2015’s Checking in with the Marvel Cinematic Universe

It’s that time of the year again. Almost three years ago, I wrote my first reflection on the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since then we as fans have had four new releases and countless other projects announced  until what seems like an eternity. If you would have told me as a freshman back in 2013 that in two years I could say Spider-Man is now part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Guardians of the Galaxy would be most successful origin film in the MCU on any day other than April 1st I would have looked at you like you had five heads; and yet here we are. Over these years, we’ve seen the universe become more and more expansive and the quality range from great to… well not so great. With the highly anticipated sequel to 2012’s mega-blockbuster The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron in theaters this Friday, it only makes sense to look back and rank all the films before:

10. Iron Man 2 (2010)

With Iron Man 2, there’s just something inherently off about the film; the energy and passion Favreau and company infected in its predecessor seems all but gone, replaced with multiple forgettable villains, convoluted and easily fixed subplots, and an all-around apathy that leaps off the screen to anyone paying attention. Choosing not to use the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline from the comics to address the idea of alcoholism in Stark’s life, what we received as an audience was a half-assed reimagining that lacked the heart of the comic storyline and a plot solved in a few minutes by a string of conveniences (there’s no way Stark’s father would know the technology would advance enough that he could analyze that model to find the chemical encoding for a new element). It’s villains are laughable, each introduced side character seems there so that audiences won’t be confused when they show up in later films, and the once exhilarating action set pieces become not only sparse in the film but also unbelievably dull and uninspired. If it seems like no on set cared about this film, I think it’s fine that I don’t care either.

9. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

As a giant fan of the original Thor film (more on that later), when announced that production had begun on a second installment I was immediately excited to see where they would bring this character. This excitement heightened when it was announced that Alan Taylor, known primarily for directing Game of Thrones, would be taking over the directing chair. For the most part, Thor: The Dark World is a decently enjoyable movie with a lot to like; Hemsworth and Hiddleston shine in their roles once again, Asgard’s portrayal is breathtakingly cool, and the final action sequence is one of the more inventive in the Cinematic Universe. Director Alan Taylor managed to inject a sense of fun into the Thor saga while keeping moments of tragedy and heightening them through the performances given by the ensemble. Where Thor: The Dark World falters, however, it plummets completely, creating a uneven product that’s just as frustrating and dull as it is exciting. Many of these issues carry over from the first film and are heightened here; Natalie Portman continues to turn in an awfully bland performance as Thor’s love interest as Kat Dennings’ comedic shtick is increased to unfathomable frustration. Add in a main villain who is so forgettable that I needed to Google the film to remember his name is Malekith, and the result is a fun, albeit uneven, installment in the MCU.

8. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

One of the more interesting entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Incredible Hulk has been a film that, looking back now 7 years later, was almost set up to be known as the ‘outside film.’ Coming off the success of the original Iron Man, it had some giant shoes to fill, having to wash out the taste of Ang Lee’s incarnation of the green monster, which although I do not completely hate I can identify it is poorly made superhero film, by creating a fresh take on the character that could fit within this universe and we as fans could get behind. And if I were being completely honest, I think it pulled it off to an extent. On the shoulders of a solid performance from Edward Norton and hugely impressive action set pieces, the Marvel team created an experience that was enjoyable while watching. The Incredible Hulk is the film in the MCU that could most aptly be described as mediocre, where there is nothing that really stands out as good or bad. Mark Ruffalo’s replacement of the Bruce Banner character solidified the film’s placement in the MCU as really nothing substantial, and because of Ruffalo’s now solidified involvement in this franchise I don’t think I would have it any other way.

7. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Easily the most controversial and talked about film on the list, Shane Black’s jump into the superhero world with Iron Man 3 was directly influenced by his relationship with Downey Jr. on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a role that some would argue bounced Downey Jr. back into Hollywood’s circle of interest. The film received by audiences is a Shane Black movie at heart, filled with his trademark Christmas setting, use of kidnapping subplot, and humor one can come to expect; as a Shane Black movie, this one delivers through and through. There’s a lot to like about Iron Man 3: each action set piece is crafted with a lot of skill and technical expertise and the acting is just as great as the previous installments. The film, however, suffers from it’s director as much it benefits from him; in trying to make a Shane Black movie rather than another installment in the Iron Man franchise, fans are left to digest a film lacking ACTUAL Iron Man and tonally inconsistent plot filled with weird character motivations. The problem here isn’t that The Mandarin doesn’t turn out to be the villain we all know and love from the comics, it’s that the actual villain of the film doesn’t deserve to be the main villain; the movie tries to subvert it’s genre but ends up becoming nothing but a messy afterthought of it.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

It’s safe to say that Captain America: The First Avenger is one of the bigger gambles that Marvel Studios has taken in this universe. Sure the character of Steve Rodgers/Captain America is pretty well known in the mainstream and the film’s had had moderate to major success so far, but between the WWII setting and the nature of Rodgers as a character, this was certainly the film most disconnected from the others. Unlike the wisecracking Tony Stark and morally middled Bruce Banner, Rodgers is a tried and true American good guy, the man in the room who will always do the right thing for his country no matter what. With this decision, however, Marvel Studios presents a film that allows these two elements to play off each other perfectly; we as an audience are suddenly tossed into an old-style WWII propaganda film shot and released in 2011, and it works very well because of it. Throw in a keen sense of direction from Joe Johnston and a formidable villain in the Red Skull, and what you get is a film that shouldn’t have worked in the slightest kind of working in the slightest.

5. Thor (2010)

Much like the aforementioned Hulk film, the first Thor film had a lot to prove for Marvel Studios; however, unlike The Incredible Hulk which had to live up to the high standards set by the original Iron Man film, Thor’s triumph had to be much more redemptive. Iron Man 2 had been released the summer before and by this time anyone who wasn’t already on the fence about the quality of that movie was now certainly there. With two somewhat disappointing entries in a row, Marvel Studios needed a hit to get back on track and prove Iron Man wasn’t a fluke film. While not as memorable or well crafted as Iron Man, Thor was ultimately a step in the right direction and a very well done super hero origin. Director Kenneth Branagh used his roots in Shakespeare to create a captivating story filled with family hardship, betrayal amongst brothers, and complicated, multifaceted characters. Hemsworth solidified himself as this character with a star-making performance and Tom Hiddleston’s portrayal of Loki has been the shining star amongst dim counterparts in terms of villains. Choosing to present Thor as a “fish out of water” on Earth by relinquishing him of his powers brought some much needed light through visual humor and relatable qualities to a character that’s practically the MCU’s version of Superman, and Branagh and company knocked it completely out of the park.

4. Iron Man (2008)

Let’s go back to 2008. Marvel Studios was in its early developments as a company and with a limited availability of characters due to deals made with other companies for rights to their more popular characters (Spider-Man, X-Men, etc.), producer Kevin Feige and group decide to put all their chips into a film about Iron Man. With the buzz surrounding the other 2008 comic book film of the summer The Dark Knight due to the tragic passing of Heath Ledger, the studio needed their film to really perform and kick start the hopeful future of the franchise. Luckily, on the shoulders of a career-changing performance by Robert Downey Jr. and sharp direction by Jon Favreau, Iron Man was a hit, and continues to be remembered as a wonderfully executed superhero flick. Fast, slick, and always fun, Iron Man moved through each scene with ease, showing that these comic book films could have a balance of grit and playfulness. We spend the first act of this film in a cave watching Tony Stark have conversations with a random guy and attempting to build this prototype machine; there’s no giant spectacle in this time and it all feels rather contained and cramped, allowing Downey Jr. to truly shine. The film progresses with beautifully shot action set pieces and feels much more personal than many other films of it’s genre, allowing it to flourish still as one of the best in this series.

3. The Avengers (2012)

It is truly difficult for me not to have The Avengers as the number one on this list; on my one from last year I said, “There’s really not much any other Marvel Cinematic Universe film could do,” and to a point I would say it’s still true. This is the team up film that truly encapsulated the spirit of the comic book film and at the time was something we as fans had never seen on screen before. All of the things from The Avengers that shined when it was first released still shine as well: the performances are still fantastic, Mark Ruffalo’s rendition of the Hulk still steals the show, and Whedon still crafted a wonderfully witty dialogue and high octane action one could want from this film. I remember seeing this movie four times in theaters and being absolutely captivated each and every time I saw it. This is the definition of a film that sets out to accomplish something and gets it done to its core; Whedon wasn’t going to be winning any Oscars for this movie, but if fans were deciding he probably would have won all of them, and I think that’s a testament to how successful it is. However, I’d be lying if I said The Avengers doesn’t suffer from it’s own accomplishments; with more viewings, the novelty of seeing these heroes on screen wears off, and the small cracks begin to stick out ever so slightly. It’s still GREAT don’t get me wrong, it’s just not as great as these other two films were when all the smoke and hype finally clears.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Easily the most well made film in the series, the highly anticipated sequel to Captain America: The First Avenger managed to destroy any previous notions of the character and franchise completely. Two Phase 2 films into the MCU, I distinctly remember being worried about the future of Marvel Studios as both Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World left me underwhelmed as a fan of there characters. With Cap 2 on the docket next, I was fixated on the negatives of the film, most notably Captain America’s somewhat one-dimensional character and a duo of non-established television directors taking helm. Fortunately, my cynicism was proven to be very misguided, as directors Joe and Anthony Russo presented fans a genre mash-up filled to the brim with everything good about comic book movies. The spy thriller plot is endlessly watchable and creates an atmosphere of genuine intrigue in terms of characters’ allegiances to or against Cap, who’s continued attempt to try and fit into a world he was not born into brings to light interesting moral questions about the man himself, giving Steve Rogers more depth than his previous outings. The action is beautifully choreographed and probably the best of the franchise, as each hit gives the audience a true sense of danger for our heroes. The Winter Soldier is an absolute triumph, one that if you haven’t seen you probably should.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

San Diego Comic-Con 2012. Led by Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios takes the stage and, amongst all of the talk about the upcoming Iron Man 3 and other projects already announced, drops the hint about a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Some applauded, but most, including myself, immediately went to Google or Comixology to find out what they were talking about. Shocked to read a description about a talking raccoon and tree that only says three words ‘I am Groot’ I was immediately curious as to how they were going to pull this concept off in the relatively grounded universe fans had received so far. On the shoulders of James Gunn’s quirky sense of humor and a ‘who cares’ attitude towards its ridiculous premise, Guardians of the Galaxy connected with me on practically every level. As a fan of the Star Wars franchise, it was a truly pleasant surprise to see Gunn and company adopt a space opera sensibility for the film as it mixed some of the most adult humor the series has had to offer with the most heart as well. Each character is fantastically realized and memorable, individual but also part of a greater whole filled to the brim with witty banter and all the 80s hits you could want from a soundtrack. Guardians is the summation of what these comic book films should be; it’s ‘little property that could’ attitude added weight to what ends up being a film that pulls off a sense of friendship and loyalty better than any other superhero team up film ever put to screen.

Well there you have it: from the inherently disappointing to the shockingly great, if anything the Marvel Cinematic Universe has given all of us fans entertaining experiences at the theater, a trend I believe we all hope will continue for years to come. How would you rank the films in the MCU? Where do you think Avengers: Age of Ultron will fall? Comment below and share your thoughts.

Article by Nicholas Franco


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