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The Best Non-Marvel Performances From MCU Actors

Between 2008 and 2022, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has produced a staggering 30 feature films; from 2020 to 2022, nine streaming series and a pair of holiday specials were added to the tally. To create so much content, the pressure is on for Marvel to cast each of these projects with actors who bring legitimacy, talent and movie star name recognition to the genre-blending Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as the fortitude to return to these characters over and over again for everything from brief cameos to starring roles.

The MCU began with the news that Robert Downey Jr. had been cast as Tony Stark. It was risky at the time (Downey's well-chronicled substance-abuse issues had eclipsed his Hollywood career), but looking back now, was also emblematic of the bold risks Marvel was willing to take to get great actors and have them make the seemingly implausible feel thrillingly possible.

In the years since, Marvel has been fortunate enough to assemble a highly-accomplished stable of stars leading their projects. Some were household names before they became Avengers (or Avengers-adjacent); others have become household names as a direct result of their involvement with the MCU. Now the personifications of characters who appear on T-shirts and lunchboxes, it's important to remember that they are first and foremost accomplished thespians; below, a sampling of the one great role that will remind you that for these MCU stars, their greatest superpower remains their ability to act.

Robert Downey Jr.: Chaplin

A strong argument could be made that the MCU wouldn't exist in its current form without Robert Downey Jr.'s iconic performance as Tony Stark in the original "Iron Man." The actor was in the early days of rehabilitating his image, and despite hesitation from much of Hollywood over the nearly-unininsurable talent, Downey was cast over alternate choices like Timothy Olyphant and eventual "Iron Man 2" co-star Sam Rockwell. As the billionaire tech mogul-turned-armored superhero, Downey became a lynchpin of the Avengers saga; later, his character's death in "Avengers: Endgame" marked an emotional turning point in Phase 3.

What made Downey's substance-fueled meltdowns and relapses most frustrating for fans was that he had begun the '90s by giving everyone a glimpse at the immense talent he was seemingly throwing away. Working with director Richard Attenborough, Downey succeeded in bringing back to life "Chaplin," a hugely revered, still-controversial, iconic Hollywood star. Downey's turn as Charlie earned him his first Oscar nomination, critical raves, and seemingly put Hollywood at his doorstep — ask Downey today, and he'd likely be the first to tell you he wasn't ready for it yet.

"Robert Downey Jr. succeeds almost uncannily in playing Chaplin," wrote Roger Ebert in his review. "The physical resemblance is convincing, but better is the way Downey captures Chaplin's spirit, even in costume as the Tramp."

Chris Evans: Knives Out

When Chris Evans was first cast to play the role of Steve Rogers, it came as a surprise to many; Evans had already played the Human Torch in Tim Story's "Fantastic Four" films, and was the first major actor to embody two Marvel characters. All these years later, however, it seems absurd to imagine anyone who'd remember him more for playing Johnny Storm than Captain America.

Evans had also been establishing himself as a rising leading man with roles in such films as the Larry Cohen-written "Cellular," Danny Boyle's trippy sci-fi flick "Sunshine" and an underrated DC Comics-based film, "The Losers." But he was a full blow, MCU-powered star by the time he played the deliciously-named Ransom Drysdale in Rian Johnson's "Knives Out." Delivering a performance every bit as memorable as his beloved sweater, Evans showed his range personifying a smarmy, entitled rich kid miles away from Captain America's nobility. 

"It's a special treat to see him tear right into this rich-brat bit," said NPR. "Preternaturally handsome and cheerfully obnoxious, [Evans is] a one-man cable-knit charm offensive."

Mark Ruffalo: Spotlight

A Stella Adler-trained stage star, Ruffalo spent most of the '90s working his way into Hollywood via small roles in long-forgotten horror sequels. By the turn of the century, his collaborations with playwright Kenneth Lonergan would lead to his breakthrough performance in 2000's "You Can Count on Me," a performance that brought with it comparisons to Marlon Brando.

When Edward Norton fell out of favor with Marvel (which seemed to imply at the time that he wasn't a team player), Ruffalo followed Norton's 2008's "The Incredible Hulk" by taking over the role for 2012's "The Avengers"; he has been delivering both humor and pathos to the tortured scientist ever since.

With such a varied and enviable career, there are plenty of contenders for the actor's best non-Marvel role. Chief among them is the Academy Award-winning "Spotlight," which won the best picture Oscar in 2016 and earned a nomination for Ruffalo's turn as a dedicated journalist investigating abuse allegations against the Catholic church. In praising his work, the Chicago Tribune noted how "he brings some wonderfully lived-in behavioral details to his performance — the quick, terrier-like movements of the head and the bitten-off sentences."

Chris Hemsworth: Rush

It's crazy to think now, given how ubiquitous of a presence he's become, but Australian heartthrob Chris Hemsworth was a virtual unknown when he was cast as the almighty Thor — in fact, Marvel auditioned his brother as well

Once again, Marvel's casting instincts were correct, as Hemsworth made the character his own, injecting it first with Shakespearean authority and then with an exaggerated sense of comedy; to date, he is the only Avenger to earn a fourth solo movie (with 2022's "Thor: Love and Thunder").

Though his resume is shorter than some of his colleagues, he's still had opportunities to showcase his talents in non-Thor projects, the best of which when he played real-life Formula One driver James Hunt in Ron Howard's "Rush." The role made great use of Hemsworth's cocky swagger, allowing him to show a genuine vulnerability underneath. In Salon's review of the film, they praised the star's performance as a "revelation," observing that "he's charismatic and funny, not to mention physically impressive, but also brings some depth to a character who could have been cartoonish, hinting at the real-life Hunt's uncertainty and unhappiness."

Scarlett Johansson: Marriage Story

A former child actor, Scarlett Johansson was not only a Hollywood veteran by the time she was cast in her first Marvel project, she was also Oscar-nominated and considered one of the most bankable female leads in Hollywood thanks to films like Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation," Woody Allen's "Match Point," and Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige."

In 2010, Johansson debuted as duplicitous superspy Natasha Romanoff (aka Black Widow), then became a supporting player in the "Avengers" and "Captain America" films. Even though the character sacrificed herself in "Avengers: Endgame," Johansson finally got her own superhero spinoff movie two years later via "Black Widow."

Though no stranger to big-budget spectacle, Johansson has done some of her best work in smaller, mid-budget dramas. The best of these so far has been Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story," which sees her acting opposite Adam Driver as an artistically inclined couple going through a messy divorce. In addition to earning her one of two Oscar nominations in 2020, the film and performance were widely acclaimed. In his write-up for Reelviews, James Berardinelli praised Johansson for "giving the best performance of her career... expos[ing] every nuance of a character who loves the man she's leaving but can no longer stand the cage in which she finds herself."

Jeremy Renner: The Town

Although Clint "Hawkeye" Barton may sometimes be seen as a joke due to his reliance on the old-fashioned bow and arrow, you'd never know it from the gruff soulfulness that Jeremy Renner imbues in the character. 

Another veteran actor who had kicked around Hollywood for over a decade, often in less-than-classic films, Renner's big breakthrough came in 2007/2008 with the one-two punch of Andrew Dominik's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker." As has often happened with the MCU, Renner became the hot actor in Hollywood at the time, and Kevin Feige and crew signed him up.

After appearing briefly in "Thor," Renner's Hawkeye became a key element in the core Avengers team, returning for every sequel (besides "Infinity War") and eventually earning a "Hawkeye" spinoff series that had him training a potential replacement.

Though the Marvel films represent the most well known Renner performance far and away, his best is one he gave a year before becoming Hawkeye. That would be 2010's "The Town," the Ben Affleck-directed Boston thriller that cast him opposite Affleck as bank robbers scrambling in the aftermath of plans run amok. Renner nabbed his second Oscar nomination for the role and was heralded by critics like Roger Ebert. "[Renner's is] the most intriguing character," Ebert wrote. "He's a twisted confusion of behavior, a loose cannon on a team that requires discipline."

Samuel L. Jackson: Pulp Fiction

Few stars can lay claim to the phrase "acting royalty" quite like Samuel L. Jackson. One of the most prolific, well-liked stars in Hollywood, Jackson got in on the ground floor of the MCU, appearing in the first of many post-credits scenes as Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. The incredibly secretive organization was responsible for bringing the team together in "The Avengers," and Jackson has persisted throughout in a supporting capacity ever since. The character is finally set to take center stage in 2023's "Secret Invasion."

With a wide-ranging career and well over 100 acting credits on IMDb, highlighting a "best" Samuel L. Jackson role is daunting. But it's impossible to choose anything other than the film that made him a star overnight: Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction." 

Although Jackson has roles listed as far back as the '70s and '80s, and earned acclaim in a handful of projects like Spike Lee's "Jungle Fever," Tarantino did what no one had done before by creating a role that perfectly tapped into the soulful, sweet, scathingly furious turns Jackson could harness when a script called for it. Playing foul-mouthed, meditative hitman Jules, Jackson earned his first Oscar nomination, and frankly has never looked back. It's impressive how Jackson has maintained his star-powered momentum since the mid-'90s with no need for comebacks; today, he holds the record for the highest-grossing star in Hollywood history.

"Jackson has some crazily theatrical moments here," the Orlando Sentinel said in its "Pulp Fiction" review. "But what gives his performance its uncanny moral weight are the quieter beats when the character is mulling and regrouping."

Tom Hiddleston: The Night Manager

In order to justify bringing together Earth's mightiest heroes for "The Avengers," Marvel had to give them a villain worthy of teaming up against. They found him in Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who had made his debut as the God of Mischief in the previous year's "Thor." With an overzealous mean streak seeking to hide all manner of cosmic insecurities, Loki quickly became a fan-favorite character in the MCU, sticking around well after the Avengers defeated him and even getting a standalone Disney+ series.

Though he initially auditioned to play Thor, the English actor has gone on to make the most of the opportunities afforded to him. Perhaps the best display of this lies in Susanne Bier's mini-series "The Night Manager," a spy thriller that cast Hiddleston in the title role of a former hotel manager embroiled in international espionage. He earned an Emmy nomination for his trouble, giving a performance that IndieWire highlighted in their review, gushing that "there is such an incredible amount of nuance to Hiddleston's role... the triumph of an actor going above and beyond what's found in the script."

Don Cheadle: Hotel Rwanda

Tony Stark may have been the first hero that the MCU introduced, but his best friend and occasional sidekick Col. James "Rhodey" Rhodes has been there since the beginning — even if he looked a bit different at first. 

Originally played by Terrence Howard in "Iron Man," the Rhodey role was recast with Don Cheadle when Howard became the first major actor the MCU jettisoned. Cheadle has been War Machine ever since, teaming up on many of the Avengers' greatest adventures, and soon set to star in how own spinoff movie, entitled "Armor Wars."

From "Golden Girls" spinoffs to the Fresh Prince, Cheadle is another actor who has been around forever, and since the 1980s had slowly grown from a recognizable face to a household name. His breakthrough role (and his best) came 20 years after his first film credit, in 2004's "Hotel Rwanda," which cast him as Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hotel manager who housed over a thousand refugees against a bloodthirsty militia. The only thing more amazing than "Hotel Rwanda" being Cheadle's only Oscar nomination is that he didn't win for it.

"Cheadle, in his richest role since 'Devil in a Blue Dress,' burrows deep inside this complex man, who discovers in himself a strength he never knew he possessed as he faces the disillusion of all the "civilized" notions he believes in," wrote Newsweek in its review. "Neither Cheadle nor the film makes the mistake of deifying Rusesabagina — he's a pragmatic man, who finds his heroism step by step."

Paul Rudd: Living With Yourself

Marvel has a knack for taking beloved comedic actors (Chris Pratt, Kumail Nanjiani), getting them in terrific shape and casting them as superheroes. The same is true of Paul Rudd, who joined Marvel in 2015 as Scott "Ant-Man" Lang, aka Ant-Man and will lead his third film with 2023's "Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania."

Beyond Marvel, Rudd has plenty of killer comedic roles. The best, and one of the least seen, features two Paul Rudds: the 2019 Netflix mini-series "Living With Yourself," from "Little Miss Sunshine" co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

In the series, Rudd is cast as a loser who resorts to making a significantly improved clone of himself. The series was a modest hit with critics, including Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times. "Rudd makes great use of his inherent likability," Roper wrote, "his unique way of mining big laughs out of just a few words of dialogue, and his underrated dramatic skill set."

Benedict Cumberbatch: The Power of the Dog

For the role of Dr. Stephen Strange, the crippled neurosurgeon who becomes the MCU's gateway into the world of the mystic arts, Marvel needed an actor who could sell both the arrogance of a man who thinks he knows it all, as well as the confidence to take all kinds of magical misadventures seriously. Enter Benedict Cumberbatch, fresh off his modern reinterpretation of the classic detective in "Sherlock," whose Doctor Strange has since become a major player in the Avengers saga.

Cumberbatch has many snarky and/or tortured roles that could be considered his best, but it's one of his most recent that finds the actor reaching new heights of his craft. Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" sees the actor playing a ruthlessly mean-tempered cowboy with a deeply personal secret, and it garnered him a second Oscar nomination in 2022. Critics raved about the film, with Arizona Republic calling it "Cumberbatch's best performance yet," adding that "here he is commanding; of his surroundings, of the story and of our attention."

Chris Pratt: Moneyball

For a few years, Chris Pratt was best known as the chubby goofball from "Parks and Recreation." That all changed when James Gunn cast him as Earth-born space outlaw Peter Quill for 2014's "Guardians of the Galaxy." Seemingly overnight, Pratt went from being the comedic support to the handsome leading man, with prominent roles in everything from the "Jurassic World" franchise to a "Magnificent Seven" remake. He also continued to lead the Guardians, who are expected to see their final adventure with 2023's "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3."

Pratt's best performance predates his breakout with the MCU. In Bennett Miller's "Moneyball," he was cast in the small but significant role of real-life baseball player Scott Hatteberg, a mediocre catcher/first baseman who found himself a key target in general manager Billy Beane's unorthodox strategy to extract maximum value from players teams with higher payrolls had overlooked.

Pratt's work was singled out by critics such as The Independent Critic, who wrote of the film that "among the players, Chris Pratt leaves the strongest impression as a washed up catcher given new life by Beane as a first baseman."

Tom Holland: The Impossible

There was a lot of pressure riding on Tom Holland when he took over the role or arguably the most popular character in all of Marvel. He was closely following Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, had the added pressure of bridging a gap between Spider-man and the MCU, and was young enough that he'd be authentically embodying the teenager elements of Peter Parker, opposite stars like Robert Downey Jr. and Michael Keaton. 

Thankfully, the young British thespian had plenty of experience to build on, having begun his career with the 2012 Naomi Watts/Ewan McGregor film "The Impossible," still his best non-MCU work.

The film begins with one of the most powerful depictions of a tsunami ever filmed, this one in the service of a true story about a tourist family in Thailand trying to reunite after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Holland plays the son of the family, a role he shot when he was only 16 years old.  

"[Holland] does a wonderful job," wrote USA Today. "We feel his anxiety and terror and lament the terrible burden placed on him as he is thrust into adulthood."

Chadwick Boseman: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

From an actor's first role to his last, the sad conclusion to Chadwick Boseman's career at least brought fans one last remembrance of a flame extinguished far too early. 

In a relatively short career, Boseman had delivered chameleon-esque work as Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall, and his four-film stint as King T'Challa, aka Black Panther, inspired audiences the world over. Boseman led "Black Panther" to become one of the MCU's biggest success stories, and their first film to be a major player at the Oscars — made even more impressive by the posthumous revelation that Boseman had filmed many TChalla scenes while battling the colon cancer that would eventually take his life.

Based on a play by August Wilson, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was released shortly after Boseman's death, marking a powerful final screen performance. Playing a fast-talking trumpet player who clashes with the rest of his band, the noticeably-thinner Boseman was no less a powerhouse of dramatic energy. It served as a final reminder of just what a livewire he could be, resulting in a posthumous Oscar nomination

Rolling Stone raved that it's "the kind of performance — full of flirtation and fire, gumption and folly — that makes you wish you could see just what else the actor would go on to do."

Brie Larson: Room

It's an unfortunate truth that the MCU did not release a female-led film during its first decade; with 2019's "Captain Marvel," Brie Larson debuted as Carol Danvers, a fighter pilot whose exposure to a powerful alien energy gifts her with nearly limitless power. Larson was another former child star and Hollywood vet whose acclaimed work in films like "Short Term 12" got her noticed by Marvel, and whose participation in the MCU has brought with it a whole new level of fame.

Larson won an Oscar for 2015's "Room," the acclaimed film that cast her as a captive young mother forced to raise her son (Jacob Tremblay) in a confined space until they can escape. The film and performance were warmly received by critics, with Larson regularly cited as a highlight. 

"Larson has been threatening for years to truly break out, and 'Room' should be the film to make it happen," said Empire Online in its review. "She's so raw as to verge on unwatchable, the pain she conveys just too upsetting to sit with."

After making a strong impression in "Captain Marvel," Larson went on to appear in "Avengers: Endgame" later that same year; soon, she'll lead the sequel "The Marvels," in 2023. But if you want to see her playing a very different, but no less heroic woman, check out "Room."

Josh Brolin: Milk

From the moment the post-credits scene of "The Avengers" teased a greater force with which the heroes would need to eventually contend, fans knew that the MCU was gradually headed towards a massive conflict surrounding the Infinity Stones and the Mad Titan, Thanos. It took a special kind of actor to inject life into a largely CGI take on the character who would make half of all life disappear; veteran actorJosh Brolin proved more than up to the task, delivering a motion-captured performance of surprising nuance and pathology.

Brolin has been delivering increasingly outstanding performances since the 1980's, when films like "The Goonies" made him more than just the son of '70s heartthrob James Brolin. 

Though his grounded work in films like "No Country for Old Men" and "Sicario" deserve mention, his chillingly complex portrayal of Dan White, the man behind the Twinkie defense, is without equal. In 1978, the politician assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone and Supervisor (and gay rights pioneer) Harvey Milk; when Gus Van Sant and Dustin Lance Black set out to make the 2008 film "Milk" (casting Sean Penn in the title role), one of many brilliant moves they made was to cast Brolin as White, a disturbed man who sees political success as his birthright and finds himself desperate and deranged enough to do something hideous.

Brolin earned his first Oscar nomination for the role, as well as near-universal praise.

"Josh Brolin invests the creepy but pitiable White with a simmering desperation," wrote Newsweek. "His charged encounters with the man he will murder are some of the movie's strongest moments."