Sunday, September 23, 2012

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Best To Worst


With The Avengers coming out on Blu-ray and DVD on Tuesday, I thought I’d share my ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Phase One is over, and it was one hell of a ride. Phase Two begins next spring with the release of Iron Man 3 on May 3, and with Joss Whedon shaping this new slate of films and the choice of directors, Phase Two looks like it may just surpass Phase One. Phase One still delivered a very good assortment of films, comic book films that didn’t insult the audience’s intelligence and actually delivered lots of fun while also telling good stories with characters that you want to see more of.

Comic book fans can correct me on this, but I believe this is a sort of Golden Age for comic book films. Sure, Spider-Man really kicked things off ten years ago, but ever since the 2008 releases of Iron Man and The Dark Knight, the genre has seen a lot of success and while there is an occasional critical dud, there’s still the good stuff. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy delivered, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe films show what Marvel Studios can achieve without all that executive interference. Now that they are under Disney, think of all the exciting possibilities. They are at their best now.

Once in a while you’ll get your naysayers complaining, “There’s too much comic book films!” No, there needs to be more. More good ones. The genre is really going through a boom right now, and it should keep going as long as we get more good superhero films. Why be against that? Even if you’re not into this kind of thing? It’s not like countless mindless films about vampires or robots or whatever is hot at the moment, these are films based on comics that have been around for decades with compelling characters and great story lines that may or may not have translated well to film decades ago. In fact, it’s just what we need in today’s big event movie landscape. Bad comic book films won’t stain that either.

As for the Phase Two films, we’ve heard some exciting news about Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World, and no doubt those should be critically and commercially successful for Marvel and Disney. Not as much news has surfaced on the rest of the upcoming slate, but from what has been revealed, there’s excitement and anticipation everywhere. It’ll interesting to re-rank these films in 2015 when the untitled Avengers sequel shows up.

Disclaimer: As I've said many times before on here, my comic book knowledge is rather rusty. I review these comic book films as films on their own, rather than adaptations of the source material.

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#1. Iron Man
Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Mark Fergus, Matt Holloway, Art Marcum and Hawk Ostby
Produced by Avi Arad and Kevin Feige
Released on May 2, 2008 by Paramount Pictures

What can be said about Iron Man that hasn’t been said many times before? It is often considered the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films aside from The Avengers, and a lot of is of course due to Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as Tony Stark. Many will tell you, it was perfect casting. It was. Robert Downey Jr. effortlessly brings out every side of Tony Stark: The jerk, the playboy, the occasional hero and the techie. Aside from Robert Downey Jr., the rest of the cast knocks it out of the park. Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance as Pepper Potts is a nice contrast to Stark’s ego. They also got none other than Jeff Bridges to play Obadiah Stane, a great intimidating villain. The writers keep his plans in the dark, and when we find out that he orchestrated Stark's capture, the story locks together perfectly. Terrence Howard’s performance as James Rhodes is a bit dry at times, but he delivers a satisfying job: He’s basically Stark’s good buddy, but he was replaced by Don Cheadle for the second film, who delivers a more energetic performance but is also lacking.

Iron Man works well because the story is handled perfectly, without ever completely slowing down or weaving unnecessary subplots into it. Tony Stark’s escape from the cave and Stark’s fight against the attack on Yensin’s village make for solid action sequences, with none of the loud, flashiness that defines other summer blockbusters. This film takes it time to tell the story, Effects-wise, it’s pretty to look at. The design of Stark’s Iron Man suits was pulled off perfectly, along with the other technology he has, when you watch it, you want it. Also, take a moment and consider the soundtrack and score. Ramin Djawadi’s hard rock-fueled score and the use of several rock songs define Stark’s character and the overall action-packed zest of the film, instead of your usual score for an action film. Again, it nails the tone perfectly.

Not much else to praise since it all works, Iron Man is comic book excitement that explodes onto the screen but it never spares a good story, development or respect for the audience. It got praise for being a smart action blockbuster, and deservedly so. It proves you can have fun while also making an exceptional film out of it.

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#2. The Avengers
Directed by Joss Whedon
Screenplay by Joss Whedon
Produced by Kevin Feige
Released on May 4, 2012 by Walt Disney Pictures

We all know it. Joss Whedon had one hell of a job when directing The Avengers. Tying together those characters, their backstories, developing them, while also introducing new characters and making a two-and-a-half hour action film out of it is no easy task. Under someone else, like others have said, this could’ve been a massive disaster. Not under Whedon. The Avengers is a dream come true, even as an action-packed, effect-heavy blockbuster. It does what several of those blockbusters do wrong. It is the quintessential “fun at the movies” film.

But why? The plot is rather typical, Loki desires to subjugate the population of the world and is bringing an army of creatures called the Chitauri with him. We know why Loki is up to no good, but Joss Whedon does more than just teaming the four heroes (plus Black Widow and Hawkeye) up for a big battle to save Earth. Since all of them are so different from each other, Whedon latches onto all the opportunities. The result is some very sharp writing that’s laced with humor that a hardly ever fails to make you burst out laughing. It’s even weaved into the film’s thrilling and climactic finale, only amplifying the fun.

Aside from all that enjoyment, the characters keep everything soaring. The dialogue, the interactions between these characters and arguments really elevate this film. This could be any mindless joyride, but it’s more than just that. Whedon knows these characters, and by the time the final half hour rolls in, it makes everything all the more exciting. Whether it’s Tony Stark’s inflated ego or Steve Roger’s old time American mindset or Thor’s godly presence, everything is handled perfectly.

What else works? Mark Ruffalo’s performance as Bruce Banner equals Edward Norton’s (which is a different performance for a character with a different state of mind), and sometimes even trumps it. The Hulk gets some fantastic moments, and again, the writers use his actions for some great comedy for the film’s final battle. Black Widow is a much more interesting character this time around, since Scarlett Johansson is working with far better writing than what she had in Iron Man 2. Speaking of which, it is also fortunate that The Avengers didn’t come off as an Iron Man sequel featuring the other characters. Everyone is given a good amount of screen time and development.

In the end, Joss Whedon and the team certainly nailed almost everything. While there were a few things that don’t work as well such as the flimsy first ten minutes, and Thor could’ve gotten a little more screen time despite the amount he already has. The rest is almost flawless. Action scenes? Some of the best you’ll see in a comic book film. The thrills are there and the comedy works off of them perfectly. Alan Silvestri’s score is good, but it’s the anthemic Avengers theme during the final battle that’ll stay in your head. The cast delivers, the action is great and the character development makes the most out of its thin plot. The Avengers does action-packed entertainment the right way. Sure it won’t spur any deep conversations or thoughts, but does it have to? It sets to be a great action-adventure.

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#3. Captain America: The First Avenger
Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Produced by Kevin Feige
Released on July 22, 2011 by Paramount Pictures

Out of all the non-Iron Man Marvel Cinematic Universe films, this one has the best writing. The screenplay is tight, knowing the material it’s working with. A lot of the elements are decidedly campy, much like in Thor, but more rooted in reality. What it gets down well is the first act, where the young Steve Rogers aspires to fight alongside the soldiers during World War II. Chris Evans brings out a patriotic, dedicated character whose motivations are incredibly strong. His apparent dorky tendencies make him a charming, likable character. This goes against the rather bland Johann Schmidt/Red Skull. Hugo Weaving gives a great, hammy and sometimes menacing performance but the character is lacking. The story knows this too, it moves him out of sight, simply rendering him a power-hungry threat to the world. We keep seeing him and his Peter Lorre-esque sidekick experimenting on weapons for H.Y.D.R.A., but we don't really get to know much about his desires aside from wanting to outdo Adolf Hitler.

What is surprisingly strong is the chemistry between Rogers and Peggy Carter (played by Hayley Atwell), a relationship that actually works so well that the bittersweet endings does have a melancholic twang, differing heavily from the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films. The story focuses mostly on Rogers and the soldiers once they get to Germany. The connections to The Avengers are also there: The Tesseract, Howard Stark and the attack on Tonsberg, Norway. They are worked into the story quite well, instead of being obvious like they are in Iron Man 2. When Rogers becomes Captain America, it goes Incredible Hulk on us and lunges us into an action-packed third act. Fortunately, there was a lot of character development and satisfying action that leads up to it.

Director Joe Johnston goes for a retro-futuristic vibe, with the retro elements coming off as a very nice touch. The futuristic imagery is nice, especially the designs of the buildings and H.Y.D.R.A.’s technology. The Red Skull’s car is also a standout, one of the coolest looking things in the film. Alan Silvestri’s score is as patriotic as the character and the tone of the film, having a timeless feel to it. More importantly, Captain America’s greatest strength is that it proves that you can tell an action-packed story in a traditional way, rather than through constant eye-candy or explosions. Retro, delightful and at times a heartfelt film, Captain America: The First Avenger is blockbuster fun done right with a nice tribute to the action films of yesteryear.

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#4. Thor
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Don Payne and Zack Stentz
Produced by Kevin Feige
Released on May 6, 2011 by Paramount Pictures

Combining a Shakespearian story set in another world with a Marvel action film was no easy task, which one may forget when watching Thor. How do you bring those two different styles together? Kenneth Branagh does so, but there are some problems along the way. Thor, much like Iron Man 2, has a main storyline that is leading up to The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D.'s role is more prominent here than it is in the other films, and we even get a Hawkeye cameo on the sequence where Thor tries to retrieve Mjonir. It is also the most fantasy-oriented of the films, as future films will continue this with the coming Thor sequel and Guardians of the Galaxy. The writers do what they can, with two things that clash heavily. This kind of fantasy would've seemed out of place early on, in the Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk. Thor more than prepares audiences for what's to come, so they toy around with a fish out of water story that's actually pulled off well. Thor's Asgardian actions on Earth provide the best laughs in the film.

Unfortunately, some of the intentionally cheesy dialogue of the Asgard scenes tends to get distracting. Odin banishing Thor to Earth could've been a well-written scene, but Anthony Hopkins yells in an over-the-top manner ("to the horrors of waaaaaarrrrr!") that it's almost like a parody. Asgard's design is a mixed bag. Parts of it look majestic, pretty and intricate. Others are gaudy, too shiny, and a bit excessive. Joutenheim looks better, a dark and icy world with a forbidding atmosphere. The Frost Giants are effectively menacing with their red eyes and deep voices. Branagh also milks the Dutch angle for all its worth, and on the Earth scenes, it tends to look awkward.

Chris Hemsworth delivers a good performance as the Thunder God, while the rest of the cast does well enough. Tom Hiddleston's Loki speaks eloquently, but there's a malicious and troubled spirit hiding behind that, which effectively comes out in the final act battle. The Warriors Three and Lady Sif are also a bit on the campy, especially in the amusing scene where they first come to Earth to aid Thor in battle with the Destroyer. Natalie Portman's character is a bit bland, but the writers thankfully keep the relationship between Thor and Foster hush-hush up until the third act. Kat Denning's Darcy character is there to provide some comic relief, but she doesn't go all Jar Jar Binks on us though she tends to be a bit too chatty, but the script itself is aware of that.

Thor may have a jumbled plot, but it tries its hardest to tie everything together: Thor's story, Jane Foster's story, S.H.I.E.L.D., the Avengers set ups and the supporting cast. It makes for an entertaining film, as it never really falls apart since there is enough glue to keep things together.

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#5. The Incredible Hulk
Directed by Louis Letterier
Screenplay by Zak Penn and Edward Norton
Produced by Avi Arad, Gale Anne Hurd and Kevin Feige
Released on June 13, 2008 by Universal Pictures

The biggest problem with The Incredible Hulk is that it isn't the film that Louis Leterrier set out to make. His original version focused on the backstory more than anything, with frequent flashbacks to Bruce Banner's first hulk out. In the finished film, most of them are used for the opening credits. It sets things up nicely, but without this, the middle of the film begins to fall apart. The main antagonist (Emil Blonsky) seems like an eleventh hour inclusion, and there isn't much to him to begin with. The third act conclusion is also rushed, as if the film had run out of time and had to immediately jump to its climactic final battle.

Edward Norton delivers a good performance as Banner, bringing out a frustrated fugitive who is intelligent, determined and calculated. Lou Ferrigno returns to provide the growl of the Hulk, though the CGI work is questionable at best. It's hard to make a cartoony green monster life-like, but with the budget they had and what they had to work with, it's passable. This also counts for Abomination. Liv Tyler straddles between good and exaggerated, particularly when her character gets angry. William Hurt brings out a tough guy jerk in General Ross, but he's not necessarily sympathetic in the last act. The best performance is provided by Tim Blake Nelson, who plays Sterns, who is comically nerdy and just plain likable. If Marvel goes through with a sequel to this film, I'd like to see more of him.

What really works in the film is some of the cinematography of the first act, as we see some great scenery of the rain forests and Rio de Janeiro. Craig Armstrong's score isn't too bad, either. At times it's rather front and center. The action scenes are expectedly good, while not spectacular. A scene where Hulk is stopped by too sonic canons generates some thrills, as does the whole sequence where he is attacked on campus. Hulk and Abomination's battle goes on for quite a while, but does it job. It's a satisfying climax, but the editing and staging feel like it's a different film. The Incredible Hulk is ultimately a modest superhero film, and one that attempts to undo what the Ang Lee film did. Instead of focusing too much on Banner himself, it goes the action-packed route for its second half and shuffles what we saw early on to the side.

Louis Letterier's original cut is certainly different, as evidenced by the available deleted scenes, and had more character development. Some of the scenes clear a few things up too. Other scenes would've made the third act a lot better, such as the argument between General Ross and Betty. It's reduced to a few lines in the film, not saying much about Ross' character other than a few things. Leterrier also shows how more dialogue-driven he wanted this story to be, with less action, in the early Rio de Janeiro scenes. Norton and the studio were opposed to Leterrier's vision, and the result was something a little more audience-fairly, hence the change in story halfway through, a change that sometimes works. Perhaps Letterier's original would've been just as problematic, we may never know unless Marvel releases a director's cut.

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#6. Iron Man 2
Directed by Jon Favreau
Screenplay by Justin Theroux
Produced by Kevin Feige
Released on May 7, 2010 by Paramount Pictures

Iron Man 2 had quite a lot to live up to, as the first film came out of nowhere and wowed audiences. The perfect casting was not only what elevated it, but the film had a sense of energy and wonder. This was lacking in a lot of the action-packed summer blockbusters that preceded. It gave audiences the brains that they deserve in their high octane action films. Iron Man was so successful that Marvel couldn't pass up a sequel, as director Jon Favreau originally set out to make Iron Man a trilogy, though with The Incredible Hulk and two unscheduled films based on Captain America and Thor in the works, they'd have to cram a sequel in there somewhere before The Avengers. Iron Man 2 is a victim of this, plus interference from Marvel's executives. Like The Incredible Hulk, it isn't the director's original vision. Iron Man 2 is often criticized for being a feature-length Avengers commercial, but it only becomes that during the muddled second act of the story, which takes everything that works early on into a black hole. It only gets out by the third act, making for a rather hasty conclusion. What's admirable about the build up to the conclusion is that Tony Stark actually gets to see that his father really did care about him. We get to know about Howard Stark and the kind of person he was, and the nods at Walt Disney's futurism in the 1960s were also a nice plus.

What doesn't work is a near-disaster. Tony's alcoholism is subtly touched upon, along with his slow demise due to the palladium. The filmmakers attempt to show us what consequences it will lead to, but it's wasted on a party scene. Tony has fun destroying things tons of girls throw into the air, until Rhodes (now played by Don Cheadle) has to stop him. This scene has a lot of potential, but it lacks any real intensity and just feels cartoony. The scene where Stark hits Rhodes with the weights sums it up as the DJ cranks out beats. It's too silly to take seriously. Stark in his suit eating atop a donut shop? Is this a parody of Iron Man? Black Widow's character is handled poorly, who feels shoehorned in.

What about the villain? Ivan Vanko (played by Mickey Rourke, who delivers a pretty good performance) comes on like a great threat to Tony Stark, and for a good reason. Howard Stark and Vanko's father had a falling out over the creation of the Arc Reactor (which is thankfully touched upon by Nick Fury later on in the film), and he has the power to really take Stark down. The Monaco scene starts out great, Tony eventually defeats the vengeful physicist and he breaks out of jail later on. Then he's kept in the background for most of the second act, until appearing again in the third act and being easily defeated by Iron Man and War Machine after a lengthy battle with the drones. Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer character is a bit more effective, a rival to Stark and a jerk to boot, but that's what defines him.

Iron Man 2 is close to being a very good film, but instead it's a decent action film that collapses when the stakes should be raised. It has to fight its way back up afterwards with a jumble of ideas, but by that time, it's almost over. It makes for a satisfying sequel, but one that doesn't reach the brilliance of its predecessor. Still, the cast knocks it out of the park for the most part and the scenes that work save the film from the mediocrity of other summer blockbusters.

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How would you rank the six Marvel Cinematic Universe films? Do you think the Phase Two films will be great? Perhaps better than Phase One's batch of films? Sound off!

2 comments:

  1. I very much enjoyed all six films, and I thought Avengers tied them all together beautifully. I'm very excited to see what Phase II brings us. I agree with you that this is a Golden Age for superhero movies, let's hope the next wave of them is as great as the first.

    Looking forward to picking up Avengers on Tuesday.

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  2. Agree entirely, Kyle! Well, I might be tempted to swap Iron Man and The Avengers - technically speaking, I know Iron Man is a better film (certainly the most original!) but Avengers is do damn fun! I just watched it again on Blu Ray last night, if anything it gets better with each re-watch!

    Also agree that Cap's the best Iron Man-less one. I think The Incredible Hulk gets too much bad, it was a pretty fun film!

    Agree with Al too, can't wait for Phase 2, and 3, and 4! Hell, all of it! Excited to see the direction shift to the cosmic slightly with Guardians of the Galaxy coming up.

    Good article!

    ReplyDelete