Debate Club: Top 5 superhero performances

Contributed by
Jan 25, 2018

Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.

In this week's installment, we're looking at the men and women who bring our favorite comic book characters to life on the big screen. These aren't performances that win Oscars, but they've got their own high degree of skill and difficulty: It's daunting to have to play an iconic superhero who's beloved by people all over the world. (And what's worse, millions of fans all have their own very specific ideas of how that character should be portrayed, so good luck trying to please everybody.)

And yet the best actors make it look effortless as they tap into our collective understanding of what's so mythic and amazing about that particular crimefighter. Here are our Top 5 greatest superhero performances.

Gal Gadot, Wonder Woman

She’s a relative rookie in comparison to the rest of our list of long-running superhero actors, but Gal Gadot brings a crucial component that the comic book movie has long needed: optimism. In 2017's Wonder Woman, she looked the part of a battle-tested Amazonian warrior, but it was her simple decency that made her so striking. Hanging out with humans, she's naïve about their customs, which gave Gadot a chance to flex her deadpan, fish-out-of-water comedic talents.

But Diana's sterling sincerity is a strength, not a weakness. Not only is Diana more powerful than mere mortals, she's also nobler and braver — she's downright inspiring as she leads by example, encouraging those around her to reach for something greater within themselves. (No wonder Chris Pine's Steve Trevor falls in love with her — she's such a great person, how could he not?) In the modern superhero era, snark and darkness have been prized over basic goodness. Gadot is an antidote to that posturing — she makes honor and kindness enormously appealing.

Hugh Jackman, Wolverine

Most actors either get tired of their superhero role or get replaced. What's remarkable about Hugh Jackman is that he's the only person to ever play Wolverine on the big screen, spending nearly 20 years crafting and refining the character. He owns the role, capturing Wolverine's torment and steeliness, but as Jackman got older, he also brought a gravitas and vulnerability that's deepened our connection to this seemingly indestructible figure.

(And even when Wolverine wasn't starring in his own movies, he was always the highlight of the X-Men films. His one-scene cameo in 2011's X-Men: First Class is easily that movie's best moment.)

Jackman is more than just an action hero: he was dark and fiendish in The Prestige, and he can do the song-and-dance routine in The Greatest Showman. But the swagger and anguish he brings to Wolverine stands alone. When the greatest of all Marvel mutants signed off at the end of Logan, we were sad to see Wolverine go. But it was just as poignant knowing that Jackman would never don the claws again.

Christian Bale, Batman

Most of the actors who play Batman get the Batman part right — though that's mostly cowl — but never quite nail Bruce Wayne; they essentially let a tuxedo do most of the work. Michael Keaton was Crazy Bruce; Val Kilmer was Suave Bruce; George Clooney was Bland Bruce; Ben Affleck is Brooding, Dull Bruce. But only Bale understood that Bruce Wayne is the actual interesting personality, a man who is lost and devastated and deeply flawed … but is in a constant struggle with himself to figure out how to do right, how to do make the world better rather than worse.

His Bruce is constantly questioning himself, battling his own impulses, but also, like Patrick Bateman before him, able to hide in plain sight. It's a cliché to say that the real Batman mask is Bruce Wayne himself, but Bale allows you to see the vulnerability, and the resolve, that allow Bruce Wayne to be Batman … and also not to be.

Robert Downey Jr., Iron Man

In 2003, Robert Downey Jr.’s career was in so much trouble that he couldn't be cast in Woody Allen's Melinda and Melinda because the studio couldn't cover his insurance collateral due to his drug use. (He'd only done his "remember, I'm still alive" stint on Ally McBeal one year earlier.) Five years later, he was well on his way to being the biggest movie star in the world.

What's so great about Downey Jr.'s rise is that he did it purely by being himself. The Tony Stark of the comics doesn't bear a ton of resemblance to Downey, but now it's impossible to think of anyone else as Iron Man, ever. Downey's wit, intelligence and surprising physicality in the role didn't just rewrite the role of Iron Man, it laid down a groundwork for the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and superhero movies in general. (The good ones, anyway.) Comic book movies had to be smarter and hipper and better thought-out and downright more fun because of Downey Jr. as Iron Man. We're all still living in his universe, a decade later.

Christopher Reeve, Superman

The list of actors who almost played Superman is staggering: Paul Newman, Burt Reynolds, Christopher Walken, James Caan, Nick Nolte. (Nick Nolte!) That Reeve — a scrawny, Julliard-trained unknown Broadway and soap opera actor — got the most desired role on the planet over all of them remains both a miracle and a testament to just how perfect he was to play the most American superhero of them all.

The key to Reeve's Superman is that, more than anything, he is gentle: the only way we can love the most powerful being in the universe is if he is pure goodness at his center, and Reeve radiated that. He also understood that the twinkle in Superman's eye was the center of his appeal; he almost felt like an old '50s romantic comedy star. (Reeve was close friends with Katherine Hepburn before he ever was cast.) Reeve was a throwback, and that's who Superman is: a timeless throwback, the best of all of us. Other men have been Superman, but none of have been Reeve... and, wisely, none have tried.