Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (often lamely abbreviated to MCU) is a big deal. It’s now the highest grossing film franchise ever, and this is only including the movies that Marvel and Disney actually produce (the Spider-Man and X-Men films are licensed to Sony and Fox, respectively). Marvel has released a staggering nine films since 2008’s Iron Man and with the latest film, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, doing gangbusters commercially and critically, I thought it was a good time to take a look back at all the films and decide which ones are spectacular, and which are a blight on Marvel’s good name. From worst to best, here are my rankings for the MCU (ugh):
9. Thor: The Dark World
What a mess. I had high hopes for this film leading up to its release, as it looked like it was taking the Marvel films in a brave new direction, what with the embracing of the wackier, more fantastical elements of the comic universe. Unfortunately, there’s not much here that works. Chris Hemsworth is still solid in the title role, but this film just confirms what I already suspected, which is that Thor is a really boring character who has possibly overstayed his welcome. Thor’s not the only problem though; he simply doesn’t have anything very interesting to do in this film. The villain is one-note and forgettable, Natalie Portman is flat as the love interest, the supporting cast of Asgardian warriors aren’t given enough to do, every human character is relegated to cringe-worthy comic relief (particularly Kat Dennings), and the worst crime is that Loki has like 20 minutes of screen time. Tom Hiddleston has become one of the best parts of Marvel’s films, and he’s simply wasted here. The movie dies in the third act (something that a lot of these films are guilty of) chiefly because Loki isn’t present. I never want to watch this again.
8. The Incredible Hulk
I feel like this film has been forgotten by everyone, including Marvel, and I don’t think that’s entirely fair. The Incredible Hulk is an entertaining film that has a great final battle between Hulk and Abomination, and Edward Norton actually gives a solid performance as Bruce Banner. Unfortunately, given all the tension that happened behind the scenes, with Norton being infamously replaced by Mark Ruffalo in the role, it feels like Marvel wants us to forget about this film, despite it being canon in the cinematic universe. Definitely not a bad film by any means, but I think it will be forgotten about even more once Marvel releases a standalone Hulk film with fan-favourite Ruffalo in the title role.
7. Iron Man 2
It’s pretty obvious that this film suffered from being rushed to market. Nobody, especially Marvel, anticipated the enormous popularity of the first Iron Man and the sequel was quickly released two years later in order to capitalize on Iron Man’s popularity, and to cement Marvel’s commitment to a shared universe. The problem with the film lies in that shared universe connection; the filmmakers were so focused on setting up its future films that it forgot to put the same effort into crafting a good Iron Man story. Not much really happens in this film. The chief conflict is Tony Stark trying to find a cure for the blood poisoning caused by his suit technology, and while that’s a compelling plotline, it doesn’t carry the film. Mickey Rourke as villain Whiplash is awful; he never comes together as being a viable threat to Iron Man, and isn’t developed enough for us to care about his motivations. The film’s biggest crime though is casting Sam Rockwell and then barely using him (not to mention that he hasn’t appeared in any of the films since!). Rockwell steals every scene he’s in, and the film is worth watching for his performance alone, but this is still an Iron Man movie, and the film simply doesn’t capitalize on the character in the way that the first film did. Still, Iron Man 2 introduced us to Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow, so at least it did something right.
6. Iron Man
The film that started it all, so to speak, the first Iron Man is practically the template for how to do a good origin story. The first two-thirds of this film are excellent, striking a good balance between Marvel’s now trademark brand of humour and action, and Robert Downey Jr., as much as he grates on my nerves now, does some great work here as Tony Stark – he really is the anchor of this film. Unfortunately, the last act is a mess, with a boring final battle that fails doesn’t live up to the energetic earlier acts. While this film doesn’t hold up quite as well now, that just goes to show how much better Marvel has gotten at making these since its release.
Although he’s a powerful and flashy character, Thor is super lame. A Norse God who wields a hammer and spouts cheesy dialogue shouldn’t work in a live-action setting, but the 2011 film directed by thespian Kenneth Branagh proved the naysayers wrong. The reason this film works as well as it does is due to the strength of the performances and because the filmmakers are aware of the ridiculousness of the subject matter, and embrace it. There are little jokes here and there that reference some of the wackier aspects of the comics, which helps ground the film and sell it as something interesting and worth getting invested in. Chris Hemsworth commits himself fully to the title role, selling the hell out of it and imbuing Thor with some much-needed humanity, but it’s Tom Hiddleston’s Loki that steals the show, creating the first villain of any merit in this film universe. The film spends a bit too much time meandering in a small desert town that feels like a studio back lot, and the romance between Thor and Jane Foster is incredibly forced, but there’s enough here to prove that Thor is a character capable of anchoring his own film. It’s too bad the sequel was awful.
4. Iron Man 3
The third standalone Iron Man had a lot to prove, as it had to make up for the lackluster Iron Man 2, and show audiences that Marvel could still create good standalone films after the team-up extravaganza that was The Avengers. What a difference a change in director can make. The first two films were directed by Jon Favreau, who was competent but never really seemed to know how to make a great film. Shane Black, the screenwriter on the first two Lethal Weapon films, and the director of the excellent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, was given the director’s chair on this one, and his eye for well-staged action and laugh-out-loud dialogue is on full display here. Robert Downey Jr. is his usual grating self, but he gets some mileage out of a storyline involving PTSD, which is a great callback to the events of The Avengers film. In addition, this is the first Iron Man film that doesn’t sputter out and die in the third act, which is a feat in itself. Throw in a midsection plot twist that fooled everyone and Iron Man 3 easily ranks as the best Iron Man film yet.
3. Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America is a character routinely criticized for being too goody-goody and straight-laced to be interesting. I think this all has to do with image, since from the outside, Cap does indeed look dull. I mean, he wears the American flag on his uniform; he’s a regular boy scout. However, as the comics and now films have showed us, dismissing Steve Rogers is a mistake. The first Captain America film succeeds by embracing Cap’s natural goodness and by framing the proceedings as a retro, WWII serial that even throws in some Indiana Jones references for good measure. The film basically puts forward the argument that Steve Rogers’s heroism and unwavering morals are not a character deficiency, but an ideal to strive for. Cap starts out as a physically weak, but strong-willed man who is given the gift of super abilities, and uses his new powers to further his ideals, rather than letting them change who he is. Whether or not this type of hero is outdated is a matter of debate, but it definitely enhances the WWII-themed setting, where the enemies are so evil that it takes someone who is unshakably good to defeat them. Captain America marks the introduction the villainous Hydra outfit, which will go on to have enormous impact on the whole MCU. As a film, Captain America has a stronger first half, but the back half is by no means a write-off. It’s a little too montage-heavy, and Hugo Weaving as Red Skull is totally underused, but the ending holds real emotional weight and sets up the first Avengers film without letting the setup overpower the film’s chief narrative. This is definitely the best of Marvel’s pre-Avengers output and one of the best films they’ve made.
2. The Avengers
It’s been said to death, but it bears repeating: this film shouldn’t have worked this well. Every hero is given their due and gets to have multiple scene-stealing moments (with the exception of Hawkeye…but who really cares about Hawkeye anyway?). The script is electric, weaving from comic banter to dramatic resonance to brief, but informative explanations about all the events that are being packed into one big film. While the film succeeds in telling a reasonably compelling story in its own right, the real magic here is in the ridiculous amount of fan service on display. Clearly, this was a film made by people who really understand these characters and what makes them awesome (having geek guru Joss Whedon direct definitely helped in this department). Loki as the central villain was also a great choice, as he is able to hold his own against Earth’s mightiest heroes, something that has been hard for these films to get right. The film does have its shortcomings; it relies a bit too much on style over substance, getting most of its mileage out of merely having all of these characters on screen together. I think this film can be forgiven for this, since it’s just wonderful that any of this works at all, but the next big team up, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, has to up its game now that it’s been proven that a big crossover film can work.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I expected this film to be pretty great. Captain America is easily my favourite character in Marvel’s cinematic stable, and his first film was really good, so I figured that Winter Soldier would at least be competent and entertaining. I did not, however, expect it to be better than The Avengers. Where to even begin? The plot actually twists and turns, and the decision to frame the film as a political thriller reminiscent of those popular in the 1970s was an inspired choice and fit the character perfectly. Thematically, the film gets a lot of mileage out of Cap being a man out of time; not only in the sense of being culture-shocked, but also value-shocked – his black and white view of good and evil is blurred more than ever in the modern world, and Cap has to learn how to navigate these murky waters in order to survive. Scarlett Johansson, returning as Black Widow, is the best she has been in the role, becoming as significant to the proceedings as Steve Rogers; not only that, but she more than holds her own in the fight scenes, which is a big plus for female superheroes (and hopefully evidence of a standalone Black Widow film being imminent). I could honestly drone on and on about this film (and I do in my first podcast, which I will try to post soon. Stay tuned!), but I’ll leave you with this: The Winter Soldier is not only the best film Marvel has ever made, but also on the shortlist of the best superhero movies of all time. It reinvigorated my faith in what Marvel’s doing with their films (Thor: The Dark World almost shattered it), and I’m feverishly anticipating the release of Guardians of the Galaxy this summer, Avengers: Age of Ultron next year, and pretty much any future release at this point. Keep em’ coming!