Ultimate Movie Review REMIX: From Iron Man to Ant Man & The Wasp
This is the remix--cleaned up; edited deeper; less words and more meaning. With the inclusion of Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and Ant-Man and the Wasp, all twenty films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are here. Let's dig in, nerds!
20) 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 Hiddleston's Loki was up to after building up to the role of main antagonist in both Thor (2011) and The Avengers (2012). Unaffected by the MCU's conspicuous kill-the-villain problem, we most likely 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 (like Captain America's "cameo") and numerous blatant references to Star Wars kept the film entertaining. In line with those aforementioned easter eggs, 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. Redesigning the visual narrative to give it a more space-operatic atmosphere did not necessary heal or hurt the Asgard brand. Natalie Portman's female lead Jane Foster is unforgivably useless and should've been given much more to do than to just whine about Thor, wait on Thor, and to be used a vessel for the Power Infinity Stone. Jaimie Alexander returns as Asgardian champion Lady Sif, who's sudden and quite evident feelings towards Thor add 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 her to risk her life for Jane. The Dark Elf Maleketh is easily the worst villain to ever "grace" the MCU. He’s utterly forgettable, even with an Infinity Stone in his possession. I feel bad for the actor behind the mask, Christopher Eccleston; the former Doctor Who certainly turned no heads with his one-dimensional villain. Maybe I'm actually glad he's dead.
19) IRON MAN 2 (2010)
Where it worked: Iron Man 2 is the funniest film of its stand-alone trilogy, finally giving Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury and Robert Downey 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, and their meeting at Randy's Donuts is one of the most comical sequences in the trilogy). This entry also builds off of Downy Jr. being himself more, with every quirk and idiosyncrasy intact. Here, as a result of what Stark believes is an inevitable and quickly-coming death, he's just laughing everything away, succumbing to being obnoxiously self-involved, and dedicated to being as strange as possible. 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 weapon manufacturing should be. Gwyneth Paltrow is in top form returning as Pepper Potts, not missing a single beat from her worry-wort secretary. 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 Terrence Howard as Colonel James Rhodes from the first film. Here, one of the major killers of Iron Man 2 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. 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. I have more love for Scarlett Johansson's portrayal of the super-spy these days, but back then I wasn't convinced 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 (and now with a solo film in play, my uncertainties are returning). Finally, Whiplash, our dastardly villain with a personal grudge against Stark, is one of the better things about the first half of the film. His fight with Tony, their subsequent dialogue, and his prison escape were all profound moments in the film. Sadly, 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 (2017). Disgraceful.
18) THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
Where it worked: This rebooted flick was a heck of a lot better than Ang Lee's deeply psychological, romanticized drama about the anti-hero from 2003. Eric Bana 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 and already on the run from William Hurt's Thunderbolt Ross as well as still in love with his daughter, Betty Ross. 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 (all related to the same Super Soldier program that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America) eventually leads him to a transformation similar to Banner's, becoming the Hulk-like monster Abomination. The prospInstead of just having guests like some of my episodes, or just me doing it solo like most of my episodesect 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 at all. The film ends with the surprising revelation that this film does in fact take place in the same universe as Iron Man. So sure, Iron Man (2008) was the foundation, but we have to give The Incredible Hulk its due credit--this was the film that officially fulfilled that promise of a living, breathing, shared Marvel universe.
Where it didn't: Liv Tyler's Betty Ross was pretty subpar. Betty is the single most important character in the Hulk's narrative, so not only is it a gigantic disappointment that she has been completely absent from the MCU since 2008, but here, in her first (and currently only) appearance, she doesn't stand out much. Tim Roth 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 movie. Like I said, the PROSPECT of the Abomination (and that of the Leader) is cool....the actual executions, however, 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.
17) 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 avenging a SHIELD-less world and functioning on their own without SHIELD involvement, 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, but it’s enjoyable. This film feels a LOT more comic book-inspired than the first film--though RDJ's in the top billing, it's Chris Evan's Captain America, returning 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. Epic group shots visually address Thor, Iron Man, and Cap as the "Big Three" that represent the essence of the Avengers despite their rotating 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 instead), they introduce 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. It gave Clint a great dynamic as a hero after spending half of the previous film being a villain under Loki’s control. But even with newer characters that imply a much larger world--such as Black Panther's future nemesis, Ulysses Klaw--it is the Vision that is the standout character of this film. Every line he mutters is like the cold dot-matrix printing of an audiogram; his unintentional humor shines bright, and Ultron's final dialog with him near the end of the film is not only my favorite scene in the film, but 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 physical personality. Spader has grown in Hollywood to become one of the funniest, oddest, and quirkiest actors this side of Robert Downey Jr., but here, Spader's Ultron is not half as cold and calculating as his “offspring” the Vision, like in the comics. He is the robot 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 bitter enemies of which one is supposed to have an extremely personal grudge against his creator--a father-son complex, if you will. Yet, 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 in favor of each Avenger having their on-screen “moment” with Vision (Whedon also accomplished this task in the previous film, giving each Avenger some sort of one-on-one interaction with Loki instead of focusing on the relationship between him and his brother Thor). 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 and Black Widow (what?) comes out of nowhere to fill the time and give Widow something to do, while effecting ignoring the fact that Betty Ross (hello?) exists and it pivotal to personal Banner’s story. Their feelings for one another serve as 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 to aggressively advance herself so quickly on Banner, who is level-headed and conscious. Quicksilver's accent is bad; Scarlet Witch'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.
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 (Ultron’s creator in the comics) mentioned. Not a picture, not a cameo, not a name-drop. Unbelievable.
16) 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-future superstars Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston had picture-perfect portrayals of royal Asgardian siblings Thor and Loki. Thor as a character worked quite well, dabbling in some "Ultimate Marvel" inspiration for his MCU narrative on Earth, and involving him almost immediately with Agent Phil Coulson and 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 Asgardians--is spectacular for most of the running time. Thor's lightning and Loki's trickster abilities are exciting and fill the imagination with the limitations of their powers. The film's core humor, inspired by American culture-clash, goofy 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: 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, but 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 to no 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 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...well, silly. On the upside, it's totally refreshing to have a clumsy love interest, a la Julianne Moore in Evolution (2001). Her absurdly pretty intern Darcy, played by Kat Dennings, is even worse with her dry, sarcastic wit, and their mentor Dr. Erik 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).
15) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Where it worked: To be honest, I didn't enjoy this movie the first go around. The grand score bleeding patriotism and altruism whenever anyone did something heroic, 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 feet 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 II. The Rocketeer (1991) 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, World of Tomorrow carnivals, and patriotic forwards that define not only the era, but the feel of the entire film. 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). Quite successful, it transformed Rogers into Captain America. 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 all riveting. The film also contains one of the most refreshingly sympathetic endings to any MCU movie this side of Guardians Vol. 2 (2017).
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 he debuts. And even though Sebastian Stan's revamped Bucky Barnes--no longer a much-younger sidekick of Cap's, but rather a confident cohort and best friend--is one of the best things about this film, the way they omitted his extremely iconic "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, and ridiculously fast...I feel very little shame laughing as Barnes falls to his doom.
14) IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Where it worked: This was probably a decent way to begin Phase Two of the MCU. Though the trailers fooled us into thinking it’d be 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 gets 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. 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 here--perhaps we just needed to give him some time and his own sense of consistency. Franchise newcomer Guy Pearce is fun as Aldrich 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 and Tony Stark’s former flame Maya Hansen, whose reappearance in Stark's life easily causes distrust between Stark and Pepper Potts, now in an official relationship but struggling with PTSD from the events of The Avengers, which leads him to design dozens of Iron Man suits for dozen of situations more than focus on Pepper. 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).
Where it didn't work: What potentially polarized audiences as the MCU's biggest movie twist was that the Mandarin was 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 first 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 was the ultimate downplay of MCU villains. Guy Pearce is perfectly strange in the role of Killian, a formerly rejected, 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 (ugh). 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 operated by Norman Osborn--yup, the former Spider-Man nemesis Green Goblin. Of course, Spider-Man and his world at the time were contractually unable to be apart of this universe, so here Iron Patriot is simply the rebrand of Rhodey's War Machine armor. 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?
13) ANT-MAN (2015)
Where it worked: Impressively enough, Paul Rudd's Scott Lang is charming and radiant enough to pick up the slack where his counterpart, Evangeline Lilly 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. This left new director Peyton Reed little time to pick up the pieces 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 first three aforementioned heroes, formed the original Avengers in 1963, shortly before Captain America joined, and 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, but 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. Every line he delivers is comic gold, resonating a strong “we all have that friend” vibe with the audience. The Falcon's surprise cameo was also very well done, and their brawl 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.
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, and later would time-jump to the present where we would meet his eventual successor, Scott Lang. 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, the Wasp, is supposedly dead; he's grumpy; and is terribly estranged from his daughter Hope. Whereas his comic book counterpart created Ultron and helped formed the original Avengers, the film version of Hank discovered Pym Particles and 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 the slightest 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 at all. 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.
12) ANT-MAN & THE WASP
Where it worked: An oddity of a companion piece to the tear-inducing gloom of Infinity War (2018), the third Marvel Studios film of 2018 is an action comedy that shies away from the heist elements that were the foundations of its predecessor, and gives hero Scott Lang a shot at redemption after getting busted for his part in Civil War (2016). For unexplained but easily-deduced reasons--namely his daughter--Scott was the only member of Cap’s side of the Civil War who did not follow Steve, Sam, Natasha, and Wanda to Europe on the run from the government. He’s experiencing real-world consequences for his actions under house arrest, and during those two years of “exile”, he’s become estranged from Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne, who has since become the second Wasp thanks to a new suit utilizing Pym Particles. Scott getting his groove back proves to be a fantastic ride that introduces the MCU versions of the former Goliath--played by a very welcome Laurence Fishburne--and Ghost, a woman with a very unstable condition that allows her to phase through walls--played by Hannah John-Kamen. Her story is tragic and her motivations are personal and quite simple, so it’s actually easy to feel for her, and the story becomes not-so-black-and-white, which is a welcome turn than just sitting around waiting for the eventual Ant-Man-vs-Yellowjacket fight that last time around. Ant-Man and the Wasp have a wonderful, if not cliched, dynamic that keeps the film flowing even when some of the humor is stale and the action is somewhat predictable. The Wasp gets her own story to follow as her mother, Janet van Dyne, is revealed to be alive after decades of being lost in the Quantum Realm. For the short screen time she received, Janet, played by Michelle “White Gold” Pfeiffer, was outstanding and definitely deserves her own film prequel showcasing how she even survived in the Realm for so long. Amidst the delightful humor, Paul Rudd’s weighty charms, and the return of Giant Man, is Randall Park as FBI Agent Jimmy Woo who acts as Scott’s parole officer who shines potentially brighter than anyone else in the film. Park’s comedic timing is perfect and carries on seamlessly from his ABC sitcom Fresh Off The Boat. Marvel Studios would do well giving Park his own action-sitcom as Woo existing in the larger cinematic universe with heroes like the Avengers and the Defenders. He has some of the best lines in the film...but right when the humor and adorably creative credits are finished, the mid and post-credits sequences rip you shreds again...reminding you of what Thanos did in Wakanda...
What didn’t work: Despite the title, this film did not prominently feature the new Wasp as the star of the show alongside Ant-Man, and returning director Peyton Reed somehow relegates her to second fiddle again, which is disappointing. The film could have been called Ant-Man 2 instead of Ant-Man and the Wasp. Simply put, there just wasn’t enough of the Wasp fighting with Ant-Man as a team. Walter Goggins is wasted here, too. From Justified to Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight (2015), he’s been a heavy hitter in my book for years, and his excellent acting isn’t utilized here in the slightest. For whatever villainy he intended to convince the audience he had, it didn’t work here, and I doubt his character will return to the MCU again. Despite stand-out scenes like the truth serum and Russian Boogeyman scenes, the returning trio of Michael Pena, T.I., and David Dastmalchian miss a few notes here as well. Not enough to cause this film to feel less successful than the first, because it definitely surpasses it, but just enough to turn my attention to some of the newer characters occupying the big screen. Although I do believe this sequel is better than the first, it does leave a lot to be desired, including more Woo, more insight into Hank Pym and Goliath’s former partnership, and exactly how Ant-Man/Giant-Man will return in Avengers 4 to aid in defeating Thanos once and for all.
11) DOCTOR STRANGE (2016)
Where it worked: All everyone cared about in 2016 were Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: Civil War and Zack Snyder's highly-anticipated (and afterwards, hotly-debated) Batman v Superman. Doctor Strange just kind of snuck in there in the last quarter of the same year, and despite some valid plot-comparisons to the first Iron Man, Strange introduced 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 its two heroes, rich-and-entitled-turned-humble-and-altruistic protagonist Stephen and not-quite-a-villain-yet Mordo, find themselves questioning their teachings and leadership--not terribly dissimilar to Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier--and breaking the “rules” of a functioning space-time continuum 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 or Defenders got caught up in the sorcery-war these guys are on the frontlines 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 Stephen Strange, here Wong himself is a master of the ancient arts and stands alongside Stephen 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 skill-sets. 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: It might be a little thing to some, but 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" is now a Caucasian female, played with highly-apt gender-ambiguity by Tilda Swinton. It worked, yes, and this isn't the only character change. Mordo, traditionally Transylvanian and blatantly not black, here in the MCU is played by Nigerian-British Chiwetel Ejiofor. 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 sorcerer-warriors up until the point of her death. Secondly, let me address Dormammu. It was so strange (pun intended) how they handled this character. A "big" baddie that is realistically among the ranks of Thanos, Dormammu 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 early appearance in this film. Though absent of a physical body, his face appears to confront (and kill) Stephen, reminiscent of a psychedelic night club DJ powering his sinisterly neon "dark dimension". It was a weird move, especially since Dormammu should have the upper-hand in almost all of his affairs with the dark dimension until his eventual final confrontation with Strange in the future. Here, he just appears weak and overhyped.
10) 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 30’s and 40's with their Monster movies. And it only gets better with each viewing. Although some speculated appearances never come into fruition here, 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 seven 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-- fans of the comics are humorously delighted with the nods from two origins. Also like the original comics, Loki is the main 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. The post credits scene revealed Marvel Studio’s true ambition to give the universe its eventual fight-for-its-life as it is revealed that Thanos the Mad Titan is out searching for the Infinity Stones...one of the universe’s greatest character reveals.
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 story 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 before Hawkeye, Black Widow, their apparent in-film replacements. All in all, its lesser points are still overshadowed by the film's overall greatness.
9) Spider-Man: Homecoming
Where it worked: After a series of hit-or-miss big screen adventures featuring the web-slinger from Sony, they finally made the impossible possible by throwing Tom Holland’s Spider-Man into the MCU. Like Ultimate Spider-Man from the comics, MCU Spider-Man is only 15 years old, and after being thrust into the Civil War and meeting everyone from Iron Man to Captain America, Giant Man to the Winter Soldier, all the impressionable young high schooler Peter Parker wants to be now is an official Avenger. Holland’s version of the webhead takes the best sentimental and resonating parts of Tobey Maguire’s Parker, and the best wisecracking, quirky parts of Andrew Garfield’s Parker, and mashes them into one. While becoming accustomed to being a superhero, he is still discovering the depths of his abilities. And of course, because it’s the MCU, this film takes special liberties handling some (see: most) characters and their motivations, the Vulture in particular. This villain, portrayed delightfully by Michael Keaton--the once and future Batman of Tim Burton’s iconic direction--is the everyday working man, challenged and wronged inadvertently by Tony Stark and his endorsement of clean-up crew Damage Control, and sets out to right wrongs with the right tech. Zendaya’s turn as intelligent but hilariously dark loner Michelle paves the way for a very unique love interest in Parker’s future, as she is revealed to be the MCU’s version of “MJ”. I thought it was innovative reinventing “MJ” as a brand instead of a tangible person, and in that way they were able to create a brand new character for the MCU instead of finding a younger Mary Jane Watson. It’d be nice to see another Mary Jane, since the last time we had one it was in the unlikeable form of Kirsten Dunst. I would’ve loved to see Shailene Woodley's take on the character, had The Amazing Spider-Man series not run itself into the ground trying to establish its own pointless cinematic universe. But I can’t complain about having a young, smart, black MJ. Other characters blend well in this deep mix of comedy and action--comic book fans will catch that Donald Glover’s Aaron Davis is actually The Prowler, the uncle of Miles Morales, who in the comics becomes the second Ultimate Spider-Man. Two Shockers grace the screen as well, utilizing similar tech as Vulture. It’s actually fun to see low-level criminals hijacking alien tech, flipping it, and selling it on the streets. Luke Cage season 1 tapped into that a little bit as one of the many consequences of the Battle of New York (aka “The Incident”) as seen in The Avengers (2012). The relationship between Peter and Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is also enjoyable; as both characters are now younger, May is reminiscent of an overprotective older sister. And finally, Tony Stark plays a key role as mentor to Peter Parker. He isn’t in the film as much as the trailers would show, and that’s a major plus. This film doesn’t feel like Iron Man 4. It really does feel like Spider-Man.
What didn’t work: Homecoming was brilliant, and quite ambitious, but far from perfect. Although Tony Stark inventing Peter’s modern Spidey outfit makes a ton of sense in ways that the audience may not have even thought about before with previous films about the Webhead, the suit seems almost too reliant on the tech aspect Stark injects into it. It operates very much like an Iron Man suit, with its own JARVIS-style A.I. and a range of attack modes that help inject some humor into the context but also takes a lot away from Spider-Man, as a character. With five films and decades worth of source material where he didn’t rely on Stark’s tech, it isn’t the easiest thing to accept “Iron Man Jr.”, but the film seems aware of this and finds Peter back in his pre-Civil War homemade outfit for the entirety of the final battle with Vulture. I loved that. What I didn’t love, however, was something I spoke on in another blog: Spidey spends so much time occupied with wanting to be an Avenger in what is only his second outing in the MCU, that it almost seems like Marvel Studios almost forgot that Peter spent the large majority of his comic book career without Avengers membership, nor was he concerned with obtaining it. But unlike Doctor Strange and Ant-Man, it seems that Spider-Man can’t ride with the Avengers and not be one of the gang. As much as I want more crossovers like Thor & Hulk, Ant-Man & Falcon, and (yes) even Spider-Man & Iron Man on the big screen, I almost hope the upcoming sequel Far From Home somehow keeps Spidey from the Avengers camp so he can just be a teen-aged superhero without all the perks.
But then again, of course, he’s dead.
8) Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Where it worked: Thor 3 is easily the strangest thing Marvel Studios could have possibly put together. It’s a genuine far-cry from the failed humor and stale drama of its predecessor The Dark World (2013), and with wildly imaginative director Taika Waititi at the helm, there was no question that this would either soar high, or crash hard. And yet, it failed to polarize fans--most of us genuinely loved the new direction of the character. The film doesn’t once retcon or disregard the events of The Dark World, and solves every question its predecessor left us with. Ragnarok re-establishes Thor as the God of Thunder, albeit with a modern sense of sarcastic humor and speech that would leave Tony Stark bewildered. It worked to Chris Hemsworth’s benefit as the mighty Avenger to breathe new life into the hero without losing him completely, even so much as to lose his defining hammer Mjolnir to his sister Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett at her nastiest) and chopping off his signature locks. Taking obvious creative liberties, the film derives major inspiration from the Planet Hulk and Contest of Champions comic books storylines, where Jeff Goldblum’s brother to Benicio del Toro’s Collector, known as Grandmaster (both belong to a series of beings known as the Elders of the Universe) rules the planet Sakaar. Mark Ruffalo returns as Grandmaster’s prized, undefeated gladiator: The Hulk. The relationship between Hulk and Thor is brought to the surface as we see much more of the Hulk talk, behave, and react in conversation, instead of just...smash. And the planet of Sakaar itself is radiant with designs and functions inspired by Thor and Hulk co-creator Jack Kirby, splashing with bright neon colors and neo-tribal bridges that are almost reminiscent of 80’s cyberpunk anime. And instead of relying too heavily on, say, the Warriors Three (Sif and Jane, for that matter, are completely absent here), newer side characters like Skurge, Valkyrie, and Planet Hulk’s own Korg breathe new life into the Mighty Thor brand and challenge the very foundations of what the Thor films were built upon without abandoning the brand’s trademark characteristics including the profound beauty and elegance of Asgard, Thor’s complicated relationship with Loki (predictable as ever and yet also, more likeable than ever), and their tragic family history. That Doctor Strange cameo didn’t hurt at all, either. Even after just one film--an origin story, no less--it seems as if the good doctor has finally come into his own, wholey, as the Sorcerer Supreme.
Where it didn’t work: Even for a Marvel film, it is a bit of a coincidence that Thor, Loki, Tessa Thompson's Valkyrie--all Asgardians--and the Hulk--one of very few founding Avengers other than Thor--all end up on Sakaar, of all planets, all at the same time. And in trying to stay in line with the film’s silly humor, the running gag of Thor being shocked becomes less funny with each watch. The death of Anthony Hopkins’ Odin was underwhelming and only tragic after tangibly seeing how angry it made Thor to see him die and to find Loki technically responsible. Hela may be one of the better villains of the MCU, but her immediate entrance as a result of Odin’s immediate exit felt a tad rushed. And although the absences of Jane (who is still mentioned) and Sif are surprisingly welcome, it would have been nice to know what happened to Dr. Selvig, even if he were not a crucial piece of Thor’s story here as he was in the past. One of the best “small” parts of the film was the dialog between Bruce Banner and Loki, who hadn’t interacted with one another since the Battle of New York in The Avengers (2012). I would have loved to see them talk more for some reason. When heroes and villains interact with one another on a first-name basis, there’s something to be said about the deeper connectedness of this universe.
7) 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 anyone would see 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 that included 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 Downey Jr. and Terrence Howard? 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 eight years later in Captain America: Civil War. Paltrow is a scene-stealing actress here by never giving into the staple kiss-the-hero troupe, but staying worried sick for Downey's Tony Stark as he frantically 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. This film should not have been this good, with excellent plot twists, the debuts of the Ten Rings, the Roxxon Corporation (future villains of the television show Cloak & Dagger), SHIELD, and great acting with Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark...or is it the other way around?
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.
6) 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 eventual 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 deliver us precisely what we expect from them: battle-hardened attitudes with 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 80’s coin-op arcades. Speaking of the 80’s, action-hero veterans Sylvester Stallone and Kurt Russell debut in the MCU as, respectively, 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...unlike the comics). 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 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 Quill, Ego, and Yondu is quite visually and emotionally satisfying, but more of Star-Lord (and less Quill) would've made the film much better. (To put it in perspective, could you imagine a Batman movie where Batman spent 80% of the film parading around dressed in full garb, just without his mask? Yeah, me either.) 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.
5) AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)
Where it worked: Infinity War is infinitely disturbing. And it’s one of the best films Marvel Studios could have ever produced. This is the film that we have been waiting for for ten literal years. For all the chaos that ensues, this Russo Brothers product does its best to undo Whedon’s previous two Avengers films in almost every way...and it does just that. Every hero fails. The Russos take their running gag of the villain winning to a brand new level here. Just like the comics, Thanos gets all of the Infinity Stones just like he wanted, snaps his fingers, and erases half of all live in the universe, then goes to watch the sunset on some alien planet, satisfied. And the movie ends. It resonates with us the same way a horror movie does--we’re left to silently attempt to re-shuffle our mental deck and process what we just spent two-and-a-half hours watching. And yes, the Avengers lost. The Guardians lost. Their allies lost. Most of them died. A few never even showed up in the first place. Not since the head-spinning, zany humor of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) has Marvel Studios been so desperately, shockingly left-field. It reminds us that the actors playing our favorite heroes have contracts, and some of those contracts are about to shrivel up. But it also puts into perspective how far we’ve come. Tony’s Iron Man tech has reached cartoonish levels of advancement, even for the MCU (supposedly as a byproduct of Wakanda changing its policies on access to it resources in Black Panther). Thor has come along from the long-haired, regally-speaking, douche-prince of Asgard and remains in full form straight from his appearance in Ragnarok, with his newly-intact Waititi-humor and speech fully intact derived from that entry. Steve left his vibranium shield as well as his patriotic persona in the past, once again an Avenger on the run, much like he was in The Winter Soldier (2014), leading his loyalist allies to an unknown fate. Star-Lord and his Guardians are finally up to taking out Thanos himself; Spider-Man is exactly where we left him in Homecoming (2017); and Dr. Strange and Wong are bored and hungry. Good thing Thanos’ “children”, dubbed the Black Order, come to New York (of all places) to play. The arcade-level action between the 60+ heroes and heroines is enough to make any hardcare fan cry in genuine glee that finally, after ten years, The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy have, at least to some degree, finally met, and have allied themselves with superheroic non-Avengers (or soon-to-be-Avengers). Josh Brolin is perfect as the CGI Mad Titan, who feels it is his calling to rebalance the universe. Unlike previous cameos and his supporting role in the first Guardians (2014), Thanos almost feels like the main character in this film, and the ending invoked the arrival of perhaps the only other person other than Thor who can undoubtedly help defeat him: Captain Marvel.
Where it didn’t work: All in all, certain interactions that should have happened never did, such as an ever-appropriate post-Civil War dialog between Bruce Banner and Thunderbolt Ross. Tony Stark never got to meet the only other person officially smarter than him in the MCU: Black Panther’s sister, tech genius Shuri. And even for the cartoonish lack of unrealism, it still would seem more appropriate for The Winter Soldier to have a more resonating response to a talking alien raccoon named Rocket, or Steve Rogers to a talking tree monster named Groot. Black Panther was never formally introduced to Thor, so we don’t know if the existence of the other somehow threatens or challenges their respective systems of belief, though it is most likely that they all exist in some sort of harmony under God, or “The One Above All”. And, thanks to the internet and the articles of passionate fans, we know that the future of the MCU holds a new Spider-Man sequel, a Black Panther sequel, a Guardians sequel, and a Doctor Strange sequel. Which means that the dead characters can’t really stay dead, thus effectively eliminating a decent portion of weight carried in their still-shocking on-screen deaths. Because, after all, we know they’re coming back. It would’ve been nearly impossible in this age to somehow make the real world think that everybody who died in the film could actually really be dead. It even causes ambiguity with Loki, who has “died” numerous times in the past. All the deaths should have been three times as impactful as they really were. And as for Red Skull...I have mixed feelings about that reveal, and how he actually came to be the keeper of the soul stone on an alien planet for, what, eighty years give or take? He didn’t go into a deep freeze like his ex-nemesis Cap, and seems to have a sense of compassion for anyone willing to undergo the awful trial of obtaining the soul stone, so did his villainy die during his cosmic trip from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) instead of his age? And lastly, Tony Stark--the Iron Man, the man whom all of this was founded upon--I hate his tech. I know I sound like a hater, but his suits have become so advanced that I almost miss the simplicity of his bulkier suits from Phase One. He feels more like a character from Halo or Adventure Time. And in contrast to Captain America or even Thor, is Tony Stark really so important that even Thanos the Mad Titan knows who he is before they even meet? Like, he doesn’t know the existence of Star-Lord, the guy dating his daughter, and yet he knows Stark by name from the far reaches of space? That’s a stretch for me.
4) BLACK PANTHER (2018)
Where it worked: Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther satisfied long-time Avengers fans who’ve been reading their comics and watching their cartoons for decades. King T’Challa has been a long-time Avenger and, since the mention of his homeland Wakanda and being introduced to his nemesis Klawe in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), it was pretty obvious we were going to see the King soon enough. That moment finally came in Civil War (2016) in which the events that forced T’Challa’s transition from Prince to King came to fruition. But it was his solo movie that would establish the character’s dominance not only in the MCU, but in hollywood period. The character--Marvel Comics’ very first superhero of African descent--was brought to life in full form by Chadwick Boseman. Klawe would finally return from Age of Ultron and so would Everett Ross from Civil War, and we would finally be introduced to the stellar cast of new characters played with ferocity and commanding presence by Angela Bassett, Sterling K. Brown, Lupita N’Yongo, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Forest Whitaker, and Winston Duke, effectively making Black Panther the first Marvel movie predominantly featuring a black cast. The importance of that can’t be overlooked, as it provided a platform to speak on the concepts of colonialism, macro-sociological blackness, and community leadership when culture and legacy is at risk of desolation. Michael B. Jordan’s turn as the villain Killmonger, who seeks not only to utilize Vibranium--heaps of which are hidden in the afrofuturistic sanctuary and kingdom of Wakana--to liberate people who do not otherwise have access to the means to defend themselves against oppression, but to de-throne T’Challa as King, creates the essence of what some would consider to be the best Marvel villain yet. And, although it came out in theaters just two months before Avengers: Infinity War, Black Panther in (almost) no way acted as a stepping stone to that film, instead contextually remaining self-sustaining and self-contained, giving even Infinity War a run for its money and polarizing fans about which film was actually better in 2018. It took months of pragmatic breakdown to prevent this movie from being higher on the list--and it certainly deserves to be--and I fear that sequel topping this will be no easy task.
What didn’t work: The film is not without its flaws. Though the designs and physical props of the three featured Black Panther outfits are all magnificent, their CGI motions are pretty terrible. By the time Killmonger becomes the “golden” Black Panther and stands to fight T’Challa and the Dora Milaje, he begins to look like a cartoon lost in the real world, and Killmonger and T’Challa fight beneath the city is pretty horrible-looking. For all the MCU has accomplished wonderfully with computer-generated effects, it’s worth a chuckle seeing this film not reach the top marks. For fans of the comics, strong creative liberties were taken with the characters of Killmonger and Man-Ape, N’Jadaka and M’Baku respectively. Though both receive strong nods to their comic book counterparts via masks and tribe. And although the idea of the mantle of Black Panther being passed down to whoever is king isn’t an unreasonable concept, as there have been many Black Panthers in the comics who were not T’Challa, the idea that Killmonger becomes a Black Panther is good and bad. It’s good because it opens the doors for more heroes in Panther’s world, and bad because for the sake of the film, it was a bit of a cop-out and underutilized Killmonger’s skillset as a supervillain. Finally, my biggest complaint of the film is the characters they killed off. A sequel will certainly suffer without Forest Whitaker and Sterling K. Brown, but even more so without the incredible Andy Serkis as Klaue and Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, who are both Black Panther’s top nemeses. That’s like if they killed Loki and Thanos in the first Avengers movie. Who was Coogler planning to bring in for the sequel?? Some are speculating this could be an entry point for fan-favorite The Submariner to enter the MCU as as potential anti-hero for Black Panther to temporarily come into conflict with. However, the film already has a lot on its place in terms of legacy alone, and I realistically can’t imagine a sequel outdoing its predecessor.
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 Downey 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 dangerous 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 debuts of both 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 Brothers' 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 conscience. 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 villains, Crossbones potentially gets redesigned as the most comic-book accurate villain since Loki or 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 Triskelion, 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 comic book films; Marvel Studios would release its two best films that year--Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and this highly risky film with a bunch of characters most non-die hards 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 Avengers, and, 2) it was very easy to not have expectations about a bunch of characters we know little of, 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--all lead by a reinvented Chris Pratt, no longer the pear-bodied slob portrayed in Wanted (2008) or Parks & Recreation, but now a ripped 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 leads in Jurassic World (2015) and its sequel Fallen Kingdom (2018). So, 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 clashing personalities that make us laugh. HARD. All Diesel's Groot says is "I am Groot." Bautista 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 drum to Drax's oil drum. 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 as a master of 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 to form their own. 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: Lee Pace as the film's villain, Ronan the Accuser, was pretty 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 just as religious zealot and gets killed. He's obsessed by the power of the Infinity Stone Thanos had sent him to retrieve and, once he finds it, decides to use it on his own. In probably one of the MCU's coolest moments of villainy, he 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. But with the character said to be returning in the 90’s film Captain Marvel, there may be redemption for the character yet.
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 Soldier feels less like The Rocketeer, and more like a 1970's political espionage thriller, the sort of context that fits SHIELD just right. 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 over. Their conversations evoke real-world questions that hardly seem to be asked again 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” as Loki derogatorily put it, holding on tight to an ever-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 to suddenly push him in. The relationship between Steve and returning-Avenger and now-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 while being shot at from all angles, "I think 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 reveals that Hydra's hands are absurdly deep in political pockets and even SHIELD’s, 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. 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 but it does a fine job of putting an ice pack on a missing limb.
Do you agree with this list? What does yours look like, and where does the most recent film--Ant-Man and the Wasp--land in your opinion? Comment down below!