Sunday, July 19, 2015

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe Films (Phase 2 Edition)


Seven years into its run, the thrilling, ever-changing, ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe has reached the closing of its second phase... A mere three years after Phase 1's ending film was released, The Avengers...

While Phase 1 gave us fresh new superhero stories that provided fun, action, great characters, and more than serviceable writing, Phase 2 opened new doors. Phase 1's biggest challenge was introducing characters who weren't as well-known to the general public, some of which may have gotten film adaptations (Captain America is a fine example) in the past, but ones that didn't make them popular like the likes of Spider-Man and the X-Men. Iron Man, the big risk, the starter of this whole series, a way for Marvel to possibly get out of financial jeopardy... Not only did this very film save them, but started something fresh and unique, something that became huge in the box office world, something that other Hollywood studios are trying to replicate, hoping to see similar successes...

Now that I have seen Ant-Man, the closer to Phase 2, I will now re-rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. So without further ado... Also, spoilers ahead...

~


#12 - IRON MAN 2
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Justin Theroux
Released on May 7, 2010

Iron Man 2 was perhaps the most troubled of all the Marvel Studios productions, and it shows...

Prior to the release of Iron Man, were there any plans to do a sequel between the first film and the release of The Avengers? As far as I remember, Iron Man sequels were certainly a possibility prior to the first film's release in 2008. Even after the first film came out, director Jon Favreau had some interesting ideas, making the Mandarin a sort-of "pulling the strings" final villain that would make his proper appearance in a third film, he is certainly hinted at in the first film.

Iron Man was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which was a massive risk in itself, much like Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. A film based on what some people regarded as a B-list character, and a film that the entire MCU and Marvel's future hinged on. Iron Man was not only a hit, but a smash hit. The armored superhero's first story took off, big time... After it took off, a full slate of movies that capped off at The Avengers - then slated for a summer 2011 release - was unveiled. Iron Man 2 was fast tracked, moved full steam ahead, and had a summer 2010 release date to meet. Favreau had less than two years with this one, and the resulting film does feel very rushed, unsure of itself, and all over the place...

Iron Man 2 isn't all bad, in fact it's much better than some give it credit for. The biggest problem with Iron Man 2 is not that it's something of a mess, but because it is also disappointing considering that the sky was the limit after the first Iron Man ended. The sequel doesn't feel bigger, it's much more ho-hum and a tad uneventful in ways. If this were not a sequel, these flaws could probably be forgiven, but what the film does in its middle portion derails a potentially great and darker story. Not a Dark Knight-like uptick, but a story that could've shown our heroic Iron Man in a more negative light.

The first third of this film, I feel, equals the first Iron Man in terms of quality. A much more powerful villain with better motivations is promised, the trademark Tony Stark humor is back in full force, we see Tony becoming more and more of problem. The new foe, the menacing and disheveled Ivan Vanko, seems very promising in the film's first third. He wants revenge on Tony because of what Tony's father did to his father. All very good stuff, plus he's pretty intimidating and puts together a cool weaponized suit using Stark technology.

Everything from the film's opening to the end of the party sequence sets up a great sequel that end up not getting...

From Tony's drinking problems to the fact that he's slowly dying, we are somewhat promised a tense and darker plot that makes Tony less of a good guy. This is mostly buffered by a subplot where Vanko takes a backseat to Stark rival Justin Hammer, a character who - despite a a wonderfully cocky and arrogant performance by Sam Rockwell - doesn't come off as much of a palpable threat. The direction brings more build-up, though. This stretch shows that film is going somewhere interesting, so what does the film do after Tony does some bad things that put his friends and others in danger?

The film decides to go in a completely different direction.

Gone is the story of Tony's mistakes while a vengeful villain plots against him, in comes an Avengers prequel. Tony is put under house arrest, a surefire way to re-introduce S.H.I.E.L.D. into the picture, not that it doesn't work, but this isn't really Tony's story anymore. Nick Fury gets his proper introduction and while it's cool to see him and Natasha Romanoff, it's still little more than just fun set-up stuff that doesn't really add much to the film we were getting, maybe other than a scene where Fury and Tony talk about the man's father. Romanoff is nothing more than eye-candy here, given a couple action sequences but little else. Very few sheds of the movie that was playing before this one came in shine through the muddled and grounded middle.

What does work during this often-criticized stretch is the father subplot. Adding a little heart, the scene where Tony watches his father's films finally injects some much-needed character development into the picture whilst continuing on what worked earlier in the film. Meanwhile, Vanko and Hammer are still at work, but for some reason they seem to feel like less and less of a real danger. Maybe it's because Tony is no longer the guy who is hurting himself, making things more predictable. Rhodes all of a sudden becomes War Machine for Hammer, though that element thankfully does not feel out of place. After Tony watches the home movies, it's too late to do anything else with the "Tony's issues" story. We're in act three now! Gotta move! So the script now has Tony doing things right, whilst hastily - so fast, it's faster than Quicksilver - making a new arc reactor that can save his life, and then it's onto the big showdown with Vanko and the drones! Rush, rush, rush!

The climax is certainly lots of fun, having overall well-conceived, slick action. Iron Man certainly had good action, but something feels cleaner and more professional about this picture. Iron Man was admittedly a little indie film that also happened to be a blockbuster, this feels like a full-on big-scale movie. James Rhodes' ascension to superhero status may have been super-quick, but at least we get to see him and Tony in suits fighting together. The moment they are inside the glass dome fighting the drones is truly a real joy to watch, but the boss battle with Vanko is woefully short. A great set-piece could've come from this, but the Russian baddie is defeated in seconds...

The better elements keep Iron Man 2 above water during the disappointing second half. The script is a real mess and real stakes are diluted, but the film doesn't stop short on supplying the fun you want from an MCU film and an Iron Man film. Tony's personality and humor are kept, and even though the humor tends to go overboard (did we really need a scene where Tony wets himself inside one of the suits?), it's good that it hasn't been sacrificed in attempt to make the story darker. The action setpieces are all well-shot and realized, with some genuine "wow" moments here and there. The film also doesn't succumb to the traps that other summer blockbusters of this size normally walk right into. The heart is certainly in the right place, here.

All in all it's an entertaining entry in the series, but in terms of the story and the script, it's easily the weakest. A plot with so much potential is ultimately wasted, and we settle for a decent blockbuster-type actioner in the end. With so much to juggle and so little time to do it, it's amazing that it still comes out an enjoyable film with some good ideas...

~


#11 - THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Directed by Alan Taylor
Written by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus
and Stephen McFeely
Released on November 8, 2013

Like Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World was a very troubled production. The Thunder God's sequel also had a similar production timeframe, which most likely didn't help. One director walked after "creative differences" (the usual), the replacement - Games of Thrones episode director Alan Taylor - was reportedly rough to work with, plus they had a short timespan to get the film done. Joss Whedon even had to fly to England to retool some sections of the film, it was a mess that was somehow saved in post-production...

Unlike Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World has some actual stakes that it does not ignore. The threat is much more present, and there is a clear end goal without any muddle getting in the way. With no overt set-up stuff and no unnecessary subplots that knock everything off course, the film is much more linear and much more cohesive. So what doesn't work?

Unfortunately, Thor: The Dark World seems to disregard character development much like Iron Man 2. Thematically it's one of the more "nothing" kind of MCU films, a straightforward good guys vs. the bad guys story. Thor is certainly a very likable character, but not much is done with him in this film, unlike the first Thor. In that film, we see him transition from an arrogant upstart into a more humble man, and that film also has an emotional core at its center. Here? No progression whatsoever, and very little emotion. The plot is too basic: A new villain rises, Thor has to stop him. Nothing more.

All of the problems can be detected in the murky and rather uneventful first act, which strangely feels boring, lurching along until Malekith and the Dark Elves invade Asgard. After the chaos goes down, Thor begins to face some actual challenges that test him, such as defying Odin and actually teaming up with an imprisoned Loki to stop Malekith. Now this is thrilling stuff, and it really bolsters the film's second half. The second half has everything the lethargic first half needed: Fun, stakes, some character development (sure it's minuscule, but it's welcome!), twists, surprises, and thrilling action. Sometimes the film even borders on going bonkers, what with its crazy climactic battle that takes Thor and Malekith through London and some of the other Nine Realms, even bringing a Jotunheim beast into the streets! So much fun to watch, and so well-directed!

Still, Thor: The Dark World suffers in other areas. Malekith is certainly creepy and intimidating, but he's a very cardboard villain in terms of his personality. Not like The Red Skull, who is equally basic as a villain, but he's more fun to watch onscreen. Malekith is your typical menacing-voice baddie, who just walks around looking and sounding evil. There are too many Earth scenes too, as we already got enough Earth in the first film. We should've seen more of Asgard and Svartalfheim, the film's titular setting. The Dark World itself is barely visited and it's just another generic barren wasteland. Asgard on the other hand looks wonderful, and has a much more appealing color scheme and aesthetic this time around.

Alan Taylor's directing is consistent and at times very lovely, as Kenneth Branagh wasn't at his finest in sections of the first Thor, though Taylor's directing is mostly average and doesn't have the epic, Shakespearian, weighty feel that Branagh brought to his film. Under better circumstances, Branagh would've knocked all of Thor out of the park, the same goes for Taylor. Both good directors, both working under pressure.

Oddly enough, Loki really steals the show. He makes quick appearances before the attack on Asgard, but he dominates the energetic second half. The dynamic between him and Thor is very fun, and seeing the two work together is also a treat, as we see more of the brilliance of his powers. However, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif should've been in it more. Jane Foster is back and actually does something, Darcy remains the comic relief and she doesn't get too annoying.

Thor: The Dark World is kind of a glass half-full entry in this series. The whole film should've been on the level of its second half, plus it could've used more character development. On the whole it's a fun fantasy sci-fi adventure with some surprises here and there, but it could've been much more.

~


#10. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Directed by Louis Leterrier
Written by Zak Penn and Edward Norton
Released on June 13, 2008

Yet another troubled production, The Incredible Hulk seems to get a lot of flack. Some say that the picture doesn't feel as connected to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the other films. This is probably due to the fact that the actor playing Bruce Banner here didn't stick around for the future films of this series, a very competent Edward Norton who seemed to want control over the story and direction, hence making the film's trip to completion a rather rough one. Being the second film in the MCU, perhaps the canon's vibe hadn't been locked down just yet. That wit that makes the films immediately recognizable really isn't here. Marvel Studios hadn't quite defined their stamp just yet, so the film could feel like someone else's blockbuster. Lastly, the directing is among the weakest of the canon's films, not that the directing is bad, but a lot of it - with all due respect to Leterrier - is rather ho-hum and just kind of there.

That all doesn't make The Incredible Hulk a bad film, though. Evolving from what was going to be a sequel to the 2003 Hulk directed by Ang Lee, The Incredible Hulk feels like a soft reboot that was really meant to bring the character into the MCU rather than being a great origin tale, but they still tell a worthwhile Banner-on-the-run story. Perhaps the only full-on action-drama in the series, the film has a first third that is mostly quiet, sometimes weighty, and intimate, though it does a fine job introducing Bruce and his dilemma. The decision to quickly retell the origin story in the film's opening credits was a smart one, because you don't always need to introduce a superhero that way. It gives you the basic idea without sparing anything important, and it kicks the film off to a great start. Originally, the intention was to retell the origin in flashbacks throughout the film, but that just would've made it clunky plus we know what happens. Why not tell it all up front?

Edward Norton actually does a good job as Banner, bringing out his determination and intelligence. However, the performance is a country mile from Mark Ruffalo's more energetic and inviting take on the character. Everyone else is pretty good too, especially William Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross, and it will be great to see him return in next year's Captain America: Civil War. The story does a good job setting up future Marvel films without being blatant whilst focusing on Banner, his return to the United States, and his relationship with Betty Ross. Solid character development isn't left out, and when the action has to happen, it's handled very well too! The film, however, remains intimate and not "big".

The story begins to fall apart by its third act, unfortunately. Abomination feels a bit like an eleventh hour inclusion. Emil Blonsky is fine as an antagonist, but it feels like they just had to have a third-act final battle, one that takes the story of Banner's issues with General Ross off the track. Sometimes superhero films get criticized for having third-act giant battles (The Wolverine being a good, recent example), The Incredible Hulk could've subverted that by having a different kind of conclusion while still having a lot of action and thrills. The Hulk vs. Abomination fight is still exciting enough, but it feels like it was tacked on. The Leader is also teased, but that ultimately went nowhere, further distancing this chapter from its MCU counterparts. Still, Samuel Sterns makes for a good addition to the story and the brief screen time he gets is good stuff.

While not the most memorable film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredible Hulk is an overall well-made action-drama that doesn't resort to being po-faced (I'm looking at you, Man of Steel), it's got some good action, the main characters are well-developed, and the pacing is also just right. An overlooked addition the series...

~


#9 - THOR
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz
and Don Payne
Released on May 6, 2011

Thor, despite being a good origin story for the character, is more or less a better version of Iron Man 2. Treading too close to that film's waters, Thor is a bit too hung up on setting up The Avengers and establishing the connections between the different films, especially with S.H.I.E.L.D.'s presence. However, S.H.I.E.L.D. actually has something to do with the main plot, and I for one quite like Thor's journey through this often-criticized entry.

Your classic story of an arrogant type being humbled, Thor may seem a bit basic, but the actors all do a fine job, the world building is satisfying, and the plot chugs briskly from start to finish without detours. The Asgard scenes are hindered by a rather questionable design scheme, but the Shakespearian epic scope (and cheese) that director Kenneth Branagh brings to the world makes for a cool vibe. Though we see less and less of that realm when Thor ends up on Earth, it's not like the Earth scenes are bad either. The Earth scenes are thankfully set in a desert town and are calm, quiet, and never too noisy. Thor's relationship with Jane Foster is a bit rushed, but it mostly works. Thor's quest to retain Mjolnir is also a very cool set piece that doesn't rely on spectacle and big booms, as we get to see him fight without such godly powers. The fish-out-of-water humor is far from tired, too, as that "otherworldly being comes to Earth" base produces some of the film's biggest laughs.

The main story works just fine, it's just that the film is trying to juggle that and Avengers set-up stuff. It's weaved into the story a lot more effectively, what with S.H.I.E.L.D. reasonably driving the plot in the second act. Perhaps the film slogs a tiny bit when it's on Earth, and perhaps we could've seen more of Asgard. Thor definitely doesn't qualify as an action-blockbuster great, but its heart, its core, and its character development are arguably overlooked. Like the other MCU installments, the script uses comic relief where it's needed while having those great character moments that little-by-little establish their personalities in spades.

On the whole it just isn't spectacular as a film. A good part of it feels undercooked in a way, Branagh directs some scenes with sparkle, others he does not. This sort of wishy-washiness permeates most of Phase 1. There's a feeling of unsureness and a slight lack of confidence in the Phase 1 entries, even Iron Man and The Avengers to some extent, but that's absent the much better-made Phase 2 installments. Those films mostly boast better cinematography, better scores, more energy, and are a little less laborious. Maybe once you get the origins out of the way, you go explore...

Thor gets affected by this Phase 1 problem the most, but that shouldn't have been an issue because this is a more cosmic, high fantasy story. Asgard, as mentioned earlier, could've looked a lot better and there could've been more verve with some of those sequences. Branagh nails some of them, but he doesn't land others. The same goes for the earthbound plot...

~


#8 - AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Directed by Joss Whedon
Written by Joss Whedon
Released on May 1, 2015

Naturally, Avengers: Age of Ultron is one of the very definitions of "bigger"... Not in the way you might think, though...

Avengers: Age of Ultron is certainly mammoth in scope, what with its big villain who has a pretty massive army, much like Loki and his Chituari. The climax involves a whole city being lifted into the air, a city and its ground beneath that are going to be used as a vibranium-powered meteor of sorts that will destroy humanity. The story globe-hops, taking us to Seoul, the fictional African location Wakanda, and fictional European country Sokovia... And even a nice little farmhouse deep in the American countryside! There are more allies to The Avengers, too. It's definitely bigger than its predecessor in those ways. However, Avengers: Age of Ultron has a much more complex and deep, even psychological story boiling under the big-budget surface...

I feel that most of the critics who have given Avengers: Age of Ultron negative scores perhaps need to see it again. I certainly needed to see it again, because I pretty much saw a well-made action film the first time around. The second time around, I saw something more... It wasn't just another Marvel movie, it wasn't just another action film...

The film dives into the psyches of the characters, working off of the introduction of newcomer Scarlet Witch and her powers. These are characters we already know so much about, but the story feels the need to explore them even further. Ultron, an impressive villain that is one of the better MCU menaces, is even more fascinating because he is really an extension of Tony Stark's rather compulsive need to create big solutions to things he perceives as big problems that only something huge can handle - like a force or an army that could backfire on him and those who are close to him. Building an Iron Legion to police the world, it's one step further to his siding with the government over the Superhero Registration Act when Civil War rolls along, while also showing his old Iron Man 3 attitude. Now that functions as both excellent character development for a guy we've seen a lot of in four movies, and a very subtle set-up for future events in this series.

Even more impressive is the relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff. Banner ends up facing the real consequences of turning into the green giant, emphasized beautifully in a thrilling but also harrowing setpiece in Johannesburg. There is an excellent emotional sequence set inside Hawkeye's safe house where Banner talks to Romanoff about his past, and Romanoff comforts him by talking about her dark past, a scene that shows that their romance in the film is more than just that, they truly connect on a deep level. All of this development and warmth perhaps didn't need to be here, but Joss Whedon brought it to the table and amplified it. Quieter moments like these were, I think, the best parts of this big epic with cities being lifted into the air and boom-bang robot fights.

Hawkeye gets a real boost too, as he's more personable and humorous this time around, and it's great to learn more about him and his life outside of hero work. Thor continues to get the shaft here, though he is instrumental in the plot towards the end. New faces Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver immediately shine, the former in particular. The Vision, though introduced rather quickly, is a real show-stealer with some jaw-dropping powers. On top of the character work, the seeds for the future films are sown so subtly.

Another wonderful element of the film comes from Scarlet Witch herself, the scenes where she uses her powers to give a majority of the Avengers horrific, warped, and often surreal visions. Thor and Captain America's visions stick out in particular, but it's Black Widow's past that's truly unsettling and mysterious, a vision that masterfully details some of her past. The Marvel Cinematic Universe rarely ever had "scary" or unsettling up until this point, but I feel some of these moments really tread into that kind of nightmarish territory in their own unique way. I just love that the film goes this direction, making it more than just another Marvel film, as if Phase 2's films didn't do that already. (Yet people still complain.) These dream sequences are elevated by the stylistic choices Mr. Whedon makes, differentiating them yet keeping them mysterious and ominous.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is easily one of the most ambitious films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it's also one of the boldest and it certainly doesn't leave out a flair for the weird and surreal. For all its ambitions and surprises, the sequel kind of falls short in other departments. The film feels lethargic in places, and has a rather ugly color scheme that I'm just getting sick of seeing in movies today. The cinematography is good, but the way the action scenes are conceived and edited doesn't always work. For some scenes, the staging greatly emphasizes a struggle such as the Avengers' battle with Ultron's bots during the climax, but others are awkwardly-conceived and as a result aren't that thrilling. There are flashes of exciting directing outside of the nightmares, one of my favorite moments is a scene that last mere seconds: Scarlet Witch backing out of a door after encountering Cap for the first time.

The script has some structural issues, too, due to the higher ups that Whedon and Marvel President Kevin Feige reportedly fight with over what goes into the movies... You have to give it to Mr. Whedon. He was tasked with handling all of this material and cramming the stuff into a 2 1/2 hour film whilst meeting demands, some of which being rather ridiculous... He managed to still keep the film very good, exciting, and fresh, even if some of it doesn't add up.

Major props to him and achieving all of that, but I reckon a longer cut is better...

~


#7. ANT-MAN
Directed by Peyton Reed
Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish
Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd
Released on July 17, 2015

The "everything burger" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or a massive smorgasbord of different genres and ideas. Ant-Man on the surface may seem like a Mask of Zorro-type story, but below the exterior lies not only a funny, heartfelt redemption tale, but also a thrilling and clever heist actioner with sprinkles of sci-fi and surreal comedy. Director Peyton Reed balances the stylishness (especially the Edgar Wright DNA of the picture) with the more normal stuff alongside the hilarity, the thrills, and even the outright absurd. Of the troubled MCU productions, this one is easily the best.

Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man happily embraces its premise and goes all out in exploring all the different possibilities that the story has to offer. A lot of the technology is cool and different, the writers milk all of the opportunity cows with glee. This is a Marvel superhero movie with shrinking people and tech that allows its users to talk to ants, that has a climactic setpiece where the hero and bad guy fight on a Thomas the Tank Engine train set all the while enlarging things including the toy Thomas locomotive and one of Ant-Man's ant friends, the film's perfect third act is all sorts of madness! The film wants you to enjoy every single second of it...

The only slight problem is, the first two-thirds seem a little ho-hum in comparison. There are certainly flashes of brilliance in the meat of the picture, but what really elevates everything before the climax is, once again, very strong character work. Scott Lang is extremely likable right off the bat, along with his humorous robbing gang (spearheaded by a show-stealing member named Luis), and the more bitter, disillusioned likes of Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne. Even the villainous Darren Cross has some depth and is fun to watch before he suits up. The main story of two fathers reconnecting with their daughters forms the film's great emotional core, adding so much to the story and everything that's going on.

Set-up stuff and nods to other MCU entries are handled in a much different way than expected, what with sequences like Ant-Man fighting a confused Falcon whilst trying to getting a vital piece of Stark tech, and Lang suggesting that Pym call The Avengers for help. Aesthetically the film feels different from its MCU brethren, from the cinematography to the overall tone to even the score! Some of the editing is a bit off the wall as well! The ant-level scenes have a sense of awe and wonder to them, a lot of "wow" shots dominate these beautifully-filmed parts of the film. The film ping-pongs between different styles, but never loses a beat or feels off.

~


#6 - IRON MAN
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby
Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway
Released on May 2, 2008

The beginning...

And one hell of a beginning it was...

I used to think that Iron Man was actually the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Up until the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was my top pick. I felt it was the strongest due to how it was just a great origin story with a plot that came together wonderfully by the end of the picture, with lots of action and fun on hand...

Iron Man feels a bit Batman Begins-esque, beginning things in a rather gritty manner. There's a real aura of darkness and roughness in those cave scenes, and the intimacy mirrors Bruce Wayne's stay up in the mountains. Unlike Wayne, Stark doesn't go through a philosophical journey, he instead works wonders in a situation he probably would've never been thrown into. Tony Stark is just Tony Stark, honing his brilliance in the cave, it's truly thrilling stuff to watch. The escape from the cave is one of the best MCU set pieces, loaded with suspense and capping off with a spectacular boom. The film continues to impress, carefully setting up Tony's rise, establishing his character perfectly, and developing everyone else around him. The trial-and-error stuff alone makes for all the fun of this portion of the film.

Its third act seems to be the subject of criticism, as the film finally gives Iron Man a main bad guy to fight. After taking out Ten Rings terrorists in a pretty intense Gulmira-set action sequence, where else do you go? Obadiah Stane, who is present throughout the film, turns out to be the villain. For me, he works as a villain because with someone like Emil Blonsky, it seemed like the writers came up with a way to make him a final boss. Let's have him get injected with the serum, boom he's our third act boss battle! Here, they don't do that. Iron Man quietly builds Stane up as a villain, as he gets more and more interested in Stark's newfound discoveries, and soon we learn about Stark weapons being shipped to the Middle East... It's not like it's an eleventh hour decision. If it was, it certainly doesn't feel like it to me, there is considerable build-up.

The reveal is quite effective, and makes for a nice shock as the film walks closer and closer to its climax. We then get a very cool fight scene where Iron Man, still inexperienced, dukes it out with someone in a much bigger Iron Man-esque suit. It caps the film off nicely, and instead of the usual, Tony Stark outright tells everyone... "I am Iron Man".

Now that's a perfect last few seconds...

Iron Man gets so much right. It locks together well, it's very cohesive, it switches moods without hassle, and it doesn't come off as a generic origin story. The Batman Begins influence isn't overt, as the film confidently tries to be its own, unique thing. Iron Man's only problem is that it's got that aforementioned Phase 1 vibe to it. That sort-of "unsure" feeling. For instance, the action scenes are very good, but they don't go all out. Other moments seem rather subdued and just feel kind of plain, kind of "there" in a way. The presentation of the technology is, however, anything but that. The scenes showcasing the suit and Stark's tech are some of the highlights. Competently made and filmed, but it's not overly spectacular. The only reason it soars so high is because of how good the script is... But wait, there was no script for this film!

The film was jokingly referred to as the indie movie that happened to be a big budget $100 million-costing picture. It certainly does feel that way thanks to the improvised nature of the film and the fact that it doesn't really reach for the stars. It handles everything it has considerably well, but maybe it could've had a little more punch?

This criticism is ultimately minuscule in the grand scheme of things, as Iron Man is still a fantastic superhero origin film, but a lot of the film's Phase 2 counterparts do the "comic book movie" thing better than it...

~


#5 - CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Directed by Joe Johnston
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Released on July 22, 2011

There is often a complaint that the Marvel Cinematic Universe films feel too "samey", or their overall aesthetic is boring, or that none of the films feel like different entities...

I disagree to this, with Phase 2's set of films as my main argument, but...

Captain America: The First Avenger, a film that was part of the MCU's first phase, is another argument...

The First Avenger is masterful in so many ways. The very old-fashioned actioner is ridiculously fun, but it has the feel of a pulpy, all-out escapist film with a beating heart at its center, excellent characters, a tone that has fun with campier elements without feeling too goofy, and a World War II setting that's absolutely nailed. It's stylistic but it also has that familiar Marvel flair, yet the film blends it all so well. The whole origin story is fresh and exciting, again, that comes from the setting and the tone they go for. They even go as far as taking affectionate potshots at how goofy the character comes off!

The script basks in the pulpiness of the premise, the tone is decidedly retro. It is the ultimate antithesis to the "dark and gritty" action movie, aiming to be what it should be...

Right off the bat, Steve Rogers is extremely likable and the characters that accompany him on his daring, thrilling mission across the Atlantic also stand out. The villainous Red Skull has some rather basic motivations, but he has a personality and works well as a campy but ultimately classic diabolical baddie. Many of the supporting characters are memorable, too. The origin story and character more than work, all the while quietly hinting at the other Marvel films. For example, Howard Stark and the Tesseract play a major part in the story, but feel like they're part of the story rather than being mere easter eggs or being there just to set up future films.

Certainly a country mile from how that was handled in Iron Man 2 and Thor... The First Avenger set a standard for the MCU, big time.

The super-soldier's first outing is a near-perfect blend of all these elements, and outside of The Avengers, it's easily Phase 1's best. Brimming with a bursting sense of confidence, the film doesn't really have that "unsure" feeling that the other Phase 1 films have, as the action is a lot more exciting, the score is really good and memorable (Alan Silvestri was the perfect pick, here), packing a lot more energy and verve. Slogging a bit towards the end, everything picks back up and when it does, it really picks right back up.

Best of all, the ending is very bittersweet. A real gut-punch, all without being forced. Like Iron Man, these last couple of seconds are perfect...

~


#4 - IRON MAN 3
Directed by Shane Black
Written by Shane Black and Drew Pearce
Released on May 3, 2013

The beginning of Phase 2... The signaling of a new era for Marvel's superheroes...

Like the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the new beginning was this very film.

Iron Man 3 is the film that starts and defines Phase 2... Origins are over, setting up The Avengers is yesterday, now is the time to explore... And how!

Iron Man 3 is not only a Tony-centric film through and through, but it's also very eccentric. Like Captain America: The First Avenger, I feel that this film pretty much puts up a good argument against the whole "all the Marvel movies feel the same" claim. Iron Man 3 is writer-director Shane Black's film through and through, a sort 80s buddy action film with a slight Marvel feel, that's actually a detective story... With a Christmas setting!

Shutting the door on what the first two Iron Man movies did, Iron Man 3 even tries to stay far from the big battles and huge setpieces that other blockbusters frequently use. At times it's so small-scale and intimate, it's ultimately surprising. Very little does Tony fly around in the suit fighting enemies, kicking ass and taking names... He does all of that, but without the suit. The second act of the film shows how Tony truly is the man without his suit and his tech, as he brilliantly (and I mean brilliantly) comes up with ways to get himself out of tight jams, all the while cracking the clues to get to the Mandarin...

... Only to that find out that there is no Mandarin, or at least the Mandarin everyone is seeing on television. Our real adversary is a man that Tony Stark was a jerk to in the past, and here Iron Man 3 becomes a story that brings Tony full circle. In Iron Man 2 he remains an egotistical jerk who barely learns, The Avengers shows him demonstrating that he does have a very human side and his arguments with Captain America certainly must've given him some food for thought. Here, Tony's character is fully developed and the story singlehandedly does everything that Iron Man 2 should have done. The subplot involving the kid Harley also adds a new dimension to Tony's character, as the kid is pretty much who Tony was as a child.

Having Tony's past and the people he has left behind or outright rejected come back to haunt him makes for a fine emotional arc that only strengthens Tony at the end. All of this is tied to a wonderful detective plot, though there is a dose of big-scale action too. The film is laugh-out-loud hilarious, staying true to Stark and his quip-laden world. The wit is sharp, helping make Iron Man 3 one of the most enjoyable, entertaining films in the MCU. Even its supporting cast is pretty memorable!

Some downsides are in the picture's third act, where we get a massive battle on a oil rig. Now this battle is very well-done, and the ways Iron Man takes out Aldrich Killian's Extremis soldiers are very clever and cool, plus it's great to see all of those suits in action... However, it comes after an already big climactic moment involving Air Force One. By the time we get to this big battle, the picture begins to feel a bit exhausting. Maybe it's because a lot of smaller scale thrills preceded it? Or maybe it's the length? In a way, it gets a bit tiresome.

That's all but a minor dent in what is the best Iron Man film, an eccentric, stylish, and hilarious chapter that packs a strong storytelling punch...

~


#3 - THE AVENGERS
Directed by Joss Whedon
Written by Joss Whedon
Released on May 4, 2012

Let's take the time to consider the kind of task writer and director Joss Whedon was faced with here...

The Avengers is about Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, plus Black Widow and Hawkeye, meeting, teaming up, and taking on a massive threat to Earth - an alien invasion.

Whedon had to have four characters from four different solo films, all with different backgrounds and stories, meet up. Also, two characters had to be part of this team, one a minor character in Iron Man 2 and the other who makes all but a quick appearance in Thor, somehow in some way. What else? He had to have them come together, and then have them later stop a bad guy from laying waste to Earth... All the while keeping up with the connected nature of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

That doesn't sound like an easy task, especially if your background was mostly in television! Joss Whedon managed to do all of this, almost perfectly, and turned out an extremely entertaining movie that leaves you grinning...

That right there is a Herculean achievement in itself. Or a Thorish achievement. (Yeah, I went there.)

The Avengers' tight script is not without its structural faults, that's for sure. There are some little flaws in there, some moments where it goes up and down. The cinematography could perhaps be better too, but... But...

The storytelling and the character development, character moments that make the characters themselves and their personalities shine... It's all in there, there's so much of it, overriding any small hole or flaw in the script. Better yet, the film is great for those who haven't seen the films that have lead up to it, or missed a couple films in the process. Treating you right, The Avengers gets you up to speed with what's going on. Their personalities absolutely shine in this film. Black Widow, who is little more than hastily-written eye candy in Iron Man 2, is a full-fledged character here. Hawkeye, despite that we know little about him and despite the fact that he's brainwashed until the third act, is also fun to watch.

Humor? Balanced perfectly it is, in every set piece or dialogue-driven scene. The dialogue itself is great, especially all of the scenes on the Helicarrier, including the big debate between the five of them. Dialogue like that just adds more and more character work that these kinds of films need. The film contains some of the funniest and most memorable bits in any blockbuster, being very quotable. The action is incredible. Many have complained about the film's cinematography, but the way those action sequences are all staged, they're perfect. The whole Battle of New York is a roughly 45-minute firecracker explosion from start to finish, filled with cool fight scenes, the characters working with and off of each other, thrills, and even some laugh-out-loud moments. How can you top Hulk smashing Loki around like a rag doll?

The film is even... Colorful! No moody tones or color schemes here, no boring teal-and-orange or desaturated ugliness, the film embraces its fun tone and that it's a comic book film based on stories that have a guy that turn into green monsters, a red-white-and-blue guy with a big shield, and demigods!

This epic is colorful, hilarious, extremely fun, heartfelt, loaded with character development, has a straightforward but engaging story, has truly amazing action, it has about everything and then some. The Avengers makes for one of the most ridiculously fun big popcorn action blockbusters of all time. Hitting every beat, it's one of the creams of the crop of superhero films, and also a smooth transition between the unsureness of Phase 1 and the confidence, genre-busting fun of Phase 2.

A real triumph...

~


#2 - CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Released on April 4, 2014

With Captain America now living in the modern world, how did Marvel Studios, directors Anthony and Joe Russo, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely handle the star-spangled man-with-the-plan's bigger, darker sequel?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is about Steve Rogers and his adjusting to the modern world after the Battle of New York. Consider for a second that despite having helped save the world from aliens and an evil demigod, Cap has lost a lot... His sweetheart from the 1940s that he never got to grow alongside is on her deathbed, his best friend is alive but he's been turned into a killing machine, and also... Who can you trust? The whole revelation that HYDRA has been operating within S.H.I.E.L.D. more than rams that theme home in such a grand way. The reveal of the Winter Soldier is nothing, in fact the film doesn't do a good job at hiding it, the HYDRA reveal is the real deal!

All of this makes the film significantly darker than the first film, and most of its MCU brethren, but it is never once heavy-handed. The story is never "dark for dark's sake", the tone is never needlessly gloomy and dour. Cap isn't moping every five seconds, he gets up and gets stuff done, no matter what. His dedication, his commitment, all adds to how likable he is. The film's rougher tone comes from the stakes, what's going to happen, what has happened to Cap, and the world he's dealing with. There are moments of great intensity that are balanced with the more lighthearted ones, it doesn't mess around! Never joyless like some other films that have tried to be "edgy" and "darker", The Winter Soldier still has plenty of humor to spare alongside the wit that the MCU films are known for. The picture has humanity, something a film like Man of Steel - which tried to "update" a similar superhero to fit modern audiences - did not have.

The story is air-tight, and wonderfully crafted, and it more than lays the groundwork for the MCU's future without making it so obvious, never falling into the traps Iron Man 2 tended to walk right into. On top of the strong story is not only the character work we come to expect, but also a strong emotional center. You can still feel Rogers' frustrations with modern times, all thanks to subtle little lines and the storytelling itself. All you need to know is shown to you without fuss, nothing is forced. They stay true to who he was in the first film and The Avengers, and they keep his selflessness without ever being preachy, and this is all handled with finesse.

He and Black Widow also make such an excellent team, and how different they are and how they work off of each other all make for some of the film's best elements. This dynamic makes Black Widow even more likable and interesting, as The Avengers already did a good job doing that given what they had to work with. At the same time, the story also subtly throws in some commentary and even has sheds of a political thriller beating under its exterior. Even if the film isn't entirely a political thriller, it still works as a pulse-pounding, often intimate spy thriller, being the only true thriller in the MCU. All of these elements make it stand out, as it differs wildly from the other Phase 2 films alone, and all of the Phase 1 films.

To say nothing of its action sequences! A lot of it is very intense, almost nerve-wracking ground level mayhem, a very nice change of pace from the usual massive scale booms and bangs. You can feel the intensity of the fights, especially Cap's initial showdown with the Winter Soldier, everything is directed with such carefulness by the Russo brothers. Even the more explosive action in the film's final act is wholly satisfying and never exhausting, as there are breaks taken between these knock-out moments that inject suspense and surprises. The third act is so epic, it rivals that of The Avengers' last third. Big is written all over it, for this was a big turning point of the Marvel Cinematic Universe...

New faces? The film introduces them with confidence too, you immediately root for the likes of The Falcon and Sharon Carter. The main villain, the slimy and deceptive Alexander Pierce, is easily one of the best in the MCU. Though not scary in his looks, what he is up to makes him more than frightening, especially when you remember that this story in some ways mirrors what goes on in our world. HYDRA alone makes for a stealthy, massive threat. The tough side villain Rumlow is a fine addition, too. The Winter Soldier almost feels like Jaws on land, he can be anywhere, you never know when he'll strike! The atmosphere, there's a real dread to it because of the man's presence and what he can do.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier gets it all spectacularly right: It's a smart action-thriller with commentary, a story that's a strong and often heartbreaking emotional journey for Captain America himself, it's loads of fun, it's paced perfectly, the whole story is incredibly cohesive, it has something to say, so many seeds are sown for the MCU, ones that turn it on its head, there are many more things I can say about how excellent this film is. It's a top-notch thriller that happens to star a superhero, it's one of the best...

~


#1 - GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Directed by James Gunn
Written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Released on August 1, 2014

The big one.

The game changer. The wildly bizarre and quirky space opera. The full-blown introduction to the cosmic side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In a way, this is a new Iron Man. A new beginning. Something fresh, new, and truly exciting that sets up a whole new side of the universe, a side containing lots of cool things...

Guardians of the Galaxy more than just shows that Marvel movies aren't typical superhero stories. The rollicking adventure is a space opera, a full blown space opera. A very quirky space opera, one that's very much the product of its writer-director, James Gunn.

The film has confidence like no other. Introducing us to characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot without even flinching or fretting, the audience accepts what they are seeing no matter how weird it all may be. This is coming from a film that opens with a very tragic, Earth-set death scene. About that... The tone is perfectly balanced. After that sad opening, we see a much older Peter Quill exploring an abandoned planet. Initially it's a bit suspenseful and mysterious, but after much time has passed, he turns on the walkman and boom! You know what you're in for, and those few minutes handled all of those moods so well without feeling tonally off. The timing, the editing, everything... The film has this brilliance in spades, and HOW!

The group that makes up the Guardians of the Galaxy, need I say more? All of these characters, like The Avengers themselves and other characters within this series, have such great personalities and are immediately appealing. They're outright a-holes! They never had a heroic bone in their bodies, some of them were even criminals! They happen to come together and become heroes under bad circumstances, and also great friends, and that's a nice change of pace from the usual origin story! Ronan, the film's villain, may have simple goals... But it's the build-up, it's his presence, it's Lee Pace's performance that makes him stand out. He's barely cardboard, and he suits the story, a po-faced baddie who is a nice contrast from all the fun, wonder, and humor the film has to offer.

Thanos is given a real introduction here, one that hints at what this big guy is capable of. The plot is air-tight, the storytelling is once again without peer. The storytelling is so good, not just because of how these characters come off, but because of who they are, what's built up, the stakes, and ultimately how they grow. It's not just the banter, it's the moments that build the characters. The film even justifies its slick 70s and 80s soundtrack in such a heartfelt way. It just does so much right, everything right all the while tying all this narrative prowess to very imaginative visuals that bring back the awe and wonder that the fantasy movies should bring. This is a film that redefines the fun of the going to the cinemas...

Never afraid to embrace its inherent silliness, Guardians of the Galaxy doesn't feel embarrassed of what's on the screen. Characters, plus the film itself, acts as if what's going on is pretty normal! Never overtly goofy, never overtly serious, it's just right. Sad scenes and emotional moments are done so well, again, the film is just doing what it's doing without thinking twice. Why is that? Everything I just mentioned, it has great storytelling, great characters, and respect for the audience. Everyone behind the film, from Gunn to the crew, are fully committed.

Gunn's film, however, goes an extra mile. His film has its own unique style and aesthetic, one that's very intoxicating and it makes you want to go back for more. The look of the various intergalactic locations the characters go to are all dazzling, and the film's color scheme is very pretty and balanced. Its sense of humor is its own, and a lot of it comes from the differences of the characters and their own quirks. The laugh factor is definitely on the edgier side, pushing the PG-13 rating. Gunn and writer Nicole Perlman were able to differentiate its brand of humor from the other Marvel films with aplomb.

What else is there to say? Guardians of the Galaxy is the real deal: Weird, different, creative, emotional, hilarious, out-there, compelling, groovy, filled with wonder... Not only is Guardians of the Galaxy the best Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Guardians of the Galaxy is a triumphant work of fantasy cinema that can more than stand on its own...

~

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, seven years later, has been quite the journey. From Iron Man to Ant-Man, we've seen surprises, things that were fresh and new, but above all we got pretty compelling stories and even the unspectacular entries have pushed the series forward in some way or another. The world building all works, but it's the characters and their stories that keep me coming back, alongside the series' desire to just have fun while telling these very stories to the audience. With the risks taken in Phase 2, ones that showed that superheroes aren't just people in capes stopping bad guys in big cities, Phase 3 promises even more risks and greater things to come...

How would rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe films? Sound off below!

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