We’ve already explored what can happen when casting goes wrong in super hero films. The results can be disastrous. The wrong person in a key role can not only lead to a bad film, but can seriously damage an actor’s career, scuttle a studio’s plans for an extended franchise and put a property on the shelf for years.
But when a studio gets a casting decision right, it can have the opposite effect. Being put in the right role can elevate an actor to stardom, increase the popularity of the character exponentially and have the executives thinking sequels and franchises galore. If you need proof of what the right cast can do, look no further than the Guardians of the Galaxy.
Before Marvel gave them their own film, they were C-listers in the comic books, Chris Pratt was a pudgy comedic sidekick and Dave Batista was an ex-wrestler that everybody thought was crazy for trying to pursue a film career. But after they struck gold with the film, the Guardians are now a top selling comic, an integral and beloved part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Pratt is now a bonafide Hollywood action star and Batista is on the fast track to having the most successful transition from the WWE to films since Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Since super hero films have become box-office dominating juggernauts in the past decade or so, studios have hit on their casting choices far more often than they have missed. But, even in this golden age of super hero movies, there are still a few casting choices that rise above all the rest. So, without further adieu, I present the 10 best casting decisions in super hero movies.
10. Christopher Reeve: Clark Kent/Superman, Original Superman Series
Kicking things off with a classic, we have the original film incarnation of Superman. The late, great Christopher Reeve first donned the cape in 1978 and while there have been several other adaptations since, his portrayal remains the definitive Superman nearly 40 years later for a multitude of reasons.
Reeve was chosen from over 200 actors for the highly coveted role, despite not possessing the necessary physique. Rather than wearing a muscle suit, as the studio requested (which definitely wouldn’t have aged as well), Reeve underwent an intense training regiment to transform his body for the role. One thing he did possess in spades however was the natural good looks and strong, yet gentile features that define Superman’s physical appearance.
But more so than his physical attributes, the perfection of Reeve’s performance lies in his ability to separate the personalities of Superman and Clark Kent. One the things that make Superman unique among super heroes is the fact that his secret identity isn’t his heroic persona, but his civilian one. And it is the stark difference between them, rather than the glasses (as people like to mock) that act as his “disguise”.
This is where Reeve’s performance shines above all others since, as he portrays Clark Kent as not just a mild mannered reporter, but as a bumbling, awkward, insecure man. When compared with the heroic, just, pure, almost Christ-like way that he plays Superman, it actually makes sense that nobody would ever suspect that he was actually ordinary old Clark Kent, despite the physical similarities. But even though there have been several attempts to revive the man of steel on both the big and small screens over the years, Reeve’s performance continues to stand alone as the gold standard for the iconic hero.
9. Gal Gadot: Wonder Woman, DCEU
While many elements of 2016’s Batman V Superman received plenty of well-earned ire from fans and critics alike, one thing that earned near universal acclaim was Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Although her screen-time was brief (and her heroics were even briefer), it created serious buzz for what the future might have in store for the princess of the amazons.
And with the less than stellar reception that both Batman V Superman and Suicide Squad received in 2016, Warner Brothers needed a big time win to breathe new life into their DCEU. And it was none other than Gadot’s Wonder Woman that delivered that win early this summer. Not only has her solo effort made over $800 million at the box office, but it has also been an absolute smash hit with fans and critics alike, something that the DCEU desperately needed, and Gal Gadot is at the center of it all.
The strengths of Gadot’s Wonder Woman lie in her incredible charisma and the development of her character. While, as her early (and humorous) interactions with Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor reveal, she is not completely ignorant of humanity, she experiences a fair amount of culture shock, which would be expected from somebody who was raised on a beautiful island populated by an all-female race of immortal warriors suddenly being thrust into early 20th century society.
But the real shock comes when she enters the trenches (literally and metaphorically) and is confronted with the horrors of war and the darkest side of mankind, and it is here that she truly shines. The particularly brutal nature of the fighting in World War 1 and the impact it has on innocents make her rightfully question whether mankind is indeed worthy of her devotion and protection more than once, and not once do her doubts feel forced or inauthentic.
But where she truly shines are the moments where mankind affirms her faith in them, for these are the moments that truly shape her into the Wonder Woman that we all know and love. It is through her interactions with Pine, his rag-tag band of heroes, the citizens who find themselves in the wake of the fighting and even Ares himself, that her sense of justice and love of humanity materializes, and right before our eyes, she transforms from a woman lost in a world she doesn’t fully understand into one of its greatest and most dedicated protectors.
Gadot, better than almost any lead in a super hero movie in the past, truly conveyed the transition from just a person with super powers, to a true hero. And while it is too soon to say whether or not Gadot saved the DCEU with her performance, she certainly seems to have given it a new lease on life and inspired a wave of cautious optimism for this fall’s upcoming Justice League.
8. Benedict Cumberbatch: Dr Steven Strange, MCU
The Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t be the juggernaut of the movie world it is today if it didn’t make more than its fair share of perfect casting decisions, so it stands to reason that a few of their choices would end up on this list, and first among them is Benedict Cumberbatch. Fans of BBC’s Sherlock series could have known this for some time now, but with 2016’s Doctor Strange, the American movie-going audience was introduced to the glory that is Cumberbatch playing a genius, sarcastic jerk who cares deep down.
The best element of his performance as the sorcerer supreme is how natural he feels as the smartest guy in the room. As a man who made his life and fortune in the realm of science and medicine, he treats his introduction into the world of the mystical and supernatural with a healthy dose of skepticism, as one would expect. His early interactions with the other residents of Kamar-Taj are full of an odd combination of condescension and cluelessness that Cumberbatch somehow makes endearing despite the odds.
The personality the he effortlessly builds for himself in the films first act goes a long way in making his rapid mastery of magic feel more believable than it has any right to be and, in the final confrontation against the interdimensional conqueror Dormammu, it is his intellect and cunning that saves the day.
Although he has only made one appearance in the MCU as Steven Strange, it is not hard to see him having a much larger role going forward and growing into the character even more as he unlocks the true potential of his powers and formally takes up the mantle of sorcerer supreme, Earth’s ultimate guardian from magical threats.
7. Michael Fassbender: Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, New X-Men Series
A few years ago, this spot would have gone to Sir Ian McKellen for the same role in the original X-Men trilogy. The legendary actor certainly left big shoes to fill when the decision was made to cast a younger version of the master of magnetism. But Fassbender has more than lived up to his predecessor’s legacy and created one of his own in his masterful portrayal of one of the most iconic villains in all of comic book history.
Magneto stands in an elite pantheon of fictional villains for his great reliability and extreme depth. He suffered through the horrors of the Holocaust as a child, so the firsthand knowledge of the capacity for cruelty that humans possess towards those they view as different or do not understand shapes his entire worldview.
He is fiercely protective of mutant-kind and while his methods are often extreme, his intentions are often good, or at least they can be interpreted this way through the eyes of a mutant. In this sense, he is a truly rare breed, a villain with a moral compass, and Fassbender finds a way to strike that delicate balance necessary to bring such a complex character to life.
He didn’t start out evil and Fassbender expertly takes us on the journey that has lead Magneto to be the archenemy of the X-Men. Behind his experiences in the Holocaust, the most forming experiences of Magneto’s life are during his friendship with Charles Xavier, and it is during his interactions with Xavier, played by James McAvoy, that Fassbender gives us our best looks into the mind of Magneto and all that lies within it, the good and the bad.
Unlike McKellen, who wasn’t given much of an opportunity to explore the soft underbelly of Magneto, Fassbender’s version does not shy away from showing not only the ruthless side of the character, but also the underlying vulnerability and sadness. His Magneto is very easy to empathize with because of this.
When watching him on screen, you don’t root for the good guys to vanquish him, instead you root for him to see that what he is doing is wrong and come back to his friend, who, despite all the terrible things he may have done, has never stopped believing that there is good in him. And even though he might not see it, we all know its there.
6. Patrick Stewart: Professor Charles Xavier, Original X-Men Trilogy
The original X-Men films of the early 2000’s ushered in a new age of superhero films and while they have evolved considerably since then, they still stand the test of time (except for the third one, we don’t talk about that movie), and part of this is undoubtedly because of its cast.
It should have been obvious from jump street that Professor X was the role that Patrick Stewart was born to play. If you look at the comic books, its almost like the design for Xavier was based on what Stewart would look like as an old man, and while I doubt that Stan Lee or Jack Kirby possessed the power to see into the future, I’m also not ruling it out.
But the perfection of this casting isn’t just skin deep (even though they both rock the hell out of the bald look). Stewart was dispensing sagely advice and serving as a moral rock for sci-fi fans since the 80s, and he definitely took elements of his portrayal of Jean-Luc Picard and wove them into his Professor X.
The X-Men began as an extension of Xavier himself, his goals, his morals, everything that makes him tick, so his presence has always loomed large over the team, even when he hasn’t been there. Stewart’s training as a classical, Shakespearean theater actor gives him that gravity and that silky smooth voice doesn’t hurt either.
Many of the mutants in his school are abandoned or shunned by their families for their gifts, so Xavier has served as an ultimate father figure to who knows how many young mutants over the years, a role that he takes very seriously. Stewart exhibits these qualities most through his relationship with Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, though he has had many heart-to-hearts with other students through the films as well.
The X-Men have frequently put life and limb on the line for the sake of their beloved leader and mentor over the years, and Stewart inspires that same type of devotion on the big screen. Firm but compassionate, loving but intense, wise yet humble. These are the traits that Stewart brings to life in Charles Xavier and the qualities that he seeks to instill in each mutant that walks through the doors of his school.
At the end of the day, it is just very easy to see Stewart being this guy in real life. As this sagely, loving father figure who may be tough at times, but that you know only wants the best for you and wants you to be your best self. And isn’t that what acting is all about?