Movies, Comic Books

The 10 Best Comic Book Movie Actors

Not Another Top-Ten List

You can blame Facebook for this one.  My friends and I had a lively Facebook discussion about Hugh Jackman, which, subsequently inspired this post.  The recent release of Logan got me all nostalgic, thinking back on his universally-lauded performances as Wolverine for the last 17 years.  My immediate reaction was to declare Jackman’s performances as the truest representation of a comic book character in film.  But then people starting challenging me.  What about RDJ?  Ryan Reynolds?  Chris Evans?

Comic book movies have produced some brilliant performances over the years.  Who is truly the best at bringing a character from page to screen?

Full disclosure: this list only covers movies.  Comic book adaptations on TV merits its own article.  That means that Krysten Ritter, David Tennant, Charlie Cox, Mahershala Ali, Jon Bernthal, Melissa Benoist, Teri Hatcher, and Dean Cain (the person who would hands-down be #1 if I wrote that article) all are absent from this list.  Hey, maybe I’ll write that one of these days.

Honorable Mentions

J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson.  If Simmons was more than just comic relief in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, he’d easily be in the top ten.  Simmons pretty much channeled the cantankerous newspaper editor-in-chief straight off the pages.  You could not be more faithful to the source than Simmons was.

Mickey Rourke as Marv.  I mean, I’m pretty sure that Mickey Rourke was born to play Marv.  The entire cast of Sin City is basically perfect, but Rourke is far and away the best in that all-star ensemble.

Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon.  Rocket should not be as popular as he is.  The script is great, but Bradley Cooper nailed the foul-mouthed rodent mercenary.  In the hands of anyone else, Rocket would not be as loved as he is.

10. Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

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Everyone loves Iron Man, but we all know that Pepper Potts is the glue that holds the Iron Man franchise together.  Paltrow blends perfectly into the background, and allows her boss/the protagonist to steal the spotlight.  She’s the oft-dismissed personal assistant who is so much more than just a personal assistant.  Paltrow is a force to be reckoned with herself.  She kicked Tony out of his own company, beat up The Mandarin, and saved Tony on more than one occasion.  Potts might get startled on screen, but don’t confuse that for cowardice.  Paltrow is sassy, powerful, takes no crap from anyone, and is a corporate leader in the technology field.  Gwyneth Paltrow does so much while sharing the screen with an attention hog main character.  She shows us through Pepper Potts that women in the MCU don’t need to throw punches to kick ass.

9. Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

Literally the only good thing about X-Men Origins: Wolverine were the five minutes that Ryan Reynolds was actually Deadpool.  We all knew in those few fleeting minutes that Reynolds needed a solo venture.  It only took 7 years, but it was well worth the wait.  Reynolds was irreverent, quippy, and surprisingly complex and flawed for a character who exists solely to break the meta and be a walking punchline.  Deadpool allowed Reynolds to play to his strengths as a capable action star and funnyman.  He brought all the humor we expected and is the highest grossing R-rated superhero of all time.  Clips of Reynolds’ performance in the trailers alone were so well-received that he caused an uproar from parents wanting a PG-13 version of the movie.  If parents en masse get upset at you for not being sensitive enough to their children’s desires, you did something right.

8. Tom Hiddleston as Loki

It was not until 2015’s Jessica Jones where we saw someone come even remotely close to the subtlety and nuance that Tom Hiddleston brought to Loki. Let’s be real: Thor was a fun movie, but it was a stupid movie. Hiddleston didn’t have much to work with, and looking just at the script alone you can see how easy it would’ve been for Hiddleston to turn Loki into a whiny, sobbing, self-pitying brat. (Okay, you’re right. Loki is a whiny, sobbing, self-pitying brat, but that’s not the point.) Instead of playing to the angsty angle, Hiddleston made us believe Loki’s jealousy. His measured tone and carefully chosen words are perfect foils to the vocal, headstrong speech pattern of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor. Loki’s rare outbursts of rage even counteract Thor’s rare expressions of selflessness and calm. To this day, Hiddleston’s masterful Loki remains the gold standard of Marvel Cinematic Universe villains.

7. Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter

Pepper Potts is the first female icon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Peggy Carter is far and away the face of MCU women. Hayley Atwell’s universally lauded performance does not boast, scream, weep, or need saving. She knows her value in a near-exclusively male military command. Atwell gives us strength, substance, and an unerring composure that never breaks. Atwell’s Carter is curt and no-nonsense, and is one of only two characters whose on-screen persona merited a spin-off TV series. The series notwithstanding, what Atwell represents in the one movie in which she’s a main character speaks to her acting and tenacity. Atwell’s Carter is respected and treated as so much more than a mere romantic interest. Her rare moments of vulnerability bespeak the complexity of Atwell’s performance. Atwell created the woman that every MCU woman strives to be. MCU women don’t need superpowers to be powerful.

6. Ian McKellen as Magneto

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Say what you want about the X-Men movie franchise.  Convoluted?  Yep.  Confusing timelines?  Check.  Not sure what’s canon and what’s not?  Even 20th Century Fox doesn’t know what’s happening.  However, even with all that being said, there’s one thing about the X-Men film franchise we all agree on.

“Too much iron in your blood.”

That iconic scene from X2: X-Men United is easily one of the best scenes in all of comic book films, if not the undisputed best.  Ian McKellen navigates it deftly with all of the pomp and gravitas that Magneto bestows upon himself.  McKellen takes his role seriously, and even when the movies crumble around him he still manages to deliver knockout performances.  The old, angry, and powerful Magneto demands to be heard with McKellen piloting the vehicle.  His presence is always felt, and you always respect McKellen’s Magneto when he’s on screen.  Loki may be the gold standard of the MCU, but Magneto remains the undisputed best of all the Marvel movies.

5. Heath Ledger as The Joker

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Honestly, I could start and finish this entry with, “He won an Oscar, ’nuff said,” and I would not be incorrect.

To date, Heath Ledger is the only actor to receive an Oscar nomination for acting in a superhero film.  Sure, you can make the argument that the Academy only gave Ledger the Oscar due to his untimely passing, but let’s call a spade a spade here.  Heath Ledger was the best comic book movie villain ever when The Dark Knight debuted, and he remains the best today.  Ledger’s Joker was everything that fans wanted: dark, terrifying, sadistic, maniacal, and surprisingly engaging as a character who’s half sociopath, half philosopher.  The Dark Knight delivered a Joker for the modern generation, much like Tim Burton’s original Batman film painted Jack Nicholson as the Clown Prince of Crime for anyone growing up in the 80s and 90s.  Heath Ledger’s rendition of the Joker will remain the stuff of legend in the Batman film franchise.

4. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

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What else is there to say about Hugh Jackman?  He’s Wolverine.  He embodies that character through and through.  Like Ian McKellen as Magneto, Jackman’s Wolverine is a powerful constant in the X-movies, remaining true to character even when the movie crumbles around him.  He’s played Wolverine as a main character or in cameo 9 separate times, including 2017’s Logan.  Jackman is as tied to Wolverine as Daniel Radcliffe is tied to Harry Potter.  Jackman’s iconic performances over 17 years display nuance and careful decision-making in his portrayal of the world’s favorite X-Man.  Jackman switches from conflicted loner to feral beast in seconds, and deftly handles the glimpses into Wolverine’s inner torment masked by the gruff exterior.

We may not see a Wolverine like this ever again.  Hugh Jackman is a gift, and his contributions to the X-Men franchise and the comic book movie renaissance cannot be questioned.  Taking a gamble on an unknown commodity in Hugh Jackman paid dividends for Fox and defined Wolverine for a generation of young superhero fans.

3. Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man

“Big man in a suit of armor.  Take that away what are you.”
“Uhh…genius, billionaire, playboy,  philanthropist.”

Speaking of big gambles, Marvel Studios took a huge one in choosing Iron Man, a hero who wasn’t a household name, to headline their inaugural film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Furthermore, they cast Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark.  RDJ spent the back half of the 90s in and out of rehab and the tabloids with a high-profile drug and alcohol addiction.  No one knew how the once-troubled actor would fare for the fledgling Marvel Studios.

Suffice it to say it paid off.

RDJ had a commanding screen presence as Stark from the moment he walked on screen.  His arrogance, bravado, self-confidence, and fast talk made RDJ’s Stark immediately likeable and entertaining.  Iron Man has three solo ventures, and featured in both Avengers films plus Captain America: Civil War.  Over the last 9 years, RDJ showed us the progression of the arrogant man-child into an older, world-weary, self-sacrificing true hero.  Seeing Stark become a fundamentally different person is largely due to RDJ’s dedication to the character and his craft.  If you’d asked me 10 years ago who was going to be the most popular character in the MCU, I would have told you Captain America.  No one expected Iron Man to break out like he did, and we can all agree that the MCU is better because of RDJ’s gargantuan contributions as Tony Stark.

2. Chris Evans as Captain America

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“I’m not going to fight you. You’re my friend.”
“You’re my mission.”
Then finish it. Because I’m with you til the end of the line.

Chris Evans was another casting decision from Marvel Studios that make me scratch my head. After forecasting doom and gloom because of Evans’ Human Torch, I have never been happier to be proven wrong.

Chris Evans is reliable in the MCU. Unlike fan-favorite Iron Man, Captain America’s trilogy of movies all scored rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Evans is a huge part of that. Most people I talk to view Captain America as a Galahad figure: practically perfect in every way, pure of heart, unwavering in ideals, and the best version of all Americans. The problem with those figures is that they’re boring, unrelatable, and uncompelling. Chris Evans’ Cap doesn’t have those problems. He has complex motivators, regret, loneliness, and a certain amount of naive cluelessness that’s unintentionally funny. Chris Evans reinvented Captain America for a modern age. Evans’ Cap consistently struggles with the modern world being so vastly different from the 1930s and 40s, yet he is the first to stand up for anyone with oppressed rights.

Captain America wears the flag as a costume for a reason. Evans shows us that the MCU Cap believes in his mission and what he represents. He started as propaganda in the MCU, but he evolved well beyond that at this point. He’s a man wise well beyond his years, even before he took the Super Soldier Serum. Evans’ pitch perfect portrayal of Captain America is an inspiring hero, regardless of the American garb he wears. The quiet, reserved power that exudes from Cap is the hallmark of the copious great aspects that Evans brings to his performance.

1. Christopher Reeve as Superman

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“Easy, miss. I’ve got you.”
“You’ve got me?! Who’s got you?!”

You didn’t think that Joker would be the only DC character on here, did you?

The defense rests its case. Conventional wisdom says that you can’t touch the original, and in this case conventional wisdom is correct. There is no one more tied a superhero than Christopher Reeve. Much like Captain America, Superman is the Galahad of DC Comics. Sure, you can argue that the powers are boring, but I have a theory. What’s special about Superman is not the super; it’s the man. Christopher Reeve’s Clark Kent is a comic book movie legend, but it’s also a classic Hollywood icon. Reeve’s switch from Kent to Superman and back to Kent again borders on breakneck speed. His body posture as Clark is different than his posture as Superman. Mannerisms, speech patterns, confidence…every last one of them is distinct in the Clark Kent and Superman personas.

You root for Superman in the Donner/Reeve movies not because Superman is the protagonist, but because Clark Kent is, at his core, one of us. He’s just like any normal human being with hopes, aspirations, heartbreak, and grief. Reeve shows us that beneath the red cape is just Clark Kent. Superman is a reminder that we’re all more than who we appear to be on the outside, and Reeve’s performance is the embodiment of that ideal. Comic book movies are much different now than they were in the 70s, and it’s hard to compare across eras. However, I think it’s safe to say that Christopher Reeve stands the test of time. The Donner/Reeve movies would almost certainly not be made if they were pitched today, but it’s a hard to make a case for anyone being a better Superman… no… superhero than Christopher Reeve.

That’s All She Wrote.

What about you?  Did I miss anyone?  Rank anyone too high?  Should have expanded it into 15?  Tell me your favorites!

2 thoughts on “The 10 Best Comic Book Movie Actors”

  1. Hmmmm… I won’t argue with you too much, Dante. I think you’ve made a good argument for all on your list, and I would agree with many of them. My own personal list would consider Scarlett Johansson for her Black Widow work – not the best fleshed-out character, but she’s done stellar work with what was given to her, and has some of the most memorable moments (for me) in the Avenger movies. I also think Chris Pratt did quite well in bringing Star-Lord to life; that whole persona is so fun and I think he had a helluva lot to do with it. I’d probably bump Gwyneth Paltrow and Ian McKellan off your list and substitute Scarlett and Chris for them – but I certainly don’t begrudge you your choices. (Hugh Jackman and Christopher Reeve could switch positions for me, though.)

    To be honest, I’m really looking forward to seeing how some of the “newbies” do in the upcoming superhero movies. I’m especially excited about Gal Gadot in “Wonder Woman,” of course, and ohhh, yeah, Jason Mamoa as Aquaman (!!!). And even though it’s not a superhero movie, trailers and buzz for “Atomic Blonde” have me wondering if Charlize Theron is going to be truly the super-est hero of them all.

  2. I agree that what is special about superman is his humanity. His powers give him the means to be a hero, but it is not his powers that make him a hero. If someone else was given his powers would that person act selflessly or would they give into the temptation that power offers? I think that superman’s striving to connect with other human beings, his effort to maintain his humanity despite his awesome powers are what makes him a hero, and Christopher Reeve mastered that struggle and portrayed it perfectly. He looked the part of a hero but so much more, he embodied the struggle of human beings to connect with others, even when we feel like the only member of an alien race, stuck on a distant planet.

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