The Marvel Cinematic Universe has made comic books mainstream. People who would have never thought about superheroes now know Captain America’s life story and can pronounce the name of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir. Plus it’s not just the characters who are household names, the movies have catapulted its stars onto the A-list and made them household names. This level of popularity and recognition have offered the franchise’s actors the opportunity to choose whatever projects they want. Having an MCU star in a lead role can give a film a bigger spotlight and audience, which is great for something like Snowpiercer. However, it can also be disastrous when that same spotlight is shined on Mortdecai. Even The Avengers can’t save everything.
The real problem most of the heroes have, is that after around five or more films as the same character, audiences become reluctant to see them as anything but their superhero personas. It can be frustrating for the actors, who want to branch out into other genres, when no one shows up to see their latest sci-fi epic, because moviegoers are just biding time until the next Avengers film. Sadly for Earth’s Mightiest Heroes these are the movies that prove these MCU actors are nothing without Marvel.
15 CHRIS PRATT - PASSENGERS
After the monster success of Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World, it seemed like Chris Pratt could do no wrong. Then it was announced he would be in a sci-fi romance with Jennifer Lawrence and everyone thought it was a lock to be another hit. However, everyone was wrong and Passengers was a huge flop. The two starred passengers on a spaceship who awoke from cryo sleep early. They fall in love and save everyone else when the ship is damaged.
The lack of chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence sabotaged the film from the start and it just couldn’t be saved.
Lucky for us and him, Star-Lord bounced back with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and is set to meet up with The Avengers in the upcoming Infinity War.
14 SAMUEL L. JACKSON - THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD
No actor in the MCU is more perfectly cast than Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. He’s pretty much great in everything. Only he could make Snakes on a Plane a cult classic. Even in the most cliched and predictable movies, he shines through. Case in point, The Hitman’s Bodyguard. An action/comedy with Jackson and Ryan Reynolds sounds like a recipe for a great time.
However, all the best jokes were in the trailer and the story offered nothing new.Despite all these flaws Jackson and Reynolds’ chemistry carried the film to box office success. It also proved that while Jackson may not need the MCU as much as others, he’s certainly at his best as the mysterious Nick Fury and should drop in more often.
13 JEREMY RENNER - HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS
As Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Jeremy Renner adds a grounded element to The Avengers team. It’s something the actor brings to all his performances. His roles in The Hurt Locker and The Town have been award nominated and his most recent film Wind River was praised by critics, landing on many year-end best lists. Unfortunately, even the best actors have a bad movie on their resume.
For Renner this was Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. The film’s plot is as advertised and follows the now adult siblings as they travel the countryside killing witches as revenge for their kidnapping. It’s a truly ridiculous movie that is a waste of the actor’s talent. He spends most of his time on-screen firing large medieval weapons. Luckily he rebounded with Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: Civil War.
12 CHRIS HEMSWORTH - BLACKHAT
No actor in the MCU is as versatile as Chris Hemsworth. He’s obviously great as the God of Thunder, but he can also do comedy in Ghostbusters and serious drama in In the Heart of the Sea. The actor likes to keep fans guessing by choosing unexpected projects. Even with all these varying credits, Hemsworth will (for the time being) be most well-known as Thor.
He took a risk and went in another direction with Blackhat. Hemsworth played a computer hacker working with the government to track down a worse hacker. As talented as he is, Hemsworth just wasn’t quite believable as a computer hacker. Despite a cast that included Viola Davis and Holt McCallany, the story was boring and full of cliches, causing the film fail. Following Blackhat, Hemsworth stuck with comedies, sequels and the MCU.
11 SCARLETT JOHANSSON - ROUGH NIGHT
Since debuting as Natasha in Iron Man 2, Scarlett Johansson has become known as an action heroine. It’s not just her work as Black Widow, but also movies like Lucy and Ghost in the Shell. She’s never been famous for her comedic chops. The star attempted to change that with the female The Hangover ripoff Rough Night. The R-rated comedy followed four friends on a wild bachelorette weekend, where hilarious shenanigans ensue when everything goes wrong.
The problem is the hilarious part never really happened -- apparently comedy is not Johansson’s strong suit.
As it turns out, Johansson has a long list of non MCU flops. We Bought a Zoo, Hail Caesar! and the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell have all left audiences scratching their heads. It seems moviegoers have decided they only want to see Johansson as Black Widow.
10 CHRIS EVANS - PLAYING IT COOL
Before he was Captain America, Chris Evans’ biggest role was as a different hero, The Human Torch. He also played a lot of boyfriends in rom-coms. After a few go rounds as Steve Rogers, Evans specifically took on some different roles to get him away from just being Cap.
In Playing it Cool, he plays a screenwriter in love with a woman who is already engaged. As they become friends he imagines all the various movie scenarios in which they could be together. Though it’s a fun premise, it wears thin pretty quick. Evans has made it clear in recent years that he would like to transition away from acting and into more directing. This may be the best decision for him, as it seems like fans have are only interested to see him as the leader of The Avengers.
9 PAUL BETTANY - TRANSCENDENCE
As Iron Man’s AI sidekick JARVIS, Paul Bettany has been keeping Tony Stark’s life together since day one. In Avengers: Age of Ultron the program was running the Iron Legion and helping The Avengers with plans and research. He had become just as important as any other team member. Then he was made into The Vision and was actually one of the most powerful Avengers.
However, as great as Bettany is, he couldn’t seem to avoid the curse that is Johnny Depp and starred in Transcendence. On paper it sounds interesting. A human consciousness takes over all technology on Earth in order to save it from humanity. In actuality, it’s a boring, muddied mess. As usual Bettany is the highlight, but he’s still not enough to keep the movie watchable. Fortunately, The Vision returned in Civil War and will join everyone in Infinity War.
8 EVANGELINE LILLY - LITTLE EVIL
Following the conclusion of Lost, Evangeline Lilly took a break from acting. She made a big return in two of The Hobbit films, then joined the MCU as Hope Van Dyne in Ant-Man. One of the movie’s post credit scenes set up her character to become The Wasp, which meant she would become an even bigger part of the franchise.
In between saving the world, she was in a Netflix comedy called Little Evil. The movie was a humorous take on The Omen. It’s an over the top film that tries way too hard. Lilly is wasted as the supportive and blind mother of the boy in question. It’s a good thing Ant-Man and the Wasp will hit theaters soon, so audiences will forget how awful this clunker was.
7 GWYNETH PALTROW - MORTDECAI
Every once in awhile an actor needs to break out and do a completely ridiculous movie just for the fun of it. This can sometimes lead to surprise hits like The Hangover or Anchorman, and it can lead to Mortdecai. Johnny Depp decided to make a nonsense caper and dragged Gwyneth Paltrow into the disaster. There really aren’t words to describe how truly terrible this movie is.
It’s so bad that everyone involved with the release of the movie have decided to pretend it never happened.
It is only because all the stars had major franchises to fall back on was no one’s career irreparably damaged. Depp had to make a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean and Paltrow suddenly decided to come back to the MCU in Spider-Man: Homecoming, as she and Tony seemingly reunited.
6 ELIZABETH OLSEN - INGRID GOES WEST
Prior to joining the MCU in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Elizabeth Olsen was known for standout performances in indie movies like Martha Marcy May Marlene. As Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron she drew audiences into the world of siblings with powers, who are trying to figure out where their true allegiances should be.
While many actresses would have used their raised profile to keep making big budget blockbusters, Olsen returned to her indie roots for Ingrid Goes West. She played a social media influencer caught up with an obsessed fan. It was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, doing well for an indie film, but there’s always going to be the stigma of “she’s only an indie actress” if she doesn’t try her hand at more mainstream movies.
5 DAVE BAUTISTA - KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE
It’s been well documented that Dave Bautista is a former professional wrestler. And like most wrestlers turned actors he has appeared in a lot of action/fight movies. Sadly, most of them are of the straight to DVD variety. In between Guardians of the Galaxy films, Bautista was in the epically bad Kickboxer: Vengeance. It’s the fifth movie in the in the Jean-Claude Van Damme series about brutal underground fights in Thailand. That sentence tells you everything you need to know about the movie.
Bautista gives a full on, over the top performance as the film’s villain. To be fair, it seems like he’s trying to be a crazy caricature, but that doesn’t makes the movie any better. Bautista was such a fun surprise as Drax that he has been forever typecast as the menacing, killer type. Only the MCU lets him be funny while he’s doing it though.
4 TOM HIDDLESTON - KONG: SKULL ISLAND
It’s no secret that Loki is Marvel’s best villain. No matter what he does, they keep finding ways to not kill him. Tom Hiddleston is just so good in the role, it’s become hard to see him as anything but Loki. The actor managed to leave his famous alter ego behind a little with an award winning performance in The Night Manager. He then joined another big franchise in Kong: Skull Island.
Look, anytime you’re in a King Kong movie, the giant gorilla is the star. Perhaps the only actor who could compete with Kong is Hiddleston.
As James Conrad, the actor gets to go toe toe with the famous monster, though not even Hiddleston’s irresistible charm could save the movie from predictable King Kong tropes. The actor never delivers an uninteresting performance, but he’s at his best as Loki.
3 COBIE SMULDERS - JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK
As Maria Hill, Cobie Smulders fits right in with Nick Fury and Coulson. She’s just as clever, tough and loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. and The Avengers as the guys are. Before joining the MCU, Smulders was known as the unpredictable Robin on How I Met Your Mother. Playing a butt-kicking spy was new to her, but she handled it like a pro.
She continued in the action genre with the Tom Cruise sequel Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. Smulders is a wrongly accused Army Major, who must rely on Reacher to help her clear her name. Other than fight scenes, the actress doesn’t really get a lot to do. Only the MCU allows her to blend her comedy and action skills, something she will hopefully do in Infinity War.
2 CLARK GREGG - LIVE BY NIGHT
From the moment Agent Phil Coulson showed up in Iron Man, he was the glue that held Phase One together. He was so beloved that fans refused to accept his death and the character launched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Gregg has also voiced Coulson in several animated series and video games.
Between all his Marvel commitments and work as an accomplished writer/director, there’s not a lot of time for other projects. However, Gregg did have a small role in Ben Affleck’s Live by Night. The Prohibition era period gangster movie was a drawn out story about a man caught between rival mob bosses. While the film’s lack of success can’t be blamed on Gregg, it didn’t help anyone involved including Affleck and fellow MCU star Zoe Saldana.
1 ROBERT DOWNEY JR. - THE JUDGE
No one is more synonymous with their superhero alter ego than Robert Downey Jr. As Tony Stark, he kickstarted the MCU, so it stands to reason that fans are more attached to him than some of his co-stars. It was really after Iron Man 2 when it became obvious that he and Tony would be forever connected and interchangeable.
Following Iron Man 3, Downey made an effort to return to more low key dramatic fare in The Judge.
He was a lawyer who fought to get his father out of a murder charge after he is involved in a hit and run. Downey and co-star Robert Duvall were singled out, but they were the only two characters whose stories were developed. The film came and went without fanfare, while Downey returned to the safe confines of his super suit for three straight movies.