It’s been a while since I made one of these lists! There have been two new Marvel films since last time so it’s time to see where they fit into the mix. I rewatched all the Marvel films in the lead up to Avengers: Age of Ultron so the films are still pretty fresh in the mind.
While the movies here are ranked from worst to best, I’m also grouping them into three categories: The ok ones, the good ones, and the great ones. If you’re wondering why there’s no “bad” category it’s both because I still enjoy the “ok” ones and because I can still appreciate the bad ones for the development of characters, story, and themes that run through the entire MCU (even if they’re pretty thin at times). Also also, it’s an exercise in being less negative.
Anyway, let’s get on with this.
OK: Iron Man 2
I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. Iron Man 2 is a mess. I wish they’d tried something different but instead they seem to have carbon copied the basic storyline from Iron Man (someone else builds a suit and Tony fights them) and then peppered in as much greater world building as they could. The film dedicates much time to talking up S.H.I.E.L.D. and secondary characters which could have gone to building up the main characters in this story. Hell, the best action sequence in the movie doesn’t even feature Iron Man. The Marvel movies work best when they stand on their own with organic links back to the greater universe. Iron Man 2 is build on the links to the greater universe with the story seeming to come second.
I still wish Thor was better. It’s our first look at the weird extended cosmic area of the MCU but the film is a pretty boring hero origin story. It has it’s high points (Loki is fun, Asgard looks cool) but it’s still mostly boring and cliché filled.
OK: The Incredible Hulk
There’s still nothing new to say about The Incredible Hulk so here’s what I wrote before. I still enjoy this movie but it’s not quite good. It’s the best of the OK ones, but it’s just OK.
Bruce Banner is an interesting character and really the main problem with this film is that they cast Edward Norton. There’s a lot of potential here that seems to have fallen by the wayside much of which is likely due to squabbling between Edward Norton (who was promised some measure of creative control when he signed on but then his contributions were all but excised from the film), the studio (who reportedly hated everything Norton brought to the table (seriously, there’s apparently something like an hours worth of footage that hit the cutting room floor), and director Louis Leterrier who was trying to keep the peace. In the end the film was ok and like Thor laid the groundwork for the universe to be built on, but Norton was fired (you can read the whole story here).
Good: Thor: The Dark World
The Dark World is another that could have been so much better. Held back by a rushed pace and pretty generic bad guys, but also featured space elves, space canoes which could travel between dimensions, giants made out of rocks, and an extended look at the nine realms. I’m still not really clear on whether Asgard is another planet or another dimension, but in the end who cares? The chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston is fantastic and to this day I hope that they can cast Christopher Eccleston in something else moving forward (he was wearing a lot of makeup, after all).
Good: Avengers: Age of Ultron
So here we are. The sequel. It’s a good movie but it’s a victim of it’s own ambition. The greatest strength of the Marvel Machine is the inter-connectivity but that can also be it’s greatest weakness. Age of Ultron is fun and there is definitely a lot to pick up on repeat viewings but you can kinda tell that the movie Joss Whedon wanted to make isn’t this movie as a result of Marvel dictating some unbreakable rules. A shame too because the end could have been a lot darker and more meaningful with just one change.
That, and because this film features every Avenger it also has to feature all of the ongoing story threads in the MCU so we end up with scenes of Thor having visions of infinity stones instead of developing the twisted father/son relationship between Iron Man and Ultron.
The movie is still good though. Lots of laughs, great action, an unhinged James Spader mo-cap performance, and first and third act action sequences that are hard to top. But in the end the film is overstuffed and that drags it down.
Good: Iron Man
The film that got this whole ball rolling. It’s weird rewatching it now because there are so few references to the greater cinematic universe, especially given all the history that’s been established in films since. It’s not quite a great film but it’s a solid origin story which is well cast and well acted. It’s right and funny and really embraces it’s comic bookness.
Good: Iron Man Three
Phase one laid the foundations for the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, phase two, starting with Iron Man Three, is where it starts to take off. It features direct continuity with Avengers and feels safe doing so. It features continuity that will be ongoing and feels safe doing so. And it answers the question “why doesn’t he just call the Avengers” with a bad ass “because I don’t need to” final battle.
Ant-Man isn’t perfect but it’s damn good. In some ways it feels like a throwback to the phase one days of the Marvel experiment, it’s a solid origin story, the stakes are purposefully small, the bad guy is a dark version of the hero, and the continuity with the rest of the universe is subtle and/or fleeting.
It’s got the humour, the action, and the effects really capture the look of the comic books, particularly the shrinking effect. More importantly though it has heart, which so few of the films truly have. I won’t spoil it here just yet but Ant-Man gets the stakes just right.
Good: Captain America: The First Avenger
Which leads us to the film with the most heart in the entire canon so far, The First Avenger. Marvel have been getting all their characters right but Cap is the character they have done best by. Captain America isn’t just “the good guy” he’s a good man, something that most of the other Avengers aren’t really. Sure it montages through much of the war and Red Skull is ridiculous, but who cares? The film works.
And again, yes, the Stanley Tucci/Toby Jones/Hugo Weaving “Who has the worst German accent?” contest is still awesome.
Great: The Avengers
All the heroes we’ve come to know and love, featuring the best bad guy from the previous five films and the best macguffin of the previous five films and a director who knows how to handle a large cast. The Avengers is pretty close to perfect. It’s great to see the first real interplay between our heroes and to watch them gel as a team. Mark Ruffalo has a star turn as Bruce Banner/Hulk. Captain America and Iron Man continue their roles as the protagonists of the MCU. Avengers was the culmination of the first phase of this experiment Marvel embarked on. It was the film that I had been waiting for since I was about 9 and it’s still one of the best movies in the MCU to date.
Great: Guardians of the Galaxy
It’s basically The Avengers again but with characters we don’t have a lot of backstory for but to whom we can maybe better relate. A group of misfits who become heroes with a lovely dose of cosmic weirdness. None of the overreaching continuity feels shoehorned and everything looks amazing. Guardians of the Galaxy is the second best MCU film.
Great: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
No one should be shocked by this. The Winter Soldier is a perfectly executed spy thriller. It has perfect continuity with both The Avengers and The First Avenger and it flips the fucking table on the current state of the earthbound MCU. Add into the mix that Chris Evans is still the best cast actor in the MCU and his chemistry with franchise newcomer Anthony Mackie is fantastic, let alone Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson, or anyone else. It also has some of the best hand to hand fighting we’ve seen in movies lately, just the right amount of humour, and a whole lotta heart to boot. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best film in the MCU (so far).