For a long time, there have been super hero movies. In the early 2000’s Fox released X-Men, and then Sony’s Spider-Man hit the scene. It wasn’t until 2008 when the company that sold the film rights of the majority of their characters put out their first movie with unsold characters to try and create a comic book experience on the big screen. The following list is my personal ranking of enjoyment of the 12 released movies thus far.
12. The Incredible Hulk
This is the second movie version of the Hulk, and it was the first time Marvel Studios handled the character. It does a decent job at feeling like a half-sequel to the first Hulk movie by not spending a ton of time on Bruce Banner’s back story. Instead it puts him in another country on the run trying to find a cure for the Hulk. This movie has the same problem the first movie did; it has extreme action and then uninteresting character development. There’s a lot to learn from how Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk is portrayed in the Avengers movies as a character of strength and humility. Ruffalo’s character has a lot more sincere emotional depth in just those two movies than this movie. There’s a lot of drama here, sure, but it doesn’t feel like something you’d invest in. By the end of the movie, you’re kind of just rooting for somebody to win so you can finish it. The studio did shift from the more monstrous looking Hulk from the 2003 film to a more human-like one. Something about this Hulk just doesn’t look right, despite the amazing effects of putting him into this movie. I definitely feel like the Hulk of the Avengers movies is a perfect mixture of man and monster, whereas this one feels like more of a giant angry green man.
11. Thor: The Dark World
The first Thor movie had a lot of Thor on Earth/Midgard, and in this movie he is in search of an Infinity Stone called the Aether, but it’s stuck inside of his girlfriend on Earth. It feels like a bit of a stretch to get her back in the movie. The first Thor set up the realm of Asgard but you don’t see much of it beyond the few locations. In The Dark World, we see a lot more of Asgard and even more of Thor’s viking buddies. Thor has to team up with Loki, who has been tormented by his solitude, to fight the Dark Elves and make sure they don’t get the Aether. The result leaves Thor wanting to stay in Midgard and having one of the coolest final battles of any Marvel movie, which puts Natalie Portman’s character front and center to help save the day. Iron Man 3 had this too, where the women weren’t just damsels but helped, but I feel like this movie did it best of the two. The movie feels like it drags on getting to the end and the character arcs don’t feel even as interesting as angsty Thor in the first movie. This movie did set up something awesome at the end for perhaps Thor’s greatest movie.
Thor has a slightly more embarrassing character arc, that is fortunately resolved over the course of this movie as he is a very arrogant warrior at the start. It takes the events of losing his mighty hammer and abilities to understand what it means to be worthy of his strength. In no way is it ever presented poorly, it just feels like Odin (Thor’s dad) is punishing Thor for being a brat more or less. His evil brother Loki, the main villain of Avengers, is trying to take advantage of this and creates a dynamic on screen, reminiscent of Batman’s Joker. Loki is perhaps the standout character of this franchise, and fortunately he has returned for every released Thor movie. The thing that sets this movie apart from other MCU movies is its central conflict is set in a mystical realm that isn’t Earth which makes this franchise feel like your healthy fix of fantasy, sci-fi, action and super heroes.
9. Iron Man 3
There’s a ton to like about Iron Man 3, there’s also a fair amount to not like about it. The movie focuses on Tony Stark coming to grips with another thing ailing him, which is his constant test of mortality. In Iron Man, it was the chest reactor being built, in Iron Man 2 it was the device keeping him alive, and in the 3rd installment it’s the realization that he isn’t alone in the universe and that he came the closest to death he ever has gotten before. In his anxiety he builds 40+ suits and even perfects a remote access suit, which feels like a natural progression for his character. The one that thing that crippled him as a hero in Iron Man and Iron Man 2 was installing the suit, and in Avengers he was able to suit up quicker with remote access rings. Iron Man 3 fleshes out that concept to create something very fun. The drawback to this movie isn’t the inventiveness, but the fact that so many elements of the Iron Man mythos in and out of comic canon get disrespected in a way that makes it tough to accept. I’ve found after multiple viewings I care less about it than the first time, but they still bother me.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
Going into watching Captain America: The First Avenger, I kind of knew what was going to happen and how it would end based on Cap’s story told over the years so I went in not really very excited. I was also bummed out because Chris Evans had been re-purposed from Fantastic Four to this since I wanted a third Fantastic Four movie. What this movie does, is capture the core elements of what makes Cap such an important figure in the MCU. He was never physically strong but he had the biggest heart of anyone around. Upon getting powers he takes on his iconic villain and the last 30 minutes is just a giant teaser for Avengers. Captain America has the same problem Superman has, he’s a good guy, a Boy Scout, and he never strays from his moral code. It’s a great quality for a hero and for a young person to look up to, but it’s a predictable character to play. It’s not until Captain America: Winter Soldier when this character trait is tested. There’s a lot of great groundwork laid in this movie that was built upon creatively for future stories.
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron, like the 1st Avengers, was a risky movie. Avengers relied heavily on existing characters for the sake of expansion. This movie relied on our continued interest in them, to then thrust them into a bold new experiment and not play it safe anymore. Loki wasn’t there to carry the villain role, so the movie needed new threats, in the form of Ultron and Hydra. The movie plays out very much like an Iron Man 4 over Avengers at times mostly because, Ultron is a result of Tony Stark’s uncompromising ego. With the departure of Shield, the Avengers are the peace keepers of the planet and have a lot of ground to cover with their missions, so chasing Ultron all around the world feels necessary. Ultron needs something from everywhere to perfect his body to fight the heroes. He’s recruited two Hydra experiments with vendettas against Stark and the true plot of Ultron tests their commitment to evil and opens their eyes to what they could be to the world, versus what they were. This movie is almost too fast paced and almost has too much going on, and it definitely rides a very thin line between overwhelming and balance. It’s a very fun movie and the kind of movie you’d need to see twice to catch everything. There’s a lot of ground work laid in it for, easily, the next half dozen movies of the MCU.
6. Iron Man 2
A lot of people love to hate this movie and every time I watch it, I just can’t see why. Iron Man 2 is one of the most fun movies and is one of my most re-watched of the MCU. It starts to flesh out Shield more and it adds to the back story of Stark. My favorite part of the whole movie is how it finds a way to continue to ground Stark’s ego and continue to challenge him like the 1st movie did. Iron Man ended with him announcing to the world he was Iron Man. Iron Man 2 is what Batman v. Superman will be, the aftermath of another movie. Stark is held accountable for his presence as Iron Man, and an old and new enemy come to show the world he isn’t the “Invincible” Iron-Man he acts like. There’s a lot of emotional conflict with the unfortunate acceptance of his morality and the disease killing him because of his suit. There’s the first appearance of War Machine, who is so great, that he just becomes an Avenger later. Shield has a lot going on in this movie but in a supporting role which I think works for the world building.
Ant-Man is the 12th movie in the MCU, and the 11th in the Avengers storyline. Ant-Man does a good job at taking a stupid idea and making it awesome. Why would we care about a guy who can talk to ants and shrink in a Honey I Shrunk The Kids type way? Well, there’s some back story about Ant-Man that predates the Avengers that makes his story relevant, new and stand alone all at the same time. It tells a more intimate story instead of one that’s about the world being threatened and it allows for some of the best character development in any of the Marvel movies. Paul Rudd plays a very charismatic and all around good guy with the main character and Micheal Douglas bringing the depth and grounding to the history behind Ant-Man. Being the 11th Earth-based movie, it kind of has to connect to the bigger picture somehow, and if you’re a fan of the connections, you can’t help but dig seeing familiar locations and characters. For a full review of Ant-Man go here.
Avengers was one of those movies that was either going to work amazingly, or fail horribly. It worked amazingly but it did so by capitalizing on what made the movies before it good. It didn’t really offer a lot of new things, it just brought what viewers liked into one movie. The major new thing it did do, was to re-introduce the Hulk with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. There’s a lot of story and character development for the green giant and it made him everybody’s favorite character. It’s funny that it took a giant team-up movie, and not two mediocre Hulk movies, to get this guy right. Loki is the main bad guy, and although his presence works as a stand-alone appearance, it seemed like the safe bet to use him because of the approval of him in Thor. Avengers didn’t cover any new ground, like I said, but it did bring everyone together and the union of these heroes did forever change the film industry and the MCU.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is great mainly because of the previous outings Cap has had and because of the story. In Captain America: The First Avenger he seemed to just be a strong everyman kind of guy and he never felt epic. Then in the Avengers, Cap was grouped with the Shield agent heroes and all of his scenes felt weak. His morals are what make him such a great character and in this movie, it’s those morals that allow him to stop a historically horrible problem within Shield. This movie does an excellent job of showing the sheer strength of Captain America and groups him with situations to rival that. The movie tests Captain America in every way that makes him a symbol of American hope and as the man behind the shield.
2. Iron Man
Iron Man was the first movie in the MCU to really create the building blocks for this shared cinematic universe. It made you feel emotionally attached to this sleaze-bag that Robert Downey Jr. played so perfectly. The movie has some outstanding acting talent and there’s a visual style they created to display Iron Man’s technology and his suit that is always fun to watch. They’ve replicated this for every movie Iron Man has been in, and each time they find a fresh way to make it fun. It’s a great hero’s journey as Stark uses his genius to save his life, his company and everyone around him.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is what I always wanted Star Wars to be. There’s loads of amazing visuals and great science-fiction with well thought out planets, worlds and aliens. The older I get, the more I feel like Star Wars as a franchise doesn’t hold up. The acting is top notch and the characters feel absolutely fresh. There’s an attention to detail in this movie that just makes you respect each part of it. Ironically, the movie is ranked #1 for me because it’s totally separate from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which makes it feel like it has the freedom to do whatever it wants to do without this overly huge commitment to multi-movie expansion. There’s never any questioning of the people in this world and the movie allows the audience to interpret things without needing to know complex back story or explanation. For instance, Rocket is a being shoved into a racoon body and Groot is a poor-talking tree. There’s a lot here, and it’s up to us as viewers to have an open mind to follow along and accept this world. It’s a ton of fun and basically impossible not to get sucked up into this movie.
The thing Marvel Studios does so well, is create this multi-layered world with characters you want to see again. That’s the key part here, is you just want to see them again. All of the movies are excellent in their own way, and it even feels a little disrespectful to rank them, but ultimately the characters are what work so great. When you meet the Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, then see him again in Avengers: Age of Ultron and then again in Ant-Man, it feels like the kind of world building that is what got this studio where it’s at. The studio has invested in outstandingly talented actors and directors to bring the characters to life and it’s very exciting that over the next few years we will continue to get this universe expanded further. Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Spider-Man and Black Panther are all incredibly unique characters with a rich back story and world all their own, so it will be a blast watching them come together and join the ranks of our Avengers. Each Avenger on the team now is already diverse with their stories, powers and place of origin. Iron Man was/still kind of is an over-confident engineer, Thor is a future king of a far away world, Captain America is the strongest patriot the world’s ever had, the Hulk is a conflicted monster, and even the Shield agents, Black Widow and Hawkeye have some evolving depth. What’s interesting, is the new characters coming in aren’t just new agents, they’re fully realized characters getting the respect the existing line up has gotten. At times, it’s a little overwhelming to keep up, which is what made Guardians refreshing, but it’s a lot of fun watching all of these movies and seeing these arcs evolve.
That’s not to say these movies don’t have their faults. As great as the heroes are, a lot of the times, the villains come off predictable or massively less interesting. Nearly all of these movies have a big bad in them that has powers that are almost too similar to the hero, or they are just evil versions of them. Incredible Hulk, Iron Man and Ant Man are the biggest culprits to this. I suppose it’s something easy to look past when you want the hero to win and show that they are the best at being themselves. One of the things that made Iron Man 3 so great is it took all of his technology, wit and know-how to stop the Mandrain. The Mandarin was nothing like an Iron Man suit, and watching Tony attack like he was basically swinging a large variety of swords felt awesome, and still does after multiple viewings. I’m not sure if this is a pattern we will be forced to see again and again because of the nature of how these heroes are interpreted, but it would be nice to see more diverse threats in the future.
Overall, this studio has a very clear and well thought out arc for themselves and I think it’s all boiling up to the Avengers: Infinity Wars movies coming in the next few years. Everything has been building to that, and the real question won’t be what they do until then, but what they do after it.