10 Best Comic Book-Based Movie PERFORMANCES of All Time1 of 12With Deadpool breaking box office records left and right, largely thanks to a star-reinvigorating turn by Ryan Reynolds in the title role, fans are expressing almost unprecedented demand for the character, with petitions circulating to have Deadpool – not Reynolds – host Saturday Night Live and receive a statue in Reynold’s hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan.
And that got us thinking about the other comic book movie performances that truly captured the characters in a live action format. Not just the ones that felt like a character leapt onto the screen, but the ones that really caught the essence, and the spirit of what they were portraying.
With that in mind, Newsarama thought we'd take a moment to examine the standard-bearers of comic book adaptation acting. Scouring through comic book movies from the last several decades, we polled our staff and picked out 10 performances that are downright heroic. There are a few latecomers, a few from one franchise, and definitely a few that you (and we) may not think of at first. These are the ten best performances by an actor or actress in a comic book movie.
CHRIS EVANS - JENSEN2 of 12Why It's a Great Performance: The lifetime achievement award for comic book movie appearances goes to Chris Evans with roles in two Fantastic Four movies, Scott Pilgrim, The Losers, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, Thor: The Dark World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America; Winter Soldier, Snowpiercer, voicing Casey Jones in TMNT, and the super-powered (and later turned into a comic book) Push.
Singling out one of his many quality comic book performances is an interesting proposition, with his most recent performances as Captain America are definitely standouts amongst his many roles. But we give him the nod, and the spot on this list not for the joint achievements or his highest profile one. No, we give it up for Jensen, the brainy and zany member of the special ops squad that makes the A-Team look like a Cub Scouts troop. He came right off the pages of Andy Diggle and Jock's comic book, and still made the role his own, with a sarcastic wit coupled with a unique optimism that we haven't seen from Evans in anything else.
Signature Moment: Jensen puts both hands up, making gun shapes out of his fingers, and tells the bad guys of experiments and mind powers. As he aims at one and yells gun noises, Cougar uses a high-powered and long-ranged sniper rifle to take down the thugs he points at. It's the perfect mix of lethal and laughs that makes Jensen, and Evans, so great.
MICHAEL ROOKER - YONDU UDONTA3 of 12Why It’s A Great Performance: Chris Pratt may have been the lead in Guardians of the Galaxy, but Michael Rooker may have been – and had – the most fun as his surrogate father/space pirate Yondu. It may not have been the film’s meatiest role, but Rooker took it and ran with it, making Yondu a standout in a film full of excellent characters.
Bringing his archetypal charm to the leader of the Ravagers, Rooker balanced a sense of fun with an oddly unsettling dark side – cannibalism anyone? – that made Yondu a unique kind of anti-hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fortunately, Rooker is reprising his role in the sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
Signature Moment: Is there a better example of the complex charm and menace that Rooker brought to Yondu than his negotiations with the Broker? Yondu’s threatening demeanor is undercut by his enthusiasm for the knick knacks he so loves to display in his personal ship, showing off the dichotomy of almost childlike playfulness and cold ruthlessness that Rooker embodied as Yondu.
SCARLETT JOHANSSON - BLACK WIDOW4 of 12Why It’s A Great Performance: Though she hasn’t gotten her own solo movie (despite the fan demand), Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is still one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most well developed characters, thanks in large part to ScarJo’s ability to be vulnerable and human while still kicking ungodly amounts of ass.
Alternatingly icy and open, Johansson’s take on Natasha Romanoff is true to her comic book counterpart while still finding new ground as a definitive female hero for a generation of fans. The heart of the Avengers, Johansson’s Black Widow is the ultimate supporting player, and being pitted against her closest on screen allies, Captain America and Hawkeye, in Captain America: Civil War should only bring more depth to the fan-favorite character and give Johansson even more room to spread her dramatic wings.
Signature Moment: After seeing her kick ass through most of two movies, it was a quiet moment in Avengers that truly showed what Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is capable of. As Loki calmly picks apart Black Widow’s past, excoriating her over the “red in her ledger,” Widow becomes more and more upset, allowing Loki to believe he’s cut her to the core. Widow takes the ruse just far enough, allowing Loki to reveal his plans before disarming Loki entirely with a wry smile – who else has the gumption to trick the trickster?
TOM HIDDLESTON - LOKI5 of 12Why It's a Great Performance: When he was cast in as the all-important villain in Thor, Tom Hiddleston was a relatively unknown actor. But instead of being overshadowed by the film's cast filled with Oscar-winners like Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman, he stole almost every scene in which he appeared. He was such an understandable tragic figure, in fact, that there were a few moments where we kind of wanted poor Loki to win.
The key to his success? His portrayal made the god-like Loki seem real, and even human. And while he may have pulled upon his Shakespeare experience when he played the mythological family tragedy of Thor, Hiddleston seamlessly transitioned into the wit and humor of his scenes in The Avengers.
Signature Moment:Thor and The Avengers both showcased Hiddleston's embodiment of Loki more than once particularly when the villain was in captivity within the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, successfully stirring up mischief with everyone from Black Widow to Hulk.
But we thought the greatest demonstration of his acting abilities was toward the end of The Avengers, when Loki was confronted by his brother atop Stark tower. He actually had us convinced that he was being sincere, but instead stabbed Thor in the side. "Sentiment," he said with a tear in his eye.
J.K. SIMMONS - J. JONAH JAMESON6 of 12Why It's a Great Performance: Sometimes, a great performance in a comic book movie is all about subverting expectations. Adding layers that an audience never previously recognized in the source material; highlighting a central truth to the character that was previously hidden.
J.K. Simmons, as J. Jonah Jameson in all three of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man films, did not do that. Instead, he personified the four-color version of Peter Parker's boss in eerie fashion, literally bringing the beloved decades-old supporting character to life.
The role was so well-received that Simmons extended the role to a vocal performance in the current Ultimate Spider-Man animated series (and a cameo on The Simpsons. Many fans suspected the character didn't appear in the Amazing Spider-Man franchise largely because Simmons' would have been impossible to recast.
Signature Moment: Pretty much any scene he's in has a consistent quality (when the trilogy often did not), so let's just go with his original one in 2002's Spider-Man, as that had the benefit of having the initial wow factor to it. But quit reading this, and bring us pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!
HUGH JACKMAN - WOLVERINE7 of 12Why It's a Great Performance: Wolverine had been in a lot of comic books by 2000 (and many more now), so fans knew a good deal about the character by the time the first X-Men film came out: For one, he's short. For two, he's Canadian.
So... how about casting a 6'2" Australian in the role?
Instead of revolting, often-persnickety comic book fans have wholeheartedly embraced Jackman in the role for six (seven if you count a particularly memorable cameo) films, with another on the way as Jackman reprises the role one final time for another Wolverine solo film.
Jackman has become Wolverine, nailing both the ferocity, nobility and oft-hidden (but nonetheless genuine) soft side that has defined the character, embodying the qualities that's made him overwhelmingly popular for decades.
It also helps that Jackman himself seems to love being Wolverine, and that it's profoundly different than most other roles played by the actor, who has a background in musical theater -- something that Saturday Night Live has even picked up on in a recurring bit.
Signature Moment: His rampage in X2 is Jackman's best action scene, but we'll go with Wolverine telling Cyclops in the original X-Men what he's likely longed to say for years in the comics, but couldn't due to content regulations: "You're a dick."
RYAN REYNOLDS - DEADPOOL8 of 12Why It’s A Great Performance: It’s hard to imagine anyone but Ryan Reynolds being able to capture all the bizarrely diametric aspects of Wade Wilson and bring them together into a fully formed performance. Maybe it’s because Reynolds had years to sit on his love of the character, fully boiling down everything he wanted to bring to the role, or maybe it’s just Reynolds’s sheer love of Deadpool, but Reynolds fully became the Merc With a Mouth, showing off his slapstick, menace, and heartfelt agony with equal aplomb.
Reynolds even proved he had the character down pat before a single fan saw the film, portraying ‘Pool in one of the most widely celebrated advertising campaigns in superhero movie history. By the time the first screenings were taking place, fans were already intimately acquainted with Reynolds’s Deadpool. And like Paul Reubens or Andy Kaufman before him, Reynolds has truly become his character, still appearing as Deadpool almost more often than he does as himself at this point.
Signature Moment: In the lead up to Wade’s sickening transformation into Deadpool, he confronts a pizza guy who has been stalking a young acquaintance of Wade’s. Effortlessly blending menace with dark humor, Reynolds, as Wade, scares the bully off for good – while still making everyone in the room laugh. The scene showed that Reynolds could portray Deadpool – the real Deadpool – before he even wore the mask.
GARY OLDMAN - COMMISSIONER GORDON9 of 12Why It's a Great Performance: There are two kinds of actors in Hollywood: movie stars and character actors. In rare instances, movie stars can submerge themselves in a character, but more often the lines are clear.
The Batman trilogy's Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman gave wonderfully appealing performances, for instance, imbuing the three films with substantial gravitas. But both played basically extensions of their own familiar and iconic personas. We loved Alfred and Lucius Fox because they were everything we like about Caine and Freeman.
Gary Oldman, on the other hand is a true character actor and one of if not the best in the business, perhaps the closest thing Hollywood has to a Meryl Streep with a Y chromosome. Oldman recreates unique, distinct beings in every role he plays, including some iconic, over-the-top genre villains early in his Hollywood career. And while Jim Gordon is one of his less showy roles, it's the quiet dignity he manages to embody in Batman's one true friend that makes it such a fine, subtle performance and the glue to the film series.
Signature Moment: The entire performance from Batman Begins to The Dark Knight Rises rings true from start to finish, but Gordon assisting Batman in the Tumbler and him returning from presumed death and emerging from the truck to help subdue the Joker stand out as fun moments were he got to flex his acting muscles a bit in action scenes.
ROBERT DOWNEY JR. - TONY STARK/IRON MAN10 of 12Why It's a Great Performance: And while Gary Oldman is a true character actor, Robert Downey Jr.'s performance as Tony Stark in the Iron Man films and The Avengers is the very definition of the Hollywood movie star turn.
RDJ isn't so much as an embodiment of the classic comic book Tony Stark as the actor instantly bringing to life the Tony Stark that Marvel readers suddenly realized they wished the comic book version always was.
His kinetic, hyper-witted, self-effacing-yet-ultra-cocky Stark is mostly just Downey Jr. being Downey Jr., but rarely has a marriage between a role and a actor's natural charisma been such a match made in Stan Lee's heaven.
Key to his massive appeal is that Downey Jr. knew enough to revel in simply being Stark and Iron Man in the first Iron Man and The Avengers. The pure joy he clearly had in being himself was infectious. Due to a script misstep, Downey and director Jon Favreau let that slip away in Iron Man 2. Being both Stark and Iron Man became burdensome, a major reason why that film came off as dour and soulless compared to the other two. Luckily, the focus came squarely back to Stark with the third movie, and he has at least two more tries - in the next two Avengers films - to nail it again.
Downey Jr.'s performance utilizes a different skill set than they Oldman or the next guy in our countdown, but its no less than impressive. He's the life of a now multi-billion-dollar party and fans don't seem ready to go home yet.
Signature Moment: As we've previously mentioned in our countdown of the Best Comic Book Films of All-Time, his very first. The opening moments of Iron Man where Stark playfully hangs out with the soldiers escorting him from his weapons test immediately set the tone for the character. As was the case with the star struck soldiers, the audience like was immediate. Downey Jr. simply grabbed moviegoers from get-go and placed them under his spell. (But yeah, jumping from suit to suit in Iron Man 3's climactic battle was pretty bad-ass, too).
HEATH LEDGER - THE JOKER11 of 12Why It's a Great Performance: The thing about Heath Ledger's chaotic, troubling portrayal of the Joker in 2008's The Dark Knight is that, for months before the first image of the character was even released, Warner Brothers built the kind of legend around Ledger's performance that a lesser actor would never have been able to make good.
As the months leading up to the film went by, and both casual and hardcore fans participated in promotional scavenger hunts to be rewarded with even brief glimpses of Ledger in character, Warner Brothers, Director Christopher Nolan, co-stars Christian Bale and Gary Oldman, and even Ledger himself built a cult of personality around the Joker as a deranged terrorist, an anarchic force of nature that Bale's Batman couldn't begin to understand, let alone defeat. Stories of Ledger's supposed descent into madness while trying to fully embody the character still permeate conversation of the film, especially after Ledger's untimely death months before the film's release.
And you know what? Even with all that hype, all those stories, legends, and fan-speculation, Ledger managed to shatter expectations of what was possible in the confines of portraying an established character. Ledger fully embodied the Joker, disappearing not just behind layers of make-up and prosthesis, but behind odd, rickety movements, shifting eyes, a broken, disturbing voice, and the flick of a tongue. Ledger flat out became the Joker, not by aping what had come before, but by diving into the darkness and bringing it to the surface. The Dark Knight's Joker was a definitive performance from an actor who was already well-renowned for his ability to find the core of every character he portrayed.
Signature Moment: It's difficult to narrow down a single moment of The Dark Knight that truly defines Ledger's performance - he steals every scene he's in - but as good a choice as any is his confrontation with Aaron Eckhart's Harvey Dent, as the latter lays strapped to a hospital bed. Joker's bizarre bedside manner, his confession that he does what he does out of impulse and anarchy - "I'm an agent of chaos" - and his utter ambivalence at the possibility of death at Dent's hand (so long as whatever occurs solidifies Dent's transformation into Two-Face) all serve to truly offer a diagram of who this character is, and give Ledger the spotlight in one of the Joker's more intimate scenes.
Not to mention his nurse's outfit is pretty damn funny.
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