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Elizabeth Olsen's Best Onscreen Performances

Having extremely successful siblings can be challenging, but sheer talent and smart choices can change the game for someone with a famous last name. After growing up in the shadow of her older twin sisters — uber-famous child actors Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen — Elizabeth Olsen has emerged as a star in her own right. Her wide-ranging resume contains everything from independent features to big-budget superhero films, as well as personal projects and production credits.

If you're only familiar with the youngest Olsen's work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Wanda Maximoff, an orphan who harnesses incredible powers, then you definitely have a lot to catch up on. Born in 1989, Olsen attended New York University's Tisch School of the Arts for acting and graduated in 2013, but by that point, she was already an established actor with several credits under her belt. From indie darlings to Hollywood blockbusters, here are just a few of Elizabeth Olsen's best onscreen performances.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

In her first big role, Olsen took on a difficult topic with the 2011 independent film Martha Marcy May Marlene, which tells the story of a young woman who recently escaped from a dangerous cult. After getting involved with Patrick (John Hawkes) and his isolated group in New York's Catskill Mountains, Martha (Olsen), who was given the name "Marcy May" during her time in the compound, runs away and reunites with her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson). Although physically free, Martha is unable to mentally escape Patrick's years of abuse, experiencing paranoid delusions that undermine her attempts to live normally.

Olsen earned rave reviews, with critics praising her "mesmerizing debut performance" and legendary film critic Roger Ebert calling the actress "a genuine discovery [...] Childlike and yet deep, vulnerable but with a developing will, beautiful in a natural and unforced way [...] She has a wide range of emotions to deal with here, and in her first major role, she seems instinctively to know how to do that." In her very first film, Olsen was already a star on the rise, becoming an actress to watch early in her career.

Liberal Arts

Following the success of Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen continued working in small, independent movies. In 2012, she appeared alongside How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor in Liberal Arts, which he also directed and wrote. The film focuses on 35-year-old college admissions officer Jesse (Radnor), who, aimless and adrift, decides to return to the college he attended years previously. While there, he reunites with old professors, takes a tough look at himself, and becomes romantically involved with 19-year-old student Zibby (Olsen). Though Zibby is way too young for him, he finds freedom in their relationship, and ultimately learns more about his path forward.

Liberal Arts did well with critics, and Olsen's performance was largely praised, with Empire Magazine's Ian Freer calling her "the real deal." By steadily building her resume with central roles in smaller movies, Olsen positioned herself as a capable and thoughtful leading lady, setting herself up for success right off the bat.

I Saw the Light

After cutting her teeth in smaller roles in other biopics like 2013's Kill Your Darlings (which featured Daniel Radcliffe as Beat poet Allan Ginsberg and Olsen as Edie Parker, Jack Kerouac's wife), Olsen headlined her first big one in 2015 with I Saw the Light. The film cast fellow MCU stalwart Tom Hiddleston as country music legend Hank Williams, with Olsen as Williams' first wife, Audrey Williams. The movie, which took its title from one of Williams' most famous songs, told the story of the couple's tumultuous relationship, Hank's struggles with substance abuse, and their divorce.

Unfortunately, I Saw the Light received mostly negative reviews from critics. Hiddleston and Olsen at least earned solid praise for their performances, as did the rest of the talented cast. Noel Murray at IndieWire called Hiddleston's performance "absolutely magnetic" before turning his attention to Olsen, writing that "Olsen matches Hiddleston as Hank's ornery, long-suffering first wife, Audrey." 

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Olsen had a brief end-credits cameo appearance in 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but she finally played her first big part in the cinematic universe in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron. In the follow-up to the 2012 smash hit The Avengers, Olsen joins the MCU as Wanda Maximoff, who, along with her brother Pietro (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), rallies against the Avengers after the heroes raze their home country of Sokovia. Hydra, the evil organization the Avengers are fighting, has been experimenting on Wanda and Pietro, who possess telekinetic powers and super-speed, respectively. When Pietro dies in battle, Wanda is left alone and joins the Avengers in her own right — but not before proving her power and psychologically torturing each member of the Avengers in turn.

Though Age of Ultron is arguably one of the less popular installments in the MCU, it introduces not only Wanda, but also her eventual android love, Vision (Paul Bettany). From that point on, Wanda became an integral part of the MCU, building her character steadily over several movies.

Captain America: Civil War

In her first outing with directors Joe and Anthony Russo, Olsen returned to the MCU shortly after her Age of Ultron debut for 2016's massive, star-studded crossover event Captain America: Civil War. At the beginning of this film, the Avengers are grappling with the fact that they've destroyed various cities and countries they were trying to save, including Wanda's homeland, Sokovia. After Wanda uses her powers to divert a terrorist attack on Steve Rogers (aka Captain America, played by Chris Evans) to Wakanda, the Sokovia Accords are signed, revoking the Avengers' carte blanche to destroy whatever they want whenever necessary. 

Though Civil War primarily focuses on the growing schism between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., whose character is also known as Iron Man), Wanda plays an important role in the film as her bond with Vision grows stronger. Considering just how vital her union with Vision proves to be in future Avengers movies and the MCU's first big streaming television series, Wanda's an indispensable part of Civil War.

Ingrid Goes West

During a break from the MCU, Olsen went back to her roots and released a few indie movies, including the dark, razor-sharp 2017 social media satire Ingrid Goes West. The film opens on Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza), a mentally unstable woman on the East Coast who develops an intense, unwavering fixation on Instagram influencer Taylor Sloane (Olsen), who lives in Los Angeles. After an incident in her home state of Pennsylvania, Ingrid heads to the West Coast, tracking Taylor down through her social media posts and tricking her into becoming her bestie. However, before long, Taylor discovers the truth, and Ingrid's house of cards collapses.

Plaza is the center of the film, which was praised by critics, but Taylor is also a fascinating character; her life is outwardly perfect, but she's eventually revealed to be a mess in her own right. Unsurprisingly, Olsen pulls it off perfectly, and her chemistry with Plaza is incredibly natural. Plenty of people dismiss social media influencers as flighty and fake, but Olsen makes Taylor wholly, undeniably human.

Wind River

There are so many popular actors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that many of them inevitably end up working together in films outside the MCU. This happened to Olsen and Jeremy Renner in 2017's Wind River. A dark murder mystery with a classic noir sensibility, Wind River tells the story of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer Cory Lambert (Renner) and newly minted FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen), who must solve the brutal murder of a young Native American woman at the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. As the two get deeper into their investigation and new evidence emerges, their traumatic pasts come to light.

Wind River received predominantly positive reviews from critics, who lauded the mystery's sharp turns and social message as well as its cast. If you want to see two of the Avengers in extraordinarily different roles, Wind River is absolutely worth a watch.

Sorry for Your Loss

There comes a certain point in nearly every actor's career when they start producing their own projects. That point came for Olsen in 2018 with Sorry for Your Loss. The web series, which ran for just two seasons, focused on Leigh Shaw (Olsen), who quits her job and moves back home to live with her family after suddenly and tragically losing her husband. Several popular actors also appear in the series, including Kelly Marie Tran (the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy), Jovan Adepo (Fences), and Janet McTeer (Jessica Jones, Ozark).

Sorry for Your Loss only streamed through Facebook Watch, making it one of Olsen's lowest-profile ventures in recent memory. Still, it's clear that the actress was exploring a different approach as she begins to look beyond the MCU. For that reason alone, Sorry for Your Loss, which received solid reviews, is worth a watch.

Avengers: Infinity War & Endgame

Basically every Marvel Cinematic Universe player, supporting or otherwise, appeared in some fashion in the two-part Marvel event Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame (released in 2018 and 2019, respectively), and Olsen was no exception. At the start of Infinity War, Wanda is a fully fledged member of the Avengers and happily living in Europe with Vision. The couple's idyll is interrupted by Thanos' search for the Infinity Stones, including the Mind Stone inside Vision's head. In the movie's final battle, Wanda makes the ultimate sacrifice at Vision's request, using her considerable powers to extract the stone — only to watch Thanos use the Time Stone to reverse her actions, kill Vision, and then snap his fingers while wearing the Infinity Gauntlet. The snap kills half of all life in the universe, Wanda included. 

When the remaining Avengers figure out how to open portals to revive their fallen colleagues, Wanda returns for the final battle against Thanos, but she's still grieving; because Vision was killed before Thanos' snap, there's no chance for him to return. Alongside the other Avengers, she's last seen at Tony Stark's funeral before continuing her work with the rest of the surviving heroes. Wanda only reappears at the end of Endgame, but the film perfectly sets up her next steps. Expect to see Olsen in more MCU movies to come, including the much-anticipated (and much-delayed) Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

WandaVision

In January of 2021, after an entire year without any new Marvel content, the studio released its first big television venture with WandaVision, which focuses entirely on Wanda and Vision. Shrouded in mystery ahead of its debut, the series confused some Marvel fans, who wondered why these two characters — who are typically relegated to supporting roles in the films — would lead such an enormous project. However, when the genre-bending series opened with a pitch-perfect ode to classic sitcoms like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, viewers realized that this project was a completely different animal.

After moving through several different eras of classic TV, WandaVision turns its lens to Wanda and her backstory, giving us the fullest possible picture of this complex, troubled character. Olsen's outstanding central performance, aided by Bettany's excellent turn as Vision and a scene-stealing Kathryn Hahn as the couple's mysterious neighbor, makes WandaVision a delight to watch. Any and all Marvel fans will find something fascinating lurking within the layered, twisting narrative of WandaVision, the first season of which has cast a "hex" on audiences around the world.