Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase – Ranking the MCU Movies (#6-1)

May 20, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

In Memory of Darwyn Cooke
November 16, 1962 – May 14, 2016

Before we begin, I would like to take a moment to take a moment to honor Darwyn Cooke, who lost his battle with cancer last Saturday. The world of comics lost one of its most impressive talents, best known for DC: The New Frontier, Before Watchmen: Minutemen. Cooke was a gifted writer with an unabashed love for the Silver Age, something which showed in his signature retro art style. For me personally, it’s a loss of one of my favorite artists in the industry, one who always seemed to make comics shine a little brighter. By all accounts, he was a kind and loving individual to his family, co-workers, and to his fans.

For me, his art will live forever, and his light will only burn brighter in his absence.

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 overarching story is a satisfying experience.

Last week, I reviewed most of the MCU, but this week, we get into the absolute best. In my subjective opinion, at any rate. While I do strive for a degree of objectivity, you didn’t come here to read a mathematical spreadsheet about which of these is the best; you could have gone to Rotten Tomatoes for that.

#13. Thor: The Dark World
#12. Iron Man 2
#11. The Incredible Hulk
#10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
#9. Iron Man 3
#8. Thor
#7. Iron Man

#6. Ant-Man
The Good: Marvel’s littlest hero had a long road to the movies, but the end results work surprisingly well. Going with Scott Lang as the MCU’s main Ant-Man was a smart move, as the reformed criminal trying to do what’s right for his daughter is unlike any other character we have seen so far. Paul Rudd brings a likable everyman quality to Scott, as well as excellent comedic timing. On the flip side, Michael Douglas as Hank Pym carries an exposition heavy character and gives him dramatic weight. The film also has little in the way of fight scenes, instead using the Ant-Man abilities for a mix of action-adventure and heist tropes. This means that the final confrontation between Scott and Yellowjacket actually feels like the action highlight of the movie and a worthy climax, which is what ultimately elevated it above Iron Man for me. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t give a nods to Michael Pena and Anthony Mackie, who make the most of their screen time.
The Bad: While the film comes together miraculously well, Ant-Man had a long production history with a lot of changes. Most importantly, this started as a passion project for Edgar Wright before he split from Marvel over creative differences. Because of that, the script does feel a bit all over the place and like its been through a few different people’s hands. In particular, I feel like the character of Hope doesn’t feel as fleshed out as she probably should be for the amount of screen time she has. It isn’t exactly smooth and polished, but it holds together in spite of that.
The Best: How do adults, especially parents, relate to superheroes, a medium that (sorry, grim and gritty fans) was and continues to largely be aimed at young children and teenagers? Ant-Man poses an answer; superheroes are the idealized figures that all children wish the adults in their lives would be, and encourages us to our children; because tehy already think we are. Scott is a down-to-earth, real-world hero in a way that Tony Stark could never ever hope to be, and that pathos is often overlooked in a movie that’s ostensibly just an action-comedy with cool shrinking effects.
The Worst: Darren Cross/Yellowjacket is barely a step above Malekith and Iron Monger as a villain, and Corey Stoll is no Jeff Bridges. The actual suit is a pretty neat design and final action scene is spectacular in its small scale, but watching Cross develop is a bit of a chore.

#5. Captain America: The First Avenger
The Good: In the interest of full disclosure, I have a degree of bias towards Captain America; he’s my favorite character in the MCU. But I maintain that I am biased because this movie made me connect with him, and subsequent appearances only strengthened the bond. The film takes a big risk in making a nostalgic, light-hearted movie with a nostalgic, white hat wearing superhero, and Chris Evans embodies that kind of wholesome “good person” superhero better than anyone since Christopher Reeve. This film just works; Alan Silvestri’s score, the 1940’s aesthetics, Hydra as an antagonist is impressive, and the supporting cast of Col. Phillips, Howard Stark, Dr. Erskine and especially Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter all help Cap’s world feel fully fleshed out and worth defending.
The Bad: The film feels a little unbalanced, with a lot of exposition, and a third act that feels rushed at first and then feels a little bloated by the end of it. This doesn’t bother me as much, because I enjoy almost everything that’s going on, but the film definitely could have been paced better.
The Best: Well, for starters, let’s all just take a moment to be grateful to Chris Evans for bringing Captain America to life. If Robert Downey Jr. is the Mega-Star of the MCU, than Evans is its secret weapon, hiding in plain sight as his equal. But what ultimately pushed this above Thor, Iron Man and Ant-Man is simple; the antagonists in this film are outstanding. The Red Skull comes together better than anyone could have hoped, thanks to smart writing, practical effects and Hugo Weaving’s usual strong performance. He also commands an army, which gives us plenty of opportunity to see Cap in action, and Arnim Zola is an underrated presence in this film that would pay off in a big way later.
The Worst: While they deserve credit for trying, the CGI for the smaller Steve Rogers doesn’t really work, and the film requires us to be forgiving for a decent chunk of exposition. I am forgiving, but I can’t deny it’s pretty distracting.

#4. Guardians of the Galaxy
The Good: When I first heard that Marvel was making this movie, I expected it to bomb and bomb hard. After all, if Captain America and Thor could barely make back their budgets, what chance did a bunch of D-List cosmic heroes? Of course, now that most of us have seen it, it’s hard to imagine it failing. Guardians of the Galaxy is an both an exciting thrill ride and a masterful comedy, and even manages to have a few memorable and fun antagonists. It takes obvious notes from Star Wars, Back to the Future and Indiana Jones, yet feels most like a modern Ghostbusters. This film is the least traditional comic book movie that Marvel Studios has put out yet, and managed to pull in audiences who don’t usually go in for the superhero stuff. It’s a blast, and in any year other than 2014, it would have been the best comic book movie of the year.
The Bad: By this point, we are into Marvel’s true classics, the ones that are fun and exciting even after you’ve seen them a dozen times. There’s not a lot bad about these top four films that I can suss out, and even the bad stuff isn’t that bad. That said, I think there’s going to be at least one character that any viewer is going to have trouble with. For most, it’s probably Ronan, but for me, it’s Michael Rooker’s Yondu. His humor just doesn’t connect with me.
The Best: Guardians has the difficult task of making us invested in five new heroes very quickly, and none of them are really traditional; this ends up working to their benefit. The visual effects team work genuine magic with Groot; even with a three word vocabulary, we get a sense of his character. Similarly, Rocket feels believable and proves to be both an essential part of the team, but also sympathetic; this movie made me tear up over a racoon, okay? WWE Superstar Batista destroys our expectations with a mix of deadpan comedy and over the top enthusiasm that makes Drax a lovable thug, and Chris Pratt became a legitimate mega-star in one movie, perfectly capturing all the 1980’s hero tropes and giving the audience a tether through his humanity and his love of music.
The Worst: While Zoe Saldana is a fine actress and Gamora works well as the “straight man” to everyone else’s insanity, I can’t help finding her character to be a little thin and boring. That’s not a problem under most circumstances, but she does feel like a sort of cliche character, especially compared to her teammates. I also feel that the film’s big climactic space battle is underwhelming, even if they do manage to end it on an impressive high note.

#3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Good: I think The Winter Soldier snuck up on a lot of us, even those of us that loved Cap’s first film. This film explores Steve Rogers as he adjusts to living in the 21st century, and took a completely different and decidedly serious take on the character. The film is a conspiracy thriller, but also delivers the best practical, hard-hitting action of any of the Marvel films and even finds time for poignant political allegory. Black Widow and Nick Fury get more substantial supporting roles than in any other films, while Anthony Mackie makes a strong debut as the Falcon. Even the villains are strong, if somewhat understated; Robert Redford brings class to the role of Alexander Pierce, and Tobey Jones and Sebastian Stan play roles that firmly ties this movie to the first movie.
The Bad: There is very, very little wrong with The Winter Soldier, but if there is a problem it’s in how the titular character is handled. The Soldier is an intimidating and effective villain, and there’s an emotional tie to Steve that very few other antagonists have. But it is somewhat difficult for the audience to get invested in Bucky unless they really enjoyed him in the first movie. It’s really a nitpick, but it’s one area where I feel the movie could have improved with just another small scene or two devoted to Bucky.
The Best: I love this movie so much, and one of the main reasons is that it stands on its own, yet has a huge world-shaking plot thread that dismantles the connective tissue of Phase 1. It was a bold step and a shocking twist for those of us who already knew who the Winter Soldier was. Also, for as muddy and grey as everyone else’s morality gets, the Russos and Marvel smartly allow Captain America to stay true to his character. Being a pillar of morality in a world with compromises only makes Steve Rogers more interesting.
The Worst: There’s a scene where Steve is interrupted by a guy at a diner who is wearing the same jacket. The scene has never worked for me and a I dread seeing it every time I put in the movie.

#2. The Avengers
The Good: The farther we get from 2012, the more I realize that The Avengers is a game-changing movie; it was a cultural phenomenon, making more money than almost anything else. It turned comic book heroes into pop culture icons, and was so successful that it’s almost impossible to imagine that it was a huge risk that wasn’t guaranteed to pay off. Shared, expanded universes went from a crazy idea to the standard, and showed us that blockbusters could be fun, exciting fireworks displays and still focus on characters. It plays a clever trick on the audience by making the meta-narrative (“Will this crazy idea actually work?”) the literal narrative of the movie; can these individuals who don’t belong in the same scene, much less the same movie, form a cohesive team and save the world? It was a special, unique moment in movie and comic book history, and literally ever major blockbuster, comic book or otherwise, has to answer the same question; “Why aren’t you The Avengers?” It really is the Star Wars of my generation.
The Bad: I firmly believe that this film succeeds so well at the important things that whatever flaws there are may as well be glossed over, because they don’t really matter. They are there, to be sure; the film is oddly paced, feeling bloated in weird places, and some dialogue scenes don’t play as well as others. Hawkeye is underutilized, and the ending with the Chi’tauri all dying after the mothership is taken out is a little too convenient. But let’s be honest; do any of us really care about plot convenience?
The Best: It’s tempting to just say that the last thirty minutes is what makes this film so special, but it really isn’t. What makes those thirty minutes so special is that that film is, above all else, a character piece. The movie’s primary goal is to make us care about these characters as individuals so that we eventually care when they become a team. It’s more important that we care about Tony learning to work with others, Steve adjusting to a brand new world, Natasha’s self hatred, Thor and Loki’s family issues, Bruce’s struggle to embrace the Hulk part of his personality, and even Clint’s need to get revenge for being mind-controlled. It takes talent to make something this complex seem simple and effortless.

But even if you didn’t care about the characters, it’s hard not to love it when Hulk smashes Loki to pieces.
The Worst: Is anybody else sick of villains being captured and put in cells so they can have face to face confrontations with the hero? Yeah, this ripped it off from The Dark Knight, and it’s been even more played out since then.

#1. Captain America: Civil War
The Good: If The Avengers is this generation’s Star Wars, then I think Civil War is going to end up being The Empire Strikes Back. While it is certainly a direct sequel to The Winter Soldier and Steve Rogers is definitely the main hero, Civil War has an enormous cast on the level of The Avengers. It deals with more serious themes, has smarter dialogue, richer characters, more emotional stakes, and ends on a downer note with out team of heroes in disarray. It develops existing characters, introduces us to Black Panther, Helmut Zemo and the best interpretation of Spider-Man to show up on screen. It’s got big action pieces, but again, the action works because of the characters and how easily we understand who they are and what motivates them. It’s the most human, most serious Marvel film to date, and the one that makes the shared Cinematic Universe concept seem most like a worthwhile idea. If The Avengers put the MCU as a whole on the map, Civil War firmly dug its roots into the ground of pop culture and has shown us that this is a unique, innovative, and lasting fixture in film history. And while some film snobs will say this manages to be so good “in spite” of being a comic book movie, it’s the very comic book tropes that make this movie work so well.
The Bad: I understand that some may feel that ranking a movie that’s a few weeks old as the best is preemptive at best and crazy at worst. And I saw the film a second time just to confirm my original thoughts, making sure that any second guesses or reluctance on my part weren’t really justified. There’s very little wrong here, although perhaps its a bit too subtle for some. I’ve heard people say that it lacks consequences, and I just don’t see it. The Avengers are disassembled, and even though the villain who manipulated all of these events was caught, the damage he did to everyone hasn’t gone away. Speaking of which; Zemo is a great villain, the accusing face of the collateral damage. He was the perfect antagonist for this movie and its themes, and is one of the only MCU villains who truly accomplished his goals. Scene for scene, word for word, character beat for character beat, Civil War works better than any previous Marvel film, and Infinity War is in very good hands.
The Best: The Russos do a fantastic job of balancing the twelve major heroes and giving all of them their just do; all of them have at least a couple of key character moments or action beats, allowing them to make an impression. Black Panther and Spider-Man are naturally integrated into the universe, while characters like the Falcon and Scarlet Witch are vastly improved from their original movies. Despite all of that, the film’s strongest characters are still Steve Rogers, Bucky Barnes, and Tony Stark, and their final confrontation manages to be just as spectacular as the much lauded airport Royal Rumble fight. These two scenes are everything that superhero movies should be and will be iconic moments in the MCU’s history.
The Worst: The film’s strength is also its weakness; it is built off of the history off of the past films and cannot stand alone. By this point, Marvel is taking it for granted that you are either already in the know, or are willing to get in the know. This continuity lock-out is turning film-goers into comic book geeks, but at a certain point, one has to wonder if it limits their audience.

If you’d like to see me talk about a movie that doesn’t have superheroes, you can read From Under A Rock, where Michael Ornelas and I reviewed Chicago. Which we watched because I had to recover from reviewing A Clockwork Orange the week before.