As superhero movies continue to dominate the cinemascape, Marvel gets ready to launch Phase Four of its juggernaut of movie releases, while the DC Universe grapples with an identity crisis and tries to play catch up. The comic book franchises launched by these two publishing companies are mired in Hollywood politics and studio drama, and where one rises to supremacy, one descends into mediocrity. While these titans of intellectual property continue to grapple with dominating a cineplex near you, actors and actresses get lured to them both with star in their eyes (or maybe dollar signs). When superhero movies began to be taken seriously as serious business in Hollywood, it was a big deal for actors to appear in a Marvel or DC film; that made them either Marvel or DC guys and gals. Fans began to associate them inextricably from the characters they played, so when they began appearing both Marvel and DC films, the knife of betrayal was plunged deep into the hearts of fanboys and girls.
Marvel and DC have become very distinct both in tonality and narrative structure, so an actor that might perform well in one setting may not perform well in another. Ben Affleck may have made an iffy Daredevil, but his Batman showed a character with heft and depth, something not possible with a Marvel film at the time. And whereas DC’s Green Lantern gave us Ryan Reynolds as a superhero, his place was with Marvel as Deadpool. Though it may seem sacrilegious for actors to appear in rival franchises, it allows them to explore characters that are a part of vastly different worlds and perspectives.
20 BETTER IN MARVEL: JAMES MARSDEN
Say what you will about the early X-Men films, but they did give us a solid Wolverine in Hugh Jackman and, though some fans won’t admit it, a solid Cyclops in James Marsden. One of his first breakout roles, he portrayed the mutant equivalent of Dudley Do-Right over the course of several films, only bowing out to appear in Superman Returns in 2006.
His character in that film (the first Superman movie since Superman IV), Lois Lane’s fiance Richard White, seemed like a rehash of his role in the rom-com The Notebook. Perhaps Marsden was anxious to move on from playing Cyclops in lieu of other roles, but this DC adaptation didn’t give him anything to work with from an acting standpoint.
19 BETTER IN DC: BEN AFFLECK
When the news that Ben Affleck would be cast as the newest incarnation of Batman, most fans were displeased. In the end, an actor once known for offbeat teen comedies and dating Jennifer Lopez turned in a truly nuanced performance as a grizzled, middle-aged Bruce Wayne who has become jaded with the state of the world.
His work in Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League was a far cry from when he appeared in Marvel’s Daredevil, the last of the superhero movies to still be campy and deliver bad puns as catchphrases. Affleck was admittedly unhappy with his work in the film, which may be why he committed himself to doing right by the Dark Knight.
18 BETTER IN MARVEL: ANGELA BASSETT
Few may remember when Angela Bassett played Amanda Waller, probably because they were busy forgetting Green Lantern ever existed. Supposedly the the Nick Fury of the DC Universe specializing in UFOs, she brought a commanding presence to the screen, but the narrative didn’t give her much to work with and her character was largely unimportant.
That all changed when the majestic Bassett joined the MCU to play Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother and the Queen Mother of Wakanda. Not only did she help guide T’Challa’s rule when he became king, but she also nursed Black Panther back to life with the purple heart-shaped herb.
17 BETTER IN DC: NATALIE PORTMAN
Most of the time, the love interests of superheroes aren’t given much to do while the superhero saves the world, and the same went for Natalie Portman in the Thor movies. Yes, they gave her an interesting science-based career, but she wasn’t massively important to the plot of the movie other than being a driving plot point for the God of Thunder.
In V for Vendetta, however, she is one of two main characters that absolutely carry the narrative of the film. Her transformation from meek newsroom aid to emboldened freedom fighter after weeks of torture is the stuff true superheroes are made of.
16 BETTER IN MARVEL: RYAN REYNOLDS
The first time Ryan Reynolds dipped a foot into some spandex pants, it was to play Hal Jordan in the Green Lantern in 2011. The movie was plagued by a grossly inflated budget, poor computer graphics, and a muddled storyline. Despite Reynolds’ charisma, he was oddly subdued in the role, or funny in moments ill-suited for his humor.
Then he finally landed the role he’d been meant to play, and in 2016 Deadpool was a massive success even with an R rating. His crass humor was perfectly appropriate, and he even managed to work in some jokes at Green Lantern’s expense.
15 BETTER IN DC: LAURENCE FISHBURNE
Recently, Marvel fans were treated to Laurence Fishburne playing Bill Foster in Ant-Man and The Wasp. A self-proclaimed “Marvel guy”, Fishburne was excited to appear in anything in the MCU, but was Bill Foster the right role?
Meanwhile, in the DC Universe, he got to have his hot take on Perry White in both Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. The owner of the Daily Planet where a nerdy Clark Kent (aka Superman) works as a reporter, Fishburne got some pretty great one-liners and jibes, giving a fully realized performance to what some actors would treat as a bit character.
14 BETTER IN MARVEL: ZOE SALDANA
Like Chris Evans, Zoe Saldana also starred in the DC film The Losers about a misfit group of mercenaries, once part of a special forces group that is abandoned by their government and vows revenge on those who wronged them. Saldana’s role was largely “spunky woman” or “sassy love interest” who could hang with the all-male cast.
Then came Guardians of the Galaxy, where she basically played an alien version of just that. The difference, besides green skin? She actually was a brutal fighting machine that didn’t take any crap from anyone, not the men in her crew, or her very scary father figure (Thanos). Plus she got three movies out of it, instead of one.
13 BETTER IN DC: HUGO WEAVING
Hugo Weaving has the distinction of being in a number of sprawling blockbuster series; The Matrix trilogy, the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogy, Transformers, etc. His ability to bring dramatic performances to life amidst a dizzying level of effects is no doubt why he was chosen to play Red Skull in Captain America. While his performance was fine, the writing made him an one-dimensional villain, with no explainable motivation.
However, in V for Vendetta, he could explore the complexities of a character who was considered both a villain and a hero depending on perspective. He also had to act entirely behind a mask, requiring a much more rigorous performance channeled mainly by body language.
12 BETTER IN MARVEL: CHRIS EVANS
By now, Chris Evans is synonymous with Captain America, a pillar of the MCU alongside Iron Man and Black Widow. It was his second Marvel character to date, the first being the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four in 2002. But somewhere between his stints in Marvel he played another sort of hero for a title under DC Comics at the time called The Losers.
The film was about a group of special forces operatives left for their demise by their government. They began to toy with the notion of operating under the radar as mercenaries in the wake of their “end”. Chris Evans shows promise as the wise-cracking tech genius in the group, but his true character really comes across playing Steve Rogers.
11 BETTER IN DC: ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE
Many will recognize Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje from such blockbuster films as The Mummy Returns or the Bourne movies. For the MCU, he appeared in Thor: The Dark World, but was little more than a brutish enforcer as Algrim The Strong, with magnetic blue eyes and platinum hair.
In Suicide Squad, however, he got to be a more prominent member of the ensemble cast, which included Will Smith and Margot Robbie. As Killer Croc, one of many villains in Batman’s Rogue Gallery, he was a half-man, half-amphibious cannibal that dwelled in an aquatic cell in Arkham Asylum. The role required a lot of physicality and acting via body language given all of his prosthetics and makeup.
10 BETTER IN MARVEL: SCARLETT JOHANSSON
Once upon a time, back in 2008, the same year that the MCU was born with the first Iron Man movie, a little movie called The Spirit came out. Originally a comic by Frank Miller, it followed the story of a rookie cop taken out in cold blood, who is resurrected as “The Spirit” to fight crime with all the powers of a poltergeist. Scarlett Johansson played Silken Floss, and was about as vampy as you’d expect as a femme fatale.
Whereas ScarJo basically played herself in The Spirit, playing Black Widow in Iron Man II and the Avengers films made her stretch beyond her comfort zone. She was still using her feminine wiles, but she also got to learn some sweet martial art moves.
9 BETTER IN DC: DJIMON HOUNSOU
Though Djimon Hounsou made a name for himself in big epic costume dramas like Amadeus and Gladiator, he’s always a welcome sight in sci-fi movies like The Island. When he appeared as a bounty hunter in Guardians of the Galaxy, the opportunity for an intriguing character was abandoned when he was abruptly killed off.
Where Hounsou got to shine was in Constantine, the movie starring Keanu Reeves as John Constantine, a damned man that must keep the peace between Heaven and Hell. Hounsou played Papa Midnight, a club owner and practitioner of voodoo magic who helped Constantine see visions. He got to be quirky, eccentric, and mysterious, and his lack of dying means he could have returned for a sequel.
8 BETTER IN MARVEL: J.K. SIMMONS
With considerable talent as a character actor, J.K. Simmons has been appearing in dozens of films over the years, finally getting his Oscar for Whiplash. But if performances in superhero movies ever got recognized, his turn as J. Jonah Jameson would rank at the very top of those actors that bear an uncanny resemblance to their counterpart on the page.
It was perhaps his memorable appearance as Peter Parker’s boss that got him the new gig as Commissioner Gordon in the DC Universe supporting Ben Affleck’s Batman. First appearing in Justice League, Simmons has the gruffness to be Gordon, but his talents are wasted in such a subdued role.
7 BETTER IN DC: TILDA SWINTON
Tilda Swinton caught a lot of flack for appearing as The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. The character, originally a 500-year old man of Asian descent, was a far cry from the pale, delicately boned and very androgynous Swinton who played the role of Stephen Strange’s mentor.
Where Swinton’s bizarre image and androgyny worked to perfection was as the vengeful angel Gabriel in Constantine. As an angel of indeterminable gender and gracefulness, she was both assertive and coy, aggressive and delicate. The DC Universe gave her a much more ambitious role than in the MCU, and her performance remains a highlight of the film.
6 BETTER IN MARVEL: TOMMY LEE JONES
Tommy Lee Jones reluctantly joined the DC Universe when he was cast as Two-Face in Batman and Robin. He notoriously hated working with Jim Carrey, whom he thought of as a buffoon, and couldn’t stand the makeup and prosthetics he had to wear for hours on set. It was also an odd role for the notably dour man to play.
In the MCU, his penchant for being indefatigable and humorous was put to perfect effect as Colonel Chester Phillips in Captain America. Originally a skeptic of Steve Rogers’ involvement in the Army, he comes to revere him as one of the finest soldiers he’s ever served with.
5 BETTER IN DC: PARKER POSEY
Parker Posey’s one Marvel credit is as Danica Talos in Blade: Trinity, which many don’t even consider a part of the modern MCU (which may be why it’s rumored to be remade). For as memorable a character actress as she is, the part offered her nothing to work with.
She would appear in the DC Universe as Kitty Kowalski in Superman Returns, the first Superman film not to star Christopher Reeve. Lex Luthor’s hench woman and arm piece, Posey had a lot to say about her character, from her personality to her wardrobe, which shows in her fun (if not a little campy) performance.
4 BETTER IN MARVEL: MICHAEL FASSBENDER
Most will immediately recognize Michael Fassbender for his noteworthy performance as a young Magneto in X-Men: Days of Future Past and X-Men: Apocalypse. He has gone to great lengths to embody one of Marvel’s most complicated villains, whose pursuit of “world domination” is the pursuit of tolerance and the betterment of mutant kind.
Prior to his stint as Magneto, he appeared alongside notable MCU alum Josh Brolin in Jonah Hex. There, Fassbender was relegated to the role of second in command to John Malkovich’s main baddie, and didn’t get nearly the sort of character development an actor like him deserves.
3 BETTER IN DC: HALLE BERRY
Most of the time when comic fans think of Halle Berry, they think of her playing Storm in the early X-Men films. Except that her Storm wasn’t anything like the Storm in the comics, and she was never really allowed to use even a third of her incredible powers until (sort of) X-Men: Last Stand.
Now, by contrast, when she portrayed the lead in Catwoman, she was allowed to perform in whatever crazy direction she wanted. True, the storyline wasn’t strong, and the outfit was a sort of disco-version of the catsuit Michelle Pfeiffer made famous, Halle slipped into the role like a second skin. She got to really inhabit the role with no restrictions, and was the best part of a pretty bad film.
2 BETTER IN MARVEL: JOSH BROLIN
Josh Brolin has certainly begun to make his mark on the MCU, appearing as both Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, and Cable in Deadpool II. While his stature and rumbling voice make him a perfect choice for a villain, he’s able to imbue these characters with a sympathetic sensitivity that saves them from being stereotypical megalomaniacs.
Several years ago he had the chance to play a hero, appearing in the supernatural action movie Jonah Hex based off of a DC Comics graphic novel by the same name. A bounty hunter with a disfigured face that fights all manner of creatures, the film suffered from a poorly written plot and bad special effects.
1 BETTER IN DC: MICHAEL KEATON
Recently Michael Keaton has returned to the realm of superhero movies with his performance as the villain Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. While Keaton brought depth and sympathy to an otherwise pretty one-dimensional character, it was hardly his most memorable work.
Everyone knows that was for DC, when he brought the Caped Crusader to life like never before in Tim Burton’s 1989 smash hit Batman. Keaton’s mixture of comedic timing and everyman charm made his Bruce Wayne relatable and his Batman surprisingly charismatic. It was a role that while contested at first, remains a favorite among Batman and Keaton fans alike.