Sort of arbitrarily – you just need to generate content sometimes – I’m using Iron Man 2 as an excuse for my list of
The Ten Best Performances in Comic Book and Comic Strip Movies
10. Al Pacino, “Big Boy Caprice”, Dick Tracy
At a point when Pacino’s career had descended into a broad parody of itself – but before the phrase “Hoo-ah!” entered the picature – he had the good fortune to play an actual cartoon character, Chester Gould’s over-the-top goof on Al Capone. Freed from the tyranny of subtlety and humanity, Pacino turned in a performance that maybe isn’t threatening enough to make him a really top-notch movie villain, but the sheer volume of all the tics and mutterings, and his stooped posture, have a magnetic effect: in a film crammed with elaborate make-up effects and a new cameo every five minutes, he’s the one you can’t stop watching.
9. Margot Kidder, “Lois Lane”, Superman II
Maybe it’s just nitpicking to select only this film – she’s pretty great in the first one, too – but this is for me where her frazzled homage to the leading ladies of screwball comedy mixed with a smart ’70s “New Woman” really gelled and became one of the few moments in superhero filmdom where the love interest – always a thankless role, even more in this genre – managed to proclaim herself every bit as fun to watch as the man in tights who gives the movie its title.
8. Jack Nicholson, “The Joker”, Batman
Much as with Pacino at #10, part of what makes the performance great is that an over-the-top ham is indulging all of his worst instincts, in a part where that’s actually the best way to play it. Compared to some other iterations of the Joker – one of them coming up, as you could probably guess – he’s more of a nasty clown than a psychopath; but when push comes to shove you never have that hard of a time believing that he’d find it pretty damn funny to watch a man die in agony. Which is pretty much true of Jack Nicholson in anything, and that’s why this was a match made in heaven.
7. Anjelica Huston, “Morticia Addams, “The Addams Family & Addams Family Values
With every frame stuffed within an inch of its life, and every other actor playing to the rafters, it’s maybe odd that the most effective, memorable part of Barry Sonnenfeld’s better-than-you-remember adaptation of the New Yorker cartoon series is by far the most restrained: Huston does not demand our attention but simply assumes that she possesses it as her right, and so does Morticia ground the absurdity of the film around her even as her total lack of cartoon excess makes her arguably the most unhinged part of the macabre zoo.
6. Ian McKellen, “Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto”, X-Men & X2 & X-Men: The Last Stand
In these monumentally overstuffed casts, it would take a great British Shakespearean to stand out; and even more than his ability to run rings around, say, Halle Berry or James Marsden just by the way he flexes his mouth, he’s the single person involved in the third movie who knew exactly what it was and plays it accordingly, making himself the only good thing about that film after already being the best thing in the first two. Beyond that, his performance teases out all the suffering and pathos in the trilogy’s villain, marking one of the few times that a Marvel film has reached the same level of grey morality that has been such a longstanding tradition of the company’s comics.
5. Robert Downey, Jr, “Tony Stark/Iron Man,” Iron Man
Downey is always a magnificent bastard, and in his (so-far) two turns as the charismatically egocentric Tony Stark, he was gifted with arguably the best role ever for his particular strengths. But the first one gives him so much more to work with, a character who’s basically a complete prick brought to life with such vitality that we can’t help but be delighted to watch him, even as the actor never, ever asks for our love. At the same time, he reveals what must be the true core of every superhero’s psychology: they’re just as excited by themselves as we are.
4. Christopher Reeve, “Clark Kent/Superman”, Superman & Superman II
Taking one of the least-playable superhero roles ever – an indestructible Boy Scout – the unknown Reeve made an iconic figure that much more iconic in his guileless performance that switches from awkwardness to stoic optimism without ever letting us see him sweat. The later sequels left him increasingly unconvincing, but before fatigue set in, Reeve was a revelation, an embodiment of masculinity and boyish bravado and the must unexamined sort of earnestness that barely convinces on the page, let alone on the screen; yet there’s not a single line in the first two films where I don’t buy it completely.
3. Viggo Mortensen, “Tom Stall”, A History of Violence
This intensely complex portrayal of a man who may be another man entirely isn’t Mortensen’s most mechanically perfect performance – that came in his next film with director David Cronenberg, Eastern Promises – but I’d happily call it the most unnaturally effective work of his career. We might not know what secrets Stall is hiding, but it doesn’t ultimately matter: the elegance with which Mortensen reveals what Stall is feeling is far more probing than the story’s at times self-contradicting study of violence in America. The actor makes us feel, deeply, the character’s attachment to things he may be about to lose, and that’s more shattering than all the viscera and plot twists in the world.
2. Michelle Pfeiffer, “Selina Kyle/Catwoman”, Batman Returns
Faced with an insurmountable task – make us forget Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt from the 1960s series – Pfeiffer made movie villain history with a performance that’s way more layered than it had to be, and probably more than a lot of viewers bother to notice. Most of the time, a supervillain’s secret identity is just a matter of security; Pfeiffer makes sure that we understand what the Catwoman persona does for Selina, much in the same way that Batman is an emotional release for Bruce Wayne. It’s madly nuanced; which isn’t to say that Pfeiffer doesn’t have a lot of fun with the camp dialogue, for she does, nor that she isn’t ridiculously sexy in the role, for she is.
1. Heath Ledger, “The Joker”, The Dark Knight
Aye, well, call me a romantic. Sometimes the consensus gets things right, and the role that made Ledger a legend is one of the most compelling, terrifying depictions of pure destructive insanity ever put on film. In his hands, the Joker becomes as perfectly dangerous as he is in any story in the character’s publishing history; it’s not even worth comparing the other screen Jokers, who are in a completely other ballgame. Nearly all of the apocalyptic energy that makes The Dark Knight such a memorable experience comes, in some way, from the performance, which means that Ledger himself was arguably worth half a billion dollars to Warner Bros.