With CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR charging into North American theaters this weekend, I decided that I was well overdue for a Marvel Cinematic Universe marathon. Twelve films, 25+ hours of action-packed superhero goodness — I was ready.
Starting with 2008’s IRON MAN and viewing right through to last year’s ANT-MAN, I sat in my chair for twelve nights in a row prior to CIVIL WAR’s arrival, catching up with all of the good and, to a smaller degree, all of the bad that the MCU has offered over the past eight years.
Below are my brief final thoughts on each individual film as well as a conclusion where I decide the best MCU film, the worst one, and more — no easy task, especially for a lifelong Marvel fanatic like myself.
The first Iron Man film still holds up. Robert Downey, Jr.’s initial appearance as Tony Stark — riding along with soldiers, effortlessly dropping one-liners — is still just as hilarious as it was back in 2008. The rest of the cast nails their roles, too. In fact, after re-watching IRON MAN, I found myself missing Terrence Howard’s James Rhodes (no diss to Don Cheadle; I just preferred Howard’s chemistry with RDJ — at least when comparing it to the chemistry of RDJ and Cheadle in IRON MAN 2). Jeff Bridges is still one of the best villains that the MCU has seen and Gwyneth Paltrow was wonderful as Pepper Potts. Overall, Marvel’s kick-off to their Cinematic Universe was and still is damn near perfect.
This is probably the hardest MCU film to pick apart. It’s by no means a strong film, but it’s everything that a film starring the Hulk needs to be. Edward Norton was a great Bruce Banner and, honestly, better in the role than Mark Ruffalo (who plays the character in 2012’s THE AVENGERS and onward). Ruffalo’s Banner is good, but it’s just too overly sarcastic and cheery for me. Norton’s portrayal and appearance was flawless. Not only that, but Ruffalo’s Hulk has more of an ape-like persona where this ‘incredible’ version was just a raging beast — to me, a better representation of the Hulk. It’s nice to know that Marvel’s not ignoring this film completely — proof being William Hurt’s return as Thunderbolt Ross in CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. Hopefully we eventually get to see Liv Tyler’s return as Betty Ross and Tim Roth’s return as Abomination, too. And where the hell is the Leader?! He was set up nicely by actor Tim Blake Nelson.
Ah, IRON MAN 2… what can I say? It’s easily the worst film of the MCU; not necessarily bad, but just one that has major identity crisis issues. The RDJ/Cheadle chemistry feels forced here… and then there’s the whole Mickey Rourke phoning it in for a pay check, clearly not enjoying himself (which is fine because his portrayal of Ivan Venko is quite unenjoyable). Lastly, is this an Iron Man film or just a prelude to THE AVENGERS? Obviously Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow needed to be introduced somewhere, but the S.H.I.E.L.D. infusion throughout the film really throws everything off. On the plus side of things, Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan was great here (especially in his scenes alongside the Widow) and Sam Rockwell was a nice addition to the MCU’s roster of villains.
For some reason, the Thor’s films have never been the most popular films of the MCU. Personally, I love the first THOR. I’ve always been a fan of the character, so I was thrilled to see him come to life on the big screen. The fights are epic, the score is phenomenal, and the cinematography and effects are breathtaking. Director Kenneth Branagh achieved wonders with THOR and a lot of that had to do with the stellar cast and the stellar story that he had to work with (based off of an idea by Thor comic scribe J. Michael Straczynski — who even makes a cameo in the film). Chris Hemsworth was really only known for his work as ‘Dead Dad’ from the STAR TREK reboot, so he definitely blew away all expectations as the God of Thunder. Probably my favourite pre-AVENGERS film other than IRON MAN.
Before I hop into CAPTAIN AMERICA (which earned its awful ‘THE FIRST AVENGER’ subtitle only to appeal to the international markets), let me just say that I’ve always been torn on it as a film. Something about the film feels strange — almost serialized — yet at the same time, it’s also one of Marvel’s most unique films to date. The performances in CAP were all great with Chris Evans playing (shockingly) the perfect Steve Rogers/Captain America. Hayley Atwell was absolutely charming as Peggy Carter, Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci were spot-on as Colonel Chester Phillips and Dr. Abraham Erskine, respectively, and Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes gave everyone hope for an awesome Winter Soldier of the future. Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull was good, not great — an ultimately forgettable performance. I’d love to see the Skull return in the future, but I really wouldn’t care if another actor portrays him. Also, the ending to this film… chokes me up every time.
Admittedly, Marvel’s THE AVENGERS is not a perfect film. It was the first time that so many of my favorite heroes appeared on the screen together, though, and for that, I have a true love for it. It was a first-of-its-kind film, and as someone who grew up reading the characters, it was a dream come true. Joss Whedon — creator of my favourite television show ever (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) — came onboard as writer/director for the blockbuster superhero team-up, a decision that I couldn’t be happier about, especially after his phenomenal run on the Marvel comic book, Astonishing X-Men. Now, truth be told, the entire opening act of THE AVENGERS feels like a television show with Loki appearing out of the blue to battle Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I usually feel like fast-forwarding that entire first act… it’s sadly quite boring. From that point forward, though, the little kid inside of me smiles the biggest smile possible. Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and Hulk (and to a lesser degree, Black Widow and Hawkeye)… all together on the big screen?! How could I not smile? Sure, for the most part, the heroes stand around arguing, but when they’re in battle and fighting alongside each other, it’s a mind-boggling experience! In the end, it’s probably that little kid in me that gives THE AVENGERS a perfect score, but I’m giving it to that little kid because the positives massively overcome the negatives and the film, whether you like it or not, was a historic event.
I truly believe that IRON MAN 3 had the strongest trailer out of all MCU films (“You’ll… never… see… me… coming.”), but the film was ultimately a disappointment after my initial viewing. It was the first film to kick off the MCU’s Phase 2, the first film to come after THE AVENGERS, and was written/directed by Shane Black (LETHAL WEAPON, KISS KISS BANG BANG). Take all of that and add The Mandarin — Iron Man’s most popular and lethal adversary (played masterfully by Sir Ben Kingsley) — and this should’ve been a winning formula. Sadly, it wasn’t due to a few reasons: 1) An unnecessary twist during the second half of the film that threw viewers into confusion and fans into frenzies, 2) RDJ spent a majority of the film moping around without any Iron Man armor, and 3) Marvel missed a perfect opportunity to introduce Amadeus Cho (they instead went with Ty Simpkins’ random youngster). I also have to laugh at the fact that outside of THE AVENGERS, Iron Man never once saved the day on his own in any of his solo films (Pepper technically beat the big bads in both IRON MAN 1 and 3, and Rhodey came to his aid in IRON MAN 2). With all of that said, though, I actually enjoyed IRON MAN 3 a lot more during my second viewing; I just wish that it would’ve came at a different time. It seemed like the perfect end to the story of Iron Man/Tony Stark, so it’s strange that it came back then instead of now. I would’ve saved it for after Phase 3 as a goodbye to Robert Downey, Jr. as the character. I think fans would’ve been a lot more appreciative of it if Marvel would’ve played it out that way.
The second solo film for Thor was also another disappointment, leading me to wonder if Phase 2 of the MCU would eventually crash and burn. It’s not a bad film, but again, it’s not nearly as good as its predecessor and certainly nowhere near the quality of THE AVENGERS. When it was announced that GAME OF THRONES director Alan Taylor would helm, I became ecstatic. Unfortunately, THOR: THE DARK WORLD was mediocre fantasy with forced humor and a truly awful villain in Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith. It’s really a shame that this film’s rough production made it so Natalie Portman wouldn’t return for next year’s third and final THOR. I’ve always enjoyed the relationship between Thor and Jane Foster, so now I’ll be left to wondering how they’ll write her off in THOR: RAGNAROK. I thought Marvel would do one of my favourite comic characters justice. With the disappointment of THE DARK WORLD and the expected goofiness of RAGNAROK (for those unaware, it’ll be a ‘buddy’ flick with Thor and Hulk), I’m quite sad for the God of Thunder.
Thank you, Russo Brothers. Truly… thank you so much. With CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, Marvel redeemed themselves. Not only did they (along with directors Anthony and Joe Russo) put together the perfect Captain America story, they put together the perfect superhero film. Hell, even if you remove the star-spangled tights from CAP 2, you’re still left with a perfect spy/espionage thriller. Yes, this film is that damn good. Here, Chris Evans proves once again why nobody else could/should be Steve Rogers/Captain America, while the supporting cast — including Sebastian Stan’s return as Bucky and debut as the Winter Solider, Scarlett Johansson’s beautiful, kick-ass portrayal of Black Widow, and Anthony Mackie’s wonderful first appearance as Sam Wilson/The Falcon — deliver spot-on performances. Whenever someone would ask me which superhero flick they need to watch, I would always answer with either Fox’s X2: X-MEN UNITED or Sony’s SPIDER-MAN 2. These days, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER is the first film to come to mind.
Space opera + Marvel Comics + James Gunn = a foolproof plan for one of the most fun cosmic-based films in years. When Marvel first announced that they were making a film based on the Guardians of the Galaxy, I thought to myself, “Well, here’s their first box office dud.” Even when it was announced that James Gunn, one of my absolute favourite writer/directors, would be at the head of the project, I still questioned whether it’d be successful. Add into the mix an unproven leading man (Chris Pratt), a wrestler-turned-actor (Dave Bautista), and two ridiculous characters as far as concepts go (a talking raccoon named Rocket and a living tree named Groot), I was really worried how it’d be received. I knew that I’d certainly love it, but the rest of the filmgoers out there… yeah, not so much. But then that first trailer popped up with awesome ‘80s music, hilarious one-liners, and tons of attitude, and all my worries went away. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY became the third largest film at the 2014 domestic and international box offices, and rightfully so. It’s hands-down the most entertaining film of the entire Marvel Studios catalogue.
As far as disappointments go, AGE OF ULTRON takes the cake. Before I jump into those disappointments, though, let me take a quick moment to focus on the positive side: Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the twins, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, Paul Bettany finally becoming the Vision, and Andy Serkis as the future BLACK PANTHER villain Klaw. Now, most of my disappointment comes from the horrible representation of Ultron, as played by James Spader. Spader basically just plays himself as Ultron. This Ultron isn’t a threatening bringer of death like in the comics; he’s cocky, witty, awkward, and obnoxious. He’s basically Tony Stark as a robot — and yeah, you could say that’s because in the MCU, Stark created Ultron, but still… it’s boring. Then there’s the consistent joke throughout the film revolving around Captain America not liking swear words — a joke that just doesn’t end. Now I could just go pointing fingers at Joss Whedon since he wrote the screenplay, but I’m sure a lot of this blame falls on the shoulders of producer Kevin Feige and others at Marvel. All-in-all, it’s just one disappointing film. Not necessarily bad, but very disappointing. I’ve loved a lot of Whedon’s work in the past, but I’m glad that the torch for the next set of AVENGERS films will be passed on to the Russo Brothers.
Finally, we come to the final film in the MCU’s Phase 2. ANT-MAN had a very problematic production and funny enough, it was the MCU film longest in development. I really wasn’t sure how it’d turn out, but it ended up being a ton of fun. Here, the humor and lightheartedness worked, partially due to Paul Rudd’s impeccable timing as Scott Lang. Of course, it helps that he was surrounded by such a great cast, too. Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, and Michael Peña all helped in bringing such an absurd concept to life in the most amazing way possible. Truly one of the most original, fun films in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Best Non-Titular Character Introduction
Outside of the MCU’s lead heroes, there’s been a lot great characters introduced throughout the past eight years. Black Widow in IRON MAN 2, Hawkeye in THOR, Thanos in THE AVENGERS, The Falcon in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, War Machine in IRON MAN 2 — all characters had phenomenal introductions, but at the end of the day, the one that I think made the biggest impact was Samuel L. Jackson’s first appearance as Nick Fury during IRON MAN’s after-credits scene. So, winner goes to…
Best Stan Lee Cameo
Oh, you didn’t realize that Stan Lee’s cameos were one of the most important parts of the MCU? Well, shame on you! Stan has played drunks, playboys, delivery men, chess players, and more, but for me, his best cameo came in THOR when he portrayed an elderly man trying to yank Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, out of New Mexico sands with a pick-up truck.
Best ‘Old School Actor in a Superhero Flick’ Role
This is an interesting category because it’s something that I believe Marvel has been very good at: acquiring popular, ‘old school’ actors and actresses for roles within their films. Most recently, we saw Michael Douglas as Hank Pym in ANT-MAN. Others worth mentioning include Glenn Close in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, Robert Redford in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, Jeff Bridges in IRON MAN, Sir Ben Kingsley in IRON MAN 3, Tommy Lee Jones in CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, and Anthony Hopkins as Odin in the THOR films. While I’ve certainly loved Hopkins’ portrayal of Odin, I’m going to have to give this one to Redford for his role as Alexander Pierce because I absolutely adored both his performance and the character.
There’s no denying that the MCU villains have come across as thinly stretched out as far as character development and plot goes, so I think there’s only one true winner in this category. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki is a bad guy that audiences love to root for. His performances in THE AVENGERS and both THOR films stood out amongst the rest for the most part and I seriously can’t imagine a better actor in this role.
The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had some truly catchy, brilliant scores. IRON MAN’s hard-rocking score by Ramin Djawadi gets you in the head-banging mood, Alan Silvestri’s brilliant theme for THE AVENGERS excites you to the core, Henry Jackman’s ‘The Winter Soldier’ from the second CAPTAIN AMERICA is absolutely chilling, and Tyler Bates’ entire playlist for GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY is epic and powerful. Alongside those great composers, the MCU has also heard from the likes of John Debney, Brian Tyler, Craig Armstrong, Danny Elfman, and my personal favorite, Patrick Doyle for his work on THOR. I really wish Marvel would bring Doyle back for more work because his score for THOR was as swooping and masterful as the God of Thunder himself. Winner…
I think I made it pretty clear above: IRON MAN 2 is the winner here. That said, I wasn’t really expecting a lot from IRON MAN 2, but I was expecting a lot from AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. As far as disappointment goes, AGE OF ULTRON wins. This is for worst film, though, and the only one worse than AVENGERS 2 is IRON MAN 2.
So, out of my three 5-out-of-5s above, which one stands triumphant above the rest? That honor goes to CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER. Like I mentioned, it’s pure perfection. Action films really don’t come much better than that.
And that’s that. I’m all caught up and ready to roll. Honestly, if any film is going to take the title away from CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, it’s going to be CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR — and I can’t wait!
So, what’s your thoughts on each film? How would you rank the MCU?
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR is now playing nationwide. Be sure to catch HDN’s review from Jenny Davies here and then let us know what you thought of it!