One of the biggest successes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its ability to assemble quality casts. From the first “Iron Man” to last year’s “Captain America: Civil War,” the MCU is chock-full of both A-list stars and character actors. However, it’s rare to see anyone in the MCU do career-best work in the franchise, but that’s not the point here. Today will be a chance to celebrate the acting that these performers have done outside this franchise work.
2017 is going to be an interesting year for the MCU. Next month, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” hits screens, followed by “Spider-Man: Homecoming” in July and then “Thor: Ragnarok” in November. While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a historic partnership between Marvel and Sony, those other MCU installments will bring things closer to the impending Infinity War.
The below list certainly isn’t a knock on the achievements of other MCU alums like Don Cheadle, Bradley Cooper, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Anthony Mackie, Paul Rudd, Mark Ruffalo, Renee Russo, James Spader and more. They just didn’t make the cut. Consider them the honorable mentions, if you will.
Here now are the 10 best performances from the actors of the MCU:
10. Jeremy Renner in “The Town”
Controlled intensity is Renner’s forte, but this supporting role in Ben Affleck‘s sophomore feature is unhinged in all the best ways. Renner walks away with “The Town,” making an already great film even better. Every movie of this sort needs a wild card, and boy does Renner fill that slot. There’s a ton of uncomfortable humor here, though don’t sleep on James Coughlin, as he’s likely to put a bullet in your head just as soon as he looks at you. In some ways, this is a modern update of the characters that Joe Pesci made a career playing for Martin Scorsese.
Renner showed a whole new side of himself in Affleck’s crime caper. His Hawkeye is low-key in all the ways that this character was tuned up and on edge. Renner is always a pleasure to watch, and arguably never more so than here. His second Oscar nomination, coming in Best Supporting Actor for this role, was incredibly well deserved.
9. Edward Norton in “25th Hour”
MCU FILMS: “The Incredible Hulk” (2008)
Many argue that Norton should have an Academy Award for his performance in “American History X,” though his true crowning achievement so far is arguably in “25th Hour.” There’s even more going on, both under the surface and right in plain view, here. He harnessed the inherent anger in Spike Lee‘s work and gave it an extra edge. His monologue in front of the bathroom mirror is Norton’s single greatest moment in cinema to date.
Norton showcased the subliminal pain and inner struggle that he gave Bruce Banner here as a soon-to-be-imprisoned drug dealer. Whether he’s a good man who did something bad, or a bad man with kind tendencies, is irrelevant. It’s time to pay the piper and all Monty Brogan can do is realize where the blame belongs.
8. Jeff Bridges in “The Contender”
MCU FILMS: “Iron Man” (2008)
Bridges’ somewhat hippy performances only made this regal and sly turn as a president all the better. He’s tremendous in “The Contender,” a political thriller that’s only more timely today. Watching a president interact with congress in real life can be frustrating. On screen, it can be riveting. Bridges trying to get his vice presidential nominee confirmed is absolutely the latter. His backroom dealings and fights with Gary Oldman are both operatic and completely believable.
There’s definitely some Bridges within this character, though he reminded many of Bill Clinton at the time as well. The gravitas he brought to President Jackson Evans was evident in his nefarious Obadiah Stane. That one is good and one is evil shows just how slippery the slope of power can be. Bridges nails it.
7. Michael Douglas in “The American President”
MCU FILMS: “Ant-Man” (2015)
Speaking of cinematic presidents, arguably the greatest one to date was Douglas’ turn in “The American President.” Getting to spout Aaron Sorkin dialogue will make just about any actor look good, but Douglas especially wears it well. You buy him both as a romantic lead and as the leader of the free world in equal measure. More than just a romantic comedy, more than just a political tale, this is a full meal. With master “chefs” like Douglas and Sorkin serving you, it’s a delicious one at that.
Douglas paved the way for Martin Sheen to again make an iconic fictional president from Sorkin’s words. He also lent some dramatic heft to an otherwise silly film by grounding scientist Hank Pym a bit. You can almost imagine his President Andrew Shepherd as a distant cousin of Pym. The former is the clearly superior role, but the essence remains there in the latter.
6. Robert Downey Jr. in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”
The RDJ personality that fuels the MCU was somewhat formed by Downey Jr. here with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” This comedic detective story only works because Downey Jr. and co-star Val Kilmer ace the Shane Black-penned script. Harry Lockhart is clearly proto Tony Stark, which only makes it even more fun to later on see Black enter the MCU for the second “Iron Man” sequel. They often bring out the best in each other.
Downey Jr. is at his overall best and most purely entertaining here. Everything that Stark became started with this role. RDJ makes Harry a bit of a fool at times, but you root for him to eventually save the day. He wasn’t yet a superhero, but he sure was a hero here.
5. Natalie Portman in “Jackie”
MCU FILMS: “Thor” (2011), “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
For a moment, it looked like Portman was taking another Oscar home for playing Jackie Kennedy in the unique biopic “Jackie.” Even more than she did in her Academy Award-winning “Black Swan” performance, she just blows you away. Portman becomes the First Lady, showcasing her darkest moments and what came out of that whole ordeal. The quest to preserve Camelot has stakes just as high as anything found within the MCU.
Part of what works so well for Portman here is how she participates in the crafting of the biopic. “Jackie” is as much about the making of a biopic as it is a straight biopic. Portman can sometimes be a solid if unremarkable supporting player, like her Jane to Chris Hemsworth‘s Thor, but at other times she can just dominate. This is one shining example of the latter.
4. Sam Rockwell in “Moon”
MCU FILMS: “Iron Man 2” (2010)
This is the role that started the Oscar talk for Rockwell, and he’s the heart and soul of “Moon“. Sam Bell is very much an everyman, but the situation he finds himself in is one he never could have conceived of in a million years. That he lets you in on the inner workings of Sam’s fracturing mind is part of the success found here. It’s small-scale, but the performance is humongous.
Alone on the screen (technically), Rockwell is brilliant. None of his amusing tics that make Justin Hammer a fun foil to Iron Man are present. This is a tortured turn that begged for awards attention in a major way.
3. Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin”
MCU FILMS: “Iron Man 2” (2010), “The Avengers” (2012), “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014), “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015), “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)
Almost all of these previously mentioned roles came before the actor or actress entered the MCU. For Johansson, what makes her masterful performance in “Under the Skin” even more impressive is that it came in the middle of her MCU work. Her unnamed alien, dubbed The Female, is both deeply human and always removed from the emotions of being alive. That she sells it in such a moving way is just remarkable. Undeniably a tough sit, Johansson prevents you from taking your eyes off of her.
Physically and emotionally bare, Johansson has never been better. She’s good enough as Black Widow to warrant her own spinoff, but this could go down as her crowning achievement. It’s hypnotic in all the ways you want a role like this to be.
2. Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”
MCU FILMS: “Thor” (2011), “Thor: The Dark World” (2013)
A performance for the ages, Hopkins rightly took home the Best Actor Oscar for playing Hannibal Lector in “The Silence of the Lambs.” Between his banter with Jodie Foster, his stare, and just the way he carries himself, this is a cinematic revelation unlike any other. You rarely see horror get the acclaim that this one did, and a major reason why was Hopkins and his work within.
Immensely quotable, ominous while still being classy, this is a perfect character creation. Expanding on what the book and screenplay gave him, Hopkins just instantly put forth a villain or anti-hero that will never be forgotten. He won’t be remembered for playing Odin, but he will be remembered for Hannibal.
1. Mickey Rourke in “The Wrestler”
MCU FILMS: “Iron Man 2” (2010)
One of the bigger Academy Award injustices is that Rourke came up short on the big night for his all-time turn in “The Wrestler.” In some ways, that’s just fitting for Randy “The Ram” Robinson, and perhaps even for Rourke himself. An aging wrestler struggling to find his place in the world, your heart breaks for someone you might not otherwise give the time of day. Rourke’s own history only imbues it all with an extra coat of emotional paint.
Rourke pulls out his own heart and hands it to you over the course of the film. Getting to have fun as Ivan Vanko was his reward for this performance, though an Oscar would have been a more apt payment. As the years pass, this role will only gain more and more poignancy.