Monday, April 24, 2017

Ranking the Films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe- April 2017 Edition

The Marvel Cinematic Universe started almost a decade ago, and today, it stands as one of the most ambitious and brilliant experiments in film history. The idea of blending together multiple franchises and characters to create one shared universe and storyline was something that had never been attempted before, and when Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury told Tony Stark that he was a part of a bigger universe in 2008, nobody knew exactly where this would go after. Nine years and billions of dollars later, it's safe to say that Marvel pulled it off.

2017 is a big year for the MCU, with three new films hitting theaters in the next seven months- Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok. Before we get started on what promises to be a great year of Marvel movies, let's take a look back and rank the 14 films that we've seen from the MCU thus far. Here we go.....


The origin story formula that once felt fresh has quickly gone stale, which is why it's exciting that films like Black Panther and Captain Marvel will deal with characters that we already know. I must admit that I have a slight bias against Ant-Man, as the film was originally set to be directed by Edgar Wright before he clashed with Marvel chief Kevin Feige and left the project. Much of Wright's script remained, but Peyton Reed failed to put his own stamp on the film. In the absence of Wright's dazzling kinetic energy, we ended up receiving a visually stale superhero flick with a familiar narrative, one that introduced us to characters that honestly weren't all that interesting. It's the most forgettable of all the Marvel movies, despite action scenes that were admittedly scaled down from prior films. Ant-Man falls into the worst traps of the MCU, and while Paul Rudd is a committed hero, this one falls well short of the mark.


Doctor Strange should be better. It's the most visually dazzling of all the Marvel films, brilliantly twisty and so insanely stylized that it feels like a heroic acid trip. But for all of its visual razzle dazzle, Doctor Strange is almost shockingly rote, stuck with a standard origin story that is populated by characters that feel cliched at best and perfunctory at worst. Benedict Cumberbatch's Stephen Strange isn't that likable, Mads Mikkelsen's villain (I can't remember his name and I don't care enough to look it up) is forgettable, and the side characters are forced to spout endless exposition. Throw in a romantic interest who is utterly wasted by the narrative, and you have a Marvel origin story that feels like it's just going through the motions. 


Marvel origin stories can be tediously average, but the sequels are rarely guaranteed to improve matters. In 2013, I was happy to see Thor: The Dark World, a sequel that re-connected elements of the Marvel universe after the stand-alone action of Iron Man 3. But The Dark World is almost impossible to re-watch- it brings nothing new to the table, it continues to waste interesting characters, and its sense of darkness feels forced. Like so many Marvel films, The Dark World went through a rough pre-production process as Patty Jenkins left the project in favor of Alan Taylor, who later trashed Marvel's creative control over their films. After this disappointing installment, it felt like the Thor series had run out of gas early, but Taika Waititi is hoping to change everyone's minds with Ragnarok in November. Judging by his track record and that first look, I have a feeling that he's going to succeed. 

11. IRON MAN 2

Plenty of people are unreasonably harsh on Iron Man 2, a messy sequel that tries to do way too much but still manages to entertain. This was actually the first of the Marvel films that I saw in theaters (I'm really young, I know), and it feels like a quintessential summer blockbuster sequel. Iron Man 2 is bigger, badder, and more jam-packed with characters- some of it works, some of it doesn't. I love that this film introduced Sam Jackson's Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, and this film came in at a point when the connectivity of the MCU was still a novel idea. Jon Favreau juggled way too many characters and subplots, almost working as a pre-cursor for what happened with Joss Whedon with Avengers 2. Nonetheless, Iron Man 2 is fun- and sometimes, that's all that we need from these movies.

10. THOR

Thor isn't a great movie, but it's a fun expansion of the Marvel world that takes us to a corner of the universe that we hadn't seen before. It's a fairly typical origin story for this series- an arrogant hero (in this instance, Chris Hemsworth's Thor) is humbled in some way, learns to adapt to a whole new world, and proceeds to save the day and learn a few lessons along the way. Coming from director Kenneth Branagh, Thor has a somewhat insane cast of prestige actors, with Oscar winners like Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins taking on fairly thankless roles. Thor also had the important task of welcoming Tom Hiddleston's Loki to the MCU, creating the most memorable antagonist in the entire series. Thor has some great action beats, some fun fantasy elements, and it's an enjoyable little ride. If you're not looking for more than that, you'll have a blast.


Beyond William Hurt's General Ross, The Incredible Hulk is the least important movie in the MCU. In fact, if Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark hadn't shown up in the end credits, I don't even know if this film would be considered to be part of the franchise. Edward Norton never played Bruce Banner again, Liv Tyler's Betty Ross never appeared again, and Marvel never went through with Tim Blake Nelson's villainous character. But even though The Incredible Hulk is purely a standalone project, it's still a rip-roaring blockbuster with some great setpieces and a classic feel. Director Louis Leterrier avoids the typical origin story trappings, summarizing Hulk's creation in the opening credits before jumping right into the Jason Bourne-esque action. The final battle is an outstanding, simplistic finale, and while Mark Ruffalo is certainly the best Bruce Banner, Norton isn't half-bad either. Ultimately, The Incredible Hulk is the most underrated film of the MCU. Give it another chance. It's better than you remember.


Shane Black is a terrific director of action comedies- The Nice Guys is simply one of my favorite movies of the decade so far. And in making Iron Man 3, Black got a chance to utilize his skills on a bigger project while also demonstrating his effortless chemistry with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang star Robert Downey Jr. And for the most part, it works. Iron Man 3 is great fun, led by a few tremendous action pieces, an introspective look at the soul of Tony Stark (with some weird PTSD pieces that don't really work), and a terrifically funny twist involving Ben Kingsley's actor-turned-supervillain. At its best, Iron Man 3 has some of the most visually creative stretches of the MCU, with a comic book energy that most directors dream of channeling. At its worst, it's a slightly inconsequential sequel, one that director Joss Whedon pretty much ignored when the next film on this list came around.


Avengers: Age of Ultron is a bit of a mess. Nobody can dispute that. It has too many characters, too many subplots, and Kevin Feige simply gave Joss Whedon way too much to do. Whedon was forced to close the book on Phase 2, while also establishing several Phase 3 films, including Civil War, Ragnarok, and more that we haven't even seen yet. He was tasked with introducing Paul Bettany's Vision, Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Quicksilver, Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch, and James Spader's villainous Ultron, while also maintaining the emotional core of the series. This was a monumental task for any filmmaker, and to be quite honest, this film should have been a total fiasco.

And yet, Age of Ultron works. It's still a pure dose of summer blockbuster fun, accompanied by the big action scenes that fans want from Marvel and the small character moments that give Whedon his distinctive touch. The scenes at Hawkeye's cabin are some of the best that the MCU has had to offer, and the massive scope of the final battle in Sokovia is dazzling. Age of Ultron wasn't able to top the heights of The Avengers, and unfortunately, it was surpassed a year later by Civil War. But that doesn't mean that it's a failure by any stretch of the imagination.


The film that started it all. Without Iron Man, there is no MCU- plain and simple. Jon Favreau's 2008 film was a stunner of an origin story that took fans and critics for a loop, rejuvenating the career of Robert Downey Jr. and furthering the legitimacy of the superhero genre. In addition to that, it firmly established many of the hallmarks of the MCU- a clever mix of comedy and action, a devotion to character-based stories, a post-credits stinger that set up the next few movies. Mainly, Iron Man works because of Downey's incredible performance as the character, a billionaire playboy who is forced to re-assess his priorities after a tragic accident. The initial stretch in the Afghan cave is quite possibly the best that the MCU has ever had to offer, with genuine emotion and a thrilling action scene to boot. Iron Man is on a much smaller scale than anything that Marvel has had to offer short of Ant-Man, but that focused scope helps it stand out from the pack.


Everybody generally likes Captain America: The First Avenger, but when it comes to these lists, it's usually placed far too low. Sure, the first adventure with Steve Rogers is corny and a bit old-fashioned, but that's Captain America for you. While the follow-up installments in the trilogy have had their own distinct vibe and charm, the World War II setting of The First Avenger is perhaps the most inspired of the entire MCU. A delightful slice of classic superhero cinema, Captain America delivers some excellent action scenes, some wonderfully nostalgic pulp, and a plethora of great character moments. It never reinvents the wheel, but quite frankly, it didn't have to do anything revolutionary- it's superhero comfort food. The First Avenger is insanely entertaining and anyone who says otherwise is kidding themselves.


Guardians of the Galaxy was perhaps the most important film from Marvel. Yeah, we all knew that fans would show up for The Avengers and the other solo superhero movies- but would any casual fans make it to the theater to see a film that featured a talking raccoon, a giant tree, two green aliens, and the guy from Parks and Rec in the lead? Skepticism ran high, but Guardians blew away everyone away. James Gunn delivered a box office smash and a cultural phenomenon, one that established the popularity of Chris Pratt, and existed as further proof that Marvel could turn even the strangest of concepts into a hit. And while Guardians is quite possibly Marvel's weakest film from a story perspective, it also feels like their most innovative and engaging. The soundtrack was an incredible success (everybody had that thing on repeat for months after the film came out), the characters became instant icons, and the Marvel universe expanded beyond the realms of Earth and Asgard. For all of its missteps, Guardians of the Galaxy is just an absurdly entertaining movie. 


Watching The Avengers in a theater was magical. Seriously, this will probably go down as one of the greatest theater-going experiences of my entire life. The whole theater whooped and cheered throughout the final act of this crowd-pleasing smash hit, staring in awe as the Avengers teamed up to take down Loki and an alien army in the middle of New York City. The Avengers is one of the greatest blockbusters of our time, a genuine blast that brought together classic characters in  spectacularly entertaining fashion. It was an excellent summation of every Marvel movie that came before, and it delivered on the promise of a superhero team-up movie for the ages. What more can I say? The Avengers is magnificent fun. I love every second of it. 


Everybody had high hopes for Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but I don't know if anyone expected the final result to be so astonishing. Untested directors Joe and Anthony Russo promised that The Winter Soldier would be akin to a 1970s paranoia thriller, and they miraculously pulled it off, blending together suspenseful setpieces, big blockbuster action, and grounded character drama to great effect. The film features some of the most spectacular action scenes in Marvel history, from the stunning highway chase that takes Nick Fury out of commission, to the incredible elevator face-off, to the final battle that sends a Helicarrier crashing into the middle of Washington, D.C. The Winter Soldier is a blast from start to finish, and the fact that it took so many monumental risks so quickly after the success of The Avengers is even more astonishing in retrospect. The S.H.I.E.L.D. twist was downright jaw-dropping, and it sent the MCU on an entirely different course. I straight-up love this movie. It's truly incredible.


Captain America: Civil War has flaws. It's not a perfect movie, perhaps standing as a little too ambitious for its own good. But it is the crowning achievement of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a dizzying spectacle of blockbuster action and character drama that perfectly served as the culmination of years and years of work. Ever since the MCU started, fans had been clamoring for an adaptation of the classic Civil War story, and while the third (and supposedly final) film in the Captain America trilogy didn't send any characters to their grave, the pacing and emotion on display is simply unparalleled by any other MCU film. Civil War jumps right into the action, giving us a look into the mind of Chris Evans' Steve Rogers and Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark as they grapple with the effects of their heroics and the damage that they've caused over the years.

The conflicting ideologies of both Captain America and Iron Man are incredibly flawed- but the fact that I managed to have a seemingly endless series of debates with friends in the weeks after this film debuted says so much about what Joe and Anthony Russo put together. The airport fight sequence is the most eye-popping IMAX action scene I've ever seen, the introduction of characters like Spider-Man and Black Panther couldn't be better, and the final battle between our two heroes has quite possibly the best shot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Captain America: Civil War is the longest and most sprawling film in Marvel's history, and even with its shortcomings, this is nothing short of an epic, triumphant accomplishment.

Well, that's my current ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Maybe I'll give this another whirl next year after we see what 2017 has to offer. Come back next week for my review of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2!

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