When casting superhero movies based on comic books, it is difficult to please hardcore comic book readers while also choosing an excellent actor for the part. Because of the visual language of comic books, many fans already have a specific idea of how they should look in their heads and can be disappointed when these expectations are not met. Whether because of height (one particular character on this list), hair colour, race (Laurence Fishburne in Man of Steel and Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie) or other differences, it can be difficult to please fans. Sometimes, casting choices enrage fans and end up subverting all expectations, like Michael Keaton as Batman in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), or Anne Hathaway as Catwoman in the Dark Knight Returns (2012).
Other times, casting looks right but becomes a disaster, such as Brandon Routh as Superman in Superman Returns (2006), Ryan Reynolds as Green Lantern (2011), or Jessica Alba in the two Fantastic Four movies of the early 2000s. Other times still, parts are woefully miscast in every way, such as Colin Farrell as Bullseye in Daredevil (2003), Halle Berry as Catwoman (2004) or Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997).
Despite the missteps, there have been numerous brilliant casting choices, which made it excruciatingly difficult to pick just ten. Some of my all-time favourites, include Hathaway’s Catwoman, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk in the Avengers (2012), Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man 2 (2004), Michael Fassbender as Magneto in the two most recent X-Men movies, Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler in X2 (2003) and Gary Oldman as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies didn’t quite make the list.
10. Chris Evans as Captain America
A veteran of other comic book movies, like the two Fantastic Four movies (his performance as the Human Torch is one of their few positives) and The Losers, Marvel’s decision to re-cast Chris Evans as Captain America was inspired. As a superhero who carries the clear-cut moral values of the 1940s era he came from, his performance offers a refreshing contrast to the modern turn towards anti-heroes and tortured souls (even Superman was turned brooding and grim in 2013’s Man of Steel, though that was because of its awful script rather than Henry Cavill‘s performance). Evans also proved himself capable of shining as one of the real stars in The Avengers amidst several other heroes, and offered a thoughtful and nuanced take on how Captain America would begin to adapt to a modern world while still retaining his integral characteristics in The Winter Soldier.
9. Ron Perlman as Hellboy
The only non-DC or Marvel character to make this list, Ron Perlman’s performances as the titular character remain the most memorable aspects of Guillermo del Toro‘s two delightful adaptations of the Dark Horse series. Perlman’s ability to combine gruffness, warmth, charm, attitude and action is one any other actor would find difficult to duplicate, especially considering the amount of make-up and prosthetics Perlman needed for the role. His willingness to re-don the costume and sit in hours of make-up for charity work is also inspiring and shows Perlman’s generosity and heart. Though fan hopes for a third installment remain unlikely, the two Hellboy films stand out as exceptional alternatives for those who like superheroes but seek variety.
Note: I had to focus this list on superhero comic book movies because of it proved too difficult to include some of the other exceptional performances from non-superhero comic book adaptations. For anyone more interested in those, I recommend Paul Giamatti‘s performance as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (2003), Hugo Weaving as V in V for Vendetta (2005) and Viggo Mortensen as Tom Stall in A History of Violence (2005).
8. Terence Stamp as General Zod
Kneel before Zod.
Though Terence Stamp is not the most physically imposing actor, the imperious arrogance he imbued in the character implied the physical strength needed to back up his words. Stamp owned the role of Zod, demonstrating the disdain he felt for any less powerful than him and his assumption that his power made him a natural ruler, while still providing emotional complexity to prevent Zod from becoming one-dimensional. Easily the best performance by a Superman villain, Stamp’s version of Zod will stand the test of time as one of the great villains long after the special effects become hopelessly outdated (even Michael Shannon, who provided one of the most underrated performances of the last several years in Take Shelter, was unable to approach Stamp’s performance in Man of Steel).
7. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
Only Samuel L. Jackson has played the same comic book character in more movies than Hugh Jackman, who has currently appeared as Wolverine seven times. Despite initial studio desires to give the role to Dougray Scott (who turned down the role to play the villain in Mission Impossible II) and fan anger that a Canadian character standing at just 5’3 would be played by a 6’2 Australian, Jackman has made it almost impossible to imagine anyone else ever doing it. His ability to use attitude, anger and dangerous charisma to mask the underlying layers of pain, confusion, loneliness and, at time, self-loathing in the character has made him a fan favourite. While Jackman has repeatedly told the media his days in the role are coming to an end, it appears he will play Wolverine at least once more, in either X-Men: Apocalypse, slated for 2016, or in a third Wolverine movie.
6. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man
Marvel took an incredible risk by creating their own Cinematic Universe, and even more so by launching their endeavour with Iron Man, a character with next to no pop culture awareness before the movie. Compounding the risk further, Marvel executives decided on Robert Downey Jr., who was still re-building his career after years of substance abuse issues. The decision ended up paying off magnificently, as Downey’s humor, pathos, charisma and vulnerability endeared him to audiences and helped Iron Man rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. The Marvel Cinematic Universe now stands as a multi-billion dollar empire and an unstoppable force in film, but it couldn’t have happened without Downey, making it one of the most important pieces of casting in a comic book movie, as well as one of the best.
5. Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier and Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is often considered the main casting reason behind the success of the X-Men movies, but when considering the less-than-stellar two solo Wolverine movies, it’s hard to argue that the true reason behind the X-Men’s on-screen success is the casting of Patrick Stewart as Xavier and Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto. It’s impossible to separate the two, as the chemistry between the two actors and their ability to express friendship and warmth even when fundamentally disagreeing on major issues or finding themselves on opposite sides of a conflict frames the entire movie series. Stewart brings a paternal warmth and great wisdom masking a steely resolve, while McKellen’s ability to infuse Magneto with a sense of extraordinary power, intellect and weary realism balances his zealotry, absolute purpose and unwavering resolve. The dynamic between the two was so crucial that 2011’s critical and commercial success, X-Men: First Class, again focused on the relationship to understand its origins, further proving its integral place in the films.
4. Christopher Reeve as Superman
After making us believe a man could fly in the first blockbuster superhero movie, every actor in every comic book superhero movie since owes a debt to Reeve’s performance as Superman. Reeve brought a warmth, compassion, quiet strength and sense of honesty to Superman, making him truly heroic. Though some argue Superman is bland, Reeve also brings a knowing charm to the role, never outwardly oozing charisma in the same way as someone like Downey as Iron Man but still drawing the audience in a more subtle way, as though they truly know and understand him. Reeve’s Clark Kent is delightfully bumbling and clueless, but again with a twinkle and knowing smile to suggest that he could spring into action as Superman anytime he wants, and that he truly loves being Clark Kent. Reeve, above all else, brought a true sense of humanity to Superman and Kent, making a hero from another planet intimately familiar and understandable, even when flying or performing other superhuman feats.
3. Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Easily the best villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tom Hiddleston owns every second of screen time he gets. Hiddleston makes Loki more charismatic with one smirk than most actors can with their entire performance, and is endlessly watchable in the role. Most extraordinary of all is how easily Hiddleston masks the anger, danger and predatory nature of his character with humor, charm and elegance, luring others on-screen into his plans before betraying them yet again. Eternally slippery and devious and yet so easy to like, Hiddleston makes Loki the ultimate trickster. Though he has already made three appearances, fans eagerly await any future Marvel movies with new appearances by Hiddleston so that he can charm and trick them all over again.
2. Heath Ledger as The Joker
The late great Heath Ledger made The Joker, above all else, a terrifying agent of chaos who was unpredictable as he was dangerous. While his performance will always be colored by his tragic death, Ledger’s Joker will forever stand as an iconic cinematic performance, transcending its comic book roots to take a place alongside Anthony Hopkins‘ Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or David Prowse and James Earl Jones‘ Darth Vader as one of the greatest on-screen villains of all time. The Dark Knight is and will always be Ledger’s movie, and Ledger’s Joker performance stands as a tribute to his immense talents.
1. J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson
Not what you were expecting at number one, was it? Though it doesn’t hold a role in pop culture or play an integral part of the movie, for fans of the various Spider-Man comics, watching J.K. Simmons as Jameson on-screen was to see a character jump right off of the page in a flawlessly accurate depiction. From the hair to the temper to the cigars to the voice, Simmons nails every affectation, tic and mannerism, delighting Spider-Man fans to no end. It is a testament to his performance that while the new Amazing Spider-Man movies have re-cast the majority of the characters from Sam Raimi‘s poor movies, they have made no attempt to re-cast the role of Jameson. Though not a major hero or villain, the decision to cast Simmons in the role and his ability to exactly duplicate the character as he exists in the comics elevates him to number one on my list.
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