Casting in Hollywood is messy business. After first deciding if an actor meets the physical requirements for the role and has the dramatic range to handle the performance, casting directors also need to make sure that egos don’t clash, and that the agent doesn’t have too many demands. Besides all that, schedule and personal issues can interfere with an actor taking a part. Comic book movies can prove particularly difficult to cast, given the extensive training, long shooting schedule and uncomfortable costumes actors need to wear. Besides that, the astronomical cost of producing a comic book film can force a studio to reconsider certain actors, or to cancel a project altogether.
The actors featured here all nearly landed high-profile roles in superhero films, only to lose out on the part for one reason or another. Given the final product of some of the movies, fans should consider themselves lucky. In other circumstances, the actors probably consider themselves lucky to have avoided acting in a bomb. Could some of their casting have panned out? Could they have given a great, even definitive performance as the character?
Check out these 15 Actors Who Almost Starred In Superhero Movies, and meditate on what if!
15. Annette Bening – Catwoman, Batman Returns
Billy Crystal caused a stir at the academy awards when he announced Oscar nominee Annette Bening had nabbed the coveted role of Catwoman in the then-titled Batman 2. That film, of course, became Batman Returns, the somewhat controversial sequel which pitted Batman against modernized, adult-oriented versions of the Penguin and Catwoman. Tim Burton cast Bening after an exhaustive search: casting director Marion Dougherty recalls seeing nearly every actress in Hollywood. Sean Young actively campaigned for the role, even donning a catsuit to do so and tried to hunt down Burton for an audition. The director recalls having to hide under his desk one day to avoid Young’s advances!
But back to Ms. Bening. Tim Burton narrowed the search down to Bening and raven-haired Lena Olin, who showed only passing interest in the part. With Bening having landed the role, Burton and costume designer Colleen Atwood went about designing costumes and developing concept art based on Bening’s look. Then nature called: Bening announced she was pregnant. Given the set release date, and that Catwoman would have to sport a skin-tight costume and do stunts, Bening left the project. Michelle Pfeiffer then won the part, and went on to play Catwoman to great acclaim.
14. Dougray Scott – Wolverine, X-Men
Here’s a bit of Hollywood trivia: that snikt noise heard whenever Wolverine pops his claws in one of the X-Men movies has an unusual source: it’s actually the sound of actor Dougray Scott’s agent trying to cut himself.
OK, not really, though Scott’s angst—like his agent’s—is totally warranted. X-Men rolled into production in late 1999 with acclaimed director Bryan Singer helming the affair. While fans cheered the casting of Patrick Stewart in the crucial role of Professor X, the other mutants proved harder to procure. Chief among the difficult-to-cast parts: Wolverine, the beloved anti-hero of the team.
Singer had approached Mel Gibson and Russell Crowe for the part, while Fox eyed Keanu Reeves, fresh from the success of The Matrix. Dougray Scott ended up winning the part amid general fan approval. Then something crazy happened: Scott got called away for emergency reshoots on Mission: Impossible 2, which caused schedule conflicts with X-Men. In the end, the actor had to vacate the role, leading Singer to cast the unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman. Jackman has now played the role a whopping eight times in 16 years, with another outing on the way. Given the wild success of the X-films and the mega bucks Jackman now commands as a payday, is it any wonder Dougray Scott’s agent is distraught?
13. Robin Williams – The Riddler, Batman Forever
Though Batman Returns earned mixed critical notice and divided audiences, it nonetheless proved very profitable. A third film was a foregone conclusion, and Tim Burton and star Michael Keaton showed interest in returning to the series. With the Joker, Catwoman and Penguin all having had their cinematic moments as baddies, the producers lit on the Riddler as the next big-bad to take on the Bat.
A zany mix of neurosis, silliness and idiot savant intelligence, the role demanded an actor with dramatic and comedic talent. The producers first approached avowed Bat-fan Robin Williams for the part.
Williams, though interested, had reservations: by that time, Burton had left the project. Keaton had as well, after an unsatisfying meeting with the new director, Joel Schumacher. Signing on with a new direction for the series would present a huge risk. Even worse, the producers had already approached Williams for a part in the franchise—The Joker. Though Jack Nicholson was always the first choice of Tim Burton, the actor held out over salary issues. When it appeared negotiations might fall through, the producers tapped Williams as a possible replacement. With Williams about to accept the offer, Nicholson decided to sign on after all. Furious at having been used as a bargaining chip, Williams rejected the part of the Riddler, opening the door for Jim Carrey to nab the role.
12. Leo DiCaprio – Robin, Batman Forever
Speaking of Batman Forever, as it became known, young actors all over the world lined up when Warner Bros. announced that Robin would team up with the Caped Crusader in this third installment. Tim Burton had toyed on and off with including the character in a film as far back as the first Batman movie. Marlon Wayans landed the part in Batman Returns only to find the role dropped in subsequent rewrites of the script. With Joel Schumacher cemented as director, an international talent search began. Ewan McGregor, Mark Wahlberg, Scott Speedman and Alan Cumming (who would go on to play Nightcrawler in X2), were among the dozens of actors who auditioned.
In the end, Schumacher had trouble deciding between two actors: heartthrob Chris O’Donnell, and spindly up-and-comer Leonardo DiCaprio. Reportedly, to help him make a final choice, Schumacher asked several adolescent Bat-fans who they thought would win in a fight. When the kids unanimously chose O’Donnell, Schumacher offered him the part. DiCaprio would go on to flirt with other potential superhero projects—more on those in a moment—before deciding to focus on more serious features. O’Donnell, of course, played the role in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin…the later of which did significant damage to his career.
11. Caitlyn Jenner – Superman, Superman
Before she grew her hair, her breasts and had the most tabloid family in history… back when she went by “Bruce,” Caitlyn Jenner almost landed the part of Superman.
Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had performed an exhaustive search looking for the perfect actor to take on the title role in their big-budget production of Superman. They’d already tapped Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and a host of other names with no luck. At one point, Ilya Salkind’s wife even recommended her dentist for the part!
At the time, Bruce Jenner had made headlines as an Olympic gold medalist, and had become something of a sex symbol and cultural icon. Her athletic build and good looks made her a tempting possibility for Hollywood producers. Jenner had never acted before, though with a start date looming and Marlon Brando & Gene Hackman already signed on, they needed to find a star—and fast.
Jenner ultimately rejected the part, deciding to make her debut a year later… opposite the Village People in the musical Can’t Stop The Music. That movie would go on to become notorious in its own right as one of the worst movies in history! Jenner scored a nomination for Worst Actor for her performance.
10. Rachel McAdams – Lois Lane, Superman Returns
Rachel McAdams had her big breakout moment in 2004, starring in a pair of sleeper hits. Mean Girls followed the bitchy misadventures of a group of high school girls and made Lindsay Lohan a star. The Notebook paired McAdams with fellow up-and-comer Ryan Gosling, and became the most successful romance of the year. McAdams suddenly had her choice of parts, and found directors banging down her door.
McAdams had already turned down a role in one superhero film—that of Sue Storm/Invisible Woman in Tim Story’s Fantastic Four. Given the abysmal finished product of that film, McAdams dodged a bullet! Bryan Singer came calling next, this time for the iconic part of Lois Lane in his high-profile sequel Superman Returns.
The production that would become Superman Returns had labored in development hell since the 1990s. It began as the notorious Superman Lives project which would have starred Nicolas Cage. When that film fell apart, it went into development again, alternately as Batman v Superman (more on that one in a moment) and Superman: Flyby. None of these incarnations ever made it before the cameras, in part due to casting issues.
That included disputes over casting the part of Lois: by turns, Beyoncé Knowles, Selma Blair, Sandra Bullock, Courtney Cox, Julianne Moore and Jennifer Lopez had all been under consideration for the part. With Singer helming, he decided on a more conservative approach to the story, and tapped McAdams for the female lead. She turned down the part, which would later go to Kate Bosworth at co-star Kevin Spacey’s insistence. Superman Returns did only lukewarm business at the box office, while McAdams went on to great acclaim as a dramatic actress.
9. Courtney Love – Harley Quinn, Batman 5
Alternately called Batman Triumphant or Batman Unchained, this proposed film would have followed Batman & Robin in the Burton/Schumacher cinematic continuity. The film series had already come under fire for adding too many characters—Batman & Robin featured three villains and three heroes all competing for screen time—and so Warner Bros. opted to return to the Batman-as-solo-hero premise, as well as a darker tone for the movie. Robin and Batgirl would have left Batman to defend Gotham on his own (either getting killed off or through a falling out), and the script featured the Scarecrow and Harley Quinn as the villains.
Schumacher approached Nicolas Cage, James Woods, Jeff Goldblum and even Howard Stern about the role of the Scarecrow. Harley Quinn, reimagined as the Joker’s daughter rather than his longtime love interest, would have sought revenge for her father’s death. Warner Bros. considered Bridget Fonda, Madonna and Sarah Michelle Gellar for the part, though Schumacher’s first choice was rock star Courtney Love.
To be clear, this wasn’t the drug-addled widow in mourning persona Love sported in the early 90s; rather, this was the cleaned up, beautiful, dramatic actress Courtney Love that won raves for her work in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Love showed interest in the part, though the production didn’t get far: Batman & Robin opened to disastrous box office and critical reception, and Warners decided to cancel a fifth film in the series.
8. Josh Hartnett – Superman, Batman vs. Superman
No, not the recent Zack Snyder production…
Following the cancellation of Batman Unchained and the abortive Superman Lives, Warner Bros. realized that they needed to reboot two of their flagship franchises. Then they had an epiphany: why not do both at the same time for half the cost?
A Batman/Superman team-up had long made geeks salivate ever since the Caped Crusader opened up a new market for superhero films in 1989. Writer Kevin Smith had included a Batman cameo in his draft of Superman Lives hinting at a possible team-up. Batman Forever and Batman & Robin both made references to Metropolis and Superman, hinting that the Man of Steel existed in their continuities as well. Warners began retooling the Batman 5 script to include Superman, and director Wolfgang Petersen signed on to helm the project.
Petersen had a very specific type of actor in mind. The Batman vs. Superman script called for some dramatic moments and some key action. Therefore, the director wanted actors capable of doing most of their own physical work and had true acting chops. He tapped Christian Bale for the role of Batman, in an odd bit of foreshadowing. The part of Superman proved a bit harder to cast; Jude Law turned down the part, at which point, Petersen offered the role to Josh Hartnett.
Hartnett had become a hot commodity after Disney tried to launch him as the next DiCaprio with Pearl Harbor. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be: disputes between Petersen and Warner Bros., as well as studio reservations over the script led Warners to cancel the project in favor of separate reboots instead.
7. Christopher Walken – Brainiac, Superman Lives
Most fans have at least a passing familiarity with the notorious, aborted Tim Burton production of Superman Lives, Warner Bros.’s ill-fated money pit which tried to reboot the Superman series. Kevin Smith, Wesley Strick and Dan Gilroy had all tried their hand at writing a screenplay based on the “Death of Superman” comic story, and Nicolas Cage had signed on to play the lead.
The story, at least in the broadest strokes, had Superman still living in Metropolis and having a relationship with Lois Lane. The villain Brainiac comes to Earth and teams up with Lex Luthor to destroy Superman. Supes dies battling the monster Doomsday, only to get reincarnated courtesy of some Kryptonian technology.
Rumors have circulated over the years that Jim Carrey was the top choice to play Braniac, though Burton himself dispelled those rumors in the documentary The Death of Superman Lives. The director had in mind only one choice for the part: Oscar winner Christopher Walken. Production artists went about designing various looks for the character, integrating Walken’s facial features as well. One design portrayed the character as a shrouded figure with a cobra-like hood over his head, while another had Walken’s head mounted on spider legs!
With a price tag for the movie skyrocketing to an estimated $180 million (almost double the price of the average blockbuster at the time), Warner Bros. got cold feet on Superman Lives. The studio nixed the project much to Burton’s chagrin, and decided to green light Wild Wild West instead.
6. Armie Hammer – Batman, Justice League: Mortal
This entry actually goes beyond Armie Hammer, extending to an entire cast of an aborted film. Despite the success of Batman Begins, Warner Bros. still groused over their continued lack of a Superman film, and with Marvel beginning their expanded cinematic universe to encompass the entire Avengers roster, the studio became desperate to get the DC universe—specifically the Justice League—into theaters.
With Superman Returns underperforming at the box office, and with The Dark Knight in post-production, Warners decided to pursue a movie that would introduce the entire Justice League in one film. The studio tapped director George Miller to head the production, which would shoot in Australia. The story would have followed the formation of the Justice League against the combined threat of Maxwell Lord and Talia al Ghul, with a cast that included D. J. Cotrona (Superman), Megan Gale (Wonder Woman), Common (Green Lantern), and Adam Brody (the Flash).
Warner Bros. continued to dither over the movie. At one point, the studio even considered using motion capture technology to create an animated feature! Miller wanted live action though, and after several disputes with the Australian government, the production moved to Toronto. The 2007 writer’s strike halted production again, and in 2008, The Dark Knight set the world aflame. Not wanting to damage such a respected property, the studio canceled Justice League: Mortal, and opted to make Green Lantern instead.
5. Jake Gyllenhaal – Spider-man, Spider-Man 2
The first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films took the world by storm in 2002, and parent studio Sony wanted a sequel right away. Spider-Man 2 went into development in late 2002, with Raimi and stars Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst set to return as well. Dunst and Maguire had become huge stars thanks to the success of the first film, and with a sequel release date set for 2004, both would have time to pursue other projects.
Maguire played a horse jockey in Seabiscuit, which earned him strong reviews and even nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination. The actor had experienced back pain thanks to the required stunts on Seabiscuit, and his agent began to float the idea that Maguire would not be able to return to Spider-Man after all.
Read that last sentence again. His agent? Moving on…
With Sony in a panic that they may have a blockbuster without a leading actor on hand, they tapped Jake Gyllenhaal to take over the role. Gyllenhaal had auditioned for the part before Raimi cast Maguire, and Gyllenhaal had developed a strong fan base in the interim. Gyllenhaal began stunt training for the role, when Maguire miraculously got a clean bill of health. Of course, Sony agreeing to pay Maguire a higher fee might have had something to do with it too…
4. John Malkovitch – Vulture, Spider-Man 4
Though fans and critics gave Spider-Man 3 a mixed reception at best, the movie none the less hauled in huge money for Sony Pictures. Of course, Sony wanted another sequel right away, and that’s when they realized they had a problem. In 2001, when the studio had signed the cast and director Sam Raimi onto the first film, they had only written in options for two sequels. At the time, producing more than three movies seemed a bit excessive. If only those executives could have seen what would happen with the Marvel Studios slate…
Sony wanted to move on a Raimi-helmed, Maguire/Dunst-led sequel anyway, ever-so-creatively titled Spider-Man 4. Raimi and his actors showed interest, and began lengthy negotiations for their return. In the meantime, Sony hired writers Gary Ross and James Vanderbilt to work on the script, which would introduce the characters of Vulture and Black Cat as the antagonists. Spider-Man 4 would also kick off a new trilogy of Spider-films set in the same continuity.
Years before, John Malkovich had been an early choice of Sam Raimi to play the Green Goblin in the first Spider-Man film. Scheduling issues forced Malkovich to turn down the film, but when Raimi offered him the role of Vulture, the actor jumped at the chance.
Then things went south. Raimi had faced mounting pressure from Sony and Marvel on Spider-Man 3, and sensing studio interference again, Raimi and the bosses began to clash. Coupling that with the director’s unhappiness of the script and a tight schedule to make a release date, Raimi decided to bow out, and with him, the entire cast. Sony then opted to reboot the series with The Amazing Spider-Man
3. Ralph Fiennes – Lex Luthor, Superman Flyby
In the tumultuous period between the cancellation of Superman Lives and production of Superman Returns, Warner Bros. considered two different possibilities to launch the Man of Steel back to screens: the aforementioned Batman vs. Superman, and another reboot film, Superman: Flyby.
TV producer J.J. Abrams turned in the script for Flyby under the auspice of “modernizing” the character, and “reintroducing” him to a new generation. Abrams’ story found the planet Krypton in the midst of a civil war. King Jor-El battled his brother Kata-Zor for control of the planet, and sent his son Kal-El to Earth to be raised by the Kent family. Kal-El/Clark Kent grows to become the adult Superman, when Kryptonians invade Earth. In the midst of it all, a Mulder-type CIA agent named Lex Luthor began linking alien activity to Clark Kent. Superman would die saving Lois Lane, only to be coached back to life by Jor-El who committed suicide on Krypton. Luthor would reveal himself as a closet Kryptonian, and battle Superman in an epic kung fu fight. The movie, the first in a proposed trilogy, ended with Superman returning to Krypton to take the throne.
Warner Bros. had reservations about the script from the start, as it deviated wildly from the Superman mythos. Misogyny, homophobic and scatological jokes abounded, though the studio decided to green light the film anyway. After negotiations with director McG failed, Brett Ratner signed on to direct. Ratner, who had just completed Red Dragon, recruited Anthony Hopkins to play Jor-El and Ralph Fiennes as Lex Luthor. With the budget spiraling and Ratner unable to cast the lead role, the project fell apart. Abrams then lobbied to direct, though Warners, unimpressed with his work, passed. The studio then signed Bryan Singer to direct, who rejected the Abrams script as unfaithful to the Superman mythos, and developed Superman Returns instead.
2. David Duchovny-Hulk, The Incredible Hulk
Hulk had been one of the most touted superhero films of the 2000s, and one of the biggest disappointments at the box office. Director Ang Lee’s stylish, cerebral take on the character couldn’t make up for stiff effects which had disappointed audiences. With Marvel attempting to form their own indie studio to produce an integrated universe of their characters, the famed comic book publisher opted to reboot with The Incredible Hulk.
French director Louis Leterrier signed on to the project, which would retell the Hulk’s origins, introduce some of his supervilliains, and further set up an Avengers crossover film. One of his first choices for the role was David Duchovny, who had followed up his X-Files stardom with the Showtime series Calilfornication. Marvel, however, wanted a bigger name, and cast Edward Norton over Leterrier’s objections.
The move didn’t pay off exactly. Norton demanded script control and rewrote scenes almost constantly. Furthermore, Norton even demanded to direct some of his own scenes! The Incredible Hulk did respectable numbers at the box office, though it didn’t exactly leave a legacy. Until 2016, none of the characters, save the Hulk, popped up in the deluge of Marvel films, and citing “creative differences,” the studio fired Norton from The Avengers, replacing him with Mark Ruffalo.
1. Arnold Schwarzenegger – Doctor Octopus, Spider-Man
Hollywood had long dreamed of making a Spider-Man film prior to the 2002 Sam Raimi outing. B-movie studio Canon had long held the rights, and planned a low-budget version that would have starred Michael Dudikoff in the lead. The production got as far as several unsatisfying drafts and a few promotional photographs before Canon folded. Carolco pictures then obtained the rights, and having just completed Terminator 2: Judgment Day, offered the film to James Cameron to write and direct.
Cameron had long dreamed of doing a film based on the character, and began writing a script. His story would have found the title character taking on Sandman, Electro and Doctor Octopus, with Cameron favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger donning the cybernetic arms. Cameron also wanted a young actor named Leonardo DiCaprio for the lead.
Cameron’s sexually-aware script shocked the studio with its violence and profanity. The studio also had reservations over the needed special effects, as computer animation was still in its infancy, and portraying a character swinging around on webbing would make the budget skyrocket. The subsequent bankruptcy of Carolco stalled the project, as did a lengthy lawsuit over the rights. Cameron had still wanted to direct the film as late as 1999, though as the suit dragged on, he lost interest. Without Cameron on board, Schwarzenegger bailed too, paving the way for Sony and Sam Raimi to bring the character to the screen.
Can you think of any other casting might-have-beens?
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