Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Iconic, textured, and scarred beneath the surface, Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Logan puts the “human” in “superhuman.” In honor of his recent farewell as the man formerly known as Wolverine, we’ve asked our panel of critics to name the best performance in the history of superhero movies.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Vox, Vulture, the Verge
My head tells me the correct answer is probably something like Heath Ledger’s swan song as “The Dark Knight”‘s rabid Joker or Michelle Pfeiffer as the kinked-up Catwoman in “Batman Returns.” But my heart’s in a cage — Nic Cage, to be specific. I recently revisited the “Ghost Rider” films and found his take on Satan’s emissary Johnny Blaze refreshingly unhinged, the rare performance that feels informed by the over-the-top theatricality of the comic book medium. Most especially in the Neveldine/Taylor-directed sequel, Cage follows his unknowable whims wherever they may lead him and it’s a pleasure to follow. If only more superhero movies had Cage’s live-wire unpredictability.
Jordan Hoffman (@jhoffman), Freelance for Vanity Fair, The Guardian
The answer is Natalie Portman in “Thor” and “Thor 2: More Thor.”
As Dr. Jane Foster (name very much changed at Ellis Island), Ms. Portman plays a brilliant nose-in-the-books scientist who has her heart hammered by a hulking blonde shaygetz from Outer Space. Chris Hemsworth’s elementary school style crypto-Shakespeare line readings and flowing locks render Dr. Foster (and us) incapable of resisting his charms. She dates beneath her station and gets nothing but intergalactic tsuris as a result.
Thor is Nicky Arnstein in a breastplate, and while I do enjoy and admire the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Portman’s portrayal of this push-pull love affair is one of the few things that means anything to me beyond dopey sci-fi tropes like gamma rays and Infinity Gems and portals to far off realms. Naturally, Natalie will be absent from the next Thor picture, because this reality is too cruel to let anything so pure and perfect alone.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko), Pajiba and Nerdist
Michelle Pfeiffer in “Batman Returns.” She was magnificent, transforming from the mousy secretary to the smirking femme fatale to the greatest diva super-villainy has ever seen. Whether giving her stitched leather cat suit a tongue bath, cartwheeling through chaos, or delivering an electric kiss, her every languid move was seductive and mocking. Her voice blossomed from hushed, hurried whimper to the deep, sneering purr. Tonally, she was the thread that knitted the repressed world of Batman to the fervent wildness of The Penguin, and with a style that was alluring and aspirational all at once. Pfeiffer’s performance was camp, cutting and instantly iconic. She had us at “Meow.”
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
None of them. Noneofthemnoneofthemnoneofthem. I realize it’s possible to come up with a best of anything, but does super heroic material — hyperbolic by nature — even lend itself to the kind of character work that we’d call “best”? Cutting to the chase, Heath Ledger’s turn in “Brokeback Mountain” is such a beautiful piece of internal turbulence, aren’t we doing a disservice to his legacy by championing his Joker? In the cold light of day, it’s really not that far off from Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the 1989 “Batman.” And that’s fine. He’s the Joker. He’s supposed to be a clown. But “best”? The more cartoonish the performance, the better it serves the concept. Clearly, I’m not on Team Nolan.
Mike Ryan (@MikeRyan), Uproxx
In recent years, but especially now, I have new appreciation for Christopher Reeve in “Superman.” He just projects a “goodness” that no one has really been able to reproduce quite like him. It’s never corny or stupid and somehow feels real. I’ve often said 2017 could use a Superman movie in the vein of the 1978 version — something that stands for actual “good” and maybe makes us feel better about ourselves — instead of the “dark, gritty” Superman we have now for reasons I will never understand. But the more I think about it, I just don’t think anyone could do quite what Reeve did.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
It’s an interesting question, as so many superhero movies don’t seem to contain any performances that weren’t created on a computer. That being said, the genre’s best unsurprisingly belong to the villains and supporting characters, which is all the more reason to celebrate the life and richness with which Hugh Jackman has managed to imbue Logan over the years. He doesn’t necessarily have all that much screen time, and his motivations aren’t particularly complex, but my favorite has always been Alfred Molina in “Spider-Man 2.” Molina is one of our most underutilized great actors, and Sam Raimi’s best film is an unlikely testament to Molina’s greatness. He makes you care about Otto Octavius right off the hop, and when those metal tentacle things are grafted onto his back, Molina does a brilliant job of sublimating real pathos into the mechanics of a blockbuster movie. As a result, the character remains heartbreakingly suspended between his blind rage and the better angels of his nature, the relationship between Doc Ock and his limbs becoming more dynamic than almost any other in the wider Marvel cinematic universe.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects
I read this question as specifically about performances of the heroes themselves, so I didn’t consider the great work in villain roles such as Heath Ledger as the Joker. But even with those qualifying I still have to say that Christopher Reeve delivers the finest acting in any superhero movie ever. His interpretation of Clark Kent and Superman aren’t just models for the genre after almost 40 years because it was one of the first. He’s also just never been topped. Mostly it’s his Kent that does it for me, with his awkward shtick that’s part genuine fish out of water ignorance and part intentional klutz act. With Reeve in the role, “Superman: The Movie” could have been a silent film, his performance is so visually driven. He’s Harold Lloyd as Kent and then handsome and confident Rudolph Valentino as the Man of Steel. Throw in a little of Cary Grant as both and that’s the brilliant Reeve as son of Jor-El.
Matt Patches (@MisterPatches), Thrillist
The indisputable answer is Chris Evans as Captain America. The role makes every demand of the actor, who endured two rounds as Johnny Storm to understand what it takes to humanize a comic book character. Captain America requires the physicality of your Wolverines and Hellboys, a comic timing on par with Iron Man and Deadpool, and the facial alchemy that allows Michael Fassbender to convert X-Men kitsch into poignant drama. Evans brings it all to the Captain America movies, but a singular earnestness that rises above the grimdark superhero spectrum is the reason I’m hoping he never bails from the Avengers. Sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch — Evans is a natural-born, big-screen leader.