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 that can’t keep the movie from becoming actively, almost aggressively un-fun.
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 in The Avengers by Mark Ruffalo.
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 of sorts 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 moving, and the climactic sequence on Earth has some great, mind-bendy moments. It’s a mess, but at least it’s a lively mess.
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriters: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd (with a story by Wright and Cornish)
After 11 movies that have only grown more grandiose in scale and scope, Marvel Studios’ 12th film downshifts into a refreshing change of pace. In Ant-Man, the world is not in immediate, existential danger — and, for that matter, neither is San Francisco, the city Ant-Man is supposedly set in (though the movie was largely shot in Atlanta). Instead, the stakes are human-scaled. Semi-reformed burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) yearns to reunite with his young daughter, while Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) strive to mend their frayed bond. Similarly, Ant-Man’s powers — Super small! Can talk to ants! — work as delightful visual flights of fancy that cannot affect much more than his immediate surroundings.
But despite the appeal of the cast, including a delightfully silly performance by Michael Peña, the movie’s familial dramas are built with clichés that never quite manage to take on a life of their own. (Corey Stoll’s fuzzily motivated villain makes an especially weak impression.) Reed (Bring It On), stepping in to direct at the last minute after Wright (Shaun of the Dead) left the project due to creative differences, keeps things moving at such a relentlessly upbeat pace that the characters and set pieces rarely have time to breathe. The result is a spry and diverting movie that feels small in every dimension.
8. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
In sharp contrast with Ant-Man, the second assembly of Marvel Studios’ central mega-franchise is so big that it ends up defining the creative boundaries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe by nearly bursting at the seams. It is overgrown with characters — there are 10 major ones, and another 12 (at least) significant supporting roles — and havoc and carnage abound from New York to South Africa, and South Korea to a fictional Eastern European country that is literally blasted into the sky. The psyches of our dashing superheroes are unraveled in dark, fractured fever dreams, and by the end, the Avengers have been splintered apart and reformed anew.
You can feel Whedon’s tattered nerves as he strives to fulfill his own vision while also servicing Marvel Studios’ need to use the film to feed its growing network of interconnected franchises. But the movie also manages to be about something — about several somethings, actually, including our penchant for creating our own villains, the sacrifices that come with extreme heroism, and the soft fascism inherent in a self-governing world police. It’s an ungainly movie, one that entertains and fatigues and provokes and confounds, sometimes within the same scene. But no one can fault it for not trying to take a massive, massive swing.
Director: Joe Johnston
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
This rousing, period war picture was the first to prove 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 biggest complaint is that Evans’ Steve Rogers, like the movie itself, is sorta square — a kind way of saying “bland” — and some of the visual effects lack the polish of the rest of the movies on this list. There are people who love this movie the most; for me, it’s Marvel in a minor key, but still an enjoyable one.
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. Plus, this film introduces Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, one of the best movie villains of the last 25 years. Period.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Director: James Gunn
Screenwriters: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
For some, Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel Studios’ best movie yet. And I totally understand why. This movie is a blast, with smart-ass dialogue that crackles, a gorgeous sci-fi visual flair, and a fleet, irreverent sense of humor that is unafraid to be totally, blissfully weird. Chris Pratt becomes an automatic leading man as Peter Quill; Vin Diesel has arguably never given a more appealing performance as the giant tree person Groot; and Rocket Raccoon — with Bradley Cooper’s voice and an on-set acting assist from Sean Gunn — is one of the breakout characters of the year.
The plot, however, barely registers — it’s stop-the-bad-guy-from-getting-the-MacGuffin boilerplate with pretty much zero connection to the main characters, other than Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer. Ultimately, the movie feels like it’s setting up what could be an outrageously great sequel. That bad guy, Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser, looks cool, but he’s a snooze-fest of “I’M A VILLAIN” posturing otherwise. And it feels like there was a lot more of Benicio del Toro’s brilliantly bizarro Taneleer Tivan that was, oddly, left on the cutting room floor.
Other than that, though? A delight.
4. 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 ones that followed. But it still looms immeasurably large within the Marvel universe.
3. 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 nonspecific, 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.
Director: Shane Black
Screenwriters: Drew Pearce and Shane Black
Think this is ranked too high? Well, hear me out. For one, co-writer-director Shane 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 years 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 could you want?
Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Like many of Marvel’s best movies, this has peerlessly directed action scenes that are never less than compelling and are often spectacular, with at least one sequence — Cap defeating a squadron of Hydra goons in a glass elevator, mostly with just one arm — that should be studied in film schools for how to be awesome. And, like many of Marvel’s most recent movies, it has a thrilling, high-flying climax in which millions of lives are at stake, and giant things in the air crash into tall buildings on the ground and go boom. (There is a separate discussion to be had about how the Marvel Studios’ movies have been Hollywood’s most high profile reaction to September 11 outside of the Dark Knight trilogy, but let’s not digress too much here.)
What sets Cap 2 apart from the rest of the pack is how tightly connected the story is with its title superhero. Marvel’s plots often tend to be well-crafted excuses to see superheroes be super heroic, but, like with Iron Man 3, this movie uses the plot to crack open Cap and reveal what makes him, indeed, a hero — in the most personal way possible. That plot also takes a Thor-like hammer to S.H.I.E.L.D., the infrastructure that has held the Marvel Cinematic Universe together, and it does in the most topical way possible, touching on how global surveillance by a faceless government entity is pretty damn evil. Also: Nick Fury takes off his eye patch. Oh, and also: Anthony Mackie makes a great addition as a regular human soldier who can fly like a falcon. And ALSO: Several women — especially, but not exclusively Scarlett Johansson — kick major ass. This is Marvel in a major key, and the music is so, so sweet.
This post has been updated to include entries for Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.
This post has been updated to include entries for Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man.
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