In the current era of The Avengers and Batman Vs. Superman, it’s impossible to be a fan of the comic-book genre and not have a well-considered argument to the question, “Who’s the Most Powerful Superhero?” Superman, of course, is the most obvious answer in any superpower battle-royale debate, but there are strong and more interesting claims to be made for the others, too. (Except Hawkeye. Sorry, guy.)
In Hollywood offices, there are similar conversations going on all the time about their own legion of superheroes, those famous actors and actresses who can open a movie in New York, Nebraska, and Nepal, whether it be a romance, an action-adventure, or a raunchy comedy. But with more and more of the industry now tilted towards Comic-Con-approved tent-pole pictures, the pecking order for actors today is heavily weighted by his or her ability to land a major role in a superhero franchise. It is the lifeblood of a long and prosperous career. For example, playing Batman not only elevated Christian Bale to the Hollywood A-list — positioning the indie actor for other major studio movie roles — but his enhanced financial security allowed him to continue to gamble on the eclectic roles he preferred in the first place, in movies like The Fighter and Rescue Dawn.
When the right actor gets the right superhero role, it becomes virtually impossible to separate the artist from the character. The cape becomes part of their public persona, one that can help or hinder their other on-screen roles. But what happens when Hollywood’s heroes are stripped of their superpowers? That is to say, what is Robert Downey Jr. without Tony Stark’s armor? What is Hugh Jackman when his Wolverine claws are clipped? Do we still pay to see their movies, or do we give them the cold-shoulder, like old-school Lois Lane used to give old-school Clark Kent? Who is the most powerful superstar when they’re nothing more or less than their Hollywood alter ego?
After looking at the actors and actresses who are major players in current comic-book franchises, we examined their recent box-office and critical reputation when they’re not in costume, and then ranked them in order to see who really flies the highest and has the biggest muscles in the movie universe.
18. Ron Perlman, 63 (Hellboy)
Playing the red-faced demon in the modest 2004 hit Hellboy boosted the career of one of Hollywood’s hardest-working supporting actors. Since the 2008 sequel, Perlman is practically a cult hero, starring on TV’s Sons of Anarchy, stealing scenes in movies like Hellboy director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, and menacing Ryan Gosling in last year’s Drive. Perlman isn’t a heavyweight player, but he’s a face that will continue to find work for as long as he seeks it.
17. Aaron Johnson, 23 (Kick Ass)
Kick Ass might be officially retired after a disappointing sequel, but Johnson is actually getting promoted in the superhero biz when he joins the Avengers as Quicksilver in 2015’s Age of Ultron. Joining a billion-dollar franchise will greatly raise the young Brit’s profile, a welcome development. He’s been extremely good in little-seen films like Nowhere Boy*, in which he played a young John Lennon, and he has a gift for disappearing into roles, though sometimes to his own detriment. It’s too easy to forget that he was also in noble disappointments like Anna Karenina and Savages.
16. James McAvoy, 34 (Professor Charles Xavier)
The Scot is perfect as the most cerebral of mutants in the X-Men franchise, and he demonstrated an ability to front an action movie with Wanted (though Angelina Jolie was really that film’s star.) McAvoy is routinely excellent, especially in movies like The Last King of Scotland and Atonement, but plant him as the lead and there’s no guarantee that anyone will show up on opening day — at least in the U.S. His last attempt, Danny Boyle’s Trance, barely grossed $2 million here, though it grossed nearly 10-times that abroad. His next big non-X movie will certainly reach your multiplex, though: he’s playing Dr. Frankenstein opposite Daniel Radcliffe’s Igor in 2015’s Frankenstein.
15. Tom Hiddleston, 32 (Loki)
Yes, this is a list of actors who play superheroes, but Hiddleston, our lone supervillain exception, demands our attention. As Thor’s devious brother, Loki, he’s been the scene-stealing star of three blockbuster Marvel films and you can expect him to continue his evil meddling in future installments (though not in Avengers 2). But Hiddleston himself might be as frustrated as Loki when it comes to his own movie-star status, since he’s been relegated to supporting-man status in his other films, which include solid turns in War Horse and Midnight in Paris. The internet adores Hiddleston, though, and he’s attached to star in del Toro’s upcoming gothic-horror movie, Crimson Peak.
14. Andrew Garfield, 30 (Spider-Man)
Like Tobey Maguire before him, Garfield is a slightly unassuming personality who is perfectly suited to play Peter Parker, the shy student who’s burdened with great power and great responsibility. Like McAvoy, Garfield is a Brit with formidable critical credentials who finds himself the unlikely star of a comic-book franchise. He stood out in the otherwise mediocre Lions for Lambs, was outstanding in The Social Network, and was riveting in the dark sci-fi drama, Never Let Me Go. But he’s yet to carry a successful movie without “Amazing” in the title.
13. Chris Evans, 32 (Captain America)
Almost a decade ago, Evans was cast as Johnny Storm in a pair of Fantastic Four movies that did little to light his career on fire. He remained the handsome boyfriend (The Nanny Diaries) or ex (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), the other other cop or partner-in-crime. Captain America and The Avengers were huge hits, but Evans has still struggled to translate that into substantial career value. He’s working to direct his first movie, 1:30 Train, with Alice Eve. Like another Massachusetts-bred actor learned, perhaps going behind the camera will deliver the oomph that playing a superhero did not…
12. Chloë Moretz, 16 (Hit Girl)
Hit Girl’s second go-around was a miss, but Moretz is poised to expand upon an already diverse resume as a go-to teenager. Let Me In made every Hollywood casting agent think of her when they needed a precocious teen, winning her roles in Hugo and Dark Shadows. You can almost imagine studios saying words like, “We need a Chloë Moretz type for this.” And even if her Carrie remake failed to deliver huge numbers, it was a starring role in a movie that opened in more than 3,000 theaters. Smart people are invested in her future, judging from upcoming roles with filmmakers as varied as Antoine Fuqua and Lynn Shelton.
11. Henry Cavill, 30 (Superman)
Man of Steel didn’t wow everyone, but no one seemed to have complaints with the rock-solid Cavill, who will reprise the iconic role in the much-anticipated Batman Vs. Superman in 2015. He’s always looked like a hero — starring as Theseus in 2011’s Immortals — and the heat from his Supe-debut helped him land the leading role in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., another potential franchise that George Clooney and Tom Cruise had flirted with. U.N.C.L.E. will be a crucial test to see if Cavill can be a true box-office superhero in movies without the cape — or if he’s destined to be just another handsome Clark Kent.
10. Mark Ruffalo, 45 (Hulk)
Ruffalo is an indie stalwart, and you could feel the love for him after his Hulk — following one-and-done attempts from Eric Bana and Edward Norton — became the one that finally got cheers. After a solid 15 years in the business, he instills credibility into every project he chooses, whether it’s The Kids are All Right, for which he earned an Oscar nod, or the summer sleeper, Now You See Me. He’s more valuable as a supporting player, and there’s no doubt that his name attracts other actors to projects and helps get movies made. His next movie is emblematic of all these positive attributes: he stars in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, opposite Channing Tatum and Steve Carell.
9. Scarlett Johansson, 28 (Black Widow)
Johansson’s cinematic aura is intoxicating. Look no further than Spike Jonze’s upcoming movie Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with just her voice alone. But since starring in Lost in Translation 10 years ago, she hasn’t delivered many hits, per se. In part, that’s because she’s drawn to auteurs like Jonze and Woody Allen, as well as darker material, like the recent Don Jon. As an actress, she should be in her rom-com prime, but she’s not necessarily built that way. Still, she’s on everyone’s short-list and will next star opposite Robert Downey Jr. in Chef.
8. Jeremy Renner, 42 (Hawkeye)
Renner might play the Avengers’ overlooked stepchild, but other movie franchises seem only too happy to hand him the keys. Stepping into Matt Damon’s Bourne shoes, Renner delivered a competent, if not beloved, spin-off that earned its own sequel. He seems to be the spy-in-waiting, should Tom Cruise ever pass the Mission: Impossible torch, and you’d be foolish to totally dismiss Hansel & Gretel, which made a surprising amount of cash abroad and will get a sequel. Throw in his Oscar-nominated turns in The Hurt Locker and The Town, as well as his recent induction into the David O. Russell company of players (American Hustle), and his future is bright… with or without a Hawkeye standalone.
7. Samuel L. Jackson, 64 (Nick Fury)
Yes, he’s in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-grossing actor of all-time, and he’s also the man who ties the Avengers universe together. But nowadays, Jackson is the Hollywood equivalent of ice-cream sprinkles: he makes something that’s already delicious that much better. Got a franchise that needs some attitude? Sprinkle on some SLJ. (RoboCop is his next dessert.) Though it’s been awhile since he carried a major film (2008’s Soul Men?), he’s cornered the acting market on streetwise mentors and has a long list of promising non-Nick Fury projects in the works.
6. Chris Hemsworth, 30 (Thor)
Looking like a Norse god has its privileges. Since bringing Thor to life, Hemsworth has seen his prospects soar. He was the secret weapon in Snow White and the Huntsman, so much so that if and when there’s a sequel, his character might be its centerpiece. Michael Mann cast him as the lead of his next movie, Cyber, and Ron Howard has him lined up to star in his next big movie, a seafaring adventure called In the Heart of the Sea. They worked together on Rush, which in two years will be either seen as a baffling outlier or the canary in the coal mine. In that Formula 1 drama, Hemsworth played a charismatic race-car driver who was larger than life. It was a total “Tom Cruise” role, and the critics even gave the film their stamp of approval. Yet it grossed less than $30 million. If you love Chris Hemsworth but won’t pay to see him in Rush, that might be a problem.
5. Michael Fassbender, 36 (Magneto)
The German-born Irishman is on the brink of full-blown Goslingness. Both men have legions of fans, especially on the internet, they’re mentioned for most every major franchise and tent-pole, they’re critical darlings who tackle bold and unusual roles, and their elusiveness only makes us love them more. Fassbender, at least, lends his prestige to comic-book epics, sci-fi reboots like Prometheus, and perhaps videogame adaptations, like Assassin’s Creed, which he’s long been attached to. The Counselor may have turned out to be a whiff despite its star-power, but its disappointing grosses can be blamed on it simply being a bad movie. Fassbender is still a name that makes every project he’s involved with… cool.
4. Ben Affleck, 41 (Batman)
Welcome back to the caped club, Mr. Affleck. Though he’s yet to play Batman, he’s familiar with the superhero terrain, playing Daredevil 10 years ago. Recently, though — you may have heard — he directed himself in a movie that won the Oscar for Best Picture, Argo. Not long before that, he directed himself in The Town, another critical and box-office hit. Part of the reason some people were surprised that Affleck accepted the role of Batman was simply that he didn’t need it. He’s an Oscar-winning filmmaker he can get his own movies made within the studios, and he’s currently filming Gone Girl with David Fincher. But no one is bulletproof… I give you Runner Runner, the October thriller with Justin Timberlake that sank quickly at the box office. If Batman Vs. Superman is even half as good as fans hope, though, there’s bound to be a Batman-bump that raises the opening-weekend profile of all Affleck’s upcoming movies.
3. Robert Downey Jr., 48 (Iron Man)
There’s a solid argument that Downey is the biggest star in the world right now, and no one has made greater use of his opportunity to play a superhero to leverage — and revitalize — his career. Before Iron Man, Downey was a giant question mark. Today, he’s one of the most reliable stars in Hollywood. Not only is he Tony Stark, but he’s also Sherlock Holmes. A downside of such spectacular recent success is that he’s played those two iconic characters in five of his last six films. In between, he mixed in a solid comedy, Due Date, but 2014 is shaping up to be a true test of whether we love Robert as much as we love Tony: he has Chef, with Scarlett Johansson, and The Judge, with an all-star cast that includes Robert Duvall. It will be interesting and perhaps refreshing to see Downey shed his armor and elementary wit for a change.
2. Hugh Jackman, 45 (Wolverine)
There was a time when if you stripped Wolverine away from Jackman’s resume, the results were not so pretty. But 13 years after being fitted for the claws, the Aussie not only seems more comfortable as that character, he seems much more confident with his non-X career as well. Les Misérables was an instant career highlight, and his powerful performance in this fall’s Prisoners might develop into an Oscar dark-horse. While others can’t hide the fact that making movies is hard, laborious work, Jackman makes it all seem like fun. People love him, their mothers love him, and he can pull even middling material — like Real Steel — into the black. There was a time when he was going to be the next Bond. (He apparently turned it down.) Well, Daniel Craig seems to have 007 well in hand, which is good because they couldn’t afford Jackman now anyway.
1. Jennifer Lawrence, 23 (Mystique)
You can be sure that Mystique will play a major role in all the upcoming X-Men: First Class sequels. After all, they’re not going to let Blue Katniss go to waste! Clearly, it’s the Hunger Games that helps elevate Lawrence to the top of this list. It will soon be a billion-dollar property, and it rests on its star’s shoulders more than just about any other giant franchise. Throw in her Oscar-winning role in Silver Linings Playbook, and Lawrence is poised to rule Hollywood like no other actress since… uh… um… have we ever had someone like her? Lawrence can literally do anything, as evidenced by her upcoming cameo in the Dumb and Dumber sequel. Take away her Mystique mystique, and she’s still Hollywood’s biggest star.
[*Correction: An early version of this story mistakenly referred to Nowhere Boy, the 2009 movie with Aaron Johnson playing a young John Lennon, as Nowhere Man.]