The right actor in the right role can make or break a show. A bad performance in an ensemble piece can, at the least, spoil most of an episode. Until a show premieres, it’s never clear how an actor will click with a role, and the wilder the character, the more unpredictable it can be. When playing roles in superhero worlds, like the one that Marvel has constructed, this synergy is even more unpredictable. It’s a magic that relies on making the unbelievable perfectly reasonable, and then, entertaining. So far the Marvel empire has expanded across multiple different networks, and even toyed with the idea of interacting directly with the Cinematic Universe. Even if they remain separate, the television inter-connectivity is still an ambitious narrative.
To put some of it in perspective, all of the Marvel TV shows debuted so far have struggled critically against the most well reviewed shows. No series, for example, has achieved an Emmy for their acting. There are a lot of great performances in this genre nonetheless, and Marvel has seen mostly steady growth in the substance of their projects. To summarize the highlights and lowlights, here are eight stunning Marvel TV show casting decisions that were perfect and seven that missed the mark.
15 GOOD: MILANA VAYNTRUB AS SQUIRREL GIRL
Technically this is an honorable mention only, since New Warriors has yet to announce its official release. Filmed last year, the ten episode first season features Mister Immortal, Night Thrasher, Speedball, Microbe, Debrii, and Doreen Green, aka Squirrel Girl, as its eponymous team. Sight unseen, Milana Vayntrub’s performance as the bushy tailed heroine is expected to lead the show, and her strong comedy background is deepened by a lengthy arc on the last season of This is Us.
As soon as this wayward show finds a home, Marvel doubles down on young adult super teams. Along with Runaways on Hulu, stretching up to the mature content of the Netflix shelf, Marvel’s television universe grows into another level with its most comedic offering to date. Even if fans don’t see it until Disney’s streaming service debuts.
14 BAD: FINN JONES AS IRON FIST
Iron Fist season one came out amid a sea of controversy, when many fans thought Netflix missed an opportunity to add Asian representation to their lineup, and avoid the appearance of an over-privileged white kid, treating Asian cultures like a sandbox of ideas to play with. So when Finn Jones, best known for Game of Thrones, joined the team, he had a lot to pressure on his performance as Danny Rand, a character with a shaky foundation.
The best that can be said is that he does seem to be playing it like a guy who stopped maturing. He does, kind of, act like a dude who’s spent 15 years living in a monastery and then became CEO of a company. It’s not a hero’s journey that feels earned though, and the result is a guy who’s pretty hard to root for. There’s always season two though.
13 GOOD: RACHAEL TAYLOR AS TRISH WALKER
In season two of Jessica Jones, the sister relationship between Trish and Jessica continues to drive the plot most often. Rachael Taylor, who plays Jessica Jones’ only true family, Trish Walker, is given even more to do in this story, and the fans get a lot more backstory about her battle with addiction, celebrity, and her growing aggression.
Patricia Walker is a Marvel Comics hero of the Golden Age, known as Hellcat, and although there’s been no word of her taking on that mantle again in the show, the character is fun to watch, even if she never goes that direction. While she’s developed a nagging problem with combat enhancing inhalers, Trish has walked confidently into the role of Jessica’s sidekick, and somehow comes off as a far more sympathetic hero than she should be on paper.
12 BAD: ANSON MOUNT AS BLACK BOLT
The new Inhumans television series raised eyebrows immediately when it debuted with an atypical IMAX premiere. Expectations were raised for the royal heroes as the series debuted on ABC, primetime in 2017. The family is led by Black Bolt, the man who can level city blocks with only his voice, and flip cars with a whisper.
It seems strange to give a poor performance for a role with spoken lines, but too often, when a moment called for gravitas, his interactions with other characters on screen looked uncomfortable for both parties. As king of the Inhumans, he needed to fill the screen far more than he did, and a story should be told through his meaningful glances. It wasn’t quite achieved here, either because of Mount’s work, or just because the role was misconceived from the beginning.
11 GOOD: EKA DARVILLE AS MALCOLM DUCASSE
Malcolm is another character that came a long way in Jessica Jones season two. Eka Darville played Jessica’s down-the-hall neighbor and official "associate” with Alias Investigations. He’s on a hero’s journey of his own, and continues along an arc, trying to shape his identity completely independent of addiction.
Darville has always brought a depth and sensitivity to Malcolm, but almost everything else about the character has transformed throughout the series. Without giving away too many spoilers, Malcolm parts ways with the struggling junkie he was when audiences met him. His professional, mental, and emotional lives are all on display in season two. The whole time, he balances Jessica beautifully as her only real friend. On top of all that, he even brings some romance to the show.
10 BAD: TOM PELPHREY AS WARD MEACHAM
Maybe in an attempt to flesh out Danny Rand’s early life, a lot of Iron Fist season one focuses on the palace intrigue of the Meacham family, who had taken control of the Rand Corporation. Ward, his sister Joy, and their father, Harold, make up a complex antagonistic Hydra from Danny’s past and present. The series acknowledges that villain development is necessary for telling a compelling story.
Unfortunately, this family, and specifically, Ward, played by Tom Pelphrey, didn’t present any kind of sympathetic, complex, or tragic character. It may not have completely been the actor’s fault, but overall, it barely even seemed like the actor was capable of running a company, less an evil empire. Ultimately, the emotional and ethical roller coaster Pelphrey took the character through didn’t do anything to improve that first season.
9 GOOD: CARRIE ANNE MOSS AS JERI HOGARTH
Carrie Anne Moss’ character in Jessica Jones, Jeri Hogarth, somehow feels like one of the most down to earth players on the show. Placing her in the real world as a lawyer isn’t a stretch at all, bringing a great deal of weight to the show’s notion of a world of super heroes.
In the latest season, Hogarth is pushed to her limits. The show is smart to double down on her character and show more of Carrie Anne Moss being as cruel as possible, and then completely brought down from her high horse. Hogarth skewers economic class and privilege in a way that, for example, Ward Meacham, fails to. Moss’ performance effectively connects the street level heroes to the penthouse level decision makers, creating a cutting cross section of Marvel’s New York City's upper class.
8 BAD: SERINDA SWAN AS MEDUSA
To be fair, Serinda Swan’s Medusa, in Inhumans season one, had a nearly impossible task when she turned out to be the secret lead driving that whole show. There was definitely an effort, as Maximus took control of Attilan and expelled the Royal Family, to create a scattered-to-the-winds Game of Thrones style narrative. Unfortunately, in practice, the story of the reunification of Karnak, Crystal, Lockjaw and the rest all ran through Medusa’s character, so hers was the only arc that had any substance or connection to the greater story.
Whether due to the narrative construction or Swan’s performance, the balance of the ensemble was was radically skewed toward her and the end product, somehow, didn’t generate much suspense or excitement for this dysfunctional family-team of space-mutants.
7 GOOD: RHENZY FELIZ AS ALEX WILDER
In one of the most pleasant surprises of Marvel’s television effort, Hulu adapted Runaways and produced a show that plays like The O.C. with superpowers. Rhenzy Feliz, who plays Alex Wilder, works as the nucleus of this fledgling super team, and his performance makes it 100% reasonable to root for these kids as they take down their villainous parents.
Not only is he the master strategist of the team, caught in a romantic triangle, and facing off with his father by learning about his dark past. Rhenzy Feliz has also done a nearly perfect adaptation of the character from the comic. His work brings him right off the page, and then adds a hint of conquered fear in his eyes, to give Alex Wilder that extra bit of life.
6 BAD: ELODIE YUNG AS ELEKTRA
One of the stand out disappointments of Daredevil’s second season was the missed connection between the Elektra character and Elodie Yung, the actor charged with playing Matt Murdock’s explosive foil. Perhaps the only thing that can be said in her defense is that the character is notoriously hard to bring onto the screen, but this performance of Elektra went out on a limb that didn’t quite support the role the story carved out for her.
For as many twists and turns that the character took, from her rough early life and martial arts mastery, much of the story tried to establish her as a wounded soul, who has only known deception and violence, but is essentially good. Unfortunately, that case is never made effectively resulting in her transformation in to a villain. That responsibility has to lay, at least partially, with a lack of drive and clarity in Yung’s interpretation.
5 GOOD: JANET McTEER AS ALISA JONES
After season one’s main villain, played so amazingly by David Tenant, it was almost impossible to follow that up with an equally suspenseful antagonist. Jessica Jones took a brilliant side step in season two, to bring Jessica’s mother, Alisa, on board. Janet McTeer plays Jessica’s mom to stunning effect, showing viewers the fury that can result from a mother’s love. The show continues to showcase characters that want to do good, but just can’t get out of their own way, and McTeer’s Alisa succeeds in horrifying and then gaining our sympathy.
As her personality filled the screen, Jessica’s mom exudes a wealth of conflict and love at the same time, somehow, effectively rationalizing most of her horrible tantrums. Jessica, herself, is so fully realized at this point that her mother had huge shoes to fill. McTeer effectively gave viewers a better sense of where the hero comes from.
4 BAD: BRETT DALTON AS GRANT WARD
Even before Grant Ward stopped being Grant Ward and became the creature Hive, in a radical character twist, this character didn’t really work in the long run. It almost seemed like episode by episode Ward would alternate between being actually conflicted, and being a decidedly sociopathic mastermind and none of it worked.
Brett Dalton played this antagonist who, despite an extensive look into his backstory and family life, still felt like a kind caricature that came out of nowhere. Characters shouldn’t ever really seem like characters, and unfortunately Dalton’s performance never gave this guy enough depth to root for or against. Between standing against Coulson as a completely unbelievable nemesis and prolonging a cringeworthy romance with Daisy, Brett Dalton’s Grant Ward stands in the way of an otherwise adventurous show.
3 GOOD: ROSARIO DAWSON AS CLAIRE TEMPLE
If Jeri Hogarth is the upper crust civilian bystander in the Netflix’s Marvel-verse, Claire Temple is the every woman in the rent controlled apartment, bringing the Defenders down to the streets and into the community. The juxtaposition of superpowers and real world problems is as eye popping as special effects here, and Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple does a great job being every person at home in their living rooms, watching the crazy events and reacting as a normal civilian might.
Dawson is simultaneously skeptical, savvy, and morally driven to do the right thing as Claire Temple develops a heroism of her own. Whether it’s consoling another member of the support squad, arriving on the scene at just the right time, or carrying almost all of the romantic interest of the franchise, Rosario Dawson makes the premise work.
2 BAD: SIGOURNEY WEAVER AS ALEXANDRA REID
The Defenders mini-series was only eight episodes, but the story presented still felt drawn out. A part of that problem was the lack of stakes generated by the Hand’s latest leader, Alexandra Reid, played by the mostly reliable Sigourney Weaver.
Instead of Kilgrave, this series brought fans a weak villain, making it impossible to bring the Defenders together tightly enough to make it believable. At times, even the four members of the super team wondered why they were working together, and the joke would have landed, except the audience felt the threat didn’t warrant the team up either. The next time Marvel’s team of street level heroes comes together, they’ll need to unite against a more formidable foe than Weaver’s overly broad, generally malicious big bad.
1 GOOD: JON BERNTHAL AS THE PUNISHER
Never has a guy who has shot so many people, seemingly with so little regret, been such a sympathetic hero. Especially now, Jon Bernthal’s resonant, haunting, performance as the Punisher is impressive, considering the remarkable tonnage of bullets and explosives represented in that series.
Bernthal’s Punisher wrestles with the guilt of failing to protect his family and crossing too many ethical lines in the line of duty. These two premises of his character support a throughline of PTSD, therapy, and trauma thrown against preconceptions of masculinity and classical heroism. As viewers are watching, they’re constantly asking themselves if this character is really a hero. The series succeeds because Jon Bernthal’s performance is asking himself the very same question, over and over, and it’s figured out gradually, solving a season long mystery.