Perhaps the most continuous and endless debate among fans when it comes to comic book films comes down to casting. When it comes to adapting any work of literature into a multi-track, full-motion cinematic experience, there are a number of different standards that certain directors have for their casting choices. When adapting a novel, for instance, a director can choose to stick closely to the physical attributes of a character presented in a book (Harry Potter), or they can decide to take a number of liberties to create their own vision in spite of what is laid out in the source material (Starship Troopers, for instance).
Comic book and superhero films are a bit of a different story, because for the most part the characters often have a physical type as outlined by editorial, but under the interpretation of hundreds of artists over decades can create a bit of “wiggle room” (at least physically) when casting a part. The same sort of wiggle room also exists psychologically since characters are often reinvented with each passing era or editorial shift. At the same time, though, a lot of comic book fans can find themselves agreeing, for the most part, with the best casting of their most beloved characters. So, here’s our perspective on what I believe to be the five best casting decisions for superheroes.
5) Jackie Earle Haley as Walter Kovacs/Rorschach (Watchmen)
Arguably the most important role in the entire story, Jackie Earle Haley’s performance as Walter Kovacs (aka Rorschach) in 2009’s Watchmen film is the one instance on this list where the character in question has only primarily appeared in one story, and the film is a direct adaptation of that story. When looking at the page and how closely the film follows the original series, Haley’s performance becomes almost too perfect. He changes his voice to sound like a caricature of the deep-throated, dark superheroes of the moment, but that’s kind of the point: Rorschach is both a performer and a believer. He performs his duty to punish criminals to get as much of a reaction as possible, and he believes that what he is doing is the righteous path… no matter how many compound fractures he has to dish out to prove it.
Haley’s devotion to the original material easily gives him a spot on this list, because perhaps more than the other fine actors listed, he truly desired to bring the Rorschach character as he was on the page to full, three-dimensional life.
4) Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man (Iron Man 1-3, The Avengers)
The greatness of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark in the Marvel cinematic universe, I think, can be summed up by examining one thing: in 2007, most people didn’t know or care who Marvel’s Iron Man was. Since 2008, he’s become one of the world’s absolute favorite superheroes and movie stars. Of course Kevin Feige, Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon and Shane Black have a great deal to do with the character’s success on the screen, but the lion’s share of the credit has to go to Downey Jr., who had a fundamentally different approach to the creation of this character than someone like Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach. While Haley used his ability to fit into the established conception of Rorschach from the comics, Downey basically made the role his own.
In the Iron Man films and The Avengers, it’s pretty easy to see that fidelity to the established comic book mythology is the job of the writing, primarily. Downey’s concern, much like Johnny Depp’s concern when embodying Captain Jack Sparrow, was to create a character that, on a performance level, was something akin to his own personality with the proverbial volume turned way up. As a result, fans and general movie audiences have become deeply invested in Downey’s conception of Tony Stark, and it seems it will follow him with great interest wherever he goes (like to the Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron, where we’ll find him next).
3) Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises)
Unlike the story of the peoples’ distinct lack of familiarity with the Iron Man character before his cinematic debut, people were perhaps a little too familiar with Batman by the time Batman Begins arrived in theaters in 2005. Prior to Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the film series, audiences had gone to see a live action Batman film four times previously (five if you count the 1966 film), and had seen him change from Michael Keaton’s neurotic and effective vigilante to George Clooney’s head-bobbing, quip-giving camp factory. The casting of Christian Bale as the main character in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Trilogy was the first sign that this would be an interpretation that would try to be more than those that had preceded it. The result was serious critical and commercial positivity surrounding what may in fact be the world’s favorite superhero.
Bale as Batman had an entirely different agenda than that of Downey’s Iron Man. Where Downey had to create a character for people to fall in love with for the first time, Bale had to reform a character that had fallen in the eyes of worldwide audiences. One of his primary methods of doing that was in going back to the source mythology, since Bale himself noted that the character shown in the comics he was given was far more “dangerous and volatile” than he’d ever seen portrayed before. As a result, the Batman of the comics and the Batman of the films are closer together now than at any previous point in the character’s history. Since Bale and Christopher Nolan helped to make that version the most popular that we’ve seen on film thus far, that puts a great deal of pressure on the team ready to reintroduce Batman with a new face once again. Here’s hoping they’re up to the task.
2) Hugh Jackman as James Howlett/Logan/Wolverine (X-Men 1-3, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Wolverine, X-Men: Days of Future Past)
Although comparatively younger than many of his Marvel brethren, Wolverine has managed to become the company’s secondary mascot, next to Spider-Man. When the X-Men first made their way to the silver screen in Bryan Singer’s 2000 effort, it became clear that the mutton-chopped, claw-equipped berserker was going to be accepted both by general audiences and solid X-Men devotees alike because of Mr. Hugh Jackman. Wolverine has yet to be embodied by any other actor on film, and the biggest beneficiaries of that are the audiences. Wolverine, quite simply, is one of Marvel’s absolute best characters in comics, and the devotion of Mr. Jackman to the role and his specific love and attention to the mythology that spawned it have made him one of the best characters in superhero cinema as well.
Even a “bad” X-Men movie that features Wolverine is still endlessly entertaining to watch, and that is because of Jackman’s performances. He truly gets into the head of the character, and as a result he makes the extraordinary adventures of Wolverine seem all that more human, since Wolverine continues to be one of the most relatable characters found in superhero film. If the upcoming Days of Future Past proves to be Jackman’s last turn as the ol’ Canucklehead, it’ll be sad to see Mr. Jackman go. It’s safe to say, though, that he has definitively given us one of the finest embodiments of a superhero in all of the genre’s cinematic history. Not bad, bub.
1) Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman (Superman 1-4)
When discussing his own work in scoring Richard Donner’s Superman from 1978, composer John Williams talked about both the film’s iteration of the Superman characters, and Christopher Reeve’s portrayal of the Man of Steel himself when he said, “I am sure there will be other Superman movies, but I am not sure they will get it quite as right as this one.” It’s true that when it comes to any examination of superhero-film casting, you have to look at the guiding light that started the modern age of superhero cinema. As a result, the casting decision that, in the best cases, serves as the template for all others that follow has to be Christopher Reeve (not “Reeves”) as Superman. While Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando may have filled the supporting roles with big names to get people into the seats, it was Reeve himself that brought a new kind of legitimacy to a role like Superman.
The Juilliard-trained actor made no effort to be smarter than the material he was hired to represent. Instead, he got inside of it, and truly made audiences believe not just that a man could fly, but that a hero like Krypton’s Last Son could be legitimately embodied in a serious cinematic effort. Reeve’s turn as Superman is fascinating to watch, particularly in the effort he gives to delineating two distinct performances for both Clark Kent and his superheroic alter ego. That attention to detail, as well as the belief in the performance and the way that he carried himself in the iconic costume, make for a continuously dazzling and trailblazing performance that all serious superhero actors really owe a debt to today. Zack Snyder called Superman the “king” of all superheroes, and if Christopher Reeve is the king of Supermen, then it looks like he’s the king of kings. As Reeve’s Clark Kent might say, “Golly!”
What’re your favorite superhero performances? Do you agree with these rankings? Leave a comment below and continue the conversation, and be sure to come back to Movies.com next week for another edition of Comics on Film!
Chris Clow is a geek. He is a comic book expert and former retailer, and freelance contributor to GeekNation.com, The Huffington Post, and Batman-On-Film.com. You can find his weekly piece Comics on Film every Wednesday right here at Movies.com. Check out his blog, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.
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