Almost a movie genre unto itself, the "Bad Superhero Movie" can be a source of both disgust and delight. Sometimes, when hopes are high for a movie, seeing it crash and burn on-screen is a nightmare; other times, you know going in exactly what kind of movie you bought the ticket for, and you can't wait to watch the wreckage at 24 frames per second. And sometimes, there's a third option, where the movie is better or worse than you expected, and you're not sure exactly how it happened, or whose fault it was.
While the genre itself isn't going anywhere, sometimes the difference between a bad superhero movie and a superhero movie that's so bad it's great is the screen presence of one actor. All it takes is one person who has a handle on what they're doing to turn a movie around -- or at least take it from unwatchable to "I'll catch it next time it's on Netflix." Sometimes, the actor who can reset the course for a movie isn't the star, sometimes they are -- ultimately, it's as much the magic of casting as anything. We dug up eight actors that made bad superhero movies into much more enjoyable affairs, and seven who just dug the hole deeper.
15 BETTER: MARGOT ROBBIE, SUICIDE SQUAD
That's right, even though it's technically an Academy Award-winning film, Suicide Squad is also technically a chore to sit through. It's got a slim runtime at just over two hours, but it's overstuffed with characters and underserved by its plot. Writer/Director David Ayer only had six weeks to write the film once he signed on, and it shows -- sometimes the product is rushed, and then you get Suicide Squad.
But Margot Robbie's turn as Harley Quinn, the Joker's sometimes-girlfriend/sometimes-nemesis was universally praised as one of the only parts of the movie that people actually wanted to see more of. Robbie seems like one of the only actors who got the memo for Suicide Squad; others, like Jared Leto's Joker, are way over the top, and still others, like Ben Affleck in a cameo, just don't fit.
14 WORSE: MICKEY ROURKE, IRON MAN 2
After 2008's Iron Man brought the Marvel Universe roaring onto the scene, fans hotly anticipated the second installment in the series; unfortunately, Iron Man 2 didn't quite live up to the promise of its predecessor. The second Iron Man movie tried to carry on the loose and improvisational feeling of the first, but it instead ended up bloated with too many villains and a storyline that didn't really start or end. Mickey Rourke's Whiplash is a sensible addition -- after watching rival businessman Obadiah Stane, you would think rival businessman Justin Hammer would be a boring route to go.
Unfortunately for Marvel, Hammer was the fun part, and Whiplash came off as stiff and grumpy. In making this, Marvel could have embraced their cinematic universe and conflated the two characters into one guy, but instead, Mickey Rourke stuck around and brought the movie down.
13 BETTER: JACKIE EARLE HALEY, WATCHMEN
Watchmen is not the movie that people wanted it to be -- it took a beloved, sprawling comic novel and had to condense it into around two hours, even though it would be better served by being miniseries length, so we'll keep an eye on the upcoming series -- but it's probably the best Watchmen movie we're going to get.
In a movie that's filled with a lot of stylistic flourishes for the sake of stylistic flourishes, the cast is still really solid; Billy Crudup brings a loneliness and tenderness to Doctor Manhattan, Jeffrey Dean Morgan embodies the Comedian. But the real standout is Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach -- easily the most difficult character in the entire cast to really get into the mindset of, Haley brought a brutality and sense of purpose to Rorschach that made each of his scenes electric.
12 BETTER: RYAN REYNOLDS, DEADPOOL
This is going to be a controversial choice, but the real reason that Deadpool works isn't that it's a good superhero movie -- all things considered, the real action of the movie is just one fight sequence that's cut up and redistributed over the course of an hour and a half. The reason Deadpool works is that it's a phenomenal character study into Wade Wilson and his alter ego; it plumbs his pain and recontextualizes a lot of his brutal humor into his own twisted version of post-traumatic stress.
The gags and comedic timing in the movie, and the mime-work underneath the Deadpool suit all spring from Ryan Reynolds; without Reynolds bringing more than his fair share of humor and heart to the role, Deadpool would have been a dud of a movie that couldn't even afford any of the cool X-Men.
11 WORSE: TAYLOR KITSCH, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE
The saga of Gambit and his quest to make it onto the big screen is one of the saddest in comics. Even though he was a wildly popular character in the comics after his debut, and on the X-Men cartoon, everyone's favorite ragin' Cajun just hasn't found his fit yet. Taylor Kitsch appeared as Gambit in the first spin-off film from the main X-Men movies, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but his appearance did nothing to help a film already beleaguered with cameos and neat tricks, instead of a satisfying narrative and a core cast.
Instead, Kitsch's Gambit just comes off as Riggins from Friday Night Lights in a horrible "m'lady" hat. Here's hoping Channing Tatum has way better luck when it comes to embodying Remy LeBeau o-screen when his Gambit movie finally drops.
10 BETTER: HENRY CAVILL, MAN OF STEEL
Henry Cavill, the poor guy, is living a particular version of actor's hell: despite the fact that he looks the part of Superman, carries himself like Superman, and even manages to exude the small town Kansas decency of Clark Kent, (despite being British), Cavill keeps getting trapped in terrible Superman movies. Brandon Routh suffered a similar fate -- imagine if Christopher Reeve had only made Superman III and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.
Nothing is guaranteed in life, even that a Superman movie will be good, though he seems from afar like he would not be a tough nut to crack. Man of Steel, the drabbest, grayest, downer of a Superman movie brought Cavill to our attention, and aside from things the script dictated to the character that made no sense, he was great in the suit, and he's only gotten better (as the movies themselves have gotten worse).
9 WORSE: BEN AFFLECK, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
For the Batman and Superman fan, there has been no more hotly anticipated movie in the last decade than Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. You'd think for a concept as simple as Batman vs. Superman, the title wouldn't need to be so unwieldy, wouldn't advertise a conflict that reads so haphazardly but makes instant sense visually; Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice doesn't care what you think. The movie itself is a structural nightmare, filled with twists and turns that spring out of nothing to take over the movie for fifteen minutes, a half hour at a time here and there.
And ultimately, Ben Affleck stepping into the Batsuit has been a mistake -- he looks uncomfortable, and you can almost see him losing his will to live in each ridiculous scene of this movie. If he wasn't such a solid Bruce Wayne, he would be on this list again for Suicide Squad.
8 BETTER: PAUL BETTANY, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
If it weren't for the inexorable hype machine preparing for the arrival of Avengers: Infinity War, it would have been safe to say that Age of Ultron let most of the air out of the Avengers franchise. With a mega-hit first movie, the second one had the highest bar of expectations to meet, and it failed. Not that it isn't fun; it's just a fun movie as opposed to a good movie.
One of the most striking parts of the movie was the installation of Tony Stark's AI personal assistant, JARVIS, into a body Ultron had created for himself, thus creating the Vision in all his purple-skinned glory. It was a nice grace note for Bettany, after six years of voice-only appearances, to appear as himself, and he brought a sense of gravitas and dignity to a movie that also tries to get by with primae noctis jokes.
7 WORSE: ALICIA SILVERSTONE, BATMAN & ROBIN
This may seem like a cheap shot, but really, this was one of the more difficult entries to this list. It's not that Alicia Silverstone is distinctly worse than everyone else, and that's what brought Batman & Robin down; it's that literally everybody in Batman & Robin actively makes the movie worse, so it turned into almost a tie game. Silverstone does what she can with the role she's given, playing Barbara Wilson, the niece of Alfred Pennyworth (as opposed to Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon); her street clothes scenes are great, but she doesn't do well in the Batgirl suit.
In fairness, George Clooney doesn't do well in the Batsuit, and Arnold Schwarzenegger does positively terribly in the Mr. Freeze suit, but those felt of a piece with the movie; Batgirl felt like an extraneous plot thread the entire time.
6 WORSE: TIM ROBBINS, HOWARD THE DUCK
There's not really anything good to be said about Howard the Duck. The film stuck with the core concept of Howard being transplanted out of his own dimension and into our unfamiliar and threatening one; it also put Lea Thompson in the unfortunate position of having had to try and seduce her on-screen son in Back to the Future and having to try and seduce a small man in a duck costume in Howard.
In a movie that's already terrible, it's tough to believe that one thing could stand out to make it worse; however, that one thing is Tim Robbins. He shows up about halfway into the movie as a goofy scientist who is enraptured by what Howard means to quantum physics, but he doesn't fit with the other characters, and he overacts as much as physically possible.
5 BETTER: RAY FISHER, JUSTICE LEAGUE
Justice League wanted so badly to be the new Avengers -- heroes, all able to support their own successful standalone movies, joining together once every few years for a big, barnburner of an action movie, but all it ended up being was disappointing. In a movie that either needed to cut a character and about 20 minutes of screentime or add another 45 minutes to really get a chance to flesh at least one character out, Ray Fisher's Cyborg stands out as one of the only members of the Justice League with any ability to elicit empathy from the audience.
A monstrous hybrid, made monstrous by forces beyond his control and his father's Frankensteinian hubris, Victor Stone tugs at moviegoers' heartstrings in a way that no one expected from a Zack Snyder superhero movie. They did make him say "Booyah" in 2017, which is tragic, but Fisher rises above it.
4 WORSE: SAMUEL L. JACKSON, THE SPIRIT
Frank Miller has a history of periodically dipping his toes into the Hollywood waters: he had been on hiatus until Robert Rodriguez began production on Sin City. Rodriguez brought Miller on as co-director, largely using panels from the Sin City comics to storyboard the film, something that Zack Snyder also did the next year with an adaptation of 300. After all that, Miller gained the confidence of producers that he could direct a movie, and went right for The Spirit.
Samuel L. Jackson was his first and only choice for the role of the Octopus, the Spirit's nemesis, and Jackson worked with the costume department to invent new and outrageous costumes for each of his scenes. Unfortunately, in a movie filled with risks and big gambles, not a single one of them paid off, and the Octopus's over-the-top screen presence ate up a lot of the good stuff around it.
3 BETTER: WILLIAM H. MACY, MYSTERY MEN
It might be beside the point to debate the merits of Mystery Men as a good superhero movie, since it's clearly setting out to be a bad superhero movie. Does that mean it's a bad movie with superheroes in it, or a movie with bad superheroes in it? The answer is yes, all of the above.
Filled with late '90s goofballs like Paul Reubens, Greg Kinnear, and Kel Mitchell, the movie sets out to make fun of everything about superhero movies and comic books, without losing sight of the movie's own roots in Flaming Carrot Comics. Everyone in this movie is in on the joke, but Macy is the only one playing a character who isn't in on the joke -- he just shovels well. He shovels very well.
2 WORSE: HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN, JUMPER
We've reached a point, almost 20 years later, where making fun of and hating on the Star Wars prequels is basically passé. Many of the stars involved have gone on to illustrious continuing careers, but there does seem to be a curse to playing Anakin Skywalker. Jake Lloyd has spoken about how portraying young Anakin led to a lifetime of personal difficulties, and Hayden Christensen went from being pre-destined to be the next major star to being a fairly successful actor who keeps his head down.
Jumper is one of the few movies on this list that's an original concept (i.e. not from a comic, or part of a franchise), and boy is it a weak one. A man discovers he can teleport, and then the government chases him -- that's it. The movie calls out for an actor with charisma to spare, and unfortunately, Christensen is not it.
1 BETTER: MICHAEL JAI WHITE, SPAWN
For better or worse, the 1997 Spawn movie is as much of a comic book as its source material, and as much of a cartoon as a live-action movie can be. Given the quality of the film's script, Michael Jai White didn't have a ton to work with -- the filmmaker's put unworkable, inhuman-sounding dialogue in Al Simmons' mouth -- but he really shines when he becomes Spawn.
White gives a performance that scratches past the surface darkness of Spawn to capture the campiness of the comics, and he brings a centering presence to the film which it sorely needs. There are a few people who put in good work on Spawn -- John Leguizamo as Violator comes readily to mind -- but ultimately, in a movie penned by the same guy who wrote Ballistics: Ecks vs. Sever, the fact that White brought any modicum of professionalism to the role made it better.