Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase – Ranking the Marvel Movies (#13-7)

May 13, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

411 Comics Showcase usually focuses on a single character, but for the next couple of weeks, I am taking a comprehensive look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. While I am a fan of the Marvel movies as a whole, only a delusional fanboy could say that it hasn’t had it’s ups and downs. But, much like the comics it is based on, the MCU’s strength is that it’s a unified, largely cohesive narrative, one that gets stronger over time. We’ve seen a dozen films, and while only a small handful are true classics and a few that barely reach “good”, as a whole, the experience of watching the movies and the over-arching story is a satisfying experience.

So this week and next week, I will be ranking and breaking down the movies. I will analyze what works and what doesn’t. The list is clearly subjective and only my opinion. You may like some of these films more, and some of them less. I looked at factors such as narrative cohesion and flow, entertainment factor, quality of the script and character development first. After that, with many films being of similar quality, I would look at pieces such as overall impact on the universe and the strength of the supporting cast and villains.

#13. Thor: The Dark World

The Good: The second Thor movie is kind of an odd beast, as it is notably improved in several places but overall feels like a step-back from the original film. The action and aesthetics of the film make it feel closer to the epic fantasy that Thor probably should be. Chris Hemsworth finally feels fully realized as Thor, but Tom Hiddleston’s Loki still manages to upstage everyone even in his brief screen time. Natalie Portman is fine as Jane Foster, and thankfully she’s more involved in the action this time around.
The Bad: The film’s pacing feels really off, and there are long stretches where the film seems to drag. This is the only Marvel movie to put me to sleep in theaters because I was bored at points. Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith is a one-note villain who never gets time to develop, and the titular Dark World feels more like the Drab, Gray World than a truly menacing place. Personally, I am not a fan of Kat Dennings’ Darcy, but I admit that others might enjoy her contributions.
The Best: The movie’s mid-point has a genuinely exciting and funny escape sequence that almost feels like it’s from another movie altogether. And while Malekith doesn’t really work, the Aether and the Convergence provide a visually interesting battleground that help this movie’s final act actually feel like the highlight of the movie.
The Worst: There is a significant death in the middle of the film that helps to drive the rest of the narrative, but it falls flat because it only matters to the characters and not to the audience. On a totally different note, I feel like using Stellen Skarsgård’s Dr. Erik Selvig as a punchline about crazy mentally ill people is both unfunny and tasteless. So far, it’s the only time I’ve actually felt personally offended by something in one of these movies, and that’s the main reason I placed this below the #12 entrant.

#12. Iron Man 2

The Good: Iron Man 2 is a film that doesn’t really work, but has enough value as an entertaining popcorn flick to justify its existence. Robert Downey Jr. is still a great leading man as Tony Stark, and his romance with Pepper Potts gets a chance to develop further along. Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell are respectable if unspectacular antagonists as Whiplash and Justin Hammer respectively. And of course, this film introduces us to Natasha Romanov, who has evolved from a bit player in this film to one of the MCU’s strongest characters.
The Bad: Iron Man 2 has around a dozen plot threads going on and most of them don’t come together in a cohesive fashion. Most of them aren’t necessarily bad, but not one gets a respectable amount of time. It’s probably the closest that Marvel Studios has been to creating an objectively bad film, although I still find it more entertaining that Thor’s sequel.
The Best: Don Cheadle is a much better Col. James Rhodes than Terrence Howard. He has a natural chemistry with Downey, and their up-and-down friendship is largely the highlight of the film. Whether they are fighting each other or working together, they produce exciting action scenes and entertaining banter.
The Worst: As I said, I don’t think there’s anything glaringly bad in this film. Where it struggles is how it tries to do too much and thus accomplishes very little. So in this case, I think the “worst” part of it is what a missed opportunity this was to really explore Tony’s alcoholism and its effects on himself and everyone around him. Maybe that was too heavy of an issue for a comic book movie to handle in 2010, but fans of Demon in a Bottle will probably wish we got more of it.

#11. The Incredible Hulk

The Good: As an apology for Ang Lee’s less than thrilling Hulk movie from 2003 and a love letter to the TV series, The Incredible Hulk is mostly a success. The big action scenes are fun and provide the Big Guy with a real challenge. And it’s hard to complain about the acting in any movie that has talent like Ed Norton, Tim Roth and William Hurt. All three men work well and elevate this film, taking a film that’s mostly “alright” and elevating it to being pretty good all around.
The Bad: I like this film more than most, but I can’t call it anything more than “average”, with some stand out performances. It also feels somewhat disconnected from the rest of the MCU, since Edward Norton didn’t stick around and characters like Betty Ross and Samuel Sterns haven’t cropped up again. The film drags at points and some things that work in a TV show don’t really work in a two hour movie.
The Best: Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky is, in my humble opinion, the most underrated villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He’s a perfect foil to Bruce Banner; Bruce is a pacifist that hates being a living weapon, while Blonsky is a fighter obsessed with strength. He’s a great character, and his eventual transformation into The Abomination provides one of the most satisfying and downright brutal fight scenes in the whole MCU.
The Worst: Liv Tyler isn’t the worst casting ever as Betty Ross, but there’s a reason she hasn’t been brought back. The love story rarely worked, and it’s the weakest part of the film.

#10. Avengers: Age of Ultron

The Good: Joss Whedon’s follow up to The Avengers is one of Marvel’s more disappointing sequels, but it does have good qualities. Hawkeye gets some much needed fleshing out and is probably the heart of this film. And while there is perhaps too many action scenes, there is a lot of creativity in the action, with characters using their powers in tandem to create moments we couldn’t see in other films. Thor and Cap’s teamwork is the real highlight. And while I have issues with the execution of the scene, it’s impossible not to enjoy Tony Stark debuting the Hulkbuster armor to save a city from a rampaging Hulk.
The Bad: I originally had this a little bit higher, but after seeing Captain America: Civil War, the flaws of this just seemed even more glaring. Similar to Iron Man 2, the second Avengers film is overcrowded with too many storylines. But perhaps the single worst problem is of the movie is one of tone. It’s clear from the darker, dirtier color palette that this is supposed to be a grittier version of the The Avengers, but it’s hard to take the bad stuff seriously when there a thousand quips, many of which aren’t even funny the first time. Tonal dissonance wrecks this movie. Perhaps the most glaring example is the aforementioned Hulk vs. Veronica segment, which really should make us feel bad, but is instead written in such a way that it’s too fun for the impact of Hulk’s actions to really sink in.
The Best: To my considerable surprise, the best aspect of this movie was the one feature I thought would sink it; the creation and characterization of The Vision. The practical effects, Paul Bettany’s performance, and the best writing in the movie combine to make Vision’s debut both believable and interesting. And while I won’t spoil it for those who may not have seen this movie, there is a moment with Vision and Thor that almost single-handedly validates this movie’s existence.
The Worst: The antagonists are the real weak portion of this movie. Baron Strucker barely gets any time before he’s killed off screen. Ultron, while having his moments, has such muddled motives and loses so often that he’s hard to invest in as an interesting or serious threat. But the Maximoff Twins are the real victims of this movie’s bloated screenplay; I can’t imagine any new viewer really caring about what happens to these characters unless they have pre-existing investment from reading the comics. And it needs to be said; these characters are a heck of a lot more interesting when Magneto is involved. Ultron isn’t Magneto.

#9. Iron Man 3

The Good: This is probably higher than some people were expecting, and I have to admit, when I first saw this movie, it was my least favorite Marvel film for reasons I will get into later. But after a couple of re-watches, I’ve realized that this film is really pretty good, all things considered. There’s a couple of exciting superhero action scenes, and the combination of Shane Black’s screwball comedy and a strong emotional core, the movie is both unique in Marvel’s canon and worth giving a second look if you hated it the first time.
The Bad: Sadly, what makes this film unique also makes it feel disconnected from the MCU as a whole, and not just because none of the other Avengers are hanging around. Look at this way; aside from taking the arc reactor out Tony’s chest, what real impact has this movie had on the MCU? There’s no infinity stones, no introduction of new and important characters, and even things like Iron Patriot and Tony’s anxiety attacks just seem to disappear altogether, totally forgotten. While it isn’t the worst Phase 2 movie, it is the least productive.
The Best: For me, where this film really succeeds is in how it handles Tony’s reaction to the Battle of New York. It’s clearly traumatized him, and when he starts having anxiety attacks, it really helps give fans of the MCU perspective. While The Avengers was the coolest thing ever for us, the film’s events are the worst thing that’s ever happened in their universe, and it has consequences. Talking as somebody who has seen anxiety attacks first hand, I can say that Downey really delivers these, and it’s one of the few things that the script refrains from turning into a joke. Also, I love that the Mark 43 Armor is a mess of a suit that never works and keeps falling to pieces; it’s the perfect symbol for Tony in this movie.
The Worst: The reveal of The Mandarin is the obvious weak point of this movie. It destroys the good will of the movie for a lot of people, and it’s understandable. Not only did the marketing make Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin look like the third really good villain in a row for Marvel (after Loki and Red Skull), but it’s also Sir Ben Kingsley, a phenomenal actor. While the character of Trevor Slattery is admittedly amusing in the short term, this is truly wasted potential. Marvel’s tried to retcon this by saying there’s another, real Mandarin, but at this point that’s about as likely to happen as Samuel Sterns coming back as The Leader.

#8. Thor

The Good: This film is ranked a little higher objectively than I wanted it to be. Personally, while I enjoy Thor as a character, his two films have failed to connect with me the way I wanted them to. However, this film really is pretty solid all around. Thor’s arc is simple and easy to relate to, the Shakespearean family dynamics of the Asgardians makes the film feel both epic and human at the same time, and the romance with Jane Foster works really well. The movie’s got heart, it’s got comedy, and it was the first time that the “shared universe” concept really started working smoothly.
The Bad: One of the reasons I ranked Thor above Iron Man 3, a movie which I enjoy watching more, is that Thor really doesn’t have a lot in the way of real flaws. It’s a solid, well-made movie that doesn’t quite reach greatness but doesn’t have anything that makes you think of it as potentially awful either. Personally, I have a hard time enjoying Thor when he’s being a brat, even if I can acknowledge it’s a good character arc. I’m not overly fond of the events on Earth compared to events on Asgard, and I feel that the aesthetics are a little lacking, especially compared to the sequel.
The Best: Tom Hiddleston’s Loki isn’t the brash, all-time legendary villain he would be in The Avengers, but he is without a doubt the highlight of this film. His motives are easily understood by the audience, he holds his own in a fight, and the scene where he confronts Odin about his true heritage is both a tear-jerker and a show-stealer.
The Worst: #8-5 on this list were the hardest to rank, as all are really good films that introduce us to new characters and concepts that enhance the MCU as a whole. So largely, it comes down to personal preference and seeing which has the most elements that work. What put Thor at #8 was simple; the action is really forgettable and bland. And while the MCU movies aren’t just superhero movies, they still are superhero movies and the action scenes should deliver. This movie doesn’t.

#7. Iron Man

The Good: If the Marvel Cinematic Universe was ever going to succeed, it had to be built on a strong foundation. Iron Man exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. Robert Downey Jr. brought the character to life in spectacular fashion, and the origin story was both unknown and interesting enough to feel fresh. Gwyneth Paltrow’s chemistry with Robert helped give the film real heart, and the film had a healthy balance of action, laughs, and human drama. When it came out, it was one of the best superhero movies of all time. It still stands as very strong, even if the polish has faded a little bit in the last eight years or so.
The Bad: I can hear the complaints that this is ranked too low already, but please hear me out. While Iron Man delivers the goods in its opening act, the movie peaks after about 80 minutes; Tony Stark’s character arc is largely complete, and the final third of the movie just doesn’t hold up as well. It’s not bad by any stretch, but Obadiah Stane is a solid but unspectacular villain, and the big fight between them just doesn’t hold up. I considered giving this preferential treatment for kicking off the MCU, but if I say this is a better film than the next six, I’m really just kidding myself.
The Best: For as much as general audiences like to whine and complain about origin stories, I think the origin story of Iron Man really is the stuff that holds up the best. Tony’s origin is one that features a major character shift, and it’s satisfying to see that play out. Whether it’s the escape from the cave, testing out the new suits, or the climactic moment where Tony decides to start using the suits to do good in the world, the “origin story” of this is the best part. It’s so good in fact that when Tony finally is established as Iron Man, the movie can’t quite live up to the strength of its powerful first and second acts.
The Worst: Iron Man is a really good movie, and even with the underwhelming third act, it’s hard to find too much that’s truly “bad” about it. That said, I always found Terrence Howard’s performance as Col. James Rhodes to be uninspired, and I’ve read things that suggest he and Downey didn’t really get along behind the scenes. Don Cheadle feels like a much stronger choice all around, and it’s kind of jarring to see Howard here whenever I rewatch the film.

Next week, #6-1. You know what’s left, but do you know what order it’s in?