The 10 Greatest Superhero Movie Performances

Chris Tilly
Movies Marvel
Movies Marvel

With superhero films dominating at the box office and now filled with some of the best actors on the planet, FANDOM takes a look back at the greatest ever comic book movie performances, ranking them from 10 to 1.

10. Wesley Snipes – Blade

Wesley Snipes as Blade.

X-Men frequently gets the credit for re-invigorating superhero movies in 2000. But after Joel Schumacher effectively killed the genre stone-dead with his two Batman movies, it was Blade that made them cool again, and that was back in 1998.

The success of the Blade films was largely down to Wesley Snipes’ performance in the title role. Playing Blade like Batman’s badder younger brother, he delivered one-liners and kills with gusto. Blade’s also a vampire-slayer that’s permanently on the verge of becoming a vampire, a contradiction that Snipes has fun playing with throughout the three movies.

That battle within himself is the closest the Blade movies get to depth, but what the films lack in substance they more than make up for in style, making Snipes the coolest superhero thus far seen onscreen.

9. Ron Perlman – Hellboy

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Hellboy is a tough character to bring to life onscreen. Not only are you buried under a mountain of red devil make-up, but you’re also playing a wise-cracking character with a back-story that’s filled with tragedy and sadness. That’s a tough combination, but Ron Perlman nails it on both fronts.

He also sells the love story between Hellboy and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) – no mean feat when the pair look so ridiculous standing next to each other (though Perlman has form on this front having convinced in TV’s Beauty and the Beast).

Sad thing is, we’ll never get to see the end of his story and the culmination of that performance. Perlman and writer-director Guillermo Del Toro were setting up storylines in the first two films that were set to pay-off in the third instalment, most notably Hellboy fulfilling his destiny by becoming the Beast of the Apocalypse. Del Toro said it would be “bittersweet” and “heartbreaking”, telling IGN: “The third one would be essentially the end of days. It would be very grand, operatic and quite tragic.”

Which if they’d pulled it off, might have bumped Perlman further up this list. For now, we’ll have to make do with those first two wonderful performances that turned this most unlikely of superheroes into a devilish icon.

8. Tobey Maguire – Spider-Man

Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man.

Andrew Garfield was a good Spider-Man, though perhaps more convincing as Spidey than Peter Parker. Tom Holland is currently doing a great job as the character, though it’s maybe a little too soon to judge his performance. Tobey Maguire however, nailed it across three Spider-Man movies.

Maguire was convincing as the outcast loser uncomfortable in his own skin, as the science genius able to build his own web-shooters, and as the hero capable of bringing down the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Sandman and Venom.

He didn’t quite nail wise-cracking Spidey, but that’s as much down to those three scripts as it is his performance. But in Spider-Man 2 he more than made up for it, Peter Parker going on maybe the most complex and nuanced superhero journey yet seen onscreen, one that’s filled guilt, grief, anger and frustration. Yet Maguire maintains the character’s inherent decency and optimism, traits that make him one of the superhero greats.

7. Gal Gadot – Wonder Woman

As the first film in the modern comic book movie era to revolve around a female character, there was a lot riding on Wonder Woman, and Gal Gadot’s performance as the Amazonian warrior. Fans needn’t have worried. The Israeli actress is a little shaky in the film’s early scenes on Themyscira, but that’s as much to do with Gadot having to deliver some dodgy dialogue and clumsy exposition as it is her acting.

But she truly comes to life when the action transfers to WWI, with Gadot likably feisty as Diana Prince, frustrated and enraged by the male-dominated society into which she is thrust. But she really excels as Wonder Woman, imbuing the character with courage, valour, warmth, dignity, and a compassion that sets her apart from most of her male superhero counterparts.

6. Patrick Stewart – Professor X

Patrick Stewart as Professor X.

Patrick Stewart has been playing Charles Xavier for 17 years now, with the character taking centre stage in the original X-Men trilogy, and showing up in prequels and spin-offs. Throughout that time he’s delivered consistently powerful performances as the principled mutant who wants to protect his fellow mutant.

Stewart’s Professor radiates decency, and his onscreen work has been elevated by the quality of his co-stars, most notably Ian McKellen as Magneto, their friendship/turned-rivalry providing some of the series’ most affecting moments.

But he saved the best for last in the shape of Logan, with Charles old and tired, his mind being wrecked by Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a heartbreaking turn – filled with pathos and emotion – and will be remembered as one of the greatest performances in Stewart’s illustrious career.

5. Ryan Reynolds – Deadpool

Ryan Reynolds had the most false of starts when it comes to Deadpool. The actor played a seriously neutered version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, with filmmakers – in a decision that was bizarre, even by Hollywood standards – taking the power of speech away from the ‘Merc with a Mouth.’ Reynolds persevered, however, and some seven years later got to put his vision for Deadpool onscreen. And boy, was it worth the wait.

As Wade Wilson, Reynolds delivered the funniest performance of 2016. In the hands of a lesser actor, the constant gags would have become annoying. But Reynolds’ charisma shines through, while he handles the more serious scenes with just the right amount of humour and cynicism. Deadpool made a fortune turning bad taste into high art, and much of that success was down to Ryan Reynolds’ fearless performance.

4. Michael Keaton – Batman

Michael Keaton as Batman.

The comic book movies that came before 1989 were bright, colourful and largely fun-filled affairs. Then Tim Burton got his hands on Batman, and the superhero movie turned dark. The script was serious and the visuals gothic, but it was Michael Keaton’s central performance that really shook things up.

The actor had previously specialised in slightly deranged, and he turned that up to 11 for Batman. His Bruce Wayne was brooding and troubled, filled with rage that was bubbling just beneath the surface. Keaton’s Batman, meanwhile, was a no-nonsense tough guy that was less Adam West and more Clint Eastwood. He made superheroes serious and cool, and seriously cool, and changed the way the genre was perceived forever.

3. Robert Downey Jr. – Iron Man

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Marvel was taking something of a chance when they chose Robert Downey Jr. to play Iron Man in the film that launched their ‘Cinematic Universe.’ His talent wasn’t in doubt, but the actor’s troubled past was well-documented, while having specialised in low-budget, independent fare, he was hardly a bankable blockbuster star. But as soon as he appears onscreen as Tony Stark, you know they picked the right man.

Funny and cocky yet still strangely likable, Downey perfectly brings Stark’s mammoth ego to life onscreen. But as proceedings progress, we get a deeper sense of who Tony is – a good man trying to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost. It’s a performance that’s become more complex as the Marvel movies have progressed, and when he does finally hang up that Iron Man suit, there will be a Downey-shaped hole in the heart of the MCU.

2. Christopher Reeve – Superman

Following a worldwide search for the Man of Steel, director Richard Donner and producer Ilya Salkind eventually chose the relatively inexperienced Christopher Reeve. And rarely has a casting choice been so right, with the handsome, athletic, 6’4″ actor somehow managing to embody ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ in his performance.

He based Clark Kent on Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, and is utterly believable as the seemingly clumsy fool. But take off those glasses and you’ve got the very personification of heroism. As the tagline suggested, he made you believe a man could fly, while at times it seemed like he really was made of steel.

Supermans I and II are classics of the genre, yet while III and IV are pretty bad, Reeve is never less than great. Most notably when he utterly convinces as bad Superman, fighting his good counterpart in an acting tour de force.

1. Hugh Jackman – Wolverine

It’s mad to think that Hugh Jackman was a last-minute replacement for Dougray Scott in the first X-Men movie, as now it’s pretty much impossible to imagine anyone else playing Wolverine. Like the aforementioned Patrick Stewart, he’s been able to spend 17 years and multiple films developing the character. Unlike Stewart, he’s had to keep in Wolverine shape for most of that time, which is a superhuman feat in itself.

But it’s not just incredible physicality that Jackman brings to the role, but also real heart and soul. The pain of Logan’s past is etched into Jackman’s face, telling us all we need to know about Wolverine’s traumatic origin before we bore witness to it in the traumatic – for fans of the character at least – X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

But as with Reeve, even in a bad film, Jackman was never less than note-perfect. And in the good films – whether dealing with tragedy, or unleashing that berserker rage – his scenes were invariably the best. Culminating in Logan, a great superhero movie that features the greatest superhero movie performance. With Wolverine being poisoned by his own Adamantium skeleton, Jackman delivers a devastating turn, the character’s anger and regret filling every frame, and building towards an unforgettable conclusion. It’s a fitting finale that caps off a remarkable run.

Chris Tilly
FANDOM Managing Editor in the UK. At this point my life is a combination of 1980s horror movies, Crystal Palace football matches, and episodes of I'm Alan Partridge. The first series. When he was in the travel tavern. Not the one after.
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