Casting is a crucial part of the filmmaking process, arguably the one that can most easily make or break a film. All the visual mastery in the world couldn’t save Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets from its dead weight leads, but one powerhouse performance from Sandra Bullock can get The Blind Side to a Best Picture nomination. Too bad there’s no room for a Best Casting Oscar, what with all the “popular film” awards they need to add.
Casting is even more important when it comes to blockbusters, since studios have to hope these heroes become the kind of icons audiences will plunk their quarter on the line to see again and again. Done right, and the world can’t even imagine another Wolverine but Hugh Jackman, or another Iron Man but RDJ. Done wrong... well, you get what we have here. Sometimes castings go wrong because of outside circumstances, or poor off-set behavior. Other times it’s as simple as a divisive performance. Whatever the reason, these controversial casting choices prove that Marvel Studios wasn’t always the bulletproof behemoth we make it out to be today. So strap in, and get ready to relive some of the most painful superhero movie missteps.
20 JANUARY JONES IN X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
You can see how a studio exec, wary of Matthew Vaughn’s period-piece reimagining of the X-Men franchise set in the swinging '60s, would see it as a slam dunk decision. If the film was gonna cash in on the Mad Men craze, why not cast someone from Mad Men?
Now, we’re not going to sit here and suggest that that’s the worst line of thinking. After all, fellow Mad Men star John Slattery shows up in Iron Man 2 and knocks it out of the park. But Jones feels wildly out of place in X-Men: First Class, and Vaughn clearly has no idea what to do with her. We’re not going to guess whether Jones’ “stand there and look pretty” role was all she was given, or if other aspects of the performance weren’t up to snuff and cut in post. But it’s rather telling that the series had a major player like Emma Frost dropped from any further films.
19 AARON TAYLOR-JOHNSON IN AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Aaron Taylor-Johnson might be one of the finest actors of his generation. When he’s on his game, he’s exceptional, as evidenced by films like The Wall, the Kick Ass series, and his Golden Globe winning turn in Nocturnal Animals. The problem is the times where Taylor-Johnson feels less than engaged by the material, like his serviceable turns in Godzilla or Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Taylor-Johnson isn’t bad in Age of Ultron, at least not in the conventional sense. His line-deliveries are fine, he doesn’t detract from any scenes he’s in, and he delivers what is asked of him. However, he also brings nothing to the role, neither extra-dimensionality that supporting players like, say, Winston Duke or Hayley Atwell bring to their even smaller roles, nor even a strong sense of pathos. Quicksilver’s death should have been a heartbreaking moment, but instead feels like little more than a story beat.
18 BEN AFFLECK IN DAREDEVIL
We’re gonna start this off with a controversial take: Ben Affleck isn’t bad as Daredevil. In fact, especially for the time, he’s a darn good Daredevil, delivering a performance perfectly on par with the other Marvel movies of the era. So why is his take on the character so loathed?
Well, that has less to do with the shots on screen and more to do with those in the tabloids. Though just a few years after winning an Oscar, leading the crowd-pleasing Armageddon, and being the bomb in Phantoms, Affleck had gained a new reputation as Hollywood trash after film failures like Pearl Harbor and a loathed real-world love story with Jennifer Lopez dubbed “Bennifer.” Affleck was deemed a laughing stock, and box-office poison just a few months later with the infamous Gigli, with Daredevil’s reputation caught in the crossfire.
17 DANE DEHAAN IN THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2
There’s plenty to dislike about Amazing Spider-Man 2, from the script to the characterizations to the overly-confident post-credits scene. And while some might suggest a certain sparkly blue villain take this slot, we’d argue DeHaan is the worse casting choice.
There’s an argument to be made that, when an Oscar winner turns in a bad role, it may have been a director failing to reign them in. After all, Jaimee Foxx has a long list of notably great performances in genre cinema, from Django Unchained to Baby Driver. DeHaan, on the other hand, floundered not only in his... interesting take on Harry Osbourne, but in the recent Cure for Wellness, the aforementioned Valerian, and the virtually abandoned Tulip Fever. Director Marc Webb failed to get a good performance from almost anyone in AS2, but with DeHaan, he might have been trying to wring blood from a stone.
16 NICK NOLTE IN HULK
The once unanimously despised 2003 Hulk, directed by a fresh off of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Ang Lee has received a critical reevaluation in recent years, with critics ranging from The Dissolve’s Keith Phipps to the podcast Blank Check declaring it a misunderstood masterpiece. However, we’re not here to discuss whether intent matters as much as execution.
Rather, we’re here to talk about the most glaringly flawed aspect of the film, and the element that is either the only thing that doesn’t work with what Lee is going for, or perhaps the only thing that does: Nick Nolte. If you subscribe to Lee’s conception of the film as a Greek tragedy, then Nolte’s radical shifts from grumbling to extravagant overacting are right in the pocket. But compared to his cast-mates, Nolte is on another plane of existence, and only served to alienate audiences hoping for a straightforward Hulk movie.
15 T.J. MILLER IN DEADPOOL/DEADPOOL 2
The case of someone like T.J. Miller is tough. Well, not Miller per se, as his antics and abusive behavior make it sort of an open and shut case in the court of public opinion. Rather, it's a question of how a production like Deadpool is affected by his presence.
In the first film, Miller’s Weasel was an acceptable member of the ensemble, firing off a few jokes while not proving as crucial or popular as Dopinder or Negasonic Teenage Warhead. However, by the time Deadpool 2 rolled around, Miller was swept up in a storm of his own doing: assault accusations and arrests, a false bomb threat, and The Emoji Movie. Ready Player One reportedly edited down Miller’s character significantly, but Deadpool 2 retained the character in all aspects (despite having greater leeway, given the franchise’s frequent meta-textual commentary). The result was a film whose “no b.s.” ethos of right and wrong and protecting the innocent rang a little less true.
14 DOLPH LUNDGREN AS THE PUNISHER
Somehow Hollywood needed four tries before they could get Frank Castle right, and even then they’ve only done so on the small screen. And though this 1989 entry is often forgotten in the cinematic Punisher conversation, it's the one that exposes every flaw in the conventional approach to Castle.
The term anti-hero gets tossed around often in critical circles these days, but no truer example exists than Frank Castle, the embodiment of what a “moral” superhero could be with just a little push. But where the best stories leave the reader uneasy about this vindictive vigilante, Lundgren treats the role as just another Reagan-era ***-kicker, mowing down criminals and looking cool. Playing a character he doesn’t understand, clearly cast by people who couldn’t care less, Lundgren squandered a chance to break out of his generic action hero mold in a year that audiences were clearly hungry for comic book content.
13 JAMIE BELL IN FANTASTIC FOUR
Fans of either Roger Corman’s 1994 ashcan copy or Tim Story’s two whimsical films are few and far between, but even the strongest detractors can agree the casting for the bulky, hulking Ben Grimm was the least of the films’ sins. Both Michael Bailey Smith and Michael Chiklis made sense in the role, which made Josh Trank’s choice in 2015 all the more confusing.
Every other member of the newest incarnation of the Fantastic Four makes some degree of sense, and for the most part do the best they can with what they were given. But the pretty and relatively scrawny Bell feels out of place from the first scene, and never finds his footing in the role. Never quite clicking either pre- or post-transformation, it’s unclear what Trank was ultimately going for with this out of left field choice.
12 DOUG HUTCHINSON IN PUNISHER: WAR ZONE
When you find out that “Yummy, yummy, yummy in my tummy, tummy tummy” was an improvised line by go-to “creep” character actor Doug Hutchinson, you start to get a sense of not only where Punisher: War Zone, but where Hutchinson’s whole career went wrong. Heck, the signs have been there since The Green Mile, if anyone had made it through the three hour run time.
Let’s be frank, Hutchinson overacts the hell out of his role as Looney Bin Jim, going beyond even the caricature nature of director Lexi Alexander’s vision. Yet, while it’s hard to point the finger at his performance as the factor that sunk the film at the time, his personal life has done little to help its post-release reputation. Best known for marrying a 16 year old at age 51, Hutchinson’s history of strange behavior has been something even War Zone’s ardent defenders have to dance around.
11 OSCAR ISAAC IN X-MEN: APOCALYPSE
Few superhero movies have squandered an immense talent the way the already forgotten X-Men: Apocalypse did with acclaimed actor (and the internet’s boyfriend) Oscar Isaac. Since his breakout role in the acclaimed Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has been praised for his intricate, subtle performances rich with empathy and bereft of flash or exaggeration.
Naturally, Fox felt it was best to bury said performer beneath layers upon layers of makeup, force him to muscle through the most generic supervillain dialogue, and then barely use him in a film where he is the titular villain. Perhaps a broader actor, one more willing to, as Thor director Kenneth Branagh would say, bathe in the river of ham could have brought something to this role to make it stand out, but instead Isaac proves to be the most forgettable part of this forgettable movie.
10 JEFFREY JONES IN HOWARD THE DUCK
If you’ve ever wondered why Howard The Duck hasn’t seen the ironic revival of other classically bad movies, or why Walt Disney World got rid of its scary alien ride, or how come you haven’t seen the principal from Ferris Beuller recently... whelp, you might wanna sit down. Let’s get through this as delicately as we can.
In 2003, Jeffrey Jones became the subject of what Wikipedia understates as “legal troubles," effectively tanking his career. To those in the know, his presence in revered films like Ed Wood and Beetlejuice cause one to cringe, and Disney World actually shut down its ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter attraction, which featured Jones in a prominent role, that same year. Trying to watch Howard The Duck now, especially in attempting to delight in its misguided excess, is difficult whenever Jones’ villain appears. Some things just aren’t funny.
9 VINNIE JONES IN X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
Some of the entries on this list require some sense of context to understand why they happened, or some long, sordid story to explain what went wrong. Others just make you go “Yeesh.” Vinnie Jones as the Juggernaut is the latter.
Best remembered for horrendously bringing an internet meme to life on the big screen, Jones’ Juggernaut is a misfire on all counts. Sure, it’s not his fault that the film’s script was garbage, or that its director, Brett Ratner, reportedly is as well. But boy howdy did he not do himself any favors with this over the top, caricature performance that seems to suggest that not only was Jones unfamiliar with the character he was taking on, but how human beings behave in any capacity.
8 KAT DENNINGS IN THOR/THOR: THE DARK WORLD
This isn’t going to be a bashing of Kat Dennings. The truth is, when used well, Dennings can absolutely crush it, as she memorably did in Charlie Bartlett, and for years on the hit show Two Broke Girls. The problem with her role as Darcy in the Thor films is how little she’s given to do with a character that ultimately has no reason to be there.
Some could say a dry, disinterested tone is part of Dennings’ schtick, but by Thor: The Dark World it became apparent that Dennings just didn’t want to be there. And who could blame her? Introduced in the first film as what felt like studio-forced “comedic relief,” and given little to do but say “He’s hot,” Darcy was hardly a memorable element of an ultimately forgettable film. Fast forward to the sequel, and there’s no reason for that character to be in the film at all.
7 JULIAN MCMAHON IN FANTASTIC FOUR
Julian McMahon has had huge success on TV, both in his award-winning role on Nip/Tuck and his entry into the MCU as Jonah on Hulu’s stellar Runaways. However, his first swing at a Marvel property was on the big screen and while the highpoint of his filmography, that’s a pretty low bar.
In truth, McMahon isn’t the worst big screen Doctor Doom we’ve gotten (if you can count what we saw in 2015 as Doctor Doom), but he is inarguably the worst part of the first, ultimately agreeable Tim Story Fantastic Four. For what the movie wants to be, the casting of the team itself is pretty spot on, but the film doesn’t have a grasp on who Doom is, and McMahon never seems like he knows what to do with the character either. Too awkward in his physicality to function as even a generic villain, McMahon weighs down a film that needs all the help it can get.
6 WILL.I.AM IN WOLVERINE: X-MEN ORIGINS
The subtitle “X-Men Origins” is, like the Dark Universe logo that played before 2017’s The Mummy, a staggering display of studio hubris; confidently calling its shot on a franchise before the first film even drops, It was a strange decision, like it had a license to print money, knowing those pathetic fanboys would plop down in the seats no matter what. Except this time they didn’t.
Now, that’s not Will.I.Am’s fault, per se. He’s not the most egregious choice the film makes (sewing Deadpool’s mouth shut), nor even the worst casting (Taylor Kitsch as Gambit, surely), but he is the most emblematic source of the film’s problems: studio indifference. Looking back, it’s hard not to feel Will.I.Am’s presence as stunt casting, designed to bring in a new audience and cram as many big names into the film as possible.
5 EDWARD NORTON IN THE INCREDIBLE HULK
The Incredible Hulk is undeniably the red-headed stepchild of the MCU. One could say that’s due to Universal’s ownership of the film, but Sony owns Spider-Man: Homecoming, and we certainly don’t all pretend that doesn’t exist. Instead, Incredible Hulk is left in the ashtray of history simply because it’s a mediocre film whose lead has been recast, whose ideas have been retconned, and who, short of a cameo from Thunderbolt Ross in Captain America: Civil War, has no stakes in the broader MCU.
Depending on who you ask, a large part of the film’s problems stem from Norton, a notably difficult and demanding performer who tried to wrestle final cut of the film away from the producers. Though he wasn’t a terrible Bruce Banner (even if he was just replaying his Fight Club role), his behavior on-set and afterwards soured his relationship with Marvel and made the film an albatross around the studio’s neck.
4 NICOLAS CAGE IN GHOST RIDER/SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE
At Sony’s 2011 New York Comic Con panel, the director team of Neveldine and Taylor were brought out to present footage from the upcoming Ghost Rider sequel Spirit of Vengeance, and one audience member used the Q&A portion to pestiferously plead that they recast Nicolas Cage, seemingly not understanding that you can’t recast a movie that’s finished.
He was roundly booed, and the directors made the case for Cage, but the room seemed to have a sentiment of Big Lebowski-esque “You’re not wrong…” Cage always wanted to play a superhero, and would do so come hell or high water. But critics and audiences alike couldn't help but feel Cage was miscast as Johnny Blaze, both due to his age and his overall vibe. Instead of Cage becoming the character of Blaze, the films consistently feel as though the role was rewritten to fit Cage’s persona.
3 TILDA SWINTON IN DOCTOR STRANGE
Representation in cinema, particularly when it deals with previously problematic roles, can feel like an un-winnable game. Even 2018's smash hit Crazy Rich Asians has been plagued with think pieces decrying it "Not Asian Enough", "Too Asian", and everything in between. But do you know what the solution to that is?
Well, Scott Derrickson can tell you what it's not. It's not "Just cast a white lady in your problematic Asian role." Trying to avoid controversy or irritating the Chinese film market, Doctor Strange featured Tilda Swinton standing in for the once Tibetan Ancient One. Furious fans revolted at the whitewashing of the role, and Derrickson ultimately issued a mea culpa. While it didn't plunge the box office of the Oscar-nominated film, it certainly brought unwelcome attention to the problematic elements of Doctor Strange's origins.
2 JAMES SPADER IN AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
When the subtitle "Age of Ultron" was announced, the internet pounced on the opportunity to fan-cast the menacing machine with the most intimidating actors in the business, from Bryan Cranston to Tom Hardy and a wide array of other obvious alpha-male picks. So diligent fans were shocked when the role went to the out-of-left-field James Spader, better known for quick quips than an imposing presence.
On paper it makes sense to substitute Ultron's Hank Pym-esque precision to reflect his new creator; to give him snark equal to Star and create a dark mirror image. Unfortunately, the funny/fearsome ratio leaned way too hard into the comedic, and Ultron failed to make much of an impression on audiences.
1 JENNIFER LAWRENCE IN THE X-MEN FRANCHISE
A controversial choice? Sure. And we're not going to pretend Lawrence isn't one of the highlights of X-Men: First Class. So how could casting an Oscar-winning megastar possibly hurt the franchise? Simple: cast her before all that, lock her into a three picture deal, and creatively constrain her for months at a time.
Now, we're not blaming Fox for the Lawrence situation. They didn't do anything wrong, and if anything seemingly had the foresight to lock down a star on the rise fresh off of The Hunger Games; and she gives it her all in X-Men: First Class. But between X:FC and X-Men: Apocalypse, she won an Oscar, the hearts of audiences everywhere thanks to her casually cool attitude, and lost all interest in the seemingly simple role of Mystique, dragging down the later films with her phoned-in, disinterested performances.