Because I’m a nerd I watch and enjoy a lot of movies, and comic book movies especially. And because I’m an obsessive nerd I often make lists and rankings for no reason other than to express my joy and amusement (or lack thereof) on any given set of parameters. It’s not uncommon for my friends and I to talk about our list of the best Marvel movie with every few releases. I haven’t done this in a few movies and I’m actually quite curious, and given that this month will see the 18th Marvel movie (Avengers: Infinity War), its biggest yet, I decided to revisit all the Marvel movies before redoing my rank after viewing Infinity War. Some I’ve only seen once, others I can’t even count, but now I’m rewatching with this specific focus in mind. Here I’ll recount my thoughts as I work through each phase, before unveiling my list in May after the Avengers has time to settle.
The movie that kicked it all off. It was really interesting to revisit this since I think I’ve only seen it the one time. It came out when I was traveling the world, but I managed to catch a screening in Jakarta of all places.
I was never a big fan of the character before, but Robert Downey Jr. is not only the best example of how casting can elevate a project, but also that staying true to the original spirit and nature of a character is the most important aspect when translating a character from one medium into another. I wasn’t a big RDJ fan before, but his performance here and subsequently has given me a new appreciation of him. Even the comics took their cue from him and the character of Tony Stark evolved to more reflect the unapologetic hubris and charm that Downey Jr. balances so well. He also has a natural chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow that works well. And even ten years out, the special FX hold up well.
I didn’t notice it much before, but this began a long tradition of the origin movies of Marvel heroes having them face down a dark version of himself. The finale between the big, metal guy in a suit against the bigger, metal guy in a suit is the first in this unfortunate template. I’m not a fan of origin stories and to watch Tony Stark build a bunch of suits for an hour and a half until the final. Battle wasn’t very interesting to me.
It was a worthy kick-off for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (heretofore referred to as the MCU), and gets a lot of mileage out of nothing more than the charm of the actors. It’s kind of funny to see the world building begin, once Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury shows up in the first (of many) post-credits scenes. I like how they let Paltrow’s Pepper Potts be the one to save the day, keeping her somewhat out of the trap of the damsel in distress.
The Incredible Hulk
Okay, I’m actually not entirely sure I’ve ever seen this. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Hulk, and Ang Lee’s movie from a few years before was a tedious bore. Had I known then how important Hulk became, I might’ve checked it out sooner, because I was pleasantly surprised. For one, I like how it starts the story in the middle. We don’t have to watch Bruce Banner (here Ed Norton) become the Hulk, they handle that in a montage with the opening credits before we pick up on Banner in Brazil. There were more jokes than expected. And I kind of forgot that this is where William Hurt (as General Ross) made his debut, in fact, as the only actor in this movie to maintain any connection to the MCU.
Another final battle that is the good guy fighting the bad version of himself, in this case the Abomination (Tim Roth). Liv Tyler has never been a tremendously authentic actress and her lack of chemistry with Norton and unbelievability as a scientist detracts from her better performance as Hurt’s antagonistic daughter. Norton was okay as Banner, but after the role was taken over by Mark Ruffalo, he doesn’t compare favorably.
Aside from Ross’ appearances later on, there’s really not much to connect this to the MCU as a whole, other than a brief cameo by RDJ at the end. It’s clear there was not as much faith in the world building at the time, Iron Man had a only become a success a few weeks before. There are some interesting developments at the beginning, but it really adds nothing to the Hulk mythos.
Iron Man 2
Um, well, if nothing else this is the film that introduced Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff into the MCU. Her hallway fight as her cat-suited heroine flips around the white walls as she beats up the bad guys is the best ninety seconds in the movie. Oh, and Don Cheadle takes over for Rhodes, who suits up as War Machine (played by Terrence Howard in the first one). The rest…
Everyone seems to be coasting in this sequel. And even though Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash is supposed to be the main bad guy, the film devolves into a fight between Iron Man and War Machine against Rourke in a big metal suit of armor. Snooze.
There was little here to expect that the MCU would end up being as strong as it is. The film diminishes Pepper Potts who started the first movie stronger, the plot is weak, and Rourke’s villain is supremely uninteresting with no discernable motivation. The promise of the post-credits scene here, the discovery of Thor’s hammer, was the first legit preview for what’s to come.
Even though I’ve been a comic book fan for most of my life and a fan of Avengers in particular, Thor has never been an interesting character to me. He’s a god. Yawn. But the movie at least pulled out what made him interesting and different from the other heroes already presented. On film, Thor, perfectly personified by Chris Hemsworth had a different sensibility than Iron Man or Hulk before him. The juxtaposition between Asgard and the desert on Earth made for a more visually interesting film. And even though it felt a bit like he was slumming it, Anthony Hopkins added a talented weight to the film to demonstrate that the producers were taking this thing seriously. Though she wasn’t given much to do, the same could be said for Rene Russo. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki was also expertly rendered.
Natalie Portman can be a great actress, and she went to bad dialogue boot camp with the Star Wars prequels, but while she was more interesting here and certainly having a little more fun with it, I still had trouble buying her interest in being in the movie. The world of Asgard was a little too green screen fake, even if it captured the majesty of it. The plot was still pretty thin, and while it wasn’t as if Thor was fighting a dark version of himself, the big battle between him and the faceless metal giant, wasn’t interesting.
All that said, still better than I remember it being. It was hard to get past how blonde Hemsworth’s eyebrows were, but as far as introducing the character, that box was appropriately checked. Hiddleston’s Loki lacked the fun he was able to showcase in later movies, but it was good intro for his character as well.
Captain America: The First Avenger
I was against Evans casting at first. I thought he made a good Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four movies so I had trouble buying him as the good-hearted Steve Rogers. With several scenes designed to show the Captain’s character –fighting the guy in the alley, jumping on the grenade, solving the flag riddle- Evans proved himself even as he was a shrunken version of himself. Even better was the effect of showing Rogers before and after his transformation. What a technical achievement. Sebastian Stan made his first appearance as Steve’s buddy, his pal, his Bucky and I wonder if the casting directors really knew how important Stan would be in the MCU, his character driving the next two Captain America movies more so than Cap himself. We also get a deep-dive into the tesseract, the magical macguffin that is not only a central piece of the Avengers plot, but also the first of the seeds planted that will culminate in the third Avengers movie this month. Hayley Atwell amuses as the dearly-departed Agent Carter. It’s not surprising she was able to spin-off into her own series. And the entire thing is elevated by Tommy Lee Jones’ presence as a gruff army colonel. Hugo Weaving makes a solid Red Skull, and really there was no other option to be the main villain for Cap’s introduction.
Still a little thin on plot, and no real exciting action sequence to speak of. It was fine, but not very exciting. As much as I enjoyed the intro into Rogers’ character, I think the origin story could’ve been truncated to make room for Cap in wartime or Cap in the modern world. The USO show section was weak.
Another one that was better than I remembered it, but still lacked a villain with a clear motivation. But I guess it’s easier to expect world domination from a legit nazi. There’s genuine emotion in Steve’s final farewell to Agent Carter. The world building doesn’t detract from the overall story. The post-credits scene is less easter egg than it is an actual commercial for Avengers.
It’s easy to see how the prior movies lowered expectations for what this movie could actually pull off, but really I can’t imagine a better execution of the shared world aspect of the MCU or translation of the comic’s Avengers to the big screen. Writer-director Joss Whedon gives each hero, save Hawkeye, a series of great character moments and a story with weight and emotion to it. He introduces the tension at the base of the Captain America/Iron Man friendship and elevated my interest in both Hulk and Thor, who would’ve historically ranked as two of my least favorite Avengers of all time. It’s unsurprising that he was able to take the vampish and sultry Black Widow from Iron Man 2 and really turn into the centerpiece of the entire movie. Each character gets a perfect introduction and really there are so many great moments were pointing out:
- In Germany, an old man stands up to Loki – “There are always men like you.”
- After dodging the Hulk, a weary Natasha hears that a mind-controlled Hawkeye is loose and she rallies, this woman who lacks the powers of strength of her male counterparts, she is battered but not beaten.
- Black Widow’s confrontation with Loki – human vs. god and her powers of manipulation being her secret strength.
- Banner revealing his control over his shift into the Hulk (“I’m always angry.”)
- Captain America rallying his troops as calls out orders to each of them culminating the simple but applause-worthy “And Hulk…Smash!”
- Hulk getting in the best suckerpunch in the history of suckerpunches on Thor after an amazing sequence that shows how CGI in a superhero movie can enhance the story.
- Hulk rag dolling Loki all over the place.
Hawkeye is one of my favorite characters in the comic books, but he is barely introduced before he is mind-controlled by Loki, and his rescued from that after getting knocked in his head. He isn’t served well by this movie and never really gelled in the MCU as the smartass hero he is in the source material. The final battle has great stakes and the destruction that results is continually dealt with not only in the movies, but also on the TV series that were spawned after (Agents of Shield, Daredevil and the other Netflix shows), but there is a lacking urgency of just watching our heroes smack down nameless and numerous aliens.
This movie definitely set the promise for what the shared universe concept could mean. Ruffalo steps into Norton’s role and takes it to new places. I was surprised by how much I bought Norton as Banner, and I also imagined Ruffalo doing that movie, but I couldn’t see Norton pulling off what Ruffalo does here, certainly not the funnier moments. I’ve seen this movie countless times. Easily more than any other film in the MCU and it never ceases to be entertaining, even if I’m just reciting all the one liners along with the movie.