The 20 Best Performances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Written By: Nick Poulimenakos
This month, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 became the 15th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It was film that, while not as “fresh” as the original, had incredible performances. Marvel has always attracted top notch talent for their films, not only signing big names like Robert Downey Jr. but also giving actors and actresses their big break like Tom Holland. With Vol. 2 released and another two films with incredible casts on the way, it felt like a great time to really look at which performances made the MCU so popular. So, to celebrate the countless ensembles in Marvel films, here are the 20 best performances in the MCU!
- Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Marvel has become synonymous with hiring actors that look almost directly like their comic book counterpart. This has never been more evident that with Chris Hemsworth as the Norse god of thunder. Portraying one of Marvel’s mightiest heroes, Hemsworth embodies the character so well. From his initial selfishness to his growth into a true leader, Hemsworth was born to play this role. He has consistently been one of the better parts of the Thor films, along with a certain other person who will appear on this list, and looks fantastic in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.
- Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury
I don’t know if this will get me some hate for ranking this character this low but I think this will also show how great the performances in the MCU are. For the longest time, Nick Fury had been regulated to cameo status, lurking in the shadows as he puts the Avengers initiative into motion. But then The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier arrived and demonstrated how incredible Jackson was as the director of S.H.I.E.L.D. He brings so much charisma and badassery to the role and is undeniably imposing. He commands the room every time he enters and, had he gotten more screen time in the franchise, would have probably been ranked higher.
- Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk
Mark Ruffalo’s performance blows Edward Norton’s out of the water. JJ will probably disagree with me on that because he really likes The Incredible Hulk film but it’s a fact. When Ruffalo was cast as Bruce Banner, I had some reservations. It was a shock because I could never picture Ruffalo in a superhero film. Then, in 2012, The Avengers was released and Ruffalo stole the show. He’s incredible as The Hulk (pun intended) bringing the conflicted and tortured nature The Hulk to life. Ruffalo’s iteration of the character is one that always fears the next time he transforms and is very much a more complex take on the classic character. Along with his fantastic motion capture work, Ruffalo’s take on The Hulk is, without a doubt, the definitive version.
- Mahershala Ali as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes
Easily one of my favourite characters in the entire Netflix side of the MCU, Cottonmouth is a character that was given the short end of the stick in Luke Cage. The series opted to kill off his character midway through the first season in favour of a storyline involving Luke Cage and his brother Diamondback. Despite this, Ali was the best part of Luke Cage. He portrayed a ruthless crime boss with a deeply conflicted nature to perfection. Not only is Cottonmouth not a very good gangster, but he’s a tortured soul, a lost wounded man who was forced into a life of crime by his family. Ali was definitely someone I would have wanted to return to the MCU but sadly, that will never come to be.
- Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Solider
The Winter Solider has always been one of my favourite comic characters. As soon as Bucky fell from the train in Captain America: The First Avenger, I knew that The Winter Soldier was coming. And sure enough, Captain America: The Winder Soldier was released and man was Sebastian Stan fantastic in the role. Sure everyone knew that is was Bucky behind the mask, but the look on Steve Rodgers’ face when he saw what his best friend had become was heartbreaking. Stan as the villain/anti-hero is absolutely badass. Whether it’s him catching Cap’s shield in midair or fighting alongside Cap against Iron Man in Civil War, Sebastian Stan’s performances have been regularly great and I can’t wait to see what they do with the character next.
- Haley Atwell as Peggy Carter/Agent Carter
The breakout character from phase 1 of the MCU, Haley Atwell’s Peggy Carter grew so popular that she got her own TV show. Known for initially being Captain America’s wartime love, Agent Carter is a complete and total badass. Despite not having any superpowers or enhancements, the British Spy is remembered for her quick wit, feisty attitude and for being a strong leader within S.H.I.E.L.D. Her appearance in The Winter Soldier was especially brutal as the emotional weight of seeing Steve for the first time in almost 75 years demonstrated how amazing Haley Atwell is at portraying the character.
- Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord
Who knew that the dim-witted but loveable Andy Dwyer (Parks and Rec) would one day become one of the biggest action stars in the world? Chris Pratt is fantastic as the charming rogue ravager, Star-Lord. Walking a fine line between brave soldier and selfish idiot, Pratt’s Star-Lord is heroic, hilarious, charismatic and an overall likeable character. With a film like Guardians of the Galaxy being set in the cosmos, Pratt’s old school persona grounds the film and personally, I can’t wait to see him in a verbal contest with Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark.
- Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
Black Widow has constantly been one of the most popular female characters in all of cinema and all of that is due to Scarlet Johansson’s performance. Despite first appearing in the lackluster Iron Man 2, Johansson’s acting chops were really prevalent in Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, where she was a central and an unexpectedly multifaceted character. Johansson portrays Black Widow as a wisecracking secretive spy with an extremely messed up backstory and she enhances every scene she is in. Surprisingly, Marvel still hasn’t given her a solo outing. C’mon Marvel, give her a film or a Netflix series. Either is fine.
- Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil
Daredevil is one of my all-time favourite street level heroes. Ben Affleck almost killed the character back in 2003 but Marvel decided to give Matt Murdock a second chance by selecting Charlie Cox for the role. What a fantastic choice. The first season of the Marvel/Netflix series Daredevil is phenomenal and that’s, in part, due to Cox (the other reason will be listed below). Cox is able to ground the sense-enhanced Matt Murdock. His portrayal of a more human, vulnerable Murdock is phenomenal. He’s able to demonstrate the conflict within Matt as he struggles with whether he is doing the right thing with being a vigilante. Daredevil vs. Kingpin and Daredevil vs. The Punisher remains as two of the greatest matchups in the entire MCU.
- Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange/Doctor Strange
Benedict Cumberbatch’s casting, like Ryan Reynolds and Robert Downey Jr. before him, was simply perfect. Not only does Cumberbatch look the part, he embodies the self-centredness and arrogance of Stephen Strange so well. Cumberbatch stunningly relays the characteristics of a person that considers himself above everyone but his overall arc in the film is the real icing on the cake. Strange goes from a selfish prick to a man who has finally learned what it means to be a hero and help others. While this could be attributed to the writing, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch that finally seals the character’s standing going forward.
- Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man
The first of two scene-stealers in Captain America: Civil War, at number 10, we have the Tom Holland incarnation of Spider-Man. After the failure that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony finally relented and opted to work with Marvel Studios and Disney on a new Spider-Man and secured Tom Holland in the role. The result? Arguably the definitive Peter Parker and Spider-Man. Holland immediately lights up the screen as soon as he appears, portraying Peter Parker as a young, awkward and good-hearted individual who nails every quip. You get an actual sense of thrill and excitement from this Spider-Man and it is such a joy to watch. Tom Holland alone has me excited for Spider-Man: Homecoming. What a fitting title eh?
- Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher
While Tom Holland is “arguably,” the definitive Spider-Man, Jon Bernthal is 100%, absolutely, no question, the DEFINITIVE Punisher. Ok I may be a bit bias towards this character because Frank Castle is one of my all-time favourites but Jon Bernthal takes the character to a whole other level. His performance as the tormented, emotionally destroyed Frank Castle is phenomenal. Proving to be the best part of Daredevil’s second season, Bernthal not only showed the ultra-violent nature of the character, but he humanized him, something previous actors could not do. This is the Punisher fans have been clamoring for.
- David Tennant as Kilgrave/The Purple Man
What do you get when you merge the craziness and sadistic nature of Barty Crouch Jr. and the tenacity and genius of the tenth Doctor? David Tennant’s Kilgrave, the main antagonist from the first season of Jessica Jones. The Marvel/Netflix side of things have dependably had compelling and intricate villains and Kilgrave is no different. Unlike most villains who crave world-domination, Tennant’s Kilgrave seeks to mind-control the titular female hero into a relationship with him. Tennant’s performance as the sociopathic controller is strikingly unforgettable as he poses a legitimate, scary threat to Jessica and her friends. Whenever Tennant appears, it is almost like a horror movie as his performance makes viewers feel like he is a realistic villain despite having superpowers.
- Michael Rooker as Yondu Udonta
I wrote in my review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 that if anyone were to rank the MCU performances, Michael Rooker should absolutely get a spot in the top 10. Well, here we are. I should say that, despite only appearing in two MCU films, Rooker’s performance in Vol. 2 alone earns him a spot in the top 10. Playing a character that usually starts out as a villain but always finding himself on the right end of the fight, Rooker’s surrogate father to Peter Quill remains as one of the most “out-there” characters in the entire MCU. He brings such charisma to the role that it is almost impossible not to get excited when Yondu appears on screen.
- Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther
The second scene-stealer in Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman made a fantastic impression in his first outing as Black Panther. Having had the best arc out of any character in the film, Boseman goes from portraying a son hell-bent on revenge to a mature, superhero king while still incorporating some crafty humor as well. His quiet, mountaintop scene with Daniel Bruhl’s Hemlut Zemo was some of the most compelling acting in the entire movie and his fight scenes with The Winter Soldier were exciting as ever. The best part? He’s just getting started. Black Panther drops in 2018 and I seriously can’t wait.
- Chris Evans as Steve Rodgers/Captain America
I don’t know if this is a commonly known fact but, Chris Evans reportedly turned down the role of Captain American when Marvel first offered it to him. I know right? Fast forward and we have one of the best and most unswervingly great performances in the entire franchise. Robert Downey Jr. may be the brains and wit of the MCU but Evans is the heart and depth. Chris Evans’ ability to portray a character that doesn’t strive to be just another dark and brooding hero is stunning. His innate desire to do good and his classic “aw shucks” attitude institutes this incarnation of Steve Rodgers as the perfect candidate for a superhero. With each outing, his character becomes more and more layered as he goes from a simple man searching for purpose to a hero who would do anything to protect those closest to him.
- Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones
A flawed superhero is not a new concept. We’ve seen it done before with Batman, Iron Man, Wolverine, etc. But, Jessica Jones is something different. She’s not really a superhero per say. She’s an alcoholic private investigator who is constantly suffering from PTSD and is an asshole to every person that talks to her. It was up to Krysten Ritter to portray such a broken character and she exceeded expectations in every way. She methodically explores her character’s inadequacies bringing both the sharper edge and immense helplessness a role like this demands. She’s more concerned with stopping the man who hurt her in the past than being a “hero” and this is where Ritter succeeds. She does not care about being New York’s next hero. She walks on the edge of being unpleasant but Ritter constantly finds ways to make the audience care for the character.
- Tom Hiddleston as Loki
Remember when I said up above in my Thor paragraph that there was another character that made those movies entertaining? At number three, we have the MCU’s best cinematic villain, Loki. Being Marvel’s most common movie villain, you’d think fans would want to see less of the character. Well that’s wrong. Astoundingly wrong. There’s a reason Loki keeps coming back and it’s all due to the Tom Hiddleston’s phenomenal depiction. In a career defining performance, Hiddleston fantastically plays the slimy, smooth saboteur that, despite being evil in nature, always has the audience falling in love with the character. Being more of a tragic villain than an all-out evil force, there is no doubt that Hiddleston was born to play this role and it is hard to imagine anyone else going toe to toe with the god of thunder.
- Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin
Hands down the best performance from the Netflix section of the MCU, Vincent D’Onofrio took the Kingpin character to new heights of incredible. Unlike the 2003 film, Kingpin is not just a crime boss in Daredevil. D’Onofrio’s Kingpin is an emotionally and physically abused child who suffers from deep social issues. He beautifully uses these traits to his advantage, turning Kingpin into a character has the audience garnering sympathy for him in spite of all his wrongdoing. The well-dressed, imposing crime boss of Hell’s Kitchen might want to help improve his crime-ridden city, but he’s still capable of bashing someone’s head in. D’Onofrio’s performance is almost cinematic in its many risks but his awkward, violent personality demonstrates that the risks pay off in a huge way.
- Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man
Was there any doubt? The MCU would not even exist if it wasn’t for Robert Downey Jr.’s incredible performance in 2008’s MCU debut film, Iron Man. Talk about a career revival. RDJ’s performance was immediately met with critical acclaim and since then, he has become the main attraction for the MCU. He brings Tony Stark to life in ways actors haven’t been able to do with a character. RDJ is as captivating as ever as soon as he steps into a shot, almost instantly becoming the centre of attention thanks to his unique, wondrous energy that he brings to Tony Stark. It’s hard to distinguish actor from character as both are extremely similar. RDJ and Tony Stark arguably have the greatest arc in the entire franchise, going from war monger to superhero to a man obsessed with protecting the Earth by any means necessary. Whether it’s saving Pepper or fighting Captain America, the genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist is unquestionably, the most fascinating character in the franchise and we, along with Marvel, have Robert Downey Jr. to thank for it.
Honourable Mentions: Mike Colter as Luke Cage, Emily Van Camp as Sharon Carter/Agent 13, Dave Bautista as Drax, Zoe Saldana as Gamora, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man, Don Cheadle as Rhodey/War Machine and Hugo Weaving as The Red Skull
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 bursts into theatres on May 5th 2017 while Spider-Man: Homecoming flies in on July 7th 2017 and finally Thor: Ragnarok makes its thunderous debut on November 3rd 2017.