The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Best to worst

I’m a bit of a Marvel fangirl, and there are few things we fangirls are better at than overanalysing what we love, and making some lists. So I dusted off the dvds and worked my way through all 20 films in order (I saw Captain Marvel at the cinema just before starting the project). The normal small print applies, this is my opinion at the moment of hitting publish. I reserve the right to change my mind in the future without any acknowledgement that I have done so. Broadly this is a list in order of preference not quality, there are a couple of films that I can objectively see are very good and I should put them higher, but I don’t like them so tough luck.

1) Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers Age of Ultron delivers everything I love about the superhero genre. It presents an incredible opportunity for huge, imagination defying stories, spectacular design and blockbusting action that completely immersed in the big screen spectacle. But the true strength is that at the heart of every good superhero story is a complicated character. It’s not Batman’s gadgets but his tragic past that make him fascinating, it’s not Superman’s powers but Clarke Kent’s humanity that make you care about him and it’s not Captain’s America’s serum that makes him a hero. So when you combine all the potential of the genre with Joss Whedon, the master of character and dialogue, you’ve got two things I absolutely adore.
The biggest strength of the film is the way Whedon connects action, character and dialogue together. It’s easy for these films to switch back and forth – here’s the narrative, here’s the action, here’s the funny bit. But every scene and moment in the Avengers multi-tasks. Personalities shine at every moment whether it’s exposition or action, every fight is interspersed with one-liners and character connections. Moments, glances and body language ripple through the film, I’ve watched it half a dozen times and found something new each time.
If I were going to try and be a proper critic, I’d acknowledge that the story is all over the shop, with some pretty big holes in it and tenuous connections to get from A to B. It is also VERY crowded, with by my estimate a dozen main characters and another 1/2 dozen supporting ones. But I think Whedon pulled it off. While I’d like to have spent more time with every character I didn’t think anyone was particularly short changed, everyone got a big chunk of development and had significant relationships across the huge web of characters. It’s not a perfect film, but I think it’s probably as good as it could be given the insanity of the ambition. At the end of the day it was a near perfect cinema experience – I was never bored, I laughed, I sniffled, I was on the edge of my seat and I came out with the biggest smile on my face in a long time,

2) Black Panther
It never ceases to impress me how each entry into the Marvel franchise manages to do something new and different, while still fitting into the overall framework. Black Panther’s uniqueness is around blending futuristic technology with African culture and history. It is also probably the most important of the MCU films with the huge cultural significance, it is absolute insanity that in 2018 it still needed to be ‘proved’ that a film by and about African and African-American people could be a success, but prove it it did. I recommend seeking out articles by people a lot more relevant than me to comment on that. What I can comment on is that the film was a huge amount of fun. I was gripped, amused, entertained and intrigued almost all the way through. I lost a little bit of focus during the final (inevitable) big battle, but even that had an impressive amount of character and emotion in it.

3) Iron Man
The start of a film franchise like no other and after 20 other films and 11 years, the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe still holds up incredibly well. It sets the tone from the very start – big, bright, loud, flashy, witty and absolutely focused on character. It doesn’t have any huge moral rants like the X-Men, or the dark psychology of Batman, there’s no stupid love triangle like Superman or wailing teenage angst of Spider-Man. It’s just a bloke who’s very rich and builds himself a super-suit to get himself out of trouble. Robert Downey Jr is phenomenal and immediately brings a depth and complexity to Tony Stark, enriched by his relationships with equally vibrant supporting characters like Pepper, Rhodey, and even just the voice of Jarvis. It’s a huge amount of fun to watch, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without substance in story or message, just that they’re all blended together into a hugely satisfying watch.

4) Avengers Assemble
When this first came out the idea of bringing together Thor, Captain America, The Hulk and Iron Man seemed an impossible challenge. I’d been skeptical that it would be possible to bring this number of large characters together in the same place, but if anyone could do it, it would be Joss Whedon. And he did. Each character got a bit of time and there were plenty of combinations and groups that had interesting relationships. The Avengers has everything I want from a blockbuster – witty dialogue, fun characters, interesting relationships, cool toys, an understanding of its own ridiculousness and some really, really big action sequences. A massively enjoyable film from start to finish.

5) Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians is perfectly aware of how silly the premise sounds, but rather than being apologetic or snooty about it, the film-makers completely embraced it. On one hand you’ve got a spectacular sci-fi construction, with battling alien races, conflicted characters and huge special effect setups. But on the other you’ve got a gloriously cheesy 70s/80s soundtrack embedded in the film and completely hilarious, irreverent dialogue. I laughed myself silly from start to finish of this film and the experience of sharing that laughter with a near sell out cinema audience is one I cherish. It was the kind of film that everyone just plain enjoys and you end up chatting to random audience members as you leave because you’ve all just shared something that you loved. Re-watching it on dvd does lose some of the excitement, and the plot sections plodded a little, but there are still sequences that made me laugh out loud and just give me an overwhelming feeling of joy. The soundtrack is on hard rotation and always puts a smile on my face.

6) Captain America: The Winter Solider
Each strand of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own tone and Captain America is about what it means to be a soldier. In the first film that was a more classic approach of guns and warfare, The Winter Soldier though is about the more clandestine side of things. Pairing good boy soldier Captain America with pragmatic spy Black Widow is inspired and the chemistry between them is sparkling and hilarious. Of all the super heroes, Captain America is probably the one that is most about what it is to be a hero – duty, honour, loyalty – all those things are to his core. This film challenges all of those and Chris Evans beautifully delivers the complexity of a man who doesn’t know his place in the world and tries to hold true to his beliefs while also acknowledging he has to adapt. The storyline is maybe a little convoluted at times, but then it’s a spy movie so it should be. This is a film that at first doesn’t really seem to fit with the whole MCU, a completely different style to Iron Man or Thor… but now that I’ve watched it in the sequence of the whole run, it really does stand out as one of the lynch pins for the whole arc and I’m very impressed at the overall storytelling that puts that in place.

7) Captain America: The First Avenger
I had low expectations of this film, a patriotic super-soldier didn’t seem that exciting. But I was actually thoroughly entertained by it. Maybe it was the “aw schucks” charm of Chris Evans, maybe it was the hilarity of Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan delivery, or the utter joy of Hayley Atwell taking absolutely no crap. I felt Captain America did exactly what Iron Man succeeded in and Thor failed in – it took itself just seriously enough to not be daft, while not taking itself so serious it was sanctimonious. It really felt like this was a film about a real person, not about a ‘comic book hero’ in the simplistic sense, Steve Rogers felt like a fully rounded character with strengths and vulnerabilities, not an invincible emotionless automaton in a suit. Okay, the villain was daft and some of the set pieces were a bit explosion-tastic, but I cared about the characters and really enjoyed myself.

8) Ant-Man and the Wasp
This film is just plain FUN. I was utterly immersed from the first scene to the last, there was always something going on for the eye, the ear, and the heart; although the brain is probably best off if it takes a nap rather than listening to unconvincing exposition with every other word being “quantum”. Often I am bored watching fight scenes, but the creativity here had me watching every second and even wishing I could re-wind to catch more detail. I love how everyone involved plays with the ideas of shrinking and growing, fully exploring the potential. The characters are never forgotten and Marvel’s stunning casting strikes again, with all the characters falling somewhere in the middle of the hero-villain spectrum. It’s a nice change that it’s not the entire world being threatened, the more intimate stakes make a nice change and fit in the wider pacing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly. It was the perfect film to fill the gap between Infinity War and Endgame, in a way that Captain Marvel (further down the list) wasn’t.

9) Spider-Man: Homecoming
I didn’t bother going to see this in the cinema because frankly I was bored of going to see Spider-Man films. I eventually picked it up on dvd after being relentlessly told how good it was by people, and they were right. It managed to be a fresh take on the story and felt far more like an actual teenager than the previous ones did. It’s interesting how Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been pre-embedded in the Marvel universe BEFORE getting his own film, and having Tony Stark appear in this film further grounds him so his character makes more sense and is both more accepting and more acceptable as a teenager with superpowers. Despite having so much weight above it, the film still felt fresh, original and vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

10) Thor: Ragnarok
Finally a Thor film that worked for me. The first two were a bit bogged down for me, all a bit “Shakespeare in the Park”. There were flashes of humour in them, but nowhere near enough to overcome some plodding plots. Post-Avengers-Thor is a much more interesting character making the most of the considerable comic talents of Chris Hemsworth while letting the dramatic elements be shown rather than said for a change. Loki, Hulk, Banner, Dr Strange and Valkyrie all have substantial supporting roles, each with a similar blend of humour and tragedy, although it’s Korg who steals the show at every available opportunity. While there’s some pretty heavy stuff going on in this film, it is primarily just fun.

11) Iron Man 2
I really enjoyed the first film and I really enjoyed the second. I like the fact that there’s no overhyped subtitle, it really is just Iron Man 2, everything that was in the first is in the second. The strength of these films comes from the scripts, yes the effects and action sequences are spectacular, but what brings the film to life is the banter between the characters and the very real feeling dialogue of people talking over each other. The film struggles rather more when the central characters aren’t there; any time spent with the villains just dragged and plot as a whole was a bit tedious, but it’s just fun to spend time with the main characters.

12) Iron Man 3
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was everything I love about comic book movies in general and Iron Man in particular – a mixture of laugh-out-loud humour, characters I believe and care about and some edge of seat action sequences. Iron Man excels at actually blending those elements together rather than just alternating them, meaning that I was completely engrossed from before the film logos appeared until after the end of the credits. The action sequence towards the end got a little hard to follow, particularly on the small screen, and if you think about it too hard some of the character actions are a little inconsistent, but for the most part, it’s just fun to watch.

13) Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel had a fair amount of challenge to it. In release timeline it comes in just before Avengers End Game which finishes up the the 20-odd movie arc of the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But chronologically it sits almost at the start of the story, ‘introducing’ Nick Fury, Agent Coulson (both with some technically impressive, but still unsettling digital de-aging), aliens, superheros and several elements that will crop up in the earlier/later films. Plus (ridiculously) it’s the first Marvel film to be lead by a woman. Sadly all that pressure proved too much. If it had been allowed to just be a ‘little’ film in the same way some of the earlier Marvel films were, I think I’d have thought it was charming and fun. But it just felt a bit too weighed down. I spent most of the time trying to remember who the Kree were and what I already knew about Fury. The structure of the film didn’t really help that as it starts with a character who doesn’t remember her past and then tries to connect things up, so it’s all about looking for connections. Brie Larson is great – challenging without being annoying, powerful without losing vulnerability, and prickly but charming. The unexpected double act with Nick Fury was a joy. There was a lot that I should have loved about the film, but I came out feeling slightly underwhelmed and almost disappointed in myself for feeling that way.

14) Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War sets a new level of insanity for trying to merge characters and groups, there are about 2 dozen characters together, crossing genres and personalities. The gradual coalescence of the groups supports both characters and audience through the transition, personalities have mmoments to shine and key relationships can be established before it turns into a giant scrum. But there are casualties. Most characters get little more than a cameo, very few get anything resembling character development and some Avengers didn’t make the cut at all. The biggest casualty though is the plot. It’s a very rushed quest story with too many doodads and locations to easily keep track of. When watching in the cinema for the first time, it felt like an absolute roller coaster that pulled you through, but on re-watching on dvd the flaws were more obvious and frustrating.
In counter point, on first watch the film has the problem of knowing that it’s the first of two films, any early moments of possible success were obviously doomed and the weight of doom is oppressive rather than thrilling. However on re-watch, knowing how it goes it’s easier to appreciate the journey. The eventual ending was well judged I think, it felt both like a cliffhanger and a satisfactory end, which is a neat trick to pull off. I didn’t love this film as much as previous Avengers films, but that’s possibly almost all down to the fact it’s not the end, so it’s hard to come out feeling complete. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away with it. I felt it lacked the cohesion that the other Avengers films did, if felt like it was fighting with itself a bit trying to squash everything in, rather than blending humour, character, plot and action as effectively as the previous ones did.

15) Captain America: Civil War
First up, the film could just as easily have been called Avengers 3, and that might in fact have helped the balance of the film out. It didn’t really feel like a Captain America film, primarily for the huge number of characters, but more importantly because it felt like the more thoughtful elements that Captain America films have usually had were poorly delivered here. My biggest issue with the film was the contrivances. Characters and plots made no sense, they just went in the directions needed to get to the set pieces. After all the work done in the previous films to build characters, relationships and teams; it was all torn apart in an instant. No one talked to each other, no one discussed the issues, no one offered any counterpoints to arguments. After all the effort of all the previous films establishing the team and delicate relationships, it felt like a betrayal that the characters would just jump straight to punching each other.
There’s still a lot of good of course. There’s some great action sequences and lots of fun moments between different combinations of characters. The newer characters worked well and got some more depth. I particularly liked the very comic book look of many of the shots, with the iconic framing of characters looking like comic panels. This is the film I have the most problems with as a fan. It’s not that it’s a bad film, I just don’t LIKE it, I don’t believe, or don’t want to believe that the characters would behave this way to each other. It just makes me sad.

16) Ant-Man
It just didn’t work for me. It seemed to want to play up the absurdity but couldn’t quite stop taking itself seriously. Paul Rudd managed to find a balance for that most of the time, but most of the actors were trying to play it straight and didn’t quite work. I didn’t really engage with either characters or storyline and found the whole thing a bit of a trudge.

17) Thor
I think this film hovers very nervously on the border between entertainingly bonkers, and flat out terrible, and which way it topples is going to depend on your mood. The concept of Norse gods being real aliens with magic powers and an all powerful hammer is pretty daft, but I can’t help but think there was a better way to handle it than this. I think it either needed to be played completely straight, getting rid of the daft over-shiny armor and jokes, or going the other way and adding more self-mocking elements and reducing the melodrama. I think I may view the film more charitably now as part of the the whole MCU knowing the good work that Chris Hemsworth does in the future making Thor a much more interesting character, but here he bears the brunt of the hammy script with little opportunity to show his talents. Put this film up next to Iron Man and it’s a very poor comparison indeed.

18) Thor: The Dark World
There’s some absolutely sparkling dialogue in here. Really fresh, modern, quirky, witty, pithy and pointed stuff that various members of the cast deliver with a beautiful understatement that makes even the most simple of lines (“tada”) make you want to rewind just to experience their pure delight over and over. Then there’s the rest of the film, which is rubbish. It alternates ponderous legend filled plot with people/monsters/cgi-things thumping each other, neither of which held my attention in the slightest. The opening ‘prologue’ set the whole thing up to feel like a Lord of the Rings, but with all the cgi it never felt anything other than flimsy. It’s worth watching for the dialogue, but I wish the plot was better.

19) Doctor Strange
A film of missed opportunities. Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, except for the fact that he’s perfect casting because he’s basically been playing a small variant of Sherlock, so all you’ve really added is magic and a weird accent (that odd mid-atlantic, non-specific american accent that doesn’t quite work). Then the magic stuff. OK, it’s an interesting add on to the Marvel universe, but stop trying to explain it! There was SO much exposition, I kept getting bored. Then I struggled to really follow the action sequences, maybe it’s something about my eyes, but I found them too complicated, too fast moving and too layered to really focus on and get a hang of what was going on. On the plus side – Tilda Swinton was absolutely fantastic, the bickering between the wizards was fun and the “is this my mantra” line is possibly the funniest thing I’ve heard all year. But I think the rest of it was a bit mediocre, and it shouldn’t have been.

20) Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2
I really wanted to love this film. I loved the first one – for all that the plot was (literally) all over the place, everything else was just so joyful that I didn’t care. The characters, the dialogue, the SOUNDTRACK! Just happiness from start to finish. This one… just fell flat.
The opening sequence is all that the first one was – a weird musical pick that worked perfectly, a quirky approach to the classic superhero battle and I had the same smile on my face. But it didn’t last. The story turned into a trope and then didn’t poke fun at itself like the first one did, but instead actually took itself seriously. The one liners and inherent comedy of the group are still there somewhere, but got bogged down in the storyline. The final nail in the coffin – the soundtrack just didn’t have the same consistent foot tapping that the previous one did either. It was always going to be hard for this film to succeed as much as the first, as it had more expectations and completely lost the element of surprise, but it missed on so many fronts that I’m just slightly sad.

21) The Incredible Hulk
It almost feels like a cheat to name this the worst MCU film as it’s barely part of the universe, hovering somewhere between the 2004 Eric Bana film and the introduction of Mark Ruffalo in the role in The Avengers. The continued recasting of The Hulk leaves the character and the audience unsettled. Each performance is very different and makes it hard to mentally track that the events all happened to the same character. They came far too quickly to redo the foundations each time but without it and the solution here of covering half the foundation story during a rapid flashback sequence was confusing in the extreme, I had to double check that I hadn’t missed a film out. Maybe I’m just biased because I saw and loved Mark Ruffalo in the role before catching up on this film, but the casting of Edward Norton just didn’t work for me, he’s a very very fine actor but just not settled in the role. There’s also no real sense of The Hulk being a character in himself which is a complete missed opportunity. This one really is best forgotten.

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