The 12 best superhero performances of all-time, ranked

From Lynda Carter to Michael Keaton, they made us believe that comic-book characters had sprung to life

Sunday Arts illustration for sa-superheroperformances by David Betancourt (Illustration by Jess Rotter for The Washington Post)

No one ever said being a superhero was easy.

You have to please a fan base oozing with comic book knowledge and movie critics likely looking down on you for taking the role. Only the elite few can do both.

There are the classics. Men who can fly and billionaires dressed as bats. And then there’s the modern everlasting interconnectivity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Studios’s ongoing quest to reclaim its former glory, which have given us a vigilante, a goddess, a billionaire genius and a king.

Our list of the top superhero performances features exactly that, superheroes. The villains and civilians will have to wait their turn — otherwise, yes, J.K. Simmons and Heath Ledger would absolutely be on here. There aren’t many women, since so few got opportunities until Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Black Widow. Hollywood hasn’t done much better with other marginalized groups, but that’s also changing with the Spider-Verse movies, and Blue Beetle on the way.

Some critics may think superhero movies are only about the special effects and interconnected storylines, but the magic still very much remains in watching a character shift from a comic book panel to the screen.

Here are the best superhero performances of all-time, ranked.

12. Wesley Snipes as Blade

Back in the ’90s, a comic book movie was rarely made unless it had Batman in it. The lack of mainstream familiarity with Blade allowed Snipes to decide what he wanted to bring to the character, and help show Marvel it could make movies that matter and that those movies didn’t have to be PG-13. Snipes was an R-rated Marvel superhero before Deadpool was a thing, just with fewer laughs and more gore. He played Blade as burdened by both his humanity and his bloodlust — a reluctant killer, hunting the very thing he was, a vampire, with only a shred of empathy from the human mother who gave birth to him. Snipes’s action-movie background made him a natural for wielding swords on the hunt, while his black shades hid demonic eyes that hinted at his human-vampire hybrid existence.

11. Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman

There’s no reason a superhero television show from the 1970s with the special effects budget of a bag of gummy worms should make it on this list unless you’re talking about perhaps the most perfect superhero casting of all time. Sometimes you can get the vibe of this person doesn’t look enough like the hero from the comics. In the case of Carter, the comics didn’t look enough like her. In her civilian guise, Carter did an admirable if not totally believable job blending in with the crowd. And as a superhero, she beamed with regality, knowing that all eyes would be on her. She made those bullet-deflecting bracelets and lasso of truth look realistic without the help of 21st century CGI, and her Diana-Prince-to-Wonder-Woman twirl — the removal of glasses, and one mean hair-whip from ponytail to free-flowing locks — remains iconic to this day.

10. Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool

The greatest cinematic superhero of all-time will always be debatable. The funniest cinematic superhero of all time will always be Deadpool. When 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movies began losing their appeal because they weren’t a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Reynolds was able to make them worthwhile again with his raunchy and violent R-rated franchise. Reynolds’s comic-book-accurate suit, swords and goofiness screamed “this guy actually reads the comics.” His Deadpool matters enough that the first order of X-Men business after the Disney/Fox merger was making sure Deadpool made it to the MCU in the upcoming “Deadpool 3.”

9. Regina King as Sister Night

King was at the center of HBO’s “Watchmen,” perhaps the greatest Black superhero story ever produced, in her role as the cop/vigilante in post-reparations Oklahoma. Her character was fearless — white supremacy’s worst nightmare — before her emotional unraveling and then conquering of her newly-found generation trauma. King didn’t read a single “Watchmen” comic to prepare so as not to lean on any influences and bring something wholly her own. Her performance in a role that wasn’t in the graphic novel series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons proved that there is storytelling power in creating new original Black superheroes for the screen.

‘Watchmen’ gives Regina King her first superhero role — and takes a bold look at race relations today

8. Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

The connectivity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe did not officially begin until Jackson appeared as Fury in its iconic first post-credits scene at the end of 2008′s “Iron Man,” the ultimate comic book Easter egg. He seemed to literally jump out of the pages of a comic book given his likeness was the inspiration for Fury in Marvel Comics “Ultimate” line back in 2001. He’s been MCU glue, serving as the big boss of the Avengers and always coming off as the authority figure no matter which hero or villain was sharing the screen. Famously known for some of the best screaming in show business, Jackson brought more of an intense calm to Fury, always being the voice of reason despite knowing just how much danger the universe is in. He played a strong supporting role in arguably the MCU’s best film, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” and finally gets to shine solo in the upcoming “Secret Invasion” on Disney Plus.

7. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Jackman was the big bang of the modern superhero movie movement in Hollywood when he debuted as one of the most popular comic book characters ever in 2000’s “X-Men.” Then an unknown actor, Jackman at first glance was too tall and too handsome for the feral role. But he made Wolverine and his adamantium claws a central figure in an X-Men movie universe that lasted almost two decades, until Fox’s merger with Disney put the mutants under the purview of Marvel Studios. Just getting Wolverine’s hair right was an incredible achievement. Jackman played a loner who didn’t work well with anyone but transitioned into a team player, father figure (to Anna Paquin’s Rogue) and, eventually, a leader. His crowning achievement was “Logan,” which gave him a chance to wear the pain of being an indestructible man on his face. For all the gritting, growling and claw-slashing he did over the years to much fanboy acclaim, it was the unexpected happiness in his eyes after finally meeting his end that may be his most memorable Wolverine moment.

6. Chris Evans as Captain America

Evans had to go up against his past when taking on this role. Let’s not forget, he starred in not one but two “Fantastic Four” movies. As the hotheaded, cocky, immature man-child that is Johnny Storm/The Human Torch, Evans embodied a bro. But as Captain America he was all pro. Evans was so convincing as a skinny, CGI-aided weakling Steve Rogers that when he transformed into a muscle machine of a soldier, it was hard to believe that was actually his body on the screen. His exhausted call of “Avengers assemble” in “Endgame’s” grand-finale fight against Thanos just might be the most beloved moment in the history of Marvel Studios. If Downey is the MCU’s spark, Evans is the heart.

5. Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther

Boseman was everything he needed to be and more in one of the most anticipated superhero movies ever. “Black Panther” was a worldwide phenomenon and Boseman’s King T’Challa of Wakanda was the type of superhero Hollywood had never seen before. Unconquerable. Inspiring. Unforgettable. Black cool personified in superhero form. Boseman was a part of Marvel Studios’ strongest cast ever, leading the way in delivering his lines with an African accent that beamed with uncolonized pride. He also went up against one of the MCU’s all-time great villains, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger, commanding just as much attention in any scene they shared. When Marvel Studios was forced to move on with the franchise with “Wakanda Forever” after Boseman’s shocking death, replacing him was never an option. It spent the entirety of the sequel honoring Boseman instead.

Chadwick Boseman embodied the Black heroes of our past and gave us one for the future

4. Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man

Maguire was equal parts nerd and savior as high-schooler Peter Parker and perhaps the most famous Marvel character of all. The sadness in his eyes screamed “My parents are gone, my uncle is dead and my aunt can’t pay the rent,” but when the mask came on it was all business. Maguire embodied the true essence of Spider-Man: that a superhero so amazing could also be the kid next door. No cinematic universes here. And no multiverses. Just one Spider-Man changing Hollywood forever.

Twenty years later, ‘Spider-Man’ is still my superhero origin story

3. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man

Without Downey looking into the camera and telling the world “I am Iron Man,” there is no Marvel Cinematic Universe. In 2008, he delivered a performance equally satisfying to a general audience who didn’t know much about Iron Man and comic book fans looking for perfection. Downey didn’t just look the part of Marvel’s biggest playboy partyer/superhero, he felt the part too. Assured confidence never left Downey’s face, whether he was being kidnapped, on a date or ordering a cheeseburger — it all felt authentic to who Tony Stark should have been on-screen. And don’t forget the genius part — Downey’s Stark always knew he was the smartest guy in the room and didn’t mind letting you know it, either. Rare is the superhero on screen who causes just as much commotion when not in their superhero suit, but Downey was that guy. Add to his swagful repertoire one of the most memorable and shocking deaths in superhero movie history.

2. Christopher Reeve as Superman

There have been many Supermen over the years, but they’ll always be compared to the original Man of Steel. It’s been almost half a century and there has still never been as charismatic and charming a superhero on screen as Reeve’s take on Kal-El of Krypton in the 1970s and 80s. The s-curl. The confidence. The quick changes in a phone booth. The suit, which is more Adam West than Henry Cavill but somehow still looks good. Reeve did it all. As utterly believable as he was as Superman, it seemed unbelievable how transformative his Clark Kent was. Reeve’s combed-over hair, big glasses, slouching and high-pitched voice added up to a mild-mannered reporter so under-the-radar you’d never guess he was the greatest superhero ever.

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1. Michael Keaton as Batman

Name a superhero with a better silhouette. Or a better car for that matter. You can’t. When Keaton’s Dark Knight first appeared in 1989’s “Batman” all you could see was pointy-eared winged darkness descending from the air on unsuspecting criminals. What followed is still the gold standard of how to be a superhero in Hollywood. Under the cape and cowl, with those forever frustrated eyebrows, Keaton’s millionaire Bruce Wayne was less smooth playboy and more intentionally awkward to mask his true self, coming off as exactly the kind of recluse you’d expect to have inherited a fortune from his dead parents. There’s never a point as Bruce Wayne that he looks happy — he’s so hurt by the pain that made him a vigilante he can’t even fake it when he’s not Batman. Keaton spent most of this movie in his muscular bat-suit (actors didn’t have to hit the gym back then) being intimidatingly silent. But when he did speak, his bat-whisper might as well have been a bullhorn. Also, if they bring you back more than thirty years later to put a bat-suit on you again — in this weekend’s “The Flash” — you must have done a really good job.

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