Debate Club, Best Performances of Iconic Role

Debate Club: Top 5 iconic role recreations of all time

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Jan 17, 2020, 1:51 PM EST (Updated)

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

There are few tougher assignments than taking on an iconic role for a franchise that has existed for decades. It's difficult enough when audiences have their own image in their minds of what a character should look like that you have to live up to; imagine how hard it is when they've actually seen another actor — a beloved actor, even — play the role before.

So, for the record, Alden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo, which seems like a miracle; there are few more famous parts in movie history than Han Solo, so that he stays upright throughout the film is its own kind of victory.

In honor of Solo: A Star Wars Story, here are our five best recreations of iconic roles.

Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ewan McGregor, Star Wars

Ewan McGregor, Obi-Wan Kenobi

Of the original Star Wars trilogy, Alec Guinness was the only actor to receive an Oscar nomination. That was partly a nod to Guinness' stature in the industry — he'd won Best Actor in 1958 for The Bridge on the River Kwai — and also an acknowledgment of the regal presence of his character, the wizened Jedi and mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. For the prequels, George Lucas cast Ewan McGregor; his Obi-Wan is a little brasher than Guinness', but that same sense of almost Zen-like calm is there — he radiates wisdom and quiet leadership even when he isn't brandishing his lightsaber. McGregor doesn't do a Guinness impression, but it nonetheless feels like a loving homage to the veteran actor, who died in 2000 at the age of 86.

Christian Bale, Batman, Batman Begins

Christian Bale, Batman

Remember when Bale was originally cast and all anyone could do was make Patrick Bateman jokes? Bale did use a little bit of his American Psycho persona to play Bruce Wayne, the wealthy, tortured and cold man alone up in his high castle, but Bale's intensity serves both to humanize the character and also, at last, to bring us in: this Bruce Wayne seems truly tormented, but he also hasn't given up. Bale plays him with intelligence and wit, as if he's playing someone other than one of the famous characters in popular culture. And he looks great in a cowl, too.

The Hulk, Mark Ruffalo, Bruce Banner

Mark Ruffalo, The Incredible Hulk

The genius of casting Ruffalo — an artiste actor, often mumbling and Very Serious — is that he has the two things any Bruce Banner needs: a certain nerdy schlumpiness and a simmering anger that he is both embarrassed by and willing to embrace. Ruffalo doesn't look like a superhero at all, which is why he's perfect as the Hulk; no one would ever suspect him capable of growing so green and mad, not least of all himself. And Ruffalo also can modulate his performance to the movie and has enough charisma to hold the screen even when he's not The Hulk; the second half of Thor: Ragnarok is basically just Ruffalo being hilarious. It was inspired casting for a character who's notoriously difficult to cast. After Edward Norton and Eric Bana, fine actors both, Ruffalo was the perfect fit.

James Bond, Daniel Craig

Daniel Craig, James Bond

In 2004's Layer Cake, Daniel Craig proved he could play a seedy, sexy criminal, but could he make the leap to 007? Several actors have grappled with the role of James Bond in the wake of Sean Connery — including Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan — but Craig has been the best since the Oscar winner. Starting with Casino Royale, Craig has given us a Bond who's brooding but also caustically funny, a ladykiller who's not a misogynist jerk, an action hero with a sensitive side. In the process, he helped move the shaken-not-stirred icon into the 21st century, making him relevant after years of seeming like an outdated notion of man's-man sophistication. Craig has hinted that, eventually, he may walk away from 007 — whenever he does, the next guy will have big shoes to fill.

Heath Ledger the joker

Heath Ledger, The Joker

It's easy to forget that, when Christopher Nolan was looking for a Bruce Wayne for Batman Begins, he considered Heath Ledger for the role. Ledger passed, but for The Dark Knight, the Oscar-nominated actor lobbied hard to play the Joker. And his preparation was intense: as Ledger explained at the time, "I sat around in a hotel room in London for about a month, locked myself away, formed a little diary and experimented with voices — it was important to try to find a somewhat iconic voice and laugh. I ended up landing more in the realm of a psychopath — someone with very little to no conscience towards his acts." Of course, there were those who thought the sensitive star of Brokeback Mountain couldn't possibly match the demented fury of Jack Nicholson in Tim Burton's Batman. But out of nowhere came this monster: the definitive supervillain portrayal and one of the landmark performances in all movies over the last 20 years. Ledger's Joker made you forget that any other actor had ever played the role. He gives The Dark Knight its trembling paranoia — he watched the world burn, and we stood in awe.


Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.