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Top 20 Marvel Movies

With a tumultuous summer of super-hero movies, and none more on the horizon until Avengers 2 breaks every record next May, we thought it was a good time to pause and evaluate the top 20 Marvel movies (so far). Each entry includes a short synopsis, some video, and the film’s Rotten Tomatoes score and worldwide gross (unadjusted).

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20. Punisher: War Zone

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RT score: 27%

Box office: $10 million

PWZ got lost in the 2008 super-hero shuffle that included Iron Man, Dark Knight, Hellboy 2, Incredible Hulk, and Hancock, but you should still check it out.

The movie is well made, although the Punisher is a bit unremarkable for a mass audience. Nothing separates him from a standard action hero. What makes Frank interesting in the Marvel Universe is his role as an antagonist or unwitting ally to Spider-Man, Daredevil, or whomever. But in a movie on his own, he’s nothing special.

What makes PWZ so much fun is that Frank Castle is played Ray Stevenson, who went onto better (but alas not much bigger) things in Thor. When I watch this, I imagine it’s Volstagg just cosplaying with Neuman (Wayne Knight as Microchip) and McNulty (Dominic West as Jigsaw).

19. Amazing Spider-Man

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RT score: 73%

Box office: $758 million

This is certainly a well-made movie, but it’s impossible to appreciate on its own. We’ve already seen this story (and this time it isn’t as much fun) and this movie’s existence meant Spidey won’t be in Avengers 2.

What works in ASM best is Capt. Stacy – he fits perfectly with the Spider-Man trope of teenage problems (the guy who doesn’t want you messing with his daughter also doesn’t want you messing with his crime-fighting).

This is best when Stacy criticizes Spidey for blowing his car-robbery sting. Peter thinks of course he knows better than the adults, but later realizes that – hey – the authorities do know what they’re doing (!) which is a rare defiance of the Hollywood trope that teenagers are always smarter than grown-ups. Well played.

But … they killed Capt. Stacy at the end. Because reset button.

18. Spider-Man 3

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RT score: 63%

Box office: $891 million

The Nostalgia Critic points out for all the hate this film got, there are three moments that make the audience gasp:

•When Peter almost loses the ring

•When Mary Jane kisses Harry

•When Peter shoves Mary Jane in the bar

He says that any movie that can make everyone gasp not once but thrice isn’t all that bad, and he’s got a great point. The proposal scene is great too, and I like the idea of Peter dealing with success in this one, rather than failure and struggle as in the previous 2. However, they dropped that more interesting idea in the first act in favor of a pointless revenge thing.

And of course we never get sick of Bruce Campbell.

17. The Wolverine

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RT score: 69%

Box office: $415 million

People were really ready to stop caring about Wolverine, but you can’t argue with the formula Wolvie + ninjas = win. While I would have liked Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde to be Logan’s sidekick, the film still works without her. It’s frankly remarkable for Hollywood to do a movie – even one set in Japan – that doesn’t needlessly Anglicize a single character!

Also it’s incredible that the film’s train fight is so similar to the one in Spider-Man 2 but also feels so fresh.

16. X-Men: First Class

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RT score: 87%

Box office: $353 million

I was embarrassed while watching this to realize that Fassbender and MacAvoy are better in these roles than Sir Ian and Sir Patrick (as blasphemous as that might sound to say).

But here’s why it’s not ranked higher: the movie sold itself as a character-driven origin story about Xavier and Magneto, but there was nothing new about Erik becoming Magneto and nothing at all about Charles becoming Professor X. Our main character has absolutely no arc. We don’t see him learning about his powers and – more importantly – how to use them ethically. When he’s hitting on babes in the bar would have been a great opportunity for him to realize that with great power comes something something.

It would be cool if Xavier’s paralysis was a result of his mind powers overwhelming his own motor control. So they could have done a hubris thing where he tried to stretch his mind powers too much and hurt himself. Throw in an Icarus allegory and scene!

First Class also inspired one of the best HISHEs out there:

15. Thor: The Dark World

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RT score: 65%

Box office: $645 million

The cleverest thing about Thor 2 is how it feels like a romantic comedy that just happens to have super-heroes –a great way to get girls into the movie theater. Kudos for that!

Other people seemed to REALLY like this, which is fine. But to me it’s just a serviceable sequel. Of the three recent Marvel movies with exactly the same ending (Guardians and Avengers are the other two), Thor 2 has the least memorable climax.

The MCU’s take on Thor/Asgard – “we’re futuristic but also medieval” thing doesn’t really work – just always feels off, like the 80s Flash Gordon movie or Krull. Thor is supposed to be a “fish out of water,” but if he’s really from a futuristic society that’s beyond ours, then he wouldn’t be a fish out of water, he’d be the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, right?

Still – as long as they keep making the franchise about this guy, I’ll keep watching:

14. Incredible Hulk

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RT score: 67%

Box office: $262 million

The most under-rated of the Marvel Studios films, Incredible Hulk made a bold choice of showing audiences a character that, five years previously, they’d decided they didn’t care about. For better or worse, IH standardized the Hollywood reboot. Before Hulk, the only major reboots we’d seen were Batman Begins (2005) and Casino Royale (2006) – both very popular franchises that had seen multiple iterations.

As time goes on, and Mark Ruffalo makes the role more his, IH will fall even farther into the background, but it’s still worth a watch.

The decision to play up the character’s legacy from the TV show was an excellent one, and the performances all around are terrific. Plus IH’s end credits scene, moreso than the Nick Fury Easter Egg, defined the idea of the shared cinematic universe – remember this was three years before Captain America and Thor.

13. X-Men

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RT score: 82%

Box office: $296 million

Given the success of Avengers, Spider-Man, and Batman movies in recent years, it’s hard to remember the time when the X-Men were the most popular comic book franchise there was. Thanks to the team’s success in the 90s, we got this – the Nevermind of comic book movies.

The best thing about X1 is also the worst thing about it: Wolverine. Hugh Jackman and the script wonderfully convey the gruff sweetness of the character.

On the other hand the film set the precedent for Wolverine overwhelming everything. Part of this was his over-the-top conflict with Cyclops. Remember, Cyclops literally saves Wolverine's life from Sabretooth and takes him from penury and Canadian cage-fights to a literal mansion … and as a way of saying “thank you,” Wolverine threatens to beat him up, calls him a dick, steals his motorcycle, and tries to screw his wife.

Our hero, everybody!

12. Iron Man 2

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RT score: 73%

Box office: $624 million

People rag on this. While it’s not as strong as its two brothers, it features:

•More Sam Jackson than almost any other Marvel film

•Black Widow, who is (to date) the only successfully realized female super hero on screen

•All the Sen. Gary Shandling / Washington stuff

•Awesome suitcase armor

•Roger Sterling as the Henry Jones Sr. of the Marvel franchise

•The phrase “drone better”

•Iron Man

Seriously, brah? All this isn’t good enough for you? I think if some better decisions had been made during editing people would like it more. This alternate opening is soooo much better than what they actually used in the film:

11. Spider-Man

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RT score: 89%

Box office: $821 million

There was a time when only nerds knew the phrase “with great power, comes great responsibility.” This movie, of course, changed all that. While so many subsequent super-hero pictures have learned the lessons of this film, both good and bad (Green Goblin’s weird Power Rangers armor), Spider-Man still holds up very well so many years later.

Fun fact: each Spider-Man movie has made less money (domestically) than the one before.

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

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RT score: 91%

Box office: $741 million

We were all pretty skeptical about this, because there hadn’t been a great X-Men movie since 2003 – and the franchise seemed too tired for any of us to care about any more. Never have so many nerds (especially myself) been so glad to be so wrong.

They finally got Wolverine right with this one: yes, he’s still the star of the movie (which he has to be), but he’s only a peripheral character (which is what he should be). The genius is in the two parallel storylines, which enables the film to be both nostalgic, with the old cast in the future, and forward looking, with the new cast in the past.

Small criticism: I would have liked Wolverine to ask someone “check please!”

9. Captain America: The First Avenger

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RT score: 79%

Box office: $370 million

There were such big obstacles to making the Captain America movie that we don’t even really think about them. These include:

•A character with all the qualities that make Superman bland but nothing that makes Superman interesting

•A World War II movie that feels old timey while also juggling the sensibilities of people who’ve seen stuff like Patton and Saving Private Ryan

•Coming last in a list of successful Marvel movies while also having to key up the Avengers

•Still tell an interesting story all its own which can appeal to a global audience

And they did it! They also did this:

8. Iron Man 3

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RT score: 78%

Box office: $1.2 billion

The third movie in a super-hero franchise was always death: Superman 3, Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men: Last Stand … UNTIL now (and to a lesser extent the previous year with Dark Knight Rises).

The climax has some problems: Why do they even need the Avengers if they have 40 suits and the “House Party” protocol? Why would he blow them all up? But the movie is still awesome – and Tony’s final speech at the end is a wonderful capstone to the trilogy.

7. Thor

RT score: 77%Box office: $449 million Woah – is Thor this high? Even despite the problems I listed on Thor 2? The central character is bland, but they build enough around him – Loki, Heimdal, Odin, Agent Coulson, Darcy – that you don’t mind. Kenneth Branagh and J. Michael Straczynski elevate the material and fill the movie with so many Dutch angles you think that Thor’s from Holland, not Norway.

RT score: 77%

Box office: $449 million

Woah – is Thor this high? Even despite the problems I listed on Thor 2? The central character is bland, but they build enough around him – Loki, Heimdal, Odin, Agent Coulson, Darcy – that you don’t mind. Kenneth Branagh and J. Michael Straczynski elevate the material and fill the movie with so many Dutch angles you think that Thor’s from Holland, not Norway.

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Most super-hero movies are about saving the world, or at least a part of it that we really care about (ie New York City). The stakes here are unusually low, which fits with the theme of an arrogant prince learning humility. When we first meet Thor, he wouldn’t fight for anything less than all the glory in the world, but at the end he’s ready to die for a nameless city in New Mexico that no one will ever know about.

Also this has the best score of any film on this list (alas that Patrick Doyle didn’t return for the sequel) AND the best end credits song of any super-hero movie period (alas Chris Hemsworth didn’t have a cameo in the video nor the Foo Fighters a cameo in the picture).

6. X2

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RT score: 87%

Box office: $408 million

A frequent criticism of comic book movies is they get overwhelmed by too many characters. X2 is overwhelming because it employs its large number of characters so well and so efficiently. F’crying out loud Pyro has a more interesting character arc in this film than the protagonists of most of the other films on this list and they do it in about 3 minutes of screen time total. The only bad thing about X2 is that every X-Men/Wolverine film since then has failed to live up to it.

Also with X2 they corrected whole idea of "the good mutants are pretty, the bad mutants are ugly" – which didn’t fit well with the whole "mutant and proud" message of the franchise.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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RT score: 89%

Box office: $713 million

The Honest Trailer for the Avengers describes Captain America as "no one's favorite super-hero ... who just kind of has to be there."

Yeah I don't think they're making that joke any more, as Cap delivers an adventure that knocked audiences & critics out of their seats and Batman & Superman out of the summer movie season. Captain America has literally made Warner Bros doubt the value of the two most bankable super-heroes ever.

Winter Soldier also puts Cap firmly in the driver's seat -- in Avengers, everyone's following Fury, and Cap only takes command on the battlefield when Iron Man defers to him with, "Call it, Cap." As Fury says, "It looks like you're giving the orders now."

Much like its predecessor, Cap 2 juggles real-life events (Operation Paperclip) and the expectations of a non-superhero genre (political thrillers) while setting up the next tent-pole event in this super-hero world AND telling a good story on its own. Also Redford’s casting was perfection.

4. Guardians of the Galaxy

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RT score: 92%

Box office: $418 million (so far)

Pretty impressive for Marvel Studios that two films released this year are in the top 5 – speaks well to the health of the franchise. Employing a more memorable soundtrack than score (just like the next film did), Guardians sets the perfect light-hearted tone while also appealing to classic rock fans who might skew a little older than the traditional target demographic for a summer picture.

There are no weak links in the whole film: the art direction, the pacing, introducing a host of unfamiliar characters, the action, and the acting (yes, even the professional wrestler does well).

The whole “Root for the underdogs!” shtick could have skewed a little too close to Mighty Ducks territory, but luckily it never did. Star-lord’s “We’re losers” speech avoided becoming a sports movie cliché right before the Save the Cat-esque Break Into Three where our heroes win. They’re just like Kevin Bacon!

3. Iron Man

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RT score: 93%

Box office: $585 million

You may have heard the phrase at some point, "The Dark Knight changed the way super-hero movies were made!" You may have said it yourself. The statement is wrong.

Every other studio is scrambling to replicate the shared universe introduced in Iron Man … and none of them will. (Fox: No one cares about shoe-horning the Fantastic Four into the X-Men franchise. Let it go so Marvel can give us a movie where Hulk fights The Thing.)

Jon Favreau’s interior shots of Tony’s mask made sure we never forgot that our star is underneath that armor. Notice how Andrew Garfield can’t keep his Spider-Man mask on? It’s because Marc Webb watched Iron Man.

And most importantly, Iron Man brought along a tectonic shift in the tone of films about super-heroes, who were always tragic and burdened ... but Iron Man changed that. Tony Stark's announcing "I am Iron Man" to the world was also Marvel Studios way of saying, "Hey it’s OK for super-heroes to be fun and awesome!"

2. Spider-Man 2

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RT score: 94%

Box office: $783 million

Half-way through most super-hero movies, I pose myself the question, “Would I just rather be watching Spider-Man 2?” This is an unfair comparison – but after 10 years, it’s incredible how many films in the genre still can’t hold up to Sam Raimi’s masterpiece. Virtually every line in the film is quotable (“Planning is not a major at this university.” “If promises were crackers, my daughter would be fat.” “…she asked me to come”/ “But not to come late.”) – EVEN the stupid ones (“TS Eliot is more complicated than advanced science!”).

You can quibble about a lot of little points – the constant horror-esque screaming, Doc Ock’s kind of inexplicable turn to evil, how Mary Jane is kind of a B for leaving a guy at the altar – but the movie perfectly captures the spirit of Spider-Man. And of course this:

1. Avengers

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RT score: 92%

Box office: $1.5 billion

Not since Phantom Menace had a film been more hotly anticipated, but - contrary to Episode I's epic disappointment - Avengers exceeded the very high expectations we had for it ever since the Iron Man post-credits scene four years earlier. I'm not the first to say it, but this movie translated the feel of reading a comic book into movie form better than anything else in the genre. And the most amazing part is that Marvel did it without any of its five best characters (Spider-Man, The Thing, Dr. Doom, Wolverine, J. Jonah Jameson).

Then after we’ve beheld the glory of five previous installments, they end with the shot of Thanos grinning at the line “… to court death” – sending the clear message that all this build-up was just the beginning.

The only thing that could knock this out of the top-spot is Avengers 2 -- which is probably exactly what will happen in May 2015.

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