Running down ten years of the MCU
Although they’re not making a huge fuss of it compared to the upcoming release of Avengers: Infinity Whoar, this year marks a decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, from its initial conception as a gleam in Nick Fury’s one good eye, in a post-credits sting tacked on to 2008’s Iron Man. So just like Marvel and, seemingly, everyone else, I thought I’d be totally original and do a list of all the films rated definitively and non-derivatively according to my own very personal criteria, which will almost certainly be completely unlike all the other lists because there’s a lot of scope for major disagreement when sizing up the relative merits of, say, The Avengers and The Incredible Hulk. (That last sentence, incidentally, was originally supposed to be a subplot in Age Of Ultron but got cut for being too wordy and syllable-ly at the studio’s insistence, like virtually everything else that made sense in the script.)
“These are the Cubans, baby. This is the Cohibas, the Montecristos.”
Basically, if you stuck to just these films, you’d be less inclined to acquiesce to the most common flaws levelled at the MCU - that the films are just a CGI smashfest, they’re formulaic, the stakes are always too abstract to seem important and that they’re “unrealistic” (what the hell? yeah, so’s your pose).
Iron Man: You tend to forget, until rewatching, how much more visceral and grounded the first film in the series was compared to everything that came afterwards. (Only The Winter Soldier would qualify as similar, if they’d had the stones to properly kill off Fury and a few more people in the first reel.) Within the opening five minutes, all but one of the characters we meet is dead and Tony Stark is lying on the ground bleeding out. The context to this is then shown in flashback, interleaved with his nightmarish experience in the cave alongside Yinsen - who after inspiring Stark to turn things around subsequently bites the dust after revealing that the family he always planned to “see again” were already dead. The first half ruminates on terrorism and the arms trade - Iron Man’s first mission proper is purely about wrathful vengeance against a guerilla group about to execute a bunch of innocent villagers, and is basically wish fulfilment for a nation that had already made a spectacular mess of similar situations in the real world. From this point on, almost no human bad guys would die as graphically or definitely as this, which still makes IM feel refreshingly different to its brethren.
Plus you get Stark, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow much smarter and more appealing here than as a ghastly snake-oil saleswoman), Phil Coulson, JARVIS, the initial suit tests and the beginnings of the MCU’s obsession with smashing up cars as shorthand for indiscriminate destruction (yeah, I geddit - there are plenty of disposable vehicles going spare for FX shots). What’s not to love?
Captain America: The Winter Soldier: It’s still this or the one below that ranks as my all-time favourite MCU movie, depending on mood. By keeping the focus tight, the theme clear and throwing in some of the most tense action sequences ever made (the ambush on Nick Fury literally had me chewing my knuckles throughout), the Russo brothers demonstrated there was no genre that could not be successfully co-opted to bring something new to the table. And Steve Rogers is still my favourite Avenger, which is going to make the upcoming expiry of Chris Evans’s contract even harder to come to terms with. Always the least morally compromised of the team, here he takes a clear line right the way through the movie, displaying qualms about ‘Project Insight’ from the get-go that even have Fury pausing to reconsider (too late but…), and ultimately insisting on bringing down the organisation where he started out to end the rot. Putting him together with Black Widow, his polar opposite, and then having them find common ground was a stroke of genius. After that, Anthony Mackie’s effortlessly engaging Sam Wilson is just gravy. (There’s also Sharon Carter, who could at least have been given more Hydra guys to take down; if we can’t have any more Peggy, let us keep her niece.) Plus, you know the bad guy is truly evil when he’ll even shoot his cleaning lady in cold blood.
The fact that TWS stands out so clearly from the rest of the pack for almost all MCU fans through its unique setting and plot should really give Marvel pause before they fire another director over differences of vision.
The Avengers: Joss Whedon’s initial team-up movie to close Phase 1 gets so much right - the pacing, the dialogue, the final third - that you wonder why people keep trying (and manifestly failing) to invent a better wheel on further team outings, including Whedon’s own bosses on his subsequent effort. Sure, it’s all about the big coming together in the closing battle, a rare example of a hotly-anticipated climax that doesn’t disappoint in any way, but the film has a lot of fun getting there too. The right characters meet and interact in exactly the ways you want them to and even before Stark has his moment of self-revelation to cue up the final showdown with Loki (“He wants his name in lights…son of a bitch!”), the audience feels satisfied with how things have turned out.
What’s more, this may be the only MCU film that has exactly the right running length. (Incidentally, has anyone yet figured out what they’re ‘Avenging’? Notwithstanding the clunky Stark line shoehorned in to justify the team name, it sounds like they’ll only pop up after everything is laid waste to cry, “OK you bastard, now you’re for it!”)
Iron Man 3: Having got the whole thing moving, it’s fitting that IM3 also sets the template for the solo movie series: a trilogy whose final part caps the arc for the character in question without closing off further appearances. It’s a fair assumption that no matter how long Downey Jr’s contract runs, this will be the last solo Iron Man film unless they reboot the lead Avenger with a new character inside the suit. Thank goodness then that it’s a hoot from start to finish, director Shane Black rigorously upending all the conventions and continually subverting expectations, aided by a joyful Ben Kingsley cameo-within-a-cameo. Avenging was never such fun again…
Thor: Ragnarok: …Until this latest and, in line with normal practice up to now, presumably closing chapter in Thor’s saga. By tossing in the Hulk, a character it’s otherwise hard to imagine working in a solo film, keeping things light (and fleet of foot) and being prepared to kill off most of the Asgardian canon, Waititi shows that a first time director can still stand out on the Marvel conveyor belt. On the downside, it ditches Jane Foster with a mere line of dialogue and most of the compensatory gains (Valkyrie, Korg, Thor’s temporarily patched relationship with Loki) will, I fear, be sidelined if not wastefully discarded in the first thirty minutes of Infinity War.
Regardless, the scene where the God of Thunder leaps down to fight the undead hordes on the bridge while Led Zep pounds out on the soundtrack is waaaayyy cool. (But does anyone understand why Thor’s plan to prevent Ragnarok involves putting Surtur’s helmet in the same room as the Eternal Flame - it’s not even chained down - other than “because plot”?)
The mid-tier MCU films are all chock-full of great moments and some amazing film-making but, like any proper superhero, each one is compromised just sufficiently to hold it back from being one of the best, usually by the lack of a decent story to tie all these bits together. All you can ask is that they fail in interesting ways. I like all these films; I just don’t rate them as highly against the top line.
Black Panther: If it were down to just the visual design and Marvel’s unerring gift for casting likeable actors in the main roles, BP would be straight into the first tier. Only the film’s by now identikit plot outline and story beats dings it. (If it’s in your top tier for representation alone though, I’d say that’s a fine and admirable choice.)
The Avengers: Age Of Ultron: After the inarguable success of the first Avengers outing, where did it all go wrong for Whedon and Marvel? Even the opening fight sequence, as good as the individual air-punch moments are, feels perfunctory, like goodwill still to be earned is already being taken for granted. Perhaps that’s just the hazard with a film that was always intended to be the comedown, sowing the seeds for the eventual dissolution of the central team - but it doesn’t help when you also lumber it with introducing four new characters (if you include Ulysses Klaue), only two of whom ultimately matter, and a determination to make an already big event movie even bigger at the expense of story. To his credit, Whedon tries hard not to repeat himself - witness his revised take on the classic 360 degree fight scene towards the climax. But for all the great Moments(tm) here, an embarrassment of riches in almost non-stop procession, Ultron just feels messy.
Captain America: Civil War: Whereas Ultron tries to cram too much story and too many characters into too short a running time, CW pares things back and has the appropriate duration to accommodate what’s left - and yet feels too long. Having the big airport face-off two thirds of the way in is a brave way to shake up the usual routine, but it makes the remaining conflict between Stark and Rogers feel inconsequential. (I don’t know what the answer is to this conundrum, other than simply taking out more stuff - but let’s face it, we’re all waiting for Infinity War to do the opposite. Incidentally, I’m betting that for all the hype and anticipation, the latter lands solidly in the mid-tier, a case of being careful what you wish for, even though it’s been pretty much ordained since the first Guardians flick. Perhaps Avengers 4 will correct this by focusing on a reduced line-up again and showing the beginnings of a revised frontline team.)
CW isn’t really a Captain America solo film, so in that sense it doesn’t function as the end of a trilogy like Thor or IM 3. It’s arguably more of a Bucky film than the titular previous film, except the latter remains the least charismatic, or anyway least knowable, superhero. Conceptually, it exists more to rip apart the cracks exposed in Ultron, which is perhaps why it’s less satisfying than the Russo’s previous film. The storyline comes over more like an internal Avengers HR issue than a credible threat and ironically, if anyone here represents the everyman who doesn’t want a building dropped on their head, it’s Zemo. (And since you asked, Cap’s clearly in the wrong albeit for understandable reasons and only having Stark be massively obnoxious all the way through can disguise this.)
On the plus side: Black Panther, the only character to reach some level of mature reflection over the course of the film and thus emerge with dignity (if anything, Cap goes the other way); and more Sharon Carter, sadly still functioning as a plot MacGuffin instead of a fully-fledged partner, under the “No sex please, we’re Marvel” policy. But then, who could ever replace Sam?
It has Spiderman too, and there’s nothing wrong with that but he kinda feels superfluous given all the other MCU riches by this point.
Captain America: The First Avenger: As a period pastiche, this is great. Top cast as ever, including the incomparable Hayley Atwell, and some Young Howard Stark to be thankful for. No wonder they made a TV spin-off. Steve Rogers is so gosh-darn wholesome that he can seem a bit vanilla, so Marvel always wisely surround him with charismatic figures played by top notch people like Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci. It never quite feels like we’re playing for real stakes (we know who lost the war, although at least the followup made us wonder for a time if it wasn’t Hydra), and it moves too quickly from Cap’s first triumph to the final showdown with the (underused) Red Skull. But as an origin story, this is a strong second to Iron Man.
Thor: It’s fun, it’s different again in feel, it has Hiddleston and Hopkins. I’ve read opinions that the Asgard scenes don’t work but the Earth ones do, and opinions that say the precise opposite, so possibly the truth is that they make an effective contrast. It’ll never be anyone’s favourite film, apart from Thor/Loki/Jane/Darcy diehards, but that’s OK too.
Thor: The Dark World: Thor 2 is also a lotta fun, probably more than you remember unless you’ve watched it again recently. There’s a gaping hole in the middle to match the darkness Malekith wants to restore, but there are enough Moments here, especially in the Thor/Loki bickering, to make it worth your while. (And don’t forget, Loki actually saves Jane - apparently out of instinct rather than intent - at one point.)
Guardians Of The Galaxy: GotG was rightly lauded on release for successfully selling a mainstream audience on MCU’s most farfetched line-up to date (what, even more so than an all-black lead cast?). It has tremendous panache, of course - enough to make you overlook the underserved treatment of the female characters (again). Tonally, it was so detached from the rest of the MCU at this point (until Thor 3 came along), that it’s hard to think of it as belonging to the same series, and for that reason, despite there being nothing I dislike about it per se, it doesn’t make my top tier.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2: The second Guardians film, like Ultron, tries hard to bottle the same magic as the first while shaking the characters up a bit, and once again fails to completely satisfy with either aim. I think we can partly pin this one on Marvel’s Villain Problem.
Ant-Man: Another fun solo outing that doesn’t hold any significance in the larger universe (and why should it?). The low-key appearance of Hope Van Dyne is frustrating but we know from the post-credits that will be rectified in the next solo movie so I can forgive stringing it out. In Hank Pym, we have an effective mirror and replacement for Howard Stark. And the family aspect keeps it more grounded than the fantastical entries around it. What’s slightly concerning is that the most novel parts - Luis’s enthusiastic montage expositions - were probably left over from Edgar Wright’s abandoned initial script and thus not an ongoing highlight.
Spider-Man: Homecoming: Honestly, it’s a good movie. I’m just not that into you, Peter.
Doctor Strange: I haven’t seen DS since its cinema release and I should rectify that. The problem is, I have no urge to. As a character, Strange is hard to like and, for me at least, putting Sherlock wrongmo Cumberbatch in the title role doesn’t make that any easier. Storywise it’s a bog-standard origin tale of the kind we thought had been left behind - perhaps Marvel were so concerned that the audience might have difficulty swallowing the whole concept of magic, they deliberately kept every other aspect of the film as unsurprising as possible. So: standard hero journey; standard, non-significant SO; standard villain and mentor, standard resolution. The effects are trippy and it has early Floyd on the soundtrack so I should love it. But I don’t.
Iron Man 2: Watch it for the introduction to Black Widow in action. Of the rest, the action scenes are enjoyable enough but Tony Stark the self-pitying mess gets old fast, and the movie is stuck in that place for too much of the running time.
The Incredible Is This Even An MCU Film At All: OK, Ed Norton has a really interesting, tortured take on Banner compared to Ruffalo’s later portrayal, but that’s it. Skip this unless it’s late, there’s nothing else on, and you don’t have any plans for the morning.
Quite a few people are on an #MCUrewatch, #RoadToInfinityWar jag at present, and it’s interesting to compare notes. Most people seem to put Winter Soldier at the top (and almost nobody has time for The Incredible Hulk), but some people rate Civil War very highly, think Thor 2 is better than Ultron or even (mad buggers) put IM2 above IM3. Also, some folk have a much sharper take on the problematic parts of the MCU than us average white guys, and those voices deserve a hearing.