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The Best Non-‘Avengers’ Performances by ‘Avengers’ Actors

The ‘Avengers’ films made them superstars, but often their finest work is far away from the superhero franchise

Most of the world knows Tom Holland as Spider-Man, but recently he’s hoped you’ll think of him as more than that, taking on the gritty drama Cherry and this weekend’s sci-fi thriller Chaos Walking. Both films see him branching out from Peter Parker to highlight different aspects of his acting range. The good news is the 24-year-old wants to push himself out of his comfort zone. The bad news is that both films are terrible.

It is the double-edged sword of the stardom enjoyed by the men and women of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that, for perpetuity, they will be associated with those superhero films. Sure, they’re well-compensated, but it can also mean that the work they did before (or during) the Avengers films — often pursued as passion projects that scratched an artistic itch — will never get the same level of visibility. 

So, we thought we’d shine a light on the best non-MCU performances from the MCU regulars. Several of these films were made before that particular actor signed up to be a crimefighter, but it’s encouraging to note that a few — including my pick for the absolute best — took place in the midst of doing Marvel blockbusters. The idea that these acclaimed performers gave up doing quality work for a paycheck is disapproved by the below list.

But first, some quick ground rules. MCU villains weren’t eligible. (Sorry, Cate Blanchett, Mickey Rourke and others.) Also, humans who are the love interests of our heroes didn’t count. (You could make a whole separate list for folks such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman.) To make the cut, you had to be a full-fledged Avenger — or the man responsible for bringing them all together in the first place. And I decided to limit it to one performance per actor, just to make things interesting. A lot of these movies you’ll have heard of, but some are fairly under-the-radar. Don’t let that scare you off: If you only know these actors from Endgame, you’ve only seen a portion of the good work they’ve done in their careers.

11) Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker

Before they were in the MCU together, Renner and Anthony Mackie starred in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-winning Iraq war film, which examined the emotional toll of combat through the eyes of William James (Renner), a hotshot soldier who deactivates explosive devices. You’ve got to think you’re invincible to do such a dangerous job, and Renner is excellent portraying a guy who walks with a swagger — which only makes the prospect of going back to civilian life that much more terrifying. (What’s the point of a world in which there isn’t the threat of death around every corner?) 

The first great post-9/11 film about our foolhardy adventure in the desert, The Hurt Locker capitalized on Renner’s no-nonsense confidence, but it also allowed him to show a vulnerability that made it clear that James has a death wish. He can’t go home, so he has to return again and again to the battlefield — ironically, it’s the only place where he feels at peace.

Also great in: American Hustle, The Town

10) Tessa Thompson, Little Woods

It’s been great to see Thompson become more prominent in the MCU. (One of the most intriguing elements of the next wave of films will be seeing how Valkyrie handles being part of the Guardians.) Little Woods is a tiny indie that hardly made a ripple — it collected a grand total of $150,010 at the U.S. box office — but the film contains her strongest dramatic performance. 

She plays Ollie, who’s on probation after getting busted trying to hustle prescription pills across the U.S./Canada border, but after her mom dies, she has no choice but to return to a life of crime so that she doesn’t lose the family house. Little Woods won’t be confused with high-octane drug thrillers, but that’s the point: As Ollie, Thompson plays a working-class woman with few prospects who’s in a terrible situation. This is very much a non-movie-star performance — gritty and lived-in — and worth seeking out for its unvarnished portrait of small-town America’s financial insecurity.  

Also great in: Creed, Annihilation 

9) Paul Bettany, Dogville

The English actor has been part of the MCU since the start, even though you couldn’t see him. (He was the voice of Tony Stark’s personal A.I. system, J.A.R.V.I.S., before transforming into Vision.) His kindly turn on WandaVision stands in stark contrast to a very different nice guy he played in Lars von Trier’s snide takedown of the American heartland, spitting in the eye of then-President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservative” nonsense. Bettany is Tom, who welcomes the frightened outsider Grace (Nicole Kidman) to the town of Dogville, hoping that their generosity to this woman, who’s being chased by mobsters, can demonstrate their moral fiber. 

Dogville methodically demonstrates how wrong he is as the citizens slowly start to torment Grace, practically turning her into their slave. Bettany is chilling as a seeming Our Town-like saint who eventually reveals his true colors as a vindictive, self-righteous monster. He’s the face of “good Christian values” in a nightmarish community that won’t let Grace get away. 

Also great in: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Margin Call

8) Robert Downey Jr., Zodiac

Of all the MCU actors, Downey’s ascension to superstardom was perhaps the most unlikely, simply because, for years, he seemed to be destined to be a cautionary tale: a talented young star destroyed by addiction. Happily, he turned his life around, and a year before he took up the mantle of being Iron Man, he gave his best performance as Paul Avery, a brilliant investigative reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who, like his colleagues, is trying to track down the identity of the Zodiac Killer to stop his reign of terror across the Bay Area. 

The smartass delivery and ironic detachment was nothing new for a Downey character, but the ability to suggest Avery’s slowly growing disillusionment as years go by and the serial killer remains on the loose was something new — and devastating. David Fincher’s masterpiece is an obsessive and meticulous thriller — you get sucked into its vortex the same way that the characters do — but Downey communicates the toll it took on these people who came away from their pursuit empty-handed.

Also great in: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Tropic Thunder

7) Brie Larson, Short Term 12

Writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton’s debut was a launching pad for an astounding array of soon-to-be-big actors, including John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Lakeith Stanfield and Stephanie Beatriz. But Short Term 12 is led by Larson, who runs a foster care facility for troubled young men and women, all the while grappling with her own issues. (For one thing, she has painful memories associated with her father, who’s about to be released from prison.) 

The vulnerability that Larson would bring to her Oscar-winning role in Room is even more striking here. Her character’s emotions are so on the surface that, although she seems like she’s all put together, we sense the storm clouds underneath. That sense of fragile heroism made her an inspired choice for Captain Marvel

Also great in: Room, 21 Jump Street

6) Edward Norton, 25th Hour

Did you forget he was part of the MCU? Norton’s stint as Bruce Banner didn’t last long, but the body of work he’s compiled before and since The Incredible Hulk has more than compensated. His high point remains this mournful story of a drug dealer who’s about to go to prison for a long time. Shot in the aftermath of 9/11, 25th Hour is a beautiful chronicling of a grieving New York, and Norton embodies all of the city’s contradictions: its anger, its bighearted spirit, its endless vitality. 

And as his character spends one last night with his friends and his lady before being sent away, the Oscar-nominated actor deftly articulates the growing anxiety and regret this man feels as he sees his freedom slipping away. He’s never seemed so exposed on screen. 

Also great in: Birdman, Fight Club

5) Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

It’s very tempting to go with Get on Up, the uneven James Brown biopic that he’s absolutely incredible in, wearing the star’s dynamite persona like an electric second skin. But his more recent portrayal of Levee Green, a cocky horn player who’s tired of waiting for people to recognize his brilliance, gets the slight nod.

 Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom boasts a terrific cast — Viola Davis is volcanic as Ma Rainey — but Boseman is the story’s most tragic character, who will eventually self-destruct when his artistic aspirations get thwarted. If he was slightly reserved as Black Panther, he was able to explode in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. It was a hell of a final performance from an actor who died too young.

Also great in: Get on Up, Da 5 Bloods

4) Elizabeth Olsen, Martha Marcy May Marlene

When Olsen was starting out, she had to contend with the fact that journalists just knew her as the younger sister of twins (and Full House fixtures) Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who became tabloid fodder and were dismissed as unsubstantial child stars. Olsen escaped their shadow with her first film, a tense psychological thriller in which she played Martha, a young woman who’s escaped a cult and is dealing with severe trauma from what she experienced there. 

Sean Durkin’s debut puts you on edge, and he’s helped by Olsen’s disquieting performance: This is an incredible portrait of someone coming apart at the seams. Even though Martha is now “safe,” she’s not really. (Is she just imagining that the cult members have followed her back to society? Or are they really there to collect her?) Since Martha Marcy May Marlene, Olsen hasn’t always been successful in finding parts equally worthy, but to be fair, it would be difficult to match this astonishing coming-out party. 

Also great in: Wind River

3) Mark Ruffalo, You Can Count on Me

Ruffalo was already well into his 30s when his film breakthrough occurred with this gorgeous sibling drama that was written and directed by his frequent collaborator Kenneth Lonergan. In You Can Count on Me, he stars as Terry, a directionless young man who reaches out to his sister Sammy (Laura Linney), a single mom with enough on her plate without having to deal with her brother, too. (Because she wants them to be closer, though, she welcomes the opportunity.) 

Ruffalo conveys a Brando-like intensity as a guy who can’t get out of his own way, and the movie becomes a study of how these two very different people could be related — and how the tragic death of their parents when they were kids set them on divergent life paths. This was the first film most people saw Ruffalo in, and it remains a powerful introduction to his brooding talent. Frankly, as great as he’s been since, You Can Count on Me was such a shock that nothing he’s done in subsequent years can quite compare. 

Also great in: Spotlight, Foxcatcher

2) Samuel L. Jackson, Pulp Fiction

Choosing Jackson’s best performance is difficult, not just because there are so many but because he’s done superb work for decades, primarily with Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino. But it’s hard to argue with Jules Winnfield, his fiery enforcer from Pulp Fiction, which earned Jackson his only Oscar nomination to date. 

Spouting Bible verses, shooting anyone who pisses him off, Jules became the template for so many of the characters Tarantino would write for him over the years — and, indeed, many of the bug-eyed roles he’d tackle with other filmmakers. But those subsequent parts didn’t always have the soulfulness and wit that Jackson brought to Pulp Fiction. For all the insanity that occurs in that generation-defining crime thriller, Jules is as close to a grounded character as the movie has, which is something to say for someone who’s that emphatic about tasty burgers.

Also great in: Jungle Fever, Jackie Brown

1) Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin

If you’re a space alien come down to Earth trying to lure dumb men into your van so that you can harvest their bodies, looking as striking as Scarlett Johansson surely helps. But the Oscar-nominated actress does a remarkable job of playing an extra-terrestrial whose initially chilly manner starts to give way to an almost human-like empathy for the vulnerable individuals she meets in her hunts. 

Under the Skin was notable at the time because Johansson interacted with non-actors, who didn’t recognize her in a wig and with a British accent. (Also, they simply couldn’t believe that a world-famous movie star would be driving around in a nondescript van — they never noticed the hidden cameras director Jonathan Glazer utilized.) 

But rather than being a stunt, Under the Skin is a mesmerizing exploration of being alive, its sci-fi and horror elements merging to say something beautiful about our shared experience on this planet. And Johansson deftly plays with our sympathies. By the time this alien starts to finally let down her guard, she comes face-to-face with the worst tendencies of our species — particularly, those of toxic men who try to take advantage of women. At the start of the film, you’re scared of Johansson’s character. By the end, your heart goes out to her. It’s a stellar performance that proved she wasn’t going to settle for just being Natasha Romanoff.

Also great in: Lost in Translation, Marriage Story

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