Damn. Marky Mark–excuse us, Mark Wahlberg–has come a long way, hasn’t he? The Fighter, the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, is opening in theaters with Wahlberg in the title role, and it looks like the film has a good shot at claiming more than a few Oscar nominations (check out our review giving the film a 10/10). Talented ensemble cast? Check. Real-life story of overcoming adversity? Check. Critically acclaimed actor as the lead?

Wow, check. That might make sense to us now, but back in the 90s, would anyone have guessed that the “Good Vibrations” kid would achieve this degree of stardom? Let’s look back at that unbelievable career to see how he did it…

Stage to Screen

It used to be easy for popular musicians to become major Hollywood stars, and vice versa. In the old days, musical theater wasn’t as divorced from the movies as it is now. Every other talented performer could sing just as well as he could act. Nowadays, things have changed and most pop stars who try to their hands at acting fail in embarrassing, hysterical ways.

Sure, every now and then a Justin Timberlake can make the transition gracefully, but let’s be honest here: when Mark Wahlberg first started appearing in films, did anyone honestly expect him to be a better thespian than, say, Vanilla Ice?

It’d be nice to say that Wahlberg was initially cast because someone saw hidden talent in him, but it probably had more to do with the sex symbol status that came along with his gig as a model for Calvin Klein. His tough-guy physique combined with an obvious macho charisma that was on full display during Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch concerts landed him roles in pictures like The Basketball Diaries and Fear. Those movies allowed him to prove that he could be convincing in front of the camera, but it wasn’t until Paul Thomas Anderson came along that he got some real critical recognition…

Boogie Nights

Mark Wahlberg dedicated his biography to his penis. Who knew that such a juvenile statement of masculinity could end up making so much sense?

Previous roles proved that Wahlberg could act, but his turn as male porn star Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights proved that he was a good actor. The part required him to display real emotion, and up until that point, it seemed like Wahlberg was the kind of Boston bad-ass who sneered at anything vaguely resembling genuine emotion.

The film was a major critical success and paved the way for roles in pictures like Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees, both helmed by frequent collaborator David O. Russell who also directed The Fighter (and doesn’t seem to get along with any actor aside from Wahlberg).

At one point, the star was even in the running for the part that eventually went to Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain. That might have been taking it a little too far…

Back to Boston

Mark returned to familiar territory for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, in which he portrayed a profane State Police detective. Ironic, considering he was arrested by the Boston Police several times as a youth.

The part was another breakthrough for Wahlberg, scoring him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. He didn’t go home with a trophy, but the attention was further proof that he’d come a long way since his days at leader of the Funky Bunch.

Working with Scorsese also proved fruitful, as the two went on to collaborate as Executive Producers of HBO gangster drama “Boardwalk Empire.” At least he’s making movies and shows about crime now, and not committing it.

The Working Man

Some people might still find it easy to write-off Mark Wahlberg as a no-talent pop star who caught some lucky breaks in Hollywood, were it not for the fact that he is one of the hardest working actors in showbiz. He produces movies and multiple television shows and continually takes on emotionally and physically demanding roles as an actor. Wahlberg’s been developing The Fighter for years and he needed to constantly maintain the physique of a professional boxer for a long time, even when he didn’t know if the project would ever get off the ground.

We’ll still make jokes about his Marky Mark days, something which the actor is never pleased about. He famously showed some of his old “don’t mess with me” qualities after Andy Samberg did a spot-on impression of him for “Saturday Night Live.” (He later appeared on the show and wrote the whole incident off as a joke, but we’re not so sure, but we love watching!). He even came out and admitted how horrible The Happening was.

Looking at his career, The Fighter seems like a great choice of project for him. It’s about a man punishing himself to escape from a smaller life. It’s about hard work and perseverance. Say what you want about him, but it looks like Mark Wahlberg has a fighter’s heart.

Find out more about what Wahlberg and Bale had to say about The Fighter in our interview with them.

Do you think Mark Wahlberg deserves this kind of respect? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!