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.
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.
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