struggling to find himself. It is largely the overall awkwardness of this role that earns Welling a spot on the bad portion of our list.
12. Best: Ian McKellen – Magneto
Perhaps the most renown villain in the recent (recent being 2000) string of Marvel films is the arch nemesis of the X-men, Magneto, played by Ian McKellen. As a surprise to no one, McKellen absolutely killed the role. The thing about Magneto which I think makes him a hard character to play is that he’s not a true bad guy, instead, he is merely someone who’s trying to do what he thinks is best for his people.
A Holocaust survivor, Magneto is understandably a little messed up in the head, and his warped way of looking at the world certainly impacts the decisions he makes and the actions he takes. McKellen portrays this conflicted character masterfully, even getting the small details of his relationship with Professor Xavier perfectly right.
11. Terrible: Michael Fassbender – Magneto
With how impressively Ian McKellen had portrayed Magneto in the first string of X-men films, I find myself consistently disappointed with the performance of Michael Fassbender in the recent installments. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Fassbender’s portrayal, but it seems that he just doesn’t have the same grasp on the character that McKellen did. In many ways, Fassbender’s Magneto should be much angrier and more damaged than the one portrayed by McKellen, however, I think that just the opposite is true.
Fassbender’s obvious rage is simply not as powerful as the depth of emotion portrayed by McKellen, emotions that seem much more appropriate when portraying a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. For this reason, Fassbender’s performance as Magento makes our list here at #11.
10. Best: Don Cheadle – War Machine
I don’t know if Don Cheadle would like me saying this, but the guy makes a pretty awesome sidekick. Cheadle plays War Machine in the Avengers franchise, having the distinction of being one of the few heroes to not have their own standalone film. A lifelong friend of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), Cheadle’s character must toe the line between his friendship and his status as a high-ranking military official.
Cheadle presents this dilemma expertly, and the presence of War Machine made a profound impact on the plot and conflict of both Captain America: Civil War, and the second Avengers film. Towards the end of the Civil War film Cheadle winds up paralyzed, so who knows the future now holds for this beloved character.
9. Terrible: Terrance Howard – War Machine
The funny thing about Terrence Howard being on the negative portion of our list is that he is an incredibly talented actor. I still haven’t watched any of the Empire TV show but from the little bits of Howard that I’ve seen on the show, it looks like he hasn’t lost any of his acting ability. I think it’s fair to hypothesize that Howard is actually too talented an actor for the War Machine role. Instead of being the subordinate sidekick that Cheadle is, Howard competed with Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man every step of the way. Reportedly, Howard wanted to be paid like Downey’s equal too. In an interview, he explained that he was not brought back for subsequent Iron Man films (Howard was replaced by Cheadle after the first Iron Man) because Downey took up too much of the film’s budget.
8. Best: Fantastic 4 2005 Cast
I think I’m in the small majority of people who actually enjoyed the 2005 Fantastic 4 film. Sure, the casting director thought that everyone involved in this film should look like a model, but all the actors involved seemed to have a pretty good grasp on the comic book characters they were portraying, and the film reflects this. Particularly, I thought Ioan Gruffudd and Julian McMahon were very good in their roles (as Reed Richards and Dr. Doom respectively), but overall, the cast was very good. Not only this, but the chemistry (and the nature of their relationships) which existed between the four heroes was very closely tied to that found in the famous comic book. At the very least, the casting was much better than the next entry on our list.
7. Terrible: Fantastic 4 2015 Cast
Even when its trailers were just beginning to appear in movie theaters, I just knew that the recent incarnation of Fantastic 4 (2015) would be terrible. Some viewers drew issue with the casting of Michael B. Jordan as the traditionally white Johnny Storm, however, Jordan’s performance might have been the best out of the four heroes. Instead, let’s focus on the fact that Reed Richards, Sue Storm, and Johnny Storm are supposed to be a family, a fact that was blatantly ignored by this film (admittedly the 2005 film also changed the families dynamic by making Johnny Sue’s brother, rather than her son). Throw in the fact that Miles Teller (who I’m actually a fan of) should never play the kind of serious scientist that Richards is, and you have the makings for a pretty bad movie casting.
6. Best: Charlie Cox – Daredevil
I have been extremely impressed so far with relative unknown Charlie Cox and his rendition of the hero of Hell’s Kitchen. For those of you who have not seen the Daredevil show on Netflix, let me just start by saying how great it is top to bottom. All that aside, one of the shows highlights is how Cox plays Matt Murdock (Daredevil). Imagine the inherent struggles of playing a man who’s a bad ass superhero at night, but who must play a disabled (though he is truly blind in the traditional sense) average Joe during the day. Not only that, but Cox perfectly encapsulates the feel of the comic book Daredevil, including, but not limited to, the many relationships he has in the series (Punisher, Elektra, etc.)
5. Terrible: Ben Affleck – Daredevil
While Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Daredevil is not the worst of all time, it might be the most widely denounced. Riding high of the success of the original Tobey Maguire Spiderman film, audiences and producers alike were very excited for the release of Daredevil in 2003. I think that these high expectations were largely responsible for how badly the movie was reviewed by critics and viewers. With that being said, Affleck’s performance wasn’t very good. I think one of the best aspects of the Daredevil character is his edginess, but Affleck in his Bostonian glory just came off as corny. Throw in some questionable chemistry with co-star Jennifer Garner (which is really surprising considering these two were in a long-term relationship at one point) and you can understand why this film, for many, was almost unbearable to watch.
4. Best: Mark Ruffalo – The Hulk
Some people have criticized the performance of Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk’s alter-ego, Bruce Banner, for not being attention grabbing enough in an Avengers franchise filled with colorful characters and personalities. Ruffalo seems to blend into the background of many of his scenes, and that is exactly what makes his portrayal so great. The funny thing about Bruce Banner is that he’s not supposed to be eye-popping or attention grabbing. His purpose as a character is to act as the counter to the aggressive and outlandish Hulk. Therefore, Ruffalo isn’t fading to the back of the Avengers storylines due to a lack of acting chops but is instead playing true to a character who is inherently passive. At the very least, most people would agree that Ruffalo played the Banner character infinitely better than the next entry on our list.
3. Terrible: Eric Bana – The Hulk
I don’t think any hero in the recent string of superhero movies has had a harder time finding an actor to define the character than has the Incredible Hulk. A long time stalwart of Marvel Comics, since 2003 Hulk has been portrayed by three different actors in four separate films. The first of these attempts was Hulk in 2003 starring Eric Bana. Bana is an established Hollywood actor, however, he was not right to play Bruce Banner/ the Hulk. The actor who plays Banner needs to be kind of soft and overly compassionate in order to contrast the animalistic and destructive Hulk. Bana is naturally a pretty edgy actor, so he just didn’t work as a character who is notorious for lacking an edge.
2. Best: Christian Bale – Batman
As a franchise, the Batman movies have been fairly successful in finding actors to adequately play the Dark Knight. While Michael Keaton and Adam West have their own contingency of fans, in my opinion, the best Batman was Christian Bale. More than any other actor to dawn the black cape, Bale has been able to portray Batman as the dark avenger that the comics envisioned him being. Part of this is obviously the direction taken by director Christopher Nolan, but I think it is unfair to not give Bale a significant amount of credit for these films success. A good critique of Bale, however, was that his portrayal was only viewed as positively as it was, due to its close proximity to the #1 worst superhero portrayal on our list.
1. Terrible: George Clooney – Batman
Everything that Bale was in the Dark Knight Trilogy, Clooney was not in Warner Bros. Batman and Robin. In fact, Clooney’s portrayal of the caped crusader may have been the worst part (and this is coming from a film where they gave the bat suit nipples) of an already terrible movie. Clooney simply has none (and I mean literally zero) of the rage and depression needed to play the Batman character. Instead, this was a cartoonish film that was completely unenjoyable for anyone who’s over the age of ten (and that’s being generous). Clooney is, of course, a Hollywood icon so I don’t think this terrible role had too much of a negative impact on our list. Regardless, it makes our list here as the worst superhero portrayal to be improved by another actor.