Over the course of Ben & Matt’s Marvellous Journey your hosts have been curating their list of favourite acting performances aka ‘The All-Marvel List‘.
Now twice as big as last time you probably didn’t read it!
You can listen to the podcast verison of how we arrived at this list.
One nominee per film (plus two bonus picks)
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.
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.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Ben: Not to give the Academy more legitimacy than they deserve, but it would feel wrong not to highlight just how good a performance this is that it managed to earn a breakthrough acting nomination for the MCU. Angela Bassett wasn’t really in consideration when we did our Black Panther episode, but more by virtue of how deep of a bench that movies supporting cast is. But in Wakanda Forever she is front and centre. Ramonda is who the movie channels its grief at Chadwick Boseman’s passing, through. Bassett is a force of nature in the role, commanding the scene every time that she is on screen. Of course, it sucks that we only got to see Bassett flex her acting muscles this much in her potential final time playing the character, but if this is indeed the last time we get to see Bassett do the thing as Ramonda, then she went out giving a franchise best performance.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Matt: One of the MCU’s longest-tenured performers, this nod is as much in recognition of Bettany’s underrated work as JARVIS as his physical embodiment of The Vision, so choosing the project where he got to do both makes sense. JARVIS’ put-upon dry wit is reminiscent of Alfred from Batman the Animated Series (read: tremendous), and Bettany excels here. Being V. British helps, obviously. Viz arrives relatively late in a bloated film, but he’s worth the wait, and Bettany brings an almost mime-like quality to the performance. There’s more measured grace than the stereotypical perception of a robotic character, but he’s still clearly not human. It’s the way he stares out the window, mesmerised, the way he nonchalantly lifts Mjolnir and the way he subconsciously grows a cape because Thor has one (obviously that’s VFX-driven, but it still rules.) What really sealed the deal for me was his final quiet debate with his creator, Ultron. It’s poignant, hopeful, glib and most importantly, surprisingly warm.
Ben: Obviously one of the hardest of these blurbs to write. On the initial Black Panther podcast episode, we weren’t dismissive of Chadwick’s performance, but we were certainly more wowed by the flashier supporting performance that make that movie so special. But now that we’ve had a few years to reflect on his passing, and see what a Boseman-less sequel looks like, it really is important to highlight what an accomplishment it was to have such a gravitational performance at the centre of the movie. He has fantastic chemistry with every actor in the movie and whilst he isn’t giving the showiest performance, he knows at exactly what level to pitch his performance so that the movie and his co-stars are able to shine. It’s an underrated acting trick, but one that Boseman was clearly gifted with.
Avengers: Infinity War
Matt: One of the main reasons I’m on an island preferring Infinity War to Endgame is the shockingly effective performance of Thanos, brought to life through uncharacteristically good CGI and Josh Brolin’s facial capture and voice acting. The movie would fall apart without him, but luckily he rules from his first scene until his last, despite the enormous handicap of being a bunch of pixels in an era that needs more practical effects. I can see how a previous version of the script made Thanos the out-and-out main character, complete with narration and more flashbacks, because he’s the most compelling part of the film. From his nihilistic approach to environmentalism, to his genuine tears over having to sacrifice the only person he loves, to his playful trashtalking while mopping the floor with the Avengers’ heaviest hitters, Thanos is going to be difficult to top as an MCU Final Boss (thanks for revealing yourself as a cunt, Jonathan Majors!)
Sophia di Martino
Matt: Far more than simply ‘Lady Loki’, di Martino makes Sylvie a fascinating person in her own right. She’s got the quick-witted barbs down pat, allowing her to bicker with Hiddlestone and runs rings around everyone else. But you can also feel her history as a lone survivor constantly on the run, which is on display in almost every scene. di Martino really underlines this grand canyon of difference in lived experience between her and Loki, building to the glorious crescendo that was the season finale. There is more emotional weight behind this 30 second fight than any of the chaotic cavalcades of CGI vomit in almost every other MCU project because we care about both of the characters’ performance-driven groundwork laid by the actors. I think she plays the clumsy romance better than Hiddlestone too, and she makes Sylive more of a badass compared to Loki’s smarm.
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. It was a one-man show, with RDJ 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.
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.
Check out Steve Rogers: More Than Just a Big Red, White & Blue Boyscout for a more in depth analysis of Evans as Cap
Matt: I was extremely taken with Gillen’s performance from the first Guardians movie, but there was no way she was getting on the list ahead of the core five. Luckily, she’s chosen as one of the few survivors of The Snap in Endgame and immediately justifies that decision with a tremendous performance. She’s always been great playing off Zoe Saldana, but her odd couple relationship with Tony Stark to begin the movie, followed by the devastatingly quiet moment where she holds Rocket’s hand are as good a first five minutes as anyone has had in the MCU. Being asked to play her ‘evil’ self in the movie as well is just letting Gillen do a victory lap, fully maximising the sympathy her character journey has garnered with audiences. Plus the make-up work and physical presence Gillen brings to the role has always been hypnotic.
Ben: The glue of the early MCU. Clark Gregg was always over qualified for what he was being asked to do during the first few movies. More a glorified easter egg machine, they rolled him out to reveal an acronym or show how interconnected this franchise was going to be. But Gregg was always so memorable in these little roles, always game for whatever nonsense they needed him to say, and obviously worked well opposite people like Robert Downey Jr. and Natalie Portman. So when The Avengers rolled around and Joss Whedon immediately drilled down into Phil Coulson as the heart and soul of the movie, Gregg was more than up to the challenge. He gets scenes with every major character in the early going for the movie and coupled with four years worth of appearances it really does drive his sacrifice home. Gregg really stepped his game up and for his service was ultimately rewarded with seven seasons worth of TV residuals.
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.
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 peerless. The absence of hair makes her even more expressive, as there is nothing to hide her face, amplifying every twitch of an eyebrow and downturn of the mouth. 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 over obeying the orders of King Killmonger, and her emotionally tense standoff against her lover W’Kabi solidifies this as one of the more underrated performances in the MCU.
Ben: Even before ‘Agatha All Along’ it was a foregone conclusion that Kathryn Hahn would be making the All Marvel List. Hahn had always been one of those people you enjoyed showing up, whether that’s in Step Brothers, Parks and Recreation or starring roles in Private Life or Mrs. Fletcher, but WandaVision felt like a huge mainstream celebration of her career as a character actress. No matter what mode the show was working, Hahn was more than up to the task, frequently the best part of all the sitcom pastiches (shocking, hiring someone with sitcom bonafides helps there) and then shifting wonderfully into the hammier villain of the season role. The only thing that lets her down is how the writers couldn’t quite find the angle to make this an all-time great villain for the MCU, but it’s certainly an all-time great performance.
Matt: Hemsworth’s combination of good looks and interview charm have meant he’s always been a fan favourite, and while he did improve at the faux-Shakespearian dialogue over time (helped immensely by Whedon’s superior ability to write it), it wasn’t until Ragnarok that the full range of his talents were unleashed. Hemsworth is a loveable himbo goofball, but the more serious tone of the first two films didn’t allow his charisma to truly shine. Taika Waititi took the chains off him and fostered an environment that allowed him to cut loose. His delivery of the Snake Story is incredible. That’s not to say Ragnarok is without dramatic material for him to sink his teeth into, it’s just that the balance shifted to a more workable 70/30 in favour of comedy. For as mixed as the Thor movies have been, audiences are going to miss Hemsworth when he finally hangs up the hammer and helm.
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.
Matt: I genuinely don’t seek out contrarian opinions, but I’ve always controversially found Tobey Maguire to be an imperfect Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield got closer, but the scripts of his films let him down. 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 help, 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 overly enthusiastic, optimistic scatterbrain who passes the likeability test. Trying to be the lead of the third iteration of Spider-Man in a decade span was an insanely tall order, but to me Holland nailed it.
Tenoch Huerta Mejía
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Matt: While I’ve wanted Namor in the MCU for forever, I was always dubious about who they could cast to capture both the regal arrogance and raw sexuality of the King of Atlantis. For Marvel’s many faults, they’ve always been good at casting, and Huerta Mejía was no exception, taking the character more in the direction of a romantic warrior poet. Still ruthless to the extreme, but with a sense of melancholy to prevent the character from being a ‘mwahaha villain’. He superbly conveys carrying a nation on his shoulders and acts as a mirror to Wakanda’s past, so I was VERY nervous he’d bought the farm at the end of the movie. Marvel is a more interesting place with Namor always out there somewhere, and I’m intrigued to see what they do with Huerta next.
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.
Matt: In a film with a supersoldier, a walking tank, an enormous green rage monster and a couple of gods, Black Widow more than holds her own without superpowers. Fitting as Scarlett Johansson more than holds her own as the lone female core cast member. While Scar-Jo deserves a medal for enduring the inane, gender-biased questions in every press tour, even without that I would single her out. Her false damsel in distress act in her first scene gives way to playful indifference, 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, exhibiting both staged and genuine vulnerability when she feigns tears after Loki’s venomous threats and then barely survives a tense encounter with Hulk. It’s this 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
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.)
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. Keaton brought his usual level of quiet intensity, crafting a grounded blue-collar character whose plight rings true in a way the world-conquering villains simply cannot. Adrian Toomes and his crew getting shafted by Big Business and turning to selling salvaged alien tech to provide for his family is an Actually Good character motivation. It also really helped that he literally balks at the notion of being a supervillain. The reveal that Toomes is Liz’s father and the uncomfortable silences that follow were great, and Keaton played it in a way that he would have been intimidating even without the reveal. 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.
Tony Leung Chiu-wai
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Ben: When Tony Leung was announced as playing The Mandarin, it confirmed that they were taking Shang-Chi seriously and were going to pull out all the stops to give the film legitimacy. It’s a trick that Marvel has pulled often, getting Robert Redford for The Winter Soldier and Christian Bale for Thor: Love and Thunder. But Leung feels different, not only because they’re taking a star better known internationally than in the West, but because of the character that effort is put into. We all know the Mandarin is a racist caricature that belongs in the past, and Iron Man 3‘s approach was probably the best way to adapt the classic version of the character. But Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings deciding to make the Mandarin (or Wenwu as he is actually called) a character with pathos and dramatic weight, and then just employing one of the best actors in the world to portray that on screen was an inspired choice.
She-Hulk: Attorney at Law
Matt: The She-Hulk defender has logged on! Nah, the show is severely compromised, but its lead was a shining beacon of hope. Maslany gracefully rose to the challenge of being a functional clown at times, while also grounding Jennifer Walters firmly in reality. Talking to camera is not as easy as it looks, and while it’s not the only reason they should have done more of it, Maslany’s aptitude for it was commendable. She is just a fundamentally likeable performer, even when saddled with inconsistent material. She elevates the more questionable moments and makes the Actually Good ones sing. While I have mixed feelings on the finale, her facial expressions and manic attitude were entirely on point, and the sexual tension she and Charlie Cox exhibited was delicious. But for me her most complete shift was ‘The Retreat’ which saw her slowly falling for Josh, going through the pangs of being ghosted and confronting her rage in group therapy as both Jen and She-Hulk. Please give this woman better scripts!
Ben: We love a secret comedy performance here. Early on in Captain Marvel it feels like Keller is going to be a bog standard authority figure, standing in the way of the heroes doing what needs to be done. But then mid-way through the movie it’s revealed that Keller is a Skrull named Talos and the movie gets an injection of energy. The biggest issue with Captain Marvel is the bizarre structural choice to keep Carol’s backstory from herself and use a mystery box style set up for the plot, but Ben Mendehlsohn’s performance is able to push past that iffy decision and just have a lot of fun. Talos was a character that was supposed to die in an earlier draft, but at least Marvel realised what they had in this performance and have allowed Mendelsohn to stick around and hopefully he’ll have plenty more screen time in the upcoming Secret Invasion.
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Matt: I thought Olsen’s work in WandaVision would be impossible to top given the sheer volume of hats she wears throughout the show. While I like to reward range, I can’t get around the fact that her (controversial to some) villain turn is of such razer sharp, singular focus, that it is the superior performance. Wanda is a goddamn horror movie monster in MoM, slaughtering her way through wave after wave of superpowered protectors without a whiff of remorse. Olsen really kicks things up a notch after Wanda dreamwalks into one of her suburban variants, wandering around in mom jeans, caked in the blood of the Illuminati. But what really lands the plane in fully-rounded territory is how she communicates Wanda’s emotional journey in the film’s climax almost entirely without dialogue. It was the kind of ending the MCU needed; one that entrusts the pathos to the actors, not the CGI.
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 part of the first film, especially with his telephone game sequences. 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.
Ben: I don’t think it’s any secret that Florence Pugh has blown up in a massive way. With back-to-back roles in 2019 in Midsommar and Little Women, she was poised to be the next huge crossover star, effortlessly charming in interviews and splitting her time starring in indie prestige movies and huge blockbusters. So it’s no surprise that Marvel would come knocking at her door. Normally they go for actors who are already established elsewhere or putting their chips on someone they think might become a star, but with Pugh she literally blew up whilst filming Black Widow. She is the sole ray of sunshine in that movie with her effortless charisma. Then she came back later that year and immediately showed her chemistry with Hailee Steinfeld. It’s no surprise that Thunderbolts appears to be a soft Black Widow sequel with Pugh as the lead, and honestly this is one of the smartest decisions Marvel have made in a while (Pugh as lead, not the Black Widow sequel thing.
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?
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.
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.
Matt: Stepping into Edward Norton’s shoes is an intimidating task, and when Ruffalo was cast as the new Bruce Banner way back in the day it raised a fair number of eyebrows. Every doubt one could possibly have 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 high emotional intelligence. 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 later 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.
Matt: I know I’m much higher on Hawkeye than the average person, but I think it’s pretty difficult to deny that Steinfeld more than rose to the challenge of leading a series named after the least popular original Avenger. The writers deftly opted to transplant a lot of moments that originally belonged to Clint in Matt Fraction’s acclaimed run onto Kate, turning her into the goofball foil to Renner’s straightman. Her overly enthusiastic early attempts to wear her idol down elicited the same smile from me that Clint was trying to stifle, and her ability to toe the line between graceful and hot mess was a delight from start to finish. From decorating Christmas trees to flirting with Florence Pugh, Steinfeld was game for anything, including the more dramatic scenes, such as helping Clint communicate with his son when his hearing aid is broken. Plus she is WEARING that tux in the first episode.
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.
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Ben: The Uncle Ben question was one that had been hanging over the Tom Holland Spider-Man movies from the very beginning. Much like the murder of the Waynes, killing Uncle Ben is a rite of passage for all adaptations of the web slinger. So when Homecoming had no mention of an Uncle Ben and Marissa Tomei’s aged down Aunt May, it felt like maybe that was all in the past and we’d escape the traumatic backstory this time around. But nope, No Way Home decides to blindside you when Marrisa Tomei drops the “with great power, comes great responsibility” line. Tomei had been great in all of her appearances up to this point, ably separating herself from Rosemary Harrris and Sally Field’s performances. But this was a movie where she got to really sink her teeth into the role. She is Peter’s conscience in this movie, pushing him to be a better hero, and her death scene is beautifully played by both Holland and Tomei, as she doesn’t realise quite how badly she’s been hurt. Killing off female characters to give the male hero an emotional push is an overdone trope, but at least occasionally we can get a performance as affecting as Tomei’s in this movie.
Ben: Sometimes fan culture can be insanely toxic. Fans quite often don’t actually know what is best for a franchise, and unless they have proven themselves elsewhere, should for the most part be kept away from the creative decisions of a franchise. So when Marvel cast the first superfan of the franchise, someone who literally grew up with these movies, as Kamala Khan, you could be forgiven if that set off alarm bells for you. But from the moment that Iman Vellani showed up on a screen, all doubts should have been laid to rest. Ms. Marvel would not have been even 10% as charming if they had not nailed this casting and Vellani is perfect in this role. A character around whom a new more modern Marvel has slowly been built in the comics, there was a lot riding on making sure that this character was done well in live action, but Vellani is just so full of passion and energy for this franchise. Even when the show is giving into the biggest weaknesses of Phase 4, she’s there doing her damndest to keep the show on the roles. If this is a sign for whom the future of the MCU will be built around, then there is hope, even if the quality of the overall projects continues to dwindle.
Matt: In a film filled with powerhouse performances and buckets of supporting roles, Letitia Wright excells as the titular character’s little sister/playful foil. While she takes great delight in embarrassing her brother (her tech room pranks), Shuri is never without warmth, wit and curiosity. It’s a shame we never got a chance to see her character share the screen with Tony Stark, and an even bigger shame that Wright’s sure-fired ascension to stardom is mired by her dumb anti-vax views. While she wasn’t able to rise to the challenge of knocking herself off the list in Wakanda Forever, it did underline how much more she thrived playing off the larger performances from the original film’s cast.
Spider-Man: Far From Home
Matt: While I was smitten with her performance as MJ in Homecoming, it’s hard to justify a spot on the list for only a handful of short scenes. Luckily, upping her number of lines in the sequel didn’t lead to a decline in charm, as she and future real-life beau Tom Holland navigated a believably awkward fledgling romance. Michelle still gets some of the best lines with her performative darkness, but is a more three dimensional person in Far From Home. Her ability to sell the idea that she is just as nervous around Peter as he is around her is commendable, and in a sexless MCU that makes every romance chaste, they’re one of the better couples.
As discussed in our No Way Home episode, we repurposed our old Bonus Picks to recognise two legendary pre-MCU villain performances. Look. We like round numbers, okay?
Spider-Man: No Way Home/Spider-Man
Matt: Villain problems have plagued the MCU pretty much from the beginning, which is strange given Spider-Man & Spider-Man 2 provided the template for all superhero movies a decade earlier. Convincing an actor who genuinely seems driven by art over commerce to play a ridiculous high-camp mwahaha villain who wears green monster costume and flies around on a glider chucking pumpkin bombs is one thing. For Dafoe to be actively excellent at it is quite another. He takes the material exactly seriously enough, and the script allows him to be a three dimensional presence before he becomes The Bad Guy. He’s never siloed off into his own movie, he’s deeply entangled with the protagonist and the supporting cast and he makes the dumb Goblin dialogue work with his distinctive voice. For his return to the role as an official part of the MCU in No Way Home he didn’t just phone it in, he added a little something extra to his take on Norman Osborn. You simply can’t take your eyes off him as you wonder to yourself if he’s faking the entire time, or if the Goblin part of his brain only activates fight or flight mode when in danger of being removed in one of the film’s best sequences. Dafoe makes himself small and sad and sympathetic in his faux-hobo attire, and to borrow a point from Ben, it’s pleasantly surprising that they remembered his whole ‘haunted by his reflection/the mask’ gmmick.
Spider-Man: No Way Home/Spider-Man 2
Ben: I could attempt to write this blurb about how good Molina is in No Way Home and would probably do a serviceable job. But we all know he’s on this list for Spider-Man 2. A true all-time comic book villain performance, relatively early on in the genre that really sets the tone for what future comic book movies would pull from. At times hammy, scary and empathetic, Molina is so fully attuned to what director Sam Raimi’s vision was for this franchise. This performance was so perfect that they had yet to touch Doctor Octopus again in the feature films (aside from a wonderful vocal performance from fellow All-Marveler Kathryn Hahn in Into the Spider-Verse) and when they did go back to that well, they just reached out to Molina to wrap up that characters emotional arc in No Way Home. Whilst it would have been nice for a little bit more screen time between Molina and Tobey Maguire, Molina slips back where he left off almost twenty years before with such ease that you can overlook a lot of the movie’s flaws when he is on screen. A true All-Marvel performance for the ages.
Check out Marvel Mondays for Matt’s episode-by-episode reviews of every MCU TV show.
Ben & Matt will be back soon with perhaps their dumbest podcast to date…
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