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Bond, Dracula, Batman & More: Who Played These 10 Iconic Characters Best?

Bond, Dracula, Batman & More: Who Played These 10 Iconic Characters Best?

This past weekend saw the release of “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” the latest film to feature Tom Clancy‘s CIA analyst. It’s probably fair to say that the film didn’t live up to Paramount‘s expectations as a franchise re-starter, opening in fourth at the box office with a disappointing $15 million, and is heading to a rather ignominious future as a film that you watch ten minutes of on cable before realizing that you’ve already watched it.

But the film will at least be remembered for one thing: with Chris Pine taking over the lead role, it marks the fourth actor in five movies to play the title character, which must be something of a record—James Bond has had six actors, but over 23 movies, for instance. But it got us thinking about some of the characters who’ve appeared on screen most frequently, from masked heroes to royalty to religious icons.

So, in celebration (?) of Paramount’s achievement, we’ve picked ten movie characters who’ve been played by multiple actors, and tried to work out which of their many incarnations was the best. To help pare things down, we’ve mostly excluded Shakespeare‘s characters (there’ve been over 50 versions of “Hamlet” alone), and, for the most part, historical figures, though we’ve made some exceptions here and there. You can take a look below, and voice your thoughts in the comments section below.

Sherlock Holmes

The Contenders: Many over the years, but frontrunners would include: John Barrymore, who took the part in a 1922 silent; Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes in fourteen movies between 1939 and 1946; Peter Cushing in “The Hound Of The Baskervilles“; John Neville in “A Study In Terror“; Nicol Williamson in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution“; Christopher Plummer in “Murder By Decree“; Michael Caine in the parody “Without A Clue“; Jeremy Brett in a series of British TV adaptations; Nicholas Rowe in “Young Sherlock Holmes“; and, most recently and successfully, Benedict Cumberbatch in TV’s “Sherlock“; Jonny Lee Miller in “Elementary“; and Robert Downey Jr. in mega-franchise “Sherlock Holmes” and “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows.” If you were to stretch the description of the character a little, you could also include faux-Sherlocks like Buster Keaton in “Sherlock Jr.” and George C. Scott in “They Might Be Giants.”

The Argument: Obviously depending on how literal you are about the character (recent takes, with their bare-knuckle boxing and mind palaces, stretch Conan Doyle’s creation somewhat), but essentials probably include a certain antisocial nature, a close bond with BFF Dr. John Watson, an eccentric and bohemian personality, a near-Machiavellian and emotionless streak, and, depending on your preference, a pipe and a deerstalker hat. The likes of Rathbone, Cushing and Brett all stick fairly closely to the template, which are admittedly definitive, even if they seem a little fusty in retrospect. We’re very fond of both Plummer’s version, which is a rather more charming and conscientious take, and Nicol Wiliamson’s coke-addled lunatic in “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” while Rowe did a good job at portraying a Holmes not quite fully-formed, but certainly on his way there. And though Downey Jr. makes a fair go of it, it’s undoubtedly Cumberbatch who’s defined the character for a new generation in “Sherlock,” though Miller’s good value in “Elementary” too.

The Winner And Why: Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder‘s “The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes.” Overlooked by audiences after it was hacked up by the studio, the film sometimes feels like only a shadow of what it might have been, but Stephens is magnificent: a more tragic and human take on Holmes without abandoning the basics of the character. His Wildean wit, and beautifully drawn relationship with Colin Blakeley‘s Watson, give the performance pathos and energy that, for us, remains the gold standard. We’re interested to see what Ian McKellen and Bill Condon cook up together with the upcoming “A Slight Trick Of Mind,” one of many takes sure to be in the works after a recent copyright ruling firmly placed Holmes in the public domain.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: There’s a couple of comic takes on the character that are worth seeking out if you’re not familiar with them. John Cleese plays a contemporary take on Holmes in the wildly uneven, but very enjoyable “The Strange Case Of The End Of Civilization As We Know It,” and while 1978’s “The Hound Of The Baskervilles,” directed by Andy Warhol protege Paul Morrissey, is not a good film at all, Peter Cook is inspired casting as Holmes, and makes you wish the material was better.

James Bond

The Contenders: Sean Connery from “Dr. No” in 1962 to “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971; George Lazenby, who was Connery’s replacement for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” in 1969; Roger Moore from 1973’s “Live And Let Die” to 1985’s “A View To A Kill“; Timothy Dalton in 1987’s “The Living Daylights” and 1989’s “Licence To Kill“; Pierce Brosnan from 1995’s “Goldeneye” to 2002’s “Die Another Day“; and Daniel Craig from 2006’s “Casino Royale” to the present. David Niven also played the role in the terrible, terrible 1967 parody version of “Casino Royale.”

The Argument: Ian Fleming‘s hard-drinking, womanizing spy is the focus of the longest-running singular franchise in the history of the medium, and the part serves as a testament to the kind of diversity you can get when six (or seven) middle-aged white men all get to showcase their own takes on the same character. Connery as the first, is probably still the most iconic, and is, for the most part, closer to the cruel and callous 007 of Fleming’s books. Lazenby might have the best movie with “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” but feels a little awkward in the role, though who knows if he would’ve have settled in better with more time. Moore is the most fun, always ready with a wisecrack and an eyebrow-raise, but only descending into camp in the later entries, when the scripts got worse (much, much worse) and he started feeling too old for the part. Dalton was the Bond for the P.C. era, serious and emotional, and never quite gets to the root of the character, though that’s the fault of the material rather than him. Brosnan melds some of the best characteristics of his predecessors, able to pull off some wry Moore-ish humor with a little Connery chilliness and Dalton pathos in for the mix. And Craig is the blunt instrument, leavened with a certain GQ Magazine new-man sensitivity.

The Winner And Why: Sean Connery. Moore’s films are too silly and inconsistent, for the most part, for him to be a serious contender, and Dalton and Lazenby can’t match their colleague’s impact. Craig probably has the most emotional material, best hit rate so far (two very good Bond films and one duff one), but it feels too early to elevate him into the pantheon yet. As for Pierce Brosnan, despite his fine performances, he only made one classic with “Goldeneye,” with the series falling a few notches after that film (and picking up again later). So that leaves Connery, and really, who else could be: the Scottish actor defined the role in the 1960s, and every actor who’ll ever done the tuxedo will be in the shadow of the hirsute, savage hound dog who launched the franchise.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: If you missed any of them, it’s most likely the 1967 “Casino Royale,” with David Niven. Trust us, it’s for the best: it’s a spectacularly uneven counter-cultural mess that went through as many as six directors.  


The Contenders: Sherlock Holmes might be the most popular human character on screen (according to the Guinness Book Of World Records), but even he couldn’t defeat Bram Stoker‘s vampiric creation Dracula, who has appeared on screen over 250 times. Aside from a possible 1920 Soviet silent, the first official adaptation was 1931’s Universal version, starring Bela Lugosi, who introduced many of the characteristics that still define the character to this day. Lon Chaney Jr. and John Carradine were among those who took up the mantle after that, while Christopher Lee starred in six successful Hammer films between 1958’s “Dracula” and 1973’s “The Satanic Rites Of Dracula.” The same year as the latter saw Jack Palance star in the Richard Matheson-scripted “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” while Udo Kier donned the fangs for the Andy Warhol-produced “Blood For Dracula” the following year. Frank Langella took the part from stage to screen in 1979’s “Dracula” from Universal, while the same year also saw George Hamilton star in comedy “Love At First Bite” and Klaus Kinski play the role in Werner Herzog‘s remake of “Nosferatu” (it should be noted that, in an ultimately ineffective way to get around copyright, F.W. Murnau‘s 1922 original, the first real adaptation of the story, renamed him Count Orlok, and so we’ve disqualified that from this list, while Herzog’s character kept Stoker’s name). More recently, there’s been Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1992 epic “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” Gerard Butler in terrible reboot “Dracula 2000,” Guy Maddin‘s ballet “Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary,” Richard Roxburgh in the villain in 2004’s “Van Helsing,” Thomas Kretschmann in Dario Argento‘s “Dracula 3D,” Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in awful TV series “Dracula” and, coming soon, Luke Evans in this year’s “Dracula Untold.”

The Argument: For all of the adaptations that exist, most are pale imitations or semi-parodies of Lugosi’s heavily accented, dinner-jacket wearing Count—even the likes of Palance (who brings new texture, but is ultimately somewhat miscast) and Langella (who’s a decidedly sexier take), struggle to stand out from the crowd. There’s been a disappointing trend of late, including Butler and Dominic Purcell in “Blade:Trinity,” to reduce the character to a bland villain too. But that said, there’s still a number of iconic portrayals that do something different, with Lee, Kinski and Gary Oldman all being particularly impressive.

The Winner And Why: Christopher Lee. Yes, Lugosi’s the most iconic, and Tod Browning‘s film still holds up, but it’s a little hard to separate the performance from the parodies it spawned (and from Martin Landau‘s great portrayal of the actor in “Ed Wood“). Oldman arguably gets the most to play with, going from romantic to monster, but can’t resist getting his teeth into the (beautifully-designed) scenery sometimes. It’s almost impossible, then, to choose between the others, but given that Kinski’s performance, while soulful and monstrous, is so indebted to Max Schreck in the silent take, we’d just give the edge to Lee. The 1958 “Dracula” is Lee’s only great film in the role, but he’s more debonair, more alluring, and much more frightening than Lugosi, or those who came after.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: It’s hardly the most traditional film on the list, but Guy Maddin’s ballet film “Dracula: Pages From A Virgin’s Diary” is a stunning piece of work, with its black-and-white photography giving an especially Gothic air to proceedings and dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang is wonderful in the part, especially given his lack of dialogue.

Queen Elizabeth I

The Contenders: Are you ready for this? It’s a character that has been essayed so many times that we can actually see patterns forming within the canon. There are the Actors Who Have Played Her Twice: Flora Robson in “Fire Over England” (1937) and “The Sea Hawk” (1940), the latter of which was directed by Michael Curtiz, as was the previous year’s “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex” (1939) which was the first of two films to star Bette Davis in the role, the second being ”The Virgin Queen” (1955). Cate Blanchett was Oscar-nominated twice in the role for “Elizabeth” (1998) and the inferior sequel “Elizabeth: The Golden Age” (2007); Glenda Jackson was in the so-definitive-it-was-shown-in-schools 1971 BBC miniseries “Elizabeth R” (1971) and the same year’s big-screen “Mary, Queen of Scots” (1971) opposite Vanessa Redgrave. Redgrave herself took on the role in Roland Emmerich’s soapy and unconvincing “Anonymous” (2011), with her daughter Joely Richardson playing the younger version, which brings us to the section we’ll call Young, Hot Elizabeths. Blanchett’s first appearance certainly counts, but even back to Jean Simmons in “Young Bess” (1953) and arguably to now-unavailable silent film “The Virgin Queen” (1923), which starred actual Royal Lady Diana Manners in the role, there has been an urge to show the sexier side of Elizabeth’s formidable reputation. (Speaking of silents, even Sarah Bernhardt played the character in a 1912 short “Queen Elizabeth” which, when you think about it, is all it needed to be called as at that point, as there had only been one.)

In addition to the Jackson miniseries, Helen Mirren, who of course played Elizabeth II in “The Queen,” played the lead in the 2005 Tom Hooper-directed HBO two-parter “Elizabeth I,”  while Anne-Marie Duff inhabited the role from youth to old age in the BBC’s “The Virgin Queen” (2006) miniseries. There are too many Cameo Lizzes to mention, especially as she pops us in TV shows about twice a week as a background character (there’ve been two in the modern era of “Doctor Who” alone), but of course we have to mention Judi Dench’s Oscar-winning 8 minutes in “Shakespeare in Love.” Liz As A Child has been played several times over, notably by Laoise Murray in TV show “The Tudors” and Maisie Smith in “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2008), and then there are the Lizzes Played For Laughs: Miranda Richardson takes the, er, crown for Queenie in the second season of “Blackadder,” but Pythons Graham Chapman and John Cleese have also both poked fun at her in an episode of “Flying Circus” (which parodies Jackson’s “Elizabeth R”) and a 1975 short called “Decisions Decisions,” respectively. And the latter two are of course examples of the subcategory of Men Who Have Played Elizabeth I, the finest version of which has to be Quentin Crisp in Sally Potter’s “Orlando” opposite Tilda Swinton, who has the dubious honor of being the Actor You’re Most Likely To Remember Playing Elizabeth I But Who Actually Hasn’t. Yet.

The Argument: With an Elizabeth for every mood and taste, it’s a tricky job to narrow the field, let alone pick a winner. Bearing in mind the slightly unfair advantage that an actor who has had eight hours of screen time in the role has over one who has a few minutes, and because it’s what we’re best equipped to judge, we’re biased toward a feature performance, purely because to be able to capture the contradictions and complexities of this incredible character in two hours is a major feat. What we’re really looking for is a performance that, at every moment, both chimes with the traditional idea of what and who Elizabeth was, while also humanizing her away from the stiff, unyielding, domineering figure that we learnt about in history books. For absolute accuracy to the historical facts, we’d plump for any of the miniseries over any of the films, but that’s not what we’re judging here either.

The Winner And Why: Bette Davis. Bette Davis. Sacrilege! Now, before you imprison us in the Tower for treachery or feed us to the swans, watch “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex”: Davis is extraordinary. Still young herself at 30, Davis fearlessly aged (and uglied) up to play the monarch in her later years, famously shaving her hair back and her eyebrows off altogether, and even demanding, over studio objections to the expense, that her costumes be modeled on existing Holbein portraits of the Queen. She famously had hoped for Laurence Olivier in the role of Essex, her lover and foil, and was disappointed with Errol Flynn until years later when she revised her opinion of his performance. And indeed he’s very good, but only because he seems to be rising to somewhere near her level: quite aside from the physical resemblance she achieves, her Elizabeth is brilliant and insecure, loyal and spiteful, noble and vain all in every breath, and if the frou-frou technicolor trappings of the film occasionally make it seem insubstantial, every second she’s on screen it falls into secure orbit around her. Which is kind of what the country, and the known world, did around Elizabeth herself.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: He’s not in it very much, which is probably another reason it’s so effective, but Quentin Crisp’s turn in Sally Potter’s wonderful and weird take on Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando” is a real treat. It’s a sly wink of a performance that is good enough to stand on its own, but also nods to everything from the Elizabethan practice of having men play women’s roles on stage, to the film’s own gender-switching themes, to the persistent rumor/conspiracy theory that Elizabeth I, due to her childlessness and also to her strategic cleverness and political savoir faire, was in fact a man in drag. I mean, it’s the only possible explanation…

Jesus Christ

The Contenders: As if it was final proof that good triumphs over evil, big J.C. has appeared on screen even more times than Dracula—there’s nearly 400 listings for him as a character on IMDb, from silents to the upcoming “Son Of God” by way of “South Park” and “Robot Chicken.” Ruling out the performances that don’t go much further than cameos (“Ben Hur,” “The Robe,” “Life Of Brian” et al.), we’re left with a brace of serious possibilities: H.B. Warner in Cecil B. DeMille‘s 1927 silent “The King Of Kings“; Jeffrey Hunter in Nicholas Ray‘s 1961 “King of Kings“; Enrique Irazoqui in Pasolini‘s 1964 “The Gospel According To Matthew“; Max Von Sydow in 1965’s “The Greatest Story Ever Told“; Victor Garber and Ted Neely in 1973 musicals “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar“; Robert Powell in Zeffirelli‘s 1977 made-for-TV epic “Jesus Of Nazareth“; Willem Dafoe in Martin Scorsese‘s “The Last Temptation Of Christ“; and Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson‘s 2004 “The Passion Of The Christ.”

The Argument: Christ might be the trickiest part to pull off on this list: play him as “Christlike,” as it were, and you risk being dull, but put too much humanity in the part and you bring down the moral majority on your head. We’d argue that Warner and Hunter fall in that category, while Garber and Neely are too much slaves to the musical numbers to really make a lasting impression. Enrique Iraqoqui (a Spanish economics student who’d never acted before) is a rather remarkable presence in Pasolini’s film, though there are rough edges on the performance, while Jim Caviezel does a fair but unexceptional job in Mel Gibson’s otherwise unpleasant retelling, especially given that his dialogue in Aramaic. But ultimately, we come down to Robert Powell’s unearthly, yet human take in the Zefferelli miniseries, and Dafoe’s flawed, angst-ridden Jesus H in Scorsese’s film.

The Winner And Why: Willem Dafoe. Controversial to this day (it’s still banned in Singapore and the Philippines), the film makes a case for being one of Scorsese’s best, or at least his most soulful, films, and so much of that is down to Dafoe. He never plays Christ as the son of God, but as a man, and fully rises to challenges inherent in that. If the mob who firebombed the French cinema showing the film, or any of the other kneejerk religious critics actually sat down to watch the thing, they’d find in Dafoe someone who makes Jesus’ plight and sacrifice more moving than any other version.

The One You Haven’t Seen: For a (very) alternative take, check out Hal Hartley‘s 60-minute 1998 curio “The Book of Life,” a digitally-shot, present-day tale of Millennial apocalypse that sees Hartley regular Martin Donovan take on Christ (with no less than P.J. Harvey as Mary Magdalene). Along similar lines, Christopher Eccleston is rather good in TV two-parter “The Second Coming,” from “Doctor Who” rebooter Russell T. Davies.


The Contenders: Arguably the movies’ most popular superhero (he’s been consistently more successful than Superman, and gone through more incarnations than Spider-Man or Iron Man), billionaire-orphan-turned-crime-fighter Bruce Wayne, better known as Batman, first came to the screen in a 1943 serial for Columbia, played by Lewis Wilson, with a follow-up, “Batman And Robin,” in 1949 with Robert Lowery donning the cowl. But the first to truly become famous was Adam West, in the TV series that ran from 1966 to 1968 (as well as the movie spin-off that was filmed after the first season). Twenty years later, Michael Keaton got the keys to the Batmobile for Tim Burton‘s megabudget 1989 “Batman,” and reprised the role in 1992 sequel “Batman Returns” before Val Kilmer, and then George Clooney, took over for 1995’s “Batman Forever” and 1998’s “Batman and Robin,” respectively. The latter put paid to the franchise for a while, but it was rebooted to huge success by Christopher Nolan with 2005’s “Batman Begins,” in which Christian Bale played the role. Nolan and Bale reunited for the second and third parts of the trilogy, 2008’s “The Dark Knight” and 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” Ben Affleck will play the role in “Batman Vs. Superman,” but you’ll have to wait until 2016 to see that happen, now that the film’s been delayed.

The Argument: Let’s assume for a minute we can disregard Wilson and Lowery from the serials, who from what we’ve seen, are fairly deservedly brushed over in the history of the character. West is gloriously silly (it says something about the endurance of his performance that people still make references to his catchphrase), though it’s obviously lightweight stuff—though some would argue, perhaps correctly, that it’s the appropriate tone for something based on the funny papers. George Clooney’s one film in the Batsuit is almost as campy, which is a shame—he’s the Timothy Dalton of the franchise, a decent bit of casting wasted on disappointing material. That said, we’d probably take him over Val Kilmer, who looks miserable for every second that he’s on screen in “Batman Forever.” As for the greatest ever, it probably depends on your age as to whether you go for Keaton, whose casting proved unlikely, or Bale, the grittier 21st Bat-avatar, as the seminal pick.

The Winner And Why: Christian Bale. Keaton is great in the role, with a wry humor that none of the other Batmen matched, and his two films are pretty solid. But ultimately, he has a tendency to fade into the background a bit, with Burton much more interested in the villain. “Batman Begins” might be the weakest of Nolan’s trilogy, but it’s the only Batman movie to actually be about Batman, rather than his adversaries, and even in Nolan’s sequels, there’s much more depth to the character than you find elsewhere. And Bale, while a bit dour, is superb, delivering multiple performances in one—there’s wounded orphan boy Bruce Wayne, there’s the public persona of Bruce Wayne, drunken playboy, and there’s the monstrous and intimidating alter ego (and yeah, the gravelly voice can become silly in places, but it was an inspired choice to begin with). The actor takes the odd concept of a man who dresses up as a flying rodent to fight crime and sells it as something you can empathize with, and that’s a hell of an achievement.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: We were tempted to unseat Bale for Will Arnett‘s vocal turn in “The Lego Movie” based on the trailer alone, but we should probably wait for the film to actually come out before we do that. But we should shine a light on another great animated performance, that of Kevin Conroy. The voiceover specialist first voiced Bruce Wayne for the seminal “Batman: The Animated Series” in 1992, and twenty years on, continues to crop up in straight-to-DVD animations and video games. In many ways, his performances are just as iconic and influential as Keaton and Bale’s have been.

Hannibal Lecter

The Contenders: A relatively manageable field: Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s “Manhunter” (1986); Anthony Hopkins three times over in “The Silence of the Lambs,” (1991), “Hannibal” (2001) and “Red Dragon” (2002); Gaspard Ulliel in prequel “Hannibal Rising” (2007) (in which Hannibal as a child is played by Aaran Thomas); and Mads Mikkelsen in the current TV show “Hannibal.” Various parody versions have shown up in comedy shows, but nothing really worth noting.

The Argument: Thomas Harris’ most enduring creation really first made a mark on the popular consciousness in Jonathan Demme’s all-conquering “The Silence of the Lambs,” which is certainly the most complete and all-round satisfying feature on this list, and which picked up the “Big Five” Oscars (Picture, Screenplay, Director, Actor, Actress), including Best Actor, slightly controversially, for Hopkins’ 16 minutes on screen as Lecter. So the case is closed, right? It’s Hopkins, right? Well, not for us actually. ‘Silence’ is brilliant, and he’s terrific in it—snarling and purring and malevolent—but in many ways, 15 years before that, Brian Cox had done equally as impressive a job at inhabiting a different sort of Lecter, more dispassionate, less broad, without anything like the support resources Hopkins had. That said, it is perhaps just a little too bloodless to be the definitive take. Ulliel, bless him, isn’t really a challenger; he looks the part but “Hannibal Risible,” as we enjoy calling it, was never going to provide any actor with enough to (sorry) chew on, as soon as Harris, this time also the screenwriter, made the decision to have Young Lecter motivated by revenge against the Nazi collaborators who, sigh, ate his sister as a child, sigh again. And Hopkins further eroded whatever putative lead he may have had with the diminishing returns of the two ‘Silence’ sequels, especially “Hannibal,” which seems to suffer from the same impulse to make Lecter into a sympathetic cannibal who mostly kills people who really deserve it. Which leaves…

The Winner And Why: Mads Mikkelsen in NBC’s “Hannibal.” We know, we know, it’s a TV show so it’s sort of apples and oranges, but truth is we’d probably have awarded first place to Mikkelsen on the strength of the pilot alone, or any single one of the episodes. Not only is he one of the greatest actors at work today, the role here peculiarly suits his chilly Danish cheekbony intelligence, and he has invested back into the character a trait we hadn’t seen for a while: he’s fucking scary. As he told us himself back in December, what attracted him to Lecter is not simply that he’s a killer, but that he’s killing really nice, really good people, so there’s no sense in which he’s the cuddly cartoon cannibal the character was threatening to become. Lecter is supposed to be evil, someone to be fascinated by, but not to like, and that’s what Mikkelsen, within a surprisingly well-written show, has delivered. He’s given us our Hannibal Lecter back.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: You probably didn’t see “Hannibal Rising” and you should definitely keep it that way. But if you haven’t seen Brian Cox take his turn wearing Lecter’s skin (ew), you really should. Here’s our recent Michael Mann retrospective to further convince you.

Jack Ryan

The Contenders: The creation of the late Tom Clancy, Jack Ryan is a former Marine turned investment broker, who finds himself becoming a CIA analyst, and more often than not ending up in the field. In the novels, he ends up becoming president after a Japanese airline pilot crashes his plane into Congress, killing the entire government, an eerie prediction of the events of 9/11. Alec Baldwin was the first to play the role in 1990’s “The Hunt For Red October,” before Harrison Ford took over for 1992’s “Patriot Games” and 1994’s “Clean And Present Danger.” Ben Affleck toplined a semi-reboot, or at least a prequel, with “The Sum Of All Fears” in 2002, before Chris Pine took over for another restart with “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.”

The Argument: We won’t beat around the bush here: Jack Ryan might be the least interesting lead character of a franchise in the history of motion pictures, at least for anyone who isn’t your dad. Seriously, without the batshit right-wing politics of the novel (which are normally bowdlerized in the movie adaptations), Ryan is such a bland character that he makes Percy Jackson look like Gena Rowlands in “Opening Night.” So picking your favorite Jack Ryan is a little bit like picking out what shade of beige you want to paint a wall with. That said, it’s easy enough to rank them. “The Sum Of All Fears” is actually more engaging than its reputation suggests, thanks mainly to Liev Schreiber being awesome and the late Alan Bates playing a neo-Nazi, but Ben Affleck, just before his “Gigli“-induced downfall, is a bit adrift in the role. Chris Pine is more charismatic in ‘Shadow Recruit,’ though the movie’s worse, and has a reasonably affecting scene after his first kill, but is still pretty much Blandy McBlanderson. Harrison Ford, if anything, is even more white bread in his two movies, but he has gravitas, and he does have an awesome scene in “Clear And Present Danger” where he gets to yell at the President. So the winner, more by default than anything else, is…

The Winner And Why: Alec Baldwin, the first and still the best Jack Ryan, in “The Hunt For Red October.” John McTiernan‘s follow-up to “Die Hard” is easily the best movie of the series, and Baldwin is the most convincing as the smart-alec who finds himself out of his depth, excuse the pun, in part because he doesn’t have to pull off Bourne-style action like Pine.

The One You Haven’t Seen: Well, going by this weekend’s box office receipts, probably “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”… Better keep our fingers crossed that the next reboot, 2026’s “Jack Ryan: Generic Subtitle,” starring a grown-up version of the youngest kid from “Modern Family,” is more successful.


The Contenders: Perhaps because it’s harder to make someone leap tall buildings in a single bound than it is to to put a rich guy in a fancy car, Kal-El’s often been overshadowed by his less godlike stablemate Batman in recent years, but he’s appeared on screen just as many times. Bud Collyer was the first, in serials from 1941 to 1943, before Kirk Alyn took over the tights in 1948 and 1950. George Reeves became famous in 1950s TV series “The Adventures Of Superman,” before Clark Kent came to the big screen in grand fashion under the guise of Christopher Reeve in 1978’s “Superman,” and its three sequels of increasingly diminishing returns. After various false starts, and TV dramas “Lois & Clark” and “Smallville” (where Superman was played by Dean Cain and Tom Welling, respectively), newcomer Brandon Routh starred in Bryan Singer‘s big-budget “Superman Returns.” That failed to spawn a franchise, but last year’s “Man Of Steel,” starring Henry Cavill as Kal-El, was most successful: Cavill will return and square off against Ben Affleck‘s Batman in 2016.

The Argument: Superman’s arguably easier to play than Batman in some ways—the contrast between bumbling Clark Kent and noble Superman is an easier one to pull off, and you don’t have to act with a mask on your face—but in other ways, it’s much trickier: he’s so all powerful and so saintly that it can be difficult to make him interesting. That’s certainly true of early incarnations like Collyer and Reeves, who are fine, but nothing to write home about, and of the latter-day TV versions too. Brandon Routh was actually a pretty good choice, but Singer’s desire to imitate Richard Donner as closely as possible, and the film’s misjudged Super-Stalker subplots, meant that audiences never took him to their heart. Cavill’s off to a pretty good start—even “Man Of Steel” detractors will likely acknowledge that he does a fine job with Superman, though we’re yet to see his Clark Kent. But really, all of the others are in the shadow of…

The Winner And Why: Christopher Reeve. His third and fourth movies might have been incredibly terrible, but his first and best attempt, Richard Donner’s “Superman,” remains a high watermark for the character, and possibly for the genre. Reeve is deeply charming as Clark Kent, channeling Cary Grant circa “Bringing Up Baby,” and legitimately noble and heroic as Supes, proving to be a role model without being dull or worthy. He might not have had the emotional material that Cavill gets, but he’s still the most iconic and imitated portrayal.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: It’s not quite Superman, but Ben Affleck’s performance as George Reeves, the man who played Superman more than anyone else before dying of a gunshot at 45, in “Hollywoodland,” should give anyone worried about his next venture into superheroics some faith: it’s one of Affleck’s best performances, and it won him the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Robin Hood

The Contenders: First appearing in a 1912 short film, the Sherwood Forest-resident who robs from the rich to give to the poor has appeared in over 100 movies and TV shows. Early on, Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn proved to be iconic swashbucklers in 1922’s “Robin Hood” and 1938’s “The Adventures Of Robin Hood,” respectively, while Richard Greene took on the green hat in a long-running TV series. The character returned to the big screen as an anthropomorphic fox in Disney’s 1973 animation “Robin Hood,” voiced by Brian Bedford, while Sean Connery played an aging Robin in Richard Lester‘s 1976 film “Robin And Marian.” The actor’s son Jason also played him as the second incarnation of the title character in TV series “Robin Of Sherwood” (Michael Praed having been the first) before Robin Hood-mania returned in the 1990s, with Patrick Bergin as “Robin Hood,” Kevin Costner as “Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves” and Cary Elwes in Mel Brooks‘ parody “Robin Hood: Men In Tights” following in quick succession. More recently, Jonas Armstrong starred in BBC TV series “Robin Hood,” and Russell Crowe appeared in Ridley Scott‘s semi-prequel of the same name.

The Argument: Well, it ain’t gonna be Russell Crowe: we like the actor, but Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” might be the director’s single worst film, and it’s one of Crowe’s most disappointing performances. In fact, many of those who’ve played the character have been somewhat disappointing—neither Costner or Bergin were well-suited to the part, Jonas Armstrong felt more like an Arctic Monkey than an icon, and what we’ve seen of Praed and Jason Connery never impressed us in particular. That said, Cary Elwes channels some of his “Princess Bride” charms into the otherwise spotty Mel Brooks film, and Brian Bedford’s voice is one of our favorite old-school Disney vocal turns. Fairbanks is a silent charmer in the 1922 version too.

The Winner And Why: Sean Connery and Errol Flynn. For the only time in this list, we couldn’t choose, and so we’ve awarded a tie. Because we couldn’t do without Errol Flynn in “The Adventures Of Robin Hood,” because Michael Curtiz‘s film is probably the definitive swashbuckler and still one of the best actioners ever made, and Flynn is perfectly roguish in the part (god knows how it would have turned out if Jimmy Cagney had taken the role, as originally planned). But on the other side of the coin, we wouldn’t want to do without Richard Lester’s 1976 film “Robin And Marian.” The inspired take on the story, one of Lester’s very best films, pairs Sean Connery with Audrey Hepburn as aging versions of the heroes, reunited after years away, and with a final showdown with the Sheriff of Nottingham sure to lead to death. The film has a cracking cast (Robert Shaw, Nicol Williamson, Richard Harris, Denholm Elliot, Ronnie Barker and Ian Holm are among those in support), and is run through with a deep, bittersweet quality that makes it into a rather elegiac tribute to one of literature’s great heroes, and might be Connery’s finest performance to boot. It’s a perfect double bill with the Flynn version.

The One You Might Not Have Seen: We hope you’ve seen Terry Gilliam‘s “Time Bandits,” but it’s always useful to be reminded of how amazing John Cleese is in his cameo. The Monty Python star’s decision to play Hood as a sort of crassly capitalist, deeply polite version of Prince Charles is absolutely inspired, and one of the comic highlights in one of Gilliam’s best film.

Honorable Mentions: Obviously there’s plenty of other potentials here, even beyond the ones we mentioned in the introduction, but among them are Frankenstein’s Monster (as seen soon, played by Aaron Eckhart in “I, Frankenstein“), Tarzan (soon to be seen in an Alexander Skarsgård-starring reboot), Philip Marlowe, Zorro, Ebenezer Scrooge, Elizabeth Bennett, and Wong Fei-Hung, the famous martial artist played by Jet Li in “Once Upon A Time In China” and Jackie Chan in “Drunken Master,” among many others. Any other suggestions for a potential part two? Let us know in the comments section. –Oliver Lyttelton and Jessica Kiang

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