The Top 20 MCU Performances

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After re-watching the first 18 films in the MCU, Ben & Matt have finally completed their ‘All-Marvel List’, selecting their twenty favourite performances from the first decade of Marvel Studios.

The Rules

One nominee per film (pre-Infinity War) plus one bonus pick each.

If nobody is particularly good we carry a pick forward.

Later performances of the same character can knock the previous one off the list.

The list is not ranked, but Tessa Thompson would obviously be number one.

Hayley Atwell
Captain America: The First Avenger

Ben: I’m not going to lie, one of the reasons that I pushed for Hayley Atwell to be recognised for Captain America: The First Avenger, was because I’d seen both seasons of the short-lived Agent Carter. That show demonstrated just how much Atwell brought to this role, and how much more she could do with it outside of the context of a two hour movie in which she wasn’t the title character. But damn, each time that I have rewatched this movie she breaks my heart all over again. In comparison to the other love-interests of Phase 1, Peggy Carter actually feels like she gets an arc. Pepper and Jane both get involved in the action to some degree, but nowhere near the extent of Peggy. And whilst Jane ‘loses’ Thor, we know that Steve and Peggy are never going to have that dance, and it’s that tragedy that Hayley Atwell absolutely nails. It’s one of the big travesties of the MCU that we haven’t had more of her in the movies, but we needed someone this good to really sell the relationship between these star-crossed lovers.

Robert Downey Jr.
Captain America: Civil War

Matt: We originally awarded Downey a spot on the list for his work in Iron Man, a transcendent, star-(re)making performance that catapulted him into the upper echelon of A-listers and allowed him to command one of the consistently largest price tags in the industry. It was a one-man show, with RDJ almost single handedly carrying the MCU on his back according to some, and absolutely deserves honouring. But his appearance in Civil War is an entirely different animal. As fun as the slicker-than-slick genius playboy billionaire philanthropist schtick is, Downey’s immense talent as an emotionally engaging actor is on full display in the final act of this movie. His decidedly NOT calm reaction to footage of his parents’ death and delivery of “I don’t care. He killed my mom” are devastating. His visceral rage as he tries to fight Bucky and Cap to the death eventually subsides, giving way to a bitter, broken side of Tony not seen before, demanding that Steve leave behind his shield as it “doesn’t belong to [him]”, a petulant request he is in no position to make, but one that Cap agrees to without hesitation. All in all, his seventh outing as the character is far more rounded. Plus he gets bonus points for angering Ike Perlmutter.

Check out Tony Stark: Marvel’s Most Developed Character for a more in depth analysis of RDJ as Tony.

Chris Evans
Captain America: Civil War

Ben: Chris Evans’ underrated performance as Steve Rogers only got better once we got to Winter Soldier; The character got to touch on the tragedy of having his life taken away from him in The Avengers, but in an ensemble movie there isn’t room to do a deep dive into individual characters. So Winter Soldier is where we get the first taste of Evans tackling the self-righteousness and tragedy of Steve Rogers. He’s a man out of time who lost everything but still keeps on fighting for what is right. And so when his presumed-dead best friend returns OF COURSE he’s going to do everything in his power to protect him. Even if that involves breaking up The Avengers. Chris Evans forces you to side with him every step of the way in this movie, right down to that final confrontation in Siberia. Robert Downey Jr. might have the showier part, but Evans gets to put everything that makes Captain America iconic into this fight. His loyalty, the fact he’ll never back down from a bully, his confidence and tenacity. Chris Evans makes being the best person look easy. And also he stops a helicopter taking off with his bare hands. Nuff said.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Ben: We cheated massively with this one. But I don’t think there was any other way. Everyone has a different favorite Guardian. They all elevate each other, making this an even more cohesive ensemble than the Avengers. Chris Pratt might have been the on-paper star of the movie, but Dave Bautista came out of nowhere to steal scenes left and right, Rocket and Groot are Rocket and Groot, and none of them would work without Zoe Saldana to play off. They all take turns playing the straight person (sadly Saldana more than most) whilst also getting to be fun and quippy. There is an interplay and chemistry to this cast that is the very core of why this movie works. Everyone looks like they’re having the time of their lives. Bradley Cooper or Vin Diesel could have phoned in their vocal performances, or Sean Gunn could have been a terrible on-set Rocket, but everything clicked. Guardians of the Galaxy became a surprise monster hit and Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot are household names now. I don’t think it would have happened if they hadn’t fundamentally nailed the casting as much as they did here.

Danai Gurira
Black Panther

Matt: While Michael B. Jordan and Letitia Wright have grabbed most of the attention in terms of acting performances in Black Panther, Danai Gurira’s facial expressions as Okoye are without peer. There is something about the absence of hair that makes this all the more expressive, as there is nothing to frame her face, making every twitch of an eyebrow and downturn of the mouth vital in crafting a memorable performance despite serving as not even a tertiary protagonist. Much like Jordan, she is telling a story with her posture and body language, commanding respect even before we see her raise a spear. Gurira does an excellent job of demonstrating how torn Okoye is at having to obey the orders of Killmonger, and her emotionally tense standoff against her lover W’Kabi solidifies this as one of the more underrated performances in the MCU.

Chris Hemsworth
Thor: Ragnarok

Matt: Joss Whedon described Hemsworth as perfectly cast when he worked with him for The Avengers; an enormous, blonde, muscular Australian god. His combination of incredible good looks and interview charm have meant he’s always been a fan favourite, and he did improve at the faux-Shakespearian dialogue (helped immensely by Whedon’s superior ability to write it), but it wasn’t until Ragnarok that the full range of his talents were unleashed. Hemsworth is a hilarious human being; quick on his feet with expert deadpan instincts, but the more serious tone of the first two films in his trilogy didn’t allow this to be deployed to maximum effect. Taika Waititi took the chains off him and fostered an environment that allowed him to cut loose. His delivery of the Snake Story alone is the stuff of legend. While I still think his best stretch of acting occurs on the mountaintop with Loki in The Avengers, Ragnarok is not without dramatic material for him to sink his teeth into, and I think the emphasis on Thor in team-up affairs would have been far greater if this film had happened earlier.

Tom Hiddleston
The Avengers

Ben: Hiddleston is good in Thor. He’s good in Thor: The Dark World. He exists on another level in The Avengers. He’s confident and menacing. He gets to monologue. He gets to make jokes. He gets to kick butt. And he gets to utter the immortal phrase “mewling quim”. Loki in Avengers set the bar for Marvel movie villains that wouldn’t come close to being matched for five years. His motives might be a little vague, but when the performance is this iconic does it really matter? Whilst the character’s constant flip flopping in later movies might dilute this a little, in a vacuum, this is exactly the kind of villain that The Avengers needed for their first foe (and not just because he is in the comics). They needed a charismatic foe, someone that had some level of personal stakes and who could keep the Avengers on their toes even if he couldn’t go blow for blow with them. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was probably the second ‘iconic’ Marvel character after Robert Downey Jr. in the MCU, and when you rewatch this movie, you see exactly why the fans latched on to him with the fervour that they did.

Tom Holland
Spider-Man: Homecoming

Matt: While Tobey Maguire holds a special place in the hearts of a generation, his work was always somewhat lacking for me, leaning a little too heavily on the whiney aspects of Peter Parker’s personality and never fully convincing me as Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield’s take improved upon certain aspects while opening up new weaknesses. In Tom Holland I felt both sides of the character were in balance and I finally got the Spidey of my dreams. The level of authenticity his physical capabilities bring cannot be overstated, and their decision to skew younger proved to be a good one, as Holland is able to convincingly play a teenager, leaning away from broody angst and instead creating an optimistic scatterbrain who passes the likeability test. He does all of this with a flawless American accent, something far higher profile actors can’t always claim. Holland was always going to be a star, but his turn as Spider-Man has definitely accelerated that journey.

Samuel L. Jackson
Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Ben: Until The Avengers, Samuel L. Jackson didn’t get a lot to do as Nick Fury. He was primarily cast to reference Bryan Hitch literally drawing Jackson as the Ultimate Universe version of Nick Fury, which made for a fun easter egg at the end of Iron Man. Whilst The Avengers was able to use Fury as a unifying force for the team, it wasn’t until Winter Soldier that we got to see Jackson really strut his stuff. What he does in this movie is made even more impressive by the fact that he’s ‘dead’ by the end of Act One. But this movie makes effective use of Jackson for what little time they have him for. The car chase scene is easily one of the best actions scenes in the entire MCU, and Jackson gets to bounce between confidence, defeat and just being generally Machiavellian. Winter Soldier plays to all of Jackson’s strengths, and placing him at the core of conspiracy thriller is exactly what this character needed.

Scarlett Johansson
The Avengers

Matt: In a film featuring a supersoldier, a walking tank, an enormous green rage monster and a couple of (‘basically’) gods, Black Widow more than holds her own without superpowers, fitting as Scarlett Johansson more than holds her own as the lone female Avenger. While Scar-Jo deserves a medal for enduring the inane, gender-biased questions that occur in every single press tour, even without that I would single her out for praise. Her false damsel in distress act in her first scene gives way to playful indifference (her ‘bitch, please’ look when her captor claims he wasn’t telling her anything is golden), which in turn leads to a ‘this is serious’ moment to set up one of her MANY best-in-show fights. It sums up her performance in a nutshell, but she is far from done, getting to bounce off the different energies of her new teammates, proudly sporting an ‘I don’t have time for this’ attitude throughout, while also exhibiting vulnerability when she barely survives an encounter with The Hulk that subsides as she picks herself back up in order to complete the mission at all costs. It’s this general ability to shift between tones that earns her this spot on the list, as she really is the film’s jack of all trades. Jackie of all trades? Whatever.

Michael B. Jordan
Black Panther

Ben: The camera loves Michael. B Jordan. Every time this man is on screen it is impossible to look away. He is the very definition of magnetic. In all honesty, this post could turn into me raving about how fucking great Jordan looks in that denim outfit, but that isn’t why we’re here (although it really should be). By the end of Black Panther, it becomes clear that Killmonger is right. He might be going about it in the worst way possible, but his idea of opening up the borders of Wakanda and helping the black people of the world, is one that the movie wholeheartedly sides with. In each and every scene, it’s clear that Jordan is playing Killmonger as a man convinced by his plan. He’s come to take revenge on the family that betrayed him and left him alone in the world. Black Panther is a movie with politics on it’s mind, and Erik Killmonger is the mouthpiece for a lot of that.  Jordan is a borderline mythic presence throughout a movie already filled with all-time great Marvel performances (we should know, three of them are on this list.)

Michael Keaton
Spider-Man: Homecoming

Matt: While Marvel’s villain problem – at its most pronounced during Phase 2 – has gradually improved over time, the former Batman’s interpretation of Vulture gave us a far more sophisticated bad guy, completely different from the melodramatic Loki. Keaton brought his usual level of quiet intensity, crafting a grounded blue-collar character whose plight rings true in a way the typical ‘Mwahaha’ style villains simply cannot. Adrian Toomes and his crew got completely screwed over by big business and so he decided to salvage alien tech and sell it in order to provide for his family. Most people can sympathise with that kind of motivation, and it really helped that he literally balks at the notion of being a supervillain. The reveal that Toomes is Liz’s father and the uncomfortable, dangerous silences that follow were a masterpiece, and Keaton played it in such a way that he would have been intimidating regardless of his secret. He did all of this despite the same lack of screen time that is typically used as an excuse for worse villains. I hope we see more of these kinds of characters in the MCU in the future.

Sir Ben Kingsley
Iron Man 3

Ben: This is the one that is going to piss people off. For some reason, the Mandarin of the comics carried a certain mystique just by the nature of him being Iron Man’s most notable enemy, despite not being very interesting at all. In the comics he is a horribly outdated, racist stereotype that would never work on screen. So Iron Man 3 doesn’t adapt the Mandarin. It uses all the trappings of the character, updated for a modern audience used to seeing terrorists of Middle Eastern descent on the news, and then turns him into a gag character. The moment that Sir Ben Kingsley does his Trevor Slattery voice and you realise that the big, bad Mandarin is just some British actor hired for a role, you realise just how genius a move this was. Not only does it piss off all the fanboys who want a straight adaptation of the comics, but it also lets Kingsley have the time of his life. Every line from or about him is solid gold; “They say his Lear was the toast of Croydon, wherever that is.” If Slattery is half as good as Kingsley, then I’m inclined to believe that.

Michael Peña

Matt: What a chameleon this man is. And a workaholic too. Triple threats – actors who excel at action, comedy and drama – are pretty rare in Hollywood, but Peña still flies somewhat under the radar despite proving he is one of them. While the Ant-Man corner of the MCU leans heavily into comedy in general, Luis was probably the funniest thing in the first film, with his telephone game sequences generating a tonne of word of mouth buzz. The character’s frantic pattern of speech and idiotic grin might prove irritating if performed by a lesser actor, but Peña imbues Luis with a great deal of charm, making his relentlessly upbeat nature in the face of frequent hardships endearing. There is a reason that there have been so many questions about his presence in Ant-Man & The Wasp, and we’ll find out soon if they are able to put a fresh spin on the character or if more of the same will be enough.

Jeremy Renner
Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ben: Poor, poor constantly shit-upon Hawkeye. In his first two appearances as Clint Barton, you almost wonder why Jeremy Renner bothered to sign on for this role. Yes, he gets to look like a badass in Act Three of The Avengers but that’s after spending the movie as a brainwashed pawn of Loki. Thus when it came to writing Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s obvious that Joss Whedon felt he needed to apologise to Renner. So he gets a wife and family, a nice farm to retire on and some of the best quips in the movie. This is definitely not the flashiest performance we have on the list, and it all honesty it’s the most borderline entry, but when Laura Barton says “[The Avengers] need someone to keep them down to earth” I’m inclined to believe her, and Renner is the right person to play that version of the character. Also if I say more nice things about him, maybe Disney will greenlight that adaptation of Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye comic that that everyone wants?

Sam Rockwell
Iron Man 2

Matt: I should probably have just used a GIF of Justin Hammer dancing his way onto the stage of the Stark Expo and left it at that, but Rockwell brings more than his sick dance moves to the role, continuing his streak of improving every film he’s in by one star (according to Ben, who isn’t enlightened enough to move past score based reviews). Hammer’s try-hard Tony Stark knockoff is a lot of fun, and the chemistry between he and RDJ is obvious in every scene they share. The magnetic charm of Tony is a team effort and there is an art to generously deferring to him without becoming completely invisible, something Rockwell nails. His Zorg from The Fifth Element soliloquy about all the War Machine weaponry is one of the underrated gems of Phase One. Please come back, Justin.

Michael Rooker
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2

Ben: In a shocking turn of events, Yondu got turned into the emotional heart and soul of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2. After getting one of the coolest action beats in all of Guardians, James Gunn wisely increased Rooker’s screentime for the sequel. From even more telepathic arrow madness to his now immortal “I’m Mary Poppins y’all!!”, Rooker does whatever this movie asks of him. In a story that’s all about the paternal relationship between Quill and Ego, the contrast made between that relationship and Quill and Yondu’s is stark. Neither character would have admitted it at the time, but there is a lot of love between them. So when Yondu says “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy” and you realise that he’s about to sacrifice himself for his adopted son, it’s just heartbreaking. To date, Yondu is the only Marvel hero death that is actually affecting, and I don’t think anyone expected this movie to be as moving as it was. It speaks volumes about the world James Gunn has created in just two movies, and the sterling work of Michael Rooker in his far too brief tenure in the MCU.

Mark Ruffalo
The Avengers

Matt: Stepping into Edward Norton’s shoes is an intimidating task, and when Ruffalo was cast as the new Bruce Banner it raised a fair number of eyebrows. Every doubt one could possibly have surely melted away in his first scene, rebuffing Black Widow’s sales pitch to help S.H.I.E.L.D. His slightly squirmy posture and skeptical smile establish his take on the character straight away, and his unscripted decision to rock a cradle while saying “I don’t every time get what I want” demonstrates a level of emotional intelligence beyond most actors. Norton emphasised the traumatic experience of transforming into The Hulk, while Ruffalo leans harder on cautioning others in a way that belies his super genius. He may also have the best chemistry with the core Avengers team of anyone in the cast, birthing the Science Bros meme with Downey, trading polite reverence with Evans and acting as a fun road trip companion to Hemsworth. In fact his chemistry with Johansson is so good that it led to a controversial romance in Age of Ultron. I would also be remiss in failing to mention that Ruffalo is the first actor to play both Banner and Hulk, providing motion and facial capture, some of which is improvised, and all of which is light years ahead of everything that came before The Avengers.

Tessa Thompson
Thor: Ragnarok

Ben: If you’d told me back in 2007 that the girl who played Wallace’s girlfriend in Veronica Mars would be the best part of the third Thor movie, I would have never believed you. Mostly because the idea of Marvel making even one Thor movie at that point was totally foreign, but also because Tessa Thompson was not the reason anyone watched Veronica Mars. But in Thor: Ragnarok? She is a force. Coming out of movies like Creed and Dear White People it was obvious that Thompson was built for something great, but I don’t think anyone expected for this to be it. Immediately iconic from the first moment she shows up on screen, she proceeds to steal scenes from Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Ruffalo for the rest of the movie. The fact that Marvel haven’t announced that a Valkyrie movie is coming is mind boggling, and whilst her fate is up in the air after Avengers: Infinity War, she made such a strong impact, that I can’t envision a world that Disney don’t have her locked into a contract.

Letitia Wright
Black Panther

Matt: For all my raving about Danai Gurira and the rapturous response to Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright gives my favourite performance in Black Panther. At once warm, playful, witty and intelligent, Shuri provides some of the MCU’s best ensemble support to the headline hero. Wright is obviously going to be a megastar, building an impressive resume of British television, but the sheer number of eyeballs on this movie mean she’ll get there even faster now. I sincerely hope we get more of her in the future, and no single factor has me hoping Tony Stark makes it out of the battle with Thanos alive more than the idea of Shuri humiliating him intellectually.


You may be wondering why Josh Brolin didn’t make the cut. Well, you can thank Marvel moving the release date of Infinity War up to before the 10 Year Anniversary… or more accurately you can thank us for not budging from our original concept. Either way. He’ll obviously be number 21 on our expanded list down the road.

Marvellous Journey

Check out more ‘great’ Reel World content:

Our review of Infinity War is coming tomorrow, but until then we’ve cultivated a big list of lists all about the MCU, as well as ranking every film in the franchise. Plus Matt wrote an enormous piece about Tony Stark and Ben followed it with a more tasteful article about Steve Rogers. You can find all of these and every episode of Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey in one convenient location.

If all this superhero nonsense isn’t your thing then our weekly LOST podcast, From Broadcast Depth, hosted by Kevin Ford & Ben Lundy, keeps getting better as coverage of season two continues.

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Matt Waters

Brit dude who likes both things AND stuff and has delusions of being some kind of writer or something. Basketball, video games, comic books, films, music, other random stuff.

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