Let’s play a game. We’ll look at some of the most iconic characters in film history that have been played by multiple actors and we’ll compare the performances. With the excellent vantage point of our living room sofas, we should be able to determine who played the character better and why. Obviously, this type of list would be tough to do without at least mentioning a few comic book characters, but we’ll try to do only the biggest to spread the love around to other genres and film types. This exercise is difficult. As we all know, an actor’s performance doesn’t only depend on their own abilities. There’s the script, the director, the other actors and the film or TV show as a whole. Even the best performance can be soured by a bad movie, so we will try to consider all of this as best we can. Oh, and speaking of TV shows, there is also the consideration that some actors have a lot more screen time to work with compared to some of their combatants. Basically, there are a lot of variables and we’re not about to pretend this is an exact science.
If nothing else, this list hopes to point out some of the strengths of the lesser character portrayals. Too often, an actor’s performance is written off completely because it doesn’t stack up against someone who has played that part in the past. Yeah, we’re going to compare performances, but we’re not going to dismiss one altogether because it’s different. We like different. We want you to like different, too. Let’s celebrate different together. Here is our comparison of 15 iconic characters and the actors who played them.
15. Freddy Krueger – Jackie Earle Haley vs. Robert Englund
Not a fair comparison at all, but let’s try it anyways. First, Robert Englund played Freddy Krueger eight times compared to Jackie Earle Haley’s one. Second, the original A Nightmare on Elm Street films are some of the best received horror films in history, whereas the remake was universally panned. Yeah, Englund played the part better because it’s his part. The character and the man are inseparable. Englund is as much a part of Freddy Krueger as Krueger is of Englund. But anyone who blames Haley for the wrongdoings of the remake simply weren’t paying attention. Haley has got creepy old pedophile down. That’s a terrible thing to say, but c’mon, he won an Academy Award for the same type of part. Even though detractors will point to the character of Rorschach in Watchmen and say Haley just reused the voice, it doesn’t matter. His gruff growling vocal performance was near perfect. The problem is in how often his character speaks. That’s a script issue not a Haley issue. So, yeah, Englund is better, but Haley deserves some credit for absolutely nailing an impossible part to play in a film that was destined to fail.
14. Jack Ryan – Pine vs. Ford vs. Baldwin vs. Affleck
Jack Ryan is a much-loved character from Tom Clancy novels, but he’d become a mainstay on the screen as well. It all started with Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October. Baldwin looked the part and felt the part better than anyone else. Add to that the fact that his film is probably the best of the bunch as well and you have to name Baldwin the best Jack Ryan, right? No, not quite. Baldwin is fantastic, but he seems to take a bit of a backseat in the film too often. For the best Jack Ryan, you have to look at Harrison Ford in Clear and Present Danger (Ford also played Jack Ryan in Patriot Games but not as well). Ford may not look the part, but he absolutely dominates the screen and carries a proper amount of charm and coolness. Chris Pine‘s Jack Ryan in Shadow Recruit wasn’t based on a novel and it showed. The story was sacrificed for action too often and, while Pine was great, he wasn’t Ford great. It doesn’t make us happy to have to put Ben Affleck in Sum of All Fears down at the bottom, but, let’s face it, his portrayal was the worst. It would be interesting to see him reprise the role at this stage in his career.
13. Hannibal Lecter – Mads Mikkelsen vs. Anthony Hopkins
We’ll show some love to Brian Cox as well, the man who played Hannibal Lecter first in Manhunter, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll get to the two true contenders. The comparison between Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs/Hannibal/Red Dragon and Mads Mikkelsen in Hannibal (TV series) is challenging because the character portrayals are so vastly different. With Hopkins, we know that Hannibal is evil. He’s in jail and he’s sick and twisted from the very beginning. We see him as a slithering snake and he’s unbelievable in that role. In Hannibal (TV series), Mikkelsen plays Lecter as a charismatic devil in disguise. We are charmed by him and lured in, cheering for him because he has conned us, like he has everyone else. We’ll give the win to Mikkelsen because he had huge shoes to fill but, instead of trying to fit in them, he just cobbled his own.
12. Spider-Man – Tobey Maguire vs. Andrew Garfield
This is always a hot-button topic in basements around America, but we’re going to dip our toes into the discussion, hoping to add in our thoughts. The question of who is the better Spider-Man needs to be answered in at least two parts. One, who is the better Peter Parker? For this, we will give Tobey Maguire the nod. He looks the part and he plays the better geek. He may not show off his intellect as much as Andrew Garfield, but we at least believe that he could be an intelligent wallflower. Two, who is the better Spider-Man? On this one, we believe it’s Andrew Garfield. Sure, The Amazing Spider-Man might not be as good of films as the Sam Raimi trilogy, but Garfield’s Spider-Man is spot on. His comedic talents and his confidence in the suit shines through more than Maguire’s. So, who wins? It’s a tough call because, as we said, the original trilogy is better, but we have to say Garfield wins this near toss-up.
11. Sherlock Holmes – Downey Jr. vs. Cumberbatch vs. Brett vs. Rathbone
So many great actors have played the iconic Sherlock Holmes, but we don’t have enough space to address them all. We’ve narrowed it to the top four, Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone. Of these, RDJ comes in at fourth place. RDJ is the one who seems most out of place playing the part, but he did remarkably well, all things considered. His Holmes might be more action-based, but his quips and smarts were up to the task when called upon. Then comes Rathbone, a much gentler Holmes than the others. His portrayal went a long way in creating a standard that later actors would need to break to separate themselves from him. In second is Brett, the man in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994). When Brett was finished with the character, it was tough to imagine anyone ever playing it better, but then came Cumberbatch. Our pal Benedeezy took on the role of Holmes and wore it like it was his favorite jacket. His interpretation and reinvention of the character just feels exactly like it should be. It’s hard to argue that anyone could do it better.
10. The Joker – Nicholson vs. Ledger vs. Leto vs Romero
We’ll apologize now for our handling of Caesar Romero’s Joker. He was maniacal and fun and he built the character from the ground up, but he had a mustache under his white face makeup. He’s not the best. Jared Leto‘s most recent Joker in Suicide Squad was great, but we won’t be coming close to crowning him the best. He was the most gangster of the Jokers and looked cool, but in comparison to the big two, he doesn’t stand a chance. Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger played the part completely different. Nicholson made it cool to be demented and he stole every scene he was in. His over the top antics were what we always envisioned the Joker to be like. But that was before we saw Ledger. Nowadays, it’s not trendy to compliment Ledger’s performance, but trendiness and truth don’t always mix. Despite the revisionist history that whines about overly realistic comic book films, Ledger took playing a villain and made it into an art form. Hands down, Ledger is the best Joker ever.
9. Lisbeth Salander – Noomi Rapace vs. Rooney Mara
Noomi Rapace had a lot more room than Rooney Mara to make the character of Lisbeth Salander her own, but there’s a conversation to be had here. The purists will argue that original is almost always better, but that’s just not true. It’s especially not true in this case. We believe Mara is the better Salander. Rapace was amazing and she really captured the major points of the character, but Mara’s introversion and headiness was exactly what the Salander needed, a carryover from the books that was lost in Rapace’s version. Mara’s Salander is a more sympathetic character, still distant and odd, but someone we at least feel close to understanding. For those reasons, she gets the win.
8. Superman – Henry Cavill vs. Christopher Reeve
Sorry, Dean Cain, but you’re not even in the discussion here. You weren’t bad, but you weren’t great either. Like comparing the many Batmans, the Superman question is challenging. Christopher Reeve, in everyone’s mind who was alive to see the films, will always be Superman. No, he doesn’t fit the build of Superman like Henry Cavill does, but no one did back then. Reeve was also the better Clark Kent by a long shot. Cavill is crushingly handsome and he’s built like a transport truck. He might as well just wear the suit out in public because he’s not fooling anyone. Even still, as Superman, it’s impossible to argue that Cavill isn’t more convincing. Using today’s film-viewing lens, Reeve looks a little silly in his dorky tights and bad special effects. We’re going to give the edge to Cavill, but we’re not happy about it.
7. Willy Wonka – Gene Wilder vs. Johnny Depp
Gene Wilder is the winner. No question about it. Johnny Depp takes a lot of unwarranted criticism for many of his characters, but you’ll find us in agreement with the harsh critics in regards to his Willy Wonka portrayal. Whereas Wilder was a crazy and unhinged Wonka that made people fear he might lash out and strike a child in the face, Depp was a creepy old creep Wonka that made people fear that he would reach out and touch a child. If you could shake the strange Michael Jacksonesque pedo-vibe, Depp does have a lot of amazing Willy Wonka qualities. The problem is, we can’t come close to shaking that vibe.
6. Mad Max – Mel Gibson vs. Tom Hardy
Very different roles and very different movies all within the same franchise. How can we compare Mel Gibson‘s Mad Max to Tom Hardy‘s? Well, we’ll start by acknowledging how amazing this franchise is and how the main actors are bloody brilliant in all of them. That being said, Hardy is a master at playing the strong and silent type. Think about his characters for a second. So many of them are strong and silent: Warrior, Lawless, The Revenant, The Dark Knight Rises, etc. He’s a magician at saying things without speaking. Gibson may have created the role and he may even occupy the better of the Mad Max films (debatable), but Hardy took the role and reinvented it for a new age. For that reason, we give the win to Hardy.
5. Carrie – Chloe Grace Moretz vs. Sissy Spacek
For many, the difference between Chloe Grace Moretz‘s Carrie and Sissy Spacek‘s Carrie is that Spacek’s performance was a great surprise, while Moretz had big shoes to fill. At the point in their careers when these actresses took on Carrie, there is no debate about who was more schooled. Though Spacek was older at the time, she was relatively new to the scene, whereas Moretz had several high-profile performances under her belt already. But there’s something that isn’t believable about Moretz. She’s too cool to play a loner, too pretty to play a homely teen. Spacek, who cleaned up nicely when it mattered, looked the part of Carrie. She was a little dopey, wide-eyed and simple, pitch perfect for Carrie. We won’t try and point out flaws in Moretz’s acting because she was unbelievable. It just seems that looks-wise, she missed the mark a bit too much. Sissy Spacek takes this one because she was made for the part.
4. Rooster Cogburn – John Wayne vs. Jeff Bridges
Rooster Cogburn is the famous grouchy old cowboy from True Grit. The first film was made in 1969 and Rooster was played by the cowboy legend John Wayne, a role that would earn him his only Academy Award. The remake, done by the Coen Brothers in 2010, featured Jeff Bridges as Rooster, a role that would earn him an Academy Award nomination, coming off the heels of his 2009 Academy Award win for Crazy Heart. So, who did it better? Wayne won the Academy Award and Bridges did not, does that mean he was better? Well, yes and no. For one, Wayne had been preparing for this role his entire career. He was the ultimate cowboy in all his films, but, as Rooster, he was damaged goods. He was crotchety and a little demented. It was the same role as always in some ways but much different in others, a combination that made it captivating for fans. With Bridges, no one was surprised. Even though it was different than what he had done in the past, Bridges’ Rooster wasn’t as mean and he wasn’t as unpredictable. We’ll give it to Wayne.
3. Robin Hood – Russell Crowe vs. Kevin Costner
While sidestepping the great performance by Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), we’ll compare Kevin Costner‘s Robin Hood with Russell Crowe‘s. Both portrayals have taken a great amount of criticism over the years. For Crowe, it’s not so much his performance that’s to blame, but the film itself. It’s an origin story that no one cared to hear. We don’t get to see Robin Hood, per se, but instead we see the man who would become Robin Hood. This leads to an awfully boring film and Crowe does the film no favors by being boring himself. Costner on the other hand is more fun and jolly, but his on-again-off-again English accent is almost too much to handle. We don’t believe Costner fits in this world at any point and his unbelievable mullet is the only thing that keeps us interested. We’ll give this one to neither of these actors. We’ll give it instead to Cary Elwes for Robin Hood Men in Tights, who is, by far, the best Robin Hood of them all.
2. Batman – Keaton vs. Bale vs. Affleck vs. West
Let’s just throw Val Kilmer, George Clooney and most of the early portrayals out of here now. Yes, there have been some amazing moments, but none can compare to the four listed above, so we won’t even try. Adam West deserves a big mention for bringing this character to the world and for all his cartoonish campiness, but he’s not the best. When Michael Keaton first donned the suit, people wondered how he would fare, and he impressed everyone. The Keaton and Burton films made Batman essential for a new generation. He was fun and he was campy. He was Batman. Then came Christian Bale and the voice that everyone laughed at, but Bale and The Dark Knight trilogy were an unbelievable combination. Most recently, we got Ben Affleck in the cape and, like always, the initial casting was reviled by many. Yet, Affleck came in and salvaged what many thought was an awful film. So, who did it best? Plainly and simply, Bale did. Even though the Marvel silliness is more “in” right now, Bale’s Batman was believable and that was what was needed from the caped crusader at the time. We had seen the cartoons and filled up on the camp. Bale gave us a side that we hadn’t seen before and it was fantastic.
1. James Bond – Connery, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan & Craig
Which Bond is the best? The classic debate. The answer is not as simple as it used to be. While Pierce Brosnan suffered a little from a couple of subpar films, he did help usher in the character for a new generation of film fans. With no disrespect meant to George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton, Brosnan was also more convincing and more fun than these two predecessors as well. After Lazenby, Dalton and Brosnan comes our current Bond, Daniel Craig. While many still don’t believe that he looks like Bond should, he is more believable than any of them, at least in terms of the physicality and build necessary to do what James Bond does. But believability doesn’t make him the best. Roger Moore is better than Craig, coming in at second place just below the great Sean Connery, who earns the title of best-ever Bond. Both Moore and Connery felt right in the part, carrying the right balance of bravado and charm. Connery’s Bond just became the standard and anything unConneryish felt wrong. It’s tough to compete with that.