Marvelous: Ranking the Movies of the MCU, Part 2 (14-8)
—by Nathan on March 11, 2019—
Picking up where the first blog left off, let’s head into the next section as we continue to cover the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So far, we’ve seen appearances from two Iron Man films, two Thor films, the single Hulk solo movie, Cap’s first outing, and Ant Man. So who can do better than those guys? Well, the simple answer is “everyone else.” But I’ll guess you’ll have to just read on to find out well.
14. Captain Marvel (2019)
The most recent entry on this list, Captain Marvel is the first of three MCU releases this year, and it’s the one I was looking forward to the least (I mean, when you’re going up against the culmination of a decade’s worth of films and a Spidey sequel? Not a Jotun’s chance in Muspelheim). It’s currently, so high on the list for one primary reason: it doesn’t introduce much of anything to the Marvel Universe or subvert expectations in any way. Phase 3 films (Civil War through Captain Marvel, for now) have been doing a fantastic job twisting the tropes and genre staples that were often criticized in previous films. Villains such as Killmonger, the Vulture, and Thanos have become more complex; stakes have been raised, like the destruction of Asgard; the reestablishment of the status quo (aka the “good guys win”) has not always been present by movie’s end. Look at Civil War or Infinity War. Captain Marvel, on the other hand, doesn’t really try to conform to these standards. Yes, it’s an origin story, but it feels like it’s easily slotted into more vanilla territory storytelling-wise. Alien civilizations and planets? We’ve seen ‘em. SHIELD? Know it. The Tesseract? Seems a little shoehorned, considering any relevancy it has in the 90s was extinguished after Thanos put it on his finger like a wedding ring in Infinity War. Add in the terribly disappointing "origin" of Nick Fury's injured eye, as well as the kinda-cheesy reasoning behind the "Avengers Initiative" name, and you get a film that attempts to almost be coy with fans. Too much is familiar in this movie, not enough is unique, and some of the unique elements seem too ridiculous to work properly.
The second act is where the movie really hits its stride, offering an incredibly fun 90s look at characters such as Nick Fury and Agent Phil Coulson, who we haven’t seen on film since The Avengers. There’s a “fish out of water” element to Carol Danvers’ interactions on Earth which makes for some compelling and humorous scenes. But the third act falls apart for me a bit: Carol becomes, dare I say it, too powerful, knocking foes aside like they’re gnats. A movie like the Avengers offered us heroes who were certainly human: Captain America gets battered and bruised; Iron Man’s armor is beaten and busted; even the Hulk finds himself overwhelmed by swarms of alien adversaries. But Captain Marvel feels godlike, on a level with a dude like Superman in a franchise that has really tried to avoid creating Supermen.
While I’ve never been one to comment on more political/social topics much, I will say that, to its credit, Captain Marvel does handle gender and race very neatly. Save a few lines here and there, the film doesn’t carry much of a bipartisan stance. Yes, there’s a huge focus on female empowerment and treating other races equally, but it’s not a message shoved into the film. It could as easily be interpreted as “treat people equally” but done so by making the argument that, in the case of this specific film, those “people” in a general sense are represented by women and other races here. Contrast this with, say, the overly obvious political tones of Marvel’s comic book event “Secret Empire,” and this film manages to put in meaningful messages that doesn’t call out particular individuals as “evil” nor radically elevate certain people unnecessarily.
13. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Understandably, this may be a bit of a controversial decision. The first Guardians film is considered by many fans to be a hilarious romp across space that brought in an obscure group of Marvel heroes, thus cementing Marvel’s capability at turning virtually any character into a franchise and perhaps even paving the way for more obscure heroes such as Ant Man, Black Panther, and Dr. Strange. Here’s the thing though, for me: I wasn’t a huge fan when it was initially released.
What didn’t sit well with me concerning this movie, at first, was its pacing. The whole thing, to me, moved really quickly. Boom, Gamora and Star Lord run into each other, and look, here’s Groot and Rocket, too! Then they’re dumped into a space prison with Drax, escape all together, and visit the Collector, where Drax calls Ronan the Accuser and draws him to the planet to engage in fisticuffs, which they lose. After said loss, they rally together to defend Xandar from Ronan, beating him in a…dance off. Funny, right? At the time, I didn’t think so. I thought the humor was a bit forced and cheesy. The dialogue was a little goofy, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack, and Ronan was kinda dumb. Also, as a fan expecting an end credits scene teasing Age of Ultron, the Howard the Duck angle was thoroughly disappointing.
After the release of the second film, however, I’m convinced this movie is better than I actually thought it was at first. And after a few rewatches, the characters are more endeared to me. The humor has become better received, the big space battles are really destructive and entertaining, and the mystery of Peter’s father is enticing through the film. While Marvel films have increased in enjoyment, this may have been the first film I walked out of the theater not completely liking but growing in respect after watching it more. Okay, this was also true of IM3, but I HATED that film when it was released. This movie was, at least, fun. The character development is, for the most part, really well done; it’s better than, say, the previous two Thor films or the Hulk. And it’s a unique film, a gamble on Marvel’s part. While Thor and Cap felt necessary, this one was a risk, and it paid off. Well done, Marvel, well done.
12. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
A fanbase, as a community, can sometimes put too much pressure on a filmmaker when they create a sequel. We want bigger, better, something that exceeds the first movie. Sometimes (like in the cases of The Dark Knight, Logan, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2—I like that movie, sue me) this works, and the sequel supersedes its predecessor. Other times (like The Dark Knight Rises, X-Men: Apocalypse, and the aforementioned Iron Man 2 and 3), the sequel falls prey to itself and fan expectations. As it turned out, Age of Ultron fell into that trap. Some have said a sequel to the Avengers was doomed to fail, or at least not reach the standards of the first. In some ways, it doesn’t. In others, Age of Ultron works well. Let’s take a look.
In the bad department: first off, the subplots. Joss Whedon tried his best to incorporate subplots and references to future Marvel films as best he could in his film. It worked a little. Perhaps the easiest to swallow was the introduction of Klaw, the mention of Wakanda, and the continued exploration of vibranium, which all came together in last year’s Black Panther film. This felt more natural and fit into the plot of the story. But then you reach the part where Scarlet Witch comes in, and Tony has Infinity War flashforwards, Thor receives Ragnarok visions before heading on his own Infinity Stone mind trip, and Cap and Tony start clashing in the philosophy department in Civil War-prequel fashion. It felt like Whedon was trying to do too much and turned his film, in part, into an extended “future of Marvel” trailer. The second weak spot was the use of death. While Whedon smoothly incorporated Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and the Vision, most fans figured one of these characters was going to bite the bullet. So when Quicksilver did (almost literally), the result was less shock and sadness than mediocre grunts of dissatisfaction.
On the positive side of things: I believe James Spader turns in a performance as Ultron that rivals Tom Hiddleston in the Avengers as the MCU’s greatest villain. Admittedly, I was a little miffed at first that he was a bit more snarky that he is in the comics, but his role has definitely grown on me as I’ve rewatched the film. He’s funny and sinister at the same time and, while he relies on his mindless drone army, he gets into the heat of the action. He’s not the final boss like Red Skull in First Avenger or Loki in the first Thor; Ultron’s in the midst of the action, pummeling heroes and holding his own against the Avengers. His first appearance is eerie, and James Spader’s line deliveries are both humorous and haunting. In essence: he’s a terrifying, fun villain, and his philosophizing doesn’t grow old. He’s got a good reason to be evil. Paul Bettany’s Vision is also a standout performance. After having Jarvis around as an AI for so long, turning him into an actual hero was a really clever idea. Plus, the fight scenes—the opening Hydra assault, the party battle, the Hulkbuster fight, the chase in Korea, and the final climatic showdown in Sokovia—are all expertly shot and allow each hero ample time to display their powers and weaponry.
Ultimately, what we get is a film that does not live up to the first, but is in many ways superior to other sequels Marvel put out before it (such as the Iron Man films and The Dark World). A team that had to overcome personal obstacles in the first movie comes in like veterans here. One of Marvel’s best antagonists is thoroughly fleshed out in a convincing, threatening manner. At the end of the day, despite its flaws, Age of Ultron is a globe-hopping spectacle that is loads of fun.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
This one’s a bit of a weird one for me. As is often the case with movies, I tend to think differently than a lot of critics. A lot of people loved IM3; I hated it. A lot of others enjoyed Ant Man; I thought it was boring. In the opposite vein, I really like Amazing Spider-Man 2, while others wrote it off as a film that killed a franchise. So it should come as no surprise that I disagree with the fans and critics who say that the Guardians 2 is inferior to the original. While their points are valid, I cannot say the same.
Until Infinity War, the Guardians had an advantage other franchises in the MCU don’t have: a lack of connection to the rest of the universe. The Avengers happened before IM3, The Dark World, and The Winter Soldier, thus making these films partially dependent on what happened in that movie. Likewise, Age of Ultron really helped propel Civil War and Ragnarok through their stories and conflicts. Guardians 2 doesn’t rely on that, making it a purer sequel than most other Marvel successors. It resides in its own corner of the universe, largely untouched by the rest of the galaxy. There are references to other franchises, like Nebula’s hatred of her father Thanos, but these are minor and do not detract from the overall story; in fact, they nicely tease Infinity War as a reminder for fans rather than irritating them, as was the case in Age of Ultron.
Like the previous film, this one also struggles with pacing. Star Lord’s father, Ego, comes out of nowhere to save the Guardians deux ex machina style from a hoard of baddie spaceships, following this by inviting them to his planet that, oh, is him and is in actuality evil and planning on assimilating the rest of the galaxy. And then, kapow, we learn he gave Peter’s mom cancer and killed all his other kids. Revelations fly by quickly, even though the twist that he’s the one who killed Star Lord’s mom is pretty surprising. On a list of greatest Marvel villains, Ego is actually pretty cool for a guy who, at his core, is a planet and a terrible dad.
Some have complained with the characterization in this film, especially the treatment of Drax and Mantis, who are far from their brutal warrior and powerful cosmic hero comic counterparts respectively. While I will admit some disappointment in the use of Drax in this film, and while I largely feel not much of anything towards Mantis, I don’t think it hinders the film all that much. Both are awkward enough to make their interactions and jokes humorous, and there’s always room for growth on the part of both in upcoming films like GotG Vol. 3 (should they come back from their ashen states in Endgame). So that’s not a huge deal. The one character they got completely right is Yondu: he shows tremendous growth from the first film to the second, and so his death comes off as perhaps the greatest in the entire MCU, even though we’ve known him for a short time. That’s good writing. So while there are some quirky characters and pacing issues in the film, I think the plot is stronger than the first, the humor is more solid, and the loss of Yondu hurts more than most other superhero film deaths that I’ve witnessed.
10. Black Panther (2018)
I saw Black Panther twice in the span of 24 hours. Now, fans usually do that because they love a movie so much; I did it because I saw it with a friend and then my family, so kinda out of necessity. But that isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it. The reviews have touted words like “game changing” for this film, which I feel is true in some respects. I’m going to largely ignore any of the film’s political overtones, since this is merely based on my reaction to the movie, and I don’t typically look at films through a political lens. What I will say is that Black Panther was certainly a different film. Here, we have a movie that moves away from the canyons of New York and focuses primarily on countries other than the U.S. Wakanda is beautifully depicted and easily opens up a brand-new corner of the MCU to be explored. Black Panther is a movie that brings real change to the MCU, asking the question of how T’Challa and Wakanda will play into the rest of the world. Speaking of the Panther himself, Marvel eschewed their typical “origin story” formula seen in movies like Iron Man, Dr. Strange, and Ant-Man for a different kind of tale. It’s not T’Challa’s origin as the Black Panther; it’s his origin as king. It’s a smooth transition for the character following the events of Civil War, and having an African king is a totally different character than any other in previous movies.
By and large, where the movie absolutely succeeds is its cast of characters. As I said, T’Challa’s story naturally flows, and to watch him grow is enjoyable. But the large supporting cast included—Okoye of the Dora Milaje, love-interest Nakia, W’Kabi, Erik Killmonger, Jabari leader M’baku, CIA agent Everett Ross, Ulysses Klaue, and T’Challa’s sister Shuri—is perhaps the best part of the movie. Instead of giving us a sidekick or buddy for T’Challa (like with Ned in Spider-Man: Homecoming or Bucky in the Cap films), we get a plethora of characters with fully-formed backstories, abilities, or contributions. Bad guys and good guys alike add to the story in a way that doesn’t feel like, “We just dumped a whole mess of people in here—now try to remember who’s who!” Plus, Andy Serkis is just great. His time as Klaw is certainly up there with his role as Gollum. Plus plus, Michael B. Jordan may not have been my favorite Marvel villain, but his death at the end was perhaps the best “death of a villain” scene I’ve watched in cinema. It was fantastically acted and nicely portrayed.
Like others, the film suffers from a few flaws, most notably with its surprise “twist.” The revelation that Killmonger is related to T’Challa could have, in my mind, been done better in execution and concept. By this time, we’ve already had several “family reveals” in superhero movies (Liz and the Vulture in Spider-Man, Hela being Thor’s sister in Ragnarok, Ego and Peter in Guardians 2) that the trope is feeling a little worn and not as startling as it could be. While it made for a great arc for Killmonger, it was just a little sloppily done. The other small hindrance was the lack of stakes for characters. High priest Zhouri was the only supporting character to bite the dust, and I feel like multiple characters were put in dangerous, tense situations (such as Ross being bombarded by plane fire or Okoye moving in the way of a charging rhino) that ultimately had little pay-off. The death of at least one of these characters would have been, I believe, rewarding to the film and offered true consequences to the movie. Other than that, Black Panther was another win for Marvel, and it definitely deserves those Oscar wins.
9. Ant Man & the Wasp (2018)
As demonstrated by the first part of this blog series, I’m not the original Ant-Man’s greatest fan. A lot of it is the humor, which has never sat well with me, and that is one piece where the sequel improves incredibly well. While I can’t say I wasn’t overly impressed the first time I saw the flick, I gotta say a second viewing really, really helped matters. A lot of the hilarity is seemingly random: Michael Pena’s Luis quoting a “beloved commercial” by going “Whazzup?” had me laughing pretty hard; the scene where Janet van Dyne speaks through Scott Lang is awkwardly amusing; and several other gags just darn work. Scott Lang’s size-changing foibles at the school, FBI agent Jimmy Woo, and the truth serum running gag just add so many clever and fun bits to the film. The film feels like it found it’s humorous rhythm. Unlike the first Ant Man, the sequel doesn’t “try” to be funny. It just is.
I think I expected to like this movie less because I disliked the original film so much, but this sequel also works because it feels a lot smoother. Having introduced our characters and identifying the rules in the first film, Ant-Man & the Wasp is able to really stretch itself narratively. With a plot more centered on Hope van Dyne’s Wasp, the movie moves forward nicely, carrying over themes and aspects of the previous movie (like the Quantum Realm and the search for Janet van Dyne) while introducing original elements well. The size-altering component has been bulked up here to great effect: while the first movie toyed with, well, toys and oddly threw in a giant tank/keychain in the second half, this movie plays with all kinds of things, like cars, Pez dispensers, salt shakers, and buildings that get turned into suitcase-size portable labs. Sure, villains the Ghost and Sonny Burch aren’t the greatest additions to the screen, and yeah, the “Bill Foster is helping the Ghost” twist seems more coincidental than surprising, but save those few pitfalls, this is a sequel that’s clearly found its footing and seeks to build on the foundations its predecessor lay down.
8. Doctor Strange (2016)
In a medium that sometimes feels almost glutted by crossovers and cameos, Doctor Strange was a breath of fresh air. Not that Marvel’s previous 2016 entry, Civil War, was bad—the fact it isn’t on this list yet should be encouraging—but to have a breather was nice. Plus, following the disappointing origin of Ant Man, giving us a solid story felt good and exciting. While fans have certainly drawn parallels between Strange’s origin and Iron Man’s—an arrogant rich dude is involved in a near-fatal incident and seeks a mentor to help forge him a new purpose while working to save the world—Strange offers a glimpse into the mystic side of the MCU, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance may be the best since Robert Downey Jr.’s (it’s Benedict Cumberbatch; when has he ever acted poorly?). Likewise, the Ancient One (despite an entire whitewashing controversy) and Mordo are excellent reproductions from the comic book source material, and the effects used to show magic, and just the concept of magic itself, are all a lot of fun.
If anything, the movie suffers a flaw that many Marvel movies do: the villain problem. Though Kaecillius may be wonderfully portrayed, he and his acolytes come across as the one-dimensional religious fanatics many people decry in certain movies. We’re supposed to get the idea that they’re blind to the truth of Dormammu, but it’s written in a sadly cheesy way that mirrors every “he’s come to make a better world” line that you’ve ever heard from a fanatical, subservient follower in film. Fortunately, in an opposite vein, Dormammu himself is fantastically rendered—and voiced well by Cumberbatch himself—and allows the film to creatively stray away from the typical “bad guy uses a beam of light to demolish a city” plot by having him engage with Strange in one-on-one time warping battle.
This film was nominated for an Oscar for its effects, which it highly deserves. It apes Jack Kirby’s signature artistic style, and for Marvel’s first foray into the magical universe, Doctor Strange does a fantastic job not only giving a unique look at magic, but also at separating itself from the rest of the universe. Like Guardians, it acknowledges other areas of the MCU, but it does so in such a fashion that you believe a whole magical subculture can exist without having to necessarily interact with other superheroes. Doctor Strange does not suffer many of the issues other films do and, alongside Civil War, really marks where Marvel went from making already great films to stellar movies.
And that wraps up part two of three. So, we’ve been through two series of seven films each, coming through a pair of poor films, a few mediocre ones, and several enjoyable movies. But now we come to the best of the best. Within the next seveb movies will be my top five, my top three, and my top-of-the-top, all-time favorite installment in the MCU. Maybe it’ll be yours as well.