Tuesday, 24 March 2015

From Best to Least Best: Ranking the MCU Movies Part 1

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Marvel's franchise template of an expanded universe has become the model for modern blockbuster cinema, even if the half-baked efforts from Sony and Warner Brothers, with their poorly-conceived Spider-Man and Justice League universes, feel like pound-shop knock offs of the Real Deal. Marvel's Cinematic Universe is easily the best long-running superhero series (sorry, my beloved X-Men), consistently surprising audiences and taking risks. Up for release next month is Avengers: Age of Ultron, and with the current catalogue at ten entries, it seems as good a time as any to list the Marvel films in order of my least to most favourite. I've agonised over the order of some of them, and most of the films are clustered pretty close together. Suffice to say I like all ten of the MCU films so far released, and this two-part list is more indicative of my personal tastes, rather than a definitive statement of overall quality. This week, we'll take a look at numbers 10 to 6, in a rundown dominated by Marvel's Phase One, and next week we'll finish the list with 5 to 1.

You're welcome.

10) Captain America: The First Avenger

Despite being a firm Phase One favourite of many Marvel fans, I've never fully enjoyed the first Captain America film. I didn't like it at all when I first watched it, and I have always found it to be amongst the most frustrating of the MCU films. While it has a strong opening, it completely fumbles its middle and final sections, presenting us with a series of montages masquerading as a second act and a finale that never fully rises to the boil. However, on subsequent viewings I have warmed to its stronger points, and grown to admire the film as a whole. While director Joe Johnston - enthusiastic minute-taker in the If Only We Were Steven Spielberg Club* - has never really made a great film, his work is almost uniformly without cynicism and brimming with a clear love for cinema. Watching his The Rocketeer is like watching a small child quote Indiana Jones in his back garden; he gets it a bit wrong, but it's cute anyway. Even Jurassic Park III, which Spielberg 'let' Johnston have, has sort of an infectious innocence about it, even though it's fundamentally crap. Similarly, although much of Jumanji doesn't hold up very well today, the central premise is so gleeful it's difficult to resist. It's in this spirit that I can enjoy The First Avenger, which at its core functions as an innocent and uncomplicated fable of good guys vs. bad guys. It's about little more than bravery triumphing over bullies, and wears its heart completely on its sleeve, which I admire. In this sense, Johnston is the perfect director for the material, especially given his preoccupation with mid-twentieth century American iconography.

Unfortunately, however, the plot really is all over the place, and loses focus in its second half, a problem from which many of the Phase One films suffer. Captain America: The First Avenger is most confident when introducing the pre-Super Soldier Steve Rogers, a man whose heroism is at odds with his physical abilities. It's intriguing, well paced and a good change of pace from the alpha-male focussed Iron Man and Thor. Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell and Stanley Tucci are all stellar in supporting roles, and the whole affair captures the fun of the other MCU films, which carving out its own identity and texture, helped in no small part by the period setting and Shelly Johnson's distinctive cinematography. However, when it comes time to strap in and enjoy Rogers and his pals zip off to save the day, the film fumbles. Instead of showcasing Rogers and his team in a single, well-executed and exciting mission, the film treats us to a montage of the Cap's Greatest Moments. On their own, they look great, but without the connective story tissue they add up to very little, feeling more like flashbacks than complete scenes. It's a section of the film that insists on telling us how great Captain America is, rather than showing us, which also means that his badass team, known as the Howling Commandos, are given the short shrift: we never really get to know any of them, and so it's difficult to care or even follow what happens to them. This is especially disappointing given the time the film dedicates to developing the other supporting characters. By the time the finale rolls around, too much disconnect has happened between the audience and the film's wonky sense of pacing, and before we know it, the whole thing is all over in a finale that feels abrupt and undercooked. That said, Captain America: The First Avenger does have its stand-out moments, whether its in the delicious early nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark - "while the Fuhrer digs for trinkets in the desert" - the best post-credits tease since the first Iron Man, or Hugo Weaving's pitch-perfect 1940s-serial scenery chewing as The Red Skull. It's just that those moments rarely hang together in a way that works for me, and it's for that reason that while The First Avenger isn't the weakest MCU instalment (and is by no means a bad film), it's certainly the most disappointing.

9) The Incredible Hulk

I have a great deal of time for The Incredible Hulk, not least because it doesn't sit quite as well in the Expanded Universe as the other films. Released the same year as Iron Man, Marvel were still clearly hedging their bets with regards to their cross-continuity, and so what we have is a film differing greatly in both tone and style from Iron Man. Although The Incredible Hulk isn't connected to the previous Ang Lee Hulk, it also doesn't explicitly distance itself from it, making it feel somewhere in between a reboot and a sequel. What the film demonstrates very well is that it is possible to effectively (re)introduce a character without another interminable 'Origins' plot. Right off the bat we have Edward Norton as an already Hulkified-Bruce Banner, hiding from the authorities in the Brazilian favellas. Hunted by Tim Roth's menacing Royal Marine Emil Blonsky, Banner is searching for a cure to his condition. It's a decent premise, and the first transformation scene, coming early in the film, is great, setting the film apart from Lee's ambitious but plodding predecessor. However, just as Iron Man struggles to do anything interesting with Tony Stark after he gets into the completed suit, The Incredible Hulk struggles after Banner finds himself back in the US. It's never clear whether or not Blonsky's superior, General Ross, is supposed to be a villain, and while the final showdown in the city is exciting and well staged, it can't help but feel rather perfunctory, not least because of the film's lack of a clear theme. As a result, the film's story never really climaxes; I'd suggest this is because, as the second MCU film, it's raison d'etre seems to be the dual question, "Can we really do this comic character justice on the big screen, and will audiences accept him?" The first Iron Man exists for basically the same reason, and I would argue that it's this proof-of-concept approach to the material that means the narratives of both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk don't work especially well. It's a problem that Marvel didn't really solve until the redemptive narrative arc of Thor, and is something that with their demonstrably growing confidence, they've been refining ever since.   That said, it's better paced than Captain America, and has a feel and identity of its own. While having virtually no impact on the events of the wider MCU, The Incredible Hulk is a solid action film, and works best as a monster movie.

8) Thor: The Dark World

While there's nothing especially wrong with the second Thor entry, and despite the fact that I find it more consistently entertaining than both The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk, there just seems to be something lacking about this one. Perhaps it's the lame rom-com subplot between Natalie Portman and Chris O'Dowd which goes nowhere, or the unnecessary addition of the Lady Sif taking a fancy to Thor: also a dead-end that leads nowhere. I suspect, however, it's something a little deeper than that, and I'd attribute it to a director better known for his TV work and, ahem, the new Terminator film, due later this year. Alan Taylor's direction is fine but humdrum, lacking anything approaching the sincerity of Joe Johnston, the idiosyncrasy of Iron Man 3's Shane Black, or indeed, Kenneth Branagh's commitment to the portentous silliness that made the first Thor such a laugh. This blandness bleeds through into the film's villain, Malaketh, who doesn't come remotely close to Loki as a great bad guy. Tom Hiddleston, however, remains on top form as Thor's conniving adopted brother, clearly having the time of his life as the MCU's best baddie. Indeed, positioning Loki as a central character only strengthens what would otherwise be a rote plot. In fact, all the key players are on good form, and despite the film's shortcomings, the action is still exciting; I especially like the London-set, portal-hopping finale, and seeing Loki and Thor working together is a treat. As a result, The Dark World firmly consolidates the promise of the first Thor, Avengers Assemble and Iron Man 3: that Marvel has finally cracked how to properly structure a narrative towards a satisfying conclusion.

7) Iron Man 2

Much like The Incredible Hulk, I have a lot of time for the second Iron Man film, and unlike many fans, I don't hate the fact that its main purpose for existing is to set up future Avengers films. Robert Downey Jr. is on top form again as the eponymous hero, and the sub-plot of his needing to find a new power source for the suit works especially well, tying together Tony's rediscovery of his father's legacy, battling the villain Whiplash, and meeting with Nick Fury to discuss the tantalising Avengers Initiative. What's key here is that this is a good sub-plot, as is the Justin Hammer as a rival weapons developer sub-plot, as is the mounting tension between Tony and Colonel James Rhodes. It's just a shame that none of these become the main plot of the movie, and as such it struggles for both narrative direction, and an identity sufficiently distinct from the last film. In addition, Iron Man 2 introduces Natasha Romanoff AKA Black Widow, but rather than focussing on her impressive skill set, positions her as a sex object for Tony. Avengers Assemble and Captain America: The Winter Soldier have gone some way to rectifying that representation of her, but in a series that has yet to feature a single woman in the lead in ten films (and won't until it hits film number 20 (!) with Captain Marvel), it's a particularly embarrassing misstep. That said, replacing Terence Howard with Don Cheadle as Rhodes is a brilliant move - "I'm here, it's me, get over it" - as is the introduction of War Machine. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell have terrific fun in their roles as Whiplash and Hammer, and the action sequences, tepid finale aside, are fun, tense and exciting. It's another one which has grown on me over time, and while it might not quite hit the mark, it's got a lot to offer.

6) Iron Man

Iron Man is rightly beloved as the film that opened Marvel's experiment in cross-franchise continuity, but in hindsight, it's not quite as good as some of the later entries to the MCU. On release, Iron Man's secret weapon was low expectation, owing partially to the fact that the character was unfamiliar to most audiences. Additionally, this was a time for the genre when for every Spider-Man 2 there was a Daredevil or X-Men: The Last StandSuperman Returns had disappointed audiences and most people were more interested in the upcoming The Dark Knight than in Robert Downey Jr. dressing up in red and gold armour. It came as somewhat of a surprise, then, that Iron Man was full of wit, innovation and humour. Downey Jr. was a revelation as Tony Stark, embodying the role as effortlessly and inextricably as Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones. It's easy to forget, too, the brilliance of the suit design - the suit effects really are flawless - and not since Superman The Movie (or Spider-Man, at a push) had a superhero costume been translated so faithfully and effectively on the big screen. But perhaps most impressively, the film balances its tone perfectly, engaging in a wry self-awareness without ever falling into tiresome post-ironic snark. The icing on the cake was, of course, the post-credits tease, which had people cheering in the cinema. Again, it's easy to forget how innovative this was; superhero films just didn't inhabit shared universes at the time, and the promise of this happening, however tenuous, felt tantalising.

So why isn't Iron Man higher on my list? In short, it's been superseded by its more confident and better structured successors. As with many of the early Marvel films, Iron Man's villain is its weakest asset, filling a perfunctory role so that we can have a climactic showdown, which, while okay, neither lives up to nor exceeds the film's previous set-pieces. Linked to this is the fact that after Tony gets into the completed suit, the film runs out of story. I think that an interesting facet of the Phase One films is that they feel like proof-of-concepts, rather than narrative films. The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man especially are strongest in their first and second acts, when they are introducing their audiences to these outlandish characters. As I've suggested above, once the films are finished with the set up, they run out of steam, because they're interested in their characters first, and their narratives second. This would be fine, but because Iron Man is a Hollywood tent pole movie, it needs to have an action-packed third act, which given the loose and fun spirit of the film, just doesn't quite work. Iron Man secures its place through its light tone, Downey Jr.'s pitch-perfect performance, and in its sheer gall at setting up a shared cinematic universe. Undeniably flawed, and far from Marvel's strongest film, it remains a solid and highly entertaining first instalment in the mega franchise.

Once these early films were under Marvel's belt, and once the studio became more adept at handling their cross-continuities, they became better at balancing story and character. As this list would suggest, the MCU films have broadly improved as the studio has grown in confidence. The next five films on this list represent the series' development, so come back next week to see how they stack up.

* Other members include Head-of-Club Robert Zemeckis and purveyor of sentimental schlock and inferior Harry Potter films, Chris Columbus.  

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