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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. 

Michelle Pfeiffer brings Catwoman to life

Everybody wanted to be Catwoman in the sequel to Tim Burton's 1989 megahit "Batman." Actress Sean Young famously staged a disastrous publicity stunt, appearing on the Warner Bros. studio lot, and later in an appearance on "The Joan Rivers Show," dressed in a homemade Catwoman costume. The role went to Michelle Pfeiffer instead, who at the time was known for films like "Married to the Mob," "The Witches of Eastwick," and her Oscar-nominated turns in "Dangerous Liasons" and "The Fabulous Baker Boys."

1992's "Batman Returns" has a tricky tone — darker and more brooding than the original, but also more campy and intentionally goofy, with a plot partially cribbed from the 1960s television series. Pfeiffer rides that tone perfectly, with a low, vampy purr of a voice and smoldering chemistry with star Michael Keaton, even with layers of latex and rubber between them. Released 25 years before the #MeToo movement caught fire, the film's portrait of a woman murdered by a powerful, untouchable man who sews herself back together for revenge has aged very well, and Pfeiffer's Catwoman is a razor-clawed, whip-cracking icon.

Alfred Molina is a sympathetic Doc Ock

British actor Alfred Molina had played his share of villains before 2004's "Spider-Man 2," from the treacherous Satipo in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to Snidely Whiplash in the 1999 live action "Dudley Do-Right" film. But as Dr. Otto Octavius, the kind scientist whose hubris transforms him into the deadly Doctor Octopus, Molina created a genuinely sympathetic monster with a complicated relationship to protagonist Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire).

Like Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) in the first "Spider-Man" film, Otto makes an emotional connection with Peter, acting as a surrogate for Peter's beloved Uncle Ben before his supervillain plans run afoul of Spider-Man. Molina excels in these early scenes, giving Peter life lessons and doting on his wife (Broadway star Donna Murphy), which makes his transformation into the tentacled Doc Ock all the more heartbreaking. Even at the height of his villainy, when he is tearing through an elevated train and threatening to kill Mary Jane and Aunt May, we still want to see Spider-Man save him rather than defeat him. It's a dynamic that was more or less repeated in 2021's "Spider-Man: No Way Home," the MCU entry that brought back the heroes and villains of Spidey films of the past.

Florence Pugh charms her way into the MCU

Oscar-nominee Florence Pugh has built an impressive career in a very short amount of time, from debuting opposite Maisie Williams in 2014's "The Falling" to captivating the film world with the 2019 one-two punch of "Midsommar" and "Little Women." The British actress made her Marvel debut in the 2021 prequel "Black Widow," playing Yelena Belova, the "sister" of Scarlett Johansson's Natasha Romanoff, both of whom were Russian orphans forced as children into the brutal Black Widow spy program.

Johannsson and Pugh have immediate familial chemistry as responsible big sister and snarky little sister, respectively. Many of the film's biggest laughs come from Yelena taking the wind out of Natasha's sails at every opportunity, whether about her famous superpowered Avengers friends or her fondness for cool poses. Underneath the humor, though, is a sisterly bond forged by trauma rather than blood. It didn't take long for Pugh to return to the MCU in the 2021 Disney+ miniseries "Hawkeye," which finds Yelena seeking revenge against Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) for Natasha's death in "Avengers: Endgame" and making fast friends with his protege Kate Bishop (Hailee Steinfeld). As Marvel moves into its next phase of storytelling, it seems that we'll be seeing a lot more of Pugh in the years to come.

Tony Leung brings grace to the role of Wenwu

"Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" might star Simu Liu and Awkwafina, but it's Tony Leung's Wenwu who threatens to walk off with the entire movie. While many MCU villains can be frustratingly straight-forward, Wenwu is a man of intense contradictions, with a history that stretches a thousand years into the past. He is at once an immortal warlord, a loving-but-stern father to Shang-Chi (Liu) and his sister Xialing (Meng'er Zhang), and a man so wracked with grief and love that he would endanger the entire world in order to see his dead wife again. With all that going on, it only makes sense that director Destin Daniel Cretton would seek out Leung, an icon of Hong Kong cinema perhaps best known for his work in the achingly romantic films of Wong Kar-wai, including "Chungking Express," "Happy Together," and "In the Mood for Love."

Leung brings a vulnerability to the character that keeps the audience from ever turning fully against him; like Alfred Molina in "Spider-Man 2," there's always hope that he will come to his senses, right up until his final moments. Leung's best scene is arguably his first, a lyrical, balletic fight against Li (Fala Chen), the woman who will become his wife. With little dialogue, the emotional journey is played out in Leung's physicality and on his face; in the end, he is both defeated and in love.

Josh Brolin's Thanos is the hero of his own story

MCU films have long had a villain problem. Where Superman and Batman are often defined by their charismatic bad guys, such as Heath Ledger's Joker or Terrance Stamp's General Zod, the MCU has an unfortunate habit of giving its villains too little to do before being dispatched at the end of the movie, never to be seen again. So when it came time to finally introduce the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) in "Avengers: Infinity War" after years of teases, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely came up with a novel workaround to the villain problem: make Thanos the hero.

Well, if not the hero, exactly, then certainly the film's protagonist. The journey of "Infinity War" is the journey of Thanos to complete his life's work, to collect all six Infinity Stones and use them to rebalance the cosmos by eradicating half of all life. Brolin plays Thanos, via motion capture, as a man certain of his purpose but weary at the toll it has taken. He struggles and bleeds as much as the actual heroes, and even though his victory at the end of "Infinity War" is a terrible defeat for the Avengers, there is a certain catharsis in seeing Thanos triumphant. "Avengers: Endgame" would, of course, undo his victory, and in the process make him a somewhat less interesting foe, but Brolin's soulful turn in both films is a high point for the MCU.

Ron Perlman makes Hellboy his own

Marvel and DC aren't the only game in town, either on the comic book rack or on the movie screen. The 2000s superhero movie boom that climaxed with the birth of the MCU included a pair of adaptations of the Dark Horse comic "Hellboy," written and directed by horror maestro Guillermo Del Toro and starring the Beast himself, Ron Perlman. A baby demon conjured from Hell by Nazi occultists and rescued by Allied forces at the end of World War II, Hellboy investigates supernatural matters on behalf of the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense alongside fiery love interest Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and erudite fish-man Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, voiced by David Hyde-Pierce).

In an era when motion capture technology has advanced to such a degree that Josh Brolin can give a masterful performance as Thanos from underneath layers of digital paint, "Hellboy's" practical makeup effects are a wonder in and of themselves. Perlman in particular seems custom-made for the role, both in physicality and personality, a hulking, cigar-chomping tough guy with a deep inner sensitivity. He inhabits the role so perfectly in the 2004 original and its 2008 sequel "The Golden Army" that it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing the part; the 2019 reboot starring David Harbour plays like a pale imitation of Perlman's brilliance.

Micheal Keaton delivers one of the MCU's best twists

When Peter Parker (Tom Holland) nearly destroys a Staten Island Ferry while fighting winged villain the Vulture (Michael Keaton), his mentor Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) chastens him for being irresponsible and takes away his fancy Spider-Man suit. Humbled, Peter heads to his high school's homecoming dance, but not before picking up his date, Liz (Laura Harrier). He knocks on her door ... and the Vulture answers.

The MCU rarely does big mid-film plot twists like this; most of its game-changing moments are reserved for end-credits scenes or, in some cases, revealed in the trailer. "Spider-Man: Homecoming" managed to keep its twist a secret — both Peter and the audience knows Keaton's character, Adrian Toomes, is the Vulture, but the moment we realize, along with Peter, that Toomes is also Liz's father is a fantastic gut punch. The car ride scene that follows, in which Toomes almost immediately susses out Peter's secret identity, unbeknownst to Liz, is almost unbearably tense, the teen movie cliche of a girlfriend's intimidating dad blown up to comic book proportions. Keaton's ever-expressive eyes stare holes through Peter from the rear-view mirror, and by the time the erstwhile Batman (and Birdman) gives the "dad talk," pistol in hand, we're ready for Peter to get out of the car as soon as possible.

Tom Hardy is in a romantic comedy with himself

In 2018's "Venom," crusading San Francisco journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is infected with a man-eating alien symbiote who, when not taking over his body as a black, gooey mass of teeth, lives inside of him and provides a running commentary on Eddie's life. The film (and its 2021 sequel "Let There Be Carnage") is ostensibly a dark superhero tale, scarier and more violent than Disney's MCU offerings, though still within the bounds of PG-13. And while Eddie has a human love interest in his ex-wife Anne (Michelle Williams), the real romance is between Eddie and the symbiote, also voiced by Hardy.

Indeed, their relationship plays like a romantic comedy that got stuck inside a superhero flick while no one was paying attention, with Eddie as the buttoned-up sad sack and the symbiote as the Manic Pixie Dream Alien whose lust for life (and brains) makes Eddie a better man. Hardy has a reputation as an intense performer and clearly relishes the opportunity to go all out here, as in the scene where Eddie storms into a restaurant with Venom begging for food inside his head, pulling meals from people's plates and dunking himself into the lobster tank. "Let There Be Carnage" leans even further into the idea that the series' true love story is the one Hardy is playing with himself; poor Anne never stood a chance.

Holly Hunter stretches herself to the limit

Brad Bird's 2004 Pixar film "The Incredibles" features a family of superheroes, each with powers that reflect their role within that family. Father Bob Parr (Craig T. Nelson), aka Mr. Incredible, is as strong as a brick wall and often just as thick; teen daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell) just wants to disappear most of the time, while preteen son Dash (Spencer Fox) is as fast as his name implies, and baby Jack-Jack is a (literal) ball of energy. Meanwhile, mother Helen (Holly Hunter), aka Elastigirl, can stretch herself into any position she needs to hold everything together.

The film and its 2018 sequel offer up not just crackerjack comic book action set pieces, but a knowing riff on family sitcom stereotypes, with Bob as the clueless dad and Helen as the nagging wife. The first film finds Bob in the throes of a midlife crisis, performing superhero work long after costume heroes had been outlawed, while the sequel shifts its focus to Helen, who is returning to the superhero workforce (and a costume of her own) after years as Mrs. Incredible. Hunter's voice work is exemplary, with a naturalism that complements the film's fantastic superhero animation and comes through whether she's barking orders during a helicopter rescue or comforting her children after a harrowing escape. It helps that Helen is designed as Hunter's spitting image, complete with hair straight out of "Broadcast News."

Margot Robbie shines as Harley Quinn, even when her movies don't

Margot Robbie was seemingly born to play Harley Quinn — the character was first introduced on an episode of "Batman: The Animated Series" in 1992, when Robbie was just 2 years old. The Joker's psychiatrist turned twisted gun moll, Quinn was a fan favorite for decades before finally making the jump to the big screen in 2016's "Suicide Squad," and Robbie was offered the part without having to audition. Beyond looking uncannily like the character as drawn on the cartoon series and nailing her 1930s "New Yawk" accent, Robbie has a star quality and magnetism that fits Harley to a tee. Robbie simply is Harley Quinn, and it's difficult to imagine anyone else stepping into the role as naturally.

It's a shame her movies haven't been better. "Suicide Squad" was a critical and commercial flop, an interesting premise undercut by director David Ayer's frantic editing and on-the-nose classic rock needle drops. That Robbie emerges from the film unscathed, even though she seemed to be there mostly to be ogled, is a testament to the popularity of the character and Robbie's skill at playing her. Robbie returned in 2020's "Birds of Prey" and 2021's soft reboot "The Suicide Squad" — both films added visual panache to the dour DCEU house style, with the burst of flowers representing Harley's ultraviolence in "The Suicide Squad" being a particularly inspired touch — but she's still looking for a Harley Quinn picture worthy of her talents.