Since comic book movies are all Hollywood seems to make nowadays, there seems to be genuine effort on the part of the studios to try and find the perfect person to embody whatever superhero they’re adapting this week. They either shoot for accuracy and go after an actor born for the role or decide to roll the dice on an out of the box casting that surprises everyone. Both require a degree of luck. Finding the exact right actor oftentimes requires an unknown like Reeve or Holland and that’s not always easy to find and going with the unconventional choice could result in gold like Ledger or a turkey like Eisenberg. What’s even rarer is finding an actor who’s actually better than the character they’re portraying, accurate or not. Hugh Jackman is a good two feet taller than Wolverine but he perfectly captures his inner turmoil and rage. Iron Man was more of a humorless dick before Downey Jr. turned him into, well, Downey Jr. There’s many different ways an actor can nail a character and this list celebrates all of them. The accurate, the unorthodox, and the perfect.
These are the 50 Greatest Comic Book Castings of All Time.
10. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley) | Watchmen (2009)
When I think of the Watchmen film, I think of Rorschach. I think of his twisted face as he utters the infamous line ‘I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with *ME*’. Even though the line is taken straight from the comic, a large part of what makes it memorable is how Jake Earle Haley spits the words out with complete venom. He also looks the part, from his size and shape, to his hair and facial expressions. He doesn’t have the biggest part in the movie, but he is one of the most memorable things in it. Yes there were a few substantial changes made to his character. He’s essentially a less extreme, toned down version of Rorschach. He feels a little more badass and less creepy than the comic book iteration. But Jackie Earle Haley did what he had to do perfectly.
9. Superman (Christopher Reeve) | Superman Franchise
For those of us who were around to see the first Superman film in the late ’70s, Christopher Reeve was a perfect choice to play Superman/Clark Kent. For four films Reeve portrayed the character to comic book perfection: physically imposing, charming and heroic. As reporter Clark Kent he was clumsy, awkward and, well, nerdy. This is how Superman is supposed to be portrayed!
8. Joker (Heath Ledger) | The Dark Knight (2008)
The Joker is one of the most prestigious comic book roles in history, with two different actors winning Oscars for their performances in the role. Heath Ledger, of course, was the first to do so, winning the award posthumously after his untimely death. Ledger’s Joker is the perfect blend of chaos and control. His monologue on “How I got these scars” pulls you in to this sad, twisted backstory. But then later he tells a completely different, just as affecting story and you realize you can’t believe a word of it. But the performance sells it anyway. Joker works best without a backstory, and Ledger’s performance somehow makes it simultaneously believable that the Joker has a tragic background and that he has no background at all. Everything seems to be layered on something, yet it’s impossible to peel it back and find a foundation. It’s exciting to see new takes on the classic character, but it will be hard for anyone to ever surpass Ledger’s work as the Clown Prince of Crime.
7. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) | Marvel Cinematic Universe
While Amanda Waller assembles a band of villains to save the world in the DCEU, it’s Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury that begins the Avengers Initiative for Marvel, appearing in 2008’s Iron Man to kick off an 11-year journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Jackson brought bits and pieces of his own badass persona into the role of Fury and while he could be blunt and intimidating when he wanted to be, it was clear that he cared about the Avengers and their well being, going so far as to disobey direct orders from those ranked above him, even if it meant sacrificing his job and safety to help out. Sometimes I wonder what the role would have been like had the MCU movies been rated R. I have a feeling we would have gotten a lot more “motherf—ers” from Jackson, but I think he was effective enough in the role to do plenty of non-verbal cursing with his eyes… er, eye.
6. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) | X-Men Franchise
Another casting choice from X-Men that was perfect. The role was originally slated to go to Dougray Scott, who had to bow out at the last minute due to delays filming Mission: Impossible 2 leaving Jackman to step in. And he has been Wolverine ever since. Jackman was able to capture Wolverine’s animalistic intensity in every outing, but more so in X2. His tortured love triangle with Jean Grey and Cyclops had just enough to bring out the humanity in the character.
5. Hellboy (Ron Perlman) | Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy Duology
There are gonna be a lot of “born to play this role” type entries in this list and, yeah, this is another one of those. Somehow Ron Perlman – who was probably best known for the TV show Beauty and the Beast when the Hellboy comics first came out in the early 1990s – turned out to be one the best casting decisions in the history of comic adaptations. As good as other casting choices have been – Jackman as Wolverine, Stewart as Professor X, J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson – few of them have been as integral to the success of a film. Perlman IS Hellboy, the sarcastic, childish, adorable, loyal, conflicted and ultimately human monster. The films wouldn’t work without him (as the most recent adaptation found out). There are a few other super-hero films where casting was as key – Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool comes to mind – but none where director and lead actor managed to perform that Voltron maneuver and assemble the perfect implementation of the source material.
4. J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) | Spider-Man Franchise
When Marvel Studios finally got the chance to bring Spidey into its universe, the internet exploded with discussions of how they should recast certain characters, including some of Spider-Man’s top villains that have already graced the silver screen. But when it came to casting J. Jonah Jameson, there was no debate: bring back J. K. Simmons. To date, Simmons is the only actor reprising his role in the MCU from an outside universe. (For now, Ralph Bohner doesn’t count). Simmons just nails this comedically angry newspaper editor in Spider-Man 2, finding inventive ways to criticize Spider-Man and sell papers. Simmons has shown time and time again his ability to bring that anger to the forefront, and his comedic timing is perfect. He plays a major role in making Spider-Man 2, one of Spidey’s best films. In No Way Home, Simmons shifts the role to more of an Alex Jones type and once again knocks it out of the same park. His ability to play the same character, but with a slight variation on characterization is a testament to just how good J. K. Simmons is at playing J Jonah Jameson.
3. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) | X-Men Franchise
An actor who was born to play Professor Xavier… well that and maybe Mr. Freeze, but I digress. Stewart took the role and made it his. He brought a certain amount of intelligence, patience and optimism to the character. A perfect counterbalance to Ian McKellen’s Magento.
2. Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) | X-Men Franchise
Ryan Reynolds always seemed destined to play Deadpool. Forget his terrible and wholly inaccurate appearance as the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Reynolds himself knew it was nothing like the original Deadpool and that spurred him on even more to land the leading role when the standalone film was announced. Born to play the character, he said himself, “The prep for me was easy. It was basically being eased out of my mother’s womb, and then being fed enough to grow into adulthood, and then beginning filming.” All this led to a masterclass performance, with Reynolds perfectly embodying the role with his humour, athleticism, and all round general charisma.
1. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) | Marvel Cinematic Universe
“I am Iron Man.”
Tony Stark flipped the script on the traditional secret identity to end the first Iron Man and set the MCU on its course. Looking back at Robert Downey Jr’s portrayal of the genius, billionaire, playboy philanthropist over nine movies, his success feels inevitable.
But that wasn’t always the case. Downey had not been an action star up to that point, and was still rebuilding his career after his battle with substance abuse. If the casting had failed, the MCU as we know it wouldn’t exist. But Downey brought the character to life on screen with an easy charm. In lesser hands it would have been easy for Stark to come off simply as an unlikable jerk. But Downey embodies Tony’s balance of playful sarcasm, selfish hedonism and relentless pursuit of technological innovation.
Over the course of the films, Downey had to evolve the character from a freewheeling, fame-loving inventor to a hero with the weight of the world on his shoulders. You can trace the trauma building up for Stark throughout the films, often simply through Downey’s clenched jaw and piercing gaze. Tony Stark is the face of the MCU, and Downey is Tony Stark. Downey is Iron Man.
What did you think of the list? Who are some of your favorite comic book castings in film that didn’t show up? Tell us who you think should have made the cut down in the comments!