Before They Assembled: The Avengers’ Best Performances

     November 25, 2015

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[This article was initially published at an earlier date, but in an effort to highlight Collider’s great original content, we’ve bumped it up to the front page.]

One of the great allures of The Avengers franchise is the combination of A-grade performers working together in a number of action-driven and buoyantly colorful sequences. Don’t get me wrong: the costumes are great, the graphics are convincing and thrilling, and director-writer Joss Whedon’s ability to satisfyingly balance these storylines is impressive and admirable, to say the least. At the end of the day, however, it’s the distinct deliveries, physicality, and natural charms of these actors, working essentially on an even-keel, that helped make the first Avengers film and Avengers: Age of Ultron so joyous and memorable.

The Avengers isn’t the first time these actors have added a particular, enlivening kick to films via supporting turns. So, I decided to take a look at the films that came before Whedon’s monolithic hit that benefitted from the actors that make up the titular team, as well as some of their colleagues and enemies. In 90% of these cases, I tried to pull from films that happened before the stars even suited up for their solo entries into the Marvel universe, with only one – *cough* Hemsworth *cough* – exception overall. These are the performances that made them worthy of putting on costumes that no reasonable, progressive society would allow outdoors.


Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark/Iron Man): Zodiac

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Iron Man made Robert Downey Jr. the preeminent starring lead for big-banner Hollywood projects, but his most ambitious work has shown up in supporting roles. He proved crucial to the insidiously involving visual and narrative rhythms of David Fincher’s monumental take on the decades-long hunt for the Zodiac killer. Downey Jr.’s magnetic, talkative charm makes for a distinct, fascinating portrait of Paul Avery, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who wrote extensively on the serial killer, but he also melded perfectly with Jake Gyllenhaal, Anthony Edwards, and future Avengers co-star Mark Ruffalo in Fincher’s glossy, moody aesthetic.

See Also: A Scanner Darkly, Wonder Boys, Short Cuts

Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury): Jackie Brown

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Image via Miramax


Oversaturation is a problem when it comes to picking out the best of Samuel L. Jackson’s career, but his work with Quentin Tarantino has been equally comedic and galvanic, and the nuances of his performances have paid major dividends on repeat viewings. This is never truer than in Tarantino’s sublime action-melodrama, a riff on a smart, tawdry Elmore Leonard pulp novel. Jackson’s nefarious Ordell Robbie rattled off more memorable one-liners than Jules ever did and yet the character is consistently, potently menacing and capable of violent, brutal action when his comfort and freedom are on the line, or if you kill his longtime girlfriend for incredibly petty reasons. Jackson is the film’s integral mean streak, the wild, erratic pulse propelling this surprisingly intricate tale of bail bondsmen, arms dealing, soul music, and sad romances.

See Also: Hard Eight, Unbreakable, Eve’s Bayou

Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow): Ghost World

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Image via United Artists

At this point, Scarlett Johansson is the go-to lady lead for all your feminist ass-kicking needs, as proven by Lucy and her casting in the upcoming Ghost in the Shell remake. What originally drew viewers to Johansson, however, was her voice, both figuratively and literally. In Terry Zwigoff’s masterful adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ classic graphic novel, she proved a galvanic, levelheaded foil to Thora Birch’s anti-establishment artist-as-punk. Even her smoky voice suggested a dubious maturity contrasted against Birch’s furious, snarky tone when they come into contact with Steve Buscemi’s bitter, prickly pop-culture collector.

See Also: Lost in Translation, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Match Point

Chris Hemsworth (Thor): Star Trek

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Image via Paramount Pictures


This one’s tough. Hemsworth has only really started to branch out following his success as Thor and in The Avengers, as in Michael Mann’s quietly furious blackhat. His comedic talents shine in The Cabin in the Woods, but he’s purposefully cast as a symbolic, slightly augmented archtype. There is something to be said, however, about the mark he makes on J.J. Abram’s wonderful Star Trek reboot as George Kirk, the father of Chris Pine’s James Tiberius Kirk. In a sequence that could have been totally and utterly forgettable, Hemsworth makes a character with scant screen time into a commanding, resonant presence, and a memorable touchstone for the heroics Captain Kirk shows throughout the rest of the film.

Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/Hawkeye): The Hurt Locker

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Image via Summit Entertainment

Okay, maybe this is a bit obvious. Jeremy Renner has kept busy since his mid-1990s debut in, of all things, National Lampoon’s Senior Trip, alongside Matt Frewer, Tommy Chong, and The Kids in the Hall’s Kevin McDonald. Whenever he took dramatic roles, the characters tended to be more on the brooding yet intermittently gentle side than anything else, but he broke out under Kathryn Bigelow’s lean, forceful wartime filmmaking. As a daredevil explosives expert, Renner nailed the character’s self-destructive romanticism but also evoked a potent, haunting numbness and a lethal competitive streak. There’s no underselling Bigelow’s hand in the film’s impact and success but Renner’s portrayal of a solider disconnected from peace and domestic life cannot be separated from The Hurt Locker’s reputation as a new classic, and one of the least disputed Best Film Oscar wins in the history of the ceremony.

See Also: 12 & Holding, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dahmer

Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America): Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

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Image via Universal

Anyone who has seen Edgar Wright’s wildly imaginative and wise action-comedy knows just how big a loss the firebrand filmmaker was for Ant-Man, though, to be fair, Peyton Reed is as good a replacement as I can imagine. Still, Wright perfected the tone that Ant-Man is clearly going for right here, and Chris Evans provided a profoundly funny parody of the action star as pompous asshole type with Lucas Lee, a skateboarding Brad Pitt sort who fights Michael Cera’s titular Canadian alt-schlub for the love of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Lined up alongside similarly inspired comedic turns by Brandon Routh, Jason Schwartzman, Mae Whitman, and Satya Bhabha, Evans at once undermines and flexes his now ever-apparent sense of humor and incredibly undiluted on-screen appeal.

See Also: Sunshine, Not Another Teen Movie


Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/The Hulk): Margaret

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Image via Fox Searchlight

The arrival of Kenneth Lonergan’s mythical, brilliant sophomore feature, a grand, operatic New York melodrama, came with a cacophony of critical rabble-rousing. The film’s New York City run became legendary, kept alive by loudly outspoken supporters of the film in the critical establishment and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. Mark Ruffalo, who teamed with Lonergan on the writer-director’s excellent debut, You Can Count On Me, plays a significant part in the emotionally visceral proceedings as a New York City bus driver who accidentally hits a woman (Allison Janney) when he motors through a Manhattan crosswalk. No fair spoiling the rest of this odd, unhinged coming-of-age tale, but the angry regret that Ruffalo summons in his supporting turn is integral to the sweeping, conflicting emotional landscape of this unique film.

See Also: Shutter Island, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Brothers Bloom

Paul Bettany (Jarvis/The Vision) – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

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Image via 20th Century Fox

Paul Bettany made an impression with A Knight’s Tale but that movie remains, on a good day, an entertaining trifle. Not until Bettany came under the wing of Peter Weir, the venerable Australian helmer behind The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, with this harrowing seafaring adventure did Bettany’s flair for empathetic intellectualism became apparent. Contrasted against Russell Crowe’s ever-ambitious Captain Jack Aubry, Bettany provided a wisp of scientific curiosity to underline the dangerous voyaging that was Aubrey’s talent and means of employment. The best scenes of the film involve Bettany and Crowe exploring a quiet island filled with a cornucopia of specimens, an all the more impressive fact considering the awesome ship battles that are sprinkled throughout the rest of the film.

See Also: Dogville, Gangster No. 1, A Knight’s Tale


And briefly:

  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver) – Nowhere Boy & Godzilla
  • Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch) – Martha Marcy May Marlene & Oldboy
  • Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon) – Night Catches Us & Half Nelson
  • Don Cheadle (Colonel James Rhodes/War Machine) – Devil in a Blue Dress & Boogie Nights
  • James Spader (Ultron) – sex, lies, and videotape & Secretary

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