ENTERTAINMENT: Ultimate Movie Review: The Marvel Cinematic Universe--Worst to Best
15) Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Where it worked: Let me begin by saying this, even the worst film on this list is, by all means, still a good film. It was quite exciting to speculate just what Tom Hiddleson's Loki was up to, after building up to the role of key antagonist in both Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012). Being the apparently sole villain unaffected by the MCU's conspicuous throwaway-villain problem, we mostly just wanted to see what this deal was about where he and Thor were supposedly teaming up. Needless to say, Loki was the star of The Dark World. Good humor (Captain America's "cameo" for the win!), a strong returning cast promoting healthy consistency (except for Fandral), and numerous blatant references to Star Wars to kept the film entertaining. In line with the Star Wars easter eggs, and in doing so, it also gave audiences a slight taste of the more science-fictiony MCU, preparing fans with characters and context for what would later be seen in the following year's Guardians of the Galaxy.
Where it didn't work: Comparatively speaking, this film was bland and boring. Redesigning the visual narrative to give it a more space-opera, less-medieval vibe--though visually arresting the first go-round--did not necessary heal or hurt the Thor name. Natalie Portman's female lead Jane Foster is unforgivably useless and should've been given much more to do than to just whine about, and wait on, Thor, and to be used a vessel for the Power Infinity Stone. All the while, Jaimie Alexander's returns as companion and Asgardian champion Lady Sif, who's sudden and quite evident feelings towards Thor add absolutely nothing to the story except create in Sif a rejected warrior who, instead of contributing to a potentially interesting love triangle, quickly relegates herself to the shadowy background so that Thor can blindly ask his friends, including Sif, to risk their lives for Jane. The Dark Elf Maleketh is easily the worst villain to ever "grace" the MCU, utterly forgetable even with an Infinity Stone in his possession. I feel bad for Christopher Eccleston; the former Doctor Who certainly turned no heads with his one-dimensional villainry and emotionless face. Maybe I'm actually glad he's dead.
Just in case you haven't checked the it out yet, you can purchase the film HERE.
14) Iron Man 2 (2010)
Where it worked: Iron Man 2 might have the distinction of being tied with Guardians of the Galaxy for the most interesting entry in the MCU. Iron Man 2 is the funniest film of its stand-alone trilogy, finally giving Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and Robery Downy Jr.'s Tony Stark an established relationship where they both understand each other's personalities (we were robbed of this rich interaction in the first film, being that Fury's appearance was only a cameo). Their meeting at Randy's Donuts is one of the film's better scenes. This entry builds off of Robert Downy Jr. being himself, with every quirk and idiosyncracy possible, even more than the first film did, what with his serious revelation about the global consequences of the negligence of his weapons company. Here, he's just laughing everything away, being as strange as possible, and being obnoxiously, hilariously self-involved. Add to the fact that Sam Rockwell is Justin Hammer--the Daffy Duck to Stark's Bugs Bunny--equally as unique and almost as deadly in the same field as rival to Stark, and you've got a comical riot between two people who clearly have different agendas of how, and for what purpose, the future of weapons should be like. Gwenyth Paltrow is in top form returning as Pepper Potts, not missing a single beat from her worry-wort secretary two years prior. Seeing the evolution of Stark's Iron Man suits is also ridiculously entertaining: in the film's best fight scene, we are introduced to his first truly portable "suitcase" armor that also salutes the classic Silver Centurion armor of the 80's comics.
Where it doesn't work: The first real issue here is Don Cheadle, replacing the vibrant Terrance Howard as Colonel James Rhodes from the first film. We can only ever imagine Howard's Rhodes slowly becoming the armor-clad Avenger known as War Machine. Here, one of the major killers of Iron Man 2, admittedly, is the total inconsistency between Howard's former Rhodey and Cheadle's current Rhodey. Other than their shared African-American ethnicity, the two actors have absolutely nothing in common with one another. Being that Howard was taller than Downy Jr., passionate in displaying his range of emotions and fit enough to at least be as wide as Stark, Cheadle is much thinner, painfully shorter, has a completely different demeanor in his walk, his talk, and absolutely would not be able to physically fit in the stocky War Machine armor. Cheadle and Howard are both on my list of favorite actors, but not because they're even remotely alike--they're totally not. So seeing these two completely different actors play Rhodey--Howard building the anticipation of becoming War Machine, only for Cheadle to become War Machine instead in an incredibly underwhelming debut--really hurt the film's integrity. The second main issue is with Black Widow. Though I love Scarlet Johanssen's portrayal of the super-spy these days, I wasn't convinced back then she was appropriate for the task of bringing Black Widow to life. I felt her role as Natasha Romanoff to be a little bland and her fighting prowess highly generic, and even now looking back at the film, I feel that Widow was miscast (thankfully, with patience, I'm eventually proven wrong). Finally, Whiplash, our dastardly villain with a personal grudge against Stark. Whiplash is one of the greatest things about the first half of the film. His fight with Tony, his dialogue with him in prison, and his subsequent escape were all profound moments in the film...whereas he spends the rest of the film being Justin Hammer's flunky, and building his own suit that is revealed to be the ugliest thing in the entire MCU next to Nebula's eye-boogers in Guardians Vol. 2. Disgraceful.
Phase One simply isn't complete without this sequel. Add it to your collection HERE.
13) The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Where it worked: This rebooted flick was a heck of a lot better than Ang Lee's hyper-psychological, childhood-trauma drama about the anti-hero from 2003. Eric Bana here is replaced by Edward Norton as Dr. Bruce Banner, providing the narrative with a visually deeper Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde dynamic for Banner and his alter ego, the Hulk. Instead of an origin story, the film sees Banner quite established as Hulk, hiding out in Mexico already on the run from William Hurt's Thunderbolt Ross and still in love with his daughter, Betty. Searching for a cure with help from an American professor (who would, according to canon, eventually become classic Hulk villain The Leader), Banner hopes to rid himself of the big green monster for good while all the while putting into practice many calming exercises he's learned to keep the big guy under control. Ross, in the meantime, sends Emil Blonsky out on the battlefield to face the Hulk and take him out, and Emil's desire for power eventually leads him to a transformation similar to Banner's, becoming the Hulk-like Abomination. The prospect of his enemies the Abomination and the Leader are wonderful, and Hulk's new design is excellent. We sympathize with Hulk as he only wants to do the right thing by Betty and protect himself, and we sympathize with Bruce as well, having never asked for any of this. He is neither seen as villain or hero--only a monster. The film ends with the surprising revelation, just in case you missed all the references to Iron Man throughout the film, that this film does in fact take place in the same universe as Iron Man. So sure, Iron Man teased this and promised us that, but we have to give The Incredible Hulk some major cred--this was the film that officially fulfilled that promise of a living, breathing, shared Marvel universe.
Where it didn't work: The acting was fine in general, but Liv Tyler's Betty Ross was pretty subpar. Betty is literally the most important peripheral character in the Hulk's narrative, so not only is it a gigantic disappointment that she has been completely absent from the MCU since this film--not even being mentioned by name in the future films Hulk is in--but that here, in her first and currently only appearance, she doesn't stand out much. Tim Roth--I love this guy--seems to be quite the random choice to be an antagonist who develops a thirst for power and a grudge against the Hulk just because the Hulk is the Hulk, and he is not. His Abomination alter ego looks almost nothing like the comics, opting instead for a strange CGI mix of the Thing from Fantastic Four, and one of the Goombas from the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie. Like I said, the PROSPECT of the Abomination (and the Leader) are cool....their actual executions, not so much.And although Norton has been replaced by Mark Ruffalo, I'm still waiting for Liv Tyler's Betty, as well as Tim Blake Nelson's Leader, to return to the fold after an eight-year absence. Sadly, I won't be holding my breath.
You can't afford to overlook this title; add it to your Phase One collection HERE.
12) The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Where it worked: We've come back to Joss Whedon's wild, CGI-filled kaleidoscope of teamwork and plotholes that is The Avengers. Now SHIELD-less and basically reuniting together on their own (to be fair, there is a backstory to this), the crew find themselves up against the remnants of Hydra and their newest Infinity Stone-powered agents, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, before Tony Stark sets out to ruin Hank Pym's reputation before it even begins by creating Ultron and setting the world on fire in the process. It's an easy film to criticize, though I still do love it. This film feels a LOT more comic book-inspired than the first film--though RDJ's is in the top billing, it's Chris Evan's Captain America, who returns from his gritty, government-distrusting exploits that helped fuel the grand end of both Hydra and Shield, who is finally acting like the Avengers' leader he is immortally known for being in the comics. Epic group shots visually address Thor, Iron Man, and Cap as the "Big Three" that represent the whole of the Avengers, regardless of their rotating or growing roster. On another note, instead of sticking to Hawkeye's traditional comic book roots and romantically pairing him with Mockingbird (who appears in Agents of SHIELD season two), they introduce to the MCU Laura Barton as his wife who, like "black Nick Fury", debuted in the comics under the "Ultimate Marvel" imprint, effectively eliminating any potential romance with Mockingbird or Black Widow. Which was actually a good thing. Whedon continues to display his mastery of portraying an effective large-group dynamic by introducing new characters and, as is his staple, kill one of them off. But even with newer characters that imply much larger worlds--such as Black Panther's nemesis, Ulysses Klaw--it is the Vision that is the standout hero of this film. Every line he mutters is golden, his unintentional humor shines brightly, and Ultron's final dialog with him near the end of the film is not only my favorite scene in the film, but it is possibly one of the best scenes of dialog in the entire MCU.
Where it didn't work: Ultron. Originally, I thought they were just going to adapt James Spader's unique and demanding voice for the robot titan. Instead, they brought on his entire personality. Spader has grown in Hollywood to become one of the funniest, oddest, and quirkiest actors this side of Robert Downy Jr. Here, Spader's Ultron is not cold and calculating and basically immortal, as he is in the comics. He is the robotic equivalent of a highly intelligent man-child, with a temper and a sense of humor to boot, and a personality that's simply way too human. So the pairing of Downy Jr. and Spader is strange, especially as enemies of which one is supposed to have an extremely personal grudge against the other--not only do they spend almost no time together, but the Vision's verbal acknowledgement of Ultron's hatred of his creator Tony is hardly present. Being that Ultron's deep issues with his creator is one of his most defining characteristics in the comics, that's a huge missed opportunity in the film. A randomly blossomed romance between Bruce Banner (further neglecting the existence of Banner's most important periphery character, Betty Ross) and Black Widow (what?) comes out of nowhere to fill the time and give Widow something to do. It's a nice running gag throughout the film with comical commentary from Hawkeye, Iron Man, and even Cap, but it's an embarrassment to Widow's character as a woman to randomly fall in love with the one man that doesn't suit anybody, only to be left behind anyway. Quicksilver's accent is bad; Scarlett's is even worse. Maria Hill still looks nothing like Maria Hill. And to top it all off, the highly-anticipated post-credit scene adds nearly nothing to the overall narrative of the MCU, only more cosmic questions left unanswered...questions even Guardians Vol. 2 does not answer.
Oh yeah, one more thing. I still cannot believe that Whedon made an entire two-hour-plus long film about the Avengers fighting Ultron, and not even ONCE was Hank Pym's named mentioned. Not a picture, not a cameo, not a name-drop. Unbelievable. But instead of getting stuck on its hang-ups, see for yourself: get the epic sequel HERE.
11) Thor (2011)
Where it worked: Thor was clever in a lot of ways. Maybe too clever...this film should've sucked, but director Kenneth Branagh really put everything together magnificently, including the cast: then-unknown stars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are now household names because of their picture-perfect portrayals of royal Asgardian siblings Thor and Loki. Thor worked quite well, dabbling in some "Ultimate Marvel" inspiration for his MCU narrative and involving him almost immediately with Phil Coulson and, thus, SHIELD. Crossing worlds and dimensions was a visually beautiful roller coaster and reimaginings of Norse mythology--Asgard's kingdom, the Bifrost (the Rainbow Bridge), etc.--fit perfectly for 2011 Earth. The magic of this film--"science" to the characters in-film--is spectacular for most of the running time. Thor's lightning and Loki's trickster abilities are exciting and fill the imagination with exactly else can he do. A guy with blonde locks and a giant hammer with a name for a primary weapon never looked more convincing in real life. The film's core humor, inspired by American culture-clash, love interest Jane Foster's total bewilderment with Thor, and Loki's own mischievious nature, keep the film from taking itself too seriously, even though Asgard and its culture are still completely believable. They talk about Earth as a well-known, long-established body of life, but completely separate from, and in essence beneath, Asgardian law and life. The film scores extra points for containing one of the MCU's best surprise cameos alongside Nick Fury in Iron Man, and the Falcon in Ant-Man: the debut of Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye.
Where it didn't work: The fight scenes and narrative weren't something anyone needed to worry about with a film like this. Thor isn't even necessarily an "origin" story, because well, Thor has always been Thor, though it does establish his new nature as a well-fitting king, and Loki's true nature as a vengeful, envious, and unusually powerful villain. No, these things we needn't worry about. However, one key problem with Thor is that, outside of Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, and Idris Elba as Odin, Frigga, and Heimdall respectively, the supporting cast falls a BIT short. Lady Sif and the Warriors Three are an entertaining bunch of good-natured allies, and it's quite refreshing for there not to be a drop of romance between Sif and Thor (something the sequel tries to make work but fails). The problem is that their motivations for helping Thor are seemingly childish, playing along with Thor's selfish ambitions and blood-thirsty conquests for little good reason. (Watching Thor change from arrogant prince to perfectly humble hero also seems to happen a bit too fast for someone who's apparently been like that all of his life.) Natalie Portman's Jane Foster is no longer a nurse like in the comics, but an astrophysicist. Beautiful, intelligent, and utterly dorky--it's a role that doesn't fit her naturally, and it's silly watching her try to be...silly. On the upside, it's totally refreshing to have a funny, goofy, and clumsy love interest. Whereas Gamora, Betty, Peggy, and Hope are all mostly sharp-as-a-knife, professional, and quite serious overall, Jane is usually clownish and quirky. Her absurdly pretty intern Darcy, played by Kat Dennings, is even worse with her dry, sarcastic wit, and their mentor Dr. Eric Selvig tries his best to play someone of importance, but just can't quite get there (though the following year's crossover hit The Avengers remedies this).
I bet it's been a while since you've seen this one, huh? Nab it HERE, and remember what makes it a successful entry.
10) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Where it worked: To be honest, no, I didn't enjoy this movie the first go around. The grand music whenever someone did something heroic, and the dark music whenever a villain did, well, anything, felt too much like a cartoon. The CG wasn't spectacular, the film went a bit fast, and at the time, it almost felt like this film--especially with its subtitle--couldn't stand on its own two film and existed for no other purpose than to be a prelude to the following year's The Avengers. Years of re-watching this film proved me quite wrong, as I now appreciate this film more than I ever have before. It is the MCU's only "period piece", set not in modern times but during World War 2. Rocketeer director Joe Johnston did a great job of capturing the smoky, sepia-toned, war-weary-but-optimistic New York of the era, complete with tommy-gun gangsters and World of Tomorrow carnivals. Fantastic Four's Chris Evans is shockingly ideal as Steve Rogers, a young, hopelessly patriotic man who's physicality simply won't allow him to be in the army, until Stanley Tucci's Dr. Erskine prompts him to serve as the primary guinea pig for the Super Soldier program (long before it was revived in The Incredible Hulk) and it was quite successful, transforming Rogers into Captain America: the perfect hero, soldier, and symbol to battle the forces of Red Skull, the leader of Nazi weapons division Hydra. The use of the Howling Commandos is very cool, and seeing history unfold with the debut of the Cosmic Cube (known here as the Tesseract and no less containing an Infinity Stone), Tony Stark's father Howard in a strong supporting role as co-founder of what would eventually become SHIELD, and Bucky Barnes' fate that would eventually transform him into the Winter Soldier, is riveting. The film also contains one of the most refreshingly sympathetic endings to any MCU movie this side of Guardians Vol. 2.
Where it didn't work: The film's cast had some pretty strong support in the form of Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, and Dominic Cooper, not to mention convincing villains brought to life by Toby Jones and a commanding Hugo Weaving as Cap's first nemesis, the Red Skull. Then we have the Howling Commandos, prominently represented by Neal McDonoghue and Derek Luke. It's a problem, though: the two actors' talents seem to go almost wasted as they aren't featured prominently and have an extremely low amount of dialog, and collectively, unless we do the subsequent research or really know Cap and Nick Fury's old comics, we may completely miss the fact that they're supposed to be the Howling Commandos. The beautiful Natalie Dormer has only but a cameo with Cap, which is at least darn funny, but even Stanley Tucci exits the film a bit too quickly. As one of my favorite actors, it hurts to see such talent like Tucci exit almost as fast as they debut! And even though Sebastian Stan's revamped Bucky Barnes--no longer a much-younger sidekick of Cap's, but rather a cohort and best friend of his--is one of the best things about this film, the way they omitted his extremely popular, and highly heroic "death" from the comics and cartoons is completely unforgivable. Their substitute was a fiercely underwhelming drop into an icy ravine from a train after a slightly-botched operation. It was cliché, happened ridiculously fast, and was inadvertently cartoonish. I feel very little shame laughing as Barnes falls to his doom.
Relive Cap's first adventure long before the Civil War occurred HERE.
9) Iron Man 3 (2013)
Where it worked: This was probably a decent way to begin Phase Two of the MCU. Though the trailers masked this film as potentially the most serious entry in the cinematic universe, Iron Man 3 is gut-bustingly funny. It easily has the best mix of action in-armor and especially out-of-armor in the confides of its standalone trilogy, and does an interesting job adapting the Marvel Comics' storyline about Extremis. Tony Stark only get smarter and more clever with his own exoskeleton technology, and the film opens up with him playing around with his latest evolution of Iron Man suits--breakable ware, where the suit's humanoid limbs can all operate and function independently, and come together to form one full suit (sort of like Voltron?). Don Cheadle, absent from The Avengers, returns in full form as Rhodes. Unlike his debut as the character in Iron Man 2, it finally feels as though he has truly lived up to the name--perhaps we just needed to give him some time and his own sense of consistency. Franchise newcomer Guy Pierce is fun as Aldich Killian, a former acquaintance of Stark and Pepper Potts, who demands the spotlight every time he enters a room with fresh, white-man swag (imagine if Wesley from Daredevil season one was addicted to cocaine, but took downers before every board meeting...that's kind of what Killian is like). The lovely Rebecca Hall is cast as brilliant Extremis inventor Maya Hansen, whose reappearance in Stark's life easily causes even more distrust between Stark and Pepper Potts, now in an official relationship but torn between his PTSD from the events of The Avengers, which leads him to design dozens of Iron Man suits for dozen of situations. It leads to a magnificent final fight where Stark, Rhodey, and his unmanned, JARVIS-controlled Iron Man suits take on dozens of Killian's Extremis-induced goons. And even though the adorable Ty Simpkins steals hearts as an innocent young boy who becomes an assistant to Stark while his Iron Man suit is out of commission, it's Ben Kingsley as "the Mandarin" that completely owns the first half of this movie. His presence is felt almost immediately after Stark has fun fumbling with his new suit, instantly creating a painfully dark terrorist threat, one that could potentially destroy Stark (because, let's be honest....we knew there was no way Iron Monger or Whiplash would). It sends the good ol' boys in America frantic attempting to find and contain him: Stark, Rhodey, even the President (just where the hell is Captain America?). The Mandarin is smart, dangerous, and ruthless.
Where it didn't work: What potentially urked audiences as the MCU's biggest movie twist was that the Mandarin is just a British actor named Trevor Slattery. The Mandarin we've been waiting for since the first Iron Man (his group, the Ten Rings, were all throughout that film) was, quite literally, a joke. No powers, no influence, no threats, no rings...just a flunky of Killian's. Truly heartbreaking for comic book fans; that director Shane Black sneaks his way out of introducing Iron Man's number one nemesis by masking the truth in awkward laughs and upping the presence of Extremis funder and user Killian. Guy Pierce is perfectly strange in the role of Killian, a former turned-down, physically disabled nerd who thinks he's entitled to revenge, celebrity, and swag because, once upon a time, Tony Stark didn't give him a phone call. No literally, that's really the story. As cool as it is to see Extremis come to life...it isn't worth denying us the Mandarin. And someone actually thought it was a good idea to completely waste the Iron Patriot armor in this film. In the comics, Iron Patriot was an Iron Man suit with a design inspired by Captain America's external symbolism, but piloted by Norman Osborn--yup, the former Spider-Man nemesis Green Goblin--while he was the head of an agency known as HAMMER. In the film, Iron Patriot is simply the rebrand of Rhodey's War Machine armor so that he feels more like an American protector and not a threat to its security, but the film truly wastes his character when suited up. Although Rhodey is smart and extremely resourceful outside of the suit, his Iron Patriot/War Machine alter ego has next to no role in the epic final scene. And now that Spider-Man is a part of the MCU, they simply missed a GIANT opportunity to potentially introduce Osborn to the MCU and put him inside the Iron Patriot armor as a villain. Did I mention yet that the Mandarin isn't real?
I think it's best to decide for yourself how well-executed their Mandarin "prank" went. I was just talking to a friend online who said he loved how they handled him. It was funny, I'll give him that. Purchase the movie HERE.
8) Ant-Man (2015)
Where it worked: Impressively enough, Paul Rudd's Scott Lang is charming, relatable, and radiant enough to pick up the slack where his counterpart, Evangeline Lily's Hope Van Dyne, mostly falls flat. The audience's knowledge that she will eventually become the Wasp keeps us intrigued though, as do the possibilities of how exactly they'd fit into the larger MCU so late in the game, concluding the MCU's Phase Two. Edgar Wright left the director's seat half-way through production, citing differences with Marvel and Disney, leaving new director Peyton Reed little time to pick up the pieces of where Wright left off. Wright's original Ant-Man project was aptly in production as a Phase One entry alongside Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America (and aptly so, as Ant-Man and Wasp were the duo who, alongside the four aforementioned heroes, formed the original Avengers in 1963, long before Hawkeye or Black Widow joined), so it was unusual to have the tiny hero randomly thrown in the mix to conclude the Phase Two series of MCU films, especially after having nothing to do with Age of Ultron, but again....somehow, they pulled it off! Rapper T.I. and actor David Dastmalchian offer initially colorful but ultimately interchangeable roles as Lang's new good-natured but criminally-skilled buddies, but it's Michael Pena as Lang's old crime pal that steals the entire show, with absolutely no super-powers no less. Every line he delivers is comic gold, and riding shotgun with Rudd's Apatowian catalog, that's saying something. Falcon's surprise cameo was also VERY well done, and further proved Lang's heroic-potential to stand alongside the "big dogs". Introducing the Quantum Realm (seen again briefly in 2016's Doctor Strange), the existence of Pym Particles, and building a new generation of Ant-Man and Wasp heroes are all exciting prospects for Reed, Rudd, and Lily, and I personally can't wait for a stand-alone sequel.
Where it didn't: Ugh, where to begin. As an long-time fan of Ant-Man and the various owners of the mantle, I was hugely disappointed in their decision to make one movie focusing on the comic's second Ant-Man, Scott Lang, while simultaneously attempting to introduce the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym (played with rasp by Hollywood veteran Michael Douglas), as someone of actual importance. Wright's original plan envisioned the film as a two-parter that would focus on a young Hank Pym as the first Ant-Man, and later would time-skip to the present where we would meet his successor, Scott Lang, as the modern-day Ant-Man. However here, the the film opens up in 1989 where we see a disgruntled Hank Pym as--you guessed it--just another SHIELD flunky, discussing with an older Howard Stark and Peggy Carter the conditions of his resignation. His wife Janet is dead, he's grumpy, and is estranged from his daughter Hope. Whereas his comicbook counterpart created Ultron and helped formed the original Avengers, the film version of Hank discovered Pym Particles, left SHIELD, and that's about it. Marvel Studios' decision to not even name-drop Pym in Age of Ultron to prep audiences for the then-upcoming Ant-Man movie, or give a nod to those who know the comics and Ultron's proper origin were left utterly dissatisfied. Throw in another useless throwaway villain in the form of Darren Cross' Yellowjacket, and you have a stand-alone mess that by all means shouldn't have worked. I'm extremely grateful, in the long run, that it did, because Rudd's role as Ant-Man/Giant-Man in Captain America: Civil War was fantastical and he stood tall alongside Black Panther and Spider-Man to completely steal the show from Cap and Iron Man.
See for yourself how well Peyton Reed picked up the pieces from Edgar Wright for yourself! Again, I personally thought he ultimately did a swell job considering all he was left with, not to mention time restraints. You can own the film HERE.
7) Doctor Strange (2016)
Where it worked: All everyone cared about in 2016 were Civil War and Zack Snyder's highly-anticipated Batman v Superman--which, when you think about it, had very similar plot. Doctor Strange just kind of snuck in there in the last quarter of the year, and despite some valid plot-comparisons to the first Iron Man, Strange introduces Earth and the MCU to the reality of magic and sorcery (not to be confused with the visually similar "science" of Thor). With an inventive Inception-style take on warping reality and "breaking" time, Strange works where it's two heroes, rich-and-entitled-turned-humble-and-altruistic protagonist Stephen and not-quite-a-villain-yet Mordo, find themselves questioning their teachings and leaders--not dissimilar to Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier--and breaking the rules to fight off perfect throwaway villain Kaecilius, a former student of Stephen and Mordo's teacher, The Ancient One. The action is on point and it's quite easy to see that if any other Avengers of Defenders got caught up in the sorcery-war these guys are in, they'd have absolutely no idea what to do. The Ancient One and all her students--both good and evil--are clearly masters of their own domains. The film also works with its excellent take on Wong: whereas in the comics he was a younger, less useful sidekick/servant of Stephan, here Wong himself is a master of the ancient arts and stands alongside Stephan and Mordo as an equal of sorts, effectively creating a triad powerhouse of sorcerers who all teach one another a thing or two about their own skillsets. Seeing Mordo slowly transform into a villain for future films also keeps the story intriguing, especially for fans of the comics who understand the hero-nemesis dynamic between the two.
Where it didn't work: Benedict Cumberbatch did not have a great American English accent. Unlike his Sherlock co-star Martin Freeman, who's American English accent in Civil War as Everett Ross was near-flawless, Benedict still has some work to do. Also, let's talk about two characters here for a second. The first is The Ancient One. Traditionally an older Asian male, "he", in the MCU, is now a Caucasian female, played with highly-apt gender-ambiguity by Tilda Swinston. It worked, yes, and this isn't the only character change. Mordo, traditionally Translyvanian and blatantly not black, here in the MCU is played by Nigerian-British Chiwetel Ejifor. The inconsistency of these two complaints from audiences bothers me, though I can step back and see how a critic could sense the threat of whitewashing, sure. But the issue isn't really with Marvel Studio's decision to handle the Ancient One as they did. It was the Ancient One's seemingly non-chalant, almost childlike attitude that hindered me from seeing her as the Ancient One who trained all of these incredible magicians, some who come to protect the world, others who threaten it, up until the point of her death. I should have respected her long before that moment in time, which was one of the best moments of the film. Secondly, let me address Dormmamu. It was so, so strange (pun intended) how they handled this character. A "big" baddie that is realistically among the ranks of Ultron and Thanos, Dormmamu is spoken of throughout the film as a larger threat looming over all the heroes and villains present in this mystic war, but the shock is that he actually makes an appearance in this film! Though absent of a physical body, his face appears to confront (and attack) Stephan, reminiscent of a psychedelic night club powering his sinister "dark dimension". It was a weird move, almost as weird as Mandarin being hinted at throughout the first Iron Man (which happened), and then suddenly showing up near the end of the film (which obviously, and thankfully, didn't happen).
Strange finds itself going in a unique direction for the MCU; you can purchase and experience this mystical, quite trippy adventure HERE.
6) The Avengers (2012)
Where it worked: This is the cumulative effort audiences waited and speculated four years over. A collective, coherent and inclusive cinematic universe hasn't worked so smoothly since Universal did it in the 40's with their Monster movies. And it only gets better with each viewing. Although some speculated appearances never come into fruition, we aren't introduced to too many main characters we haven't seen before (The Other and Maria Hill are exceptions), so Whedon doesn't overfill his plate and knows how to handle his six core characters. Plus, taking huge cues from both the original 1963 first issue of The Avengers, comic, as well as the comic book The Ultimates--a reimagining of the Avengers' origin story set in the Marvel's "Ultimate" imprint universe--that sees the six heroes brought together by an African-American Nick Fury (no less inspired by the likeness of Samuel L. Jackson) in a world where most of the world already knows their real-world identities, fans of the comics are humorously delighted with the nods from two origins. Also like the original comics, Loki is the threat that brings the team together for the first time. Tom Hiddleston has never been more alluring in the MCU than here, spending glorious moments with each Avenger, one by one, and shining brightest when confronting his brother Thor.
Where it didn't: It was very foreign to me, at first, to see an Avengers film that didn't have much of a focus on Captain America. Marvel Studios basically pulled a "Wolverine" with their approach to Iron Man, even to the point of omitting Captain's leadership of the team and delegating him second to anybody funnier than him (thankfully, Marvel and nerd-hero director Joss Whedon attempt to remedy this in the sequel). It also takes some time getting used to Mark Ruffalo suddenly taking over for Edward Norton as Bruce Banner and still remembering that Norton's The Incredible Hulk film is still canon in this universe. Ruffalo as Banner even mentions his destruction of Harlem, referring to the final battle between him and Abomination. in The Incredible Hulk. Like I said...takes some getting used to. Additionally, loyal fans of the comics will no doubt grumble about the complete absence of Ant-Man/Giant-Man and the Wasp, who were Avengers long before Hawkeye, Black Widow (their in-film replacements) or even Captain himself came to fulfill their squad goals. All in all, its lesser points are still overshadowed by the film's overall greatness.
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5) Iron Man (2008)
Where it worked: Most audiences didn't know that The Dark Knight, released also in 2008, would be the best superhero film seen in a long time. And yet, with the anticipation of the cinematic return of the Joker and rumors of a certain Two-Face appearing in Christopher Nolan's second film in his hauntingly realistic take on the Batman mythology, DC Comics was on their game. At this time, all Marvel really had for us was the bad taste left in audience's mouths of the previous year's utter crapfest: Spider-Man 3 and Ghost Rider. Who knew an Iron Man film would blow everybody out of the water with a fantastic cast lead by Robert Downy Jr. and Terrance Howard, the latter of whom we tend to forget was slated to play War Machine for a very long time, had things panned out the way they were supposed to. This film, as funny as it gets, is also the most serious of the three stand-alone Iron Man films, and spouts a pretty strong commentary about the globalization of weapons in the real world, the obligations of legacy, and the controversy of oversight--a topic that would reappear again in Captain America: Civil War. Paltrow is a scene-stealing actress by never giving into the staple kiss-the-hero troupe, but staying worried sick for Downy's Tony Stark as his constantly presses onward to undo the damage his weapons company has done. The mix of flawless CG and practical costumes for Tony Stark's Iron Man suits (and an explicit nod to the suit's earliest Marvel Comic designs) score major points, and the beginning of the film following Tony and Yinsen (another forgotten but painfully likeable MCU character) in captivity in the Middle East--leading to Yinsen's brave sacrifice for Tony's survival, and his subsequent applause-worthy escape--are some of the most exciting things that the MCU has yet to offer. That's saying something, considering the places that Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy have take us, their faithful audience.
Where it didn't work: There was little to complain about this film--the introduction of Agent Coulson and SHIELD, Samuel L. Jackson's last-second appearance as "Ultimate" Nick Fury and Howard's Rhodey "Next time, baby" line were three of the highlights of the entire film, even in 2017, nine years after its release. The utilization of three generations of suits--harking back to the bulky, discolored Iron Man of the 60's, all the way to the sleek, techno-exoskeleton of tomorrow--was executed with tact and good taste. Jeff Bridge's forgotten Iron Monger--the first true villain in the MCU--isn't even among the worst villains this MCU has to offer, but he of course was not perfect, and seemed to almost transition from trusted parental figure, to acting strange, to totally evil quite hastily. I also see the film lacking in consistency with how they wanted to present Tony Stark while in the suit--you can hear his voice change as "Iron Man" throughout the film. Little things, but y'know, they aren't exempt.
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4) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Where it worked: Two words: BABY GROOT. Director James Gun knew exactly what he was doing by working up the inadvertent "cute" factor Groot brought to the original Guardians film, captivating the hearts of adults and children alike with his kind alien heart and sacrifice. Even being restricted to a three-word vocabulary, Groot doesn't talk much at all, here but he and the other Guardians have finally found their place in the galaxy, and the film splits the members up to give us a deeper focus on each Guardian. Their quirks and personalities are fully established, with Drax delivering the most heartfelt, contagious childlike wonder any hero in the MCU has portrayed yet. Yondu and Nebula return to steal entire scenes and gain our respect beyond their accomplishments of the first film, while Rocket and Gamora delivers us precisely what we expect from them: battle-hardened attitudes and a lot of softness behind their hard shells. The Sovereign, a race of people obsessed with perfect, are led by the strangely beautiful and frighteningly tall High Priestess Ayesha, a pseudo-villain who holds a killer grudge against the Guardians for an inadvertent act of disrespect in the beginning of the film. It's Ayesha's grudge that is key to most of the intense space battles in the film, and the film's retro-sensibilities are heightened with heavy nods to David Hasselhoff and coin-op arcades. Action-hero veterans Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell debut in the MCU as old-school cosmic superhero Starhawk (in the comics, he is an original Guardian of the Galaxy predating all members of the current group) and galactic entity Ego the Living Planet (a Celestial that can take many forms). Their parts in the film are surprisingly exceptional, especially Russell's.
Where it didn't work: Two Words: STAR-LORD. Though I was overly impressed with Peter Quill's new outer-space outlaw in the first Guardians, I was disappointed in this sequel over the amount of time spend on Quill being....well, Quill....and not Star-Lord. His disgustingly rad battle-mask makes little appearance in the film, as does Quill himself on the battlefield until the near-end of the film. It's all for a solid reason, and the ending dealing with Star-Lord, Ego, and Yondu is quite visually and emotionally satisfying, but more of Star-Lord would've made the film better. Another point of disappointment for me was Mantis, a unique 'empath' of a heroine who should've had a bit more spotlight, and perhaps a bit more fight in her, though I was pleased that her character was pretty consistent throughout the film. I also would've liked to see more resolution between the sisterhood of Gamora and Nebula, and their shared thirst for vengeance against their father Thanos, but there are reasons this film didn't dive into all that it was speculated it would. My final complaint is Nathan Fillion's role as actor Simon Williams, the Avenger known as Wonder Man. Confirmed earlier to have a very small role in this film, none of his shots made the final cut. In episode 8 of the podcast, I had mentioned the confirmation and its implications of the current MCU, but the film ultimately omitted all instances of the hero (so I pretty much wasted my breath about Wonder Man). According to James Gunn though, Fillion's Wonder Man is expected to actually show his face in the future.
3) Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Where it worked: I still can't comprehend how the Russo Brothers worked together to not only bring back the largest ensemble of heroes on one stage since the previous year's Age of Ultron, but managed to condense one of Marvel Comic's most memorable and controversial crossover events into a two-hour film. Thankfully, the comic book also puts (and keeps) a large spotlight on Captain America, so translating this into the film sequel to The Winter Soldier (and Age of Ultron) that stars the Super Soldier himself as the leader of the "New Avengers" feels right. Seeing Chris Evans in the top billing, and Robert Downy Jr's Iron Man second, also feels appropriate as Evans finally takes the lead (in a manner true to the comics, unlike the films which irrevocably focus on Iron Man) in a fight between heroes over the dangerously cautious Sokovia Accords, which would regulate the Avengers' activities and provide intense governmental oversight. Sans Thor and the Hulk, seeing both the new and old Avengers genuinely split up over the contents of the Accords is perfectly reflective of an ordeal breaking a family apart. It hurts to watch. However, the debut of Black Panther and Spider-Man keep the hurt from killing us deeply inside. The shock and surprise of seeing these two completely different heroes debut in a film that also includes the large majority of the Avengers, not to mention the debuts of Black Panther periphery character Everett Ross and new villain Baron Zemo, as well as the return of General Thunderbolt Ross--who hadn't been seen since 2008's The Incredible Hulk, now Secretary of State--plants a certain fear that there might just be way too much happening in one film. Oh yeah, Winter Soldier is also back. Oh, and Crossbones is back. So is the Vision. And Agent 13. And Hawkeye sorta comes out of nowhere for no reason. Finally, the unprecedented show-stealer, Ant-Man, also returns to prove his worth among the Avengers (without one single ant!). But thanks to the Russo Brother's incredible timing and usage of the Avengers--each Avenger has a specific purpose (even Hawkeye)--everybody fits on a stage that originally looks too small. And it's the triple-threat of Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Spider-Man that completely takes over the film's cool factor before we're reminded, oh yeah, it's a Captain America movie. Which is still crazy to think about, when we're so still so simultaneously worried about War Machine's health, scared of the Vision's powers, and concerned for Scarlet Witch's conscious. Civil War is kinda like this: spill every ingredient you can find in your kitchen on the floor, making the biggest mess you can possibly make. Then, call the Russo brothers specifically to clean up the mess, and they'll leave the kitchen with the most beautiful cake you've ever seen. That, ladies and gentlemen, is what Civil War is like. And, surprise-surprise....this is the first MCU film where, technically, the villain wins.
Where it doesn't work: I won't lie, their take on Baron Zemo had almost nothing to do with the Zemo from the comics. Played with believable conviction by Daniel Bruhl, Zemo here trudges along as a victim of loss thanks to the battle between the Avengers and Ultron, with a LOT of knowledge about Hydra's secret past and the Winter Soldier project. His plan isn't to murder the Avengers one-by-one or take over countries...all he wants to do is cause irreversible damage and division within the Avengers, as if the Sokovia Accords weren't doing that enough. Zemo was not by any means another throwaway villain--he did not lose, and he did not die, and listening to him spill his guts to Black Panther provided a powerful sense of humanity left in him, even after all he had done. Speaking of villians, Crossbones comes back, potentially designed as the most comic-book accurate villain since Loki and Thanos. His stay isn't long-lived, however, which is a true shame. He was such a big character in The Winter Soldier, fist-fought the both Falcon and Captain America, and even survived the crumbling of SHIELD's headquarters, the Treskelion, only to return to fight Captain one last time before blowing himself up, with the intent of taking Steve out with him. It was a great opening scene, but one might dare say it was a waste of his character.
2) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Where it worked: 2014 was a great year for Marvel films; Marvel Studios would release its two best films this year--Captain America: The Winter Solider, and this highly risky film with a bunch of characters most people did not really know about: Guardians of the Galaxy! What were a bunch of strange, galactic C-listers doing in a universe paved by heavy-hitters like Thor and Iron Man? The comic books may have solidified their significance in the general Marvel Comics mythos, but how would they fit in the larger MCU on film? There's two reasons why this space-opera action-comedy superhero-adventure clocks in so high on this list: 1) THANOS, that dude at the end of The Avegners! And, 2) it was very easy to not have expectations of a bunch of characters we know nothing about, except that the casting looked fantastic: Zoe Saldana, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista--a pro wrestler who had just tapped his way into Hollywood film--all lead by a reinvented Chris Pratt, no longer the pear-bodied slob portrayed in Wanted or Parks & Recreation, but now a ripped, defined scoundrel of rugged Han-and-Lando-type allurement, reinventing "dork handsome" for a new age and setting the stage for his future appearance as the lead in Jurassic World, with tons of fans pleading for him to succeed Harrison Ford himself as the new face of Indiana Jones for future installments. How does director James Gunn get us to care about these five strangers who bind together to save the galaxy from another throwaway villain? By giving them personalities that make us laugh. HARD. All Diesel's Groot says is "I am Groot." Bautista's Drax has no inclination of what it means to be sarcastic, and thus takes everything at its most literal meaning. Cooper's Rocket is a genetically-enhanced raccoon with a deep expertise in weapons-based combat and flying spaceships, caring deeply for his partner Groot for expressing all of his emotions in the completely wrong way. Pratt's Peter Quill, a half-earthling who is the only person in the galaxy who calls himself Star-Lord, has a penchant for 80's music, and an extremely sarcastic sense of humor that serves as the water in Drax's oil. And Gamora--the only intentionally serious member of the crew--is the one stuck in the middle of all of the humorous chaos, annoyed to no end but cannot stop it unless she kills everyone around her. A daughter of future-Avengers villain Thanos, Gamora is well-known in the universe and is a master of sword arts and close-quarters combat, and is half-sister of Nebula, a wild-card flunky who has her own ambitions and trusts nobody, least of all her own family. The Guardians' outer-space adventures of trying to survive each other's personalities as well as the villains pursuing them--no doubt manipulated by Thanos' desire to collect the Infinity Stones--concludes in their ultimate bonding and, realizing their own families have in one way or another abandoned them, decide to stick together. It's incredible this film was executed the way it was, but thanks to Star-Lord's unprecedentedly enjoyable soundtrack driving the narrative onward, as well as heartfelt sacrifices throughout the story, this film succeeds on its own two feet as an excellent and quite original sci-fi flick. Most importantly, though, we have a movie about something that the previous MCU films have been slightly avoiding: real family.
Where it didn't work: The film's villain, Ronan the Accuser, was completely mishandled. In the comics, Ronan is very multi-layered: he has fought for evil, and has also fought for good. He has a larger purpose in the Marvel universe and serves alongside galactic juggernauts like Nova and the Silver Surfer. Here in this film, he's as religious zealot, is introduced, and gets killed. He's obsessed by the power of the Infinity Stone Thanos had sent him (and, previously, an unsuccessful Loki) to retrieve and, once he finds it, decides to use it on his own and, in probably one of the MCU's coolest moments of villainy, challenges Thanos himself, assuring him that, once he's destroyed the planet Xandar, he's next. It was a moment of undeniable swag for any villain in this universe, having also killed The Other from The Avengers in a split-second. Again, it's such a shame that Gunn mishandled this character that could've grown and evolved throughout the MCU and maybe even returned to change his ways to work alongside the Guardians and the Avengers to face Thanos. Introduced as evil for no truly real reason, and killed as evil without a chance for him to see the error of his ways, Ronan is easily the weakest link of this film....and the universe.
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1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Where it worked: Like The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back, this is one of the great cinematic sequels that outdoes both its predecessor and successor. I'm grateful mostly for its new direction from the first film thanks to the Russo Brothers now at the helm: The Winter Solider feels less like The Rocketeer, and more like a 1970's political espionage thriller, the sort of context that fits SHIELD just right, and while I was scared years ago that a post-Avengers Steve Rogers would just end up another SHIELD flunky...which is basically what happens...we also see that he is his own man who questions orders, ideologies, and is not afraid to confront superiors he can't seem to always trust. And that's the START of the film. His new friendship with MCU debut Sam Wilson, the future Falcon, proves difficult for audiences to not feel any emotional ties about. Their conversations evoke real questions that hardly seem to be asked until post-Winter Soldier outings, the best being Sam's question to Steve: "What makes you happy?" Steve quietly retorts, "I don't know", with a slight smile on his face, emitting respect from the question being asked and admitting his own struggles: he's still a man out of time, holding on tight to an aging Peggy Carter, and still discovering his place in the changing and distrustful new world. No longer a soldier, never again a civilian, and not quite the Avengers leader Age of Ultron tries too hard to suddenly push him in. The relationship between Steve and returning deuteragonist Black Widow is also a refreshing welcome change to the male-female lead dynamic, cutting loose romantic cliches between them, while still tightening their bond as Avengers-on-the-run. And, although Robert Redford's handsome, raisin-faced grandfather-in-politics villain indeed turns out to be a slick, sharp-talking throwaway with enough charm to convince you he's not THAT into Hydra, it's really the return of Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes, now the Winter Soldier, that just about solves Marvel's villain problem up to that point. Both Bucky and Steve's fighting styles and combat expertise have evolved, and seeing the two fight one another mid-film is one of the most exciting moments in the entire MCU. That extremely random blink-and-you-miss it Doctor Strange name drop was pretty awesome, too.
Where it didn't work: Of any MCU film, it's this one that contains my favorite opening scene, and my favorite ending scene. Steve and Sam are just too good of a pair, and I'm extremely impressed with the Russo's handling of the Falcon, even if Sam's Avenger heroism almost seems to come TOO naturally--being chased my giant SHIELD/Hydra warjets with sidewinders and machine vulcans, not to mention three SHIELD helicarriers blasting their warship cannons at him and him alone, seems to hardly phase him. "Hey Cap", he jokes, "I found those bad guys you were talking about". With everything that's going on, it's difficult to believe Sam can be THAT unphased in superheroic combat. Especially THIS kind of combat. But thank God for Maria Hill...who still refuses to look anything like Maria Hill (that's a personal complaint, because I adore pixie cuts and simply don't understand why Hill or Skye/Daisy/Quake from the Agents of SHIELD television show won't adhere to their comic book counterpart's looks. Whatever). A humorous and brilliant nod to 2010's Iron Man 2 (specifically) reveals that Hydra's hands are absurdly deep in SHIELD's pockets, but double-agent Jasper Sitwell might-as-well had been introduced in this film, because I don't know about you, but I actually had to research which other MCU presentations he'd been in after watching this one. The script treats us like we're supposed to remember Sitwell from The Avengers or Thor. Guess what? I DIDN'T. Which sucks, because his death would've been more impactful (not just shocking) had he also had larger roles into those previous films. The Bruce Banner name-drops were cute, though they certainly don't make up for Banner not receiving his own sequel to 2008's The Incredible Hulk (and if we're being honest, neither does his upcoming "Planet Hulk" appearance in Thor: Ragnarok), but it does a fine job of putting an ice pack on a missing limb.
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Do you agree with this list? What does yours look like, and where does the most recent film--Guardians 2--land in your opinion? Comment down below!