Superheroes might be as American as apple pie, but when it comes to playing them on the big screen, it seems like the British might have the market cornered. Obviously, there are a ton of British actors in general, so it makes sense that they’re often cast to play comic book characters. In fact, many of the most popular actors from the genre are British. Of course, there’s Patrick Stewart as Professor X, Ian McKellen as Magneto, Michael Caine as Alfred, Paul Bettany as Jarvis/the Vision, James McAvoy as another Professor X, and many many more. That’s not to say that actors like Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Anthony Mackie and Scarlett Johansson aren’t killing it, it’s just that there are so many British actors killing it as superheroes right now.
Also, since these roles tend to be recast fairly often, there are plenty of opportunities to compare actors playing the same character. Based on the evidence, it seems like British actors do a better job compared to their American counterparts. Whether it’s Batman, Superman or even Spider-Man, the best actor for the job is someone who has to fake an American accent while pretending to fight crime.
There have been a lot of Spider-Man actors over the years, and it’s time to be honest: the majority of them haven’t been great. When Tobey Maguire debuted as Peter Parker in Spider-Man (2002), he was initially met with great reviews. Unfortunately, by the time Spider-Man 3 (2007) came out, his performance had degraded and it seemed like he had lost interest. Andrew Garfield replaced Maguire for The Amazing Spider-Man in 2012.
While Garfield’s performance was praised, some critics thought he came across as somewhat arrogant and he wasn’t as warmly received as Maguire initially was. Finally, Tom Holland took over the role starting with Captain America: Civil War (2016). His youthful energy and earnestness perfectly captured the essence of the teenaged hero. Hopefully the Spider-Man franchise isn’t rebooted any time soon (although based on his history, that seems like a longshot).
Dr. Strange isn’t exactly the most well known Marvel character, so it wasn’t surprising that he wasn’t introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe until the third phase. Benedict Cumberbatch starred as the sorcerer in Dr. Strange (2016), and he was considered a welcome addition to the studio’s line up. Many felt that he balanced the character’s arrogance with enough charm to deliver a likeable performance.
Cumberbatch, however, was not the first actor to play Dr Strange. Peter Hooten starred in a 1978 television movie that was meant to serve as a pilot for a potential series. A combination of low ratings and poor reviews meant that no series was ever ordered, and Hooten’s performance lacked the charm of Cumberbatch, leaving Strange a fairly unlikeable character.
While Justice League (2017) was met with mixed reviews and an underwhelming opening weekend box office, one thing that most seemed to agree on was that Cavill was great as Superman (the sloppy CGI mustache removal can’t really be blamed on Cavill). This was his third appearance as the man of steel, and he was clearly comfortable in the role. Starting from Man of Steel (2013), Cavill took Clark Kent from a man unsure of his place in the world to a beacon of hope for the world.
Several actors have played Superman over the years, and Cavill is definitely one of the better ones. As blasphemous as it may sound, Cavill may even be better than Christopher Reeves, who iconically played the role in Superman (1978). While Reeves embodied the hero, his Clark Kent was basically a slapstick comedy character. Slapstick is rarely the best anything.
When Kelsey Grammer was cast as Beast in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), fans thought it was he was the perfect choice. In all honesty, isn’t Beast just the Frasier Crane of the X-Men? While Grammer may have nailed Beast’s voice and characteristics, he couldn’t quite handle the physicality of the role. The actor just looked awkward trying to swing around like the blue furball. Fans had been waiting since the first “X-Men” movie to see Beast, but they weren’t satisfied with the middle aged, out of shape version that was delivered.
Luckily, Nicholas Hoult delivered in X-Men: First Class (2011). The younger actor was able to both act like Hank McCoy and be the Beast (even though, due to First Class‘s smaller budget, the Beast makeup effects and costume were pretty sad looking).
Not counting the old serials from the ’40s, there have been six actors to take on the role of the Dark Knight. Out of those six, Christian Bale is definitely in the top two (Keaton is too beloved to ever be dethroned). Bale definitely out performed Val Kilmer and George Clooney, who donned the cowl in Batman Forever (1995) and Batman Forever (1997) respectively. And, as much fun as Adam West was in Batman (1966), Bale’s performance was a bit more nuanced.
Of course, the most striking comparison is between Bale and Ben Affleck, who took on the roll only four years after Bale left. While Affleck’s Batman voice may have been better received than Bale’s, his performance struggled to find a balance between Bruce Wayne and his alter ego. On top of that, Affleck quickly lost interest in the role, resulting in a lackluster performance in Justice League (2017).
Back in 2005, Fox released its first Fantastic Four film, and while it isn’t necessarily beloved, it’s definitely the best cinematic take on Marvel’s first family. Ioan Gruffudd starred as Reed Richards, and he turned in a performance that was generally faithful to the comics. While his Reed Richards may have been a little more nervous than his comic book counterpart, he was still a generally likeable genius who struggled to balance his work and family life.
Then, in 2015, Fox attempted to reboot the franchise with Josh Trank’s Fan4stic (not the official title, but that’s how it appeared on the posters). The role of Reed Richards was played by Miles Teller, and while he can’t be blamed for the film’s failures, he didn’t help. Teller’s acting was most likely butchered in editing, where multiple reshoots were spliced together, resulting in an extremely uneven, and at times nonsensical, performance.
Commissioner Gordon has always been a thankless role for actors. While he’s an integral part of the Batman mythos, he’s often used as a plot device that simply exists to give Batman information on whatever crime he’s attempting to solve. That changed with Batman Begins (2005), where the character was played by Gary Oldman. His take on the character saw him as an idealistic man who had been beaten down by a corrupt system.
His performance went much deeper compared to Pat Hingle in Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), who was basically just a plot dump. J.K. Simmons recently debuted as Gordon in Justice League (2017), although he only appeared briefly to, of course, just give the heroes some information about kidnappings across Gotham.
When it comes to comic book characters, Ben Affleck just can’t seem to beat the Brits. Before becoming Batman, Affleck took on his first comic book part all the way back in 2003 with Daredevil. He played the titular hero and delivered a performance that earned him a Golden Raspberry Award for worst actor (although the award was shared with his performances in Gigli and Paycheck, which both also came out in 2003).
Daredevil never returned to the big screen, but Netflix revived the property in 2015 as a TV series set within Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Charlie Cox was cast as the hero, and while he hasn’t won any awards yet, he has been nominated for several “best actor” categories. So, that’s definitely an improvement.
Tony Stark’s father, Howard, made his debut in the MCU in Iron Man 2 (2010), played by John Slattery. Long dead, his character appeared in pre-recorded video segments and messages to his son, so the part essentially consisted of him delivering monologues to Tony through a video camera. While there was nothing wrong with the performance, it also wasn’t all that memorable.
The character next appeared in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) during scenes that took place in the ’40s. The younger version of the character was played by Dominic Cooper, who turned in a performance that echoed Robert Downey Jr’s take on Tony Stark. Cooper was egotistical, yet charming, and was able to find the perfect balance between the two to make the character as likeable as his son.
Before it spent a decade building up the villainous Thanos, Sony accidentally did the same thing with the Lizard in its Spider-Man movies. The character’s alter ego, Curt Conners, was mentioned in the first film in 2002, and appeared in both sequels, played by Dylan Baker. It seemed like Sony was setting up the eventual appearance of the villainous lizard, but looking back, nothing about Baker’s performance even hints at that. Baker plays Conners as a regular college professor/scientist, without even a hint of emotional pain over the loss of his arm.
Rhys Ifans took over the role when the series was rebooted in The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). In that film, Connors was a tortured man, willing to try anything to heal his broken body. His chemistry with Peter was also much closer, making his monstrous transformation even more tragic.
Despite being one of the original members of the team, and a fairly recognizable character, Angel from the X-Men hasn’t seen a lot of love from the movies. He’s appeared twice, in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), and neither movie is one of the franchise’s better offerings. Ben Foster was the first actor to take on the role, and his performance was odd. Warren Worthington is usually a confident, borderline cocky guy, but Foster played him as moody and awkward.
Ben Hardy took over the role in Apocalypse, which showed the character’s transformation to Archangel, which resulted in the character taking a darker turn in the comics. While the script may have been a mess, Hardy’s performance nailed the character’s anger and frustrations. Neither movie was great, but at least Hardy seemed to understand the character.
Despite not having any powers, Brian Cox’s Colonel Stryker might have been the scariest villain the X-Men have faced at the movies in X2 (2003). After his mutant son killed his wife, Stryker decided to end the threat to humanity. Despite having a sympathetic backstory, Cox played Stryker as completely evil. What makes his performance great, however, is its subtlety. Stryker is never over the top, he’s just a man full of hate, which is what makes him terrifying.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) detailed the history between Wolverine and Stryker, and Danny Huston was cast to play the younger version of the character. Huston’s performance lacked the depth of Cox’s, and Stryker was turned into a basic “comic book” villain. There was nothing memorable about Huston’s take on the character, which is probably why he wasn’t asked to come back for the series’ other flashback films.
Toad isn’t exactly the X-Men’s most fearsome foe. He’s a short, ugly guy who has mutant leaping powers. So, when Ray Park was cast as the villain for X-Men (2000), it seemed like an odd choice. Park is a skilled martial artist, and was known for playing characters more intimidating than Toad. While his performance wasn’t all that comic book accurate, his version was a fun addition to the film.
Toad didn’t reappear in the movies until 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, where he was briefly played by Evan Jonigkeit. While the role was basically a glorified cameo, Jonigkeit didn’t bring much to the character. Whereas Park took a very physical approach to the role, Jonigkeit basically played the character as a normal guy with weird goggles and a big tongue.
While no one can hold a candle to Jon Bernthal’s performance as Frank Castle, Ray Stevenson is the strongest actor to portray the Punisher on the big screen. While Punisher: War Zone (2008) has its fair share of problems, Stevenson is able to portray Frank’s pain and loneliness while still coming across as an unstoppable killing machine.
It’s not perfect, but it’s better than Thomas Jane’s take on the character in The Punisher (2004). While Jane has plenty of fans, his performance is actually fairly wooden. His take on Frank Castle is essentially just “guy that doesn’t ever show any emotion.” Also, Jane isn’t as intimidating as Stevenson, which is a huge part of the character. Stevenson also does a better job than Dolph Lundgren who starred as the character in a 1989 film that’s best left forgotten.
It might be a controversial choice, but Sophie Turner is a better cinematic Jean Grey. Famke Janssen may have played the part in the better movies, while Turner was a part of X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), but Janssen’s performance wasn’t all that great. In the comics, Jean Grey is confident and can be one of the strongest members of the team. Janssen, on the other hand, always seemed unsure of herself and never felt like the comic book character.
Turner, on the other hand, may have been stuck in a movie with a confusing plot, bland villain and too many characters, but she felt like Jean Grey. Despite it not making any sense at all plot wise, Turner’s acting made the appearance of the Phoenix a great moment within a terrible movie.