Post-Avengers: Endgame, the MCU’s biggest stars have gone gloriously bad

A bearded man looks ahead in Furiosa.
Chris Hemsworth in Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga Warner Bros.

For a ruthless wasteland warlord who spends most of his time killing, maiming, and pillaging, Dementus seems like a pretty good hang. Make no mistake, the villain of Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is an unrepentant monster — a kind of anti-Max, showing who the Road Warrior could easily have become. But beneath the sociopathic cruelty of this biker outlaw lurks the spirit of a party animal, a staggering and amused rock star of the aftertimes. He’s not so much the villain you love to hate as the villain you hate to admit you like. Were the postapocalyptic circumstances different, you could imagine getting a drink with the guy, maybe at the nightmare Outback saloon of Wake in Fright.

The unbridled, incongruous fun of Dementus comes from the Aussie movie star playing him. Simply put, Chris Hemsworth is having a ball in Furiosa. Can such fun be faked? It seems to dance across the man’s woolly features, betraying a tangible relief, perhaps even a sense of electrified liberation. To watch Hemsworth put a blackhearted spin on Thor is to see a performer rejuvenated, rediscovering the pleasure of his craft even as he enters a fictional world drained of pleasure. “I’m really acting again,” the glint in his eyes says.

We’ve seen that glint before. Hemsworth, after all, is but the latest member of Marvel’s superstar supergroup, The Avengers, to toss off the shackles of his most famous role via a juicy flirtation with the dark side. In fact, by now, you could almost build an anti-Avengers from the various heavies these actors have played since assembling for maybe the last time in the 2019 mega-blockbuster multiplex event Avengers: Endgame.

Last year, two of Hemsworth’s one-time costars caught Oscars attention by breaking bad, as Robert Downey Jr. stepped out of the Iron Man armor to play a backstabbing Washington politician in Oppenheimer, while the Hulk himself,  Mark Ruffalo, did an uproarious caricature of possessive male insecurity in Poor Things. In dashing their heroic star images with dastardly changes of pace, both were following the lead of Chris Evans, who traded stars and stripes for the instantly iconic white crew-neck sweater of a spoiled mystery lit scion — and, spoiler alert, climatically revealed culprit — in Knives Out.

In retrospect, it might seem obvious that a star of Evans’ caliber turned out to be the who of that whodunit. But there’s still a sly, subversive genius to casting Captain America as a sniveling nepo-baby murderer. The timing was fortuitous: In coaxing Evans into the ensemble shortly after shooting wrapped on Endgame, Rian Johnson assured that his audience would go into Knives Out with some very strong, very recent associations. Most of the world had just seen Evans save the universe in what was instantly (if only briefly) the biggest box office hit of all time. How could that square-jawed hero be anything less than virtuous? He’d earned the viewer’s implicit trust, and could hence abuse it.

Evans, like Hemsworth, seems delighted to shake off the nobility. Ransom Drysdale is a cad for the ages, and the actor visibly savors his worst, most conniving qualities — the character flaws he could never have hoped to exhibit as that beacon of Greatest Generation virtue, Steve Rogers. The performance works because of how he weaponizes his charm, still visible beneath the rich-kid haughtiness: We’re able to buy that Ana de Armas’ Marta would let her guard down with Ransom because a part of us wants to fall for the ruse, too.

"Oppenheimer" clip: Robert Downey Jr. and Cillian Murphy

There’s something similarly subversive about how director Christopher Nolan uses Downey Jr. in Oppenheimer, which likewise waits until its final stretch to reveal that his character, Lewis Strauss, is up to no good. The man who was Tony Stark is arguably cast even further against type: After years of service as the charismatic center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Downey steps in to play a craven footnote on the story of the atomic bomb. If there’s a Stark figure in Oppenheimer, it’s the title character: an arrogant, womanizing genius who turns up the devilish charm in courtrooms and at microphones.

While the other Marvel headliners distort their star power to play bad guys, Downey mutes his. He’s dry without the wit, and as colorless as the cinematography in his scenes. It’s a bravely small and uncharismatic performance — a portrait of pettiness that finds Downey leaning less than ever before on his silver-tongued humor and swagger. Has he ever played a character this unfunny, this unsexy? The scene where he and Oppenheimer first meet is a small symphony of passive aggression and slighted pride, elevated by Downey’s vanity-be-damned willingness to look pathetic. All the same, it’s easy to miss that his Strauss is the one pulling the strings of Oppie’s inquisition, for the same reason that you don’t necessarily immediately suspect Ransom.

The joy in Downey’s performance is all implied; he never looks like he’s having a good time, because that wouldn’t fit a miserable bastard like Strauss, but the subtlety and force of his work in Oppenheimer is the picture of engagement — the polar opposite of a movie star coasting on his established marquee persona. For true animated elation, look at Ruffalo in Poor Things. He really seems to be enjoying himself as Duncan Wedderburn, the dandy lawyer who whisks Emma Stone’s Bella Baxter out of her gothic captivity, only to be hilariously flummoxed by her appetite for experience. Ruffalo is having so much fun that he almost breaks character at one point, barely stifling a laugh.

Mark Rufallo can't hold his laughter in Poor Things

And no wonder: His Bruce Banner is a man forced to constantly keep his feelings and impulses in check. In Poor Things, Ruffalo gets to gloriously unleash them, dancing with horny glee before bellowing impotently to the heavens. It’s a true Hulk moment for the Hulk — an over-the-top explosion of hammy emotion after years of playing straight man to a rage monster. It must have been a blast, too, to trade the irony-laced sitcom wisecracks of Marvel for a broader, sillier, more vaudeville brand of humor.

To be clear, all of these actors delivered variably effective, enjoyable performances during their MCU tenures. Downey’s rapier wit was so appealing, they built a whole franchise around it. Evans made for a perfect Captain America, square but never boring. Hemsworth found the humor in a God among men. Ruffalo brought pathos to the Hulk’s mild-mannered half, the puny human behind the CGI destroyer. There’s little evidence that any of them hate their big paycheck work; the latter two performers are still clocking in for sequels, while Downey recently indicated that he’d be open to putting on the armor again.

But the performances each star has delivered since don’t lie. They possess an unmistakable air of passion and enthusiasm — the look of actors happy to be stretching beyond their lucrative comfort zones and established blockbuster shtick. Maybe it’s the escape from a set draped perpetually in green screen. Or maybe heavies are just more fun to play, especially after a decade-plus embodying comic-book nobility; what Hollywood superhero doesn’t secretly pine to let their hair down and behave badly for a change? Either way, there’s no denying the sense of freedom, of energetic release, these actors have conveyed by stripping off the tights and getting fitted for a black hat. Now someone just needs to line up big heel turns for Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner. Going bad could do those Avengers some good, too.

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