As far as creating an apparently never ending cash cow of a film franchise goes, it’s hard to imagine any one studio or comic series doing as good of a job as the Marvel Cinematic Universe has done in the past ten years. Superheroes have always been pretty good business, but the MCU managed to take that from pretty good to a business empire that has managed to take a chunk out of every corner of the entertainment industry and turn an enormous profit from it. One big reason that they’ve found so much success is that they’ve paid attention to their audiences and continue to keep every aspect of every film or TV show under pretty sharp control and supervision. It’s clear that their long-term plans for their franchise will be paying off for years or even decades to come.
But even comic book experts can’t make the perfect choices 100% of the time, and while they’ve certainly made some smash hit decisions in the past, they also have some pretty big misses in their history books. Creating a successful comic is almost entirely about the writing, but creating a popular film character that can last over a series of movies is a whole other animal. Unsurprisingly, one of the most if not the most important aspect of that is choosing the right actor for the role that can win audiences over and make their work iconic. And while some of the stars of the MCU have managed to take their characters and films farther than anyone ever expected, some of them have been major misses.
20 Fits: Robert Downey Jr.
When it comes to actors who portray their roles well, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Robert Downey Jr. has, with his streak of performances as Iron Man. Obviously, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an enormous franchise with more actors and characters that you can count, but if there is one actor who deserves more credit for the success of the Marvel films, it would be pretty much impossible to say anyone besides Downey Jr.
Iron Man was really the first Marvel movie out of the gate, and luckily for Marvel, it wound up being a smash hit.
And while Iron Man was a relatively well-known superhero, he certainly wasn’t an iconic character that everyone in the world knew of until the first Iron Man film came out, and frankly, if The Incredible Hulk hadn’t been bookended by the super successful first and second entries into the Iron Man franchise, the MCU might not have made it nearly as far as it has. And while the MCU has now become home to a legion of successful film franchises, I think it’s safe to say that no one person is more emblematic of the entire cinematic universe than RDJ.
19 Doesn’t Fit: Scarlett Johansson
After the success of The Avengers and the rest of the Marvel franchise, Natasha Romanoff has become one of Marvel’s most well-known characters, and because of the success of the Marvel films, the actress, Scarlett Johansson, has become one of the highest-paid actresses in the entertainment industry. Not to mention, a lot of film fans have been asking about a Black Widow movie and why that hasn’t happened yet for years. So what could the deal possibly be? Well, one of the obvious options is that, quite frankly, Scarlett Johansson is a mediocre actress who is especially flat as the rogue Russian spy.
The character certainly has an interesting enough story and backstory to make a solo film work, but from what we’ve seen on screen it doesn’t seem like Black Widow is charismatic enough to launch an entire movie or an entire franchise.
Unfortunately, the only chasm between the comic book character and film character seems to be the actress performing that character and what her capabilities really are. She might be passable as one of the supporting characters in the never-ending MCU movies, but it’s actually not that much of a shock that Marvel has avoided a Black Widow movie for so long.
18 Fits: Chadwick Boseman
Marvel’s cinematic adaptation of Black Panther was one of the most intensely anticipated Marvel films that the studio has ever made, and luckily for everyone, the film was more than worth the wait. Black Panther has gone on to become one of the most successful entries in the MCU franchise, and it is actually the most successful Marvel film that has focused on one single superhero.
That would be impressive under any circumstances, but the fact that Black Panther managed to achieve that in its first instalment is incredible. The relatively unknown character of T’Challa and the actor, Chadwick Boseman, managed to find such huge success is really a first in the MCU.
As the new king of Wakanda T’Challa’s path moving forward seems simple enough, but once his long lost cousin Erik Killmonger shows up and the people of Wakanda seem to waiver on T’Challa things become a bit more complicated. And Boseman said that he tried to make T’Challa a complex character who was more an anti-hero than a hero, which certainly made his introduction into the rest of the MCU more interesting and created a character who could sustain their own narrative pretty much right out of the gate.
17 Doesn’t Fit: Edward Norton
If Robert Downey Jr. was the actor who cemented the success of the MCU, Edward Norton is probably the actor who put the franchise at the most risk. Norton is a fine actor on his own, but his interpretation of Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk left a lot to be desired, and that was apparently mostly his doing.
Marvel has seemed to have a tough time launching the Hulk as a character until they found success with Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers, but supposedly, Edward had some really strong opinions about what directions the character should be going in and was unwilling to back down.
This is probably why the end result was a mediocre film and a complete revamping of all things involving the Hulk. And while Norton certainly knows a lot about acting, it’s fair to say that the producers of the Marvel films are probably much more familiar with the ins and outs of their characters than the random actor they’ve hired to play that character. And in the years since the MCU has found so much success, they’ve become pretty notorious about tightly controlling every aspect of the franchise, and one has to wonder if The Incredible Hulk had anything to do with that.
16 Fits: Hayley Atwell
When it comes to creating romantic relationships in a film, it seems really easy to let the main character become the total focal point of the story and let the main character’s significant other become nothing more than that character’s significant other. But Captain America: The First Avenger swung to the complete opposite side of the spectrum with their leading lady, Peggy Carter, who was a successful and well-developed enough character that she even wound up with her own TV show after her tenure in the Marvel films appeared to be over. Captain America managed to put a really interesting spin on the typical film relationship dynamics, with Peggy being the high ranking expert and Steve being the character with gumption that is being guided into greatness, and of course, Peggy was ultimately the founder of one of the anchors of the MCU, S.H.I.E.L.D.
But clearly, the success of Peggy Carter as a character depended on finding an actress who could portray her well, and English actress, Hayley Atwell, certainly proved herself as a more than worthy leading lady.
Atwell was also saddled with the unenviable task of portraying Peggy throughout her entire life, which is a big ask for an actress but one that she handled with ease.
15 Doesn’t Fit: Terrence Howard
If there’s one thing that the Marvel filmmaking teams seem to have a real knack for, it’s seeing when certain elements of their films aren’t working and figuring out a way to fix that problem as swiftly and easily as possible. And the first and most obvious instance of that was probably when they ditched actor, Terrence Howard, in favor of Don Cheadle to play Iron Man’s BFF, James “Rhodey” Rhodes, after the first instalment into the Iron Man franchise. According to Howard’s own account of his firing, Robert Downey Jr. pushed for the actor to be replaced in the Iron Man sequel so that he could make a bigger paycheck, but it’s fair to say that Howard’s interpretation of the situation may be dubious at best.
Terrence’s reputation as an actor is not a great one, and rumor has it that he was difficult to deal with on set and that propelled the studio to replace him with another actor.
And considering that Don Cheadle has now played Rhodey in multiple instalments in the MCU franchise it seems reasonable to assume that RDJ was not trying to push out other actors in order to get a piece of their paychecks for himself.
14 Fits: Chris Hemsworth
Chris Hemsworth wasn’t really a known actor when he was first cast as Thor, but after taking one look at him, it was immediately apparent why he was the perfect actor to play the Scandinavian god of thunder. On looks alone, it’s hard to imagine anyone who could look more appropriate for the job than Chris Hemsworth does, and luckily for the MCU he also had the chops to pull off Thor as a character. Superheroes can very easily veer from cool to silly, and especially someone like Thor can come off as cartoonish and cheesy in the wrong hands. But Hemsworth has so far managed to play the character with the necessary humor, earnestness, and sincerity to sell him as a character that the audience can relate to as well as selling the idea that he’s an immortal god. Thor was another well known Marvel hero that wasn’t as iconic as some of their other properties, but the Thor film franchise wound up being another Marvel dark horse that managed to take a middle of the road character and make him into one of the iconic faces of all Marvel media. Clearly, some seriously solid casting contributed to that success.
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13 Doesn’t Fit: Elizabeth Olsen
When it comes to potentially awesome female characters in the Marvel franchise, Scarlet Witch is easily one with seemingly limitless potential, and actress, Elizabeth Olsen, is a more than capable performer. So what exactly is so wrong with Scarlet Witch? Well, like a few other Marvel characters, she has unfortunately been whitewashed for the MCU and the omission of her Romani heritage has understandably rubbed some people the wrong way. When it comes to characters that exist within the X-Men universe and characters that are biologically or narratively related to Magneto, it’s more than a little absurd to ignore their own personal history, especially if that history puts them into an oppressed part of humanity.
Whitewashing is tone deaf and unnecessary in any average circumstance, but erasing the social history of one of Magneto’s children basically misses the entire point of the character and their background in the first place. Reimagining a character in this case is a little ridiculous, but what makes Olsen’s performance stand out in a particularly negative light is that, while Wanda is never explicitly Romani in the films, she certainly does have an over the top Eastern European accent and vaguely gypsy-like presentation, so while they’re not comfortable with exploring the Maximoff’s culture they seem to have no problem exploiting their stereotype.
12 Fits: Mark Ruffalo
Mark Ruffalo definitely isn’t the first actor to take a shot at making Bruce Banner into a broadly appealing film lead, and actors, Eric Bana and Edward Norton, are no slouches in the acting skills department, so Mark’s ability to finally play an Incredible Hulk that works well as a dimensional character and that audiences seem to really enjoy is no small feat. And considering how popular the Hulk has been as one of Marvel’s main comic heroes, you’d think that it would be easy as pie to make him a great film character that the audience would love, but the MCU’s attempt at a Hulk has consistently fallen flat until Ruffalo took over the role.
Surely, one of the things that makes Ruffalo’s version of Bruce Banner so easy to love is that the actor naturally gives off the impression that he wouldn’t hurt a fly, which makes the contrast of the uncontrollable Hulk even starker. But what probably has given Mark the edge over the other actors and their performances, is the fact that while he plays Banner like the tragic hero he’s meant to be, he also brings a lot of humor and relatability to the role.
11 Doesn’t Fit: Jeremy Renner
As far as film characters go, Hawkeye probably isn’t the worst, but in a world of superheroes, he certainly fails to stand out. When it comes to the MCU, it’s clear that every character is expected to be extraordinary, but aside from being an awesome archer, there’s really nothing about Clint Barton that makes him extra memorable, in fact, a lot of the other members of the Avengers team not only can bring what Hawkeye brings to the table, but they actually do better and bring more of it than Hawkeye does. And that, unfortunately, seems to hold true when it comes to Jeremy Renner’s performance of Hawkeye in the Marvel films.
His performance isn’t necessarily that bad, but it just doesn’t pack much of a punch, and to be honest, it seems like he’s giving up a watered down version of Robert Downey Jr.’s performance overall. And while there are interesting elements of Clint Barton’s character that could be explored, it doesn’t seem like the films have much interest in exploring them. And although the sudden addition of Hawkeye’s white picket fence life seems to be completely out of nowhere, the fact that Renner’s performance has given zero indication that something was going on behind the scenes makes Clint seem less like an awesome spy and more like a total sociopath.
10 Fits: Tessa Thompson
When addressing the introduction of Valkyrie into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok director, Taika Waititi, explained that he felt somewhat nervous about introducing a surly, drunken mess of a girl into the general audience because he was concerned that the audience would respond poorly to a character that could so easily come off as unappealing to so many. But luckily for him, there is Tessa Thompson. Thompson easily conveys the tragic motivations that have turned Valkyrie from an Asgardian hero to an opportunistic nihilist, but she also brings the humor and adventurousness that is necessary to make her character more relatable and enjoyable to the audience.
The entire Thor franchise has done a good job of balancing its obvious, inherent silliness with the seriousness that is required to make its viewers actually emotionally invested in the characters and storyline, and the addition of Valkyrie to Thor’s overall team is a great representation of that balance.
However, trying to make that balance means nothing if you’re putting that job into the hands of someone who isn’t capable of actually portraying it, but Thompson manages to merge the darkest and lightest aspects of her character together in a believable and emotionally resonant way.
9 Doesn’t Fit: Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Quicksilver might move nearly as fast as the speed of light, but it seems like his presence in the overall MCU came and gone even quicker than that. There have already been a few different interpretations of the comic book character, Quicksilver, within the overall MCU, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s, Pietro Maximoff, looks like he’ll actually be the shortest-lived version of the character so far. Putting aside Pietro’s Romani background that is ignored for his character as well as his sister, Taylor-Johnson’s particular interpretation of Pietro and Quicksilver are dull at some points, and just plain weird at others.
It’s clear that the Maximoff siblings are supposed to be as close as a brother and sister can possibly be, but it seems like Aaron’s portrayal of his feelings doesn’t come across as very brotherly love.
Olsen and Taylor-Johnson have been cast opposite each other before, but when they acted against each other in Godzilla, it was as husband and wife, and it seems like their interactions in the MCU have way more of a romantic tinge to them than they really should. And even if the ultimate goal was to create a kind of Jaime and Cersei creep level to their bond, Olsen and Taylor-Johnson still wound up falling short.
8 Fits: Chris Pratt
If the Avengers are the all-star team of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, then the Guardians of the Galaxy are the Bad News Bears. And while going for a film focused on this ragtag team of “heroes” was a bit of a risk for Marvel, luckily, their willingness to take chances has paid off in this instance. But as the leader of these guardians, creating a Peter Quill that the audience would come to love and casting a capable and endearing actor to play him were essential aspects of making Guardians of the Galaxy into a success, and it’s hard to overestimate the impact that Chris Pratt has made for the success of his character and the success of the GotG franchise.
Star-Lord seems like the kind of character that is a natural fit for Pratt, and he seems to have an instinctive understanding of the character that makes him feel so believable.
Taking on the lead role in a big budget Marvel team movie is no easy feat, especially when it’s a team that includes a tree and a raccoon among its ranks. Guardians of the Galaxy was an idea that could have either really worked or really fallen flat, and Chris Pratt clearly did more than his fair share to make it work as well as it did.
7 Doesn’t Fit: Paul Bettany
As a synthetic creation of the MCU supervillain, Ultron, it is understandable that a character like Vision is written as an ambiguous enigma with the potential to become something very interesting, but unfortunately, the actor, Paul Bettany, barely brings enough to the performance to convincingly portray that, let alone to make the character into a complex and intriguing MCU character in his own right.
His slow and inhuman performance is something that worked when Vision was initially introduced into the film series, but even as a supporting character that flatness made him one of the less interesting supporting characters in the series, and as his role in the film franchise has grown, his characterization and character development has not grown in kind.
His relationship with Wanda is intriguing and the fact that he is one of the few beings in the universe capable of lifting Mjolnir is definitely intriguing too, but sadly, those plot threads have been left mostly unexplored and Vision has remained stagnant as a character. And while the stagnation within the script is not something that Paul Bettany can control, he is certainly in control of whether or not he brings any extra energy or dimension to his character, which unfortunately he does not.
6 Fits: Letitia Wright
Successfully selling a teenage girl as a technological genius who is capable of taking on the MCU’s fiercest villains and might just be the smartest person in the world isn’t a particularly easy task, but the actress, Letitia Wright, seems to have done just that with her portrayal of Shuri in Black Panther. As the sister of T’Challa, she could have easily been relegated to a meaningless supporting role, but the 16-year-old princess ultimately winds up being one of Erik Killmonger’s greatest downfalls, and Wright manages to make her character seem like a legitimately formidable opponent to an expert killer.
In addition to playing a more than competent tech designer, Wright manages to make the character seem like a normal kid who just happens to understand technology more than all the older people around her. It might take a princess and sister to the deposed king to have enough gumption to engineer a rebellion at 16 years old, but Letitia manages to make the elements of her character that are grounded in reality, namely her love for her family and desire to see them safe, really stand out in a way that makes this super young, super rich, super genius girl relatable to the wider audience.
5 Doesn’t Fit: Benedict Cumberbatch
When it comes to portraying the brainiac aspects of Dr. Stephen Strange, the actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, can more than hold his own. Unfortunately, when it comes to most other aspects of playing strange, Cumberbatch just can’t fulfill the necessary requirements to make him into an interesting or believable character. Dr. Strange is a kind of difficult character to adapt into film anyway, but Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the character doesn’t really feel much like a superhero, let alone a superhero that is strong enough and intriguing enough to carry an entire film by himself.
His voyage from ruined doctor to superhero is a somewhat interesting story, but it honestly feels like you’re watching the saga of a superhero’s sidekick, instead of the genesis of an actual superhero, and unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to change as the film or his character’s story goes along. Doctor Strange deals with a lot more abstract concepts and ideas than a lot of the other Marvel films do, and if you’re going to go for a story with some wonky ideas, then you need an exceptionally strong character to bring the audience through that and make them understand it. Unfortunately, Benedict’s Stephen Strange is not that character.
4 Fits: Cate Blanchett
Cate Blanchett is definitely an actress who has a lot of tools in her acting tool belt that she’s more than capable of using, but honestly, in order to convincingly play the Scandinavian goddess of death who has returned to take on Thor and Loki and destroy all of Asgard, you need to have a certain kind of naturally intimidating and commanding presence. Luckily for the Marvel team, Blanchett has that in spades as well. Chris Hemsworth is pretty much the embodiment of the mighty Thor, but being six and a half feet of pure muscle also means that it can be somewhat difficult to cast other actors to play characters that can believably rival that. And of course, when you’re trying to make the ultimate villain a woman, you clearly have to find a way to make her frightening that isn’t based on her physique. But Cate manages to make Hela seem like a threatening enough presence that Thor and even Odin would fear her just through the expressions in her eyes alone, and she easily conveys Hela’s insatiable bloodthirst and genuine enjoyment of violence and destruction. It’s a shame that Asgard is gone, but it’s no surprise that a woman with that kind of mojo was the one who destroyed it.
3 Doesn’t Fit: Tilda Swinton
Doctor Strange is one Marvel movie that certainly and unfortunately seemed to live up to its title, but it’s hard to imagine a stranger casting choice than the decision to make Tilda Swinton into the Ancient One. Swinton is certainly an expert at bringing a certain kind of ethereal weirdness to her characters, which would suit a character like the Ancient One just fine, that is if the Ancient One were a white lady instead of an Asian man. In order to explain this sudden gender and race swap, the movie decided to make the Ancient One into a Celtic sorceress instead of a sorcerer from the Himalayas, but the film rightly came under a significant amount of fire for making that change, one that they made for no apparent reason. And while Tilda is great at playing off the eerie, almost inhuman vibe in the film adaptation of Doctor Strange, it’s still just insurmountably strange that her character is supposed to be an Asian man. And while she might be a solid actress on her own, it’s nearly impossible to believe that there wasn’t one Asian actor who was good enough to play the role that was originally designed for someone like him anyway.
2 Fits: Natalie Portman
It’s a shame that Thor star, Jane Foster, has seemingly been sidelined from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at least for the time being, because the character played by Natalie Portman was basically beyond perfect casting. Foster was one of the few characters in the film franchise that was not an actual superhero, but she was still an integral part of the story, and she was a human character who was grounded in the real world reality, but who was still extraordinary enough to explain why the literal god of thunder would be smitten with her after knowing her for about a day and a half.
It seems exceptionally strange to have left her out of this phase of the Marvel films, because the current Marvel movies are absolutely littered with characters from every corner of the franchise, and you’d think that having one of the best astrophysicists on earth as part of the team would be really helpful with so many inter-world showdowns. But it’s not much of a surprise that Portman could sell the role well either, as a Harvard graduate and bonafide science nerd it seems like this role was practically tailor-made for an actress with her specific resume.
1 Doesn’t Fit: Zoe Saldana
When it comes to creating strong female characters and giving them the attention and spotlight they deserve, the MCU has been tragically behind the curve for most of its recent history, even if they are seeming to pay more attention to that issue lately. So, when you have a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy that starts off its tale with exactly one significant female character, you want to at least make sure that she’s one seriously awesome character. And Gamora certainly has one of the most interesting backstories of any Marvel character, but unfortunately, her backstory doesn’t seem to translate into a really intriguing character now.
What certainly doesn’t help, though, is the fact that Guardians of the Galaxy is meant to be a kind of misfit squad of superheroes. Each character is full of their own quirks and has a lot of personalities to bring to the table, and luckily, the rest of the cast does a pretty great job of fulfilling those needs. However, in addition to Gamora seeming like the only character who is lacking that kind of personality that all of the other characters have, unfortunately, Zoe Saldana does not seem equipped to bring anything extra to the character to liven her up a bit.
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