In today’s movie landscape, one sub-genre stands above the rest: the comic book adaptation. A-listers and unknowns alike are scrambling to earn their place in the MCU or DCEU, and many are carving out a big budget career by taking on a solid lead or even supporting role in these franchises. Many of these actors have one significant thing in common: they got their start on a TV series.
Though superhero films of the past weren’t the box office moneymakers they are today, it was always considered an impressive step to make the leap from the small to big screen. And while we’ve been turning our attention to the easier-to-consume and refreshingly unique world of television as of late, the holy grail for many actors is still to score a gig as a hero or villain in international theaters. After all, whether the film was a financial flop or a record-breaking masterpiece, the actor or actress in question still earned themselves a place in movie history.
Here are 15 Comic Book Actors Who Got Their Start On TV.
15 Ryan Reynolds
Before Deadpool became the Golden Globe-nominated phenomenon it is today, star Ryan Reynolds had an interesting career. He began acting as a teenager in Canada, with a lead role on the teen drama Hillside, (the much shorter-lived interim Degrassi, if you will).
But Reynolds quickly became known simply as Berg, one of the three young stars of Two Girls, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, who was often the comic relief as a ditzy yet extremely intelligent waiter and medical student. The title was later changed when they dropped the pizza joint and the crew got other jobs, and Berg became less of a joke as he evolved into the responsible future doctor.
Shortly after the cancellation of Two Guys and a Girl, Reynolds got his first big role as the star of National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. Playing a sarcastic party boy quickly paved the way for roles in both Marvel and DC adaptations, as Blade: Trinity’s Hannibal King and the leading man in Green Lantern. But his true calling was always Wade Wilson, and even after the character assassination that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, last year’s Valentine’s Day smash hit brought sweet redemption for Reynolds as the quippy antihero he was born to play.
14 James McAvoy
The Scottish actor began with bit parts on TV and film, but got his first big break as Steve in the first two seasons of the original British series Shameless, long before the American version came to Showtime. McAvoy went on to marry his Shameless co-star Anne-Marie Duff and take on larger and larger roles in quick succession, from Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to his BAFTA-nominated lead performances in The Last King of Scotland and Atonement.
Though admittedly not a comic book fan, McAvoy was allegedly excited to take on the role of a younger Charles Xavier in the rebuilt X-Men franchise beginning with X-Men: First Class, through to the most recent Apocalypse. But McAvoy hasn’t gone completely commercial: he’s stayed true to his theater roots with various West End performances. In fact, he’s been nominated for the Laurence Olivier Best Actor Award for all of his last three roles, in Three Days of Rain, Macbeth, and The Ruling Class.
While we obviously don’t know much about what the future (or past, or future past…) holds for the young Professor X, it’s likely that it will involve McAvoy.
13 Jennifer Lawrence
Speaking of the latest X-Men films, Jennifer Lawrence began in First Class as a burgeoning actress and wrapped up Apocalypse as the film’s biggest movie star. But JLaw’s career began quietly, like most of the others on this list. After guest appearances on shows like Monk and Cold Case), her role as the teenage daughter on TBS sitcom The Bill Engvall show in the mid-aughts hardly brought her fame, but it did help angle her into film.
Enter Winter’s Bone, a captivating indie flick that earned Lawrence her first Academy Award nomination. The heroic Ree must have sparked something in the actress, because she went on to play the super-powered Mystique in the X-Men franchise, as well as the force of nature Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games films.
These series, in addition to the trio of David O. Russell films that earned her more Oscar nods (and one win), have kept Lawrence busy and earned her the title of the highest-paid young actress in Hollywood today. She headed straight for the big screen and never looked back at TV, and with plenty more in the works, it’s likely we’ll be seeing her in movies for many years to come.
12 Halle Berry
Yet another actress who rose to the top of the Hollywood food chain, Berry, like a few others on this list, has seen both very high highs and very low lows throughout her career. She became a sex symbol in the ‘90s, and achieved critical acclaim in the early ‘00s, still holding the title of the only black woman to ever receive the Best Actress Academy Award after her 2002 win for Monster’s Ball. But the actress had humble beginnings, with her first-ever role as a model on the Who’s the Boss? spinoff, Living Dolls, which lasted just 12 episodes before cancellation.
Just before her Oscar-winning performance, Berry hit the big screen as Storm in 2000s X-Men. Her performance wasn’t particularly well-received, but after ditching the awkward Caribbean-hybrid accent, she has more or less become more accepted in the universe. Berry followed up X2 with a dip in the DC pool in Catwoman -- and the result, as we all know, was a horrific, sexist disaster of a film.
Putting Catwoman aside, Berry has been a continued presence in the X-Men franchise, even with newcomer Alexandra Shipp portraying a younger version of Storm in X-Men: Apocalypse. So what does the future hold for Berry in this role? We've probablyyou can never be sure seen the last of her, but in the X-Men universe, .
11 Anne Hathaway
The latest big screen iteration of Catwoman came in 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, the third and final film in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Anne Hathaway played Selina Kyle as comic book fans know her: an antiheroine, femme fatale, cat burglar, and simultaneous foil and love interest for Bruce Wayne/Batman. Hathaway was widely praised as the best Catwoman on film (or at least, second best, after Michelle Pfieffer’s turn as the vixen in Batman Returns).
Considering the actress’s past successes, this wasn’t surprising to her fans. Hathaway is a trained stage actress and singer, and has gone on to show off these skills in performances such as that of Fantine in the film adaptation of Les Miserables. And while many know her originally as the awkward Mia Thermopolis in the Princess Diaries series, her first acting job was in the short-lived FOX comedy Get Real, where she played Jesse Eisenberg’s older sister. Fun fact: The two stars later worked together to provide the voices for the two main characters in Rio.
10 Chris Pratt
Before he was a full-blown superstar, Chris Pratt graced our TV screens on a number of occasions, beginning with the WB drama Everwood, where he played the affable jock Bright Abbott. As soon as the series wrapped up, he landed himself a recurring role on The O.C., another hit on the once teen-centric network, as Summer’s activist friend at Brown. But it was his breakout TV role as the hilarious Andy Dwyer on Parks and Recreation that solidified his comedy chops in the acting world.
While he conquered the small screen, Pratt continued to take on supporting parts in movies such as the horror thriller Jennifer’s Body and the Judd Apatow-produced rom-com The Five-Year Engagement. At long last, Pratt achieved leading man status in 2014 as two very different kinds of heroes: animated do-gooder Emmet in The LEGO Movie and Peter Quill, better known as Star-Lord, a thief and all-around ne’er-do-well who finds himself the leader of a group of misfits who save a planet in Guardians of the Galaxy.
Now it seems there’s no stopping Pratt. He’s become a regular action star, with Jurassic World, Passengers, and the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Chances are we won’t see him back on TV anytime soon.
9 Michael Keaton
Though all on this list have become well-known for their superhero or villain roles, none have been so iconic that they were then lightly parodied in a role they later played. Michael Keaton’s turn as Batman in the Tim Burton film of the same name and its sequel, Batman Returns, was not without controversy, but many still consider him to be “their” big screen Bruce Wayne. Which is why the joke was not lost on most when Keaton played the lead in Birdman, portraying an actor attempting to reinvigorate his career after achieving fame years prior with a superhero role.
Though Keaton never took to theater the way Riggan Thompson did, he has continued to pick up fairly regular work in film since his Batman days. He has rarely returned to TV, even though his first job of note was as Mike O'Rourke on Working Stiffs, opposite Jim Belushi. And now that some time has passed, Keaton’s ready to dive back into the comic book realm: he’s portraying the villainous Vulture in the upcoming Marvel flick, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
8 Jim Carrey
The trajectory of Jim Carrey’s career could never have been predicted from his humble beginnings as a cast member on In Living Color, the 1990s sketch comedy series produced by the Wayans Brothers. Carrey had started off as a stand-up comic, and had a few small parts on TV and film before the solid gig brought him widespread attention. This was undeniably his breakaway platform, as soon after its cancellation, Carrey hit the big screen hard with four wins in quick succession: Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and of course, his turn as The Riddler in Batman Forever.
After establishing himself as a comedian like no other, Carrey has continued to alternately delight and disappoint. He’s tried his hand at more serious roles with modest success ranging from The Truman Show to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Most recently, Carrey has decided to take his talents back to the small screen, but this time he’s behind the camera, with his new Showtime series I'm Dying Up Here set to premiere in June.
7 Jessica Alba
This is one actress who has been all over the map, on both TV and film. She got her real start on the small screen, though, as Maya in the first two seasons of the Flipper series, and then as the genetically-enhanced teenage soldier Max, the lead character on FOX’s Dark Angel.
Though the latter only lasted for two seasons, it carved out a place for Alba in the action world. She stared in the dance flick Honey, as well as two films based on comic books in the same year. 2005 brought both the neo-noir adaptation Sin City and the 20th Century Fox offering, Fantastic Four, where she took on the part of Sue Storm. Alba reprised both her Invisible Woman role and that of Nancy Callahan in sequels, but most of her focus these days is on her jobs as supermom and entrepreneur at The Honest Company. She’s continued to act, but spends a lot more time promoting her company than her low-profile film projects.
6 Jared Leto
Though it only lasted one season on ABC, My So-Called Life has gained a cult following since going off the air in 1995. The show is thought by many to be the ultimate representation of the ‘90s high school experience, and Jared Leto portrayed the ultimate teenage girl fantasy: the hot, complicated bad boy with a soft side. The role of Jordan Catalano was what launched Leto’s acting career, though the star has proven that he, like Jordan, has many layers. He’s also a musician, a director, and a business owner.
Still, Leto remains most well-known for his many acclaimed roles on the big screen. His unforgettable performance as an addict in Requiem for a Dream and his Academy Award-winning turn as a transgender woman with HIV in Dallas Buyers Club each established him as a dramatic force in the acting world.
He is often thought of for his method acting practices, but never more so than in his latest role as the Joker in Suicide Squad. Taking on the part that Heath Ledger won a posthumous Oscar for would be considered a daunting task for most actors, but in the role, Leto proved once again that he is fearless and intensely dedicated to his craft (even if his take on the Clown Prince of Crime wasn't everyone's cup of tea).
5 Jennifer Garner
While many don’t get to play a superhero until well into their careers, Jennifer Garner’s experience was a bit different. The actress started off with small parts on TV and film before she was asked to audition for Alias, her breakout television role that earned repeated Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
Showing that she could kick some serious butt on the small screen, Garner began to score more movie roles, and was soon cast as Elektra in 2003’s Daredevil. Though the flick was not particularly well-received, it did lead to two big wins for Garner: her own solo superhero movie, Elektra, and her ten-year marriage to (and three children with) Ben Affleck.
But Elektra proved to be a critical and box office disaster, seemingly proving that Garner wasn’t really cut out for the action world beyond Alias. She transitioned to rom-coms, and has comfortably remained there for the last decade. Still, she’s carved out a niche for herself, and she seems to be doing well. Time will tell if we’ll ever see Garner fighting on-screen again.
4 Will Smith
If you don’t know how Will Smith got his start, then you must have been absent for the entire decade that was the 1990s. After the rapper was discovered in Philadelphia, NBC built a pilot around him, and the rest is pop culture history. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a staple of ‘90s TV, but by the end of the series, Smith had already started putting feelers out elsewhere, clearly ready to head to the big screen.
While continuing to put out family-friendly beats, Smith took the action world by storm with hits like Bad Boys, Independence Day, and Wild Wild West. He took things to another level with I Am Legend, and proceeded to mix it up with rom-coms (Hitch) and drama (The Pursuit of Happyness). But in the last several years, Smith hasn’t exactly been churning out the hits.
Enter Suicide Squad, the flick that finally made him a comic book villain. Smith’s performance was solid, and it seems to be one the actor really enjoyed -- he’s even expressed that he’d be interesting in reprising the role in the upcoming Gotham City Sirens.
3 Michael B. Jordan
Though many fans may remember him for his back to back parts in Jason Katims' series Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, true TV buffs will recall Michael B. Jordan’s memorable turn as the teenage drug dealer Wallace on season one of The Wire. The fresh, youthful actor has gone on to make quite an impact. 2013’s biographical Fruitvale Station was met with very positive critical reception, ending up with a 94% Rotten Tomatoes rating.
He followed up the drama with the buddy rom-com That Awkward Moment before hitting 2015 with two action-packed offerings: Creed, an extension of the Rocky film series, and the rebooted Fantastic Four, where he played the Human Torch. Unfortunately, the latter flick was a flop, and Jordan’s first brush with comic book stardom came to a swift and controversial end. But the actor is getting a second chance at tights in the upcoming Black Panther film, where he's set to play the supervillain Erik Killmonger, a role he seems very excited to take on.
2 Michael Fassbender
Now a legitimate movie star, Irish actor Michael Fassbender actually spent several years on TV before making the leap to film, and has never looked back. His first role is one of his most notable: he starred opposite a few others on this list in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, which he followed up with several BBC TV movies and guest appearances on a number of British programs.
Fassbender’s first film role was also one of note, as he played a Spartan in 300. He then played an important part in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which was soon followed by his first appearance as Magneto in X-Men: First Class. (He also played a villain in the critical/commercial disaster that was 2010's Jonah Hex, but we can all pretend that didn't happen.)
In addition to reprising Magneto on two occasions, Fassbender has gone on to make his mark in film with starring roles in the controversial drama Shame, the 2015 Steve Jobs bipoic, and last year’s video game adaptation, Assassin’s Creed. He currently has several big flicks in post-production, so it’s unlikely he’ll be headed back to TV anytime soon.
1 Tom Hardy
Because there isn’t a list specifically for actors who got their start winning a modeling competition, Tom Hardy’s first role in Band of Brothers will have to suffice. That was also the year he had a small part in Black Hawk Down, but was still several years before he would become a Myspace selfie king (before the word “selfie” was even a thing).
Hardy continued to act steadily in films, TV, and on stage throughout the ‘00s, notably starring in the acclaimed bio-drama Bronson and the psychological thriller Inception, among others. After he landed the role of Batman's back-breaking enemy Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy became a household name, and made the surprising (and very British) decision to spend more time on TV, as a recurring character in Peaky Blinders.
Meanwhile, he still had time to appear in movies. In 2015 alone, he starred as the titular hero in the reboot Mad Max: Fury Road, pulled double-duty as twin leads in Legend, and acted alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, for which he earned an Oscar nomination. At present, Hardy can be found once again on your TV screen, in the British miniseries Taboo, of which he is also co-creator. Is there anything this man can’t do?
What other superheroes and supervillains got their start on the small screen? Let us know in the comments.