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By Michelle Donnelly · February 15, 2015
In 2008, Marvel Studios, which was born from the Marvel Comics franchise, parlayed its superhero universe into a run of films that began with its release of Iron Man. Called Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) it declared Phase I as the “Avengers Assembled” and which lasted until its 2012 release of Marvel’s The Avengers. In May 2013, Phase Two began with Iron Man 3 and will end with the 2017 release of Ant-Man. With Phase Three looking to include at least nine more movies, it’s safe to say that Marvel’s new venture has grown into a true powerhouse.
Just when audiences may have started tiring of superheroes after a long string of movies such as Spiderman, X-Men, Daredevil and the Green Lantern, Marvel Cinematic Universe injected life into the genre. MCU films work for the simple reason that its stories are solid and its characters are easy to relate to. First, these stories resonate because they use issues that are at the core of almost any headline picked out of today’s newspaper. Beyond the fantastical ways our superheroes save the world, they struggle with real issues like freedom, power, treachery and evil. Second, even as a superhero, the audience can identify with these characters. They are flawed yet lovable, and always wanting better for the world. As Nick Fury says in The Avengers, “these people may be isolated, unbalanced even, but I believe with the right push they can be exactly what we need.”
As evidence by is vast array of directors and screenwriters, it’s clear that the MCU isn’t afraid to experiment. Welcoming new voices and a fresh outlook with each new person, it has proven that it can continually widen its scope. It’s also not afraid to grow its own talent. In 2009, the company started a writer’s program similar to Disney’s Writers Program. The venture seemed to have some success; out of the program came Nicole Perlman and her adaptation of Guardians of the Galaxy.
The next MCU film, Age of Ultron, is set for release on May 1st of this year. With Joss Whedon again at the helm, the film will reunite the Avengers and for any fan of the series, multiple superheroes are always better than one. The crew will come up against supervillain Ultron, who has appeared in Marvel comic books since 1968. Portrayed by the more than capable James Spader, Ultron, who possesses superhuman strength, speed and the ability to control the minds of his victims, promises to be one of the Avengers most formidable foes to date. While we anxiously await this latest release, below I rank the ten Marvel Cinematic Universe films released thus far.
10. The Incredible Hulk
It’s not that The Incredible Hulk isn’t a fine enough movie and no one can deny that Edward Norton isn’t one of the best actors of his time, but…as the MCU franchise continued, he and the film became an awkward fit. Gone was but the briefest passing of MCU’s trademark humor and this version seemed more akin to King Kong or 2014’s Godzilla. The one positive lasting effect from this adaptation was Hulk’s look; less CGI, more realistic, yet over the top enough that he earns every bit of his badge as being the baddest of the Marvel characters.
9. Thor: The Dark World
Thor: The Dark World is classic Thor and shows him doing what he does best-protecting Asgard, earth and Jane Foster. The film puts a twist on the relationship between Thor and his brother Loki, which is a nice shake up for these characters. Truly stellar in his role is Stellen Skarsgard as astrophysicist Erik Selvig, who spends the first half of the movie unsure of his sanity. Less engaging that its predecessor, The Dark World is still epic good verses evil and gets my vote for the best Stan Lee guest spot.
8. Iron Man 2
Mickey Rourke is a different kind of enemy. Human but embodying real evil, he’s smart, off-kilter and terrifying. The uber talented Sam Rockwell plays the thoroughly dislikable Justin Hammer with just the right amount of cheesiness and insincerity. And of course, Robert Downey Jr. shines as Tony Stark and his alter ego, Iron Man. The least fulfilling of the three Iron Man movies, it still provides plenty of action and enough quips to keep the audience entertained.
Heavy on special effects, Norse mythology takes on a comic book twist in this tale of Thor, would-be king of Asgard. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, the film, not surprisingly, possesses a Shakespear-esque quality. Thor’s brother, Loki, is an unseemly enemy and royal intrigue is thick. As for Thor, Chris Hemsworth brought to life an easily stilted character. His charm and dry wit make a larger than life presence likeable even as Thor’s arrogant behavior gets him banished to earth. Add in romance and Thor’s god-like image isn’t as untenable as it could have been.
6. Iron Man 3
Screenwriter Shane Black, known for his work with Lethal Weapon and its sequels was the perfect choice for the Iron Man series. Acting as director and co-screenwriter (along with Drew Pearce), Black hits the mark and Iron Man 3 is perfectly witty and amusing with a pop culture sensibility. Having also worked together on 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Robert Downey Jr. and Black are the perfect fit. Iron Man 3 more than keeps the Iron Man series worthwhile.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America was the first superhero to appear in a Marvel comic. It was March 1941. America had not yet entered into World War II, but the comic book cover has Captain America battling Hitler with what looks to be a crushing right hook. The world needed a hero and Captain America would soon become one of the country’s most popular comic book superhero. Captain America: The First Avenger makes old-fashion ideals appealing for a modern world and Chris Evans is outstanding as the boy-next-door turned super soldier who still embodies a down to earth quality. The filmmakers manage to balance just the right amount of action, humor and romance in this engaging story.
4. Iron Man
Let’s be clear, Robert Downey Jr. makes this movie. Downey hits offbeat humor just about as good as any actor and director Jon Favreau gets the best out of not only him, but the whole cast. Jeff Bridges plays Machiavellian evil impeccably and the film is further bolstered by the chemistry between Gwyneth Paltrow and Downey. The movie’s success though, was due in part because of its appeal to non-comic book fans. Its accessibility to a wider audience helped secure its substantial box office totals and almost but assured that its non-comic book fans would follow Iron Man and his fellow Marvel superheroes in their future adventures.
3. Marvel’s The Avengers
Given a huge responsibility in the Marvel series, Joss Whedon proved perfect for the job and The Avengers lived up to each and every expectation. It’s a film that manages to convey a story even while it creates over the top action. Audiences have and always will love cross overs in both television and film and The Avengers represents the ultimate for Marvel fans. These so-called “handful of freaks” save the earth with cunning power and humor, during which they meld into a dysfunctional family. They become that family that fights amongst themselves but are yet loyal to each other. As in any family, each has their own unique idiosyncrasies, but we love them as they fight the enemy. Despite their own misgivings, they save the world because they are the only ones who can.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Director’s Anthony and Joe Russo took a unique stylistic approach to The Winter Soldier. Modeling its action sequences more off 1970’s action films, it brought considerably more realism to the fight sequences than previous Marvel films. Their gamble paid off as many fans consider The Winter Soldier one of the most successful in the Marvel universe. The reason this entry succeeded on every level? It stood firmly on its own as an Action/Thriller.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy shows how far Marvel can successfully go within its franchise as it branches out with new characters. It gives a notoriously loyal following hope that Marvel will not just recycle characters, but rather has the depth and courage to branch out. A product of its screenwriting program, screenwriter Nicole Perlman latched onto a lesser-known story that appeared in a 1969 comic book of the same name. At the risk of sounding repetitive, the film’s success again comes down to story and character. The Guardian misfits very much fit the MCU mold and were quickly beloved by filmgoers. Peter Quill and company satisfies on every level of this compelling ride.