It seems that television has become almost a more prestigious format for storytelling than movies these days. However, that wasn't always the case and there was a time where appearing on TV shows was considered either a last resort for actors unable to secure good Hollywood roles or as a place to hopefully get noticed to kickstart a movie career. With that said, when an actor proved themselves on television and then made it in a Hollywood blockbuster, it was almost as if they passed a rite of passage and made it to the big time. There isn't anything in Hollywood now that is a bigger blockbuster than the recent slate of superhero movies, where outside of rare cases, even the disappointments make hundreds of millions of dollars.
With that in mind, some of Hollywood's biggest superhero stars got their start on television back in the day when it wasn't quite as prestigious as it has become. From sitcom stars to child actors and from genre television actors to soap opera stars, there are a ton of people who powered up and became the leads in some of Hollywood's biggest comic book blockbusters. Here is a look at 30 superhero movie actors who started out on television before heading out to save the universe.
30 RYAN REYNOLDS
Ryan Reynolds wanted to get a hit in a comic book movie so bad that he just kept trying until one finally stuck. He went from Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity to Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and even tried to launch a Green Lantern franchise. Finally, he got another chance at Deadpool and finally had his hit.
However, before any of this happened, he got his start in a Canadian teen soap that aired on Nickelodeon called Fifteen in 1991. Add in the cult favorite Two Guys and a Girl and a Pizza Place in 1998, and Reynolds was a major star on TV before becoming a superhero.
29 MICHAEL KEATON
Ask just about anyone who their favorite Batman was and most people of a certain age will immediately say, Michael Keaton. He was the man who proved that a dark hero could succeed on the big screen when he headlined Tim Burton's two efforts at bringing the Caped Crusader to life.
However, what a lot of fans don't know was that Keaton got his start on television. His very first appearance as a screen actor came in 1975 when he appeared on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. From there, he got jobs on shows like Maude and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour before finally moving on to movies, and eventually the cape and cowl.
28 GEORGE CLOONEY
George Clooney is arguably everyone's least favorite Batman -- and that includes Clooney himself, who has apologized to comic book fans for his performance as the Caped Crusader in Batman & Robin. While Clooney became a massive movie star in the subsequent years, he just wasn't right for the role of Batman at the time.
Clooney had been acting since 1978, starting off as an extra on TV shows and then got a chance to play a small role on the show The Facts of Life. He then moved on to Roseanne in a regular role, was a co-star on Sisters and then finally broke out as Dr. Doug Ross on ER.
27 MICHAEL CHIKLIS
The two Fantastic Four movies by Tim Story didn't have many fans when they were released, although both of them seem like minor masterpieces compared to the 2015 reboot that came along years later. One of the problems with the early movies was the effects, such as The Thing looking comical, especially compared to other superhero movies of that era.
The actor, though, was a great one. Michael Chiklis took on the role of The Thing and delivered the best he could in the films. Most fans know Chiklis from television, and specifically two shows. His breakout came in The Commish but his true masterpiece was portraying Vic Mackey in The Shield.
26 MORENA BACCARIN
Morena Baccarin has really developed her niche as a geek-friendly actress thanks to her television roles. She broke out as Inara Serra in the Joss Whedon sci-fi western series Firefly but also had roles in the Stargate SG-1 world as well as Adria. She even doubled-down when she took on a major role in the Batman prequel series Gotham.
However, most fans recognize her as Vanessa, Deadpool's girlfriend in both of the Ryan Reynolds-starring movies. Thanks to the last-minute twist as the end, if the Deadpool franchise carries on now that Marvel owns Fox, she might be back for even more.
25 MICHAEL B. JORDAN
Michael B. Jordan has become a major Hollywood star over the past few years. He tried his hand at a superhero movie in 2015 when he starred as The Human Torch in Fantastic Four but then really knocked it home with his performance as Killmonger in Black Panther in 2018.
However, Jordan really got his start on television. After cameo roles in Cosby and The Sopranos, Jordan had an important role in The Wire and then in 2003, he joined the soap opera All My Children, playing Reggie Montgomery, a role he carried for three years.
24 CHADWICK BOSEMAN
It might be the strangest coincidence in superhero movies, but Chadwick Boseman, who portrays the Black Panther in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, shares a strange connection to Michael B. Jordan, who portrays his enemy Killmonger. Both men played the same character on a daytime soap opera.
Jordan played Reggie Montgomery on All My Children for three years. However, he wasn't the original actor in the role and actually replaced Boseman in 2003. That same year, Boseman also appeared in Third Watch, Law & Order, CSI: NY and ER, before moving on to larger roles in The Express and Persons Unknown.
23 BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
Benedict Cumberbatch seemed to be the perfect fit to play Doctor Stephen Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in his three films so far, he fit the role like a glove. While he might be best known for that role now, he also had award-worthy roles in films like The Imitation Game and 12 Years a Slave.
However, before all that, the classically trained stage actor took on the role of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock. In this role, he was nominated four times for Primetime Emmy Awards, winning once. His breakout actually came back in 2002 in the TV series Silent Witness.
22 IDRIS ELBA
Idris Elba took on the role of Heimdall in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and made it his own. While it took a bit, by the time Thor: Ragnarok rolled around, Heimdall entrenched himself as one of the best characters in the Asgardian world. However, Elba made his name on television long before he became a superhero.
Elba's most notable television role came on The Wire where he played drug kingpin Stringer Bell starting in 2002. However, before that, he got his start on a medical drama called Bramwell. He also hasn't given up on television despite his movie success, still starring as the title character in Luther.
21 CLARK GREGG
Clark Gregg is one of the big superhero actors who actually went from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the small screen when his character of Agent Phil Coulson went from the Avengers movies to the same role on ABC's Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Heading to television was not unusual for Gregg either, as that is where he really got his biggest breaks. After appearing in some indie films early in his career and a ton of television cameos, he broke out on The West Wing and then took a lead role in The New Adventures of Old Christine.
20 J.K. SIMMONS
In the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, if there was one man that was perfectly cast, it was J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson. There might not be anyone else who comes close to his portrayal of the character. He also did a good job when he took over the role of Commissioner Gordon in Justice League, a tough task since he took over for Gary Oldman.
However, Simmons got his biggest break on television. Millions of fans know him as Skoda on Law & Order. There was also a big role in the HBO prison series Oz, where he portrayed Vernon Schillinger. Simmons still appears on television and is currently the lead in the Starz series Counterpart.
19 BRADLEY COOPER
Bradley Cooper isn't seen in Marvel Cinematic Universe movies -- but his voice is now iconic for the franchise. Cooper, who directed the Oscar-nominated A Star is Born in 2018, is the man who voices Rocket Raccoon in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, alongside Vin Diesel, who loves to say, "I am Groot."
While Cooper broke out with his role in the Hangover trilogy and got his first break in the 2001 comedy movie Wet Hot American Summer, it was his role that same year in the television series Alias that made him a star. Cooper played reporter Will Tippin, the best friend of Jennifer Garner's character, Sydney Bristow.
18 JENNIFER GARNER
Jennifer Garner was a major television star before she became a successful Hollywood movie star. She got her first break thanks to J.J. Abrams when he cast her in a regular role on Felicity. That led to a regular role on Time of Your Life but then she hit it big in 2001 when Abrams cast her as the lead character in the spy series Alias.
Alias made Garner a true action hero and that likely helped her to pick up the role as Elektra in the 2003 superhero movie Daredevil. Garner impressed there and got a chance to lead her own movie as Elektra, but bad reviews and poor box office caused Garner to leave the superhero genre after that.
17 SETH ROGEN
The Judd Apatow teen dramedy Freaks and Geeks introduced the world to a lot of young talented actors who went on to do big things in their careers. From Scooby-Doo and Bones to How I Met Your Mother and Cougar Town, a lot of very talented people got their start on this cult favorite.
Seth Rogen might have had the best career of anyone who got their start on Freaks and Geeks. In the superhero landscape, he even got a chance to star as a major big budget hero in Green Hornet. Rogen didn't stop there, as he has also produced the hit comic book adaptation Preacher.
16 BEN AFFLECK
Ben Affleck was not the first Batman to get his start as a television star (that would be Michael Keaton). He is also not the first to start off his career as a child star (that would be Christian Bale). However, he did get the chance to hit both of those in one swoop before growing up to become -- not one, but two different superheroes in movies.
Affleck has starred as both Daredevil and Batman over his career in Hollywood. However, he got his first worldwide notice when he starred in the PBS television series The Voyage of the Mimi in 1984 when he was 12, and then The Second Voyage of the Mimi in 1988.
15 BRUCE WILLIS
In 1999, M. Night Shayamalan made what was his answer to the then developing comic book movie genre. This was around the same time that X-Men proved that Hollywood was ready to mass produce comic book movies from Marvel, but Shayamalan took a very different look at the genre with an everyman played by Bruce Willis who was thrown into a lifestyle he never really wanted.
With Glass as a major success in 2019, Bruce Willis got a chance to portray the superhero David Dunn once again. However, before Willis became a major movie star thanks to Die Hard, he was a television star on the TV series Moonlighting from 1985-89.
14 WILL SMITH
Will Smith has had an amazing career in the entertainment industry. For a few years, Smith was the biggest A-list movie star in Hollywood, his name meaning that just about any movie would be a massive hit. His sixth movie was a comic book adaptation in Men in Black, he played a superhero in 2008's Hancock and got into a DC Comics movie in 2016 with Suicide Squad.
However, before he was a movie star, Smith was a rap star, getting his start in the duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. That led to Smith starring in his own sitcom titled The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from 1990-96.
13 JIM CARREY
Jim Carrey was the biggest name in comedy movies for a long time. With hits like Ace Ventura and Dumb and Dumber, he was one of the most bankable names in Hollywood. He even got the chance to star as a comic book icon in The Mask in 1994. However, one year later he was in the biggest comic book franchise of its era when he starred as The Riddler in Batman Forever.
His career didn't start in the movies though. Carrey was part of the cast of the television variety show In Living Color from 1990-94. On the show, Carrey took on some memorable roles, including Fire Marshall Bill, the buff woman Vera De Milo and even as his version of a Fly Girl.
12 JAMIE FOXX
Jamie Foxx got his start in the entertainment industry when he joined the cast of In Living Color in 1991. One of his most iconic characters on the show was a woman named Wanda. It was so successful that Foxx soon got a chance to star in his own sitcom from 1996 to 2001 called The Jamie Foxx Show.
Shortly after that, he got his chance to star in the football movie Any Given Sunday in 1999 and his Hollywood career just skyrocketed from there. In 2014, Foxx nabbed the role of Electro in Amazing Spider-Man 2 and has been linked to the upcoming Spawn reboot as well.
11 CHRIS PRATT
Chris Pratt has recently become a leading man in Hollywood, which is slightly surprising when looking at his television past. His current movie roles include the superhero movie franchise Guardians of the Galaxy, the animated franchise The LEGO Movie and sci-fi franchise Jurassic World.
However, Pratt really started to hit it big back in 2002 when he was cast in the WB series Everwood as Bright Abbott. In 2009, Pratt got an even bigger opportunity when he was cast as Andy Dwyer in Parks and Recreation. Neither of those roles prepared fans for his life as a superhero/dinosaur wrangler, but Pratt made it work.
10 JESSICA ALBA
Jessica Alba got the chance to play a superhero in the two Tim Story-directed Fantastic Four movies as the Invisible Woman. While those roles did not set the world on fire, and effectively ended the Fantastic Four movie franchise for almost a decade, she did better in the comic book adaptation of Sin City.
However, what most fans might not realize is that Alba started her career as a child star in a very popular older TV series where her co-star was a dolphin. After getting her start at the age of 13 in The Secret World of Alex Mack she starred as Maya in the first two seasons of the TV show Flipper.
9 JULIAN MCMAHAN
Julian McMahon was the actor who played Doctor Doom in both Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. While the character was not what fans of the comic book heroes might have wanted, McMahon carried himself in a role worthy of the King of Latveria.
He got his start as a soap opera star, appearing on the daytime soap Another World from 1993-95 as Ian Rain. From there, he moved on to the nighttime drama series Profiler for all four of its seasons and then appeared in Charmed for three seasons before getting his big break as one of the leads on Nip/Tuck.
8 KAREN GILLAN
Karen Gillan turned heads with her portrayal of Nebula, the villain in Guardians of the Galaxy who became a reluctant hero in its sequel, as well as in Avengers: Infinity War. She was also likely prepared for what it meant to be in a huge superhero blockbuster because she also appeared in one of the biggest television franchises of all-time.
After working on some smaller British shows to start her career, Gillan caught her break in 2010 when she was cast in Doctor Who. She wasn't just a part of the cast, but she was Amy Pond, the main companion of Matt Smith's Doctor for three seasons.
7 CHRIS HEMSWORTH
Before Chris Hemsworth became Thor, the Asgardian God of Thunder in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he was a television actor working in his own country of Australia. In 2002, he got his start in the small Australian cult favorite Guinevere Jones as none other than King Arthur himself.
However, he rose to prominence when he took a role in the Australian soap opera Home and Away as Kim Hyde. Hemsworth was a key cast member for a long time, appearing in 171 episodes of the soap opera before leaving and branching off into movies, which really skyrocketed after his small role in Star Trek.
6 EVANGELINE LILLY
For six seasons, Evangeline Lilly was one of the most important cast members on the most popular show on television at that time, Lost. Lilly played Kate, arguably the most important female character on the show and a constant part of a love triangle between co-leads Jack and Sawyer.
That role actually came after Lilly worked as an extra on shows like Smallville and Tru Calling and appeared in a minor role on Kingdom Hospital. It all paid off with some big-time roles in both the Hobbit franchise and as Hope Van Dyne, The Wasp, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
5 DAVE BAUTISTA
Dave Bautista took a similar career path to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. However, unlike The Rock, who was a huge WWE superstar for many years, Bautista left the WWE after only a few years on top and decided to leave the world of television wrestling behind for a role on the big screen in movies.
It was a gamble that paid off. He got to portray a lead henchman in a James Bond movie, was in the sequel to one of the best sci-fi movies of all-time in Blade Runner 2049 and, biggest of all, portrayed Drax in both Guardians of the Galaxy movies as well as Avengers: Infinity War.
4 PAUL RUDD
Paul Rudd got his big break in 1995 when he won the role of Josh in the Alicia Silverstone comedy Clueless. He actually beat out his future Avengers cast-mate Jeremy Renner for that role. However, it wasn't Clueless that was his actual first acting role.
Instead, Rudd made his debut as Kirby on the television show Sisters. That was also the same show that gave George Clooney an early break, although he only appeared in one season with Rudd. The actor then returned to TV in 2002 when he took a supporting role in Friends.
3 COBIE SMULDERS
Cobie Smulders might not be a superhero, but she does star as one of the most powerful members of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. Maria Hill is second in command to Nick Fury, until the HYDRA takeover, and as the post-credits to Avengers: Infinity War showed, she was still at his side even after the events of those movies.
While she had some early appearances in small movies, she got her big break on television. In 2003, she starred as one of the regulars in Veritas: The Quest and then had her breakout come in 2005 when she was one of the leads in How I Met Your Mother, appearing in all nine seasons as Robin.
2 JAMES FRANCO
James Franco might be the biggest name to come out of the Judd Apatow series Freaks and Geeks. While Seth Rogen had his fair share of success, Franco has done everything from comedies like Pineapple Express to action movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes to directing his own award-winning independent film in The Disaster Artist.
Along the way, he also appeared as Harry Osborn and the second Green Goblin in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. His career all started with television commercials, small TV roles, and a starring turn in Freaks and Geeks.
1 JASON MOMOA
In a huge bit of irony, Jason Mamoa stars as the King of Atlantis and the greatest water-bound superhero of all-time in DC Comics' Aquaman. His flippant and totally laid back attitude made the one-time joke of a superhero very cool in today's superhero movie landscape.
However, what makes this ironic is that Mamoa did not just start his career on television, but he started his career as a lifeguard in the hit series Baywatch: Hawaii. He went from the youngest lifeguard on Baywatch to the King of the Seas in the Worlds of DC, which is perfect since he worked in a surf shop before he was cast in the TV series.