Here are our picks for the best superhero movie performances of the decade. The superhero genre is now bigger than ever before, with comic book adaptations regularly breaking $1 billion in the global box office. Standing at the forefront is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has grossed over $22 billion worldwide.
There are many reasons for the superhero movie genre's current success, but one of them is the talent of the actors that these movies attract. What's more, the shared universe model means that actors are signed up for multiple films; as a result, as the years pass they become increasingly familiar with the part they play, understanding every nuance of their character arc. That makes their portrayals truly remarkable, and as a result certain actors have developed the reputation of simply being born for their role.
2019 marks a sea change in the superhero genre. It's not just the end of the decade; it's the end of an era, because Marvel's Avengers: Endgame saw some particularly iconic actors bow out of their long-standing roles. Given the genre is essentially entering a new stage of transition right now, this is the perfect time to honor the best superhero performances of the last 10 years.
15. Michael Shannon (General Zod)
Man of Steel director Zack Snyder always knew he wanted Michael Shannon to play the film's villain, the ruthless Kryptonian General Zod. He had Shannon flown out to his house, and presented the entire script. The actor was struck by Snyder's vision, and signed up straight away. Shannon's Zod is a brilliant, single-minded tactician who was literally genetically engineered to never doubt his own actions. "We Earthlings, we like to think of ourselves as the most important thing in the universe," Shannon reflected in an interview with CinemaBlend. "But you know, we’re not, and you know, if a lion runs up to you in the jungle and eats your a**, it’s not like, 'Oh, that evil lion,' because it’s what a lion does."
14. Christian Bale (Batman)
Christian Bale would be a lot higher on this list - but unfortunately, only one film in the Dark Knight Trilogy was actually released in the last decade. The Dark Knight Rises came out in 2012, and it saw Bale present the most complex version of Batman to date. The script picked up eight years after The Dark Knight, with Batman a wanted man and Bruce Wayne now a recluse. Wayne was presented as the eye of the storm, the movie's moral center, and in the end he was forced to decide how much he was willing to sacrifice for Gotham.
13. Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn)
Suicide Squad may not have been the critical success Warner Bros. hoped for, but the casting was top-rate. The camera seemed desperate to reduce Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn to the role of eye candy, but it was beaten by the sheer quality of her performance. Robbie had a blast presenting Harley Quinn as a complex, conflicted antihero who alternated between insane, off-the-cuff banter and cutting insight. The film turned Harley Quinn into the most popular Halloween costume of 2016, and Robbie is one of the few Suicide Squad actors sticking around for the next phase of the DCEU. Much to Robbie's delight, Birds of Prey will give Harley a chance to step out of the Joker's shadow - and will change her wardrobe, too.
12. Michael B. Jordan (Killmonger)
Michael B. Jordan had something to prove when he was cast as Black Panther's villain, Killmonger - and he succeeded. The actor had made his superhero debut in 2015's Fantastic Four, a commercial and critical failure, but Marvel Studios believed he had the potential to be one of their strongest bad guys to date. They were right; Killmonger was complex and sophisticated, driven both by personal hostility and a fascinating philosophical perspective. Jordan's portrayal was cool and commanding, and he dominated almost every scene he appeared in. Killmonger's final defeat - and his death at Black Panther's hands - was poetically done, making him one of the most satisfying supervillains in the MCU to date.
11. Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool)
Ryan Reynolds was born to be Deadpool, and he didn't even let X-Men Origins: Wolverine get in his way. A well-timed leak turned Reynolds' Deadpool dreams into a reality, and the film was an unexpected hit, proving to Fox that non-tentpole superhero movies could be hits as well. Deadpool's script was pretty threadbare, but Reynolds' humor and natural charisma shone through, and audiences lapped it up. The film rights to the X-Men franchise are now in the hands of Marvel Studios, but Deadpool is expected to continue with as few changes as possible. As Disney CEO Bob Iger reportedly told Marvel president Kevin Feige, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
10. Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury)
Samuel L. Jackson is living the dream. He grew up reading comic books - in fact, his favorites included Invincible Iron Man and Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos - and now he gets to play the MCU's Nick Fury. The character has appeared in nine Marvel blockbusters, including all four Avengers films, and he stands at the center of the Avengers Initiative. Jackson deserves particular recognition for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, where he delivered a stunning intensity that's not always visible in the other movies. Spider-Man: Far From Home was another highlight, with attentive viewers feeling as though Jackson was ever so slightly out of character. It turned out Nick Fury was really a shapeshifting alien impostor.
9. Dafne Keen (X-23)
Director James Mangold was determined to avoid all the tired superhero tropes when it came to Logan. "I wanted to avoid the standard trap, which has been done successfully elsewhere, of that very attractive 19 year old actress in a hot uniform," he told Nerdist. "We’ve seen that. I wanted something more interesting." He went back to X-23's animated roots, where she'd been portrayed as a thirteen-year-old Wolverine clone brought up as an assassin. Mangold launched a global talent search for a 12-year-old, Spanish-speaking child with martial arts skills and phenomenal agility. Fortunately he struck lucky, when he saw a video showing Dafne Keen showing off her skills. Keen was definitely the right pick; for all her youth, she managed to present X-23 as a complex character, with a brooding intensity, a savage and feral nature, and yet a haunting sense of innocence.
8. Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman)
Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman broke the glass ceiling for female superhero movies. Hollywood insiders have long argued that superhero films with female leads just don't perform well at the box office, pointing to flops like Catwoman and Elektra. But Gal Gadot proved otherwise when she teamed up with director Patty Jenkins in Wonder Woman, which grossed over $800 million worldwide. Gadot was universally praised for her performance, giving Diana of Themyscira an impressive degree of innocence, compassion, and honor. The highlight of Wonder Woman is undeniably a single scene where the Amazonian Princess sees the horror of war, and chooses to step out into No Man's Land. The first few years of the DCEU had a number of missteps, but the casting of Gal Gadot was certainly not one of them.
7. Josh Brolin (Thanos)
Josh Brolin's Thanos is different to all the other names on this list, largely because the part demanded a subtly different skill-set. Thanos is the monstrous villain of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, and he's essentially a CGI avatar placed onto mo-cap recordings of the actor at work. That makes Thanos' success a mark of the quality of teamwork between Josh Brolin and the special effects teams who worked with Marvel to create Thanos. Brolin trusted companies like Digital Domain and WETA to get it right, playing Thanos straight rather than overplaying the role. They successfully reproduced every nuance of Brolin's performance, turning Thanos into a strangely compelling villain.
6. Tom Hiddleston (Loki)
The shared universe model means that actors have the opportunity to grow into their role, ultimately inhabiting the part in a way that would otherwise be impossible. For Tom Hiddleston, the Trickster God Loki has become an old friend; he's been playing the part for over a decade now, charting a powerful redemptive arc that culminated in his death in Avengers: Infinity War. Of course, these are comic book adaptations, which means death is a revolving door; Loki is soon to return as the star of his own Disney+ limited series. The complexity of Loki's character gives Hiddleston a lot of room to emote, and he manages to convey a remarkable mixture of arrogance and emotional vulnerability to the villain.
5. Tom Holland (Spider-Man)
Marvel Studios faced a difficult task when it came to casting their new Spider-Man. This would be the third iteration to hit the big screen in the twenty-first century, and as such Marvel knew they needed to do something different. They chose to draw inspiration from Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original comics, and cast a young Peter Parker who was still at school. They chose Tom Holland - and it proved to be an inspired choice. Holland is another of those actors who simply inhabits the role; his Peter Parker is socially awkward, over-talkative, whimsical and a little eccentric. Off-screen, Holland appears to share these attributes - he has a habit of talking too much, and his tendency of dropping spoilers has become something of a running joke. Aside from his accent, then, he still seems to be Peter Parker even when the cameras have stopped filming.
4. Hugh Jackman (Wolverine)
Fox's X-Men movies are much-maligned, but even their harshest critics admit that Hugh Jackman embodied Wolverine for an entire generation. In theory, it shouldn't have worked; the comic book version of Wolverine is a pint-sized Canadian with a temper problem, whereas Hugh Jackman is a tall Australian with a gentle sense of humor and a reputation for his good nature. But Jackman is a skilled actor, and when the cameras began to roll, he easily transformed into the X-Men's most dangerous team member. His performance was backed by an exhausting physical training regime, which became the reason the actor decided it was time to bow out. Jackman's time in the franchise came to an end in Logan, where he played an older, weary and broken version of the superhero who was forced to pop those claws one last time. Superhero fans argued he deserved an Oscar for that film - and frankly, they have a point.
3. Patrick Stewart (Charles Xavier)
Patrick Stewart is a seasoned pro when it comes to the superhero genre, but he deserves particular praise for Logan. There, he played a dying Charles Xavier who was losing his prodigious intellect, and barely in control of his own abilities. "[The role] gave Patrick freedom that he hasn't had, certainly in these kinds of films," director James Mangold told The Hollywood Reporter. "Patrick attacked this thing with ferocity. He was fearless about playing Charles' weaknesses as well as his strengths. He wasn't worried about the vanity of it." Viewers were used to seeing Charles Xavier as something of a power figure, which made Stewart's portrayal absolutely heartbreaking. His death - which he believed to be at the hands of Wolverine himself - left audiences in tears.
2. Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man)
The newly-formed Marvel Studios took a chance when they cast Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, but the last decade's worth of MCU movies have proved the wisdom of their decision. Downey understands Tony Stark on a raw, visceral level; he too has struggled with the pain of loss, addiction, and trauma. The MCU's Phase 1 was really the story of how Tony Stark truly became a hero, as he chose to make the sacrifice play in The Avengers and rocket into a wormhole with a nuclear bomb. Fast-forward to 2019's Avengers: Endgame, and Stark's story went full circle, as he gave his life to defeat Thanos. "I am Iron Man," Tony Stark told Thanos before he snapped his fingers and tapped into the power of the Infinity Gauntlet. The line was a last-minute addition to the script, with Downey initially reluctant to say it because he wasn't sure he could handle the emotion of it. Thankfully, Marvel Studios persuaded him, and his character had the most poignant send-off imaginable.
1. Chris Evans (Captain America)
But the top slot goes to another Avenger - Chris Evans, who's also bowed out of the MCU after Avengers: Endgame. Evans has turned out some of the most compelling performances in the MCU to date, including in the popular and critically acclaimed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Cap's story came to a satisfying conclusion in Avengers: Endgame, with the star-spangled Avenger finally proving worthy to lift Mjolnir, and standing alone against Thanos and his armies. He even got his Happily Ever After, with the film ending on a positive note as Captain America traveled back to the past in order to spend his life with his beloved Peggy Carter.