It’s a great time to be a fan of superhero films. Every year, you get a bunch of them to choose from, and barring some more recent exceptions, they are all pretty great (or at the very least, they’re a lot of fun). However, there was a time before the MCU, and even the more troublesome Worlds of DC, came along to save the superhero genre. It was during this time that a lot of film studios steadfastly refused to take superheroes seriously. What audiences got were a series of films that were unconnected to any shared universe, and often featured corny jokes, terrible CGI, lackluster direction, and a complete lack of competent storytelling. That’s not to say that all of the superhero films that came out during that time were terrible. In fact, a handful of them have stood the test of time and still stand as some of the best superhero films ever made, but these were few and far between.
There were still enough really, truly terrible superhero films out there to sully the genre as a whole, and half the time the quality (or lack thereof) of a particular film fell squarely on the shoulders of the cast. Actors just didn’t seem to know which notes to hit when it came to appearing in these movies. Sometimes they were dull and phoned-in just for a paycheque. Other times, actors went way too far and cranked the camp value of their performances to the max. Sometimes though, even in the bad superhero films, there were performances that almost redeemed the whole thing. These are 10 actors who saved bad superhero films (and 10 that made them even worse).
20. SAVED: THOMAS HADEN CHURCH IN SPIDER-MAN 3
The first Spider-Man film in Sam Raimi’s trilogy has its flaws, but for the most part it still stands up. Spider-Man 2 is counted as being one of the best superhero films ever made, but Spider-Man 3… let’s just say that time has not been kind to it. The film is rife with ridiculous performances and suffers from an overloaded story.
Among the mess, however, is a wonderful and heartfelt performance by Thomas Haden Church as Sandman. Church imbues the role with a tragic pathos, and gives an otherwise one-note villain a depth of character that most actors wouldn’t have been able to pull off. If he had been the sole antagonist (as Raimi originally intended), Spider-Man 3 might have been a much stronger film.
19. MADE WORSE: SHAQUILLE O’NEAL IN STEEL
To understand why Shaquille O’Neal was cast in any movies at all, you have to understand that in the ’90s, Shaq was the man — he could do no wrong. Shaq got the chance to play a superhero in 1997 when he starred as John Henry Irons in the film Steel. Unfortunately, he was about as good in this as he was at hitting free throws.
To try and list all the things that are wrong with this movie would be an article all on its own. Suffice to say that Shaq might have had the physical stature of a superhero, but he possessed none of the charisma or acting ability required for such a role. However, anyone who had to wear that goofy (and flimsy) looking “armor” would have probably ended up doing a bad job.
18. SAVED: THOMAS JANE IN THE PUNISHER
This must be said before anything else in this entry: 2004’s The Punisher is not a good movie. At best, it’s a forgettable entry in the pre-MCU days of Marvel films. John Travolta gives one of the hammiest performances of his career as a mob boss who is supposed to be dangerous and intimidating, yet comes off silly and irritating.
On the other hand, Thomas Jane gives a great performance as Frank Castle, perfectly nailing the tormented and vengeful notes of the character. While some people might not find him perfect for the role, he did the best with what he was given. He even reprised the role in a short film titled Dirty Laundry, which current Netflix Punisher Jon Bernthal cited as one of his influences.
17. MADE WORSE: NICHOLAS CAGE IN GHOST RIDER
Yes, Nicholas Cage is a bit of an easy target when talking about actors that made movies bad. However, his turn as the titular hero in Ghost Rider is an inexplicable disaster. Surely when they were casting for the character they could have gone with someone who was younger, cooler and, let’s just say it, a better actor?
Nicholas Cage tones it down in Ghost Rider, but is that really better than the weird, unhinged Cage that has been in so many other movies? He seems like he is mostly sleepwalking through the role. Maybe he was still upset about never getting to play Superman (although he was finally able to this year, voicing the character in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies).
16. SAVED: BRANDON ROUTH IN SUPERMAN RETURNS
Brandon Routh was not a household name when he was cast to play Superman in Superman Returns, but he quickly left his mark on the role. While the rest of the film definitely does not stand the test of time, despite the fact that it was nowhere near the worst Superman movie ever made, Routh managed to convey the humanity in the Kryptonian superhero.
Routh’s version of Superman is fallible, but honorable. He is haunted by the fact that he can’t save everyone. Above all else, he has a playful sense of humor and despite his overwhelming power, he is down to Earth. Routh also made a great Clark Kent, capturing the bumbling clumsiness and “aw shucks” earnestness first put to screen by Christopher Reeves.
15. MADE WORSE: NICK NOLTE IN HULK
Nobody could say that Ang Lee’s Hulk isn’t ambitious. The director took a stab at making a superhero movie that was more of a Greek tragedy than anything else. Ultimately, he missed the mark, and while there are a lot of bad things about Hulk (including the incredibly dated CGI), one of the worst parts is Nick Nolte in the role of Bruce Banner’s father, David.
Nolte holds nothing back as the father who had previously performed genetic experiments on his son (an element of the Hulk’s origin unique to this film), and goes even further into absurd territory once he becomes a super villain that seems to be a cross between Absorbing Man and Zzzax.
14. SAVED: GAL GADOT IN JUSTICE LEAGUE
Justice League suffered far too much drama behind the scenes and faced far too much hype to ever have been considered a good superhero film. Despite the efforts of both Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon to make a movie that worked as well as The Avengers, Justice League just fell flat. The only saving grace of the entire film was Gal Gadot’s reprisal of Wonder Woman.
Gadot’s portrayal of Diana of Themyscira is a bright spot in a film that often feels tonally disjointed. Of all the characters, hers remains the most consistent. Not only that, but Gadot is able to give the character a healthy dose of humanity, which is more than can be said for at least one of the superheroes in this film.
13. MADE WORSE: TOMMY LEE JONES IN BATMAN FOREVER
Tommy Lee Jones may not be the only actor who makes Batman Forever a terrible movie, but he is the only one who had previously won an Oscar. Watching Batman Forever now is a strange experience, considering that Tommy Lee Jones had done amazing work in the past and would go on to do more amazing work in the future. Yet as Two-Face, he is just awful.
Considering how serious Tommy Lee Jones is in most of his roles, it’s entirely possible that getting to cut loose and ham it up hard as a supervillain was actually a lot of fun. Still though, a character as tragic as Harvey Dent requires a modicum of effort and respect for the source material.
12. SAVED: MARGOT ROBBIE IN SUICIDE SQUAD
Suicide Squad wanted so desperately to be all things to all people. It was an attempt to have the dark, gritty feel of the DCEU movies while aping some of the more fun, humorous aspects of something like Guardians of the Galaxy. Unfortunately, the film fell flat with critics and audiences.
While the film was heavily criticized for its nearly incoherent plot and lackluster action, there was one element that stood out: Margot Robbie’s portrayal of fan favorite character Harley Quinn. Robbie had her work cut out for her bringing the character to life on-screen, but her performance is easily the best part of the film, and stands up to the many animated versions all voiced by Tara Strong.
11. MADE WORSE: GEORGE CLOONEY IN BATMAN & ROBIN
Is there any superhero film that is worse than Batman & Robin? The whole thing, from its garish set design to the through-the-roof camp factor makes it an excellent study in what not to do when making a Batman movie.
While basically all of the performances in this movie are terrible, George Clooney’s turn as Batman is probably the worst. That’s because in other circumstances, Clooney can fill a role with charisma and charm. Yet despite the fact that he is arguably the best actor to play Batman in the pre-Nolan era, his turn as the caped crusader is silly, shallow, and devoid of any recognizable effort.
10. SAVED: RYAN REYNOLDS IN BLADE: TRINITY
Before he would go on to have his own successful franchise of superhero films, Ryan Reynolds was cast as a supporting character in the absolutely dire third film in the Blade series, Blade: Trinity. The film was underwhelming at best and a pitiful follow up to Guillermo Del Toro’s Blade II.
Wesley Snipes was famously so finished with the films that he would refuse to show up on set, slowing down production and forcing the filmmakers to digitally add him to some scenes. Reynolds, however, manages to have some fun with his role, injecting his signature humor into a role that could have been just as self-serious as the rest of the movie.
9. MADE WORSE: BEN AFFLECK IN DAREDEVIL
Ben Affleck really had a hard time in the early 2000 and it seemed like he just couldn’t get any roles that were actually good. That’s not even mentioning Gigli, which would have ended almost anyone else’s career permanently. Out of all those roles, Affleck seemed to catch the most heat for Daredevil.
The movie was not good by any means. It suffered from the same lack of care for the source material as many other superhero films of the time. Affleck was especially bad, bringing nothing to the role and playing what should have been a troubled, complex character as totally one-dimensional. It’s safe to assume that no one thought he would be playing Batman over a decade later.
8. SAVED: JOHN LEGUIZAMO IN SPAWN
You have to give Spawn some credit: no other movie in the history of film has ever made hell look less intimidating. The story is ridiculous, the CGI is awful, even by 1997 standards, and the performances, for the most part, are subpar. However, among all the middling effort present in Spawn, audiences were treated to John Leguizamo, playing very far against type as Violator.
Barely recognizable under all the make-up, Leguizamo plays Violator exactly as you would expect: a gross, evil clown whose only job it seems is to make Spawn angry and remind him who he works for. In a film as forgettable as Spawn, Leguizamo’s performance went a long way.
7. MADE WORSE: JULIAN MCMAHON IN FANTASTIC FOUR
How long are we all going to have to wait before we get a decent version of Dr. Doom on-screen? He is one of, if not the most recognizable and memorable of all the Marvel villains, yet his three film appearances are truly terrible. However, when it comes to the worst, it was who played it first.
Julian McMahon was all wrong for the role of Victor Von Doom in Fantastic Four. He played him as a smarmy, condescending jerk rather than the powerful and commanding supervillain he is supposed to be. Even when he finally donned his famous armor for the incredibly lame climax, he still couldn’t pull it off.
6. SAVED: EMMA STONE IN THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
The Amazing Spider-Man was supposed to reboot the series and jumpstart an entirely new shared universe in the vein of 20th Century Fox’s X-Men films. Unfortunately, the two films that managed to hit theatres were underwhelming, full of weak performances and glaring script problems.
The only good part of The Amazing Spider-Man was Emma Stone’s portrayal of Peter Parker’s doomed love interest, Gwen Stacy. While the rest of the characters didn’t give you much reason to care about them, Stone brought a lot of charm and wit to what could have easily just been the damsel in distress role. Even knowing the fate that would befall poor Gwen, it was hard not to get attached.
5. MADE WORSE: PAUL GIAMATTI IN THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2
Like Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever, Paul Giamatti really chose to ham it up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. There were many problems with this film, such as inconsistent characterization and an overstuffed plot, but the icing on the bad movie cake was definitely Giamatti, sporting prison tattoos and a Russian accent that embarrass John Malkovich.
Giamatti was already very far above this kind of work. He had been nominated for an Oscar and had played far more interesting and complex characters in films like American Splendor and Sideways. While appearing in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 certainly didn’t hurt his career, it’s probably not a role Giamatti would want on his highlight reel.
4. SAVED: TOM HIDDLESTON IN THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Thor: The Dark World isn’t necessarily one of the worst superhero films, but audiences had come to expect more from the MCU by the time it was released. The film was a slog, full of mythology and characters that would eventually come to have no bearing on the rest of the MCU (other than the Aether, aka the Reality Stone).
However, right in the middle of what might be considered the most middling of the second stage Marvel films is Tom Hiddleston reprising his role as Loki. Hiddleston is always great, managing to bring humor, pathos, and Shakespearian bravura to the role. It’s why up until the appearance of Thanos, he was the most memorable (and well-liked) of all the MCU villains.
3. MADE WORSE: JESSE EISENBERG IN BATMAN V. SUPERMAN
Batman v. Superman was a highly anticipated film that succeeded in pleasing almost nobody. The nonsensical plot, self-serious tone, and uneven performances made this one of the most expensive blockbuster blunders of 2016. Compounding the disappointing nature of the film was Jesse Eisenberg playing Lex Luthor as a squirrely, gibbering, childish entrepreneur.
The Lex Luthor that fans know is cold, calculating, and highly intelligent. He has no superpowers, yet is Superman’s greatest foe. Eisenberg’s version of Lex Luthor couldn’t be less intimidating if he tried. There are moments in the film where he attempts to be threatening, but he just comes across as a more annoying version of his Mark Zuckerberg from The Social Network.
2. SAVED: IAN MCKELLEN IN X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
X-Men fans who were hoping for an amazing finale in X-Men: The Last Stand were let down hard when the film was released. Last Stand lacked the depth and emotion of the previous two films, and offered a conclusion that no one was happy with. It also introduced some absolutely unbearable characters (Juggernaut, anyone?).
In the middle of all the mediocrity, Ian McKellen continued his streak of playing Magneto with the perfect blend of menace and humanity. Michael Fassbender would go on to do his own great work as a young Erik Lehnsherr, but McKellen always managed to make the role great, even in the worst film of the franchise.
1. MADE WORSE: OSCAR ISAAC IN X-MEN: APOCALYPSE
X-Men: Apocalypse might not have been as disappointing a finale as The Last Stand, but it did feature one of the most bizarre casting choices of the entire series. Oscar Isaac, who up to this point had played mostly down to Earth, regular people, was chosen to play Apocalypse, the world’s oldest, strongest, and really most dominant mutant.
Oscar Isaac is by no stretch a bad actor. He was great in Inside Llewyn Davis and Ex Machina. It’s just that he was completely wrong for the role. He did his best, but he just couldn’t portray the sort of all-encompassing power and malevolence that the role demanded.
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