While their big screen counterparts are more well known (and more beloved, let’s be real), superhero TV shows are arguably the best place to get your fix when you’re jonesing for that sweet, sweet cape, cowl, and ka-pow action. Even if you remove the considerable amount of animated content, there’s still plenty of quality TV shows that stretch as far back as the early ’50s. Admittedly, a lot of it borders on soap opera but the good ones are so good, they’re worthy of celebrating. The best of the best equal and can sometimes even top the best movies have to offer. They can never compete in CGI because they’ll never get those types of budgets but where they can compete is within their casting. A perfect piece of casting is a perfect piece of casting, regardless of the medium. These are the top 30 that rival anything the big screen has to offer.
These are the 30 Greatest Superhero TV Castings of All Time.
10. Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) | Gotham (2014–19)
Bullock has always gotten short shrift in the movies. He’s a cop that, depending on which version the writers are sticking with, is either a smart cop pretending to be dumb to fuck with Gordon; a dumb cop that fucks up Gordon’s plans by thinking he’s smart; an insidious cop trying to kill Gordon or one of the only men Gordon trusts with his life. He’s been retconned so many times it’s impossible to keep track, which makes Donal Logue’s casting that much more perfect. I couldn’t name an actor more equally perfect for every iteration of the character. He’s played dumb before. He’s played smart before. He’s played bad guys, he’s played heroes and he’s worked within the gray areas between the two many times. Gotham was a terrible show that was occasionally brilliant but more often than not was a meandering soap opera with some bafflingly stupid story arcs but the one thing it got right was the casting. Even the most internet trolly contrarian has to admit the show got the right guy for the role, with Logue being amongst the most perfect.
9. The Riddler (Frank Gorshin) | Batman (1966–67)
Frank Gorshin’s Riddler is, by far, the best villain performance in the classic 60s Batman series. There was actually another actor to play the Riddler in the same show, John Astin, the guy that played Gomez in the Adams Family, but… that was not the best villain performance. That was just a dude in a mask, he didn’t really do much with it. Frank Gorshin? Frank Gorshin was the Riddler.
In a series that was full to the brim with iconic performances, from Cesar Romaero’s Joker, both Eartha Kitt and Julie Newmar’s Catwomen, and Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Frank Gorshin was head and shoulders above the rest. Arguments have been made that current versions of the Joker actually borrow more significantly from Gorshin’s Riddler than they do from earlier iterations of the Joker himself. There’s a mania and a menace and a glee that’s unrivalled. Paul Dano could never. He probably could, actually…
–D. N. Williams
8. Kilgrave (David Tennant) | Jessica Jones (2015–19)
Kilgrave is technically one of Marvel’s lower level villains in terms of accomplishment, but he may be the most frightening of them all thanks in large part to David Tennant’s psrformance as the Purple Man. Kilgrave is essentially a manchild who grew up getting whatever he wants, and Tennant embodies that to chilling effect. Able to have anyone under his command at any given moment, Tennant brings out Kilgrave’s lack of empathy for anyone around him and a terrifying sense that he is unstoppable up to his very last moments. Someone with Kilgrave’s powers could rule the world, but Tennant’s characterization makes it that much more believable that he would use it for much more low-level personal pleasures.
7. Constantine (Matt Ryan) | Arrowverse
I’ve been a fan of John Constantine since the character was first introduced in the pages of the Swamp Thing comic. The acerbic, mysterious, broken and supremely arrogant Brit has been a stable of the DC supernatural comics lines ever since, whether as the star of his own series or a supporting character. As much as I love the movie adaptation starring Keanu Reeves (and I love it a lot), the version of Constantine in that flick has almost no relationship to the trenchcoat-wearing, foul-mouthed, secret-and-scar-filled character of the comics and I honestly despaired of the character being done faithfully.
Until Matt Ryan. While the short-lived Constantine TV series was hit-and-miss (mostly miss), Ryan’s version of the character is so spot on as to almost be a trick by John, somehow escaping one enemy or another by pretending to be a fictional version of himself. It’s that good, and note-perfect. While seeing him in Legends of Tomorrow is cool, I still hope for a live-action Justice League Dark movie. Throw in Zatanna and Swamp Thing and I’m there opening day.
6. Hulk (Lou Ferrigno) | The Incredible Hulk (1977–82)
A muscle-man painted green, wearing a green (yak hair) wig and contacts (so painful he could only wear them for 15 minutes at a stretch). It sounds so stupid, and yet… Lou Ferrigno made it work, made it believable and made the TV version of the Hulk a figure of menace AND pathos. When the Hulk growled (the TV version never speaks) you knew shit was about to get real, but at the same time he could be a gentle-giant, a child-like monster that wanted nothing more than to be left alone. The version of the Hulk we got on TV was a watered down version of the comic character, never as strong and never as big, but he was the version most of America knew in the 1970’s (and into the 80’s as well, with TV movies like The Trial of the Incredible Hulk). And Lou Ferrigno was ridiclously ripped – check out some of the stills from the series and you’ll see what I mean.
As I’ve said before, this is MY Hulk – the one I remember most fondly from childhood, and the one I think of first whenever the character comes up.
5. Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum) | Smallville (2001–11)
As the arch-nemesis of the first superhero ever created, Lex Luthor is the supervillain by which all supervillains are measured. He’s kind of a big deal. You know who else is a big deal? Gene Hackman, the man who played Lex Luthor opposite the definitive screen portrayal of Superman, Christopher Reeve. THE Gene Hackman, one of the greatest acting talents of our time! So it’s weird to be saying his version of Lex Luthor isn’t the best, but it’s not. He has his moments for sure, but Michael Rosenbaum, the Lex Luthor of TV’s Smallville, has all the moments. Start to finish, top to bottom — Michael Rosenbaum is the best Lex Luthor we’ve ever seen.
Smallville, the no flights and no tights Superman story about a young Clark Kent growing up in his hometown changed a few things about the origin of Lex Luthor. In this take on the story, Lex grew up with Clark, somewhat mirroring the supervillain/superhero relationship we’d seen in the big screen X-Men adaptation that debuted a year before Smallville, where Xavier and Magneto’s long-standing friendship was a focal point. It brought a new and interesting dynamic to a familiar pairing. You were seeing Lex drift towards being antagonistic, watching someone wrestle for their soul knowing they’d ultimately fail. Rosenbaum absolutely excelled at that.
Rosenbaum’s general demeanour, his line delivery, and his overall attitude — all perfect. It really is as simple as his attitude, even the way he says “Clark” is cool, somehow. On a much, much more basic level, the fact that he is bald — not wearing a wig or sporting a full head of hair like a Lex or two before him, was refreshing. Especially when they had such a good excuse for not doing that: he was the younger version of the character, after all.
–D. N. Williams
4. Catwoman (Eartha Kitt) | Batman (1967–68)
Eartha Kitt took over the role as Catwoman in the third and final season of the show after Julie Newmar left to film a movie. She brought a more serious tone to the character, making her a more ruthless and memorable villain. As much as I loved Julie Newmar, Kitt really personified the character in away that no one else has done since. She was more catlike than her predecessor and Lee Meriwether, who took over for Newmar in the movie. I will say Michelle Pfeiffer came damn close though. Meow.
It’s a bummer that the sexual tension between Catwoman and Batman was minimized when Kitt took over the role. The1960s were just not ready to show interracial relations on main stream TV yet (leading to Batman having a bigger interest in Batgirl instead).
3. Kingpin (Vincent D’Onofrio) | Marvel Cinematic Universe
The Kingpin has always been a fan-favourite villain. A recurring foe in both Daredevil and Spider-Man comics, introduced to a generation by the latter’s ’90s Fox cartoon, Wilson Fisk’s appeal as a character was very straightforward — he’s a puppet master, a mere mortal that a bunch of underworld figures answer to. There was something interesting about the idea of someone human calling the shots in a superhuman world, but he was a relatively simplistic character despite his significance. The most intimidating thing about him was that he was a crime lord and, shall we say, a sizable human being.
Kingpin was brought to life in 2003’s Affleck-starring Daredevil movie by Michael Clarke Duncan, a terrific and beloved performer, primarily cast because he was statuesque. That is of course a huge component of the character, the production was looking for “a white Michael Clarke Duncan” before realizing they were playing themselves by discriminating, so they cast the actual Michael Clarke Duncan. He ticked a lot of boxes for fans, but on a fairly superficial level. What you really want, what you need, is a talent to bring something that isn’t on the page to the role. That’s when you can be most impressed by a character being brought to life. A singular interpretation, a take on the material that makes it more than it would have otherwise been. That’s where Vincent D’Onofrio comes in.
D’Onofrio wasn’t just well cast because he looks like he was ripped off the pages of a comic book (which he does, and that is a bonus) — he was well cast because he saw the character on the page and asked himself how he could justify what he was seeing on a psychological level. What he could do to make Wilson Fisk’s behaviour understandable and have some element of psychological realism despite the fact that the Kingpin is ultimately this crazy, larger than life supervillain. D’Onofrio knows his physicality is bringing a lot of intimidation to the table as-is, so being this cool, calm, collected person just barking commands at people isn’t adding much to that. What does contribute something significant though, something terrifying, is having Fisk comport himself like an overgrown child.
D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is on the verge of having a full-blown tantrum at any moment, there’s a quiver in his voice, a real fire behind his eyes when he’s interacting with people. Then there’s his obsessive, dependent relationship with Vanessa, which made the character feel multifaceted and unique. It defied expectation, elevated the part, and put him alongside the best supervillain performances out there.
–D. N. Williams
2. Homelander (Anthony Starr) | The Boys (2019–)
I’m not gonna lie, I had no idea who Anthony Starr was before watching The Boys. But man is he not perfect for the role or what? He drips smugness in the role of the All American superhero gone bad. On the surface, he’s the ultimate Boy Scout, a god damn American treasure. But just like any mortal, a little power goes to your head and is hard to contain.
Being the leader of The Seven, the most popular and powerful American Superhero team can’t be easy if you ask me. He’s got to answer to the public, the press and his bosses at Vought International, multi-billion dollar conglomerate that was founded by a Nazi scientist who created Compound V and would perform unethical experimentation on human test subjects to create supes. You can see why he lost his way at being a good guy.
He’s a reprehensible dick with some serious mommy issues. I guess you would be too if you grew up in a lab subjected to hours of seeing images that were chosen to mold your personality and then accidentally killing the doctor who was closest to being a mother to you by not knowing your own strength and hugging her too tightly, breaking her spine.
1. The Tick (Patrick Warburton) | The Tick (2001–02)
The Tick is… Dammit, I’ve sat here staring at those ellipses for like 20 minutes trying to figure out how to describe The Tick. He’s an independent comic character, created by Ben Edlund (Firefly, Supernatural, Gotham) who was originally known for his rallying cry of “SPOON!.” He’s the star of one of the greatest cartoon series ever, with some of the greatest lines. (“Destiny dressed you this morning my friend, and now fear is trying to take off your pants!“) He’s somehow gotten TWO live-action television series, despite being mostly a cult character. None of this conveys how odd and hilarious the character is, how hilarious the show is – a parody of super-heroes done as absurdist theater with heaping helping of satire and still somehow relatable.
And Patrick Warburton IS the Tick. Even the decision to change the costume so Warburton’s face is more visible somehow only made him MORE The Tick. He conveys the absurdity and awesomeness of the character just with a smirk and twitch of his antennae. He’s a cartoon come to life, he’s joy in a skin-tight blue costume. He’s so effortlessly funny and lovable that he replaced the cartoon version in my head. It’s Warburton’s voice I hear when I think of those cartoons now, that’s how impossibly spot-on he is in the role. “I am mighty. I have a glow you cannot see. I have a heart as big as the moon. As warm as bathwater.” Yes you do buddy, yes you do.
What did you think of the list? Who are some of your favorite superhero castings in TV that didn’t show up? Tell us who you think should have made the cut down in the comments!