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Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe Sequels

May 2, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Captain America: Civil War

Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe Sequels

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back this week! The Marvel Cinematic Universe unveils its latest blockbuster on Friday as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 unleashes in theaters, targeting a massive opening. James Gunn’s spacefaring entry into the MCU was a huge hit when it was released and quickly shot toward the top of most movie fans’ rankings in terms of the cinematic universe. But while Marvel is generally ruling the world these days on the big screen, it’s worth noting that their sequels have had some definite ups and downs. This week, in honor of the new adventures of the Guardians, we’re taking a break from the 8 Ball and just ranking the MCU sequels from best to worst.

Caveat: Nice and simple here: we’re just ranking the sequels of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When you’re talking about a film universe like the MCU, there could conceivably be some debate over what constitutes a sequel. Isn’t The Avengers more or less a sequel to the three solo films that preceded it (four if you count The Incredible Hulk) since it continues the storyline? For simplicities sake, I am considering each titled film its own property and thus I’m only including films that were second or third films within the same titled franchise.

#6: Iron Man 2 (2010)

It’s not difficult to rank Iron Man 2 at the bottom of this list. After all, it is the worst of the MCU films regardless of sequel status. That’s not to say that it’s an abomination; there’s still plenty in the movie to like. Robert Downey Jr. is still a blast as Tony Stark, Don Cheadle is a great replacement for Terrance Howard as Rhodey and Justin Hammer, while a buffoon, does bring a solid amount of humor via Sam Rockwell. The biggest problem that Iron Man 2 has is an overcrowded plotline as it tries to sell the Hammer and Ivan Vanko story at the same time that it sets the seeds for The Avengers via Black Widow and Nick Fury. That’s too much storyline for one movie and it ultimately feels as if the SHIELD storyline is shoehorned in while the Whiplash arc doesn’t get the justice that it could. It doesn’t help that Mickey Rourke was miscast as Whiplash; the scenes that he is in feel like they belong in some other movie. There’s a ton of fun to be had here — Johansson is great as Widow in her first role — but Iron Man 2 was ultimately the first misstep in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

#5: Thor: The Dark World (2013)

There’s no way of getting around this: there are a lot of problems with Thor: The Dark World. The second film in the Thor franchise is plagued with two of Marvel’s bigger problems in nothing for its love interest to do and a villain who underwhelms. Jane Foster is essentially a plot device for the first two acts, constantly damselled as she is turned into living storage device for an Infinity Gem, and while Christopher Eccleston does good work as Malekith, his character doesn’t have a very strong motivation and is reduced to a fairly generic nature. But there’s also some real solid work in here as well. Alan Tayler does a great job with most of the action; the final battle sequence is chaotic madness, but inspired chaotic madness as people and Taylor makes it much easier to follow than one might have expected. The actors are all more comfortable in their roles; Chris Hemsworth lets his charisma roam free-range as Thor and Portman is decent, particularly once she gets a chance to actually do something in the third act. Tom Hiddleston, Rene Russo, Jamie Alexander and Anthony Hopkins all shine as would be expected. Even when the film displays an unfortunate preponderance toward making the scientists overly wacky or jokey (poor Erik), it’s generally a film I enjoy and improves quite a bit on the first Thor.

#4: Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 found itself in the unfortunate position of being the first MCU movie to come out after the huge success (both critically and commercially) of The Avengers. That gave the film an impossible bar to clear and it has been regularly judged in regard to how it doesn’t meet that task. That’s not to dismiss critics’ complaints about the movie, which has one of the most polarizing elements in the MCU to date in how it handles the Mandarin. I certainly understand those complaints, because making Aldrich Killian the “true Mandarin” and Ben Kingsley a fraud is a dramatic change from the comics. But as a lifelong reader of Iron Man, it never really bothered me because the Mandarin as he exists in the comics (in any era) wouldn’t work on the big screen. Downey hits new heights as Tony Stark here, understandably ridden with PTSD after the events in New York, and it goes without saying that Gwyneth Paltrow is great as Pepper Potts. The big question mark was whether writer/director Shane Black could keep to the proper Marvel feel and yet deliver something unique. Black pulls it off just fine, adding elements of his trademark dark comedy and handling the action with aplomb. Cutting out the heavy metaplotting from the first sequel was a step in the right direction, and yet the film still manages to progress the MCU storyline. Maya Hanson is given the short shrift in the script but Rebecca Hall is fine in the role. This film was a bit of a bumpy road in parts but generally it works and it made for the best of the MCU sequels up to that point.

#3: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The second film in the Avengers subfranchise took a bit of a beating in the immediate months following its release, which I felt was a bit unfair. Similar to Iron Man 3, Joss Whedon’s second and (thus far) final Marvel Cinematic Universe film was bludgeoned for not measuring up to the lofty heights of the first film. And it’s certainly true to say that this film isn’t quite as good as it, but that is a remarkably high bar for the film to reach. While Age of Ultron occasionally gets slightly bogged down with the enormous amount of plot crammed into the running time, it’s also a very fun, exciting entry in the Marvel film universe which effectively furthers the character arcs and introduces a couple of great new characters. At this point, Marvel fans had grown to love the live-action renditions of most of the film’s characters over multiple films and Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Hemsworth, Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Mark Ruffalo are all thoroughly comfortable in their roles to the point of making it all look easy. James Spader has a blast as Ultron, humanizing him but never muddying his status as a villain, while Aaron Taylor-Johnson and especially Elizabeth Olsen are very good as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. The increased depth of the characters we know adds to their stories and the action sequences are great without exception. Smartly, this isn’t a “bigger” movie in terms of action and scale; it’s simply a fuller (if somewhat busier) film. Despite a few messy points here or there, Age of Ultron is a sequel that stands fairly strong among the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole, and certainly among the sequels.

#2: Captain America: Civil War (2016)

As we’ve seen making our way through this list, Marvel doesn’t always make perfect films. That being said, it’s safe to say they’re a well-oiled machine by now and last year’s Civil War is the perfect example of that. The story by Joe and Anthony Russo very effectively riffs off of its controversial source material from the comic books, adapting it for the continuity of the MCU and bringing several new players into the game. It’s difficult for any film to juggle as many characters as Civil War does but the Russos not only give each character their appropriate screen time, they even find enough time to give the new players like Black Panther and Spider-Man near-perfect introductions. The story is topical in surprisingly subtle ways and the action scenes are pure geek joy; the battle at the airport stands as perhaps the most comic book-y fight scene of all time — and I mean that in a good way. While the film was a little destruction porn-esque in a couple of moments (a comparison that was focused on by some due to its release just a couple of months after Batman V Superman), it maintains the lighter stone of the MCU to counterbalance that. Civil War shakes up the status quo a bit to great effect and sets the stage for more to come, which helps make it one of the best of the MCU sequels.

#1: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Whether you fall on the side of those who loved Marvel’s Phase Two or those who were more underwhelmed, it’s hard to deny that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was not only the best of that era of the MCU; it falls close to being the best film in the franchise at all. The second film in Steve Rogers’ saga smartly fused elements of espionage thrillers to Cap’s more real-world grounded nature in order to create an exciting and intriguing film that most people found thrilling. The key words there are “elements of espionage thrillers,” mind. This is not a 1970s political thriller masquerading as a superhero film the way it was billed, but that’s fine. The overtones are there and that’s all that was needed, helped along by the performances. Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson continued to shine as Cap and Black Widow and their chemistry is undeniable without the need to throw in the tired “will they or won’t they” romantic overtones. It was nice to see a Marvel film where the female role wasn’t just there to be a love interest; only the slightest element of that is included thanks to Emily VanCamp’s Agent 13. VanCamp is fine in that minor role, by the way. Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Grillo and especially Robert Redford bring the goods for their respective roles as well. This was a bold film that changed the game of the Marvel universe significantly and sent shockwaves throughout the franchise, both on film and in television. The Russos made their names with this movie, proving they could do high action and make it look great. The film is engrossing throughout and while there is an occasional preponderance of quick cut action, it’s kept fairly restrained. Instead they allow the action to unfold as naturally as possible. It’s the best of the MCU sequels to date and, for me at least, the second best of the whole franchise behind only The Avengers.

And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for the return of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.