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Superhero Stars: Does a Comic Book Film Help or Hurt a Career?

The opportunity to lead a blockbuster franchise seems like a no-brainer, but it hasn't always proved to be such a good thing for some actors in the long run.

The Avengers - film still

With a cape and greenscreen, and the tailwind of 20 years of anticipation, Brandon Routh was flying toward fame as Superman. Until he hit box-office kryptonite, that is.

Routh starred in Superman Returns, 2006's highly touted hybrid continuation/reboot of the Man of Steel series, and earned strong reviews for his performance. But Bryan Singer's darker adaptation of the source material -- as opposed to the sunny Christopher Reeve-led films directed by Richard Donner -- ran into trouble at the ticket booth, earning just $200 million domestically and $300 worldwide, curtailing any thought of a sequel and grounding the Kryptonian until next summer's pure reboot, Man of Steel.

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Since then, Routh has worked and featured in plenty of movies but has not become the star that a successful superhero franchise promises to make its leading do-gooder. He stars in the upcoming CBS comedy Partners, about which his EP David Kohan joked at this weekend's TCAs, "The step from superhero to gay man isn't a big step, is it?"

He can take heart, at least, in that he's not the only one whose career didn't exactly soar after putting on tights and fighting crime.

Reeve would be known for his role as Clark Kent -- and very little else. Before he was paralyzed in a 1995 horse-riding accident, his career was largely made up of small films and TV movies. There was a lead role in Somewhere in Time, his first film after 1978's Superman; the Sidney Lumet adaptation of Broadway's Death Trap, which received solid reviews; the well-received Street Smart with Morgan Freeman; and a supporting role in the period piece The Remains of the Day. Nothing came close to his caped days.

Batman, DC's other huge property, has proved to be a mixed bag for its masked men. Michael Keaton, who played the Caped Crusader in the first two modern big-screen adaptations from Tim Burton, no doubt earned major plaudits and big box-office cash for his take on Bruce Wayne. And when he stepped away from the role, he had a few hits, including a supporting turn in Much Ado About Nothing and the lead in Ron Howard's The Paper. But a few bombs put him on the backburner, and it's largely been voice acting for him of late, including roles in Pixar's Cars and Toy Story 3.

Val Kilmer next got the keys to the Batmobile. Up to that point, in 1995, he was on his way to superstardom; he was Iceman in Top Gun, earned praise for his take on Jim Morrison in The Doors, played Doc Holliday in Tombstone and featured in True Romance. In 1995, he had a hit in Heat, but after that year, he never made a huge film again; among the many lemons, such as The Saint and The Island of Dr. Moreau, he had a few cult hits including Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Bad Lieutenant, but his star has dimmed considerably.

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George Clooney, his Batman successor, has had a bit of a different career trajectory, of course -- even though his turn as the Caped Crusader crashed the franchise for years (though most blame director Joel Schumacher).

A new class of heroes has emerged in the 21st century, though many of their fates are yet to be decided. Tobey Maguire used his Spider-Man franchise to earn himself plenty of prestige roles (he leads in this winter's The Great Gatsby and earned praise for Seabiscuit and Brothers), but another Marvel hero was not so lucky: Eric Bana was the first of what is now three Incredible Hulks, with his 2003 Ang Lee-directed flick bombing all around. Still, he's had success in its wake, including Munich, Star Trek and Hanna.

Fox has put together a long run of X-Men films, which has provided a nice springboard for some of its actors: James Marsden, who played Cyclops, is always working (he's a scene stealer in 30 Rock, charmed in Enchanted and earned strong reviews for Robot & Frank); Hugh Jackman is a Tony-winning superstar; and Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have done OK, too.

The studio's Fantastic Four did strong box office but was a critical doormat. It did little for the career of Ioan Gruffud, who played Mr. Fantastic, but hasn't hindered Jessica Alba, at least in terms of celebrity. Chris Evans, who played The Human Torch, got another shot at superhero stardom in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers.

How he moves forward from the Marvel Universe will be an interesting test case, as will the future career of Thor star Chris Hemsworth. They have their own sequels in the works, plus planned returns to The Avengers, but both are also working on a few other projects. Evans will feature in the indie Michael Shannon starrer, The Iceman, as well as the action film Snowpiercer. Neither has that Marvel cachet -- or marketing team. Hemsworth starred in Snow White and the Huntsman, which was a solid (if now controversy-entangled) hit, though that can be marked up to Charlize Theron and Kristen Stewart (especially the controversy).

As for the other Avengers, playing Iron Man has revitalized Robert Downey Jr.'s career; he is making a third film as Tony Stark and once again is one of the world's biggest stars. Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson needed no help and seem to be continuing their run as big Hollywood business.

Mark Ruffalo, the third Hulk, might or might not get his own superhero film, but he earned perhaps the strongest credits of all for his take on the sensitive, troubled Bruce Banner, and the Oscar nominee will feature in a string of big upcoming films: Can a Song Save Your Life? (with Johansson); the caper Now You See Me; the true, tragic Foxcatcher; and the big-screen adaptation of The Normal Heart.

Jeremy Renner, who played Hawkeye, takes over for Matt Damon in this week's sequel The Bourne Legacy and has a spot in the next Mission: Impossible. He'll also earn indie cred in James Gray's Lowlife.

With his part playing Batman in Christopher Nolan's three-part opus now complete, Christian Bale is on top of the world. He's set to star in two Terrence Malick films and already has an Oscar win for The Fighter. He should only go up from here. Meanwhile, Anne Hathaway, who played Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, should continue her ascent in Les Miserables; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whether he ends up with his own spinoff or not, will take the lead in Looper and co-star in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, among other things.

CORRECTION: an earlier version mistakenly attributed the David Kohan's quote to Brand Routh

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin