Great Gravitas in Two Popcorn Flicks

We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.

The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.

An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.

We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.

Consider the scene, included in the second trailer, where the Winter Soldier shoots him in the hand, while that’s the only part protected by armor. The look of surprise on his face is genuine. Tony Stark has lost control, and is scared.

Of course, there’s also the scene–more pronounced in the trailer than the final film version–where Captain American says that Bucky is his friend. “So was I,” an openly hurt Tony retorts. It’s a small thing, but becomes much larger through great acting.

Seriously, his work in that film was the equal of any Best Actor robot.

Second is Chris Pine in Star Trek Beyond. I’ve always thought of Pine as a lightweight playboy, perhaps because I first saw him as a very thinly-written prop in the second Princess Diaries movie. Much of his work since then hasn’t reached far above that level.

He has done a more than serviceable Shatner impression in this reboot franchise, however, adding his own touches to the Kirk character. Still, he hadn’t really earned the full strength of that famous captain’s chair–certainly not in Into Darkness–but he did in Beyond.

The Kirk of that film isn’t just trying to fill the big shoes fate has shoved on his feet, but is struggling existentially with who he really is and wants to be. It’s the kind of deep midlife crisis theme that resonated with the original 80’s-era films.

And Pine pulls it off. His Kirk in this film, for the first time, is believably humbled by the world he’s in, gruffly bewildered and close to but never quite wallowing in despondency.

It was a tricky shade of depth with which to paint a beloved larger than life hero, yet Pine’s alternately aggressive and wounded sides–just as subtle as RDJ’s in Civil War–brought us into the character with him. It was wonderful work.

Both actors tend to be cast in simple, cute fare, but both also have some other serious accomplishments under their belts. But these two performances are my favorites from each–truly great works of under-appreciated acting art, in blockbuster Hollywood films.

Which makes them all the more impressive.

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