7/10/2017

Marvel's Cinematic Universe Ranked From Worst To Best


I love looking back at the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe and tracking its ups and downs. And trust me, there are some serious downs. Taken as a whole the 17 movies that comprise the MCU are an incredible achievement unmatched by any studio, and perhaps it never will be. Beginning in 2008's Iron Man with Nick Fury's promise of a "bigger universe", Marvel Studios has lived up to that word with an ever-expanding roster of heroes from all corners of the universe and beyond. For me, the MCU has been consistently solid if unremarkable, with a few truly great stand-outs. Will Spider-Man: Homecoming be part of the latter category? Now's as good a time as any to rank 'em and find out.


16. Thor
What happened in Thor, anyway? Was there a plot that I'm forgetting? This will be a recurring theme in the Thor movies, because they're generally not very memorable at all. Kenneth Branagh, not really one for superheroics, tells a bland story in a bland way, following Chris Hemsworth's Norse god as he's stripped of his powers and sent to Earth. Yeah, that's what we signed up for, a powerless god. There he has a tepid romance with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman, hating it every step of the way), and the whole thing kind of meanders along until Loki sends the Destroyer to blow everything up. Could you imagine if this film didn't have Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston just how lousy it would be? They're so good that they would become one of the most popular pairs in the entire MCU, with their sibling rivalry igniting The Avengers soon after. Thor isn't an awful movie it's just lousy by MCU standards.


15. Captain America: The First Avenger
I know a lot of people who love The First Avenger. At the time when it arrived it made more sense to do a WWII origin story for ol' Cap, showing how he was gifted the powers to be a super soldier. I get it, we need to see how Cap becomes the leader we all know him to be. Joe Johnston was probably the right guy for the job, too; there are a ton of old school similarities between this film and The Rocketeer. But when measured up against the visual standards of the other movies, Chris Evans' head tattooed on a skinny wimp's body and Red Skull's Halloween mask face are major distractions, and the story is just too earnest and cheesy for its own good. But there are positives. Evans is dead on perfect as Cap, but he's even better when paired up with Hayley Atwell's Peggy Carter, still the best love story in the entire MCU. Period. This was also the only Phase One movie to get the post-credits scene right, setting up Cap for The Avengers by hitting him with a modern day reality check.


14. Iron Man
The first MCU movie is also one of the weakest. Not terrible, just serviceable like so much of Phase One turned out to be. Obviously, Robert Downey Jr. is where it's at, right? He's the guy who gives this film and the entire MCU its swagger, and it carries along a story that is best when it's just him building things and showing off that attitude. Once there's a villain for him to fight...well, it ain't so hot. Really begins the trend of lousy bad guys that Marvel still can't shake.  What else did it get right? Forcing us to stay in our seats after the credits so we could see Samuel L. Jackson debut as Nick Fury, promising that we've just "become part of a bigger universe." Bold words, and Marvel has lived up to them.


13. Doctor Strange
So many of Marvel's films are worth admiring for different reasons, yet struggle to really set themselves apart. This is a drawback of the Marvel formula which, you'll be surprised to learn, is very formulaic. Doctor Strange succumbs to this, as well; the story of Stephen Strange is basically the same as Iron Man's, only with some psychedelic magic stuff going on. Benedict Cumberbatch doesn't really stretch himself in the role, either. I think he's always somewhat cocky in just about everything. He's consistently upstaged by Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, a character that caused more discussion (More white-washing nonsense) than the actual movie did. Pretty sure I haven't even bought this on Blu-Ray yet. I'll get around to it someday.


12. Iron Man 2
Yeah, I like Iron Man 2 better than Iron Man. So sue me! My reasons are simple: the MCU is starting to come into its own, and we see a more confident world-building effort set into motion. There's stuff with Phil Coulson, teases for Thor, more Avengers Initiative nonsense, oh, and a much better villain. No, not Mickey Rourke's Whipmaster or Whip Appeal or whatever his name was. Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer was a blast, reminding me of Rockwell in Charlie's Angels. He's one of the few bad guys I wish would return, but sadly if he came back now they'd make him an enemy of the Avengers and he'd get whooped. Personally I hope when/if Tony Stark dies it's Hammer who replaces him.


11. Thor: The Dark World
Again I ask, what the Hell was the plot of this movie? I vaguely remember Jane Foster (Portman, still hating life) moping around sewers or grungy factory buildings or something, until Thor shows up and kisses her in the rain. Then some red stuff appeared and she was in trouble?  This movie is notable for the forced pairing of Thor and his duplicitous brother, Loki, who must come together after an attack that killed their mother, Freya. Her funeral is actually quite a heartbreaking moment in a movie largely devoid of emotion. I think the worst thing about the Thor films is that they have practically zero laughs. They try hard with the characters played by Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard, but none of it really clicks. Hopefully Thor: Ragnarok will change that.


10. The Incredible Hulk
I think The Incredible Hulk gets a bad rap simply because it's not the Mark Ruffalo version of the Jade Giant. Edward Norton's cerebral take on the Hulkster was a step up from Eric Bana's sleepy performance in Hulk, another film I think gets derided too casually. Look, the biggest problem with any Hulk movie, and that includes one with Mark Ruffalo if it ever were to happen (It won't), is that Bruce Banner has no desire to be Hulk. So the entire movie is, inevitably, about him trying to find ways not to change until he has no choice. That has been the Ruffalo Hulk's entire storyline since he debuted, no different than Norton's, no different than Bana's. What makes The Incredible Hulk not a great film is that it feels inconsequential. I'm not sure there's one thing of note that happens in it until the post-credits scene, which is another one of those Avengers Initiative teases that mucks up continuity. But what it does have is a capable bad guy in Tim Roth as the Abomination, although to be fair he's more compelling before he changes, and at least a semblance of a romance with Liv Tyler as Betty Ross.


9. Ant-Man
>sigh<  Imagine what Ant-Man might have been if Edgar Wright hadn't left. Why'd he leave? Basically because Marvel wanted him to make just another formula movie, and he wouldn't have it. Peyton Reed, whose claim to fame was 2000's Bring It On, stepped in and was more than happy to comply. And comply he does; there's little about Ant-Man that goes in an unexpected direction, but it has a "think small" approach that is endearing. Paul Rudd brings his usual whit and everyman charm to the role of former thief Scott Land, who must become a hero by doing the one thing he's sworn not to do. But since it's to help save his daughter what's the guy to do? The stakes are refreshingly small-scale and personal,  which as it turns out is a huge change for the MCU where the world or the universe is constantly at stake. This is one of those "stop and take a breath" movies that Marvel should invest more in to.


8. Avengers: Age of Ultron
In a way it's crazy that Avengers: Age of Ultron is this high, because honestly it isn't a very good movie. It's sloppy, the villain is one of Marvel's lousiest, and one of the two super-cool new Avengers gets killed and literally nobody seems to care. But what works....wow, does it work. The Iron Man Hulkbuster vs. Hulk brawl is EVERYTHING, and who doesn't dig that awesome Hero Pose in the opening minutes. Plus I think they really do a bang-up job forging that relationship between Bruce Banner and Black Widow, although I could complain that she seems to be getting passed around the team like a blunt at the Source Awards. Sure, the film tries way too hard to do way too much, but I appreciate the unabashed spectacle Joss Whedon wanted to pull off. He knew he was on the way out so might as well put it all on the line.


7. Iron Man 3
The best Iron Man movie is the one that lets it's director really take the spotlight. Shane Black turns Iron Man 3 into a fast-paced, high-energy buddy comedy unlike anything we'd seen in the MCU, and he did it while giving us the most thorough exploration of Tony Stark yet. He spends practically the entire movie away from his armor, and forced to figure things out on his own Tony proves, once again, that he is more than the suit, a lesson he will later pass on to Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming. While not everyone dug the Mandarin reveal, it worked for me because it leaves the door open to the real Mandarin showing up and unleashing his deadly rings on the world.


6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Remember that thing about "thinking small", and how Marvel needed to do more of it? Spider-Man: Homecoming is exactly what I mean. The world isn't about to die. The universe won't implode if he doesn't stop the Vulture. But Peter Parker's world might implode if Aunt May finds out he's Spider-man, or if he misses that deadly Spanish quiz. Casting Tom Holland in a film that takes place largely inside a high school was a stroke of genius, finally giving us a relatable Peter Parker who is of the right age and emotional wavelength. The scenes he shares with his friends and foes in school are the best, while the film lags every time Tony Stark shows up to offer harsh criticism. Lame. Go have a martini. The MCU never felt quite right without a Spider-Man in it, and Homecoming finally sets that right.


5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
I'm not going to spend time talking about what doesn't work with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. There's plenty to pick from, but so much more does work. This is a movie all about character relationships, father and son, friend to friend, sister to sister, and so it's easy to think there isn't a lot going on. While there may not be quite as much action as in the previous movie, what there is looks better and is considerably bigger, taking on a Star Wars level of scale. Fortunately, that action doesn't overstep the interactions between Star-Lord and his newfound father, Ego, fulfilling every wish he'd been holding on to since he was a child. Of course it comes with a heavy price to pay, and ultimately a decision that, when made, is truly devastating at what is lost from it. Add in some great (and surprisingly painful) interactions between Rocket and Yondu, finding common ground none of us could have predicted, and a mild easing of tensions between siblings Gamora and Nebula, and you have one of the deepest, richest Marvel movies yet. The only thing it doesn't have is a true villain to fight, and that does occasionally become a problem when the narrative drags. In those cases writer/director James Gunn usually just force feeds us some Baby Groot humor, which quickly wears out its welcome.


4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy begins with a dance number title sequence, and ends with a dance-off in the final act. And I still didn't hate it. Marvel's first risky gamble, this was also their first true surprise smash, besting their more established heroes at the box office, and rather easily. The reason is the offbeat sense of humor, killer soundtrack, and a motley crew of characters we would grow to love. Unlike Marvel's other super team, the Guardians truly become friends and learn to lean on one another. Their squabbles are fun but real, and it makes their final sacrifice with the fate of the universe at stake all the more meaningful. As a fan of the comics I already had a love for Rocket and Groot, but seeing them on screen together made me appreciate them even more, and apparently I wasn't alone.


3. Captain America: Civil War
This was tough. Do I go with Civil War or The Winter Soldier as the best Captain America movie? Ultimately I went with the latter but it easily could have been a tie. Civil War got edged out simply because I never totally bough into the beef between Cap and Iron Man, or that the other heroes would so rigidly fall into opposing camps. Otherwise this gives you all of the jaw-dropping superheroics you could ever ask for. The introduction of Black Panther? Flawless. The debut of Spider-Man? Spectacular. And that airport fight scene will go down in history as the nerdiest thing to ever happen in a comic book movie. I almost cried. Pretty sure the guy in the seat next to me was crying. It's so good it makes a comeback in Spider-Man: Homecoming, and the brief moments we see are STILL awesome.


2. The Avengers
I think The Avengers is always going to hold a dear place in every nerd's heart. It's the movie that fully realized the dreams we'd been having since we were kids. To see all (or most, I ain't got that X-Men vs. Avengers movie yet) of our favorite heroes together on the big screen was everything we ever wanted, and the effect was stunning. I'm not sure anybody could have made it all work better than Joss Whedon, who is enough of a geek for this stuff that he knew exactly what we wanted to see. Hulk tossing Loki around like a ragdoll? Crashing SHIELD helicarriers? Major beef between Captain America and Iron Man? Check check check. The Avengers putting their differences aside to defeat thousands of invading aliens? Check. And at this point it was the first Marvel movie with a truly great villain; thank you, Tom Hiddleston. The Avengers could have been a disaster but instead it will always stand as the first truly great movie of the MCU.


1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Oh yes, gimme more of this. Marvel was speaking directly to me with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I'm a sucker for political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor (Which also featured Robert Redford, coincidentally.), and this movie gives me all of that. But throw in some game-changing stunt choreography, fight scenes as good as anything you'll see in The Raid or John Wick, and brilliant direction from the Russo Brothers and you've got a nearly perfect movie. Everything works here, from the assault on Nick Fury to Cap's sacrifice to save his old pal, Bucky, The Winter Soldier is the best of Marvel and I'm not sure they'll ever be able to top it.