Excelsior my Marvel homeboys and homegirls! Are you psyched out of your mind about the new Marvel movie Captain America: Civil War. As I am sure you are all aware, this film marks the end of Phase 2 of the MCU and the start of Phase 3, so let’s send Phase 2 out in style by ranking them from worst to best!
Wait, let me back up. So in 2008 Marvel began a grand cinematic experiment with the release of Iron Man, a movie fully funded by Marvel set in a persistent film universe that would extend beyond this single film and its tentative sequels. Iron Man ended with a tease that Tony Stark might exist in a larger universe, and the success of the film ensured the creation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU). The first sequence of films (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: the First Avenger, Thor, and The Avengers) was labeled Phase One. This first set of films primarily served to introduce each character in a standalone film before brining everyone together in The Avengers, which signaled the end of phase one and the start of Phase Two. Unshackled by the need to build a new universe (with the possible exception of Guardians), these films could expand the MCU and explore the psychology of these characters in a world where gods, aliens, science, and technology have all gone crazy.
Now before I dive in, let me just say I think that all of these films are pretty incredible and a step up from the films in Phase One (with the definite exceptions of Iron Man and The Avengers). So with that said, let’s rank them from worst to best.
Thor: The Dark World
The character of Thor is a tough sell from start, but the MCU wasn’t doing Asgard any favors by scrapping their comic depiction as Norse gods in favor of simply an advanced alien race (but not the Guardians type of aliens but a different, none realms style). It doesn’t make sense, but, whatever, let’s role with it. The Dark World muddies the water further by introducing the Mcguffin “The Aether” that can destroy all the “light” in the universe blah, blah, blah. Malekith, the last of an extinct race of dark elves, plans to enact revenge against the man that pretty much committed genocide against his people. Sounds like a compelling and nuanced villain right? Wrong. Despite being played by a top rate actor (Christopher Eccleston), Malekith is a one note bore, who happens to have some badass fighter planes (seriously Star Wars, B-Wings need to fly like these bad boys). Add in another incredibly underutilized Natalie Portman and you get Thor: The Snore World (at least the Thor films have a bunch of truly compelling female characters like Sif and Frigga, even if one of them is fridged in this film). Honestly, it is not that bad, but you get the point. The one redeeming quality, and it is a big one, is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. That man is a joy, and completely in his element in Asgard, as any Shakespearian actor should be. Anytime Loki walks onscreen you can’t help but smile, and you can tell that Hemsworth elevates his game when playing counter to Hiddleston. A complete joy.
Iron Man 3
Coming right off of The Avengers, the big question was how do you top it? Where can Tony Stark go after taking a nuke into a wormhole and eating shawarma with a god. The answer is examine just what that type of galactic exposure would do to a mortal man. Iron Man 3 deconstructs Tony Stark by literally stripping away his armor, and asks if he is still a compelling character without all the suits. Thankfully for us, he is, and this results in some truly spectacular sequences such as the plane jump and the house party sequence. The film certainly makes some leaps in logic though, most strikingly with the ending where Stark extracts his Arc reactor from his chest through a seemingly simple surgery (completely undoing the plot of Iron Man 2). But still, this is a fantastic comic film and staple in my house at Christmas time. The only reason this film doesn’t rank higher is because it plays it all so predictably.
Ant Man had a lot going against it leading up to its release. Preproduction was marred by the loss of director and writer Edgar Wright after apparent disagreements about the direction of the film. One look at the screenplay credits demonstrates the difficulty Marvel had retooling Wright’s script to fit the needs of the studio. Add to this the mixed reception of Age of Ultron (more on that below), and the cards were stacked against the little ant that could. Nevertheless the end product proves the reliability of Marvel films and the strength of their studio. A heist film by nature, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) goes on a series of three heists over the course of a film, each one different than the last. Introducing the concept of the atomic world of Dr. Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglass) trademark Pym Particles, the film distinguishes itself visually from the rest of the Marvel cannon with wth a focus on the micro world. The best parts of this film seem to be largely indebted to Wright’s initial involvement, but dividing Wright’s ideas from the other writers and director becomes next to impossible – which again testifies to the success and cohesion of the piece despite the production history. The film’s climactic fight on top of a kid’s Thomas the Tank Engine set mixes epic scope with comic scale by zooming out at the last second to ironically undercut the collision of the train and the ant sized men fighting. Add in Paul Rudd’s signature humor mixed with Marvel’s quick quips and this film truly hums along at a brisk and exciting pace.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
I am going to be completely honest, I refuse to hate on this movie (and I seem to be one of the few as both critics and creators love to critique this film). Sure, there are moments where Age of Ultron focuses on the future at the expense of the present (I am looking at your magical cave of mysteries), there are some pacing issues, and the opening sequence has some spotty CG, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the best adaptations of the comic medium to film. I mean come-on, this hulk-buster sequence alone constitutes a high ranking. The MCU has made some absolutely incredible films (one of them is in my number one spot), but AoU has something entirely special, made all the more beautiful because of its flawed ambition. But I get it; the film undoes some of the great universe building of the previous films: Stark is back in full suit production, and Shield barely skips a beat before showing back up on the scene to deploy a helicarrier.
But let’s set that all aside for a moment. Remember that insane tracking shot of all the current Avengers before they decimate Baron von Struker’s fortress in the snow? What about that beautiful 360° shot of the expanded roster tearing into Ultron’s forces? Remember when the crew was debating over whether anyone other than Thor was worthy enough to wield the Asgardian’s might hammer Mjolnir? What about when The Vision, a sentient robot part Ultron, part Jarvis, and part god, effortlessly lifted up Mjolnir in a gesture of supreme benevolence? You know what these moments have in common? They are all adaptations of comic storytelling. Men debating the physics of a magic hammer with gods and robots while the audience completely suspends their disbelief is a hallmark of great comic storytelling. And this film beautifully adapts the art of a comic’s foldout splash page with those beautiful tracking and 360° shots. Sure, sometimes the story doesn’t make sense and the sequential nature of the storytelling gets in the way of what is happening right then, but that is superhero comics, and Age of Ultron is a love letter to the medium by a master craftsman.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Had anyone but the most hardcore Marvel comic nerd even heard of Gamora, Drax, Groot, Rocket and Starlord before this film? I hadn’t and I am a Marvel fanboy. Now these are household names. I have Groot socks for goodness sakes (and they are incredible). I can’t even imagine the pitch that sold the producers on this ridiculous premise for a film about a talking raccoon and his BFF houseplant breaking out of a prison and saving the galaxy with the help of a green-girl, an autistic bodybuilder and an 80s high school dropout. But damn if this isn’t one of the finest pulp sci-fi films ever made in the twenty-first century. Coming off of a number of in continuity films that built out the MCU in a number of ways, James Gunn somehow got clearance to make a film that had next to nothing to do with any other film. An absolute love letter to the golden age of pulp science fiction films of the 70s and 80s, Guardians of the Galaxy somehow manages to be self-depreciating and self-assured. Gunn both repeatedly mocks the genre and celebrates all of its eccentricities. And let’s not forget that we have a cast that is diverse both in gender and racial representation (I believe this is the only Marvel film to pass the Bechdel Test, even if the end result is a little debatable). Oh and that soundtrack was the top of the iTunes soundtrack charts for what felt like years, singlehandedly exposing a generation of children to 70s classics. Gunn said that by the end of the film we would cheer and tear up for a raccoon, and I don’t know about you, but I definitely did.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is perfect. I don’t know what else to say about possibly the greatest superhero film of all time (the only competition is The Dark Knight). If Guardians was a love letter to science fiction, The Winter Soldier celebrates the political thrillers of the 70s and 80s while effortlessly exceeding all of the expectations of the ever-expanding superhero genre. If you are looking for car chases, urban shootouts, or epic ariel combat, The Winter Soldier is a master class. The sound of Bucky Barnes’ metal arm should be a seminar in sound design. Lean and crisp, The Winter Soldier wastes no time over explaining its political plot full of intrigue and double crosses. If Guardians excelled because it operated without the pressure of continuity, The Winter Soldier dominates because of the elevated stakes of the MCU. And no other film managed to tap into the cultural zeitgeist like this film about the dismantling about a government that sacrificed personal liberty for the sake of national security through drone warfare. And let’s not forget, this is a film about Captain America, a relic from the 40s who punched Hitler in the face and then got froze in ice for half a century. If DC could figure out how to imbue their boy scout with half of the ethos of Chris Evans’ Cap they wouldn’t have to deal with the travesty that is their current Superman. This film strips back all of the fantastical elements that defined The Avengers, and leaves us with a two hour shot of pure joy.
So that’s it. My favorite Marvel Phase 2 films ranked from worst to best. But let’s be real, I love them all! Do you agree with my list? What is your favorite Marvel film, or are they all trash? Sound off in the comments and let me know what you think!