With the release of the 1949 film serial, Batman and Robin, two things were established in the world of superhero films. One, it was the first sequel to a superhero film (it followed up 1943's film serial, Batman) and two, it was the first time that a major superhero role was recast (all of the roles from the original Batman serial were recast, with Robert Lowery taking over from Lewis Wilson as Batman). In the years since, both concepts have been constants with superhero films -- there are as many sequels as they can wring out of the material and they will recast whenever necessary.
Recasts have become a bigger deal in the modern era, where whole Cinematic universes have popped up, making the replacement of key actors stand out more in the context of the shared universe. Still, practicality often demands casting changes, so recasting continues to occur. Here, we will spotlight eight instances where a recasting in a superhero film series worked and seven times where it failed. Note that we're not counting reboots (like Man of Steel, Batman Begins and Spider-Man: Homecoming) as recasting, and we are also not counting prequels as recasting (like the current X-Men films casting younger versions of all of the X-Men characters). We're just talking films set within the same continuity as the earlier films in the series.
15 WORKED: MARK RUFFALO AS BRUCE BANNER
When Marvel began producing its own movies, its second film was actually sort of a sequel to one that had been created before the creation of Marvel Studios, 2003's The Hulk. While The Incredible Hulk was initially an outright sequel, the film's star, Edward Norton, dramatically rewrote the screenplay to make it closer to a reboot than anything else. Norton did a fine job as Bruce Banner in the film, giving him a nice, quiet sense of dread.
However, when Norton couldn't come to terms with Marvel on sequels, he was replaced by Mark Ruffalo, who has been a revelation in the role, giving Bruce Banner a surprising amount of humor to match the standard pathos of the character. Norton would have been fine in the role, but Ruffalo has been an improvement.
14 FAILED: KATE BOSWORTH AS LOIS LANE
We certainly don't mean to suggest that Margot Kidder was old when she played Lois Lane in the original Superman film, as she was not even 30 at the time of filming. However, she had a certain amount of "adult" gravitas to her performance. This was no ingenue. Lois Lane was a grown woman who knew how to handle herself with anyone.
That's why it is still baffling why Bryan Singer decided to go with a 22-year-old Kate Bosworth to play Lois Lane in Superman Returns, which was set up as a sequel to the original Christopher Reeve films. Many fans felt Bosworth was too young to play the character, but was exceptionally miscast when you take into account that she was playing a Lois who had had a five-year-old son with Superman. What, was she in high school when she slept with Superman?
13 WORKED: DON CHEADLE AS JAMES RHODES
In the original Iron Man film, Terrence Howard did an excellent job at playing James "Rhodey" Rhodes, the best friend of (and military liaison to) Tony Stark. However, he was not brought back for the second film over a monetary disagreement. Howard later claimed that they had wanted Don Cheadle all along (and then cut his salary to get him to quit) and they succeeded in getting Cheadle for Iron Man 2 and for the films since.
Cheadle plays Rhodey as a good deal more world-weary than Howard and that plays off of the mercurial Tony Stark (as played by Robert Downey Jr.) a lot better than the higher-energy Howard. Cheadle has been excellent in the role and might last in the Marvel Cinematic Universe longer than Tony Stark even, depending on what happens in Avengers: Infinity War!
12 FAILED: GEORGE CLOONEY AS BATMAN
Val Kilmer had a nearly impossible task to step into the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman after Michael Keaton had just starred in two hit films as the character and had become almost synonymous with the character. However, while Kilmer did not necessarily make people forget about Keaton, he at least filled in admirably and few people left Batman Forever thinking, "Oh man, Val Kilmer ruined things!"
That was not so much the case for the next film, with George Clooney stepping into the Bat-suit (complete with Bat-nipples, for some reason) to take over the role. Clooney is a fine actor, but he decided to play Batman in a sort of Adam West-riff that did not at all fit with the way that Keaton and Kilmer had played the role. He surely wasn't the worse part of Batman and Robin, but nor was he particularly good, either.
11 WORKED: ELLEN PAGE AS KITTY PRYDE
This might be a bit of an unfair comparison, since the role of Kitty Pryde changed dramatically from the first two X-Men films to X-Men: The Last Stand, but at the same time, the improvement was still dramatic. Sumela Kay has essentially just a cameo in the first X-Men film, while Katie Stuart slightly expanded the role in X2: X-Men United to a small part (she was one of the students that we see reacting to the invasion of the X-Mansion in the film by Stryker's forces).
Then, in X-Men: The Last Stand, Kitty, now played by Ellen Page, is a romantic rival for Iceman with Rogue and has a memorable sequence where she stands up against the unstoppable Juggernaut in order to save a young mutant, Leech, who is being used for a mutant "cure." Page gave Kitty an excellent spirit and would reprise the role in Days of Future Past.
10 FAILED: LEE MERIWETHER AS CATWOMAN
This one is a bit tricky, since the role being recast was from a television series, but it was one that was being adapted directly into a film while the series was still going on. This was something that has very rarely happened in popular culture. The first X-Files film is the only other example that comes to mind. So basically what we're saying is, it still counts!
Lee Meriwether was Miss America in 1955, but she was fighting a losing battle when she stepped into the catsuit of the queen of sultry, Julie Newmar, for the 1966 Batman movie when Newmar, who originated the role, was not available to do the film version that aired after Season 1 ended. The show quickly went back to Newmar for Season 2. When producers got a new Catwoman in Season 3, they smartly went with a completely different direction with Eartha Kitt.
9 WORKED: MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL AS RACHEL DAWES
While people still remember Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah Winfrey's couch to express how in love he was with his then-new girlfriend, Katie Holmes, they sometimes forget that that whole deal took place during Katie Holmes' promotional tour for her new movie, Batman Begins. In it, she played Bruce Wayne's childhood love, Rachel Dawes, who he meets up with again when he returns to Gotham City to become Batman.
When it came time for the sequel to Batman Begins, though, Holmes passed up the role to star instead in Mad Money (a female-driven heist film with Diane Keaton and Queen Latifah). The recast role was hotly contested and Maggie Gyllenhaal won the coveted role and was brilliant as Dawes in The Dark Knight, giving her a greater sense of seriousness than Holmes did in Batman Begins.
8 FAILED: LIV TYLER AS BETTY ROSS
As noted before, The Incredible Hulk, while beginning as a sequel, ended up being more like a reboot. However, since it was technically still a sequel (there are a number of references within the film to the previous one), we'll count the recasting of Betty Ross, Bruce Banner's love interest, with Liv Tyler in place of Jennifer Connelly.
This is a tough one, because both actresses took very different approaches to the character, so it is difficult to say which one necessarily did it better. In the end, though, we think that Connelly's more serious approach fit the role better than Tyler's more lively take on the Betty/Bruce dynamic. It's essentially impossible to choose between Sam Elliot and William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross in the two films, but we think Connelly is a clear enough "winner" in the Betty showdown.
7 WORKED: HUGH JACKMAN AS WOLVERINE
When we talk about recasting superhero roles, we almost always mean after a film has been completed. However, that is not necessarily the only way for a character to be recast, which was made very clear in the first X-Men film. You see, Dougray Scott had beaten Hugh Jackman (and others) out for the role of Wolverine in X-Men. However, due to the filming of Mission Impossible 2 (in which Scott played the villain) going well over its original schedule, Scott had to reluctantly quit X-Men. It had nothing to do with a minor injury that Scott suffered early in the Mission Impossible 2 filming.
Jackman, of course, went on to become the definitive Wolverine, playing him in a remarkable nine X-Men films. We don't doubt that Scott would have done a fine job, but come on, no one is Wolverine like Hugh Jackman is Wolverine.
6 FAILED: TOMMY LEE JONES AS HARVEY DENT
One of the most notable superhero film "What If...?"s is what if Billy Dee Williams was able to fulfill his destiny and continue his performance as Harvey Dent throughout the Batman series of films and eventually become Two-Face. We don't know for sure that Williams would have been able to pull the role off (it is not like Williams has starred in a whole lot of notable films since Return of the Jedi), but it is hard to imagine that he would have been worse than Tommy Lee Jones in Batman Forever.
Now, do note that Tommy Lee Jones is a brilliant actor and is certainly as accomplished as Billy Dee Williams, if not more so, but his role as Two-Face was ridiculously silly. In any case, one would imagine that Williams would have been somewhat more restrained in the role. Williams finally got to play Two-Face in The Batman Lego Movie!
5 WORKED: LIEV SCHREIBER AS SABRETOOTH
In the first X-Men film, producers went with Tyler Mane to play Sabretooth. A former professional wrestler and stuntman, Mane was cast due to his incredibly imposing physique. It's the same reason why he played Michael Myers in Rob Zombie's Halloween remakes. So if all you're going for is for someone to look scary and seem like he could beat up Wolverine, then Mane is your guy.
If, however, you want a Sabretooth who can be psychologically menacing and still look like he could scrap with Wolverine, then you would have to go with Liev Schreiber's take on the character, which debuted in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Hugh Jackman was a big fan of Schreiber's performance and offered him a role in Logan, as well. Unfortunately, Schreiber was busy with his TV series, Ray Donovan, and the direction of Logan changed, so he didn't appear in the movie.
4 FAILED: ANYONE BUT BRANDON LEE AS THE CROW
The 1994 film, The Crow, based on James O'Barr's indie comic book series about a grim superhero, was a surprise smash hit, earning $50 million (which was huge money for an independent superhero film). Sadly, the success of the movie was bittersweet because the film's star, Brandon Lee (son of famed martial artist and actor Bruce Lee), was tragically killed during the filming of the movie.
The film's success, though, dictated that they try sequels, and there have been three attempts at sequels over the years, with diminishing returns on each of them, from Vincent Perez's The Crow: City of Angels in 1996 to Eric Mabius' The Crow: Salvation in 2000 to Edward Furlong's The Crow: Wicked Prayer in 2005. No one has yet been able to recapture Brandon Lee's performance.
3 WORKED: ZACHARY LEVI AS FANDRAL
For such a relatively minor role, Fandral has had himself quite a series of casting changes. Originally set to be played by Zachary Levi in Thor, Levi had to bow out when his television series, Chuck, saw its third season expanded from 13 episodes to 19 episodes. Stuart Townsend then took over the role. However, Townsend then dropped out of the film himself, using the age old "creative differences" excuse. Finally, Josh Dallas stepped in and did a fine job in Thor.
When the sequel came out, though, Dallas was himself too busy with his TV series, Once Upon a Time, so Levi got a second chance and he stepped up and took over the role. While Dallas was fine, we think Levi improved on Dallas' performance by playing Fandral slightly more flamboyant, because Levi has more experience as a comedic actor and that showed in Thor: The Dark World.
2 FAILED: FRANK LANGELLA AS PERRY WHITE
In general, Bryan Singer's casting for Superman Returns, the continuation of the original Superman series of films from the 1970s and 1980s, was fine. Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey weren't going to make you forget Christopher Reeve and Gene Hackman any time soon, but nor were they so bad that you would term them "failures." Similarly, Sam Huntington's Jimmy Olsen was about as memorable as Marc McClure's, which is to say, neither were going to make much of an impression on you.
However, while the Kate Bosworth casting as Lois Lane was a memorable misstep, so too was going with the laconic Frank Langella to replace Jackie Cooper as Perry White (Cooper himself stepped in for Keenan Wynn at the last moment after Wynn suffered a heart attack). Langella is a wonderful actor, but he really doesn't do "blustery" well and that's 90% of what Perry White is about.
1 WORKED: AARON STANFORD AS PYRO
Alexander Burton gets a bit of a raw deal here, because his performance as Pyro in the original X-Men film was more of an extended cameo than anything else. Pyro was originally going to be part of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in the first film, but he was removed due to budget concerns (lots of stuff got removed due to budget concerns, including Danger Room sequences).
When the role expanded in X2: X-Men United, Aaron Stanford was brought in to take over the role. While Stanford was not exactly acting up a storm in the film (by the time Pyro betrays the X-Men and joins the Brotherhood, most fans likely thought, "And we care why, exactly?"), but he was a significant improvement over Burton's minor role.