Thursday, May 3, 2012

Top 10: Performances in Superhero Movies

Tis the week of The Avengers, quite possibly the most ambitious superhero movie ever made, and this post just so happens to be another in the series of posts I've been doing over the past week inspired or in honor of the release of The Avengers this Friday, May 4th.  Early reviews are ecstatic, fanboy anticipation is high, and I myself am starting to get antsy with anticipation.  Summer is about to officially kick off, and I couldn't be more excited.  My favorite moviegoing experiences typically come during the Summer months (May-August), and aside from Oscar season, this is the best time to be a movie fan each and every year.  So, in honor of the release of The Avengers, I've decided to list what I believe the ten best performances by an actor in a superhero movie are.  Like all lists, this all totally subjective, but hopefully your favorites will have wound up on here.  Now, here's the criteria, the movie had to be released theatrically, because there are many straight to DVD superhero movies out there.  So, without further ado, the Top 10 Performances in Superhero Movies:

10.  Josh Pais, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
I have always loved this movie, and for me, I greatly admire the folks who can get inside a costume, like the ones Jim Henson studios designed for this movie, and be able to kick, punch, and deliver an emotional performance while under all that foam rubber.  Josh Pais' performance as Raphael is the center of this film, with his character being the one disobeying Master Splinter, questioning Leonardo's leadership, and ultimately forming the emotional spine of the movie by changing from punk to family turtle.  A performance of teenage angst can't be done much better than what Pais did here.  Sure, you never see his face, but the vocal performance and the physical actions Pais does under the suit relays just as much, if not more, than facial expressions can.

9.  Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man
To say that Iron Man would not be the same movie without Robert Downey, Jr., would be an accurate statement.  He is this movie.  No other actor in a superhero movie has been more crucial to their individual movie's success than Downey's performance in this film.  On paper, Iron Man is a fairly by the numbers superhero origin story that had been told to death in stuff like Spider-Man and Batman Begins, but what made Iron Man different and fresh, was that Downey, Jr., was perfectly cast as narcissistic Tony Stark.  He played the cynical bad boy with a heart of gold to such crisp perfection, any predictability in the plot was forgiven because he was just so much fun to watch onscreen.  Not to mention he was emotionally vulnerable in the scene when he describes to Pepper why he must destroy the Stark weapons that have fallen into terrorist's hands.  A bravura performance if there is such a thing.

8.  Michael Chiklis, Fantastic Four
Okay, I have a feeling that I am going to get flamed for this one, but I don't care.  Now, I know Fantastic Four is hated by many, but I have gone on record as saying I have a soft spot for the movie.  It may not be a perfect adaptation, but as an entertainment it can't get much more enjoyable, and Chiklis' peformance as the blue-eyed Thing is the greatest thing about the movie.  Not only was the make-up work well done, but he captured the emotional state of Ben Grimm perfectly when he turned into his rocky alter ego, the Thing.  Chiklis captured the gruffness of the Thing from the comic books, while highlighting his soft heart, such as when his fiance breaks up with him.  Even through all of that prosthetic latex, his performance still came through, and you feel his sadness and anger when he sees what he has turned into and when Reed cannot turn him back to normal.

7.  J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man 2
After seeing J.K. Simmons as Daily Bugle editor, J. Jonah Jameson, I will be so sad whenever he is recast for a future Spider-Man movie.  He was the J. Jonah Jameson from the comics.  From the pitch perfect work of the make-up and costuming departments, making him look just like JJ from the comics, to the expert writing that gave Simmons all of the JJ-esque quips that he says.  Of course, it's how Simmons plays the part, with his hurried, brusk tone, that makes him the voice I hear in my head for J. Jonah Jameson whenever I read the comics.  Just perfect casting.

6.  Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
In terms of villain performances, it does not get much better than this.  Heath Ledger gave his all with the Joker, and his performance was so groundbreaking, it is the only performance from a superhero film to win an Academy Award.  Ledger embodied the dark humor, and anarchic spirit of the Joker so well, the first time you saw him onscreen, you felt as if the Joker had walked out of the comic books.  What Ledger did, he created a character that had no rules, who was incredibly smart, and incredibly complex.  You never knew what he was thinking, and yet Ledger held nothing back, going all out with physical actions and over-the-top dialogue inflections, and that was what made his portrayal so much fun.  Not to mention, the fact that he was downright scary, while funny at the same time.

5.  Michael Caine, Batman Begins
As Alfred Pennyworth, Michael Caine gave one of his more affecting performances in the last decade.  His dry sense of humor, coupled with his fatherly touch, make him the most likable character in the movie.  In essence, Michael Caine was playing himself, and in some ways, for a consummate actor used to being a chameleon, like Michael Caine, that can be the hardest thing to do, and he did it beautifully.  Hey, even without the mustache that Alfred has in the comic books, Caine embodies the spirit of the character to perfection.  Not to mention, I am just a huge fan of Michael Caine.

4.  Christian Bale, Batman Begins
I favor Christian Bale's performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman Begins over The Dark Knight because I feel he had more to play with in his first outing as the Batman.  The Dark Knight was an ensemble piece, where as Batman Begins was a character driven story, driven by Bale's performance.  Bale had to embrace Bruce's fears and insecurities, his lust for vengeance, and his ultimate realization that justice and revenge are not the same.  Bale conveys this character arc perfectly in his performance.  As well, when he is playing Bruce in his playboy persona, it is hilarious, I mean the way he buys the hotel is just priceless.  To go from that to being the fractured soul of the ordinary Bruce Wayne, and then turning up his inner Clint Eastwood when in the Batman costume, how can anyone not find this performance astonishing.

3.  Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man
For me, Maguire's work as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the original Sam Raimi film is the quintessential Spider-Man portrayal.  What Maguire did was he geeked it up.  He made Peter Parker a geeky teen who talked real fast when it came to science, yet he was awkward when around girls, often stumbling around words, and yet when he became Spidey he was a confident smart mouth.  He managed to play all aspects of the character, tying them together with an emotional unity that keeps them feeling as if they're all parts of the same character, rather than separate characters.  Maguire does this by letting the relationships of Peter Parker drive his actions.  No matter what incarnation of the character he is playing, Maguire plays his love for Mary Jane the same, even if he is more confident in costume and more bumbling when not, the emotion in his voice and his face tie it all together.

2.  Christopher Reeve, Superman:  The Movie
Christopher Reeve was Superman.  He was charming when wearing the cape, and absolutely hilarious when he was bumbling around under those horn-rimmed glasses.  What makes Reeve's work stand out is that he took it all seriously.  He never saw Superman as a simple, two-dimensional character.  He saw him as a moralistic man, who was from another planet, but was raised to be an emotional being capable of finding and losing love.  His emotions drive him at the end of the movie to turn back time to bring Lois Lane back to life, and the sheer anguish that Reeve's face conveys when he cries is heartbreaking.  However, more so than perhaps any other performance on this list, when you go back and watch Christopher Reeve as Superman, you actually believe he could have been the genuine article from the comics.  He made you believe a man could fly.

1.  Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight
I know, how many spots can I give away to performances from Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, but let's face it, these are about the best superhero movies there are, and a large part of that is due to Gary Oldman's work in both films, in particular The Dark Knight.  I love Oldman's work as Jim Gordon in this movie so much.  First off, Oldman is a chameleon who is different in each and every film, and to see him as a Russian terrorist in Air Force One and then as an idealistic police commissioner in The Dark Knight only helps to show his massive range as an actor.  I feel Oldman's performance in this particular film is the strongest out of the entire ensemble, even stronger than Ledger's work, and it is because Oldman's performance is so electric, it becomes the heart of the movie.  The world weariness that he brings to the role is perfect, and he only gets more tired down before the movie is over.  Out of all the characters ravaged by the Joker, he has the most to lose, as is evidenced when Two-Face is manipulated by the Joker and kidnaps Gordon's family.  Oldman plays the family man pushed to his limits so well, you break apart when he does in that scene where a gun is held to his son's head.  As well, who can forget that marvelous monologue he delivers at the end of the film?  That ending still sends shivers down my spine.

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