Getting a shot at a Marvel superhero role is one of those once-in-a-lifetime chances to make gold out of the roller coaster ride that is an acting career. And, sometimes, those casting directors make exactly the right choices. After all, who could possibly have done a better job at playing Tony Stark than Robert Downey, Jr.? It’s hard to imagine a more perfect Thor than Chris Hemsworth or a more convincing Cap than Chris Evans.
Luckily, most of those major roles have gone to the right actors. That’s not to say, however, that every casting choice was a good one. From lackluster acting chops to bringing entirely the wrong persona to a role, there have been more than just a handful of occasions when those Marvel and MCU casting directors dropped the ball.
In some cases, the whole movie making experience seems to be tainted by questionable casting choices, affecting the whole trajectory of the MCU. It’s not that we blame the actors – if they offered us the bucks to play a superhero, we would too. But, there are casting decisions that those responsible for Marvel movies and the MCU as it has evolved have definitely lived to regret.
It’s not that Terrence Howard did a terrible job in the role of Rhodey in the very first Iron Man flick. It’s just that the fallout from Howard being dropped from the role for the rest of the Iron Man trilogy dogged the studio for years, up to and including the very public reconciliation between Howard and Robert Downey, Jr. back in 2016. According to Terrence, he was paid $3.5m to play Rhodey with the promise of an additional $5m if the first movie generated a sequel. Howard has said that he took a cut to the tune of $1m just to sweeten the deal when Marvel was waffling on whether or not to hire RDJ. (Marvel has a different version of events.) It’s when he was asked to take another pay cut in order to appear in Iron Man 2 that Howard says he finally balked, and backed out of the deal. The role went instead to Don Cheadle. Howard told a live TV interview, “It turns out that the person I helped become Iron Man… when it was time to re-up for the second one, [he] took the money that was supposed to go to me and pushed me out,” and has called the situation a “$100m loss for me”.
Yes, the 2005 movie Elektra was released before there was an MCU, but it’s included on our list because the commercial failure of the flick put the entire movie industry off female superhero stories for more than a decade after. It cast a pall over the female side of the MCU that’s only now lightening up. We’ll see Captain Marvel in 2019 and a Black Widow movie is purportedly also on the way – finally. Don’t get us wrong; we love Jennifer Garner. The photogenic former ballet student was already an action star on the small screen as CIA agent Sydney Bristow on the TV series Alias. We’re not sure why that didn’t translate into a credible take as Elektra. Some of the blame may be laid at the revealing red leather get-up they decked her out in. It was steamy but impractical. Garner portrayed a kind of sweetness that didn’t jibe with the role of a supposedly tortured and ruthless killer, and both audiences and critics were left feeling flat. It’s not just Marvel that regretted the decision – it was every actress who’d been hoping for a shot at a superhero role.
Elizabeth Olsen’s too phoney Slavic-ish accent is often cited as a weakness in her portrayal of Wanda Maximoff in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But, maybe that’s just because, in contrast, Aaron Taylor-Johnson was so forgettable in the role of her brother Pietro Maximoff. In the comic books that the character is based on, Pietro is a fierce, overly aggressive protector of sister Wanda. That doesn’t come across at all in Age of Ultron, where he’s promptly killed off while trying to protect Hawkeye. Ho-hum. The death of a Marvel superhero should be wrenching – there should be weeping in the movie aisles. When Quicksilver bites it, it’s almost predictable, and passes by in a forgettable blip.
If only Marvel studio execs paid as much attention to casting their villains as they did their iconic superheroes...The dearth of great villains has long been a critique leveled at the MCU, and it's undeniable that casting issues have played a role in those situations. Maybe it's the fact that actors like James Spader are hidden under typically elaborate costumes and CGI effects. It’s a lesson in basic film making – the person underneath it still matters. In the comics, Ultron is mysterious and sinister, a faceless robot created by Hank Pym who goes rogue when he becomes truly sentient. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, he becomes a rambling and eccentric character who's evil, but not menacing in the way he really needs to be to fill out the role. Our heroes win, just like we knew they would
Today, most people will cite the first movie in the MCU as 2008's Iron Man. But, another flick made the same year was also supposed to weave its way into the MCU. The Incredible Hulk's lackluster reception and problems with its star effectively nixed the whole Bruce Banner story as a separate thread apart from the Avengers. Norton wanted to play Banner as a troubled, serious character, while Marvel was hoping for lighter, funnier character more along the lines of Tony Stark. In addition, as he had for other movies he'd appeared in, Norton insisted on rewriting the script daily as he went along. The studio complied, but then reportedly cut all his additions from the final version. Marvel president Kevin Feige was asked about his biggest disappointment as chief architect of the MCU. Without actually naming Edward Norton, Feige replies, “Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk portrayal set a lot of things right in a way that made us all very happy.” Shade!
Nowadays, it’s hard to separate Gwyneth Paltrow from the annoying celeb who dishes out upscale lifestyle advice on her website Goop. But, our issues with Ms Paltrow and her version of Pepper Potts go way back to her first appearance in Iron Man. It’s not that we think she’s a bad actress. She certainly gets across Pepper’s intelligence and capable qualities. What she lacked was any on screen chemistry with Robert Downey, Jr.’s Tony Stark. That’s probably due to the fact that she fails to really generate any real distinctive persona outside of being Tony’s obvious love interest long before they actually hook up in the MCU story line. Part of the problem may also lie in the fact that Gwyneth herself has said that she’s tired of the role. “I don’t think I like it anymore,” she said in an interview. Even though she seems to have since changed her mind, showing up briefly in Spider-Man: Homecoming, maybe it’s time for Pepper to bow out of the MCU.
A solid, charismatic superhero with personality to spare – i.e. RDJ as Tony Stark – needs an antagonist that carries an equal punch. Or at least pretty close. Guy Pearce, as Aldrich Killian, doesn’t even get in the ballpark in Iron Man 3. Pearce is a chameleon-like actor who has carved out a distinctive career in Hollywood from his breakout role as a man suffering short term memory loss in Memento (2000) to a decrepit Peter Weyland in 2012's Prometheus, and beyond. That quality works well in some roles, but as the evil scientist who outsmarts Stark and ruthlessly kidnaps Pepper Potts, he just doesn’t leave a real mark in a pretty bland performance. The movie version strays from the comics, which portray Killian as a rogue scientist who eventually suffers remorse and commits suicide. That may be part of the problem.
In Marvel comics, Maya Hansen and Aldrich Killian, both genius scientists, work for a company called FuturPharm developing a drug called Extremis. Extremis was developed from a virus, and when injected, gives its users superhuman qualities. Unfortunately, they also sometimes become completely psychotic and violent. It’s Killian who first sells out to terrorists. According to some reports, Maya was originally set to be the main villain in Iron Man 3, but the idea was eventually scrapped because Marvel felt that toy sales would be low. (And they thought Killian would be better??) The role was cut back to essentially a woman scorned by Tony who decides to side with terrorists in order to get revenge a decade later. It isn’t much to work with, and Rebecca might well have given up trying too hard over the setbacks to her part. Maya ends up little more than a plot device.
Natalie Portman is a fine actress with an impressive resume that includes roles from Jackie Kennedy to Padmé Amidala, with an Academy Award, a British Academy Film Award, and two Golden Globes to her credit. The Harvard grad certainly has the native intelligence to carry the role of a brilliant astrophysicist credibly – so then why does the role of Jane become little more than Thor’s schoolgirl crush? Jane’s role actually devolved between the first and second Thor outing. By Dark World, she was basically a plot device and nothing more. Perhaps Portman herself was frustrated with the limitations of the role. She wasn’t back for Thor: Ragnarok, at any rate. It’s too much of a waste of her talents, we’re guessing, and it’s hard to disagree.
Mickey Rourke has built a reputation around player larger than life bad guys – or bad-ish at any rate – in the latter half of his career. He’d just made waves in The Wrestler and Sin City when Iron Man 2 was being cast. From that standpoint, he seems like a good choice for the role of Ivan Vanko, the Russian physicist gone bad. It all looked good on paper in the pre-production meetings, in other words. What came out in the movie was less than memorable. In interviews, Rourke has blamed a conflict with the studio in the way he conceived of the role. Rourke thought Ivanko should be a multi-dimensional bad guy with a relatable side, and he even spent time in Russian prisons getting a handle on both the accent and the role. But, what was needed was a solid bad guy to act as villain against Iron Man, and Rourke just didn’t generate that kind of persona. Possibly because of that method acting stint in Russian prisons, he comes across more as a bitter, troubled gangster type than a brilliant and dangerous scientist gone rogue.
Why is it that, through so many movies, and as portrayed by a range of different actors, Marvel villains are reduced from powerful, evil, and downright scary entities to whiny, petulant cry babies? Lee Pace in the role of Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy is a case in point. In the comics, Ronan has been around for 50 years, a ruthless and powerful Kree with a leaning towards radical extremism. At times, he's even portrayed as a noble minded protector and member of the Galactic Council. What he isn't is the psychotic man-child motivated by obvious daddy issues and religious fanaticism that Lee created for the movie. Puzzlingly, Pace has described his approach as being based on creating a character something like terrorist Osama bin Laden. What? The movie was terrific and well received, but Ronan as a pouty tantrum thrower wasn’t the reason why.
Ang Lee’s 2003 non-MCU movie Hulk has been generally panned by Marvel aficionados for a number of reasons. But, the one thing Lee got right was the casting of Jennifer Connelly as Betty Ross. She is one of the few actresses who can convincingly portray a brilliant scientist who is also vulnerable and foxy. Liv Tyler only seems to have one mode on screen – lovestruck and breathy. In Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, she’s supposedly dating someone else who she immediately drops like a hot potato as soon as she sees Bruce Banner’s back in town. That’s character for you. Then she basically follows him around, forever yelling “Bruce!” or “Dad!” with tears in her eyes for pretty much the entire movie. Ed Norton is notoriously difficult on set, so we’re not necessarily blaming her for the lack of on screen chemistry, but let’s just say it was a performance that didn’t hit any of the right notes.
There are moments in The Incredible Hulk that are obviously setting up sequels that were ultimately never to be. There’s Tim Blake Nelson, who plays Mr. Blue or Samuel Sterns, the cellular biologist who helps Bruce Banner and who we see briefly become infected by his blood towards the end of the movie, turning him into Leader...who is never seen again in the MCU. There’s also the creation of The Abomination, another gamma-ray experiment gone wrong who has a much larger story in the comic book and cartoon worlds. The reason we haven’t seen him again in the MCU may be due to Tim Roth’s portrayal of the character. The British actor does generate a kind of maniacal vibe as Emil Blonsky, the Russian/British special-ops dude that General Thunderbolt Ross wants to set up to tackle the Hulk on his own terms. But in the end, he’s just not believable. He doesn’t look like a disciplined army veteran, for one, and ends up a stereotypical bad guy with a British accent.
Thor: The Dark World is arguably the least loved of the MCU movies so far. Christopher Eccleston’s forgettable turn as Malekith is partly to blame. Malekith the Dark Elf is a straight up villain in the Marvel comics world, bent on destruction of the universe. But, does he really have to remind everyone with almost every line he delivers? Possibly, Christopher felt buried under all the make-up and CGI, but that doesn’t excuse a wooden performance from an actor who is demonstrably capable of so much more. He was Doctor Who! But as strong as he was in that iconic role, Ecclestone had zero energy or intensity in the role of Malekith. In a movie that was only so-so to begin with, his portrayal of the Dark Elf was a definite low point. Rumor has it that Ecclestone did it solely for the paycheck, and it’s hard to dispel that idea after viewing his bland performance in the movie.
Ms Jones was lighting up the screen as Betty Draper in the highly acclaimed TV series Mad Men when she appeared in X-Men: First Class in 2011. In the movie, she plays Emma Frost, the mutant who can change her body into a diamond. She’s super powerful, but as anyone who knows the source material realizes, Marvel superheroes are always complicated characters beyond their physical attributes. Maybe that’s what January missed. While her portrayal of Betty Draper had received high praise, her depiction of the icy mutant didn’t light anyone on fire. According to reports, Jones also succeeded in alienating both co-stars and the film’s critics. She was rumored to be cold and unapproachable on set, and together with what was called wooden acting in the role, it’s probably sealed her fate in being banished from the MCU.