The internet doesn’t provide much in the way of positives for the modern-day writer. On the whole, it tends to be a somewhat harsh, unrelenting environment, seemingly populated by a persistent hardcore of aggressive fanboys and acid-tongued keyboard warriors. You’ll have undoubtedly experienced the type. Saturating the comments section of any meme they object to, spitting venom and hatred at whoever is responsible for maligning their favorite character. Faced with the inevitably relentless wave of profanity and angry emojis at the hands of this minority of disgruntled critics, it’s a wonder that any scribe chooses to come back to be subjected to further literary beatings after each of their articles is published.
There is, however, one genuinely positive aspect to writing and submitting articles to online platforms. The warm and cheery feeling that can be only be found by chancing upon a random fact or a forgotten memory whilst researching your subject matter. These are most usually found nestling somewhere in the depths of a Wikipedia page (usually twice removed from the original material), or right at the bottom of a cast list in a film from 20 years ago with the word ‘uncredited’ in brackets afterward the actor’s name.
It’s the satisfying nerdy feeling of happening across one of these little gems that makes it all worth it. Don’t get me wrong, positive critical feedback from an army of loyal comic-book fans is nice. It’s just a lot less common than death threats from a significant number of massively obsessive loners with an enchanted axe of some kind to grind.
But, enough of this little sharing session. Back to business. So, the Bossman emails me this week, and demands a list. “It’s gotta be DC”‘ he says, before adding “How about their worst movie castings?” The reason he suggests this is because I’ve done a similar thing before for him with Marvel in a previous article. “No problem”, I cheerily reply. “Leave it with me.”
It’s at this point that the problems begin, because although DC have their faults, it turns out that casting appropriate performers isn’t actually one of their big weaknesses.
It’s an oft documented issue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe that the majority of their villains really suck. This is due in large part to some poor scripting, and some truly weak performances. Marvel also traditionally have a bit of an issue with how to represent their leading ladies, and a tendency to sell their characters to other studios, who go on to seriously screw them up. So picking 10 absolute Marvel hummers for a list isn’t really an issue. Now, DC, prior to the launch of the MCU, they were the big boys. Go back through the Batman and Superman movies (Not ‘Batman & Robin’ though. Believe me, we’ll come to that…), and the bulk of the actors and actresses on show do well with what they have to work with.
Fast forward to the modern DC releases, and it’s genuinely hard to find a crap casting choice. Christopher Nolan has an annoying track record of not really making many mistakes, and Zack Snyder, whilst you may say he lacks narrative substance, is all about performance and style, again casting he right people for the right roles. Which is great, but obviously makes my job a little harder. Thankfully for me, there is that wonderful grey area between the traditional DC movies and the new wave, where they were seriously screwing things up with their properties in a way that Marvel could never even attempt to replicate.
Remember that warm feeling I mentioned about finding things out whilst doing your research? Did you know Clancy Jones (Highlander/Starship Troopers) voiced Parallax in ‘Green Lantern’? Did you know Doug Jones (Hellboy/Pan’s Labyrinth) was a clown in ‘Batman Returns’? Take Negan himself, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Prior to being case as Thomas Wayne in BVS, he’d already appeared in a trio of DC movies (Jonah Hex, Watchmen, The Losers). And speaking of ‘The Losers’, what are the chances of a DC movie casting three future Marvel stars in the main cast? (Chris Evans, Idris Elba and Zoe Saldana, if you’d forgotten. I certainly had…)
Anyway, I’m meandering again, Before we get stuck in, let me explain why a few names you might expect to feature on this list are absent. Firstly, I’m not including Adam Beach. He didn’t have enough screentime or dialogue in ‘Suicide Squad’ to even qualify as a character, so I’m giving him a free pass. Likewise, no Halle Berry. Her version of Catwoman is so removed from anything even resembling a DC property that it would be insulting to put her in. Finally, no Jared Leto. Even if you loathe what he did with the Joker, he did exactly the job that was asked of him, and I’d argue that it was the styling and the editing that were the issues. Not his casting. Right, so now that’s out of the way, who did make the list then?
10. Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor)
We’re going to kick things off with one of the most recent, and perhaps the most obvious of potential targets to get the ball rolling. Assuming that you had all bothered to read the above preamble prior to starting on this Top 10, you’ll note that I afforded Jared Leto a pass because his character was poorly conceived, styled and scripted. The same cannot be said, however, for the latest incarnation of Lex Luthor, and the epic failure of that character to connect with audiences lies in the casting of Jesse Eisenberg.
In the past, Lex Luthor has been played by cinematic greats such as Gene Hackman, Kevin Spacey or Clancy Brown. All of those actors are simmering powder kegs, capable of exploding into sudden and quite terrifying aggression. Whilst it’s true that Eisenberg rose to fame in dramatic, controversial roles, since he established himself as a big name he’s been at his most comfortable in comedies and light-hearted action fare. He neither looks or sounds the part, and is utterly incapable of producing the menace needed for one of DC’s most iconic villains. Whatever flaws in the script and styling of the BVS version of Luthor, the right actor would have been able to rise above them, which Eisenberg fails to do, earning him the first spot on our train of shame.
9. Robert Swenson – Bane
Tom Hardy did his usual brilliant job of handling the role of Bane in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, so much so that you’d probably forgotten it isn’t the first time we’ve seen a live-action version of the character. Cast your minds back to the neon-infused mess that was ‘Batman & Robin’ in 1997, and you’ll recall that Uma Thurman’s incarnation of Poison Ivy was protected by a lumbering, inarticulate bodyguard. Yep, that was Bane, being played by a former WCW Wrestler named Bob ‘Jeep’ Swenson.
Whilst visually, Swenson’s appearance is a fairly good comparison to the character from the comics, the portrayal couldn’t be further off the mark. Bane is supposed to be a strategic military genius, as intelligent as he is powerful. One of Hardy’s great successes with the role was to invoke emotion and feeling from behind his mask, robbed of his full facial expressions. Swenson was no actor, in fact, another actor was cast for the pre and post transformation scenes. His time onscreen consists of a series of grunts and roars, and some high-camp wrestling moves. It’s little wonder your mind had pushed the memory of his performance into a dark place.
8. Eric Roberts – Sal Maroni
Remember how I mentioned that Chris Nolan doesn’t tend to make mistakes in his movies? I’d argue that casting Julia Roberts’s big brother as a gangster in ‘The Dark Knight’ is one of those few occasions. Roberts came into acting off the back of an Oscar nomination for ‘Runaway Train’, but then descended into a fairly limited career playing nasty stereotypes in films and Music videos. As that career has gone on, he’s got considerably older, and suffered a series of addictions and apparent surgeries, to the point where he now resembles a walking manakin, having lost the ability to express much in the way of emotion with his facial features.
He essentially plays a variation of the same character each time he’s cast, and this time saw him playing Sal Maroni. With Heath Ledger totally owning all the scenes containing Roberts, he would have to have something special up his sleeve to remain relevant, which he doesn’t. Both Michael Jai White and Richie Coster manage to convince the audience they might be bad-ass crime lords, whilst Roberts just looks tired. Hell, he’s even less intimidating than Tom Wilkinson had been in the previous installment, which is saying something.
7. Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje – Waylon Jones
Prior to playing Killer Croc in this year’s Suicide Squad, British actor Agbaje had already popped his superhero cherry playing Kurse in ‘Thor: The Dark World’. That was a similar role to this, in that it was a bad guy role where he spent the bulk of his time under smothering prosthetics, with little opportunity to cut loose and show what he was capable of. Still, he managed to evoke some empathy for his plight in that performance, a hell of a lot more than he managed in Suicide Squad.
For starters, the whole visual representation of the character is off-putting, which to be fair isn’t Agbaje’s fault. Essentially, it looks like someone took a WWE wrestler and made them up to look like a Koopa from the Mario Brother’s movie, but Agbaje does nothing to help himself. Adopting some horrible attempt at a Southern drawl, he proceeds to spend the majority of his time grimacing, or producing bug-eyed stares across the screen at Will Smith. His lines are unconvincing and lacking in any real emotion. All we get a series of smackdowns, and some leering at his fellow characters. I appreciate that, given the alternative character on offer from the comics was Killer Shark, that King Croc was a more viable alternative, but could they not have got Ron Perlman back to play the character?
6. Peter Sarsgaard – Hector Hammond
I read recently that one of the benchmarks of a good actor is that whatever role they play, you find yourself completely forgetting that they’re a person playing another person, and form the belief that they are in fact whatever they purport to be. This is why some people have a bit of an issue with Ben Affleck. He’s talented, and likable, but always looks like Ben Affleck playing somebody else, rather than the character he’s trying to be. Alas, the same is true of Peter Sarsgaard, who has enjoyed a varied 20 year career in the industry, but still always looks exactly the same in every role he’s in.
In all fairness to him, the role of the lovelorn and relatively pathetic Hector Hammond isn’t meant to be a likable one, but the key to playing a decent villain is to try and get the audience to cheer for you on some level. Amidst the poorly scripted and CGI’d mess that was 2011’s ‘Green Lantern’, the proceedings offered a perfect opportunity for someone to rise up, and emerge from the sorry business with some saving grace. If anybody did, it wasn’t Sarsgaard. Alternating between whiny and shouty, he pops in and out of proceedings, becoming progressively more buried under pulsing prosthetics before being zapped into nothingness. Which is no great loss.
5. Wes Bentley – Adleman Lusk
I really struggle to see how Wes Bentley continues to get roles in big-budget movies, as he has one of the most limited acting ranges ever to be seen onscreen. He rose to fame with his turn as a damaged teen in ‘American Beauty’, but failed to capitalize on this, instead following his debut up with a succession of lesser, or ill-judged roles. Sci-Fi-samurai mess ‘Hirokin’ is one example of a film role his agent should really have advised him not to go for. Another is the 2010 adaptation of ‘Jonah Hex’, which nobody managed to escape untainted from.
Bentley plays a supporting villain named Adleman Lusk, a Southern dandy who is financing John Malkovich’s efforts to take the war back to the Union. It’s a paper-thin role, but Bentley manages to make a mess of it by essentially wheeling out the same performance he delivered in both ‘Ghost Rider’ and ‘The Hunger Games’. He only seems to come with three emotional settings, those being ‘Confident’, ‘Surprised’ and ‘Angry’, capable of nothing in-between. He manages to render even his minor role down into a complete irrelevance, and it’s a blessing when Malkovich finally dispatches him, ironically producing a moment where the audience can root for the villain.
4. Keanu Reeves – John Constantine
I’d like to start this off by setting the record straight. I’m not a Keanu-hater. His CV is littered with highly successful performances, and big movie hits. All that nonsense about him having the acting range of a plank of wood isn’t true. Well. It’s not always true. He does seem to be asleep at the wheel for some of the projects he’s been involved in over the years. Sadly, this is one of them.
What makes the 2005 movie treatment of The Hellblazer even more disappointing is the brilliant performance that Matt Ryan has given the character since. The welsh actor perfectly nailed what John Constantine should be like. Simmering with rage and aggression, whilst hiding it all under a mask of calm and indifference.
Sadly, Keanu gives the same dead-eyed turn he has for a large number of his movies, throwing out his lines with a monotonous indifference, and rendering the Scouse Mage a relatively emotionless character, who it’s hard to empathize with, or connect with. A classic case that attaching a big name to a project in no way guarantees it’s success. That being said, the TV Series didn’t ultimately fair much better…
3. Mark Pillow – Nuclear Man
Possibly THE worst comic book villain ever to be conceived and put on the big screen, and that’s saying something. The story of how Superman IV came to be made is worthy of a movie of its own. With the rights having been acquired by the infamous Cannon Films (a pair of slightly demented Israeli cousins), the film was planned on the back of a cigarette packet, and filmed on a shoestring budget.
Infused with a ridiculous premise about Superman trying to bring about world peace by declaring war on nuclear weapons, the movie’s cheesy big bad guy was ‘Nuclear Man’, a mirror image of the hero created by Lex Luthor using nuclear technology.
The fact that ‘actor’ Mark Pillow has only got three credits to his name is something of a giveaway here. With his admittedly impressive physique squeezed into a ridiculous costume, Pillow’s delivery was so poor that the decision was made to have Gene Hackman dub him, leading to some hilarious sequences where Hackman is essentially talking to himself for several scenes. Robbed of the ability to speak, Pillow is then reduced to some cheesy slow-mo wrestling scenes, hamstrung by the film’s visible lack of budget.
2. Arnold Schwarzenegger – Victor Fries
And now for a return trip back to ‘Batman & Robin’, a shining example of the case for lightning not striking twice. Following on from the two brilliant installments in the franchise that Tim Burton and Michel Keaton had produced, the reigns were handed to Joel Schumacher in 1995 for ‘Batman Forever’. Schumacher decided to go with an entirely different tone to Burton, saturating the darkness of Gotham City with neon and lasers, and revisiting the high-camp of the original Adam West series. In part, it worked, though largely carried on the back of the performances of Jim Carey and Tommy Lee Jones.
Rolling in off the commercial success of this, Schumacher tried to replicate the formula two years later, casting Arnie as notorious Bat-foe, Mr Freeze. The result was an abortion, one that is still the but of cinematic jokes now. Arnie had always been known for his comedy one-liners, regardless of what genre or project he was cast in, but here the puns were cranked into overdrive. Pretty much every sentence has a cold-themed joke in it, which Arnie delivers with a huge slice of ham on the side.
Mr Freeze was never known for being a funny character, in fact, he’s one of the more tragic ones. Cold, emotionless, determined, Schwarzenegger brings none of these, trying instead to ape the madcap antics of Cary and Jones in the previous movie. His makeup and costumes are ridiculous, as are his lines, and he simply doesn’t have the acting stuff, or presence to break free from what he was given to work with. Car-Crash.
1. Shaquille O’Neal – John Henry Irons
Our brief meander through the darker corners of DC movie history comes to an end with this little horror-show from back in 1997. Way before ‘Iron Man’ first came up with the concept of creating a super suit to tackle criminals who were abusing his inventions, ‘Steel’ went and did exactly the same thing. The only problem is, rather than picking a controversial actor to play the role as Marvel would eventually do with Tony Stark, this abortion of a movie chose to cast a famous sporting icon instead. Step forward Mr Shaquille O’Neal
It’s obvious only from the two minute trailer where the problem lies here. HE CAN’T BLOODY ACT! Not even a little bit. Every single time he tried to express an emotion with his face, all O’Neal produces is a bug-eyed gurning effect. He grimaces, and gawps, and generally looks about as uncomfortable in his own skin as it’s possible for a human being to look.
It’s hard to say what comes off worse, O’Neal’s performance, or the horrendous CGI of the time. On balance, the CGI would go on to get a lot better, whereas Shaquille wouldn’t magically learn how to act. He did get his own video game thought.
Remember Shaq-Fu, anybody? Nope. Me neither…