We’re in the final stretch before those of us stateside will get an opportunity to see the latest Joss Whedon helmed Marvel opus, Avengers: Age of Ultron. You can of course expect a review here on The Beat, from yours truly, in just a few days.
Before we get there, it’s time to reflect: Can you believe that we’re now onto the 11th film of this one of a kind experiment? I remember sitting in a restaurant with my parents the week after The Incredible Hulk released, and I was telling my father about the Tony Stark cameo in the film’s final scene. I’ll never forget what he said, “that’s going to be the new hot thing and every studio is going to be copying it”.
And to my lack of surprise, knowing how trends work in Hollywood, he was 100% right. We’re now living in a world where studios are planning a Robin Hood Cinematic Universe, a brand new Universal Monsters Universe, and of course both Fox and Warner Bros are trying to do something along the same lines as Marvel’s meteorically successful endeavor. While I wish them all the best of their luck in their endeavors, one really has to tip their hat to Kevin Feige for turning something that would have been unthinkable, or just the far-flung wishes of the message board set, a decade ago into a reality.
But, it hasn’t been a road without a few bumps. Like any long-running series, the Marvel Studios filmography has its own peaks and valleys in terms of individual film quality. With that said, let’s take the time to revisit the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the prerequisite ranking of the films that have gotten us to where we are now:
10. Iron Man 2
This isn’t just a bad Marvel movie, it’s one of the more disappointing theater-going experiences I’ve had in a while. Iron Man 2 is muddled, embarrassing, and clearly the result are far too many cooks in the kitchen; be it Robert Downey Jr taking too firm a hand with Justin Theroux’s script, Kevin Feige shoe-horning in as much Avengers/SHIELD build-up as he can manage, Mickey Rourke doing… whatever the hell he was supposed to be doing, or Jon Favreau exerting little to no creative control or vision. Even the normally excellent Don Cheadle is a huge step down from Terrence Howard, turning Howard’s fairly charismatic Rhodey into a complete personality void. Only Sam Rockwell comes out a winner here, though I like the small cameo John Slattery has as Howard Stark, I wish we’d get more of that.
9. Thor: The Dark World
Speaking of too many cooks, in a recent interview with the Nerdist Writers Panel, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely noted that Thor: The Dark World had as many as 8 screenwriters working on this project. Sadly, this lack of direction really shows, and if there’s a movie that screams “made by committee” it is this one. This dull sequel tries its hardest to double down on what pleased the first film’s audience (namely Loki and D’Arcy), but does so to the detriment of narrative cohesion. The film does benefit from Hiddleston and Hemsworth having developed tremendous chemistry and following on from the events of The Avengers. But these moments are only a small sliver of a weak whole which is also marred by a poorly fleshed out villain, a continued reliance on the dud of a relationship between Thor and Jane (to the point of making her the major point on which the plot device turns), and some of the worst exposition this side of Green Lantern. I long for the day that Thor gets handed to a team that actively embraces the character and the weird, fun cosmic events that shape his world.
8. The Incredible Hulk
This second stab at a Hulk film (following on the heels of the rather glacial Ang Lee 2003 film) has quite a bit of good in it: Ed Norton making for a pretty compelling every-man, Liv Tyler giving a steady performance with a thankless love interest role, and a nice bit of chase action throughout (with the high point being the almost Bourne-like Rio sequence towards the film’s beginning). These benefits are off-set by some really hammy supporting performances, particularly from the two Tim’s (Blake-Nelson and Roth) and a mindless third act where a CGI thing fights another CGI thing. It’s also chopped to pieces, as one can tell just by watching the deleted scenes, much of which were nice character bits for Ty Burrell’s Leonard Samson. Overall, it’s not a bad film, but more like casual FX viewing on a random Sunday. Frankly, the bottom-line on this one is that it barely counts anymore, we have a new Bruce Banner as of The Avengers and its highly doubtful that any plot points or characters from this movie are going to return (other than some Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. “wink and nudge”).
7. Iron Man 3
Shane Black and Drew Pearce bring the funny! Iron Man 3 benefits from the momentum provided by The Avengers and is a decent bounceback after the dreadful Iron Man 2. Yeah, Cheadle is still a waste and the Extremis powered bad guys are a little anonymous, but Black injected some authorial life into what could have been another anonymous affair. I also loved the Die Hard-Christmas vibe that is the backdrop for the movie’s events, a constant in Shane Black’s work. And yes, I thought the Iron Patriot armor was pretty nifty as well. It’s the first Marvel movie (other than The Avengers and then later Guardians of the Galaxy) where you can feel the finger-print of its filmmaker throughout, instead of the journeymen that were helming these projects pre-Avengers. The only major detriment to the film, and why it doesn’t rank higher, is its fairly dull third act which includes the ridiculous visual of “super-powered” Gwyneth Paltrow, and Guy Pearce (who I love dearly) playing another member of the forgettable Marvel villain brigade. Sadly, my favorite moment in the movie (the Mandarin twist) is also the point at which the film becomes its most generic.
I have really warmed to Kenneth Branagh’s sole Marvel effort in recent years. Yes, its production design borders on laughable and Hemsworth has more chemistry with Hiddleston than he does with Natalie Portman (and their romance is written about as well), but there’s a level of straight-forwardness on display here that makes Thor a relatively refreshing watch, especially with the growing complexity and interconnectedness of the Marvel oeuvre. Sometimes the power of a simple story is all you need, and Branagh and company nail the glowing majesty of Asgard along with the tried and true “fish out of water” elements that are especially carried by Hemsworth, whose voice is all I hear now whenever I read a Thor comic. Marvel has yet to produce a Thor film that I’d call essential, but this is as good as it gets so far.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
A lot of fun. The plot itself is no great shakes, and feels a little overly familiar, but James Gunn and a surprisingly humorous cast (Dave Bautista is hilarious as Drax especially) that makes it all come together. The dialogue is razor sharp and full of wit, and Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill is probably the heir apparent to Downey’s Tony Stark for the “loveable asshole” crown of the Marvel universe. Guardians also benefits from being separated from the other goings-on related to S.H.I.E.L.D., Loki and the Earth-bound concerns of the previous films. Someone could go see this film and know not a lick about The Avengers, and could enjoy it on its own space opera merits. And much like Shane Black before him, you can see Gunn straining the limits of Marvel Studios’ house-style, to the benefit of fans. Its also gorgeously shot with meticulously designed worlds and colors galore!
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
The team behind this first Captain America film had a big of challenge ahead of them. How do you portray Marvel’s most virtuous character without resorting to outright jingoism? Pulling together a mixture of writers that love the source material (Chris McFeely and Stephen Markus), a director familiar with period pieces (Joe Johnston), and the perfect leading man (Chris Evans) and you have the perfect combo to tackle this challenge. In so doing, they end up creating a fun adventure romp that up to that point was Marvel’s most comic-book faithful film. It’s still pretty cheesy in parts, but gloriously so and it’s incredibly stylized and doesn’t fall victim to the “filmed in a rush, looking cheap” trap that Thor did just a few months before. This debut feature for Cap also has my favorite love story in the entire Marvel filmography, subtle, well written and with some great back and forth between Evans and Atwell. Sure, the Red Skull is pretty poorly used, the third act montage is an annoyance, and the film completely whiffs the Steve-Bucky relationship. But, when you’ve got a film that includes all of the Howling Commandos, crazy World War II era planes, and an awesome show-tune number written by Alan Menken, you have a real winner on your hands, all things considered.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
With its intricately plotted conspiracy storyline, some of the best shot action scenes of recent memory, and fairly compelling pathos (correcting one of the bigger sins of the previous entry). Joe and Anthony Russo take over behind the camera, and not only do they have a great handle on Cap, but they also find significant roles for Nick Fury and Black Widow. Two characters who had nice beats in The Avengers, but were still somewhat enigma-like. This is a movie packed with fun surprises as well, with call backs to a few films in the overall series (creating a sense of real history that matters to these characters) without being bogged down by them. What I think I like best though about this sequel is that its the first of the Phase Two films that doesn’t rely on the events of The Avengers to stage its plot. In reality, this movie is probably the first where you didn’t even have to see that team-up extravaganza and its story-beats would still make sense (unlike Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World). It’s hard not to appreciate that kind of dedication to the character and his slice of the Marvel Universe. It’s a heck of a ride.
2. Iron Man
There’s a crispness to Iron Man that I just can’t shake. I remember going to the theater to see this one in 2008 not expecting a whole heck of a lot and I was blown away. Iron Man was hilarious, exciting, well-paced and on subsequent rewatches all of those qualities still hold up. Just about everything that makes Iron Man work so well can be attributed to the actors. Obadiah Stane is one of my favorite villains in the MCU (admittedly, his only real competition are Loki and Wilson Fisk), mainly because of how loosely Jeff Bridges plays him. Pepper Potts is a very well rounded character because of Paltrow. James Rhodes is actually interesting for once due to the “swaggering stoicism” (is that a thing?) brought by Howard. And Tony Stark goes without saying really, but has there ever been a better meld of character and actor in one of these superhero romps? I love Hiddleston and Evans in their respective roles, but Downey IS Iron Man. Also, the movie is basically completely improvised, again, the story being formed by the strength of the actors involved. Iron Man also set everything into motion for the entire series of Marvel films, but its hard to describe just how exciting it was to see Jackson’s Nick Fury appear that first time after the credits rolled. This is a film that captured the public zeitgeist for a short time and is only eclipsed by our next entry in that regard.
1. The Avengers
It made over a billion dollars. Sure, there are some terrible movies that can make that same claim, but clearly something connected with the American public on this one. It’s an utter spectacle, but a really well crafted one that gives equal time to basically all of its characters (unless you’re Jeremy Renner). Sure, it takes a minute to dispense with the “heroes having a misunderstanding” plot beat or two but its all tempered by such sharp writing throughout that its hard to dock it too many points for the cliche. The underlying threat is strong as well (with Hiddleston really hitting his stride as Loki here), with stakes that feel suitably massive. Joss Whedon brings just enough candy coated coloring to the visual palette that it makes The Avengers a literal comic book come to life and the final results speak for themselves. Is it cinematic brilliance? Not really. Is it a tremendously good time once you’re separated from the hype that surrounds it? Absolutely! It’s only real misstep was how it handled Hawkeye, and maybe Captain America’s costume. Luckily, I understand both have been adjusted for the sequel.
Bring on Age of Ultron!
What do you all think? Am I off my rocker? How would you rank these films? I’d love to see which of these entries have landed best with everyone else.
Entertainment Editor for The Beat covering film, television and the occasional comic book. His work can also be found at GeekRex.com and can be heard on the GeekRex podcast. Also, your go-to Grant Morrison/Love & Rockets/Hellboy/Legion of Super-Heroes expert.