20 Actors Who Very Nearly Played Iconic Superheroes
Hollywood stars can occasionally become so synonymous with their roles that it becomes impossible to separate the actor from the character they’re playing. And that’s none more the case than when it comes to on-screen superheroes.
But whilst you may not be able to picture anyone but the late Christopher Reeve playing Superman back in 1978, the truth is that a number of big-name actors were attached to the role before Reeve got the job.
Continue scrolling for more actors who so very nearly took on roles as legendary superheroes – and just try to imagine what the movies would have looked like if they’d starred in them.
20. Tom Cruise: Iron Man
As hard as it is to imagine now, there was a time when Iron Man wasn’t that famous a superhero, and Robert Downey Jr. was far from an obvious choice for the role.
Marvel had been working for many years to get an Iron Man movie off the ground, and originally they wanted Tom Cruise as Tony Stark.
The Mission: Impossible superstar was linked to the role for several years, but due to the time it took to get Iron Man made, he eventually walked away.
Once director Jon Favreau finally got the ball rolling on Iron Man, Cruise was no longer available, so the director and the studio took a gamble on Robert Downey Jr.
Downey was considered risky casting at the time, given his history of drug addiction and jail time – but, as we all know, 2008’s Iron Man proved to be the launchpad for probably the biggest film franchise ever, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and for Downey as one of the highest-paid actors of all time.
19. Nicolas Cage: Superman
Nicolas Cage came tantalisingly close to playing the last son of Krypton in Superman Lives, one of the most famous unproduced films in Hollywood history.
Poised to go into production in 1998, Superman Lives had Batman’s Tim Burton attached to direct, with a script from Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats).
Smith has spoken at length of what a bizarre experience it was working on the project, particularly how producer Jon Peters demanded that Superman have a fight with a giant spider.
Cage (who’s such a big fan of the character that he named his son Kal-El) got close enough to the role that he was photographed testing out a number of variations on the legendary red and blue costume.
Tragically for all fans of crazy blockbusters, Superman Lives was scrapped late in the day for financial reasons, plunging the most famous superhero of them all back into development hell for another eight years.
18. Sandra Bullock: Wonder Woman
Way back in the 1990s, hot off the heels of her success in the box office smashes Speed and While You Were Sleeping, Sandra Bullock was a new major leading lady in Hollywood.
It was during this red-hot period for Bullock that she was attached to the role of Wonder Woman.
All the way into the early 2000s, rumours persisted that Bullock would play the role – but the project got stuck in development hell.
Sadly, Bullock was never able to take on the mantle of Diana Prince, even though Lynda Carter, star of the classic Wonder Woman TV show, gave Bullock a very positive public endorsement.
Following a failed TV pilot starring Adrianne Palicki, Wonder Woman finally got her dues on the big screen when Gal Gadot landed the role in 2016’s Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.
17. Robin Williams: The Joker and The Riddler
Both Tim Burton and Warner Bros. always wanted Jack Nicholson to play the Joker in the 1989 Batman movie.
However, when Nicholson was hesitant to sign on, the studio and Burton also started talking to another major star: Robin Williams.
When Nicholson got word of this he finally accepted the part, while Williams was reportedly left feeling somewhat used, knowing that he’d only been approached to prompt Nicholson to say yes.
Williams (who had previously lost on roles to Nicholson before, notably in The Shining) was so offended that he later refused to star as The Riddler in Batman Forever – a part ultimately taken by Jim Carrey.
Williams allegedly wouldn’t even consider starring in another Warner Bros. film until they apologised to him for the 1989 Batman debacle.
16. Leonardo DiCaprio: Robin and Spider-Man
He is without a doubt one of the best star actors of the last few decades, with a Best Actor Oscar for The Revenant as well as nominations for his performances in The Wolf of Wall Street, Blood Diamond, The Aviator and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
Leonardo DiCaprio was clearly always driven to succeed – but he also seems hell-bent on not dressing in spandex.
DiCaprio has passed on playing a comic book superhero on at least two different occasions (that we know of) – the first of these being 1995’s Batman Forever.
DiCaprio is said to have declined the role of Robin in 1995’s Batman Forever, in which he would have starred opposite Val Kilmer as Batman. Chris O’Donnell ultimately took the role, and would (sadly) play it a second time opposite George Clooney in Batman & Robin.
DiCaprio was also linked to the role of Spider-Man when the first Hollywood take on the project was in early development, with DiCaprio’s Titanic director James Cameron attached. The part was eventually given to DiCaprio’s good friend Tobey Maguire.
15. Dougray Scott: Wolverine
2000’s X-Men was the film that really blew the doors open on the 21st century wave of comic book blockbusters, which still shows no signs of slowing two decades later.
However, the first big screen outing for Marvel’s mutant super-team almost looked very different.
Originally, Scottish actor Dougray Scott was cast in the pivotal role of Wolverine – making it a very busy time for Scott, as he was poised to start shooting X-Men right after finishing work on Mission: Impossible 2.
Unfortunately for Scott, production on Tom Cruise’s action-packed sequel fell behind schedule, forcing Scott to stay on the M:I-2 set longer – and leaving him unavailable when the X-Men shoot started.
At short notice, the X-Men team took a chance on the largely unknown Hugh Jackman – and the rest is history, bub.
14. Emily Blunt: Black Widow
2010’s Iron Man 2 tends to ranked as one of the weakest entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it did play a major role in building that universe, particularly as it introduced one of its key recurring characters.
Robert Downey Jr.’s third outing as Tony Stark also marks the first outing for Scarlett Johansson in the role of Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow.
Similar to Downey as Iron Man, it’s another role we struggle to envisage another actor in today – but originally, Marvel’s first choice for Black Widow was British actress Emily Blunt.
Stories have varied as to why Blunt missed out on the role, but it’s most likely to have been a scheduling issue, as the actress had already signed on to appear in the now largely forgotten Jack Black comedy Gulliver’s Travels. (Ouch.)
In the decade since, the rumour mill has tended to bring up Blunt’s name whenever a new female comic book character makes it to the screen. Still, despite heavy speculation, there’s been no real confirmation that Blunt was ever in the running for either Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, as rumoured.
13. John Krasinski: Captain America
Yes, with a slightly different roll of the dice, one of Hollywood’s modern golden couples might have portrayed two of the world’s favourite big screen heroes.
Not long after Emily Blunt missed out on the role of Black Widow, her husband, John Krasinski, was offered the title role in the fifth MCU movie, Captain America: The First Avenger.
However, the casting of Krasinski (then best known for TV’s The Office) sparked controversy in fandom – and the actor himself has revealed he had serious doubts right away.
In a 2016 interview with Conan O’Brien, Krasinski says he was out as soon as he saw Chris Hemsworth in costume as Thor, and – like any normal man – was left feeling massively inadequate: “I went, ‘I’m good. This is stupid. That’s okay, I’m not Captain America.'”
This cleared the way for Chris Evans to take on his second Marvel superhero role (after Fantastic Four’s Human Torch). Meanwhile, Krasinski has taken some musclebound action roles since, notably in Michael Bay’s military thriller 13 Hours.
12. Vin Diesel: Hellboy
For many fans of comic book movies, one of the great cinematic tragedies of recent years is that Guillermo del Toro didn’t get to complete his planned Hellboy trilogy (and by all accounts, it’s unlikely to ever happen).
It took del Toro quite some time to get the 2004 film off the ground, as studios were reluctant to put a massive budget behind a comparatively obscure comic book character without a star name in the role.
Because of this, del Toro and the Hellboy team were forced to consider putting a more famous face behind the red make-up, and one serious contender emerged: Vin Diesel.
Off the back of Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious, Diesel was at the time emerging as a major star, and his gravelly voice and heavy-set physique might have been a good fit for the wisecracking demon-turned-good.
However, del Toro’s first choice for the part was always his frequent collaborator Ron Perlman, and ultimately the director got his way.
11. Jessica Chastain: The Wasp
Jessica Chastain is another actress who has, according to rumour, been in contention for a key role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe more than once.
The main MCU role turned down by two-time Oscar nominee Chastain was that of Janet van Dyne, aka the Wasp, a role ultimately taken by Evangeline Lilly in Ant-Man.
However, Chastain is also said to have declined offers to play Maya Hansen, a character ultimately played by Rebecca Hall in Iron Man 3, and Christine Palmer, a role eventually taken by Rachel McAdams in Doctor Strange.
According to Doctor Strange screenwriter C. Robert Cargill, Chastain’s reason for turning down Doctor Strange (and presumably the two other roles) was that she was only interested in playing the hero, not a supporting character.
The sad irony of course is that if Chastain had taken the part of Janet van Dyne, she would have played the first female character to co-headline a Marvel movie, in Ant-Man sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp.
10. Jake Gyllenhaal: Spider-Man
Director Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man movies still hold up as at least two of the best films yet made in the superhero genre (the third movie not so much).
While Tobey Maguire plays Peter Parker and his wall-crawling masked alter ego in all three films, it briefly looked like the series would have to find a different leading man.
After shooting the first Spider-Man, Maguire sustained an injury shooting horse-riding movie Seabiscuit, and for a time, no one was sure if he would be fit and strong enough to play Spidey again.
In the interim, Jake Gyllenhaal – who had recently shot to fame in cult hit Donnie Darko – was the #1 candidate to take Maguire’s place.
Happily for Maguire, his physical condition improved sufficiently for him to don the spandex a second time in 2004’s Spider-Man 2.
Gyllenhaal would have to wait another 15 years before appearing in a Spider-Man movie, eventually playing Mysterio alongside Tom Holland’s fresh-faced Peter in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.
9. Brooke Shields: Supergirl
Following the success of the first three Superman movies, the trilogy’s producers decided to broaden their fledgling cinematic universe with a spin-off based around Superman’s cousin, Supergirl.
The 1984 movie gave the lead role to Helen Slater, in her feature film debut – but before Slater’s casting, some bigger names were considered.
The most notable contender for Supergirl was Brooke Shields, child model-turned-actress who caused a stir with such films as The Blue Lagoon.
However, the six-foot Shields was apparently rejected as she was deemed too tall for the part; strange, as one might consider that a bonus for a superhero part.
Still, Shields might have dodged a Kryptonite bullet there, as Supergirl was a critical and commercial flop.
8. Jason Momoa: Drax (Guardians of the Galaxy)
When casting began on the first big screen outing for Marvel’s interstellar super-team the Guardians of the Galaxy, few but the most erudite comics aficionados even knew who the characters were.
However, writer-director James Gunn and company knew they needed someone physically intimidating (and with a knack for self-deprecating humour, to boot) to take the role of Drax the Destroyer.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that the first person offered the role was Jason Momoa, then fresh from his roles on TV’s Game of Thrones, and the unfairly overlooked 2011 reboot of Conan the Barbarian.
Momoa ultimately passed on Drax as he was worried about typecasting, remarking in 2014, “I’ve done so many things where I don’t say much and I’m colored up and I have my shirt off again.” He also praised Dave Bautista’s casting in the role as “perfect.”
Not too long thereafter, Momoa landed a comic book movie role in DC’s Aquaman; after a very brief cameo in Batman V Superman, he really made his mark in Justice League, and above all the 2019 Aquaman solo movie, which surprised everyone by becoming the most commercially successful DC Universe movie to date.
7. Saoirse Ronan: Scarlet Witch (Avengers: Age of Ultron)
After 2012’s The Avengers raked in $1.5 billion worldwide, making it the third biggest box office hit in history at the time, all eyes were on the sequel.
2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron introduced one of the most powerful, yet under-valued characters in the MCU: Wanda Maximoff, aka the Scarlet Witch.
During pre-production, Marvel and writer-director Joss Whedon had one actress at the top of their wishlist for the role: Saoirse Ronan.
Early on, Ronan expressed interest in taking on the role. Exactly what happened is anyone’s guess, but talks between the actress and the studio fell through, and the part went to Elizabeth Olsen instead.
In the years since, Ronan hasn’t enjoyed any major blockbuster hits, but she has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar three times, so her career hasn’t exactly stalled either.
6. Joaquin Phoenix: Hulk and Doctor Strange
In 2020, Phoenix made history as the first person to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for a comic book role in Joker (and the second Joker Oscar winner overall, after Heath Ledger was posthumously named Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight).
However, in the years prior to this Phoenix seemed very reluctant indeed to take on any kind of comic book movie role, as he’d turned down Marvel twice.
First, when Marvel decided against inviting The Incredible Hulk’s Edward Norton to reprise the role in 2012’s Avengers, Phoenix was the first actor offered Bruce Banner’s stretchy purple pants, before they were inherited by Mark Ruffalo.
Next, Phoenix was pursued for Doctor Strange, only to pass once again; but by all accounts, Benedict Cumberbatch was always the first choice for that role, and almost missed out due to his availability.
When quizzed on the Marvel roles he didn’t take, Phoenix says he has no regrets, but also praises Marvel Studios, saying “they make some great, fun movies.”
5. Armie Hammer, D.J. Cotrona, Adam Brody and more: Justice League
Plenty of individual actors have missed out on superhero roles – but in 2008, an entire cast of would-be superheroes had their roles snatched out from under them at the 11th hour.
Legendary Mad Max director George Miller was all set to call the shots on an ambitious movie entitled Justice League: Mortal, which would have brought DC’s iconic super-team together on the big screen for the first time.
A cast was fully assembled, including Armie Hammer (Batman), D.J. Cotrona (Superman), Megan Gale (Wonder Woman), Adam Brody (The Flash), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Martian Manhunter), Common (Green Lantern), Santiago Cabrera (Aquaman), and Jay Baruchel (villain Maxwell Lord).
However, a number of significant problems hit the film: for one, the 2008 Writers’ Strike, which meant the script (which still needed work) could not be touched; for another, a repeal of tax breaks offered to film productions in Australia, where Justice League: Mortal had been poised to shoot.
Amidst these and other problems, studio Warner Bros. pulled the plug on Justice League: Mortal, and in the years since the aborted film has been the source of endless speculation among fans, particularly in the wake of 2017’s disappointing Justice League.
4. Jack Black: Green Lantern
This is one of the more curious examples on our list, demonstrating just how far 2011’s Green Lantern film diverged from what had been planned early on.
Before Warner Bros and DC had any plans to create a cinematic universe, they started development on a movie centred on the popular but previously unfilmed comic book hero, Green Lantern.
However, when they were first brainstorming the project back in 2004, they had someone rather different from Ryan Reynolds in mind for the role: instead, they saw it as a vehicle for Jack Black.
Yes, as hard as it is to envisage, the original plan was to play Green Lantern as a spoof, and let Black work his comedy magic all over it. Fans were outraged at the idea, however, and by all accounts the script was poor, meaning this incarnation of the film inevitably fell apart.
And thank goodness for that; after all, who can imagine a world in which the Green Lantern movie was a complete joke?! Oh, wait…
3. Pierce Brosnan: Batman
Back in 1989, Batman fans were furious that Mr Mom and Beetlejuice actor Michael Keaton had been entrusted with the role of Bruce Wayne – that is, until they saw just how hard he nailed the part in Tim Burton’s movie.
Keaton’s casting was without a doubt a surprise, and it demonstrates that studio Warner Bros were thinking a bit further afield than the standard action hero actors for the legendary DC character.
Warner Bros had offered the role to another actor without much big screen action experience: Pierce Brosnan, best known at the time for playing TV’s Remington Steele (and for narrowly missing out on the role of James Bond in 1987’s The Living Daylights).
It seems Brosnan didn’t quite understand what the filmmakers were going for: the actor recalled in 2015, “I said something flippant to Tim Burton like, ‘Any guy who wears his underpants outside his trousers cannot be taken seriously.’”
Probably not the best career move on Brosnan’s part, but by 1994, he was finally able to take over as James Bond when Timothy Dalton relinquished the role, so it all worked out okay for him.
2. Alexander Skarsgård: Thor
When it came time for Marvel to cast their most Nordic of superheroes, it made sense for them to consider actors from that neck of the woods.
It makes total sense, then, that tall, blond and handsome Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård – who had recently shot to small-screen fame thanks to vampire drama True Blood – was a very serious contender for the part of Thor.
After an intensive casting period (and, we can safely assume, some equally intensive training in the gym), Marvel narrowed the selection process down to a final two: Skarsgård, and Chris Hemsworth.
Of course, we all know how it turned out. Then-unknown Aussie Hemsworth won the title role of 2011’s Thor and became an instant superstar, whilst the nearest Skarsgård got to the film was the fact that his father, Stellan Skarsgård, landed a supporting role in it.
Skarsgård has still enjoyed a successful career, although unfortunately he hasn’t had much luck with his blockbuster roles: 2012’s Battleship and 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan were both misfires. Let’s hope his next major movie, the upcoming Godzilla vs. Kong, fares a bit better.
1. Bob Hoskins: Wolverine
In what is surely one of the most tantalising ‘what if’ stories in the history of comic book movies, Wolverine, one of the most popular big screen superheroes of them all, could have turned out very different indeed.
At some point in the early 90s, Marvel (who weren’t doing so well financially – oh, how times change) approached James Cameron and his then-wife Kathryn Bigelow to discuss making an X-Men movie.
With Bigelow set to direct and Cameron set to produce, the pair got to work on a treatment, along with writing up their casting wish list. For the role of fan favourite Wolverine, Bigelow and Cameron only envisaged one actor in the part: Bob Hoskins.
This probably seems absurd to everyone who’s grown up with Hugh Jackman’s take on the character, but in the comics, Wolverine is a short, stocky, hairy guy, and in many respects the late Hoskins would have been a good fit (although he would’ve needed to hit the gym hard).
As it was, though, Cameron and Bigelow’s X-Men movie failed to get off the ground, and the project spent several years in development hell before 20th Century Fox finally got it to screens in 2000, with a considerably taller and prettier take on the claw-handed mutant.