Superhero movies vary from extremely faithful adaptations to the realm of, “Why bother calling that giant cloud Galactus in the first place?” Similarly, casting our favorite superheroes has been a grab-bag of terrible choices, ideas that seemed bad originally but turned into pleasant surprises, and actors that so perfectly fit into their roles that it’s hard to imagine anybody else taking their place.
The list below deals with the latter, focusing on my ten favorite casting choices in superhero movies. The actors who made this list not only turned in great performances, but in my opinion helped define the way people think about their iconic characters. That means that I did leave out some great performances, such as Adam West’s Batman or Heath Ledger’s Joker, because those characters have so many different interpretations that it’s hard to embrace just one.
Hugh Jackman as Wolverine
I would very much have liked to see the cinematic Wolverine look like his original comic book physique as a 5’3″ hairy runt with bad body odor. But it’s not Hugh Jackman’s fault that he’s about a foot taller than the comic book Wolverine, and he nailed most other aspects of the character perfectly, from the generally gruff demeanor that softens when kids are in danger to small tidbits like the tendency to use the word “Bub” in conversations.
Jackman’s portrayal of Wolverine in the first X-Men film forced me to grudgingly agree that, when handled well, the character could be less annoying than comics from the 1990s suggested. While the franchise movies Jackman’s been in since then have been pretty hit-or-miss, he still owns the character through his performance. Although Jackman left the franchise after Logan, I will always hope that somebody will lure him back in someday for an X-Men musical that lets him cut loose with his impressive vocal talents.
Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin
I had no interest in seeing a Daredevil movie starring Ben Affleck until I saw Michael Clarke Duncan in the trademark white suit of the Kingpin. Then my interest began growing. I wound up watching this movie when it came to theatres and regretted the decision soon afterward, but never because of Duncan’s performance as Wilson Fisk.
To get the Kingpin right, you need a big man who looks good in a suit. Duncan obviously had it locked up there. You need a guy who can come off in public as a generous philanthropist but who can menace the hero in private. With a charming smile and gravelly voice, Duncan owned that skill set as well. Finally, you need a guy who can give you the feeling that he’s been around for a while–somebody who can convey the sense that he’s determined enough and ruthless enough to climb through the criminal ranks, face unbeatable odds, and come out on top as the Kingpin of Crime. Duncan was a terrific actor who managed to deliver some of that despite having a very poor script to work with.
Unfortunately, this perfect casting choice got wasted by the film’s insistence on giving everybody except Daredevil a one-line background. Bullseye is, “I never miss,” Elektra is, “I’m a secret ninja,” and the Kingpin, whose history and complexities make him one of the most interesting villains in comics, was summed up with, “I grew up in the Bronx.” It’s a shame, because the movie could have been a lot better if they had just given the cast a little room to develop their characters.
Bill Bixby as Dr. Banner
I can’t think of an actor who has turned in a bad performance as Dr. Bruce Banner. Eric Bana, Edward Norton, and Mark Ruffalo all nailed the part in their respective movies, and folks like Neil McDonough have provided great voice acting work on the character. But the best of them all is a guy who didn’t even play Bruce Banner.
The 1978 Hulk TV series is an odd bird in that it’s one of the best superhero adaptations ever but it changed almost everything about the character. The Hulk doesn’t speak, Banner doesn’t survive a nuclear blast, he’s not pursued by Thunderbolt Ross. The creators of the series even changed the protagonist’s name to David Banner. Yet despite that, the series gets the feel of the Hulk right and is probably the best adaptation the character will ever see. A lot of the reason for that comes down to Bill Bixby.
Through very subtle and clever acting, Bixby presented a character who was always struggling to maintain control and who was afraid of the creature inside of him even before he became the Hulk. His portrayal relied on changes in the pitch of his voice, body language, and all sorts of subtle ticks that comic books can’t normally convey. Through his performance and some excellent writing and directing, he turned in some truly wonderful and chilling scenes.
Bixby first portrayed David Banner in the 1977 pilot for the series, 15 years into the life of the comic book character. And despite having so many details changed, he still nailed the soul of the character and influenced the way Banner would be portrayed for the rest of the character’s life. It’s almost impossible not to read some issues of The Incredible Hulk, before or after Bixby took on the role, without hearing his voice in the character or imagining the haunting “Lonely Man” piano tune at the end of the issues.
Bill Bixby is the quintessential Bruce Banner…and yet he didn’t even play a guy named Bruce.
Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool
Life is weird. For years upon years, I had Ryan Reynolds pegged as a pretty boy actor whose films were guaranteed to be garbage. Then along came Deadpool. The film never would have even been made had Reynolds not been pitch-perfect in the leaked test footage that basically got fans on board with the movie. Reynolds was a clever smartass with the right combination of pop culture references, stupid puns, and rapid-fire delivery. In short, he matched everything that the Merc with a Mouth should have been.
Deadpool is especially notable for me because it opened my eyes to the fact that Reynolds can really act. After this film, he went from being a guy I avoided to an actor who could basically carry a movie by himself. Even Detective Pikachu, a cliched mess of a movie in my opinion, was worth watching because of his voice work. And, when he actually got his face on screen at the end of that movie, he stole the final scene without even needing a line.
Ryan Reynolds made a perfect Deadpool. Who knew a movie with a ridiculous number of dick jokes would completely change my opinion about an actor?
Karl Urban as Judge Dredd
Adding Judge Dredd to a list of superheroes is arguably a bit of a stretch, but in my opinion he fits in (he had a crossover with Batman, for crying out loud). Any actor who tries to portray Dredd in film has a tough job on his hands. He’s got to be able to dominate with screen presence while not using his eyes, keeping a singular facial expression (Dredd’s customary scowl), or using a tone of voice with one one real setting: “grim angel of legal vengeance.” Somehow, Karl Urban took those challenges and dominated the role in Dredd.
Tons of credit needs to go to Urban, who never spent a moment on the screen where the audience didn’t see him as the baddest judge of all. Credit should also go to the filmmakers as a whole, who made the wise choice not to make Dredd the main character of the film, instead promoting a rookie Judge Anderson to that status. That allowed the audience to tag along with Anderson as she learned the ropes of Mega City One along with us, while Urban’s Dredd was the juggernaut of justice he needed to be.
I’ve heard the creators of Dredd lament that the movie didn’t make enough money to warrant a sequel, with one of the folks behind the project even claiming that they failed. I don’t think that’s true at all. While a sequel would have been nice, a great movie doesn’t need one. As much as I love franchise films, I’d rather have one great film than three good films. Dredd is indeed a great movie–not just a good one, but a great one. And Karl Urban helped take the film to a whole other level through his portrayal of Dredd.
JK Simmons as J Jonah Jameson
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies were amazingly spot-on in a large number of ways, including a Betty Brant who seemed ripped from the comics, Norman Osborn’s death portrayed almost exactly as it was on-panel, and a shot in the sequel that perfectly emulated the famous “Spider-Man No More” splash page from 1967. (And yet they turned Mary Jane into an annoying whiner…weird.) But the most spot-on piece of those movies was J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson. He nailed not only the look but the behavior of the character to a T. In fact, he was so perfect for the role that, when it came time to recast the character for one of the franchise’s many reboots, the filmmakers opted to bring Simmons back in.
Jonah in the comics is a pretty complex character. He’s greedy as sin, but he has an honorable streak to him. He hates Spider-Man and will come just shy of making up stories about the webslinger’s villainy, but he retracts stories he knows to be false and even publicly apologizes when he’s proven wrong. My personal favorite moment for Simmons’ Jameson comes in the first movie when the Green Goblin attacks him trying to find out who delivers The Daily Bugle pictures of Spider-Man. Up until that point, Jameson has been shown as nothing more than a greedy asshole and a hatemonger. But without hesitation, he immediately lies to the guy about to strangle him, claiming that the pictures are sent anonymously to him through the mail. This despite the fact that Peter Parker is right in his office.
Simmons pulls off that moment very effectively, making it seem like Jameson isn’t the least bit conflicted about this personal sacrifice. Even better, he immediately delves back into his schtick when Spider-Man appears to save the day, claiming that the webhead and the goblin are in cahoots.
Simmons’ rapid-fire delivery made his Jameson successful as a comedy piece in those movies. That same delivery made it clear that the character has more depth than most people would guess, just like his comic book counterpart.
Patrick Stewart as Professor X
Patrick Stewart’s first film role came in 1975, by which time The Uncanny X-Men had been a comic for more than a decade. Despite that, if you claimed that Stewart was a time traveler and that Jack Kirby had based the design on Professor X on Patrick Stewart, I would almost believe you. The physical resemblance is (yes, I’m going there) uncanny.
Now, granted, his kind old man schtick works much better for the Professor Xavier that comics fans want, rather than the manipulative dick that we’ve received for much of the 21st century. But for the people like me who grew up with the 1990s animated series, he fit the version of the character we were used to perfectly. An already excellent actor, Stewart added the necessary gravitas that Professor X needs–after all, mind-powers or no, he’s a guy who manages to keep a team of action-oriented superheroes working as an effective unit instead of trying to kill each other. Stewart brought a strong sense of compassion to the character, presenting somebody who really wanted to help heal the world instead of a guy who was just looking for a place to launch his highly-trained team of super-mutants.
I’m not sure when Stewart’s friendship with Ian McKellen began, but whether it started before or after the first film he and McKellen managed to present one of the best pair of frenemies cinema has seen. Xavier and Magneto obviously respect each other, maybe even love each other, but their wildly different ideologies prevent them from ever resuming their once-close friendship. The chemistry between Stewart and McKellen bears that out thoroughly.
It’s a shame that the X-Men film franchise has relied so heavily on taking Professor X off the board for the bulk of the movies, because Stewart’s presence in the role often helped to ground the films rather than letting them descend into a jumble of chaotic action scenes (as seemed to happen far too often when he wasn’t around).
Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman
Unlike Bruce Banner, Wonder Woman has had a rough time in other media. For that matter, she’s had a rough time in comics, too, with writers often unsure whether they want to emphasize her warrior nature, focus on her peaceful feminine qualities, or try to find a middle ground between the two. In terms of finding where the ideal balance lies, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman set the precedent.
The 1977 Wonder Woman TV series managed to embrace the campy nature of the comics without ever delving into the realm of farce like the Batman series of the 1960s did. The budget constraints of the series arguably worked in the show’s favor, since it meant that Wonder Woman could only get involved in big battle scenes on occasion. Her superpowers thus became more utility-focused, allowing her to investigate crimes and solve problems in a more subtle manner than audiences expected out of superheroes.
Lynda Carter was everything Wonder Woman should be: powerful, graceful, beautiful, and compassionate. She also played the character with a sense of fun and tongue-in-cheek humor that made it apparent that she enjoyed being Wonder Woman. Carter was well-balanced, never delving too far into silliness or obsession. For example, Wonder Woman’s relationship with Steve Trevor, which has often been a nightmare for writers in the comics, worked pretty well here. Diana obviously had an attraction to Steve but never fawned over him, nor did she come off as a weak damsel who needed rescuing on the occasions where she got captured.
For those who feel like the TV series ended too soon, an enjoyable Wonder Woman ’77 comic carries roughly the same feel, albeit with a bit more pizzazz because comics don’t have the same budgetary concerns as TV shows. Carter’s Wonder Woman series had some flaws but usually entertained, largely because the casting department found the perfect fit for Wonder Woman.
Robert Downey, Jr as Iron Man
When all is said and done, Iron Man will go down as one of the most influential movies of the early 21st century, and a lot of that has to do with Robert Downey Jr. being the perfect guy to portray Tony Stark.
In 2008, Iron Man was hardly a sure thing. It represented Marvel Studios’ first film endeavor, and it came on the heels of some pretty big bombs. Superhero films still made money, but they seemed to be losing their luster. High-grossing films like X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, and Spider-Man 3 garnered terrible critical receptions. And it’s hard to remember now, but back then Iron Man was largely considered a B-team superhero–recognizable, yes, but hardly a heavyweight when compared to characters like Wolverine and Spider-Man.
Marvel not only put their eggs in the Iron Man basket, but they made the film the backbone of a budding cinematic universe. Since then, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has raked in billions of dollars and has become a pillar of pop culture. Superhero movies went from a fad that was dying out to a box office staple that are likely to continue dominating the industry for at least the next decade.
It all boils down to Downey’s portrayal of Tony Stark. Stark is somebody who wants to do good but must first overcome his many, many flaws to do so. From alcoholism to plain old arrogance, he frequently shows a subconscious desire to sabotage himself. Downey had already sabotaged himself, allowing a major drug problem to nearly derail a promising career. He had rebuilt himself as an actor and a person, and that was much needed in the cinematic Tony Stark. No matter what Tony’s situation, he’s a guy who you want to see overcome his problems because if he can get a handle on his life you know he can do a lot of good. Downey not only brought that quality to the character, but gave audiences the hopeful feeling that yes, he could in fact overcome his demons.
I don’t mean to give the impression that Downey’s drug problems were the only reason he was a great fit for Iron Man. The main reason lies with the guy’s talent as an actor. He’s extremely charismatic, quick-witted, and from all reports has an excellent level of professionalism as an actor. He threw himself into the role of Tony Stark, using the few quiet moments the films had to show deep insight to what makes this guy tick. His character arc from the self-absorbed billionaire in Iron Man to the hero willing to sacrifice himself for everybody in Avengers; Endgame is really a thing to behold. But it wouldn’t carry the weight it did if it wasn’t for Downey selling himself so well as the character.
Christopher Reeve as Superman
I hate it when modern film scholars suggest that superhero movies can’t be smart or have a deeper meaning to them beyond the punches and explosions, because that got disproven way back in 1978 with the first Superman movie. This movie took its time to set up its plot and characters, and it didn’t let the action overshadow the story. It also had the perfect guy to play both Superman and Clark Kent in Christopher Reeve.
With all due respect to George Reeves, Tim Daly, Brandon Routh, Dean Cain, Henry Cavill, and the many other people who have played excellent Supermen throughout the decades, Reeve owned this role. He clearly took it seriously and put a lot of thought into it, not only capturing the character that Superman was in 1978 but also providing the model that the character would follow for decades to come.
When flying to London to audition for the part (by plane, because he wasn’t Superman just yet), Reeve thought about how he would play Superman. He said later that, “By the late 1970s the masculine image had changed… Now it was acceptable for a man to show gentleness and vulnerability. I felt that the new Superman ought to reflect that contemporary male image.” That gentleness brought out the humanity that keeps a character with Superman’s amazing powers grounded. Superman has to be that kind of guy, because otherwise people would see him as an alien conqueror rather than a savior.
Reeve took on the part of Clark Kent just as seriously, playing the mild-mannered reporter as much more than Superman wearing a pair of glasses. He showed how a change in posture and a higher-pitched voice could make that disguise work. One of the best scenes I’ve ever seen in cinema is in Superman II when Superman reveals his identity to Lois Lane. Before he even turns around to show his face, the change in his body makes his dual identity obvious.
Perhaps even better is the Richard Donner cut of Superman’s reveal, where we see the change happen in an instant while watching Reeve’s face:
Reeve put in a ton of work to become Superman, adopting a rigorous workout routine and contemplating his personality from nearly every angle. I’m personally not a big fan of any of the Superman films, but it’s not for lack of trying on Reeve’s part. He made the Man of Steel seem believable and authentic, and he transformed the character in comics for years to come.
Images: Marvel Studios, 20th Century Fox, MCA/Universal, Sony Pictures