The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s journey to the small screen has been a bumpy one, but overall pretty good. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. faced some turbulent moments early on before finding its proper footing. However, Marvel found immediate success after jumping on board streaming service, Netflix. It was here that Daredevil became a runaway hit that generated a renewed enthusiasm for Marvel’s street-level characters, and Jessica Jones flourished as a critical hit that resonated with fans of noir and comics alike. Most of this had to do with the fantastic choices of actors and actresses to breathe life into the characters populating a fantastical version of New York City.
Not every actor portrayed their character as presented in comic book form. Often this was beneficial. The unorthodox portrayals pushed the boundaries of what these heroes and villains could be while subverting comic fans’ expectations. Other times, these characters were presented in lazy, uninspired and downright insulting incarnations. Both outcomes can partially be affected by writing, direction and knowledge of the source material, but at the end of the day, whoever is filling the boots of these characters should be held accountable for their portray, good or bad. So which actors made a splash in the MCU and which ones flopped?
15. GREAT: MAHERSHALA ALI AS COTTONMOUTH
When a skilled actor portrays a comic character who is known for their sharpened gold teeth and propensity to bite people when disagreed with, there are two thespian choices laid before said actor: swing for the fences or tone things down. Mercifully, Mahershala Ali decided to take the latter choice with his on-screen interpretation of villainous crime lord, Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes in the first season of Luke Cage.
Ali took the gaudy, Blaxploitation version of Cottonmouth from the comics (a version that worked wonderfully in the context of the early issues of Power Man) and presented the character as a charming, yet volatile, gangster with a sharp tongue and a palpable thirst for power so strong it’s damn-near Shakespearean. Ali’s take on Cottonmouth is so grounded, he could have shown up in an episode of The Wire and would have been right at home.
14. AWFUL: BOB GUNTON AS THE OWL
Bob Gunton is a brilliant character actor (just watch his performance as the warden in The Shawshank Redemption if you need proof), but whatever he was trying to do with the character of Leland Owlsley in the first season of Daredevil was like watching Joe Montana throwing Nerf footballs at milk bottles in a carnival game. Yeah, he’s doing a good job with what he has to work with, but you know he’s capable of so much more.
The Owl is by no means a heavy hitter when it comes to Marvel’s organized crime world and having his more fantastical aspects stripped away for a more gritty version is understandable, but it was impossible to tell if Gunton was playing the character too nebbish or not nebbish enough. The lack of consistency in tone was the real reason this version of The Owl just didn’t work.
13. GREAT: KRYSTEN RITTER AS JESSICA JONES
Jessica Jones is the character with the least amount of source material to call upon in this list, which makes the fact that Krysten Ritter knocked it out of the park as the character in her own titular series quite impressive. There is a punch of confidence and a sting of doubt in every line Ritter delivers through Jessica. She plays everyone’s favorite hard-drinking super-heroine detective as someone who is likable but who is also someone you would never invite to a family gathering.
The underestimated power of Jessica Jones is played well by Ritter and never seems to be a plot device or a character crutch. Jessica is strong. There’s no denying that. But she doesn’t lord that strength over anyone, nor does she fall back on her own victimized past. With Jessica Jones, Ritter has given the MCU its most complex female character.
12. AWFUL: THEO ROSSI AS SHADES
Let’s just get it out in the open: Hernan “Shades” Alvarez is the least threatening villain in Luke Cage. The fact that his whole shtick is “guy who wears sunglasses and says cool things” is insulting to modern audiences and would seem outdated even if he showed up in a ‘70s era Walter Hill movie (even the bad ones). And while this may be a callback to a foregone era of exploitation cinema, it’s goofy.
It was as if Rossi leaned into the intrinsic silliness of the character in hopes that maybe it would generate some sense of menace from its stark juxtaposition to the horrific crime elements…or maybe the character was underwritten and Rossi needed a paycheck. At least it seemed like he was having fun. Too bad the same can’t be said for the viewer.
11. GREAT: CHARLIE COX AS DAREDEVIL
Twelve long years after the cinematic train wreck that Fox’s Ben Aflleck vehicle Daredevil was, comic fans around the world watched with bated breath as a new live-action incarnation of The Man without Fear graced the small screen to pummel less-than-desirable residents of Hell’s Kitchen. And in return for this patience, the word was given a Daredevil riddled with guilt and bursting with grace. A hero with disarming charm and righteous intent. A man, truly without fear for an audience that deserved no less.
Despite episode quality ups and downs in both seasons of Daredevil and the miniseries, The Defenders, Charlie Cox plays with the dichotomy of being a man of faith while stalking criminals at night to enact vigilante justice with gravitas and charisma, making him an everyman we all want to see make the right choice.
10. AWFUL: WIL TRAVEL AS NUKE
There were definitely some less-than-stellar subplots happening in Jessica Jones, but the most trite and seemingly out of place rabbit hole the show took viewers down involved Will Simpson, a stand in for comic character Frank Simpson (aka Nuke). Wil Travel seemed to have one stage direction in his portrayal: be an aggressive meathead.
While in the comics, Nuke’s initial story touches on the horrors of PTSD and the bifurcation between blind patriotism and pragmatism, there is no nuance in his television counterpart. While Simpson’s inclusion was certainly more of a call back than a direct adaptation, there just wasn’t anything that warranted an emotional investment from the audience. Travel could have done a lot with this character, and the fact that Nuke was both written and acted with such banality is a shame.
9. GREAT: SCOTT GLEN AS STICK
From Mr. Miyagi to Splinter, the archetype of the grumpy, old sensei has been a mainstay in pop culture. And while a tired trope always has at least a few tricks up its sleeve, sometimes all it takes is the right actor to demolish expectations and make the viewer believe a blind, skinny man in his ’70s can kick the ever-loving crap out of them.
Scott Glen tackles the character of Stick, both Matt Murdock and Elektra Natchios’ martial arts instructor, by giving him a wry sense of humor speckled with copious amounts of trash talk (which he can totally back up, by the way). It helps that his appearances in Daredevil and The Defenders are used sparingly, making Glen the star of every episode he’s in while never wearing out his welcome.
8. AWFUL: SACHA DHAWAN AS STEEL SERPENT
This one should have been easy. Davos (better known as Steel Serpent) is the dirty mirror image and main foil to Iron First. He’s an antagonist who is also endowed with supernatural ass-kicking abilities and has a bone to pick with Danny Rand. There’s no reason for this character not to be absolutely electric on screen. A vindictive villain who can go toe-to-toe with the hero of series should be the easiest thing for audiences not familiar with the source material to digest.
Sadly, the fine folks behind Iron Fist gave Sacha Dhawan nothing to work with and in turn, created an antagonist who seemed like he was there just to make Danny Rand an even more unlikable hero (more on that later). Hopefully there will be more for Dhawan to explore in the next season of Iron Fist.
7. GREAT: SIMONE MISSICK AS MISTY KNIGHT
There is something to be said for an attractive actress who can pull of being sexy while not falling into the trappings of the male gaze, only to be objectified. Simone Missick is one such actress who walks that tightrope wonderfully in her role as Misty Knight in Luke Cage and The Defenders. Yes she is extremely attractive, but she yields that appeal with her own authority.
Misty is tough, smart, and does what she thinks is right, even to her own detriment at times (with various levels of severity…and severing). Not every call Misty makes is the right one, and Missick brings a level of humanity to the character that puts you in her shoes and makes her completely relatable no matter what your station in life happens to be.
6. AWFUL: ERIK LARAY HARVEY AS DIAMONDBACK
There is a time and place for comic book silliness, and quite often, that time and place is in a television show based on a comic book (obviously). However, in the case of Erik LaRay Harvey’s portrayal of Willis “Diamondback” Stryker in Luke Cage it actually is not, which is a revelation that almost derails the back of the show’s first season.
LaRay’s performance as the main foil to Cage’s is ridiculously over-the-top, in a show that plays things pretty realistically for being set in a world filled with superhuman and magic ninjas. Everything that comes out of the character’s mouth is hyperbolic and is a stark reminder that often times less is more (which is precisely why Cottonmouth worked so much better in comparison).
5. GREAT: DAVID TENNENT AS KILGRAVE
Look, everyone loves David Tennent. If you don’t, it just means you haven’t watched anything that he’s been in. The man radiates charm. That’s the biggest reason why his turn as the sadistic Kilgrave in Jessica Jones is so damn impressive. Never has the audience been turned on an actor so quickly.
Tennent seems to revel in the sick twisted mind of Kilgrave while someone maintaining his inherent charm. It’s like a great white shark wearing a tuxedo. Sure he’s dressed well enough for a banquet, but he’s really here for a feeding frenzy. Tennent plays up Kilgrave’s least desirable qualities (of which there are many), while simultaneously lulling the audience into a false sense of security that makes the viewer wonder if he’s really all that bad (spoiler alert: he IS).
4. AWFUL: FINN JONES AS IRON FIST
This one should come as no surprise to anyone. The critical disdain for Finn Jones as Danny Rand has been well publicized since Iron Fist premiered back in March. Jones doesn’t seem to know if he wants to play the character as a naïve fish out of water man-boy, or a secretly brilliant businessman with altruistic aspirations for his own company, or an arrogant kung-fu master looking for a fight. While there should be enough room within 13 episodes to touch on all three characteristics organically, Jones never sells any single persona.
This could almost be forgiven if it didn’t seem like he studied the fight choreography the night before filming. Even with the ability to turn his fist into a wrecking ball, the powerless Matt Murdock is more of an on screen threat than Iron First, a sad realization from their laughably bad fight in The Defenders.
3. GREAT: VINCENT D’ONOFRIO AS KINGPIN
Menace is something actors often convey through steely glares, unsettling idiosyncrasies and unique line deliveries, creating character traits that, if used correctly, breathe life into a great villain. Vicnent D’Onofrio, who might be the greatest living character actor working, is no stranger to this method. So many of his performances are iconic because of his devotion to his craft. As pedestrian as it sounds, the man is a chameleon.
Watching D’Onofrio take on what is essentially the most powerful street-level villain Marvel comics has to offer is absolutely mesmerizing. Wilson Fisk in Daredevil is a near perfect antagonist, creating turmoil for our heroes from behind the scenes but willing to step get his hands dirty. Much like Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than D’Onofrio as Fisk. He has arguably created the best villain the MCU (in film or television) has brought to life.
2. AWFUL: ELODIE YUNG AS ELEKTRA
Yes, this is worse than Iron Fist. And this has nothing to do with Elodie Yung as an actress. She’s done fine work in films like GI Joe: Retaliation and the not-so-great Narcopolis. She has great screen presence and charisma, but she does not have the raw animalistic intimidation of Elektra Natchios.
Yung (and admittedly the writing teams of Daredevil and The Defenders) boiled Elektra down to her most basic elements, stripping away the character’s complexity and agency. This version of Elektra is nothing more than an objectified femme-fatale and a quasi-McGuffin. And admittedly, while this version is slightly better than what Jennifer Garner produced, Elektra deserves better than this. The emotional weight of her character’s impact on Matt Murdock is never sold on screen, and one can only imagine if a more suited actor could have pulled something off with they had to work with.
1. GREAT: JON BERNTHAL AS THE PUNISHER
Frank Castle’s righteous indignation has never quite been conveyed just right on film. That is until Jon Bernthal stepped into the role in the second season of Daredevil. Bernthal had already brought what was a pretty generic comic book character to life as Shane in AMC’s The Walking Dead, and what he’s done with The Punisher is nothing short of a miracle.
Bernthal plays Castle with the laser focus dedication to his mission (i.e. literally kill every member of the mob with extreme prejudice) that defines the The Punisher in the comic. He’s a man of action and few works, but when he does speak, everyone in the room better shut and listen. Even though Bernthal was operating as a supporting actor in Daredevil there was enough weight to his performance to get people extremely excited for his forthcoming solo Punisher series.
Do you agree or disagree with this list? Let us know in the comments!
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