Top 20 Performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Now, that Ant-Man is out, Marvel’s Phase 2 of their cinematic universe is over. Before we move on with Phase 3, this would be a good time to look back on what they have accomplished so far. Here are the 20 best performances so far. SPOILERS obviously!
20. Kyle McLaughlin as Mister Hyde
When you think of Mister Hyde in the comics, you wouldn’t think Kyle McLaughlin would be the perfect actor to play the behemoth. He played Hyde like a pulpy rictus-grinned villain of a by-gone era knowing the perfect moments to dial it back let him wallow in his own narcisstic rage and sadness. Even with the horrible make-up job at the end of the second season, McLaughlin’s crazed lunacy brought Marvel one of its most compelling villains, something they are constantly crticized for missing.
19. Bill Paxton as Agent Garrett
Marvel’s first tie in TV series, “Agents of SHIELD,” got off to a rocky start. It wasn’t until the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier that “SHIELD” finally found its footing. A big part of that involved character actor Bill Paxton entering the fray as Agent Garrett. As a senior field agent and former C.O. to series regular, Grant Ward, Paxton had plenty of action and sci-fi movie cred to inform this verteran ass-kicked. The show doubled down on Coulson’s dryness, and it backfired. Adding Paxton added the kind of life and energy into the show with his smarmy ego-driven sense of humor.
18. Michael Douglas as Hank Pym
Of all the actors that have worked with Marvel, Michael Douglas would rank as one of the most accomplished. He brings a certain gravitas to every role he plays, especially Hank Pym. In a former life, he was the star of a Cold War espionage version of Ant-Man, but now he is the aging founder of a tech company with the weight of the world on his shoulders. His every statement is informed by a feeling of life-or-death stakes, even when the stakes narratively aren’t. Douglas is just that good at conveying worry and concern. He is also easily irritated and prone to passionate outburts and rants, a quick look at Pym’s questionable mental state.
17. Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon
Bradley Cooper has auditioned for, been rumored for, and fan-cast for mutliple superheroes. That is sort of what makes me laugh about him ending up as an intelligent anthropomorphic raccoon gunslinger. Rocket has always been a bit of a jokester, more Han Solo than any of the other Guardians of the Galaxy. Underneath the sarcasm was a deeply troubled, tragic character that Cooper thankfully took seriously. In a few key scenes, Cooper (with some obvious help from James Gunn) slips in some surprisingly poignant moments of self-hate and frustrated sadness culminating in the most emotional moment of the movie with his partner-in-crime, Groot.
16. Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow
Although sometimes critcized as a thankless role, thanks in part to the bland mostly undercover role in Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson makes the most as a Russian trained super-spy. As a member of the Avengers during their first go-around, she cleverly pulled a bait-and-switch (twice!) by pretending to be a tradtional damsel in distress. It was her quest for redemption and normalcy that made up whatever emotional core that first team up had. And that trend continued, for better or worse apparently, in Age of Ultron. Although, I suppose it was the casual way she treated superheroing like a day job (with the watercooler and carpool style banter with Cap) in Winter Soldier that really put the character over the edge.
15. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man
The godfather of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Robert Downey Jr., who’s fast-talking sense of humor and bigger than life public persona, which in part probably led to some of his worse days on the Hollywood blacklist, was able to inform a modern day incarnation of the Howard Hughs inspired adventurer, a celebrity heir with enough money to make a hobby into a full-time occupation and enough vices to never truly meet the upper eschelon of heroism. RDJ was able to reinvigorate his career by charming the pants off every comic book geek.
14. Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Chris Hemnsworth was a real diamond in the rough for Marvel. After a list of rumored Thor candidates (all of whom were actors already acting with long blonde hair), they cast a former star of an Australian soap opera. Granted, I guess every actor in Australia has been on it at some point, but it didn’t sound promising, especially since so many muscle-bound actors tend to rely more on their physicality than their ability to act. That is what made Hemsworth so good. He didn’t just look like a Norse god, but he could deliver that ye olde English naturally and with just the right amount of parody. Whether he was playing Thor as an ass or as someone worthy of Mjolnir, he was overwhelming with charm and screen presence.,
13. Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner
While Edward Norton played Banner as a bit of a hapless wallflower, Ruffalo spun him a bit more sarcastic. He always had a glib self-depricating line to keep himself in place, always hugging his body like he was afraid it was about to start growing at any minute. He wasn’t burdened by the weight of the world like so many of his spandexed brethern, rather he was burdened by his own inner demons that he dragged around like a ball and chain. Ruffalo also played that inner demon, the Hulk. Clad in a man-cancelling (his words, not mine) motion-capture suit, Ruffalo transformed the Hulk from the embodiment of rage to something more id-driven: primitive and animalistic rather than a screaming giant with high blood pressure.
12. Chris Pratt as Star-Lord
When Guardians of the Galaxy was first announced I kept seeing descriptions of it as being essentially a team of Han Solos. I guess that is kind of right, but Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord makes it a little more meta. Star-Lord, most likely a fan of the original trilogy before his alien abudction, is more like Luke Skywalker pretending he is Han Solo. Who wouldn’t want to be Han? He exudes coolness as the entertainingly sarcstic rebel. Pratt delivers that in stride, but underneath that he is full of integrity and moral fiber (and narratively has been a Jedi-like being unbeknowst to himself). His outlaw reputation is manufactured, and Pratt’s nuance in representing that was the first step into making him the new blockbuster “it” boy from schlubby and lovable sitcom screen-stealer.
11. Charlie Cox as Daredevil
I saw Charlie Cox do the swashbuckler thing in the movie Stardust. I saw him have a swashbuckler attitude in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” When he was cast as Daredevil, I was half expecting him to go full blown Errol Flynn. Instead, he delivered a much more haunted version of Murdock. It informs his night time enraged adventures, but it also informs his low soft-spoken datime charmer.
10. Ayelet Zurer as Vanessa Marianna
I would never have expected a charcter like this to have made the cut for this kind of list, but Zurer really knocks it out of the park. Now that I am writing about her, I realize that there’s part of the character that is a manic pixie dream girl. She is gorgeous, sex-positive, and stylish with a great sense of humor, a really cool job, and is way out of the league of her current boyfriend, Wilson Fisk, aka the Kingpin. While all those reasons might make her look like a narrative device, she is almost never any of those things to simply benefit Fisk. She just is the way she is, and Zurer carries each strength and flaw with ownership
9. Iain de Caestecker as Fitz
One of “SHIELD’s” resident science geeks, Fitz was the closest thing to a fanboy stand-in. Marvel’s own Peter Parker before they got Peter Parker back. Caestecker really imbues Fitz with my favorite hero characteristics. He is funny, but he is usually the butt of his own jokes. When he is not being self-deprecating, he is usually whimpering at the overwhelming odds. Despite that, he almost always acts. He can’t not try to do the right thing. He reminds me a lock of Chuk Bartowski from “Chuck.” In season 2, he is side-saddled with a traumatic brain injury that quietly became the most compelling aspect of the show.
8. James D’Arcy as Jarvis
At this point, Jarvis has simply been a British Siri piped into Iron Man’s suit. Us geeks have always known that he was based on Howard Stark’s guy friday butler, who was also an important part of Tony Stark’s childhood. We finally get to meet him in the “Agent Carter” TV series, played excellently by James D’Arcy. In a bit of of a gender role reveral, Jarvis plays the shout dude in distress sidekick to PEggy’s woman-of-action, and like a lot of those types of characters, his loyalty to Howard and Peggy has awoken the hero within him. Incredibly funny and charming, Jarvis may be the most inherently likable character in the entire MCU.
7. Toby Leonard Moore as Wesley
Wesley has to be the most surprising character to make the list. The character only had a small part in the Frank Miller “Born Again’ arc. As Kingpin’s number 2, you would think he’d be more snivelling and generic. Moore portrays him more like James Bond, a smooth talker and even smoother operator. His chemistry with Vincent D’Onforio’s Kingpin implies a deep friendship, and the Kingpin is not an easy character to have chemistry with. He was a break out character of the “Daredevil” series, and considering Marvel’s often criticized lack of compelling villains, it sucked ot see him go. I hope to see more of Moore though.
6. Paul Bettany as J.A.R.V.I.S/The Vision
JARVIS has been charming movie-goers in all of the Iron Man movies as the dryly sarcastic Hobson to Tony Stark’s Arthur. The electronic voice of Paul Bettany had a surprising amount of screen presence, so to speak, despite being disembodied. It seemed only natural (considering I often saw it suggested on fan message boards) that JARVIS should be downloaded into a robot body so that he could be the classic Avenger, Vision. I am really glad that it happened, because if Bettany’s disembodied voice had screen presence to rival, him actually being in the room must be amazing. And it was.
5. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
I feel like I have already used the term “breakout” enough already, but that has always been one of Marvel’s strongpoints. They have amazing recognition for talent, and Hayley Atwell is one of the best examples of that. Slipping into the romantic interest role for Captain America, Hayley injected a level of charisma and confidence that made Peggy as much a mentor as a love interest. Her further adventures in her own series may be one of the most fun stories Marvel has delivered helped by Atwell’s ability to seem timeless and time-appropriate at the same time.
4. Tom Hiddelston as Loki
One reason why so many of Marvel’s villains come off bland is because of how truly awesome Tom Hiddelston was in the role of Loki, the Norse trickster god and adopted brother top Avenger, Thor. Hiddelston got much of his experience in the theater beofre joining the Marvel universe. Time well spent since Loki requires someone who can go over the top with the theatrics. Hiddelston finds the compelling sadness underneath all of it though, so no matter how many times he cries, rants, or kicks and screams, there is an empathetic aspect to Loki.
3. Deborah Ann Woll as Karen Page
Karen Page started off as a run of the mill romantic interest for Daredevil. That is, until the “Murdock curse” caught up with her, and she ended up being a junkie pornstar and prostitute. The “Daredevil” series decided not to drive her story straight into the dirt like that. They used all that torture and pain to inform a character with more agency. Page is hiding dark secrets when she joins Murdock’s law firm, and Woll’s energy and ability to depict fear and panic makes her seem more like a survivor than a victim.
2. Vincent D’Onofrio as Kingpin
Kingpin is usually portrayed as a pretentious pseudo-European gangster that always knows what to say. D’Onofrio went completely in another direction. Groggy and raspy voiced. Pauses in his sentences that you could drive a truck through. And a really strange level of humility that is hard to describe. He has authority and can be a scary disciplinarian, but he is very fair. And he doesn’t expect people to go above and beyond for him. It was a hypnotic performance from D’Onofrio that slowly revealed hidden depths, a weird combination of arrested development and an insane amount of ambition.
1. Chris Evans as Captain America
Chris Evans was prety well-known for his sarcastic funny frat-bro type characters. It came as a big surprise when he nailed the old-fashioned pre-Cold-War American morality. A lot like Hayley Atwell did with Peggy Carter, he has been able to really drive home the timelessness of it by keeping it relatable. He saves the over-the-top fish-out-of-water antics for the cultural references instead of the social behavior saving the character from possible parody. Instead, Evans successfully made the character likable despite a lot of people criticizing that his boy scout cheeriness and infalliblity would get in the way of that. Evans makes it look like a stuggle to be that good and that it involves sacrifice. It is what makes any regular person a hero and drives home the theme of Captain America: First Avenger that Steve Rogers isn’t a hero because he is super strong, he’s super strong because he is a hero.