Marvel adaptations are larger than life. They take some of the most fantastic worlds, moments, and stories ever imagined and bring them as close to existence as those of us who grew up with comic books constantly in our hands could ever hope to see. Marvel adaptations are quickly becoming the last surviving blockbusters, and that’s because they often feature the best special effects, the best directors, and the best writers a big budget popcorn flick could hope to have. Honestly, though, it’s always been the acting that separates Marvel movies from the pack.
Yes, beyond all the explosions, elaborate costumes, and arching storylines, the Marvel cinematic universe is all about characters. Granted, most of these characters are superpower-fueled demigods, but they’re compelling characters nonetheless. Of course, even the most compelling characters can prove to be instantly forgettable if they’re not played by the perfect performer. Fortunately for us all, some of the most talented actors and actresses in the world have agreed to throw on capes and cloaks in order to help turn modern mythology into reality. There are so many performers that deserve to be praised for their work in this universe, but there is an elite group of performances that stand above the rest.
These are the 18 Best Performances In The Marvel Cinematic Universe.
18 Chris Pratt as Star-Lord
Anyone who watched Parks and Recreation (or, more accurately, anyone who binge-watched Parks and Recreation) knows that Chris Pratt is an exceptional comedian. On that show, he turned a role that didn’t offer much on paper and turned it into one of the most likable characters in recent television history through some exceptional comedic timing. Those same people that watched Pratt get laughs with seeming ease on a weekly basis likely found it hard to imagine him as a blockbuster leading man. Loveable sidekick, sure, but action hero? That’ll be the day.
Pratt has received a lot of praise for the way he physically prepared for his leading role in Guardians of the Galaxy, but he doesn’t receive quite enough credit for the way that he revived an older style of leading men, one who is willing to come across as a bit of a goof. Pratt’s take on Star-Lord is reminiscent of how Carey Grant might have played Indiana Jones. He holds his own when the action heats up and never forgets to be likable, which has allowed him to shape a relatively obscure superhero like Star-Lord into one of the foremost heroes in the Marvel world.
17 Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson
There’s a funny thing that happens when traditionally “serious” actors are cast in Marvel films or other movies that have a little bit more of a lighthearted atmosphere. As soon as their names are revealed, fans immediately begin to raise their expectations. They envision the kind of compelling performance these actors are known for translated into a comic book world. That’s not always the case. It does happen sometimes, but it’s far more common to see these actors take these roles in order to flex their blockbuster muscles and even have a little fun.
Anthony Mackie’s role in the most recent Captain America movies falls somewhere in-between expectations and reality. Mackie seemingly recognizes that the star of the show in these movies is, of course, Captain America. To that extent, he treats the role of Sam Wilson (aka Falcon) like an anchor. Mackie’s Wilson is unwavering in his convictions and loyalty. There’s a comfort that comes whenever he is on screen, brought about by Mackie’s ability to play the kind of character you’d want to have a beer with. He just seems like a fun guy, the sort that would absolutely have your back if a fight broke out -- even if that fight were against the head of a government agency.
16 Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones
By the time that Jessica Jones made its Netflix debut in 2015, the idea of a superhero with flaws was no a longer shocking one. The world had moved away from the Superman-era and accepted that some of the world’s greatest heroes aren’t always bastions of truth, justice, and the American way. If Jessica Jones was going to make an impact on viewers as a character, she would have to exhibit something more than flaws.
In that respect, Kyrsten Ritter should be celebrated for the way in which she so thoroughly explored the shortcomings of her character to find deeper meaning in them. The best thing that Krysten Ritter brings to the role of Jessica Jones is seemingly genuine indifference. Yes, Jessica Jones is an alcoholic. Yes, she is rude to just about everyone she meets. No, she doesn’t care about any of this. That indifference allows her to really sell the idea of a hero that is starting to realize that there are worse ways to live than being called upon to save the world on occasion.
15 Dave Bautista as Drax The Destroyer
With all due respect to Andre The Giant’s role in The Princess Bride, Roddy Piper’s performance in They Live, and most of the career thus far of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, professional wrestlers don’t typically turn in great film performances. While there is a degree of acting involved in professional wrestling, it’s a completely different craft. Whatever skills these wrestlers might have with a live microphone in their hands don’t always translate to the world of films. It’s how we ended up with the questionable filmography of one Hulk Hogan.
David Michael Bautista has taken a different approach to this whole acting thing. Rather than try to become a leading man, he’s been intelligently picking roles that allow him to play off his better qualities, such as being big and making people say “My god, can you believe how large that man is?” It’s why Guardians of the Galaxy’s Drax the Destroyer was the perfect role for him. His somewhat raw acting ability actually lends a pleasant degree of charm to a character who essentially serves as the straight man in a ridiculous world of sarcastic antiheroes.
Luckily for us, with director James Gunn outright calling Bautista's Drax the funniest character in the upcoming GotG sequel, the best may be yet to come for the metaphorically-challenged Guardian.
14 Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter
Peggy Carter isn’t the deepest character on paper. In the comics, she first appeared as the lover of Captain America. The details changed a bit over the years, but the most popular version of Peggy Carter painted her as a former ally of Steve Rogers who was left behind when he was frozen in time. She was a living reminder of the life he could not live. She wasn’t always her own character; at least not as often as she perhaps could have been.
Hayley’s Atwell’s take on Peggy Carter doesn’t stray too far from those roots, but in her case, it’s all about the execution. Atwell plays Carter less like a tragic figure and more like a warrior that doesn’t yet fully understand and appreciate the pain that her feelings will cause her. To put it another way, the most interesting thing that happened to the comic’s version of Carter was losing Steve Rogers. The most interesting thing to happen to Atwell’s take on the character has arguably not yet been written.
13 Paul Rudd as Ant-Man
Paul Rudd is one of those great comedians who can make fun of you at 5pm and make sure that you don’t even realize it until 6am. His ability to sarcastically spout a slew of dry wit is nearly unmatched. Paul Rudd as a superhero, though? Now that’s a tough sell. It’s hard to imagine Rudd punching anyone in the face, much less doing so enough times to save the world. Fortunately, that’s not the kind of hero that he needed to be in Ant-Man.
In fact, we’d go so far as to suggest that the idea of adding Ant-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe only works because Rudd is there to play him. There’s a meta element to Rudd’s take on the character in that the actor is clearly implying that he’s aware of how ridiculous the Ant-Man concept can be at times. As always, this approach makes us laugh, but it also makes us stop and appreciate the fact that Ant-Man is a unique hero.
12 Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One
You may recall that there was a bit of controversy when Tilda Swinton was cast in Doctor Strange. Without reigniting that particular fire, the controversy involved Mrs. Swinton being cast as a character who is typically described in the comics as an older Tibetan gentleman. Straying that far from the archetype caused some fans to worry that Swinton’s casting was somehow a political or cultural decision. What was lost in this discussion is the fact that Tilda Swinton is a highly-accomplished actress that has proven time and time again that she can pull off just about anything.
It’s a skill that she proudly displays in the latest Marvel adventure. Swinton’s Ancient One might not get that much screen time, but the veteran actress absolutely steals the show in every scene she is in by playing a wise and ancient magic user in a way that invokes the masters of kung-fu films gone by, while also establishing just how powerful these abilities are in the Marvel universe.
11 Michael Pena as Luis
Everybody wants to be the superhero. When little kids tie a bed sheet around their neck and try to catch the breeze just right as to make it look like they’re flying, they’re pretending to be Superman. Fewer people want to be the sidekick. It’s why the playground debate over who gets to be Batman and who has to be Robin is usually such a heated one. Yet, the sidekick is far more than an afterthought. They are all superheroes in their own way. Sometimes, one even steals the show.
Michael Pena certainly did just that in Ant-Man. As Luis, he seemed to be the one guy who was having the appropriate level of fun one might have in such a situation. Pena has stated in interviews that he saw himself as the lighthearted counter to Rudd’s deadpan style. He saw them as a classic comedic duo in a strange new setting. It’s a commitment to a seemingly minor job that only great sidekicks are capable of. We can't wait to see more from him in the sequel.
10 Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Imagine that someone walked up to you on the streets and said that they want you to play the Norse god Thor in a major motion picture. How would you prepare? Would you grow your hair out? Would you put on the kind of bulk that one guy at the gym is always adjusting his diet to achieve? Would you practice speaking in a gravelly, commanding voice? You might do all these things and more, but at the end of the day, though, would it be enough? Could you make the character of Thor come alive on the screen just by being intimidatingly muscular and commanding?
Perhaps this worry crossed Chris Hemsworth’s mind shortly after he was informed that he was going to be playing one of Marvel’s mightiest heroes. Maybe that’s why his version of Thor is an all-powerful god some of the time, but most of the time, he’s just vaguely amused by humans. As Thor’s screen time grew, so did his chances to expand upon the awesome responsibility that falls on his bulk plan-enhanced shoulders. Most fans are often distracted by how much he looks the part to bother thinking about just how well he plays it, but however you look at it, Hemsworth was born to play the God of Thunder.
9 Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just cast Samuel L. Jackson in any role and immediately have it be something incredible. We aren’t entirely confident that he would make a great Mr. Darcy in a faithful adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, for instance. (Then again, we would never dare to tell him he couldn't do something.) Regardless, the point is that there are some roles Mr. Jackson’s commanding style don’t quite work for and there are some roles that absolutely demand it. Nick Fury is most certainly an example of the later.
The former director of S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t need to be anything more than a hardened badass who occasionally serves as the voice of reason and bearer of bad news. He’s a guy that's so undeniably imposing that even the world’s greatest superheroes are forced to respect him. That’s the exact kind of role that Samuel L. Jackson was born to play, as evidenced by the many times in which his mere presence in Marvel movies have been cause for celebration. Jackson excels at retaining Fury’s commanding presence, no matter how much screentime he actually gets (which, unfortunately, isn't much nowadays).
8 Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange
As difficult as it is to portray a hero that most people are familiar with, such as Spider-Man, it’s arguably more difficult to play a superhero that not everyone may necessarily know much about. While it’s certainly nice to start with something of a blank slate, you also must find a way to establish this character as someone who is worthy of sharing the spotlight with these other, far more famous heroes. You’ve only got a handful of minutes to make people care.
The Doctor Strange special effects team certainly deserves a good chunk of the credit for quickly letting everyone know exactly why they should care about Doctor Strange, but it’s Benedict Cumberbatch that ultimately seals the character’s reputation moving forward. Physically, he’s a dead ringer for the character, and talent-wise, he is able to convincingly relay the characteristics of a man that is above most of the puny problems of mere mortals while still being someone that you are just helplessly drawn to.
The best part? He's just getting started.
7 Clark Gregg as Agent Phil Coulson
Agent Phil Coulson is a ranking member of S.H.I.E.L.D. who also so happens to be a big fan of The Avengers. When we say fan, we mean he’s the kind of guy that collects trading cards of the people he will sometimes work with. That’s a character that can go wrong really fast if he’s presented as pure comic relief or, even worse, a poorly implemented meta attempt to comment on the most adamant members of the Marvel fanbase. Instead, Coulson ends up being the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Coulson works as well as he does as a character thanks to some sharp writing and Clark Gregg's wonderful portrayal of him. Gregg’s perfectly deadpan delivery masterfully offsets the fact that some of his dialogue is little more than gushing fanboyism. He’s mastered the little inflections that ensure the seemingly one-note Coulson always manages to find a way to stand shoulder to shoulder with the titans of Marvel.
6 Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner
There had been a few attempts at putting Bruce Banner and his angry alter-ego on film prior to Mark Ruffalo taking on the role. and they didn’t go over all that well with the character’s fan base. Some weren’t as bad as others (Edward Norton did a pretty good job), but none of them really captured the full value of the character. Instead, they focused on showcasing how much CG-fueled damage that The Incredible Hulk could inflict.
Ruffalo’s take on the character was a little different. Aided by the writing of Joss Whedon, Ruffalo took his time with the Bruce Banner character in a way that no other actor that took on the role has. Whereas previous versions of Banner approached the character like a straightforward, Dr. Jekyll type that was the polar opposite of his Mr. Hyde counterpart, Ruffalo’s Banner is a man who lives in absolute terror of the next transformation. The fear just behind his eyes at every turn might as well be the sleeping giant just waiting to be awoken. The subtle nuances he's brought to the character -- in addition to his motion capture work for the Hulk's berserker mode -- have helped Ruffalo become recognized as the definitive take on the Green Goliath in the eyes of many.
5 Vincent D'Onofrio as The Kingpin
Many early adaptations of The Kingpin presented him more as a general embodiment of a crime figure. With his large build, imposing demeanor, and seemingly unshakable evil ways, he certainly seems to be an easy fit for the part. The Daredevil comic series has long provided the most thorough examination of the Kingpin character, so it’s appropriate that Netflix’s adaptation of the comics also strived for a complete view of the king of New York's underworld.
What really ensures that the series' version of the character obtains definitive status, however, is how Vincent D'Onofrio brings him to life. D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is not the kind of sleek sociopath that many films and shows have presented leaders of criminal empires to be. He’s an emotionally scarred man-child who suffers from severe social issues. The best thing that D’Onofrio does with that idea is utilize a large number of minor quirks that might typically be used to present someone as weak or feeble in some way. What they really are is a compelling contradiction to the acts of extreme violence that highlight his most memorable moments. He's probably the MCU' most underrated villain to date.
4 Tom Hiddleston as Loki
The remaining performances on this list are so good that you could make the argument that they are career-defining. It’s an argument that, thus far, is easiest to make for Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston’s career prior to taking on the role of Loki is nothing to scoff at, but it was lacking that one performance that everyone seems to know about; that role that you’re confident that only he could have played.
In Loki, Hiddleston found that role. To be entirely honest, the first Thor movie was uneven enough to possibly be the death knell for Thor as part of the greater Marvel universe. For that matter, given how early into that universe we were at that point, it could have been bad for Marvel’s film future in general. Despite the movie’s problems, most people came away from it talking about Loki. That’s because Hiddleston played a suave saboteur in one of Marvel’s more outlandish creations. He was a grounding force that you hated even more because you also couldn’t help but love him a bit.
3 David Tennant as Kilgrave
A true villain in comic book-based productions is a rare and wonderful thing. It’s wonderful because a great big bad is the secret ingredient that makes the superhero sauce work as well as it does. A hero is only as good as the villains he faces. It’s rare because many villains in these adaptations end up either being incredibly cool or just kind of lame/forgettable. What you really want is a villain that you truly despise. A foe that makes you feel as if you are in the true presence of evil itself.
David Tennant ensured that the already great Kilgrave character obtained that rare status. Tennant’s Kilgrave is a Norman Bates for the modern age; a good looking cat that you'd never suspect is capable of the abhorrent acts he regularly commits. Tennant played the character like the seemingly harmless boyfriend whose instability gets dialed up to 11 the second you break up with him, and the horrific things he does throughout the course of the first season of Jessica Jones were far more grounded in reality than viewers could have ever expected. It was a stunningly haunting portrayal of a superpowered mental (and physical) rapist, plain and simple.
2 Chris Evans as Captain America
Despite Oscar Wilde’s best attempts, many filmgoers have forgotten the importance of being earnest. It’s becoming easier and easier to mock characters and films that aren’t weighed down by the burden of being hip, and aim to present something more wholesome and pure. That’s part of the reason why some people thought that Captain America was doomed to fail. Many casual comic fans saw Captain America as a sickeningly pure reminder of an age when comic book heroes didn’t need to be complicated or dark; they just needed the desire to do good.
Chris Evans’ ability to come across as a man with that genuine desire to do good is a true asset. His country-boy look and “aw-shucks” nature help establish him as the perfect candidate for heroism, but Evans really starts to shine once he becomes more than just a simple man. When he transforms into Captain America, you want to see him do good because he's so damn great at it. His take is easily the best interpretation of the Star-Spangled Avenger to date, and with the character getting decidedly more complex with each outing, Evans' best work may still be ahead of him. Or not; the character's future in Phase 4 is a bit murky at the moment.
1 Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark
It’s hard to remember a time when the release of a new Marvel movie wasn’t cause for unanimous celebration, isn’t it? Yet, it wasn’t all that long ago that the idea of a comic book movie didn’t really generate much excitement outside of a very specific fanbase. It’s foolish to suggest that the transition happened overnight, but it’s equally foolish to deny that the advancement of comic book films by leaps and bounds the moment that the trailer for Iron Man was released. That was the moment the world was gifted with a preview of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark.
Downey brought Tony Stark to life in a way that few actors have ever been able to do with a character. His real-life demons allowed him to perfectly play a man who just wants to have a good time, but begins to realize that he may have something more to give the world. Downey is magnetic every time that he steps on the screen. We’re not saying there wouldn’t be a Marvel Cinematic Universe without Robert Downey Jr.; we’re just saying that it would be a lot less interesting. God help the poor soul who has to follow in his footsteps, should Kevin Feige and the other Marvel bigwigs ever follow through on their notions of recasting the role.
What other MCU actors do you think delivered top-notch performances? Let us know in the comments.
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