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.
20. Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld) | Hawkeye (2021)
Haillee Steinfeld had already shown a knack to play characters with a biting wit in her breakout role in True Grit and again in Edge of Seventeen. She steps into the role of Kate Bishop effortlessly, bringing an overexcited energy about becoming a superhero as a foil to Jeremy Renner’s weariness as Hawkeye. The future of the arrowed Avenger is promising under Steinfeld’s hand.
19. David Haller (Dan Stevens) | Legion (2017–19)
Legion was a flashy series that featured psychedelic musical numbers, time travel, astral projection and multiple personalities. When you’re not sure what’s real and what’s not in a TV show there has to be a foundation, an anchor to hold the viewer’s attention and sympathy or you’re going to lose them. Dan Stevens performance as mutant David Haller (spoiler – he’s the son of Professor X) manages to ground our interest in the troubles of a young man with mental health issues (as well as a touch of reality-bending power). I ended up identifying with David so much that I couldn’t believe or buy into some of the choices he ends up making – but I ended up coming around when I realized the cycle of the show mirrors the cycle of addiction. David starts out “messed up” and finds a healthy balance, only to forget the things that make him whole and have him descend into ego-driven indulgence. That I felt that disconnect is a direct result of how good Dan Stevens was in the role – even when David was doing bad things I couldn’t help but take his side. Which is how cults get started. The first season is genius and the rest has some stellar individual episodes, but it’s David that makes the journey worth taking in the middle of all the psycho-psychedelic madness.
18. Robotman (Brendan Fraser) | Doom Patrol (2019–)
Casting Brendon Fraser as Robotman in Doom Patrol was a stroke of genius. In doing this, the show added an instantly recognizable name who delivered a solid fan base for the relatively unknown Doom Patrol. For me, Fraser had me at the first F-bomb, profanity laced tirade. Okay, so maybe he just voices Robotman and physically pops up in flashback scenes as Cliff Steele, but he pulls it off. As Robotman, you can feel the torment hiding behind the sarcasm of the character. As Cliff Steele, Fraser makes your emotions swing from wanting to punch him in the face to really feeling sorry for him, the guy just sucks as a person. Fraser’s Robotman plays to his core acting style—as the muscle/comic relief for the group. Let’s be honest, the show is so strange I didn’t think it would make it to a second season. It has and that’s mostly due to Fraser and the rest of the show’s standout cast.
17. Supergirl (Melissa Benoist) | Arrowverse
Supergirl is one of my favorite comic book characters, so when the character came to the small screen back in 2015 I was definitely intrigued to see how the character would be realized. I didn’t really know who Melissa Benoist was before Supergirl, as I wasn’t familiar with her work on Glee. Looking at the first promos for the series, I could see that Melissa definitely looked the part of the classic Supergirl, but could she make me believe that she was Kara Zor-El? I’ll admit I was nervous the first time I sat down to watch the pilot, because I was afraid of finding out that Melissa wouldn’t be up to, what to me was a monumental task: being Supergirl.
Fortunately, my fears were completely unfounded, because Melissa Benoist was born to play Supergirl. From the very first episode when Kara decides she’s going to embrace her powers instead of ignoring them, I found myself pulled into Kara’s story. And what a story! One of my favorite parts of Supergirl is how the show fleshes out Kara’s past on Krypton as much as her current life on Earth to better contextualize how much she struggles to get by among humans. After all, unlike her cousin, Kara didn’t have the benefit of growing up on Earth from infancy. She can remember a life on Krypton and there are many times I can tell that the memories of Krypton weigh heavily on Melissa’s Kara Zor-El. Another thing I like about Melissa Benoist’s portrayal of Supergirl, particularly in the early episodes, is how she doesn’t shy away from showing that Supergirl isn’t this perfect being who never makes mistakes. On the contrary, despite having superpowers, Melissa Benoist shows us that Supergirl can in fact make many mistakes and she’s not good at being a superhero right away. In fact, one of my favorite montages from the beginning of the series is when Supergirl is working out what her costume will be through trial and error.
With a beginning like that, is it any wonder that Melissa Benoist’s performance as Supergirl remains one of my favorite superhero performances? She gives Supergirl a sense of vulnerability that I really appreciate, and it’s something that remains throughout her run as Supergirl too. For anyone who wants to get a better understanding of Supergirl, I highly recommend checking out Melissa Benoist’s performance as the Girl of Steel.
16. Dr. David Banner (Bill Bixby) | The Incredible Hulk (1978–82)
Don’t make him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry. The heart and soul of the Incredible Hulk TV show, David Banner was the haunted everyman, on the run from something terrible he may or may not have done. In the hands of another actor it could have been a one-note caricature, the sad-sack nebish who inevitably gets backed into a corner where his alter-ego would arrive to save the day. Bill Bixby gave the gamma scientist something more, though – a belief in the goodness of humanity. Despite his desire (and need) to stay under the radar and avoid situations that could trigger his other half he consistently intervened on the side of the downtrodden and the helpless. That he could never stick around to enjoy the peace his actions brought to others was the defining tragedy of the show. I always wanted David (middle name Bruce) Banner to show up in my town, even if the Hulk was going to show up eventually and wreck some shit. Bill Bixby was just that good at making you like and care about him. He was just as good at reminding us that there’s a Hulk waiting inside us all.
15. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) | Marvel Cinematic Universe
Jessica Jones is technically a superhero, as she possesses super strength and an ability close to flight. But the core of the character is a miserable alcoholic private eye, and Krysten Ritter nails the energy. She slips into the role of someone drinking away the pain of serious sexual trauma encountered by Kilgrave, but with an overlaying mask of sarcasm and self-sufficiency. Ritter makes Jones a great noir protagonist to follow.
14. Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) | The Boys (2019–)
I used to say for the longest time that Karl Urban was the next Liam Neeson in the sense that he’s not going to be a movie star until he’s in his sixties. Since he’s been consistently killing it for the last twenty years and it still hasn’t happened yet, he’s going to have to wait fifteen years for someone to write another Taken-esque action thriller and then he’s in, baby. I still believe that he’s going to get his own monster hit franchise but now that The Boys exists, I don’t think I’m going to have to wait fifteen years to see it. Urban plays Billy Butcher, a regular ol’ chap with a chip on his shoulder and the only Tweezers big enough to remove said chip, is made of the corpses of a handful of superheroes. In other words, he’s a guy looking to kill the Justice League without any powers of his own. The why is parsed throughout the show and while it’s certainly great, it’s nowhere near as great as the how. The plans he comes up with are utterly ridiculous and yet, they somehow pan out. Many broken bones, missing teeth and gun shot wounds later but they get the job done. He’s a bastard with a mile long anger streak that curses like a sailor and has about the loosest set of morals of any character in existence but the heroes are worse and they kinda got it coming. The Boys is a show where the worst person alive is brutally murdering hundreds of people on his quest to kill the five “superheroes” and you’re rooting for him to do it. And you’re rooting him to do it because Urban fucking crushes the role.
13. Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons) | Watchmen (2019)
If you’re looking for someone to play a narcissistic, egotistical megalomaniac, who better to pick than Jeremy Irons. It took the television series a few episodes to reveal that one of its main characters was actually Adrian Veidt, but once the name dropped it made perfect sense. That is if you hadn’t guessed already. He may be an aged version of the Olympic-level athlete that we were accustomed to from the graphic novel, but the transition to an older, crazier Ozymandias was seamless. Irons brings a certain eccentricity to the role. He’s still the smartest man in the world, although he can’t quite understand why the human population doesn’t worship him. I mean he saved humanity by murdering 3 million people. He still has no remorse, and Irons portrays the character perfectly.
12. Shadow King (Navid Negahban) | Legion (2018–19)
I was barely familiar with the Shadow King before Legion. He wasn’t a primary X-Men villain in the comics and his appearances in the ’92 show didn’t stick to my memory, so I only knew he existed and what his powers were, that was about it. After Legion, he’s my new favorite baddie in their rogue’s gallery. Originally played by Aubrey Plaza (in a performance so good, it singlehandedly made me a huge fan for life and before this, I couldn’t stand her), the Shadow King was eventually released from that corporal form and was played by Navid Negahban. Cooler and more suave than any Bond villain and with powers so powerful that he would’ve been a formidable foe in either X-Men trilogy, The Shadow King feels more like an Eldritch horror straight out of Lovecraft than a typical mutant. He feels out of time while simultaneously feeling like he’s from an alternate dimension. It’s a unique juxtaposition of style and malice. There’s not many villains I can compare him to and there aren’t many TV performances I like more. I like Negahban in this so much, that I wanted to follow him to his next film, just to see more from him. Unfortunately, his next film was Aladdin and I’m now sending loan sharks to his house to collect the 12 dollars he owes me.
11. Daredevil (Charlie Cox) | Marvel Cinematic Universe
It always seemed like Ben Affleck was miscast. At the time, out of the two guys behind Good Will Hunting, it was clear that it would’ve made a lot more sense to cast Matt Damon as Matt Murdock. He’s just more of a Matt Murdock type. It’s not that Affleck isn’t a good actor, it’s not that he couldn’t be well cast as a superhero (although he never has been), he just definitely isn’t a Matt Murdock type. Charlie Cox is.
Going into the first season of Daredevil, you’d be forgiven for not being excited by Cox being the lead. Despite recently having starred in Boardwalk Empire, he hadn’t made the biggest of impressions. To be fair, Boardwalk Empire had a ridiculously stacked cast, and it would be difficult for anybody to make an impression, but still. Otherwise his most notable role was the lead in Stardust, an enjoyable movie that doesn’t exactly rely on him for its success. There Cox, despite being a superior actor, felt like a kind of off-brand Orlando Bloom. However, the second the Daredevil pilot episode dropped, any apathy was dispelled. Charlie Cox was the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.
It’s often acknowledged that there are a lot of halfway fights in those Marvel Netflix shows, and the first, the one that had the greatest impact, is the initial Daredevil hallway fight. It’s a thing of absolute beauty, and there’s a lot to recommend it — the choreography, the camera work… but the thing that anchors it is Charlie Cox. Nailing that fight choreography of course, but also performing throughout. You see Daredevil get exhausted. He leans up against a wall, he catches his breath, his punches get weaker, he flails, you watch as his stamina slowly dissipates. That’s not something that you ever really see in superhero fights. Even, maybe even especially, with the “relatable human” superheroes like Batman. They’re typically shown to be indefatigable, that’s part of the wish-fulfilment, so what Charlie Cox was doing was something audiences were really unaccustomed to.
The relentlessness at the heart of Cox’s portrayal is not limited to that fight. There’s exhaustion when he’s a lawyer, exhaustion and exasperation when he’s just having regular conversations with the people in his life, and so on. That’s one of the things that he taps into with Daredevil, and really sells. The burden of self-appointed heroism, the obligation of it, the weight. He’s the perfect Matt Murdock.
–D. N. Williams
What are some of your favorite superhero TV castings? Who do you think will show up in the Top 10?