Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Top Comic Movie Performances)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.

Nick: Check your emergency supplies! The world must be ending, dear readers, because the Hard-Traveling Fanboys are back and on schedule for a second consecutive week.

Greg: That’s right. There are no fishing expeditions or community plays to distract us this week. Welp, we’re ready to delve into this week’s topic, which happens to be the single most important profession in the history of this or any other world: ACTING.

Nick: Indeed. As summer winds down, we’ve seen our fair share of comic book movies this year. There were some pretty good performances, so we got to wondering: What are the best performances we’ve ever seen in a comic book movie?

Greg: Narrowing this list was especially difficult, considering all the great performances we’ve seen in films that were inspired by comic books. But we did it anyway, so here it is. I’ll get things started …

Greg’s No. 5: Jackie Earle Haley (Watchmen)

tumblr_m6ybuySQA31qa9ofvo1_500Nick: Man, I totally forgot about this one! Great choice.

Greg: The versatile but unheralded actor was tasked with being one of the pillars of a movie once considered unfilmable. Haley had certainly enjoyed his share of success before, but it was a bold move for director Zack Snyder to entrust the iconic role of Rorschach to him. Arguably the most popular character in one of the greatest comic books/graphic novels ever published, Rorschach was a role that demanded intense, believable rage sprinkled with a subtle vulnerability and a pinch of hypocrisy.

Haley took those cues and breathed life into a character we’d always dreamed of seeing on the big screen. Everything about the performance just made sense — the voice, the facial expressions (which often looked right off the page), the mannerisms and the delivery of Alan Moore’s iconic lines.

Likewise, Haley managed to come off brutal and genuinely intimidating despite his small stature. Rorschach is like a rabid animal when he fights, and Haley embodied that better than anyone else could have.

Nick: I remember being skeptical when the casting was first announced, but it really couldn’t have turned out any better, regardless of how you feel about the rest of the movie. Any particular scene that stands out to you?

Greg: Two stand out more than any others. The first is when Rorschach goes to prison and confronts all the criminals eager to get a crack at him — “I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me!” Chills, man.

The other was actually Rorschach’s death scene. In some ways, Haley managed to elevate the scene beyond the source material. As powerful as Rorschach’s death was on the printed page, it’s even moreso in the film.

Nick: Well said, sir.

Nick’s No. 5: Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class/ X-Men: Days of Future Past)

Mi-Magneto-FassbenderGreg: Oooh. Fassbender’s roles are relatively recent, but no less tremendous as he brings menace and intimidation to one of comics’ greatest villains, the Master of Magnetism.

Nick: Now, before anyone gets too upset, let me assure you that I loved, still love and will always love Magneto as portrayed by Sir Ian McKellen in the early X-Men movies. However, his Magneto was one that was already fully formed. He still had some inner conflict, but most of his moral dilemmas had been answered long ago.

Fassbender, on the other hand, had a bigger sandbox in which to play. And the result was a masterpiece. His work in First Class is easily that movie’s biggest asset, as Fassbender gives us a Magneto that is simultaneously arrogant, vulnerable, overwhelmed by guilt and tremendously dedicated to his ideals and goals.

Plus, his Magneto feels like a character capable of truly intimidating those around him with minimal use of his powers, as seen in the scene where he murders two Nazis in a bar in Argentina.

His moment where he finally gains his revenge on Sebastian Shaw also stands out, as the audience can’t help but cheer for Erik in that moment despite the fact that it truly represents the point of no return.

Greg: As you mentioned, Fassbender really gave us a chance to see the complex Magneto of the comics brought to life. With no disrespect to the great Sir Ian McKellan, I always felt the early X-Men movies fell short of producing a fully three-dimensional Erik Lehnsherr. Fassbender brings that duality that makes Magneto such a compelling villain and even an antihero at times.

His one-on-one verbal exchanges with James McAvoy’s Xavier in both First Class and Days of Future Past have been highlights of those movies. It also can’t be overlooked that he provides a level of physicality to the role, a palpable anger in contrast to McKellan’s calm, measured approach. Here’s hoping we get more chances to see him flex his acting muscles in future installments of the franchise.

Nick: Personally, I’m hoping for a future scene where McKellan and Fassbender share the screen, much like the McAvoy/Stewart scene that was the showstealer in Days of Future Past.

Greg’s No. 4: Christopher Reeve (Superman franchise)

Christopher_Reeve_as_Superman-640x602Nick: Gotta say, I’m a little surprised this isn’t higher on your list.

Greg: The only reason it isn’t is because I love the top three so much.

But let’s face it and go ahead and get this out of the way — nobody in a comic film has ever defined his or her character to the degree that Christopher Reeve did the first time he stepped on screen in Richard Donner’s original Superman film. It’s undeniable.

Superman means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and yet the one undisputed fact that unites Superman fans of all ages and opinions is that Chris Reeve truly captured the essence, whatever it is, of the Man of Steel.

I think it was you, Nick, who compared him to Chris Evans’ tremendous turn as Captain America. Both performances manage to have an earnestness that forces the audience to like the character, regardless of their preconceived notions. With a simple smile, Reeve could make you feel better about your day. When he’s in pain, you can feel it in your own guts. And when he’s disappointed in humanity, it feels like disappointing your parents. His confidence (but certainly not cockiness) as Superman was balanced by his bumbling, “aw shucks” performance as Clark Kent. These are two very different characters inhabiting the same body, yet Reeve was completely believable as both.

And I have to give at least one sentence to his dynamic heel turn in Superman III. Seriously, it’s awesome, almost enough to save that otherwise dreadful movie.

Nick: Admittedly, I’m not nearly as fond of the Reeve Superman movies as most comic aficionados, yet the one thing even I can’t deny is how central his performance is to making those movies work on any level whatsoever.

You know you’ve left an indelible mark on a character when decades later, actors are criticized for not being enough like Chris Reeve.

Nick’s No. 4: Gary Oldman (The Dark Knight Trilogy)

Gary-Oldman-GordonGreg: I know how close the Jim Gordon character is to your heart, and it’s hard to imagine anyone portraying him as well as the versatile, fantastic Gary Oldman.

Nick: In a trilogy filled with amazing performances, this is one that stands a bit above most others. That’s because Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Jim Gordon wound up being one of those performances that entirely changed the way I read comics.

When I read a Batman comic, in my head I hear different voices from different media. If it’s Batman, it’s Kevin Conroy from the animated series. Joker is Mark Hamill, also from BTAS. Alfred is Michael Gough from the Burton/Schumacher films. Lucius Fox is Morgan Freeman. For many years, Gordon was the voice from BTAS. That is, until Gary Oldman came along.

As Greg said, I’m a massive Jim Gordon fan. I feel like that Batman/Gordon relationship is one of the strongest in all of comics and one that doesn’t get nearly enough credit for its emotion and complexity. And one thing that Christopher Nolan’s three-part masterpiece certainly got right was that relationship, none of which would have been possible without Oldman to play off of Christian Bale’s Batman.

In The Trilogy (Yes, it’s officially “The Trilogy” in my head.) Oldman’s Gordon is the most relatable character of all. I’d argue he’s almost as much a point of view character as Bruce himself, as it’s easier to sympathize with and understand a man who is good at heart, yet completely overmatched in every way when it comes to standing up for what is right. Oldman’s Gordon is tough, yet sincere. Vulnerable, yet intimidating. His moments with Bruce to open and close the trilogy bring tears to this Batfan’s eyes, as perhaps no two scenes have ever been captured on film that so perfectly represent what I feel like that relationship is meant to be. Thanks, Gary Oldman for giving me MY Jim Gordon.

Greg: Beautiful sentiments, and it’s hard to disagree. Oldman brought exactly the kind of everyman qualities to Gordon that were needed to adequately express why comic fans love the character so much. Oldman’s Gordon, like the Gordon of Frank Miller and so many other great Batman creators, is a good man trying to do good things in a town full of bad people. He stumbles along the way. He makes mistakes. And he pays for those mistakes.

His last scene with Batman, near the end of The Dark Knight Rises, is my favorite Gordon moment. As Batman prepares to (seemingly) make the ultimate sacrifice, he simultaneously lets Gordon know his identity and thanks him for one simple gesture that made a world’s worth of difference.

Greg’s No. 3: Hugh Jackman (X-Men series, The Wolverine)

Wolverine-hugh-jackman-as-wolverine-19126669-700-1000Greg: There is a long and rich history of casting announcements being derided by comic book fans. From Michael Keaton to Ben Affleck, actors often face an uphill battle against a fanbase that dedicates much of its time to “fantasy casting” and doggedly adheres to their favorite artists’ renderings of their favorite characters. I vividly remember my high school friends and I rolling our eyes about the casting of “pretty boy” Hugh Jackman as the sawed-off savage Wolverine. How could this dude who played a suave tech expert in Swordfish possibly play the baddest man in all of comics?

Well, as is often the case, we were wrong. Dead wrong. Jackman knocked that initial performance out of the park, and he’s only upped the ante in subsequent outings. Jackman managed to nail both the feral ferocity and the samurai nobility that makes Logan my favorite Marvel hero. Despite standing much taller than the Wolverine of Jim Lee, John Byrne, Frank Quitely and others, Jackman subverted fan expectations by sheer talent alone. Though Jackman has gone on to gain much acclaim for his acting chops in high-level fare like Les Miserables and Prisoners, I’d argue it’s in these movies about outcast mutants that he first got a chance to really stretch his big-screen acting muscle. He carries X2 on his back, and it’s one of the best superhero films ever made. He managed to shine even amid the mess of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And his tortured performance in last year’s The Wolverine nearly brought tears to this devoted fan of the Miller/Claremont Wolverine miniseries. Here is an actor who not only gets the comic book hero he’s portraying, but he fully embraces him and his fandom. At this point, I am not sure I can handle Jackman moving on. That’s how much he embodies the spirit of Logan.

Nick: Hugh Jackman has played the character so many times at this point that a lot of people have started to overlook his performances, which is a real shame. His work in The Wolverine may have been his finest turn as Logan of them all, showing us a vulnerable Wolverine who had all but given up on life. Add to that a damn fine showing in Days of Future Past, and it’s clear there are still many miles in the tank for this version of ol’ Canucklehead.

Nick’s No. 3: Jack Nicholson (Batman)

jack-nicholson-as-a-jokerGreg: The man who simultaneously haunted and entertained me in my childhood checks in on Nick’s Batman-heavy list at the third slot. And what’s not to love about Jack’s maniacal hyena turn as the Clown Prince of Crime? He took the zaniness of Cesar Romero and added his own distinct Nicholson charm to the role, plus a hint of sheer insanity. It’s just a delight.

Nick: We live in a post-Dark Knight world where it seems as if people often forget about or overlook just how good Jack Nicholson was as the Joker back in 1989. The entire prospect of a non-campy Batman movie was dubious at best, but having a “real” actor like Nicholson attached to the project lent it some much needed credibility as the marketing campaign kicked off.

Nicholson was so important to the film that he got top billing rather than Michael Keaton as the title character. As it turned out, that was for good reason. One of the criticisms often lobbed at the 89 film is that it’s more of a Joker movie than a Batman movie. That may be true, but what’s undeniable is that the movie completely works in spite of that fact. And none of that would have been possible without Nicholson.

He was simultaneously charming, terrifying and hilarious, not to mention endlessly quotable. His energy stole every scene he appeared in, and film actors spent years being compared to Nicholson any time they took on the role of a villain in a major comic book production. There are plenty of great Joker scenes to choose from, but I’ll go with pretty much any of the ones that involve him interacting with Bob the Goon. “Bob, youahhh are my number oneahhh guyahhh,” or “Bob, gun,” instantly come to mind.

Greg: Who knew Nicholson could do such a great Jack Palance impression?

But I could pick any of a large number of lines as my favorite from the Joker in that film. Here are a few of my other favorites: “Never rub another man’s rhubarb.” “Why didn’t anyone tell me he had one of those … things?!” “It’s gonna be a hot time on the old town toniiiiight.”

Greg’s No. 2: Robert Downey Jr. (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

Robert Downey Jr Iron Man 2 - Fitness PhilippinesNick: Hmmmm. I’ll hold my tongue for now.

Greg: The highest praise I can heap upon RDJ is to say he is perhaps the only actor or actress who has ever taken the role of a superhero and made it infinitely cooler than it ever was in the comics.

I’ll come right out and say it — I always found Iron Man to be a boring character in the comics. He had, in my eyes anyway, a weak rogues’ gallery, predictable plots and an uninteresting personality. Robert Downey Jr. stepped up in 2008 and completely changed my perception. RDJ has always been a fantastic actor with sharp comedic timing, so director Jon Favreau wisely got out of the way and just let him do his thing, ad-libbing dialogue so quickly and effortlessly that it came off as the smartest guy at a party. He made Iron Man instantly the funniest superhero in the world, and he did it without breaking a sweat.

OK, but we knew he could do comedy and drama. What about action? Could the same guy who played Charlie Chaplin pull off an action role like Tony Stark? The answer was, of course, a resounding “yes.” If he hadn’t proven his worth by the end of Iron Man 2, he most certainly proved it by delivering a home run in the grand slam that was The Avengers. RDJ stole nearly every scene he was in, and he’s now become so synonymous with his character that I honestly think Stark shouldn’t be recast any time in the foreseeable future.

Nick: Interesting you should say all that, because….

Nick’s No. 2: Robert Downey Jr. (Marvel Cinematic Universe)

iron-man-3-tony-stark-robert-downey-jrNick: I’ll take a moment to gloat a bit here and say that I knew Marvel had made a good casting move the second they announced RDJ would be playing Tony Stark. Greg was a bit skeptical at first, but I have to admit that even I didn’t know just how great Downey would wind up being.

As Greg alluded to, the comic version of Iron Man kind of has to be looked at through two different windows for two different eras — there is pre-RDJ and there is post-RDJ. The portrayal was so great it left an indelible mark on the character and how he would be portrayed in every form of media going forward. Gone was the fairly self-serious, tortured inventor and in his place stood a man with a long list of character defects, but too much pride, arrogance and ego to seriously address them. His primary means of denial were a sharp wit and a keen sarcastic tongue, instantly making the character one audiences flocked to. However, it’s important to remember that while humor has made Iron Man one of the world’s most recognizable, it’s Downey’s ability to ground the character when necessary and really show the man behind the suit and the sarcasm that sets his portrayal apart.

Unlike Greg, I feel Stark can eventually be recast if need be. However, it’ll be much like James Bond. For decades, the men who have played 007 have been compared to Sir Sean Connery and while some have been good Bonds, none have topped the original yet. 20-30 years from now, we’ll look back and likely say the same about Iron Man. “Yeah, those guys were pretty good and that one other guy was REALLY good, but none of them were Downey good.”

Greg: The real question that I think we all have is “But how would Morton Downey Jr. have done in the role?”

morton-downey-01c2a9robinholland
Where’s Roddy Piper when you need him, anyway?

But I digress.

Greg’s No. 1: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

Heath_Ledger_as_the_JokerNick: Well, might as well go ahead and jump in here.

Nick’s No. 1: Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight)

heath-ledger-Joker-Nurse

Greg: Though this list was indeed hard to narrow down, the top spot was not. This was as much of a slam dunk as the top spot on any Countdown we’ve done to this point.

It’s actually kind of difficult to come up with praise for Heath Ledger’s truly iconic performance that hasn’t already been seen or heard a thousand times from comic book and film critics far more qualified than us. He defined the Joker for an entire generation and unintentionally caused harm to the character’s future on the big screen. Can you imagine anyone else playing the Joker anytime soon? The comparisons to Ledger will be unavoidable and, undoubtedly, brutal.

This was another case of cynical comic book fans on the Internet jumping to conclusions at a “terrible” casting decision. And it was yet another example of those fans eating their words, as Ledger transformed into a version of the Joker so unique, so inspired, so intriguing that it has informed every take on the character that followed.

Nick: Admittedly, I was skeptical at first when I heard the news that Ledger had been cast in The Dark Knight as the Joker. However, I had recently developed a mantra that has only served me well in the years since — “In Nolan I trust.” Basically, if Chris Nolan decided he was going to cast Lindsay Lohan in a Batman movie, I’m going to be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Chris Nolan instilled that sense of trust in me when Batman Begins completely blew my admittedly low expectations out of the water. So, while I was nervous about Ledger, I wasn’t nearly as cynical or hyperbolic as some fans out there.

And then, when the movie finally was released, it was impossible to find something to dislike about Ledger’s Joker. (On a side note, anyone who bitches about him not being “permawhite” just needs to go away.) As Greg said, his performance was so iconic, so transcendent, so ….. scrumtrelescent that at this point it’s beyond redundant to heap praise on it. But, sometimes the popular choice is the correct choice, and such is the case with this list. Ledger’s Joker isn’t just atop the list — it lapped the field.

A performance so masterful I'm literally paralyzed.
A performance so masterful I’m literally paralyzed.

Greg: Like you, Nick, I was skeptical as well. I knew Ledger could act, having enjoyed several of his earlier films, but I never saw the level of psychosis (or El Dandy, for that matter) necessary to play the Clown Prince of Crime. Boy was I wrong.

Ledger won an Academy Award for the role, which says a lot. Who in their right mind could have imagined the Academy ever giving credit to a comic book movie? That alone cements Ledger’s place in the history books as comics’ all-time best film performance.

Nick: Well, that about puts a bow on this week’s Countdown. Be sure to check back next week, as we delve into our long boxes to bring you a look at Guardians of the Galaxy: Legacy.

Greg: As always, we welcome your feedback on Facebook, Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87) or through electronic mail (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com).

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.