Oscar voters have a fickle, and let’s face it, snobby outlook when it comes to casting a ballot. Actors in comedies rarely, if ever, get props for outstanding work (see also: Eddie Murphy, The Nutty Professor). The same goes for performers in sci-fi pictures (Christopher Lloyd, Back to the Future), horror movies (Fairuza Balk, The Craft) or, until a certain scarred, make-up smeared clown arrived on the scene, superhero movies. The Dark Knight changed the way that Hollywood views the virtues of the superhero genre, though the lack of nominations for Best Director or Best Picture suggest the Academy still has a long way to go when it comes to recognizing the contribution of performers in capes and tights… who aren’t in a stuffy 19th century period piece anyway.
Which brings us to today’s list. Since comic books began to transition to screen in the 1960s with Batman: The Movie, actors and actresses taking on some of pulp fiction’s most iconic roles have made quite an impression. Certainly enough moviegoers recognize the signature utterance “Wait till they get a load of me” from Jack Nicholson’s Joker as they do any of the moments from the recent Oscar-winning performances of Leo DiCaprio, Brie Larson, Mark Ryland or Alicia Vikander. So, let’s pay a little love to some of the unsung (super) heroes of the movies, and the actors who delivered Oscar-caliber work bringing them to life.
Therefore, in no particular order, check out 15 Most Oscar-Worthy Superhero Movie Performances.
18 Michelle Pfeiffer, Batman Returns
Meow, indeed! Michelle Pfeiffer’s work in Batman Returns would be impressive enough given that she acts and performs some crazy acrobatics covered head-to-toe vinyl! The real star of the film, Pfeiffer plays Selina Kyle as a woman crushed by life, courtesy of an abusive boss, overbearing mother and useless men. As her sanity frays, she has a total breakdown, and Pfeiffer delivers some of the most impressive work of her career, stomping around Selina’s apartment and becoming Catwoman. The first time she appears in costume, Selina has totally transformed, and Pfeiffer has too. It’s as though the woman in the catsuit is a totally new character: the Catwoman.
Most impressive of all though: Pfeiffer takes these two polar opposites—the ferocious Catwoman and the meek Selina, and pulls them together. As her character grows, Selina’s mind continues to erode, to the point where she can no longer differentiate her true self from her alter ego, and Pfeiffer reveals them as layers to a single character: strong, sensitive, and deeply wounded. The actress conveys so much of her character through her ice-blue eyes, which never show a moment of inattention, and her posture, which reflects her mind quivering under stress. For any actor, it would be an impressive performance, and Pfeiffer does it all in stiletto heels!
17 Christopher Reeve, Superman
Superman has had a rough go at the movies recently. Actually, he’s had a rough go at the movies since the mid-1980s, when Superman III threatened to kill the entire franchise. Superman IV managed to do just that, while the never-made Superman Lives cost Warner Bros. a truckload of money only to get cancelled before going before the cameras. Audiences met Superman Returns with indifference, while Man of Steel proved divisive among fans. Casual observers love to ask the question of why Hollywood just can’t seem to get Superman right, but deep down, we all know the real answer…
It ain’t Christopher Reeve in those tights.
For a character as old, important and iconic as Superman, it would take a giant to give what could be called the “definitive” performance in the role. But Reeve did just that in 1979. The Julliard-educated, unknown stage actor literally flew onto screens in a red cape and blue tights, and nobody laughed. His Superman embodied everything lovable about the character: his boy scout charm, squeaky clean humor, and above all, his bleeding heart compassion. Watching his blue eyes fill with tears at the sight of Lois Lane’s (Margot Kidder) dead body stops the heart. Reeve’s own life story—including his unbowed resolve in the face of his horrific paralysis—only add to the effect today. Much like Lois, as she watches him fly off from her roof, audiences everywhere continue to utter the same thought: what a super man.
16 Tom Hiddleston, Thor
Thor shocked audiences by creating a colorful, unusual action-adventure based around a chiseled Norse god that was actually an alien. How could any director get past the absurdity of it all?
Kenneth Branagh found a way. Realizing that for an audience to believe in Thor as a character the actor had to look the part, he cast hunk Chris Hemsworth in the role. As an unknown quantity though, he did something brilliant but sneaky: Thor doesn’t really emote much in the film. For the most part, Hemsworth stands around looking like, well, a Norse god. The real emotional resonance of the film, however—and arguably the real protagonist—centers on his brother Loki, played by the also-unknown Tom Hiddleston.
Hiddleston has the most dynamic character arc in the film. He begins as a mischievous, if somewhat envious, brother to Thor. When he learns their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has lied to him his whole life—Loki is actually the son of the mortal enemies of Asgard, the Frost Giants, he becomes something of a Shakespearian figure. Loki’s jealousy, his self loathing, and his genuine love for his adoptive family, all collide on Hiddleston’s face. As he goads Thor to fight, eyes welling, hissing that he could have saved Asgard himself, Loki becomes a real villain—and a tragic one at that. Besides, the fact that he spends most of the movie wearing that helmet with giant antlers and manages to not look ridiculous is a feat within itself!
15 Terence Stamp, Superman II
“KNEEL, before Zod!” So Terence Stamp screamed to the heavens, thus altering the face of popular culture forever in Superman II. By turns a quiet menace and a seething bluster, Stamp gives one of the most operatic performances in the superhero genre as a power-hungry Kryptonian tyrant hell-bent on revenge against his rival Jor-El’s son. Really, Zod is a one-dimensional character, which makes Stamp’s performance all the more impressive. Audiences have no problem taking the character seriously, and believing he could actually threaten to conquer Earth. Stamp has said he’d just returned from India prior to filming his role for Superman II, and that he approached the role with an almost transcendental mindset. He instructed Sarah Douglas, who plays his minion Ursa, to walk in his footsteps. He also treated actor Jack O’Halloran as a real deputy, barking orders at him off-camera (O’Halloran didn’t mind).
Stamp is the rare kind of actor to embody a regal quality—the French used to refer to that type as the “king” actor—and the layered pathos of a method actor. He relies more on the former in Superman II to give Zod an imperious menace, though it’s his quiet, thoughtful moments that bring the role to life.
14 Christian Bale, The Dark Knight
A certain Oscar-win for a deceased actor overshadowed the power of The Dark Knight, and while said actor deserves only praise in his legacy, he unfairly usurped also-deserved recognition from his costars. Chief among them, Christian Bale in the title role, gives a performance of immense power and cunning. For all his on-screen predecessors in the part, Bale did something revolutionary with the role: he made Bruce Wayne/Batman into a real person.
Besides the physical transformation—Bale underwent extensive physical training for the role—Bale plays, in essence, three characters in the movie: the playboy Bruce Wayne, the obsessed genius Bruce seen in private moments with Alfred or Luscious Fox, and the grizzled Batman. Though all around the cast delivers fine performances, Bale carries the weight of the movie. Critics compared his performance to that of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, oft-named as one of the finest performances in all cinema. Had the Academy seen past the suit, the cape and the Batarangs, Bale’s name would have landed in the Best Actor category. Of course, he went on to win an Oscar for The Fighter, and score several other nominations along the way, but his greatest performance, the one for which he will always be remembered, is his turn as The Dark Knight.
13 Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises
If Michelle Pfeiffer gave a brilliant turn as Catwoman in Batman Returns, that is, at least in part, because she did what the movie needed her to do. Batman Returns treats the Bat-saga as a campy, colorful, cartoon. Her performance works for the tone of the movie. Likewise, another actress would deliver another magnificent interpretation of the character in a movie with a very different take on Batman.
Anne Hathaway had tough competition for the part of Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises. Virtually every woman between the ages of 20 and 40 in Hollywood lobbied for the part—many of them great actresses in their own right. Hathaway’s raven hair and leggy figure no doubt helped her win the part, though her acting chops sealed the deal. Observe the way she controls her body and expression when discovered mid-robbery by Bruce Wayne. She melts from a shy, ditzy waif into a sensuous, flirty vamp. And, like co-stars Christian Bale and Tom Hardy, Hathaway undergoes a tremendous physical transformation as well. Note that in her escape from Wayne Manor, she moves from close-up to climbing furniture and doing a back flip out a window…in one unbroken take. It’s Hathaway all the way.
Her performance runs the gamut: at times, she comes off tough and unyielding, at others, she’s vulnerable, intelligent, and deeply wounded. Hathaway did snag an Oscar for her work in Les Miserables that same year—a film in which she appeared for only 20 minutes. No doubt her work in The Dark Knight Rises helped make up for her lack of screen-time there.
12 Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class
Michael Fassbender got his break-out role in Inglourious Basterds playing a British soldier in World War II. How appropriate then, that his star-making role would come in the form of a Holocaust survivor: Erik Lehnsherr, better known by his alias Magneto. Fassbender approaches the role wrought with grim weariness. His Magneto is a time bomb: obsessed with revenge against his Nazi captors, we know he will one day become a ruthless maniac. Of course, we also know that because this is an X-Men movie, and he’s Magneto, though for most of X-Men: First Class, Xavier helps Erik find a glimmer or two of hope.
The most intriguing—indeed the most enthralling thing Fassbender does with his performance—is that he walks the razor’s edge. Though we know he will self-destruct, and that he will turn against Xavier and the X-Men, we don’t know what he will do next. When he finally does confront his nemesis Sebastian Shaw (well-played by Kevin Bacon), Magneto trembles with hate, and in the moment he finally kills Shaw, the last of his hope drains from his eyes. In the final shot of the film, as Fassbender stands wearing his somewhat helmet—another one with antlers, as it were—the effect isn’t silly or funny. It’s downright blood curdling.
11 Jack Nicholson, Batman
Nicholson scored one of the highest paydays in history to don the green hair of the Joker in Batman. Estimates place his compensation between $60-90 million, and that was in the 1980s! Considering how much money he raked in, it’s a damn good thing Nicholson didn’t phone in his performance like some other reluctant superhero movie stars. Rarely, if ever, has an actor had more fun in a film. Nicholson gets to indulge in the Joker’s murderous psychosis, and in his flamboyant, goofy humor.
Batman suffers from the same affliction as Batman Returns: the Joker is the real protagonist, not Batman. Still, the movie offers a lot of fun courtesy of Nicholson’s antics. Viewers should also note the contextual daring of his performance. Remember, in 1989 Hollywood, and the world at large didn’t take comic book films seriously. For Nicholson to play the Joker with such sincerity and directness, not to mention avoiding the temptation to mug for the audience, was a bold and brave move. Had Batman flopped, his career would have taken a major hit for making what the world perceived as a kiddie villain into a psychopath. Lucky for all of us, the movie succeeded.
10 Natalie Portman, V for Vendetta
Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her work in Black Swan, though fans looking for her best performance should remember the fifth of November!
V for Vendetta caused a stir as a graphic novel, and again as a film due in no small part to Portman’s harrowing work. The actress plays Evey Hammond, a middle-class woman living in a fascist Britain. Her life changes when she encounters the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving), a masked freedom fighter bent on overthrowing the oppressive government regime. Later, when she helps V escape from government troops, he takes Evey to his underground lair. When she offers to join him in his effort, the film takes some unexpected turns to say the least!
Portman digs into her character with the same wonder, commitment and grit that made her a star in The Professional. Sporting some lean muscles and a shaved head, she has a most unusual chemistry with Weaving, who remains masked the entire film. The two nevertheless have a stirring affair. While the character V may have been the physical icon for legions of subversive fans—notably the underground hacker group Anonymous—it’s Evey’s plight they emulate. Portman makes her into something more that a layered character: she becomes an inspiration.
9 Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight
Commissioner Gordon is kind of a thankless role. After all, who wants to play the cop who stands around while Batman gets all the cool gadgets, dramatic scenes, and battles with supervillains? For that matter, who wants to watch that character?
Thank goodness Christopher Nolan had the wherewithal to cast Gary Oldman in the role, an actor so charismatic he could stand on screen reading congressional transcripts and make it fascinating! Nolan also affords Oldman the chance to shine, first in Batman Begins during a Batmobile chase, and even more so in The Dark Knight. A subplot about Gordon faking his own death to root out corruption in the Gotham PD takes center stage in the film’s second act, giving Gordon a chance to get in on the action. Oldman gets to show off his dramatic range too, in particular in a scene where Gordon pleads with the psychopathic Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart, also excellent) for his son’s life. The character’s function in the plot, therefore, becomes even more vital: while not a flamboyant character like Batman or the Joker, Gordon is the everyman, the very soul the titans battle for.
Oldman reminds audiences of something few superhero films remember: for them to be heroes, they need someone to fight for. Oldman, like Gordon then, becomes an unsung hero himself.
8 Ian McKellen, X2: X-Men United
Every great comic book film needs a great villain, and every great villain needs complexity to enthrall the audience. Moreso than any other villain in the genre—or any other performance (sorry Fassbender)—Sir Ian McKellen embodies the prototypical “gray” villain. That is, the kind of villain who just might have a point.
McKellen’s casting in 2000 with the first X-Men raised more than a few eyebrows. His film resume wasn’t exactly long, thereto known more for his stage work, earning raves for his performance in Amadeus, for which he scored a Tony Award, and a much-acclaimed production of Macbeth opposite close friend Judi Dench. McKellen had just nabbed an Oscar nomination for his performance in Gods and Monsters when director Bryan Singer cast him as the master of Magnetism.
McKellen, though, looked more frail and older than the traditional depiction of Magneto (truth be told, he wasn’t; Sir Ian was only 59 when he landed the part), and that he won the part over better-known actors Christopher Lee and Terence Stamp invited geeky outrage.
Then fans saw the movie, and the way McKellen’s thoughtful, conversational performance alternated between cheeky and chilling. Comic book artists rushed to redesign Magneto to resemble McKellen, who earned consistent raves throughout his run in the part. McKellen's return to the role in X2 earned him even more praise: Magneto had become more layered than ever before. Still ruthless, still power-hungry, he nevertheless helps save the X-Men, and his unpredictability adds a veil of suspense to the entire film. Simultaneously lovable and loathsome, McKellen’s Magneto is spellbinding: sometimes ruthless, sometimes gentle and always gripping.
7 Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man
Fans in love with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy might gasp to learn that Willem Dafoe, the series’ recurring menace Green Goblin/Norman Osborne, was actually the third choice for the part. Nicolas Cage had first shown interest, but withdrew his name from the casting list. John Malkovich was announced next, also to drop out later. Dafoe, having just earned an Oscar nomination for his creepy performance in Shadow of the Vampire, then stepped aboard the Goblin Glider.
Critics who attacked Dafoe’s performance as too over-the-top crazy miss the point: Green Goblin is supposed to be crazy, which is part of what makes him so appealing. Buried underneath unfortunate green chrome armor, Dafoe nevertheless manages to emote. His Jekyll/Hyde morphing testifies to Dafoe’s remarkable ability. Observe the way his face and posture change as he has a conversation with himself. Moreover, anyone who can wear Power Ranger style armor and cackle like a madman without looking silly is award worthy! Dafoe also makes the character sympathetic: he loves his son, and he even loves Peter Parker, but can’t help his own psychotic inclinations. That Dafoe even gets to turn up for cameos in the sequels—in some of those films most memorable moments—only underlines the greatness of his performance.
6 Frank Langella, Masters of the Universe
Fans of He-Man often overlook the fact that long before he became a staple of animated television on syndicated TV stations everywhere, He-Man had his adventures in comic books. In his first appearance, he was more of a Conan the Barbarian type character, and even fought a duel with Superman (Supes lost). Later, when Filmation began to produce the Masters of the Universe cartoon, He-Man took on his more familiar and kid-friendly qualities.
The 1987 live-action film Masters of the Universe split the difference, maintaining a number of He-Man’s animated qualities while also going for a more mature tone. The movie is less than stellar: it has a few wooden performances, and budget constrains show all around. At the same time, it does have one brilliant thing going for it: Frank Langella.
Langella, an electrifying stage actor, took the role of the cloak-clad baddie Skeletor as a present to his children, who loved He-Man. The role afforded the actor a rare opportunity to be absolutely vile on screen. Stomping through the halls of Castle Greyskull and reciting Shakespearian derivatives, Langella plays the role totally straight without a hint of condescension. His performance elevates B-Movie schlock into real entertainment, delivering a brilliant turn as pure evil.
5 Jackie Earle Haley, Watchmen
Comic book fans had always hoped for an adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons deconstructionist epic Watchmen, and when Warner Bros. announced a faithful, big-budget adaptation, all eyes fell to the casting roster. A number of actors had long-expressed interest in the project—most specifically in the role of Rorschach, the psychotic vigilante who narrates the piece. Robin Williams, Simon Pegg and Daniel Craig had all expressed interest in the role, which eventually went to Oscar-nominee and former child star Jackie Earle Haley.
Haley had an odd career: he’d first appeared as a kid in hit films like The Bad News Bears before drifting from the industry. In the 1990s, he drifted away from showbiz, working odd jobs (including pizza-delivery man!). Hollywood called again in 2006, and Haley had a hell of a comeback, scoring an Oscar nomination for his work in Little Children.
Haley’s turn in Watchmen only cemented his reputation as one of Hollywood’s great character actors. Haley didn’t shy away from the character’s loathsome qualities; audiences have no problem understanding why even Rorschach’s friends can’t stand to be around him for long. Most important, however, Haley exuded the character’s oozing anger, obsession, and, underneath it all, his utter pain. His is a daring performance, full of risks… the kind which paid off.
4 Danny DeVito, Batman Returns
In 1992, Danny DeVito got no love for his turn as the Penguin in Batman Returns. The actor even earned a Razzie nomination for Worst Supporting Actor. That’s unfair: DeVito gives a brilliant performance as a loathsome, obnoxious character. If audiences found him repulsive, that was the point!
When Warner Bros. and Tim Burton announced the Penguin as a new villain in their Batman sequel, all discussion turned to one actor: DeVito. The diminutive, stocky actor had already proven himself a dramatic talent with performances in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terms of Endearment, as well as a fine comedian with Ruthless People and his long stint on the sitcom Taxi.
As the Penguin, DeVito didn’t hesitate to relish the character’s grossest or most repulsive qualities, eating raw fish, grunting & clucking and spitting green slime down his face. He also walks the fine line between psychotic and neglected, which makes the character all the more tragic in the end. Deformed, abused and ignored, DeVito gives the sense that his Penguin could have been a great man under different circumstances. That only serves to make the character more frightening, more pitiful, and DeVito’s work all the more Oscar worthy.
3 Helen Slater, Supergirl
First things first: Supergirl, the epic 1984 attempt to revive the Superman film series, is not a good movie. In fact, it’s bad: horrendous, absurd, stupid, acid-in-the-eyes bad. The movie does however have one great thing going for it; something so wonderful, it deserved award recognition: Helen Slater, who plays the title role.
Slater had a short resume when she landed the part of Kara/Supergirl over hundreds of other actresses. The role proved demanding: much like Christopher Reeve, Slater underwent an extensive physical regimen which included stunt training and dance lessons. As absurd as the movie is, Slater rises above it all, playing a girl on the brink of womanhood, questioning her responsibilities as a superhero, and atoning for her mistakes (she left her pocket universe without a source of power…oops!). Her mix of pluck and determination makes her into a great heroine.
Slater’s performance, too, is all the more impressive considering the movie around her sucks. That she can stand opposite a bellowing Faye Dunaway (as the villainous witch Selina) and still hold her own is uncanny enough. That she manages to resist Dunaway’s penchant for upstaging costars with her scenery chewing—even as Ms. Dunaway swallows whole portions of the set and cast—is downright gobsmacking!
2 Michael Caine, The Dark Knight Rises
Michael Cane already has two Oscars, and is oft-cited as one of the best actors alive. His recent drift into bigger-budget fare should not discount his contributions to those films, or the range he shows in them.
Caine almost looked too young to play Alfred in Batman Begins; artists typically draw him as an elderly man, and Michael Gough’s wonderful turn in the Burton Bat-films seemed to reinforce the assumption. Still robust and limber, Caine had a very different take on the character in the Dark Knight trilogy. His Alfred acts less as an assistant than a co-conspirator; throughout the films, Alfred maintains a key function in all of Batman’s plots. Through it all too, Caine injects a paternal concern into Alfred—it’s not just that he’s a father figure for Bruce. Rather, Bruce is the closest thing Alfred has to a son.
Caine’s role in The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps briefer than his appearances in the preceding two films, but no less essential. In fact, he shines. Caine’s Alfred always had an air of judgment about him—he knows Bruce’s moonlighting as Batman is nuts. It’s when Alfred finally takes a stand against Bruce that Caine has one of his best moments. Overcome with feeling, he knows Bruce is on a suicide mission to fight Bane. Later, as Alfred weeps at the Wayne family plot, facing his perceived failure, he has an emptiness in his eyes. His life too, is over. It’s only after spotting two familiar faces in a Florentine café that he comes back to life. That Caine emotes in that scene without any dialogue—just a simple look—testifies to his talent as an actor, and the Oscar-worth of his performance.
1 Margot Kidder, Superman
Margot Kidder has had—let’s face it—a weird career. After taking some noted roles in the 1970s in films like Sisters, The Amityville Horror and of course Superman, she drifted into a series of lackluster movies. A bipolar episode in the 1990s did little to rehabilitate her career in the eyes of the public, though she still turns in entertaining supporting performances in genre films today. Without question, Superman remains the crown jewel of her resume, and with good reason: she’s Oscar worthy as Lois Lane.
In the part, Kidder radiates the kind of spunk and sass that make Lois a loveable character, not to mention a feminist icon. Her chemistry with Christopher Reeve sizzles; it seems that at any given moment, she might ravage Superman on the spot. It’s Kidder’s vulnerability though that elevates the performance to greatness. Her scenes falling from a helicopter or dying in an earthquake have a true terror thanks to her commitment. And of course, Kidder sparkles in her love scenes with Reeve. With tears streaming down her face and a quiver in her voice, the toughness fades away as Lois becomes a fragile, tender girl. Kidder displays awesome range in the film and her sincerity helped turn Superman into a phenomenon.
Can you think of any other Oscar-worthy performances that should have been on this list? Let us know in the comments!
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