Paul Rudd already built a worthy resume in Hollywood before becoming Ant-Man in this weekend’s newest Marvel release. But that hasn’t always been the case for actors portraying a superhero. Some have been relative unknowns before a comic book role jolted them into the mainstream. Others, like Robert Downey, Jr., were highly praised dramatic actors. Whatever their origins, they all had to start somewhere.
Here, we’ll be taking a look at the careers of actors before they became superheroes on the big screen. This list is kept to mostly actors who have had standalone films, otherwise we could do a list on just The Avengers or X-Men, and actors that have created a name for themselves outside of the genre (so, no Henry Cavill). Let’s get to ranking, starting with the least impressive pre-superhero career…
11) Hugh Jackman
Notable pre-X-Men films: Paperback Hero, Erskineville Kings
Awards: Australian Film Institute Best Performance (nomination, 1999), Australian Star of the Year (1999), FCCA Award Best Actor (1999)
He was a relative unknown when he first appeared in Bryan Singer’s X-Men, but Hugh Jackman has become a serious marquee player since then. He’s also starred in a bevy of films as Wolverine, and his upcoming portrayal of that character may be his last. There’s no question that the Wolverine role has elevated his status in Hollywood, and Jackman is at the point now where he can pick and choose his roles.
10) Chris Evans
Notable pre-Captain America films: Cellular, Fantastic Four, Sunshine, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Evans is one of the youngest actors on this list, so his pre-Captain America credits are not very notable. Despite that, Evans is very good as Cap, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier is one of Marvel’s best offerings thus far. With Civil War filming as we speak, Evans still has a few more Marvel roles in his contract before he hangs up the shield for good.
9) George Clooney
Notable pre-Batman and Robin films: From Dusk Till Dawn, One Fine Day
Awards: Golden Globes Best TV Performance (nomination, 1996-1998), Emmy Lead Actor in Drama (nomination, 1995-1996), Saturn Award Best Actor (1996), MTV Movie Breakthrough Performance (1996)
Before Batman & Robin, Clooney was mostly known for his TV work in the mega-popular ER. From Dusk Till Dawn and Batman & Robin established him as one of the studs of the film industry, even though the latter was panned universally. Since then, Clooney has had one of the most successful careers in Hollywood, balancing action, comedy, and serious drama on his way to winning two Oscars.
8) Toby Maguire
Notable pre-Spider-Man films: The Ice Storm, Pleasantville, The Cider House Rules, Wonder Boys
Awards: Toronto Film Critics Best Supporting Actor (2000), Saturn Award Best Younger Actor (1999)
Tobey Maguire had some small successes in films like The Cider House Rules and Pleasantville, but he really became one of the biggest stars in the world with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. While the second and third films were not as potent as the first, Spider-Man gave a shot in the arm to the entire comic book film genre, and really swung open the doors to the current Marvel takeover that we’re experiencing now.
7) Val Kilmer
Notable pre-Batman Forever films: Real Genius, Top Gun, Willow, The Doors, Tombstone, True Romance
Awards: Chicago Film Critics Best Actor (nomination, 1992), MTV Movie Best Performance (nomination, 1991, 1993)
Val Kilmer has always been a pretty good hand in cinema, but before comic book films took a more approachable, grounded, and darker viewpoint, he starred as Batman in the pretty atrocious Batman Forever. While the film didn’t do so well in the eyes of critics, it did help increase his name value and Kilmer has had some terrific performances outside of the comic book realm.
6) Christian Bale
Notable pre-Batman Begins films: Newsies, Swing Kids, American Psycho, Velvet Goldmine, Shaft, Reign of Fire, The Machinist
Awards: ACCA Best Actor (2000)
Bale let the world see the enormity of his talent before he became Bruce Wayne for Batman Begins. His incredible chops mixed with his devotion to his craft in films like American Psycho and The Machinist had Bale’s star on the rise. Batman Begins — while it didn’t really display Bale’s dynamic talent — certainly made him an international threat, and his profile has only risen since then with stellar performances in American Hustle and The Fighter.
5) Michael Keaton
Notable pre-Batman films: Beetlejuice, Gung Ho, Night Shift, Clean and Sober
Awards: National Society of Film Critics Best Actor (1988-1989), Kansas City Film Critics Best Supporting Actor (1982)
Michael Keaton had already put in some great performances by the time he got the Batman gig in 1989, most notably Beetlejuice, which he inflected with his trademark live-wire personality. Tim Burton’s Batman helped to establish Keaton as a major cinematic talent, and the thespian went on to almost win the Oscar for Best Actor this past year.
4) Wesley Snipes
Notable pre-Blade films: New Jack City, Major League, King of New York, White Men Can’t Jump, Demolition Man, Passenger 57, Money Train, The Fan
Awards: CableACE Best Actor (1989), Image Award Best Actor (1993), Image Award Best Actor (TV, 1997), Volpi Cup Best Actor (1997)
Snipes’ career is an interesting one, because he started out as serious dramatic actor in Spike Lee joints before moving on to becoming one of the most sought after action film stars of the ’90s. His forward momentum hit some roadblocks towards the end of the decade, but he saw a rebirth in 1998 with the first Blade film. Recently, Snipes said that we might see more of Blade, and that’s a good thing because we all need something to wash the taste of Blade: Trinity out of our mouths.
3) Paul Rudd
Notable pre-Ant-Man films: This Is 40, Anchorman, I Love You, Man, Role Models, Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Awards: Critics Choice TV Best Supporting Male (2012), AFI TV Program of the Year (2010)
Few actors on this list have had a successful career pre-superhero role, and Paul Rudd is one of them. While he’s not known for his intense dramatic chops, Rudd has enjoyed a prosperous comedic career, and his newest film, Ant-Man, tries to merge his comedic talent within the Marvel Universe.
2) Ben Affleck
Notable pre-Batman v Superman films: Argo, Gone Girl, Good Will Hunting, The Town, Dogma, Armageddon, Chasing Amy
Awards: Best Screenplay Oscar (1998), Best Picture (Argo, 2013), Golden Globes Best Director (2013), BAFTA Best Actor & Director (2013), Critics Choice Best Director (2013), Volpi Cup Best Actor (2006)
Affleck has certainly had his share of successes in film before his upcoming role in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. He’s already in possession of Oscar and Golden Globe awards, and despite appearing in some missteps (Gigli, Daredevil), the newest Bruce Wayne is currently enjoying a career resurgence thanks to films like Argo and The Town.
1) Robert Downey, Jr.
Notable pre-Iron Man films: Chaplin, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Zodiac, Wonder Boys, Natural Born Killers, Less Than Zero
Awards: Best Actor Oscar & Golden Globe (nomination, 1993), BAFTA Best Actor (1993), ALFS Actor of the Year (1993), Screen Actors Guild Best Actor (TV, 1997)
As far as dramatic acting goes, Robert Downey, Jr. is one of the best thespians to ever grace the silver screen. Even before his role in 2008’s Iron Man, Downey had amassed a slew of praise in films like Chaplin and Zodiac. Were it not for a drug-induced spiral, he’d easily be one of the most decorated actors to ever grace a movie theater; his talent seems limitless. Iron Man further established him as not only one of the best actors in the game, but one of the most profitable with several appearances on the Forbes highest paid actors list. The reason he’s a notch above Affleck is because he’s put in better performances, even though it appears Affleck has more hardware than him.
From the list, you can glean that Affleck, Downey, and Snipes enjoyed a successful career before they even put on a superhero suit, but the other way to look at this is that Clooney, Evans, and Jackman can owe much of their current success to appearing in a comic book film. Jackman had no theatrical releases in the U.S. before X-Men, Evans has some small successes in films like Cellular, but nothing big, and Clooney was known as a TV actor when he became Batman. So, what does this all mean?
If you’re an actor, it would behoove you to don some tights.