Hollywood’s superhero franchises survived and then thrived in this year of coronavirus variants — whether fans were huddled at home while watching Marvel and DC’s streaming titles, or eventually venturing into theaters to catch Disney and Sony comic-book movies, which accounted for five of the six biggest domestic hits of 2021.
Anchoring the success of these films were the layered human performances amid all the green-screen effects. Here are a dozen actors who especially delivered depth within their superhero universes:
12. Richard Madden and Kit Harington (‘Eternals’)
These “Game of Thrones” alumni are two-thirds of a kinetic love triangle opposite Gemma Chan in “Eternals.” Madden deftly plays his character Ikaris like a Superman with a dark side — a by-the-book immortal dedicated to a master plan while harboring grievous secrets. And Harington’s boyfriend character Dane Whitman — while destined for more super things as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s future Black Knight — here poignantly conveys how there’s nothing wrong with being eternally human.
11. Ray Fisher (‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’)
Fisher’s performance as Cyborg is the true heart of Snyder’s “Justice League.” The actor — who made headlines with accusations over how he was treated by director Joss Whedon and studio management during production — was so good in the “Snyder Cut,” it’s disheartening to realize that he might never reprise the role. Unlike Whedon, Snyder (who initially shepherded the feature film) saw Cyborg’s character as worth building a story around, as well as potential spinoffs.
10. Ezra Miller (‘Zack Snyder’s Justice League’)
The Snyder Cut — the four-hour streaming version of the maligned two-hour theatrical release — was saved in part by Miller’s well-pitched performance (as super speedster the Flash), much of which was left on Whedon’s cutting-room floor in 2017. Miller goes from comic relief to a world-saving role in Snyder’s version, and where Whedon had decelerated Miller’s Flash, Snyder put him in fifth gear. Also now on display: Miller proves himself worthy of an eagerly anticipated Flash movie.
9. Hailee Steinfeld (‘Hawkeye’)
As master archer and adulating sidekick Kate Bishop, the lively Steinfeld crafts a performance of sharp contrasts opposite Jeremy Renner’s more serious-minded hero, Hawkeye/Clint Barton. Steinfeld does so well as Hawkeye’s apprentice that her character is poised to go in a number of directions: Bishop could get her own show or become a next-generation Avenger. Maybe both.
8. Tom Hiddleston (‘Loki’)
The gifted Hiddleston never brings less than total commitment to inhabiting the MCU’s most mischievous character as Loki, and Disney Plus is better for it. The streaming series dramatically puts Loki in an unfamiliar position: He has to think about someone other than himself. Hiddleston devours such dialogue, grinning as he chews the scenery.
7. Simu Liu (‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’)
Simu Liu took a lesser-known comic-book character and — rippling with warmth, humor and winning vulnerability — turned Shang-Chi into a household name. From the dangerous streetcars and scaffolding to the perilous dance of family intrigue, his emotional and physical performance justifies Shang-Chi becoming a next-generation Avenger, whenever Marvel Studios reassembles that team.
6. Elizabeth Olsen (‘WandaVision’)
As Wanda Maximoff, the eclectic Olsen shows off comedic and dramatic gifts (all that tragic denial!) beyond what she’d had a chance to display as a non-leading character in the Avengers movies. Now, after “WandaVision” and her forthcoming appearance in the next Doctor Strange film, her Scarlet Witch moves into the MCU’s pantheon of essential characters going forward.
5. Florence Pugh (‘Black Widow’)
Why make “Black Widow,” after Scarlett Johansson’s title character had already been killed off in 2019′s “Avengers: Endgame"? Well, one chief reason: To dramatize the passing of the superhero torch to sisterly character Yelena Belova — a role that Pugh embraced with athletic ferocity and quick comic aplomb. With “Black Widow” as a strong jumping-off point, Pugh should stay ready to return to Marvel duty as needed.
4. Margot Robbie (‘The Suicide Squad’)
Playing the relentlessly resourceful Harley Quinn, Robbie is reliably the most electric presence in DC’s sprawling team-up movies, dropping coy one-liners with as much force as her violent blows. She again steals entire scenes in James Gunn’s “The Suicide Squad,” and with each own-the-screen DC outing, including “Birds of Prey,” she proves that her radiant Harley could carry solo movies in between the “Suicide” squadfests.
3. Kathryn Hahn (‘WandaVision’)
No matter the decade that the spoof-happy “WandaVision” beams from, Hahn shines like a supernova as Agatha Harkness. With her supreme comedic versatility, she complements Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda, seamlessly transitioning from over-the-top supporting character to villain in charge.
2. Tony Leung (‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’)
The international superstar is so beguiling as the paternal “Shang-Chi” baddie Wenwu that scenes seem to bend toward Leung’s magnetic energy. By conveying a complex mix of familial passion and calculating menace, the veteran actor has crafted perhaps the most charismatic villain in the MCU.
1. Tom Holland (‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’)
After spending years under the guiding Iron hand of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Holland’s webslinger is no longer a Spider-Kid. The actor’s latest outing as Peter Parker in this Sony trilogy is a tour de force, as Holland more than holds his own alongside some of the greatest superhero and supervillain performers of the past two decades.