Many regard Guardians of the Galaxy as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s best movie. You’ll hear plenty of arguments for Captain America: The Winter Soldier or even the first Iron Man, but for many, Guardians’ unbridled spirit wipes out the competition. What sets the film apart from other MCU movies, besides its humor, heart, and especially its cast (look at the list you’re reading), is that most wouldn’t immediately associate it with Marvel. In fact, if it weren’t for that pesky source material, Guardians might be proclaimed the pinnacle of original modern day blockbusters.
At least writer/director James Gunn makes it seem that way. The twisted mind responsible for Slither and Super not only made the leap from off-kilter indie films to big Hollywood movies, he stuck the landing and earned 10s across the board. Gunn’s vision is so fresh and inviting that superhero movies will never be the same. Granted, superhero tropes will never go out of style per-say (or stop making money), but they’ll all be judged poorly against Guardians’ ingenuity (which is also, miraculously, profitable).
Gunn has paved the way for a wave of new and exciting comic book movies. And since he doesn’t seem like one to flatter himself like Quentin Tarantino, we’re going to do it. Of Gunn’s many contributions to Guardians’ success, one of them is the team of actors he and his casting director have assembled (no pun intended… yet).
Without any further stalling, here is a list for Guardians Of The Galaxy: The Cast’s Best Performances.
15. Chris Pratt (Starlord) – Parks and Recreation
Even in Parks and Recreation‘s early days, when the show was still finding it’s footing, Chris Pratt signaled the possibility that this sitcom could succeed. Interspersed throughout Parks‘ growing pains were golden nuggets provided by Pratt as Andy Dwyer. By the time Andy listed tried and failed band names (Fourskin, Threeskin, etc.), audiences were convinced to give Parks another chance.
From the pilot, Pratt displayed that Jack Black-ian sense of humor that made Andy’s songs a treat for viewers. For seven seasons, Andy proved himself a textbook example of the loveable idiot, someone who’s ridiculously slow on the uptake but equally quick to lend a helping hand. Andy’s optimistic energy bolstered the show’s already unapologetic positivity, and his sweet coupling with the cynical April Ludgate only further motivated his good vibes.
By taking on Peter Quill, Pratt had to pull back on the Jack Black and pump up the Harrison Ford (more Burt Macklin than Johnny Karate). But he still maintains that bizarrely effective mixture of personalities, and the actor has become an A-lister in record time as a result.
14. Zoe Saldana (Gamora) – Colombiana
Man, Zoe Saldana just loves space. After gaining prominence for her work in Star Trek, Saldana got more exposure by starring in the highest grossing movie ever, Avatar. Though her return trip to Pandora has been postponed multiple times, Saldana has plenty to do in the wacky GotG universe. But if you want to see Saldana’s more grounded work (get it?), check out Colombiana.
In the way Atomic Blonde seemingly wants to pioneer a trend of female John Wicks, Colombiana seemed intent on spearheading female versions of Taken. Penned by Luc Besson (producer of Taken and the action genre’s Judd Apatow) Colombiana tells the story of Saldana’s Cataleya seeking revenge for her parents’ murders. The movie seriously drags its feet in the first act, and it’s not until Saldana actually appears on screen that the movie feels like it’s started.
Despite some clever edits and a decent soundtrack (it used “Hurt” before Logan made it cool), Colombiana is a benign entry in Besson’s repertoire. But Saldana’s performance, which is more thrilling than any of the film’s action scenes, demands an audience. She brims with emotion when the movie needs it, but remains organic throughout. Hopefully, Saldana gets her Taken-level action vehicle someday.
13. Dave Bautista (Drax) – Spectre
Dave Bautista’s performance in Guardians is arguably the best big break for a wrestler turned actor. Watching his boisterous, honor-obsessed, ignorant-to-idioms portrayal of Drax the Destroyer, a viewer might equate him with Dwayne Johnson’s best acting (which didn’t come until later in The Rock’s career). To play a henchman in the twenty-fourth Bond movie, Bautista turned down the volume but cranked up the menace as Mr. Hinx.
When first introduced, Hinx murders a rival hitman in seconds flat, a gruesome audition for the international crime syndicate Spectre. The scene is silent, chilling, and entirely dependent on Bautista’s wordless execution (get it?). A guy like Bautista could easily let his size do the talking, but he adds a subtly terrifying component to his character. Whether he’s throwing punches or standing completely still, Hinx makes it clear that he’s not to be messed with.
Spectre missed the mark expectation-wise, as moviegoers and critics wanted so much more from Skyfall‘s followup. But Bautista’s performance alone makes Spectre a must see. At the very least, rent the movie and fast-forward to his scenes.
12. Bradley Cooper (Rocket) – Silver Linings Playbook
While Chris Pratt went from zero to stardom at lighting speed, Bradley Cooper’s ascension to fame was almost as rapid. Seemingly destined to stay that jerk from Wedding Crashers, Cooper built momentum with The Hangover. After that, he quickly jumped onto David O. Russell’s Silver Lining’s Playbook, where he earned himself the first of three Oscar nominations.
Providing a realistic portrayal of bipolar disorder, Cooper plays Pat. Recently freed from a mental institution but still trapped by his own denial, Pat starts the movie hell-bent on winning back his ex-wife. His journey leads him to Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence in an Oscar-winning role), a woman with her own mental issues. After nearly two hours of hilarious dialogue and palpable sexual tension, Pat and Tiffany end up together, and Pat ends up in a better emotional place than he’s likely ever been in.
Pat is a difficult person, but it’s impossible to blame him. His often intolerable habits are an externalization of the chaos in his mind. Russell’s script, which is half thoughtful character study and half propulsive underdog narrative, takes us on Pat’s road to recovery. Factor in Cooper, and Silver Linings Playbook becomes the most uplifting movie in recent memory.
11. Vin Diesel (Groot) – The Iron Giant
Another potential best performance from Vin Diesel, mentioned in our list of best performances from the Fast and Furious cast, was his debut in Saving Private Ryan. But here we’ll posit The Iron Giant as another career best for the voice behind everybody’s favorite, self-identifying tree.
In a film that kept Diesel’s dialogue at a minimum while also using the power of his voice, The Iron Giant follows the journey of a giant robot (Diesel) who lands in a small Maine town with no memory of how he got there. The robot has the misfortune of being in America when Red Scare has spread like wildfire, a time when the most reasonable person could look at a towering piece of machinery and scream nuclear warfare. Luckily, the first human the giant encounters is a lonely boy named Hogarth, who becomes the Elliot to his super-sized E.T.
Diesel lent warmth and compassion to all of his lines, however brief they might have been. Brad Bird’s film debut had plenty going for it, but it wouldn’t have quite hit those tear-jerking heights (“I am not a gun“) without Diesel’s vocals. The actor continues to jerk tears with limited speaking to this day. We are Groot, indeed.
10. Michael Rooker (Yondu) – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Here’s a movie you only need to see once. John McNaughton’s narrative film debut, a grisly thriller loosely inspired by the murder spree of Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer sports a harrowing lead performance by Michael Rooker (known by millennials for Guardians and The Walking Dead). Rooker efficiently gets his hands dirty as Henry, but knows his character’s worth amounts to more than his body count.
Henry‘s fictional serial killer spends his days brutally murdering women, but his routine takes a turn when Otis, Henry’s roommate, brings home his sister, Becky. Becky taps into Henry’s affectionate side, and he compensates for that by stepping up his murder rate, enlisting the help of Otis. Henry is a monster. A monster who occasionally betrays a shred of a moral code, but a monster nonetheless. Rooker nails this character in a way only James Gunn’s go-to-actor could.
When all is said and done, Henry is pure evil. But Rooker, unique talent that he is, has the ability to fool viewers into thinking he could be more. Up until the movie’s sickening final shot, those watching almost hope his fractional morality somehow breaks through. But don’t get your hopes up.
9. Karen Gillan (Nebula) – Doctor Who
Whovians don’t need a reminder of who Karen Gillan is. For three seasons and several special episodes, Gillan played Amy Pond, a companion to Matt Smith’s Doctor in Doctor Who. Pond opened many doors for the Scottish-born actor, the biggest of them being Guardians. But this wasn’t by accident, as Gillan’s performance on Doctor Who foreshadowed a promising career yet to come.
Gillan’s companion meets her Doctor at the young age of five. After the Doctor promised to return in five minutes, he accidentally left a twelve-year gap between his first and second meetings with Amy. At first tentative to trust him, Amy agrees to join the Doctor in his adventures through space and time. What results are three seasons of greatness courtesy of Smith and Gillan.
In Guardians, Gillan plays Nebula, a character just as strong willed as Amy but significantly crueler. By the end of the first film, Nebula renounced Ronan and became a wildcard character. Who knows what she and Gillan have in store for us in the sequel? Gillan will also appear this year in The Circle with Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, and John Boyega.
8. Lee Pace (Ronan) – Pushing Daisies
Bryan Fuller can create all the Hannibals and American Gods he wants (and by all means, he should), but nothing will quite compare to Fuller’s supernatural comedy/mystery series, Pushing Daisies. Many fans of the show are still reconstructing their hearts following the show’s cancellation. Of everyone who made Daisies a reality, it’s arguably Lee Pace, in the leading role, that viewers miss most.
Pace plays Ned, a humble pie-maker able to bring people back to life with a single touch, give or take a few caveats. Ned discovered this when he was young and used it to revive his dog, an act which, as dictated by the rules of his new power, results in his mother’s death. From then on, Ned acts timidly, keeping a distance between himself and others. But his lifestyle is challenged when a childhood sweetheart re-enters his life.
For those who’ve only seen Guardians, it’s difficult to think Ronan the Accuser shares an actor with a Ned. But this is Pace’s range at work, showing him as capable at being over-the-top as he is at playing innocently charming. Pace stretched his range further by playing a cocky tech entrepreneur in AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire.
7. Glenn Close (Nova Prime) – Fatal Attraction
A prevailing quality of the Guardians cast is a talent for playing unstable people without abandoning their humanity. Glenn Close doesn’t have the juicy material that castmates Cooper and Rooker get to chew on in Guardians, but she is probably the authority on these types of characters. An authority she procured with her iconic performance in Fatal Attraction.
In a role that garnered her the fourth of six Oscar nominations, Close plays Alex Forrester, a woman who engages in an affair with lawyer Dan Gallager, played by Michael Douglas. What at first seems like a frivolous bout of infidelity steadily turns into a torrid obsession on Alex’s part. Dan’s marriage falls into jeopardy, as does his life and, eventually, the safety of his family.
James Dearden’s Oscar-nominated screenplay expertly builds tension throughout Fatal Attraction‘s plot, and he carefully tracks the unsettling progression of Alex and Dan’s affair. But the movie wouldn’t feel half as disturbing if not for Close’s finely calibrated performance. She starts the movie with her sanity in check, until unrequited love slowly chips away at her mental restraint. Hopefully, in Guardians 2, Nova Prime is given material befitting an actress of Close’s stature.
6. Djimon Hounsou (Korath) – Blood Diamond
Here’s another example of Gunn giving a talented actor the short stick. You can hardly blame him, since Guardians is an otherwise flawless movie, but it’s a shame Gunn had a powerful actor like Djimon Hounsou and used him as a mere henchman. And unlike Nova Prime, Hounsou’s Korath won’t get a chance to reappear in the Guardians sequel, having been killed off in the final act by Drax.
A reliable actor from movies like Amistad and Gladiator, Hounsou vaulted into the Academy’s line of sight with Blood Diamond in 2006. Directed by Edward Zwick (Glory) and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Blood Diamond tells the story of an unlikely partnership between a fisherman in Sierre Leone (Hounsou) and a smuggler (DiCaprio). The latter seeks a priceless conflict diamond, while the former simply wishes to rescue his son from a vicious warlord.
As Solomon, the fisherman seeking reunion with his son, Hounsou channels all of his acting strength to pull off the anguish his character feels when his child is taken from him. His riveting performance in Blood Diamond was loud enough to catch the ear of Oscar voters, landing him a nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The actor had been nominated previously for the film In America.
5. John C. Reilly (Corpsman Day) – Magnolia
As it stands, John C. Reilly’s IMDb page does not include a credit for Guardians 2. Which is a pity, since Reilly has been one of Hollywood’s best actors since the mid-90s. He’s as reliable as he is versatile, up for playing a corrupt Irish cop as much as he is a jolly NASCAR driver. It was hard to not include Reilly’s Oscar-nominated showcase in Chicago on this list, but when all is said and done, his work in Magnolia reigns supreme.
In a large cast emblematic of Paul Thomas Anderson’s love for ensembles, Reilly plays Officer Jim Kurring. Kurring walks the straight and narrow, but one day seeks fulfillment outside his life as a cop by asking a troubled woman out on a date. Through his relationship with her, Kurring is challenged to question his wholesome view of the world, and comes out the other end a more conscientious person.
Reilly nails Kurring’s hum-drum, rigid lifestyle, almost to an irritating degree. But Reilly still makes us hope for his ultimate happiness. He manages to stick out in an otherworldly cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, and William H. Macy, some of them doing their career best work.
4. Benecio Del Toro (The Collector) – Sicario
Del Toro got a chance to flaunt his colorful quirks as The Collector, as he had before in films like Sin City and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (to name a few). But Del Toro’s prime acting comes when he’s allowed to be organically and unexpectedly menacing. The best evidence to this claim takes shape in Sicario, a movie in which Del Toro plays a quiet but merciless hitman.
A Training Day-esque spiral into darkness, one that primarily takes place south of the American-Mexican border, Sicario relays the moral crisis of Emily Blunt’s Kate Mercer. For undefined reasons, Mercer, an FBI agent, is pulled into a collective of officers from various American agencies. To take down a top-of-the-pyramid druglord, Mercer becomes a work colleague of Del Toro’s Alejandro. As it later turns out, this is a frightening position to find oneself in.
Alejandro is a deceptively calm associate, and even mentor, to Mercer. That is until an ending that, aside from the final act of Green Room, is unrivaled in its stark nihilism. Sicario’s soul-crushing conclusion would not be quite as effective if not for Del Toro’s unflinching performance. And luckily for moviegoers, the dread will continue in a Sicario sequel slated for this year!
3. Kurt Russell (Ego) – Big Trouble in Little China
There was no better choice to play Ego the Living Planet, Peter Quill’s father in the MCU. Harrison Ford would have been far too on the nose. Mel Gibson, though enjoying a cinematic comeback with Hacksaw Ridge, would have been a PR calamity nonetheless. But Kurt Russell, as smarmy and swaggering as Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, was the only true option for Quill’s dad.
Russell’s smarminess and swagger reaches its apex with Big Trouble in Little China, the actor’s third collaboration with director John Carpenter. He plays Jack Burton, the truck-driving lead of the movie. To collect his winnings from a bet, Burton follows a friend into Chinatown, San Francisco. What ensues is a fun-filled (if not so racially sensitive) romp through a magical underground packed with adventure, love, and some pretty gross monsters. Russel acts as the audience’s seatbelt, making sure they don’t get too beat around by the movie’s weirdness.
The irresistible low-life charm of Kurt Russell is struck with a blinding spotlight in Big Trouble in Little China. Under its glow, Russell gives a performance as everlasting as the wifebeater on Jack Burton’s back.
2. Elizabeth Debicki (Ayesha) – The Night Manager
Casting Elizabeth Debicki as the villain in Guardians 2 is a smart choice. She played a devilish bad guy in 2015’s reboot of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. But to find Debicki’s best acting to date, you should divert your attention to a more current tale set in the world of international espionage. In The Night Manager, an AMC miniseries based on a John Le Carré novel, Debicki plays Jed Marshall, a woman stuck in a relationship with a ruthless arms dealer.
The Night Manager centers mainly around Tom Hiddelston’s Jonathan Pine, a hotel night manager and war veteran. British intelligence recruits Pine to infiltrate the operation of Richard Roper (the arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie). Along the way, he falls in love with Jed, who’s trying hard to remain present in her son’s life while she navigates a sordid romance with Roper.
With less than compelling material, Debicki makes lemons out of lemonade, or rather a well-rounded character out of an ingenue. She digs into Jed’s psyche, and shows its marked wear and tear under Roper’s influence. Hopefully, Debicki can work her magic again with Ayesha and avoid Marvel’s trend of bland villains.
1. Sylvester Stallone (Starhawk) – Rocky
The reveal of Stallone’s mystery role in GotG 2 increased the massive hype surrounding his casting. Actors of all breeds eventually come to the Marvel universe, proving that just about everyone wants to be a superhero (or at least collect that superhero salary). Stallone is no different. And if he was only going to show up in one superhero movie, aren’t you glad it’s a Guardians movie?
If you’re unfamiliar with Sylvester Stallone, A) Who are you?, and B) You probably know a little movie called Rocky. It stars Stallone as Rocky Balboa, a role he conceived and one that serves as a champion to underdogs everywhere. Throwing everything on the table, Stallone gets more personal with Rocky than he ever would for another role. His heartbreak, loneliness, and frustration — it all punches ten times harder because of Stallone’s performance.
A close second to Stallone in the first Rocky is his revival of the character in the 2015 film, Creed. Stallone netted Oscar nominations for both films, playing the Italian Stallion at two very different times in his life. Even if it weren’t for a franchise spanning seven movies, Rocky would still resonate today thanks to Stallone’s first outing in the career-defining role.
Disagree with any of our choices? Which of these actors do you think will steal the show in Vol. 2? Sound off in the comments.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 blasts into theaters May 5th!