Superhero and other comic book movies are currently the biggest trend in film making. Heck, it might even be safe enough to assume the superhero boom might soon be bigger than the Western boom. The current popularity of superhero films can be traced back to the success and popularity of the first X-Men movies and to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, which paved the way for Iron Man and led to the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since then, we’ve had great superhero movies like The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Deadpool, and Logan.
The success of these films relies quite a bit on the popularity of the characters. While everyone involved in these movies plays a part in making the characters well-received, the actors, pardon the wordplay, play a big role in this. How popular would Iron Man have been if it hadn’t been for the charismatic performance of Robert Downey Jr.? And if it wasn’t Ryan Reynolds’ efforts both on and off screen, Deadpool would never have gotten made. Of course, these stars weren’t always comic book actors, so what did they do before they were superheroes? Well, CBR decided to find out the origin stories of these 15 superhero movie actors!
15. JENNIFER LAWRENCE
The success of X-Men: First Class is what lead actress Jennifer Lawrence to get the starring role in the Hunger Games franchise, and both films are what garnered her enough attention to become one of the biggest actresses in Hollywood. She’s been nominated for four academy awards and has been the highest-paid actress since 2015. To think all of that started from her role as young Mystique, but what about before that?
The superstar’s first major role was as, get this, Bill Engvall’s daughter on The Bill Engvall show on TBS. Crazy right? From there, Lawrence made her first big-screen appearance in Garden Party, but her breakout role wouldn’t come until Winter’s Bone. The film was based on a novel and follows Lawrence’s character as she searches for her father to prevent their family from eviction.
14. HENRY CAVILL
Before he put on the red and blue and became the modern face of Superman, Henry Cavill had a long, but relatively not well known, film and television career. Cavills’ first major role was in Kevin Reynold’s adaptation of The Count of Monte Cristo and he would go on to have recurring appearances on the BBC show Inspector Lynley Mysteries.
Cavill had actually been offered a Superman role prior to Man of Steel. After his success on The Tudors, he was offered Superman in the scrapped Flyby. The project would eventually become Superman Returns, and Brandon Routh got the role. This wouldn’t be the first time that Cavill was offered a big roll, but lost it to another actor, including playing Edward Cullen in the Twilight series and James Bond in Casino Royale. Luckily, after his lead role in The Immortals, he would regain an audition for Superman.
13. CHRIS HEMSWORTH
Did you know Chris Hemsworth was on Dancing With The Stars Australia? Bet you’re looking at Thor in a whole new light now, huh? Though he wasn’t actually Thor at the time of his dancing stint, Hemsworth had established a short career by then, appearing in three different Australian soap operas.
After being eliminated from DWTS Australia, Hemsworth would go on to play the role of Captain Kirk’s father, George Kirk in the first J.J. Abram’s Star Trek film. Remember the first 15 minutes of the film? Yeah, that Thor. While filming his brief appearance as George Kirk, he also filmed the thriller A Perfect Getaway. Hemsworth’s first starring role would come in 2010, with the American film Ca$h, the first movie he shot after moving to the United States. Later, he and Tom Hiddleston would audition for Thor, and we all know how that turned out.
12. JASON MAMOA
While Jason Mamoa’s premier as Aquaman in the DCEU has yet to happen (aside from cameos), the actor’s impressive and interesting acting career is definitely worth delving into. After a brief modeling career, Mamoa was cast on the last two seasons of Baywatch, which had moved production to Hawaii under the new name Baywatch: Hawaii. After more small parts, the actor landed his first major role in Stargate: Atlantis where he played Ronon Dex.
Mamoa’s most famous part was his recurring role on Game of Thrones as Khal Drogo, a role which he performed at the same time that he was cast as and portrayed Conan the Barbarian in the 2011 remake. In October of 2014, it was announced that he would be cast as the DCEU’s Aquaman, a solo film coming in 2018. Leading up to that, Mamoa has starred in TV shows like Red Road and Frontier.
11. SCARLETT JOHANSSON
Scarlett Johannson has been in so many films that its actually surprising that she’s only 32. She’s got range too, since she’s been in nearly every genre of film you can imagine. The actress’ first film debut was when she was only nine years old in the film North. Her more prominent roles came with the release of The Horse Whisperer and the comic book film Ghost World. From there, she would begin starring in adult roles such as her award-winning performance in Lost in Translation.
By this point in her career, ScarJo was a star, earning herself roles in Match Point, The Island, The Black Dahlia and The Prestige, which starred two other future superhero actors: Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale. Jeez, with those acting chops and all the movies under her belt to prove it, it’s surprising there hasn’t been a solo Black Widow film yet.
10. CHRISTIAN BALE
Like Scarlett Johansson, Christian Bale had a rather early acting career. At 13, the British actor starred in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, a WWII film about a young boy who becomes a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp. Bale continued to have various starring roles including an adaptation of Treasure Island.
After a role in the musical film Newsies, a starring role in Little Women and a portrayal of Demetrius in an updated version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bale found major success in American Psycho. Another of Bale’s most famous roles was in The Machinist, for which he reduced his weight to a mere 63 pounds to fit the role. Before finally achieving the role of Batman, Bale voiced the titular character in the English dub of Howl’s Moving Castle, a role he wanted as an admirer of Miyazaki’s previous film, Spirited Away.
9. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
As his incredibly British name might lead you to believe, much of Benedict Cumberbatch’s earlier work includes a long list of stage plays and BBC programs. Everything from a stage version of Frankenstein — in which he alternated playing both the doctor and his monster — to an award-nominated performance in Hamlet, Cumberbatch has a long history of classical acting.
Cumberbatch went on to star in British programs like Cambridge Spies and Fortysomething, and he even played Stephen Hawking in Hawking. He would play another historical figure in Van Gogh: Painted with Words before finally landing his most famous role in Sherlock. Before getting cast as Dr. Strange, Cumberbatch appeared in War Horse, did the voice and motion capture for Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit series, played Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness and was nominated for best actor for his role in The Imitation Game.
8. HUGH JACKMAN
Another superhero actor with an impressive stage background is Hugh Jackman, who, as many know, is also a talented signer. Most of the actor’s pre-Wolverine work was musical theatre, including, playing Gaston in a 1996 stage production of Beauty and the Beast. Prior to this, Jackman was in a short-lived ABC drama called Correlli, a role he got on the same night he graduated from college. After his stint as Gaston, he went on to star in both a stage production and a film version of the musical Oklahoma!
While this is about the extent of Jackman’s career prior to getting the Wolverine role, his popularity in the film series skyrocketed his career, leading him to star in other great films like The Prestige and Les Miserables. While preparing for his first X-Men appearance, Jackman said he studied films like Dirty Harry and The Road Warrior.
7. CHRIS EVANS
Though he is now as the face of Captain America in the MCU, Evans has somewhat made a career of starring in comic book movies. Aside from playing Cap, Evans has starred in six different comic book movies: the two Fantastic Four films, TMNT, The Losers, Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Snowpiercer. That’s a pretty impressive resume.
Other than his many comic book film roles, Evans’ early work starts with television, appearing in Opposite Sex and an episode of the short-lived TV remake of The Fugitive. Evans’ early films include Not Another Teen Movie, The Perfect Score, and the Jason Statham thriller, Cellular. He even had another super-powered role in the sci-fi action thriller, Push. Evans has also had his fair share of flops like Battle for Terra, The Nanny Diaries and Puncture.
6. CHRISTOPHER REEVE
One of the strongest points of the very first Superman film was Christopher Reeve’s acting, as he gave distinct personalities between Superman and Clark Kent. So what was his early career like? Well, funnily enough he and Robin Williams both attended an advanced program at Julliard and the two developed a close friendship (another fun fact, Robin Williams was also roommates with Batman voice actor Kevin Conroy).
Reeve’s earliest work was in a Broadway play called A Matter of Gravity and a CBS show called Love of Life. Katharine Hepburn, who was involved in the play, used her influence at CBS to allow Reeve to do both the show and the play at the same time. Other than a film called Gray Lady Down and another stage play, Reeves had a rather sparse acting career before putting on the signature cape.
5. TOM HOLLAND
Boy, there sure are a lot of British actors who play American superheroes, aren’t there? Adding to that list is the newest addition to both the MCU and the growing list of actors who have played Spider-Man, Tom Holland. Also a dancer, Holland’s early acting career was in Billy Elliot the Musical as the titular character. Holland performed as Billy for several years before being cast as the UK voice for Shō in the Studio Ghibli film, Arrietty, followed by his film debut in The Impossible.
Holland’s next film was How I live now, followed by the Ron Howard film In the Heart of the Sea. In the same year, Holland appeared in the BBC series Wolf Hall. It was in June of 2015 that Holland was announced to be the next Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Homecoming is set to premier in July.
4. GAL GADOT
Born in Israel, Wonder Woman star Gal Gadot has a rather interesting career prior to her DCEU appearances. After studying Law for a time, Gadot enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces to fulfill her mandatory service as an Israeli citizen. Gadot served as a combat instructor and says of her service that it helped her get her role as Gisele in the Fast & The Furious films, stating that the director was interested in her weapons knowledge.
Both before and after her military career, Gadot worked as a model, a job that began after winning the 2004 Miss Israel beauty pageant. Aside from her Fast & The Furious appearances, Gadot had small roles in Date Night and Knight and Day, before going through intense sword and martial arts training to fulfill her first Wonder Woman appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
3. CHRIS PRATT
Quick! Quiz time! What was Chris Pratt’s first comic book movie appearance? If you said Guardians of the Galaxy then you’d be wrong! Pratt actually played Wesley’s A-hole best friend in Wanted. Prior to that particularly douchey role, Pratt’s first film appearance was in a short horror film called Cursed: Part 3. He got the part through actress Rae Dawn Chong while waiting tables in Maui and living in his van (which had Shaggy and Scooby-Doo painted on it).
Pratt went on to have a notable television career starting with the fourth season of The O.C. Following this came his beloved role as Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation. Pratt would later appear in films like Moneyball, 10 Years, Zero Dark Thirty and Her. When approached for his role as Star-Lord, Pratt was hesitant after losing leading roles in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and Avatar.
2. RYAN REYNOLDS
Like a few others on this list, Ryan Reynolds has a couple of different comic book movies under his belt including Blade: Trinity and Green Lantern. One of his first TV appearances was also technically a comic book movie, the Sabrina the Teenage Witch TV film that served as the pilot for the series. From there, his television career continued with Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place. This lead to his casting in perhaps his most famous early role as the titular character in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.
After a career of comedy and romantic-comedy roles such as Waiting…, Just Friends and Definitely, Maybe, Reynolds made a shift to more serious roles starting with Blade: Trinity. After portraying a version of Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Reynolds pushed for the character to get a more faithful adaptation, using his own money to help produce Deadpool.
1. ROBERT DOWNEY JR.
Robert Downey Jr. is perhaps one of the greatest redemption stories in Hollywood history. While he does sport a successful career prior to his role as Iron Man, his career took a downward turn after a period of substance abuse. Regardless, he has had a long and impressive career.
After some rather strange and surreal appearances in his father’s films, Downey found success alongside Molly Ringwald in The Pick-Up Artist and later in Less Than Zero. Downey’s most notable early role is without a doubt his portrayal of Charlie Chaplin in Chaplin, a role which earned him an Academy Award Nomination for best actor. After some legal trouble and various lesser known roles, Downey joined the cast of Ally McBeal. After taking some time away from acting, films like The Singing Detective, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Tropic Thunder paved the way for his Iron Man fueled comeback.
Which superhero actor is your favorite? Tell us who in the comments!