50 Best Superhero Movie Performances of the Last 50 Years


by Clayton Davis | Variety

From the heroes like Batman and Wolverine to the terrifying villains such as Joker and Thanos, superhero movies have proven to be box office juggernauts, with the likes of Marvel and DC films leading the way. However, the artists who bring them to life, notably the actors who inhabit them, are often unappreciated at award shows. To celebrate the return of the San Diego Comic-Con on July 20, Variety ranks the 50 best superhero performances, in movies, of the last 50 years (post-1972).

While Hollywood royalty staples such as Martin Scorsese have been outspoken and critical of the superhero machine, the industry has been making progress in seeing its actors’ artistic merits and contributions. Joaquin Phoenix won best actor at the Oscars for his turn in “Joker” (2019), which led the nomination tally with 11. Heath Ledger preceded him by winning best supporting actor posthumously for his work in “The Dark Knight” (2008), the film most responsible for the Academy expanding its best picture allotments from five to 10.

Unfortunately, and although this ranking doesn’t focus on perceived “Oscar-worthy,” the list of snubs is far longer, with iconic performances, such as Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in “Batman Returns” (1992) or Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger in “Black Panther,” (2017) failing to gain recognition.

While the definition of a “superhero movie” and “awards-worthy” varies, the impact of the characters and the actors who play them on pop culture is often undisputed.

Expect lots of Marvel Studios chatter within the confines of Hall H, with hopefully a preview of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and crossing our fingers at first glimpses at the Zachary Levi sequel “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and more.

San Diego-Comic-Con runs from July 21-24 at the San Diego Convention Center. Read all the latest news and information on future Marvel Studios projects on Variety’s regularly updated list.

Honorable mentions: Brad Bird, “The Incredibles” (2004); Brian Cox, “X2” (2003); David Dastmalchian, “The Suicide Squad” (2021); Chiwetel Ejiofor, “Doctor Strange” (2016); Scarlett Johansson, “The Avengers” (2012); Florence Pugh, “Black Widow” (2021); J.K. Simmons, “Spider-Man” (2002); Sebastian Stan, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) and Benedict Wong, “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” (2022).

The List

50. Michael Peña – ‘Ant-Man’ (2015)

49. Zachary Levi – ‘Shazam!’ (2019)

48. Andrew Garfield – ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (2021)

47. Zazie Beetz – ‘Deadpool 2’ (2018)

Role: Domino

The scene that proves it: “Lady Luck, take the wheel.”

Domino, the superhero heroine with a knack for being so lucky is just as effective as she is beautiful, in the superior “Deadpool” sequel. This is credited to the talents of Zazie Beetz, the Emmy-nominated actress for FX’s “Atlanta” (in 2018), who makes the most of her brief moments, bedazzling the viewer with her quick humor and cursive delivery. Where’s her spin-off Disney/Fox/Marvel?

46. Tony Leung – ‘Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (2021)

45. Zoe Saldaña – ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ (2017)

Role: Gamora

The scene that proves it: “Are you kidding me?” [Fighting Nebula]

The awkward but touching romantic instances between her and Quill (Chris Pratt) come to mind when thinking of Zoe Saldaña’s turns as the green-skinned warrior Gamora in James Gunn’s comedic sequel to the 2014 sensation. Of course, Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) choice for her to be the ultimate sacrifice also ranks high in “Endgame,” but the argument exchange between the two and her reaction to Nebula saying, “I wanted a sister,” is a tender touch for a wall-to-wall chuckle-fest.

44. Dave Bautista – ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ (2017)

43. Michael Rooker – ‘Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2’ (2017)

42. Hayley Atwell – ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ (2011)

41. Tom Hardy – ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ (2012)

40. Ben Affleck – ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’ (2016)

39. Paul Rudd – ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)

38. Karen Gillan – ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)

37. Ron Perlman – ‘Hellboy’ (2004)

36. Margot Robbie – ‘Birds of Prey’ (2020)

35. Shameik Moore‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ (2018)

Role: Miles Morales / Spider-Man

The scene that proves it: “Hey…!”

The symbolism of Miles Morales goes far beyond the themes of the Oscar winner for best animated feature. With the purity of Shameik Moore’s vocal inflections, the world of Spider-Man expands with an effortless representation of the diversity of culture and the animated medium. We can’t wait for the sequels.

34. Holly Hunter – ‘The Incredibles (2004)

33. Zendaya – ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (2021)

Role: Michelle “MJ” Jones-Watson

The scene that proves it: “If you don’t, I’ll just figure it out. I did it before; I’ll do it again.”

The future of cinema is bright, especially if you consider Zendaya a massive part of it. Already making history by becoming the youngest Emmy winner and producer nominee for “Euphoria,” she enhances any role that she inhabits, no matter how small. Her work proves this in one of the biggest films of all time, opposite her real-life beau Tom Holland. Their heartbreaking goodbye has left emotional damage to fans but promises an anticipated narrative future for the couple’s story.

32. Henry Cavill – ‘Man of Steel’ (2013)

31. Letitia Wright – ‘Black Panther’ (2018)

Role: Shuri

The scene that proves it: “The real question is, what are those?!”The brother-sister banter extended Ryan Coogler’s Oscar-nominated superhero flick more than its genre. Letitia Wright’s charm as Shuri, glued together with her chemistry with Chadwick Boseman, creates a defining scene-stealer.

30. Paul Dano – ‘The Batman’ (2022)

29. Tobey Maguire – ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)

28. Michael Keaton – ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’ (2017)

27. Chris Hemsworth – ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ (2017)

26. Willem Dafoe – ‘Spider-Man’ (2002)

25. Christian Bale – ‘Batman Begins’ (2005)

24. Cate Blanchett – ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ (2017)

23. Tom Hiddleston – ‘The Avengers’ (2012)

22. Aaron Eckhart – ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

21. Jackie Earle Haley – ‘Watchmen’ (2009)

20. Samuel L. Jackson ‘Unbreakable’ (2000)

Role: Elijah Price

The scene that proves it: “Now that we know who you are, I know who I am. I’m not a mistake.”

As the introductory “wise man” and eventual adversary to Bruce Willis’ David Dunn in M. Night Shyamalan’s superhero flick cloaked as another mystery endeavor, Samuel L. Jackson is magnetic. Just a tiny sampling from the Honorary Oscar recipient and highest box-office earner of all time, but one that you can’t deny entry on a list of this sort.

19. Michael Keaton – ‘Batman’ (1989)

18. Brandon Lee – ‘The Crow’ (1994)

17. Jack Nicholson – ‘Batman’ (1989)

16. Bruce Willis – ‘Unbreakable’ (2000)

15. Wesley Snipes – ‘Blade’ (1998)

Role: Eric Brooks / Blade

The scene that proves it: “Some motherfuckers are always trying ice-skate uphill.”

The 1990s were Wesley Snipes’ playground with “White Men Can’t Jump,” “Passenger 57” and his scenery-chewing take on the half-vampire, half-human sword-wielding Blade. He has catchphrases for days, all of which are available for your daily usage. Try to work “it’s open season on all suckheads” into a conversation.

14. Tom Holland – ‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ (2021)

13. Josh Brolin – ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ (2018)

12. Robert Downey Jr. – ‘Iron Man’ (2008)

11. Gal Gadot – ‘Wonder Woman’ (2017)

10. Chris Evans – ‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)

9. Chadwick Boseman‘Black Panther’ (2018)

Role: T’Challa / Black Panther

The scene that proves it: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers.”

As we approach the two-year mark of Chadwick Boseman’s death, his legacy has been cemented and pronounced in film history. While the Academy appropriately nominated him for his work in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020) posthumously, his King of Wakanda became a cultural phenomenon. It’s not only his superpowers that make him so impactful, but the way he demonstrates the Black family with the banter with his sister (played by Letitia Wright) and his undying pursuit to protect his people, a trait we should all adopt.

8. Ryan Reynolds – ‘Deadpool’ (2016)

7. Hugh Jackman – ‘Logan’ (2017)

6. Alfred Molina – ‘Spider-Man 2’ (2004)

5. Joaquin Phoenix – ‘Joker’ (2019)

4. Christopher Reeve – ‘Superman’ (1978)

3. Michael B. Jordan – ‘Black Panther’ (2018)

Role: N’Jadaka / Erik “Killmonger” Stevens

The scene that proves it: “Why so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.”

Marvel’s most complex and compelling villain, Michael B. Jordan, is a massive piece of the critical accolades for “Black Panther,” becoming the first superhero movie nominated for best picture. The foe to the late Chadwick Boseman, Jordan slivers his way into the thematic psyche of the film, giving the viewer a fresh, innovative perspective on what acting in the MCU can achieve.

2. Michelle Pfeiffer – ‘Batman Returns’ (1992)

1. Heath Ledger – ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008)

The End