Top 10 Performances in Comic Book Movies

Mickey Rourke in Sin City
Mickey Rourke in Sin City

10. Mickey Rourke, “Sin City” (2005)
The bottom spot on the list was a revolving door, but I ultimately settled on Mickey Rourke’s committed work in Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City.” Darren Aronofsky may have gotten all the credit for resurrecting Rourke’s career in 2008 with “The Wrestler,” but it really started three years earlier with this novel turn. It’s a performance invigorated by the actor’s hard-boiled, at times soulful reading of the Frank Miller-penned inner monologue of block-faced bruiser Marv (which wasn’t as effective in the film’s other vignettes). And he turned quite a few heads that year, winning awards from the Austin, Chicago and Online film critics groups.

Al Pacino
Al Pacino in Dick Tracy

9. Al Pacino, “Dick Tracy” (1990)
Al Pacino is the first of three actors on the list who received Oscar nominations for their comic book portrayals, and it was a fiery one. As walnut-loving mob nemesis Alphonse “Big Boy” Caprice in Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy,” Pacino found no ceiling high enough, bursting through the film with the kind of gusto that would come to define his work throughout the 1990s. But while there was plenty of flirtation with histrionics, the actor carved a memorable, unique character, one that brought him recognition not only from the Academy but the HFPA and BAFTA as well.

William Hurt
William Hurt

8. William Hurt, “A History of Violence” (2005)
It takes something special to blow into a film’s final act and walk away with it in 10 minutes, but that’s just what William Hurt did in David Cronenberg’s 2005 adaptation of John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel “A History of Violence.” It’s easier when it’s on the page for you to devour, but when you look at what Hurt was handed, the necessity to lift it way off the page was inherent, and he rose to the occasion. As Philly mobster Richie Cusack, Hurt took a big, wet bite, surprising many with a take on the character as nuanced as it could be broad, begging for a few more minutes of screen time. Wins from the New York and Los Angeles film critics all but guaranteed what seemed like an already inevitable Oscar nomination.

Robert Downey Jr
Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark

7. Robert Downey Jr., “Iron Man” (2008)
Robert Downey Jr. has made it look too easy. Since the 2008 debut of his “Iron Man,” Tony Stark, through a sequel and on into this weekend’s big team-up blockbuster, the former hard-lucked bad boy has righted the ship and taken the reins of a character that has come to define him. It seems difficult to imagine Downey’s career not including the gregarious, silver-tongued playboy/industrialist, but that he has conveyed the part with such ease betrays the skill needed to so absolutely define the character. As hard as it is to distinguish the actor’s career from the role, it has become equally difficult to not think of Downey’s interpretation when considering the 50-year-old staple of Marvel comics.

Michelle Pfeiffer
Michelle Pfeiffer

6. Michelle Pfeiffer, “Batman Returns” (1992)
Michelle Pfeiffer’s icy blonde take on Selina Kyle/Catwoman — who’ll be reimagined by Anne Hathaway in this year’s “The Dark Knight Rises” — is regrettably the only female on the list. (Though I should say she was very nearly joined by Maria Bello in “A History of Violence”). Pfeiffer’s frisky feline is one of a few things that really works in Tim Burton’s overt follow-up to his 1989 original. It’s a thin-line balance of mind-splitting lunacy, crystal clear resolve, girlish romance and embittered vengeance, and the actress tip-toes the razor’s edge throughout, having fun while exuding torment. It’ll be interesting to see where the character goes next.

Brian Cox
Brian Cox

5. Brian Cox, “X2” (2003)
This is the one that surprised me a bit when it landed on the list. I’ve always been a fan of Brian Cox’s performance as military baddie William Stryker (later prequeled by Danny Huston in the disastrous “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) in Bryan Singer’s “X2” — still the best film of the superhero genre, for my money. But I never really realized I was SO fond of it. Indeed, Cox brought a whole other element to Singer’s franchise, a world of “mere” homo sapiens adversity that was as ominous as any classic supervillain. Seeing him share the screen with fellow theater rats Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart is also a nice wink, but he took to the role perfectly and with a certain panache.

Jack Nicholson
Jack Nicholson

4. Jack Nicholson, “Batman” (1989)
“Iconic.” That’s a rather inarguable descriptor for Jack Nicholson’s take on the Caped Crusader’s pale-faced arch nemesis, the Joker, in Tim Burton’s 1989 blockbuster “Batman.” The performance changed the landscape of the sub-genre in ways good and bad, but mostly it was a burst of dedicated color that Nicholson brought to the show. He was rewarded BAFTA, Chicago Film Critics Association and Golden Globe (lead, in fact) nominations, but Oscar opted out. Nevertheless, it’s a certain standard that the actor set and one that’s considered a measuring stick to this day.

Steve Buscemi
Steve Buscemi

3. Steve Buscemi, “Ghost World” (2001)
It can be far too easy for some to miss the magic of what Steve Buscemi is doing in Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World.” Thankfully, few — save the Academy — missed it in 2001 when the actor was raking in precursor nominations and awards all season. Buscemi gave us a lot of familiarity with his portrayal of Seymour, the mild-mannered, record-collecting relic of a bygone era in the film (which was adapted from the Daniel Clowes comic), but within that was a tender representation of repression that made for a fascinating foil to Thora Birch’s lead. Buscemi has always been stellar at crafting characters, but here, that craft lead to something infinitely more human.

Paul Giamatti
Paul Giamatti

2. Paul Giamatti, “American Splendor” (2003)
Paul Giamatti couldn’t get arrested for a while when it came to Oscar nominations. And it started in 2003 with a wonderful, lived-in performance as comic writer Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor” that both played to his strengths and gave him the opportunity to stretch. A year later, no nod for “Sideways,” until finally, in 2005, some scraps from the table in the form of a supporting nod for “Cinderella Man.” But in here, Giamatti was firing on all cylinders, paying touching homage but also very much making the character his own. He got his share of attention on the circuit, though, and left us with a very memorable piece of work.

Heath Ledger
Heath Ledger as The Joker in the Dark Knight

1. Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight (2008)
So. Anti. Climactic. But Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” is unquestionably one of the most iconic portrayals in recent memory, particularly impressive following in the shoes of the #4 entry on this list. I thought hard about knocking it back to #2 but just couldn’t justify it. Some things are cliche for a reason, I suppose. Ledger charted new territory in the film, tap-dancing with nihilistic glee on the tiny edge of reality’s grasp, a true symbol of anarchy in the titular hero’s precariously constructed sense of order. The only performer on the list to win an Oscar for his work, indeed, the only comic book portrayal to ever be given the Academy’s lofty approval, Ledger’s joker will live on forever as a cinematic milestone. How could it be anyone else? And how will that legacy be remembered in the closing installment?