1. Tom Cruise (Iron Man)
One of the ways in which you can measure an actor’s success in playing a role is trying to imagine anyone else taking it on. For instance, it’s almost impossible to see anyone but Robert Downey, Jr., as Tony Stark as Iron Man in Marvel’s films. But there was a time when fellow A-lister Tom Cruise was all set to produce and star in the first Iron Man film, telling an interviewer in 2004 he wanted the project because Iron Man was his favorite superhero: “I think with something like a superhero movie, there is a flood of these at the moment, and the audience latches on to them in a big way, so there is a big demand from the studios. But with Iron Man, because I love the project so much, you want to make the movie bigger and different to what is being made at the moment.” Presumably, the studio couldn’t make it bigger or different enough for his liking, and he opted out to put his efforts into War of the Worlds and Mission: Impossible III instead. No doubt Downey sent him a very nice gift basket as thanks.
Chances of a Tom Cruise version being just as good: 1 in 7. Cruise has shown a bit more range and self-awareness in recent years (his brief appearances in Tropic Thunder and Rock of Ages were especially surprising), and he would have little trouble capturing Tony Stark’s charm and glibness… but Cruise has a tendency to “act big” and probably wouldn’t have nailed the smaller moments that Downey delivered, like that scene where Gwyneth Paltrow put her whole fist inside his chest cavity to help jump-start his artificial heart. You know, the tender stuff.
2. James Purefoy (V for Vendetta)
The British actor best known for playing Marc Antony in the TV series Rome and a serial killer in The Following was the first choice to play the perpetually masked freedom fighter in the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, but he walked off the set four weeks into filming, allowing fellow Brit Hugo Weaving (The Matrix, Lord of the Rings) to step in. His reasons? Officially, it was creative differences, but it’s rumored he was greatly frustrated by having to wear a mask for the entire length of the film, an impediment that would challenged the skills of any actor: “Wearing that thing takes… a lot of takes,” he once said. “Spider-Man’s mask comes off. Batman’s mask comes off. Even the Elephant Man had eyes. That’s all I ask for, just an eye!” Weaving was sympathetic after experiencing the role himself: “I was warned by other people [about] certain difficulties with the mask. I just think it can feel very hot. You feel quite… cut off.”
Chances of a James Purefoy version being just as good: Even. Not to knock Weaving’s line readings or the challenges he faced performing a role in which no one could see him emote, but there’s no reason to believe Purefoy couldn’t have done just as well if he had stuck it out. In fact, certain scenes within the finished film actually do feature Purefoy’s body, with Weaving’s voice dubbed over Purefoy’s physical performance. Director James McTeigue once said in an interview: “Can I tell the difference? Yeah. Can the audience tell? I doubt it.”
3. Dougray Scott (Wolverine)
The Scottish actor who set young hearts swooning in Ever After wasn’t exactly a household name near the turn of the century, but his extreme good luck in landing two high-profile roles would have changed that. After being hand-picked by Tom Cruise to star as the big bad villain in the second Mission: Impossible movie, Scott also landed the role of Wolverine in the much-anticipated 2000 X-Men movie. Unfortunately, when MI:II went over schedule, Scott had to bow out of X-Men, and he was replaced by Hugh Jackman, who was mostly unknown to audiences outside his native Australia. Scott has enjoyed a half-decent film career since then, but it’s fair to say things would have worked out very differently (three X-Men and two Wolverine films to date, not to mention a hilarious two-word cameo in X-Men: First Class) if he had been able to show up for his forearm claw fitting.
Chances of a Dougray Scott version being just as good: 1 in 3. Take a look at what Scott did with his role in MI:II and tell me he doesn’t have the look and sound of a killer (which, let’s face it, is what Wolverine is) down cold. That said… this is probably one of those serendipity things that was for the best, as I really can’t picture anyone but Jackman sporting the claws and muttonchops. And yes, that includes Russell Crowe, who was also up for the part until he started demanding a little more money than the studio was willing to offer. Good call, Fox.
4. Sean Young (Vicki Vale/Catwoman)
The comely young star of such ’80s classics as Stripes, Blade Runner and No Way Out was cast to play nosy reporter Vicki Vale in Tim Burton’s first Batman film, but she had to be replaced after she broke her arm while horseback riding right before shooting, and Kim Basinger took her place. Shortly after that setback, Young lost the role of Tess Trueheart, Dick Tracy’s love interest, to Glenne Headley in Warren Beatty’s 1990 adaptation of the comic-strip cop; Beatty reportedly did not find Young maternal enough for the part. Then, when Burton was putting together 1992’s Batman Returns, Young stormed the studio lot wearing a homemade Catwoman suit in a disastrous attempt to convince him that she was perfect for the part (Annette Bening was originally up for the role; it went to Michelle Pfeiffer after Bening’s pregnancy forced her to bow out). Legend has it Burton hid under a desk to avoid her, and she ended up on Hollywood’s blacklist for years because of that stunt (although other rumors of her on-set instability didn’t help, either).
Chances of a Sean Young version being just as good: Even. Let’s be honest,Basinger wasn’t given a lot to do in her role — screaming and looking puzzled at Keaton, mostly — and there’s no reason to suspect Young couldn’t have nailed it. As for Catwoman? Don’t get me wrong, Pfeiffer is still the pfinest pfeline pfemme pfatale in my mind… but given the reputation Young has gotten over the years as a slightly unhinged actress, a big part of me would have loved to have seen how much of that unpredictable energy she would have put into the character.
5. Bill Murray (Batman)
I ask you, who could look at the smirking star of Ghostbusters, Caddyshack and Groundhog Day and not see the makings of a suave millionaire playboy-slash-masked figure spreading terror in the night? Well, pretty much everyone, yes. But they said the same thing about Michael Keaton, so there! Long before Tim Burton got tapped to direct the first Batman film, producer Michael Uslan hired writer Tom Mankiewicz (of the James Bond franchise and Superman fame) to write a Batman screenplay. Mankiewicz adapted villain Rupert Thorne and romantic interest Silver St. Cloud (both introduced in Batman comics during the 1970s), while also including the Joker in a scheme to reveal Batman’s real identity. Ivan Reitman was brought in to direct, and he wanted to bring along his fellow Ghostbusters alumnus to play Bruce Wayne — a move that seemed at odds with the serious tone of the script. Rewrites followed rewrites, creative personnel came and went, and Murray was out.
Chances of a Bill Murray version being just as good: 1 in 10. Not fair, you say? They bought Mr. Mom as the Caped Crusader so why not Murray, you protest? Think of it this way: Michael Keaton’s comedy has generally been based on masking (or giving in to) his feelings of pent-up rage, making it a little bit more believable to see him as an unassuming man with a side gig as a violent vigilante than an actor whose underlying menace is a little harder to see. That said, given Murray’s much underrated performance in Quick Change, I would have loved to have seen his take on the Joker. Crying-on-the-inside kind of clown, indeed.
6. Marlon Wayans (Robin)
When Batman Returns didn’t meet the, ah, returns of its predecessor (grossing “only” $266 million worldwide to the original’s $411 million), Warner Bros. decided the franchise needed to go in a new direction, a direction that played down the child-kidnapping and criminal-barbecuing stuff and instead made Batman’s world a little more… let’s call it colorful. So Burton was out and Joel Schumacher was in, and with the change in directors came a lot of other changes, too. For instance, Burton’s Robin was going to be a street-smart black kid taken in by Batman (a mix between the Dick Grayson and Jason Todd versions), and a young Marlon Wayans signed on to wear the tights. But he was paid to leave the set after Burton was sent packing, and the Robin role went to Chris O’Donnell instead. Given how Batman Forever turned out, Wayans is probably not too upset about getting paid not to appear in it.
Chances of a Marlon Wayans version being just as good: Even. Hell, there’s every chance he would done a lot better, considering how O’Donnell played Dick Grayson as someone who’s mad because he just lost his lunch money to a bully instead of, you know, someone who just saw his entire freakin’ family murdered right before his eyes. And really, any outcry that might have resulted from Burton changing up Robin’s race would have been easily overshadowed by the many, many other problems Batman fans had with Batman Forever and 1997’s Batman and Robin.
7. John Krasinski (Captain America)
Yes, for real. The floppy-haired star of TV’s The Office was in the running for the title role in Captain America: The First Avenger, beating out the likes of Ryan Phillippe, Garrett Hedlund and Channing Tatum for the role. Krasinski had apparently been called in on four separate occasions to read for the role and even did two screen tests, but then Chris Evans (formerly known as Johnny Storm from the Fantastic Four films) swooped in and nabbed the role instead.
Chances of a John Krasinski version being just as good: Even. Three reasons: (1) Any doubts that a guy known for playing a slacker in an NBC sitcom couldn’t get buff for a Marvel superhero movie were laid to rest with this photo. (2) Krasinski, though best known for his comedy work, has shown his more dramatic chops in films like Big Miracle, Away We Go and Promised Land, and could easily pull off the “time-displaced warrior” act. (3) Let’s be honest: Evans did all right, but it wasn’t his performance that put that movie over the top — the Captain is a fairly straightforward role to play, and pretty much any square-jawed, all-American type would have done a fine enough job with it. And if Krasinski was in it, the chances of the Red Skull finding his favorite stapler in a bowl of Jell-O would have gone up 800%.
8. Emily Blunt (Black Widow)
If Krasinski had landed the Captain America role and went on to star in Marvel’s The Avengers, he might have ended up working alongside his wife. Emily Blunt was director Jon Favreau’s first choice to play the sexy yet deadly Black Widow in Iron Man 2, but the sharp-tongued star of The Devil Wears Prada was contractually optioned to star in a rival studio’s picture, and so the plum part went to Scarlett Johansson instead. The fact the other picture was a bomb (Fox’s Gulliver’s Travels starring Jack Black) probably didn’t make Blunt feel better. But hey, she later turned down the female lead in Captain America, so maybe she’s just fine with staying away from the whole superhero movie thing.
Chances of an Emily Blunt version being just as good: 1 in 3. It’s hard to picture Blunt, whose CV tilts more towards the drama and period pieces than the shoot-em-up action pictures, slithering into the black leather catsuit required for the role. Then again, it kind of bugged me that Johansson wasn’t, well, Russian enough in her role, and it might have been interesting to see how an actress with Blunt’s Streep-like background would have explored that side of Black Widow.
9. Jim Caviezel (Cyclops/Superman)
Some guys have all the luck, and some guys are named Jim Caviezel. First turning heads in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Caviezel was another young hot property in Hollywood when he beat out guys like Thomas Jane, Owen Wilson and Jude Law for the role of Cyclops in the 2000 X-Men movie. But a scheduling conflict (he was filming the sci-fi dad-and-son-reunited flick Frequency at the time) forced him to back out, and so the part went to James Marsden instead. No matter; Caviezel went on to other acting challenges, including a small part as a certain son of God in an independently produced film called The Passion of the Christ. And if getting accidentally scourged, hit by lightning and suffering hypothermia during production wasn’t bad enough, his participation in Mel Gibson’s controversial Bible epic/snuff film made it tougher for him to land good roles — including the lead part in 2006’s Superman Returns, which he auditioned for but didn’t get because, hey, you can only pack so many obvious Christ parallels into one movie, you know?
Chances of a Jim Caviezel version of Cyclops being just as good: Even. Marsden acquitted himself well, but he was a little too frat-boy for the role of comicdom’s glummest Gus; someone like Caviezel would have given Cyclops just a little more of the tragic/military-minded edge that the character needs to not come off as the team’s designated wet blanket/mope.
Chances of a Jim Caviezel version of Superman being just as good: You’re kidding, right? Yeah, let’s not even get into a list of who could have been better for the part than Brandon Routh, because we’ll be here a long time. Why, the list of entertainers named Jim alone: Caviezel, Carrey, Parsons, Belushi, Henson (yes, he’s dead; what’s your point?)…
10. Benjamin Walker (Beast)
On June 17, 2010, Benjamin Walker was cast as Hank “Beast” McCoy in X-Men: First Class, the prequel to the X-Men trilogy; on July 15, he bowed out to reprise his role in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, an off-Broadway musical that suddenly wasn’t so “off-” anymore. Nicholas Hoult (About a Boy) was brought in to fill the furry blue suit, and will return to the role in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past film. Would Walker have walked if he had known his Broadway musical would only run for 120 performances over four months? Hard to say, but at least he seized the next opportunity that came along to kick some bad-guy butt, leveraging his experience playing kick-ass presidents to become Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Chances of a Benjamin Walker version being just as good: Even. Nothing against Hoult, but what we’ve got here is a case of two equally decent actors being asked to play an introvert scientist who one day grows fangs and blue fur. Not exactly the kind of acting that anyone can really lay claim as their specialty.
11. Bruce Jenner (Superman)
Don’t recognize the name? What you young whipper-snappers need is a better appreciation for history, dagnabbit. At any rate: in 1976, it was hard to find anyone on the planet more famous than this guy, the American athlete who took the gold medal in the decathlon (that’s 10 separate events, yo) at the Montreal Olympics. Producers of the upcoming Superman movie — who by that time had offered the role to pretty much every guy in Hollywood with a half-decent build — gave Jenner a screen test in September 1976, perhaps hoping some of his fame as a super-athlete would help promote the movie. Let’s just say anyone who’s ever caught Jenner in an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians has some idea of how well those screen tests turned out. On the bright side, Jenner’s disastrous screen test was probably that made the producers give up on the idea of going with an already established celebrity and instead tap a relative unknowen for the role of a lifetime. The rest, as they say, is history.
Chances of a Bruce Jenner version being just as good: 1 in a million. Sorry, Bruce, but you know it’s true. RIP, Chris — there could be only one, and you were it.