It's a perennial love of pop culture lovers like ourselves (and many other outlets) to celebrate Marvel's latest cinematic offering with another thing we love: ranking their films. With Captain America: Civil War behind us and Doctor Strange right around the corner, it's that time of year again. The only difference here is that this list is definitive. No more lists needed, friends, you can call your people and bring them home. I got this.
13. Iron Man 2
The worst film in the MCU is a hodge-podge of elements bumping into each other. While almost every Marvel film has at least some trouble balancing the needs of the film vs. the needs of the MCU, Iron Man 2 is the most egregious. Characters come and go as they please. Black Widow, so a fundamental part of the universe today, doesn't seem sure what she is doing there while Mickey Rourke just wants his bird. Just give him his bird, dude. (Rourke out Leto-ed Jared Leto in irrelevant method acting for a comic book film by visiting a Russian prison for this role. One wonders if the actual Rourke is still over there).
You can see the desire to go darker, to perhaps attempt the famous "Demon in the Bottle" storyline of Iron Man comics past. But whether corporate mandate or creative choice, the most we get is "Stark's Arc reactor? Turns out it's killing him LOL" and a couple bad hangovers. The early days of Marvel were glorious but every giant trips once in a while. It's probably best they worked out the kinks early.
12. Thor: The Dark World
See, they ran into the same problems on The Dark World, which saw director Alan Taylor's post-production hijacked to insert more Loki scenes. My appreciation for this lackluster sequel has actually increased since my negative response at its release; a Twitter conversation with BMD's Siddhant Adlakha illuminated to me there was more than meets the eye originally, such as the use of color.
Plus, Hiddleston is a joy to watch as he inhabits the trickster role rather than outright villain. Loki is a great character precisely because of this contradiction: his arc is straight but he is a different character in each of his three appearances (Thor, Avengers and here). And proper villainy is tough for the MCU. Nonetheless, that this film has truly the worst villains of the MCU in the Dark Elves is an understatement (poor Christopher Eccleston). So, sorry Alan Taylor, you got Edgar Wright-ed before even Edgar Wright did.
11: Avengers: Age of Ultron
In case it was not clear at this point, Marvel has problems with its second films. Part of the reason is the inherent "lightness" of the MCU. It's mainstream, it's popular, it's funny and it can't ever stray too far from that path. I wrote a column on Westworld yesterday comparing it to Game of Thrones and it struck me how the androids-run-amok narrative, given a slow burn there, is reportedly so effective. Contrast that with the same artificial intelligence theme here except that Ultron, despite director Joss Whedon's best attempts, is another flat Marvel villain. There simply isn't enough time in this film to do all it wants to do.
There are high points. The Hawkeye farmhouse sequence is a joy, (one Whedon fought tooth-and-nail to keep in), especially for Hawkeye/Jeremy Renner fans like me (all three of us). But the Thor cave sequence is borderline incoherent and there is just so much action, any sort of narrative structure melts away. It's just BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. The farm scenes stand out mainly because it's the one part of the film where it slows down to process.
Now we start getting into the nitty-gritty, because Marvel's films generally have a baseline, for what stories they tell and to a degree, the quality they are. The question becomes, does the individual do what it set out to do well or is is compromised in some way? That's the issue when it comes to Thor, two films attached together at birth. In the first film, there is the epic Shakespearan drama of Asgard, where a genuine dick gets his comeuppance from his morally-ambiguous but sensitive brother. In the second, there is some boring Earth stuff in a New Mexico town that looks suspiciously like a studio backlot and some arbitrary lesson learning.
Whether through budget or script problems, the film loses much of its momentum at that point and becomes more like Iron Man 2, serving future narratives. Still, there is something to be said for director Kenneth Branagh taking the previously "realistic" world of Iron Man and the Hulk and adding Norse Gods-who-are-actually-aliens without skipping a beat. For whatever reason, The Dark World deigned to spend more time on Earth while the upcoming third film Ragnarok appears to have learned this lesson, keeping Thor in outer space.
9: The Incredible Hulk
This is probably higher on the list than most people would place The Incredible Hulk, but as the red-headed stepchild of the MCU, I find it endearing. First off, I like how it begins with Banner already on the run (the redone origin in the credits nonwithstanding). It's a thematic link to the 2003 Hulk (a reviled film that, like Daredevil, I also find endearing) and a good starting point for our hero: hunted and seeking to rid himself of the Hulk.
Norton is a good Banner in a different way than Ruffalo, whose awe-shucks attitude makes the character lovable. Rather, Norton is tormented but modulated, in control and yet a live wire. The balancing act that came off as dull surprise in Eric Bana is electric with Norton. The film has a small number of characters, which keeps it focused. Tim Roth is an entertaining if simple villain while William Hurt and Liv Tyler class up the joint. While the climax is certainly just a CGI slugfest, I was invested in Banner's decision to become the Hulk to fight the Abomination. That can make all the difference.
8. Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 is a good movie mainly because it's a Shane Black movie. The dialogue is snappy and the plot idiosyncratic. But there's just one too many things keeping it from its potential. The Mandarin twist draws a lot of ire but I liked that aspect. It seemed a sensible and funny take on the over-the-top, all-powerful and vaguely racist character and Ben Kingsley is such a joy, as is Downey, Jr. (that goes without saying). Despite my personal dislike of Gwyneth Paltrow, I also liked seeing Pepper Potts get in on some action, if only briefly. I would've like more from Don Cheadle as War Patriot or Iron Machine or whatever too.
But Guy Pearce as Formerly-Geeky, Now-Sexy, Then Dragon-Tattooed Fire Guy Who Is Really The Mandarin (Except He Isn't)? Yeah, wasn't a fan of him. The film is weighted down by the necessity of its tropes. "We need villains to match Iron Man and co. so how bout ex-soldiers with fire hands? Sure, why the hell not." "We need a guy villain to sell toys because girls are allergic to toys or something!" The last hypothetical shout by the hypothetical Marvel exec is a fact. Supposedly, a much more interesting previous script draft featured Rebecca Hall's character as the villain instead of Pearce but was nixed because #toys. Kinda symbolic of the whole situation here.
Ant-Man is the Little Engine That Could of the MCU, announced in 2006, dated in 2012 and still in flux when filming began in mid-2014. At that time, the project's pitchman and director Edgar Wright abruptly departed after nearly a decade of involvement. Another director's unique vision, swallowed by the Marvel machine? Perhaps, but regardless of Wright's vision, director Peyton Reed and star Paul Rudd whipped up a quirkier Iron Man.
I'm glad Evangeline Lilly is still getting work and it's always a good thing to have Michael Douglas around. But it's Corey Stoll very nearly steals the show as the wounded, unstable and psychotic Darren Cross aka Yellowjacket. Ant-Man, like the other Marvel films, displays an uncanny ability to create niches-within-niches i.e. within the general tone of the MCU, there is a Captain America tone, a Thor tone and, now, an Ant-Man tone. It's a pleasing indie heist comedy through the blockbuster lens and it more than lives up to its long path to the screen.
6. Iron Man
The film that started it all. What can be said that hasn't been said already? Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark may have been the casting masterstroke of the 21st Century thus far, rocketing the formerly-troubled star right to the peak of Mount Hollywood (next door to Money Mountain). Jon Favreau set the stage for everything that comes after with his witty tone and clean filmmaking. There are miniature versions of MCU staples, call-forwards to War Machine, shout-outs to villain monikers like Iron Monger and the infamous credit tag with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. For what he was saying, he might as well have been portending the future of the movie industry itself.
"You think you're the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you've become part of a bigger universe. You just don't know it yet."
5. Captain America: Civil War
The world will remember when that future came to pass: it was May 6, 2016 upon the release of the most comic booky comic book movie yet. A massive, sprawling crossover event featuring almost every big superhero in their repertoire duking it out, Civil War more than illustrated this was a company in complete control. Yes, the same flaws that plague every Marvel movie are still here but the ones that aren't turned into strengths (the introductions of Black Panther and Spider-Man stand out) are downplayed by the sheer emotion on screen (Zemo's plan doesn't hold up super well to scrutiny but damn if he isn't awesome and the final fight scene worth it).
The airport fight is almost a contained short film itself, another huge indication that we are indeed in the Heroic Age of Hollywood, where splash pages from youth are now realized on screen. The character moments are proportional and earned, from Hawkeye to Ant-Man to Scarlet With to Vision and more. While certainly Avengers 2.5, it also concludes the Cap trilogy satisfyingly, maintaining the tight focus on Steve and Bucky's friendship as the core through-line of the films
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
Here's an anachronistic propaganda figure from the 1940s, both inside and outside of fiction. Captain America the character shouldn't work in a post-9/11 world of distrust and paranoia. And yet, director Joe Johnston doesn't get enough credit for The First Avenger, which had just a difficult task as Thor: set up a different world than the MCU present with its own characters and circumstances and contextualize it as a throwback Indiana Jones-esque pulp adventure. It works like gangbusters. Any worry that Cap would be a sanctimonious or naive idiot hero went away. My favorite bit is when Cap's initial role as a propaganda tool is shown to be literal.
Chris Evans is phenomenal, completely embodying the role of Steve Rogers before and after his super-soldier transformation. It is because of Evans we see that, powers or no powers, Steve Rogers is a fundamentally good guy, in the tradition of selflessly standing up for others because you can empathize with what it is like to be knocked down. Hayley Atwell took the typical female lead and made the character, and herself, emblematic, earning her own TV series. Hugo Weaving might not want to return as Red Skull (Sad!) but he's delightful here, hamming it up just right. This is just a fun movie that's about not a superhero, but a regular guy who does heroic things. It's the antidote to cynicism.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel's stab at an old-school space opera, is so delightfully strange, so wonderfully weird, that the mere fact that it exists counts as a victory. James Gunn can't be thanked enough for all of it, from casting the Parks & Recreation guy, to making two of the main characters a talking tree & a raccoon to making Michael Rooker a blue-man alien. Then there's the blond Benicio del Toro, the Celestial's floating head, twin badasses Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan, an absolutely bonkers villain by Lee Pace plus John C. Reilly and Glenn Close. There's so much goodness stuffed into this movie.
It is occasionally bursting at the seams. In particular, the Thanos scenes are rather obviously inserted and serve little practical purpose. That the film is a mad dash for another MacGuffin of All-Powerful Glowing Light also falls into this category. But these flaws are easily overcome by the emotion of the performances and the subtly of Gunn's writing and direction. He is a free and uninhibited storyteller.
2. The Avengers
Marvel's magic trick, its signature crossover. You know the guy who wrote the previous entry and said "the mere fact that [Guardians of the Galaxy] exists counts as a victory?" Screw that guy, that guy doesn't know what he's talking about. This is the real existence=victory article. Joss Whedon descended like a geeky Nick Fury to unite the disparate elements of the nascent MCU at its most volatile moment and arguably changed modern blockbusters doing so.
Here's just a few things Whedon juggled successfully: the Hulk recasting and rebranding, Cap's entry into modern society, Loki's evolution into grand villain, Black Widow and Hawkeye, Iron Man's big hero moment, the epic Battle of New York (which he was mandated to write). The list goes on. Whedon worked the Marvel machine as best he could to produce the best work he could and the meeting of the minds here pays huge dividends. It is full of Whedon's signature witty repartee plus a few genuinely excellent gags. This film was the moment the MCU self-actualized.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The crown jewel of the MCU as far I'm concerned, by virtue of a beautiful confluence. Let's start with Cap himself. He's transported to the 21st Century, an old-fashioned guy out of his time. The directors and writers here make full use of that idea without losing sight of who Cap is. Just like in The First Avenger, he could so easily be a condescending caricature. Instead, he's thrust into impossible situations to see if he'll bend or break, if his moral righteousness, his very identity as a hero, can sustain (this is an idea The Dark Knight also tapped into so strongly). Robert Redford is genius casting, as is putting the seemingly-omniscient Nick Fury through the wringer, to communicate exactly how dire the straits are.
Importantly, the consequences match the stakes. This is the movie where Marvel said, "We're not only going to blow up S.H.I.E.L.D., but we're going to reveal they were HYDRA all along." This is the movie where they said "We're going to bring back Bucky with almost no lines and you will still tear up when Cap tells him 'I'm with you to the end of the line.'" Those consequences are felt The Winter Soldier ends with our hero at his lowest point, in his life, possibly. And yet, Bucky ultimately saved Steve and, now, he remembers his old life. It's an affecting film with big ideas about government surveillance and proper use of power. But it's also a simple film about two best friends trying to live with the scars of the past. Who just happen to be America's superhero and a brainwashed assassin.
We'll find out together where Doctor Strange stands when it hits theaters November 4, but I'll say this: I'm looking forward to it more than I was for Civil War.