Whenever a new hero prepares to make the leap from the page to the big screen (or any similar medium jump) the biggest question is always: who? Fans like to know their beloved characters are in good hands, and they’re never shy about making their opinions known. You get your mix of good and bad casting choices, but it takes a very special actor to make the leap into ‘definitive’, that special position where you struggle to picture anyone else in the role.
Having recently closed the door on Hugh Jackman’s run as Wolverine, it made sense to compile this list now. Below are ten actors (in no order) that did their characters justice and made it ‘their’ character. They’re the kind of performances that make you feel bad for whoever has to take on that role next. Are their other performances you could make an argument for being on this list? Absolutely, but I wanted to keep it to ten that resonated strongly with me personally.
Before we begin, I just want to preface this article with a comment. As much as it pains me to do it, there isn’t a ‘Batman’ on this list. That’s not to say Keaton or Bale wasn’t great (though you’d say that about Clooney) but they miss out because either could be considered the best Batman, and therefore they aren’t definitive. Also, even though it isn’t live action, Kevin Conroy will always be Batman to me.
Hugh Jackman – Wolverine
Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is old enough to drive, let that sink in (although ironically, not quite old enough to drink – depending on where you live). After seventeen years it seems Jackman is hanging up the claws, ending an incredible stint as perhaps now the most iconic X-Men character out there.
While his presence did cast a shadow over the storytelling at times, in a way that’s just a testament to how synonymous he has become as not only Wolverine, but as a part of the X-Men universe itself, to the point it’d seem wrong for anyone else to play the role. As Wolverine, Jackman has starred in three solo films, four X-Men films and cameo’d in another two. Only Robert Downey Jnr and Chris Evans, the latter who has played multiple superheroes, can come close to that kind of accomplishment.
The only real criticism you can throw on Jackman is his height – Wolverine in the comics is notoriously short, yet in live action Jackman stands taller than many of his co-stars. But it’s a small complaint when compared to his intensity, overall look and acting chops.
Robert Downey Jnr – Iron Man
Speaking of Downey, there are few people who have so perfectly encapsulated a character better than Robert Downey has as Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. The leading star of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ve seen him headline three solo films and two Avengers movies, with a substantial role incoming for the Spiderman: Homecoming film. He’s fun, brash, arrogant and deeply flawed, bringing with him a very humanising element for the character and a spitting image of the Tony Stark in the comics.
While Hugh Jackman might have had more appearances as Wolverine, it’s arguable Robert Downey Junior has been the most profitable iteration of a superhero, when you factor in the massive financial success of the two Avengers movies and Iron Man series, the third being the only solo Marvel movie to crack the $1 billion mark worldwide.
Heath Ledger – The Joker
This choice both is and isn’t controversial. It’s a rare voice that states that Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker was anything other than incredible – even managing to win the Oscar for best supporting actor. But at the same time, is his Joker definitive?
Many of the performances represented here are based on how well they capture the character that is so beloved in comics. But what Heath Ledger managed to accomplish in The Dark Knight was a re-invention. His Joker didn’t look like most Jokers, and didn’t carry himself like the Clown Prince of Crime many had been accustomed to. It was a massive risk, but when you see his portrayal, you can appreciate how he managed to do something completely unique with the most iconic comic villain in history while still staying true to the heart of the character.
In many ways he has shaped the modern interpretation of who The Joker is. And while some might prefer Nicholson’s version from 1989, nothing will ever compare to what stood opposite Christian Bale in The Dark Knight. It is a shame Heath passed away before the world could show their appreciation for the role, and also before we could see more of the character. But he left us with one of the most intense and unnerving performances we will probably ever get from a comic book movie. And because of that, it’s definitive in its own right.
Aaron Eckhart – Harvey Dent / Two Face
It’s easy to overlook Eckhart’s performance in the Dark Knight because of the overbearing power of Ledger’s Joker. But the transformation of Harvey Dent to Two Face is handled extremely well. To be able to cover it effectively over the course of one film is a testament to both director Christopher Nolan and Aaron Eckhart, but they manage to achieve it remarkably well. Maybe it helps that the only other Two Face we had on the big screen to compare it to was Tommy Lee Jones’ horrendous portrayal in Batman Forever, but Aaron Eckhart did a tremendous job with both sides of the complex villain, constantly evolving through the movie to show the necessary growth and conflict in Harvey’s life before finally snapping and living long enough to see himself become the villain.
Wesley Snipes – Blade
It might not be the most nuanced performance on this list, but I’d be lying if I can picture anyone else as Marvel’s number one vampire hunter. Wesley Snipes made superheroes cool in a time when they weren’t expected to be, and in many ways it serves as the prototype to many of the R rated superhero films we’ve been able to enjoy as of late. Even though it’s a little dated in places, the Blade movies were a lot of fun and Wesley Snipes was a big part of that.
He’s been gone from the big screen long enough that it wouldn’t surprise me if Marvel were considering rebooting the franchise, especially now both Deadpool and Logan have solidified the value of the R rating. But if it’s anyone but Snipes in the role, expect there to be plenty of backlash.
Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool
It’s worth noting I’m not counting the abomination from X-Men Origins: Wolverine, though Renyolds himself was pretty decent in the 5 minutes we got of a character that resembled Wade Wilson. That thing at the end…not Deadpool.
I never thought Deadpool would work as a major cinematic film. I figured the character would grow tiresome and be overplayed, better suited for shorter form comic issues. But I’m happy to swallow my pride and say I was dead wrong. Deadpool worked for the whole damn movie, and it’s clear that a lot of that comes down to Ryan Reynolds and his own love for the character. He looked dead on, and often I had to check I wasn’t reading straight from the comics. The character of Deadpool isn’t for everyone, but when this movie alone outclasses practically anything else Fox have produced, both in quality and money, you can’t help but take notice. Ryan Reynolds has embraced what makes Deadpool so great, going above and beyond the movie itself to cement the character, and his performance, in our minds.
Ellen Wong – Knives Chau
Ok look, I’m about as big a Scott Pilgrim fan as you can get, so including a Scott Pilgrim character here might seem like a bit of fanboyism – and you’d be absolutely right. But in a movie that had to strip down a lot of the deep characterisation of the graphic novels for the sake of a two hour action comedy narrative, Ellen Wong’s journey as a naïve and excitable school girl whose heart was broken to a strong self assured young woman is fantastic and rather underrated. A lot of the movie’s supporting cast nailed their roles in this movie, but none carried the importance that Knives did.
The movie is so frenetic and fast paced that it’s easy to miss any kind of real character depth, but even in the condensed time frame Knives is able to grow and develop, and more often than not the greatest strides here are achieved in the background of the main story. Thanks in part to Ellen’s performance, Knives ends up being the most interesting character in the movie – there’s a reason why so many people wanted Knives to end up with Scott rather than Ramona at the end of the movie. I’ve already expressed why I disagree with that, and I disagree in part because of that growth shown in the movie.
Hugo Weaving – V
A case could be made that of all the performances on this list, Hugo Weaving had the toughest job of the lot. Trying to carry a layered and character heavy narrative without one of an actor’s greatest assets – his face. Ryan Reynolds at least had a mask that could emote as Deadpool, but the symbolic Guy Fawkes mask is utterly expressionless, so for Weaving to put forth the performance he did is astounding.
James Purefoy was initially cast as V, but left the film six weeks into production because he was struggling with the role because it had to be done behind that type of mask. This led to Weaving taking the role, who ran with it and produced a fantastic rendition of one of Alan Moore’s finest pieces of literature. Theoretically it’d be re-cast the role given the actor is completely hidden behind the costume, but I don’t see anyone capturing the spirit of V quite like Hugo Weaving did.
Karl Urban – Dredd
I mentioned earlier that some of the great Batman performances effectively cancelled each other out. This definitely wasn’t the case with Judge Dredd. Prior to the underrated 2012 take on the character, all fans had of their cinematic Judge was the horrid rendition in 1995 starring Sylvester Stallone.
Thankfully the character would eventually be redeemed by Karl Urban, who captured the brutal and pragmatic style in the middle of a fun and bloody film. While Stallone’s performance certainly lifts Urban’s up by comparison, that doesn’t change the fact that this was the Judge Dredd we needed on the big screen. On the surface it seems like a pretty basic character, but Urban managed to make the most of some limited oppourtunities for expression, and his chemistry with rookie Judge Anderson (played by Olivia Thirlby, who also did a great job) brought a lot to the table. And while it is a shame the movie never picked up the necessary groundswell to get a sequel, we at least got one great performance to enjoy.
Christopher Reeve – Superman
No matter which side of the fence you might sit on when it comes to the recent cinematic take on the legendary Man of Steel, there’s no denying that the role was already executed to near perfection decades ago. Christopher Reeve made the character his own, and further cemented Superman as one of the most important figures in pop culture history. All other comic book portrayals inevitably come back to this one. Sure he had the basic look, but like Superman he wasn’t one to take shortcuts, refusing to wear fake muscles under his spandex suit, instead choosing to earn them and going through a strict training regimen to bulk up his lean frame.
I like what Henry Cavill is doing with his take on the character, but when you think of a live action Superman, it’s hard not to think of Reeve, who looks like he was basically cut out of the pages and pasted onto the big screen. There have been quite a few to put on the cape, but nobody’s embodied the Man of Steel like Christopher Reeve.