Unless they’re Morgan Freeman or Helen Mirren, no actor has a perfect career. Most have ups and downs, with some eventually finding the right path. However, even the biggest movie stars have slumps. When that happens, the most surefire way to get a career back on track is a superhero movie. Whether they play the hero or a supporting role, nothing reminds moviegoers how much they loved you faster than a comic book film. This works even better if the star can get into an ensemble movie where they don’t have to carry the whole film on their shoulders.
Not everyone needs a career revival, some just need a quick reboot. Something to make audiences see they can do comedy or action. For example, no one thought Liam Neeson was an action star until Taken came along. For some legendary actors, superhero movies are a way back onto the A-list. A few great scenes as someone’s wise father can go a long way to let producers know they’ve still got it. There are award winners and bonafide legends on this list, but none of that matters when you need a hit. So, here are the actors who needed a superhero movie role to revive their careers.
15. WILL SMITH
There was a time when Will Smith could do no wrong. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air was everyone’s favorite show (and theme song) and all his movies were hits — he was box office gold. Of course, no streak can last forever and his ended with Hancock in 2008. That set off a string of disappointments that made him an unreliable commodity.
When a sequel to Independence Day was announced, many thought that would be his big comeback film, however, he turned it down to play Deadshot in Suicide Squad. Some thought he made a mistake, but now everyone knows that he couldn’t have been more right. Though it may be a little early to call it a comeback, it feels like Smith has his mojo back.
14. GWYNETH PALTROW
Before she was Pepper Potts, Gwyneth Paltrow was known for roles in dramatic period pieces and rom-coms. After her breakthrough success in Shakespeare in Love, her career became predictable and a little uninteresting. Then she made the somewhat surprising choice to be in Iron Man and things changed.
She was only meant to be in the first two Iron Man movies, but Pepper is an important character in Tony’s life so she returned for The Avengers and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Showing she could deviate from the box Hollywood had placed her in got her roles in Contagion and Glee. It’s true that her lifestyle blog still makes her the punchline of a lot of jokes, but joining the MCU raised her profile enough to make it a success.
13. HALLE BERRY
Fans have always enjoyed Halle Berry’s performance as Storm in the X-Men franchise. After the criticism of X-Men: The Last Stand the actress announced she was done playing the leader of the mutant team. Of course, nothing changes an actor’s mind faster than a string of box office failures like Perfect Stranger, Cloud Atlas and The Call. With Oscar winning films well behind her, Berry returned to the superhero world, reprising Storm for the timeline resetting Days of Future Past.
The movie revived the franchise and Berry once again had her pick of roles. She went on to star in the CBS sci-fi series Extant and the sequel Kingsman: The Golden Circle, where her character survived and could possibly return for a spin-off. So, when in doubt, use mutant powers to change time.
12. RYAN REYNOLDS
There are very few redeeming moments in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Even Hugh Jackman admits it wasn’t the best story for Logan. Turns out changing a well-known character’s history doesn’t go over very well. However, the film’s one bright spot was casting Ryan Reynolds as Wade Wilson. Without seeing him as that character, fans would never have started demanding a real Deadpool movie starring Reynolds.
The actor himself may not have discovered how perfect he was as The Merc With a Mouth and audiences would never have gotten one of the best comic book movies in the last 20 years. And yes, Deadpool’s success has made Reynolds an A-list star who can call his own shots now. So it seems fans everywhere own one small debt of gratitude to the worst Wolverine movie.
11. MICKEY ROURKE
It’s certainly up in the air on whether Iron Man 2 actually helped Mickey Rourke’s career, but the question is really about if the movie or Rourke is at fault. Believe it or not there was a time when he was considered a heartthrob and one of his generation’s best actors. Rourke is notoriously difficult to work with and he didn’t seem to enjoy his time in the superhero world.
Behind the scenes stuff aside, it was thought that working on Iron Man 2 right on the heels of his comeback performance in The Wrestler would catapult Rourke back into the mainstream. The actor did appear in a few larger studio films, but they weren’t successful and Rourke has been sent back to the straight to DVD section.
10. ANTHONY HOPKINS
Right up front we need to say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Sir Anthony Hopkins’ career. However, before he played Thor’s father Odin, he was mainly known for serious, psychological thrillers. He’s arguably the scariest killer in movie history, so it’s understandable that he was typecast in similar roles. After his appearance in Thor, Hollywood was reminded that Hopkins can play literally any part and make it the most important character in the scene, no matter what.
Following Thor, the legend was in Hitchcock, Red 2 and Westworld. He even co-starred in Transformers: The Last Knight, which was probably for the paycheck, but still showed that at this point in his career he’s willing to do the unexpected. All this risk-taking can be traced back to Asgard.
9. SCARLETT JOHANSSON
Let’s be honest, when she’s not Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson’s resume is very hit or miss. She’s great in an ensemble movie, but her leading roles aren’t always the best. Before she showed up as Natasha Romanoff in Iron Man 2, Johansson made a lot of uninteresting romantic movies and Woody Allen films. She most likely would have stayed a decent rom-com star who people liked.
Lucky for us (and her) she joined the MCU, and has become an integral part of The Avengers, to date showing up in five movies. Here’s the thing, Johansson’s films aren’t exactly breaking box office records, but there’s no doubt she would not have been the lead in Lucy or Ghost in the Shell without having been Black Widow.
8. WILLEM DAFOE
Willem Dafoe had a long and varied career before he became Norman Osborn in Spider-Man. He has one of the most wide ranging resumes in the business. However, his near perfect turn as the comic villain led him to become Hollywood’s go to bad guy for a while. He really is a fantastic villain, so it makes sense.
Dafoe’s entry into the superhero movie world also raised his profile and gave him the opportunity to appear in projects he may have never been previously considered for. Before Spider-Man, Dafoe was more of a character actor, and while he still does a lot of cool, oddball roles, he now mixes it up with more leading parts as well. He returns to the comic book world as Nuidis Vulko in the upcoming DCEU film Aquaman.
7. ELLEN PAGE
Before her award nominated role in Juno, Ellen Page had a breakout part as Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand. Before joining the mutant heroes, Page was known as an indie film darling. Her work in X-Men showed she could handle a major role in a big budget blockbuster. As Kitty, she had the unenviable task of being the newest member of the team and sort of coming between Bobby and Rogue, all while staying likeable.
Following X-Men, she appeared as the lead in Juno, Whip It and had huge part in Inception. While Page still spends a lot of time in smaller films, she has branched into other lead parts in Freeheld and Flatliners. The actress will also get back in hero mode to play Vanya in the new TV series The Umbrella Academy.
6. KEVIN COSTNER
In the late ’80s, early ’90s, Kevin Costner was the heartthrob star of Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and The Bodyguard. Into the ’00s his career slowed down, with movies like 3000 Miles to Graceland and Mr. Brooks flopping at the box office. Leading into 2013 he was no longer considered a guaranteed movie star. However, when he was chosen as Jonathan Kent, fans thought he was perfect casting for the all-American dad to Superman.
Despite some of the film’s flaws, moviegoers were reminded why they were so drawn to Costner. Since Man of Steel, Costner has had well-received roles in Draft Day, Black or White and Hidden Figures. Turns out the one thing Superman actually saved in that movie was Kevin Costner’s career.
5. ANNA PAQUIN
Long before she was Rogue, Anna Paquin was a Oscar winner as a child for her part in The Piano. In her teen years, she was typecast as the moody daughter and quirky teenager. Though she was still playing a teenager, as Rogue she was the audience’s entry into the mutant world. Since Rogue can’t touch anyone without sucking their lifeforce, Paquin expertly conveys the character’s constant loneliness of never being able to touch others.
X-Men launched her into more adult roles in Almost Famous and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which eventually led to her most well-known part in True Blood. Without having played in a comic book/fantasy sandbox first, she may not have been considered for something as off the beaten path as True Blood. While joining the franchise didn’t necessarily revive her career, it certainly boosted it into a new direction.
4. EVANGELINE LILLY
A common problem for any actor on a well-loved, extremely popular TV show is where does their career go when the show ends? Just ask everyone on Game of Thrones two years from now. A few years back the cast of Lost had to deal with this issue. After six seasons on a widely watched and dissected series, where they were known as one character, the actors all had to go out and regenerate their careers. Evangeline Lilly opted to take a break before appearing in two Hobbit movies.
Then came Ant-Man and she was relaunched into the mainstream. As Hope Van Dyne, Lilly is set to play The Wasp in Ant-Man and the Wasp and also in Avengers 4. Lilly’s career didn’t fizzle out, she made a decision to step back, then made a choice to jump back in full force in a superhero movie.
3. ZACHARY LEVI
Chuck was Zachary Levi’s first foray into the superhero world. He got to be an average guy who suddenly turns into a spy and has all these special abilities. It was a popular show that ran for five seasons and helped establish Levi as a comedic leading man. Once Chuck wrapped up its run, the actor was free to become Fandral in Thor: The Dark World.
As one of the Warriors Three, it’s not the biggest role, but Levi makes it fun every time he’s on screen. There is no question that his appearance in Thor showed that he was ready to be a full-fledged superhero. He will get his chance to take center stage when he plays the title role in the DCEU’s Shazam.
2. BEN AFFLECK
There was a time in the early ’00s when Ben Affleck was a bonafide movie star. Every studio wanted him in everything. Then he made Daredevil, fans weren’t impressed and it seemed like his superhero days were over. Then his career sort of crashed, but he found some success behind the camera. His acting was limited to supporting roles in his own movies. However, based on his directing success Warner Bros.offered him the role of Batman.
Though fans weren’t happy, they were forced to eat their words after Batman v Superman. Until Wonder Woman showed up Affleck was the highlight of DC’s movie universe. Despite his personal troubles and the constant rumors that he may leave the DCEU, there’s no denying that becoming Batman made Ben Affleck a sought after actor again.
1. ROBERT DOWNEY JR.
Robert Downey Jr.’s personal ups and downs have been well documented and there’s no point in rehashing them here. What’s worth talking about is that his career was almost done. The only people still hiring him were his friends. It’s important to note that no one had ever criticized the actor for his talent. The problems were all with his personal behavior.
Thankfully, Marvel took their second biggest gamble and cast Downey as Tony Stark. While it all makes perfect sense now, it was a huge risk at the time. The rest as they say is history. Iron Man launched the MCU and Downey is now one of the most sought after and highest paid actors in Hollywood. No one more Downey owes their career to their superhero alter ego.
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