As we reach the midway point in Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s nice to take a look back at where this colossal franchise started. Back in 2008 with the release of Iron Man, I doubt many, other than Marvel Studios of course, were thinking about the future of a potential shared cinematic universe. But a string of fantastic solo films, capped off with the mega-blockbuster The Avengers, showed that this studio was in for the long haul, and their decision to a create a shared universe across multiple different franchises has sparked a wave of world-building among major studio tentpoles, including the upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and 2016’s Batman Vs. Superman. When the start of Phase Two arrived last year with Iron Man 3, I decided to write an article counting down the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far, and now one year later, we feel like it’s a good time to update that list, especially since Captain America: The Winter Solider, reported to be one of the Universe’s major puzzle pieces, drops nationwide on Friday:
8. Iron Man 2 (2010) – Of all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this was the one where they REALLY dropped the ball. A very rushed sequel made solely to connect more lines to the upcoming Avengers, director Jon Favreau seemed very bound and uninspired, resulting in a film that, for a genre well known for providing audiences with entertainment galore, was lacking any excitement or fun whatsoever. I do understand that the “Demon in a Bottle” story arc is one that is necessary to bring up when following Stark’s canon, but their execution was flawed and the result provided audiences with a Tony Stark that felt more like an ass than the damaged, relatable character that Downey Jr. nails so excellently. A lack of an exciting villain and memorable actions scenes put the final nails in the coffin of this unbelievably disappointing sequel.
7. The Incredible Hulk (2008) – Though on my previous ranking of the MCU this film was ranked lowest, I recently watched it again and have since found myself much more in love with it. The action scenes and set pieces still dazzle and the performance of Edward Norton is just as great as it was upon first viewing; however, that still doesn’t discredit the fact that Mark Ruffalo’s performance of Doctor Bruce Banner in The Avengers was more superior, a fact that makes this film seem like most obsolete entry in the entire MCU. Once again, my main issue with this entry is that it just doesn’t stand out enough to feel memorable in the slightest, which for me makes it another run-of-the-mill comic book film.
6. Iron Man 3 (2013) – After all the backlash on Iron Man 2 from fans, Marvel went and got writer/director Shane Black to helm Iron Man 3 and announced the villain of the film would be The Mandarin, who, for those who do not know, is the arch-villain of Tony Stark (his Joker, if you will). And suffice to say, when Iron Man 3 hits, it hits hard. Fans are given another fantastic performance by Robert Downey Jr. as the titular Iron Man/Tony Stark and the third act provides enough Iron Man action to make any comic fan or action movie fan go absolutely insane. However, this doesn’t excuse the film from its list of problems, the biggest one being the Mandarin twist. Now, while I did not have a problem with the actual reveal, the complications that followed were what upset me, mainly that Aldrich Killian (a snarling Guy Pearce) was not a convincing enough main villain due to his lack of motivation. As a result, the film just became more and more ridiculous as it went along.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – Captain America: The First Avenger was the first film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that, for me, really broke out of the two-dimensional comic book movie mold. Sure, it still has its impressive action sequences, but they feel much more grounded in reality due to the World War II setting than the exciting, pulpy cartoon flare of the other films on this list. Captain America is really much more of a character study about Captain Steve Rodgers that just happens to kick into high gear once the second half starts. The film mixes its retro vibes and somewhat pulpy action sequences with the exploration of themes like love, loss, and proving one’s worth, providing a much richer experience than the stereotypically huge, CGI-infested action sequences and corny one-liners that can plague other superhero films.
4. Thor: The Dark World (2013) – Thor: The Dark World was a very pleasant surprise. When it was announced that Alan Taylor would be helming the sequel to 2011’s Thor, I was somewhat surprised due to the fact that Taylor had worked more on television in his career, most recently on Game of Thrones. However, using that television show as a skeleton for the film, Taylor created a sequel that managed to almost one-up its predecessor, something none of the Iron Man sequels have come even close to doing (we will see with Captain America: The Winter Soldier). Impressive action sequences, a much more expansive universe that showed Asgard in all of its eye-popping glory, a masterful performance by Tom Hiddleston as everybody’s favorite trickster Loki, and humor that seemed to be much more subdued and consistent, this sequel managed to surpass all of my fears and expectations, delivering an experience that I was fully onboard with throughout.
3. Thor (2011) – What Thor: The Dark World lacks that the original does so fantastically well is presenting a tragic story with very rich characters. Although many do disagree, I actually really enjoyed Thor. Kenneth Branaugh, channeling his inner infatuation with all things Shakespeare, exhibits this classic superhero story more like a Greek tragedy that focuses much more on the familial relationship between two brothers and how they are seen by their ruling father, providing scenes with actual emotional depth, something many comic book films do not have in the slightest. However, the film also manages to find its comedic timing quite nicely when Thor is banished to earth. The idea of this God encountering a completely new world and being out of his element, while over the top at times, provides serious laughs and a much needed light-heartedness, as well as a way for the audience to connect and empathize for this God-like character. Branaugh’s ability to jump between these scenes masterfully keeps the audience on their toes and provides a very exciting and immersive experience.
2. Iron Man (2008) – Even through Phase Two so far, Marvel has not been able to replicate the magic that was captured in their flagship installment, 2008’s Iron Man. The little superhero movie that could, starring a washed up actor as the main hero and being made by a studio that had not yet made any films independently, Iron Man managed to shock and engross audiences, bringing this somewhat known character to everyday mainstream households. Robert Downey Jr. was so excellent as Tony Stark (and he remains so to this day) that the character has fittingly become an icon of the blockbuster film age. Downey Jr. completely looses himself in the role and everything about him just screams Tony Stark, especially the way he can make every line have a razor sharp effect with his haughtily sincere one-liners. Exciting and genuine, Iron Man invigorated the comic book genre and paved the way for the new giant in Hollywood: Marvel Studios.
1. The Avengers (2012) – There’s really not much any other Marvel Cinematic Universe film can do, other than next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron of course, to topple the giant beast known as The Avengers. At the end of the day, it’s really a no brainer: The Avengers is easily the best Marvel comic book film and one of the best comic book movies ever made. Combining fantastic performances (Mark Ruffalo killed it as the new Hulk and Robert Downey Jr. was in top form as Iron Man), beautifully crafted action set pieces (the entire fight in New York was the definition of incredible; note to Michael Bay: that’s how you destroy a city!), and a script that finds itself bouncing between comedically meta moments and some emotional ones too, The Avengers set the scale high and delivered all of the suspense and superhero action that any comic book fan could ever want. Hiddleston stepped up his game as well to deliver a performance that surpasses his performance in Thor, creating a Loki that is more mischievous, more threatening, and, honestly, more likable in the process. This is truly the definition of a long-term plan paying off in the end, and I can bet all the schwarma in the world that the sequel will be just as magical next year.
And so, as Marvel steamrolls through Phase 2 and into Phase 3, it’s interesting to see where this whole universe will end up (Marvel’s choosing of Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy as their next stand alone installments is very interesting). Do you agree with my list or would you shift all my picks around? Where do you think Captain America: The Winter Soldier will rank on your list? Comment down below, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Article by Nick Franco