Some characters are hard to get right, and some are open to interpretation. For instance, the recent attempts to get the Fantastic Four right both visually and conceptually have met with mixed success, and as the likes of Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox will tell you, when it comes to casting that next big comic book hit, it’s not that easy to pick the right person for the job.
So what have you got to get right? Well, it helps if the person playing the role is familiar with the source material, but not essential. It also helps if they themselves have a little of the character within them, be that honour, mischief, determination or charisma.
With that in mind, here’s ten examples of people who have embodied their characters so well, they sometimes made bad films or TV shows better, just for them getting the role spot on.
Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) – while she’s proved many doubters wrong (including us), who had reservations about her as Wonder Woman, she’s only been on screen for a few minutes compared to the main list, so we can’t accurately say if she’s got everything about the character right yet.
Charlie Cox (Daredevil) – Cox is a good Daredevil, and while the first season of the show proved what a strong lead he is, season two saw him largely overshadowed by supporting characters like Frank Castle and Elektra. He’s still only scratched the surface of Matt Murdock yet, so there’s still many more sides to The Man Without Fear” that we need to see.
10. Margot Robbie – Harley Quinn
There was a lot of criticism for DC’s Suicide Squad movie, mainly for the disorganised script, poor editing and lighting, and the questionable characterisation. One bright spark in the movie though, was the performance of Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn. Purists despise the costume changes Harley has gone through over the years, condemning her hot-pants-and-crop-top look, but if you look beyond that, you’ll find she got Harley spot on. Outwardly portraying a ditzy psychopath, Harley is actually damaged to the extent her violence and flirtatiousness are ways for her to deal with the mental and physical abuse she’s suffered at the hands of The Joker. Robbie gets Harley’s vulnerability, awkwardness and viciousness spot on.
9. Tom Cavanagh – Eobard Thawne/Reverse Flash
Anyone who watches The Flash will know that Tom Cavanagh is technically Dr. Harrison Wells (from a variety of Earths), but Cavanagh has never been better than when portraying the villainous Reverse Flash, masquerading as Wells. Throughout the first season of the show, his quiet malevolence, leading to the reveal of his dual identity, was gripping, and he captured Thawne’s arrogance and cruelty perfectly. Thawne, in the comics, is a work of pure evil, happily murdering people to get The Flash’s attention. His motivations are slightly different in the show, wanting to make The Flash faster to steal his speed and return to his own time. In doing that, his duplicity is enhanced further by his murder of Flash cohort Cisco Ramon – a character he genuinely likes. Cavanagh’s icy resolve when playing Thawne only makes him even more frightening.
8. Jon Bernthal – The Punisher
Season two of Daredevil was excellent, but no one who watched it could deny it became invariably better when Jon Bernthal’s Frank Castle was on the screen. Like so many comic characters, The Punisher is hard to get right, and indeed three previous attempts hadn’t captured the mental torture, the social disconnect and the rationale that a man can provide himself for willfully slaughtering people, however guilty they may be. It’s ironic that Bernthal’s best scene doesn’t involve any fighting or action – rather his monologue while leaning against a gravestone while waiting to be arrested. He recounts his daughter’s love and how his brutal nature was only tempered by the love of his family. When that was stripped away, the only thing that was left was the pure rage that drives him now. No actor other than Bernthal has captured that so far, and it’s an insight into what makes the character tick, rather than just a way to show how tough he is.
7. Melissa Benoist – Supergirl
It’s easy to forget that Supergirl is actually older than her more well known cousin (we’ve got Kryptonian suspension technology to thank for that), but due to the fact Kal-El has been around humans longer, she’s much more immature. As such, she’s much more quick to anger and be impulsive. For someone who can cut oil tankers in half with her heat vision or demolish a skyscraper with her bare hands, that needs a certain amount of tact when it comes to playing her. Fortunately, Melissa Benoist has handled that well. In her own series, her interactions with other characters and Tyler Hoechlin’s Superman have shown her naivety, but also her determination, as well as the short fuse mentioned above. Now as part of the CW continuity, it’ll be interesting to see if she fits in well with other, more well established personas like Stephen Amell’s Green Arrow and Grant Gustin’s Flash.
6. Ben Affleck – Batman/Bruce Wayne
Maybe a controversial choice, considering the popularity of the Michael Keaton and Christian Bale incarnations, but while those two made Batman in their own image, Affleck is the first actor to have incorporated Batman’s image into his portrayal. Universally praised as the best part of the the maligned Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Affleck has captured many of the facets of Batman – and Bruce Wayne. His work as Wayne encapsulates the roguishness and drive of the man behind the mask, while he carries off the physicality and intimidation needed to make his Dark Knight exactly what he’s supposed to be – a brutal, terrifying vigilante. Affleck also makes his Batman closer to the comic book version than any other, by displaying the charisma needed to make Batman an equal amongst super-powered peers. You genuinely believe his Dark Knight could outwit, and outfight, any other metahuman in the DC Extended Universe.
5. Chris Evans – Captain America/Steve Rogers
Captain America is more than just a hero – he’s the embodiment of an ideal. He’s the man who we all should be, but life gets in the way. He just has the opportunity, and fortitude, to be able to do the right thing. Getting that correct without making him a saccharine, sentimental goody-two-shoes is a difficult feat. Chris Evans, who, prior to casting, had the acting chops, if not the stature, to pull off such a role, has turned out to be an inspired choice for the part. It helps that his first outing, The First Avenger, is set in a simpler time, where Cap’s morals and values can be fully fleshed out, and it therefore gives Evans the edge in making him a more believable figure in the later movies. Civil War made him somewhat of a loose cannon, and his inevitable redemption in Infinity War will be interesting given the divisions between the big screen Avengers.
4. Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man/Tony Stark
The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first big casting choice is also its best. Chris Evans embodies Captain America, but he is inherently good, and it’s always easier to make people root for you if you’re the whiter-than-white good guy. Playing the arrogant centre of attention who STILL has to be the good guy is much more difficult. That’s precisely what Tony Stark is, and precisely how Robert Downey Jr. plays him. He’s also matured the character over the course of seven films (and undoubtedly will again in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming), changing him from billionaire playboy, to philanthropist, to drunk, to hero, to political activist, PTSD sufferer, wronged son and now a father figure to Tom Holland’s Peter Parker. The fact Downey Jr has incorporated all of these facets of Stark from the comics to the screen shows his acting prowess, but also how difficult it is to accurately portray such a complex character.
3. Hugh Jackman – Wolverine
Hugh Jackman gets a lot of criticism for the things he doesn’t do as Wolverine (like slicing people’s heads off with his claws), but the question of whether or not he’s been a good incarnation of the character can be answered by the fact there isn’t anyone who could accurately show the many different sides of Logan as Jackman has done. Wolverine is timeless, changing with the centuries as his extended lifespan means he’s existed for years. The difficulty in doing that is how you make him relevant. That’s a feat considering the X-Men movies have targeted a younger demographic as they’ve progressed. Jackman though, has captured the weariness and guile of Logan, which sets him apart from the rest of the crowd, and continues to make him the X-Men’s most popular character by a mile. Aside from the fact he is actually too tall to be the comic version of Wolverine, he gets across the ferocity, anger, sadness and genuine passion Logan shows concerning his enemies and friends. It’s hard to think the original choice for the role, Dougray Scott, could have shown the breadth of emotion Jackman has done in playing a character driven by his heart and not his head.
2. Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool
When we get to number one on this list, you’ll see why Reynolds is number two. Put simply, only one superhero performance has topped his turn as Deadpool. He’s a character fans had cried out to see for years, if nothing else to witness the irreverent, immoral, violent lunatic on the big screen. Deadpool’s strength is also his weakness though: 20th Century Fox were horrified at the prospect of integrating the comedic assassin into their straight laced X-Men universe, so it took leaked test footage to get the movie made. That was in no small part down to Reynolds, whose brief appearance as “The Merc With The Mouth” epitomised everything fans wanted to see: cracking jokes, while shooting and skewering bad guys at the same time. Breaking the fourth wall is also difficult to do without making the movie ridiculous, but Reynolds manages to pull that off with aplomb.
1. Christopher Reeve – Superman/Clark Kent
If you were in trouble – he’s the guy you’d want to turn up and save you, and that simple premise is why Christopher Reeve’s incarnation of Superman is quite simply the best live action portrayal of any comic book character. Borrowing heavily from the Silver Age version of the character, where Superman was simply a good man who used his powers to save innocents and stop bad people from doing bad things, Reeve underlined how humility and decency are just as important as super strength and flight to the Man of Steel. Playing Clark Kent as the bumbling, awkward Daily Planet reporter, who was far too timid to do anything more heroic than boil a kettle, Reeve made sure that Kent was just as important as his powerful alter ego. Yes, the glasses are a silly disguise, but they were done in an era when the audience wouldn’t criticise a movie for being in on the secret. By making Clark Kent a wimp, he put on a mask that people still liked, so when Superman wasn’t on screen, people still rooted for the hero, and were just as accommodating of him as his red and blue persona. But when he did don the cape, there was no doubt Reeve’s performance changed just as much as the outfit. His Kal-El is physically imposing, but gentle. He’s charismatic, but not arrogant. Determined, but not reckless. Most importantly, he’s a good man. Even in Superman II, when he chooses to give up his superpowers to be with Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane, he eventually chooses the greater good over his own happiness. Sacrifice is the key to Reeve’s portrayal: He makes the difficult choices we can’t because he has the strength, both emotionally and physically, to survive them. More than that, Reeve’s natural decency shines through, and ensures his place, simply, as the definitive superhero, and Superman.