In the wake of the San Diego and Chicago Comic-Cons and in the calm before Age of Ultron – and to commemorate the fact that I finally got to see Guardians of the Galaxy this weekend – I thought it would be fun to take a critical look at Marvel’s Cinematic Universe as it stands now. A few words of warning, though…
1. The rankings that follow are based solely on my own opinions and my own personal tastes. No other metric was used in gauging the quality of each film.
2. These rankings only include major motion picture releases. No “One-Shots” were included, nor was Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D..
3. I only saw Guardians two days ago. I haven’t had much time to ponder it, but I feel obligated to include it here. You may hate where I rank it, and I may end up regretting what I say about it. But it is part of “Phase 2” and it will make this list an even 10, so I’m going to run with it.
So, without further ado…
Without a doubt, this is my least favorite film in the franchise. Iron Man 2 falls victim to what I like to call The Spider-Man Syndrome (more on that later) which its predecessor so ably avoided. What we’re left with is a Tony Stark who’s become a sad sack, a climactic battle with a villain that’s basically just another evil Iron Man, and a two hour long excuse to give some backstory on S.H.I.E.L.D. and to introduce Black Widow. The end result is a film that plainly and simply isn’t any fun (Scarlett Johansson kicking ass notwithstanding).
Although I think this movie is marginally better than Iron Man 2, I feel like it suffers a lot of the same issues. And – much like IM2 – it represents a significant drop-off in quality from its predecessor (again…more on that later). That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its high points. I love Christopher Eccleston in pretty much everything. And Stellan Skarsgard manages to steal every scene he’s in. Unfortunately, the movie was bloated with action sequences and left me feeling like I’d just watched a Star Wars spin-off rather than a worthy sequel to Thor.
First, the obvious: It’s infinitely better than that warmed-over piece of crap that Ang Lee made with Eric Bana in 2003. To paraphrase Entertainment Weekly‘s review of The Avengers, however, there’s just no getting around the fact that The Hulk is better in small doses. Think of it this way – how much can you really watch a character who becomes incapable of having meaningful dialogue right when he becomes the most interesting?
That said, one of the ways I judge films is by how willing I am to re-watch them. In four years, I’ve had absolutely no desire to see Iron Man 2 ever again. Even when I did my pre-Avengers Phase 1 binge, I skipped it. I could probably convince myself next spring to watch Thor 2 during the requisite Phase 2 marathon, but I’ve felt no real compulsion to re-watch it yet. The Incredible Hulk is the first film on this list that I’ve seen multiple times and I can see myself watching again someday.
So it’s got that going for it.
First, it’s a significant improvement over IM2. Second, it establishes that this is a comic book/cinematic universe in which there are consequences. For Tony Stark, the events ofThe Avengers can’t be swept away and conveniently forgotten (see also: Stellan Skarsgard in Thor 2). Tony Stark’s PTSD drives the character without dragging down the movie, lending IM3 a healthy dose of realism without being heavy handed (see Iron Man 2). Finally, I know it may have pissed off a lot of comic book purists, but I loved the bait-and-switch with the Mandarin.
Or is bait-and-switch-and-switch? I still haven’t seen All Hail the King. Regardless, Ben Kingsley’s incredible.
Like I said, I just saw this movie. It could easily move up or down this list in the future. If it does, I’ll post an update and an appropriate mea culpa. That said, Guardians was a much better movie than I expected it to be. Admittedly, there were some elements of it that echo The Avengers: A team of disparate and borderline dysfunctional personalities is pressed into service together by an onslaught of nearly impossible circumstances; that team is brought together, shattered by its own egos, then reforged in the wake of apparent defeat; and even Groot has a laugh-out-loud Incredible Hulk moment during the climactic battle on Ronan’s ship. I assume that a lot of this is deliberate, given the fact that it’s all punctuated by musical leitmotif’s that heavily echo Alan Silvestri’s Avengers score. The end result is that Guardins of the Galaxy feels like a film forged from shared thematic DNA rather than a retread of The Avengers. It has larger-than-life but also very relatable characters, intense and enjoyable action sequences, and more laugh-out-loud moments than the other nine films on this list combined. Oh, and a green Zoe Saldana fighting a blue-skinned Karen Gillan.
And that’s hot.
Numbers 5-3 on this list were the toughest to rank. I think they’re all excellent, and they’re nearly interchangeable on this list.
More than anything else, I give major kudos to Iron Man for simply being fun. Even more, I give credit to Iron Man for simply having fun. I’ve always loved and respected this movie for being the first major comic book movie to break away from what I earlier referred to as The Spider-Man Syndrome. Basically, after the 2002 release of Spider-Man, studios weren’t allowed to adapt a comic-book property for the big screen without somehow turning the main character into a sad sack of existential angst (see: Tony Stark, Iron Man 2). It worked for Spider-Man and it worked for Tobey Maguire. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for the slew of mediocre films released in its $800,000,000 wake. It’s like I woke up one day and suddenly there was no such thing as a superhero that didn’t hate himself/his life because of the unbearable burdens of being a superhero.
Enter: Tony Stark. It was a breath of fresh air watching a character leading the rock-star life who simply reveled in the fact that he got to be a superhero. Isn’t that every little boy’s dream at some point? Why did Hollywood have to ruin it for us? Thanks, Robert Downey Jr., for bringing the dream back to life!
Captain America was always my favorite comic book when I was a kid, so I admittedly have a bit of a soft-spot here. I went into this film skeptical of Chris Evans (who wouldn’t be after Fantastic Four?) and worried that Cap’s 1940’s 98-pound-weakling-with-a-heart-of-gold persona wouldn’t translate well to the 2011 cinema. But I also walked into the theater more than a little giddy to finally get to see Captain America get his due on the big screen. I left feeling satisfied that Evans had pulled it off. So, too, had Hugo Weaving (who made the Red Skull deliciously sinister as only Hugo Weaving can) and his make-up/effects team (who prevented the Red Skull from looking cheesy while also keeping him from looking repulsive). There was one moment – in the wake of Bucky’s apparent death – when I feared that the Cap was going to go all Spider-Man on me, but the filmmakers did an admirable job of acknowledging Steve Rogers’s sorrow and giving him time to mourn without letting him (or the film) wallow in melancholia.
If I had to register one formal complaint against Captain America, it would be this: No Scarlett Johansson. I still think the post-awakening sequence at the end of the film would have been a lot more fun if she’d been the one tending to/watching over Steve Rogers…then chasing him into the streets of New York. Alas…
This is the only film on this list that I didn’t see in the theater, and it is one of only two titles (along with Guardians of the Galaxy) that I never really read when I was younger. Because of this, I went into Thor expecting nothing. And I was blown away.
Like most of the world, I had initially scratched my head at the decision to sign Kenneth Branagh as director. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love Branagh as an actor, and I have deep respect for his efforts to faithfully bring Shakespeare alive on screen. But…directing a comic-book movie? Really?
Ironically, it was Branagh’s own description of the Shakespearean-ness of this incarnation of Thor that got me interested in it in the first place. And, frankly, I think Branagh more than anything else is what makes this movie work. I have never seen another comic-book movie so light on action and so heavy on dialogue. It’s a character-driven tale of loss and redemption whose classical elements are almost perfectly balanced by well-placed and intense action sequences and some equally well-timed moments of laugh-out-loud comic relief. It’s serious without taking itself too seriously, and it’s truly Shakespearean while still managing to be fun. In a word, it’s awesome.
It’s not perfect. The requisite “assembling” of the team was bound to clunk a little bit in the first act. But once The Avengers gets rolling, it is insane fun. The action in the third act especially is a sight to behold. Large stretches of it track the various characters through a series of long takes that blend one into the next with a minimum of cuts, lending a true sense of scale to “The Battle of New York”. Like my other favorites on this list, The Avengers tempers its action sequences with some perfectly placed belly laughs. And, as a bonus, this is the film that finally seems to get the Hulk right. What could be better?
One of the ways that I judge movies is by how long I think about them after they’re over. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I want every movie I see to be particularly philosophical or intellectual. Far from it. It just means that the movies I like best are the ones that capture my imagination. The Avengers did it. The Winter Soldier did it even better. I don’t even care that whole recorded-consciousness-of-Zola sequence was patently ridiculous. The conflicts it causes and the action it sets in motion make for a great ride. And, yes, the thematic content therein is in fact intellectually and philosophically troubling.
As a side note, for my money this film also has the best soundtrack of the series. It’s dark, it’s pulse-pounding, and it’s a perfect undercurrent to the film’s steady descent into conspiracy and darkness. The scoring as much as the film itself stuck in my craw for days after I left the theater. All three times.
If I have a criticism of the film, it’s this: Unlike in comic book story-arc of the same name, the Winter Soldier is really just a subplot here. In some ways, his inclusion is a little bit of a waste and almost feels like a cheap trick to get fans into the theater. I would have liked him to have featured as prominently as the title suggests. But, I suppose that’s what Captain America 3 is for. I can’t wait.
So…there it is. Was I overly harsh on your favorite? Am I too rose-colored about my own? Post a comment below and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear from you.
As always, thanks for reading.