Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.
The MCU Ranked
Worst to Best
21. Captain America: The First Avenger
Some fans place The First Avenger in their top tier, if not favourite – heaven forfend – of the MCU. Which is fine and all, each to their own, but I simply cannot see it. I found Cap 1 largely dull the first time, and a revisit has done nothing to change that. Joe Johnston brings exactly the same quality of narrative sluggishness to the material as that earlier potential-filled period pic The Rocketeer (if the movie was as good as its poster design, The Rocketeer would be an all-timer).
None of the characters pop, the sentiments expressed are over-earnest in a grating rather than inspiring way (a point of comparison might be Superman: The Movie, where the aw-shucks genuineness travels because it's counterpointed humorously at every turn), and even the villain is a missed opportunity (Hugo Weaving in that makeup should be a blinder, but instead he's just so-so; no wonder he gave Infinity War a miss). True, there are several solid interludes, in particular Cap being detailed to the WWII propaganda effort, but we're very lucky future encounters found ways to mix things up, both in terms of genre and protagonist/antagonist.
Full Review: Captain America: The First Avenger
20. Black Panther
I know, I know. Its success pretty much makes it critique-proof. But Jurassic World was also an enormous hit, and socio-political currency doesn't automatically make a movie immune to the basic criteria of merit (unless you're the newly announced Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film Oscar, possibly instigated as a sop to Black Panther for missing out on the proper award, on account of it not really being very good). Ryan Coogler did a bang-up job resuscitating the Rocky franchise with Creed, but he seems to come unstuck with the MCU, both as director and with the screenplay he co-wrote.
T'Challa's first solo movie is frequently stolid and flat, lacking atmosphere, tension and pace. Despite not being a gargantuan Avengers-fest, it’s a victim of bloat, unhurried and unmotivated to the point of torpor. There's Michael B Jordan's charged performance as Erik Killmonger to give it a kick in the pants, but the character is ultimately disappointingly one-note (angry with daddy issues, fuelled by scorched-earth vengeance and indulging a final paean to his ancestors that has been much praised but is just trite; this is supposedly a smart guy trained in the art of overthrowing governments by stealth, yet he blunders around Wakanda like a bull in a china shop).
T'Challa too has daddy issues, but his righteous resolve in Civil War has given way to something more anaemic and less relatable. There are some memorable supporting performances (Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis), but generally, the characters feel undernourished, unable to evolve beyond basic types.
There's much here that’s indigestibly corny, truth be told, or stale cheesy at best. Coogler's picture puts me in mind of under-directed '80s movies, the likes of Willow or Krull, or an undernourished Stephen J Cannell show but given an unchecked budget. Of which, there's an abundance of sets that are obviously sets – the cliff contest setting is especially creaky, as are the borderline parodic emotional beats accompanying both fights: "Show him who you are!" – and all-too evident blue screen, even by MCU standards.
The action sequences mostly aren't up to snuff either, alas; there's a car chase that seems to want to evoke the relentless pace of The Matrix Reloaded's freeway pursuit, but entirely fails to grip (although, the CGI is every bit as variable as that movie's). Wakanda is only ever a painstakingly over-designed mix and match of African history and future tech; the result smacks of Hollywood designer-tourism, and not something remotely organic or lived-in. The vision-quest sequences too are disappointingly pedestrian.
The thematic range of the movie has also been much celebrated, and it's certainly willing to grasp the themes thrown up by the source material, of race and identity, of isolationism and globalism, even if it settles on a nuance-free, emotionally-salving solution to the latter (notably, Wakanda will become a battlefield only one movie later). Ironically, I found the most engaging part of Black Panther by far to be the 1992 flashbacks, Sterling K Brown on compelling form as Erik's radicalised dad; come the (anti-)climax, we're presented another clash of opposites in fancy mech suits (see Iron Mans) juxtaposed with an another entirely uninvolving major scrum.
Full Review: Black Panther
19. Thor: The Dark World
A better-made movie than the first Thor, but also a more anonymous, less essential one. The Dark World attempts to raise the stakes – Asgard in peril, the death of supporting character Frigga – but does so with little real impact.
Director Alan Taylor graduated to big screen duties (after Patty Jenkins dropped out) and reportedly had a less than enjoyable time – following the crashed-and-burned Terminator Genisys, he has retreated to TV –complaining of the studio mangling his efforts in post (the production was awash with creative differences). He furnishes the proceedings with Games of Thrones grit, but to rather indifferent effect; the biggest problem is that it feels like "just another" Thor film (it can't even be charged with the excess of Iron Man II, which at least singles that one out for attention).
This extends to the title character, such that "witless oaf"” Thor is second fiddle in his own franchise, with stir-and-repeat moments (he must defy dad, but they reconcile amid generic platitudes – "I'd rather be a good man than a great king") and a rekindled romance that fails to sizzle (explaining his absence post Avengers– "I had to put an end to the slaughter": "As excuses go, it's not terrible" – is fairly terrible).
It sounds like dropping Jane Foster as a villain might have been the result of the same unenlightened producer process afflicting Iron Man Three, and it's notable that Kat Dennings' sidekick ("Look at you, all muscles and everything…"; "How's space?") is way more appealing than Portman's lead (Andie McDowell syndrome?), even given the latter's penchant for tripped-out alt-realities (see also Black Swan and Annihilation). I'd entirely forgotten Chris O'Dowd was in the mix ("I'll just stay here and say 'sea bass' alone"), while Chris Eccleston would evidently entirely like to forget he was (he's nearly there, as Malekith is a vacuum of personality or presence).
All is not lost, though. The picture's considerable saving grace is a character who wasn't even in it originally: Loki. His presence resulted from going down so well in Avengers, apparently, and the consequent compartmentalisation – locked up like Lector – pays dividends, complete with several attention-grabbing fake-outs (the real state of his cell, giving up his brother on Svartalfheim) and a much better response to slap-happy Jane than his brother’s ("I like her"). He also experiences a rebirth worthy of Doctor Who's ('80s) Master, whereby he's miraculously back and now sitting on the throne as Odin come the climax; it would be half a decade before that one was resolved, in part because of the tepid reception that greeted this movie and the decision that comedy should be the answer. Some would call that an admission of defeat.
But to be fair, comedy's the salve that makes this one's flavourless medicine go down, best of which probably being Loki masquerading as Captain America ("Hey, you want to have a rousing discussion about truth, honour, patriotism? God bless Am–"). There's a surprising welter of gags here, with at least some – like the Cap one – coming courtesy of an uncredited Joss Whedon. Sometimes they're injudiciously placed, however – comedy following character deaths or presumed character deaths is insensitive at best, and actively undermines the dramatic underpinnings at worst – and fail to alleviate the pervasively dour tone; dour would be fine if the picture was gripping with it, but too often The Dark World sits there indifferently.
Full Review: Thor: The Dark World
18. The Incredible Hulk
The first half hour of The Incredible Hulk can comfortably go toe-to-toe with any comparable section of any Marvel movie. Unfortunately, then it enters something of a dramatic tailspin, those elements and characters Ang Lee made perversely painterly and poetic crudely scrunched and stretched into something broader and more cartoonish – Betty is a one-dimensional cut-out, the big CGI titan-clash climax is a crude fist-fight in contrast to the psychedelic maelstrom of Hulk– and only really William Hurt's General could comfortably swap places with Sam Elliot's Thunderbolt Ross, credibility intact.
Ed Norton's lanky Banner is less angst ridden than Eric Bana's, more pro-active and intriguingly benefits from engaging in a multi-disciplined approach to controlling his affliction (from alternative medicine to meditation). The arising problem is the demand of ditching this element for more standard (forgettable) action fare.
The showdown with the Abomination only lasts about twenty minutes but seems much longer, and it highlights that everything occurring once we're in the US is inferior to the Brazilian chapter, barring the marvellous, scene-stealing presence of Tim Blake Nelson as the sadly-not-revisited Leader. Mark Ruffalo's subsequent Banner is a very likeable presence, in a slumber-town, always-reactive, beta kind of way, but it would have been nice to see more of Norton's wired version in material that fitted his more motivated reading of the character.
Full Review: The Incredible Hulk
Asgard, realm of Dutch angles and cod-Shakespearean tones. Sir Ken is no one's idea of a great director – or at least, he shouldn't be – but his scrappy enthusiasm for being one sort of works here. There's nothing very artful about Thor, not least in its rendering of a plotline Masters of the Universe attempted two-and-a-half decades earlier, and it suffers from the irritating insertion of SHIELD as much as the rest of Phase One, but one thing Ken gets very right is the casting.
Chris Hemsworth and particularly Tom Hiddleston are perfection in their roles, the latter to the extent that, were it not for the Crocodile Dundee, Thunder God-out-of-water comedy of the former's earthbound sojourn, he would have stolen the entire movie and our sympathies with it. Anthony Hopkins is solidly reliable, and if Natalie Portman is forgettable in a forgettable part, Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård more than take up the slack. If there’s a definition of a "That'll do" MCU movie, this is probably it. It'll do.
Full Review: Thor
16. Iron Man II
A mess, no doubt about that, but Iron Man II is one of the few Marvel movies that actually improved in my estimation on repeat viewing. I hadn't bothered with this one since its release, and there are elements that flat-out don't work – Mickey Rourke's crazy Russian villain and Tony's treasure-hunt map for a new element, the shoehorning in of SHIELD yet again– but it maintains a certain ramshackle, ungainly zest in spite of coasting on the knowledge of the goodwill its predecessor granted.
Tony's creeping toxicity plays out surprisingly effectively in a background ticking-clock fashion, the government's desire to appropriate his tech is just about the only logical thing they could do after the events of the first movie (and the opening hearing might be the most satisfying sequence in the entire picture), the chemistry between Downey Jr and Paltrow is yet again a highlight, Sam Rockwell's Justin Hammer is overtly comic-relief villainy in the Gene Hackman mode but he gets a free pass for all that, and if the climax against Vanko's drones (and then Vanko) is a bit of a snooze, there's always Tony's drunken fight with Rhodey (Don Cheadle making his series debut) to make up for it.
Full Review: Iron Man II
15. Ant Man
Ant-Man's biggest problem isn't that it's a little film. No, it's that it has a director with little vision. Not necessarily the rarest ingredient for an MCU entry, I know, but in this instance visual panache and a sense of energy is really a prerequisite, the sort of thing, say, an Edgar Wright might have brought to the proceedings…
Peyton Reed's a competent replacement, sure, and he works well with his actors, but aside from the – presumably extensively prevized for Ed – action set pieces, Ant-Man's really rather flat and unresponsive. True, there are a couple of Wright-esque discursions from Michael Pena (flat-out stealing the movie whenever he appears, these were apparently entirely Reed's invention) as he "voices" every character in a story, but this self-declared smaller picture should have been lighter on its feet, sharper and defter.
Paul Rudd, never an actor who really seizes the screen, is merely fine as Scott Lang, but that works in the favour of what is more of an ensemble affair. Making Scott an entirely redeemable cat burglar (he robbed for the best of reasons) is a massive cop out on Marvel's part, but most of the family stuff works pretty well, and without it, you wouldn’t get the climax on a Thomas the Tank Engine railway.
Michael Douglas seems to be having fun as Hank Pym (perhaps it's the chiselled features, but his de-aging is far less uncanny-valley than most cases we've seen lately), Evangeline Lilly is appropriately faux-antagonistic as the future Wasp, and Corey Stoll does his best to make a standard-issue villain personable and give him a humorous edge – his treatment of cute ickle lambs as test subjects, for example (his suit is very cool, although you can't help but get Innerspace vibes from the combat, which further serves to put Ant-Man's achievements in their place).
If the fight with Falcon is very amusing ("I’m a big fan"), the heist itself isn’t devised with the precision that would lend it a sense of escalation and tension. The ants are appealingly cartoonish, wisely so as anything too photoreal would run the risk of turning off audiences. And the subatomic sequence is a trip, but you really want a director who would really make it a trip. Ant-Man does fine, but it doesn't linger in the mind, so Reed getting to serve up seconds with Ant-Man and the Wasp may have been a little over-charitable on Feige's part. Or maybe…
Full Review: Ant-Man
14. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Generally lauded as one of, if not the finest movie in the MCU pantheon, a picture that co-opts the '70s conspiracy thriller to dazzling effect, The Winter Soldier is pretty good when it's doing what it says on the tin. Unfortunately, it's also trying to offer standard Marvel thrills and set pieces to boot, and is delivered by directors who clearly study other, better filmmakers to mimic their beats, rather than have any true inspiration or aptitude for suspense or action themselves.
The Russos are to be commended for their diligence, but they have mystifyingly – or not, if one assumes they are Kevin Feige's yes men – become the keepers of the Marvel crown jewels in less than half a decade, when they're actually just competent guys sturdily backed up by the Marvel second unit and effects supremos.
Which means their action, replete with choppily-edited handheld, isn't all that. Sure, there are moments: the attack on Nick Fury/car chase, Cap in the lift, giving chase to Bucky through a hospital and onto a rooftop. But they're exceptions in an action-heavy movie. You'll be lucky if you can remember anything of the climax (not uncommon for the MCU, admittedly). In an ideal world, Feige would be taking the Mission: Impossible approach to this franchise, and De Palma would have been constructing the intricately-designed sequences, but there's no such thing as auteurish autonomy in this sphere, hence the number of director casualties. The most suspenseful sequence might be Agent 13 up against Brock Rumlow, because – and this is a key problem with Cap's indestructability – you don't know the outcome.
If the paranoia movie was everything for Winter Soldier's conception, it would be great, but that element is mostly sacrificed about an hour in, when Cap takes out a flier and visits Emile Zola for a massively unwieldy dump of exposition. It's also a problem that – aside from Cap being anything but the average Joe on the run of classics like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor– he's quickly furnished with an accompaniment of supporters, leaking away the essence of the genre it's appropriating.
The movie wants to grapple with ideas with huge ramifications, as others have and will – the potential of advanced tech/ free energy for all, of endemic corruption at the heart of government – but must ultimately abandon them for something approaching a return to the status quo or reset button each new movie, despite the inter-continuity. So here, there's a post-Snowden discussion of the surveillance state ("This isn't freedom. This is fear"), but it's ultimately unconvincing because there's no real sense of palpable change subsequently (indeed, the stakes are reduced to revolving around superheroes' liberty rather than ours with Civil War– you might argue this is a metaphor, but the thematic lines there are pretty clearly drawn).
We're informed that Hydra blossomed in the States, "a beautiful parasite inside SHIELD", and this is a canny replication of conspiracy lore, the idea that this is exactly what happened with the Nazis of Paperclip, covertly taking over and subsuming the state apparatus, but that would be to offer a free pass to the inherent culpability of the pre-existing system, the one the movie offers up with the nostalgia of a just war to fight (a war some would argue was entered duplicitously through allowing Pearl Harbour to happen). This is the flaw in pitting Cap against a system he finds mystifyingly corrupt as a contrast to his innate virtue (there's a throwaway line drawing attention to the bad things he did for his country, but he counters it with mention of the "worthy threat" faced). Still, the line "Hydra created a world so chaotic that humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom to gain its security" can’t help but have a lasting currency in today’s anaesthetised environment.
While I appreciate that Cap's seen WarGames, Hydra's whole "wipe out twenty million people" thing to bring order to seven billion is a very messy plan, and entirely unconvincing if they're still at such a nascent stage that they can be overpowered in short order (essentially, this is the standardised post-'70s conspiracy thriller ending – see Enemy of the State– in which the bad seeds are brought to book and order is restored). Far better to continue their effective behind-the-scenes rule. Some nice scenes occur, however, not least Gary Shandling whispering "Hail Hydra" to a fellow politico. Some have said Redford isn't very good, that his casting is little more than giving the picture conspiracy cachet, but the trouble isn't him, it’s that his character is just vanilla – he's simply a twist, so there's nothing behind him to make him interesting. Except for "Oh Renata, I wish you would have knocked", that is (and that he declined the Nobel Peace Prize, something Obama would have done had he an ounce of integrity).
This is a Cap movie, of course, and as we know, he isn't terribly interesting, so what they throw at him has to be. In this case it is… up to a point. MCU is an ultimately comforting, unified sphere, so any threat has to be destined for a comforting resolution. Added to which, I maintain Cap really needed the whole world against him for this instalment to truly break out into something classic. Instead, he has a couple of chums to see him through, and the impact is sadly diluted.
Black Widow's best moment is when she's played by Jenny Agutter, which tells you a whole lot (Johansson's delivery of her final gambit – "Because you need us" – is excruciating, and works as much against the impulse of the movie as the credits cutting to Hydra's remnants working away in an underground facility, albeit their tentacles will be quickly severed by Joss). Anthony Mackie is solid as Falcon, providing an unforced, light touch, but his scenes are interspersed with rote veteran platitudes and he's ultimately as unable to make himself essential as Black Widow or Hawkeye. He's also victim to Sidekick 101, squaring off against Frank Grillo’s henchman. Nick Fury gets easily his best Marvel outing… until he's "killed" and reborn.
And then there's the second title character. The problem with Bucky isn’t dissimilar to the one with Cap. For his arc to work – for him to even have an arc – we need to be invested in their friendship, but we've seen all of five minutes of them together previously, if that. Visually, the Winter Soldier is strikingly presented (accompanied by a strong, sinister theme from composer Henry Jackman) but Sebastian Stan is otherwise a non-presence, and the third-act deterioration to an uninvolving slug fest on a collapsing helicarrier as Cap advises "I'm not going to fight you. You're my friend" is a damp squib. And Should Cap really be hospitalised, given his indomitability?
So yeah, this might be unpopular, but I don't think The Winter Soldier is all that great – as gambits go, G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra is arguably more audacious – probably because I relish good conspiracy movies and this isn't remotely a fully-formed one. It's built on unconvincing retcons and a desire not to really shake things up. It pays lip service to the genre.
Full Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The first hour of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is up there with the first movie as a giddy free-for-all comedy with a heart on the part of writer-director James Gunn. It keeps the plot wheels turning, extends the continuity (Kurt Russell as Peter's dad) and offers further inventive/affecting use of vintage tunes (Fleetwood Mac's The Chain, George Harrison's My Sweet Lord, and best of all, the bravura opening title sequence in which Groot dances to ELO's Mr Blue Sky while the rest of the team fight an enormous inter-dimensional monster). The team is also split up, a solid The Empire Strikes Back-esque sequel move in terms of juggling characters and retaining interest.
But then the bottom falls out. In his desire to show that Guardians of the Galaxy is all about that aforementioned heart, and relationships and characters, Gunn rather kicks the irreverence that was its engine into reverse, and the second half of the movie, and more especially everything based on Ego's planet, becomes something of a slog until Rocket and Yondu arrive to liven up the denoument. None of the individual elements – Drax's burgeoning friendship with naïve Mantis, Gamora and Nebula sparring, Peter getting to know his dad – are bad per se, but they fail to come together dramatically. The pace just belly-flops. And in the case of Peter and Ego, the latter's reveal that he killed the former's mother amounts to a very lazy "unmasking"” of his evil status. Kurt Russell can do no wrong, but he's rather wasted in a part that doesn't really allow him to do anything he does so well. Elizabeth Debicki is also a major score, but she's little more than a golden Bond girl for Pratt's Roger Moore to shower innuendos over.
On the up-side, the Rocket-Yondu plot thread fires on all cylinders (and Gunn even throws in a grotesquely tripped-out Ren and Stimpy-esque sequence as they attempt 700 space jumps at once), Dave Bautista is a stand-out, winning a laugh pretty much for every line delivered, and Gunn rallies well for the climax (great use of Cat Stevens' Father and Son). Something of a disappointment then, and I think it's probably fair to conclude that its box office success (bigger than the first, but not that much bigger) reflected such; a breakout hit like the first Guardians should have seen the sequel go stratospheric, by rights.
Full Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
12. The Avengers aka Avengers Assemble
Joss Whedon should be congratulated – since he said he rewrote Zak Penn's original screenplay top-to-bottom – for moulding this first superhero team up in such painless, seamless form, but that doesn't mean it wholly succeeds. While much of the sparring is rightly feted, and Loki makes for a perfect charismatic villain, some of the mechanics are less effective and others even slightly ham-fisted.
The idea of Black Widow outsmarting Loki may work on paper, but Johansson fails to make it remotely believable. Agent Coulson's demise couldn't carry less weight as a credible motivator for the Avengers, less still the audience. And Bruce's angry-all-the-time arc now feels a little on the cheesy side. But at least his bromance with Tony is just as winning as ever, right?
And if the city-action finale isn't such a triumph – in part because, if it doesn't involve Hulk smashing Loki or Tony carrying a nuke to safety, it's kind of one-note kill-the-CGI-monsters, just like the sequel, but with robots and more saving of lives there – there's a genuinely great fight early on between Cap, Thor and Tony. Whedon's dialogue has too much of a tendency towards one-size-fits-all (everyone's a quipster in Jossland), but one thing he does extremely well is creating a dynamic, brewing conflict between his characters, and in that respect, Avengers excels.
Full Review: Avengers Assemble
11. Avengers: Infinity War
One rather expects an Avengers to be a series of strung-together hero moments, but Infinity War is perhaps too unapologetic about this. The Russo brothers continue their artlessly effective domination of the Marvel big guns, but this is definitely a creative step down from their Civil War peak, leading to a third-act battle on a Wakandan plain so run-of-the-mill, it's almost perfunctory.
Nevertheless, one has to admire screenwriters Markus and McFeely's martialling of elements and characters. Aside from an extended interlude in which Thor orders a Thanos-killing battle axe from an over-sized Peter Dinklage, this lengthy movie has few dry spots, and it's pleasing to note that room is found to continue the Wanda/Vision romance amid the focus on arguably more first-tier characters. Of whom, this is the point where Hulk/Banner strays from being beta-male sympathetic to outright irritatingly introverted.
Arguably, many of the best moments occur early on, including a riotous first encounter between Thor and the Guardians, and while the conversation on its weight goes back and forth, the punch of killing off a host of characters you just know are going to be exhumed at the same time the following year is limited (but hey, I’m clearly wrong on this, as anecdotally many – young – viewers appear to have been deeply affected by their loss).
This is also a movie that will very demonstrably rely on the quality of its second chapter to judge fully; if it pays off effectively and inventively, then it looks all the better with hindsight. If Avengers 4 is the equivalent of Matrix Revolutions– not that I remotely think it will be – then the current fourth biggest movie of all time (inflation unadjusted) will be inevitably diminished.
Full Review: Avengers: Infinity War
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
By most accounts, Age of Ultron quickly became a rather unloved entry in the Marvel canon, perhaps destined to be the least-regarded team-up picture, but that’s a little unfair. Joss Whedon has spoken of the stresses of making the movie and his disagreements over certain elements, including the Scarlet Witch-induced dream sequences and the Hawkeye’s farm. I have sympathy with Feige in the latter instance; as much as you can locate what works in the movie with Whedon’s choices and motifs, you can find the same with what it gets wrong.
The first Avengers has its issues, more unflatteringly evident on repeat viewing, but it doesn't drag. Here, Whedon so wants to try and replicate his Buffy approach of servicing each of the characters in his own inimitable fashion, but he simply doesn't have the canvas for it, and the results are occasionally awkward. The Bruce and Natasha relationship flat-out doesn't work, and the attempts to favour them with common ground are at best clumsy (compare the slog of their tentative circling of each other, with everyone around chuckling about it in typically lewd Joss fashion, to that one moment where Vision saves Wanda – with the hindsight of Infinity War it resonates as much more romantic and soaring and plain rootable-for).
Then there's the third act, an often torturously-leaden rebuke of DC's disaster porn approach in which Avengers Save People! I'm sure they could have made the same point once, maybe twice, without making the viewer sick of Age of Ultron's fixation on potential collateral damage. I'm not keen on Whedon's speed-ramped panorama shots of the heroes in action either, since they bring home that, whatever his talents, he is not a visual virtuoso so is never going to pass himself off as such. And Thor's excursion never seems more than an ungainly attempt to connect the story to the broader narrative (albeit, it's effective when he returns with a different opinion to everyone else).
On the other hand, Joss handles most of the existing and introduced characters with aplomb. Head of the pack is Tony's arc. Let's face it, he really shouldn't be here after Iron Man Three, and if you can get past the slightly insulting fact that Pepper doesn't even figure (Whedon's throwaway gag about Stark and Thor's other halves actually says more about the servicing of female roles in the MCU than his other throwaway gag about reinstituting prima nocte), his fear of failure and resultant rash actions are followed through with remarkable coherence, and played by Downey Jr with commendable conviction. The Stark-Cap tension is effectively delivered (although, Cap disapproving of cussing is a Whedonism that grows old quickly), to the extent that it's interesting to see Tony go from leader to outsider and not really come back again, something effectively built upon in later movies.
Adding to the positives is main villain Ultron, whose main failure is that his sinister introduction via cobbled-together machine parts is infinitely more effective than the ropey CGI of his fully-realised form; James Spader is a superior vocal foil throughout, and again; inevitably, the character's most singular qualities cannot survive the Marvel de rigueur third act, entailing a needs-must retreat into all-out replica robot destruction (it may as well be Avengers over again).
Nevertheless, there's a yardstick for the potential here, and that's how exceedingly well-realised Vision is, both in design and performance. Paul Bettany is straight-up superb, spinning a line of heightened awareness that can't help but echo Dr Manhattan in Watchmen but remains something unique and inspired in a picture designed simply as an event. Bettany even makes some of Whedon's cruder dialogue sound better than it is, always the sign of a great actor (the final exchange with Ultron is particularly satisfying, but the reply is all about the delivery: "You're insufferably naïve": "Well, I was born yesterday").
In terms of the action, Whedon's using the widescreen this time, and his best set piece is easily the Hulkbuster duel in Johannesburg; Andy Serkis offers a particularly relishable slice of over-sized B-villainy as Ulysses Klaue, and it's a shame he's been permanently exited from any more appearances. Age of Ultron's a very uneven movie, there's no doubt about that, but when it soars it's the best (official) assembly of Avengers to date.
Full Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron
9. Thor: Ragnarok
I fully expected Thor 3 to suffer from a return trip. I was tepid enough on Taika Waititi's more "auteurist" impact on the movie in the first place and couldn't see that lessening with familiarity. Waititi is, of course, an Internet darling, to the extent he can't put a foot wrong even when announcing a Hitler comedy. I'm more cautious about his merits, tending to come away from his pictures with the feeling that he needs an honest sounding board telling him where he's going wrong or becoming too indulgent. One can see that most obviously in Ragnarok with the gags, whereby characters interchangeably riff in overtly colloquial fashion – even Cate's at it – to the extent you'd be forgiven for thinking he'd taken notes from the Joss Whedon school of authorial voices. Thor's a particular victim of this, only saved by Hemsworth's reliably noble delivery.
Most unchecked is Waititi self-servicing with sidekick character Korg, who lands largely mirth-free and somehow gets away with a wank joke, showing at very least that Marvel quality control is very variable (I guess paedo or rape gags are out though, yes?); that should have been clear as soon as the Devil's Anus was approved as a major plot point. Indeed, I was struck by how much this resembles an '80s teen movie in sensibility (think Weird Science), which rather characterises Waititi's maturity of vision. Also to consider as an antidote to the adulation Ragnarok has received is that for all his pop-art colour palette, Waititi is no visual stylist. Albeit, he knows enough of what’s needed to put his trust in the previz and second units, ensuring the picture is livelier and more energised than that of another comedy director enlisted by Marvel, Peyton Reed, even if you're conscious just how much is no-frills blue screen.
And while we're talking deficiencies, Tessa Thompson's drunk act just isn't very good (she's fine at kicking ass, however), the entire Asgard plotline belly-flops (meaning that whenever we cut back to Cate, the energy's sucked out of the movie) and with it Karl Urban's Skurge fails to engage, which is a shame. There's also that the picture carries zero resonance, despite the dramatic events unfolding – wiping out of Thor's pals, the death of his father, being blinded in one eye, the destruction of his home (which seems to be very sparsely populated, which is lucky), a colonial legacy theme that goes nowhere – it's almost as if the director doesn't care about anything that doesn't end in a punchline.
But. An awful lot here entirely delivers. Hemsworth, despite the above-mentioned concerns, has never been more engaging as the title character – and he often manages to make that uncharacteristic dialogue shine just through modulation: asked what happened to his hair, he replies "A creepy old man cut it off"; his confidence that "I know you're in there, Banner. I'll get you out" – Waititi relishing the chance to undercut the hero's bravado and self-assuredness.
Ruffalo's Banner shtick has been wearing thin for me, and his Hulk here is an out-and-out dick, but it's still an inspired choice to make him Thor's foil. Hiddleston is always a highlight as Loki, but he shines even brighter this time, from trying to make himself inconspicuous when he realises Hulk is in the arena to objecting to "Get help". The early sequence with Doctor Strange is also highly inventive and very funny. And Jeff Goldblum is an enormous boon. Unlike two recent sequels to '90s movies that have used him either abysmally are hardly at all, Waititi knows fully what a talent he has and lets him loose accordingly. Plus, the use of Led Zeppelin is irresistible.
Full Review: Thor: Ragnarok
8. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Size doesn't equal quality. The Ant-Mans have staunchly bucked the Marvel trend for bigger and bigger grosses, and even this sequel doesn’t look likely to significantly eclipse the original at the box office, previously a foregone conclusion. Which is a bummer, as it's the best second chapter for an MCU superhero to date.
Where Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 suffered somewhat from bloat, nominally on the basis of serving its characters but really because its director got too indulgent (which doesn't mean I didn't want him to see the trilogy out), Ant-Man and the Wasp builds with nimble, easy confidence on the rather cobbled-together original. While there's more here – subplots, effects, set pieces, villains – none of the additions are in danger of upsetting the apple cart (despite the too potential for too many writers to spoil the screenplay).
Lilly effortlessly assumes superhero status while Rudd relishes the chance to be the butt of jokes. Michael Peña continues to steal all his scenes and even saggy-arsed Michael Douglas gets to indulge some heroics. Maybe it's too much of a family movie to really attract the numbers Marvel usually does. Or maybe it's the more cavalier attitude to heroics and world-saving. It's hard to be certain, but Ant-Man and the Wasp deserved a wider audience.
Full Review: Ant-Man and the Wasp
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
At the time, I was simultaneously impressed by the gleefully auteurish (by Marvel standards) approach to Guardians of the Galaxy and disappointed by the largely generic third act. But isn't that Iron Man exactly? James Gunn's entrance to the MCU was a breath of fresh air that would latterly be taken too literally (Ragnarok) with the resultant omission of what makes this ironically one of the best Marvel movies; despite its emblazoned irreverence, it manages to be the most emotive and sincere of the endeavours thus far.
From Rocket's recognition of his origins to the loss of Groot, to Drax's quest for vengeance (upon achieving it, he promptly decides there's a bigger fish to fry) to the sublime sequence in which Peter Quill saves Gamora from an icy death in the vacuum of space only to fall backing on boasting of doing "something incredibly heroic", Gunn's able to undercut his material while giving it just enough depth to carry weight, but in a manner that's less flippant and authorially-voiced than his chum Whedon.
This is also, surely, the most unlikely success of an MCU cast: spotting Dave Bautista's deadpan comic chops ("Do not ever call me a thesaurus"), casting Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in roles where you're never conscious of their star power, even though it underpins their characters' presences, giving Chris Pratt a role where he's eminently mockable in the best Kurt Russell-John Carpenter tradition. The sisterly conflict between Gamora and Nebula may not be as raucous, but Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan make striking impressions. And Michael Rooker as the bad dad with a heart of gold will go on to give the sequel its signature moment.
Perhaps inevitably, the villain suffers, but that's no fault of Lee Pace chewing scenery to the max as Ronan the Keating. And if the third act is the usual MCU deal, it’s resolved in an rather wonderfully cheesy fashion that announces the makeshift family values of these Guardians. Oh, and give Gunn that Howard the Duck movie; I'm confident Howard can make all the sick, twisted jokes he wants and not get fired by Disney.
Full Review: Guardians of the Galaxy
6. Iron Man
Iron Man's main failing is one it would pass on to its increasingly costly and ambitious lineage: the third act isn't all that. It isn't a deal-breaker, but two robot suits duking it out wasn't particularly interesting when we saw it in Robocop 2, and it's no more so here. Other than that, it's remarkable how well Jon Favreau's on-the-hoof, first official MCU movie hangs together.
Downey Jr is instantly indelible as Tony Stark, both on a (forced) corrective arc and simultaneously unrepentant in ways that are entirely appealing (I roundly reject the suggestion that you couldn't have the character behaving this way now; the whole point is his evolution from indiscretions and imperfections. On the other hand, if you want to talk about some of the lines Whedon will later give him, that's a different matter). The effects stand up (much more so than the horrible tendency towards obvious CGI Iron Man suits in later movies; it's almost as if Marvel want to turn us off the character with the nano-tec of Infinity War) and the supporting cast are great (Paltrow, Favreau, Bridges). If Thor was a case of a "that'll do" introduction, this is standard hero material done with admirable skill and attention to getting it right. And the results speak for themselves.
Full Review: Iron Man
5. Doctor Strange
As an origins story, Doctor Strange bears some similarities to both Iron Man and Thor (arrogant protagonist is brought low, losing his power before regaining it as hero incarnate), and to that extent some have argued the picture is a little too familiar and unremarkable, particularly given the potential for high, er, strangeness of its main character's comic book history. It's certainly the case that the picture's visual palate tends more towards the industrial, digitised fractals of Inception than the tripped-out graphic pen psychedelia of '60s comic art.
On the debit side too, Benedict Cumberbatch is an arguably uninspired choice for the lead – securing a flavour of the month isn't exactly a daring move – and his accent is, shall we say politely, less than perfect. And yet, while I might have hoped for Keanu Reeves – who has an established relationship with director Scott Derrickson and was reportedly chased for the part but didn't want the commitment – Cumberbatch's Strange is a reliably prickly presence with an easy aptitude for the humorous digressions.
Derrickson may be the picture's greatest asset, however. He isn't, by any stretch of the imagination, an auteur, but by the standards of Marvel journeymen he may as well be. He handles the leaps in perspective and plane with easy confidence, and if the screenplay (credited to the director, Jon Spaihts and C Robert Cargill) doesn't exactly reek of trust in the viewer making the leap into the magical realm any more than Thor did into the fantasy one, the result is a far more dynamic, engrossing, taut affair.
The supporting cast is strong enough that even the more controversial elements – Tilda Swinton's casting as The Ancient One – fail to gather much negative momentum, and in some cases (Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius) a rather anodyne villain is more memorable than he has any right to be ("You cannot stop this, Mister Doctor"). Chiwetel Ejiofor's Mordo is particularly well depicted in terms of his unwavering ethical stance, although it has to be said that the Ancient One's justification for her dirty secret ("I hated drawing power from the Dark Dimension but as you well know, sometimes one must break the rules in order to serve the greater good") is insufficiently coherent; if what she is doing doesn't lead to inherent corruptibility, it means much of the framework of the movie's rules collapses.
Nevertheless, Doctor Strange ultimately flourishes the considerable coup of entirely bucking the trend of the MCU; its best feature is its ending, a dazzling piece of Groundhog Day-conjuring on Strange's part, in which he condemns himself and Dormammu to an unending loop of confrontation and (Strange's) demise, until the entity agrees to the Doctor's terms.
Full Review: Doctor Strange
4. Captain America: Civil War
As much as The Winter Soldier proved a disappointment on revisit, its Cap sequel successor's rep is only cemented and even improved. I'm not the greatest fan of Marvel's decision to make the Russo Brothers their go-to-guys for the Marvel big guns, as I'd much prefer Kevin Feige had the cojones, or wallet elasticity, to secure talent with real cinematic flair, but they get the job done, and in this case they can't go far wrong with a water-tight screenplay from (also go-to-guys) Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, one that even manages to make the traditional weak spot of the MCU, the third act, compelling.
Organically gathering the threads of Age of Ultron and developing them, the fall-out of our heroes' actions are thrown into the spotlight. Scarlet Witch rescues Cap from an explosive but in the process inadvertently kills eleven Wakandans. Even the determined – some might say excruciatingly over-extended –third act of that movie is revealed to have had its collateral damage for which many see them as culpable (on the one hand, Alfre Woodward waving a finger at Tony, on a more plot-extensive one, Daniel Bruhl's Helmut Zemo, artfully arranging for the Avengers to tear themselves apart from within).
The dividing perspectives are convincingly established, Tony's guilt over Ultron escalating into agreement with Ross' Sokovia Accords while Cap takes the line of greatest resistance, refusing to be dictated to by the government (having recently witnessed how fallible the edifice is). This is meaty stuff, such that it's easy to see how Downey Jr was not only financially justified in continuing his association with the franchise past Iron Man Three. It also provides Evans with his best material as Cap, offering the chance to portray fallibility while sporting a set of perfectly punchable teeth. That the big fight is a personal affair between the two heroes and the movie doesn’t feel as if it has missed out on something more spectacular should be an object lesson to Feige going forward (not that Infinity War suggested it had been learned).
Amidst this, the supporting characters never feel underserved. Indeed, for my money, T'Challa is far better catered for here than in his solo movie, particularly in getting cool moves such as going up against Cap, the Boba Fett manoeuvre of following Tony's plane, and keeping his eye on the prize while dispensing noble justice to Zemo.
The other new MCU character (well, besides misery-guts Martin Freeman's less-than-essential Everett K Ross) is Tom Holland's Peter Parker, an entirely charming, irrepressibly upbeat addition to the roster, complete with a smoking-hot Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). The visualisation of the centrepiece Berlin airport melee isn't exactly genius on the Russos part (you wonder what exactly Vision and Scarlet Witch are doing for large chunks of the proceedings, an ability to keep coherent tabs on the many different combatants clearly having escaped the directors) but Peter's enthusiasm for everything he's encountering is entirely infectious ("You have a metal arm? That is awesome, dude!")
I mentioned Vision and Scarlet Witch, and the low-key development of their arc pays dividends in a way Whedon's sledgehammer treatment of Bruce and Natasha completely failed at; it will be a great shame if Vision, in particular – by necessity, he seems tucked away at the back of the series due to the potential of his powers – is written out of the MCU after Infinity War II. The picture isn't without its issues – incognito Steve suddenly appears dressed as Cap in Bucharest like he's trying to attract attention to himself, and I can't for the life of me work out why they keep locking Bucky up with his robot arm attached – but this unofficial Avengers Asunder movie (2.5) does its job with considerably more aplomb than the official articles.
Full Review: Captain America: Civil War
3. The Honourable Mention: Hulk
What's this doing here? Hulk's not part of the Marvel phases. I know, but I feel it/he should be, since The Incredible Hulk sort-of sequelises it ("requels" it, as Gale Ann Hurd put it), and they were both released through Universal, and it's a benchmark for what superhero movies can do, even if went down like a bag of cold sick with many. And because I want to include it, because I really like it (okay, I know those are the weakest ones).
Hulk's individual, idiosyncratic, not (overly) beholden to comic book lore, but attempts to invoke comic books stylistically with a laudable approach no one else (in the Marvel-verse) has attempted. And it's pretty trippy, more so than Doctor Strange, which is consciously trippy in an audience-friendly, handholding way. There's a lot that doesn't work (Hulk himself is very variably rendered) but much more that does, not least a marvellously-unhinged Nick Nolte, and the final half hour is frequently gorgeous in terms of visuals. There may never be another comic book quite like it, such is slavishness to formula. Less is the pity.
Full Review: Hulk
2. Spider-Man: Homecoming
I don't consider the Andrew Garfield Spideys the all-out disasters some do, but they were clearly short on inspiration and long on lazy rebooting. So even the promise of Peter Parker coming home to Marvel didn't entirely dispel the concern that this would be more of the same; had the appetite for the character been squandered through mis/overuse? I need not have feared, since its six (!) credited screenwriters – including director Jon Watts – have re-envisioned Peter and his alter-ego perfectly.
Some have complained about the lack of Uncle Ben and absence of the "With great power…" motif, replaced by Tony Stark mentoring and the threat of Parker being nothing without the suit, that the character is defined by his sense of guilt and that, by including Tony, there is a diminishing shift of focus, Peter becoming too reliant on him and the plot revolving around him. There's probably something to all these criticisms, but I'm not such a devotee that I needed to see those established tropes for the umpteenth time, particularly with the meal that has been made of them. Plus, in a genre guided by different iterations and versions of its superheroes, there's room for one in which Parker isn't permanently moping after a lost spectre.
In terms of Tony, it's notable how much – the abundant chemistry between Holland and Downey Jr aside – the picture casts him again as someone making all the wrong choices. Instead of nurturing Peter's talent, he leaves it to stagnate, hardly justified by a spiel about not wanting Parker to make the mistakes he made. Compounding this, Michael Keaton's Toombs is a given a strong argument for taking the course he does ("So now the assholes who made this mess are getting paid to clear it up"); indeed, he's probably the best MCU villain outside of Loki, at least in part thanks to Keaton, and is subject to the second best twist (see No.1) of a series not really known for (or reliant on) them ("I’m going to give Peter the dad talk"). Everyone here's a hit, though, Peter's classmates inimitably populated with an infectious John Hughes vibe (The Breakfast Club referenced in MJ's Ally Sheedy-alike and Ferris Bueller's Day Offactually shown), Marisa Tomei a delightfully reconceived Aunt May (although Tony's leching should probably be taken down a notch), and the larger role for Favs gives him a chance to remind you how good his comic timing is.
For the most part, Watts makes all this look effortless, juggling the high-school chores with superhero antics and delivering two series-standout set pieces (the Washington Monument and Staten Island Ferry); the climactic plane fight with the vulture is a little on the pixelated side, perhaps, but at least it's still a personal bout (as for Vulture's mech suit, well it’s par for the course with the MCU at this point, but the fur-collared jacket is a great touch).
Homecoming is a supremely satisfying movie, even boasting the best appearances by Cap in the series (okay, I know I said that about Civil War, but: "Take if from a guy who’s been frozen for 65 years, The only way to really be cool is to follow the rules"; the ultimate post-credits scene). But most of all, it succeeds due to finding the ideal Peter Parker, Holland encapsulating his energetic, wise-cracking enthusiasm and brio.
Full Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming
1. Iron Man Three
Like most franchises, formula both drives sequels and leads to fatigue. What Iron Man Three does, and does so well, is bring someone in with a different take and give them enough head of steam to confound the expected. Which is why the picture is inevitably very Marmite with Marvelites (it's not "two men in suits fighting each other" as Shane Black put it). It leaves its hero armourless for the majority of the running time and features a renowned and controversial villain who is just a fake-out. And a fake-out joke at that.
For anyone familiar with Shane Black's work, it was practically a done deal that this would be one to savour. Doubts about his chops as an action director were perhaps understandable (he had one low-budget feature to his credit, the early Downey Jr career reinvigorator Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), but proved unwarranted, no doubt thanks in part to the savvy technical crew that come wholesale with each new MCU picture, but also because he doesn't just film set pieces, he writes them. Indeed, the biggest danger was that Black would be consumed by the Marvel engine, his unique ear for dialogue, character and interplay buried beneath studio notes and shoehorned continuity.
Miraculously, it's scarcely noticeable, in a trilogy-topper that sees Black deliver a story with twists and turns and even mystery (i.e. not the traditional approach to superhero fare; one might even interpret its fake-terrorist-as-a-means-to-further-homegrown-interests as a truther statement, albeit less controversially than Star Trek Into Darkness). It's one where Tony Stark comes to terms with his PTS and the need to hide within his suit, which gives his relationship with Pepper all-important progression, and also gives her a vital role (she wields the crucial blow, and he doesn't even flicker in deferring to her, if momentary, superior skillset – "Why don't you dress like this at home?"; eat your heart out, Black Widow).
It provides Ben Kingsley with his best role since Sexy Beast as actor Trevor Slattery ("They say his Lear was the toast of Croydon, wherever that is"), to the outrage of many. It allows James Badge Dale to do a lot with a little as "the muscle". It gives a henchman one of the movie's best lines of dialogue ("Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird"; although there's competition from Ponytail Express, with his acumen for cross-state distances).
There's masterful action (a big Iron Man one doesn’t occur until ninety minutes in, and it's another of those fake-outs – something I always forget – as Tony isn't even in the suit. It's also easily the best superhero-saves-people feat put on film; especially cool here is that it's cool when Tony finally gets into the suit, but you don’t need him to get into the suit for it to be cool). It features the best score of the MCU (Bryan Tyler, whose other scores for the series sadly can't compete).
It gives Happy Hogan a very funny subplot (Favs didn't need to feel left out in the cold after being ditched as director, although, he says he turned down the offer to helm). It has a kid (Ty Simpkins) who isn't annoying in a crucial role (a Black staple: Tony's complete lack of sentimentality or manipulation is a joy – told by Harley that he's cold, Tony snarks "I can tell. You know how I can tell? Because we've connected". Harley reappears in next year's Avengers 4). It also features a voiceover and is even set at Christmas (more Black staples).
I could comment that Guy Pearce's villain is perhaps not the most unique or distinct (no fault of Pearce's playing, which is first rate, especially in his 1999 nerd incarnation, which even casts Tony as the callous school bully, something you always suspected he could be), but that's a failing of the MCU across the board; it may also betray that Rebecca Hall was originally intended as the big bad, until it was nixed because they weren't comfortable with a female villain.
If this had drawn a line under Downey Jr as Tony Stark, it would have been a salutary farewell with very satisfying closure, but the final words promised "Tony Stark will return". Four of the top five Marvels see the director bringing a unique sensibility to play, and it's the most important thing a studio that is going to become only more production-line and indistinct in approach, if it's not careful, needs to nurture (be that stylistically through the directing nor writing). At present it's very much a producer-holds-sway operation, but its best movies have fractured that mould.
A brief mention too for the best of the Marvel One-Shots, All Hail to the King, in which Drew Pierce shows he wasn’t the silent partner in the co-writing duties on Iron Man Three and has potential as a director to boot. This is seamless in continuing the characterisation of Trevor Slattery, complete with an obsession with Choccy Milk, an '80s copy show (Caged Heat: "Was that a monkey drinking vodka?") and an appearance from Justin Hammer ("It's like Bin Laden and Benny Hill had a baby"). The only downside is that the suggestion there really is an actual Mandarin seems like a post-haste apologia to fans pissed at Iron Man Three pissing all over their villain, which is not a little spineless.
Full Review: Iron Man Three
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.