One big role can completely change an actor’s career and life, and these days the roles don’t get much bigger than the leading superheroes and supervillains in comic book movies. Whether the changes these parts bring are a net positive or negative for the actor’s work varies depending on both the specifics of the situation and your perspective. Superhero movies are the most hyped and commercially popular blockbuster movies in this day and age, so there’s a raised profile involved, which can reap huge rewards for a good performance but punish a misfire severely.
Typecasting has long been a concern for actors blessed and cursed with iconic roles, but for many of the actors on this list playing superhero characters actually allowed them to break from typecasting, showing a different range than what their prior resume presented. Since superhero movies are, more than ever, franchise affairs, the long term commitment is another wrinkle that can go either way. Will the performers use the stability of these parts as a way to get passion projects done in between blockbusters, or will it completely consume their life? And is it even a bad thing for these roles to be so consuming? These 15 stars have seen major changes since taking superhero roles, for better… or worse.
15. CHRIS PRATT
Andy Dwyer: Action Movie Star. It must have sounded pretty weird to Parks and Recreation fans back in 2013 when it was announced Chris Pratt was going to be the lead hero of Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Pratt himself rejected the offer when first asked, but James Gunn was able to convince him his comedic sensibility was right for the role.
Starlord’s abs were certainly a shocker to audiences who knew Pratt from TV, but he already had experience losing weight for roles in Moneyball and Zero Dark Thirty. Between Guardians and The Lego Movie, Pratt joined fellow Chrises Hemsworth, Evans and Pine as one of Hollywood’s “it guys.” He’d star in less comedic action movies like Jurassic World and The Magnificent Seven, as well as the awkwardly creepy romance film Passengers.
14. ROBERT DOWNEY JR.
Robert Downey Jr.’s comeback was in the works before he became Tony Stark. After overcoming some serious drug problems, Downey had begun to establish credibility in the indie scene, appearing in films like Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, A Scanner Darkly and Zodiac. Then Iron Man became the surprise hit of 2008, and he got an Oscar nomination for Tropic Thunder, and his comeback became mainstream.
Being the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe combined with the failure of The Soloist in 2009 led Downey to quit acting in indie films (making an exception for Chef by Iron Man director Jon Favreau). Of the 16 films he’s appeared in from Iron Man on, half of them have been Marvel movies. Hey, he’s making money, having a great time and he is Iron Man, so a lack of variety can be forgiven.
13. MARK HAMILL
There are two schools of thought on Mark Hamill that can be divided between those who watch cartoons and those who don’t. Those who don’t watch cartoons know Hamill as Luke Skywalker and think nothing else of him. Those who do watch cartoons think he’s amazing, all thanks to his lucky break being cast as The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series.
Funny, terrifying and far more expressive than what anyone could pull off with George Lucas dialogue, Hamill’s Joker became a fan favorite. Hamill’s not only reprised that role countless times but gotten more involved in the world of voice acting, taking roles in everything from Avatar: The Last Airbender to Metalocalypse to Regular Show. Where Harrison Ford became a movie star in his own right and Carrie Fisher was celebrated for her writing and activism, Hamill’s escape from Skywalker typecasting was through cartoons.
12. MICHAEL KEATON
Superhero films are often used as a way for serious actors to do something more lighthearted. For Michael Keaton in Batman it was the opposite, an opportunity for an actor at that time best known for Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice to prove he could command the screen while taking things seriously. Fans were outraged over the casting of Keaton, fearing hiring a comedy guy was an indication the movie would treat Batman as a joke.
After Batman‘s release, Michael Keaton would be no longer be thought of as just a comedy guy. He was the Batman now, and he was respected enough as Batman to get more dramatic roles. He’d earn an Oscar nomination for his performance in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), in which he played an actor trying to shake off superhero typecasting. He’d return to superhero cinema as The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming.
11. BEN AFFLECK
What if Robert Downey Jr. was miserable playing Iron Man? That’s the impression Ben Affleck has given in regards to his position as Batman in the DC Extended Universe. Affleck was also in the 2003 Daredevil movie, but that flick didn’t have much impact beyond further making Affleck a joke. His casting as Batman, on the other hand, is a significant career turning point.
Affleck had become a respected director, helming the Best Picture winner Argo before taking over as Batman. But as Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice proved divisive, it seemed like Affleck might be second-guessing himself about making such a major franchise commitment. He quit directing The Batman. “Sad Ben Affleck” became a meme. With Flashpoint possibly resetting DCEU continuity and Affleck the target of multiple sexual harassment accusations, it’s unclear just how long he’ll stay in the role.
10. HALLE BERRY
You’d think the superhero most associated with Halle Berry would be Storm in the X-Men series, given she’s played her in four films, but somehow that’s not the case. Her under-utilized mutant character might have helped grow her career as an A-list superstar, but a different superhero movie made a bigger impact on her career by almost singlehandedly killing it. The film in question is Catwoman.
Only three years after becoming the first African-American woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for Monster’s Ball, she “won” the Worst Actress Razzie Award for Catwoman. She actually attended the ceremony to accept the award, saying in her speech, “I want to thank Warner Brothers for casting me in this piece of sh–.” That good sense of humor earns her cool points, but she hasn’t had as many major starring roles since.
9. JARED LETO
Playing The Joker in what amounted to about 10 minutes of Suicide Squad (plus who knows how many deleted scenes) didn’t so much change the public perception of Jared Leto as an actor so much as amplified it. Leto was known in the film world as an intense method actor beforehand. He was homeless for two weeks preparing for Requiem for a Dream and gave himself gout for Chapter 27.
With Suicide Squad, though, his method acting went to absurd extremes. He wasn’t just potentially hurting himself like with past method stunts, but he had to harass his co-stars for some reason, sending them live rats, dead pigs and used condoms while “in-character.” All this for a performance that was barely onscreen and was generally disliked. Leto might have won an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club, but thanks to Suicide Squad he’s become a punchline.
8. TOM HARDY
When the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises were previewed in IMAX, everything was looking great. How it sounded was a different story. People complained that Tom Hardy’s dialogue as Bane was completely incomprehensible. As a result, Hardy rerecorded his dialogue for the finished film so it was only somewhat incomprehensible. Whether people loved, hated, or made increasingly esoteric memes about his performance, Hardy’s Bane was certainly memorable.
So memorable that it set Hardy into an unusual typecasting niche: playing guys who incoherently mumble their dialogue, often in a mask. Hardy mumbled under similar face-covering masks in Mad Max: Fury Road and Dunkirk, while his Oscar nominated performance in The Revenant wasn’t masked but still with a very heavy hard-to-understand accent. Somehow, he’s amazingly talented at this odd style of acting.
7. JAMES FRANCO
Here’s an actor who’s reinvented himself so thoroughly that it’s almost hard to remember his time as Harry Osborne in the original Spider-Man movie trilogy. But for a time, that’s what he was known for. Yes, he had a Golden Globe for that James Dean TV movie and the cool kids remembered him from Freaks and Geeks, but from 2002 to 2007, Harry was easily his defining role.
And then, almost as soon as Spider-Man 3 landed with a thud in 2007, Franco got really freaking weird. He quickly established his new celebrity persona: a (supposedly) sober guy who always plays stoners, a (supposedly) straight man obsessed with gay culture, a conceptual artist who sleepwalks through the Oscars and directs films based on classic literature and teaches college courses about himself. Well, that’s one way to avoid typecasting.
6. HUGH JACKMAN
Hugh Jackman was few people’s first choice to play Wolverine in X-Men. Fans of the character wondered what this tall Australian musical theatre performer was doing playing a short Canadian action hero. Those doubts were squashed once they actually saw the movie. While he might not have looked like the comic book character, Jackman’s performance was a highlight of the film and the seven more films featuring Wolverine to follow.
Jackman became an unexpected action star overnight. There were other attempts for Jackman to kickstart franchises in addition to X-Men (remember Van Helsing?), but mostly when he’s not wearing the claws, Jackman uses his stardom to continue to pursue his song-and-dance passions with a bigger audience. He’s hosted the Tony Awards four times, has acted on Broadway and in movie musicals such as Les Miserables and the Christmas 2017 release The Greatest Showman.
5. RYAN REYNOLDS
Who’d have thought a decade ago that people would be taking Ryan Reynolds seriously now? OK, maybe “seriously” is the wrong word, but his particular brand of silliness has become a lot more appreciated thanks to his pitch perfect casting in Deadpool. Reynolds appearing in a superhero movie was not a sure formula for success. He was an (admittedly unwilling) accomplice to a completely butchered Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and as Hal Jordan in Green Lantern.
Yet clear passion and love for the character in the Deadpool movie paid off and earned Reynolds a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy. As a producer on the movie, he even got nominated at the Producers Guild Awards! A healthy sense of humor about his celebrity paid off, as the movie mocked both Reynolds’ “Sexiest Man Alive” tabloid image and the failings of his previous superhero movies.
4. GAL GODOT
Warner Bros. is seriously campaigning for Wonder Woman to make a splash at the Oscars, and while a nomination for Gal Gadot is a longshot in a competitive year, few would complain if she did get in. She was a revelation as Wonder Woman, an instantly charming star who commanded the screen. So was she always planning on getting into acting?
Actually, before she got into the game, she studied law. And before that, she was a combat instructor in the Israeli Defense Forces. And before THAT, she was the winner of the 2004 Miss Israel beauty pageant. It was her modeling agent who landed Gadot her first acting roles on the Israeli TV show Bubot, followed by her Hollywood debut in the Fast and the Furious movies. No roles really showcased the extent of her talent until Wonder Woman, however, and her future in Hollywood is looking bright.
3. SCARLETT JOHANSSON
Before her debut as Black Widow in Iron Man 2, everyone recognized Scarlett Johansson as one of the world’s most beautiful women, but her films weren’t always so popular. Many of her big studio films (The Island, The Spirit) were flops, while her most acclaimed work was in low key arthouse dramas like Lost in Translation and Ghost World.
The popularity of Black Widow ushered in a bit of a change in Johansson’s on-screen identity. She was now an action star, and could bring a ridiculous movie like Lucy to blockbuster status on just her star power alone. Her arthouse work also started to trend towards science fiction, albeit of a headier variety than her blockbusters, in films like Her and Under the Skin. She can’t sell EVERY movie, though. Being miscast in Ghost in the Shell caused significant controversy that contributed to the film bombing.
2. DAVE BAUTISTA
Wrestlers becoming actors can go many ways. On the one hand, you have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as one of Hollywood’s biggest leading men. On the other hand, you got painful memories of Hulk Hogan in Suburban Commando. Dave Bautista’s path to Hollywood was atypical among wrestlers-turned-actors because unlike most others, he had little interest in being a traditional action star — he wanted to be a character actor.
Bautista ended up finding the right balance as Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, a role that makes use of his musculature but also his quirkiness and sense of humor. Everyone knew Chris Pratt and the Bradley Cooper raccoon were going to be funny, but Bautista took people by surprise with just how eccentric his performance was.
1. HEATH LEDGER
Let’s kill that nasty rumor right now: playing The Joker did NOT kill Heath Ledger. Not in any direct connection, anyway. Word has circulated since his untimely 2008 passing that the demands of the intense, twisted part led to a suicidal depression, buoyed by former Joker Jack Nicholson’s cryptic statement, “I warned him.” According to Heath’s older sister Kate Ledger, however, he was in a great mood playing The Joker. The performance itself was fun and not a burden for him.
So The Dark Knight didn’t kill him. Where it didn’t help him, however, was with his physical health. Heath had developed sleeping problems while playing Bob Dylan in I’m Not There, and his insomnia didn’t improve while filming The Dark Knight. The sleeping issues led to prescription drug problems, which in turn led to his death. He wouldn’t live to see his most iconic role on the big screen.
Can you think of any other actor whose life was changed for better or worse by a superhero role? Let us know in the comments.
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