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The 17 All-Time Most Underrated Performances in Superhero Movies

September 16, 2023 - Movies

The superhero genre used to be a tricky terrain for actors… and in some ways, it still is. Unlike other genres like drama or comedy, where the crux of the film revolves around the performances and the actors have central command of the film in order to shine their talents, superhero/comic book films rely on several essential ingredients to pull everything together. The performances are always important, of course, regardless of genre, but then there are also the special effects, the action scenes, the costumes, the makeup, and wardrobe, the adherence to the source material, all of which get severely judged in superhero films, sometimes to a microscopic level. In many films, when some or all of these aspects get criticized for being of poor quality, it impacts the overall opinion of the film regardless of how good the acting was.

Especially whether the film is accurate to the comic books, if the costume is accurate, how the makeup or wardrobe looks on a hero or villain, if the FX and action are up to par depending on the specific hero and their story, etc., so it’d be understandable if actors are sometimes wary of joining a project where they know that it won’t simply live or die on their performance, but that there will be all these other things that would have to be pulled off well by their collaborators for the film to succeed on every level. In other words, in this genre, the actors have even less control over the entire thing than they would in other genres, and bring upon themselves the risk of being hounded by an often rabid fan base.

The superhero films of old were very lucky to get actors that were so good and committed, that they pretty much-overshadowed everything else about the film, like Christopher Reeve and Marlon Brando in Superman and Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Batman. But ever since superhero films truly asserted their dominance in the new century, actors have been flocking into this amazing world. And that was incredibly fortunate for the genre, as it increased the chance that a film would get a quality actor who would give an incredible performance, in which the entire film would be elevated.

From Tobey McGuire as Spider-Man, to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, to Heath Ledger as the Joker, and of course, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, the genre has now given us many immortal performances and movies. These days, it’s almost every actor’s dream to be given a chance to inhabit a lead hero in a genre that has become a staple of pop culture and a cinematic conqueror. It’s not just about the costume, effects, or action anymore (though those things are still important), it’s truly transitioned more into an actor’s medium, and with a warm welcome. But there have also been great performances in many of these films that, for one reason or another, haven’t been given the credit they should have, or have been downright derided in certain cases, unfairly so. Here, we look at 17 of the most underrated performances in the genre.

17 Willem Dafoe – Spider-Man (2002)

Willem Dafoe in Spider-Man.
Columbia Pictures

Willem Dafoe, one of the most brilliant and underrated actors of his generation, has recently been given universal praise for his return as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: No Way Home, and deservedly so. But audiences seemed to have forgotten how good he also was in the first film of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. His performance was by no means unnoticed, but most of the spotlight was on the main leads, and the fact that the Green Goblin’s suit was heavily criticized was also probably a factor that overshadowed the actor’s performance in the role a bit.

But when analyzing the film again, it’s clear how much the actor absolutely killed it as Norman Osbourne the first time around. His control of the dual performances he has to give with his character, and especially the sense of menace he gives to the monstrous alter ego, is absolutely masterful.

He completely evaporates into the Goblin when that terrifying personality comes out, but reverts back to a sense of inner conflict, troublesome thoughts, and slight innocence when playing Norman. His several outbursts throughout the film, especially the one when he’s in the boardroom meeting and the one when he goes through his transformation, shaking disturbingly and then grabbing the doctor’s head in a fit of psychotic rage, are unforgettable. And as Harry Osbourne’s father, he also exhibits a subtle sinister edge that clearly defines the cold, conflicted relationship he has with his son. All in all, the film would not be the same without his presence and tremendous performance.

16 Brian Cox – X2: X-Men United (2003)

x2-x-men-united-stryker-brian-cox
20th Century Studios

The second film in the original X-Men trilogy was unanimously praised, and for all the right reasons. But among all of those praises, Brian Cox‘s terrific villain was overshadowed a bit by all the other qualities of the film. His performance was by no means negatively received; just underappreciated, especially when rankings of best comic-book villains are materialized. William Stryker is menacing, vengeful, cold, calculating, and unemphatic, and the wonderful Brian Cox plays him perfectly.

He brings a gritty, hardened, tough as nails edge to a man who has a horrifyingly committed mission to rid the world of mutants, as well as a sense of gravitas and commanding presence to every scene he’s in. And he’s the only non-mutant character in the entire franchise who almost brought down the titular team in a militarily strategic way and really made them scared for their existence, and that’s saying a lot! He’s one of the best villains in the franchise, and one of Brian Cox’s best performances. And it deserved to be more praised and remembered.

15 Ben Affleck – Daredevil (2003)

Daredevil with Ben Affleck
20th Century Fox

Ok, so this entry will probably be controversial because of all the hate that Ben Affleck got for the role. And that hate is really confusing. He by no means did a bad job as Matt Murdock. The film has other flaws, sure, but not the performances. All the actors, from Jennifer Garner as Elektra Natchios to Colin Farrell’s sardonic Bullseye, all did great. But many fans were hostile to Mr. Affleck as Daredevil and it’s unclear as to why. He did great in the role, exhibiting a sense of weariness and anguish that’s perfect for the character.

He gives subtle edges of anger and vengefulness in appropriate moments, and his eyes throughout the film seem slightly dreary and haunted, giving a realistic touch to the character’s existence and everything he’s been through. This was due to his commitment, as he wore specific contacts throughout production that really obscured his vision, almost literally making him blind! He may not be the best Daredevil (that title goes to Charlie Cox, without a doubt!) but he was pretty great in this solo film. And maybe fans and critics who initially derided him should watch it again and give his performance another look.

14 Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis, Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four 2005
20th Century Fox

Here, we’re including the main “4” cast of 2005’s Fantastic Four in one entry. The first big-screen cinematic adaptation of Marvel’s first super-team received an unfair amount of criticism (there was a movie produced in the ’90s that didn’t get released). It has its flaws, but it also has plenty of merit. And one of the most underrated ones is the casting and collective performance of the four actors who make up the team. They all have great chemistry with each other and feel natural within their roles. You can tell they’re really a family and a team.

Ioan Gruffudd exudes the dorky nerd of a science professor while, at the same time, giving off a subtle sense of gravitas and leadership when he has to as the leader of the team. Michael Chiklis gives a great performance as Ben Grimm, both in his human form, and especially after he transforms, making sure to instill a sense of sadness and sympathy in his character’s situation while capturing his rugged edge perfectly. Ioan Gruffudd and Michael Chiklis also work great together and give off natural buddy vibes. A pre-Captain America Chris Evans is pitch perfect as Johnny Storm, capturing the attitude, recklessness, and bad boy immaturity wonderfully. Jessica Alba makes a delightful, if slightly monotone, Sue Storm.

But put all together, they honestly make a “fantastic” team, with natural and often hilarious chemistry, realistically symbiotic personalities, and great screen presence, that, again, make a rock star “collective” performance. Say what you want about the film, but the “4” family deserves to be more fondly remembered in their first outing.

13 Jeff Bridges – Iron Man (2008)

Jeff Bridges
Marvel Studios

Ok, so we all know the first Iron Man is the Robert Downey Jr. show. He carried the weight of not only the film, but the beginning of the MCU as we know it, on his shoulders, and boy, oh boy, did he rise to the occasion and then soared even higher! All the praise towards him was well deserved, but at the same time, all of his collaborators made the movie around him work as well, from director John Favreau, to the SFX team, to the rest of the cast, etc. And one of the biggest “non-Robert” aspects of the film that should’ve shared the spotlight a bit more was Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane. His performance was well-received, no doubt, but again, overshadowed by Robert Downey Jr.’s overnight resurrection.

Jeff Bridges is absolutely stellar as the villain! Yes, the role is a bit underwritten, but it’s a testament to Mr. Bridges’s immense talent that he makes the limited scenes he has truly pop out! He brings a subtle sense of menace and villainy throughout, and cranks it up all the way after he’s “revealed” to be the actual villain. He clearly had fun with the role, and his screen presence is foreboding, dominating, and sometimes sinister. His villain definitely deserves to be more remembered, and Jeff Bridges should absolutely take on more villain roles.

Related: 10 Outstanding Supervillain Performances from Accomplished Actors

12 Edward Norton – The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Norton in The Incredible Hulk
Universal Pictures

The character of Bruce Banner has become universally associated, and loved, with Mark Ruffalo nowadays, due to his progression as the character in the MCU over the last decade. But his now iconic inhabitance overshadows the underrated performance of another actor who played the role prior… Edward Norton. In the MCU’s first Hulk film, Bruce Banner was going through an origin of sorts, starting out as the character at his most raw, dealing with the inner conflict and struggles of trying to control his rage and alter ego just a little while after the “accident”. And Edward Norton played that wonderfully, imbuing his performance with a constant anxiety and conflicted energy.

He added to the intensity of the whole film with his always on-the-run performance, and really made you feel the weight and gravity of his situation, his inner turmoil, and his constant battle with himself to contain the monster. In any moment of the film, you could feel his other side just teetering on the surface, with him barely able to contain it. Mark Ruffalo did a great job over his time as the character, no doubt…but there should really be more recognition, respect, and remembrance given to Mr. Norton’s brief but powerful time as the character.

11 Danny DeVito – Batman Returns (1992)

Danny DeVito's Penguin as seen in Tim Burton's Batman Returns 
Warner Bros.

The second film in Tim Burton’s Batman duology received almost universal praise for the performances, particularly for Michelle Pfeifer’s Catwoman and Michael Keaton’s Batman. But Danny DeVito‘s performance was somewhat overshadowed by his counterparts, even though they are also generally praised. Critics generally considered his villain inferior to Jack Nicholson’s Joker and not very scary, and for some shocking reason, he managed to get a Razzie nomination for Worst Supporting Actor! So there’s a bit of confusion as to why his performance sort of lies on the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion.

But contrary to the point of many fans and critics, Danny DeVito’s Penguin was absolutely incredible and by no means inferior to Jack Nicholson’s Joker! In many ways, it was far better. Whereas the Joker was more over the top and entertaining in an offbeat kind of way, the Penguin was more layered, darker, grotesque, sad, and powerful. It’s difficult to define what certain critics meant that he wasn’t scary.

“Conventionally” scary, perhaps not. “Jump scare” scary, maybe not so much. But he was haunting. He was visceral. He was harrowing. If the Joker was like a fun slasher film, violent but entertaining, then Tim Burton’s Penguin is like a psychological thriller, disturbing, creepy, twisted, crawling under your skin, and leaving you shaken for days. And Danny Devito personified him brilliantly, phenomenally, transcendently.

Jack Nicholson was awesome as the Joker, no argument. But let’s face it, he was simply Jack Nicholson on steroids. Whereas Danny Devito… he was truly one with his character. He completely drowned in his ugly, sickened spirit, complete with black vomit, cruel stares, and villainous sleaze. And that Razzie nom… seriously? It’s an insulting joke, if there ever was one. This performance is a masterclass, and it should’ve been far more appreciated next to the leads.

10 Halle Berry – Catwoman (2004)

Halle Berry in Catwoman (2004)
Warner Bros. Pictures

Yes, we know, this will probably be the most triggering entry on this list. Yes, we know, Halle Berry herself showed up to accept her Razzie and called the film “a piece of s***”. But regardless of the spew that the film itself received, Halle Berry received an unfair amount of vitriol for it, considering the fact that her performance was actually very committed and quite great. As Patience Phillips, she totally nails the insecurity, innocence, and bumbling yet charming personality of her simple, lonely, everyman (well, “everywoman”) character.

And after her transformation, BAM! She switches Catwoman on like a match, completely changing and melting into her essence with all the sass, attitude, confidence, charisma, and sexiness you’d expect. She nails the catlike movements, mannerisms, glances, and even the posture. She just oozes with “feline” musk, if you will. No, she’s not Michelle Pfeifer. No one will ever be. But for “this” Catwoman… the more spunky, edgy, and sassy Catwoman in this specific film…she killed it. And no amount of dumb Razzies or fanboy hate will change that.

9 Ray Stevenson – Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War Zone-1
Lionsgate/Marvel Entertainment

In another article, we already covered Thomas Jane’s underrated performance as Frank Castle, so for this one, we’ll take on Ray Stevenson‘s also underappreciated take. This Punisher film was slightly better received than that one, but for some reason, Ray Stevenson’s performance was overlooked. He was a great Frank Castle, and an arguably better Punisher! As Frank, Ray Stevenson really gives him a soul, wounded and haunted, but also caring, noble, and, dare we say, kind in some cases.

His scenes with Julie Benz’s widow and her daughter have a tenderness and sweetness to them, and it’s in these scenes where Mr. Stevenson lets out Frank’s family man side, showing his vulnerability with great conviction. But in his scenes as the Punisher, he dives fully into his hardened, combative persona, exhibiting a natural tough guy screen presence and hardcore physicality that really elevates the grit and violence of the film. And he deftly handles the balance between the two.

8 Tom Hardy – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Bane in The Dark Knight Rises
Warner Bros. Pictures

Ok, so after Heath Ledger’s legendary performance as the Joker, the next villain in the series was pretty much a sure bet to be a step-down in the minds of many. Now when that bridge came, Tom Hardy didn’t get bad reviews for his performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, but rather mixed, as many people and critics praised it, but many fans gave it a lot of criticism, particularly his muffled voice…and almost everyone universally agreed he was a step-down from Heath Ledger’s Joker. But looking back, audiences and critics really didn’t recognize and/or appreciate just how brilliant of a performance he gave as the main villain in the trilogy’s closing chapter. First off, the voice – audio mixing notwithstanding – was an astonishing part of the character, at least performance-wise.

Tom Hardy created such a unique thing about Bane with the voice he created for him, which hasn’t historically been a cared-for aspect of the character. He imbued the voice with a “soulful” quality, if you will, one of intelligent gravitas, ancient wisdom, and a sense of poetic, Shakespearean essence. He was charming at times, speaking like a high-class gentleman, and became terrifying at times in the blink of an eye. But he always kept his voice and his articulation calm, intelligent, and confident. This became a vital and memorable part of the character, aside from his body language, since he had a mask covering most of his face. Second – it’s honestly pointless and pretty unfair, actually, to compare his performance to Heath Ledger. They’re very different performances, and very different villains. He’s FAR more physically imposing than the Joker was, which also takes a lot of commitment from an actor.

He has a more foreboding, threatening presence, and dominant aura. And unlike Heath Ledger, who was able to use his entire face and body to perform, Tom Hardy only had his body, eyes, and voice, which was a different challenge and one he pulled off immensely in interesting, unexpected, and epic ways. All in all, Tom Hardy’s Bane is also legendary, like the Joker, but just for different reasons…and his performance was captivating, grand, and unforgettable. Hopefully, it’ll be reevaluated more as time goes on, and truly commended for how incredible it was.

Related: 16 Actors That Have Played Both Superheroes and Supervillains

7 Dane Dehaan – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

the-amazing-spider-man-dane-dehaan-harry-osborn-hobgoblin
Sony

The second film in The Amazing Spider-Man duology received plenty of criticism and controversy upon its release, that many aspects of the film were overlooked because of it. The performances were generally all praised, but the one of the greatest things about the film…one of its shining beacons of brilliance…is the underrated Dane Dehaan as Harry Osbourne. His performance was surprisingly met with mixed reviews. But he lifts the entire film up on an entirely new level. From his very first scene with his dying father, he digs hard into Harry’s conflicted, slightly traumatized nature, exhibiting dormant pain, grief, anger, and torment all at once. And from that point on, he doesn’t let up.

Every scene he’s in, he owns. He anchors his Harry with a lot of heavy, angry weight that drags with him constantly, and sculpts it so much into his face and body language, that you literally always feel it emitting from his being and every scene he’s in actually feels heavier with his presence, if you really analyze it well. And he dials up the different levels within that weight in different moments, sometimes letting out more anger, sometimes more grief, sometimes more pain, but always makes his wounded heart and torment visible to the audience throughout the entire trajectory of his arc.

And after he transforms into the ghastly Goblin, he cranks up the performance past the meter, letting out all the vengeance, anguish, and rage in full force. It’s an outstanding performance, and really deserves much more appreciation and reevaluation.

6 Chris Cooper – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

Norman_Osborn_close_up_TASM2
Columbia Pictures

Speaking of which, another underrated performance from the film is Chris Cooper as Norman Osbourne. Yes, his time is brief, not much more than a cameo. But it’s a testament to Chris Cooper’s underrated talent that he gives his all to the time he has and makes the entire scene really stand out. He’s ill and slightly sympathetic but also cold and sinister in a subtle way, and becomes more monstrous as the scene builds up.

He’s genuinely chilling, giving shades of utter creepiness to his Norman and plays off Dane Dehaan quite well and with good chemistry. It would’ve been great, and intriguing, to see where this setup would go. But alas, it became a wasted opportunity for his character after this powerful introduction, and it’s confusing as to why Sony decided to give him such little time in the film. Still, when an actor is able to make an impression with just one scene, it’s pretty commendable.

5 Sophie Turner – Dark Phoenix (2019)

Sophie Turner Dark Phoenix
20th Century Fox

Oftentimes, when a film receives such backlash and negative reception as this one did, it usually overshadows the positive aspects, like the performances. In this case, it was poor Sophie Turner that really deserved much more mercy and appreciation for her lead performance. She fully commits to the emotional struggle of her Jean Grey and carries the film with a confident and powerful grace. She took her arc dead serious, preparing for the role by constantly having headphones with a bunch of voices playing simultaneously in her ears to understand how it would feel to be Jean living that experience. If that’s not commitment to a role, there’s little that is. Regardless of how derided the film was, she deserves more recognition for trying her best.

4 Jessie Eisenberg – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

Batman vs Superman- Lex Luthor
Distributed by Warner Bros.

Sometimes people can have trouble separating an actor from the writing of their character. They may dislike the way a character was written for the film and end up taking that out on the actor’s performance as being bad, even though they simply performed what was directed to them. This is a common, and unfair, misunderstanding. And a perfect example of this lies in the overall opinions towards Jesse Eisenberg‘s Lex Luthor in this controversial, slightly infamous DC epic. The common thread of most criticism towards his version of Lex was that the character was not accurate nor handled well, and resembled an amateur version of the Joker more than Lex Luthor. But when one actually separates the vision of the character and the actor’s actual acting, they’ll more likely find a more truthful analysis.

And in terms of sheer acting, Jesse Eisenberg completely nails this unhinged, start-up version of the famous comic book villain into the wall several times. He wholeheartedly embraces the neurotic, over-the-top, slightly Bond-villain side of his nature brilliantly in certain moments, but balances it out in the more serious moments where he exudes a dark, brooding, sinister villainy that’s made up of wounded trauma from his upbringing, contempt towards Superman, a lust for power and manipulation, and even a vague personality disorder or two. It’s a fascinating, if sometimes strange, performance, and Jesse Eisenberg achieves it brilliantly and with scene-chewing relish. It’s a spectacular performance that deserves more open-minded reevaluation, appreciation, and, at the very least, a sincere effort to commit to doing the aforementioned separation and judge his acting aside from the specific interpretation of the character, accurate or not.

3 Danny Huston – Wonder Woman (2017)

Danny Huston in Wonder Woman
Warner Bros.

Wonder Woman was a groundbreaking superhero epic for the industry, and was a critical darling to boot. Most of the aspects of the film were praised, from the story and action, to the drama, direction, visuals, inspirational grandeur, and of course the blow-all-expectations-away performance of Gal Gadot and her chemistry with Chris Pine. All the performances, really, were generally well-received, but with all the attention and conversation centered on the stars of the film, one of the other great performances in the film went overshadowed somewhat.

Danny Huston played Ludendorff, a WWII officer obsessed with the war, who dabbles in unorthodox and advanced science in order to give him an advantage, and who was thought to be the main villain up to a certain point in the film. Danny Huston knocks his performance out of the park. He genuinely carries a sinister, ominous aura about him throughout and does so in a hardened, gritty way, rather than flashy or cartoonish. Everything from his body language, expressions, and intense stares, to his menacing accent, all make you genuinely believe that his mission is embedded into his core, that war and violence flow through his veins, and that he lives only for Germany’s victory. It was a great and underrated performance.

2 Elena Anaya – Wonder Woman (2017)

wonder-woman-dottor-poison-elena-anaya-tornerA-sequel-v3-295744 (1)
Warner Bros.

Speaking of which, here, we have another standout performance from Wonder Woman. Elena Anaya plays Dr. Maru aka Dr. Poison, a brilliant but nefarious chemist who assists Ludendorff’s goal by experimenting with horrible poisons and gases. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time in the film, but with the time she does have, oh wow, does Elena Anaya make a remarkable impression! She exudes a dark and troubled aura, and yet, there’s also a slightly sympathetic, sad, and intriguing vibe about her, as if she’s gone through something horrible in her life that left her scarred (and which may be the reason she wears a half mask, even though that’s never explicitly explained in the film).

She conveys so much with every expression, every gesture, and just has a screen presence about her in this role that makes you transfixed on her when she’s on-screen. Like the earlier entry that covered Chris Cooper as Norman Osbourne, it’s really something special when an actor/actress uses limited screen time like she has in this film to such incredible effect that not only is she quite memorable in her performance, but you also want to see more of her as the character in the future.

1 Ray Winstone – Black Widow (2021)

Ray Winstone in Black Widow

And once again, here is another perfect example of an actor making a memorable impact in a limited appearance. Ray Winstone (who is underrated himself) appeared in Black Widow as cruel Russian antagonist Dreykov, the man responsible for the program that molds and trains Natasha Romanov since her youth. He appears in the beginning of the film in a vague disguise undercover, and then reappears in the final act in his actual persona. But he nails his role brilliantly in both situations. There was some backlash against his accent and that it didn’t sound Russian enough, but that criticism aside, his performance was marvelous in every other way, and it was a vastly overlooked part of the film.

He imbued the character with his standard tough-guy exterior, which was very appropriate, but it wasn’t just that… his demeanor, his mannerisms, his tone, his posture, his stare, his movements, everything about him all felt very formidable, unnerving, intimidating, and admonitory. And as the scene unfolds between him and Natasha, he peels back more layers, bringing forth a brutish, mean-spirited streak that reeked of insecure macho posturing, then a cruel, twisted sense of morality when talking about his plan for the widow program. And he also expertly let out moments of carefully contained anger when he unveiled his broken, scarred daughter.

Mr. Winstone exhibits solid veteran command of all of these moments and emotions throughout the scene, and his villain is one we’d love to see more of precisely because of his masterful presence and top-notch performance. It goes without saying that it should’ve received more recognition and attention.


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