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SYFY WIRE Decade in Review

The 10 best heroic performances of the 2010s

By Caitlin Busch
Decade in Review: 10 most heroic performances

Welcome to SYFY WIRE's Decade in Review, a series of articles that will look to catalog the best, worst, and weirdest cultural and entertainment moments of the 2010s as we look toward the future. Today, we celebrate the heroic performances that inspired and blew us away this decade.

Given that the 2010s saw the true takeoff of the superhero craze, it only makes sense to celebrate the most heroic heroes of the decade. Not all heroes wear capes, though (sorry), and neither do most of the actual superheroes on this list.

What one person defines as a hero will definitely differ from another person’s perspective, but here’s hoping we can all agree that heroes are inherently good. Now, that doesn’t mean they’re perfect — in fact, the best heroes are always flawed — but, when it comes down to it, they’ll make the right decision.

Here they are: The top 10 heroic performances of the decade.

01. Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim (2013)

That Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) kills Mako Mori so quickly felt like an act of war given that Mako was the beating heart of the original film. Sure, Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket is the lens through which the audience views and is introduced to this world, but, by the end of the film, it’s clear he can’t function without his new partner Mako.

Raleigh meets Mako — quiet, fierce, intelligent — at the eleventh hour as humanity prepares for an assault on the Rift, the crack in the ocean floor that acts as a doorway to another world. For years, Kaiju have been emerging from the Rift and destroying cities, so skilled pilots have paired up and formed a mental link with each other and giant robots, known as Jaegers, to fight the Kaiju.

Mako and Raleigh make an instant connection and, with each other’s help, manage to fight their own demons (and a few Kaiju along the way). As cool and collected as Raleigh is, though, Mako is the real star. Rinko Kikuchi’s wide-eyed, steel-jawed performance gives Mako a relatable, heartbreaking turn in a world so similar to yet so foreign from our own. She deserved a hell of a lot better in the sequel.

02. Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

For all the beauty and badassery associated with Fury Road, it all pales in comparison to Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Never has a character been so aptly named, so indicative of the world she inhabits.

Furiosa, a lieutenant in Immortan Joe’s savage, zealous, post-apocalyptic army, goes rogue to save five women bound for a life of servitude and child-rearing (and implied rape — can’t forget that).

While their society is controlled by men who would control them, they break the mold in order to find the “Green Place,” a safe haven Furiosa remembers from her childhood. Along the way, they’re joined by a small fighting force of other women and a couple of men low on the food chain.At first, Mad Max: Fury Road would have you believe Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is the main character. After all, his name is in the title and every movie in the series up to this point has mostly focused on men being men. That is very much not the case in Fury Road.

Fury Road is Furiosa’s story.

Theron’s marvelous performance captures the character’s bravery, fear, pain, despair, and triumph all with equal fervor. Whether she’s screaming at the sky after having failed her initial mission, threatening those who would hurt her and her self-appointed charges, or making every hard decision along the way, you can feel every fiber of her being straining toward something greater.

03. Amy Adams as Louise Banks in Arrival (2016)

This is likely the most unexpected entry on this list. When you think of heroic performances, you think of heroes mowing down baddies and defeating empires.

Amy Adams’ performance as Louise Banks, though, demonstrates a quiet, compassionate kind of heroism. Surrounded by military personnel and political maneuverers when alien crafts land on Earth, seemingly without purpose, linguist Louise Banks is called in to try and communicate with the aliens onboard alongside physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Throughout these encounters, we slowly learn about Louise’s daughter, who died of an incurable disease at a young age.

As Louise falls apart at the seams and we see what we at first believe to be her past, Adams delivers a painful, all-too-human performance that brings to life that bittersweet junction between love and loss. When we find out at the end of the film that the language Louise was learning from the aliens helped her see time as more than a straight line (giving her access to the future in which she would have a daughter with Renner’s Donnelly), it’s all the more effective.

04. Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine in Logan (2017)

Hugh Jackman’s final turn as Logan, aka the Wolverine, in Logan is a masterclass in character development. Since his first time as the growly, beclawed mutant in 2000’s X-Men, Jackman grew the Wolverine beyond what anyone thought possible, into a character that personified pain and loss, as well as grudging loyalty and love.

As much a Western and character study as it is a superhero drama, Logan was the perfect final bow. Beaten down and poisoned by the very substance that once made him so strong (the adamantium coating his bones), Logan struggles with the sins of his past and those of an aged, mentally failing Charles Xavier (expertly played, as always, by Patrick Stewart). When Logan and Charles are saddled with a young Mutant girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who seems to share some odd similarities with Logan, their already complicated reality becomes that much more difficult.

No scene better depicts Jackman’s mastery of the character than the scene in which he buries Charles before going ham on the old truck he and Laura have been driving. Numb to the physical pain he’s endured from the previous night’s attack, he digs a grave for one of his oldest, most beloved friends and you know that his walls are crumbling. You can feel it. He’s reached the end of his rope as he shakes and barely holds back tears.

Instead of crying, of course, he loses it in the most fantastic of ways, pivoting from disbelief and exhaustion to pure rage. It proves too much for him and he collapses; Laura has to take over. But in a movie defined by a lot of slow, thoughtful imagery, Jackman’s losing it and beating a truck with a shovel is likely the most relatable thing Logan has ever done. And that's not even mentioning Logan's final run through the woods and the moment he dies to save Laura and her friends. We can't emotionally go there right now.

05. Gal Gadot as Diana Prince in Wonder Woman (2017)

Casting Wonder Woman was always going to be a challenge. For the most part, Lynda Carter’s turn as Diana Prince in the Wonder Woman TV movie and series in the ‘70s had been what people associated with the character for decades. Then Gal Gadot arrived.

Her first appearance in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) didn’t do her any favors, as she was mainly there to be a Mystery Woman and a third-act savior. Fast forward a year to the character’s first-ever feature film and the first female-led superhero movie since 2005’s Elektra, and the entire story finally revolved around Wonder Woman.

Gadot plays Diana Prince with all the necessary dichotomies: she’s strong and gentle, wise and impulsive, kind and furious. That the film’s narrative forces her to understand that the world is not a black and white place, that the world contains multitudes, much like herself, just drives it all home.

Few scenes in the 2010s were as simple and heartfelt as the moment in which Diana Prince looked at her friend, a soldier suffering from PTSD, and asked him to sing for them. In a moment he feels useless, she reminds him — and all of us — that kindness is not to be mistaken for a lack of strength. In fact, kindness and love are our greatest strengths.

06. Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

An entry that’s likely disliked by some, but wholly expected by others. Luke Skywalker, when first introduced in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope, embodied the quintessential hero’s journey. He was the every-man, the bright-eyed farm boy who soon discovered his destiny was intertwined with the galaxy’s. He would learn from his mistakes — a boy’s all-too-forgivable mistakes — to triumph in the end by choosing kindness over hate.

So when we see Luke again in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a hermit shut off from the Force and marinating in his own failure, we’re shocked. Who is this person? What could have happened to a man once so imbued with the belief that the Light and the Jedi Code are the way?

In short, life happened. In the 30 years since we last saw him in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Luke has suffered great loss and personal failure. These lessons he tries to hand off to Rey (Daisy Ridley), so saturated by his own negative experiences, are so wonderfully delivered by Mark Hamill that we’re able to believe the pain without having seen the events that transpired it. 

And when we do see his ultimate shame? When we do see that moment in which he draws a lightsaber on his young, struggling nephew? We feel his pain and fear.

In the end, though, he returns. He accepts his failure as the teacher it really is (with some help from an old friend) and does what he can to help his sister’s cause, no matter how much he wished he didn’t have to. Hamill delivers these scenes, his final moments with Leia and his final moments on the battlefield with the shadow of his nephew and former student, with all the wisdom, good humor, and skill we know Luke Skywalker possesses.

07. Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa in Black Panther (2018)

We first met Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa in Captain America: Civil War. In that film, the character undergoes more character development as a side character in a single movie than most of his MCU compatriots do in several of their own films. So by the time we see T’Challa again in his own standalone movie, we know we’re in for a treat. 

Boseman pivots expertly between idly joking with T'Challa's sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to being the magnetic center of a room full of warriors and politicians. His physical prowess and performance aside, Boseman is both King of Wakanda and king of the microexpressions. A tilt of his head here, a huffing laugh there, and, over the course of Black Panther’s heart-pounding narrative, we get an image of a man more prepared for the throne than he knows.

His performance proves most affecting not during any of the film’s many (excellent) fight sequences, but the two times T’Challa enters the Ancestral Plane to accept his role as King. He kneels before his father (John Kani) in the first, overtaken by seeing him once again, and his father tells him to stand. A king doesn’t kneel. Boseman cycles through countless emotions in this scene — grief, pride, fear, and, finally, acceptance. 

It’s this scene that carries him through the remainder of the film, and the moment in which audiences finally begin to understand T’Challa just a little bit better. And then for T'Challa to go back and tell the kings of old just how wrong they were to shut out the world? His delivery could not be more spot-on.

08. Shameik Moore as Miles Morales in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Shameik Moore’s role as Miles Morales stands out on this list as the only animated one, meaning he had far less to work with, physically, than the other actors. That doesn’t detract from his performance, however. Far from it.

Given that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a true coming-of-age story, we see Miles cycle through opposing emotions and a series of challenging moments; bitten by a radioactive spider and receiving strange powers, trying to deal with other spider-people from multiple realities, having a huge crush — it’s all there. Moore provides this confused, too-intelligent, awkward, scared, and ultimately intrepid hero with all the tools he needs (and more to boot). We believe in this character from the beginning, and that’s all due to Moore.

For all that, Miles has been deemed one of the most relatable superheroes of all time. There’s not a single emotion that Moore guides us through that every teenager and adult hasn’t experienced. And that Moore is able to convey such humor, humility, and heroism through his voice acting alone is a heroic act in and of itself.

09. Zachary Levi as Shazam in Shazam! (2019)

If Wonder Woman was the turning point for the DCEU, Shazam! was the moment it decided to go fully in another direction. Zachary Levi brings the exact kind of child-like wonder needed for the character, balancing teenage hubris with coming-of-age wisdom.

Of course, Shazam’s alter-ego Billy Batson, played by Asher Angel, is a necessary component of Levi’s performance. Without that solid baseline, the pair would never have been able to line their personalities, their movements, their expressions up so well. And for all the humor this movie has going on, Levi’s delivery in the more serious moments still manages to remind us that he is, in fact, playing an overgrown teenager.

It’s a fine balance, one that both Levi and the film manage, especially when you consider how much people loved this character when most probably had no clue who Shazam was going in.

10. Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Yes, Robert Downey Jr. spent a solid decade portraying Tony Stark. Yes, there were multiple performances to pick from. And, yes, we’re going with Avengers: Endgame. No matter how you feel about whether or not Downey Jr. was right to turn down an Oscar campaign, the impact of his performance is undeniable.

Over the course of a decade, we watched Tony Stark's Iron Man progress (and regress) from a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist to a leader, husband, and father with what is undeniably still an irresponsible streak. In Endgame, we get all the quick-quipping humor we know and love from Tony as well as the heartfelt depths fans have longed to see more of.

We could look to several moments in Endgame — any scene with Morgan Stark; Tony’s scenes with his father, Howard; the desperate relief on Tony’s face when he sees Peter Parker alive and well — that exemplify Downey Jr.’s mastery of the character, but we can’t not talk about that scene. It’s the scene you’re thinking of, yes.

At Doctor Strange’s prompting, Tony knows he has one final chance to defeat Thanos once and for all. He sacrifices everything; he throws himself at Thanos, manages to snatch the Infinity Stones away. He raises his hand, face drawn, jaw clenched, shaking with adrenaline, his eyes wide and already filling with tears, and delivers The Line.

There’s not a single MCU fan who didn’t feel like those four words — “I am Iron Man” — straight-up sucker-punched them in the face. The way Downey Jr. delivers them, with finality and resolve, exemplifies everything we’ve been through with Tony Stark. This is the end, and there was no better way for him to go out.