The stumbling block of television for years has been that, while its storytelling is serialized by nature, the inevitability of missing episodes and not being able to keep all viewers on the same page limited its application. Detailed, multilayered, call-back heavy storytelling wasn’t an option due to this harsh reality, and shows that dared to push towards “you-have-to-see-every-episode” territory (Twin Peaks) ended up losing a lot of their potential audience and getting cancelled before their complexity had time to pay off.
Thankfully, this has changed in recent years. DVR recordings, DVD collections, and streaming services have changed the face of how we consume television. Instead of a myriad of disconnected nuggets for light entertainment, larger stories are now broken into manageable chunks. The possibilities for targeting niche markets, expanding character or story arcs, and creating a more in-depth world are all being taken advantage of already.
It was inevitable that this revolution in television would expand into other mediums, but one of the most unsure was the arena of film. Films, perhaps more than any other artistic format, are expected to be self-contained, especially in the producer-driven summer blockbuster scene where most audiences just buy a ticket because they need something to do for 120 minutes and don’t care about pre-established continuity. What large crowd could possibly be interested in seeing a bunch of interconnected stories with reoccurring characters, setups and mythos?
The comic book crowd, of course. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has often been called a daring experiment, and it is, but it wasn’t a nonsensical leap of faith. For decades, comic books have provided the vibrant connectivity and large-scale storytelling that television and movies have lacked, so to have the groundbreakers of this type of franchising be superhero movies makes perfect sense. When Marvel started producing content with fellow serialization pioneer Netflix, everything fell into place even more nicely.
So, to celebrate the arrival of season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil (which I should probably be watching instead of writing this), I’m going to rank Marvel’s output from my personal least favorite to my personal favorite. This is all opinion, blah blah blah. All the movies, season one of Daredevil, and season one of Jessica Jones will be included, but not Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D. or Agent Carter because I’m not familiar with them. This list is spoiler free, so you don’t need to hide your children or anything. So let’s get avenging!
- The Incredible Hulk
As superhero movies go, The Incredible Hulk has a pretty cool identity: a sci-fi monster movie. That’s rich ground with a storied history that provides the opportunity for a lot of unique visual conceits and thematic flourishes. The biggest flaw of The Incredible Hulk is that it seems to actively AVOID taking those opportunities. For visuals, we get pretty standard action, standard CG, a bad-guy-mutant with a standard design, standard cinematography, and standard direction. Thematically, we get…controlling yourself, I guess. Oh, and daddy issues.
That being said, The Incredible Hulk works with its own modest, unspectacular pieces just fine. It’s well paced, it tries to give its characters meaningful interactions, and it has fun with the prospect of the Hulk fighting a bunch of tanks, or another Hulk. It’s a rock-solid movie in its foundation, but it uses that foundation to build a completely unspectacular, faceless apartment complex, or maybe a parking lot. It’s a movie you’ll catch on TV one night, be invested enough in to keep watching, and then forgot 90% of what happened the next morning.
- Iron Man 2
Another underwhelming movie with only nuts and bolts. Whiplash is a one-dimensional villain regardless of Mickey Rourke’s honorable attempts to make him intimidating, the plot is a multitude of disconnected threads that never get a secure footing, and the endless setup of the first half never reaches a satisfying climax in the second half. It’s a messy movie by any standard.
Still, everything that worked in Iron Man is intact. Tony Stark and Pepper Potts are well acted, well written, well developed, entertaining characters with a great dynamic, the world is still beating with a living, breathing pulse, the comedy works, the emotional investment is still there, and it energetically follows through with the potential ideas of the first movie, (even if it can’t decide which one to go with) and the action is well shot, well-staged, and well-placed. It’s like Spider-Man 3: the inherent structural problems prevent it from reaching a rung any higher than “moderately okay”, but the pieces themselves are fine.
- The Dark World
The world of Asgard is big, sweeping, and bombastic, so it’s wonderful to see the sequel to the surprisingly modest Thor acknowledge that by blowing everything up. More ridiculous fantasy action! More complicated mythos! More plot twists and inter-character drama! All these are great improvements.
The catch is that The Dark World accommodates these expansions by downplaying everything else. The villain is practically nonexistent, the worldbuilding is limited almost exclusively to things relevant to the plot (I can’t be the only one who REALLY wanted to get to know Thor’s posse better, right?), and there’s almost no downtime for insightful character moments. I love the twisty, unpredictable skeleton of the plot, but I was left wanting far more meat then I what I got. Thankfully, the father/younger son/older son dynamic is intact, and the romance between Thor and Jane Foster is still sugary, corny bliss.
Also, Darcy is best Avenger.
- Iron Man
It’s become the most tired observation in the history of modern cinema that most action movies sputter out by act three, leaving a high-stakes firework display to fix the conflict. That’s probably the most serious flaw of the original Iron Man, which runs out of interesting things to do two-thirds in and opts to have Tony Stark fumble around until he beats the extremely uninteresting bad guy.
Thankfully, the first two thirds are top-tier stuff. Tony Stark is a fantastic protagonist; he’s got the cockiness and self-sufficiency you want in a leading man, but he only finds his genius useful when he’s actively applying it, usually to help people. Pepper Potts is simultaneously numb to and comfortable with Tony’s BS, and her forcefulness leads to some crackling banter. They both have a need to dominate the conversation, and do loops while talking to ensure that. They’re also introspective enough to have both realized this and just have fun with it. It makes for a relationship as entertaining as it is believable, one that’s carried well over all three Iron Man movies.
The first act is pure setup gold, placing Tony in a tough environment and making him immediately likable in his wit and his ingenuity. The second act also flows beautifully, with the engaging characters providing all the drive necessary to keep the viewer amused and invested. Even after it winds down, Iron Man is still fun and clever, making it worthy kick-off to the Marvel movies.
- Age of Ultron
The only thing that keeps Age of Ultron from greatness is the editing. Half-stories linger about like annoying plot tumors, characters don’t get enough breathing room, and the sheer overabundance of STUFF from plot threads to new characters is exhausting.
That being said, Age of Ultron is stuffed with good stuff. The new characters are fun and interesting, the existing characters get expanded roles with still-perfect banter, the villain is fun if flimsy, the action is more bombastic and grandiose than any other Marvel outing (with nationally varied settings to boot), and the threads and relationships that do get explored are even richer and more satisfying then the first movie. It’s ambitions get the better of it, but it DOES in fact have the chops to pull all this stuff off; it just doesn’t have the runtime.
- Iron Man 3
I reaalllyy, REEEAAALLLY want to spoil this one so I can sound off about how picky comics superfans are, but I’m going to tiptoe around it. Basically, there’s a huge twist in the middle of this movie involving the villain that many comic fans felt was a betrayal of the character. Not being knowledgeable about comics, I wouldn’t know, but on its own terms the twist is as amusingly subversive as it is cleverly dramatic. It works very well for the movie, and I haven’t heard any alternate suggestions that I think would have worked better.
And that’s really the entirety of Iron Man 3: the setups are clever and well thought-out, the characters and humor are as great as ever, and the movie as a whole carries and extremely smart, confident aura. The direction is steady and economic, but also knows how and when to cut loose with big action beats. The intimate growth of Tony Stark, filtered partly through the lens of a surprisingly well-rounded child character, is more poignant then anything in the first two Iron Man movies. We get to see him at a real low point, rather than just facing big threats. The movie is genuine and human, much more so then you would expect from the “fun and clever but mostly shallow” Iron Man saga.
If you’re an Edgar Wright fan who didn’t see this movie because he left production…I get it. All of his directorial work is firmly lodged in my all-time top 30, and it sucks he couldn’t bring that talent to a Marvel movie. That being said, did you REALLY expect an individualistic auteur like Wright to work well with the old-school commercially-driven studio-mandate Marvel/Disney system? Some directors can work in that frame and create really great stuff, but it’s pretty much a slap in the face for someone like Wright.
Also, you missed out, because the movie is legitimately great. The dad/daughter/outsider dynamic works dramatically and comically, the character-driven story and dialogue are intimate and infectious, the direction and visuals are inventive, and though it’s not Edgar Wright funny, the personality-focused humor is as smart as it is uproarious. It’s got a tight script, but never feels too restrained or slight. It sets the bar reasonably high and clears it perfectly, with a few inches to spare. It’s not life-changing (the villain could be interesting but is mostly reliant on clichés, the people we’re not supposed to like are practically strawmen, the comic relief is funny but doesn’t have much to do, ECT), but it’s the textbook version of an enjoyable blockbuster.
When I first saw Daredevil, I thought it was the best thing Marvel ever put out. I’ve mellowed on it a bit since, but that doesn’t make it anything less than great.
Let’s get the problems out of the way first: yes, it’s dark, and the darkness works in the big story beats, but in a lot of the downtime it falls into the “dark and gritty for the sake of being dark and gritty” trap, which can be hard to take seriously. Second: the premise isn’t exploited enough. I wish Daredevil’s powers and personal history were more satisfyingly explored then the broad strokes presented here, and the lawyer angle is practically nonexistent.
Everything else? GOLD. Matt Murdock himself is an engaging, likable hero who serves as an entertaining foil to the other characters. The supporting cast, especially Foggy and Ben Urich, are interesting and infectious onscreen. The “best character in the history of humanity” award, though, goes to the obvious choice: Vincent D’Onofrio’s Fisk is a transcendent villain, one full of sympathetic likability, an interesting screen presence, and unhinged terror. Superherodom hasn’t seen a live-action villain this endearing and ready for the film history hall of fame since Heath Ledger’s Joker. The downtime is filled with smart, character-centric dialogue, and the action is brutally effective. I wish there was more overall meat, but for a thirteen episode run, Daredevil is extremely promising and easy to get obsessed with.
- Winter Soldier
This is a full-on spy movie, and awesome for it. It’s surprisingly (and effectively) dark: there’s an uneasy tension in the air for most scenes, layers upon layers of secrets, an unflinching political look at freedom versus security (CIVIL WAR HYPE BY THE WAY), and a constant feeling that no one can be trusted. Therin lies the reason the movie works: it paints a bleak, realistic, corrupt world, and then plonks Captain America (AKA the walking antithesis to those things) smack dab in the middle, where he both challenges other people and questions his own place in such a world. Adding to this is the action, which is of the tough-as-nails, punches-and-bullets, make-use-of-every-part-of-the-setting variety, creating some of the most tense and realistic fights in Marvel’s output. Black Widow also comes into her own, her sly worldly wisdom playing off Mr. Beacon of Light in really clever and effective ways. The big plot twist feels a bit contrived and silly, but it aids the atmosphere of uncertainty. In terms of “what can we do with Captain America in a modern setting”, it’s hard to imagine a better, more intelligent solution.
- The Avengers
You guys know that this is going to be a classic, right? Like, in thirty years, it’ll be re-released by the Criterion Collection, studied in film schools, aired on TV Land at midnight?
Oh yeah, it’s also a dang good movie. The Avengers succeeds wildly as a flashy action movie, a smart character piece (where all the characters happen to be superheroes), a witty comedy (thanks Joss Whedon), and a well-structured drama. It’s got a great cast, great script, great heroes, a great villain…it’s one of those blockbusters that just gets everything right. There’s not even really anything to say about it; all anyone needs to do to defend The Avengers IS WATCH IT. The only distracting nibble I have with it is that, while director Joss Whedon definitely knows how to STAGE a scene, he doesn’t really know how to SHOOT one, so the camerawork is rudimentary. Not that that’s enough to bring everything else down, of course.
- The First Avenger
Criminally underrated. After everyone fell in love with the slick modernity of Winter Soldier, they seemed to forget about the straight-up, old-fashioned, Romanticized-World War 2, patriotic-idealism laden charm of the original Captain America. There was no better way to reintroduce this character to a modern audience. Captain “Perfect Human” America doesn’t NEED grit or realism or even flaws, because his character is built around inspiring other people (and, eventually, living in a time at odds with him). The Red Skull is about as irredeemably evil as Steve Rogers is unapologetically good, and the conflict is as simple as it is irresistible. Sometimes you need a nuanced, blurry conflict, and sometimes you just need “Good guys are handsome and thoughtful. Bad guys are literal Nazis. Go.”
ANOTHER character that doesn’t fit into the “realism-snark-selfawareness” box of modern blockbusters, and ANOTHER movie about that character that fixes that problem by simply being the movie it should be. Thor is fantastical, theatrical, hammy, campy, sugary, all those words that caustic “cynicism equals critique” critics like to through around as inherent criticisms. Thor milks its silliness for all it’s worth, creating real resonance in the Odin/Loki/Thor relationship, unabashedly embracing an earnest romance, and offering some of the most ridiculous action the Marvel movies would see until…well, until its own sequel. Sealing the deal are the performances: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Anthony Hopkins are semi-Shakespearian gold. Fittingly enough, it was directed by Kenneth Branagh, whose roots in theatre and theatre adaptations bring a unique directorial flavor that can only be described as “professional emotional haminess.” I don’t get it either. What I do get is that Thor continues to not get enough love. UNACCEPTABLE.
- Jessica Jones
Surprised at the high placement, are ye? I’m surprised myself, but the more I look at Jessica Jones the more it impresses me. The pacing is better than Daredevil, the acting is incredible all around, and the characters are magnificent. Kristen Ritter as the title character is elevated by a sharp, irresistible wit used to cover up guilt that we get to understand and relate to, turning what could have been a generic antiheroine into an engaging protagonist. David Tennant’s Kilgrave, while not as sweeping as Wilson Fisk, is still a terrifying turn with a lot of flavor. His self-delusionments are as understandable as they are despicable. The whole enterprise uses “darkness” far more effectively then Daredevil: while Daredevil sometimes felt pandering or forced with its darkness, Jessica Jones is dark because that’s the correct tone for a story about guilt, revenge, substance abuse, sudden death of loved ones, rape, PTSD, and the inherent horror of mind control. Everything is almost Lynchian in its offkilterness, down to the fact that the male villain uses mind control (a traditionally feminine villainous power) and the female hero has super strength (a traditionally masculine heroic power). Making use of an audiences gender biases to add a subconscious layer of the uncomfortable is just wickedly good storytelling. Even the side characters all get interesting subplots, setups and conflicts, with masterful control of tone and action, covering a variety of daunting thematic material. Marvel movies are generally at their best when they’re unashamed of being comic books, but Jessica Jones proves that they can also work with a more serious tone in a way you can always take seriously.
- Guardians of the Galaxy
Yeah yeah, it’s a fan favorite and all that, so call me unoriginal. This is still one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, and possibly one of the greatest action comedy screenplays of all time. It’s sharp, it’s irreverent, it deals with cosmic stakes but fills that story with characters who care about them as little as the main cast of Ghostbusters. In fact, Ghostbusters is a good comparison, as they share a lot of the same creative DNA: the characters all react to the nominally serious situations in funny ways, are brought to life by amazing performances (can we just take a moment to appreciate how much expressive mileage Vin Diesel’s Groot gets out of ONE LINE for the entire movie?), come with interestingly flavored personalities (Peter Quill’s wannabe awesome space guy, Gamora’s idealism buried under a layer of understated confidence, even Drax’s ultra-literalness and sympathetic revenge quest all ooze likability), and are set against a rich world that understands the power of suggestion and partial revelation to communicate its massive scope (granted this time it’s an entire galaxy instead of just “New York but with ghosts”). The amazing thing about all this is that it carries ALL this in a central emotional story that’s just as earnest and unabashed as any other Marvel movie. The characters may quip at the giant, universe-fate-deciding battle, but they take their own emotional and interpersonal struggles completely seriously, and the result is a movie that’s allowed to be jokey and silly as well as engaging and heartfelt. It’s the type of balancing act that’s VERY difficult to pull off; even Ghostbusters was mostly a comedy. The closest comparison I can think of is The Princess Bride, which has a very different set of priorities but maintains the same expert balance.
So basically, if anyone is doubtful of the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, tell them they made The Princess Bride…INNNNN SPPAAAACCCEEE! If that doesn’t convert them, they’ve exposed themselves as replicant humans. It’s a win-win!