There was a time, long ago, when a movie based on a comic book couldn’t even get a greenlight. Then, slight progress was made so that they could get the go-ahead, but nobody with any name value wanted anywhere near them. Now, comic books are recognized as the complex pieces of art that they are, with wide-ranging, four-quadrant appeal that has long passed having mere potential and has instead taken over big-budget filmmaking. As a result, very few talents don’t want to be involved as they can now earn a gigantic paycheck without feeling like they need to compromise themselves and their art to do so.
As a result, there have been many amazing casting choices for comic book films over the decades – and especially in recent years. I’m delegating to myself the near-impossible task of choosing the ten best. If your favorite didn’t make this list, it doesn’t mean I didn’t like them. Save your breath. Many of my own favorites aren’t making this list. In fact, I could do a Top Twenty without breaking a sweat, but I’m going to restrain myself, here.
Also, these are not ranked. That would be painstakingly difficult. I could probably choose a number one, but after that – no way. Also, I’m not counting TV. Only film. Had I counted TV, only Krysten Ritter, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Melissa Benoist would have likely made the list, anyway. So, in no particular order, here are . . .
The Ten Best Comic Book Movie Casting Choices in Film History
Heath Ledger – The Joker
Let’s get this one out of the way. Not that I mean to be dismissive, but I know this is the one that everyone was waiting to see. So, yes, here he is. And with good reason. Ledger’s casting met huge backlash from the omniscient, all-knowing Internet geek world, who claimed he was a pretty boy cheesecake who could never pull off the role. It wasn’t the first, last, or even millionth time that these people have exposed their ignorance as Ledger threw himself into the part with reckless abandon, perfectly encapsulating the Joker’s more contemporary traits of menace and lunacy, winning an Academy Award (sadly, posthumously) for his efforts. I personally liked Jack Nicholson’s Joker about as much, as different as it was, but Ledger gets the nod due to his impact and achievement.
Chris Pratt – Peter Quill/Star-Lord
Chris Pratt’s casting also met with some backlash, though not with the same vehemence as that of Ledger. Most who had an issue with him pigeonholed him as the chubby guy from “Parks and Rec”, seemingly not understanding that 1) exercise is a thing and 2) the performance is what matters the most. And Pratt nailed the performance. Simultaneously smarmy and endearing, Pratt gives us a Star-Lord that wants to get close to people, but has no idea how. Funny, confident, and relatable, Pratt’s demeanor and delivery are unmatched. Groot gets all the press, but Pratt is the true on-screen force behind the success of Guardians of the Galaxy.
Hugh Jackman – Logan/James Howlett/Wolverine
You know what? Let’s just go through all the complaints the “fans” had regarding each of these casting choices. “He’s a stage actor who does musicals! How can he be Wolverine?!” “Nobody’s ever heard of him! Wolverine should be a star!” “He’s too tall!” Yes, folks. “He’s too tall” was actually a complaint. Well, we all know how this turned out. Jackman took the character of Wolverine to a whole new level, making him a true household name and pop culture icon. Jackman could flip a switch and immediately shift from protective and caring father figure to rampaging, uncontrollable animal. Complex and layered, Jackman crafted a Wolverine that was far more interesting than his comic book counterpart and will live forever in the annals of pop culture.
Christopher Reeve – Clark Kent/Superman
Sorry, I can’t do the complaints, here. There are two reasons: 1) there was no Internet when this film was released and 2) though I was alive at that time, I wasn’t actually old enough to even be aware of my own existence, yet, much less this movie. But, looking back on Christopher Reeve’s Superman, there is no questioning his performance or his impact. Reeve was an unknown, which is exactly who Superman needed to be. He injected the part with heart, sincerity, and depth and his performance had such resonance that fans still see him as the benchmark to this day – almost forty years later. Reeve helped put comic books on the map as something that wasn’t just child’s play and we might not be where we are today without him.
Robert Downey, Jr. – Tony Stark/Iron Man
Here’s a twist: the majority of the complaints upon Robert Downey, Jr.’s, casting as Iron Man came not from the geek world but from the general audience. “Robert Downey, Jr. doesn’t look like a superhero! He doesn’t have muscles and he’s not exactly young, anymore!” Well, comic book fans knew better in this case and were pretty united (for a change) in their support for this casting decision. Tony Stark has never been a muscle-bound physical specimen. He’s a fast-talking, wise-cracking, a-hole businessman with addiction problems. Downey barely even had to act, at all, perfectly capturing the essence of Tony Stark and charming audiences for over nine years, now. Thanks to Downey, Iron Man was a massive hit, Marvel Studios was properly launched, Marvel permanently dug themselves out of bankruptcy, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. For Marvel, Robert Downey, Jr. was a real-life hero.
Anne Hathaway – Selina Kyle/Catwoman
Sadly often overlooked, Anne Hathaway was everything that the comic book Catwoman had ever been and more. Most complaints were not about her look or her ability but simply because some people out there believe that they’re supposed to hate Anne Hathaway on principle, so they do. But that’s absurd. With Hathaway playing Selina Kyle as confident, powerful, selfish without getting to the point of being completely uncaring, enticing, intelligent, and downright seductive, Christopher Nolan struck pure gold for the second time in his Batman career when he selected her as Catwoman. I even got chills as she fought on a rooftop, back-to-back with Christian Bale’s Batman, bringing to life the Catwoman that I had always envisioned. There’s a small but vocal pocket of people directing a lot of irrational hate towards The Dark Knight Rises, but none of it is towards Hathaway.
Margot Robbie – Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn
There were really no complaints upon the announcement that Margot Robbie would be playing Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. Honestly, most people didn’t even know who she was, so that made it hard to complain. Film lovers knew her from her scene-stealing turn in The Wolf of Wall Street and she quickly became famous for her good looks above all else. Luckily for the extremely talented Ms. Robbie, that all turned around when Suicide Squad hit theaters all over the world. Harley Quinn is the only reason that movie happened, so there was a lot of weight on Robbie’s shoulders, but she carried it with ease, once again stealing scene after scene as the cult favorite Harley and solidifying herself as almost the only aspect of the film worth watching. We’ll see where Harley pops up next (Warner Brothers has said they’re producing a Gotham City Sirens film with Harley, Catwoman, and Poison Ivy. I’ll believe it when it starts filming.) but both Harley and Robbie are too valuable to the DC Extended Universe to remain on the sidelines for too long.
Henry Cavill – Clark Kent/Superman
Yep! Two Superman choices! People are actually still complaining about this one. “This Superman is whiny.” “He doesn’t save people.” “He’s hopeless.” In spite of the facts that the DCEU Superman has never whined, saved the world twice (at great personal expense), and did so because he still believed in the people who turned against him, those complaining about these non-existent issues clearly don’t understand the difference between writing and acting. Even assuming these things are true, blaming Cavill is laughable, especially when, from his first on-screen appearance as the character, he has exuded the poise, power, chiseled good looks, and demeanor of Superman. Reeve was perfect as the traditional, classic version of the character. But Cavill is indispensable as a modern-day hero surrounded by a world of ungrateful cynics – both on- and off-screen.
Ryan Reynolds – Wade Wilson/Deadpool
Reynolds is another rare case where the fans were all onboard from the outset. Since his days on “Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place”, Reynolds has been a master of the cheeky humor that Deadpool has become known for. The writing wasn’t an exact duplicate of the Deadpool that comic fans have come to love, but it was close enough that most didn’t notice. Reynolds went to bat for the character after an extremely ill-conceived approach went wrong in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and convinced Fox to give him and Deadpool another chance. It took a while (a long while), but it worked out exorbitantly well for all. Deadpool has become yet another household name from the world of comics and his profile is only going to continue to rise, and it’s all thanks to Reynolds.
Gal Gadot – Diana of Themyscira/Wonder Woman
Remember at the beginning of this column when I said that I could probably choose a number one pick? This would be it. Gal Gadot brings Wonder Woman to life in a way that makes one almost forget that she’s fictional. Gadot reeks of honor, wisdom, love, charm, beauty, strength and everything else that makes Diana the hero that she is. I was so moved by the character and Gadot’s presentation of her that I wrote an emotional analysis addressing why the character is so important in modern society. With anybody else in the role, that impact would likely be significantly diminished, if not outright lost altogether. Gadot will possibly now find herself as the face of the DC Extended Universe and one of the most recognizable stars on the planet. To many people for many generations to come, she will be the definitive Wonder Woman. And to think, people whined that she “wasn’t big enough”. (As though Diana’s strength comes from her physique.)
There you have my choices for the ten best casting choices in comic book film history. There are many more that could have (and almost) made the list, but I chose those with the greatest impact, resonance, and pop-culture footprint. Much goes into casting choices, and some have not translated well, but for the most part, the professionals should be trusted to do what they do, while we lay back and wait with anticipation to see the results. I personally can hardly wait to see what’s next!
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I have no issue with any of your choices. It is VERY hard to choose just as you said, because there are more than 10 who were wonderful. If it were a top 20 then Ruffalo would have to be on the list for sure.
Yes, and he almost made it, anyway! Leaving a Hulk off was VERY tough for me!