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Superhero Performances That Are Practically Flawless

We're living in a golden age of superhero movies. They've never been more plentiful than they are right now — and most of them are, at the very least, pretty good. With all of these superhero movies dropping left and right, we're also seeing an abundance of great performances. Actors are more excited than ever to take on roles as heroes, sidekicks, and villains and bring their craft to bear on the world of comic books. As plentiful as superhero movies are these days and as generally solid as so many of them are, there are clear standouts, especially when it comes to performances. Outright miscasts these days are pretty few and far between, and we're also seeing many actors play these characters for extended periods of time over the course of multiple films. With all that in mind, it takes a truly special actor doing genuinely stellar work to stand out from the rest — but these superhero movie performances are practically flawless.

Robert Downey Jr. kickstarts a cinematic universe

Imagine the odds of Avengers: Infinity War bombing at the box office and you'll have a rough idea of how unlikely it seemed that Robert Downey Jr. could be a viable foundation for a superhero cinematic universe when he landed lead in Iron Man back in 2008. Still in the process of rebounding after years of personal issues that included jail time, Downey looked like a tremendously risky move — he wasn't a proven box office draw, his personal life had become more notorious than any role he'd taken on, and he'd never made a significant action movie. Nonetheless, director Jon Favreau insisted on RDJ getting a shot. It has, needless to say, paid off tremendously. 

There are few actors — not just in superhero cinema but in the history of film — that are as inseparable from their character as Downey is from Iron Man. He turned what could have been a stodgy Bruce Wayne ripoff into a smarmy, vulnerable, brilliant tech mogul whose journey from jerk to flawed, complex superhero has been one of the central linchpins of the sprawling (and hugely popular) Marvel Cinematic Universe. Whether he's cracking wise at the bad guys or trying to save the world and screwing up his life along the way, we'll never be able to get enough of RDJ's Iron Man. 

Christopher Reeve makes us believe a man can fly

When it comes to great superhero casting choices, you can't forget the original. Christopher Reeve was far from the first person to play a superhero on the screen — but he was absolutely the first to create an indisputably iconic superhero performance. Reeve embodies the classic incarnation of Superman perfectly, an embodiment of truth, justice, and the American way. He's so grounded and approachable without sacrificing the inherent inspirational quality a Superman performance requires. 

Admittedly, his appearances in later Superman films lead to diminishing returns, with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace remaining an all-time low moment for superhero cinema. However, those are easy to overlook, considering how incredible the first two films are. Superman: The Movie introduces us to Reeve's character perfectly, and the followup, Superman II, expands on that performance beautifully. There have been a number of Superman actors since Reeve, from Tom Welling to Henry Cavill, but even at their best they'll always be in the shadow of the flawless original.

Heath Ledger gives us a villain for the ages

Every hero needs a great villain and Christian Bale's Batman got to go up against an all-time classic in 2008's The Dark Knight. The movie's release came in the shadow of actor Heath Ledger's untimely passing a few months before it hit theaters. Moviegoers flooded theaters over opening weekend for a glimpse at an incredibly hyped performance from the late actor — and nobody could have been prepared for what they saw.

Ledger's Joker is an unhinged and calculating self-proclaimed agent of chaos. He seeks not to rule the world or destroy it, but force it to destroy itself. His weapons of choice aren't bombs and guns (though he does wield them with fervor), but paranoia and deceit. In Ledger's hands he becomes less a supervillain terrorist and more a force of nature, a natural counterbalance to Batman that has no choice but to exist.

The accolades speak for themselves. Ledger is one of only a small handful of actors to receive an Academy Award posthumously. He's also the first person to win an Oscar for a role in a superhero movie. His performance has gone on to, for better or worse, influence superhero cinema for years. Ledger's flawless Joker, simply put, changed the game.

Hugh Jackman guides Wolverine from his beginning to his end

Hugh Jackman could forever be tied to Wolverine solely based on the sheer amount of time he spent with the character. From 2000 to 2017, he appeared as Wolverine nine times, guiding the man also known as Logan from his film debut in X-Men to his final bow in Logan and along the way creating an icon of cinema.

The Logan we meet in X-Men hardly resembles the one we say goodbye to in Logan. Over the course of his tenure with the role, Jackman imbues Wolverine with a genuine pathos, a story that feels remarkably human as it evolves from film to film. Logan is, and has always been, a tragic character, and that Jackman is able to convey that even in the character's more ridiculous appearances is truly remarkable. Jackman has said he hopes somebody else takes up the role in the wake of his exit. While we'd hate to deprive future generations of great Wolverine movies, whoever plays the character next has to know they've got tremendously large claws to fill.

Gal Gadot embodies a hero we can believe in

A generation witnessed their version of Christopher Reeve's classic helicopter save from the first Superman film in 2017's Wonder Woman. The titular heroine, played as believably pure of heart to the point of occasional naivety by Gal Gadot, is told that making the charge across a battlefield known as No Man's Land will result in her certain death. Few have dared make the charge in a year. Those that did have perished. Without thinking twice, she charges right down the middle — she sees evil and recognizes that it's fundamentally wrong that it's allowed to exist in this world, so she takes it upon herself to stomp it out, even if doing so means her certain doom. It's the quintessential Wonder Woman moment, and at least half of the reason it works so well is because of the stellar Gadot.

Gadot embodies Diana of Themyscira perfectly. She's absolutely flawless in the role, embodying the inherent goodness of the character in a way that's almost shockingly organic, the kind of thing you'd think one couldn't act out if it weren't already part of who they are. It's hard to watch the performance and not feel inspired to go out and do more good in the world. We need inspirational heroes, and Gadot's Wonder Woman is among the greatest of a generation.

Michael B. Jordan makes us side with the villain

In a movie chock full of killer performances, Michael B. Jordan still manages to make the strongest impression as the villainous Killmonger in Black Panther. That's impressive when you consider he's acting in scenes with Angela Bassett and Chadwick Boseman. Jordan's Killmonger isn't simply memorable on the strength of his performance, but because of how Jordan differentiates him from the rest of the villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

All too often, the villains of superhero movies can come off as homogenous. Audiences have grown weary of interchangeable alien warlords and inter-dimensional beings who want to destroy the world for no reason other than the fact that they're evil. Killmonger is no such forgettable foe — he's a painfully human character whose backstory lends him a pathos that makes him so relatable that many viewers may find themselves siding with him over T'Challa. Killmonger is, after all, only a couple of adjustments away from being a protagonist. A villain who scares you because of how crazy they are is one thing. A villain that scares you because of how much you find yourself agreeing with them is far more effective, and Jordan accomplishes this in Black Panther. 

J.K Simmons steps right out of a comic book

Superhero performances are always subject to interpretation. There's a great deal of merit in a performer taking a character that has existed for decades and subverting them, changing their canonical behavior to better suit a story, and generally imbuing their take on the character into the performance. That said, there's also something special about a performance that plays as though the character has walked right off of a comic book page, and there's no better on that front than J.K. Simmons as newspaper mogul J. Jonah Jameson in the original Spider-Man trilogy.

Simmons' take on Peter Parker's perpetual workplace antagonist is note-for-note flawless. The bluster, the rage, the constant demands, everything you'd expect the character to be is there. Even the physicality of it is uncanny, with Simmons wearing Jameson's extremely specific and extremely weird haircut and mustache so naturally it's as though he was born with them. Even the rare vulnerable moments the character has are immediately undercut by his hypocrisy or stinginess. It's a hilarious take on one of the great supporting characters in comics, a performance so perfect that it can't be a coincidence that no other Spidey movie has even attempted to recast the role.

Michael Fassbender created a horrifically human villain

Magneto is one of the more notably complex villains in comics. He's a sort of precursor to Jordan's Killmonger, a person who comes from an extremely tragic background whose choices are entirely sympathetic if not still monstrous. In comics, the character is seen fighting alongside the X-Men almost as often as he is against them. Their goals are so very nearly the same — it's just the difference in their methods that makes Magneto a villain.

While Ian McKellen's take on the character is great and memorable in its own right, it's Michael Fassbender's performance in the soft-reboot X-Men films that brings out all of the character's magnificent complexity. Fassbender amplifies the character's tragedy, not for one second allowing us to buy into the myth of Magneto as purely villainous. The rage he instills in the performance is so raw and human that he manages to upstage McKellen's already excellent take on the master of magnetism. Magneto's path has been bumpy over the course of these films, but it's a testament to the strength of Fassbender's performance that we still find him sympathetic even in his worst moments. 

Loki is the perpetual thorn in the Avengers' side

Loki is complicated. His motivations are impossible to figure out, calculatedly so. He's pathologically manipulative. He seems to seek out opportunities for redemption simply so he may reject them and regress back into his old ways. Loki, as portrayed in the MCU, is a great character because he's a god saddled with baggage that is likely all too familiar to anyone watching these films. It's a tremendously complicated role, made effortlessly approachable by Tom Hiddleston.

From his first appearance in Thor, Hiddleston's performance as Loki is the stuff of greatness. As a classically trained dramatic actor working under a director with a passion for Shakespeare in Kenneth Branagh, Hiddleston elevates the trickster lord of Asgard to poetic heights, crafting a tragic villain we always hope will do the right thing...but rarely will. Hiddleston's Loki is a spiteful, scared, neglected boy who has grown into a rage-fueled man intent on using everything his family has taught him to ruin their lives. He gives Loki just enough soul to prevent the audience from fully turning on him, then immediately betrays that trust. That is, after all, what Loki does. Hiddleston has been making a god feel human since 2011, and the MCU is better for it.

Leticia Wright is the new supergenius on the block

Killmonger may walk away from Black Panther as its most memorable character, but Leticia Wright's Shuri steals just about every scene she's in. Like the kid sister to T'Challa that she plays, Wright never seems content to let her older castmates get all the attention.

There's a genuinely endearing hunger for attention to both Shuri as a character and Wright's performance. She's not only believable as a mega-genius who's helped make Wakanda into the advanced technological kingdom we see in the film, but also as a quippy prankster who never lets her responsibilities to her country get in the way of roasting her big brother (even if he is technically her boss). That Wright's hunger to make an impression works so perfectly in sync with Shuri being the younger sibling to a king — and taking every chance she can to steer the spotlight away from him — adds a depth of realism and humanity to a character who largely serves as comic relief. Black Panther is anchored by drama more than comedy and is often more serious than other MCU films. Luckily, Wright's performance as Shuri is there to liven things up and make a solid joke about her brother's shoes here and there.

Hayley Atwell demanded our attention

Chris Evans is terrific as Captain America, but let's face it — even Steve Rogers himself is happy to play second fiddle to Hayley Atwell's magnificent Peggy Carter. With her debut in Captain America: The First Avenger, Atwell creates a character so headstrong, so willful, and so inherently good that it's impossible to not understand what Steve sees in her. That he goes on to embody so much of that pure goodness over the course of his journey in the MCU is largely influenced by the time he spends with his first great love, and Atwell's performance makes that connection all the more powerful.

Peggy even proved so popular that Atwell ended up starring in the spinoff TV series Agent Carter, which ran for two seasons and chronicled Peggy's adventures as an agent of the SSR. It gave Atwell a chance to show us even more of what makes Peggy tick, and easily could have gone for another three or four seasons. Peggy Carter could have been a cheap plot device, a motivational love interest for Captain America. Instead, Atwell excelled so greatly in the role that the character took on a life of her own.

Wesley Snipes made superheroes cool

An actor can perform the same superhero role over the course of seven, eight, even nine movies, craft an empathetic backstory, and foster a connection with the audience and still fail to be as memorable as a character in a smaller role. Complex performances are great, but sometimes a superhero just needs to be cool — and there's no single superhero performance cooler than Wesley Snipes as Blade. Snipes has never been more watchable — or more quotable — than he is as the half-human, half-vampire slayer of the undead.

Blade has all the ingredients of a great character, from the tragic backstory to the compelling quest to the great villainous foils. None of that is what makes Snipes' Blade so memorable, though. You can't fake cool. You just have it, and Snipes' Blade has it in spades. From the killer outfit to the mean demeanor, the countless quotes to the awesome weapon of choice, Blade is one of the coolest movie characters of all time. A tremendously talented actor can make a one-note villain complex or take a complicated role and make the performance look easy. But no amount of talent can fake cool, and that's what makes Snipes' Blade singularly flawless.