Comic books are perhaps harder to cast than novels, since artists have provided actual pictures of the characters that have a consistent look that fans know well. When filmmakers try to emulate a characters’ look above anything else, they tend to come up short, but when they take chances on talent and personality, they come up with super-gold. Take a look at this gallery of great and bad casting choices over the years for examples.
Best: Michael Keaton as Batman
Keaton was arguably the biggest casting risk in any superhero movie: he was small and had a weak chin, and was saddled with a costume that didn't have all the bugs worked out (he couldn't turn his head). But Keaton understood and radiated the half-mad impulses that would make a man don a bat costume. It was all in the eyes, both in and out of costume.
Worst: Christian Bale as Batman
One can argue Bale is a better actor than Keaton, but he's not a better Batman. His obsessions are more surface and self-conscious. He's a brooder, but not tormented. He appears to be in control all the time, rather than succumbing to brutal urges. His scenes as Bruce Wayne are particularly chilly. It comes down to the Bale's Bat-voice, a kind of hoarse whisper-growl that sounds more and more ridiculous as the movies go on.
Best: Heath Ledger as the Joker
They say of the very best actors that you can actually see them thinking onscreen; that's certainly the case with Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight, except that his thoughts are terrifying. This Joker does not simply laugh and say silly things; he reasons, and though his thought process is insane, it's terrifyingly easy to see how deeply this Joker believes it.
Worst: Jack Nicholson as the Joker
Nicholson was at the top of the "A" list when he was chosen for the Joker in the first serious Batman feature film, directed by Tim Burton. It was a big hit, and people were satisfied, but in hindsight, it looks as if Jack was too bulky for the role, his makeup was too silly, and his performance was frankly a bit lazy. He seems to relish his odd dialogue ("You ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?"), but that's about as far as his insanity goes.
Best: The cast of X-Men
Bryan Singer came to the X-Men as a serious comic book fan and he chose his cast well, with a mix of stars and newcomers, all of whom looked or felt right for their parts. But the rich dynamic and history between Patrick Stewart's Professor Xavier and Ian McKellen's Magneto is something truly exceptional for comic book movies.
Worst: The cast of Fantastic Four
Much like the ill-fated 1994 movie, this 2005 cast seems to have fallen from something a little lower than the "A" list, assembled haphazardly and at random. Chris Evans is a cocky and annoying Human Torch, Michael Chiklis is hampered by heavy makeup, Ioan Gruffudd is a bewildered Mr. Fantastic, and the best that can be said for Jessica Alba as the Invisible Girl is that -- when she was visible -- she filled out her costume well.
Best: J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson
The Spider-Man series has a colorful cast of supporting characters, and Sam Raimi cast these parts well. J.K. Simmons added a little extra in the part of perpetually angry Daily Bugle editor J. Jonah Jameson--humor. His line readings are so juicy that it's a wonder the reporters could keep from laughing while being scolded.
Worst: James Franco as Harry Osborn
Everyone knows by now that Franco is capable of goofiness and warmth, but in 2002, he was still a pretty boy and was probably cast for that reason alone. His scenes as Harry Osborn fall totally flat; Franco is cold and self-aware, like a male model suddenly waking up in a motion picture.
Best: Christopher Reeve as Superman
Reeve may not have been as ripped as today's standards require, but he simply was Superman. He brought kindness and naïve humor to the role; you actually believed that he wanted to help people. Even Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor can't take away Reeve's awesome presence as the Man of Steel. He's even hilariously perfect as Clark Kent.
Worst: Brandon Routh as Superman
With Routh in Superman Returns, it seems as if he accidentally lost his personality. He's arguably the blandest and emptiest of all movie superheroes. He has a square jaw, but none of the strength of character that the Man of Steel should have. Apparently director Bryan Singer fought for him, but even the greatest make mistakes.
Best: Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man
Downey Jr. ripped into Iron Man's armor with energetic brightness, bringing ego, fierce intelligence, and a fidgety vigor to a hero that simply had none of these things in the comics. Downey is alive in every sequence, inventing one-liners as well as gadgets and gizmos. He elevated one of Marvel's less interesting heroes to one of its finest movie franchises.
Worst: Eric Bana as Hulk
Director Ang Lee decided to emphasize inner conflict in his version of Hulk, but unfortunately, he chose an actor that did not seem able to show it. Though Bana had been mesmerizing just a few years earlier in Chopper, he was DOA in this dull 2003 movie, not helped by the waxy, lethargic visual effects that turned him into the rampaging monster. The rest of the movie, characters, and action sequences, were just as dire and depressing.
Best: Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman
If Heath Ledger had any kind of predecessor in the Batman movies, it was Pfeiffer in Batman Returns (1992). Her portrayal of Catwoman verged on dangerous. Newly awakened with lithe sexuality and power, she practically engaged in foreplay with the camera, and loved every second of it, with her gleeful, feline smile/bite. Poor Batman only looks bewildered in his scenes with her.
Worst: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze
Good grief. What more can you say? This was just pathetic. Mr. Freeze was already one of the most boring of all Batman villains, and casting Schwarzenegger -- as a bad guy when he was established in heroic roles -- was a terrible idea, especially with kooky, stupid lines of dialogue to recite (his Terminator was something else entirely).
Best: Chloë Grace Moretz as Hit-Girl
Moretz's foul-mouthed 12-year-old Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass was just scary. Shockingly skilled and brutal, she left audiences' heads spinning. Was it bad for people to see, or a courageous move? Just the fact that Hit-Girl raised these questions makes her something special in superhero movies.
Worst: Alicia Silverstone as Batgirl
At the time, she had just come off a terrific performance in Clueless. She was unable to do the same for her Batgirl in Batman & Robin, but she was not the only one suffering on this ill-fated project. She's only marginal to the story and barely has room to move among the star-heavy cast, brain-dead dialogue, and nonsensical plot.
Best: Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Loki is Thor's brother, for better and for worse. Like most brothers they squabble, though as gods their battles tend to be a bit more on the serious side. English actor Hiddleston seemed to understand the torment that Loki goes through; though he never lets on in his dialogue, his soulful eyes reveal hesitation, doubt, and regret. This performance brought an unexpected depth to the film.
Worst: Liev Schreiber as Sabretooth
Though Sabretooth is not strictly Wolverine's brother, they have brotherly tendencies. Unfortunately, in Gavin Hood's poor X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the character is written flatly and Schreiber plays him with nothing more than a one-dimensional evilness, cackling and saying lines of cheap dialogue like "well, well, well," instead of finding the character's center.
Best: Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach
Haley brought all the mystery and attitude of Rorschach from the graphic novel, and added new levels; like a small, vicious animal, raised on the defensive and so tense for so long that it has turned offensive. When he is in prison he growls, "None of you seem to understand: I'm not locked in here with you... you're locked in here with ME." And he means it.
Worst: Chris O'Donnell as Robin
Robin is a somewhat annoying, yet comfortable, permanent part of Batman lore. Unfortunately, the ultra-bland Chris O'Donnell was Joel Schumacher's choice du jour, and he simply doesn't hold up next to Val Kilmer or George Clooney's Batmen, or the production design. When Schumacher added nipples to his costume, O'Donnell actually looked like he was trying to disappear.
Best: Ron Perlman as Hellboy
Hellboy is a quasi-superhero. He has no secret identity; he'd be impossible to disguise, and he has a kind of grumbly attitude, not unlike Wolverine or the Thing. But he's lots of fun, incorporating mystery and horror into his storylines as well as action. Perlman was the perfect size and shape for the hero, and additionally brought his own kind of New York City cigar-chompin' toughness to the part.
Worst: Jason Momoa as Conan the Barbarian
At least Arnold Schwarzenegger had screen presence. Jason Momoa can barely speak. He spends most of the movie attempting what he must have thought was a steely gaze, but which comes out more like a self-conscious leer. This might be the worst performance by anyone in a comic book movie, ever. Agree with our picks? Disagree? Tell us!