Top-Down Tuesday – Marvel Studios and The Avengers Revisited

With Age of Ultron on the horizon, my wife and I spent the last month watching our way through the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  With the marathon finally complete and the new Avengers film being released this week, I thought it was a good time to revisit my rankings of the Marvel Studios pantheon.  When I wrote my original list back in September, I had just seen Guardians of the Galaxy for the fist time, and there were at least three movies on the list that I had only watched once.  Now, having recently seen all ten films again (and watched them in order of release), I’m ready to rethink my rankings.

As before, the only metric I used to rank each film was my own enjoyment.  That said…

Number 10

Iron Man 2 Title

Previous Rank:  10

What I said before:  …my least favorite film in the franchise….What we’re left with is a Tony Stark who’s become a sad sack…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 simply isn’t any fun.

On further review:  Yup.  I still hate this movie.  I’ll freely admit that until last month I hadn’t seen Iron Man 2 since it was first released (I skipped it during the 2012 Phase 1 binge).  I will also freely admit that it is better than I remember it being.  But, five years on, I’m still disappointed.  This is the only film in the franchise that I’d call gratuitous, and the only one that feels like a cash-in rather than a necessary step in universe-building or a vital component of the ongoing story.  There’s nothing here that couldn’t have been introduced in another film, and far too little to enjoy overall.

As a side note, after two years of watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which seems to get better every week, by the way), retroactive demerits for the clunky contributions to Agent Coulson’s ongoing characterization, even if they are some of the best moments in the film.

Number 9

MCDINHU EC040

Previous Rank:  8

What I said before:  …infinitely better than that warmed over piece of crap that Ang Lee made with Eric Bana…however, there’s just no getting around the fact that The Hulk is better in small doses….That said, this is the first film on this list that I’ve seen multiple times and I can see myself watching again some day.

On further review:  First, I have no lower opinion of this movie than I did eight months ago.  I do, however, have a slightly higher opinion of Thor:  The Dark World (more on that shortly).  I give this film high praise for very capably hustling us through Hulk’s origin story without belaboring the point (since we’d all be beaten over the head with it five years earlier).  I also salute its ability to lay the groundwork for a future franchise without feeling like a half-baked cheat with too much held back for later films (a huge complaint I still have with the first Spider-Man and X-Men films).  We all know that Marvel Studios is playing the long game with the Avengers franchise, and I think it’s a shame that we still haven’t seen any more of the Abomination or the Leader.  Such is life, I suppose.

Number 8

Thor 2 Poster

Previous Rank:  9

What I said before:  …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 successor to Thor.

On further review:  Something about this movie never sat right with me.  My last comment above echoes my initial impression of the film when I saw it in the theater.  Having never seen it again over the ensuing year, I really had no other frame of reference when I wrote my original rankings, so I stood by that assessment.  Watching the movie last month, however, I had a moment of epiphany:  The Dark World is about twelve minutes away from excellence.  Specifically, I think it would be an infinitely superior movie if instead of the extensive prologue about Malekith and the sequence of Thor and his warriors in battle, it opened with Jane mired in her hopelessly awkward date with Chris O’Dowd.  There’s nothing established in the prologue that isn’t revisited later in the film.  More importantly, skipping over the awkward introduction to the Dark Elves and the Aether would give the movie two things it desperately lacks:  a consistent sense of pacing and – more importantly – any sense of mystery whatsoever.  With that in mind, I’ve bumped The Dark World up a spot mostly on the merits of its potential.  A skillfully crafted fan edit would likely rank even higher on my list.

Number 7

Iron Man 3 Poster

Previous Rank:  7

What I said before:  …a significant improvement over IM2…it establishes that this is a comic book/cinematic universe in which there are consequences….Tony Stark’s PTSD drives the character without dragging down the movie, lending IM3 a healthy dose of realism without being heavy-handed…

On further review:  It gets better every time I see it, but I just can’t justify moving it any higher up the list.

Number 6

Iron Man Poster

Previous Rank:  5

What I said before:  More than anything else, I give major kudos to Iron Man for simply being fun….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?…Thanks, Robert Downey Jr., for bringing the dream back to life!

On further review:  Yup, still fun.  Unfortunately, not as much fun as…

Number 5

Guardians Poster

Previous Rank:  6

What I said before:  Guardians was a much better movie than I expected….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.

On further review:  Guardians of the Galaxy is the closest this list came to any truly seismic movement in the rankings.  When I wrote my original list, I had only seen this film once…and only two days before, at that!  Since then, I’ve seen it more times than I feel comfortable admitting.  And there’s no getting around it:  this film is a fucking blast.

See, it even got me dropping F-bombs to make my point.

I seriously debated moving Guardians as far up the list as number three – and I still might some day – but for now I just can’t bring myself to drop anything out of my top four.

Number 4

Thor poster

Previous Rank:  3

What I said before:  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.

On further review:  All right, you’ve got me.  All I have in my notes for this entry is a big, black question mark.  This movie is amazing.  The visuals are lush and vibrant, Jeremy Renner’s cameo is pitch perfect, and I’ve already said everything I need to say about the story and the characters.  I’ve got no excuse.  Except that I just can’t help myself (see below).

Number 3

Captain America Poster

Previous Rank:  4

What I said before:  I went into this film skeptical of Chris Evans…and worried that Cap’s 1940’s 98-pound-weakling-with-a-heart-of-gold persona wouldn’t translate well to the 2011 cinema….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….

On further review:  No lies – this is probably pure sentiment talking.  I love Captain America and I love this damn movie.  If I had to heap any more specific praise on it, though, it would be this:  to me, this is by far the most complete of the pre-Avengers Marvel films.  The prior Phase 1 movies not only left their doors open to the possibility of sequels, they practically demanded them (see my earlier gripes about The Incredible Hulk).  Cap’s escape into twenty-first century Times Square notwithstanding, this film functions perfectly as a self-contained narrative. We learn the backstory of Steve Rogers the man and the origins of Captain America the superhero.  We see Cap’s rise from lab experiment to super solider.  And we can accept the Red Skull’s inevitable defeat as sufficiently definitive that we needn’t look back if we never see him again (although his demise is also ambiguous enough to make me think that he might be standing at Thanos’s side by the time the Infinity War begins).  Even the prologue and epilogue still fit in this case, as the film brings us to a satisfying explanation for why America’s greatest hero would be marooned on a frozen tundra as well as why S.H.I.E.L.D. would be so interested in finding him.

Number 2

Avengers poster

Previous Rank:  2

What I said before:  It’s not perfect….But once The Avengers gets rolling, it is insane fun.

On further review:  The first act is still clunky, the second is still like a reality TV show about a destructively dysfunctional fraternity of prima donna psuedo-celebrities (and I mean that in the best possible way), and the third is still a veritable orgy of hypnotically intense action punctuated by vital moments of character growth that are underscored by the very real possibility that the good guys could actually lose, or at least suffer legitimate losses in pursuit of victory.  The whole is still greater than the sum of it’s parts.  In short, The Avengers is still amazing.

Number 1

Winter Soldier poster

Previous Rank:  1

What I said before:  One of the ways I judge movies is by how long I think about them after they’re over….the movies I like best are the ones that capture my imagination.  The Avengers did it.  The Winter Soldier did it even better…..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.

On further review:  As much as I love this movie, something about it has never sat quite right with me (yes, I know I wrote the same thing about Thor 2).  In my original post, I said that I felt like the Winter Soldier himself was under-utilized in this film, reduced to a subplot rather than the focal point suggested by the title.  Then, in my most recent viewing, I finally figured out what the problem is:  the Winter Soldier doesn’t need to be in the movie at all.

Now, before you jump all over me, I understand that Marvel is building for the future here.  Sebastian Stan is likely to replace Chris Evans as Captain America in the not-too-distant future, so it’s important for the franchise that they re-introduce Bucky Barnes.  I will also concede that, from a story-telling perspective, Bucky’s presence as the Winter Soldier significantly ups the emotional stakes for Steve Rogers and lends additional gravity to the film’s climax.  At the same time, the Winter Soldier could be anyone, and, with an appropriate change of subtitle, 95% or more of this movie would still work just fine.  And that, honestly, is the only reason why my recent moment of epiphany didn’t cost this movie the stop spot in these rankings.  With or without the Winter Soldier, The Winter Soldier is bad ass.

So…there it is…again.  It’s probably going to be a couple of weeks before I get a chance to see Age of Ultron, but once I do I’ll find a place for it in the rankings.  In the meantime, feel free to post a comment below and share some thoughts on your favorite(s).  I’d love to know what you think.

As always, thanks for reading.

CVA

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