Unprecedented is the one word that can come closest to describing Marvel’s success as a studio. One short decade ago, the studio had no choice but to roll the dice on a second tier hero to kick off the most ambitious project in cinematic history. A connected universe, something we now take for granted, had never been attempted at this level of filmmaking. But the second Nick Fury appeared in Tony Stark’s living room, we knew we were in for a new breed of franchise. Sparing you the well-documented history of Marvel Studios, let’s fast-forward to today as we prepare for Civil War to rip our heroes in half. This May welcomes the biggest event in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) saga as heroes go to war against their own kind. But it took quite a few movies to reach this point, giving us years and years of superhero fun. Some of Marvel’s hits stand among the greatest movies in the genre’s history. Others fell by the wayside, more closely resembling speed bumps along the journey. To set it all straight, in preparation for what will hopefully be their best yet, here is my personal countdown of every film the MCU has released thus far. Taking into account the length of the countdown, I will be forced to milk my audience to death like any major studio would and split this up into two parts. In the Marvel spirit, let’s call this Phase 1.
That’s right, there are twelve of these. Good for them for lasting long enough to suffer the occasional not so great movie. There are decent to mediocre movies that fail to move a franchise forward, and then there are actively counterproductive movies that set a franchise back. Following The Avengers was never going to be an easy task, but it certainly could have been done with more than what the confused Iron Man 3 had to offer. The first big question with the Phase 2 movies was “why not call The Avengers?” Iron Man 3 dodged that bullet fairly well by placing Tony Stark in isolation, presumed dead. Actually, the entire first half of the movie is pretty strong. However I did know we were in trouble when they didn’t lead off with AC/DC. In many ways, that was this movie’s problem. It tried too hard to be its own thing, almost shunning the universe and making desperate decisions to stand out. Obviously, the big mistake was the Mandarin twist, turning an elite actor and well set up character into Austin Powers halfway through the story. This is why you don’t try to outsmart your audience. If you come up with something they never even considered, you’re not a genius, and there’s probably a reason why they never considered it. Beyond that, the tone was jarring between corny jokes and PTSD episodes. The route taken with Pepper was ridiculous. And what’s worse, they tried to retire Tony Stark despite full knowledge of future Avengers movies. They furthered insulted the character by removing his chest’s arc reactor, even though one film prior to that (in The Avengers) Tony partially forms his friendship with Bruce by saying the shrapnel clawing towards his heart was a part of him, just like “the other guy” is a part of Bruce. Well, I guess it wasn’t really a part of him. Sorry Bruce. If you’re not going to move a franchise forward, at least stand still.
Iron Man 2
I suppose I’m about to sound very hypocritical, but these bottom two show how the Iron Man sequels have struggled achieving balance. It seemed the only real purpose of Iron Man 2 was to set up the wider universe, with S.H.I.E.L.D. essentially acting as the main character. There was a lot of potential to be had with Tony’s infamous alcoholism storyline, but they didn’t take it seriously enough to be much more than a bad pee joke and an ill-conceived fight with War Machine. Aside from that, this movie doesn’t commit many sins. It’s just tremendously dull compared to the many other Marvel Studios films. The few positive aspects of it are very copy and paste. We get it, Tony Stark angered a lot of rival billionaires in his life and now they’re all using some bastardization of his technology to seek revenge. Whiplash was the first of Marvel’s style over substance villains, and Mickey Rourke is famously critical of the role. Tony Stark is quite possibly the most interesting hero the MCU has given us, and he’s certainly the most well known. The Iron Man sequels are very aware of that, and seem to rest on their RDJ laurels as they let the superstar do all the work. Downey Jr. never loses his flare, but he’s missing some much-needed help from his second and third solo stories.
Thor: The Dark World
I am comfortable admitting I thought this was going to be Phase 2’s biggest success. We didn’t see much of Thor being Thor in his first adventure, so The Dark World was barely a sequel. And he’s working with Loki? This should have been the proper cosmic follow-up to the threats faced in The Avengers. I was under the impression that this would be Thanos’ debut, he would be hunting down Loki (since he did promise a lifetime of pain if Loki failed in the war against Earth’s mightiest heroes), and all of Asgard would have to join forces in order to even temporarily defeat him. In the post-credit scene, Thanos would begin his collection of Infinity Stones and there’s your big setup for Phase 3. That sounds a lot better than what we got, which was an all powerful yet completely generic bad guy that serves as nothing more than target practice for Mjolnir. In addition to all this, the rest of Phase 2 has relatively small-scale threats that wouldn’t necessarily require the Avengers. But if Malekith had succeeded, reality itself would have ceased to exist. All nine realms would have been erased. That’s a larger threat than Loki and Ultron combined. Every able bodied Avenger and hero on Earth should have dropped what they were doing, so we wouldn’t have to watch Natalie Portman play Portal. Instead of either my idea or even a proper version of their idea, we get more silly Thor’s in New Mexico humor. Only this time, he’s in London. I’m not certain of this but I think Kat Dennings has at least as much screen time as Tom Hiddleston. The Thor-Loki back and forth is great and fun to watch, which salvages much of the film as a whole. You actually believe that these two, above all else, are ultimately brothers who never seem to get along. But Natalie Portman not wanting to be there is evident, and the humble physicist of course manages to be the centerpiece of a story about Norse gods and aliens.
The Incredible Hulk
I would consider us past the stage of movies I pick on. Beyond this point, these are all good movies in my book. It is incredibly (pun intended) difficult to make a proper Hulk movie, and The Incredible Hulk gave us a solid and enjoyable film. It’s sad looking back and seeing a less Ruffalo Bruce Banner but, on its own, The Incredible Hulk successfully brings the green goliath to life. Abomination was done well, despite Hulk villains being even tougher to bring to the big screen. The references to the extended universe were subtle but effective, and the action was all kinds of powerful. I still say watching the Hulk rip a cop car in two and use the pieces as boxing gloves is one of the more satisfying moments in MCU history. The previous “Hulk” effort was silly and melodramatic, but this movie made it very clear that you simply do not want to fight this guy under any circumstances. When starting a crowd, it is said that the second guy is just as important as the first. The first person creates something that happened, but the second creates something that happens. Iron Man was a huge success, but getting the Hulk right guaranteed that we were witnessing the formation of a team. A quality Marvel Studios movie wasn’t just something that happened, it became something that happens.
If you thought the Hulk was tough to adapt into a screenplay, you can imagine the challenge of bringing Thor’s universe to life. This was the first Marvel Studios movie to fully commit to slapstick humor. This has become a crutch, one that they may use too often, which takes away from the hindsight value of Thor. But at the time, it was a bold move that both literally and figuratively brought Thor down to Earth. The humor acts as a failsafe in case audiences have trouble buying into the nine realms and the extensive mythology. While we don’t get much Thor in Thor, we see just enough to realize this may be Marvel’s most powerful superhero. Tom Hiddleston, even before fully settling into the role, gives us our first great villain. Of course, he only goes on to improve as the God of Mischief, but this movie is essentially his origin story as the trickster we all know and love. Thor overcame a tall order and cleared a straight thematic path towards The Avengers.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
A great deal of Age of Ultron’s shortcomings may have been the product of insurmountable hype. But if The Force Awakens taught us one thing, no hype is insurmountable. This movie is bipolar. Aspects of the Avengers sequel are excellent, matched by very few films in the franchise. But they also made a number of mistakes that drag this all the way down to a middle of the road ranking. The jokes are clever and very well written, as are all things Whedon, but the Whedonisms overwhelmed what should have been a much more balanced tone. You’ll never have a Marvel Studios movie without jokes, and maybe you shouldn’t, but Age of Ultron had the opportunity to up the ante and take this franchise to the next level. I’m all for occasionally breaking the tension, but you first need tension in order to break it. Menacing is the one word that describes comics-Ultron, and the initial trailer set an eerily beautiful tone. Instead, we’re assaulted with almost three hours of quips, even from the genocidal robot that means to end or enslave all of mankind. Then of course they essentially erase Black Widow by turning her into Betty Ross through a hilariously forced romance. Ultron actually locks her up in a cage later on, creating the unnecessary damsel in distress scenario that Marvel Studios is usually able to avoid. Why wouldn’t he just kill her, exactly? I do love half-naked Thor as much as the next guy, but the space hot tub scene was shoehorned and out of place. The action is great, the chemistry between most of the team is strong, and the Civil War stage is set beautifully, and there are some amazing moments. The new characters, particularly Vision and Scarlet Witch, are excellent and stand out in a team of heroes that you’ve already gotten to know for years. Hawkeye is finally given the attention he deserves. A lot went right in Age of Ultron, but a few too many bad decisions led to a movie that was just sloppy.
A big thank you to everyone for reading; I hope my Part 1 was better than Mockingjay’s. Phase Two is now up! http://moviepilot.com/post/articles/235285