The MCU Ranked
Worst to Best
This is an update of earlier rankings.* I’d intended to post it months ago, but these things get side-tracked. You can find the additions of Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and a revised assessment of Ant-Man and the Wasp. There are also a few tweaks here and there.
The First Avenger: Captain America
(2011) Some fans place The First Avenger in their top tier, or even anoint it their favourite – heaven forfend – of the MCU. Which is fine and all, each to their own, but I simply cannot see it. My Cap 1 experience was largely dull the first time, and repeat visits have done nothing to change that view. Joe Johnston brings exactly the same sluggish quality to the material found in his earlier potential-filled period pic The Rocketeer (if a movie were as good as its poster design, that one would be an all-timer).
None of the characters pop. The sentimentality is grating in an over-earnest rather than inspiring way – a point of comparison might be Superman: The Movie, where the aw-shucks genuineness travels because it’s counterpointed humorously at every turn. Even the villain is a missed opportunity. Hugo Weaving in that makeup should be playing a blinder, but instead, he’s just so-so; no wonder he gave Infinity War a miss. True, there are several solid interludes, in particular Cap being detailed to the WWII propaganda effort, but all in all, he’s very lucky future encounters found ways to mix things up, both in terms of genre and protagonist/antagonist.
(2018) I know, I know. Its success pretty much makes it critique-proof. But Jurassic World was also an enormous hit, and socio-political currency doesn’t automatically make a movie immune to the basic criteria of merit. Far from it. And lest you point to the Best Picture Oscar nomination as a retort, I might simply respond: The Towering Inferno. Or Titanic. Ryan Coogler did a bang-up job resuscitating the Rocky franchise with Creed, but he seems to come unstuck with the MCU, both as director and his co-written screenplay.
T’Challa’s first solo movie is frequently stolid and flat, lacking atmosphere, tension and pace. Despite being relatively slim on Avengers baggage, it’s a victim of bloat, unhurried and unmotivated to the point of torpor. There’s Michael B Jordan’s charged performance as Erik Killmonger to give it a kick in the pants, but the character is disappointingly one-note. Fuelled by daddy issues and scorched-earth vengeance, he blunders around Wakanda like a bull in a china shop.
T’Challa too has daddy issues, but his righteous resolve in Civil War has given way to something more anaemic and less relatable. There are some memorable supporting performances (Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis), but generally, the characters are undernourished, unable to evolve beyond basic types.
There’s a lot here that’s subpar, truth be told. An abundance of sets that are all-too-obviously sets and all-too evident blue screen, even by MCU standards. The cliff contest locale is especially creaky, accompanied as it is by borderline parodic emotional beats in both fights: “Show him who you are!” The action sequences mostly aren’t up to snuff either, be it the car chase or the abysmal CGI of the final fight. Even the vision-quest sequences are disappointingly pedestrian.
The thematic range of Black Panther has been much celebrated. Admittedly, it doesn’t duck the keynotes suggested by the source material – of race and identity, of democracy and monarchy, of isolationism and globalism – even if it settles on a nuance-free, emotionally-salving solution to the latter. It’s surely no coincidence that Black Panther is at its most engaging during the 1992 flashbacks with Sterling K Brown as Erik’s radicalised dad; come the (anti-) climax, we’re presented yet another clash of opposites in fancy mech suits (see the Iron Mans) juxtaposed with an another entirely uninvolving major scrum.
(2019) The biggest problem with Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel is that, like Black Panther/T’Challa – in his solo outing at least – she isn’t terribly interesting. Added to which, she isn’t terribly interestingly played by Brie Larson. The First Avenger: Captain America had this problem too, but that was at least partly solved by subsequently beefing up his plotlines. That shouldn’t have been such an issue in Captain Marvel – there was plenty to work with, the opportunity for some fun with a period setting, twists of identity and allegiances – but it fails to distil into a more than passable whole.
Captain Marvel’s just “there”, serviceably ticking an MCU box as a female-led superhero (“Finally!”) and banking a billion with the kind of shrug that says such things are easy-peasy. Directors and co-screenwriters Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck graduate to blockbuster fare with exactly the degree of anonymity Kevin Feige prides himself on (while getting to tick a female director box for a female led film; well half of one). The second unit and effects team pick up all the slack, and the film is quite slack. On the plus side they don’t get caught in the over-busy, choppy approach favoured by the Russos as a mask for any semblance of style, but neither are they able to bring much in the way of dramatic urgency to the table.
It feels as if there’s a slew of missed opportunities here, not least in making an effective paranoia movie (something Winter Soldier also fumbled to a degree). Perhaps more significant is the resort to black/white villainy stakes after setting up shades of grey. Somehow Vers/Carol was hoodwinked into working for the bad guys for years… What, they were actually doing obvious bad stuff all that time and she didn’t notice? Jude Law’s Yon-Rogg discovers she has discovered the truth and goes from being Yoda/Obi-Wan to patronising male oppressor in double-quick time.
As for the girl-power theme, its ladled on with a shovel, emphasised by over-familiar soundtrack cues from Elastica, Garbage and No Doubt. The Skrulls likewise shift from being the unquestioned enemy to the undoubted good guys as soon as we find out they’re refugees (or, if you’re paying attention, as soon as Ronan the Keating is mentioned). And again, Carol is somehow oblivious. None of the five credited writers manage to engender either side with a convincing rationale or point of view. All of which makes for disappointing broad strokes, however true the Kree depiction is to the comics.
Then there’s the extent of Carol’s powers, admittedly not fully unleashed until the climax, but making her – much like Scarlet Witch – annoyingly unquantifiable. She’s just super super, which means the MCU will have to work around her or create ever more extreme and thus less-convincing threats.
On the plus side, Ben Mendelsohn is having a blast as witty Kree Talos, as is Sam Jackson, fresher faced and inhabiting easily the best showing for Nick Fury. Including a suitably mythos-busting explanation for how he lost that eye. Ultimately, though, Captain Marvel is too serious-minded to have offer a good time, and not serious enough to map a well-structured, convincingly conceived and populated story. Given its self-appointed importance, it’s sadly routine.
Thor: The Dark World
(2013) A better-made movie than the first Thor, but also a more anonymous, less essential one. The Dark World attempts to raise the stakes – Asgard in peril, the death of supporting character Frigga – but does so with little real impact.
Director Alan Taylor graduated to big-screen duties and reportedly had a less than enjoyable time – following the crashed-and-burned Terminator Genisys, he has retreated to TV once more – complaining of the studio mangling his efforts in post (it seems the production was awash with creative differences). He furnishes the proceedings with Games of Thrones grit, but to rather indifferent effect; the biggest problem is that it feels like “just another” Thor film. It can’t even be charged with the excess of Iron Man II, which at least singles that one out for attention.
This extends to the title character, such that “witless oaf” Thor is second fiddle in his own franchise. He’s given stir-and-repeat moments (he must defy dad, but they reconcile amid generic platitudes – “I’d rather be a good man than a great king”) and a rekindled romance that fails to sizzle (explaining his absence post Avengers – “I had to put an end to the slaughter”: “As excuses go, it’s not terrible” – is fairly terrible).
It sounds like dropping the plan for Jane Foster to be a villain might have resulted from the same unenlightened producer process afflicting Iron Man Three. It’s more than notable that Kat Dennings’ sidekick (“Look at you, all muscles and everything…”; “How’s space?”) is way more appealing than Portman’s lead (Andie McDowell syndrome?) I’d entirely forgotten Chris O’Dowd was in the mix (“I’ll just stay here and say ‘sea bass’ alone”). Chris Eccleston, meanwhile, would evidently entirely like to forget he was (he’s nearly there, as Malekith is a vacuum of personality and presence).
All is not lost, though. The picture’s considerable saving grace is a character who wasn’t even in the original storyline: Loki. His inclusion resulted from his going down so well in Avengers, apparently. The consequent compartmentalisation – locked up like Lector – pays dividends, complete with several attention-grabbing fake-outs (the real state of his cell, giving up his brother on Svartalfheim) and a much better response to slap-happy Jane than his brother’s (“I like her”). He also experiences a rebirth worthy of Doctor Who’s (‘80s) Master, whereby he’s miraculously back and now sitting on the throne as Odin come the climax. It would be half a decade before that one was resolved, in part because of the tepid reception that greeted The Dark World and the decision that comedy should be the answer. Some would call that an admission of defeat.
But to be fair, comedy’s the salve that makes this one’s flavourless medicine go down, the highlight of which probably being Loki masquerading as Captain America (“Hey, you want to have a rousing discussion about truth, honour, patriotism? God bless Am–”). There’s a surprising welter of gags here, with at least some – like the Cap one – coming courtesy of an uncredited Joss Whedon. Back when he was a welcome Mr Fix-It. Sometimes his choices are injudiciously placed, however – comedy following character deaths or presumed character deaths is insensitive at best, and actively undermines the dramatic underpinnings at worst – and they still fail to alleviate the pervasively dour tone. Dour would be fine if the picture was gripping with it, but too often The Dark World sits there indifferently.
The Incredible Hulk
(2008) The first half hour of The Incredible Hulk can comfortably go toe-to-toe with any comparable section of any Marvel movie. Unfortunately, it then enters something of a dramatic tailspin, the characters and elements Ang Lee made perversely painterly and poetic crudely scrunched and stretched into something broader and more cartoonish: Betty is a one-dimensional cut-out; the big CGI titan-clash climax is a crude fist-fight in contrast to the psychedelic maelstrom of Hulk; only really William Hurt’s General could comfortably swap places with Sam Elliot’s Thunderbolt Ross, credibility intact.
Ed Norton’s lanky Banner is less angst ridden than Eric Bana’s, more pro-active and – intriguingly – benefits from engaging in a multi-disciplined approach to controlling his affliction (from alternative medicine to meditation). The arising problem is the demand of ditching this element for more standard (forgettable) action beats.
The showdown with the Abomination lasts about twenty minutes but seems much, much longer, and it highlights that everything occurring once Banner is back in the US is inferior to the Brazilian chapter, barring the marvellous, scene-stealing presence of Tim Blake Nelson as the sadly-not-revisited Leader. Mark Ruffalo’s subsequent Banner is a likeable presence, in a slumber-town, always-reactive, beta kind of way, but I can’t help think it would have been nice to see Norton’s wired version again. in material that fitted his more motivated reading of the character.
(2011) Asgard, realm of Dutch angles and cod-Shakespearean tones. Sir Ken is no one’s idea of a great director – or at least, he shouldn’t be – but his scrappy devotion to being acclaimed as one sort of sees him through here. There’s nothing very artful about Thor, not least in its repurposing of a plotline Masters of the Universe attempted two-and-a-half decades earlier. It also suffers from the irritating insertion of SHIELD as much as the rest of Phase One, but one thing Ken gets very right is the casting.
Chris Hemsworth and particularly Tom Hiddleston are perfect in their roles, the latter to the extent that, were it not for the Crocodile Dundee, thunder god-out-of-water comedy of the former’s earthbound sojourn, he would have stolen the entire movie and our sympathies with it. Anthony Hopkins is solidly reliable, and if Natalie Portman is forgettable in a forgettable part, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård more than compensate. If there’s a definition of a “That’ll do” MCU movie, this is probably it. It’ll do.
Iron Man II
(2010) A mess, no doubt about that, but Iron Man II is one of the few Marvel movies that actually improved on repeat viewing. I hadn’t gone back to this one’s well since its release, and there are elements that flat-out don’t work – Mickey Rourke’s crazy Russian villain; Tony’s treasure-hunt map for a new element; the shoehorning in of SHIELD yet again – but it maintains a certain ramshackle, ungainly energy in spite of coasting on the goodwill its predecessor garnered.
Tony’s creeping toxicity plays out surprisingly effectively in a background ticking-clock fashion. The government’s desire to appropriate his tech is just about the only logical thing they could do after the events of the first movie (and the opening hearing might be the most satisfying sequence in the entire picture). The chemistry between Downey Jr and Paltrow is yet again a highlight. Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is overtly comic-relief villainy in the Gene Hackman mode, but he gets a free pass for all that. And if the climax against Vanko’s drones (and then Vanko) is a bit of a snooze, there’s always Tony’s drunken fight with Rhodey (Don Cheadle making his series debut) to make up for it.
(2015) Ant-Man’s biggest problem isn’t that it’s a little film. It’s that it has a director with little vision. Far from a rare ingredient for an MCU entry, I know, but in this instance, visual panache and a sense of energy is really a prerequisite. The sort of thing, say, an Edgar Wright might have brought to the proceedings…
Peyton Reed’s a competent replacement, sure, and he works well with his actors, but aside from the – presumably extensively prevized for Ed – action set pieces, Ant-Man’s really rather flat and unresponsive. True, there are a couple of Wright-esque discursions from Michael Pena, “voicing” every character in a tall tale he tells (Spaced-ish as they are, these were apparently entirely Reed’s invention). Nevertheless, this self-declared smaller MCU picture should have been sharper, defter and lighter on its feet.
Paul Rudd, never an actor who exactly commands the screen, is merely fine as Scott Lang, but that works in the favour of a more ensemble affair. Making Scott an entirely redeemable cat burglar (he robbed for the best of reasons) is a massive cop out on Marvel’s part, but most of the family stuff lands pretty well, and without it, you wouldn’t get the climax on a Thomas the Tank Engine railway.
Michael Douglas seems to be having fun as Hank Pym (perhaps it’s the chiselled features offering a guide rail, but his de-aging is much more effective than most cases we’ve seen lately). Evangeline Lilly is appropriately faux-antagonistic as the future Wasp. Corey Stoll, meanwhile, does his best to make a standard-issue villain personable and give him a humorous edge – his treatment of cute ickle lambs as test subjects, for example (his suit is very cool, although you can’t help but get Innerspace vibes from the combat, which further serves to put Ant-Man’s achievements in their place).
If the fight with Falcon is amusing (“I’m a big fan”), the heist itself isn’t devised with the precision that would engender a sense of escalation and tension. The ants are appealingly cartoonish: wisely so, as anything too photoreal would run the risk of turning off audiences. And the subatomic sequence is a trip, but what you want is a director who would really make it a trip. Ant-Man does fine, but it doesn’t linger in the mind.
Avengers: Infinity War
(2018) The law of diminishing returns is in full effect with Infinity War, a picture that dwindles in impact the longer it’s contemplated. A string of monumentally (super) heroic encounters whose value is cheapened with each successive bout, it illustrates pointedly that in the Russo brothers, Kevin Feige found his ultimate anonymous avatars. They’re there simply to serve the bits between CGI. Which, given the level of greenscreen and sometimes downright ugly application of effects (the virtual Spidey and Iron Man costumes are just ugh) often seem negligible.
They’ve still got their names on the thing, though. And on two of the biggest movies ever, an effect not dissimilar to, say, John Badham and Peter Hyams having made the most successful blockbusters of the ‘80s (although, that’s doing both something of a disservice as competent craftsmen). While Scorsese was clearly presenting a flawed argument in judging the MCU as “not cinema”, the unmeasured, unmoderated functionality of the Russos’ presentation is, arguably, closer to the stuff of television (and comes subsequent to a TV guy’s – more cinematic, admittedly – curatorship of the assembled Avengers).
Indeed, revisiting Infinity War, I was most struck by its visual resemblance to George Lucas’ prequel trilogy, with a similar sense of elements snipped, glued, cut and pasted together in a “we can fix it later” rush. The grand climax of warriors charging into battle on a Wakandan plain has exactly the sense of bland artifice The Phantom Menace did (and like that film, just about a third of the intercut finale works). There are also only so many times you can see the “final” takedown of Thanos turned into defeat before it becomes faintly ridiculous.
Thanos himself is one of the rare villainous exceptions, granted motivation and empathy (he’s probably Bill Gates’ hero), and Josh Brolin gauges his performance perfectly. But still, that impact is greatly reduced by his having the least iconic visual design. It’s a case where staying true to the comics – and it isn’t as if the MCU has an amazing record in that regard – has led to an antagonist who looks a bit, well, shit.
On the plus side, bringing all these characters together means writers Markus and McFeely are never far from a couple of sprightly characters or a bouyant scene – although, the Nidavellir sequence is a complete dodo, and becomes more interminable on each revisit. Teaming Tony with Peter and Stephen pays dividends, albeit it also emphasises how redundant and relatively unsympathetic the MCU’s first breakout character has become. Instead, sympathies lie with Strange in finding Tony rather tiresome, and also for his having the much-needed insight into the necessary course for Thanos’ defeat.
The Bruce subplot is also rather weak, reducing him to not-so comic relief. And while there are plenty of laughs in Thor meeting the Guardians, there’s a nagging feeling it doesn’t quite zing the way it would if James Gunn had written their exchanges (on the other hand, that’s probably just as well). It’s commendable to have given Vision and Wanda a decent subplot, but less so the way no one really seems to have known how to use the former since Age of Ultron, except to kneecap him and turn him into a damsel in distress. And in Wanda’s case, there’s a persistently vague “she’s really mighty but don’t ask how mighty; will you look at her light beams”.
The major motivator with Infinity War is not to pause long between set pieces, illustrated most singularly by Strange striking up conversation with Thanos. Just as it looks as if it might go somewhere philosophically interesting, the master of the mystic arts puts a lid on it with “I think you’ll find our will equal to yours” and starts a fight. And the Russos’ fights just aren’t interesting enough to justify that approach.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
(2017) The first hour of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is up there with the first movie as a free-for-all comedy with a heart. Writer-director James Gunn keeps the plot wheels turning, extends the continuity (Kurt Russell as Peter’s dad) and offers further inventive/affecting use of vintage tunes (Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain, George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord, and best of all, the bravura opening title sequence in which Groot dances to ELO’s Mr Blue Sky while the rest of the team fight an enormous inter-dimensional monster). The team is also split up, a solid The Empire Strikes Back-esque sequel move in terms of juggling characters and retaining interest.
But then the bottom falls out. In his desire to show that Guardians of the Galaxy is all about that aforementioned heart, and relationships and characters – you know, nice things, rather than depraved tweets that may only be the tip of the iceberg – Gunn rather kicks the irreverence that was the ensemble’s engine into reverse. This means the second half of the movie, and more especially everything that occurs on Ego’s planet, becomes something of a slog until Rocket and Yondu arrive to liven up the denouement.
None of the individual elements – Drax’s burgeoning friendship with naïve Mantis; Gamora and Nebula sparring; Peter getting to know his dad – are bad per se, but they fail to come together dramatically. The picture’s pace takes a serious hit. And in the case of Peter and Ego, the latter’s reveal that he killed the former’s mother amounts to an incredibly lazy “unmasking” of his evil status. Kurt Russell can do no wrong, but he’s wasted in a part that doesn’t really allow him to do anything he does so well. Elizabeth Debicki is also a major score, but she’s little more than a golden Bond girl for Pratt’s Roger Moore to throw innuendos at.
On the up-side, the Rocket-Yondu plot thread fires on all cylinders (and Gunn even throws in a grotesquely tripped-out Ren and Stimpy-esque sequence as they attempt 700 space jumps at once), Dave Bautista is a stand-out, winning a laugh pretty much for every line delivered, and Gunn rallies well for the climax (great use of Cat Stevens’ Father and Son). Something of a disappointment then, and I think it’s probably fair to conclude that its box-office success (bigger than the first, but not that much bigger) reflected as much; a breakout hit like the first Guardians should have seen the sequel go stratospheric, by rights.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
(2014) Generally lauded as one of the finest movies in the MCU pantheon, a picture that co-opts the ‘70s conspiracy thriller to dazzling effect, The Winter Soldier is pretty good when it’s doing what it says on the tin. Unfortunately, it’s also trying to offer standard Marvel thrills and set pieces, and it’s delivered by directors attempting to mimic the beats of better filmmakers, rather than have any true inspiration or aptitude for suspense or action themselves.
The Russos are to be commended for their diligence, but they mystifyingly – or not, if one assumes they were Kevin Feige’s “yes” men – became the keepers of the Marvel crown jewels in less than half a decade, when they’re actually merely competent guys backed up by the Marvel second unit and effects supremos.
Which means their action isn’t all that. Sure, there are moments: the attack on Nick Fury/car chase, Cap in the lift, giving chase to Bucky through a hospital and onto a rooftop. But they’re exceptions in an action-heavy movie. You’ll be lucky if you can remember anything of the climax (not uncommon for the MCU, admittedly). In an ideal world, Feige would be taking the Mission: Impossible approach to this franchise, and Brian De Palma would have been constructing the intricately-designed sequences. Alas, there’s no such thing as auteurish autonomy in this sphere, hence the number of director casualties. The most suspenseful sequence might be Agent 13 up against Brock Rumlow, because – and this is a key problem with Cap’s indestructability – you don’t know the outcome.
If The Winter Soldier were truly a paranoia movie, that would be great, but this element is mostly sacrificed about an hour in, when Cap visits Emile Zola for a massively unwieldy dump of exposition. It’s also a problem that – aside from Cap being anything but the average Joe on the run of classics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor – he’s quickly furnished with an accompaniment of supporters, leaking away the essence of the genre it’s appropriating.
The Winter Soldier feigns tackling ideas with huge ramifications – the potential of advanced tech/ free energy for all, of endemic corruption at the heart of government – but ultimately abandons them for something approaching a return to the status quo, despite the inter-continuity. So here, there’s a post-Snowden discussion of the surveillance state (“This isn’t freedom. This is fear”), but it’s ultimately unconvincing; there’s no sense of palpable change subsequently. Indeed, the stakes are reduced to revolving around superheroes’ liberty rather than ours with Civil War. You might argue this is a metaphor, but it’s a very loose one, if so. After all, few enough of the superheroes are actually forced to wear masks.
We’re informed that Hydra blossomed in the States, “a beautiful parasite inside SHIELD”, and this is a canny replication of conspiracy lore, the idea that this is exactly what happened with the Nazis of Paperclip, covertly taking over and subsuming the (deep) state apparatus. But that would be to offer a free pass to the inherent culpability of the pre-existing system, the one the movie offers up with the nostalgia of a just war to fight (a war some would argue was entered duplicitously through allowing Pearl Harbour to happen). This is the flaw in pitting Cap against a system he finds mystifyingly corrupt, as a contrast to his innate virtue (there’s a throwaway line drawing attention to the bad things he did for his country, but he parries it with mention of the “worthy threat” faced). Still, the line “Hydra created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security” can’t help but have a lasting currency in today’s environment. All you do is mix and match the “threat” for the same result.
While I appreciate that Cap’s seen WarGames, Hydra’s whole “wipe out twenty million people” thing to bring order to seven billion is a very messy plan, and entirely unconvincing if Hydra is still at such a nascent stage that they can be overpowered in short order (essentially, this is the standardised post-70s conspiracy thriller ending – see Enemy of the State – in which the bad seeds are brought to book and order is restored). Far better to continue their effective behind-the-scenes rule. Some nice scenes occur, however, not least Gary Shandling whispering “Hail Hydra” to a fellow politico. Some have said Redford isn’t very good, that his casting is little more than giving the picture conspiracy cachet, but the trouble is that his character is very vanilla – he’s simply a twist, so there’s nothing behind him to make him interesting. Except for “Oh Renata, I wish you would have knocked”, that is (and that he declined the Nobel Peace Prize, something Obama would have done had he an ounce of integrity).
This is a Cap movie, of course, and as we know, he isn’t terribly interesting, so what they throw at him has to be. And it is… up to a point. He certainly fares better here than in his debut. Black Widow’s best moment finds her played by Jenny Agutter, which tells you a whole lot (Johansson’s delivery of her final gambit – “Because you need us” – is excruciating, and works as much against the impulse of the movie as the credits cutting to Hydra’s remnants working away in an underground facility). Anthony Mackie is solid as the Falcon, providing an unforced, light touch, but his scenes are interspersed with rote veteran platitudes. He’s also victim to Sidekick 101, squaring off against Frank Grillo’s henchman. Nick Fury has a solid showing… until he’s “killed” and reborn.
And then there’s the second title character. The problem with Bucky isn’t dissimilar to the one with Cap. For his arc to work – for him even to have an arc – we need to be invested in their friendship. Unfortunately, we’ve seen all of five minutes of them together previously, if that. Visually, the Winter Soldier persona is strikingly presented (accompanied by a strong, sinister theme from composer Henry Jackman) but Sebastian Stan is otherwise a non-presence, and the third-act deterioration to an uninvolving slug fest on a collapsing helicarrier as Cap advises “I’m not going to fight you. You’re my friend” is a damp squib. And should Cap really need to be hospitalised, given his indomitability?
So yeah, this might be unpopular, but I don’t think The Winter Soldier is that great – as gambits go, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra is arguably more audacious – probably because I relish good conspiracy movies and this isn’t remotely a fully formed one. It’s built on unconvincing retcons and a desire to avoid really shaking things up. It pays lip service to the genre.
Spiderman: Far From Home
(2019) Given Spider-Man has the best villains roster of probably any superhero (luckily for Sony, given their Spider-verse plans), it’s disappointing to report that this re-envisioned Mysterio/Quentin Beck only partially delivers. It’s a difficult sell dramatically: a master of illusion whose threats are fakes. It means the plotting needs to be intricate and offer genuine surprise reveals, ones that satisfy, even knowing that the villain will be up to something of that ilk. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, returning to script Spidey, don’t really succeed in their ambitions, but they get credit for trying.
They even posit a multiverse, and then destroy fans’ hopes and dreams (for now anyway), as Quentin is revealed to be no more than a disgruntled Stark Enterprises employee. The problem is, the first half of Far From Home relies on Quentin passing himself off as a good guy, even though anyone who has heard of Mysterio knows he isn’t (what would have been surprising, rather like the missed opportunity of Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness, would have been to have him as an actual good guy, or at least someone with sympathetic motives). Jake Gyllenhaal is playing a symbolic replacement for Tony (in Peter’s eyes), but while he’s delivered some reliably bug-nuts performances in other movies of late, his Beck is only ever so-so: a reasonably vanilla fake hero, but an insufficiently interesting pissed-off villain. Which is a crucial to Far From Home being by some distance a lesser beast to Homecoming.
On the other hand, there’s a section here in which the fake outs come together, with Quentin masquerading as Nick Fury and launching a visual phantasmagoria on Peter (one that is, alas, much more immersive on the big screen than the small). And lifting the picture generally is the high-school side, which continues to be spot on. True, JB Smoove is rather out of his element in PG-13 fare, but from the opening tributes to Tony, to the maudlin sound of Whitney, to the Blip’s ramifications played for maximum amusement (“Yeah, like my little brother is now older than me”; “Did I tell you my wife pretended to blip out?”), to the unlikely romance between Ned and Betty, and the burgeoning romance between Peter and MJ, the juvenilia is sharply observed. Plus, the relationship with Happy is genuinely sweet and funny (his dating Aunt May too). And if the “Peter hangs up the suit” subplot has been all played out in earlier iterations, bringing back JK Simmons as J Jonah Jameson, with a devastating reveal, is entirely justified.
The Avengers aka Avengers Assemble
(2012) Joss Whedon should be congratulated – since he said he rewrote Zak Penn’s original screenplay top-to-bottom – for moulding this first superhero team up in such painless, seamless form, but that doesn’t mean it entirely stands the test of time. While much of the superhero sparring is rightly feted, and Loki makes for a perfect charismatic villain, some of the mechanics are less effective and others even slightly ham-fisted.
The idea of Black Widow outsmarting Loki may appeal on paper, but Johansson fails to make it remotely believable. Agent Coulson’s demise couldn’t carry less weight as a credible motivator for the Avengers, less still the audience. And Bruce’s angry-all-the-time arc now feels a little on the cheesy side. But at least his bromance with Tony is just as winning as ever… right?
The lauded New York action finale isn’t such a triumph in retrospect, in part because, if it doesn’t involve Hulk smashing Loki or Tony carrying a nuke to safety, it’s one-note kill-the-CGI-monsters, just like the sequel, but with robots and more saving of lives there. That said, there’s a genuinely great fight early on between Cap, Thor and Tony, the sort of thing that plays to Whedon’s strengths. And if his dialogue does exhibit too much of a tendency towards one-size-fits-all (everyone’s a quipster in Jossland), one thing he does extremely well is create a dynamic between his characters, and brewing conflict. In that respect, Avengers excels.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
(2015) By most accounts, Age of Ultron quickly became a rather unloved entry in the Marvel canon, perhaps destined to be the least-regarded team-up picture. If so, that’s a little unfair. Joss Whedon has spoken of the stresses of making the movie and his disagreements over certain elements, including the Scarlet Witch-induced dream sequences and Hawkeye’s farm. I have sympathy with Feige in the latter instance; as much as you can locate what works in the movie with Whedon’s choices and motifs, you can find the same with what it gets wrong.
The first Avengers has its issues, more unflatteringly evident on repeat viewing, but it doesn’t drag. Here, Whedon so wants to replicate his Buffy approach of servicing each of the characters in his own inimitable fashion, while lacking the canvas for it, that the results are occasionally awkward. The Bruce and Natasha relationship is a flat-out terrible, hubristic idea, and the attempts to give them common ground are at best clumsy. Compare the slog of their tentative circling each other, with everyone around chuckling about it in typically lewd Joss fashion, to that one moment where Vision saves Wanda – with the hindsight of Infinity War, the latter resonates as much more romantic, soaring and affecting.
Then there’s the third act, an often torturously leaden rebuke of DC’s disaster-porn approach in which Avengers Save People! I’m sure they could have made the same point once, maybe twice, without making the viewer sick of Age of Ultron’s fixation on potential collateral damage. I’m not keen on Whedon’s speed-ramped panorama shots of the heroes in action either, since they bring home that, whatever his talents, he is not a visual virtuoso. Thor’s excursion, meanwhile, never seems more than an ungainly attempt to connect the story to the broader narrative (albeit, it’s effective when he returns with a different opinion to everyone else).
All that said, Joss handles most of the existing and introduced characters with aplomb. Leading the pack is Tony’s arc. Let’s face it, he really shouldn’t be here after Iron Man Three, and if you can get past the slightly insulting fact that Pepper doesn’t even figure – Whedon’s throwaway gag about Stark and Thor’s other halves actually says more about the servicing of female roles in the MCU than his other throwaway gag about reinstituting prima nocte – his fear of failure and resultant rash actions are followed through with remarkable coherence, and played by Downey Jr with commendable conviction. The Stark-Cap tension is effectively rendered, to the extent that it’s interesting to see Tony go from leader to outsider and not really come back again, something effectively built upon in later movies. Although, Cap-wise, his disapproving of cussing is a Whedonism that grows old quickly.
Adding to the positives is chief villain Ultron, whose main failure is that his sinister introduction via cobbled-together machine parts is infinitely more effective than the ropey CGI of his fully-realised form; James Spader is a superior vocal foil throughout, but again, inevitably, the character’s most singular qualities cannot survive the de rigueur Marvel third act, entailing a needs-must retreat into all-out replica robot destruction.
Nevertheless, there’s a yardstick of the potential here, and that’s how exceedingly well-realised Vision is, both in design and performance. Paul Bettany is straight-up superb, spinning a line of heightened awareness that can’t help but echo Dr Manhattan in Watchmen yet remains something unique and invigorating in a picture designed simply as an event. Bettany even makes some of Whedon’s cruder dialogue sound better than it is, always the sign of a great actor (the final exchange with Ultron is particularly satisfying, but the reply is all about the delivery: “You’re insufferably naïve”: “Well, I was born yesterday”).
In terms of the action, Whedon’s using the widescreen, and his best set piece is easily the Hulkbuster duel in Johannesburg. Andy Serkis offers a particularly relishable slice of over-sized B-villainy as Ulysses Klaue, and it’s a shame he’s since been permanently expunged from further appearances. Age of Ultron’s a very uneven movie, there’s no doubt about that, but when it soars, it’s nigh-on the best (official) assembly of Avengers to date.
(2017) I fully expected Thor 3 to suffer on return visit. I was tepid enough on Taika Waititi’s more “auteurist” impact on the movie in the first place and couldn’t see that lessening with familiarity. Waititi is, of course, an Internet and media darling, to the extent he can’t put a foot wrong and is even rewarded with an Oscar for a dire Hitler comedy. I tend to think he needs an honest sounding board telling him where he’s becoming too self-indulgent. One can see that most obviously in Ragnarok’s gags, where characters interchangeably riff in overtly colloquial fashion – even Cate’s at it – to the extent you’d be forgiven for thinking he’d taken notes from the Joss Whedon school of authorial voices. Thor’s a particular victim of this, only saved by Hemsworth’s reliably noble-deadpan delivery.
Most unchecked is Waititi self-servicing with sidekick character Korg, who lands largely mirth-free and somehow gets away with a wank joke, showing either that Marvel quality control is very variable or all those years of warnings about the subliminal messaging in Disney product were entirely valid. Certainly, as soon as the Devil’s Anus was approved as a major plot point all bets for how low-brow this could get were off. Indeed, I was struck by how much Ragnarok resembles an ’80s teen movie in sensibility (think Weird Science), which rather characterises Waititi’s maturity of vision. Also to consider as an antidote to the adulation Ragnarok has received is that, for all his pop-art colour palette, Waititi is no visual stylist. Which is to say, he knows enough of what’s needed to put his trust in the previz and second units, but left to his own devices, he’d probably be delivering sub-Wes Anderson tableaus throughout.
And while we’re talking deficiencies, Tessa Thompson’s drunk act just isn’t very good (she’s fine at kicking ass, however), and the entire Asgard plotline is a stiff (meaning that, whenever we cut back to Cate, the energy is sucked out of the movie). There’s also that the picture carries zero resonance, despite the dramatic events unfolding: wiping out of Thor’s pals; the death of his father; being blinded in one eye; the destruction of his home (which seems to be very sparsely populated, which is lucky); a colonial legacy theme that goes nowhere. It’s almost as if the director doesn’t care about anything that doesn’t end in a punchline.
But. An awful lot here rides a comic cloud. Hemsworth, despite the above-mentioned concerns, has never been more engaging as the title character. He often manages to make that uncharacteristic dialogue shine just through modulation: asked what happened to his hair, he replies “A creepy old man cut it off”; his confidence that “I know you’re in there, Banner. I’ll get you out”. Waititi relishes the chance to undercut the hero’s bravado and self-assuredness and it’s mostly an effective choice.
Ruffalo’s Banner schtick has been wearing thin for me, and his Hulk is an out-and-out dick here, but it’s still an inspired choice to make him Thor’s foil. Hiddleston is always a highlight as Loki, but he shines even brighter this time, from trying to make himself inconspicuous when he realises Hulk is in the arena to objecting to “Get help”. The early sequence with Doctor Strange is also highly inventive and very funny. And Jeff Goldblum is an enormous boon. Unlike two recent sequels to ’90s movies that featured him either abysmally are hardly at all, Waititi knows his talent and lets him loose accordingly.
(2019) If Infinity War’s stock diminishes on repeat visit, Endgame’s, perhaps surprisingly, increases. Yes, there are various pitfalls during the last half hour, exemplifying that the Russos really are not great action guys; the combined assault on Thanos convincing rather escapes them (when Captain Marvel goes down, why isn’t she straight back up again?) By the time Peter’s riding on the back of a flying horse, you’ve long since pleaded with them to make it all stop. Alas, the cynical, fist-pumping femme heroes’ combined assault might be the most woefully misjudged tail-wagging-the-dog moment in the MCU to date (whatever next, a movie dedicated to a long-serving female character after you’ve killed her off?) And however you split it, Cap going off to live a quiet life is the age of ultra-selfish.
But Tony’s switcheroo is quite neat, and his manner of exit is more appropriate and timelier than Steve Rogers’ (fair’s fair, though, Steve’s old aging is very impressive, as is Chris’ rasp). And the first two hours contain some of the most satisfying material the MCU has seen. Comparisons between The MCU and extended TV drama aren’t entirely unfair (which doesn’t mean they aren’t cinema), and Endgame divides quite neatly into three distinct episodes (okay then, acts). The first, dealing with the aftermath of the Snap and the empty catharsis of killing Thanos, is particularly effective (never has Tony been less sympathetic than in his impotent railing against his fellows). The Scott-inspired plan that follows comes up trumps with the humorous (“You look like melted ice cream” might be the funniest line in the MCU, and Rocket follows it with the zinger of, eulogising his departed friends “… the chick with the antenna, all gone”). It’s less sure-footed with the downbeat side, though (grimdark Ronin Clint is kind of cheesy, truth be told, and the trying-too-hard camaraderie of “A long way from Budapest” is toe curling).
The middle, time-travelling paradoxical act is the most fun, even if I found it frustrating first time round for the Russos’, or rather writers Markus and McFeely’s, incredibly badly written explanation from Hulk of how MCU time travel works. Better is his subsequent conversation with the Ancient One. That said, you really need to go here to get a satisfying account of how it all stacks up in Endgame. The manner in which the various plans fall apart – Loki absconding, the unforeseen impact of two Nebulas in one time zone – and the repercussions thereof – needing to travel back to 1970, 2012 Thanos travelling forward to 2018 – evidence the method in Tony’s retrospective wisdom that “You mess with time, it tends to mess back”.
Mostly, then, Endgame manages to stick the landing. And if Rhodesy at no point looks like he belongs with this lot, this send-off to the MCU’s first decade manages to give the quickly unloved Captain Marvel her best line (certainly Larson’s best delivered one): “Hey Peter Parker. You got something for me?” I’m sure that gave him a Peter Tingle.
Ant-Man and the Wasp
(2018) Is the biggest stumbling block to Ant-Man gaining the traction of the average Marvel movie a hero who’s a bit of an idiot? I mean, beyond the lack of world-threatening plots and that he lives a life in which the domestic, average Joe side is very much foregrounded. I’d argue so, particularly in this sequel, where the “serious” plotline sticks out like a sore thumb.
Ghost’s abilities provide several deftly choreographed fight/action sequences, but it’s her inability to control her phasing that provides the picture’s main dramatic thrust, and the weight of her situation doesn’t really land. Worse, Janet’s instantaneously healing hands elicit something of a groan. The other significant thread, of Hank’s attempt to rescue Janet from the quantum realm, is dealt disappointingly short shrift, confirming that Peyton Reed isn’t really the guy for such material; aside from the tardigrades, there isn’t much in the way of trippiness to be had.
But if Reed may not be the greatest stylist in the MCU (although the choreography is much more impressive than in its predecessor), he has a distinctive facility for comedic interplay that makes this probably the closest Marvel will get to a Joe Dante movie (“Come here, you little weasel” is even a direct lift from Innerspace). The Ant-Man movies are essentially good natured; even Hope and Hank being pissed off at Scott can’t last long, and Walton Goggins, getting to goof off a bit, finishes up confessing his legion crimes to the authorities: “I’ve also committed numerous health code violations. Some of them quite shocking”. The key is picking players who fit into very much an ensemble production. Just look at how much fun Bobby Cannavale is having, in a relatively brief appearance this time, embracing the opportunity to play a nice guy for a change.
As expected, Michael Peña’s energetic engrams grant him all the best moments, but it’s a close thing with Randall Park’s parole officer, constantly not quite able to catch his prey breaking the rules. It’s nice to see Michelle Pfeiffer – and her de-aging is even better than Douglas’, probably down to having even better cheek bones – but as with most of her roles since she has returned to acting, she’s rather underserved.
Still, providing you’re down with the small stakes, Ant-Man and the Wasp handles those stakes much more satisfyingly than its “It’ll do” predecessor. Hank’s rescue bid, even if it doesn’t exactly wow, delivers to the degree it does because it’s effectively intercut with a triple threat escalation: Scott going all Giant Man and flaking out, Ghost getting the lab, and the quantum realm. Plus, how can a movie go that wrong when it stages an action sequence in homage to The Dead Pool (that’s Dirty Harry’s Dead Pool)?
Guardians of the Galaxy
(2014) At the time, I was simultaneously impressed by the gleefully auteurish (by Marvel standards) approach to Guardians of the Galaxy and disappointed by the largely generic third act. But isn’t that Iron Man exactly? James Gunn’s MCU entrance was a breath of fresh air that would latterly be taken a little too literally (Ragnarok), with the resultant omission of what makes this ironically one of the best Marvel movies; despite its proud irreverence, it manages to be the sincerest of their endeavours thus far.
From Rocket’s recognition of his origins to the loss of Groot, to Drax’s quest for vengeance (upon achieving it, he promptly decides there’s a bigger fish to focus on), to the standout sequence in which Peter Quill saves Gamora from an icy death in the vacuum of space, only to fall backing on boasting of doing “something incredibly heroic”, Gunn’s able to undercut his material while giving it just enough depth to carry weight. The key is that it’s in a less flippant and authorially-obvious manner than his pal Joss Whedon.
This is also, surely, the most unlikely success of an MCU cast: spotting Dave Bautista’s deadpan comic chops (“Do not ever call me a thesaurus”); casting Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in roles where you’re never aware of their star power, even though it underpins their characters’ presences; giving Chris Pratt a role where he’s eminently mockable in the best Kurt Russell-John Carpenter tradition. The sisterly conflict between Gamora and Nebula may not be as raucous, but Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan make striking impressions. And Michael Rooker as the bad dad with a heart of gold will go on to give the sequel its signature moment.
Perhaps inevitably, the villain suffers, but that’s no fault of Lee Pace chewing scenery to the max as Ronan the Keating. And if the third act is the usual MCU deal, it’s resolved in a rather wonderfully cheesy fashion that announces the makeshift family values of these Guardians. Oh, and may as well give Gunn that Howard the Duck movie; Howard can make all the sick, twisted “jokes” he wants and not get fired and then rehired by Disney (if Disney still exists by that point).
(2008) Iron Man’s main failing is one it would pass on to its increasingly costly and ambitious lineage; the third act isn’t all that. It isn’t a deal-breaker, but two robot suits duking it out wasn’t particularly interesting when we saw it in Robocop 2, and it’s no more so here. Other than that, it’s remarkable how well Jon Favreau’s on-the-hoof, first official MCU movie hangs together.
Downey Jr is instantly indelible as Tony Stark, both on a (forced) corrective arc and simultaneously unrepentant in ways that are entirely appealing. I’d like to roundly reject the suggestion that you couldn’t have the character behaving this way now, as the whole point is his evolution from an inappropriate lifestyle and attitude. That said, if their other major franchise is any evidence, Disney would probably actively run in the opposite direction, even at the cost of a fanbase.
The effects stand up, much more so than the ghastly tendency towards obvious CGI Iron Man suits in later movies; it’s almost as if Marvel wanted to turn us off the character with the nano-tec of Infinity War. The supporting cast are great too (Paltrow, Favreau, Bridges). If Thor was a case of an “it’ll do” introduction, this is standard hero material fashioned with visible effort and attention to getting it right. The results speak for themselves.
(2016) As an origins story, Doctor Strange bears some similarities to both Iron Man and Thor; an arrogant protagonist is brought low, losing his power before regaining it as a hero incarnate). To that extent, some have argued the picture is a little too familiar and unremarkable, particularly given the potential for high, er, strangeness of its main character’s comic book history. It’s certainly the case that Doctor Strange’s visual palate tends more towards the industrial, digitised fractals of Inception than the tripped-out, graphic pen psychedelia of ’60s comic art.
On the debit side too, Benedict Cumberbatch is an uninspired choice for the lead – securing a flavour of the month isn’t exactly a daring move – and his accent is, shall we say politely, less than perfect. And yet, while I might have hoped for Keanu Reeves – who has an established relationship with director Scott Derrickson and was reportedly chased for the part but didn’t want the commitment – Cumberbatch’s Strange is a reliably prickly presence with an easy facility for humorous digressions.
Derrickson may be the picture’s greatest coup, however. He isn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, an auteur, but by the standards of Marvel journeymen, he may as well be. He handles the leaps in perspective and plane with easy confidence, and if the screenplay (credited to the director, Jon Spaihts and C Robert Cargill) doesn’t exactly reek of trusting the viewer to make cross over into the magical realm any more than Thor did into the fantasy one, the result is a far more dynamic, engrossing, taut affair.
The supporting cast is strong enough that even the more controversial elements – Tilda Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One – fail to gather much negative momentum. And in some cases (Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius) a rather anodyne villain is more memorable than he has any right to be (“You cannot stop this, Mister Doctor”). Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo is particularly strongly depicted in terms of his unwavering ethical stance, although it has to be said that the Ancient One’s justification for her dirty secret (“I hated drawing power from the Dark Dimension but as you well know, sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good”) isn’t especially coherent; if what she is doing doesn’t lead to inherent corruptibility, it means much of the framework of the movie’s rules collapses.
Nevertheless, Doctor Strange ultimately flourishes the considerable coup of entirely bucking the MCU trend; its best feature is its ending, a dazzling piece of Groundhog Day-conjuring on Strange’s part, in which he condemns himself and Dormammu to an unending loop of confrontation and (Strange’s) demise, until the entity agrees to the Doctor’s terms. Derrickson has fallen out of the sequel, of course, but I’m sure Sam Raimi’s panache will be more than sufficient compensation.
Captain America: Civil War
(2016) As much as The Winter Soldier proved a disappointment on revisit, its Cap sequel successor’s rep is only cemented and even improved. It should be clear by this point that I’m not the greatest fan of Marvel’s decision to make the Russo Brothers their go-to-guys for their superhero big guns. I’d much prefer Kevin Feige had the cojones, or wallet elasticity, to secure talent with real cinematic flair, but they get the job done. And in this case, they can’t go far wrong with a water-tight screenplay from (also go-to-guys) Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, one that even manages to make the traditional weak spot of the MCU, the third act, compelling.
Organically gathering the threads of Age of Ultron and developing them, a spotlight is thrown on the fall-out of our heroes’ actions. Scarlet Witch rescues Cap from an explosive but in the process inadvertently kills eleven Wakandans. Even the determined – some might say vastly over-extended – third act of that movie is revealed to have had its collateral damage, for which many see them as culpable (on the one hand, Alfre Woodward wagging a finger at Tony; on a more plot-intensive one, Daniel Bruhl’s Helmut Zemo, artfully manoeuvring the Avengers into tearing themselves apart from within).
The dividing perspectives are convincingly established. Tony’s guilt over Ultron escalates into agreement with Ross’ Sokovia Accords while Cap takes the line of greatest resistance, refusing to be dictated to by the government (having recently witnessed how fallible the edifice is). This is meaty stuff, such that it’s easy to see how Downey Jr wasn’t just financially justified in continuing his association with the franchise past Iron Man Three. It also provides Evans with his best material as Cap, offering the chance to portray fallibility while sporting a set of perfectly punchable teeth. That the big fight is a personal affair between the two heroes, and the movie doesn’t feel as if it has missed out on something more spectacular, should have been an object lesson to Feige going forward (one evidently not learned).
Amidst this, the supporting characters never feel underserved. Indeed, for my money, T’Challa is much better catered for here than in his solo movie, particularly in getting cool moves such as going up against Cap, the Boba Fett tactic of following Tony’s plane, and keeping his eye on the prize while dispensing noble justice to Zemo.
The other new MCU character (well, besides misery-guts Martin Freeman’s less-than-essential Everett K Ross) is Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, an entirely charming, irrepressibly upbeat addition to the roster, along with Marisa Tomei’s smoking-hot Aunt May. The visualisation of the centrepiece Berlin airport melee isn’t exactly remarkable on the Russos part; you wonder what exactly Vision and Scarlet Witch are doing for large chunks of the proceedings, an ability to keep coherent tabs on the many different combatants clearly having escaped the directors. Nevertheless, Peter’s enthusiasm for all that he’s encountering is entirely infectious (“You have a metal arm? That is awesome, dude!”)
I mentioned Vision and Scarlet Witch, and the low-key development of their arc pays dividends, in direct contrast to Whedon’s sledgehammer treatment of Bruce and Natasha; my only complaint about the forthcoming Wandavision is that they seem to have been deemed worthy only of B-character, small-screen progression. The picture isn’t without its issues – incognito Steve suddenly appears dressed as Cap in Bucharest like he’s trying to attract attention to himself, and I can’t for the life of me work out why they keep locking Bucky up with his robot arm attached – but this unofficial Avengers Asunder movie (2.5) does its job with considerably more aplomb than the official articles.
(2003) What’s this doing here? Hulk’s not part of the Marvel phases. I know, but I feel it/he should be, since The Incredible Hulk sort-of sequelises it (“requels” it, as Gale Ann Hurd put it), and they were both released through Universal. And it’s a benchmark for what superhero movies can do, even if went down like a bag of cold sick with many. And because I want to include it, because I really like it, and it’s my list (okay, I know that’s the weakest one).
Hulk is individual, idiosyncratic, and not (overly) beholden to comic book lore, but it attempts to invoke comic books stylistically, with a laudable approach no one else (in the Marvel-verse) has attempted. And it’s pretty trippy. Much more so than Doctor Strange, which is consciously trippy in an audience-friendly, handholding way. There’s a lot that doesn’t work (Hulk himself is very variably rendered) but much more that does, not least a marvellously-unhinged Nick Nolte, and the final half hour is frequently gorgeous in terms of visuals. There may never be another comic book quite like it, such is slavishness to formula. Less is the pity.
(2017) The Andrew Garfield Spideys may not have been quite the disasters some claim, but they nevertheless managed the feat of being simultaneously lazy, overly busy and visually unappealing. So even the promise of Peter Parker coming home to Marvel didn’t entirely dispel the concern that this would be more of the same. Had the potential for the character been squandered through mis/overuse? I need not have feared, since its six (!) credited screenwriters – including director Jon Watts – re-envisioned Peter and his alter-ego perfectly.
Some have complained about the lack of Uncle Ben and absence of the “With great power…” motif, replaced by Tony Stark mentoring and the threat of Parker being nothing without the suit. That the character is defined by his sense of guilt and that, by including Tony, there is a reductive shift of focus, with Peter becoming too reliant on him and the plot revolving around him. There’s probably something to these criticisms, but I’m not such a devotee that I needed to see the established tropes dusted off for the umpteenth time, particularly with the meal that was made of them in the Webb incarnation. Plus, in a genre guided by different iterations and versions of its superheroes, there’s surely room for one in which Parker isn’t permanently moping after a lost parent figure.
In terms of Tony, it’s notable how much – the abundant chemistry between Holland and Downey Jr aside –the picture casts him again as someone making all the wrong choices. Instead of nurturing Peter’s talent, he leaves it to stagnate, hardly justified by a spiel about wanting Parker to avoid making his mistakes. Compounding this, Michael Keaton’s Toombs is a given a strong argument for taking the course he does (“So now the assholes who made this mess are getting paid to clear it up”). Indeed, he’s probably the best MCU villain outside of Loki, at least in part due to Keaton’s wired personality. He’s also the focus of the second-best twist (see No.1) in a series not really known for (or reliant on) them: “I’m going to give Peter the dad talk”.
Everyone here’s a hit, though. Peter’s classmates are inimitably populated with an infectious John Hughes vibe (The Breakfast Club is referenced in MJ’s Ally Sheedy-alike and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is actually shown), Marisa Tomei a delightfully reconceived Aunt May (although Tony’s leching should probably be taken down a notch), and the larger role for Favs gives him a chance to remind you how great his comic timing is. Oh, and Jennifer Connelly’s personable AI makes for a perfect Peter Parker partner.
For the most part, Watts makes all this look effortless, juggling the high-school chores with superhero antics and overseeing/approving the effects team’s work on two series-standout set pieces (the Washington Monument and Staten Island Ferry); the climactic plane fight with the vulture is a little on the pixelated side, perhaps, but at least it’s still a personal bout. As for Vulture’s mech suit, well it’s par for the course with the MCU at this point, but the fur-collared jacket is a great touch.
Homecoming is a supremely satisfying movie, even boasting the best appearances by Cap in the series (okay, I know I said that about Civil War, but “Take if from a guy who’s been frozen for 65 years, The only way to really be cool is to follow the rules” is the ultimate post-credits scene). Most of all, it succeeds due to finding the ideal Peter Parker. Holland encapsulates his sincerity and energetic, wise-cracking enthusiasm and brio.
Iron Man Three
(2013) Like most franchises, formula both drives sequels and leads to fatigue. What Iron Man Three does, and does so well, is bring someone in with a different take and give them enough head of steam to confound the expected. Which is why the picture is inevitably very Marmite with Marvelites (it’s not “two men in suits fighting each other” as Shane Black put it). It leaves its hero armourless for the majority of the running time and features a renowned and controversial villain who is just a fake-out. And a fake-out joke at that.
For anyone familiar with Shane Black’s work, it was practically a done deal that this would be one to savour (less so post The Predator). Doubts about his chops as an action director were perhaps understandable (he had one low-budget feature to his credit, the early Downey Jr career reinvigorator Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). Fortunately, they proved unwarranted, no doubt thanks in significant part to the savvy technical crew who come wholesale with each new MCU picture, but also because he doesn’t just film set pieces, he writes them. Indeed, the biggest danger was that Black would be consumed by the Marvel engine, his unique ear for dialogue, character and interplay buried beneath studio notes and shoehorned continuity.
Miraculously, this is scarcely noticeable, in a trilogy-capper that sees Black deliver a story with twists and turns and even mystery (i.e. not the traditional approach to superhero fare; one might even interpret its fake-terrorist-as-a-means-to-further-homegrown-interests as a Truther statement, albeit less controversially than Star Trek Into Darkness). It’s one where Tony Stark comes to terms with his PTSD and the need to hide within his suit, so giving his relationship with Pepper all-important progression. It also finds her a vital role (she wields the crucial blow, and Tony doesn’t even flicker in deferring to her, if momentary, superior skillset: “Why don’t you dress like this at home?”).
It provides Ben Kingsley with his best role since Sexy Beast as actor Trevor Slattery (“They say his Lear was the toast of Croydon, wherever that is”), to the outrage of many. It allows James Badge Dale to do a lot with a little as “the muscle”. It gives a henchman one of the movie’s best lines of dialogue (“Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird”), although there’s competition from Ponytail Express, with his precise acumen for cross-state distances.
There are masterful action sequences; a big Iron Man one doesn’t occur until ninety minutes in, and it’s another of those fake-outs – something I always forget – as Tony isn’t even in the suit. Ironically, it’s also easily the best superhero-saves-people feat put on film. Especially cool is that Black pulls off the character’s journey for an audience who just want Iron Man; it’s cool when Tony finally gets into the suit, but you don’t need him to get into the suit for it to be cool. It features the best score of the MCU (Bryan Tyler, whose other scores for the series sadly can’t compete).
It gives Happy Hogan a very funny subplot (Favs didn’t need to feel left out in the cold after being ditched as director, although, he says he turned down the offer to helm). It has a kid (Ty Simpkins) who isn’t annoying in a crucial role. Which is, of course, a Black staple: Tony’s complete lack of sentimentality is a joy – told by Harley that he’s cold, Tony snarks “I can tell. You know how I can tell? Because we’ve connected”. It also features a voiceover and is even set at Christmas (more Black staples).
I could comment that Guy Pearce’s villain is perhaps not the most unique or distinct (no fault of Pearce’s playing, which is commendable, especially in his 1999 nerd incarnation, which even casts Tony as the callous school bully, something you always suspected he could be). Unfortunately, that’s a failing of the MCU across the board; it may also betray that Rebecca Hall was originally intended as the big bad, until it was nixed because Marvel weren’t comfortable with a female villain.
If Iron Man Three had drawn a line under Downey Jr as Tony Stark, it would have been a salutary farewell with very satisfying closure, but the final words promised “Tony Stark will return”. Four of the top five Marvels see a director bringing a unique sensibility into the mix, and it’s the most important thing a studio that is only going to become more production-line and indistinct in approach needs to nurture (cough: Black Widow). It remains very much a producer-holds-sway operation, but its best movies have pushed against that mould.
*Addendum 29/08/22: This earlier ranking has not been ported over from Now in Full Color to Knowledgeable Cabbages.
Addendum 29/08/22: Since this Worst to Best was completed, there has obviously been a slew of further MCUs, including the entries on Disney+. Now, rather than straightforwardly embedded paeans to superhuman status that come via transhumanism, and a beckoning to the black arts (via the white ones as a gateway drug), the MCU has unabashedly foregrounded wholesale wokeness, “atoning” for its predominately toxic white male history and encouraging “diversity” in so many moribund forms. Tellingly, the only post-Phase III outing that could compete with the best of former Marvel was the one where Sony had a say (No Way Home), and their say nixed such overt elements. Not coincidentally, it has also been far and away the most successful. As with Disney’s Star Wars output, I find myself in not great hurry to catch up with latest offerings – Thor: Love and Thunder; Ms. Marvel; She-Hulk: Attorney at Law – and it seems the public mood is also shifting towards the indifferent.
34. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
33. Black Widow
32. Falcon and the Winter Soldier
31. The First Avenger: Captain America
30. Black Panther
28. Moon Knight
27. Captain Marvel
25. Thor: The Dark World
24. The Incredible Hulk
22. Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness
20. Iron Man II
18. Avengers: Infinity War
17. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
16. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
15. Spider-Man: Far From Home
13. The Avengers
12. Avengers: Age of Ultron
11. Thor: Ragnarok
10. Avengers: Endgame
9. Ant-Man and the Wasp
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
7. Iron Man
6. Doctor Strange
5. Captain America: Civil War
4. Spider-Man: No Way Home
2. Spider-Man: Homecoming
1. Iron Man Three