The Big Picture

Chris Evans is embracing darker roles in his post-Captain America career and wants to move beyond being pigeonholed as a squeaky-clean hero. While some of his recent villainous roles haven’t been as successful, they showcase Evans’ desire to explore morally complicated characters and challenge his star image. Evans has a history of playing wicked characters before his Captain America days, and his performances in films like Snowpiercer and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World demonstrating his ability to portray morally nuanced figures with charisma and depth.

It’s funny now to remember that waves of skepticism greeted the initial news that Chris Evans would be playing Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After all, this guy had already played Johnny Storm/The Human Torch in those Fantastic Four movies, surely he couldn’t play two superheroes! In the end, though, Evans was not only a decent pick for the role, he truly became Steve Rogers/Captain America to audiences around the globe. In fact, he became so associated with this squeaky-clean hero that, understandably, he didn’t want to be pigeonholed in the part forever. Once he hung up the shield in Avengers: Endgame, Evans pivoted towards darker roles. His excellent work as Hugh “Ransom” Drysdale in Knives Out signaled that this guy had versatility to spare and could carve out an interesting career playing morally complicated people.

A few years later, Evans has clearly made it a priority to embrace darker characters that don’t just remind people of his most famous role. Most recently, Evans has taken on key roles in projects like The Gray Man and Pain Hustlers that call for him to shout and swear a lot as the main villains of these respective features. To distance himself from Captain America, Evans has delivered work that, unfortunately, isn’t always very good. However, these parts do show the kind of career and roles Evans wants to embrace in the modern world while also demonstrating this performer returning to his roots as a go-to actor for cocky antagonists. Things have come full-circle for Evans in his career as he works America’s ass off to move beyond the scope of Marvel Studios productions.

Pain Hustlers

After losing her job, a woman who’s struggling to raise her daughter takes a job out of desperation. She begins work at a failing pharmaceutical startup, but what she doesn’t anticipate is the dangerous racketeering scheme she’s suddenly entered.

Why Has Chris Evans Fallen Short in These Darker Roles?

It’s always fun to see actors buck their common pop culture image in favor of something unexpected. Jimmy Stewart, for instance, delivered some of the best lead performances of all time translating his iconic frantic energy (previously used to illustrate affable and outmatched everymen) to darker obsessed figures in the works of Alfred Hitchcock. Bryan Cranston, meanwhile, subverted all expectations by using his sitcom dad image to make Breaking Bad’s Walter White feel like an authentic depiction of an “ordinary” suburban father who becomes the physical incarnation of evil. There are tons of examples of this phenomenon resulting in entertaining performances. No wonder Chris Evans has embraced the possibility of following in the footsteps of those performers while taking on darker roles. The likes of Stewart and Cranston, among others, have shown you don’t have to be defined by just one role or archetype.

This explains why Evans was so eager to reunite with directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who helmed four of the MCU movies he starred in as Captain America) to play the nefarious Lloyd Hansen in The Gray Man, a 2022 Netflix movie. Here, Evans found himself able to strike a balance between the familiar (working with directors he trusted) and the excitingly unknown (playing the bad guy, rather than the clean-cut hero, in a summer blockbuster). Granted, the final form of Lloyd Hansen does have some significant problems that reflect why some of the “villain” Chris Evans roles as of late haven’t quite worked like they should. Chiefly, Hansen ultimately isn’t too far removed from Captain America as a character. He inhabits a more foul-mouthed persona in The Gray Man and has a mustache, but he’s still an invincible fighter who can go toe-to-toe with Ryan Gosling’s protagonist. His physicality in that movie just isn’t that far removed from Captain America, even if the ambition underlining his role conceptually clearly suggested Evans was eager to try out something new.

Image via Netflix

A similar thought process can be found behind Evans taking on the part of Pete Brenner in Pain Hustlers. The mentor to Emily Blunt’s protagonist Liza Drake, Brenner speaks in a thick Boston accent (a nod to where Evans grew up) and has no filter. The first time audiences see Brenner, he’s lounging around a strip club, trying to put the moves on dancers and other patrons alike. From there, the character never stops being a sleazebag, including in his dismissive attitude towards eventually getting married to one of his co-workers. If Steve Rogers/Captain America was the embodiment of all the good Americans can be, Evans plays Pete Brenner as the physical manifestation of American capitalism as it actually is: greedy, abrasive, and quick to dehumanize people for an easy buck. Like with Hansen in The Gray Man, Brenner in Pain Hustlers sometimes struggles to work as a standalone character in the hands of Evans. When watching this character, you’re often distractingly conscious of how Chris Evans is trying to mold his star image, not wrapped up in a wicked fictional figure. Still, Pain Hustlers does function once again as a high-profile extension of Chris Evans wanting to explore new terrain as an actor. With this specific character, he gets to embody a distinctly American form of greed that makes for a dark inversion to the hopeful patriotic superhero he’s been so associated with.

For the sake of comprehensiveness, it’s also worth noting that the post-2019 exploits of Chris Evans have included two other acting roles, both of which were for Apple TV+ projects. The first of these was the miniseries Defending Jacob, a program that earned its fair share of criticism, but the work of Evans was generally well-liked. Meanwhile, Evans returned to his cozier conventional leading man impulses by taking on the heroic lead of Ghosted with Knives Out co-star Ana de Armas. That critically-savaged production has been an anomaly among the most recent Chris Evans movies, which have largely seen him inhabiting darker roles, echoing some of his earliest forays into acting.

Chris Evans Used to Play the Complete Opposite of the Captain America Brand

The most intriguing part about Chris Evans embracing so many darker and more villainous characters in his post-Captain America roles is that he’s often been a go-to actor for portraying wicked characters. In fact, before he put on the red, white, and blue, the default casting for Evans was to play brash heroes at best and outright villains at worst. The Human Torch/Johnny Storm was a brash man-child, he played the peak manifestation of movie jocks in Not Another Teen Movie, and he lent believable movie star egocentrism to Lucas Lee in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Meanwhile, Evans portrayed Curtis, the protagonist of Snowpiercer, in 2014, a man who starts the movie seeming like a traditional hero before divulging dark secrets about how he survived the apocalypse just before the finale. Evans is so good in this more intimate closing scene, where he has to deliver some truly ludicrous pieces of dialogue with tangible remorse. It’s a great performance that shows Evans can both play morally nuanced figures and carry more thematically intricate motion pictures.

Plus, Evans was a riot in his work in Knives Out, a performance that epitomizes all the exciting potential in the idea of Chris Evans returning to his darker roots in the wake of his Marvel Studios stardom. Evans as Ransom makes it clear from the get-go that he’s a vain jerk, but he’s also one that convincingly seems like a temporary ally to Marta (Ana de Armas). Evans uses that likeable charm he utilized so well as Captain America to make it believable that Marta would trust this guy. There are more notes to Ransom that help make the plot of Knives Out so enjoyably twisty and turny. Plus, whenever Evans has to be unabashedly wicked as Ransom, he channels that entertainingly over-the-top swagger he put to such good use as Lucas Lee. When Evans commits to wickedness in the best confines, cinematic magic happens before your very eyes.

Ransom and countless early roles in this man’s filmography are good go-to examples of what the modern acting choices of Chris Evans look like. The popularity of his performances as Captain America brought Evans a new level of ubiquity and fame. Now he’s looking to ride those qualities towards darker artists’ experiments. Granted, weaker titles like The Gray Man and Pain Hustlers didn’t quite utilize Evans and his acting chops as well as they could have. However, the willingness on the part of Evans to try new, darker things as an actor should make moviegoers excited. Any man who can give the world the glorious personality of Lucas Lee is bound to deliver another deliciously unforgettable villain-turn sooner or later.

Pain Hustlers is now streaming on Netflix in the U.S.

Watch on Netflix

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