Before They Assembled: The Best Performances From The Cast Of 'The Avengers'

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by Oliver Lyttelton
May 3, 2012 3:59 PM
15 Comments
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For all the many strengths of "The Avengers," there's one important element that writer-director Joss Whedon can't take credit for: the casting. Of the main characters, only one, Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk, hasn't appeared in one of the previous five Marvel movies that have led to this point. So given the casting committee that assembled The Avengers, it's something of a miracle that it's ended up with one of the most enjoyable collections of actors in a big tentpole movie for quite some time.

Of course, for the most part, it's to be expected: while there are a few newcomers in the mix, the principle cast have close to a century of experience in the movies between them, and countless great performances in their back catalogs. With "The Avengers" finally hitting U.S. theaters tomorrow, we've picked out the greatest performance of each of the seven members who make up the superhero team (plus Tom Hiddleston, who plays villain Loki), so you can have your own mini-Avengers marathon if your screening gets sold out this weekend. Check it out below, and as ever, vent any disagreements in the comments section.

Robert Downey Jr. - "Chaplin" (1992)

Prior to "Chaplin," Robert Downey Jr. had been transitioning from teen flicks to more adult roles, in part thanks to his impressive turn in "Less Than Zero." But if confirmation were needed that he was one of the more exciting talents of his generation, it arrived with "Chaplin." Richard Attenborough's biopic is no great shakes -- competent, but overly conventional, and attempting to cover too much ground in its saggy running time. But Downey Jr. is terrific in the title role, taking on one of the most iconic movie figures ever, in what must have been somewhat terrifying responsibility. But you wouldn't know it when you watch him: while there isn't an obvious visual resemblance, he's wonderful as the silent star, pulling off the comedy as well as anyone could have, yet also getting under the skin of the man in a way that the film itself never quite manages. It's a testament to the performance that Attenborough includes footage of the real Chaplin in the credits, and you never feel cheated.
Honorable Mentions: We were a hair's breadth from selecting his fantastic comeback role in Shane Black's "Kiss Kiss Bang Bang" playing a failed actor turned would-be private eye in a fantastically motor-mouthed, vulnerable and hilarious performance. He did good work in "The Singing Detective" while still on the way back up again, even if the film itself is weak, while it's a mark of the strength of his turn in "Zodiac" that the film seems to sag a bit once he comes out of the picture. Finally, his second Oscar-nominated performance in "Tropic Thunder" is a thing of comic genius.

Chris Evans - "Sunshine" (2007)

Among an eclectic international cast for Danny Boyle's sci-fi near-masterpiece "Sunshine," Chris Evans was somewhat the odd man out. The actor had shown his charisma in genre fare like "Cellular" and "Fantastic Four," but the films themselves hadn't exactly shone, and he'd always seemed a little... insubstantial. Which makes it doubly impressive that he stands out among a strong cast including Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh, Cliff Curtis, Rose Byrne and Mark Strong. Evans plays Mace, the engineer of the spaceship Pegasus II, and it's a world away from anything he'd done before. He's not a bad guy -- far from it -- but Evans is admirably unafraid to make the character prickly and unlikable, dedicated above all else to the success of their mission. It's the less glamorous side of the sort of heroic figure he's tended to play, but Evans walks the tightrope nicely -- you think that Mace is kind of a prig, but you still feel for him when he meets his icy death. Fingers crossed, his reunion with another international sci-fi cast for Bong Joon-Ho's "Snow Piercer" will be just as exciting.
Honorable Mentions: Even among a cast that seems to be engaging in some kind of World Scene Stealing competition, Chris Evans walks away with "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World." As dickish skateboarder-turned-action-star Lucas Lee, he's a neat parody of a certain kind of ego-ed actor, complete with Christian Bale voice and preening manner. He's strong in indie "Puncture" too, even if the film isn't so hot.

Chris Hemsworth - "Thor" (2010)

The greenest member of the cast, we've got high hopes for his first serious dramatic turn, as race driver James Hunt in Ron Howard's upcoming "Rush," but right now, he's indecipherable from his Marvel character to most moviegoers. But that's no slight on Hemsworth as "Thor." Casting the part -- a six-foot-plus brick shithouse of a Norse God -- must have been Marvel's hardest task to date. The Australian actor rose to the challenge impressively, with a pitch-perfect accent, action chops, genuine gravitas and a deft comic touch. Thor's arc, from spoilt boy to hero, is one of the more satisfying in the films to date, and it's paid off neatly when he reprises the role in Joss Whedon's film. We can only hope that next year's sequel continues to give him good material.
Honorable Mentions: David Twohy's 2009 thriller "A Perfect Getaway" was pretty much ignored on release, despite being a nifty little genre picture, and Hemsworth, as one half of a sinister hitchhiking couple (with an impressive handlebar stache/beard combo), gives a nicely menacing, ambiguous turn.  

Mark Ruffalo - "You Can Count On Me" (2000)

Even in dreck like "Rumor Has It," Ruffalo's never been anything less than thoroughly enjoyable to watch, but as reliably excellent as he is, his breakout performance in Kenneth Lonergan's 2000 film remains his peak. The actor plays Terry, the no-good, aimless, estranged brother of Sammy (Laura Linney), whose parents were killed in a car crash when they were children. Fleeing from a painful relationship with a girl who later attempts suicide, he returns home, crashing with his sister and proving to be a bad influence on her son Rudy Jr. (Rory Culkin). Ruffalo's turn saw him compared by all and sundry to Marlon Brando, and we suppose it's fair enough: there's a low-key brilliance to the performance that's reminiscent of the great star. Lonergan's greatest strength is bringing out a complexity in his characters, and Ruffalo rises to the occasion, playing an irresponsible fuck-up and a tiny, vulnerable child in the same breath.
Honorable Mentions: Ruffalo was almost as good, albeit in a much smaller role, in last year's reunion with Lonergan, "Margaret." Otherwise, he steals the show in "Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," got a deserved Oscar nomination for "The Kids Are All Right," and alongside Downey Jr, was another highlight of "Zodiac" ("The Avengers," in which Ruffalo gives the best performance, capitalizes on their chemistry by making them something of a double act). We're also fond of Ruffalo in "The Brothers Bloom," even if we appreciate that some found the film hard to swallow.  
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15 Comments

  • Chucho | May 8, 2012 8:21 AMReply

    Downey, Jr - Chaplin, Short Cuts
    Hemsworth - Star Trek
    Evans - Scott Pilgrim/ Sunshine/ The Losers, anyone?
    Ruffalo - My life without me/ Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind/ Blindness
    Johansson - Girl with a pearl earring/ Lost in Translation
    Renner - The Hurt Locker
    Samuel L. Jackson - The Incredibles :)
    Hiddleston - Midnight in Paris, Thor

    Clark Gregg - The New Adventures of Old Christine ;)

  • Chucho | May 8, 2012 8:13 AMReply

    No "Star Trek" for Hemsworth? That's the main reason he landed Thor! Those brief minutes were heroic enough to earn him some recognition.

  • Margaret | May 7, 2012 11:53 AMReply

    Scarlet was also excellent in 'A Love Song for Bobby Long'.

  • Mike | May 4, 2012 4:31 PMReply

    Great read, though I'd probably add Collateral to Ruffalo's honorable mentions because of the great impact & pain his character injects into the proceedings in just a few scenes. Also, my favorite Sammy L performance is still Unbreakable.

  • jonathan | May 4, 2012 9:50 AMReply

    I'd just like to say that The Brothers Bloom is a fantastic movie. Other than that, this piece was a good read.

  • Katie Walsh | May 4, 2012 1:16 AMReply

    Great piece and completely spot on.

  • Steven Flores | May 3, 2012 8:20 PMReply

    What about Scarlett in "Girl with a Pearl Earring"? Her performance in that film was better than the one she gave in "Lost in Translation". It's a very near-silent but truly entrancing performance.

  • ATcinejordan | May 3, 2012 7:08 PMReply

    No mention of Downey in "Two Girls and a Guy"?

  • nechoplex | May 3, 2012 5:43 PMReply

    The spaceship in Sunshine is actually called the Icarus II. Just thought you guys should know.

  • RANDOM DUDE | May 3, 2012 5:39 PMReply

    "a six-foot-plus brick shithouse of a Norse God"

    classy.

    "while there isn't an obvious visual resemblance"
    there kinda is...that's what made the movie watching experience so magical because RDJ looked so close to him.

  • Lynn | May 3, 2012 4:59 PMReply

    Hemsworth is the least experienced of the bunch, but you should have at least mentioned the opening scene of Star Trek, where he plays James Kirk's father. His character's sacrifice was emotional well-done, setting up the entire film. While he was good as Thor, I long to see him match that in terms of acting.

  • jb | May 4, 2012 2:38 PM

    YES YES

  • jt | May 3, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    Mark Ruffalo deserved an Oscar nomination for " You Can Count On Me." Yes, Chris Evans is very charismatic and talented, but he needs to do more challenging roles.

  • bob hawk | May 8, 2012 4:48 AM

    I second Mike on PUNCTURE, which was at Tribeca last year. Evans' performance, as an idealistic but drug addicted lawyer, was complex and devastating -- one of the best of 2011 -- and it still haunts me. Lyttelton characterizes the film as "not so hot" but I'd say it's not so bad at all, certainly more interesting than a lot of the worn-out tropes rehashed in so many indie films. Based on a true story, it deals with a corrupt medical supply system that prevents the sale of a retractable safety needle that would prevent health workers from accidental pinpricks from contaminated needles. It told me about something I had never heard about, and it has stuck with me (pardon the pun).

  • Mike | May 4, 2012 4:33 PM

    Have you seen Puncture? That role is all kinds of conflicted and Evans is fantastic in it. He also said recently he doesn't see himself taking on more blockbusters from here on kit, that he'd rather do indie work, so that's encouraging. I love that they highlighted Sunshine here, it was such a move towards maturity for him and it's but a piece of an ensemble cast of a sadly underseen movie.

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