In the current climate of superhero television/movie making, we have an embarrassment of riches. Legitimately great actors are suiting up as famous comic book heroes and delivering performances worthy of their printed counterparts. It’s a great time to be a comic book fan, to say the least.
This hasn’t always been the case, of course. Occasionally, actors have been picked purely for their look and/or their name recognition, leaving the acting side of things with a lot left to be desired. It’s tough to get invested in the live-action adventures of a dynamic hero when the actor portraying them turns in a lifeless take and sucks the energy out of the proceedings. If you’re a fan of a certain character, it can be genuinely frustrating to see your favorite hero stripped of all the things you liked about them thanks to the wrong person being hired for the job. Here, in no particular order, are 15 Terrible Actors That Played Iconic Superheroes.
15. Pamela Anderson – Barb Wire
Barb Wire started life as a short comic series published under the Dark Horse Comics imprint Comics’ Greatest World. The lead character, Barbara Kopetski, is a bar owner/bounty hunter with a no-nonsense attitude and zero tolerance for men calling her “babe”. She’s a highly skilled combatant and a bit of a lone wolf. The series had a resurgence in 2015, but faded back into obscurity after several issues.
A movie starring Pamela Anderson was made back in 1996. While Anderson certainly had the sex appeal inherent to the character, she’s never been a particularly convincing actress, and Barb Wire showed her at her worst. To be fair, many actors would struggle with the terrible, cheesy script this movie had to work with, but the former Baywatch star falls somewhere between overacting and not acting at all, making the whole thing a challenging watch. The movie was universally panned on release and is now regarded as one of the worst comic book movies of all time. Put simply, it had plenty of chest, but not nearly enough heart.
14. Shaquille O’Neal – Steel
Weirdly, the fact that Steel has any kind of name recognition at all is mostly thanks to this absolute turkey of a movie. With no deeper thought than the fact that the 7 foot Shaq has the stature of a superhero, the decision was made to make a movie with him in the lead as weapons designer John Henry Irons, better known as the hammer-wielding Steel of the DC Comics world.
Shaq may be multi-talented, but acting is not his strongest suit. Steel may look like a huge cyborg, but that doesn’t mean he should be this mechanical. We should be able to relate to heroes and will them to succeed, but O’Neal’s monotonous performance kills any affection we may have had for the character completely dead. Irons is meant to have a playful, sibling-like relationship with his crime-fighting partner Susan “Sparky” Sparks, but Shaq seems unable to muster any kind of genuine levity, and he comes across as oddly uncomfortable. (A closer look at the mask he’s sporting might explain that last bit.) Luckily, the movie was a commercial and critical failure, ensuring that any potential sequel plans were quickly forgotten about.
13. Kenny Johnston – The Flash
Back in 1997, a TV pilot was made for the Justice League of America. To put it charitably, it certainly was a unique take on the material. To put it uncharitably, it was cringe-inducingly awful.
Amongst the arm’s length list of baffling choices was the decision to film it like a mockumentary, with heroes like The Flash , The Atom, and Green Lantern talking to the camera like it was The Office. Any one of the actors appearing in the pilot could be on this list, but Kenny Johnston’s version of Barry Allen is especially bad.
For some reason, this Barry Allen is unemployed and struggles to hold down a job. Each of the various members of this Justice League is a total stereotype, and all employ the sort of bad sitcom acting that was prevalent at the time. Johnston’s Flash is a smug jock bro with one-liners so bad they’ll make your head spin. Judging by the rest of cast, it’d be nigh-on impossible to shine given the material they all had to work with, but Johnston stands out despite stiff competition from Matthew Settle’s Green Lantern (inexplicably debicted in a blue uniform). We’re very thankful this never got picked up as a series.
12. Rachel Skarsten – Black Canary
Years before Gotham was a twinkle in an executive’s eye, the idea of a Batman show without the Bat himself was tried, but with nowhere near the same success. Birds of Prey was a short-lived series that took several concepts from the comic series, but little else. It’s set in an alternate future where Batman has abandoned New Gotham, leaving a mighty legacy and some big shoes to fill. Enter the Birds of Prey — namely Huntress, Black Canary, and Barbara Gordon’s Oracle — to pick up the Bat-slack.
The acting on display was a mixed bag, but perhaps the most noticeably bad is Rachel Skarsten’s blonde teenage tearaway, Dinah, the daughter of the original Black Canary. To be fair, the show’s teenage focus meant that episodes were centered on big emotions and dramatic confrontations than more naturalistic acting. After a strong premiere that garnered record-breaking audience numbers for The WB, interest soon dwindled and network cancelled it rather unceremoniously after a few episodes, meaning that the actors never got the chance to grow into their roles. Canary fans would have to wait until the seventh season of Smallville before she made another TV appearance, this time played by Alaina Huffman. The character would also go on to play an important part in Arrow, with the Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy) taking up the mantle and fighting at Oliver Queen’s side.
Despite mixed receptions in every incarnation, this was Black Canary at her worst.
11. Finn Jones – Iron Fist
Expectations were understandably high for Iron Fist, the last piece of Marvel’s Netflix collaboration before the big Defenders team-up series. The show garnered controversy before it even hit the streaming service, with many critics dismayed at the show’s adherence to the old “white savior” trope, with rich white kid Danny Rand mastering kung-fu and becoming the Iron Fist. Race issues and comic faithfulness aside, it’s hard not to feel like Finn Jones’ performance could have deflected criticism if it had been on the same level as his Netflix stablemates. Unfortunately, this turned out to not be the case.
Jones’ Danny Rand is a rather confused take on the character. There’s clearly meant to be some semblance of arrested development going on, with Rand having missed out on a childhood thanks to his accident and brutal training regime at the hands of the monks of K’un-Lun. However, Danny seems hopelessly naïve and lacks several qualities that would make him a compelling lead. Subpar writing and underwhelming action sequences didn’t do the series any favors, but Finn Jones’ often flat style of acting, most notably previously seen in Game of Thrones, failed to breathe any life into the proceedings. Here’s hoping he gets a chance to answer his critics in the upcoming The Defenders series and doesn’t get overshadowed by the big personalities of his heroic teammates.
10. Alan Ritchson – Aquaman
Teen Superman drama Smallville was a big hit for The WB (later The CW). As the seasons went on, more and more iconic DC heroes and villains were introduced with varying degrees of success. In season four, the show started planting the seeds for its own version of the JLA. In the fifth season, Arthur Curry aka Aquaman (known to his friends as AC) made his debut, saving a drowning Lois and impressing her with his clean-cut looks and jacked physique.
Critics weren’t as taken as Lois when it came to Alan Ritchson’s portrayal. The word “wooden” appeared in many contemporary reviews, and it’s not hard not to agree. Making Aquaman interesting to non-comic book readers was always going to be an uphill struggle, and Ritchson’s flat line delivery wasn’t the way to convince people that Arthur Curry was worth caring about. The show’s creators clearly weren’t blown away either, and when they made a pilot for an Aquaman series, Ritchson was replaced with Smallville‘s Green Arrow, Justin Hartley. However, both pale in comparison to the latest version of the character played by charisma powerhouse Jason Momoa, who looks set to steal scenes in this fall’s Justice League movie.
9. January Jones – Emma Frost
It’s safe to say that despite several attempts, a silver screen version of Emma Frost has never really clicked. She has a small role in the legendarily awful X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but the character was given more focus in X-Men: First Class, this time played by January Jones.
Jones has always been a divisive actor, with many singling out her role as Don Draper’s wife Betty in Mad Men for criticism, but it’s hard to get a handle on her version of Emma Frost. She’s sullen, wooden, and weirdly detached. This is thrown into sharp contrast when she shares the screen with Kevin Bacon’s scenery-chewing Sebastian Shaw. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof was especially critical of her role, taking to Twitter to say “Emma Frost’s THREE mutant powers: Telepathy, Transformation to Solid Diamond and last but not least, Sucking at Acting”. Ouch.
8. Dolph Lundgren – The Punisher
Don’t get us wrong, we love Dolph Lundgren. He’s an incredibly smart, interesting man off camera. However, he’s more of a movie star than an actor, and yes, there is a difference. Perhaps the nadir of his non-acting abilities is seen in 1989’s The Punisher. While the film is suitably violent, Dolph’s take on Frank Castle is as generic as it gets.
The ’89 Punisher kills without remorse, but instead of being utterly convinced that his criminal murder spree is justified, the Lundgren Castle comes across as more petulant than anything else, especially in his cell scene with Lou Gossett Jr. The Punisher’s whole drive is meant to be outlined in the scene where he talks to old friend Jake Berkowitz, but Frank is like a sulky teen, refusing to make eye contact and mumbling out monosyllabic answers. Lundgren is at his best when he’s a hulking badass, but he doesn’t have the acting chops to do the broken and pathos-filled Frank Castle any kind of justice. It’s a rather unfair comparison, but when stacked up against Jon Bernthal’s take on the character in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil, the difference is as clear as night and day.
7. Reb Brown – Captain America
Playing Captain America is a fine balancing act. He’s an altruistic, moral character, and it’s difficult to bring that to the screen without coming across as eye-rollingly trite. Luckily, that wasn’t a problem for the pair of 1970s Captain America TV movies, which did away with pretty much everything to do with the Steve Rogers we know and love and concocted some original story that involved a lot of motorbike action instead.
Former football player Reb Brown was cast to fill the Captain’s boots, and things didn’t exactly run smoothly. Brown delivers his lines like he’s under heavy sedation in both pictures. Who’s strong and brave, here to save the American way? Unfortunately, it’s Mr. Brown and his ridiculous costume. After the Cap films, Brown moved onto direct-to-video schlock like Yor, the Hunter from the Future and Space Mutiny, where he delivered one of the best screams ever caught on camera. It honestly never gets old.
6. Jessica Alba – Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman
Sue Storm just seems like one of those characters that the movies just can’t get right. The first big budget attempt to bring Marvel’s First Family to life in 2005 is regarded as a misstep by most comic book fans. The sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, was less of a stumble and more of a complete stagger into an open bear-trap. And amongst the underwhelming cast, Alba is undoubtedly the weakest actor of the main four.
The same criticisms that are usually levelled at the actress were all present and correct when it came to her portrayal of the Invisible Woman. She’s not particularly convincing as a top scientist, and her dull delivery and robotic mannerisms take away from what should be an interesting and capable character. In Rise of the Silver Surfer, she becomes the emotional center of the movie, empathising with the shiny herald, and it doesn’t work in the slightest, leaving many critics and audiences alike cold to the attempt to humanize the Sentinel of the Spaceways. As Fox canned a potential sequel to their 2015 reboot and have been tight-lipped about the franchise’s future ever since, it’s hard to know if we’ll ever see a version of the Four that warrants their fantastic moniker, but we’re holding out hope that it’ll happen someday.
5. Chris O’Donnell – Robin
Speaking of characters they still haven’t nailed with movie adaptations, let’s talk about Robin, Batman’s young ward and sidekick. Nobody walked away clean from Joel Schumacher’s pair of neon nightmare Batman adaptations, but Chris O’Donnell’s Robin deserves special attention. He made his debut in 1995’s Batman Forever in a clear attempt to modernize the character and steer clear of the campy ’60s version, memorably played by Burt Ward. He wasn’t just some teen orphan that Bruce Wayne takes under his wing — he was a young dude with attitude. Specifically, the sort of eye-rolling ’90s attitude that was dated even before it made it to the big screen.
The infamously terrible sequel, Batman & Robin, was worse still. This time, Dick Grayson was nothing but a whiny annoyance, constantly sniping at George Clooney’s Dark Knight for not letting him take the lead when it came to fighting crime. O’Donnell was bad in Forever, but devolves into true awfulness in Batman & Robin. We hate to keep bringing it up, but as the movie very nearly killed the franchise, we feel it’s important to re-establish just how low the entire superhero genre can stoop.
4. Nicolas Cage – Ghost Rider
Of all the people on this list, Nic Cage is the only one we could potentially put on both the worst and best actors to portray a superhero. He’s been fantastic in several films and won an Oscar for the always great Leaving Las Vegas, but he’s perhaps one of the most inconsistent performers going, as he’s been genuinely terrible in other projects. He’s a complete enigma. It’s no wonder the issue caused Community‘s Abed to have a breakdown when he tried to get to the bottom of it all.
One issue that most people agree on is that his portrayal of Johnny Blaze aka the flaming skull-headed biker Ghost Rider belongs at the garbage end of the acting spectrum. Cage is a massive fan of comic books, even taking his stage surname from Harlem’s own Hero for Hire, but he just isn’t a good fit for the character. He both over and underacts, and it’s difficult to get any kind of sense of who Blaze is meant to be. The problems are compounded in the 2011 sequel Spirit of Vengeance, in which the directing team of Neveldine/Taylor doubled down on Cage’s more unhinged side, resulting in a film that was aggressively bad and considerably worse than the first outing. Luckily, the Robbie Reyes version of the character seen in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been met with a warmer critical reception.
3. Lewis Wilson – Batman
It’s tough being a trailblazer, but that’s exactly what Lewis Wilson was, becoming the first live-action Dark Knight in the 1943 Batman film serial. Despite being rather quaint (and exceptionally racist) now, the Batman serial was responsible for bringing the Batcave into the official canon. Considering how awesome and iconic the Batcave has become, we should at least give it props for that, if little else.
Things have obviously moved on since the early black and white days, but even taking that into account and making allowances, Wilson’s performance isn’t the best. He had little prior acting experience and it shows, delivering lines like he’s terrified of his own words. His physique wasn’t exactly what you’d expect from a big-screen version of the Bat either. He was rather ungraceful in his movements, and one critic’s quote about him being “thick around the middle” stuck like Bat-Glue to his portrayal, often being brought up in retrospectives charting the cinematic history of the Caped Crusader. Wilson may have lead the way, but he was soon overtaken by just about everyone else.
2. David Hasselhoff – Nick Fury
The Hoff is an institution. There’s something genuinely likeable about the man and he’s taken all the criticism he’s received over the years and built an entire career out of it. He’s a great presence, but with all the best intentions in the world, he’s not a good actor.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Hasselhoff certainly looks the part of the gruff eye-patched superspy, but his acting is so hammy that it’s hard to take anything seriously. He just walks around looking surly, growling out line after line of awful dialogue. Clips of the man in action on YouTube may look fun, but in context, the movie isn’t even bad enough to be a “good bad” film. Mercifully, the movie was quickly forgotten about soon after it aired, and audiences were treated to the ultimate (in all senses of the word) Nick Fury in the form of Samuel L. Jackson. Who knows what the MCU would look like today if the Hoff had shown up at the end of Iron Man instead of Sam Jackson.
1. Matt Salinger – Captain America
There’s a case to be made for either of the two Caps on this list to be the worst incarnation of the character, but for our money, it has to be Matt Salinger in the 1990 Captain America movie. Reb Brown was bad, but Salinger seems to lack any screen presence whatsoever. The man’s a charisma vacuum, and certainly not the sort of actor you’d want headlining any kind of superhero feature.
As for Salinger’s worst moments, there are many to choose from. Throughout the film, the man’s a piece of furniture in a stupid outfit. Barely anything he does works the way it was intended. However, we’re going to have to go with the infamous couple of scenes where he pretends to be ill to steal someone’s car. Not only is it decidedly unheroic, he doesn’t even manage to convey feeling sick properly. You’d be hard-pressed to find a high school play that didn’t feature better acting. The fact that this was meant to be the answer to Tim Burton’s Batman is baffling on a whole bunch of levels.
What other terrible actors stepped into a pair of tights to make a superhero movie? Let us know in the comments.