Thursday, 28 April 2016

Rank the Films: Marvel Cinematic Universe


As any regular reader of this blog will know, lists are pretty darn nifty. I have a profound appreciation for straight-up lists. This is the thinking behind Rank the Films, a regular feature that pulls apart the pros and cons of a series of films, ranking them in order of bad to good.

This month, to celebrate the release of Captain America: Civil War this week, I'm revisiting all thirteen Marvel Cinematic Universe films (count 'em!) and ranking them in order from worst to best. 

And yes, this list includes Civil War - I've seen it and I'm including it on my ranking. Where does it rate? What'll come out on top? Well, read on to find out...

13th - The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Rotten Tomatoes: 67%

2008's The Incredible Hulk is an odd film - whenever I think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's almost like I completely disregard its existence in the canon. If it wasn't for the Tony Stark cameo, it would barely even register on my radar as a MCU film, until you get to William Hurt's reprisal of Thunderbolt Ross in Civil War that is. In some ways, it works well as a stand-alone film and isn't that closely connected to the rest of the series.

Despite this however, The Incredible Hulk (which stars Edward Norton as Bruce Banner) is not half-bad. As superhero films go, it's not great. It's not awful either. It really does land squarely in the middle of the spectrum, well above your awful Fantastic Four's but well below the quality of your Captain America's.

Where I think it does excel is in the casting of Norton as Banner - whilst Ruffalo captured it brilliantly in The Avengers, Norton works with the tortured nature of the character in a way that The Ruff hasn't (yet). The rest of the cast...ermm...give me a second...

Liv Tyler is in it (yeah, I had to look it up) as is...(looks at Rotten Tomatoes page) Tim Roth and William Hurt. Oh look! Phil from Modern Family is there too! It's not all bad, eh?

We've yet to see a follow-up solo outing for the Hulk, and judging by the tepid response to this one, I doubt we ever will.

12th - Iron Man 2 (2010)


I have a fondness for Iron Man 2 - it just so happens to be the first movie I saw in the theatre with my current girlfriend. Other than that? Eh, it's an okay film. Without the sentimental value attached, it's far from the greatest Marvel film, ranking closer to the lower end of the spectrum.

The largest issue with Iron Man 2 is how much time it attributes to setting up The Avengers. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) both get their feature debut, but their primary reason for being in the film is to discuss the Avengers and to woo Tony Stark into becoming an Avenger. Like, we get it - the Avengers are a thing.

That being said, the infamous hallway scene where we see Black Widow kick butt for the first time is great, with director Jon Faverau relishing the opportunity to mix some martial arts in with his plethora of iron suited soldiers. As weak as Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) is as an arch-nemesis, I also really like the Monaco Grand Prix action set-piece.

11th - Thor (2011)

Rotten Tomatoes: 77%

Now we're getting into tricky territory; unlike some, I actually think the first Thor film is pretty decent. I had a really great time with this film when it first came out in 2011, and went as far as putting it in my Top 5 from the year (okay, maybe I got a little ahead of myself there...)

In hindsight, it isn't that great. Still good, but not a real standout. There are indisputable upsides; this first Thor film tackles the tricky issue of introducing Norse gods, Bifrosts and rainbow roads into the Marvel Cinematic Universe really well, and we also got our first look at the wider universe expanded upon in this year's Guardians of the Galaxy.

Loki and Thor are written well, and the film gets bonus points for not being an 'origin' story. Thor is still 'Thor' at the start of the film, but is more adult and mature Thor by the end. I liked that approach. Also, the opening half-hour where Thor and co. kick Frost Giant butt is cool (pun intended)

There are also a few weak points also; Hemsworth and Portman share great chemistry, but their romance is very forced. They literally only spend a long weekend together. She's like the real-life Overly Attached Girlfriend. Plus, the movie does slow down a lot once Thor crash lands on Earth. It's almost like they blew 90% of the budget on the bookends of the film set in Asgard. That, and the Warriors Three aren't given much depth.

10th - Thor: The Dark World (2013)


I've seen it described by Entertainment Weekly as the Batman and Robin of the MCU - now that's just rude. Nothing will ever close to that degree of awfulness ever again. Well, maybe the recent Fantastic Four film gets close...

That being said, Thor: The Dark World is a bit of a mixed bag at times - the film races along at breakneck speed with a scope wide enough to encompass everything from Greenwich to Svartelheim, but it never really pauses to focus on the characters for very long.

The end result is a film that is light and bubbly, with lots of action and adventure but little drama. The characters undergo some less than remarkable development - Thor is Thor; heroic, hunky, powerful. Loki is Loki; devious, charming, clever. Jane is Jane; beautiful, but harmless and boring. There's nothing game-changing about the whole thing. They skip around on a merry adventure, things get blown up, someone threatens to destroy the galaxy with a dangerous MacGuffin and they get stopped by Thor swinging his hammer around. Roll credits.

Plus, the villain is notoriously the weakest of any Marvel film yet, which is a real shame given the depth of talent Christopher Ecclestone has. His whole motive comprises of "I'm a Dark Elf, and must subsequently destroy everything". He must be great fun at parties.

That said, I still enjoyed the heck out of this film. It blows things open with a great twist ending and the action really is dazzling. Loki and Thor are a fantastic double-act, made even better by Hemsworth and Hiddlestone's glowing chemistry together. In fact, Thor: The Dark World is a lot better than my description makes it sound, and that's because it is just so easy to be swept up by. It isn't the biggest game-changer, and there isn't lots in the way of character drama, but the fun blend of humour and hammer-smashing dazzle leaves the audience feeling entertained from beginning to end.

9th - Iron Man 3 (2013)


These next three movies are tough, and could really be arranged in any order and still be 70% accurate to my opinion of them. Iron Man 3, which hit cinemas last year, is a really great movie. Don't get me wrong, it has its faults, but Iron Man 3 rounded out the trilogy in fine form.

The first film in Marvel's second phase of films, Iron Man 3 sees Tony Stark recuperating from the events of The Avengers - he's a broken man, struggling to sleep and fretting over danger. It's a familiar theme in superhero films, but here it seems very real. Stark is a larger-than-life character, one who lives and breathes his own ego. For me, to see him suffering from PTSD hit home much more than if it was a sulky Peter Parker or a moody Clark Kent.

Also, I really love Shane Black's humour in this film - the sequence where Stark is escaping from Killian's Miami mansion is hilarious - "I don't even like working here, these guys are so weird." Gets me every time. The theme, 'Can You Dig It', is funky, the opening prologue set in 1999 to 'Blue' was a blast from the past, and I really liked that the film was set at Christmas. Why? No reason. Shane Black just has a hard-on for festive cheer (see: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Lethal Weapon).

Saying that, that Mandarin twist is just stupid. The more I think about it, the more I wish they'd just played it straight. 

8th - Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)


Age of Ultron had a lot riding on it. Joss Whedon's first Avengers film is pretty much perfect, and his sequel had to eclipse it whilst also introducing several new characters, storylines and projecting forward to the looming Phase 3.

Alas, it didn't quite get there; Age of Ultron is good, there is no doubt of that. But the film also has a lot of issues, most notably the amount of material that Whedon is obliged to include that relates to not just this film, but several films later down the track. The entire Thor subplot feels crow-barred in, neither detailed enough to feel necessary or necessary enough to include to begin with. Either expand on this element, or cut it - the final edit is lost in the middle, making the whole exercise quite baffling. Ultron (played by James Spader) is also a step down from Loki. I re-watched the film recently and Ultron is one of weakest elements, that's for sure.

On the flipside, every element that doesn't work is eclipsed by five more that do - Tony and Steve's ideological friction bubbles to the surface once more, and the romance between Bruce and Natasha is actually one of my favourite aspects in the film. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are given memorable introductions, whilst Paul Bettany's transition from JARVIS to Vision grows the roster even further.

There are a handful of stand-out action set pieces; the opening assault on the Hydra base is particularly great, and the face-off between Hulk and Iron Man in South Africa is awesome. The film does drag in places (do we really need that highway chase through Seoul?), but otherwise Age of Ultron is good, if not great, sequel that, if nothing else, showcases Marvel's immense ambition for this series.

7th - Iron Man (2008)


Is the first Iron Man film still the best? I'd say maybe? Possibly? Only just. I don't know, it's too tough to call. For laughs, Iron Man 3 is your best option. For actual Iron Man action and a more satisfying plot, the first film just edges it.

As origin stories go, 2008's Iron Man is up there with the best. The character arc that Stark undergoes throughout the film is wonderfully handled, and the end result is we see the person beneath Iron Man, not just a suit of armour come the climactic showdown with Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges). Speaking of Bridges - how understated is his role here? I forget he's in this film every time, and it always surprises me how good he actually is as Stark's father-figure trying to muscle him out of his own company.

Also, without the success of Iron Man, there would be no Marvel Cinematic Universe. If this movie had tanked, critics would have been proclaiming the end of Marvel before the series had even begun to find its feet. Bonus points for that if nothing else.

6th - Ant-Man (2015)

Rotten Tomatoes: 80%

Ant-Man suffered through a very troubled production, with departing directors and numerous rewrites threatening to sink the film before it even hit cinemas. Thankfully, the final product is one of Marvel's best, and most surprising, efforts to date.

After the bloat of Age of Ultron, Ant-Man takes the series back to basics. It's a straight-up origin story that sees reformed (kind of) criminal Scott Lang recruited by brilliant scientist Hank Pym for a mission that involves breaking into a secure facility and stealing some expensive tech. It's a much more personal film that does away with cities and continents under threat; the most dangerous action sequence is set atop a train set in Scott's daughter's bedroom. The fun, frivolous action is a welcome change of pace and the rip-roaring cast (Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lily) really sell the wacky, teeny-tiny antics as something we should care about.

It's noticeably funnier than its peers too, which is saying something when you consider just how funny the MCU is in general. Michael Pena's chatterbox sidekick Luis is a gem whilst Rudd's effortless charm in the lead role goes to show that Marvel can make an action hero out of almost anyone, even the silliest of comedians.

5th - Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Rotten Tomatoes: 79%

This one might ruffle some feathers, but meh, what are you going to do, it's my list. The First Avenger was a real fresh take on the superhero genre, the WWII setting being bathed in a nostalgic glow, but also peppered with a cool Resistance/Fallout future technology vibe going on.

I liked that Marvel didn't try and make it all gritty like Saving Private Ryan or Band of Brothers - instead Steve Rogers is plucked from the streets of Brooklyn, plopped on the operating table, pumped with super solider steroids and BAM! Most American superhero ever. Most of the film looks like it has been plucked straight from a Captain America comic-book.

Hugo Weaving chews the scenery as uber-Nazi Red Skull, whilst Dominic Cooper tied the whole thing up withAvengers by being Tony Stark's father, Howard. Throw in the comedic snark of Tommy Lee Jones, mix it up with some retro glam in the form of Hayley Atwell and you've got a delightfully chipper superhero flick that doesn't feel like a retread of anything seen before.

A few naysayers disregard this film as being an extended prelude to The Avengers, and in some ways they're right. There is a lot of introductions here, including Hydra, the Tesserect and so on. The stinger scene where Cap wakes up at the end is brilliant though, and teases the big crossover to come masterfully.

4th - Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


Winter Solider is one of those rare experiences that actually improves and grows with each subsequent viewing; I find new and interesting things to enjoy in this film every time I watch it, whether it's the flirtatious dynamic between Steve and Natasha or the frenetic choreography that remains the best we've seen in a Marvel film so far.

The punches are flying so fast that it warrants multiple watches to drink it all in; one moment where Bucky flicks the knife through the air and catches again in the same hand, this time with it facing towards Cap. Not only is it an indication of his ruthlessness and skill, but the fright on Cap's face is very telling. He's never come up against something quite like Winter Soldier, which makes the revelation of his identity even more impactful.

Mixing the 70's Cold War thriller genre with modern elements like cyber warfare and post-911 paranoia. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a superb slice of superhero action that exceeds expectations and rewards revisits.

3rd - Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)


Right from the opening credits, you get the sense you're watching something special. This is something fun, intelligent and fresh. It's funky, cool and has an infectious air of confidence about it. As Chris Pratt's Peter Quill swaggers his way through a gloomy alien cave shaking his hips to 'Come and Get Your Love' by Redbone, you can't help but grin from ear to ear.

And then, you don't stop for 120 breathless minutes. From a hilarious prison break spearheaded by Bradley Cooper's snarky Rocket to the climactic battle/dance-off against Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the strangest and most infectiously entertaining movies I've seen, not just from Marvel, but any big-budget studio.

Imagine watching a film that makes you care about a sentient tree that can only speak three words and has a mutant raccoon as his best friend. It sounds utterly bonkers on paper, but director James Gunn really nails the tone and understands the importance of deep universe building. Less of a superhero flick and more of a full-blown space opera, Gunn's skull and wisecracking troupe of misfits sees Marvel delve deeper into outer space than ever before, and expand their 'Cinematic Universe' tenfold. It's like Firefly meets Star Wars meets The Usual Suspects, and turned out to be the smash-hit success of summer 2014. The sequel hits this time next year.

2nd - The Avengers (2012)


When Nick Fury popped up after the credits of 2008's Iron Man to all but confirm an Avengers film was on the way, anyone other than comicbook loyalists would've been scratching their heads. "Huh?" they grunted. "Who're the Avengers?"

Nearly a decade has passed since then, and Marvel has transformed a cast of B-grade superheroes into one of the hottest properties in Hollywood, and this was the film that got them there. Joss Whedon's The Avengers thrust three separate film franchises into a single film alongside a plethora of other supporting characters and made it work. It defied the brooding Dark Knight trend and declared that superhero films didn't have to be glum; they could be fun instead.

With an awesome cast (RDJ, Evans, Hemsworth lead, Ruffalo is an excellent addition), a memorable villain (Hiddleston is in his element as Loki) and some of the best comic-book action scenes ever committed to film, Whedon knew what the audience wanted and delivered by the bucket load.  It's a tentpole blockbuster that felt like an event, the culmination of five other films all leading into one story, and it feels worth it.

The film balances the whole cast immaculately, from Stark bonding with Banner in the lab to Rogers acclimatising to life in the 21st Century ("I understood that reference") and Hawkeye and Romanoff sticking close whilst surrounded by larger-than-life heroes. This isn't the 'Iron Man and Friends' after school special - it's a continuation of everyone's story.

1st - Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Rotten Tomatoes: 98% (at the time of writing) 

Captain America: Civil War opens outside the United States today; I've seen it and, although I'm still digesting the whole experience, one thing is clear - this is the best entry we've seen in the series to date.

Succeeding as a sequel to both The Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, Civil War excels on just about every criteria who can think of. It juggles the ensemble's diverging story arcs with ease, it contains some of the most inventive and engaging action sequences we've seen so far and it doesn't get bogged down in lofty politcal undertones. They're there to drive the plot and inform us of the character motivations - but at the end of the day, Civil War understands that it's still a superhero film, a sprawling soap opera clad in spandex. Most importantly, it's fun. The film effortlessly switches from a bruising fist fight to a synthetic android debating with himself about whether to include paprika in a meal that they're preparing.

Evans continues to excel; Downey Jnr is once again brilliant as the charismatic Tony Stark, even if he comes with an added edge of anger this time around. Spider-man's reintroduction is great whilst Black Panther's origins slot seamlessly into proceedings. The scope is both vast and minute, with global politics prefacing the infinitely more impactful sight of friend fighting friend.

Even though the film is about breaking people apart, Civil War doesn't feel like the end. It feels like, after all this time, Marvel is just getting started.

My in-depth film review of Captain America: Civil War will likely arrive over the weekend. Be sure to check back then to read more.

Thanks for reading! Which Marvel film is your favourite? Have you seen Civil War, and if so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments section down below! 

8 comments:

  1. Civil War on top, huh? Wow. Still a bit high off just seeing it, maybe? I haven't seen it so I can't say. I am really looking forward to it, though.

    Iron Man feels low to me, but thinking about the films you have ahead of it, I can only say for sure that I'd have it ahead of the first Cap movie. I do like that one, but Iron Man is better. Conversely, IM3 feels too high. Just way too many plot holes for me and that twist is painfully bad.

    I like the two Thor flicks, possibly a bit better than you. I'd be willing to move them up a notch or two (easy to do once I drop IM3 a bit).

    Gotta do my own version of this list. Great job on yours!

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    1. Possibly? The buzz is still there, but I genuinely think it's one of the, if not the absolute best. I'll have to see a couple more times but the fact of the matter is that I haven't had this much film in the theatre in a long, long time.

      Iron Man felt a little low too but I really do like The First Avenger more. The retro WWII vibe does it for me. I think IM3 is in the right spot for me though - the Thor films are great but the humour in IM3 gives it the edge.

      Looking forward to seeing your list! Thanks for commenting.

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  2. I'm excited to watch Civil War. The Captain America franchise is constantly spurning out good movies, I have no doubt Civil War will do the same. I like the Thor movies; I think Loki is the only good Marvel villain as of now. Can't really argue with the top half of your list, they are pretty good.

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    Replies
    1. Captain America's franchise just gets better and better. True, Loki is a really great villain - certainly one of the strongest so far.

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  3. Oh my God, I'm so HYPED for Civil War! It would be hard to rank these films, but I think for me it would be
    1) Winter Soldier
    2) Avengers
    3) Age of Ultron (I hated Quicksilver dying and BruceNat, but I loved the rest)
    4) Iron Man
    5) Guardians of the Galaxy
    6) Captain America: the First Avenger
    7) Thor: The Dark World
    8) Thor
    9) Iron Man 2
    10) Iron Man 3
    11) The Incredible Hulk (only at the bottom because I barely remember it)

    Can't wait to see how Civil War fits in.

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    Replies
    1. Wow, Age of Ultron above Guardians and IM1? I rewatched it the other day and the flaws are a little more obvious in hindsight. Still, the team dynamic really works and I actually liked that they finally killed off a hero for good - even if it was his first movie. Still, someone has to die sooner or later :)

      P.S. You forgot Ant-Man! Maybe you just haven't seen it, but you totally should. It's great.

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  4. Cool post! I'd love to rank these but sadly haven't seen the Thor installments or Iron Man sequels. Captain America and The Avengers are pretty front runners for now. :D

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Katy! I recommend checking out the two Thor movies, they're actually pretty fun.

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