With Captain America: The Winter Soldier kicking ass at the box office, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at Marvel Studios’ efforts so far, and see how the Avengers-related movies stack up against each other.
Very minor spoilers after the jump.
#9: Iron Man 2 (2010)
Iron Man 2 is easily the weakest of the Marvel films so far. I’ve said before that I enjoy it more than a lot of other people seemed to, and that I think it gets a pretty bad rap, but it’s not entirely undeserved… there are some serious problems with the structure of the film. My friend Chris Larsen pointed out that the “Tony is dying” storyline could be dropped entirely, and there would be very little consequence – and that’s never a good sign for a major storyline. I think the biggest issue with the film, however, is that Marvel was still struggling to find the balance of how much Avengers set-up to include in a film, and they put in entirely too much. The plus is that this film goes a long way to establishing the shared world that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe – the downside is that Tony definitely takes a back-seat and is not especially well-serviced by the story.
Unfortunately, it had to happen this way for Marvel to learn a lot of important lessons about how to balance the amount of future-movie-set-up they included in each film.
#8: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Incredible Hulk is somewhat forgotten these days, but I actually like this film a lot. I can’t deny that it’s certainly much more dour than the other Marvel films, which is pretty jarring when you watch them all back-to-back (as I have many times), but I think that’s appropriate for the Hulk as a character. He isn’t a billionaire playboy philanthropist, an optimistic patriot with a heart of gold, or an over-enthusiastic Viking god – he’s a man with severe anger issues he can’t control, which is treated as a disease in the film. The movie even shows a counter of “Days Without Incident” to mark the passing of time, like an alcoholic counting the days since his last drink.
One of the aspects that works surprisingly well is how much of the movie plays without dialogue. Bruce spends much of the movie alone, with no one to talk to, and the movie does a really nice job of showing that isolation weigh heavy on him. It’s necessary to keep people safe, but that doesn’t mean he has to like it. It also did a really nice job of setting up Bruce’s relationship with the Hulk, in an arc of accepting his condition that continues into The Avengers.
At the end of the day, after the mess of a film that was Ang Lee’s Hulk, I think we just needed a well-told version of the “Bruce Banner: Man on the Run” story that the TV show did so well. Now we’ve got it, and we can just go nuts with the sequel (hopefully).
#7: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
We’re into some real Sophie’s Choice territory here – I am pretty torn on the ranking of this film. On the one hand, I LOVE the first hour or so – skinny-Steve is absolutely essential to get right, and they nailed his characterization. I often talk about how the “Jericho presentation” scene in Iron Man tells you everything you need to know about Tony Stark in less than two minutes. It’s a brilliantly economic piece of character set-up. Captain America does the same thing, but even better – there’s a scene about 20 minutes in when Steve Rogers is training and Colonel Phillips throws a dummy grenade into the fray. Everyone scatters – except for the 90-pound asthmatic, who dives on the grenade to save his fellow soldiers. It tells you everything you need to know. That is Captain America in a scene.
The ending of the film also gets me every time – I am genuinely moved every time I see that shot of the kid running down the street with a trash can lid painted like Cap’s shield. On the other hand, despite some great scenes throughout, most of the second half of the film just isn’t as engaging. This is definitely a movie that evokes a real love-hate relationship from viewers, and I can certainly understand what makes it so divisive. It’s not for everyone. Still, Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones steal the show, and I do think it’s a really fun movie with a lot of great character work.
#6: Thor (2011)
As much as I like Captain America, I think the Thor movie is just a tiny bit better. It’s got a better villain, a tighter story, and boy howdy is it fun. Seeing Thor rolling striding around New Mexico provides a lot of fantastic fish-out-of-water comedy, but there’s also a lot of genuine pathos and drama with Thor and his father.
And then there’s Loki. And Loki is fantastic, especially in Thor. Tom Hiddleston does a terrific job with balancing Loki’s manipulative nature with his conflicted feelings towards his brother and his father. There’s a reason Loki was the villain in The Avengers (beyond the fact that he was the villain in the first issue of the comic), and a reason he got so much screen time in Thor 2 – he a fantastic villain who steals the show in every scene he’s in.
#5: Iron Man 3 (2013)
I like this movie a lot. It’s got some issues, but it definitely delivers on what was the biggest weakness of the previous Iron Man films – the action. They did a MUCH better job with the fight scenes this time around, and the climactic fight with the 40+ armors versus the Extremis soldiers is a delight.
This was also the first post-Avengers movie, and they did a really nice job at addressing what the world was like in the aftermath – and that’s especially true of Tony’s post-traumatic stress disorder. It feels like the logical progression of the character after what happens to him in New York, and serves a similar function as the “Tony is dying” storyline in Iron Man 2, but in a way that actually works a lot better for the story and serves the character a lot better.
#4: Iron Man (2008)
The first Marvel Studios movie, and they set the pace right out of the gate. It’s still one of the strongest movies Marvel has ever delivered, and that all comes down to the characterization. Thanks to the heavily-improvized nature of the film, the conversation feels dynamic and natural, and the characters feel real. Even though most Marvel movies don’t have as much improv, they all have a similar approach to realistic characterization, and movies that put the hero at the heart of the story.
Admittedly, the third act of the film has a lot of problems, from the spontaneous supervillain to the lackluster action, but until that point it’s a nearly flawless film – and at the end of the day, it’s still pretty damn good.
#3: Thor: The Dark World (2013)
While the first Thor movie was a bit hit-and-miss, Thor: The Dark World is a pure delight. They did an excellent job at upping the stakes, and at really providing a glimpse of the larger world of the Nine Realms. Everything about the movie is terrific, except for the villain. Boy, he was boring… which is a real shame, since Christopher Eccleston is a very fine actor, but they just didn’t do anything interesting with his character.
The story makes absolutely no sense – the film gets to the climax by having a group of characters rattle off some science-talk, draw lines on a map, and then announce that they’re going to London because of reasons – but it’s still a fun movie. Even the climax itself doesn’t totally make clear what’s going on from a science perspective, but it doesn’t matter because the climax is SO much fun, and so unlike anything we have seen in another superhero movie.
#2: The Avengers (2012)
I am willing to admit that The Avengers is not a perfect movie. The ending is a bit convenient, the amount of collateral damage is pretty shocking when examined, and Black Widow literally describes her method of freeing Hawkeye from mind control as “I hit you really hard in the head.” It’s got some flaws, sure; and if you’re not down with this one, then it’s just not for you, and that’s certainly fine.
But man, I love the hell out of this movie.
Partly, I love this film for what it represents – the culmination of a 5+ year plan to bring these franchises together into one film, and evoke the feeling that you only got from Marvel Comics in the ’60s, the excitement of an interconnected universe pay off by seeing your favorite characters standing side-by-side, bickering and fighting, and ultimately teaming up to save the day. I also just think it’s a really fun movie.
As far as character development goes, it’s in sort of an odd place, since it serves as a pseudo-sequel for most of the characters. Iron Man may not learn as much over the course of the movie as he might during one of his own films, but there’s still a very clearly defined arc. The same goes for Thor and Captain America, but it’s especially true for Bruce Banner – the Hulk finally got a real chance to shine. (Or, more accurately, to smash.)
#1: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
It’s really, really good, you guys.