For all the many strengths of "The Avengers," there's one important element that writer-director Joss Whedon can't take credit for: the casting. Of the main characters, only one, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, hasn't appeared in one of the previous five Marvel movies that have led to this point. So given the casting committee that assembled The Avengers, it's something of a miracle that it's ended up with one of the most enjoyable collections of actors in a big tentpole movie for quite some time.
Of course, for the most part, it's to be expected: while there are a few newcomers in the mix, the principle cast have close to a century of experience in the movies between them, and countless great performances in their back catalogs. With "The Avengers" finally hitting U.S. theaters tomorrow, we've picked out the greatest performance of each of the seven members who make up the superhero team (plus Tom Hiddleston, who plays villain Loki), so you can have your own mini-Avengers marathon if your screening gets sold out this weekend. Check it out below, and as ever, vent any disagreements in the comments section.
Robert Downey Jr. – "Chaplin" (1992)
Prior to "Chaplin," Robert Downey Jr. had been transitioning from teen flicks to more adult roles, in part thanks to his impressive turn in "Less Than Zero." But if confirmation were needed that he was one of the more exciting talents of his generation, it arrived with "Chaplin." Richard Attenborough's biopic is no great shakes — competent, but overly conventional, and attempting to cover too much ground in its saggy running time. But Downey Jr. is terrific in the title role, taking on one of the most iconic movie figures ever, in what must have been somewhat terrifying responsibility. But you wouldn't know it when you watch him: while there isn't an obvious visual resemblance, he's wonderful as the silent star, pulling off the comedy as well as anyone could have, yet also getting under the skin of the man in a way that the film itself never quite manages. It's a testament to the performance that Attenborough includes footage of the real Chaplin in the credits, and you never feel cheated.
Honorable Mentions: We were a hair's breadth from selecting his fantastic comeback role in Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" playing a failed actor turned would-be private eye in a fantastically motor-mouthed, vulnerable and hilarious performance. He did good work in "The Singing Detective" while still on the way back up again, even if the film itself is weak, while it's a mark of the strength of his turn in "Zodiac" that the film seems to sag a bit once he comes out of the picture. Finally, his second Oscar-nominated performance in "Tropic Thunder" is a thing of comic genius.
Chris Evans – "Sunshine" (2007)
Among an eclectic international cast for Danny Boyle's sci-fi near-masterpiece "Sunshine," Chris Evans was somewhat the odd man out. The actor had shown his charisma in genre fare like "Cellular" and "Fantastic Four," but the films themselves hadn't exactly shone, and he'd always seemed a little… insubstantial. Which makes it doubly impressive that he stands out among a strong cast including Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne and Mark Strong. Evans plays Mace, the engineer of the spaceship Pegasus II, and it's a world away from anything he'd done before. He's not a bad guy — far from it — but Evans is admirably unafraid to make the character prickly and unlikable, dedicated above all else to the success of their mission. It's the less glamorous side of the sort of heroic figure he's tended to play, but Evans walks the tightrope nicely — you think that Mace is kind of a prig, but you still feel for him when he meets his icy death. Fingers crossed, his reunion with another international sci-fi cast for Bong Joon-Ho's "Snow Piercer" will be just as exciting.
Honorable Mentions: Even among a cast that seems to be engaging in some kind of World Scene Stealing competition, Chris Evans walks away with "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World." As dickish skateboarder-turned-action-star Lucas Lee, he's a neat parody of a certain kind of ego-ed actor, complete with Christian Bale voice and preening manner. He's strong in indie "Puncture" too, even if the film isn't so hot.
Chris Hemsworth – "Thor" (2010)
The greenest member of the cast, we've got high hopes for his first serious dramatic turn, as race driver James Hunt in Ron Howard's upcoming "Rush," but right now, he's indecipherable from his Marvel character to most moviegoers. But that's no slight on Hemsworth as "Thor." Casting the part — a six-foot-plus brick shithouse of a Norse God — must have been Marvel's hardest task to date. The Australian actor rose to the challenge impressively, with a pitch-perfect accent, action chops, genuine gravitas and a deft comic touch. Thor's arc, from spoilt boy to hero, is one of the more satisfying in the films to date, and it's paid off neatly when he reprises the role in Joss Whedon's film. We can only hope that next year's sequel continues to give him good material.
Honorable Mentions: David Twohy's 2009 thriller "A Perfect Getaway" was pretty much ignored on release, despite being a nifty little genre picture, and Hemsworth, as one half of a sinister hitchhiking couple (with an impressive handlebar stache/beard combo), gives a nicely menacing, ambiguous turn.
Mark Ruffalo – "You Can Count On Me" (2000)
Even in dreck like "Rumor Has It," Ruffalo's never been anything less than thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but as reliably excellent as he is, his breakout performance in Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 film remains his peak. The actor plays Terry, the no-good, aimless, estranged brother of Sammy (Laura Linney), whose parents were killed in a car crash when they were children. Fleeing from a painful relationship with a girl who later attempts suicide, he returns home, crashing with his sister and proving to be a bad influence on her son Rudy Jr. (Rory Culkin). Ruffalo's turn saw him compared by all and sundry to Marlon Brando, and we suppose it's fair enough: there's a low-key brilliance to the performance that's reminiscent of the great star. Lonergan's greatest strength is bringing out a complexity in his characters, and Ruffalo rises to the occasion, playing an irresponsible fuck-up and a tiny, vulnerable child in the same breath.
Honorable Mentions: Ruffalo was almost as good, albeit in a much smaller role, in last year's reunion with Lonergan, "Margaret." Otherwise, he steals the show in "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," got a deserved Oscar nomination for "The Kids Are All Right," and alongside Downey Jr, was another highlight of "Zodiac" ("The Avengers," in which Ruffalo gives the best performance, capitalizes on their chemistry by making them something of a double act). We're also fond of Ruffalo in "The Brothers Bloom," even if we appreciate that some found the film hard to swallow.
Scarlett Johansson – "Ghost World" (2001)
Oft-unfairly-derided (which is not to say that she hasn't given bad performances — the less said about "The Black Dahlia" the better), those surprised by how good Johansson is in "The Avengers" haven't been paying attention. Despite being only 27, she's been appearing on screen for almost two decades, and has plenty of strong performances behind her. Perhaps her finest remains one of her transitional early adult roles, in Terry Zwigoff's "Ghost World." As Becky, the more conventional best friend of lead Enid, she's very much playing second fiddle to the bone-dry Thora Birch (and indeed Steve Buscemi as oddball Seymour). But it's still a very strong performance thanks to the chemistry she shares with Birch, portraying a friendship that feels entirely authentic. And (arguably unlike the film itself), she avoids judging her character for the choices she makes. Between this and her under-age femme fatale in the Coen Brothers' "The Man Who Wasn't There," it became clear that the actress was a unique kind of talent, and while she hasn't always lived up to that promise, we hope she's getting back on track now.
Honorable Mentions: Two years later saw her breakthrough to the A-list in Sofia Coppola's "Lost In Translation," and it's a strong, albeit mostly silent, portrait of ennui. More recently, she was disarmingly charming in Cameron Crowe's "We Bought A Zoo," and we've got high hopes for her starring role in Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin."
Jeremy Renner – "The Hurt Locker" (2009)
Now a bona-fide A-lister with three franchises to his name, Jeremy Renner hasn't exactly been an overnight success. He first started turning heads and landing studio roles a decade ago, but it was only his lead in Kathryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" that got him where he is now. And it's no wonder: even alongside his superb co-stars Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, Renner stands tall, as Sergeant First Class William James, the bomb-disposal expert. As David Morse's character puts it in the film, he's "a wild man," a ludicrously reckless danger junkie, his comrades actively consider killing him to save their own skin. And yet he's enormously charismatic, even sweet in places, and a hugely engaging person to spend a couple of hours with. But the richness and sadness of Renner's performance only becomes apparent when he returns home — he'd like to be able to reengage with his wife and baby, but he simply doesn't know how to, and looks to be quietly dying inside. Unsurprisingly, he's soon back in action again.
Honorable Mentions: Renner's breakout came in the serial killer biopic "Dahmer," in which he's absolutely chilling and still recognizably human. He also gave a lovely (if somewhat overshadowed) supporting performance in "The Assassination Of Jesse James," and rightfully picked up a second Oscar nomination for his brilliant turn in Ben Affleck's "The Town." He's also deliciously slimy as Bobby Sharp in "North Country."
Samuel L. Jackson – "Changing Lanes" (2002)
Ooh, controversial. Jackson's roles with Tarantino might be his most iconic, and he's given strong turns more recently, but for us anyway, his finest hour is in Roger Michell's underrated morality play "Changing Lanes." Back at the height of his powers, when he actually turned down some of the jobs he was offered, Jackson plays Doyle Gipson, a recovering alcoholic trying to stop his estranged wife from moving away with his kids. On the way to the courtroom, he collides with a yuppie lawyer (Ben Affleck) who leaves him at the scene, setting off a chain of escalating revenge between the two. While the ending lets things down by being too neat, the picture's mostly a taut, surprising, complex piece of work, and while Affleck gives what still might be his best performance, it's Jackson who walks away with the film. Perfectly cast to capitalize on the "furious anger" that's become his trademark, there's a quiet, sad dignity, and increasing desperation to him, even as he does fairly reprehensible things.
Honorable Mentions: Aside from the obvious Tarantino roles in "Pulp Fiction" and "Jackie Brown," he's enormously good in mid-90s actioners "The Long Kiss Goodnight" and "Die Hard With A Vengeance," long before he started phoning it in. More recently, he's given good performances in not-particularly-great movies "Blake Snake Moan" and "Resurrecting The Champ," and reminded us of his real skills in Tommy Lee Jones' HBO Cormac McCarthy adaptation "The Sunset Limited."
Tom Hiddleston – "Archipelago" (2010)
While Hiddleston's only a few years into his career at this point, he's already turned in several memorable performances. He made his film debut in Joanna Hogg's 2007 independent film "Unrelated," as a teenage boy flirting with his father's middle-aged friend in Tuscany, and reunited with the director three years later for "Archipelago," in which he plays a middle-class twentysomething who joins his dysfunctional family on a holiday to the Isles of Scilly before leaving for volunteer work in Africa. Hogg's an unfashionable kind of filmmaker, indebted more to Rohmer and Ozu than more modern influences, and it's not necessarily surprising that her beautifully observed, immaculately-framed films, which examine a very particular kind of upper-middle class British life, haven't gotten much play internationally. But fans of Hiddleston as Loki should certainly try to track it down. He beautifully draws his character as a certain kind of well-meaning, nice boy, appalled by his family and yet susceptible to the same kind of flaws, and together with the rest of the (less-familiar) cast, creates a feel that's not so much drawn from life as directedly transplanted from it.
Honorable Mentions: Hiddleston was solid as F. Scott Fitzgerald in "Midnight in Paris," and was also terrific as boozing, self-loathing pilot and cuckolder Freddie, opposite Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies' "The Deep Blue Sea."