Even among other genre films, comic-book movies used to be viewed as disposable pulpy fun. But we've now reached the point where serious A-list actors are vying for roles in superhero films. And actors are actually bringing their "A" game. Here are 12 amazing performances that helped elevate superhero movies.
Note: This is just a list of 12 people, and it's definitely not all-inclusive. It's also all live-action movies. Please name your own favorites below!
Ian McKellen (The X-Men Films)
The cast of the original X-Men trilogy is pretty high-powered overall, including Patrick Stewart, Halle Berry and Famke Janssen. But McKellen, fresh off an Academy Award nomination for Gods and Monsters and a few awards for his Richard III, was taking on his first comic-book role with Magneto. And he lends an incredible weight, anger and sadness to what could be just another ranting supervillain.
Tobey Maguire (Spider-Man)
OK, ignore his horrendous turn in the third movie — Maguire completely rocks out in the first two Sam Raimi films. His wide-eyed amazement at his spider powers and his sense of fun as he learns to swing around the city are balanced out by a real sadness and loss. Nobody ever sold a heroic origin (and subsequent journey of personal growth) the way Maguire did — and he did a lot to pioneer the art of seeming grounded while reacting to a billion CG doodles around him.
Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy)
This one is fresh in our minds, for obvious reasons — but holy crap, Chris Pratt does an amazing job in this film. He's surrounded by larger-than-life characters and aliens, and he has the unenviable job of anchoring the movie with intensely human cockiness and vulnerability. The fact that Rocket and Groot and Gamora don't basically steal the movie out from under him is a pretty amazing feat — but so is the fact that Star-Lord feels more real and three-dimensional after one movie than most heroes do after ten.
Mickey Rourke (Sin City)
This performance helped to relaunch Rourke's career, and it's easy to see why. His performance as the sad-sack berserker Marv takes the best character in Frank Miller's noir-influenced comic book, and makes him 100 times better, by injecting a weariness and sense of embattled decenty that feel completely earned and genuine.
Paul Giamatti (American Splendor)
Moving away from superhero and pulp comic movies, there's this film about Harvey Pekar, in which one of alternative comics' biggest stars gets a movie that not only immortalizes his oversized personality — but educates a lot of people as to how versatile and brilliant a medium comics can be. And Giamatti, playing the younger Pekar in some dramatized sequences, is an essential part of making Pekar a compelling character and showing why comics can be transformative.
Chloe Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass)
This weird superhero movie pushed the envelope in general — but Moretz's performance as Hit-Girl became emblematic and stood out as the bravest and most insane. Playing the lethal little girl who spits out filthy language and kills tons of people, Moretz manages to make Hit-Girl seem both funny and sad, especially after Big Daddy is out of the picture. The sight of an underage girl in such a ultraviolent, crazy setting is disturbing, but Moretz keeps it from lurching into pure absurdist satire, with a strong performance.
Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen)
A lot of the characters on this list are deeply damaged individuals — and none more so than Rorschach, the masked hero played by Haley in Zack Snyder's adaptation of Alan Moore's classic graphic novel. With his whispered voiceover anchoring the film and his frenzied expression whenever he's unmasked, Rorschach is a tough character to bring to life — but Haley fully commits, and creates one of the few really strong performances in the film. We're still sad we didn't get to see Rorschach in therapy, though.
Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World, Various Marvel Films)
Along with American Splendor, Ghost World was one of the first big movies to prove that alternative comics could translate to the big screen. And Johansson, as Becky, lends a huge amount of personality and energy as the girl who chooses a more conventional path than Thora Birch's Enid. Johansson, in more recent years, has also made Black Widow one of the most fully realized characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Robert Downey Jr. (Various Marvel Films)
Downey Jr. gave a huge amount of credibility to the Marvel Studios films when he took on the role of Tony Stark, aka Iron Man — but he also helped make Iron Man feel authentically damaged. The arc of the first movie, where Tony realizes his arms are being used by some very bad people and his father figure has betrayed him, carries its full freight of anguish — but Downey Jr. also manages to make Tony seem like a devil-may-care tinkerer and free spirit, throughout. And Tony's voicemails for Pepper Potts in Avengers and Iron Man 3 are two of the most intense emotional moments in the history of the genre.
Tilda Swinton (Snowpiercer)
Swinton almost belongs on this list twice as well, thanks to a fantastic performance in Constantine. But her appearance in Snowpiercer, as a sad, pathetic fascist with false teeth, is one of the most incredible things we've seen this year. Snowpiercer could be just another weird post-apocalyptic dystopia, where people live in unthinkable conditions under an evil regime. But Swinton never lets you stop believing in the humanity and stupid cunning of her character, even when she's committing terrible atrocities or explaining to the downtrodden masses why they don't deserve sushi.
Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)
Ledger's snarling, growling, volatile performance as the Joker in the second Nolan Batman film has wound up being the main legacy of those movies — long after other stuff in that trilogy starts to fade into memory, Ledger's bank heist and hospital visit, his insane soliloquies, will continue to remain fresh and appalling.
Jack Nicholson (Batman)
And finally, there's the other Joker. Counting Mark Hamill, this is the role that seems to have brought out the best in a few actors. Nicholson's Joker is more comical and slightly campier than Ledger's, but the psychotic edge is still very much present — and he completely steals the movie. There's a reason the 1989 Batman helped put superhero films on the map, and a lot of it has to do with Jack Nicholson's rampage.
Thanks to Rob Bricken for the input!