In a superhero universe, it is easy to get caught up in the narrative and the visual effects, but at the end of the day, it is the performances of the actors who can really make or break the material.
The CW has assembled an interconnected superhero universe the likes of which have never been seen before on television, with dozens of iconic heroes and villains interacting in a vast virtual world that runs through (at least) four TV series and crosses over (at least) once per season.
And at the heart of it all? Characters who are only truly interesting if they have compelling actors bringing them to life and telling stories that go beyond just dropping a building on the bad guy's head.
So -- what actors have stepped up their craft, elevated the shared DC Universe, and best embodied the heroes, villains, and everyday people of Star, Central, National Cities and beyond?
Here's our list...
Since this list is not ranked by merit (so, yeah, sorry, there's no "number one" to debate endlessly over, this is just a broad overview of some of the best acting seen in the DCU), why have honorable mentions at all? Well, Matthew Letscher, Matt Ryan, and Tyler Hoechlin, that's why.
Each of the three have had only a small number of on-camera appearances within the confines of the series, but have left enduring marks.
Letscher, with his wide smile and leading-man good looks, is an eerie Reverse Flash, menacing heroes with an unexpectedly creepy side.
Ryan, whose John Constantine had his own show and will have an animated series beginning in March, has provided fans with what could be the definitive take on the Master of the Mystic Arts.
And Hoechlin brought a John Byrne/Lois & Clark-style Superman to life for the modern age, personifying strength, complexity, and boundless optimism.
Arrow is the show that started it all, and while the character of Green Arrow had been elevated by Smallville, which ended shortly before the launch of the Berlantiverse, nobody is deluding themselves into thinking that a TV series based on a character who struggled to keep a solo comic afloat was a sure thing.
They needed a leading man who would own the role, make (most) fans forget about Justin Hartley, and advance the cause of superheroes on TV at a time when not everybody thought that was a guaranteed growth area.
Enter Stephen Amell, who seems like he was built in a laboratory to be the perfect CW leading man: handsome, brooding, with an approachable public persona and abs that could cut onions, Amell blended a human, relatable Oliver Queen with his best growling, The Dark Knight-inspired Green Arrow.
The results speak for themselves. Amell has had the difficult task of making Oliver feel consistent whether he is shooting arrows into gangsters or riding a time machine to fight a multidimensional Nazi doppelganger of himself, and he has managed it admirably.
If his tortured, self-loathing take on the hooded vigilante set the standard for other, future small-screen DC heroes to live up to, so did the genuine affection and effortless chemistry between Oliver and his team. As ghood as Amell is when he is on his own, Arrow would be a magnitude less compelling without the interplay between Amell, Willa Holland, Emily Bett Rickards, and David Ramsey.
Melissa Benoist came in sideways to this shared universe. With a show built on another network and never formally planned to be part of the shared universe created for The CW, the pressure on Benoist and the Supergirl cast was different than it was for the other shows.
They thrived under that pressure, creating some of the most memorable performances on this list -- especially Benoist.
Part of it is the boundless optimism in Benoist's performance, and the way she has the ability to brighten the screen.
Given the number of times the writers have put her in positions where she in infuriated, mind-controlled, or otherwise "dark," "evil," or out-of-control, Benoist's natural charm feels even more obvious by the sharp relief it is often put into.
Ordinarily, that might not necessarily be an inherently good thing -- after all, there are plenty of bright, sunny performances that are utterly forgettable or even bad. For Benoist's Kara, though, the recurring theme that she represents hope and that she is able to overcome her personal tragedies to be who the world needs her to be is hammered home by that performance.
The first season of The Flash is going to be presented to young writers for years to come as an idealized debut season of TV -- one could argue that The CW has not had a season so close to being structurally perfect since Veronica Mars.
But, like Veronica Mars, The Flash is the beneficiary of a truly special lead. Gustin embodies Barry Allen not as the sexy genius of John Wesley Shipp's 1990 TV series but an earnest everyman.
Yes, Gustin is a good-looking guy, and yes, Barry Allen is smart as hell. But those are not his defining traits as played by Gustin, whose uncertain and lovesick Barry is far more relatable than the oversexed, brutal billionaire Stephen Amell was unenviably tasked with selling.
From his first mini-arc on Arrow, in which he convincingly peeled Felicity Smoak's attention away from Oliver for a short time, to the moment he was struck by lightning, Gustin had the ability to do something no other lead on this list was really given a chance to do: sell audiences on the man behind the costume...before the costume was even a thing.
Far from the tortured and asocial hero archetype embodied by his comics counterpart, Routh's Atom took on shades of Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent, approximating the character and updating that personality for the modern age far more effectively than Routh's own continuation of the Richard Donner Superman films did in Superman Returns.
As a veteran of major Hollywood feature films (including several based on comics), Routh was presented as a major selling point for Legends of Tomorrow, but leadership never really suited him and it was Caity Lotz's Sara Lance who stepped up to be the face of the franchise.
As a supporting actor, though, Routh shines and makes every second he's on screen a blast, selling the aw-shucks personality of Ray Palmer in such a way that you never question when he does things like arguing about how much candy his ten-year-old self should have during a time-traveling Halloween adventure -- or risking his life to save a villain.
This is the challenge that faced Grey's Anatomy casualty Chyler Leigh when she came to Supergirl to play the role of Alex Danvers, Kara's adoptive sister and a character created for the TV show.
With no source material to work with and a backstory that held the potential to send her in a number of different ways, Leigh took the reins immediately and by the end of the Supergirl pilot, Alex was already one of the most likable characters in the show.
Leigh is an immensely talented performer, and -- like we said about Amell -- able to find a path to onscreen chemistry with nearly any actor she is paired with. The intimate, heartwrenching relationship of the Danvers sisters is hardly a one-off, when you look at the way Leigh manages to connect with characters like Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) and Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima) within a few minutes of screentime.
That is not to take anything away from the contributions Leigh's scene mates bring to those relationships -- but when you see it happening again and again, with Alex always at the center...well, that does not happen by accident.
For those of us (that would be roughly everone in the English-speaking world) who have been watching Jesse L. Martin's remarkable work since he was quite young, it is strange to think how perfectly he embodies the warm, paternal role of Joe West.
Even after years of watching him knock it out of the park playing younger men, it feels like he has found some kind of holy calling as the Flash family patriarch.
Martin's easy chemistry with his onscreen "kids" (Grant Gustin's Barry, Candice Patton's Iris, and Keiynan Lonsdale's Wally) routinely produces some of the best scenes between these four shows, and those rare instances where he expresses frustration or disappointment with them...well, it makes the audience want to go back to the kitchen, eat our vegetables, and figure out our lives.
...Yeah, speaking of the West family.
The emotional core of The Flash does not work if Barry and Iris do not work, and frankly it was dicey in the early going. Patton and Gustin do not have the same breezy, effortless chemistry that Stephen Amell and Emily Bett Rickards have, and so they had to commit more time, talent, and resources to building "WestAllen" into something special.
But it is when she is removed from Barry and forced to define Iris on her own terms, independent of her "lightning rod" role for The Flash, that she truly shines. While it is easy enough to dismiss some of her season one angst over being lied to about various Flash-related activities as the same kind of drama-for-drama's sake that shakes up most Designated Relationships on TV, the performances Patton delivered while working through those emotions elevated the material.
The same can be said for last season when, in spite of writing that was hit-or-miss and a dour season that left fun-loving Flash fans a bit cold, Patton's performances in the back half of the season, working her way through the stages of grief all the way until she reached acceptance of her inevitable death and walked boldly into the situation of her free will, were great stuff.
Purcell seems to barely tolerate being on board a time ship filled with superheroes -- and the result is that his grunted one-liners are a comedic high point every time he opens his mouth.
That said, Purcell is a genuinely gifted actor. This is not as simple as "I don't want to be here." When called upon to do things more complex than grunted jokes, Purcell always delivers, with a sense of wistful emotionality that runs contrary to the badass persona he has built up not just here but in basically every role he has ever been in.
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Anyway, Katie Cassidy.
We have seen Cassidy's previous work, and...she is no Victor Garber, we will admit that. Still, Cassidy has the distinction of being the actor who has progressed the most and honed her craft the best since she first appeared on Arrow.
It helps that, after she became comfortable in the role, the ground kept shifting underneath her feet, becoming first a superhero and then a villain and now...whatever is going on with Black Siren.
Cavanagh is a comic genius, and while he has had the opportunity to use comedy occasionally within the context of The Flash, it is fascinating to watch him take some of the character's darker turns not only in stride, but seemingly gleefully.
Like Cassidy, arguably the most impressive thing that Cavanagh has done is to retain enough of the DNA of the original to keep his Wells recognizable, while flowing seamlessly through various iterations, making each one distinct enough that if you put them in a room together it woudl be relatively simple to know which was which.
Calista Flockhart felt like perfect casting for Cat Grant even before it was clear exactly how far from the comics The CW's version would be. And then, once we saw some of it in action, it just improved.
In the comics, Cat Grant was a beautiful socialite, generally considered a bimbo and definitely not taken seriously by the "real" journalists as the Daily Planet.
She used her sex appeal and social contacts to get what she wanted -- and eventually ended up in a relationship with a wealthy industrialist who cared for the every need of herself and her son...but when she realized that he was corrupt, the question became whether she would be willing to lose those creature comforts in order to do the right thing. She did, and became one of the most complex and interesting characters in DC's post-Crisis on Infinite Earths Superman titles as a result.
Flockhart's Cat Grant felt very much like the natural extension of that character -- a kind of quasi-Oprah who coexisted in a world where Oprah was a thing, and who had managed to elevate herself to "hero" status without having to marry into money first.
That she also managed to turn the role into a kind of mother figure for Supergirl without losing the sense of youthful vigor that would make her a legitimate contender for the romantic attentions of Clark Kent? Well, that was just gravy.
Neal McDonough, who reveled in comparing his Damien Darhk to the campy, ballsy Lex Luthor portrayed by Hollywood legend Gene Hackman during his season on Arrow, is arguably the most unlikely actor on this list.
Darhk was the villain at the center of Arrow's troubled fourth season, and by the time it was over, few fans ever wanted to see him rear his head again.
When he did -- the very next season, as part of the Legion of Doom on DC's Legends of Tomorrow, there was some scratching of heads.
That series' second-season reinvention, though, has proved to be the smartest course correction any of the shows have made. Legends went from being forgotten and "just fine" to the wittiest and most entertaining of the four DC/CW shows almost overnight, and something about McDonough finally revealed itself: he was a great actor who was having the time of his life.
McDonough's Darhk was bogged down by a leaden storyline and hit-or-miss writing during his Arrow season, but looking back at Arrow season 4, McDonough's performance is a highlight. The man is having fun.
All he needed was a show ready to have a little fun with him.
With dozens of awards, time spent on Broadway, and a featured role in one of the highest-grossing films of all time, Victor Garber joined the cast of The Flash even before it was clear just how special The Flash was -- and he brought an air of the spectacular with him to the role of Professor Martin Stein.
He nailed the performance, but at first, when he was forced to bounce off of Robbie Amell, it never quite gelled. Amell, an in-demand actor in his own right, was not ready to settle in full time on a CW superhero show and so the Firestorm bond was genial but never really famlial.
Still, when he was Stein, Garber was impressive.
Once Franz Drameh's Jax came on board, and Garber was able to immerse himself fully into the role with a partner who approached him as a father figure onscreen, it was evident that Garber wasn't just good: he was note-perfect, and just waiting for the right hands to come along and help him play the most difficult duet in the Arrowverse.
Nowhere was this more true than in his final episodes, when he had to bid farewell to Jax and both actors gave their best performances to date, lending real emotional weight and stakes to the mega-event Crisis on Earth-X.
As we have noted repeatedly throughout the course of this article, Rickards' on-screen chemistry with Stephen Amell elevated a minor season one character to the status of fan-favorite almost immediately and displaced Katie Cassidy as the obvious choice for Oliver's love interest.
The way she commands the screen goes beyond her relationship with Oliver, though, and what is arguably more interesting is the way she took the nervous tics and uncertainty of a bubbly young IT girl and turned them into the basis for a character who has served as a cornerstone of a vast, interconnected superhero universe.
To do so without losing her appeal to the audience or without fundamentally changing what makes Felicity tick is an impressive feat, and the fact that six seasons in, fans are still seeing new aspects of her (such as her onscreen relationship with Oliver's son) is all the more reason to be excited to see what is next for Rickards and the character.
John Diggle, another character built for the screen and embodied by an actor with little in the way of baggage that would help the fans know what to expect, has turned out to be the gold standard by which all the other superhero "Team" members are judged.
That is, of course, partly down to the writing but even more of it can be credited to David Ramsey's vulnerable, intense performance as Oliver's best friend, bodyguard, conscience, and eventually partner.
The wide-eyed, smiling performance that marks much of Ramsey's Diggle can be wiped away in an instant, especially when family challenges come into play, and when that happens, Ramsey is actually even more fun to watch, as he is arguably the most convincing character in the Arrowverse when he goes dark, gives in to grief and rage, and begins to really scare the viewer.
The "Arrowverse" was built on Stephen Amell, but Amell alone could not hold the weight of such a project on his back. Without Rickards and Ramsey, there is every chance the show would not have been what it needed to be, and none of these other actors would have had their chance to shine.
DC's Legends of Tomorrow airs on Monday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT on The CW.
Supergirl will take that time slot back from Legends when the time-travelers have their season finale in April and the Girl of Steel returns to finish out her own third season.
The Flash airs on Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
Arrow airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Thursday nights.