Greatest Superhero Movie Performances of All Time
March 4, 2017
As Hugh Jackman’s final Wolverine movie ‘Logan’ hits theaters, it’s time to look back at the top work in the genre.
No role in Hollywood is more scrutinized, and few can offer the type of onscreen immortality (or notoriety, depending on how the movie turns out). Michael Keaton’s casting in 1989’s Batman inspired nerd outrage before the Internet was a thing. Angry message board comments plastered the web when Heath Ledger was announced as the new Joker, and Ryan Reynolds’ first outing as Deadpool in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine appeared to have doomed the character’s big screen prospects forever. But they all prevailed.
With Hugh Jackman’s ninth and final time playing X-Men mutant Wolverine in Logan, it’s time to look back at 50 roles (some heroic, some villainous, but all of them super) that have helped show that even movies that rake in box office billions have room for complex characters and inspired acting choices.
Some of the actors on this list have played multiple comic book characters (but only one appears on this list twice). Many accomplished the impossible by taking on a role no one thought they were right for, while others took characters no one cared about and made them household names. Bonus points have been granted for actors who’ve managed to keep a character interesting over multiple movies (and sometimes, multiple decades).
“Perhaps the most important thing you have to learn from this is how to sustain the character over that time,” says Sir Patrick Stewart, who plays Prof. Charles Xavier for a seventh time in 17 years in Logan. “The best way of doing that … is finding development, progress in the character so you are not just repeating a formula with every movie.
“I’m known to be quite vexing,” Robbie’s Harley Quinn memorably threatened in trailers for Suicide Squad, but that proved to be an empty threat. Instead, she proved to be everything that a flesh-and-blood Harley should be: complex, funny, a little tragic and all kinds of trouble. Appropriately stealing every scene she was in, Robbie had a manic energy that felt just the right kinds of brittle, as if one wrong move — or cruel decision on behalf of Jared Leto’s Joker — could unleash all kinds of hell (or just snap her in two). It’s no surprise that she’s going to get a spin-off movie all her own: no-one else in DC’s cinematic universe feels quite as full of life.
Watch Suicide SquadCourtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Rebecca Romijn endured hours of makeup to make the character her own, but Jennifer Lawrence brought her to new heights with her performance in X-Men: First Class, which showed the humanity beneath the blue. Her Oscar win and rise to superstardom between First Class and Days of Future Past contributed to the character becoming the face of the franchise, which revealed a new layer to the core relationship of Xavier and Magneto by injecting Raven as a third party with a special relationship with both of them.Sony Pictures
It isn’t just that Andrew Garfield just looked more like the comic book Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire, although that’s certainly true. It was that his Spider-Man felt closer to the one fans had read for years, as well: nervously joking — and with bad jokes as often as not — instead of expressing how upset he was over the latest personal drama was happening to intersect with the supervillain of the moment. Garfield’s Spider-Man was simultaneously confident and unsure, cocky and angst-ridden, and exactly what the comic book character deserved. The only thing he didn’t have were the scripts to let him shine.20th Century Fox/Photofest
Ask fans what’s the most badass moment in the X-Men films and the answer you (should) get is the opening sequence to 2003’s X2 in which Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler teleports his way past special forces into the Oval Office, leaving a trail of downed bodyguards and blue inky smoke along the way. The scene is a beautifully shot, exhilarating opening to that rarest of treasures in Hollywood: a sequel that surpasses the original. Add in an emotional backstory of brainwashing for Nightcrawler’s alter ego, Kurt Wagner, portrayed with genuine ethos by Cumming, and you’ve got one helluva memorable X-Men appearance.Lionsgate/Photofest
When the protagonist of your superhero film isn’t yet all that super (sorry Kick-Ass, fighting isn’t your strong suit), it’s up to the side characters to carry the load. Luckily, Kick-Ass had a totally kick-ass protagonist in Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl. Moretz, who was just 13 when the film was released in 2010, surprised with her character’s foul mouth, penchant for extreme violence and acrobatic fighting style. There’s a reason she inspired years of Halloween and Comic-Con costumes.
One of Hollywood’s most talented actresses meeting one of Marvel’s most well-loved characters sounded like a homerun, but it took a few movies for it to work out. Halle Berry’s Storm was underserved in 2000’sX-Men, with this line considered a low point in X-Men movie history: “You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightning? The same thing that happens to everything else.” But Berry’s Oscar win in between X-Men andX2: X-Men United helped her Storm earn an expanded screen presence. Storm provided some of the more visually interesting action pieces of the franchise as well as some of its most poignant. Who can forget her rapport with Nightcrawler in X2, or her Sentinel battles in Day of Future Past? Berry’s Ororo Munroe truly became the badass team leader she was meant to be.Sony/Photofest
On the face of it, Ron Perlman had an almost entirely blank slate to work with when becoming Mike Mignola’s demonic demon-puncher. After all, Hellboy is a man of few words, and Mignola’s art also tends towards the less-is-more aesthetic. So it was fascinating to see what he brought out of the character: an everyday, put-upon attitude that made him surly and easily to relate to. Sure, he might be bright red and have a hand that’s far too big for anyone’s good, but really, he’s just like any other guy, you know?
From inauspicious beginnings as a femme fatale in Iron Man 2 that her treated more like eye candy in a Michael Bay movie than as a superhero, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov grew into one of the MCU’s best, thanks to her being given the screentime (and complexity) to shine in 2012’s Avengers. From there, she unexpectedly stole the show in Captain America: Winter Soldier and now has fans clamoring for a solo movie. Black Widow brings something no other Marvel Hero does. Cap is the professional, Tony is the attitude, but neither is both. Black Widow is that perfect mix of skill and bravado that makes her so fun to watch.New Line/Photofest
Two years before Fox’s X-Men helped pave the way for Marvel to become a box office juggernaut, Wesley Snipes toplined 1998’s Blade — about a half human/half vampire who hunts the undead — a surprise hit for New Line, earning more than $131.1 million worldwide. A lot of the credit is due to Snipes, who returned twice more, with the actor’s action chops making you believe a man really could make the night a safer place for us all. (And he didn’t look to shabby in those shades, either).Warner Bros./Photofest
Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy demanded plausible explanations for the Dark Knight’s many gadgets — and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox answered the call. Beyond providing Bruce with Tumblers and Batpods, he also helped give him a moral compass. Their charming banter added much-needed levity to the films, but more importantly, scenes like Lucius’ condemning Batman’s mass surveillance plan in The Dark Knight asked important questions about the role of superheroes in society years before Batman v Superman or Captain America: Civil War were doing it.Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest
Third time’s the charm for Bruce Banner. Eric Bana was a casualty of Ang Lee’s 2003 misfire Hulk, while Edward Norton was the second star to topline an MCU movie, only to exit the franchise after 2008’s The Incredible Hulk — a fine installment but one that’s largely forgotten. Just when no one thought The Hulk could truly work on the big screen, Mark Rufallo stepped into to the role for his best portrayal yet, thanks to clever mo-cap and the vulnerable likability the actor brings to both the big green guy and his human side.
The glue that holds the Marvel Cinematic Universe together, Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury is a masterclass in combining bombast and understatement. There’s almost no there there, but somehow SHIELD’s main man comes across as being cooler than you could ever hope to be — and better prepared in a fight, if it came to that — without even breaking a sweat. In a cinematic universe filled with big personalities, Jackson’s sly terseness lets him slip into the background while also dominating every scene he’s in. No wonder he’s the Marvel Universe’s top secret agent.Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest
A member of the monosyllabic half of the Avengers, Thor is the son of Asgardian king Odin and half-brother to the mischievous trickster Loki. Thor isn’t your average superhero, as if the word “average” could be applied to any on this list, but rather an actual god from the magical realm of Asgard. Chris Hemsworth was the perfect choice to play the god of thunder, able to pull off the look of an actual storm wielding Norse deity while also handling the hefty amount of humorous lines Thor is fed. Some of the best fun had with the character in his multiple film appearances are the hilarious fish-out-of-water moments Thor has as he adjusts to life on Earth among us mere mortals. Add in the fact that he wields one of the most iconic weapons in all of Marvel lore, the enchanted hammer Mjolnir, which only he can lift, and you’ve got one of the best heroes in the MCU.Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp./Photofest
Just a teenager (but already an Oscar winner) by the time she played Rogue, Anna Paquin more than held her own in scenes with future superstar Hugh Jackman and much more seasoned actors like Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. All of the X-Men were alienated from society, but Rogue literally was cut off from human contact, unable to touch someone without harming them. Even a flawed movie like X-Men:The Last Stand (with its unfortunate love triangle featuring Rogue, Iceman and Kitty Pryde) managed to give her one of the film’s most touching moment, with Rogue making the decision to take the “mutant cure,” proving the X-Men franchise’s moral complexity was well in tact.Photofest
It’s hard enough to take on a role made famous by another actor, but when you add in the fact that the “other actor” in question is the legendary Patrick Stewart and that he is still currently playing the character, well that’s almost unfair. Luckily, James McAvoy was able to carve out his niche as Professor Charles Xavier in the prequel series of X-Men films, starting with 2011’s X-Men: First Class. Playing an earlier version of the character, one not yet bound to a wheelchair and who hasn’t quite gotten the hang of being the guiding hand for wayward mutants, McAvoy offered a new vulnerability to the character, and also broke new ground in the way of follicles for Professor X. McAvoy’s portrayal was a bit more carefree and fun, at least in the first outing, then Stewart’s all-knowing telepath, yet the gravitas necessary for the character was there from the start. When he finally lost the hair and gained the chair, McAvoy didn’t miss a beat and it wasn’t difficult for fans of the series to see he was the correct choice to follow in the footsteps of Stewart’s days of future past — or something like that.Warner Bros./Photofest
There have been a lot of actors to don the cowl of the Caped Crusader, but Welsh actor Christian Bale really put his stamp on it. For three films, Bale and director Christopher Nolan redefined hero and pretty much set the bar for all superhero films that followed. Not only did Bale look the part by packing on pounds of muscle, but he made his Bruce Wayne, with a flair for lavish wealth-flaunting and womanizing, so far removed from the animalistic, growling brutality of his Batman that he truly stands alone as the actor who best distinguished the two parts of Wayne’s identity. Dark, realistic, gritty, and truly intimidating, Bale put the “dark” back in the Dark Knight.Kelsey McNeal/ABC
Peggy Carter is Marvel’s most beloved leading lady, with Hayley Atwell’s tough-as-nail British intelligence officer providing a throughline for multiple MCU projects. How cool is it to see her kicking ass in her prime in ABC’s Agent Carter, or at the height of her influence as a SHIELD big wig in Ant Man’s or as an elderly woman reuniting with her long lost love Steve Rogers in Winter Soldier? In a world where superhero love interests are largely inconsequential, Peggy Carter’s relationship with Steve continues to mean something, even decades later.Murray Close/Twentieth Century Fox
While his counterpart, James McAvoy, got to revel in the more carefree aspects of his character’s past in the X-Men prequels, Michael Fassbender’s Erik Lensherr, the man who would become Magneto, had the difficult task of overcoming the much fresher pain of his internment during the holocaust. Just as so many others on this list had to do, Fassbender was beset with the near-Herculean feat of matching Sir Ian McKellan’s performance as the most magnetic of all X-Men foes. Fassbender, no acting slouch himself, rose to the occasion and slipped into the red and blue helmet like he was born for it. The raw emotion of the character is felt in each performance by Fassbender, whether it be his desire to see Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) reveal her true self in X-Men: First Class or the gut-wrenching loss of his wife and daughter in X-Men: Apocalypse.Screengrab/Movieclips Trailers
Who could possibly steal the show from superhero royalty who have each been playing their characters for 17 years? In Logan, Dafne Keen’s X-23/Lara manages to more than hold her own in scenes with Patrick Stewart’s Prof. X and Hugh Jackman’s Logan, making you truly believe the impossible: that the X-Men franchise can be as vital as ever without resorting to time travel gimmicks or timeline reboots. She’s badass and vulnerable, with Keen undoubtedly delivering the finest performance by a child in a superhero movie ever.Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest
In retrospect, it only makes sense that a God of Mischief would be able to steal a movie away from his brother on two occasions. But if anyone had suggested ahead of 2011’s Thor that Loki — traditionally a vengeful old man in the comic books — would end up being not just the most memorable character in the movie, but also challenge Chris Hemsworth as the dreamboat breakout star, most fans would have assumed they were a God of Lies themselves. All credit goes to Tom Hiddleston, then, for bringing some fun and empathy that fleshed out the malice behind Loki’s plans, and setting him up not just as the obvious choice to take on the Avengers in their first movie, but as the most memorable Marvel onscreen villain to date… a title he still holds, all these years later.
Have you ever been watching an old rerun of Parks and Recreation, seen the amiable, chubby Andy Dwyer and think, “That guy’s a movie star?” Well, you can thank The Guardians of the Galaxy and Chris Pratt’s charming work as the puckish Peter Quill (who really wishes everyone would call him Star-Lord) for the actor’s meteoric rise to the A-list. What makes Star-Lord so great, other than his impeccable taste in classic rock, is that he’s not really a superhero at all. He’s just a kid from Earth, stolen from his home planet and raised by a group of alien space pirates. Okay, so he may or may not have a mysterious family lineage, but regardless of his genealogy, Star-Lord is undoubtedly super-powered when it comes to being cool. We’re talking Han Solo levels of cool. Whether he’s wooing primary-colored alien babes or guarding the galaxy with the help of a talking racoon and a humanoid plant creature, Peter Quill is one of the most punk rock heroes to ever make it onscreen.Joe Lederer/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
First impressions aren’t always a good indication of how you’ll feel about a character. Case in point, Ryan Reynold’s first appearance on the big screen as Wade Wilson in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Sure, the film took the character who is known colloquially as the “Merc With a Mouth” and LITERALLY sewed his mouth shut, but that was only to light the fire under Reynold’s behind hot enough to spend nearly the next decade pushing for his passion project. It turned out waiting was a good thing, as 2016’s Deadpool lit up the box office (it earned over $780 million at the global box office, making it the highest grossing X-Men movie of all time) and earned a surprising number of major awards nominations, including best comedic actor and picture at the Golden Globes. What’s more, it solidified Reynolds as an A-list movie star and made it clear that he was to the character of Deadpool what Hugh Jackman was to Wolverine and Robert Downey Jr. is to Iron Man. And all it took was maximum effort.Zade Rosenthal/Marvel 2016
It seemed unlikely a character accused of being an overgrown boy scout could catch on — and the guy who starred in the ill-fated Fantastic Four series was going to play him? But Chris Evans’ embodied both physicality and morality of the Star Spangled Avenger, elevating what could have been a corny concept into the heart of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Who would have guessed the Captain America trilogy would outshine the three Iron Man films when taken in total? But thanks to Evans and entrees like The Winter Soldier and Civil War helped Marvel explore things that hadn’t been accomplished in superhero movies before.Warner Bros./Photofest
Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane was the perfect foil for her Man of Steel. She felt as imperfect as Superman was ideal; scattered and impatient against Superman’s cool, calm demeanor, the two seemed like opposites attracting with one important exception: they never, ever gave up trying to do what was right. Kidder didn’t just bring a comedian’s timing and sense of spontaneity to the role, she brought the kind of determination that made it obvious why Superman would fall in love with this particular Lois. After all, who didn’t?
Watch Man of SteelTwentieth Century Fox Film Corp./Photofest
Before Magneto, superhero movie villains were driven by greed. They were driven by violence. They were driven by their own insanity. Magneto, in the hands of Ian McKellen, transcended those base motivations, with the carefully crafted character (first glimpsed as a boy at Auschwitz), was a civil rights activist driven to terror, a man who acted not for himself, but for his people. His relationship with Prof. X is one of the deepest in film history, cultivated over 14 years and four films (plus one cameo), with the real-life friendship between McKellen and Stewart seeping through in scenes like this one, which saw them united just before their deaths in Days of Future Past.Columbia Pictures/Photofest
The debate over which actor brought Peter Parker and his web-slinging alter ego to the big screen best is one of much contention, but one thing that cannot be argued is the success of the Tobey Maguire films that brought the superhero genre, and Marvel’s superheroes, to the box office promised land. Over the course of three films — two of which were highwater marks for the time and a third one that, well, existed — Maguire’s Spider-Man went toe-to-toe with a genuinely spooky Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), a relatable villain in Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) and a trio of disappointing baddies in the Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), new Goblin (James Franco) and Venom (Topher Grace — seriously, Topher Grace). What made Maguire’s Spidey so great, though, wasn’t how he portrayed the soaring superhero, but rather the humanity and downright dorkiness that was his Peter Parker, the “man” half of Spider-Man. While Maguire didn’t have quite the wit of his comic counterpart or later movie Spider-Men, he did convincingly pull off a hapless high school loser who loved his neighbor Mary Jane and knew that “with great power comes great responsibility.”Warner Bros./Photofest
The Catwoman of Batman Returns is complicated, contradictory and a million miles from the sex kitten (pun only slightly intended) that most people had in their minds about the character from previous appearances. Thank Michelle Pfeiffer, who took a screenplay from Daniel Waters and ran with it, turning in a performance that’s all over the place in the best way possible. Sexy, smart, disturbing and utterly compelling, Pfeiffer’s Catwoman is as much a commentary on the way women were (are) forced to appear in genre fiction as she is a supervillain.
Watch Catwoman 2003Warner Bros./Photofest
Before Robert Downey Jr. was making $50 million a picture, Jack Nicholson proved superhero movies could be an actor’s cash cow, with his massive deal for 1989’s Batman becoming the stuff of Hollywood legend. Nicholson’s Mr. J inspired pandamonium among fans, so much so that no one thought his performance could ever be topped. Critics have argued his Joker is just Jack Nicholson playing an amped up version of Jack Nicholson. Perhaps this is a case of an actor truly being born for the role, but whatever the reason, the amount of energy, fun and insanity Nicholson brought to the film helped elevate the comic book genre to new heights just as the Superman franchise was faltering.Warner Bros./Photofest
Michael Keaton was the Batman fans expressly didn’t want: after the announcement of his casting, comic book readers complained that he was a comedy actor, that he wouldn’t be able to pull of the physical demands of the role, that he was too short — and then 1989’s Batman was released, and the complaints immediately stopped. Intense, slightly crazy and the originator of the husky-mumble-as-vocal-disguise that would thereafter be the must-have for all Batmen, Keaton took Batman more seriously than anyone expected, and in doing so, sold the mainstream on forgetting about Adam West altogether.Photofest
Even before Sir Patrick Stewart took over the wheelchair, it was clear to X-Men fans the world over that he would make an ideal Charles Xavier. His multi-year run on Star Trek: The Next Generation had ably demonstrated that he could bring a warmth, authority and charm to the founder of the mutant super team, while also being able to handle the more outrageous concepts and names of a franchise that included characters called The Blob and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. For the last 17 years, he’s repeatedly demonstrated that he was more than up for the job, offering a version of the beloved character that just might be — whisper it — better than the comic book original.Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Photofest
Atlanta rapper and Outkast frontman Andre 3000 once asked, “What’s cooler than being cool?” The answer to that query, even if he didn’t know it then, is Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. A genius billionaire playboy philanthropist with a closet full of flying metal suits who counts among his closest friends a Norse demigod, a World War II veteran super-soldier and a world-renowned atomic physicist who can transform into a hulking green anger monster, Stark also has the distinction of being the only superhero played by Robert Downey, Jr., whose offscreen life blurs the line between artist and subject. Stark is ultra-suave, handsome, witty and a technological genius able to create mind-blowing inventions in a cave, with a pile of scraps. Stark is far from a one-note playboy, however, as he has evolved over the course of seven films (so far — he’s slated to appear in both Spider-Man: Homecoming and Avengers: Infinity War) into a deeply compassionate hero who loves his friends, is a stoic defender of what he thinks is right and is a sufferer of panic attacks. The last one might not seem as cool, but if Iron Man himself has issues with anxiety, then that certainly makes it easier to cope with for the rest of us.
Of all the memorable characters, actors, and performances on this list, only one was deemed worthy of an Oscar. Heath Ledger’s Joker has become the performance upon which all other superhero actors are judged, as the Australian actor’s 2008 turn as the sinister jester is the only Oscar-winning portrayal in the history of the genre. And it was well-deserved. Ledger had no easy task set out for him when he took the role of Batman’s top adversary in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Jack Nicholson’s 1989 performance had already solidified the Shining star as the Clown Prince of Crime in many fans’ eyes, and Ledger’s resume at the time of his casting didn’t exactly scream “The Joker.” However, despite the early protestations by critics of the fanboy variety, Ledger went on to completely blow audiences and critics away with a portrayal that played up the character’s detached psychosis and gleeful anarchistic sensibilities. Ledger commanded the screen in every scene he was in, spawned countless catchphrases (“Why so serious?”), and elevated an entire genre from blockbuster fare to serious Academy contenders.
No actor can claim greater ownership of a comic book movie role than Hugh Jackman, who through seven starring roles, two cameos and 17 years has pioneered what it means to be a modern superhero actor. The X-Men franchise hasn’t always got it right (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but Jackman has weathered the good and the bad. Jackman’s Wolverine is decidedly more charming than the comic book iterations (those close to Jackman say it’s impossible for the actor’s natural charm not to shine through), but that didn’t take away from him becoming so intertwined with the character that it’s hard to remember where comic book begins and Jackman ends. With Logan, which sees him play an older, vulnerable version of the character, Jackman leaves on the highest of notes, something nearly unheard of for a Hollywood star in a longterm relationship with a character. Snikt! Indeed.
Watch X-Men Origins: Wolverine