5. Tom Hiddleston: Loki, MCU
Our next entry from the MCU is the god of mischief himself, the one and only Loki. Despite their massive success, the one thing that the movies of the Marvel Universe have been unable to consistently do is create great villains.
In almost all of their films, no matter how great everything else is (and its all usually pretty great), the antagonist typically falls a bit flat. But despite their failures in this avenue, they can at least hang their hats on Loki, played to such perfection by Tom Hiddleston that fans literally beg them to keep bringing him back for more, and it isn’t hard to see why.
As the main antagonist in two MCU films and having a supporting role in one (soon to be two) others, Hiddleston has had plenty of time to flesh out the character. Like any good villain, there are many layers to Loki and Hiddleston is never afraid to get into all of them, making for a fascinating character.
While Loki is initially fueled by a desire to be accepted and loved by his adopted father, Odin, that quickly shifts to a quest for vengeance, and one in which his endgame still remains unclear. That ability to keep both our heroes and the audience guessing as to his true motives speaks to Hiddleston’s ability to really get into that “god of mischief” role.
Hiddleston also is able to bring the type of intensity to the role that helps establish him as a credible threat to Earth’s mightiest heroes. There is not other actor in the MCU that can chew the scenery quite like him when he is giving one of his intense, dramatic speeches or monologues. He not only gets all up in your face, but also in your head. He always seems to know exactly what to say and how to say it in order to get the reaction he is looking for or to get under your skin, especially when dealing with his brother, Thor.
But no matter the situation he finds himself in, he is unflinching and unwavering in his confidence. Always giving off the impression that he knows more than he is letting on and is a step ahead of his foes. And it’s that craftiness that gives fans every reason to think that he’ll be sticking around all through Thor: Ragnarok and possibly beyond.
4. Hugh Jackman: Wolverine, X-Men Series
Now we come to by far and away the most enduring role on the list. Beginning in 2000, Hugh Jackman has been the one and only man to don the iconic adamantium claws across every X-Men film that has been made over the course of the past 17 years. And you don’t keep a part for that long unless you’ve done a damn good job with it. Over the years, Jackman has grown into the definitive Wolverine and in the process, shot from Australian theater darling into Hollywood A-lister.
As by far and away the most popular X-Men character, Jackman couldn’t be anything less than stellar in his portrayal of Wolverine, and he delivered time and time again. Through new stories and characters, sequels and prequels, the one thing that remained consistent was Jackman’s excellence. Having portrayed the same character for so long offered Jackman ample opportunity to dive into just about everything that makes Wolverine the pop culture icon he is.
It began in the original X-men trilogy with his complex relationship with Patrick Stewart’s Professor X that evolved over time from captor and prisoner to student and mentor, and eventually, father and son. The chemistry between them would carry on through the years and result in plenty of memorable moments and exchanges.
While the love triangle with him, Cyclops and Jean Grey was never that well developed, you can’t place the blame on Jackman, and his scenes with Famke Janssen were always packed with emotion and romantic tension. While the films of his stand-alone trilogy weren’t always stellar, fleshing out Wolverine’s background gave Jackman an opportunity to bring out the emotional side of the character and embrace all the loss and pain he has endured over his long life.
But he certainly saved his best for last in this year’s Logan, which marked the end of his tenure as the iconic X man. With it’s R rating, Jackman was finally free to let it all hang out and the result was the violent, brutal, heart-wrenching Wolverine film that fans have been yearning for. In a film that many believe will stand as a bar-raising moment for superhero films, Jackman served as it’s core and left his beloved fans with a heartbreaking, yet fitting farewell as he sheathed his claws for the last time.
Wolverine isn’t an easy character to nail down. He is uncompromisingly brutal and violent, yet beneath it, beats the heart of a lover and a man who is fiercely loyal to those he holds close. His past is riddled with horrific actions and trauma the likes of which an average person can only imagine and Jackman never shied away from expressing it and facing it head on.
And now that his journey from animal, to weapon to man is complete, it is nearly impossible to picture somebody else doing it better. There will eventually come a day when Wolverine returns to the big screen, and whoever is chosen to be Jackman’s successor will have some massive shoes to fill.
3. Ryan Reynolds: Wade Wilson/Deadpool, Deadpool
There are actors who seem born to play a character, and then there are actors that are so perfect for a part that you’re not entirely sure they’re even acting when they’re playing them. Reynolds as Deadpool falls squarely in the latter category.
When it was announced that Reynolds would be featured as the merc with a mouth in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the excitement from fans was palpable. Anybody who had seen any of Reynolds’ comedic roles in the past knew that this decision was solid gold. Unfortunately, the Deadpool we got in that film was such as stark departure from the guy that had so quickly became a fan favorite that they actually sewed his fucking mouth shut.
Fans were devastated. Luckily for all of us, Reynolds was as much of a fan of a character as the rest of us are, and so, being as disappointed in his turn as anybody, embarked on a personal mission to bring a faithful version of Deadpool to the big screen. And 7 years later, he accomplished his mission, and 2016’s Deadpool would become one of the highest grossing R-rated films of all time in short order.
To put it simply, Reynolds’ Deadpool was perfection. He nailed everything that has made the character one of the most popular comic book creations in recent history. Having cut his teeth in comedic roles, he already had a well-developed sense of comedic timing, which is key for the wisecracking mercenary. Reynolds is typically at his best when playing characters with dubious morals (to put it mildly), and for a guy who kills indiscriminately, being able to project a bit of an underdeveloped moral compass is high on the list of requirements.
But at the end of the day, it was Reynolds’ commitment to the character that was so instrumental in bringing it to life, as he was incredibly active both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. It is exceptionally rare for the passion project of an actor to turn into such a massive hit, but when it is based on a wildly popular comic book character who was done horribly wrong by the studio in the past, that changes things a bit.
2. Robert Downey Jr: Tony Stark/Iron Man, MCU
It’s hard to imagine now, but back in 2008, superhero films weren’t the behemoths they are today. While they were popular, they were nowhere near the level they are today. But Marvel Studios came along with a crazy idea. They intended to create a multi-franchise film universe centering around some of their most popular characters, culminating in a massive Avengers film.
To call it ambitious would have been a gross understatement, so in order to make it happen, Marvel needed to storm out of the gates. Iron Man was to be the launching point and if it fell flat, then the whole plan was going to be scuttled. So who did they tap to be the lead of this one singular movie that they were betting the farm on? A proven A-lister who would be a major box office draw? Nope. Instead they chose Robert Downey Jr, a former up-and-comer who’s career and life had spiraled out of control due to substance abuse problems. He had since gotten clean , but never had his second chance, until now.
The gamble paid off better than almost anybody could have ever anticipated. Downey IS Iron Man. He has embraced every aspect of the character and made it his own and in the process, became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars and one of the great redemption stories of all time. But if we take a closer look at Downey, his success as Tony Stark is a little less surprising, as his life actually mirrors the character’s in more ways than one.
Both Downey and Stark grew up to succeed their fathers in their chosen fields despite having far from healthy relationships with them. Both experienced epic falls from grace that caused them to take a major step back, reevaluate their lives and reinvent themselves. After crawling through hell and back, they would both come out the other side reborn, with a greater sense of purpose and as new men.
Stark, like Downey, also struggled with alcohol dependence of his own, as depicted in the Demon in a Bottle story arc from the late 70’s (although the story line would never make its way to the films). In his research for the part, Downey realized the similarities between himself and Tony Stark, which made it easier for him to get into the part and gave him a greater attachment to the character.
It almost felt like his whole life had been preparing him for this moment, so he took everything, all his experiences, his ups, his downs, his hardships and triumphs and poured them into his performance And the end result was a film and a performance special enough to go full steam ahead with the most ambitious undertaking in cinematic history.
And now, as the hype for Avengers: Infinity War reaches critical mass and the Marvel Cinematic Universe has essentially taken over the world 10 years later, remember that none of it would have happened without the greatness of Downey’s Tony Stark.
1. Heath Ledger: The Joker, The Dark Knight
You were expecting somebody else in this spot? The only actor to date to win an Academy Award for a performance in a superhero movie also claims the top spot on this list, and it shouldn’t be hard to see why. Before his tragic, untimely death, Heath Ledger left us with a villain so haunting, so memorable, so well-performed that it transcends the genre and ranks as one of the great villains in the history of film, up there with the likes of Darth Vader, Hannibal Lecter and Keyser Soze.
Batman was one of the first superheroes to receive a live action adaptation, and as such, his rogues gallery has been depicted numerous times, and none more so than his archenemy, the Joker. In fact, the history of the character can be traced very well through its portrayals over the years, and as such, no two Jokers have ever been alike.
This freedom to explore different parts of the character was what gave Ledger’s performance the opportunity to shine. He was free to flesh out the character as he saw fit, unbound by the classic portrayals of Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson that had come before him, instead drawing inspiration from definitive Joker stories such as Death in the Family and The Killing Joke. The result was a dive into the deepest, darkest recesses of the character’s warped mind.
Everything about Ledger’s Joker screamed insanity. His motivations, his methods, even his movements, facial expressions and manner of speech were designed in such a way to project a man who was dangerously unhinged, but also straight up dangerous. Ledger was frighteningly meticulous about crafting the character. Nothing was by accident. Every time he licked his lips, brushed his hair back or stumbled over his words was planned.
One semi-famous behind-the-scenes story demonstrates just how into character he was. During the scene where he blows up the hospital, the explosion was supposed to go off immediately after he hit the detonator, but it didn’t. So, Ledger reacted to the unexpected delay, still in character. The explosion eventually went off and Nolan decided to keep his reaction in the film, rather than cutting it out.
It is rare for a superhero film to give us a villain that strikes genuine fear into the hearts of its viewers, but that is exactly what the Joker does. From the first moment he appears on screen, Ledger gets under your skin and lives there for the duration of the film. His performance was equal parts compelling and unnerving, raising the bar for the character forever while giving a fresh take on him that endures to this day. And while Ledger may be gone, his legacy will live forever as he left us with the greatest performance in a superhero film of all time.
Author Bio: Tommy Messina was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey. He is a lover of alcohol, movies and snarky comebacks.