The superhero genre has thus far defined the 21st century blockbuster. In other news, rain is wet. Seriously, it’s amazing that this subculture that used to be the haven for the ridiculed and the obsessive has become the most popular cultural phenomenon of the millennium. And a large part of that is that Hollywood, that great machine that chews up dreams and spits out millions, has finally started seeing the value in taking superheroes seriously. Big name actors were suddenly falling over each other to play characters with capes and cowls.
But Hollywood is a fickle thing and for each vapid success like Robert Downey Jr., there’s an actor who gave it their all to bring a superhero to the big screen and, for one reason or another, just didn’t make the cut and lasted only a single film before being dropped faster than kryptonite. In various situations, this is either a shame or a good business and creative decision. Now, characters that die in their films don’t count for this list because the actors wouldn’t be able to return to the role if they wanted to. With that in mind, here are some of the biggest actors to star in one superhero movie before Hollywood forgot they existed.
15 TERRENCE HOWARD
Terrence Howard is something of an enigma. Ostensibly, he’s a good actor with an intense screen presence that’s launched him into stardom. He’s also absolutely crazy, though you wouldn’t know it from how he composes himself. In the first Iron Man, the progenitor of the MCU, he played the prototype of Colonel James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes. Howards was actually pretty good, forming a grounding but supportive foil to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark. He even gave us a pretty cool tease of War Machine.
However, a pay dispute between films cut him out of any subsequent sequels.
Though he’s been kept busy by numerous projects since, none of them have involved superheroes. Which is weirdly a shame because, despite being, again, absolutely crazy, he is a terrific actor. But at the same time, we probably shouldn’t take him away from Empire.
14 BRANDON ROUTH
Despite being one of the bigger superhero movie disappointments, it makes an almost alarming amount of sense as to why Brandon Routh was cast as Superman in 2006’s Superman Returns. Though his dramatic range is limited and his physique unimpressive, Routh does look eerily like the late, great Christopher Reeves. And seeing as how Superman Returns is supposedly a direct continuation of the classic Reeves/Donner Superman films, finding someone who looked the part was important.
But the film, while not being outright terrible, didn’t satisfy audiences and flopped hard. As a result, Hollywood in general has been a stranger to Routh, often relegating him to smaller, comedy cameos. Since then, however, he’s flourished as a TV star. Apart from his extended roles on Chosen and Partners, Routh is currently killing it in the CW’s Arrowverse, his first return to the superhero genre.
13 TAYLOR KITSCH
It really does boggle the mind when you think about Taylor Kitsch’s career as an actor. In spite of having no discernible talent, barely-there charisma, and little screen presence, he’s somehow still around based solely on his ability to have and maintain a solid six-pack.
And unfortunately, his path took a significant detour when he played Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Kitsch couldn’t even be bothered to stick to a Cajun accent for his five minutes of screen time, during which he made no real impact on the plot and was one of the worst parts of one of the worst superhero movies. Though he’s been involved with numerous action movies since this utter dud, he hasn’t been allowed to touch anything superhero related. Good, keep it up Hollywood.
12 VAL KILMER
It was hard to decide which was the worse Batman, Val Kilmer in Batman Forever or George Clooney in Batman and Robin. Ultimately, Kilmer makes the cut because Hollywood still loves Clooney, whereas poor Val seems to have fallen off the radar completely, due in no small part to his pathetic turn as the Dark Knight. The better received of the universally loathed Joel Schumacher Batman films, Batman Forever featured Batman going up against Two-Face and the Riddler in the campiest outing since the more laudable '60s version.
Kilmer was asleep on-screen, delivering each line with a faded monotone that can only be emulated by jaded old retirees and high-schoolers. He hasn’t revisited the genre since, which is probably for the best because, even though Kilmer’s a competent actor, Batman as a character deserves more respect than he gave it.
11 LIEV SCHREIBER
X-Men Origins: Wolverine is an almost unmitigated dumpster fire of a movie, one so bad that making fun of it has become a sort of rite of passage for other genre films. But one of the few bright spots it presented was Liev Schreiber as Sabretooth. Schreiber seemingly understood how horrible the movie was going to be and decided to have fun with it, hamming it up as the secondary villain, here reimagined as a sadistic psychopath driven by an egotistical need to be better than Wolverine.
Though he certainly played the part better than Tyler Mane did in the original X-Men, he was not asked back nor has he played a comic character since.
Which makes sense because no matter how entertaining Schreiber was in the role, nobody was going to walk out of that movie without a chip on their shoulder.
10 BRIAN COX
It’s kind of strange to think that Brian Cox is the best actor who’s played the scheming Colonel William Stryker in the X-Men franchise, but he’s only ever done it once; in X2: X-Men United. Though the character died off-screen in that film, the character appeared in Days of Future Past, Apocalypse, and Origins: Wolverine. That last one even had famed character actor Danny Huston in the role, giving it the perfect amount of ham to make it one of the more forgivable aspects of the movie.
But none of them even looked like Brian Cox, the originator of the role. Which is a real shame because Cox brought a much-needed air of gravitas and operatic weight to the part that made him stand out in the film. Since then, Cox hasn’t been involved with any superhero production, a mistake that someone really needs to rectify.
9 MICHELLE PFEIFFER
Tim Burton’s Batman Returns received mixed reviews from people who’d been eager to see a sequel of one of the defining movies in the superhero genre, but one thing everyone managed to agree on was that Michelle Pfeiffer as the psychotic Catwoman was one of the coolest things ever put to celluloid. She was smooth, charismatic, and sexy, more gender-flipped James Bond then villain.
After the film, a Catwoman solo movie was planned for years, with Pfeiffer jumping off and on the project for most of the '80s.
Though that eventually floundered with disastrous results, Pfeiffer has never been given the superhero treatment since, despite there being numerous roles in the MCU and DCEU that she could excel at. To be fair, Pfeiffer has bad memories of Catwoman, reportedly passing out numerous times due to the skin-tight costume, so she probably wants to keep the genre at an arm’s distance.
8 RICHARD PRYOR
Inarguably one of the most influential comedians of all time, Richard Pryor’s involvement in the production of Superman III was about as calculated a move as you could make. Pryor was still in his comedic prime and the producers wanted to make the film more humor base than its predecessors. As Gus Gorman, Pryor played a hapless goon-turned-geek who unwittingly helps the main villain of the piece commit financial terrorism and even make a kryptonite ray that can kill Superman.
Because he had to keep his improvisations family friendly, Pryor’s comedy felt insanely confined and limited. He also wasn’t much of an actor. Nobody believed that Gus Gorman was real, they just saw Richard Pryor trying really hard not to swear. It’s probably for the best that he wasn’t brought back for Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, but he dodged just as big a bullet in the process.
7 BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD
The Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies don’t have a lot to apologize for. Even if you hate Spider-Man 3, the first two films set the bar for what a colorful, faithful comic book movie could be and are revered works of blockbuster cinema. But one underappreciated part of the less beloved third installment was Bryce Dallas Howard as Gwen Stacy. To be fair, she was forgettable by design.
She was written into multiple love triangles, wasn’t given much screen time, and didn’t even resolve any major storylines.
But Howard is a talented actress and made the best should could of a fairly minor role. She hasn’t tried her hand at superhero movies since, but she could easily make a triumphant return to the genre, especially if she was given a more substantive role that she could make her own.
6 EDWARD NORTON
To say that Edward Norton is pretentious is like saying that Wes Anderson has a slavish devotion to his own cinematic style. Both statements are true and largely due to the other. In 2008, Norton tried his hand at superhero movies by starring in The Incredible Hulk, the second film in the fledgling Marvel Cinematic Universe. All in all, the film itself wasn’t all that bad. It had the action, atmosphere, and character building that we’ve come to expect from Marvel productions. Even Norton wasn’t terrible as Bruce Banner.
The problems were apparently all behind the camera, where Norton reportedly acted like a prima donna and perfectionist, even going so far as to interfere with Louis Leterrier’s direction. A contract dispute following the movie cut off all ties between Norton and Marvel Studios. The closest he’s gotten to the genre since was 2014’s Academy Award-winning Birdman.
5 CHRISTOPHER WALKEN
Max Shreck was a character created specifically for Batman Returns. He was a villainous businessman whose delusions of grandeur and corporate machinations drove a large part of the plot. Overall, a fairly onenote character who should have been pretty forgettable. But he was played by Christopher freaking Walken, the man who somehow mispronounces half the words he says and is still more awesome than you will ever be.
Any character he has ever played has been elevated to a ridiculous level because of his coolness.
Need proof? Max Shreck actually dies in the film and should therefore be excluded from this list, but he earns a place on it because he was played by Christopher Walken, who, staggeringly, hasn’t been in a superhero movie since. Seriously, if Marvel doesn’t scoop him up to play a major part in its next MCU phase, then they’re just throwing away money.
4 DANE DEHAAN
In 2014, it seemed like Dane Dehaan was going to be the next big thing. He was a revelation in Kill Your Darlings opposite Daniel Radcliffe, was a welcome cameo on True Blood, and, most relevantly, offered up a reinvention of the superhero genre in the indie film Chronicle. But then he was cast in the desirable role of Harry Osborn in the doomed Amazing Spider-Man 2 and his rising star ran headfirst into a roadblock.
His demure, almost laidback style of acting clashed hard with the character’s inner conflict and he struggled mightily to act through the weird goblin makeup. Since then, Hollywood has been hesitant to give him prominent roles. It recently gave him a second chance by letting him star in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which was poorly received as Amazing Spider-Man 3 would have been.
3 JANUARY JONES
X-Men: First Class is one of the few inarguably good X-Men movies, due in no small part to having a stellar cast that came prepared to give respect to the source material. But one bizarre inclusion was January Jones as classic X-Men villain Emma Frost. The White Queen seemed to have been shoehorned into the film and it’s fairly obvious that she was intended to have a much smaller part but her screen time was boosted because she was played by that girl from Mad Men.
Jones isn’t a bad actor, per say, but it’s clear that the film was trying to put her into as many scenes as it rationally could, and the film overall suffers because of it.
Not enough to make it a bad movie, but enough to convince Jones that the superhero genre probably wasn’t for her.
2 ALAN CUMMING
X2: X-Men United is widely considered the best of the initial X-Men movie trilogy and Alan Cumming’s performance as Nightcrawler. He had fascinatingly good chemistry with the entire cast, he was expressive enough to emote through thick makeup, and his delivery in a reedy German accent was basically canned charisma. He was a lot of peoples’ favorite character in the film, so it was surprising that he wasn’t included in the franchise’s subsequent installments.
According to rumor, producers originally included Nightcrawler in X-Men 3: The Last Stand, but it was significantly smaller than he’d had previously. After numerous script edits, the part was cut to save time and money. Still, it’s annoying that Cumming turned in such a stellar performance and nobody’s thought to give him a second shot in the superhero genre since.
1 ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER
For most of his storied career, Arnold Schwarzenegger didn’t have to play a superhero because he pretty much was one in real life. The former Mr. Olympia has always had a staggering physique and consistently improved as an actor from project to project, making him a Hollywood darling that audiences could fully embrace.
He should have been the perfect candidate for a superhero role.
But unfortunately the only comic book movie in his filmography is Batman & Robin where he played the notoriously pun-tastic Mr. Freeze. One of the most tragic characters in Batman’s Rogues Gallery was portrayed as a one-line throwing, nonsense-plan having, broken English speaking, stupid looking, blue-skinned robot. And suddenly, people wanted to keep Arnold as far away from comic books as possible, a mission we’ve been collectively successful at since 1997.