Everyone knows Robert Downey Jr. is Iron Man, and that Chris Evans held the Vibranium shield of Captain America for nearly a decade of films. But Hollywood has been making superhero movies since long before the Marvel Cinematic Universe got off the ground. Whether the movies were poorly received, flew under the radar, or just came out too dang long ago, there are stacks of superhero films you’ve probably never heard of, starring actors you’ve definitely heard of. How many of these famous actors did you realize played superheroes before?
Dr Peyton Westlake, Liam Neeson’s character in Darkman (1990), is working on a synthetic skin for burn victims. This makes his disfigurement in an accident caused by a supervillain bitterly ironic. The rest of the plot is kind of that of Deadpool – Dr. Westlake must rescue his girlfriend and reveal to her that his appearance has been drastically altered.
We found it odd that someone who has starred in so many action films had never played a superhero until we rediscovered this long forgotten 1990 Sam Raimi film. Perhaps the fact that it was not affiliated with DC or Marvel led to this film being forgotten within the pantheon of American superhero films.
Another non comic book superhero, John Hancock (Will Smith) has recently been shunned by society for causing numerous accidents due to his alcoholism. Antisocial and cynical, he turns to a PR expert to revamp his image.
Smith is another frequent action star, and given the fact that he’s also starred in numerous comedies we would have expected him to appear in at least one Marvel movie, but unless you count Men In Black as a superhero film, the only other super-credit to his name is when he dipped his toe into Suicide Squad. Yikes.
This 1996 cult classic has some serious Indiana Jones vibes. The Phantom (Billy Zane) is a superhero with a skull ring that has been passed down through 21 generations. The ring grants its wearer some superpowers, and the inherited nature of the mantle of the Phantom has led evil-doers around the world to think that the Phantom is a single immortal being whose sole purpose is to fight some major bad dudes.
If you like adventure movies, Billy Zane in a non-chasing-people-through-the-Titanic role, Catherine-Zeta Jones hamming it up as a villain, and punching stuff so hard that your cool ring leaves an indentation, this movie is for you, baby.
Remember back when people thought that computer programmers were wizards who could do actual magic with a few keystrokes? Richard Pryor plays one of those wizards, Gus Gorman, in the campy third installment of the Superman movies.
This guy is a pretty tragic character who is taken advantage of by a megalomaniacal CEO (aka every Reagan-era CEO), and tasked with doing some pretty normal hacker stuff like hacking a weather satellite to create storms that would decimate Columbia (also a very Reagan-era move).
Gus Gorman uses his coding powers to create a flawed kryptonite which causes Superman (Christopher Reeve) to become a moody, unstable, alcoholic hooligan. Seriously, he’s a real danger to the world like this, he straightens out the leaning tower of Piza! Someone stop him!
Steel (1997) was not marketed as a Superman film, but the character Steel comes from the Superman comics (he was one of the four men who tried to take Superman’s place after the Man of Steel was killed by Doomsday.
In the film, John Henry Irons (Shaquille O’Neal) becomes Steel when he finds criminal gangs using weapons he helped manufacture for the military. He forges a suit of armor and weaponry in order to fight these gangs and the man who sold them these weapons. Fun fact: there were no stunt men tall enough to double for Shaq, so he did all his own stunts for this film.
The first Punisher film came out in 1989 with Dolph Lundgren as ex-cop Frank Castle (AKA The Punisher). After his family was murdered, Castle becomes the titular psychopathic vigilante. Only his ex-partner Jake (Louis Gossett Jr.) knows his true identity as he tries to kill all the criminals in the city.
Despite the comic book license, The Punisher is a standard 80s B-movie action film. It doesn’t even have any supervillains in it. The Punisher has received much better film and TV adaptations since then, but this film still has fans for some reason! And they are lucky the Punisher doesn’t punish for taste.
Triple threat director, writer and star Robert Townsend created this forgotten action comedy wherein a D.C. high school teacher gets hit by a meteor chunk and gains superpowers. Instead of, you know, space cancer.
Meteor Man takes on a gang that has been terrorizing his neighborhood. This film plays with the trope of ‘spectacularly regular people becoming superheroes’ in kind of a charming way. Warning: This movie is from 1993 — and by that we mean “Warning: Bill Cosby is in this movie.”
This Scary Movie-esque spoof on superhero movies stars Drake Bell as Rick Rider. Rick Rider is a high school student who accidentally covers himself with animal-attraction serum. This serum causes a whole slew of animals to dry hump him, including a radioactive dragonfly which imbues him with superpowers. He’s kind of like a sexier Peter Parker.
Rider becomes the appropriately-named Dragonfly, fights crime and eventually faces Hourglass, a villain with life-sucking powers. Superhero Movie (2008) spoofs a laundry list of some of your favorite Marvel characters, including but not limited to the Fantastic Four and X-Men. Seriously, they’ve got Tracy Morgan playing Professor Xavier.
This cute children’s film is packed with comedy superstars. Will Ferrell plays the titular supervillain who has just (presumably) killed his heroic arch nemesis. After battling increasing boredom and existential dread (which is always fun in a kids movie,) he creates a new rival who ends up becoming evil, forcing him to reverse his role as a villain and save the city.
We’re surprised Will Ferrell isn’t being cast as a comical supervillain more often. He’s played plenty of villains without powers in extremely funny, iconic ways. Remember Mugatu from Zoolander (2001)? We just realized that Mugatu’s poodle is probably dead now. Excuse us for a moment. We need to grieve.
Yes, there was a live action Underdog film that was released in 2007. You’re forgiven for completely forgetting that fact, because making a live-action movie about an ancient cartoon superdog was a strange choice. Pro skater turned actor Jason Lee (of Mallrats and My Name is Earl fame) voices the titular hero.
Even more surprising is the fact that Peter Dinklage is also in this film, playing the villainous Simon Barsinister. Even more surprising? The voice of Amy Adams is in the movie as well.
Both of these A-list actors are required to interact with an actual dog (not a CGI character) who looks incredibly bored every time he does something super, as if he is merely a normal dog standing in front of a green screen. This movie is real. We did not make it up. It happened.
Warren Beatty and Al Pacino
No one has superpowers in this 1990 film per se, but it’s such a bizarre heightened reality comic-based movie we decided to include it on this list. Warren Beatty plays Dick Tracy, legendary comic strip detective, and Al Pacino plays Big Boy Caprice, his arch nemesis.
Also, Madonna is in this movie, playing the notorious Blank, a hitman without a face. And the list of cameos is equally impressive, including Dustin Hoffman and Dick Van Dyke. This film is extremely over-the-top and cartoony on purpose, with over-the-top performances to match. Everyone is in on the joke here and it’s fun to watch.
David Hyde Pierce
If you look up the casting credits for the 2004 movie Hellboy, don’t expect to see David Hyde Pierce (yep, Niles from Frasier) in them. Despite voicing the character Abe Sapien, Pierce refused to receive any credit for his performance. He didn’t want to detract from Doug Jones, the actor who had actually played the fish man on screen.
By the time Hellboy 2 came along, director Gullermo del Toro decided to let Jones fully take over the character. Jones voices Abe Sapien as well as performing the character on-screen in an elaborate costume in the sequel, with David Hyde Pierce graciously stepping aside. The surreal del Toro versions of Hellboy are worth a revisit.
Sky High (2005), was, in some ways, the anti X-Men. It takes place in a superhero training school, in a world where superheroes are generally accepted as part of society. Kurt Russell plays The Commander, superhero and father of the main character Will Stronghold, who has – gasp! – no powers!
Russell would later appear as the villainous Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, but most people forget about his first foray into the superhero genre, which features a number of fun cameos, including Bruce Campbell as the superpowered Coach Boomer.
Bill Hader and Bryan Cranston
The 2017 reboot of the Power Rangers franchise was kind of progressive, in that it’s the first iteration of Power Rangers to include a queer ranger and a ranger on the autism spectrum. That said, it has a distinct lack of Ivan Ooze. Despite the glaring lack of ooze, this movie does have some brilliant co-stars.
Bill Hader plays the neurotic robot Alpha 5, and Bryan Cranston plays the sage-like Zordon who guide five California teenagers to become the Power Rangers, just in time to stop his returned arch-nemesis, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks). Do you think her parents named her that because they could already tell she was bad? It’s definitely not an ironic nickname, she is pretty evil.
The Lego Batman Movie (2017) is the ultimate version of watching a super funny kid play with their toys. Plus, it features Zack Galifianakis as the Joker! It makes total sense to cast Galifianakis in a more light-hearted, animated version of Batman, but it’s still a fun, unexpected choice.
The Joker’s feelings are hurt when Batman (Will Arnett) tells the supervillain that he isn’t really all that important to him. Joker ends up amassing an army of hodgepodge supervillains ranging from Sauron to the T-Rex from Jurassic Park to wreck Gotham city. Batman does end up beating the Joker, but not before he totally validates the Joker as the important supervillain that he really is. Aww.
You may not know Peter Weller by name, but you’ve almost certainly heard of Robocop, the series of movies, comics, tv shows, and video games about a futuristic robot cop. Weller played Robocop in the original two films that spawned the Robocop franchise.
But did you know that Weller also played Buckaroo Banzai in the film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984?) Buckaroo Banzai is a rock n’ roll test pilot, physicist, neurosurgeon, and everything else you wanted to be when you were 8 years old.
While he didn’t originate as a comic book character, Buckaroo Banzai totally fits the description of a superhero. And if that weren’t enough, Weller has also provided the voice of Batman in the animated films Batman: The Dark Knight Returns parts one and two. Weller might not quite be a household name, but he’s played plenty of superheroes.
Rosario Dawson plays the kind-hearted nurse Claire Temple on pretty much every Marvel Netflix show, including Daredevil, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders. But she’s actually played the legendary Amazonian warrior Wonder Woman in several DC animated films.
Dawson voices Wonder Woman in five movies, including Justice League Dark and Reign of the Supermen. Oddly enough, she played Artemis in the 2009 animated Wonder Woman, and even voiced Barbara Gordon in The Lego Batman Movie (2017). Make her a live-action superhero already!
Just two months before Marvel released its first good film, Blade, Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (1998) hit tv screens everywhere. Sure, it doesn’t have the style, pizzazz, and general quality of Blade, but it does have David Hasselhoff delivering the line “I’ll get that vampire’s blood if I have to suck it out of her neck.” He says this with a straight face.
That’s right – years before Samuel L. Jackson donned the eyepatch and trenchcoat to play the intimidating leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the first Iron Man film, kicking off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, German pop star and figurehead of the Baywatch television series Hasselhoff portrayed Nick Fury in a made-for-TV film.
Howard the Duck is a talking duck who once had his own movie produced by George Lucas back in 1986. That movie became one of the most notoriously embarrassing failures of modern cinema, but it wouldn’t be the last time Howard would grace the silver screen.
The character himself has a strong cult fanbase, and even the Lucas film developed a following thanks to its wacky campiness. This led to Howard being included in a post-credits scene of Guardians of the Galaxy, voiced by none other than Seth Green, the comedic actor known for Robot Chicken, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and a number of other films and TV shows. This nod to the original film and comics was a delight to comic-savvy movie goers.
The Green Hornet (2011) is a superhero buddy film that is based on various properties dating back to the 1930s, including a radio serial and a TV series starring martial arts legend Bruce Lee that actually crossed over with the 1966 Batman show starring Adam West.
The 2011 movie adaptation was a pet project of comedian Seth Rogen, who saw the comic potential of a millionaire playboy who relies on his vastly more able mechanic Kato (Jay Chou) to fight crime as a superhero team. Alas, the movie didn’t pan out to be anything more than forgettable, which is probably why you may not have realized Rogen actually played a superhero one time.
Rainn Wilson is best known as Dwight, the ridiculously serious Dunder Mifflin employee on The Office, but Wilson is no stranger to the world of crimefighting and flashy tights. In the 2010 dark satire Super, Wilson plays Frank Darbo, a man with no inherent superheroic abilities.
When Frank’s wife (Liv Tyler) dumps him for her drug dealing, manipulative boyfriend (Kevin Bacon) Frank snaps and becomes a ‘superhero’ called the Crimson Bolt, fighting evil by bashing it with a pipe wrench. He reluctantly recruits a maniacal sidekick named Boltie (Ellen Page), resulting in a pretty interesting film steeped in dark comedy, pathos and tragedy.
Lesley Uggams is a legendary actress best known for her role in the critically acclaimed Roots, a film that brought the realities of slavery into the homes of viewers in 1977, a time in which most white audiences were unaware of the actual brutality of American slavery. Uggams reappeared in the cultural zeitgeist a few years ago in a pretty unexpected way.
Today, most viewers would recognize her as Blind Al, the hard-assed, wisecracking roommate of the unkillable meta-superhero Deadpool. Uggams has appeared in both Deadpool and Deadpool 2, dispensing withering, barbed wisdom to counteract Ryan Reynolds’ antics as the titular anti-hero.
The Shadow (1994) is the opposite narrative of a rags-to-riches hero. Alec Baldwin plays Lamont Cranston, a violent heroin kingpin who is abducted by holy monks, who then decide to set him on the right path. They train him in all sorts of stuff including fighting, hypnosis, and altering perceptions. It is unclear why they do this.
Cranston returns to New York to fight crime as the Shadow, a vigilante with the power to cloud people’s minds and make them see (or not see) anything he wants. The fun thing about this movie is that it ends with the Shadow winning by getting the main villain, Shiwan Khan (John Lone), lobotomized, so Khan can no longer compete with his psychic abilities.
While you almost certainly remember Halle Berry playing Storm in the original X-Men trilogy, odds are you probably forgot the Academy Award-winning actress was in another superhero film in the mid-2000s. That’s because this movie was so bad, it was used as an excuse not to cast women as superhero leads for quite some time.
Berry starred as the titular iconic Batman villain / antihero in 2004’s Catwoman, a movie that routinely appears on “Worst of All Time” lists. Loaded with terrible dialogue and laughable CGI, this movie is just plain bad and no amount of star power in front of the camera could’ve saved it. Berry took her Monster’s Ball (2001) Oscar to the Razzies to accept her award for this film and dedicated it to all the people who convinced her this was a smart role to take.
Lori Petty and Naomi Watts
You might not know Lori Petty by name but if you’ve seen A League Of Their Own, Point Break, Free Willy, or Orange Is The New Black, you probably recognize her. She starred in the cult classic Tank Girl (1995), a cyberpunk-inspired superhero comic book adaptation.
Tank Girl is one of the only remaining humans on a dystopian Earth rebelling against the government/corporation that killed her friends and controls all the remaining water on the planet. She teams up with Naomi Watts, appearing in one of her first roles as the aviation tech wizard Jet Girl, to defeat the villainous Malcolm McDowell and release his stranglehold on the planet.
Tank Girl has already achieved cult status but it may become more and more popular as global warming continues to destroy our planet. At least let’s hope it’s Tank Girl, and not Waterworld that becomes more popular.
Uma Thurman technically plays a superhero in the Kill Bill series, in which she stars as the nigh-invulnerable Beatrix Kiddo, but she’s actually donned a cape and boots to punch villainy with super-strength before. And by “villainy,” we mean her annoying ex-boyfriend.
In the thoroughly forgettable My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Thurman stars as G-Girl, a woman granted basically all of Superman’s powers from a meteorite. She becomes jealous of her ex-boyfriend Matt’s (Luke Wilson) new relationship, and wreaks havoc on Matt and his new girlfriend Hannah (Anna Faris) using her super-powers, which includes flinging a great white shark at them.
Jim Carrey famously played The Riddler in 1995’s Batman Forever, but a year earlier, he played a different green-clad super being. 1994’s The Mask was an adaptation of a comic book series by Dark Horse, in which Carrey’s character discovers a magic Norse mask that gives him the powers of a Looney Tunes cartoon – meaning, he can conjure anything he can think of, and can’t be killed.
The Mask was a pretty big hit, so you might be aware of that one, but did you know Carrey played another superhero in 2013? In the bloody action sequel Kick-Ass 2, Carrey played Major Stars and Stripes, a brutal mob enforcer-turned-superhero who leads a vigilante group called Justice Forever. Surprisingly, Carrey had a huge change of heart after filming his role, and objected so strongly to the violence in the film that he refused to participate in any publicity to promote it.
The Cast of Mystery Men
1999’s Mystery Men was a dark, campy parody of superhero franchises before superhero franchises were even really a thing. We’re actually not sure why this film was made when it was, or what happened on set to make it so disjointed, but it features a startlingly huge cast of people you probably didn’t realize had ever donned superhero tights.
Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Kel Mitchell (Of “Keanan and” fame,) Paul Reubens, William H Macy and Ben Stiller play the titular superhero team, which is effectively a list of people we would never expect to be in a superhero film. Also appearing are Greg Kinnear as the buffoonish, stuck-up superhero Captain Amazing, and Geoffrey Rush as the criminal mastermind Cassanova Frankenstein. Even Eddie Izzard is in this, playing a disco-themed supervillain. This movie is like a fever dream.
Christopher Meloni is best known for his role as Detective Elliot Stabler on Law and Order: SVU, and for his particularly memorable turn as a deranged camp cook in Wet Hot American Summer and its two sequel series. He also appeared as a no-nonsense Air Force colonel in 2013’s Superman reboot Man of Steel.
But that’s not the only time Meloni has been involved with the DC Universe. He voiced the Green Lantern in the 2010 animated movie Green Lantern: First Flight. And while it’s not technically a “superhero” role, he also appeared in the 2014 gritty comic book sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. With such a square jaw, you’d think he’d be in every comic book movie.
Donald Glover is best known for his roles on Community and Atlanta, and for his music career as Childish Gambino. You also might remember his memorable cameo in Spider-Man: Homecoming as an aloof street criminal the web slinger totally fails to intimidate. But did you happen to catch his character’s name?
Glover played Aaron Davis, who both comic book fans and fans of Spider-Man: Into the Spider Verse will recognize as the supervillain The Prowler, who also happens to be Miles Morales’ uncle. It’s unclear whether Glover will be back to portray a live-action version of the super criminal, but the seeds have definitely been planted. And maybe that means we’ll get a live-action Miles Morales, too!