Monday, 12 January 2015

Top 20 Marvel Studios films

20) Thor: The Dark World
If ever the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe, for the uninitiated) veered dangerously close to the abysmal lows reached by Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, it was with the Thor: The Daft World. With Game of Thrones regular Alan Taylor in the director’s chair, we were expecting grittier battles, a family web of intrigue and maybe, just maybe, Loki delivering an evil monologue during a sexposition scene. What we got instead was not enough Loki, very dodgy physics, a main villain void of motivation or personality and an embarrassing overreliance on comedy that you suspect is there to distract from the myriad of plot holes. To paraphrase Avengers director Joss Whedon (who also had to be parachuted in at the last minute to tidy up the screenplay): if you’ve got a good script, you won’t need jokes. If you don’t, not even all the jokes in the world will save you.

19) Thor: Ragnarok

Actually, scratch that – the time the MCU actually DID come close to the abysmal lows reached by Batman & Robin was with the God of Thunder’s third outing. No doubt still feeling the brunt of The Dark World’s lacklustre reception, Marvel Studios looked to the beloved Guardians of the Galaxy franchise and made the strategic decision to inject Ragnarok with a massive dose of wacky humour, brighten up the colour palette and throw in some space guns for good measure. The end result? An action comedy ripe with slapstick gags and college humour that proved immensely popular with undemanding mainstream audiences, but that thematically bears no resemblance to Thor or TDW. Some will argue that director Taika Waititi re-energised a character that was increasingly being overshadowed by his fellow Avengers, but the truth is Waititi seems to have no interest or patience to understand the source material and give it the treatment it deserves. After all, why dignify a Norse God when you can repeatedly zap him for a laugh?

18) The Incredible Hulk
Some could argue that Louis Leterrier’s take on Marvel’s resident angry man was harmed by its release date, which was just over a month after Iron Man’s debut and therefore was always going to suffer by comparison. But even taken on its own merits, there’s a lot wrong with The Incredible Hulk: the quality of the CGI is inconsistent, Edward Norton is oddly unmemorable as Bruce Banner (as are the rest of the supporting cast), while the plot and pace feel a little too calculated and risk-assessed, which no doubt has something to do with Ang Lee’s Hulk, an art house superhero flick that alienated mainstream audiences in 2003. It’s basically a serviceable blockbuster that plays it a little too safe. Had a director with a stronger creative vision been hired and Ed Norton reined in (whose frequent meddling with the script cost him the gig in The Avengers), Marvel would’ve probably had a Hulk Smash on its hands.

17) Dr Strange

With a premise that touches upon mystical dimensions and astral planes, Dr Strange represented a bold step in a new direction for Marvel Studios. From a visual standpoint it is the MCU’s most ambitious movie – the mind-bending sequence in which the staunchly agnostic Stephen Strange experiences multiple realities all at once is just as psychedelic an experience for the viewer. Yet there is so much about Dr Strange that reeks of missed opportunity. Director Scott Derrickson’s could have taken the film in a much darker direction, considering his pedigree in supernatural horror flicks, while Mads Mikkelsen, a character actor that excels at playing villains, is criminally underused as the movie’s big bad. But what’s most jarring is that the plot feels like a carbon copy of Iron Man’s origin story: wealthy, arrogant, impeccably bearded genius learns the error of his ways by becoming a superhero – just substitute ‘technology’ with ‘magic’. And while Benedict Cumberbatch does a decent job as the titular doctor (but the less said about that accent, the better), Stephen Strange is no Tony Stark.

16) Iron Man 2
IM2 was the first time Marvel Studios succumbed to its own hype. Still fresh off the success of Jon Favreau’s first instalment and Nick Fury’s foreshadowing mention of “The Avenger Initiative”, the newly invigorated film studio decided to cram in as many Easter Eggs for its upcoming films (Black Widow? Check. Captain America’s shield? You betcha. Thor’s Hammer? Hell Yeah!), but in the process forgot to invest time in a half decent script, choosing instead to rely a little too heavily on Robert Downey Jr’s improv skills and his shorthand with Favreau. Still, there are a few standout scenes worth mentioning, such as Iron Man’s ridiculously cool entrance at a packed expo hall to the sound of AC/DC, a nail-biting confrontation on the Monte Carlo racetrack and a mouth-watering teaser that remains Marvel’s best end credits scene to this day. Perhaps the best way to sum up IM2 is that it’s a bit like sex and pizza: even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

15) Avengers: Age of Ultron
The second time Marvel succumbed to its own hype, AOU is a serious misstep in what had been a fairly smooth run of hits in Phase 2. While the first Avengers film felt like a triumphant culmination of four franchises coming together both narratively and figuratively, this time round Earth’s Mightiest Heroes appear to team up due to contractual obligation. Joss Whedon does his best to juggle the lumpy script and ever-expanding cast, but most of the time feels like he is ticking boxes off a never-ending list of set-ups, sequel-baits and luscious Easter Eggs. It’s not all bad news, though. The action set-pieces are reliably earth-shattering (literally), Machiavellian cyborg Ultron is ironically one of Marvel’s meatier villains to date and Paul Bettany unexpectedly steals the show with his majestic turn as The Vision. And of course, there’s still plenty of fun to be had watching Cap, Iron Man & Co. together on-screen – even if it’s at house party, rather than the battlefield.

14) Ant-Man & The Wasp

There are two words looming over Peyton Reed’s serviceable if not outstanding sequel to his diminutive heist movie: Infinity War. Released just a few months apart, there was no way Ant-Man & the Wasp was ever going to live up to the Russo Bros’ almighty crossover event and as a result, like The Incredible Hulk with Iron Man before it, the film was always destined to suffer in comparison. But taken on its own merits, there is plenty of fun to be had watching Ant-Man & the Wasp. Paul Rudd refines his shtick as relatable loser Scott Lang, while Evangeline Lilly is the perfect foil to her goofy counterpart as the sassy Hope Van Dyne. Also, following a string of MCU entries that were trying a little too hard to be funny, the comedy in AM&TW feels more welcome and befitting of the film’s tone. And finally, special mention should also go to the heart-warming relationship between Scott and Cassie Lang – in a cinematic universe where a super-powered smackdown is never far away, it is nice to see some screen time dedicated to a father and daughter playing treasure hunt in the attic.

13) Spiderman: Homecoming

Let’s be clear, there is a lot that Homecoming gets right: it wisely relocates Spider-Man back to high school; even more wisely, it casts an actual teenager, the immensely likeable Tom Holland, in the titular role; the overfamiliar Uncle Ben subplot is mercifully scrapped; and, in Michael Keaton’s Vulture, it gives us a blue collar bad guy that feels sympathetic and surprisingly more menacing when he is out of the mechanical wings – the scene in which he confronts Peter Parker in a car feels less like a confrontation between hero and villain and more like a sadistic adult bullying an intimated teenager. So why doesn’t the film rank higher on the list? For starters, while there isn’t the same overreliance on comedy present in Ragnarok, there is enough of it to drag in a couple of scenes. Due to the Queens setting, there is also a woeful lack of web-swinging from skyscrapers (say what you want about Amazing Spider-Man 2, but that film knew how to spend its special effects budget). But what’s most ill-judged is the creative decision to give Spidey a high-tech suit that has more in common with Iron Man than it does with the superhero’s classic DIY roots. The end result is a film that simply feels like a preferable alternative to Sony’s Amazing Spider-Man franchise, when it should’ve actually been aiming for the towering heights reached by Sam Raimi with Spider-Man 2.

12) Captain America: The First Avenger
CA:TFA (need to keep the word count down) is a film of two halves. The first is a brilliant WWII origin story that portrays Steve Rogers’ journey from scrawny underdog to legendary war hero. People talk about Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy as being Marvel’ riskiest projects, but getting worldwide audiences to root for a dude dressed in the American flag is no easy feat either. Luckily, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script and Chris Evans’ well-judged performance manage to infuse Rogers with the requisite humanity to make him an affable character, so that viewers can look past the red, white and blue and see the good man behind the patriotic fa├žade. It’s the second half that’s a problem: post-super soldier conversion, the film is content with sticking our hero in a series of uninspiring action montages and key plot points like Bucky’s death feel rushed and lack the requisite emotional punch. And as for the ill-advised cyberpunk vibe, would it have been so bad for Cap to battle some actual Nazis? If Indiana Jones could get away with it, why can’t a Marvel character?

11) Thor
Iron Man aside, Thor is the best of Marvel’s phase 1 movies. For starters, it defies the conventions of most first instalments in superhero franchises by not being an origins story – when we meet Thor, he’s fully formed, no explanation necessary for how he got his mystical hammer. Secondly, the script makes the bold move of relegating him to Earth in a powerless state for the majority of the film’s running time. As unlikely as it seems, it’s a plot device that works. With his space viking wardrobe and a propensity to speak in Olde English, Thor could’ve looked and sounded really silly, but by going down the fish-out-of-water route, the Norse God instantly becomes a more amusing proposition. It also helps that he’s played by Chris Hemsworth, whose handsome features and deep voice not only make him a dead ringer for the God of Thunder, it also means that Thor is the one Marvel film your girlfriend might just watch with you. And while the film is admittedly lacking in the action set-pieces department, it did introduce us to Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki, easily the most charismatic and emotionally complex villain in the whole MCU.

10) Ant-Man
There’s an argument to be made that Marvel Studios’ biggest accomplishment in Phase 2 has been pulling off brilliant adaptations of its more obscure characters. So after Falcon becoming Avengers-material in Winter Solider and the Guardians of the Galaxy sealed their reputation as the coolest team on the space block, along comes Ant-Man, easily the hero with the most laughable superpower out there. But you know what? Turns out shrinking is cool, especially in a heist film that’s part Ocean’s Eleven, part Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (there’s also a scene that goes a bit Interstellar, but let’s not talk about that). Paul Rudd’s Scott Lang may not be the new Tony Stark, but the actor’s brand of humour fits in perfectly with the subject matter, while Michael Douglas brings some much needed gravitas to a role that sees him chatting to a bunch of ants. Most refreshingly, this is the film that finally ended Marvel’s tiring habit for staging apocalyptic sky-battles in their final acts, instead opting for something different, trippy and laugh-out loud funny. Four words: Thomas the Tank Engine.

9) Iron Man 3
The shame about IM3 is that so many fanboys will never forgive Shane Black for that Mandarin twist, when it’s actually Marvel’s most introspective movie to date. Yes, it’s action-packed and Robert Downey Jr’s witty improvisation is still bang on the money, but strip away the fancy armour and you’ll find a lot of intriguing psychological questions are being raised. Does Tony Stark’s obsession with building new suits mean he’s actually trying to build better versions of himself? And if a man needs to rely on his technology to save the world, is he still a hero when you take it away from him? The fact that a summer blockbuster finds the time to focus on these points in between explosions is quite laudable. Also, many forget that post-Avengers, there was an underlying fear that audiences would no longer have the patience to sit through a handful of solo films. IM3 proved that, as long as you have a good script and a confident director like the man behind Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, that would never be the case. And as for that Mandarin twist, it may defy decades of comic book mythology, but it works and hilariously so. In fact, if you want to decry something, it should be the treatment of War Machine/Iron Patriot. He’s useless. 

8) Avengers: Infinity War

It shouldn’t have worked. With a character roster that includes 22 pre-established superheroes, multiple settings across the universe and a running of time of ‘just’ 150 minutes, many could’ve been forgiven for believing that Infinity War was destined to crumble under the weight of its own ambition. They need not have worried, for the Russo Bros. manage to pull off an epic crossover that remains character-driven (for the most part) while also featuring the scale and set-pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in a fantasy epic directed by Peter Jackson. Yet while hardcore fans will no doubt lap up the pathos on display, Infinity War can admittedly feel like a spectacular yet vacuous experience to casual viewers. While The Avengers felt more contained and worked as a standalone movie, Infinity War relies a little too heavily on what came before and not everyone will have fully invested themselves in the MCU’s previous 18 (!!) films. It’s a good job then that there’s a compelling villain holding all the various strands together. In Thanos, IW has a central character that has both the intelligence and screen presence to make a truly unforgettable antagonist, brought to magnificent life by convincing CGI and a magnetic performance by Josh Brolin. And then there’s that ending, not so much a cliffhanger, more like a promise from Kevin Feige that the Infinity Gauntlet is off and that the MCU won’t be resting on its laurels any time soon. Bring on Avengers 4.

7) Black Panther

The best films in the MCU are the ones that have a strong sense of their own identity and don’t feel the need to emulate other entries. So while Thor: Ragnarok is the perfect example of a director not getting the source material and trying to make up for it with an overdose of the cartoonish slapstick seen in Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther is the polar opposite. From the film’s opening minutes, it is clear that Ryan Coogler is a director that understands and honours the source material – a superhero who also happens to be the monarch of a hidden African nation – before going on to deliver a standout adaptation of one of the most beloved characters in Marvel comics. Yes, the plot at times does feel like The Lion King with humans, but Coogler’s script finds the time to embellish a familiar story by including references to real world events (a Boko Haram kidnapping, the birthplace of the real Black Panther movement), as well as injecting cerebral themes, such as the choice between isolationism and interventionism or, more intriguingly, the burden of balancing the duties of a sovereign with that of a superhero. What you are left with is the wokest blockbuster to have graced our screens in recent years, one that feels somewhat current with what’s going on in the world right now, while also featuring a man in a cat suit take down a rhino. Wakanda forever, indeed.

6) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

You could argue that what makes the Guardians’ follow-up a standout blockbuster is the perfect marriage of witty humour, even bigger alien smackdowns and yet another catchy soundtrack (Fleetwood Mack’s ‘The Chain’ is put to exceptional use), but what really surprises is how emotional Vol. 2 is. ‘Family’ is the core theme that permeates throughout this giddily enjoyable action romp, sometimes catching the viewer by complete surprise: it’s the key driver in Peter Quill’s relationship with his two fathers, Ego and Yondu; it’s just about palpable in the exchanges between Drax and daughter-figure Mantis; you feel it in the bitter sibling rivalry between Gamora and a vengeful Nebula, who only seem able to express their feelings by trading blows; and it’s a frequent source of amusement in recurring gags involving the irresistibly adorable Baby Groot. All of which points to a film that feels less like a sequel and more like a companion piece that sits on the same level as its exceptional predecessor. There is only one thing that slightly brings down the overall picture – the MCU’s fixation with comedy in 2017 can be traced back to here, as Drax the Destroyer gets downgraded from the deadpan but solemn warrior he was in Vol.1 to an all-round goofball boasting about the size of his turds.

5) Guardians of the Galaxy
If we’re strictly talking plot structure, Guardians is a bit of a mess. It’s a big colourful jigsaw of a movie made up of Macguffins, frequent planet-hopping and too many characters with unclear motives (Ronan the Accuser’s reasons for waging war on Xandar can be roughly summed up as “because evil”). But where GOTG lacks in narrative, it more than makes up for with quirky characterisation. Any superhero roster that includes a talking raccoon and a walking tree is bound to look utterly stupid on-screen, but director James Gunn makes it work thanks to a talented cast who nail the comedic timing impeccably. And yet, amid all the wise-cracking and buddy banter, there are also some truly moving moments in GOTG, such as Groot’s noble sacrifice or the moment we finally find out why Chris Pratt’s snarky Peter Quill insists on the “Star Lord” moniker. And also, in a cinematic universe where every film contractually needs to be interconnected, Gunn’s space-romp feels wonderfully standalone, for a change. It may not be the best of Marvel’s catalogue like some would have you believe, but Guardians is certainly the funniest and funkiest of the bunch. Now, all together: OOGA CHAKA, OOGA CHAKA… 

4) Iron Man
Where it all began. It may be difficult to believe today but Iron Man was not the safest bet for Marvel Studios back in 2008. Not only by this point was ol’ shell-head still a B-list character in the comics, his movie was coming out the same year as The Dark Knight, a much higher profile superhero flick also starring a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist that fought crime with the aid of snazzy technology. But while DC’s poster boy has always worked better in the shadows, Jon Favreau took Iron Man in the opposite direction and made a blockbuster that was fun, sleek and endlessly quotable, despite also being rooted to some extent in real world issues, including corporate politics and the USA’s role in arming Middle Eastern terrorists with WMDs. Then again, it can be argued that IM wouldn’t have worked without the involvement of a certain Robert Downey Jr. Tony Stark has always been a bit of a stiff on paper, but RDJ managed to turn him into a triumphant blend of impulsive heroism and cocky bravado – in a time when Batman and Spiderman were spending most of their films moping about the pressures of being a superhero, here was a character who actually enjoyed it and couldn’t wait to tell the world that he was Iron Man. Other high points include the relationship between Tony and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, who flirt, bicker and bounce off each other like real life couples do; his Iron Monger counterpart may be underwhelming, but Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane is a deliciously Machiavellian creation that is often criminally overlooked in the villains’ pantheon; and finally, reviewed nine MCU entries later, it’s nice to enjoy Iron Man as an entertaining standalone film that doesn’t feel the need to constantly drop in references to the larger Marvel universe, SHIELD excepted. The rest, as they say, is history.

3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
As opposed to Thor, who enjoyed a decent first instalment only to be followed by the risible Dark World, Cap got a much better deal with The Winter Soldier, a film that improves on The First Avenger in almost every department. Here is a blockbuster that is smarter and far more confident than its predecessor, which includes the odd moment of humour but without overly relying on it. In fact, with a plot centred on cyberterrorism, covert ops and sleeper agents, it often feels less like a superhero flick and more a modern espionage thriller that echoes real life current events (the ominous SHIELD helicarriers are effectively three ginormous drones). Some cynics would’ve argued that Steve Rogers was the most boring Avenger, but directorial duo the Russo Bros. figured a way to make the Captain cool by turning him into a jacked-up, shield-wielding Jason Bourne. As a result, the action sequences revolve around practical stunts and fight choreography (a claustrophobic bust-up in an elevator being the stand-out), which make for a nice alternative from the inevitable third act CGI extravaganza. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely should also be given credit for allowing time to breathe life into the supporting characters too – Natasha Romanoff becomes increasingly complex, Nick Fury finally feels like a fleshed out individual and Sam Wilson a.k.a The Falcon, admittedly something of a boring sidekick in the comics, is given a swaggering make-over for the big screen. All in all, a great sequel and one of the best movies in the Marvel canon.

2) Captain America: Civil War

What makes Civil War stand out is that it feels like a bonus Avengers movie while also functioning as a satisfying follow-up to The Winter Soldier. On the one hand you have multiple heroes going toe to toe with each other in an airport battle scene that could’ve easily been lifted from the comics. On the other, you have a compelling conclusion to Captain America’s journey, starting as a national treasure in The First Avenger and somehow ending up as enemy of the state in the third chapter of what is the most compelling character arc of the MCU. Like The Winter Solider before it, Civil War appears to be more interested in tackling big questions about accountability and has the Avengers divided over a registration act that demands super-powered individuals sign up as government officials. The film’s most compelling scene is not really the airport brawl, but the moment in which Tony Stark and Steve Rogers have a heated debate in a small room over their responsibilities as heroes. And that’s the secret to Civil War’s appeal: it’s a difference of opinion, not the end of the world, that drives the drama. Of course, there are other elements that add to the mix as well, such as a successful introduction of one superhero, an even more successful re-introduction of another, a towering, show-stealing cameo by the MCU’s tiniest vigilante and did we already mention that airport tussle? 

1) The Avengers
Given how often the title pops up in the previous entries on this list, it’s hardly a surprise that Marvel Studios’ blockbuster juggernaut ranks as the best of their films to date. Sure, bringing together four profitable franchises was always going to rake in the dosh at the box office, but would it be any good? Fans and film critics around the world breathed a sigh of relief the moment Joss Whedon was announced as director/screenwriter, a man who knows how to handle ensembles and that had geek cred thanks to his cult TV series Firefly, Angel and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention a successful run on The Astonishing X-Men comics. A lesser director could’ve easily succumbed to A-list pressure and turned The Avengers into Iron Man & his Super Chums, but with Whedon at the helm, there are no divas hogging the limelight and everyone gets to hold the screen at least once. More importantly, there’s a sense that Whedon truly gets these characters and nails their beats right from the word go: Natasha Romanoff, whose presence was barely noticed in IM2, is given a jab of iconic feminism and instantly turns into the MCU’s Buffy; Thor’s resolve to stop Loki (who threatens to steal the movie with every venomous monologue) is balanced out by a noble desire to save his brother’s soul; Bruce Banner is cleverly played by Mark Ruffalo as a man who’s both terrified and secretly thrilled by his ability to turn into an “enormous green rage monster” (who then snatches the movie out of Loki’s hands); Steve Rogers earns his stripes (and stars) by overcoming his initial sense of displacement and stepping up to lead his volatile teammates when the time comes to defend NYC from an alien invasion; and Tony Stark proves that he’s more than just a dick in a suit with a selfless act of heroism towards the end of the movie. Sure, Clint Barton feels a little redundant in the grand scheme of things, but gives a great demonstration of how archery can be super power even common mortals can master. The end result is a brilliant comic book movie that feels driven by character rather than spectacle, and that ticks all the boxes for Marvel fans and is accessible to the general public. 

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