We start the Top 7. You finish the Top 10.
Iron Man. The Incredible Hulk. Iron Man 2. Thor. Captain America: The First Avenger. The Avengers. Over the course of those six films, Marvel built something that seemed darn near impossible and did it with aplomb. I don’t love all of the films, but one thing that stands out is how well Marvel did filling the roles.
Sure, not every decision worked. Generally speaking, though, they nailed the roles that really count. Looking ahead, much of the casting for Marvel's Phase Two is equally promising. Ben Kingsley in this weekend’s Iron Man 3, Anthony Mackie in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Christopher Eccleston in Thor: The Dark World, and Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy would be a strong starting point for a Most Exciting Performances of Marvel's Phase Two list.
If there’s been one glaring problem, it’s been the women roles. As this male dominated list reflects, Phase One was all about the guys. Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger was great, but sadly she didn’t get to stand out enough to crack the list. Perhaps Phase Two will fix this. Maybe Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts will get to shine in the third Iron Man film, or perhaps a trip to Asgard will give Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster the spotlight. My money’s on Zoe Saldana’s Gamora being a highlight of Guardians of the Galaxy (provided she gets the role). Her background with Thanos has to count for something. I really hope some of these women get to shine. I don’t want to make another list after The Avengers 2 that is dominated by the males.
One final note: he didn’t make the list, but a lot of credit goes to Clark Gregg for making Agent Phil Coulson a character we care about. I would have thought Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury would be the only S.H.I.E.L.D. member who registered. Gregg didn’t allow that to happen. With that out of the way, let’s look back fondly at the marvelous Marvel casting. Here are my TOP 7 performances of Marvel's Phase One.
7. Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2
Role: The rival of Tony Stark who recruits Ivan Vanko to build armored suits. He'd love to leave his door unlocked at night, but this ain’t Canada. Reason: It’s possible that my undying love of Sam Rockwell is the reason he made the list rather than some other big names from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Even so, it really is a fantastic performance by the actor. I struggle to think of a film where Rockwell doesn't steal the screen every time he appears, and Iron Man 2 is no exception. Indeed, Rockwell’s often hilarious bad guy is one of the main reasons I’ve seen this disappointing film more than once. If I was making a list of least favorite Marvel performances, Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko would be a strong contender. Luckily, Rourke’s often silly villain leads to plenty of opportunities for pitch perfect reactions from Rockwell’s Justin Hammer. I may not be interested in seeing Vanko pining over his bird, but I can’t get enough of Hammer’s flummoxed reaction. Also, Rockwell gets to show off his sweet dancing skills. That’s more than enough for the number seven slot.
6. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man in Iron Man
Role: To put it in his own words, he’s a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. And he has a suit of armor. Yeah, he can fly. Reason: “I am Iron Man. The suit and I are one.” Those words are spoken by Tony Stark in Iron Man 2, and they could be twisted to apply to the actor and the role. Are there other actors who could play the quick-witted head of Stark Industries? I suppose so, but at this point it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling the role quite as well as Robert Downey Jr. When aiming for a “likeable asshole,” it would be easy to miscast and forget the “likeable” part. Downey Jr. got it, and made the man inside the armor just as compelling as the armor itself. This superstar work solidified the comeback that began with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (for my money his best performance). As I’ve said before when talking about Marvel films, I’m not the biggest fan of Iron Man as a whole. Still, Downey Jr.’s performance transcends and will be remembered for kicking off the tremendous run of Marvel’s spot-on casting.
5. Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt/Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger
Role: The head of HYDRA, a Nazi who intends to harness the power of the Tesseract for world domination. He proudly embraces leaving humanity behind. Reason: Villainous Hugo Weaving is probably my favorite Hugo Weaving (give or take drag queen Weaving in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), and Captain America: The First Avenger provides a great opportunity for him to further prove that. I enjoy everything about this performance. Weaving completely embraces the comic book origins of the character, and it’s just a lot of fun to behold. The Werner Herzog voice is delightfully evil, and that’s how I’d describe the entire performance. Red Skull is so much fun to watch, but Weaving plays him with the appropriate level of menace. After all, a red-skulled megalomaniac Nazi super soldier is worthless if he’s not menacing. Occasionally reminiscent of a comic book version of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa, the way he praises Captain America’s films is a great innocuous line filled with menace. Captain America: The Winter Soldier’s various antagonists – the Winter Soldier, Batroc the Leaper, Crossbones – certainly have a lot to live up to.
4. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger
Role: After physical problems lead to his being rejected from joining the World War II fight, Steve Rogers is allowed to enlist by Dr. Abraham Erskin. He becomes part of a super soldier experiment and Erskin’s serum allows him to become the soldier he always was inside. He’s just a kid from Brooklyn. Reason: Sticking with Captain America: The First Avenger, obviously the only person who can beat the villain is the hero. I’ll admit, before the role was officially cast, I was kind of into the idea of John Krasinski playing Steve Rogers. The obviousness of Chris Evans made him less appealing for whatever reason. Now, like Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark, it’s tough to imagine anyone other than Evans playing the Star Spangled Man. Moments in The Avengers – particularly him directing the New York City police officers – may be higher highs, but the work he does throughout the first Captain America movie is outstanding. Aided by some solid effects work, Evans completely sells himself as a physically weak Brooklyn kid who just wants to fight for his country. Once he turns into the super soldier, Evans once again completely sells getting used to his new body and then putting it to good use. Can’t wait to see what’s next as he tangles with the Winter Soldier.
3. Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in The Avengers
Role: The very capable S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who is aces during interrogations. She has red in her ledger. Reason: I mentioned Mickey Rourke’s performance above, but the poorly integrated S.H.I.E.L.D. stuff in Iron Man 2 was just as big a blight on that film. Scarlett Johansson was part of that. She had the fighting down – that hallway fight featuring her and Happy Hogan was a minor highlight – but the association with S.H.I.E.L.D. left a bad taste that had me worried about her involvement in The Avengers. That was very foolish with Joss Whedon involved, and Natasha Romanoff ended up being a major standout. Once again Johansson sold the physicality, and this time she was blessed with a strong character. She made the most of it. The fantastically written and acted interrogation scene made it immediately clear that the character was improved. The later scene between Natasha and an imprisoned Loki is equally good. The idea that Black Widow could be one of my favorite parts of The Avengers seemed preposterous before seeing it. Afterward, it couldn’t be more accurate.
2. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in Thor and The Avengers
Role: The crafty and cunning adoptive brother of Thor. He’s always been one for mischief. Reason: I’ll be honest, Tom Hiddleston was a complete unknown to me the first time I watched Thor. While that probably played a small role in how taken I was by Hiddleston, I was mostly impressed by what Kenneth Branagh, the writers, and the actor did with the role. I mentioned how fun Hugo Weaving is as the Red Skull. He’s probably the most purely fun, comic book-y villain the Marvel movies have seen, but Hiddleston’s Loki is easily my favorite antagonist performance. He mines some real emotion and pain playing the spurned brother, and he has strong chemistry with Chris Hemsworth whether they are fighting alongside or against each other. He is perfect throughout Thor, and his “mewling quim” speech to Black Widow in The Avengers is one of the most memorable non-action moments from Phase One. I’d never say I rooted for Loki. Still, thanks to Hiddleston's strong work, it’s hard not to feel for him.
1. Chris Hemsworth as Thor in Thor
Role: The wielder of Mjolnir, he’s a mighty warrior and heir to the throne of Asgard. He comes from a land where magic and science are one and the same. Reason: As good as he was in the opening of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Chris Hemsworth still wasn’t a name that got me overly excited for Thor. It didn’t take long for me to be completely won over by the Australian actor. Hemsworth looks like he’s chiseled by the gods themselves, so being believable as the cocky prince of Asgard is no problem. And he makes fighting with Mjolnir look as awesome as it rightly should. I’m almost more impressed by how he plays Thor stripped of all his powers on Earth. The godly stuff is great, no doubt, but Hemsworth plays the fish out of water beats perfectly. Thor walking into a pet store and demanding a horse is one of my favorite small moments from Phase One. The performance isn’t without emotion either. One of my favorite scenes in Thor – poor Hawkeye cameo aside – is when Thor fights his way through the S.H.I.E.L.D. facility where Mjolnir crashed. This scene offers everything: Thor amusingly saying “Fought bigger” to the large guard, Hemsworth showing off his fantastic fighting prowess, and some real pain when he realizes he can’t lift his hammer. Throw in charming chemistry with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster (come on, you’d fall immediately in love if a perfect god fell to Earth too), and Chris Hemsworth’s performance is an easy choice for my favorite of Marvel Phase One.
Bring on Phase Two!