7 Days: The hierarchy of the Marvel Universe films

I’ve grown weary of the summer movie season gauntlet, but I run it every year because there’s still a part of me that’s a kid, and I can’t say no to him – at least when it comes to movies (the kid in me has accepted that Cocoa Puffs and chocolate milk will never be a part of our breakfast repertoire ever again. So it goes).

Most of the time, this annual slog through bright colors and flashy things fills me with cynicism, dejection and resentment, a triumvirate that’s only occasionally tempered with the wonder and elation that I’m supposed to feel. If you take the long view, it’s a losing battle, but again – I’m doing this for The Kid. Every once in a while, though, my commitment to this cycle is rewarded by a movie that reminds me why I endure this ritual in the first place. This past weekend, I saw Iron Man 3 – and it is one of those movies.

But rather than just ramble on about how inspired Shane Black’s take on a post-Avengers Tony Stark is (and it is, trust me), I thought I’d go ahead and just rank all the Marvel Universe films, because that’s way more fun (and note that I said Marvel Universe films. That means no Spider-Man, X-Men, Blade, DareDevil, etc., as those all exist independently from one another – if that’s confusing, go here).

So, for the next week, I’m going to be doing a write-up of one film per day, going from my least favorite to most favorite film. Are you ready? Good. Then let’s begin:

THE FILMS part I: Lesser Marvel

7) IRON MAN 2 (2010)

ironman2

I’ve only seen Iron Man 2 once, on the day of its release in theaters – and I don’t ever really want to see it again. Why? Three reasons:

1) It’s a placeholder – nothing more
Not once during Iron Man 2 did I ever feel like it was anything more than a building block necessary for The Avengers. It felt like some producer was running down a checklist saying, “okay, well, we need to introduce Black Widow, and Nick Fury’s got to become more of an active character, and we’ve got to flesh out Stark’s past, and tie his father into S.H.I.E.L.D., and…”. Yeah. You get the idea. Lots of filler. And not much of anything else.

I’m sure there’s a way to do all of those things while not making the film that does those things feel like those things are all the film was designed to do, but that’s not happened.

2) Mickey, Mickey, Mickey
I love Mickey Rourke. However, when he was all “hey, I think it’d be cool to have Ivan Vanko slur half of his lines in Russian while feeding some random bird”, somebody should’ve told him “no, that’s a bad idea – maybe try something else?”. I know Mickey’s a method man (not to be confused with the Method Man), but just because a process has worked before does not necessarily mean it will work every time, and Mickey’s goal of making Vanko someone you could empathize with could’ve been achieved in some way that didn’t result in a completely ineffectual and, frankly, weird villain. And not weird in a good way. Weird in a “Sylvester Stallone in Cobra way.”

3) A loss of found purpose
The first Iron Man film is exceptional in how it portrays a man changing, not growing up. There’s an ocean of difference between the two – and really, who wants to see a grown up Tony Stark? The fact that he’s a self-involved, off-the-cuff eccentric genius playboy is what makes him interesting (flaws and all), and the first Iron Man wisely keeps that core intact, while affording him opportunities to grow and refine a conscience (opportunities which Stark takes). In short, Iron Man gives Stark a renewed sense of purpose. But in Iron Man 2, Stark is despondent, and has abandoned that purpose at the film’s onset; the palladium powering the arc reactor that’s keeping him alive is now (ironically), killing him. Slowly. That’d be a bummer for most people. But Stark’s a genius, capable of solving basically any problem, and additionally, he’s recently been afforded a Second Chance to Do Good – so why does he spend so much time in Iron Man 2 being mopy and hitting the bottle, instead of getting into that zone he was in when he was refining the suit in the first film, and solving his poison palladium problem?

Granted, he does, eventually, solve it (as we knew he must). But why makes that part of his arc at all? Couldn’t that time have been better spent to tie him more closely to all those previously-mentioned Avengers building blocks that exist in the film?

(Answer: yes).

6) THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Bruce Banner spends much of The Incredible Hulk on the run, trying his hardest to keep a lid on his inner-monster in the process. It’s unique; other heroes seek out trouble to quash it, but Banner just wants seclusion, and wouldn’t you know it, trouble somehow manages to find him anyway. Directed with grave sincerity by Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, Unleashed), The Incredible Hulk is a sleek but forgettable thriller that falls short because it’s lacking in emotion – and in a story about emotion triggering transformation, that’s bad.

I saw The Incredible Hulk in the theater when it came out, and I remember liking it quite a bit; there’s some wonderful sequences in it, especially in the beginning (like that first showdown with Hulk and the army guys in the bottling plant – terrific!). But seeing it again recently made me change my tune. I initially enjoyed Norton making Banner a relatively flat character, emotionally speaking. It felt right. After all, he wants to keep the Hulk inside because he can’t control it, and the movie ends suggesting he’s starting to get a handle on doing just that – controlling it. But seeing Mark Ruffalo’s take on both Banner and Hulk in The Avengers was a revelation. He somehow managed to humanize that suppression; we eventually find out more about that, but I’ll get into that when I talk about The Avengers. The point is this: both portrayals are rooted in truth, but Ruffalo’s is more satisfying. And to an extent, that’s unfair, because since this is all chronologically linked, Norton’s Banner is necessary, as it’s what Ruffalo’s Banner must evolve from. Right?

Well, yes. That’s true. But necessary or not, it doesn’t change my preference of one over the other. And beyond the interpretations of Banner, The Incredible Hulk has some other issues. Like the fact that these repeatedly failing raids to capture Banner take place in *extraordinarily* populated areas. Why? You’d think that with the full backing of the US military at your disposal, you could get the jump on one guy without risking a mountain of collateral damage, especially if you know that you could bide your time to plan everything out to capture said guy, knowing that he’s hiding and doesn’t want to use the one weapon in his arsenal against you. Man, the army must’ve been hard up for commanders when they promoted Ross to General. Dude’s awful.

And speaking of dudes: the comic world is (much like the real one), a patriarchy. Nonetheless, General Ross’ daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Ross, has the distinction of being the most thinly-developed female character in the Marvelverse to date. Now, none of these films are paragons of feminism, and most of other female characters that exist in this universe have only the slightest degree of autonomy (there’s a few exceptions; we’ll get to them eventually). That’s something Marvel needs to work on bettering, across the board. I know that there’s probably a host of other things I could get into on that topic here, but I’m not sure I’m wise enough to do it, and do it justice – but I feel just fine saying there’s an imbalance, and it’s wrong.

Coincidentally, “imbalanced and wrong” is also a great summation of what I took away from rewatching The Incredible Hulk a few days ago. Hooray?

5) THOR (2011)

Thor (2011)

Until a few days ago, Thor would’ve been at the bottom of this list, and it would’ve landed there by a comfortable margin. I hated Thor when I first saw it. I’m not even sure why that feeling was so strong, but it was, and I can clearly picture it in my mind.

To begin with, I thought the film possessed far more comic elements to it than it actually did; early scenes involving Thor demanding horses and shattering coffee mugs were met by groans from me, but seeing them again, knowing that the film wasn’t going to stick to that road, made me feel, well, kind of charmed by them. Hemsworth is clearly having a grand time gnawing the scenery (as are all of the other Asgardians), so why give him flack for it? It’s fun – and that’s what these movies are supposed to be, right? Fun?

Yes, the moral of Thor essentially amounts to “grow up”, and yes, the movie as a whole feels wooden and cheesy, but that’s not the entirety of its purpose, and it actually pulls off some things that other Marvel movies couldn’t, like naturally integrating material necessary for The Avengers – like that whole bit with S.H.I.E.L.D. stealing Jane’s work, and Thor fighting his way through heavies to get it back whilst meeting Hawkeye in the process. That sequence added material required for The Avengers, true, but unlike in Iron Man 2, it felt like a natural extension of the Thor storyline. It fit. It meshed. Job well done!

But let’s table all that for a second and talk about dudes. Yep. Dudes. Thor is, like not only all the other Marvel films, but in fact like most films in general, a dude-centric piece. But Thor happens to have the most developed female character of the Marvelverse in Jane Foster; she’s a largely autonomous character, linked to Thor initially only to pursue and refine her work. And yes, Jane and Thor eventually have their obligatory blossoming romance, but small progress is still progress, and should be noted. It’s doubtful that subsequent Marvel films will break out of this cycle, but I’m curious to see what will transpire with them in Thor: The Dark World later this year.

So. Loki. He was another problem for me when I first saw the film; I derided his passivity, but he’s not passive so much as he is passively active. He is, after all, the trickster god, so it’s fair that his machinations exist (for a time) only to himself. And at least he’s able to fool some people here, unlike in The Avengers, where Black Widow gets him to more or less spill the beans about his master plan in a few minutes.

Don’t misunderstand me; Thor is not a great movie, and it’s certainly not a great comic movie, Marvel or otherwise. But it’s fun – and that’s what The Kid wants, after all.

THE FILMS part II: The Middle Marvel

4) THE AVENGERS (2012)

The Avengers (2012)

I know what you’re thinking.

“Only 4? Really?”

Yes. Really.

The culmination of a crossover that’d be germinating for four years, The Avengers was, in many ways, *the* film of 2012. It certainly dominated much of the conversation. Actually, I don’t think you could call it conversation, really; it’s too one-sided. Everyone seemed to like this film. And there’s a lot to like about it. But I didn’t fall in love with it the way everyone else seemed to, and I can’t really put my finger on any one thing as to why. There’s a lot to like about The Avengers, sure, but the things I liked most about it seemed to be corrections of things that I had previously not liked.

Like Bruce Banner. When I had originally written about The Avengers, shortly after its release, I had remarked that there’s a single line of dialogue in the film that capture both Banner *and* The Hulk more clearly than anything in the past two films about them both. I stand by that. I won’t tell you the line in question, but odds are you know it. It’s no secret.

Thor was better, too; there wasn’t anything really wrong with him the first time around, but he never really stood out as a hero that much, either. Now that’s changed. There’s a weird mixture of arrogance and nobility that emanate from him which was lacking previously, and which more or less *had* to be lacking previously since his journey in the eponymous film was to develop him to that point. He was a sketch. And now’s he’s been filled in. It’s a nice change.

You couldn’t have found a better writer and director for this material than Joss Whedon, and true to form, his humor and playfulness are found all over it. At least, until the finale – then Michael Bay takes over. That’s the weakest part of the film, for me, the grand, climactic showdown. I’ve seen it a few times now, and it’s an endurance test. It assaults your senses relentlessly, and it’s fun – for a while. But that elation eventually gives way to numbness, and by the time Iron Man is hurling towards a rapidly shrinking vortex (after handily averting a nuclear bomb, no less), I’ve basically checked out.

There’s not a good way to wrap things up at this point. Except this:

#4.

THE FILMS part III: Greater Marvel

3) IRON MAN 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Oh, how tricky this was. I have no question in my mind what the top film on this list is going to be, but numbers two and three have been battling for supremacy in my brain all week. But in the end it had to be this way; there’s no getting around it. Before we get too much further into things here, though, I have a confession I need to make, because it’s going to help contextualize my thoughts (or rather, my lack thereof) for you. And that is this: I’m an expert at distilling indifference from anticipation.

No, seriously. I can refine and store so much joy for something that I have not experienced directly that by the time I do experience said thing directly, I can’t help but be disappointed that I haven’t been able to cull from it more joy than what I’ve already gotten. The fallout from this, as you can guess, has many emotional manifestations (none of them positive).
So, on the topic of measured expectations, I’m my own worst enemy, and then some. And “measured” was what I tried to maintain for Iron Man 3.

I was excited for the film from the start. Not only was it going to be directed by Shane Black (reuniting him with Robert Downey Jr. once again, after the criminally under-appreciated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), but it was also going to be the first film in the series to base itself on an arc from the comic of its namesake (I personally have not read the Extremis arc by Warren Ellis, but knowing Ellis, I’m sure it’s gold). The potential for that combination was great, so to keep myself grounded, I avoided all subsequent news stories on the film, and limited my viewings of the trailers as they began to leak out.

And then, a little over a week ago, I saw the film. I loved it (obviously). And the thing I loved most about it is how well it blurred the line between where Iron Man ends and Tony Stark begins. At this point, Stark is addicted to the suits that define him as a hero. He makes mention of a finishing up a Mark 47 model near the film’s onset, quite an increase from the Mark 7 he was sporting in The Avengers a year ago. Maybe it’s the PTSD he’s going through, but Stark has definitely turned inward; he needs the suits now more than ever. And that’s where Iron Man 3 gets great: because even though Stark *needs* the suits like a drug, we see him spend much of the film without them. It should come as no surprise that he fares quite well without them.

I hesitate at this point to delineate the film, because unlike Iron Man 2, I want – nay, need – to see it again. It’s one of those films you can tell you’re not taking in completely the first time as you’re watching it. But I will say that two things are blindingly clear:

1) This is among the best films of the Marvelverse.
2) Tony Stark *is* Iron Man, suit or no.

2) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)

Captain America: The First Aveneger (2011)

Captain America is a successful superhero film because it doesn’t feel like a superhero film. Maybe it’s the 1940’s backdrop, maybe it’s the realism of what’s at stake for everyone, or maybe it’s none of those things, but Captain America is more than just an origin story and looming Good VS Evil showdown: it’s an adventure.

I know everyone’s invited the comparison (and it’s an easy comparison to invite), but the film’s closest kin in my eyes isn’t another superhero film at all, but rather, Raiders of the Lost Ark. And no, not just because there’s Nazis. There’s a sense of wonder and danger that’s not nearly as present in a lot of the other Marvel films. So in other words, Captain America feels the most like a comic book.

Like Iron Man 3, I’m hesitant to break the film down because doing so just sucks the magic right out of it. I had a much longer, more in-depth breakdown of this film written, but going back and re-reading, it didn’t *feel* right. Something was lost. So let’s end this here by stepping back a moment: in 2011, there were four superhero films that came out – and only this one got its titular hero right. Everything that Captain America is, was, and should be is here. That’s coming as a comic fan, so that may not mean as much to you, but it means a hell of a lot to me.

1) IRON MAN (2008)

Iron Man (2008)

Sometimes you just nail something on the first go-around. Case in point: Iron Man, the very first film of the Marvelverse, and also the best. Not just of the Marvelverse, though – it’s the best mainstream comic adaptation that’s been made to date. Better than the Donner Superman stuff. Better than the Nolan Batman stuff. Better than Spider-Man 2, Hellboy 2, X2, the lot of ’em. Iron Man is the best. It’s very funny, yet very coy. There’s great action, but it’s the only comic film I’ve seen that’s left me wanting *more* of it, instead of wishing there was less. And the transformation Tony Stark undergoes during the film is remarkable precisely because it isn’t really a transformation at all – it’s merely a course-correction, a vision shift. Stark remains an egocentric, worldly man who acts on impulse. His flaws remain part of his definition; whereas Bruce Wayne toils secretly with the burden of Batman, Stark can’t make it through one pre-written speech before bursting the bubble to the whole that yes, he is Iron Man – “character defects” (his words) and all.

I love this film. I’ve seen it over a dozen times, easily. All the right notes are struck in it. Jeff Bridges slips into the role of Obidiah Stane almost undetected. There’s no Dude-ness to his character at all, and it’s startling to see him shift from warm to cold when dealing with the various people he interacts with. His best scene comes at the end of a party, when he coerces Tony into a picture with the media whilst telling him that he’s boxed him out of his own company – that’s a hard scene to swallow, but Bridges makes it believable, and you can feel the vulnerability and anger radiating off Stark while the cameras are snapping away.

As great as Bridges is as Stane, thought, it’s Downey who steals the show. This is his film, and I can’t think of another actor who could bring this character to life with the same specificity and vigor that Downey does. He clearly captures everything that Stark should be, and he makes sure that Stark shines through the suit every time he dons it. We’re not stepping into a different person entirely when Iron Man is flying around, saving the day, and that’s a welcome change of pace. There’s other films that had the potential to pull this unity off, but didn’t quite make it happen (most notably DC’s Green Lantern); thankfully Iron Man did. There’s no plurality, only singularity, and it’s this singularity that ultimately laid the groundwork for the events of Iron Man 3. When Stark gives up the suits at the end of that film, he echoes the words that closed this film: “I am Iron Man.”

I was speaking of striking the right notes earlier, so let’s discuss the score for a second here before we wrap things up: unusually, the score of Iron Man features loads of pounding electric guitar in addition to the more-or-less standard orchestra. For a film about, well, an Iron Man, it’s damn effective. It enhances all of the scenes when we see Stark in the suit; the main theme is built on a mid-paced repetition of several notes, and it feels like a machine lumbering at you slowly, relentlessly. It feels mechanical, unending, and it’s great.

A film like Iron Man was bound to happen at some point. It’s akin to a meteorological event in a way: all the right elements coming together at the right time in the right way creating a force to be reckoned with – and one that won’t soon be replicated.

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