Sick of films from Marvel Studios? Think list articles are cliche? If your answer to either of those questions is ‘no,’ then there is a chance you will not hate this countdown of the best (and only) films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe!
Welcome to the second edition of “Enter the Reel World.” I am your host, Michael Thomas. Read more of my thoughts on film/television here. (I recently had Seven Questions After Watching Season 1 of Daredevil. I also watched The Punisher and was completely baffled by its awfulness.) You can send me feedback on things that I write here.
This article should be fairly self-explanatory. After I briefly discuss each film, I sometimes highlight one aspect of the film that I thought was particularly great or terrible. You also have the option to read more of my thoughts on some of the individual films.
In some ways, I find this to be the most insulting film in the entire MCU. It’s just so poorly conceived and made that it’s hard to believe anyone has ever said a positive word about it. The acting, writing, directing, special effects, etc. are terrible across the board with very few exceptions. It feels like a camel. Someone wanted to tell Thor’s arc from no-good jock to humble prince. Someone wanted to tell the story of Loki’s fall from grace. (And they’re brothers! It’s like poetry. They rhyme.) Someone wanted to introduce a warring alien race that is a threat to Thor’s future kingdom. Someone wanted to do a kooky romantic comedy where the guy is an alien prince, and the woman is a human scientist. (Can two people from different worlds make it work?!??!?) Someone wanted this film to be mere introduction/prequel for the MCU that introduces a number of characters/continue plots on the margins without doing anything of significance in the film they were actually in. Unfortunately, instead of doing any one of those movies well, they made five different movies at the same time (and they all sucked).
What did this film accomplish beyond introducing two characters (Thor & Loki) that were going to be pivotal in the upcoming Marvel’s The Avengers? I do not even say that as someone who dislikes introducing ideas/characters/storyline threads that do not have immediate payoffs. I literally just think that this film accomplished nothing of value and poorly executed almost every step of the way other than that.
The Biggest Problem with the Film: The lack of stakes and consequences.
So, you do this movie. It’s a bit shit, but lots of stuff that seems important happens at the end. Loki falls off a rainbow bridge and seemingly floats into space. Thor sacrifices being with Natalie Portman (Does she have a name? Let’s call her ‘Padme’ because that’s how interesting her character is) in order to win at the end.
What happens the next time we see Loki and Thor? Loki is fine and taking over Earth. Thor travels back to Earth because his father did something (in a passing line of dialogue). Compare that to the end of Captain America: The First Avenger essentially being erased because Captain America actually survives that. Cap then had to go through the ordeal of basically losing everyone in his life when he woke up. That was explored effectively, if briefly, in his next two major film appearances, and there was a whole television show devoted to how Cap’s “death” impacted those closest to them. The end results of Thor were rendered completely meaningless in every way.
9. Thor: The Dark World
After The Avengers, it was clear that the MCU was going to be a juggernaut and that every character added something of value. The question for me was how would the studio perform when they returned to each corner of the universe before the next team-up movie? Iron Man 3 and The Winter Soldier thankfully changed up the formula big time (with admitted mixed results: The Winter Soliderwas excellent and Iron Man 3 was largely eh). The Dark World meanwhile rested on its laurels and did not change up the formula that made the first entry so uninspired.
If there was one corner of the MCU that needed a dramatic shake-up in approach, it was the Thor corner. Instead, Marvel opted to basically redo the first one over again, as the film hit a ton of the same beats. Thor ignores his father’s wishes. Loki’s true allegiance is not clear. Thor has a parent in mortal danger. Fish out of water comedy (Thor went to Earth in the first film, while Padme went to Asgard in the sequel). There is The CGI Villain Army Crutch. Thor’s alien pals are kind of involved in the plot but not really. Padme’s Earth pals are involved in the plot, but no one knows why or cares about them.
Relying on the same “successful” formula for a sequel is not uncommon, and this sequel actually does execute the formula, character beats, etc. better in just about every way. While I’m thankful for that, it still does not leave us with all that good of a film. Thor is still insultingly two-dimensional as a lead character, and none of his pals of Asgard and Earth are really given material or time to become interesting again. On top of all that, we’re not really given a reason to think that anything in this film is important. Iron Man 3 andThe Winter Solider have very clear consequences (or characters at least appear to go through major changes by the end). What did this film accomplish besides make me wish that I never have to revisit this corner of the universe again until the title is simply Loki?
The Best Aspect of the Film: Loki
Instead of returning to his far-inferior characterization from Thor, Loki is his same cocky self from The Avengers if just a bit more humble. He is by far the most entertaining part of the film while simultaneously the most interesting character. This is the part where everyone should wonder why he didn’t get his own film instead of Thor. It was patently obvious that this movie should have been a “buddy movie” called Thor & Loki with each brother changing just enough because of their constant interaction.
8. The Incredible Hulk
There’s a monster unleashed upon the world. One solider foolishly tries to stop him on his own, but he nearly dies in the effort. He sacrifices his own well-being to become a monster himself in order to fight the original monster just one more time. He still cannot quite defeat the original monster though.
(Unfortunately, said soldier in that story is the main villain in The Incredible Hulk, and the original monster is our hero.)
While I don’t think it should be impossible to make a movie about the Hulk, the very nature of the character has proven difficult to tackle so far. As you can tell from the italicized section above, the basic structure of The Incredible Hulk‘s story is a bit bizarre for any film (let alone a summer blockbuster). It’s a movie about a giant green monster, and his human half does everything in his power to prevent the audience from seeing the main attraction.
As constructed in this film, it’s very hard to care about our hero as his journey/quest lacks clear direction (or at least a direction that lends itself easily to an action movie). The character wants peace and tranquility in a universe that demands action and excitement. A story about Bruce Banner could get around that if there was some air-tight story for his character to have that would involve a clear goal to escape his affliction. Instead, what we get here is an unfocused and unclear chase for a “cure” that may or may not be a cure. This potential cure (again, unclear if it’s even a remote possibility) is Banner’s whole reason for coming back to the part of the world that wants him captured, and it’s never executed in a way to make us care. It’s just a device to inorganically bring Banner back together with Betty Ross and to create some Hulk action scenes that contribute little to the actual story.
The lack of clear story forces the film to rely on the characters to salvage what’s left of this experience. Unfortunately, the characters in the film were a bit of a mixed bag. Edward Norton does a great job at the start, but he’s increasingly given less and less to do as Bruce Banner as the film moves along.* More screen time is then given to William Hurt, Liv Tyler, and Tim Roth. Hurt and Tyler give some of the worst performances of their career in this one, but their characters have so little substance to them that it’s hard to fault the actors much. Who is General Ross? Who is Betty Ross? Why do they do what they do? This film doesn’t show or tell me anything about them in a way to humanize them. Instead, they are just stock characters serving as plot devices. As far as villainous henchmen go, Tim Roth does a solid-enough job. He’s able to convey that there is a little bit more beneath the surface with him than someone might think. He does not get enough screentime though for that to mean much.
*It’s hard to compare his performance to Mark Ruffalo’s take on that character because the latter is truly put in a position to succeed. Norton never stood a chance in this one after the first thirty minutes or so.
In the end, this film left me cold and never needing to revisit this particular world. The whole premise of the MCU is basically reliant on the ability to make audiences want to spend time in it again and again. This film’s failure to do that makes me glad the Bruce Banner character seems destined to only be in ensemble films for the foreseeable future. At the moment, I have no faith that the studio could make a good film that is solely about him.
The Best Aspect of the Film: The Opening Twenty-Five Minutes
There are not too many sequences in the MCU that are executed better than the opening twenty-five minutes of this film. There’s a great sense of tension and horror, as we get acclimated to Bruce Banner’s world and mindset. His strategies for coping with the Hulk are clearly working now, but he’s inevitably set off again. The film shoots the debut of the Hulk in this sequence like a horror film. It’s gripping the whole time and actually made me think I was in for a pleasant surprise for how good of a film this would be. (I was wrong.)
7. Iron Man 3
After Iron Man 2 received some backlash from fans and critics regarding how lazy it seemed, Iron Man 3 really feels like a response to those complaints. While the film largely follows the broad structure of a Marvel film, there’s definitely a change of tone from the Jon Favreau-directed films from this corner of the MCU. Shane Black clearly brought his sensibilities to the script in a variety of ways, and I appreciate that Marvel did not simply make yet another version of the original Tony Stark film. The tone of the film is simply different.
However, I do not think those differences led to an increase in quality. The main characters were simply not given either enough to do or anything interesting to play. Roberty Downey, Jr. has to go through yet another self-destructive arc for his character. Instead of alcoholism and a fatalistic mentality, he is suffering from PTSD and literally “asks for it” in regards to the villain blowing up his home and lab. The film forces us to suspend a lot of disbelief to put him in a situation where Stark has to rely on his wits and scrappiness to survive. To test my patience even more, Stark has a run-in with a kid, and the film spends way too much time on their partnership. I love the idea of Tony Stark being stripped of his toys, but the execution of how he got there and what happened while he was powerless left so much to be desired.
Guy Pearce really did not work as the villain to me. He has given some brilliant performances over the years, but this was one of those times where taking a role outside your comfort zone (well, Guy Pearce pretty much exclusively works outside his comfort zone) backfires. The character himself did not give him much to work with mind you (a downright *chronic* problem in the MCU). The petulant nerd-child angry at the world and seeking as much money as possible while destroying his “enemies” along the way does not do much for me.
When the hero and the villain of any story are not given arcs or enough substance to want to follow them on their journey, there is little else a film can do to make me care about it.
The Biggest Problem with the Film: The Epilogue
Tony just simply fixes Pepper (she was turned into some sort of regenerating super-solider by accident) AND his heart. This both kills the stakes of this film (regarding Pepper’s potentially life-threatening affliction) and the whole premise of why Tony Stark was forced to invent something to stay alive. He just fixed it without warning, as if he could have done it all along! If the lifeless story of the film was not enough to make me less than enthusiastic about this corner of the MCU, the ending was the nail in the coffin.
6. Iron Man
Before we even truly knew that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was a thing (or at least know that it would become a pop-culture phenomenon), we only had this new superhero movie being made with Robert Downey, Jr. on top of the bill. They surrounded him with some Oscar-nominated actors (Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, & Jeff Bridges), but the film clearly functioned as a showcase for the Robert Downey, Jr. persona on steroids. On that level, it largely succeeds. Downey comes off like a total star and nails just about every beat of the film. While Downey was the primary focus of the film and successfully carries it overall, I do not think any of the pieces around him contributed in any meaningful way.
Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane is not really an inspired villain. He wants as much money as possible, and Tony stands in the way of that. How very, very interesting! Pepper and Rhodey are fine sidekicks, but (even if you ignore their problematic positioning in the overall pattern of portrayals of women and black men in the MCU) they do not offer much in the way of substance to the film. Neither is especially funny nor given the depth to make them a character you can be greatly invested in. The best MCU films so far have had a number of characters that we got to know in a way that allowed us to care about their fates. This film’s inability to do that is its biggest shortcoming and a major hurdle to me really caring about the final product. The film is fine, but a more well-rounded cast of characters would have brought it to the heights for me that most fans and critics seem to put it at.
5. Iron Man 2
Iron Man was the pleasant surprise that turned Robert Downey, Jr. into a superstar. Iron Man 2 was the follow-up that the studio rushed out. What can go wrong?!?!?! Well, not as much as went wrong in the first film, but audiences/critcs had higher expectations for the franchise and were seemingly not impressed. Is that fair? It is to a certain extent. Ideally, franchises evolve and use their goodwill to push the story in new/exciting directions instead of just rehashing similar tropes and ideas.
Iron Man 2 splits the difference. The Tony Stark character goes in a different direction, but the plot surrounding him feels largely same-ish and is not particularly inspired (despite all the right parts being in place). I found it to be more entertaining than its predecessor in just about every way (more entertaining villains, better Rodey, a more interesting arc for Pepper, etc.) though, and I cannot relate to the (many) people who consider the first film more entertaining.
The Best Aspect of the Film: The Universe Building
Most critics/fans seem to write off this film in general as lazy (it is) and sacrificing the story of this movie in order to market The Avengers. In my opinion, the latter has been a scapegoat for the actual shortcomings (lack of stakes/credible villains for this story) in the film. First off, Nick Fury, Agent Coulson, and Black Widow are barely in the film at all. The amount of actual screen time spent on their characters and the story of whether or not Tony Stark is a fit for The Avengers team is minimal in the grand scheme of things. In that short amount of screen time, they use the Avengers recruitment angle to give us more insight into the Tony Stark character and his flaws. As far as I am concerned, that is a productive use of time. The actual universe building is a very small aspect of the film and helps us understand our lead character more.
The Biggest Problem with the Film:The Lack of Stakes/Credible Villains
I think the actors all did an admirable job, but the villains seemed like the definition of obligatory despite getting the necessary amount of screen time to be properly established as credible/dangerous villains. Whiplash loses his first battle to Tony Stark (and Tony Stark’s limo driver). Justin Hammer is a buffoon, and he basically fails at everything in the film. Garry Shandling’s senator (congressman?) character has two main scenes and is made to look like a clown each time. If all of the villains in your film don’t appear to be actually dangerous, it is nearly impossible for your film to feel like it has real stakes. Our main characters will be fine because there is just nothing to fear.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
In some ways, Captain America is a weaker film than the films in the Iron Man series. Our hero has an overly-simplified notion of right and wrong, and he’s in a conflict without much grey area in terms of which side is in the right. The villain (Red Skull) is literally a Nazi. Even more than the first Iron Man, there’s just a feeling that this film purely exists to give the backstory of Captain America before he goes on more important adventures in bigger films.
Steve Rogers does not even really have much of an arc in terms of personal growth (emotionally at least). He starts off the film (literally) willing to fall on a grenade to save people, and he ends the film (metaphorically) willing to fall on a grenade to save people.
The trials and tribulations he goes through really lacked impact. The most problematic of them of course being the “death” of Bucky Barnes. Bucky didn’t make much of an impression onscreen beforehand, and the way his death was handled made it seem unimportant and perfunctory (“He’s just going to come back next film anyway! No need to make people sad that he’s died now!”).
With all that said, I give this film the edge over the Iron Man series because I just enjoy being in this corner of the MCU more now. It’s not entirely fair, but The Winter Soldier and Agent Carter have absolutely made me more invested in The First Avenger when I go back and re-watch it. In comparison, I’ve grown less and less interested in the Iron Man series as time goes on. That may seem like stupid reasoning to some, but it’s definitely led to me preferring The First Avenger to any of the films above it on this list.
3. Marvel’s The Avengers
Before this hit theaters, I really was not impressed by the MCU. While the immensely talented Joss Whedon being put in charge of the film was very encouraging, the task of balancing six superheroes (most of them unproven as compelling onscreen characters still) while creating an exciting story seemed like too tall a task for anyone. Whedon somehow pulled it off though.
While this film would be topped by both MCU films in 2014, this still might be the most impressive. Characters like Bruce Banner, Thor, and Steve Rogers really felt over-matched when trying to carry a whole film by themselves, and Whedon proved how valuable each of them could be as part of an ensemble. (Rogers would go on to be a great lead character in his next solo film. We’re still waiting on Thor and Banner to prove they can do the same.) This remains and incredibly entertaining film that I can re-watch any day of the week.
The Biggest Problem with the Film: DEATH IS MEANINGLESS
Agent Coulson’s death is meant to be the tipping for the Avengers team to give them something to…avenge. Coulson was a delightful side character for this universe played with the perfect amount of charm by Clark Gregg. He was likable and endearing. You knew you were watching a Marvel movie when he pops up. People like to feel like they’re at home and safe. He gave the universe that. And that is why he was the perfect person to kill
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
While far from a perfect film, Guardians of the Galaxy represents the amazing possibilities open to Marvel Studios. Despite the conventional overall story structure, this film found countless ways to challenge our expectations of what to expect from an MCU film.
The film starts with a punch to the gut as we see a little boy losing his mother to cancer before finding out he grew up to be an intergalactic thief who gets pleasure from kicking around small animals while on the job. The rest of this gang of heroes involve a deadly assassin who has spent years working for two of the most dangerous beings in the galaxy, a psychotic/violent criminal who wants to be kill said assassin, and a couple of deadly thieves. (Did I mention those two deadly thieves were a talking raccoon and a talking tree?) These characters take us on a wild and hilarious ride throughout the galaxy where we meet all sorts of delightfully strange beings. This corner of the MCU is a goldmine for unconventional heroes and weirdness. I hope we get to see so much more of it in the next decade. The possibilities for fun are endless.
The Biggest Problem with the Film: The Plots Relies Too Heavily on Marvel Studios Conventions
Ronan The Accuser is a fairly stock villain with nothing redeemable about him. He seeks to destroy the galaxy for vague reasons (ethnic cleansing, I guess?), and we never learn anything about him to make us understand nor appreciate how he became this unwavering force of nature that he is. The film also has an extremely powerful thingamajig that unfortunately drives a lot of the plot. There is a massive CGI armies (well, Air Force, I suppose) battle at the end. There’s even a death fakeout with Groot. Despite all the chances Marvel took with this corner of the universe, they didn’t really create a story worthy of that. The film has enough charm and fun to overcome that obviously, but I hope they get much more creative about the story in subsequent films.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This film felt like a turning point for the MCU. The Avengers seemed to give the franchise a new lease on life after a series of financially successful yet artistically lifeless films. Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World seemingly put the franchise right back into that artistically lifeless state (all the while being financially more successful than their respective predecessors). The Winter Solider stopped the sudden return of bleeding and gave the MCU a much-needed kick in the ass.
SHIELD crumbles as everything about the institution is essentially proven to be a lie. Captain America, going through a quarter-life crisis in the face of this ugly world he woke up in, is excommunicated by the corrupt new head of SHIELD (did we mention Nick Fury gets “killed” in the first act of the film), and then he and Black Widow end up in a buddy-cop film where they need to bring down the newly-revealed, corrupted SHIELD organization. While The First Avenger suffered from being about a character with child-like understanding of right and wrong in a black/white time period (World War II), this film added some much-needed shades of grey into Cap’s corner of the MCU.
After building up Cap’s credibility as a man of integrity while he was confronted by Nick Fury’s overly weaponized/fear-inducing version of SHIELD, it didn’t matter as much that the final battle was largely a battle between the righteous agents of good and the misguided agents of evil (Hydra). The film added a wrinkle to that though by bringing back Bucky as the Winter Soldier that Cap has to confront at the very end of his journey.
The film borrows the best elements of 70s spy/conspiracy films and 2000s action films to put together the most-complete film in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe while featuring the best performances yet from the majority of the actors in the universe.
Chris Evans *is* Steve Rogers by this point, and he nails every scene. Scarlett Johannsen has the unenviable job of being the “jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none” role for the MCU, and she once again fits like a glove in yet another film. She always manages to add more layers to her character, and by the end of this one you’re left wondering why Black Widow isn’t the lead of her own film yet (or her own Netflix spy series). Robert Redford gives the film and his villainous character some credibility and weight that elevates everything about the film. Samuel L. Jackson finally gets more to do than just “EYEPATCH!” Anthony Mackie brings endless amounts of charisma and charm to Falcon, and he’s clearly capable of leading his own film sooner rather than later. We also get the usual great work from Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Garry Shandling, and Cobie Smulders as they all continue to bring depth to the MCU. (Sebastian Stan appears to be the weak link in this corner of the universe at the moment, but he was at least not asked to do much besides look dangerous. He did that just fine.)
The Biggest Problem with the film: DEATH IS MEANINGLESS
They do the death fakeout with Nick Fury. It elevated the tension in the film and raised the stakes for the other characters. It forced Rogers, Widow, and the audience out of their comfort zone. Was it worth it to bring him back? I don’t think so to be perfectly honest. Samuel L. Jackson has not gotten much to do in the MCU yet, but he seems to be sleepwalking through most of his scenes. His character seems to be “EYE-PATCH!” and “Look kids, it’s Samuel L. Jackson!”
He stepped up a bit in Winter Soldier and showed flashes of a more interesting/dangerous side (try not to get goosebumps when he says, “Keep on steppin’). He just hasn’t been great as a political operative who has to make the hard sacrifices from time to time (which is theoretically what the Nick Fury character has been positioned to do so far). Perhaps Nick Fury will come to mean more in the MCU going forward, and Samuel L. Jackson will get better opportunities to showcase how menacing he can be. Unless such a time comes, I think this movie and the MCU would have benefited from Nick Fury staying dead.