Superhero cinema has effectively become its own genre over the past two decades.
Not only has the Marvel Cinematic Universe become the biggest franchise in recent history, but additional superhero movies – some from other studios using Marvel properties, some from DC, and a few based on smaller comics – have helped to make the genre incredibly prolific.
To some extent the success of superhero films comes down to the public’s love of the basic formula the movies tend to follow. Someone’s down on his luck, then stumbles into overwhelming power, gradually learns that with that great power comes great responsibility, and saves the world. It’s a dramatic outline that’s proven time and time again to have immense entertainment value for droves of fans, and even though superhero projects are evolving a little bit as we get deeper into franchises, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
But even more than this formula and the subsequent tropes we frequently see, it’s the characters that define superhero cinema. The interesting thing about this whole phenomenon is that the movies are built on very thoroughly defined characters and concepts, and if capable actors and actresses can’t bring them to life in a way that satisfies comic fans, the movies don’t work. So instead of just which heroes are most beloved in general, here’s a look back at the five best interpretations on the big screen.
5. Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter)
One of the most recent cinematic depictions of a superhero is certainly among the best. “Jessica Jones,” who appeared last year in a show of the same name produced by Marvel and Netflix, was unexpectedly brilliant. Characteristically a sort of dark, dry character, Jones was embodied perfectly by Krysten Ritter, who made a pretty serious girl power statement for the superhero genre. With these films’ studios and particularly Marvel frequently fielding criticism for failing to cast women in prominent, powerful roles, Ritter’s work marked a distinct shift, and she took the opportunity for a major coming out party. The popularity of the show (almost universally positive reviews) speaks to how a character who was relatively unknown compared to most cinema superheroes was developed extremely successfully.
4. Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley)
Probably the least well-known character on this list, Rorschach is the creepy but intoxicating antihero at the heart of the “Watchmen” comics and film. Characterized by a black-and-white mask displaying psychological Rorschach ink patterns, he’s a bizarre character who frankly was a pretty significant risk as a cinematic figure. It could easily have gone wrong. Yet ‘Watchmen’ wound up having a certain dark charm to it, and Jackie Earle Haley’s work in this crucial role was largely to thank for it.
3. Thor (Chris Hemsworth)
If you step back and think about it, the fact that Thor is a prominent Marvel superhero is nothing short of absurd. Mind you, he’s far from the only god-like figure included in the comics, but it’s still ridiculous. The idea of turning an actual figure from Norse mythology into a superhero is a pretty far cry from a guy in an advanced soldier suit, or even folks altered by super soldier serum. So how did Marvel Studios handle it? Well, this report on the casting of Chris Hemsworth from the time it was announced pretty much says it all: “talk about spot-on casting!” Instead of opting for a known muscleman or action star, the studio went for the up-and-coming Hollywood hunk with a nonstop twinkle in his eye, and the result was the only take on the character that could have worked. Marvel’s Thor is playful and amusing, allowing the films he’s in to be comically self-aware of the character’s absurdity.
2. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)
I toyed with putting Wolverine in the top spot, and it’s largely because of how thoroughly Hugh Jackman’s take has come to define this iconic character. When you heard “Wolverine” 10 or 15 years ago you pictured a masked, bandit-like figure clad in yellow and black (or dark blue). Now, you picture Hugh Jackman’s grizzled mug. And it’s not just in the films. A review of a popular X-Men-themed slot machine game here shows Jackman’s likeness at the front of a group of X-Men who are otherwise more or less indistinguishable from their comic forms. Other X-Men games have used his likeness and even his voice acting (though that’s more typical of video games that don’t fall under the casino category). Simply put, Jackman is Wolverine, and given that he has been for over 15 years now, he’s earned his top spot on the list. Wolverine is also the most prolific modern cinematic superhero, though I’ve held him back from the top spot because one or two of his films have been dreadful.
1. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.)
Really, how could it be anyone else? No, it’s not a bold pick given that he’s the most high profile of any modern superhero on the big screen, but then that’s kind of the point. Marvel took a little bit of a gamble kicking off the MCU with Iron Man over Captain America, and Robert Downey, Jr. rewarded them to the tune of billions of dollars over the years. The very fact that he’s become the face of the franchise is enough to land him the top spot.