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10 Great Overlooked Performances in Comic Book Films and TV Shows
They rocked it out, but who noticed?
By Darius Washington
April 28, 2010
When comic and fantasy fans think about the best adaptations from artistic to live mediums, there’s always certain performances which are mentioned as the most memorable. Some like Christopher Reeve’s Superman have been regarded as timeless. Others like Ledger, Downey Jr., and the Watchmen ensemble have been more recent but no less indelible to modern pop culture and will likely be held in the same regard during the years to come.
However there are some actors whose work isn’t readily discussed these days and yet have been excellent in such films and TV shows. So here’s a piece dedicated to the most overlook ones, judged by how well these actors and scripts brought 2-D characters to life.
10. Michelle Pfeiffer – Catwoman, Batman Returns
No disrespect to Eartha Kitt, Julie Newmar or Lee Meriweather, but Pfeiffer’s turn as the Feline Fatale is extremely memorable because it was one that wasn’t supposed to be convincing in any way to moviegoers. The general feeling on Pfeiffer at that time was that, although she was a talented actress as seen in Dangerous Liaisons and The Witches of Eastwyck, she’s a blonde and not quite right for the role. (Ask Sean Young.) However, when Tim Burton’s highly anticipated sequel to the ’89 Batman was released to theaters, fans came away thinking most about Pfeiffer’s work.
She turned many heads not only with the whip and leather (which became the toast of the of the convention communities at the time) but with her attitude and energy, going from mousy Selina to psychotic Catwoman. Even with the strange storyline of Selina’s near dead body being bitten and resurrected by numerous felines, many women wanted to emulate her presence afterward. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Burton’s second Bat-film stands up a bit better than the first.
9. Max Von Sydow – Ming The Merciless, Flash Gordon
Many folks say the most memorable element of the 1980s’ Flash Gordon movie was the thunderous soundtrack by Queen (and with modern geeks still occasionally humming the hook “Flash! Ah-aahhhh! Savior of the uni-verse!” this would be a hard one to argue against.) However, there is one presence in the film that could rival that ranking, namely the movie’s lead villain, Ming the Merciless. When portrayed by Max Von Sydow, he brought evil arrogance and absolute ruthlessness to the role with an intensity that was able to cut through the cheesiness of the setting. You could believe this guy would be willing to do anything to achieve his ends, even torture his own daughter if he felt like it.
To be able to bring in an actor who had gained acclaim previously for The Seventh Seal and Three Days of The Condor and get him to lend his talents as a comic book villain who’s been drawn like an Asian was a great move to raise the movie’s credibility. Remember folks: when in doubt, cast a talented European as your villain. It worked for Star Wars.
8. Mickey Rourke – Marv, Sin City
If you’ve ever read Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s tribute to crime noir detective novels, then you’ve likely taken a view of Marv, the hulking lead of the first Sin City story (now known as “The Hard Goodbye.”). At first glance, Marv comes across as a thuggish detective cut from the mold of Robert Mitchum, but he’s also someone who’s never experienced anything except ugliness due to his disfigured looks. However, Marv had just received something special and it’s taken from him forever; now he wants to know who did it and why.
There’s tons of quiet rage always ready to spring out at a moment’s notice and this is where actor Mickey Rourke shines big time. In this performance he’s able to emulate extremes of brutality and kindness while immersing himself into his character, much like his Oscar-nominated work in The Wrestler. With his graveled voice and through the make-up, Rourke truly became Marv and stood out a good bit from his impressive fellow actors.
7. Matthew Lillard – Shaggy, Scooby Doo
Yeah, I know. The Scooby Doo movie was garbage, but damn if Matthew Lillard didn’t turn some serious effort to bring Shaggy to life with his mannerisms and especially his voice. It’s a safe bet his vocal cords were on fire afterwards. In the darkness of dreadful material this movie generated, Lillard’s performance stands out as a very bright light.
6. Lynda Carter – Diana Prince, Wonder Woman
It has been very difficult to bring the heroine Wonder Woman to the big screen outside some excellent animated works from the last decade. For whatever reason, no one’s been able to duplicate the success brought by the appearance of the 1972 Miss World USA winner who managed to emulate the best aspects of the Princess Diana character: strength, confidence, compassion, and beauty. As such, Lynda Carter was the only one able to bring Wonder Woman to life in a way that many folks in the late ‘70s took notice of and could never forget (the way they forgot Cathy Lee Crosby.)
It didn’t hurt that this TV series had relatively decent production values for its time. Although she’d had a couple of limited roles and the film Bobbie Jo & The Outlaw to her credit, Wonder Woman became the massive boosting point for Carter’s acting career which she maintains to this day. Whoever fills the role in the future will have some Amazonian boots to fill, and it may take another unknown talent to do so.
5. Al Pacino – Big Boy Caprice, Dick Tracy
Now you might think that with his acclaimed work in The Godfather and Scarface, Pacino would turn in a performance exactly like the criminals he did in those films. But in actuality, he comes across more like a ‘30s mob boss in a James Cagney film than anything else. His yelling intensity comes across a good bit much like his performance in The Godfather Part III, in which he played an aged Michael Corleone during the same calendar year. Pacino earned dual nominations from the Golden Globes that year for both films and an Oscar nom for his Big Boy performance years before Heath Ledger, so it’s definitely a highlight out of a so-so 1990 Dick Tracy movie.
4. J. K. Simmons – J. Jonah Jameson, Spider-Man
The boisterous, self-absorbed publisher who becomes Spider-Man’s nemesis was never presented so perfectly as in the trilogy of films directed by Sam Raimi. Sure, J.K. Simmons had good make-up, a crew cut and excellent lines to work with, but if the actor is lazy, he could just muddle through it with no problem. Instead, he brought the correct amount of high energy needed to feed into this egocentric role the likes of which you’d only see in the comic books or perhaps the ‘60s Spidey cartoons.
It’s even more amazing when you consider the rather low key performances he’s given as the police psychiatrist in Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, or better yet as the particularly nasty neo-Nazi Schillinger in the HBO prison drama Oz. Simmons truly stole scenes in each of the Spider-Man films and gave some awesome performances in this role.
3. Alan Cumming – Nightcrawler, X2: X-Men United
Slightly reworked from his comic origins, X-Men's circus star Kurt Wagner is a dark demonic looking mutant German with teleportation powers and super agility, and a kind Christian soul to match. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone but has been forced into the mutant/humanity conflicts. Cumming played this one well, getting folks to really care for his character after showing off his weasel-like talents in the James Bond movie GoldenEye. Fans really became invested in Nightcrawler’s fate and were seriously disappointed not to see him in the third film. That’s how you know he made an impact.
2. Mark Hamill – The Trickster, The Flash
At this point, he wasn’t known much as a voice actor and people only associated him with Jedi Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films. But the work he puts in here as an all-too-playful psychopath with tons of tricks, toys and gadgets up his sleeve, probably helped him get his legendary role on Batman: The Animated Series. There are many similarities between The Trickster & The Joker, and Hamill made the most of his opportunities here, becoming the only recurring villain (outside of a motorcycle gang leader) to appear in the TV series.
1. Kelsey Grammer – The Beast, X-Men 3: The Last Stand
People weren’t certain Grammer would pull this off but let’s take a look at The Beast as a character, or rather his alter ego. Professor Hank McCoy is rather large, stately, and incredibly articulate when quoting poetry and philosophy. Now think of the Frasier character Grammer performed many years on two sitcoms. It’s not really a stretch to be honest… except when you add the fur and super-agility of course. But out of a rather rushed production, Grammer’s performance was impeccable and a definite highlight of the film.
Bill Bixby – Dr. David Banner, The Incredible Hulk
Michael Rosenbaum – Lex Luthor, Smallville
Doug Jones – Abe Sapien, Hellboy
Dick Durock – Swamp Thing
Liev Schriber – Sabertooth, X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Gary Oldman – Sgt. Jim Gordon, Batman Begins / The Dark Knight
Thomas Haden Church - Flint Marko/Sandman, Spider-Man 3
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