“Mr. Stark, you’ve become a part of a bigger universe…”
It’s still hard to believe that it actually happened even now, three years after its initial release, but The Avengers came to pass. The dreams of comic fans everywhere that once seemed impossible due to licensing issues and the curmudgeonly beast that is Hollywood actually came true: Marvel Studios produced their own films in their own way, setting up each character on their own before finally bringing them all together. The financial success of this endeavor was perhaps not as much of a surprise as it was the quality of the films themselves, which lived up to expectations and (aside from a minor bump or two) took flight onscreen without being tied down by the restrictions of multi-million dollar filmmaking. Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the rest all shared the screen, and the possibilities thereafter seemed limitless. There was no end to Marvel’s scope and ambition, to the point where they’ve established a dominance in the cultural conversation and shown everyone else in town playing the same game how it was done. But more importantly, much like Marvel Comics when it burst onto the scene in the sixties, their cinematic equivalent understands that the most important part of the process is the characters whose names adorn the titles. No matter how big and unwieldy they get, Marvel Studios still holds tight to the principle that started it all with the casting of Robert Downey, Jr. in the first Iron Man: everything must flow from character.
10. Iron Man 2
It’s been five years since Iron Man 2 came out, and Marvel Studios still thankfully has yet to make a worse movie. Let’s hope this is as bad as it gets, a rush-job sequel that seemed more concerned with setting up future movies rather than telling a story of its own. Nearly everyone we loved from the first film returns here for the follow-up, but seem to forget what made Iron Man so enjoyable. The witty banter between Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. is replaced by actors waging a battle of improvisation to see who can be more zany and manic than the other. The whole movie plays with such half-hearted beats, with newcomers Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke either over-acting or putting forth as little effort as possible. I guess you could say that the action scenes are much-improved, but with only three throughout the films two-hour run-time, it makes for an oddly-paced, exposition-heavy experience that hopefully will remain at the bottom of all future “Best of the MCU” lists.
Thor is a deceptive movie, one that might trick you into thinking it’s good. But make no mistake: this is a bad movie, and thankfully the only other Marvel Studios film to which that label can be applied. One thing that the film does get right (and the primary reason it gets a pass from most) is the charming cast, from the pitch-perfect leads in Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston all the way down to the comedic relief provided by Ray Stevenson and Kat Dennings. But everything else in the film is so inept, it’s a miracle the final product is even anything closely resembling a film in the first place. It all goes back to the script, which shoehorns in disparate elements like SHIELD and Hawkeye with all the Asgardian business, and follows the most trite of all possible avenues that this type of “brash hero learning humility” story could follow. And while Kenneth Branagh was in keeping with the studio’s tradition of hiring interesting, out-of-left-field choices, he just isn’t up to the task of handling these effects-laden blockbusters, with one unconvincing, dull CGI set-piece after another. But still, credit where credit’s due: Branagh and Marvel struck gold with Hemsworth and Hiddleston, and the subsequent films wouldn’t work nearly as well without that solid foundation to build upon.
8. The Incredible Hulk
Being the one that everyone always forgets about, The Incredible Hulk occupies that uncomfortable territory of the “rebootquel,” having started life as a sequel to Ang Lee’s previous Hulk and morphing into something else along the way. Ed Norton takes up the role of Bruce Banner, and the actor’s scrawny physique and quiet demeanor prove an ideal match for the Hulk’s other half. The story wisely looks to the Bixby series and the modern Bourne films for inspiration, presenting the story as a chase movie with Banner on the run from the government. It’s a solid, if somewhat-unremarkable movie, with action scenes that are impressively staged, but which perhaps go on for too long in an attempt to distance itself from Lee’s spiritual, more somber first film. Ultimately, it proved to be a flash in the pan, as Norton didn’t reprise the role in the later Avengers and the big green guy has yet to a big screen follow-up to plots set up here (which also sadly means we’ll never get a big-headed Tim Blake Nelson as The Leader). But for what it is, The Incredible Hulk is still an enjoyable romp, an odd blip on the radar of the MCU with just the right amount of pathos and Hulking out to satisfy most fans.
7. Thor: The Dark World
Sometimes it takes a second go around the bend to finally get it right, and with this Thor sequel, Marvel hits the sweet spot to successfully bring this character into three dimensions. The film still has problems (the main baddie Malekith is about as interesting as dry bread, there are way too many characters, the plot boils down to an all-powerful, ill-explained McGuffin), but it improves on nearly every other aspect of the first; chief amongst them, the relationship between Jane and Thor. Instead of two pretty people who suddenly get the hots for each other, TDW presents the story of star-crossed lovers far more convincingly, with the tables turned and Jane finding herself the fish out of water in Asgard. Thor himself is a deeper character, with Hemsworth bringing a newfound maturity to the character, without losing his rakish, fun qualities (this is most apparent in the scenes with his half-brother Loki, with Tom Hiddleston once again being this series’ secret weapon). The filmmakers also fashion the nine realms into more convincing, lived-in worlds. Asgard and Jotunheim looked fake and plastic in the first Thor, but the otherworldly realms in TDW look and feel more like actual places you could go to, instead of airplane hangers draped with weightless set design. It’s still on the lower end of the MCU canon in all, but that’s largely because the others have raised the bar of quality so high.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger
Making Captain America work in this day and age is a tricky proposition, for any number of reasons, but Marvel succeeds with aplomb here by finding the absolute correct leading man to carry the shield. Chris Evans already showed his superhero bonafides on the Fantastic Four movies, but here gets the role he was born to play in Steve Rogers, the scrawny little dweeb with the heart of gold. Evans walks the fine tight-rope that Christopher Reeve traveled in portraying a hero so earnest and true it threatens to come off as corny, but the actor makes it work - giving us a Captain America that doesn’t spend time spouting off platitudes, but rather facing impossible odds and coming up on top every time. Evans isn’t alone, and it’s his relationship with his fellow cast-members Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and a host of others that help usher in this unbelievable world and make it feel emotionally true. Director Joe Johnston frames the film in a nostalgic, photogenic filter of Norman Rockwell and classic WWII propaganda, resulting in one of the few MCU movies that has its own distinct look. Indeed, the whole film feels like the one Johnston has been heading towards his entire career, trading in equal parts classic adventure pulp as it does that Spielbergian, feel-good narrative that makes no apologies for its unfettered innocence.
5. Iron Man
The first one out of the gate, it would be easy to look back on this early effort and dismiss it for its lack of flash, but to do so would be to miss not just the entire point of this movie, but of the cinematic universe it establishes. With Iron Man, Marvel Studios established the parameters by which it would operate in all subsequent films, which boils down thusly: characters first, everything else second. Sure, the dundering scenes of Iron Man fighting the Iron Monger at the end are DTV-level in their staging, but the true excitement of this first Iron Man film lies in the wonderful, banter-laden scenes between Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges. By choosing the down-and-out Downey as their leading man, Marvel kickstarted a chain of picking the right actors for the right parts, and having everything else in the filmmaking process flow from that. Because the joy in this film isn’t seeing Iron Man suit up and take flight - it’s seeing the grin on Tony Stark’s face when he does it.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
It’s here where the delineations start to blur a little. Honestly, any of these last four could be tied for number one, and I’m only ranking this way out of personal preference, outside of any sense of “quality.” This second Captain America movie is a flat-out blast, a topical political thriller that’s fun and thought-provoking in equal measure. I mean, sure - this isn’t exactly Citizenfour, but it’s also not just a special effects extravaganza that pays lip service to whatever’s going on in the current political climate to appear “smart.” The questions of freedom and privacy are handled in a way appropriate to a film that features characters called the Black Widow and the Falcon, but are no less interesting as a result. It also helps that action filmmaking on display is possibly the best yet seen in all of the MCU, with fast, hard-hitting fisticuffs inspired by the likes of recent action fare such as The Raid (a far cry from the MCU’s early days, when the most exciting action scene was probably Whiplash’s introduction in IM2).
3. The Avengers
The fact that The Avengers isn’t immediately at the top of this list should show the level these Marvel Studios films are operating at. Joss Whedon pulled off the impossible and brought the initial plans of an interconnected universe to vivid life; he did more than that, injecting the movie with his own personal charm and sense of wit, whilst also meeting the needs of a corporate blockbuster. The action unfolding on the screen was previously only possible on the comic book page, with disparate heroes from other franchises sharing the screen to fight each other and their enemies, but the most exciting thing about is watching the actors play off each other. Much like the first film, no amount of CG in the world can compare with the simple pleasure of watching a handful of actors at the top of their game bounce off of each other, and for that, The Avengers will remain a benchmark that will be quite hard to surpass in the years to come.
2. Iron Man Three
Marvel Studios has come under some scrutiny for making their filmmakers adhere to a “house style,” but there is room to play within the machine that is the MCU, if the filmmakers are clever enough to marry their vision to Marvel’s. Which is what makes Iron Man Three such a delight: it’s a Shane Black movie, through and through, but one that’s totally in keeping with the arc set forth for Tony Stark in all his previous appearances. Even better than the Shane Black buddy-cop scenes and the MCU histrionics, though, are the deeper, Jungian themes at play in Stark’s journey, which sees the PTSD-stricken hero taken apart piece by piece by his archnemesis, only to put himself back together in the end. That’s who Stark is - a builder and fixer of things. And if that sounds too hoity-toity for you, fear not: the film is every bit as fun as any movie you’re likely to see, and one that takes its characters far more seriously than it does itself. Both Black and Marvel understand that within the simplistic framework of the superhero is a chance to explore the deeper meanings of what it is to be human; meanings made all the more impactful via the use of repulsor blasts and a fire-breathing Guy Pearce.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
How is it that a D-list comic property featuring characters no one has ever heard of winds up topping the list? That’s just the Marvel Studios magic at play, where the audience is made to fall in love with a giant tree-man and gun-toting, smart-ass raccoon. Much like Shane Black and Joss Whedon, James Gunn gets to make a movie appealing to his own sensibilities whilst playing in the toybox of the Marvel Universe, and all parties (including we, the audience) are better for it. It’s hard to pin down exactly what it is about Guardians that makes it so damn much fun: the characters and the actors cast to play them certainly are a huge part of it. Gunn’s irreverent, off-beat humor mixed with traditional blockbuster action is another part. The soundtrack, the effects, the emotional beats… all of it comes together in a satisfying package of good old-fashioned fun. But perhaps the thing that pushes Guardians to the top is the joy felt by all involved in its making - a group of people you can see standing just off to the side of the camera, a mile-wide grin on of their faces, all caught up with the same thought: I can’t believe they’re letting us get away with this.