We live in an era where superhero adaptations have become their own industry. There are well over a dozen comic book adaptations on virtually every network on television, and the number of superhero films seems to jump every year. While other franchises have begun to falter at the box office, the likes of Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are still going as strong as ever.
One of the curious side effects of this phenomenon is that comic book franchises never really seem to die. Indeed, if something doesn’t work or runs out of steam, it just gets rebooted a few years later. People tend to groan about endless reboots, and the results aren’t always ideal. Occasionally, a smart director will view prior iterations as something of a trial run, and figure out a way to learn from the victories and mistakes that came before them to create an even better iteration.
This often leaves fans with several versions of their favorite characters to debate. We’ve taken a look at some of the biggest characters that have been portrayed onscreen multiple times and weighed in with what we think are the best, most iconic versions.
These are the 15 Definitive Live-Action Versions of Comic Book Characters.
15 Daredevil (Charlie Cox)
After a high-profile cinematic adaptation starring Ben Affleck fizzled in 2003, Daredevil went untouched in live action until 2015, when it was revived by Netflix as a television series. Virtually everything the movie got wrong was made right by the Netflix series. The show’s success is built on the sturdy foundation of Charlie Cox’s performance as Matt Murdock.
Cox manages to subtly balance a lot of Matt’s most important character traits; he’s a naturally charming man, but also deeply driven by his belief in justice. Cox’s physicality as Daredevil is brutal, best captured in the series’ much celebrated single take fight scenes. It’s unclear at this point if Cox’s Daredevil will ever make an appearance in any of the MCU films, but that would be a richer world with a man like him around.
14 The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)
For many years, the Hulk was defined by the 1978 TV show starring Lou Ferrigno as the titular green monster and Bill Bixby as “David” Banner. The Hulk’s leap into the world of modern superhero adaptations had a couple of false starts; a highly divisive 2003 film starring Eric Bana was followed by a more straightforward, retooled sequel starring Edward Norton, but neither of those performances felt quite right.
How lucky Marvel was to land Mark Ruffalo to play Bruce Banner in Joss Whedon’s Avengers? Ruffalo brought a thoughtful, world-weary sadness to the role, but never sunk into the full-on self-pity that often defined earlier versions of the character.
Ruffalo’s Hulk has yet to get his own adventure (though he’ll play a significant role in Thor: Ragnarok).
13 Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer)
There have been more comic book accurate portrayals of Catwoman, like Anne Hathaway’s dynamic turn in The Dark Knight Rises, (there have also been some truly wretched ones, like Halle Berry’s disastrous 2004 solo film), but the most enduring portrayal of Selina Kyle is unquestionably Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn in Batman Returns.
A timid secretary whose curiosity is rewarded by being thrown from a window by her boss (Christopher Walken’s Max Shreck), Selina is revived by some sort of dark magic cat ritual and becomes the sexy, deadly Catwoman. Pfeiffer made the character feel dangerous, and her chemistry with Micheal Keaton’s Batman was undeniable, and it drove most of the movie’s best scenes. It’s also, quite frankly, one of the coolest costumes in superhero movie history.
12 Judge Dredd (Karl Urban)
The world-famous lawman of the future and breakout star of long-running sci-fi anthology 2000 A.D., Judge Joseph Dredd has been around for fifty years but only been adapted to live-action twice so far. Once, in 1995 as a big budget Hollywood schlockbuster starring Sly Stallone, and then again in 2012 in a leaner & meaner reboot that put Karl Urban behind that mirrored visor.
And we do mean behind - unlike his predecessor, Urban adhered to Dredd's signature look and mystique by never removing his iconic helmet. While the '95 movie fires off jokes almost as often as Dredd fires his endless ammo, the only humor to be found in British director Pete Travis' version was pitch black.
While '90s Dredd's strict adherence to the letter of the law was treated as the butt of those jokes, Urban's was a man of integrity in a broken system. And instead of being saddled with an awkward arc and backstory, Urban's Dredd was characterized instead by his developing trust with rookie Judge Anderson.
11 Lois Lane (Teri Hatcher)
There have been many, many live action Lois Lanes over the years. Many would argue Margot Kidder’s portrayal opposite Christopher Reeve is the definitive version almost by default. A strong case can also be made that Amy Adams’ current version of the ace Daily Planet reporter is a triumphant modern adaptation of a character who in some ways had become outdated.
But the strongest, most appealing version of Lois Lane is from a '90s television series. Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was a slightly more grounded take on the world of Superman, and concentrated more on the reporter side of his life than the superhero side. Teri Hatcher’s Lois Lane consistently stole the show from Dean Cain’s Clark Kent. Her Lois was a revelation; whip smart and determined, she generally drove the plot of the show more than Clark did, and made Hatcher a star. It’s still the best, most fleshed out version of Lois.
10 Magneto (Michael Fassbender)
Magneto was played admirably by world class actor Sir Ian McKellan in the initial round of X-Men films that began in 2000, but the character took on an entirely new dimension when Michael Fassbender took on the role in the 2011 reboot X-Men: First Class.
Now a much younger man whose scars from the horrors he endured during the Holocaust were much fresher, Erik Lehnsherr is initially introduced as a man on a sort of dark James Bond mission, hunting down former Nazis across Europe and carrying out brutal justice upon them. Erik’s worldview is changed forever when he meets Charles Xavier, and their lifelong debate over how humanity and mutants should co-exist begins in earnest.
It’s a soulful, raging portrayal by Fassbender, and it feels truer to Magneto’s tragic motivations than McKellan’s slightly cooler, more regal performance.
9 Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum)
For one of the most iconic villains in all of comics, Lex Luthor has been surprisingly short on strong adaptations. Gene Hackman’s take in the Christopher Reeve movies as a cartoonish real estate mogul with a magnificent wig collection feels horrifically dated, and the decision to make Kevin Spacey’s version in the 2006 Superman Returns a slightly updated version of Hackman’s Lex is still baffling over a decade later. Jesse Eisenberg’s polarizing portrayal in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice actually does some interesting things with the character, but is admittedly pretty far away from a traditional Lex.
The closest we ever got to an iconic Lex who was true to the source material was, surprisingly, via Smallville. Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex was far and away the best thing about the WB teen drama chronicling a teenage Clark Kent. The relationship between Clark and Lex could have easily felt silly and contrived, but it was grounded by Rosenbaum’s performance of a young man trying to do the right thing, but struggling to suppress his darker instincts. It’s a shame Rosenbaum’s Lex never got a better story in which to thrive.
8 The Joker (Heath Ledger)
On paper, Heath Ledger’s Joker really shouldn’t work. Christopher Nolan’s 2008 masterwork The Dark Knight strips the Clown Prince of Crime of many of his most iconic aspects - his skin is no longer bleached white in a chemical accident, he simply wears clown makeup as a sort of war paint; his signature grin is gruesomely chiseled into his face with two giant scars; there’s no indication he was ever a failed comedian, nor is there any consistent version of his backstory.
Ledger’s Joker is a mysterious force of nature, a psychopath who just wants to tear everything down to prove how rotten humanity is. It’s a stunning turn by the late Ledger, whose bizarre speech patterns and facial tics made for a truly disturbing Joker. The interrogation scene between him and Christian Bale’s Batman is perhaps the purest distillation of why Batman and the Joker is arguably fiction’s greatest rivalry.
7 Spider-Man (Tom Holland)
It’s possible this could be perceived as premature, but let’s look at the facts. Toby Maguire starred in three massive movies as Peter Parker, but his Spider-Man always lacked his signature snark, and felt a bit too old. Andrew Garfield was even older than Maguire, and was saddled with some less than thrilling films.
Then there’s Tom Holland. Stunningly, Holland is the first live-action Spider-Man who actually looks like a high schooler. He’s also got the signature sense of humor down pat, and his wide-eyed wonder at interacting with the world of the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War was a breath of fresh air in a much darker Marvel film.
Spider-Man: Homecoming has been sold as something of a teen film, which fits Holland’s portrayal like a glove, and will likely cement him as the definitive cinematic Spider-Man.
6 Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)
When Gal Gadot was cast as Wonder Woman, fans were highly (and loudly) skeptical. There were some legitimate concerns, such as Gadot’s relative inexperience as an actress and the fact English was not her first language, as well as some less legitimate, icky ones revolving around the way she looked.
Most of those concerns were washed away when she appeared briefly in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice; she only had a handful of minutes onscreen, but they were among that divisive film’s most universally praised.
Any remaining concerns were obliterated by her triumphant performance in Wonder Woman. Gadot nails Diana’s altruistic worldview, embracing her warrior spirit and naivety about man’s world with charm and warmth. She never seems like a cartoon character; every reaction and emotion is genuine and earned. She also enjoyed arguably the most successful romance in modern superhero moviemaking, as her relationship with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor is the heart of the film, and shapes the character in surprising, rewarding ways.
5 Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough)
There’s only one consistent element between the four pre-Christopher Nolan Batman movies, and it happens to be one of the best – Michael Gough’s portrayal of Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler. A pitch perfect version of the droll, slightly stuffy father figure in Batman’s life, Gough was fantastic at delivering a cutting one-liner or taking a surprise turn toward an emotional moment.
Michael Caine’s performance in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films is rightly celebrated, but it’s a slightly left of center portrayal of Alfred. He’s a bit of a harsher, less accommodating version of the character, which served those movies well, but isn’t what Alfred generally is. For the Classic Coke version of Batman’s most trusted ally, there was no one better than Michael Gough.
4 Professor X (Patrick Stewart)
Patrick Stewart as Charles Xavier seemed like such an absolutely cosmic no brainer it’s amazing it actually happened. The longtime Star Trek actor jumped franchises in 2000 to headline the initial X-Men film as the mutants’ benevolent professor.
It was an instant success. Stewart was able to perfectly balance the sweet, paternal facade Xavier exudes to the world at large and his students, as well as an undercurrent of something darker and more calculating that a man with his immense power would almost have to have deep down.
While his work in the main films was typically fantastic, his work in 2017’s Logan was perhaps career defining for Stewart. In a bleak near future, a much older, frailer Xavier attempts to find redemption for himself and Logan by protecting a mysterious young mutant. It’s a triumphant, tragic performance by Stewart, and is worthy of Oscar consideration.
3 The Punisher (Jon Bernthal)
Hollywood has come knocking at the Punisher’s door a few times, with decidedly mixed results. An incredibly low-rent 1989 film starring Dolph Lundgren is best forgotten altogether. A 2004 film featured an admirable lead performance by Thomas Jane, but not much else. A 2008 reboot starring Ray Stevenson has become something of a cult classic, but was a critical and box office failure.
Frank Castle was finally done justice in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil series. Played with animalistic rage by The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, Castle is on a fatalistic warpath to avenge his murdered family that leads to an uneasy relationship with Daredevil.
The Punisher ended up overshadowing Daredevil in his own series; the character was such an instant hit that Netflix is developing a spinoff series. It was a long wait to get the Punisher right, but it was worth it.
2 Superman (Christopher Reeve)
There are aspects of the Richard Donner Superman films that simply don’t hold up over 30 years later. Some of the effects work is understandably dated. A lot of the humor is clearly from a different era. Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor is so goofy he’s borderline embarrassing.
There is one thing, however, that still works perfectly: Christopher Reeve.
There’s a reason Reeve’s portrayal of the Man of Steel has been so enduring for almost 40 years. His wholesome, easy charm fit Superman like a glove. His earnestness never felt cheesy or fake. He felt like something to aspire to, a man better than everyone else who was somehow never threatening.
There have been strong versions of Superman that followed him, but Christopher Reeve will always be the standard by which they’re measured.
1 Batman (Christian Bale)
No character has been as blessed with as many fantastic live-action portrayals as Batman. Michael Keaton’s intense, maybe-has-a-couple-screws-loose Batman in the Tim Burton movies was the standard bearer for many years. Ben Affleck’s older, darker Batman has tremendous potential. The late Adam West showed us that Batman could be more than just a dark vigilante - he could be fun and ironic and somehow still be quintessentially Batman.
The purest version of Batman, the one that says almost everything about who Bruce Wayne is in his heart, is the version portrayed by Christian Bale in Christopher Nolans’ Batman trilogy. Driven to run from his life by the tragedy of his parents’ deaths, Bruce eventually realizes his purpose is to heal the broken city that took their lives.
He’s undeterred by cynical monsters like the Joker and Bane, who tell him his city, and humanity itself, is beyond saving. He’s shockingly relentless in his optimistic belief that people are inherently good, and he never hesitates to make personal sacrifices to remind them of that. He’s the hero the world needs, and hopefully the one it deserves.
Who's your favorite on-screen version of these superheroes? Sound off in the comments!
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