A hero is only as good as his or her villains. Look at some of the most iconic and legendary figures in comic book lore and for each you’ll see a villain worthy of them; a wicked yin to their altruistic yang. Batman has The Joker, Superman has Lex Luthor, Captain America has The Red Skull… the list goes on and on. One of the gratifications of superhero cinema is seeing these dynamic characters brought to life by celebrated actors. Ever since heavyweight thespians like Gene Hackman and Jack Nicholson took on the roles of Lex Luthor and The Joker respectively, it’s become fashionably en vogue for an actor to earn their stripes by playing a famous comic book villain.
There are some occasions, however, where decent and even great actors have fallen wide of the mark. Through laziness, overconfidence, tone deafness, poor direction or just plain bad writing their performance has ended up disappointing and enraging fans. They’ve either failed to encapsulate the essence of what made the character great on the page or made an already weak character even worse. It’s time to name and shame the most egregious performances from actors who really should have known better…
20. SCOTT PAULIN AS THE RED SKULL
The Red Skull is one of the most apologetically evil villains in comic book history, yet the character is not without nuance. Before Hugo Weaving and director Joe Johnston brought the character to life in Captain America: The First Avenger, the character was first portrayed by Scott Paulin in the much maligned straight-to-video Captain America movie in 1990.
Re-envisaged, for no reason whatsoever, as an Italian facist rather than a German Nazi, the film makes some unforgivable (and really, really arbitrary) missteps with the character. Scott Paulin begins his performance in earnest at the start of the film, clearly liberated by the Red Skull prosthetics (which aren’t half bad, given the film’s budget). When the character re-emerges in modern times with a heavily reconstructed face, it’s clear that he’s getting bored, delivering a flat performance for the rest of the film.
19. TOMMY LEE JONES AS TWO-FACE
Look at Tommy Lee’s subtle and nuanced performances in films like No Country For Old Men and you’ll see a master at the height of his craft. Unfortunately, he brought none of his talents to bear on the role of Harvey Dent/Two-Face; a role that simply demands nuance, in Batman Forever. Aside from one or two quieter moments where we see a modicum of what his Harvey Dent might have looked like, Jones’ Two-Face is a crass, loud caricature that bears almost no resemblance to its comic book counterpart.
Jones admitted that he took the part at the behest of his (then) 11-year old son who was a huge Batman and Two-Face fan. It’s a shame that the actor didn’t take the time to research what made his son fall in love with the character, choosing instead to mimic Jack Nicholson’s Joker.
18. BEN KINGSLEY AS THE MANDARIN
This one’s something of an anomaly, because Ben Kingsley’s performance as The Mandarin/Trevor Slattery in Iron Man 3 is not a bad performance per se… but it’s a performance and a characterization that divided fans when they first saw it in 2013 and continues to be a hotly debated subject to this day. Perhaps the film’s trailers were to blame for selling a character that so many fans got on board with before he was subverted by some narrative sleight of hand by Shane Black.
The notion of The Mandarin as a reactionary terrorist was not only a great spin on the character for our times, and for this particular version of Iron Man it sidestepped the more politically problematic elements of the character. While some viewers appreciated the comedic u-turn when the Mandarin was revealed to be failed actor Trevor Slattery, it left many fans disgruntled.
17. UMA THURMAN AS POISON IVY
Okay so after more than two decades spent as a fanboy punching bag, 1997’s Batman & Robin is a low hanging piece of fruit, but Uma Thurman’s infuriating performance as Poison Ivy merits picking it from its fetid tree one more time. Fresh from her tour de force performance in Pulp Fiction, many fans were excited to see such an accomplished actress take on the role of DC’s seductive eco terrorist.
Unfortunately, what fans eventually got was a hammy and disjointed performance that appears to draw influence from Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel and Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn as Catwoman in Batman Returns, while completely missing the point of both. Whatever nuance Thurman may have intended for her performance is lost in a barrage of crass innuendos and cringe worthy one-liners.
16. DAVID WENHAM AS HAROLD MEACHUM
Genre fans will forever owe a debt of gratitude to Australian actor David Wenham for his work as the scholarly Dilios in 300 and his winsomely earnest performance as Faramir in The Lord of the Rings. His affable screen presence, however, doesn’t come across too well in a villainous role. His performance as the scheming Harold Meachum is all over the place, paling in comparison to the likes of Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk or David Tenant’s Killgrave.
Wenham can’t seem to decide whether he wants to be a corporate King Lear or if he just wants to chew scenery. Combined with uneven writing against the backdrop that seems to wear its rushed production schedule very much on its sleeve, Wenham’s Harold Meachum is one of the many disappointing things about the Iron Fist series.
15. LEE PACE AS RONAN THE ACCUSER
One common rebuttal of the criticism that MCU villains can come across bland, weak or one-dimensional is that the villains are never supposed to be the subject of much focus. Rather, the stories only require for them to be a context and/or a catalyst for the hero’s journey and their moment of self realization when the threat of the villain is overcome. There’s certainly weight to that argument, but it didn’t stop the likes of Michael Keaton, Tom Hiddleston and Vincent D’Onofrio from doing all this while also being engaging characters in their own right.
Ronan The Accuser is one of the MCU’s most undercooked villains and while the sparse writing doesn’t help much, Lee Pace offers little to the role other than his impressive stature (6’5″), ability to shout and look of sheer disdain when challenged to a dance off by Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord.
14. JESSE EISENBERG AS LEX LUTHOR
An actor who makes bold choices with the material is almost always more interesting to watch than an actor who plays it safe and lets the writing do all the work — almost always. When Lex Luthor’s presence in Batman V Superman was first announced, fans were excited by the possibility of seeing the Lex Luthor of the post-Crisis comics on-screen for the first time. A Lex Luthor whose every word dripped with polite malice and whose every action was underpinned by the smug assurance that he’s always the smartest guy in the room.
Eisenberg’s Lex is… not that. Pitching his performance somewhere between Mark Zuckerberg and Max Landis may have made the character seem more timely but the vaudevillian excess of the performance robs Lex of any real sense of menace… or intelligence. And that’s a problem.
13. MARK PILLOW AS NUCLEAR MAN
Christopher Reeve was not only a great actor but a truly remarkable man. A staunch liberal and avid campaigner for social change and civil rights, even his paralysis didn’t stop him from working tirelessly to improve the quality of living for those who were similarly afflicted. Although he had hung up his tights after the underwhelming Superman III the producers coaxed him back to the set of Superman IV with the promise that the actor would be able to use the Superman adventure as a political soapbox for his passion for nuclear disarmament.
Thus, the rich catalog of Superman villains was eschewed in favor of new character, Nuclear Man, played by Mark Pillow. The heavy handed script, flat characterization and that awful mullet certainly didn’t help, but newcomer Pillow seems to have little or no idea what’s going on, snarling his way through a series of arduously boring slugfests.
12. JOHN BARROWMAN AS MALCOLM MERLYN
John Barrowman is a charming screen presence, an accomplished song and dance man and a consummate performer. He brings tons of personality to roles like that of Captain Jack in Doctor Who and it’s clear to see how his charisma and effervescent personality must fill even the most cavernous of Broadway theaters. In the role of Malcolm Merlyn, on the other hand, he seems painfully restrained.
It’s not that he doesn’t bring anything to the role. The dude’s a great actor and it’s clear that he respects the material. It’s that his performance oscillates between taking it just one step too far into the realms of mustache twirling villainy and bringing it down to the extent where it feels like he’s been told to sit on his hands. It all makes for a performance that’s occasionally good but often frustrating.
11. CARA DELEVINGNE AS THE ENCHANTRESS
David Ayer has recently confessed that making The Enchantress and her brother Incubus the antagonists of Suicide Squad was a mistake, especially when the decision relegated the far more suitable Joker to a minor supporting role. Yet, even if this weren’t the case, it’s hard to argue the merits of Cara Delevingne as Dr. June Moone/The Enchantress. For one thing, she looks way too young to have a PhD.
Delevingne is a good actress. Modelling is, after all, a very exacting and specific style of acting in which one has to convey meaning without the luxuries of movement or speech. Unfortunately, this mode of acting is almost entirely dependent on the ability to take direction. As a result she seems to demonstrate little ownership of the role and the performance seems to fall a little flat… and that’s before we even get into the hula dancing.
10. NICK NOLTE AS THE ABSORBING MAN
Given how seriously Ang Lee’s Hulk clearly takes itself, it’s unclear just how Nick Nolte was allowed to let his performance lapse into an overblown impersonation of… well… Nick Nolte. Drawing its influence from Peter David’s run on The Incredible Hulk, the film places Bruce Banner’s Daddy issues at the center of its narrative, hence David Banner (in homage to the ’70s TV show) comes to borrow the superpowers of one Carl “Crusher” Kreel from the comics (and recently Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D).
Like Nigel Tufnel’s amp in This is Spinal Tap, after a few quieter moments, Nolte’s performance quickly goes all the way to 11… only to find that it has nowhere to go from there. He lurches from histrionic outburst to histrionic outburst right up until the point where the dude literally starts chewing the scenery!
9. VINNIE JONES AS JUGGERNAUT
Vinnie Jones has a very particular set of skills — very particular and very limited. A former soccer star, Jones turned to acting after he retired from the sport. His rugged features and reputation for brawling on and off the soccer pitch landed him a few roles as stoic hard men in gangster flicks and action movies throughout the ’00s. While, on paper, this may have made him perfect for a role like Juggernaut his performance is one of the many things that doesn’t sit right in X Men: The Last Stand.
While Jones’ sense of non-specific menace suits the role well, his cockney accent and lapses into cartoonish self-parody are at odds with the sense of realism that the X-Men films had tried so hard to cultivate.
8. TOPHER GRACE AS VENOM
Even Topher Grace didn’t think that Topher Grace was a good fit to play Venom! A lifelong comic book fan, Grace had misgivings about his casting as the hulking symbiotic action hero, and protested on the grounds that he was neither the right age nor the right build and lacked the ‘rough around the edges’ quality to play the character the way fans would recognize him from the comics. He nonetheless jumped at the chance to work with Sam Raimi, a director he held in great esteem.
Since it’s clear throughout that Raimi has no interest in either Eddie Brock or Venom and included the villain only to capitulate to studio (and fan) demand, it all makes for a rushed, disjointed and underwhelming performance that bears little resemblance to its comic book counterpart. All eyes are now on Tom Hardy who will play the character this October.
7. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER AS MISTER FREEZE
It’s hard to imagine a supervillain performance as maligned (or impersonated) as the former Governator’s turn as Dr. Victor Fries. Given the character’s superlative re-imagining in Batman: The Animated Series at the hands of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, fans had high hopes of what could be accomplished with the character on the big screen. Rumors began circulating that Patrick Stewart was being courted for the role but this proved to be wishful thinking as Arnie was Joel Schumacher’s only choice to play the frosty felon.
Thus, even though the character was given the sympathetic backstory from the animated series, the character was afforded none of the nuance or subtlety present in Michael Ansara’s performance. Instead we got hammy cackling, lame jokes and ice puns. Lots and lots of ice puns.
6. MICKEY ROURKE AS WHIPLASH
The trouble with bringing Iron Man to the big screen in the 21st century is that most of the villains in his rogues gallery were one-dimensional stereotypes with their roots firmly in Cold War propaganda. Thus, two of shellhead’s most well known adversaries are crass stereotypes from communist countries; the Chinese Mandarin and the Russian Whiplash. Yet, if anyone was going to give depth to a character like Whiplash it was celebrated character actor Mickey Rourke.
Rourke attacked the role of Ivan Vanko with his typical method gusto, spending time with Russian convicts and exhaustively researching prison tattoos. Unfortunately, very little of the hard work he put into his craft shows in the performance which sees Rourke mumble and cackle his way through his scenes with a surprising ambivalence. Rourke has since lamented that a lot of his work on the film wound up on the cutting room floor.
5. JARED LETO AS THE JOKER
On paper, this was a brilliant idea! Few actors would touch the role of The Joker with a 10-foot barge pole after Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson made such an indelible impression on the role in 2008’s The Dark Knight and 1989’s Batman respectively. Yet, fresh off his Oscar success in Dallas Buyers Club, Jared seemed more than equal to the challenge. The audience, quite rightly, has extremely high hopes and the end result was sadly underwhelming.
Although the writing didn’t do him many favors, Leto’s characterization wasn’t nearly as cohesive as Ledger’s or Nicholson’s with a series of choices that were bizarre in all of the wrong ways. While his unpredictability sometimes works a lot of his performance has a whiff of desperation that never quite fits right. That absurd grill doesn’t do much for his diction, either.
4. SHARON STONE AS LAUREL HEDARE
She may have made a name for herself with the racy thrillers of the ’90s like Basic Instinct and The Specialist but while Sharon Stone may have redefined the term femme fatale for a whole generation, it owes as much to her acting jobs as her looks. Stone was always adamant that she didn’t want to be remembered just for her body and spent the past two decades building an impressive body of work. Unfortunately, her role as Catwoman villain Laurel Hedare does not fall within this.
Sure, it didn’t help that everything about the character is stupid (she gets super strength and invulnerability from her beauty cream) but Stone is so clearly sleepwalking through this thankless role not only do we get no sense of menace for her whatsoever… we kind of feel bad for her.
3. KATIE MCGRATH AS LENA LUTHOR
Lena Luthor has been a sporadic presence in comics. She first emerged in the derivative Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #23 and has popped up here and there over the years. Sometimes she’s been Lex Luthor’s sister, sometimes she’s been his daughter, sometimes she has psychic powers. While she never made much of an impression in the comics, her relative obscurity made her a great choice for a villain on the CW’s Supergirl show.
Unfortunately, despite her ominous name, Lena has been a sympathetic character so far on Supergirl and has been kind of bland with an American accent that sort of comes and goes. As we go into season three it seems that we might see Lena go in a more villainous direction, so here’s hoping that the best from McGrath is yet to come.
2. SAMUEL L JACKSON AS THE OCTOPUS
It pains us, pains us to speak ill of Samuel L Jackson, especially when he’s paired with an equally misused Scarlett Johansson, but it just goes to show that even his unique screen presence wasn’t enough to save the noisy, pretentious disaster that was The Spirit. Directed by Frank Miller, the film artfully manages to capture absolutely none of the charm of those old Will Eisner comics.
Jackson is, let’s be honest, coasting here hoping that his undeniable charisma will sell a role that gives him absolutely nothing to work with. His performance consists largely of shouting with a little bit of shouting and a few yells here and there, punctuated by screaming. Ultimately the worst thing about the performance (and the film as a whole) is the soul crushing prospect of what could have been.
1. DANE DEHAAN AS THE GREEN GOBLIN
Remember when Josh Trank’s Chronicle came out and both its director and its promising young star Dane DeHaan were the ‘ones to watch’? Fans debated endlessly about which films and roles would suit them best. Little could they have known that Trank would forever be associated with a universally despised Fantastic Four movie and that DeHaan would go on to be miscast over and over and over again.
If The Amazing Spider-Man 2 taught us anything it’s that Sony learned absolutely nothing from the debacle that was Spider-Man 3, over stuffing the sequel with villains and wasting good actors on shoddy characterizations yet again. DeHaan never quite seems to know what scene he’s in and his performance is so uneven that by the time he goes full goblin it just doesn’t work.
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