Any actor cast in a superhero role nowadays in under an immense amount of pressure. That pressure is only greater when their role has already been played by someone else. Whether by trying to live up to a beloved portrayal of the character, or by playing a character so misrepresented in previous movies that no one is ready to take them seriously, acting in this modern age of comic book hysteria can be a thankless task.
Fortunately, we have seen plenty of stars rise to the challenge, and our ranking is based on those who have overcome the greatest odds to win the favor of comic fans and general audiences alike. We searched the history of the live-action superhero genre for our 15 candidates, factoring in both heroes and villains from movies, television and a blend of the two (in the instances that the same character has appeared on both big and small screens).
Here are the 15 Greatest Superhero Re-Casting Decisions.
To say that Superman’s most recent appearances were met with a mixed reaction would be an understatement, but the individual performances, particularly in Man of Steel, are less divisive. Henry Cavill and Amy Adams are outstanding actors, separately and together, but both have a stiff competition when it comes to previous incarnations of their characters.
In the case of Lois Lane, Adams had the likes of Margot Kidder and Teri Hatcher to contend with, and though each have their own supporters, both offer something different to the famous role. The most recent Lois Lane, as played by Erica Durance in Smallville, is a fine portrayal of the character’s strong work ethic, while the latest movie Lois, Kate Bosworth, favors the overly tough approach.
To combine elements of both needed a powerful actress, and there are few better than five-time Oscar-nominee Amy Adams. She still has more to offer the genre, but Man of Steel and Batman v Superman throw Adams into the thick of the action, and both offer a glimpse at her journalistic instincts.
When NBC first announced that it was developing a Constantine series in late 2013, Welsh actor Matt Ryan was hardly on anyone’s radar for the titular role. A relative unknown at the time, Ryan’s credits included only small TV roles in The Tudors and Criminal Minds, but his on-screen charisma did not go unnoticed by NBC.
Ryan’s witty disinterest and laid back approach to hunting demons is lifted directly from the Constantine comics, and when the character made his CW debut after a short-lived first season on NBC, he sprung some much-needed life into Arrow’s dreary fourth season. Ryan also voiced Constantine in the Justice League Dark animated movie.
The same cannot be said for Keanu Reeves, who played the title character in 2005’s Constantine movie. Plenty consider the all-American adaptation to be a fun standalone piece, though Reeves’ take on the character lacks the charm of his television counterpart, and Ryan’s performance is far more likely to please fans of the source material.
There have been several attempts to bring Wonder Woman back to television in recent years, with Adrianna Palicki playing the lead in a failed 2011 pilot, while the character remains a recurring figure in DC animation. But you have to go all the way back to the late ‘70s to find the last time the Princess of Themyscira was represented in official live action, at least until 2016.
Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was one of the first comic book properties to address its lead character’s sexuality, and feature a strong female protagonist in a genre dominated by men at the time. Add Carter’s sassy quips and legendary twirls, and for many, it’s still hard to imagine anyone else in the role.
Gal Gadot has come a long way since she was first cast as Diana Prince, and many now believe that her upcoming solo project could indicate the turning point for the DCEU. In just a brief appearance in Batman v Superman, Gadot has already proven that her Wonder Woman is Superman’s physical equal, and an intellectual match for Ben Affleck’s Batman.
Of the many things wrong with the infamous Daredevil movie, most would contend that Michael Clarke Duncan is not one of them. Clarke Duncan had been on Fox’s radar before the film was even confirmed by the studio, and it’s easy to see why – the Green Mile actor effortlessly inhabits the cigar-smoking comic book version of Kingpin.
But in Daredevil’s first season on Netflix, the comic book gimmick gives way to a well-rounded human character. When we first meet Wilson Fisk, after almost three episodes of various criminals refusing to speak his name out of pure terror, his general insecurities make the character disconcertingly relatable.
What makes D’Onofrio’s Fisk so terrifying is that we know his tortured background, and how much it affected him – that the slightest reminder of his childhood could send him over the edge. This is all conveyed in D’Onofrio’s expression, and his unbalanced line delivery makes it difficult to know what’s coming next.
Anne Hathaway had an especially tough job in taking on the Catwoman mantle for The Dark Knight Rises. Michelle Pfeiffer gave a performance as Selina Kyle in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns that will most likely never be topped, and Hathaway was letting herself in for a bout of inevitable and unfavorable comparisons.
Thankfully, Hathaway was taking the role over from Pfeiffer – she followed Halle Berry, whose performance as, uh… Patience Phillips(?) almost derailed Catwoman's movie legacy for good. Between the memory of Pfeiffer’s iconic portrayal and trying to resurrect the character from Berry’s, Hathaway had a tough job distancing herself from Catwoman’s past.
All she could do was make the character her own, and she succeeded in silencing critics with a refreshing new take on the character. Hathaway is believable as an updated cat-woman, whose affinity with cats is subtle, and comes second to her complex relationship with Bruce Wayne. Her chemistry with Christian Bale is underrated, she absolutely looks the part, and her action scenes are some of the best in the film.
When first Marvel and Sony announced the deal that would bring Spider-Man into the MCU, it was unclear as to whether Andrew Garfield would return. When the studios confirmed that they were re-casting the role with a teenaged Spider-Man actor in mind, many fans were upset at Garfield’s dismissal, while others were calling for established young actor Asa Butterfield to don the Spidey suit.
When Tom Holland was eventually announced to make his debut in Captain America: Civil War, his relative inexperience left many wondering whether he was capable of holding his own against the likes of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson. But Holland was one of the movie’s standout performers in just 20 minutes of screen time, putting the character back on track and forcing an immediate change in Marvel’s Phase Three slate.
Holland finds just the right balance between Tobey Maguire’s socially awkward Peter Parker and Garfield’s laidback Spider-Man, proving Sony’s decision to reboot the character exactly right. We can't wait to see him anchor Spider-Man: Homecoming in July.
Initially, Bane seemed like a strange choice to round out Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy. Comic book Bane had never quite reached the heights of previous movie villains Ra’s al Ghul and the Joker, and his only portrayal in live action thus far had done the character no favors whatsoever.
Played by former wrestler Jeep Swenson, Bane appears as Poison Ivy’s bodyguard in Batman and Robin. The idea behind his inclusion in The Dark Knight Rises was to test Batman’s physical strength, but Swenson’s Bane had been beaten fairly easily by Robin in his last film appearance, and Tom Hardy would have to pull off a remarkable turnaround for the character.
Hardy did just that, gaining 31 pounds for the role and outmuscling Christian Bale’s Batman in every sense. He even succeeds in emoting from behind his extensive face mask, giving Bane a level of depth absent from just about every character in Batman and Robin, and exceeding all expectations as the movie’s villain.
Likewise, Samuel L. Jackson had to follow on from a fairly underwhelming Nick Fury for his MCU debut in Iron Man. Unbeknownst to many, David Hasselhoff actually starred as the lead in Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., which aired on television in the late ‘90s. Though he has claimed (as recently as 2013) that Stan Lee approved of his performance, and that he hopes one day to return to the role, Hasselhoff overdoes it just the way you’d expect.
The same can’t be said for Samuel L. Jackson, who blends seamlessly into the ensemble cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It should come as no surprise that Jackson is now thought of as the definitive Nick Fury, because he is literally the definitive Nick Fury. Marvel’s Ultimate incarnation of the character was originally modeled specifically after Jackson, a whole seven years before he ever donned the eye patch himself.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were inspired picks to play Professor X and Magneto in the original X-Men trilogy. The legendary pair brought gravitas to comic book roles for just about the first time in Marvel’s history, and soon became the most recognizable versions of their respective characters. When a prequel was announced, even a decade later, fans were still not ready to let go of the actors that had influenced an entire generation of Marvel movies.
However. Fox lined up two of the only actors working today capable of doing Stewart and McKellen justice. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender give performances in X-Men: First Class that are not only believable as younger versions of Stewart and McKellen, but also add new layers to long-established characters. As both sets of actors continue to reappear in the X-Men franchise, the pressure on the next incarnations of Professor X and Magneto (however far away they may be) becomes near insurmountable.
It was over a decade before Marvel made the decision to reboot Daredevil, following the 2003 movie’s dismal display both critically and financially. Ben Affleck would eventually find his true role in the genre, but his take on Matt Murdock is overconfident and overblown, due in most part to director Mark Steven Johnson completely misjudging the character.
Where Affleck’s protagonist is all too happy to fight Jennifer Garner in broad daylight at a children’s playground (they are literally the only two adults in sight), Murdock is traditionally a cautious and reserved character. He keeps under the radar in juxtaposition his brutal alter ego.
Using Netflix as a platform to fully realize the character was a bold move on Marvel’s part. It's also a move that could have sunk the Daredevil name for another decade, but the response to Charlie Cox’s performance was instantly positive. Cox seems to play two entirely different characters, and his underplayed modesty as Murdock makes Daredevil’s spectacular action scenes even more exciting and unexpected.
Though the two most recent Hulk movies – Hulk (2003) and The Incredible Hulk – opened to mixed responses, their lead actors are generally considered to have been good choices for their roles. Eric Bana’s focus is directed more toward the Bruce Banner character, which leads to a respectable dramatic performance by any standard. Edward Norton’s Hulk is still one of the MCU’s darkest protagonists; his conflicted performance received critical praise, but his rumored behind-the-scenes demands were not met with similar approval.
Mark Ruffalo was given little time to prepare for The Avengers, and had not one, but two solid performances to live up to. Like Tom Holland some years later, Ruffalo was able to combine what is good about both performances – his likable, mild-mannered Bruce Banner is lifted from Bana’s interpretation, and he carries the edginess of Norton’s portrayal over to the ensemble movies.
Ruffalo also gave us the infamous “I’m always angry,” line, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for the character, but leads directly to one of the MCU’s greatest moments.
When Ben Affleck was cast as Batman for the DC Extended Universe, you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. When fans checked their calendars to confirm it was actually August, many were brutally honest about their feelings toward the Daredevil star - and director Zack Snyder. Affleck had done little to prove he was capable of playing such an iconic character, let alone replace the genre-redefining Christian Bale in the Batsuit.
But Affleck took the character in a completely different direction for Batman v Superman, surprising just about everyone by outperforming the likes of Henry Cavill and Jesse Eisenberg in his debut. While Bale had very little to do to live up to George Clooney’s single appearance as Batman, Affleck brings a hulking figure, gruff undertone, and world-weariness to Bruce Wayne that were missing even from Bale’s performance.
The two are very different interpretations of the character, and the debate as to which is the stronger Batman continues, but just the fact that Affleck comes close earns him the spot here.
There have been several Punisher movies over the years, with none of them landing quite as Marvel had hoped. Punisher: War Zone (the most recent in the saga) accurately displays the violence of its protagonist, but star Ray Stevenson struggles to invite the level of empathy required to form the comic book anti-hero.
In 2016, Marvel relaunched the Punisher on Netflix as part of Daredevil’s second season, in the hopes that the character and his backstory might be best suited to an extended format. Jon Bernthal was cast in the role, and it was not his performance that was in doubt, but the Punisher's viability as a live-action character.
As exhibited by the bloody prison fight, Bernthal brings all the violence of his predecessors, but captures the heart of the character in equal measure, as evidenced by the infamous graveyard monologue. The former The Walking Dead star was quickly offered his own series, for proving Marvel’s decision absolutely right and bringing credibility back to the character.
Not many people remember the 1990 Captain America movie, mostly because it debuted in only a handful of theaters outside the US, and otherwise was released straight to video. The film, which stars Matt Salinger is the title role, currently holds an 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics tearing it apart for its cheap action and cheesy performances.
So when Marvel finally got around to rebooting the character for the MCU - the Human Torch - from the almost equally cheap and cheesy Fantastic Four movies, was not the name fans were hoping for.
However, with the help of some excellent CGI, Chris Evans brought a relatability to the genetically-modified super soldier that no one was quite prepared for. The First Avenger is still relatively formulaic as modern superhero adventures go, but Evans propels the film to more than it is, and the MCU as we know it would be an entirely different world without him.
Mark Hamill had been the definitive voice of the Joker for several years before The Dark Knight, but excluding animated performances, Heath Ledger had the equally impossible task of following Jack Nicholson in live action. Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman cemented the character’s place in cinema as one of Batman’s most iconic villains, but Ledger, in a twist that no one saw coming, transformed the character into one of the most iconic villains in cinema history.
While Christopher Nolan played no small part by giving the actor with an incredible script, Ledger deserves all the credit for his hands-on approach to the role. The actor developed the Joker’s make-up himself, before shutting himself away for six weeks to study his technique. What followed remains the only performance to ever win an Oscar for a comic book film, and while Jared Leto’s most recent Joker was met with some criticism, it was too much to expect that he would come anywhere close to Ledger's Joker.
Who did we miss? Leave your favorite superhero re-casting in the comments!