Marvel is all about the system. They have built a shared movie world, called the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and it is a sprawling system that inhabits, as of right now, 12 movies. Too often, discussions of the Marvel movies become conversations about the MCU. As a business strategy, this must make Disney and Marvel very happy. In this view, everything strings together. Each movie and TV show are necessary parts of the single, larger world.
But that conversation tends to ignore the elements. There are 12 individual films that have been made by Marvel, each years in the making, the hard-work of thousands of individuals. Let’s consider the success or failure of each, individually.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
The first Iron Man was a surprise, one that rode the wave of Robert Downey, Jr.’s darkly comic masculinity. The second Iron Man? Not so much. Jon Favreau directed again, but this time Tony’s depth is gone and he’s left as a creepy billionaire playboy. What’s interesting about Tony Stark, that he outted himself as the superhero Iron Man, should provide more interesting fodder for a character that is, and will be again, richly written and acted.
Tony may be underdeveloped, but the rest of this movie has way too much going on. It’s as much Transformers as it is Marvel, failing to give audiences any idea what’s going on in the action sequences (this is a pretty standard problem, to be fair). It has too many characters all of whom try to be quick and clever, but aren’t. Even a decision like casting Mickey Rourke as the big bad found a way to be boring and expected.
While the unfolding suit battle between RDJ and Rourke has some wild, exciting action, this whole thing just fails to live up to the standards that have now been built for the MCU. Watching it again, now, it’s obvious that this is the biggest clunker in the bunch.
BEST MOMENT: Introducing Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. As the MCU unfolds, Johansson’s Black Widow has become a more important–at times controversial–piece of the puzzle. It’s unfortunate that Jon Favreau couldn’t find anything for her to do in this movie other than be flexible in tights, but there’s no denying that her entry into the film marks a crucial MCU Event.
WORST MOMENT: This scene. It encapsulates how to do MCU wrong. The music, the banter; it’s trying for cute but just gives you the yucks.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Nick Pinkerton, Village Voice
“The screenplay, by Justin Theroux, trusts that More Is More. There’s techie lifestyle porn, hot cars, hot guns, establishing shots jetting from Moscow to Malibu to Monaco (the first major set piece takes place at the Grand Prix), and three dozen comic books’ worth of exposition girdled into two straining hours. ”
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The biggest problem with The Incredible Hulk is that most people just forget about it. They forget it happened, or which Hulk it was, or whether or not it even qualifies for inclusion in the MCU. I don’t blame them. This is a perfectly forgettable movie. Nothing in it is terrible, exactly. Edward Norton does fine work as Bruce Banner, giving him a little more anger behind the calm than Eric Bana had in Ang Lee’s more poetic approach. But, for an actor as interesting as Norton, Banner is a little too boring.
This was only the second film in the new Marvel universe, and the film goes for full-on summer spectacle in a way that seems to reward audiences for their trouble while forgetting that summer spectacle, of its own accord, is forgotten by the end of the summer. That might be the nature of the character; once Banner has become Hulk, there’s only so much story you can tell. Hulk Smash basically covers it. But one can also not be expected to make a Hulk film, only to leave the Hulk out of the picture. It’s the catch-22 of the Hulk.
WORST MOMENT: The ending. The worst climactic battle of all the climactic battles.
BEST MOMENT: All those close-ups on Edward Norton’s eyes. Even in a bad movie with little to do, he can extract that searing pain and anger from the moment of Hulk-ification.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Kenneth Turan, LA Weekly
“Rather than go to the trouble of crafting a dramatically satisfying conclusion, “The Incredible Hulk” blows the audience off and takes the air out of its previous solid work by ending with what is essentially a shameless trailer for the next Marvel movie. You can almost hear the producers snickering, “See you next time, suckers.” Not if we can help it.”
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Maybe Thor: The Dark World is better than Thor. It’s probably a better put together movie; more cohesive and direct in its story; beautiful in its design, art direction, SFX. But it’s also less surprising than its predecessor. What was weird in Thor has become pretty standard Marvel fare by the time of Thor: The Dark World.Which is amazing, given that the films are only two years apart. In the two years between Thor and Thor 2 came The Avengers. And after The Avengers, things just got a little more boring. In the case of Thor: the Dark World, even being better is not enough to really beat what came before.
BAD STORY BEATS: every stupidly obvious plot hit with the two Brothers from Asgard. From Loki and Thor’s team up to Loki’s sacrificial death to the fact that Loki was not for a second ever possibly actually dead. If the MCU has a predictable formula, no film has hewed to that formula with more devotion than Thor: The Dark World.
BEST NEW CHARACTERS: the Dark Evles. They are beautiful and scary, like a nightmare marriage of Tolkein’s elves and Leatherface.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Wesley Morris, Grantland
“The first hour of this movie has Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgård, and Kat Dennings all giving the same performances they did in 2011, except without Kenneth Branagh’s fascinating delusion that he was still directing Shakespeare.”
When Thor was announced, I basically lost my shit. Because Kenneth Baranagh, the great adapter of Shakespeare, was going to take the helm of the most Shakespearian of Marvel’s characters. The Mighty Thor is nothing if not mythology and Shakespearean History, and Thor is nothing if not a perfectly absurd Shakespearean madcap hero.
The whole thing turned out to be kind of a disaster but it is such an fun disaster. It’s funny, self-aware, and ridiculously, heart-warmingly stupid. Anthony Hopkins as Odin berating the basically real-life god Chris Hemsworth as they fill out the golden-hued halls of Asgard, it all feels so awesomely mad. But there’s real pleasure in that madness.
One noteworthy distinction that Thor deserves: it is the first superhero film to make a movie star. Before this, you had movie stars playing superheroes. Not so with Hemsworth, an Aussie who is now off to starring roles in Michael Mann and Ron Howard pictures. Hemsworth is a deserving talent; he’s handsome, can act, and is cut like a Renaissance statue. It’s not small achievement: with Thor, Marvel allowed non-famous actors to step into unfamiliar superhero roles and win over audiences. Of course, it is Chris Hemsworth, so his success is not that shocking.
Still. Thor has aged better than some of the other Phase 1 films in the MCU. Largely, I think, because the marriage of Branagh’s grandiosity and the inherent absurdity of the Asgardians on Earth has revealed itself to be more playful than we first realized.
BEST ADDITION TO MCU: Idris Elba as Heimdall
MOST UNDERUTILIZED ADDITION TO MCU: Idris Elba as Heimdall. If you have Idris Elba on your roster, you don’t put him at the end of the bench, waiting for a pinch-hit opportunity. He’s a slugger.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Keith Phipps, AV Club
“The way he simply goes about his godly, heroic business provides the film with its best running gag.”
Iron Man 3 (2013)
This is the question of Iron Man 3: what happens when a superhero suffers PTSD? A majority of the film features Stark without his armor, and Robert Downey, Jr. without the unfailing confidence. Here is just Tony, still remarkable, but broken down and not made of iron. A man dealing with the emotional and physical difficulties of living an extraordinary life. That’s an interesting subject for a film in the MCU, and Iron Man 3 gets at these personal and domestic circumstances well. It’s the best stuff in the movie.
Pepper Potts, too, is great. Gwyneth Paltrow is finally allowed to participate in the film beyond being the quippy love interest. Here, director Shane Black not only humanizes her into a partnership with Tony, but she gets to suit-up and get into the action. The transition that Tony undergoes from a selfish superhero to a man who’s wellbeing depends not on himself but those he loves is quite moving, a rare treat in the MCU.
Unfortunately, though, Iron Man 3 isn’t a drama. It has a the standardized villain reverse-switch-surprise, and it’s really boring. Everything that’s not about Tony’s emotional devastation or his relationship with Pepper falls completely flat. By this time in the MCU development, things are starting to get pretty rote, and the sequels are just not as interesting as the new characters.
WORST PLOT LINE: Everything with The Mandarin, and the casual references to contemporary anxieties about terrorism. It just wasn’t earned and played dangerously loose with racial identities.
BEST MOMENT: It’s still all about Robert Downey Jr. After Iron Man 2‘s lameness, Shane Black went back to what RDJ does best, embody the complexity of being smarmy and obnoxious while carrying serious emotional pain.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Stephanie Zacharek
“But the big problems with Iron Man 3 are less specific to the movie itself than they are characteristic of the hypermalaise that’s infected so many current mega-blockbusters—too much plot, too much action, too many characters, too many pseudo-feelings.”
Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish were working on Ant-Man for something like a decade. It finally came out, a year or more after Disney/Marvel had taken the project from them and given the movie to Peyton Reed. The spat about Ant-Man was fairly public, and it betrayed a sense of what is really going on at Marvel Studios: these movies are not authored by artists, they are a corporate vision. That wasn’t exactly news, but it had never been quite so clearly communicated. Kevin Fiege flexed and gave a loud signal that Marvel is okay with a little weird, but don’t get crazy.
That backstory inevitably effected how Ant-Man was received, which was, to the surprise of many, mostly positive. The film is funny and manages to achieve a tone that is–while exceedingly safe and non-confrontational–different from what audiences have seen previously in the MCU.
Ant-Man is a superhero movie by way of a heist film, and that set-up works well as a frame, at least until the movie must eventually pit its hero against its villain. Paul Rudd is Scott Lang, a thief who is just released from prison as the film opens. Through a series of events, he ends up returning to a life of crime that will ensure lead him to putting on the Ant-Man suit and becoming the world’s tiniest hero.
BEST SHIFT IN PERSPECTIVE: Those Thomas the Tank Engine shots. They may help prove how insignificant this whole movie is, but damn were they funny.
BEST NEW MCU CHARACTER: Michael Peña, who plays the small-time thief Luis. The funniest performance yet in the MCU, and one that suggests a vivid world is turning outside of New York. He deserves his own movie, in the MCU, as a non-superhero. Eventually Disney will just start making movies about regular old non-supers in this world, right? Start here..
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Ethan Saathoff, Birth. Movies. Death.
“Marvel movies have been working toward a crescendo for a while. Ant-Manhalts that progression and helps us remember why these movies are so good in the first place. It’s fun, funny, and here to humbly entertain you.”
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Captain America has become the MCU’s most affecting character. This is a surprise, to be sure, but not an unwelcome one. The First Avenger portrays the transformation of Steve Rogers from puny kid with big heart into a very big kid with a big heart and super-soldier abilities. He will go overseas during WW2 to fight the Nazis, and the power that lies behind them, Hydra. Captain America looks gorgeous, it’s extremely well-paced in its action, and just romps.
The film was directed by Joe Johnston, who has in the past shown a sophisticated touch for films that could slip into sentimentalism and Americana–see The Rocketeer or October Sky. If any superhero film risked becoming a sappy affair it would be the Superhero Fights For America one. But instead, Captain America feels more like a nostalgic love-letter to the adventure movies of decades past. Rogers is a hero who doesn’t kill or even want to hurt people, he just wants good to beat out bad.
Johnston and Chris Evans give Rogers enough humanity in his changing identity that audiences remain invested despite the silly awesomeness of Red Skull. What Evans starts with Rogers here will only build in complexity and incongruity later in The Avengers and Captain America: Winter Soldier. If RDJ is the most important actor in the MCU (and he is), I think Evans is doing consistently the finest work with these not-so-complex characters.
BEST ADDITION TO THE MCU: Haley Atwell, who was so good as Cap’s love interest Peggy Carter that she would get her own television series.
BEST THE MILITARY IS STUPID JOKE: The military finally get a super-soldier, and they don’t even want him. Instead, they send him on a USO tour, selling war bonds and raising morale back home.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
“What lingers most about Captain America, though, is its innocent, throwback ethos, a firm, unqualified embrace of the Little Guy. Early on, when scrawny Steve is asked if he wants to kill Nazis, he replies, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I just don’t like bullies, no matter where they’re from.” That sentiment, the idea that even when made inhumanly powerful he will retain his compassion and aspire to be “not a perfect soldier, but a good man,” is a tonic change from the bleak vision of The Dark Knight and the unpleasant overdogging of Green Lantern”
Iron Man (2008)
How indebted to Robert Downey, Jr. is the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The first film in their sprawling connected universe was Downey’s movie to make, and holy cow, did he make it. He elevated it with the force of his personality, a mix of real-world Downey-personality and fictional Tony Stark bravura. That combination, in the 10 years since Iron Man was released, has become even more intertwined, possibly too much for Downey’s continued success in the role. But the first time Stark and Downey came together, it was special.
Iron Man came out the same year as The Dark Knight, and the two offer a fine comparison of what the superhero genre would become. Christopher Nolan’s bleak and humorless world was wowing critics and filmgoers alike, but that darkness left audiences ready for Marvel’s lighter, brighter fare. Yes, Iron Man has some real-world darkness. It’s about a billionaire weapons-manufacture and is set in the world of the global war on terrorism.
But it’s also very funny, full of wit and charm and moxy, as it were. Where Bruce Wayne was putting on the show of wealth and arrogance, Tony Stark was living it. Jon Favreau directed Iron Man, and he and RDJ know just what to do with the quippy dialogue and many explosions.
BIGGEST MARVEL BET: Giving Robert Downey Jr. all that Marvel money going forward. So much depended on the role that Marvel guaranteed a cut profit for RDJ in every film he’d play the character in. He made $50 Million for The Avengers alone.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
“At the end of the day it ‘s Robert Downey Jr. who powers the lift-off separating this from most other superhero movies. You hire an actor for his strengths, and Downey would not be strong as a one-dimensional mighty-man. He is strong because he is smart, quick and funny, and because we sense his public persona masks deep private wounds. By building on that, Favreau found his movie, and it’s a good one.”
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Joss Whedon’s second take on The Avengers feels like a very heavy affair. There’s a lot of plot, a lot of characters, a lot of action, a lot of dialogue, and all of it seems fraught with meaning. When Ultron was released, I said that it was probably a better movie than the first one, but less surprising. This is a similar diagnosis to Thor and Thor: The Dark World. Maybe a better film, by some cinematic metrics, but not a better film experience for audiences.
Anyway. Ant-Man may be the final film of Phase 2, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is the movie that has to handle that transition. Now there are new Avengers (Scarlet Witch, The Vision, Falcon) who are becoming teammates with the old Avengers. Whedon’s job in the MCU has been one of story-manager as much as it has been artist, turning the corner from Phase 1 to Phase 2, and then again to Phase 3.
Given the lift of Ultron, what he has accomplished with that job is nothing short of remarkable. Ultron is a solid sci-fi, A.I. story, as much as it is a team-up superhero movie.
BEST MOMENT: The opening tracking shot. Joss Whedon takes great pains in this film to separate characters as individuals, but also the action in which they partake. The opening tracking shot in Ultron highlights that effort. One by one the Avengers get their moment before the camera, slow mo’d and distinct. It’s a great bit of computer-as-camera one-shot, and one of the best action scenes in all of the MCU.
WTF-EST MOMENT: Basically everything with The Vision, the good sentient artificial intelligence made from the left-over parts of the evil sentient artificial intelligence Ultron.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com
“It would be silly to position Marvel or Whedon or their fan army as underdogs. Once a niche genre, superhero films are now practically the official culture of the United States, and this entry will make a fortune no matter what anyone says about it. Still, I hope that even as people buy tickets out of habit, they’ll see that there is, in fact, art happening on the screen, maybe for the first time since Marvel’s march through American cinema started.”
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers is the biggest hit produced by Marvel, and it’s possibly the most exciting film in the MCU. It lives on the expertly written screenplay by Joss Whedon (from a story by Whedon and Zak Penn), which brings together multiple franchise-carrying superheroes, as well as introduces other key MCU players (Phil Coulson, Hawkeye, Maria Hill). The story is huge and the stakes are global (literally) but the characters that inhabit this world actually feel like people. And there-in lies the victory.
What Whedon does in The Avengers is the same thing he’s been doing since Buffy. He gives each player–hero or villian–the opportunity to be human, to be seen outside of their role as saviors or destroyers or foot-soldiers. The marriage of Whedon’s snappy chatter and the laid-back performances from the cast made the film feel like a break from the slough of superhero movies prior. By extending scenes for an extra beat or line of dialogue, The Avengers actually builds momentum with humor and humanity rather than just plot, separating it from the reigning superhero champ Christopher Nolan.
The Avengers is the original fait accompli of Marvel Studios. We knew it was coming for years, and we knew it was meant to build on what had come before while laying the groundwork for even more of what had come before. And yet the movie excelled despite, or even because of, its inevitability. In that light, it’s possible that The Avengers is Marvel’s most impressive achievement.
But it’s not their best movie.
BIGGEST THEATRICAL LAUGH:
WORST MOMENT: The taking off of the helicarrier. We get it. It’s big. Jesus.
MOST OVER-CELEBRATED MOMENT: Loki’s use of ‘mewling quim.’ It’s an original, if crude, insult. But lets not move heaven and earth for it. Given the quippy dialogue that Whedon is known for, it’s not even a top-5 line in The Avengers.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE: Alonso Duralde, The Wrap
“That’s the balance that Whedon has so brilliantly accomplished here, telling a story in which who these heroes are and how they deal with each other remains at the forefront, even when Manhattan is under assault from an interplanetary Big Bad. He gets the vibe and the delights of Marvel comic books in the same way that Spielberg and Lucas intuitively understood the appeal of serials in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
When “Come and Get Your Love” opened that credit sequence in Guardians of the Galaxy, and you sat in your theater seat watching Chris Pratt dance around like a bro in the shower, it was immediately clear that this was going to be something different from Marvel. What that meant was yet unclear, but it was evident that Guardians was no Avengers-focused bit of super-hero storytelling. Just like its soundtrack, this was a movie that was going to hit its own beats. A year later you’d be forgiven for thinking that Guardians of the Galaxy was the Godfather of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since the day it was released, it seems, Marvel fans have not ceased praising the movie. But Guardians actually deserves it. It really was unlike what had come before. A grand piece of film-making by director James Gunn, Guardians is easily the best space-opera since Serenity.
The success of Guardians lives mostly in the screenplay, co-written by Nicole Perlman and James Gunn, and Gunn’s direction. The ability to capture in live-action characters that belong in animation–Groot the tree, especially–with dignity and humor gives the whole thing an a life that is hard to reject. It’s just so damn likable. Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon and Gamorrah and Drax the Destroyer, everyone has their stupidity and humanity exposed. Almost all the time, actually.
Guardians works as reminder that sometimes the best movies–and the most proficiently made–are also the movies that you simply have the most fun watching.
WORDS LEAST LIKELY TO APPEAR IN THE MCU: In the final moments of the final climactic scene, when the Guardians are facing off with Ronan the Accuser, Star-Lord approaches and says: “Dance off bro.”
BEST MOMENT: We are Groot. A weird, unexpected bit of emotion amid a film with an accomplished light touch.
BEST PERFORMANCE: Bradley Cooper, as a Rocket Raccoon, in one of the best VO showings you’ll ever ever find.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE Dana Stevens, Slate
“The film’s scruffy, smartass band of brothers, along with Gunn’s light directorial touch, make for an invigorating breather after too many summer weekends of hammer-wielding superheroic solemnity. If Marvel is trying (in the words of one of the soundtrack’s pop gems) to get us “hooked on a feeling,” its job is done.”
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
It’s unlikely that anyone expected the Captain America sequel to be the triumph that it became. It’s as complicated and accomplished as any superhero film ever made. It perfectly mixes Cap’s World War 2 past, with contemporary political and global uncertainty and meshes that with ever-more-complicated Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a spy-thriller about politics and a personal story about Steve Rogers and his old pal Bucky Barnes.
What makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier special in the MCU is the revelation, at Marvel and in the audience, that Cap is the most interesting movie character on the team. Probably this results from good timing, and I imagine Marvel was as surprised as anyone at the fact.
Rogers is a disillusioned war hero. “A man out of time,” as he is described in this movie. One who longs to adhere to his patriotic good-old-boy spirit, but can no longer mesh that spirit with the world around him. For a superhero, that’s an interesting plight, and the Russo Brothers direct the film as a deeply political one. Rogers has no political home in contemporary politics, on the right or left, and he remains on the outside of Marvel’s heroes even as he becomes the Avengers de facto leader.
All of this makes for a great espionage thriller–Robert Redford being a direct link, too, to the 1970s spy movies that inspired Winter Soldier. But this is also a kick-ass action movie. It has direct, crisp action scenes, eschewing the 6 against 1000 conclusion that so many MCU films provide, in favor of story-supporting fights with actual dramatic stakes. What more can you ask for in superhero cinema?
WORST MOMENT: The Falcon’s part in the final fight scene. Anthony Mackie is introduced in The Winter Soldier, and though his part is small, he does well with it. Too bad they couldn’t find anything for him to do.
SURPRISING MOMENT OF DEPTH: Cap keeps a list of touchstones in American culture that he has missed during his time in the ice after WW2. It includes entries like “Steve Jobs (Apple)” and “Star Wars / Trek” and “Thai Food” and “Nirvana (Band).” What could have been a gag becomes a source of loss. It would suck to have missed everything; it would make you feel alone. It does so.
Chris Evans is great at Steve Rogers.
CRITICAL SOUNDBITE Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly
“One of the constant pleasures of The Winter Soldier is how casually Evans treats his superstrength, like a cheetah who takes it for granted he can run. As the moral center of the Marvel franchise, he’s more concerned with the responsibility that comes with those powers, and so too is the film — at least until the climax shifts our attention from his inner struggles to his outer badass.”