*** Warning: Spoilers For Films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe Follow ***
I need to get this out of the way up front: I’m not a “comic book guy”.
That’s probably weird for you to read, as this site is called “Nerd Bastards” after all; complete with a smattering of classic funny books comprising the logo alongside what appears to be a homeless man who mugged Darth Vader for his Camel Lights (doesn’t that dude have asthma?). The truth is: I’m pretty much a strict “cinephile”, my education (formal and otherwise) rooted in both classic and contemporary film history. That’s not to say I’m a complete ignoramus when it comes to comics. I collected when I was a kid, frequenting my local shop at least once a week, hooked on the books whose stories fascinated me. It’s just that this main vein habit didn’t follow me into adulthood like cinema did — a hobby that I chose to turn into a career of sorts.
I don’t bring this fact up to distance myself from the NB audience; more to illustrate that I probably view the films adapted from the stories they so love through a different prism. Where they’re looking for consistency of character and adherence to the established mythologies, I’m motly hoping to sit down with a (hopefully more than) competently constructed work of filmic language that not only brings our diligent defenders to life, but does so with a focus on pleasing more than just the established fan base. In no way is one method of evaluation better than the other — it’s just a different value system with which to rate a specific subsection of the form. To be honest, the best critics of “comic book cinema” are those who can do both, dropping knowledge about the “mis-en-scène” as easily as they can break down why this particular iteration of Captain America is the most faithful to its four-color creators. I strive to do both, but my limitations with the source material keep me from going full-blown FilmCritHulk most of the time.
To wit, I introduce to you my very own take on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. At this point in the sprawling franchise’s history, everybody seems to have their own personal rankings of the films leading up to and beyond Joss Whedon’s Avengers. As much as the snobbier cinema goers would like “comic book filmmaking” to evaporate completely into the ether, it’s time to start recognizing that the genre is far too profitable to disappear anytime soon. These movies need to be treated like bona fide works of art and evaluated as such, so I present my own personal, cinephilic take on the MCU, from worst to best…
#10. THE INCREDIBLE HULK  (d. Louis Leterrier, w. Zak Penn)
The Incredible Hulk suffers from an identity crisis.
On one hand, it’s a conscious effort on Marvel’s part to reboot the series, following the financial failure of Ang Lee’s more personal take on the material. On the other, it still seems to be somewhat of a sequel to that very same film (while simultaneously ignoring its very existence in terms of continuity), utilizing story elements that screenwriter Zak Penn had been working on since the initial film’s release (it even begins with Banner in Brazil, five years after he was last seen helping sick kids in the rainforest). It doesn’t help that the new Bruce Banner (Edward Norton, who would later be replaced by Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers) took it upon himself to rewrite the script, citing his distaste for a new “origin story” tale as his primary motivation for doing an uncredited strip down. What results is a somewhat befuddling, straight-ahead action/horror hybrid that never really stops to take a breath in-between chase sequences and monster mashes. It’s a forgettable mess of a movie, made watchable only by some deft, cartoonish set pieces that director Louis Leterrier (Unleashed, Transporter 2) coats in the grit and grime his previous action pictures were known for.
The visual scheme of The Incredible Hulk also makes it somewhat of an anomaly inside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Drenched in shadows and fog, it has a noticably darker look from the sleek and sunny Iron Man (which would be in production near simultaneously and released only a month before). For a direct-to-video shoot ’em up, this would be a damn good looking movie. But for a $150 million stab at bringing the Big Green Meanie back to life, it’s inexcusable. Everything about Leterrier’s Incredible Hulk is ugly, never feeling like it quite fits with the rest of the pictures that make up the MCU.
Tim Roth is a certainly a welcome addition, playing the thrill-kill mercenary Emil Blonsky (who eventually injects himself with the super solider serum and becomes The Abomination). As is William Hurt, who gets to chomp the cigar as General Ross. But if you thought Jennifer Connelly was even remotely given the short end of the stick character-wise in Hulk, Liv Tyler’s lack of remotely anything interesting to do as the new Betty Ross will send you running for the door. Beyond looking scared in the Walter Hill-style opening credits sequence (which essentially is a children’s story re-hashing of the first film’s events, altered sightly to shoehorn in the super serum plotline), you can’t help but feel a bit bad for Tyler, as no casting director could properly utilize her talents post-Lord of the Rings.
It’s somewhat strange that the Hulk, a character whose propensity for violence and simplistic back story should almost inherently lend itself to great cinema, has never been given a stand-alone film that has sat well with general audiences. Ang Lee’s is wrongheadedly maligned by both mall-goers and film fans alike, while Leterrier’s goes too far in the other direction, becoming nothing more than a simplistic action film with almost nothing else on its mind. Maybe now that Joss Whedon nailed the character down with The Avengers, Hulk can finally SMASH! front and center in his own picture, free from the trappings of studio pressure and a star who didn’t really seem like he was ever into having green skin.
#9. THOR  (d. Kenneth Branagh, w. Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz & Don Payne)
The biggest disappointment regarding Thor is that it goes so small following an opening that promises massive cosmic weirdness. Kenneth Branagh seems genuinely engaged with King Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) mythic telling of the history of Asgard to his sons Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). It’s a sequence pulled straight out of a Peter Jackson picture, complete with swooping CGI helicopter shots surveying legions of beastly armies, while Hopkins does his absolute best Cate Blanchett. While the usually Shakespearian director goes a bit too dark during certain scenes (the blues and blacks of Jotunheim are overwhelmingly dim), he seems to be having a ball, reveling in the intrinsic silliness of the Gods’ tale while attempting to channel Terry Gilliam via Dutch angles.
This all changes once Thor is cast out of Asgard and exiled to Earth. The skewed shots inexplicably remain, as Thor goes from interstellar space opera to some alternate universe 2 Broke Girls spin-off where Max and Caroline graduated from waitresses to astrophysicists (“OMG Max! There’s a Norse God in our backyard!”). Meanwhile, Loki and the rest of Thor’s goofily named comrades become involved in a mystery revolving around the unmasking of a traitor in their house, thus confining the thespians to acting in front of the film’s garishly cheap-looking sets. The prog rock space metal album all the sudden is reduced to a poppy, twee sing-along; a harmlessly eccentric fish-out-of-water tale peppered with familial strife. This is radio-ready fluff, not the ambitious concept record that’s hinted at in the first thirty minutes, and you can’t help but wonder if Kevin Feige and his fellow Marvel suits are to blame. It’s not unreasonable for them to fear that audiences wouldn’t show up to a $150 million hard fantasy summer blockbuster and make adjustments to inflate the bottom line, but the tonal shift is also a sad reminder that, on some level, the MCU films are products made for the strict purpose of mass consumption instead of artistic appreciation.
Thankfully, the cast is amiable enough to float this tone deaf misfire. Chris Hemsworth is both a physical specimen whose physique matches the Godly ideal, while also possessing a deft sense of comedic timing. The most disarming aspect of Thor is how damn funny it is, and Hemsworth is responsible for most of the movie’s best moments. Natalie Portman (fresh off of an Oscar win for Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan) is a nice love interest as Jane Foster, her movie star charm almost distracting from the fact that she’s given virtually nothing else to do beyond being a foil for the Norse God’s affections (which, if it weren’t for Natasha Romanoff kicking ass and Pepper Potts being promoted to CEO of Stark Industries in Iron Man 2, would make for a disturbing anti-feminist trend in the Marvel U up to this point). But the real casting coup here is Stellan Skarsgård, acting as a kind of surrogate father figure for Jane and Kat Dennings’ grating sidekick (whose twee wise cracks almost sink the movie to the ten spot). It’s just a shame that they’re all undermined by the insertion of Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the rest of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Agents, whose inclusion feels far more egregiously distracting and gratuitous than in Iron Man 2.
It’s somewhat baffling as to how a movie can do certain things so well, yet completely crap the bed on others. Even the ending, where a massive automaton is sent by Loki to take his brother out, feels tiny — the decimation of a small New Mexico town paling in comparison to Tony Stark’s world-hopping adventures and drone wars just a year before (no, that Rainbow Brite battle on the Bifröst Bridge doesn’t make up for it). Had Thor been an earlier entry into the MCU, this conservative mindset might be more understandable, as Marvel were still testing the franchise’s waters. But after three solid hits under their belt, you would think the company would be willing to be a touch more adventurous with their straight sci-fi output. In Marvel’s defense (which feels distinctly like Devil’s Advocacy here), maybe they knew just how good their next movie was, and didn’t want to follow it with this somewhat tepid tale that should’ve been full-blown interstellar insanity.
#8. IRON MAN 2  (d. Jon Favreau, w. Justin Theroux)
Iron Man 2 gets a whole lot of flak for the correct reasons, yet also doesn’t seem to receive the credit it rightfully deserves. The film is certainly a mess, its second act dragging on for entirely too long as it squanders Mickey Rourke’s presence in the Whiplash role. But it also may be the most thematically rich of the three Iron Man pictures. Expanding upon the political subtext of the first film (Tony’s ultimate enemy is essentially the US Government here) while also attempting to add layers to Stark as a human being, it’s the rare sequel that trips over itself trying to be smarter while also being bigger. Add in some rather stunning set pieces (the raceway sequence in Monaco is still jaw-dropping) and you have a movie whose ambitions seem to get in the way of it being in the same league of silver bullet entertainment that its predecessor was. Though to hold a film’s sense of purpose against it (especially in the case of a massive blockbuster sequel) seems rather fool-hearted, as both Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux attempt to deliver a movie that subtly engages the audience intellectually while simultaneously knocking them out of their seats with overblown spectacle.
The most shocking storytelling decision that Theroux and Favreau make is having Tony Stark spend the majority of the film outside of his trademark red and gold suit. While Iron Man is pursued by the government for the purposes of weaponization, Tony finds that the core he has implanted in himself is starting to poison his bloodstream. Iron Man 2 almost works like a “mid-life” crisis movie, our titular hero coming to terms with the fact that, while he may be invincible flying around and saving the day, he is still very much a human being. And like many human beings, Stark is being chased by demons bestowed upon him by a father he always viewed as being unloving. Howard Stark (here played by Mad Man John Slattery) was a genius, pursuing ways that he and his son could impact the world for the better instead of making it more dangerous through the machines of war. Though he got lost in his research and neglected his son while he was still alive, he left a legacy (both good and bad) that Tony discovers on his own in an effort to redefine who he is as he reaches middle age. It’s a somewhat trite attempt at adding depth to the playboy genius billionaire, but even shallowness can be applauded when you compare Iron Man 2 to something like The Incredible Hulk, which doesn’t even try to mold Bruce Banner into anything beyond a cartoon character.
While somewhat thematically interesting, the reveal of Howard’s “greatest invention” probably would’ve been much more resonant had Theroux’s script not delivered this information in the most clunky way possible. Essentially trying to kill two birds with one stone, Theroux has Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, returning from the absolutely stellar end credits stinger of Iron Man) visit Tony to further flesh out the “Avengers Initiative” and set up the massive ensemble blockbuster all of these movies (in the post-Disney aquirement of Marvel Studios) are chugging toward. At the same time, both he and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson, whose brief fight scenes with Favreau’s Happy “The Bodyguard” threaten to steal the entire movie) are attempting to teach Tony about how important Howard Stark’s idealistic work was. The end result is huge chunks of second act exposition that are either delivered verbally (ugh) or via a plot device that, while poignant, doesn’t make it any less terrible on a structural level (because really, do we need another movie in which a character learns lessons through an “old family film”?).
However, when you combine the thematic complexity with the casting (and re-casting) of supporting roles, both villainous and otherwise, you have a movie that is definitely easy to enjoy should you be able to look past its glaring flaws. Don Cheadle (stepping in for a contractually unhappy Terrence Howard) brings a weight and self-seriousness to “Rhoadie” that’s impossible to ignore, even if I do miss the unique, smooth presence of his forerunner. The fight between he and a drunken Stark at Tony’s birthday party is one of the absolute highlights of the movie, allowing Rhodes to slip into the War Machine suit with a defined, personal purpose in mind: to stop his friend from being such an arrogant, self-absorbed asshole (you could argue that, while great, there’s too much Downey in this movie, as his charm transforms into full-blown smarm). And though Rourke is totally wasted as Whiplash (why Theroux chose to keep him isolated in a prison or a weapons hanger for most of the movie is baffling), Sam Rockwell continues to be the best part of just about any movie he’s in, playing rival weapons mogul Justin Hammer as the anti-Stark. Lacking the charisma of his much more successful competitor, Hammer is the profiteer who always lived in the shadow of a man who was bigger than life itself. Only now, he sees a way to finally circumvent his opponent by enlisting the help of the US Government (headed by Gary Shandling as Senator Stern), who also wants to see Tony Stark put out to pasture so that they can utilize his inventions to patrol the world. It’s a deliciously slimy performance, as Rockwell completely understands not only his own character, but Downey’s as well, and plays every choice as the polar opposite of WWTSD? (What Would Tony Stark Do?)
This alignment of government officials with a nefarious mogul of death only strengthens Iron Man 2 as being perhaps the most political film of the MCU. The first film saw Stark finding the error in his ways and shutting down the weapons manufacturing arm of Stark Industries (allowing Hammer to rise to prominence in a mere six months), while the Senate scrambles to define Iron Man as a weapon himself. This branding of government as a constant threat to world peace (which Tony brags about bringing at the “Stark Expo” opening) is definitely subversive; Theroux and Favreau working in a commentary on how our elected officials only look for ways to utilize great inventions to attack and hurt other human beings. The fact that, once they finally do bypass Stark and gain access to his designs, the end result is drone weaponry (that is then hijacked by an allied terrorist) feels like a direct comment on how America has utilized robotic strikes to neutralize its threats around the globe. While somewhat ham-fistedly handled, the social commentary is most certainly present, though it’s probably easy to miss as a “drone strike” is never deliberately engaged by the US Military. Is it a cop out on Favreau and Theroux’s part to have Whiplash be the bad guy here? Sure. Would the more effective story move be to have a US Government official order a drone strike against Iron Man and War Machine in the film’s finale instead of Whiplash? Definitely. But again, ambition has to count for something (unless you believe “intent” to be a total fallacy).
Favreau’s visual palate remains the same in Iron Man 2, with returning cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s photography retaining the same metallic brightness that the first film possessed. It’s a welcome return to the style he cemented (and would be adopted by other directors moving forward in the MCU) after Leterrier’s truly ugly Incredible Hulk picture. There’s some playfulness in some of the shot selections as well. An early POV of Tony navigating a crowd of reporters is inventive, while the wipes (stolen most likely from Lucas’ Star Wars as opposed to the films of Kurosawa) are utilized again as probably the sole transition that isn’t a hard cut. This marks Iron Man 2 as another “important” entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it shows Favreau and Feige recognizing the asthetic that “won” and sticking with it from this point on. Again, Iron Man 2 might be a ramshackle picture from a storytelling standpoint, but it definitely deserves a little more credit inside of the growing canon of Marvel movies.
#7. IRON MAN 3  (d. Shane Black, w. Drew Pearce & Shane Black)
I fully expect this to be the entry where people dismiss this list outright, as Iron Man 3 is near universally believed to be one of the absolute best films of the MCU in both the critical and comic book fan community. Unfortunately, that’s just not a train I can board.
The truth is, I want to like Iron Man 3 more than I actually do. Out of all the MCU films, it feels like the picture most tailored to my geeky interests. Shane Black’s presence can be felt in the script so thoroughly it’s easy to ignore that he’s still visually playing in the sandbox Favreau built with the first two films. The Christmas setting, the helicopter attack on Tony’s home that feels pulled straight from the first Lethal Weapon, the constant movie references, both to his own work and genre staples (I’d love to believe Tony telling Harley to call him “The Mechanic” is a nod to Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop), the politically subversive (if narratively problematic) reversal of The Mandarin’s identity; it’s all a carefully constructed album of Black’s greatest hits. Unfortunately, as this is the second sequel in what suddenly became a trilogy (given the film’s ending), Iron Man 3 feels like it’s all in service of the repetition of themes that have already been covered by lesser films. The craft is undeniably a step above Iron Man 2, yet Black’s movie still feels like a rehash of examining Tony Stark’s insecurites, and the “demons” who want to do him wrong.
Much like the previous sequel, a solid chunk of the runtime of Iron Man 3 finds Tony outside of his suit. But even before The Mandarin orders an attack on his Malibu home, Stark is having anxiety issues — the battle for New York at the end of The Avengers haunting both his dreams and waking life (which has become non-stop, thanks to self-inflicted insomnia). Everyone is concerned, including Pepper. It’s another examination of the “man inside the suit” that drove the core of Iron Man 2, only linked to the events of a previous movie. While great for continuity purposes, this crisis of confidence is still a retread of Stark’s issues with mortality; another reminder that the suit only protects him during battle, yet cannot shield him from the pains of being a mere mortal man. Black’s decision to undercut Stark’s never-ending supply of hubris seems like a damn smart one (as it’s his defining character trait), only when watching Iron Man 3 immediately after the character’s second film, there’s a bit of wheel-spinning going on. This may seem like a strange complaint, as I’m not lobbying for more action in the place of character development (God knows I’d probably jump off of a bridge if I was). It’s just that I wish they had chosen a different aspect of his character to explore.
This goes double for the dramatic choice to show that, yet again, Tony is undervaluing Pepper Potts. Iron Man 3‘s second déjà vu-inducing sin is to show that his personal demons are distancing him from the woman who puts so much time not only into the man himself, but the corporation he helped build. Iron Man 2 ended with Tony realizing (much like he does in the third) that Pepper is the best thing that ever happened to him. Only in Iron Man 3, this revelation is reached at the expense of Pepper’s character. By having Killian Aldrich (Guy Pearce) kidnap her and turn a strong female CEO into a typical “damsel in distress”, it undermines all the work the series has done to elevate one of the few thoroughly drawn female characters in the MCU to a place of power. Yes, Pepper gets to receive a taste of yet ANOTHER solider serum during the film’s finale (thus reversing her own death — more on this in a bit), but it all happens while two other men fight over her. It’s admirable that Black decided to use Iron Man 3 as a cap to the trilogy (thus putting a defined arc on Tony in which he rejects the suit for his own betterment), but it’s certainly a shame that not only does he do so in the most redundant way possible, the story also reduces Pepper to an action film archetype.
Iron Man 3‘s biggest narrative and thematic crime might also be what most critics and fans deem the film’s biggest triumph. By revealing The Mandarin as being nothing more than a fiction invented by a fellow war profiteer, it takes the legs out of the dramatic momentum the series has built by turning the main villain into nothing more than a figure from the Stark family’s past whom they have done wrong (much like Whiplash in Iron Man 2). The political subversiveness of the series is maintained (and some could argue taken to another level entirely), but it’s all “been there, done that”. For all of Tony Stark’s lamenting about “creating his own demons”, what results is a work of thematic and narrative sameness — the motivation of revenge taking the place of what could’ve been a truly iconic character within the Marvel canon (though Ben Kingsley’s perfmorance as the drugged-out, sex fiend stage actor who portrays the “teacher” is a stroke of genius).
All issues aside, Iron Man 3 is still an enjoyable film, with one of the better MCU set pieces (that Air Force One rescue is awe-inspiring) and plenty of great Shane Black quips (the thug dropping his gun and saying “I don’t wanna work here anyway” kills me every time). And if I’m being completely honest, I think a fair portion of my distaste for the movie comes from what I perceive to be a bafflingly warm reception (theory: Black’s name being in the credits buys it much more goodwill than it deserves). But to assign intent to a viewership is a fool’s errand, so I must have to chalk it up to being in the minority on a movie I really want to love, but can only really tolerate due to its author’s trademark brand of humor.
#6. THOR: THE DARK WORLD  (d. Alan Taylor, w. Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely)
The Phase 2 films of the MCU have, thus far, found all of their central heroes grappling with some sort of emotional crisis. Tony Stark is having panic attacks and can’t sleep after the battle in New York. Steve Rogers is grappling with watching all he knows die around him while attempting to keep up his drive to defend the country he so loves. In The Dark World, Thor is stuck on Asgard, winning battles but missing Jane Foster, the ladylove he left back on Earth. His father urges him to move on and take Sif (Jaimie Alexander) to be his bride, so that the two may rule over Asgard for thousands of years together once Thor is king. But there is no convincing his still brutish, warrior son — Jane is the only one who can make him happy and he will jump at any oppurtunity that allows him to travel back to that tiny blue globe to see her. “Bigger” is certainly on the mind of the post-Avengers MCU movies, yet the predominant air is one of intesne melancholia — an emo approach to comic book storytelling that lends each movie a kind of sad sack pathos.
The Dark World delivers on the promise of the first thirty minutes of Thor. A truly bugnuts space odyssey akin to a great Star Trek episode (the meat-headed, JJ Abrams Trek taken to series, I mean), complete with hordes of space elves seeking vengeance and a flowing red MacGuffin known as “The Ether” (which feels almost identical to the “Red Matter” from Abrams’ first stab at the famous sci-fi series). This is big, silly, interstellar soap opera of the highest order, sending our heroes zipping across the galaxy and into other realms so that they might complete their own quest for revenge once their mother is killed by the nefarious dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston, whose presence links The Dark World to another sci-fi bit of goofiness). Loki is even allowed to be sympathetic again, displaying all the menace Tom Hiddleston perfected in The Avengers before helping his brother see that their slain matriarch’s death does not go unpunished. This is big, sweeping stuff, and director Alan Taylor never boxes it in or makes it feel small, his time helming just about every great HBO series never invading his brain or causing a downsize in scale.
The Dark World also reveals a sad fact about the MCU as a whole: the split between those films in the series willing to kill off characters in order to raise the stakes, and those who play their narratives a bit too safe. One of the most compelling aspects of The Avengers is the fact that Joss Whedon is able to take a character we never 100% cared for (Agent Phil Coulson), build him up and then use his death as a catalyst for his heroes to keep fighting. The loss gives the narrative momentum and purpose. In Iron Man 3, Shane Black introduces possibility of dramatic tension and true emotional loss with the deaths of Happy and Pepper, only to completely reverse them moments later (in the case of Pepper, a mere scene later). To a lesser extent (simply due to the brief Peggy Carter appearance), Captain America: The Winter Solider does the same thing with the perceived demise of Nick Fury. But while The Dark World reverses one death (because, really…did anyone think they’d ACTUALLY kill off Loki?), it allows the demise of a relative give the feuding brothers a sense of dramatic drive.
As an audience, we need these emotional losses to keep ourselves hooked into the stories. Without any sort of danger of losing our favorite characters (outside of the heroes, of course, because these ARE comic book movies after all), there’s nothing to really feel invested in. Part of the reason people ride roller-coasters is because, no matter how much they’re inspected, there’s a slight chance that you might die once the ride is put into motion. Once you reach the other side, having completed the loops and gotten out of the potential death trap, it’s a feeling of having cheated The Reaper. Narrative works the same way — without the threat, there is no rush. We need to feel as if these people we love (and, by proxy, ourselves) are in harm’s way in order to be relieved that they’ve made it once the ride is over.
To tell the truth, The Dark World would be much higher on the list if it weren’t for the muddled color scheme that tarnishes the back half of the picture. Those pea greens and sloppy browns during Thor and Loki’s battle with Malekith give it all a dour, repulsive air that would feel more at home in one of the Riddick movies. There’s something to be said about Taylor going slightly off book when it comes to the visuals (and also getting to direct the first film that’s based entirely off of American shores), you just wish he hadn’t decided on such an ugly visual palette to paint this picture with. Still, Thor: The Dark World is an amazing step up from its predecessor in nearly every way and a fun reminder that, now that Marvel Studios has deposited a bunch of your money in the bank, they’re willing to take a little bit of a bigger risk on their titanic galaxial action. But just a little.