On the 2nd of May 2008, Iron Man had its American premier. It was a relatively little known property from a studio that previously only licensed properties to bigger studios. The director Jon Favreau had one big hit (Elf) and a recent flop (Zathura). The lead Actor, Robert Downey Jr., was enjoying a career upswing after his very public breakdown and rehab, but had not yet proved himself to be a box office draw. Iron Man was a lesser known property outside of comic readers. Iron Man (2008) was a risk, not only as a blockbuster worth investing a $140 million budget into, but as the foundation for a new, multi-film franchise that would culminate in a giant shared movie. Yet Iron Man’s success changed the world.
Ten years later we have just celebrated the release of Avengers: Infinity War, the second most expensive film ever made and already one of the most successful. Marvel have released 19 films in their shared universe and have covered everything from grandiose space operas to quirky science fiction oddities, having even found time now and then to tell a superhero story. To commemorate ten years of memorable blockbuster entertainment, we shall rank all 19 films in the cannon. Where better to start than with the one that very nearly doesn’t count?
19. The Incredible Hulk
Some people will tell you that there are 18 films in the MCU. The reason for this is that Louis Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk still retained a great deal of the baggage from Marvel’s complicated licensing past (which only occasionally returns to haunt future films). The film was produced by Avi Arad and was distributed by Universal. It also stars Edward Norton as the Incredible Hulk, a role he did not return to play in future movies, and features Robert Downey Jr. in a nonsensical cameo as a recruiter for the organisation he hasn’t actually joined yet. However, William Hurt does return to play “Thunderbolt” Ross in future films and it’s largely accepted that this story is rumbling around at the back of Ruffalo’s Banner’s mind.
The film is much less interesting and bizarre than Ang Lee’s maligned take on the character a few years prior. Tim Roth and Tim Blake Nelson give it their all to inject some life into the proceedings, but there’s very little that’s memorable about the film which is lacking in the trademark wit and fun the MCU had already become known for.
Kenneth Branagh’s take on the God of Thunder certainly feels grandiose. It’s the story of a war-loving son who has been banished for his arrogance and then learns to love life, whilst his covetous brother usurps the throne truly, and it has truly mythic potential. Asgard is resplendent in its CGI excess and Jotunheim is suitably hellish. Yet inspite of the grand story and the lush fantasy settings, every time I watch this film, I find myself enjoying the sequences of Thor on earth much more. The fish out of water humour works well with Hemsworth’s utterly ridiculous physique and over-the-top performance. The contrast works well as he clumsily learns about humanity.
One might suggest this is because much of the epic fantasy material lacks humanity. Tom Hiddleston had not yet found the pulse of Loki, and nobody knew how to write Thor yet. Anthony Hopkins, however, is already enjoying himself as Odin, the all-father. His bizarre roar and point that stops Loki in his tracks as he attempts to defend Thor is still something to behold.
The concept of a down on his luck thief discovering technology that allows him to shrink to a miniscule size and using it to carry out a crazy heist is tantalisingly fun. What is missing most from the movie that was at one stage to be directed by Edgar Wright, is style. Scenes play out very perfunctorily as we move from establishing the character, to the training montage to the actual heist. There’s little to be excited about and the characterisation either feels absent or inauthentic. Paul Rudd’s energy seems lacking as he quips his way through the role without the pathos needed to invest in the tiny man.
The highlights of the film are undoubtedly when it makes the most of its concept. The action sequences that play with scale are hugely entertaining. From his initial experiment that sees him washed down a drain, to the final, thrilling climax on a miniature train set, Scott Lang’s powers are amongst the most entertaining of all of the Avengers. With any luck the next film in this franchise will be a little more daring and a little more genuine.
16. Thor: The Dark World
Perhaps my favourite title from the entire MCU; one is left wondering “what was the Dark World?” was it that depressing grey bit that Thor and Loki spend five minutes in? A tantalising title, but a relatively forgettable outing for Thor and his troublesome brother. The fantasy elements work much better in the second film of the franchise. Asgard has sets that seem like actual places, and attempts are made to make Loki and Thor seem like better rounded individuals. There are some decent fantasy battle sequences and the final confrontation is at least visually arresting.
One has to wonder how the film would have been had Patty Jenkins remained with the project and directed her “Romeo and Juliet” story. Inevitably it would have resulted in a more interesting role for Natalie Portman who spends most of this film as the literal plot device. Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith is almost always brought up as the archetypal bad Marvel movie villain and it’s true that he’s largely wasted here, as is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (who would later also be wasted in Suicide Squad). It’s an improvement, but no one had yet found the right approach for Thor.
15. Iron Man 2
Ultimately this just came far too early. As the third MCU film, there was really nothing left to do with Tony Stark as a character before his horizons could be broadened in The Avengers. We have him struggle with alcoholism which would have made more sense after his near-death experience in New York, and the main villain (a threat from his dark past) is repeated in Iron Man 3 (try to imagine Mickey Rourke fulfilling Guy Pearce’s role as the manipulator behind The Mandarin). The film is also lacking in the narrative tightness and playfulness of the previous entry, undoubtedly due to its rushed production. Phase One would have been better served by a Black Widow film at this stage.
However Robert Downey Jr. and Paltrow still have great chemistry, Sam Rockwell is great fun as Justin Hammer and the briefcase armour suit is very, very cool. We also have Scarlett Johanson being criminally underused (something we shall have to get used to) but still being afforded one of her best fight scenes in the entire franchise.
14. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Given the mammoth task of living up to the first avengers film and rounding off the entirety of Phase 2 of the Marvel project, Age of Ultron ultimately flounders a little. Not helped by its famously troubled production that resulted in Joss Whedon leaving the franchise for good, the film does feel much messier than the last Avengers. The scenes that further foreshadow the Infinity Stones and the battle against Thanos feel very distracting when this had the potential to be a standalone adventure to develop the relationship of the gang and introduce two new characters. Having now seen Infinity War, it’s also difficult to remember just what exactly was set up in this film.
The highlights of the film are the moments Whedon had to fight the hardest for. The mind-bending flashbacks that come from the Scarlett Witch’s mind control powers (remember those?) and the long peaceful sequence where the avengers hide away at the Barton family home are amongst the best in the franchise. Not only do they allow for much more organic sense of forboding (Thor’s vision of Ragnarok informs his character decision later to assist Tony in creating vision) but also allow for some wonderful character building, especially of Hawkeye the oft-overlooked Avenger. It’s an entertaining film, but one that falls very short of the first film’s glory.
13. Doctor Strange
This film has a fantastic strength and a terrible weakness. The strength is the literally mind bending power demonstrated in the film. The weakness is Stephen Strange as a character. It seems that neither the screenwriters, director, nor Benedict Cumberbatch himself could decide who this person should be. In Infinity War he becomes a very serious and dedicated elder figure with little patience for the foolishness of others, but in his own movie the attempt seems to be for him to be another Tony Stark, to the extent that some wondered if he was fated to take over the role of leading The Avengers upon Downey Jr.’s retirement. He is not afforded his own voice.
But more on that power: from the opening sequence onwards it’s clear that this is a film that aims to impress you with it’s special effects, and where most films that rely predominantly on CGI to do this will struggle, Doctor Strange succeeds due to it’s imagination and daring. The initial “freak out” sequence where Cumberbatch first has his mind expanded is as visually bizarre as you’re likely to see in a blockbuster movie, and the city bending that seeks to out Inception Inception, certainly succeeds in raising the pulse.
12. Thor: Ragnarok
Is there something of a defeat in acknowledging that the greatest Thor movie all but abandoned it’s fantasy styling’s in favour of space opera? Although lip service is paid to various elements and characters from Norse mythology, you would never mistake this for Tolkien as Thor is imprisoned on a mad max style dystopia. Yet this is the film with the most heart, the best characterisation and the best spirit of adventure.
The humour does detract from the film’s more serious moments and it’s very displeasing how casually Thor’s companions and homeland are cast aside, but the film is undeniably fun. This may also be the most time spent with this iteration of Hulk so far. With Marvel forever holding out on another Hulk movie, this might be the closest we get. Taika Waititi makes a very entertaining film that really could have been more considering its apocalyptic subject matter. What’s missing is gravitas.
11. Captain America: The First Avenger
To date, the only period piece in the Marvel Universe (until Captain Marvel is released next year) Joe Johnston’s Captain America certainly feels nostalgic. It has much of the charm and energy of his earlier film The Rocketeer. Chris Evans is already perfect as the too-good-to-be-true boy-scout who longs for the physique to match his spirit. His role in this film is pure wish fulfilment, but the respect of his fellow soldiers must be earned, and he does so by always remembering what’s right.
There is a great spirit of adventure to the film as Captain America must tear across Nazi Europe to fight Hydra. These sequences are often very entertaining. I do wish that more time was spent between Steve Rogers and his compatriots though, especially since so much of his character in the future would depend upon his unbreakable bond with Bucky. Perhaps another weakness is that we don’t really see Steve Rogers undertake any kind of personal journey. He’s pure and perfect at the start and then just gets bigger before making the same sacrifice he would have made at the beginning. We don’t get to see him learn that war is hell or to question the values he’s been raised on. Still, the film is good fun.
10. Iron Man 3
Perhaps the least likely candidate for Marvel Director ever, Shane Black, has a go at Marvel’s biggest hero and makes a buddy cop movie set at Christmas, of course. He also brings plenty of his signature wit and snappy dialogue which works wonderfully with Downey’s delivery (as previously demonstrated in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang). He also brings spectacular action sequences (the plane crash rescue is very obviously spectacular stunt work) and some very affecting character moments.
What I love most about Iron Man 3 is that the film is constantly exploring Tony’s limitations. Following the battle of New York he is experiencing panic attacks and doubts his ability to keep the world and his loved ones safe. The film is about him regaining his confidence as he is forced into his lowest point. The best action sequences of the film involve him having to use his resolve and ingenuity to outwit his foes. His DIY assault on the Mandarin’s base is a particular highlight. Unfortunately this is all somewhat maligned in the final fight of the film in which a hundred iron man suits appear from out of nowhere to dissolve any tension the climax might have had. It’s a great shame as Tony trying to use a malfunctioning, broken down suit of armour to fight his greatest foe would have been very entertaining. But there are toys to sell…
9. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
James Gunn and crew return to tell another tail of the unlikeliest heroes in the universe. What returns is the sense of humour, the excellent sense for character, the heartfelt emotion, and the nostalgia. Visually and spiritually this is a disco in outer space (as attested to by the annoyingly unforgettable Guardians Inferno track). The soundtrack is once again full of hits from the 70s and 80s that aren’t quite famous enough to be distracting (Star Trek Beyond’s use of Sabotage comes to mind), but are used appropriately enough to be iconic. I will always think of Quill’s climactic showdown with his father upon hearing Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain.
Volume 2 has a similarly meandering plot to the first Guardians film but does lack the narrative driving force of the central macguffin and the villain’s pursuit of it. Consequently the film does at times feel aimless, especially as our heroes are caught up in separate adventures with seemingly no over-arching narrative. This is why a repeat viewing is so beneficial as the theme of fatherhood, family and belonging really tie the narrative threads together. I’m particularly fond of Gamora and her deepening relationship with her adoptive sister Nebula. Zoe Saldana’s contribution to these movies mustn’t be overlooked.
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The best way to approach a Marvel movie now that they have somewhat strongly veered away from the traditional superhero tropes of secret identities and villains of the week, is to choose a film genre and insert the characters into it. The Winter Soldier is a political thriller replete with shadowy organisations, spies, betrayal and Robert Redford.
The Russo Brothers direct their first marvel film and already demonstrate that their background in comedy television with the odd foray into action (the paintball episodes of Community are pretty perfect) has more than prepared them for the rigours of blockbuster film making. The Winter Soldier has fantastic action sequences, particularly the fight against the Winter Soldier on the bridge, and has a subdued humour that far better suits the tone. Characterisation is strong with plenty given to Steve Rogers and Black Widow (for once). A lot of characters appear in The Winter Soldier and there are many implications for future MCU films, and yet this is one of the few MCU films that actually stands alone as a fine example of the action genre.
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming
As a fan of the Spiderman cartoon series and comics, this felt like the purest cinematic rendition of Spiderman. Holland ably portrays the likeable but awkward Peter Parker persona as well as the excitable and charming Spidey. The conflict between the two halves of Peter’s life is far more urgent and relatable. The Parker lifestyle is no longer portrayed as just a boring job/mean-spirited high school and bland supporting characters. We can sympathise with Peter’s urge to live this life. However, we also get to experience the thrill of being Spiderman and the importance of his looking out for the little guys who would ordinarily be overlooked by The Avengers.
Whereas Raimi’s humour was deliberately cheesy, here it is much more appropriate. The action sequences are really fun and there’s a genuine sense of peril, in no small part thanks to excellent villain, The Vulture (played with great pathos by Michael Keaton). The real highlight of the film is the relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. Both actors excel when working together and the dynamic between the maturing Avenger and the impetuous kid, who must remind him of himself just a decade or two earlier, is beautiful. It’s rare for Marvel to make such a traditional Superhero movie with an alter ego and entire second life, but this is one of the finest examples of the classic story.
6. Iron Man
The original marvel film just misses out on the top five. In the decade since its release and after 18 films expanding on the formula, the charms and the style, the original Iron Man has lost some of its novelty. The movie succeeded on its looks and its charm. The production design was sleek and cool. Seeing production still of the still fabulous Iron Man Mk.3 armour (the first red and gold suit) was tremendously exciting. The humour of the film and the immense charm of its lead, Robert Downey Jr. greatly influenced (For better or worse) the trademark style of Marvel.
There is, however, a palpable darkness to the film. Tony starts as an arms dealer and the attack on his convoy is sudden and violent. His experiences in the cave are disturbing, as are the further scenes of suffering in the middle east that finally incites Tony to become the hero he has designed. Made just at the end of the Bush era, the film is highly infused with post-9/11 anxiety and it’s strange how involved the US military is with the plot. Ultimately though, the film is about a profiteer of capitalism who decides to grow a conscience and use his vast resources to create something to help people – the arc reactor. Unfortunately, rather than share unlimited resources with the world he uses it to power a new death machine, but this time to use on the right people…still in the middle east though.
5. Captain America: Civil War
Often described as The Avengers 2.5, Civil War involved almost every marvel hero extant at the time of its making (aside from those in space at the time), as well as introducing two new ones. The plot concerned the Avengers having to deal with the consequences of their avenging. The tone is, by necessity, a little darker than other entries but there’s still a sense of fun throughout, particularly in the spectacular airport fight. However, when the film requires sobriety, it achieves it ably.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the entire MCU is the consistency of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers’ arcs across the films, reaching their crisis point here. Tony Stark was a reckless playboy who had to accept his own moral failings after Iron Man (and again in Iron Man 2, sigh) and then his own physical limitations in The Avengers. He overcomes a crisis of confidence in Iron Man 3 to believe he can fix anything leading to the events of Age of Ultron. He is then forced to accept that he needs regulation, and surrenders control to authority. But he’s still the hot-head and when the time comes will abandon his cause for a personal vendetta.
Steve Rogers on the other hand begins his journey as a government stooge, ready to be send overseas to fight whatever war is to be fought. He takes this as far as he can in The First Avenger by giving up his life for his country. Waking up decades later he spends The Avengers learning that he can’t trust the orders he’s given and in The Winter Soldier learns that his own country is little better than the Nazis he originally went to fight. We subsequently find him here, unable to believe in the institutions he once swore to defend and so has become an outcast. It’s easily the most dramatic moment in his storyline, and his showdown with Stark at the climax is one of the most powerful confrontations in the entire MCU.
4. The Avengers: Infinity War
The most recent entry into the MCU is by far its most ambitious. Telling a story of dozens of characters across many worlds all united in the fight against the most dangerous foe the universe has ever seen. The film succeeds in being thrilling, emotional and hilarious. Although the numerous plot threads aren’t perfectly balanced, this is still a celebration of the MCU so far and a bold declaration of purpose moving forward.
For more, be sure to check out my recent review here.
3. Black Panther
A movie that finally broke away from the Iron Man mould. Chadwick Boseman portrays King T’Challa, not as a hot-head who must learn the importance of humility or teamwork, but as a new king who must question the traditions of his position and the legacy of his father. The film poses real problems to the beautiful nation of Wakanda that are clearly more of a call to action for the United States than a commentary on Africa. The film is, however, a celebration of certain African cultural movements.
The film is well acted, beautifully filmed and scored, and is much more engaging and provocative than the average Marvel film. We have some of the most entertaining ancillary characters and a wonderful villain care of Michael B Jordan. It’s a genre hopping film that is consistently entertaining throughout.
2. The Guardians of the Galaxy
The tremendous success of Marvel has allowed for some more risks to be taken. This makes it all the more frustrating when they fail to accommodate talent like Edgar Wright or Patty Jenkins and even manage to push away Joss Whedon, one of their most valuable players at that stage. James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy demonstrates the personal touch that can be taken with these films and how even the relatively unknown properties can be turned into the greatest hits.
Guardians is hilarious and possible the most outlandish of the MCU films. It concerns a group of rogues who forge a bond and band together to fight a warlord named Ronin (unfortunately another bland Phase 2 villain). The Guardians were designed to work as a team and the dynamic between them is flawlessly entertaining. Dave Bautista as Drax was a revelation that continues to be rewarding, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora is effortlessly cool but subtly tragic and Chris Pratt as the Star Lord brings new life to the Tony Stark template. It’s all about character in Guardians of the Galaxy and character is what the MCU was always all about.
1. The Avengers
Nobody expected this to work. It was going to be overcrowded with too many characters all having to share limited screen time. The expectation on it to be the pay off for four years of movies and the millions (and millions!) of dollars spent was going to sink it to the bottom of the sea. One anticipated the kind of mess that the DCEU would come to excel at. Joss Whedon, however, managed to not only live up to expectations but define the heights of quality that the MCU could be capable of achieving.
Firstly, this is an extraordinarily well structured film that brings the desperate heroes together, builds tension between them, throws them apart and then finds the synthesis between them with note perfect timing. The heroes, many of whom had not yet flourished or found their real personas in their standalone films, formed an excellent group dynamic that allowed for great tensions and personal revelations. Every character has something to be learning or a weakness to recognise in themselves. Loki, in particular, became a great character in The Avengers.
More than anything, The Avengers is a fabulously made blockbuster film. The action is exciting and well assembled (excuse me) from CGI and practical effect work. The fight choreography is often very exciting (specifically Black Widow’s chair-fu) and the Battle of New York doesn’t overstay it’s welcome (though perhaps Tony spends a bit too long pushing that turbine on the helicarrier). Marvel studios took their time with building up anticipation for their first big outing, and The Avengers is a masterfully made culmination. It represents the very best of Marvel’s many achievements.