So, a couple of nights ago, I get this idea to write a Top 10 list. I figure it’s a smart thing to do, because such things get people’s blood flowing, and that’s not a bad way to get people’s attention. I had the perfect idea for a list, too. Best performances in a superhero film.
Then, today, this happened. And the internet went WILD. And my blog idea suddenly became TIMELY.
Personally, I’m ready to wait and see, Daredevil be damned. I remember a similar trepidation over several people who made my Top 10 list, and we’re not talking about Daredevil-era Ben Affleck. We’re talking about a man who has become a critically acclaimed director and who knocked his performance as George Reeves in Hollywoodland out of the park.
So, without further ado…here we go.
10. J. K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson
Frankly, J. K. Simmons’ turn as J.J.J. is so over the top as to be almost a caricature…but that’s who J. Jonah Jameson is. He has to be low enough that the filmmakers could one day depict him as a guy who creates a supervillain (in the comics, J.J.J. is responsible for creating the Scorpion), but he also has to be someone that the audience can laugh at. Simmons gives us this in spades. There’s a reason why the internet is clamoring for him, and only him, to reprise his role in Marc Webb’s Spider-Man films.
9. Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor
This is probably going to be one of my more controversial choices among my friends. I love Superman: The Movie more than most, and most people love this movie. The guy that people talk about in this film is Christopher Reeve…and yes, he was great as Superman. But as far as I’m concerned, Gene Hackman is THE person who brings that iconic film much-needed charisma. He is in no way like any version of Lex Luthor that I ever remember from the comics, not even the pre-Crisis snarky mad scientist. Hackman brought a sinister humor to the character, while never letting us forget that, if he had his way, innocent people…MILLIONS of innocent people, would die.
8. Diane Lane as Martha Kent
I promise…eventually I will actually put someone playing a superhero on this list. Until then, though…Diane Lane. First off, I have never been a fan of hers, although in hindsight, that’s probably more about the roles she’s played and films that she’s been in than her talent. She tends to make films that are for middle aged white women looking to rekindle something, at least these days: romantic dreamscapes and/or sexual thrillers. Simply not my cup of tea, and I cringed when I heard about her casting. The truth is, she gave the hands down best performance in Man of Steel. She was believably strong, she was sympathetic, she was Superman’s mom. I’ve seen a lot of versions of this character, in film, on television, and of course in the comics. Hers is my favorite version.
7. Tom Hiddleston as Loki
This one is frankly self-explanatory. I almost didn’t include him on this list, because it’s so…obvious. There are some other worthy people who have been omitted from this list because I couldn’t justify including them and not him (even though he’s not #10…go figure). I considered Michael Fassbender’s Magneto and Christopher Reeve’s Superman…but both are vying with other versions of the same character that I like. And to be honest? Neither of them is as goddamned likable. Hiddleston would be higher, but Loki is probably the easiest character on this list to pull off.
6. Chris Hemsworth as Thor
Chris Hemsworth makes this list because of the simple fact that Thor is probably the very hardest major superhero published by either Marvel or DC to do well. As a comic book character, Thor is massively overburdened with cheese, thanks to decades of Shakespearean-styled dialogue and a design that lacks what I like to call “elegant simplicity.” Despite…or maybe because of…the immense cheese factor, Thor has always been one of my favorite characters when done well. Five years ago, I would have told you that a Thor film would be incredibly bad…and the truth is, I didn’t love Thor, even though I loved Chris Hemsworth in it. Then came The Avengers, which gave me all the proof I needed. And yes, I like Hemsworth as Thor more than Hiddleston as Loki.
5. Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben
Martin Sheen as an unfair advantage over everybody else on this list: he played my favorite character in this history of television, President Josiah Bartlet. I don’t have the time to gush over The West Wing the way I would always like, and you probably don’t want to read that anyway. Suffice it say that Uncle Ben was in many ways the first “Girl in a Refrigerator.” He was created and killed off for no other reason than to motivate Spider-Man. He doesn’t make it alive past his first appearance in the comics. Cliff Robertson played the character in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man, and he was fairly generic in my mind. Martin Sheen brought likability and gravitas to the character. Brian Michael Bendis gives Uncle Ben likability in Ultimate Spider-Man, but Martin Sheen gave the character weight. Through Martin Sheen, you believe this man when he tells you (albeit in different words) that with great power comes great responsibility.
4. Chris Evans as The Human Torch
First off, I just really like Chris Evans. He has what all of the people on this list have in abundance, and that is charisma. Moreover, he is just drawn to genre work and to comics. I really liked him as Captain America, I liked him in The Losers. But I was first introduced to him as Johnny Storm, and he was the only great thing about a pair of otherwise extremely disappointing films. He was the only member of those casts who managed to capture the essence of the character he was playing. That’s probably in part because the cocky guy is easier to pull off than the genius tortured by the fact that his genius jeopardized and irrevocably changed the lives of his friends and family…turning one of them into a monster. I don’t care. Chris Evans WAS The Human Torch, in ways that he’s not quite Captain America. (I would have cast Channing Tatum as Cap, even before he was widely loved, but Evans did a great job.)
3. Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man
Nope. He’s not #1…or even #2. Believe me when I tell you that his ranking is in no way indicative of some dissatisfaction on my part. He took a character for whom I have very little affection in particular, Iron Man, and made him the linchpin of the Marvel Universe. No version of Iron Man in the comics, that I’ve ever read, even comes close to being as awesome as he is in the movies. Put it this way, Captain America is my favorite Marvel character, and I was cool with Iron Man being, in essence, the main character of The Avengers. Without Robert Downey, the Marvel films don’t have anything near approaching the success that they’ve had, and he just signed the bajillion dollar contract that proves that Marvel knows it. Let me put it to you this way…if this was the Top Ten SUPERHERO performances…he’d be #1.
2. Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon
Remember how I said that RDJ made me like a character I never had before? In this case, the reverse is true. I had never been a Gary Oldman fan. I hated Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and he was the only thing I didn’t like about The Professional. Fifth Element? Meh. (I did like him in The Contender, but then I liked EVERYONE in that film.) Gary Oldman tends to be…a little over the top for my tastes. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Oldman decided that less was more, and gave a relatively understated and often moving performance as James Gordon. Even the little touches were there, the minor bits of sarcasm, the Chicago accent. The character was nothing short of brilliant. No one really relates to a fabulously wealthy man who dresses in body armor to fight crime. But everyone can stand in awe of that guy, and Oldman’s Gordon does that for us. Him, we can relate to. RDJ’s Iron Man is effortless…but Oldman’s Gordon clearly took effort, and those efforts paid off.
1. Heath Ledger as The Joker
Seriously though. When Robert Downey wasn’t #1, you had to know who was, right? The Joker is the only character on this list to have had multiple iconic versions of his portrayal. I mean, I wouldn’t know who Cesar Romero was if he hadn’t played The Joker. The Joker was played by Jack Nicholson, who has won more Academy Awards as an actor than anyone except Katharine Hepburn. Ask any self-respecting geek who the best Joker was before Ledger, and 95% of them will say Mark Hamill, whose voice work for The Joker sets a standard for voice work and for villainy that is all but unmatched. (I know people trepidatious about picking up the next Arkham game because Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy didn’t come back.) And Heath Ledger stole the role from all of them. The Dark Knight was an attempt to do a “realistic” superhero film, and there are few villains less realistic than The Joker…and yet. Heath Ledger made me BELIEVE that the Joker could be real, and that’s something no other superhero or supervillain performance has ever done.