We've been pretty hard around here on a certain movie with adamantium claws. Yes, whenever I'm reminded of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which comes out on DVD and Blu-ray today, I wish I had been shot with amnesia bullets. Still, I appreciated Hugh Jackman's determined efforts to stay out of the damn costume. Whenever Wolverine has donned a uniform in the previous X-Men flicks, he looks like he can't wait to rip it off. In his natural state, as the wandering, memory-challenged Logan, he repels latex like Congress repels taxpayers.
Most actors quickly declare that the biggest challenge in superhero movies is the costume: how to avoid looking sheepish or silly while wearing a form-fitting, custom-made suit that may reveal more than most of us are willing to bare at the beach? With advanced, super-realistic, computerized special effects and ripped body / stunt doubles available as needed, though, I think the bigger challenge lies in bringing the secret identities of superheroes to life: all those moments when supposedly normal people are leading supposedly "normal" lives.
Who, then are the most convincing superheroes without costumes? What actors and actresses have made you believe that their very human characters on screen could transform into larger-than-life heroes and/or heroines with a quick dash into a phone booth? Mind you, I'm not just talking Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen ...
1. Famke Janssen as Jean Gray in X-Men
She cuts a fine figure, doesn't she? Famke Janssen is undoubtedly sexier than Wolverine when they both suit up, yet she really shines whenever she's using her brain -- which is all the time. She doesn't need the costume to be one of the smartest, most empathetic, and most lethal people, in the universe.
2. Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins
Sure, he's an obvious choice, as are some others on this list, but how can his sometimes dazzling, completely winning performance be denied? He's conflicted yet cagey, morally ambivalent yet morbidly humorous, powerful yet graceful. As billionaire Bruce Wayne, obsessed with the bottom line yet philanthropic, playing the field yet yearning for only one woman, he's the perfect enigma. He set the pattern that Robert Downey Jr. followed as Tony Stark in Iron Man, which is why Downey, as charming and charismatic as he is, does not make the list.
3. Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2
In the first film, the 26-year-old Maguire was a fine Peter Parker, unsteady, gawky, the epitome of a teen aged 98-pound weakling. But whenever he donned his costume, his personality disappeared entirely. The problem was solved in the sequel, in part because Spider-Man took off his mask -- or had it ripped off -- often enough that we could associate Maguire with his super heroic version. The other part of the solution came about because we saw Peter Parker growing up: dealing with the ramifications of his actions in the first film, romancing Mary Jane for real and trying mightily to remain friends with the seemingly doomed Harry Osborne. Maguire as Parker made us believe in Maguire as Spider-Man.
4. Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent in Superman
Granted, Reeve may not have been the most versatile actor on the planet, but he definitely made being stolid a virtue. He's one of the few to catch lightning in a bottle, equally persuasive as the mild-mannered Clark Kent and the man who could leap tall buildings in a single bound. There's something very beguiling about the way he pushes his glasses up his nose, or the way he slyly glances at Lois Lane, or humbly approaches Perry White, or nearly apologizes for having to stop Lex Luther. He's constantly apologetic, even though he has nothing to be sorry about.
5. Holly Hunter as Helen Parr in The Incredibles
Oh, how many different ways we could interpret Elastigirl: as the ultimate in flexibility, to be sure; as someone willing to bend over backwards to protect her family, of course. Unlike her husband, Bob, who never quite got the knack of living like a normal human being, Helen perseveres and adapts for the sake of her befuddled husband and her sometimes exasperating children. Some might complain that she's not really heroic, she's just drawn that way, but I say Helen Parr is the real hero of the movie: she makes motherhood even more heroic than it already is.
5. Billy Crudup as Jon Osterman in Watchmen
Thanks to original comic book creators Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Dr. Manhattan goes Tarzan one better, dispensing with a loincloth altogether as he strides about his superhero business. What strikes a chord, though, is Billy Crudup's brief, stirring appearance as Jon Osterman in a "lengthy flashback segment that is entirely transcendent, as dazzling, thoughtful, and emotionally-stirring as anything I've seen in recent years" (quoting myself). Crudup anchors that sequence, which sets up the creature character that he becomes as the blue-skinned, penis-swinging Dr. Manhattan.
6. Bill Bixby as Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk
I realize we're a movie site, but neither Eric Bana nor Edward Norton have been entirely convincing as the good doctor. Bana never quite caught the right vibe, and Norton suffered the disadvantage of playing Bruce after the accident; we never really glimpse the man he was before. Bixby was the reason we all kept watching the TV show; Lou Ferrigno's eruptions as The Hulk were fun to watch, but Bixby captured the essence of a fugitive man of science who desperately wants to remain calm, even as his emotions boil inside.