Saturday, November 4, 2017

Best of the MCU: Revised and Expanded

            “Mr. Stark, you’ve just become a part of a larger universe…”

            It’s still hard to believe that it actually happened even now, five years after its initial release, but The Avengers came and went without a hitch. 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.   

16. Iron Man 2

            It’s been seven years since Iron Man 2 came out, and Marvel Studios has thankfully 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.  

15. Thor

            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.

14. 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 far 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.

13. 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 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 make the nine realms into convincing, lived-in environments. 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.

12. Doctor Strange

            There was a fear early on that the rather Inception­-y looking trailers for Doctor Strange wouldn’t quite capture the mind-bending, psychedelic visuals of the original Steve Ditko comics, but director Scott Derrickson and his team manage to bring the trippy, as well as a host of martial arts infused magic and a time-bending finale that gives the Master of the Mystic Arts’ film debut a soul and personality of its own. Benedict Cumberbatch is a solid Stephen Strange, if not the most revelatory choice (pour one out for Joaquin Phoenix/Oscar Isaac), and the film keeps true to the rest of the MCU canon in that it’s an exceptionally well-cast film--getting the very best actors around for even the most minor of parts… and one that does better with some of its performers than others, to be honest. Benedict Wong and Tilda Swinton get to shine, while Rachel McAdams is kind of lost in the shuffle of all the astral projection and time looping fun. I did appreciate the film’s willingness to dive head-on towards more spiritual/philosophical themes on life and death, but the familiarity of the hero’s origin leaves this entry falling on the lower half of the MCU’s releases thus far. Dr. Strange’s “hero learns humility” origin is one that we’ve already seen with Iron Man and Thor and at least a dozen others. It’s solid and enjoyable enough, but--at the end of the day--not really much more than that.

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron

            Following up on the massive success of the first Avengers would be a tall order for anyone, even when the man who helped make that film so special steps once more behind the lens to give Earth’s Mightiest Heroes a threat even bigger than an invasion by an entire alien army. Joss Whedon is certainly not lacking in ambition with this near-three hour follow-up, so it’s perhaps not surprising that not all of the elements gel together into a complete whole, leaving the audience with an amazing, frustrating but ultimately satisfying follow-up to the ground-breaking original. One of the film’s chief problems is the ever-growing cast, with an additional three new heroes to properly introduce and set-up for future films in addition to servicing the returning five… and that’s before we even get to James Spader’s Ultron, who--it should be noted--is one of the MCU’s standout villains to date. There is a lot to love here, whether it’s the blossoming, doomed romance of Black Widow and the Hulk, the glimpse we get of Hawkeye’s home life or the truly astonishing final conversation between the Vision and Ultron, easily one of the best scenes in the entire Marvel canon. But it all comes at the expense of ever-increasing CG slugfests that feel more and more weightless and drag on for far too long--most egregious in the kind of pointless Iron Man/Hulk battle royale (although that scene does go on to provide a major plot point for future movies, so I guess there’s that). It’s a beautiful mess of a movie that I wished worked just a little bit better, but is admirable in how in deepens the thematics in one of the most populist movies ever made.

10. Spider-Man: Homecoming

            If there’s a weak-point to this most recent, third on-screen iteration of Spider-Man, then it’s exactly that: arriving a decade after Tobey Maguire’s run, and only three years since the last Andrew Garfield debacle. Two reboots in ten years is a lot to swallow, and a problem that shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of the fine folks responsible for Homecoming, but it still leaves the film-going audience fatigued from all the whiplash-inducing change in directions. It’s a good thing, then, that Homecoming gives us possibly the best version of the wall-crawler yet filmed. The previous versions paid lip service to the high school setting, but this is an honest-to-God high school movie, taking more inspiration from John Hughes’ classic teen flicks than more traditional superhero fare. The result is a wonderfully low-key adventure where the biggest stakes lie in whether or not the hero can get a date to the Homecoming dance, rather than save the city from some nebulous, glowing object in the sky. Tom Holland is the first Peter Parker to believably look and act like a kid, desperate to be taken seriously but still wrangling with those pesky hormones, and his interactions with Tony Stark/Iron Man are integrated in deep-rooted character building rather than simple fan-service/set-up for the next big MCU film. Throw in Michael Keaton at the top of his game as the film’s heavy, and you have a movie that can’t help but delight at every turn.

9. Ant-Man

            Ant-Man had already undergone a considerable amount before a single frame of the film was even shot, thanks to Edgar Wright dropping out as director a year before release and having worked on it the previous eight years. And thus director Peyton Reed’s eventual film has been picked apart in the time since its initial release to discern what exactly from Wright’s original conception remains. Which is a shame, because the actual movie we received turned out to be endlessly enjoyable. With Ant-Man, we get to see the first example of a legacy superhero within the MCU, as Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym passes the mantle of Ant-Man on to his protégé Scott Lang, played by the enduringly likable Paul Rudd. The film benefits from its smaller scale, taking the bones of a heist movie and plopping the trappings of the superhero on top, with a main character who isn’t a god, super-soldier or billionaire inventor--he’s just a regular joe, doing everything he can to pay his child support bills on time and keep his head above water. It all comes to a head in one of the best action climaxes the MCU has seen so far, which fittingly takes place on a toy train track in a child’s bedroom.

8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

            James Gunn’s follow-up to his 2014 insta-classic doubles down on everything that made the first film so enjoyable. You’ve got your colorful alien landscapes, you’ve got irreverent jokes, more pop hits of yesteryear and, of course, Baby Groot. The opening scene establishes all you need to know about Gunn’s world, as a massive battle with a space monster plays out in the background while the main focus Baby Groot grooving to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” If you want to be an asshole, you could point out the film’s relative lack of plot, but when the movie acts as a framework to hang out with and explore such colorful characters, it really doesn’t matter. What’s most surprising is the emotional heart of the film, which revolves around fathers, both biological and adopted, and that’s where Kurt Russell and Michael Rooker get to shine. Russell’s 80’s action iconography fits right in with the film’s aesthestic, and Rooker gives the film both its biggest laughs and tear-inducing moments. In the end, it’s not quite up there with the original Guardians… but really, what is?

7. 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 real. 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.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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 the action filmmaking on display is possibly the best 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). A spectacular debut in the MCU for the Russo Bros., and it’s very telling that they’ve since gone on to become the chief “architects” of the MCU, as it were, as they went on from here not just to make another Cap movie, but pick up the ball from Joss Whedon on the Avengers series.

6. Thor: Ragnarok

            New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi takes the reins for the thunder god’s third installment, and leads the series in a complete 180 from where it was previously. The last two films had their comedic moments, but Ragnarok is an out-and-out comedy, with Thor himself becoming more like Jack Burton from Big Trouble in Little China, drawing on Chris Hemsworth’s considerable comedic chops. Waititi blends Carpenter’s cult classic with Flash Gordon, throwing in liberal doses of Jack Kirby and Frank Frazetta while he’s at it. It may seem weird for a film about the end of Asgard to take such a farcical bent, but it is worth pointing out that the film never sacrifices drama for its many laughs. There’s a strong central arc for its buffoonish (but competent) main hero, one that sees the thunder god lose both his hammer and golden locks as he’s sent hurtling through the cosmos to the savage planet Sakaar, where he then must do battle with a certain angry, green-skinned friend from the past in a gladiatorial arena before he can get back home and prevent the world from ending. Returning cast members such as Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins and Mark Ruffalo get in on the wacky action, playing goofier (and more lovable) versions of their characters, while newcomers Jeff Goldblum, Cate Blanchett, Karl Urban and Tessa Thompson virtually steal the show out from everyone beneath them. It all moves at a dizzying, breakneck pace that takes some getting used to, but when Thor and friends storm the rainbow bridge to take on Hela and her forces of evil set to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” it’s kind of hard not to fall under the film’s loopy spell.

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. 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.

3. Captain America: Civil War

            The third Captain America is an excellent example of how Marvel can now utilizes the cinematic universe it’s created in the last decade for maximum effect. There are over a dozen superheroes who appear in this two-and-a-half hour movie, and yet the film never feels overstuffed. Characters new and old alike… each one is given a clear role within the confines of this story which sees Captain America and Iron Man come to blows over a new government imposed regulations to keep the Avengers and the mass destruction that usually follows in their wake in check. And despite this orgy of superheroes, the film never loses sight of the one in the title--although this could technically work as Avengers 2.5, it’s also unabashedly a Cap movie, picking up on threads started in Winter Soldier and carrying Stever Rogers’ arc through to the next, natural evolution of that character. And best of all is the villain Zemo, played with cunning intensity by Daniel Bruhl. The chief criticism often leveled at the MCU is how their films usually fall short in the villain department, and how the continuing nature of the characters means there’s no “real” stakes (i.e., characters can’t die). But Zemo uses those apparent handicaps to his own advantage, both using his status as a nobody to skirt through the frames of the film without catching notice of its many heroes, and enacting a plot that death of any Avengers, but shatters them completely.

2. Iron Man Three

            Marvel Studios has come under some scrutiny for making its 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 a 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.    

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