8. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriter: Justin Theroux
Everything that was so much fun about the first Iron Man sours in this sequel. Tony Stark’s charming bad-boy behavior curdles into unlikable self-destruction, the sort of damaged-goods broodiness that worked in the Dark Knight movies but doesn’t sit well within the can-do spirit of Marvel’s cinematic universe. The first film’s sharp, fizzy, semi-improvised repartee devolves here into self-indulgent globs of cross-talk banter that wear out their welcome within a few seconds but just keep going without end. And Mickey Rourke — playing villain Ivan Vanko, aka the largely made-up-for-the-movie Whiplash — is in an entirely different, much weirder movie (at times it almost seems like he doesn’t know his lines).
There are a few bright spots. Both Scarlett Johannson (as Natasha Romanoff) and Don Cheadle (replacing Terrence Howard as James Rhodes) acquit themselves well. Sam Rockwell has a blast playing a skeezy defense contractor with self-tanning stains on his palms. And Favreau still knows how to stage a good action scene. But they can’t keep the movie from becoming actively, almost aggressively un-fun.
7. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Director: Louis Leterrier
Screenwriter: Zak Penn
It is nowhere near the fiasco that was Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk (made before Marvel Studios existed), but let’s be clear: This isn’t a very good movie, either. Still, its sins are gentler, more generic. As an action director, Leterrier lacks the visual imagination of the rest of the filmmakers on this list. Tim Roth’s villain — special-ops soldier Emil Blonsky — barely registers as a character before he starts tearing through Harlem as the Abomination. And the romance between Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner and Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross is kind of silly. But they’re still appealing in the roles, and if Norton, who did uncredited work on the script, hadn’t famously declined to promote the film after Marvel pushed for a shorter, more action-heavy cut, perhaps he wouldn’t have been replaced in the role by Mark Ruffalo for The Avengers.
6. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Director: Alan Taylor
Screenwriters: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus, and Stephen McFeely (with story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat)
The first Thor gave the Asgardian god-warrior a true narrative arc — from self-assured hubris to self-deprecating humility. In this sequel, Thor (Chris Hemsworth, still a hunky god-warrior himself) remains a good, thoughtful warrior from start to finish. Thor only really comes alive as a character when he’s sharing the screen with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who is by far the best thing about the film, but is in the movie less than his internet-melting appearance at Comic-Con suggested). Also: Natalie Portman is given almost nothing to do, other than get “infected” with a soupy universe-destroying substance called the Aether. But Taylor (best known for his TV directing on Game of Thrones and The Sopranos) keeps things lively and moving, and the climactic sequence on Earth has some great, mind-bendy moments.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
This rousing, period war picture proves that Marvel Studios can turn out a good movie that doesn’t revolve around a hero with larger-than-life abilities. Chris Evans’ transformation from weakling to dear-lord-look-at-the-size-of-those-pecs adonis is something to behold, and Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is easily my favorite Marvel Studios villain next to Loki. My only real complaint is that Evans’ Steve Rogers, like the movie itself, is a little…square, and some of the visual effects lack the polish of the rest of the movies on this list.
4. Thor (2011)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriters: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne (with story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich)
After Iron Man 2 was such a disappointment, there was reason to wonder how Marvel could make a quasi-Nordic god whose weapon is a giant hammer into a viable feature-film hero. The answer, it turns out, is to hire a director with a deep understanding of Shakespeare who can make the movie into a rich brothers-competing-for-their-father’s-love saga that evokes the Bard himself.
3. Iron Man (2008)
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenwriters: Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway
Marvel Studio’s very first film as an independent filmmaking company gets just about everything right, from casting Robert Downey Jr. (a risky venture in the pre-Obama days) as Tony Stark to establishing a bright, unironic, playful style that has remained consistent through just about every other Marvel film since. Watching it now, with its story of Homeland-style Islamic terrorists and out-of-control military spending, the film feels almost adorably small in comparison to the movies that followed. But it still looms immeasurably large within the Marvel universe.
2. The Avengers (2012)
Director: Joss Whedon
Screenwriter: Joss Whedon (with story by Zak Penn and Whedon)
For so many reasons, this movie should not have worked. But by some miracle, Whedon found a way to bring all these desperate characters together that not only made (comic book) sense, but was enormously, fabulously exciting to watch — preferably in a theater packed with other moviegoers. Sure, the invading alien force was a bit non-specific, and yeah, it is a little numbing to see New York City reduced to rubble in yet another effects-driven summer movie. But this is popcorn blockbuster filmmaking of the highest order — and, finally, they get the Hulk totally right!
So why isn’t this movie ranked No. 1 on this list?
1. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Drew Pearce and Shane Black
Because Iron Man 3 is better. For one, Black figures out a way to probe Tony Stark’s troubled psyche without making him into an obnoxious bore, and the film is all the more psychologically compelling because of it. For another, by keeping the plot’s stakes from not becoming apocalyptically huge, Black instead finds the breathing room to introduce some surprisingly topical sociopolitical satire with a twist that is just too delicious to spoil even six months after the film’s opening weekend. Both Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce seem to have the time of their lives as the film’s two heavies, and at long last, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts is allowed to do more than alternate between dewy love and measured exasperation. The action pops, the jokes are laugh-out-loud funny, and there is even an adorable kid sidekick who you don’t want to throttle for cutesifying the movie. What more do you want?