Marvel’s blockbuster smash-hit The Avengers has now arrived on Blu-Ray, finally making the entirety of the company’s ‘Phase One’ available on home video. I know I will not be the only one re-creating the theatrical ‘Ultimate Avengers Marathon’ from the comfort of my living room over the next few days.
In any case, now seems like a good time to reflect on ‘Phase One’ as a whole. I for one believe Marvel Studios has crafted a pretty darn great set of movies, an interconnected superhero anthology that will stand the test of time as some of the best this genre has to offer. The studio clearly understands their own properties better than any outsiders ever could, creating live-action renditions that are incredibly faithful to the spirit of the original. And by hiring an eclectic group of writers, directors, and performers – many of whom initially seemed like counterintuitive choices – the studio has ensured each film has its own distinct voice and flavor.
But which of Marvel’s films is the best? Which is the worst? Looking at the six films that comprise ‘Phase One,’ how do they all stack up to one another?
That is precisely what we examine today, as I provide my personal ranking of the six Marvel Studios films, from least-favorite to favorite. To be clear, I like all these films quite a bit. I just find some more impressive than others, and it seems fairly clear to me how they should be ranked.
So let us take a walk down Marvel memory lane. Enjoy…
Begin reading on the next page…Next
6. The Incredible Hulk
Largely due to Mark Ruffalo and Joss Whedon’s outstanding interpretation of the character in The Avengers, Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk has become the ugly stepchild of the Marvel Studios family. It’s technically canonical, but since we’re never going to see Edward Norton’s uniquely grounded, warmly pragmatic take on the main character again, the film will always feel like an outlier in the Studio’s filmography.
It doesn’t help that The Incredible Hulk is clearly the weakest of the six movies. Its story is not as creative or involving as other Marvel works, and the characters don’t pop off the screen as memorably as they do in Iron Man, Thor, or Captain America.
All that being said, I like The Incredible Hulk. I really do. Though it is a bit irrelevant to consider now, I think it serves as a very solid foundation for future Hulk stories, setting up various characters and bits of mythology in succinct, compelling ways, and works pretty well as a standalone Hulk narrative in its own right. It’s certainly a massive step up over Ang Lee’s disastrous 2003 film, achieving the thoughtful, entertaining balance Lee failed to capture.
As with all of Marvel’s films, the casting of the main character is the key to the film’s success. Edward Norton is excellent as Bruce Banner, believably capturing the character’s intelligence, humanity, and world-weary attitude. Norton is not as immediately ‘perfect’ as Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, or even Mark Ruffalo were in their respective roles, but I still contend he made for a great Banner, and is the heart and soul of the film.
The supporting cast is, perhaps, where The Incredible Hulk most clearly fumbles the ball. William Hurt, Tim Roth, and Liv Tyler are each capable of strong work, and each do as much as they can with what they are given, but their roles are underwritten. Other Marvel films made sure to build a strong, enjoyable ensemble, but The Incredible Hulk devotes most of its character work to Banner, a decision that hurts the film overall.
Leterrier stages some very strong action scenes, and the film is well paced throughout. The thirty minutes of deleted scenes removed at the last minute probably should have been included – they add weight and introspection to a film that can feel fairly hollow at times – but the film works fine as is. The Incredible Hulk is not an all-time great superhero film, nor does it quite stack up to the rest of the Marvel canon. But it is enjoyable, and deserves a little more credit than most are currently willing to give it.
Continue reading on the next page…Previous Next
5. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is an interesting sequel, one where I absolutely adore each individual component but find the film as a whole less than the sum of its parts. Returning director Jon Favreau brought a lot of tremendous ideas to the table this time around, expanding the Iron Man mythos, introducing intriguing new characters, and diving deeper into Tony Stark’s complex psychology, but the film lacks a sense of cohesive identity.
The film is awkwardly paced, evenly divided for the first two acts between Tony’s personal crisis and Justin Hammer’s power bid, and though each individual moment is entertaining, the disjointed, back-and-forth storytelling grows frustrating.
But if these problems are enough to place Iron Man 2 near the bottom of the list, they are not enough to prevent me from enjoying the film greatly. At the very least, Iron Man 2 makes full use of the ingenious set-up provided by its predecessor, exploring in depth what might happen to a superhero if their inflated ego drove them to publicly divulge their secret identity. Not only does that give Iron Man 2 a very different flavor than the original – or most comic-book films, for that matter – but it pushes Tony towards a fascinating journey of self-discovery.
Iron Man certainly had its fair share of introspection, as Tony decided to abandon his life of greed for a more selfless existence, but Iron Man 2 pushes further in that direction, forcing Tony to confront his demons and iron out some personality defects along the way. This allows Robert Downey Jr. to continue fleshing out his iconic performance, adding layers of well observed nuance to his entertaining, magnetic persona.
Favreau continues to make excellent use of Gwyneth Paltrow, further cementing Pepper Potts’ reputation as the best cinematic superhero love interest. Her chemistry with Downey Jr. is off the charts, and the film finds an organic path to unite them romantically. Don Cheadle, meanwhile, takes over for Terrence Howard as Colonel James Rhodes, and proves a more-than-suitable replacement. Rhodes gets some very interesting material to play as his friendship with Tony disintegrates, and Cheadle is excellent every step of the way.
But it’s Sam Rockwell who arguably steals the show as Justin Hammer, taking a part that could have easily been the movie’s downfall and instead turning it into one of the more unique, compelling antagonists in recent memory. Hammer is not a physical threat to Tony – nor, in all honesty, an intellectual one – but he’s just inept and petty enough to unleash a truly dangerous force in Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash, and I find that dynamic both funny and intriguing. A lot of viewers were thrown off by Whiplash’s relative unimportance in the film’s overall arc, but he’s really just a pawn, and I like how Favreau uses Hammer’s odd presence to shake up the superhero formula.
And one cannot forget Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, introduced in a small part here before teaming up with The Avengers. Johansson is probably my personal favorite part of Iron Man 2; she’s unexpectedly fantastic in the role, has a very amusing antagonistic chemistry with Downey Jr., and Favreau choreographs her fighting style spectacularly. I remember seeing her big, climactic smack-down scene in a crowded theatre on opening night; once it started, you could hear a pin drop, and when it was over, the crowd’s response was so deafening that I missed a few key lines.
Iron Man 2 is, again, less than the sum of its parts, but I really enjoy the film on the whole, and inevitably revisit it whenever I watch the original Iron Man. Not Marvel’s best film, but a very solid sequel.
Continue reading on the next page…Previous Next
Thor should not, by any conventional logic, work as well as it does. It introduces magic, parallel dimensions, and Gods into a universe that was previously based in hard (er, semi-hard) science; carries with it a grand, complex mythology; features over-the-top costumes and fighting abilities; and has a plot that is unsettlingly similar to the horrible live-action Masters of the Universe movie. It was not just Marvel’s greatest challenge up to that point, but one of the more difficult properties any film studio had ever tried adapting.
Yet Thor works, not despite of any of these issues, but because it embraces them all warmly and pushes forth with confidence and bravado. Kenneth Branagh was an ingenious choice for director, as his Shakespearean sensibilities allowed him to take this material seriously. He never once shies away from the grandeur of Asgard, or the demigod nature of his title character, but instead finds clear and compelling reasons for us to invest in this new, cosmic mythology. Thor is, at heart, a simple story of jealousy, arrogance, and brotherhood, and because we can all relate to these universal issues, the action remains palatable no matter how fantastic it becomes.
Branagh’s visual and textual depiction of Asgard is awe-inspiring, so much so that one wonders if more fun could have been had keeping the characters away from Earth for an entire film. But Thor’s exile is the best way to make his character arc feel intimate, and Branagh still maintains a strong sense of cosmic significance.
The key to the film’s success, as always, is the casting, and I cannot imagine a more perfect fit for Thor than Chris Hemsworth. Just as immediately perfect in his part as Robert Downey Jr. was in Iron Man, Hemsworth simply owns the role. His utter confidence and arrogance can be emotionally compelling and raucously hilarious, often at the same time, and he is just as adept in the quiet moments as he is in the bombastic ones. It is a tremendous performance. I may not know what it would be like to meet a real Norse God, but if I ever came face-to-face with one, I imagine he would look, sound, and act exactly like Chris Hemsworth.
Thor is also notable as the first Marvel film to have a true, standout villain, one who is just as interesting as the hero. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki certainly fits that bill. He is not ‘evil,’ per se, so much as conflicted and corrupted by jealousy and his own staggering intelligence. Loki can be a physical force, but he is mostly an intellectual one, using his mind to manipulate his foes. Hiddleston is so effective in the part that it’s little surprise Joss Whedon chose to make him antagonist in The Avengers as well. It’s a breakout performance in every sense of the term.
The supporting cast is good – Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, and especially Idris Elba are particular standouts – and Branagh’s cinematography, while over reliant on canted angles, is generally excellent. The film has its problems – Portman and Hemsworth may share tremendous chemistry, but their romance is criminally underdeveloped – but they are easy to overlook. Thor is a unique and entertaining superhero film, one that proved there was much more to Marvel Studios than just Iron Man. I cannot wait to see this franchise explored in future films.
Continue reading on the next page…Previous Next
3. Iron Man
The film that started it all, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man seems nearly as bold and refreshing today as it did back in 2008. I distinctly remember the atmosphere of excitement surrounding the film’s release that May, as a flawless marketing campaign had sold us on what an entertaining ride Favreau had in store. Nevertheless, I think few were prepared for just how much fun or thoughtful Iron Man turned out to be. There had never been anything quite like it before, no comic-book movie that embraced its pulpy origins with as much expertise or enthusiasm as this one.
Robert Downey Jr. is, of course, the key to the film’s success. He simply is Tony Stark, in mind, body, and soul, to such a degree that his arrogant, funny, charismatic, and surprisingly heartfelt performance had become iconic before the movie even hit screens. Given the size of Stark’s personality, Downey Jr. obviously has a lot to play with, but he must be commended for how fantastically he illustrates every single facet of Stark’s multifaceted psyche. This is one of the best ‘movie star’ performances in film history, and I shudder to think of the day when Downey Jr. may no longer inhabit the role. He will be impossible to replace.
If Favreau set a Marvel standard of expert casting by hiring Downey Jr., he also solidified the practice or building a tremendous supporting ensemble, headlined by Gwyneth Paltrow’s wonderful work as Pepper Potts. Paltrow’s Potts is the best ‘love interest’ character in this entire genre, largely because she isn’t defined by any archetypical parameters. She’s strong, independent, and completely disinterested in putting up with Tony’s bulls**t. That makes for an irreplaceably fun central dynamic, one that helps ground Tony at every turn.
From a narrative standpoint, Iron Man stands right alongside Batman Begins as one of the best comic-book origin stories. Our view of Tony is almost entirely defined by the choices he makes in the spectacular first act, as captivity and escape force him to change his careless ways. It’s a truly fascinating origin, one that leaves Tony with an ethereal goal he will always be pursuing: Becoming a better man, and protecting those his actions once hurt. The arc not only gives Downey Jr. some excellent dramatic material to play, but also grounds the film in a profound emotional reality.
The only area Favreau really stumbles is in the action. He is not a ‘blockbuster’ director, and the set pieces are not nearly as exhilarating as they could be. Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane is a bit of a weak antagonist to begin with, but combined with Favreau’s weak action chops, the third act is easily the film’s weakest portion. It’s not a huge issue – especially given the wildly unpredictable, invigorating note the film ends on – but one that does hold the film back from being all it could be.
But why worry about that when Iron Man is, on the whole, such an insanely fun ride? It’s still one of my very favorite superhero movies, and a great first step on Marvel’s road to world domination.
Continue reading on the next page…Previous Next
2. Captain America: The First Avenger
Less of a superhero flick than a gleefully fun adventure film, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark, Captain America is easily my second favorite Marvel movie. There is something about the serialized, cliffhanger adventure format that I can never get enough of, and Joe Johnston is just as adept as Steven Spielberg at pulling it off. His vision for Captain America is an endlessly fun and insightful one, an entertaining and thoughtful serial that makes me positively giddy whenever I watch the film.
Like Raiders, the 1940s setting is incredibly important to the story, and Johnston never treats the period as a simple gimmick. The 1940s were a time of true national unity, and that sense of strong American pride is the only context in which protagonist Steve Rogers can be fully understood. He may be small and asthmatic, but his heroism – quietly forceful in the beginning, big and bombastic in the end – defines an entire era of the American fighting spirit, and one of the smartest choices the film makes is to not turn Rogers into an overly dynamic character. Steve isn’t like Thor or Tony Stark; he isn’t plagued by arrogance or demons, and his journey is not one of personal betterment. He changes physically, but no matter how buff he becomes or how ridiculous a costume he wears, Steve is still Steve, from start to finish.
That means it’s more crucial than ever to define the protagonist as clearly and endearingly as possible from the very beginning. The period setting is a major part of that, but it’s Chris Evans’ terrific lead performance that really sells this character. He is every bit as good as Robert Downey Jr. or Chris Hemsworth, but in more understated ways. It would be easy for Evans to play Cap as a happy-go-lucky stereotypical patriot, but that’s not the character. Rogers isn’t a patriot on a whim, but because he grows up in an environment that makes him believe helping his country is his only viable option in life, and that makes him a very sincere creation.
Once Rogers has the tools necessary to be the savior of his nation, Evans starts having lots of fun in the role, but he never forgets the character’s roots, and his performance is as honest in the end as it is in the beginning. Captain America has to be one of the harder superheroes to do well on the big screen, but everyone involved in bringing this character to life had exactly the right idea, creating a Cap whose warm heart also gives the film its vibrant soul.
Everything around him is equally well realized. The supporting cast – featuring excellent turns by Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, and Hugo Weaving – is tremendous, the art direction lush and enveloping, and Alan Silvestri’s score stirringly reminiscent of John Williams’ best work. Johnston’s direction of action scenes is a particular highlight, especially once Captain America starts using his iconic shield.
The film is everything I want out of a standalone superhero adventure and more. It has a strong, unique sense of identity, treats its characters with gravity and insight, and is as boundlessly entertaining as any summer blockbuster in recent memory. It certainly plays to my particular tastes more than some people’s, but I think any viewer can invest in the film’s stupendous character work or exhilarating action.
Like Thor, this film was initially overlooked by many viewers, but I sincerely hope The Avengers has compelled some people to go back and give it a try. For my money, it’s the best of Marvel’s individual, non-Avengers efforts, and I look forward to seeing what future filmmakers will do with the character. The foundation could not be any stronger.
Continue reading on the next page…Previous Next
1. The Avengers
Is declaring The Avengers Marvel’s best film the most obvious #1 pick of all time, on any ranking, in the entire history of list-making? Probably.
But it is, in the end, the only choice to make for this final spot, as every other film on this countdown was building up to this wondrous superhero epic. In fact, the entire idea behind The Avengers – to combine four different franchises under one bombastic roof – is so ludicrous, so spectacularly absurd and audacious that I still, four months later, find myself struggling to accept that the movie even exists.
But it does, and it is a work of blockbuster art. Fueled by writer/director Joss Whedon’s clear, inspired vision, the film is two hours of non-stop, glorious payoff, filled to burst with genuine surprises that no amount of anticipation could prepare us for. It does not quite reinvent the superhero genre, but does arguably perfect it, adding new dimensions to comic-book filmmaking we never previously thought possible.
The legendary team-up gives Whedon license to stage some tremendous and groundbreaking action, of course – the epic final act is the best blockbuster set-piece I have ever seen – but what makes The Avengers a truly great movie, rather than just a fun one, is how Whedon utilizes this opportunity to create an engaging, in-depth character study. He has a brilliant handle on every inch of this universe, giving each character and their related mythology a unique tone and weight; when the Avengers all walk into a room, it really feels as if they’ve each stepped in from a different movie, and with those distinctions established, Whedon goes to town letting these personalities clash.
The second act is largely a series of beautifully written dialogues between the characters, where Whedon explores how each member of the team plays off the others; through these interactions, we learn volumes about who these people are, so much more than we would if they were each flying solo. That sounds counterintuitive, given the sheer number of larger-than-life characters on display, but no major player is ever cut short, and they each undergo a palpable, effective arc of growth by uniting. Whedon’s writing probably shines brightest through Bruce Banner/Hulk and Black Widow – both of whom he tweaks and refines to perfection – but his handle on Thor, Tony Stark, and especially Steve Rogers is incredibly accomplished.
So long as one considers Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films as crime dramas, instead of actual superhero movies, The Avengers is unquestionably the current pinnacle of the superhero genre. That obviously makes it Marvel’s crowning accomplishment as well, and one cannot commend the studio enough for taking the wild series of risks necessary to pull it off. Revisiting these six films, it seems almost impossible that Marvel made it all the way through Phase One with almost no major hitches to speak of, and The Avengers is the ultimate testament to that effort.
What Marvel movie is YOUR favorite? How would you rank these six films? What would you like to see out of Phase Two? Sound off in the comments!Previous