Outside of my Top and Bottom 10 of the year, I’m not really a list kind of writer, even if the Internet has now been flooded with them through such paragons of journalism as Cracked and Buzzfeed. Still, with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 dropping in the United States this weekend, it made me realize we’re about to witness the FIFTEENTH film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in nine years. We have seen three U.S. Presidents in that time, radical changes across the world, and major upheaval in the Hollywood business that is partly the cause of Marvel experiment. But with so many films, it’s inevitable for the discussion to turn to which is one is “da best” and which one is “the worst.” So screw it, I need a conversation topic for today and this one will do as good as any.
Quick note: I’m not including any films that were not produced under the Marvel Studios, i.e. the production company that specifically produces its own scripts and hires their own directors as opposed to the various films that were licensed out to various studios. So no X-Men, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four here. Just the films produced by the company who was making movies before and after the Disney acquisition. So here we go…
#14. Thor: The Dark World
Thor’s films have not had the best of luck in capturing the imagination of the masses the way his co-stars in the Avengers have. And the saddest part about The Dark World was that, on paper, it appeared to be everything people wanted in the first film: spending more time in Asgard, more magic shenanigans, and more Loki. Ironically, it came across as a much weaker film because it is practically forgettable compared to every other film on this list. At least with each of those, I could quote a line or reference a scene I really appreciated in it, but The Dark World has a big bag of absolutely nothing to work with. Plus, Natalie Portman is wasted here, we have way too much bad comic relief with Kat Dennings, and I can’t even describe the name of the villain for this piece. Hell I don’t even care to look up the dude’s name, that’s how little I care. Which is tragic because both Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston genuinely did try to make this a fun romp between them, but the film fails in giving you more scenes between them.
#13. Iron Man 2
Now this is the one several Marvel Films go back to rag on. Hell, I remember diehard comic fans bemoaning in 2010 this cinematic universe wouldn’t work all because of how this film fared. Many other fans were more forgiving and claimed that the film was simply setting up several franchises and that we would one day look back on poor ol’ Iron Man 2 and say, “You weren’t so bad.” Well guess what? It WAS that bad, and seven years have not done it any favors. Actually, the successive films have now made Iron Man 2 look like a far worse movie by comparison. And the reason it fails is because the film suffered every curse of the sequel you could think of: rushed development schedule, major casting change from Terrance Howard to Don Cheadle, and a severely unfocused plot that couldn’t decide on a main villain. Was it Mickey Rourke as Whiplash? Was it Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer? Was it the U.S. Government wanting the Iron Man suits? Or was it *gasp* Tony Stark himself? Honestly, no one cared because they were too distracted by Samuel Jackson stopping the film dead to talk about the Avengers some more. At least this was Scarlett Johanson’s debut as Black Widow with a stylish climactic fight in the end featuring her. That’s something…anything really.
#12. The Incredible Hulk
Now this film wasn’t half bad, it just hasn’t aged well in the time of the following eight years. At the very least, this film gave us a Hulk film that was both exciting and featured some genuine internal torment that the Ang Lee’s Hulk failed to capture. And give credit where credit is due, Edward Norton made for a great Bruce Banner that was both sympathetic and complex without ever getting so dour. Hell, even the Hulk’s introduction was set up like a horror reveal that was genuinely unnerving. But the rest of the movie has a very odd narrative feel, almost disjointed in a way that successive Marvel films managed to iron out in the future. And the special effects don’t really look all that strong when it comes right down to it.
#11. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
A big crack in the Marvel making machine, that I still found reasons to like…but I must confess that time has mellowed out my reception to more lukewarm levels. It’s not the worst thing ever, I mean it’s not Batman v. Superman, but it’s a mess of a film from a storytelling perspective. Suffering the same curse that afflicted Iron Man 2, this film became a kitchen-sink approach for universe building that put a priority for setting up sequels as opposed to telling a cohesive story that could be enjoyed by all. Joss Whedon left the Marvel film project shortly after this, and it’s easy to see why he got so frustrated with the entire experience. And with the mess of introducing and dropping character and story beats was unfortunate, I can still find scenes like the after party and the farm scene that bring me around on the film. Because at the end of the day, what keeps me coming back to these movies are the characters and the various relationships between them. They can be complex, meaningful, and fun all at the same time, which saves Age of Ultron from the worst of the worst.
There were so many ways this film could have gone so wrong, and yet the movie still found a way to make an entertaining yarn out of a traditional fish-out-of-water story. Featuring a pretty unique main character that develops a complete narrative arc by the end of the film that feels satisfying, as well as a main antagonist that’s way more complicated than any other villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; Thor is still an enjoyable experience despite the fact it only teases the weirdness of cosmic side of the comic universe as opposed to just reveling in it.
Another casualty in the director versus studio dark period that affected Marvel Studios prior to the split that separated the production company away from the toy and comics arm of the company, and one that probably led Disney to effectuate the long needed change in the studio. But despite getting a bad rep for the split of a beloved director in Edgar Wright, the movie still succeeded in giving you an entertaining comedy heist flick as opposed to the usual bombastic fight across a city these superhero films are lambasted for. It’s got it’s charming comedic moments, a thoroughly likable protagonist, and even a resolution to family drama that rarely exists in the Hollywood blockbuster scene that I genuinely appreciated. And yes, I’m going to be that guy likes Michael Pena in this. Sue me.
#8. Iron Man
The one that started it all. Who would have thought back in 2008 that comic book movies were going to be a pop culture phenomenon and that Robert Downey Jr. was going to be a major bankable star again? But both events have come to fruition and one would not exist without the other. Downey truly sold you on the idea he was Tony Stark while giving audiences at the time a hero they truly never heard of or even seen before. Granted, time has dulled the sheen off of this first film, partly because other films (including Marvel) have ripped off various elements from the piece in better ways the original wasn’t meant to handle. And yes, the third act really falls apart compared to the intense energy that preceded with the first two acts. Still, I got to show it some love for introducing people to a new side of a comic book universe people were unaware of.
#7. Doctor Strange
Out of all of the entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one is still the most visually interesting of the lot. Complimenting the wonderful style is a solid performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as the Sorcerer Supreme and several other hugely talented thespians taking the ethereal concepts as serious as anyone could while still finding time to give you a laugh here and there. It’s position on this list is owed more to the strong direction and writing while not forgetting to give you a perfectly contained story.
#6. Captain America: The First Avenger
Much like Robert Downey Jr. and Iron Man, the cinematic version of Steve Rogers aka Captain America would not work without Chris Evans. The charisma, the physique, and the overall attitude of Captain America are perfectly captured with the casting choice alone. Add in some solid writing that casts the First Avenger as a self-sacrificing man who just won’t stop idly by as bullies make a mess of things, this film goes up several paces for me especially in light after seeing Man of Steel, which was so concerned that a modern day “boy scout” would not work as a cinematic main protagonist. This film proves that concept to be utterly ridiculous with an excellent adventure romp that couldn’t be delivered by anyone but the guy who knew the love of 1940s era superheroes.
#5. Iron Man 3
A controversial choice for so high up on the list, because most people I know utterly hate this film (and these people are absolutely wrong). People keep bemoaning this film as “bad” simply because the film pulled a bait-and-switch with the main antagonist as the Mandarin to be played by Ben Kinglsey, when really that wasn’t the main focus of the piece. This was a film all about dealing with PTSD; with our main protagonist who we had come to love over the course of three different films, coming to grips the fact that not only did he almost die in one of the worst ways imaginable, but his new family is at risk with dangers that he never predicted could exist. Once again, Downey Jr. is in top form here as he works through his emotional baggage in order to save the day leading to a much stronger emotional payoff at the end of the film. Coupled with some of the smartest writing that has graced the MCU courtesy of Shane Goddamn Black, and it’s easily one of my favorites.
#4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Whereas the first Captain America film was a war movie, it’s sequel is curiously a spy thriller. The huge shift in tone pays off in gangbusters with a movie that drops the biggest story bomb affecting this series of films in ways that forces the audience to rethink some of the interactions they saw in previous installments, while also setting up an absurdly satisfying climax across three different locations. This is also where I felt Scarlett Johanson really shined as Black Widow compared to her many other appearances, and its all thanks to the Russo Brothers’ incredible mastery of the actors and sets to give you a suspenseful thriller that still manages to impress me every time I see it.
#3. Captain America: Civil War
I’m not going to lie, I didn’t think I’d love Civil War over The Winter Soldier after I had seen it, but given time to process it, I must confess that this is the best of the Captain America films. And by God, with over fourteen major players going at each other all at once, it would have been so easy for this film to have suffered the same fate as Age of Ultron, but once again thanks to the Russo Brothers’ talents, the film manages to give each and every single actor a chance to shine in truly unexpected ways. But what makes me rank this film higher than The Winter Soldier is the the fierce emotional fight between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. These are two guys who really, REALLY don’t want to fight each other, but circumstances and loyalty have driven these former best friends into bitter enemies that leads to a final confrontation that is just plain heartbreaking to watch. The final fight between Captain America and Iron Man isn’t just brutal to watch as these guys physically mess each other up, they’re psyches are damaged beyond all reason. For that, this film deserves all the praise it gets.
#2. The Avengers
Some might deride this as an unsurprising choice for being so high, but given the fact I can recall whole lines of dialogue perfectly five years later when I can barely remember what I said in court last week goes to show how much of an effect this film has left on me. As the first big team up between all these separate superheroes from various different genres, it’s truly a sight to behold all of these characters working so well together. We take it for granted now, but back in 2012, different superheroes from different films was practically unheard of and Marvel was considered to be taking a massive risk in pouring as much money as it did. But with the strength of a director like Joss Whedon who understood each and every single character better than most people, he crafted together an experience that I still love to revisit again and again. His screenplay is near perfection, with tiny lines of dialogue revealing so much about each character better than some films taking whole screen times to discuss. All of this before to the balls to the wall climax that made everyone in my theater cheer, it was already a strong film. But the finale cemented the experience as truly one of my favorite films of all time, I say that with zero hyperbole. And yet, one other Marvel film manages to top my love higher than what I have written.
#1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Here it is, my absolute favorite of the bunch. Taking everything that I loved about the team dynamics from The Avengers and throwing it into a comical space opera, Guardians of the Galaxy is everything I love about filmmaking: creative sets, unique and complex characters, a well told story, and exciting action set pieces that continuously impress. While also serving as the first true introduction to the cosmic side of the comic universe, the film never gets too bogged down with universe building and is instead far more concerned with having you care about each and every one of these anti-heroes. Add to that one of the most creative uses of a licensed soundtrack, and it’s easy to see why I’m as excited to see a sequel to this film as I am.
Agree, disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments below!