Prior to the turn of the century, no one went to a superhero film expecting anything other than some loud explosions, cheesy dialogue, fast paced action sequences, and some actors in Spandex to oggle. They weren’t regarded as the sort of thespian vehicles that carried Oscar-worthy performances, and certainly not built on riveting themes from acting chameleons. Then came the X-Men films, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, and the first Iron Man movie that defined the superhero genre as not only a cash cow, but a cash cow supported by actors and actresses that took their Spandex wearing seriously.
There are, of course, those members of the genre that get a little too wrapped up in the tiny details of their characters, getting so lost in the headspace of the fictional universes they inhabit that they all but disappear. Does this make for great performances, or just great marketing? Does the method acting approach help or hinder your favorite superhero (or supervillain!) performances? In the case of some actors, the press surrounding their off camera hijinks can negatively impact the movie, while in the case of others, it earns them nothing but accolades. CBR gives you 15 actors who took their roles too seriously, and lets you be the judge.
15 JARED LETO
A method actor who had to follow in the footsteps of another method actor, Jared Leto had some big clown shoes to fill when he was cast as The Joker in Suicide Squad. He would be following on the heels of Heather Ledger’s Oscar-winning performance a decade before, and need to make the role his own.
During his time on set, Leto never broke character. Will Smith has said that he never met the real Jared because he was entirely committed to staying in the Joker’s headspace, getting all his cues from real villains, like drug lords on Instagram. He went so far as to pull pranks on cast members, like sending Margot Robbie a rat. Everyone else got a dead pig carcass and a video message in character warning them of his antics to come.
14 MARGOT ROBBIE
One of the highlights of Suicide Squad was arguably Margot Robbie’s fun, whimsical, and sassy take on the much beloved Harley Quinn. Harley Quinn, the Joker’s partner in crime and main squeeze, has the distinction of being the only character from Batman: The Animated Series to become canon in the Batman DC comics. Despite the character’s at times vapid nature, Margot Robbie took her responsibilities to her seriously.
She read stacks of comics featuring Harley Quinn, watched all of the animated series, and developed a unique version of Harley’s iconic voice. Because she’d played someone from Brooklyn recently in Wolf of Wall Street, she decided to give Harley (who is from the same area) a slightly different accent. She kept the voice up between takes, working on the pitch, and tried it out in daily interactions until it came naturally.
13 ROBERT DOWNEY JR.
With the release of Iron Man, Phase One of the MCU was launched, and Robert Downey Jr. was once again poised to become an A-list star. He’d been out of the spotlight for some time, appearing in small supporting roles after years of getting clean from a drug habit. His personality meshed with Tony Stark’s so well that he inevitably defined the character. Tony Stark went from the less interesting aspect of the Iron Suit to the most compelling reason to go see the movie.
Setting the standard for superhero performances, RDJ combined character actor quirks with leading man charisma in what proved to be a powerhouse combo. Eventually it became hard to distinguish him from Tony Stark; they walked the same, talked the same, and he’d negotiated such a high salary for his appearances in the Avengers movies, he all but became the millionaire philanthropist playboy.
12 NICOLAS CAGE
A prolific actor that selects eccentric roles, Nicolas Cage is known for plenty of off the wall performances. He’s also a big comic book nut (he took his surname from Luke Cage, and he named his kid Kal-El), so it’s not a stretch to think he’d give it his all when embodying a comic book character. To be Johnny Blaze when he took the form of the Ghost Rider, he had to wear a headpiece that would capture the movements of his head as well as be used to superimpose the flaming skull over his face.
The process doesn’t require anything from the actor themselves, since the focus is a CGI head, but that wouldn’t do for Cage. He painted his face in corpse paint to resemble a skull and proceeded to scream shaman phrases soundlessly into the faces of his scene partners.
11 CHRISTIAN BALE
Few would argue against Christian Bale’s Batman being the definitive portrayal of the Dark Knight. Christopher Nolan’s trilogy came at a time when movies about superheroes were taken only slightly seriously, thanks to the X-Men movie in 2000 and its wild success. But it was still full of bright colored costumes and jocular humor, whereas Bale’s starring vehicle was grim, gritty, and somber.
To prepare for the iconic role of the Caped Crusader, not only did Christian Bale pack on over 50 pounds of muscle, he also adopted an American accent. He didn’t even break character and was known to refuse and drop the accent for interviews while the film was in theaters, not wanting to confuse audiences when he spoke in his regular Welsh accent.
10 CHRIS EVANS
Almost as popular as the character of Captain America is the actor behind the star-spangled super soldier, Chris Evans. Described as a “labrador in human form” and extremely likable by people on set, it seems there is little to separate the man from the hero. Apprehensive about playing a superhero again after his turn as Human Torch wasn’t so hot in The Fantastic Four, he decided that once he’d committed to playing Cap he would give it his all.
To prepare for the role, he visited several Veteran Halls and spoke with vets of all ages, as well as remaining WWII veterans to get perspective on the type of sacrifice, dedication, and loyalty they showed to each other. He adopted a military training regime in conjunction with his workout routine, and often ran to cadences.
9 GAL GADOT
Superhero movies starring female superheroes have notoriously been big money pits and universally panned by audiences. They often lack creative storylines and character development in favor of maximizing eye candy. When Wonder Woman came out, it blew away everyone’s expectations of what not just a female superhero movie could be, but any superhero movie.
Gal Gadot knew she had a lot of expectations on her shoulders, shoulders which she’d need to get a whole lot broader if she was going to fully embody the Amazon goddess Diana. Not only did she train intensely to pack on the muscle, she often took her sword home after a day on set and wore it around. She got so comfortable with having it on her person she’d often forget it was there and go out in public.
8 HENRY CAVILL
To become one of the most beloved superheroes of all time, Henry Cavill had to do more than just get super swole. He had to understand the mind of a being that is an alien immigrant in a new world, with different rules to a different society. He had to know why this person would sacrifice themselves repeatedly for a society that is not his own.
To properly embody the Man of Steel, Cavill did indeed transform his physique, as well as his mindset. He has said out in the world he tried to respond to situations like Superman would; selflessly, and with compassion. Unlike other actors, he also kept up his training regiment without an off season. He liked his transformation so much he didn’t want to go back to being a mere mortal, and has said his dates didn’t mind either.
7 RYAN REYNOLDS
Deadpool became one of the most popular superhero films to date because of its raucous sense of humor and adult themes, proving that an R-rated superhero film was just what audiences wanted. Immense credit goes to Ryan Reynolds, a longtime Deadpool fan, who fought for years to get it made, and on its own terms.
Reynolds had had a cameo as Deadpool in Wolverine: Origins, but he barely got any screen time. For his foray into full length feature film territory, he not only trained extensively with stunt coordinators and martial artists, he also acted like Deadpool between takes. He sent cast members odd gifts like teddy bears with their eyes removed, and notoriously hounded other superhero actors in social media as well as at live events (especially Hugh Jackman/Wolverine). It became difficult to detect where Deadpool began and Reynolds ended.
6 HUGH JACKMAN
Few actors have so completely captured the essence, look, and attitude of their comic book counterpart like Hugh Jackman did with Wolverine. For almost two decades his name was synonymous with the cigar-chomping character, and it’s all due to Jackman’s dedication to the part. He spent years bulking up to properly convey the look of Logan, a task which became less and less easy as the years went by.
To properly portray the surly mutant, he started each day with an ice cold shower to get properly irritated. He did 100 clap push ups daily in conjunction with a 3-hour workout routine. He grew out the iconic mutton chops (and kept them on for months after each Wolverine appearance wrapped). He taped a rock to the inside of his shoe to be properly agitated during scenes and remind himself of the constancy of Logan’s tragic filled life.
5 EDWARD NORTON
Considered an actor’s actor, Edward Norton believes in lots of preparation for a role. He doesn’t want to have to think about mannerisms or mindset when he’s filming a scene because he’s effectively become the character already, through a strict acting process months before filming starts.
Promised a lot of creative control when he agreed to be Bruce Banner for The Incredible Hulk, Norton’s cerebral performance was moody, introspective, and altogether different than Eric Bana’s in Hulk from 2003. Norton made playlists he thought Bruce Banner would listen to. He tried out several voices. He had a significant amount of say in what the character would wear. While all those little details make for compelling minutiae, they belonged more in an indie movie and couldn’t be properly showcased in a blockbuster of that magnitude.
4 ANNE HATHAWAY
The Dark Knight Rises, the third in the Christopher Nolan Batman trilogy, was released in 2012, the same year as the remake of Les Miserables. Anne Hathaway appeared in both, and her preparation for the former suffered from the grueling nature of the latter. To play Catwoman, she needed to be nimble, dexterous, and highly intelligent. For her part in Les Mis she dropped over 20 pounds to look “half dead” and evoke the tragedy of her conditions in 18th century France.
She went ahead and applied the same restrictive dieting for her role as Catwoman, consumed with looking great in the catsuit she’d be wearing. Her daily caloric intake was anywhere from 1,500 all the way down to 500 a day. The lack of energy she had may have contributed to the monotone performance she gave.
3 JESSE EISENBERG
Movies often reflect the times in which they were made, and nowhere is that more prevalent than in the Batman v Superman film in which Jesse Eisenberg plays Lex Luthor. Eisenberg chose to play him as a millennial startup CEO a la Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg, mega billionaires who find success at young ages. Young, brash, and a visionary (even if that vision includes the destruction of Superman), he is single minded in his purpose to expose superheroes as the threats they are.
Eisenberg’s focus was imbuing Luthor with a sort of manic energy, which was in stark contrast to both Superman and Batman’s somber dispositions. This didn’t mean he didn’t take the role seriously; the contrary, he kept the intensely neurotic behavior and frantic wordplay up between takes with people on set, often remaining in character for days.
2 TOM HIDDLESTON
To play one of the greatest villains in comic book history, Tom Hiddleston had to get a handle on the psychology of the God of Mischief himself, Odin’s second son, Loki. Due to Loki’s propensity for lying, during the filming of Thor, he had deep conversations with director Kenneth Branagh on whether or not Loki had begun to believe his own lies. He began to study the greatest spies in WWII and found that often many of them were re-recruited multiple times as they double and triple crossed their countries.
Of all the Avengers actors, Tom Hiddleston is the one known for cavorting about in character the most, openly pranking the heroic members of the cast and showing up at conventions and events completely made up in Loki’s garments. His complete commitment to embodying the role physically and mentally enabled him to give a memorable performance.
1 HEATH LEDGER
When watching a superhero movie, regardless of how serious it’s tone, it’s generally assumed that none of the actors involved with be up for any acting awards. Generally regarded as conveyors of explosions and buff bods in tight spandex, superhero features all but guaranteed that any attempt at evoking raw emotion was met with derisive dismissal. In Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, the sociopathic ferocity of Heath Ledger’s Joker could not be ignored or even contained.
To prepare for a role that was much less campy than previous incarnations, Ledger famously locked himself in his apartment for weeks at a time, sleeping as little as two hours a night as he delved into the mind of a madman. Some think it was the role that led him to eventually overdose on prescription medication. He would receive an Oscar posthumously for his riveting performance.