When an actor takes on the role of a well-known and beloved superhero, they have to prepare to shoulder the burden of the source material by way of being scrutinized by fans. Some casting decisions lead to iconic performances that actually redefine a character or, at the very least, solidify their place in the cultural zeitgeist. Consider brilliant on-screen superhero performances like Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool, and Christopher Reeve as Superman. These roles bonded the actor and hero in an almost symbiotic relationship, making fans unable to discern one from the other. This can be both a blessing and a curse for actors, as some are never able to shrug their hero persona fully. But what about when the long-lasting marks of a superhero carry negative connotations?
There have probably been about as many bad superhero performances as good ones. And, boy are those bad ones awful. Like, classically bad. When they are at their worst is when they completely disregard the source material or try hard to dance around. Comics can be smart and thought-provoking, but they can also be silly and fun, but that’s why most of us read them. It’s when actors decide to ignore this balance we get bad performances.
20 JANUARY JONES IN X-MEN: FIRST CLASS
It’s hard to say what is worse, when an actor or actress tries and fails in a role or when they clearly have zero interest in playing that role. January Jones portrayal of fan-favorite telepath, Emma Frost in X-Men: First Class has us thinking that the latter might be the bigger cinematic sin. While Jones was amazing as Betty Draper on AMC’s Mad Men, she brought absolutely none of the same veracity and strength that she exuded when playing Frost.
A sense of utter disdain for both the character and the material seems to permeate every scene she’s in.
Rarely do we see a performance so empty and vapid, which really is a shame considering the caliber of acting she’s capable of. Maybe she just isn’t an X-Men fan. After all, no one is perfect.
19 FINN JONES IN IRON FIST
Sometimes actors really commit themselves to portraying a beloved superhero on-screen. When this sort of commitment works, we get wonderful performances like Christopher Reeve’s Superman or Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. But when a character is miscast so poorly, no level of gusto or commitment can pull the portrayal up by its bootstraps.
It’s this sort of misplaced casting that gives us lifeless performances like Finn Jones as the titular martial arts superhero in Netflix’s Iron First. It was obvious from the get go that were was going to be issues with Jones’ characterization of Danny Rand. He vacillates between naïve man-child to hardened kung-fu master from moment to moment within a scene, but neither extreme is believable. Couple this with the fact that Jones clearly didn’t put in the same training effort as some of the other Netflix Marvel superheroes, and you got yourself one dud of a performance.
18 BEN AFFLECK IN DAREDEVIL
When we read the foreword to the hardcover collection of Kevin Smith’s classic Daredevil story “Guardian Devil” by actor Ben Affleck, we thought that maybe the guy could do a good job if he put on the horns and picked the batons for a live action adaptation. But boy, were we wrong. Here’s the thing: Affleck excels when the material is strong.
He is an actor who does the best with what he’s given, but doesn’t have either the strength or the pull to elevate it to his level.
Such is the tragedy of Affleck’s portrayal of the titular character in the 2003 film Daredevil. You can tell Affleck wants to do the character justice, and maybe if the screenplay was better and the costume looked a little less goofy, he would have.
17 JESSICA ALBA IN THE FANTASTIC FOUR
Jessica Alba in no stranger to not quite nailing her comic book movie roles (let’s be honest, Nancy in the Sin City films was largely uninteresting and she was not helping the character). But her portrayal as Sue Storm in The Fantastic Four was both poorly executed and unwisely casted.
Now we are well-aware that in the early aughts, Alba was the “it girl.” She had a popular (albeit it short-lived) television show, a blossoming film career, and plenty of exposure in the tabloids. So wanting to cast her in the first big-screen adaptation (no, we do not count that Roger Corman schlock fest from 1994, by the way) of one of the most beloved comic books series ever published made a lot of sense. But she was poorly utilized. She did not carry herself as the de facto matriarch Sue Storm should have been.
16 SHAQUILLE O'NEAL IN STEEL
This one is so bizarre it almost doesn’t feel real. This literally sounds like one of those weird subconscious pop culture fever dreams we all agree happened even if there is no proof that it did. But the legendary Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O’Neal took up the hammer to portray the armored superhero John Henry Iron in the 1997 dumpster fire of a films, Steel. For real.
Steel was a critical and box office bomb.
Giving the reigns of a rather popular DC comics character at time to a 25-year old basketball star whose limited filmmaking experience garnered stinkers like Kazaam went about as well as you could imagine. And while the issues with Steel were manifold, one could argue that a different lead might have made a difference. We still admire Shaq’s love for the character and the larger Superman mythos, however.
15 MEILING MELANCON IN X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
The sheer number of issue plaguing X-Men: The Last Stand is astounding. For every one thing it gets right about the X-Men (Kelsey Grammar as Hank McCoy/Beast was an inspired casting choice) there are a dozen it gets horribly wrong (the Juggernaut, anyone?). But one of the biggest problems The Last Stand suffered was underutilizing pivotal characters from the comic books as simple window dressing.
Enter Meiling Melançon as Psylocke. Now, we aren’t completely certain what sort of direction or background on Betsy Braddock Melançon was given, but there is pretty much zero hallmarks of the character (with the exception of vaguely purple hair and eastern ethnicity) present in her portrayal. It’s hard to say if Melançon is really to blame. Perhaps if she was given more screen time in an already bloated superhero film, we may have seen more shades of Betsy.
14 TAYLOR KITSCH IN X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE
Heartthrob Taylor Kitsch gets somewhat of a bad rap regarding his role selections. This can be understandable seeing as how Kitsch has starred in some domestic stinkers that should have been blockbuster, star-making turns. Not every role he’s taken on has been poorly guided (he was incredible in Savages and compelling in True Detective), but one of the most befuddling he’s taken on is Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Now to be fair, Kitsch admits to not knowing a ton about the Ragin’ Cajun before accepting the role, which honestly should have been a red flag.
Lack of knowledge isn’t always a deal-breaker. Hugh Jackman literally didn’t know what a wolverine even was (hence all the growling) when he was cast in the first X-Men film, and now it’s hard to imagine anyone else behind those adamantium claws. Both cases further proves that in the end, knowledge is power.
13 JENNIFER GARNER IN DAREDEVIL
Frank Miller’s iconic femme fatale Elektra Natchios is one of the deadliest assassins ever to grace the pages of comics. She’s strong, cunning, and was a character of great agency that elevated her beyond the title of “just another one of Matt Murdock’s dead girlfriends.” Elektra is huge source of charisma and kinetic action in any scene she’s in. That’s why back in 2003, when the big screen adaptation of Daredevil hit theaters, we were stoked to see her come to life.
Sadly, the portrayal we got was performed by Jennifer Garner who, while a charming and talented actress in her own right, is about as “girl next door” as you can get. All the intrigue and exotic danger the character exudes was smothered out of the performance, which is a complete shame.
12 NICOLAS CAGE IN GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE
When Nicolas Cage is given free rein to go full “Cage” the results are a mixed bag. The Oscar-winning actor has one heck of a knack for chewing scenes like no one else, and when he’s under the direction of hyper-kinetic filmmakers Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (Crank, Gamer) the exhausting over-the-top acting chops of Cage go from mildly entertaining to absolutely insane.
In the 2011 sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Nic Cage takes his performance as the demonic, skeletal biker anti-hero to extremes that were laughably bad.
Every scene Cage was in felt like he was encouraged to give zero restraint. While the film is strangely enjoyable because of this, his performance made us long for a portrayal of Ghost Rider that had a little more nuance.
11 MATTHEW GOODE IN WATCHMEN
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen was divisive among fans. While many of the casting decisions in the film were praised (specifically, Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian), other characterizations of members of the titular superhero team left a lot to be desired. The most notable flub in the cast was Matthew Goode as Ozymandias.
Now, Matthew Goode is a fantastic actor and if there was no source material to base his performance as Adrian Veidt on, we would have thought he knocked it out of the park. But Goode’s take on the character has no nuance. His Ozymandias was pretty much the villain and nothing more. Any sort of struggle the character faced in the comic did not translate to the screen.
10 HENRY CAVILL IN BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE
Superman is arguably the more iconic and instantly recognizable superhero in the whole world. Even if you’ve never cracked open an issue of Action Comics, you know who that red S belongs to the moment you see it. Any actor who is tasked with playing the character has a lot to live up to, especially since he was so wonderfully portrayed by the late Christopher Reeve. When Henry Cavill earned the role of Kal-El in 2013’s Man of Steel, he brought a darker tone to the character that had never been explored in a film before.
Unfortunately, “emo-supes” didn’t fly well with fans.
By the end of the film, it seemed that Superman was learning to become the beacon of hope he was meant to be. But in the sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, whatever goodwill Cavill earned for Superman (and the audience, for that matter) was gone.
9 ANNA PAQUIN IN X-MEN
Look, Anna Paquin is an amazing actress. She earned an Academy Award at the age of 11, and followed that up by starring in a slew of (mostly) critically successful films. But it was her role in Bryan Singer’s film adaptation of X-Men that launched her into the geek culture peripheral. And maybe that wasn’t such a good thing…
Paquin’s portrayal of fan-favorite mutant Rogue was so far removed from the character in the comics, it felt like she was someone entirely different. Besides the Southern accent and power-draining abilities, this version of everyone’s beloved, skull-thumping Southern Belle fell flat with many fans. While the relationship Paquin conveyed with the other X-Men in the film (most notably Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine) felt genuine, she just simply wasn’t our Rogue. We hope maybe the character will get a mulligan in future films.
8 HALLE BERRY IN CATWOMAN
To call the 2004 film Catwoman a trainwreck would be a gross understatement. With its nonsensical plot, bad dialogue, choppy editing, and all around hammy performances, it’s no wonder in bombed at the box office and was savaged by critics and fans alike. One would think that casting Halle Berry (who had just come off from winning an Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball two years prior) in the titular role could be cool.
Well, it was not cool, and no amount of midriff costuming will convince us otherwise.
We can only blame Berry so much for the calamity that was Catwoman. She clearly had nothing to work with. Luckily Berry has been a good sport about the whole ordeal and even accepted her Razzie “Award” for worst actress, in person.
7 SCOTT ADKINS IN X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE
The fourth installment in the X-Men film franchise originally promised to be the beginning of standalone films that would focus on specific characters from the previous three films. This sounded like a great idea, especially when it was announced that Wolverine would be the subject of the first entry. Unfortunately, what we got was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, an awkwardly titled Wolverine “solo” film that introduced a slew of new characters that had not been in the previous X-Men films.
Among these new characters, was Ryan Reynolds as merc with a mouth, Wade Wilson. Reynolds did a good with what he had to work with and even though he wasn’t in a red jumpsuit, his demeanor was on point. However, when martial artists and B-Movie king, Scott Adkins took over as Weapon XI/Deadpool, any good standing with the character fans had was sewn up like Adkins’ mouth.
6 RYAN REYNOLDS IN GREEN LANTERN
The Internet houses tons of think pieces about how things got off on the wrong foot with the DCEU, Warner Bros. multi-film plan to bring the DC comic book universe to the big screen in a series of interconnected movies a la the MCU. And while there is plenty to debate about whether or not Man of Steel set the right tone, most fans can agree that several of the DC films that came before were a mess. 2011’s Green Lantern was one of these messes.
Casting Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan only exacerbated the film’s issues.
Green Lantern was a bloated big budget adaptation of a comic book that is packed with complex and cosmic mythology that, if left in the wrong hands, would come off as a bunch of gibberish to non-comic readers. Perhaps after the Deadpool debacle, Reynolds just wanted to play a superhero and it didn’t matter who.
5 MATTHEW SALINGER IN CAPTAIN AMERICA (1990)
The 1990 film Captain America is so bad it’s good…well, almost. It is at least laughably fun to watch with a group of like-minded friends. The action sequences look cheap, the acting is stale, and the plot is goofy, even for a Captain America story. But all of this could almost be forgiven is the lead actor has one ounce of charisma in the title role.
Matt Salinger, son of the reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger, was not well known when he took on the role of Steve Rogers. Only having been features in a few notable films like Revenge of the Nerds and Power, The Canon Group (a film company notorious for financing high-concept, low-budget films) took a wild swing in the dark in casting Salinger. And the result were…well, they weren’t great. The film was shelved for two years before finally being released direct-to-video.
4 TOBEY MAGUIRE IN SPIDER-MAN 3
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and its sequel are arguably two of the greatest comic book films ever committed to celluloid. They captured the campy, timeless tone of the Spider-Man comics of yesteryear, felt focused from a narrative stand point, and weren’t filled with tons of superfluous villains as an excuse the cram the films with action sequences and shoddy CGI.
The third installment in Rami’s trilogy, however, ignored what made the first two great and gave us arguably one of the most disappointing superhero films ever.
To make matters works, Spider-Man himself, actor Tobey Maguire seemed to have forgotten why we liked Peter Parker in the first place, and instead of having him struggle with the negative influence the Symbiote costume has on him, he leans into it. Any while a raging Peter Parker could be entertaining, what we got was a dancing, womanizing jerk who was just bratty and obnoxious.
3 VINCENT PEREZ IN THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS
Recasts in long-running film and television franchises are pretty much inevitable. Seeing new faces in the roles of familiar characters happens when actors “age out” of the part, or a prequel is being made and younger version of said character needs to be cast. Other times these recasts come at the behest of the story itself, like the lead in Doctor Who. We get new faces whenever it is needed.
But sadly, these recasts can happen because of a tragedy. During the production of 1994’s The Crow, Brandon Lee was accidentally killed on set. The film went on to become a cult hit. Two years later, The Crow: City of Angels was released, this time starring Vincent Perez as The Crow. While Perez’s character was not Eric Draven (Lee’s character from the first film), he had huge shoes to fill, which he simply couldn’t. Perez just didn’t have Lee’s charisma.
2 GEORGE CLOONEY IN BATMAN & ROBIN
Holy Bat-nipples! What more can be said about Joel Schumacher’s neon-drenched, campier than camp, big budget mess, Batman & Robin? The movie has been the butt of so many jokes, it almost feels hacky to dunk on the film any more…but here we go.
There is quite a lot of debate about who the best Batman is. Is it Michael Keaton, Christian Bale or maybe Kevin Conroy, but very little debate is had about who is the worst.
That dubious honor goes to none other than Oscar winning actor, writer and director George Clooney. Clooney looks absolutely ridiculous shuffling around in his rubber suit, and gives zero effort to distinguish his Bruce Wayne from his Batman. Clooney has gone on to admit that he took the role because he thought it would further his career, and has apologizes to fans for the abysmal performance.
1 PETER HOOTEN IN DR. STRANGE (1978)
Did you guys know that there was a 1978 Dr. Strange made-for-television film starring character actor Peter Hooten as Stephen Strange? Well if you didn’t, now you do, and we are sorry to be the ones to inform you, because this one is pretty bad, even by ‘70s CBS television budget standards.
Back in ’78 CBS wanted to capitalize on more Marvel Comics television adaptation since they already had two successful properties under their belts (The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Spider-Man). But the campy fun of those shows was nowhere to be found in Dr. Strange, which was essentially a two hour pilot for a proposed series. This was mostly due to the fact that Hooten’s Strange was so far removed from the source material, it was embarrassing. Not to mention the weird genie pants, Mr. T chains and smug expression didn’t make us warm up to Hooten.