Ant-Man and the Wasp

Time to recover from Infinity War with a fun, light-hearted family movie about two of the world’s most disgusting insects!

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Ant-Man and the Wasp
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly and Michael Douglas
Music By: Christophe Beck
Rated PG-13 (for frequent punching and occasional language)

Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man, is nearing the end of his two-year house arrest sentence for his part in Captain America’s Civil War shenanigans. He gets an unexpected house call from Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne, who want his help in an attempt to rescue Hope’s mother from the Quantum Realm, where she’s been stuck for about 30 years. They plan to accomplish this using a shiny new bit of magic Pym tech, but a ghostly figure with the power to phase through objects has other plans for the device. Scott and Hope (newly outfitted with a wasp-themed shrinking suit) have to team up to stop Ghost’s schemes and rescue Janet, all without getting caught by the FBI or Scott’s over-zealous parole officers.

This movie is pretty much what you’d expect from an Ant-Man sequel. It’s full of fun action, goofy science, comedic moments (mostly courtesy of lovable ex-cons Luis and friends) and some heartwarming family relationships.  Like its predecessor, it feels designed to be a bit of a breather after an epic, mostly serious Avengers movie. I had a lot of fun with it, but it was also the first Marvel movie in quite a while that didn’t amaze me with its quality and creativity.

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Fun fact: In real life, many species of wasp eat ants and/or lay their eggs in them.

And yet, I can’t say it didn’t fulfill my expectations. I wanted basically two things from this movie: lots of Wasp action and more creative uses of Pym’s size-changing tech (I felt the first movie was less imaginative on that score than it could have been). And I got plenty of both. Wasp definitely earns her co-star credit with Ant-Man, getting just as much screentime as he does and driving the plot in a much more significant way. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get quite as much character development as I would have liked. Just like the last female-focused superhero movie of the summer, this one seems afraid to give its heroine any major flaws or challenges to overcome. It’s less annoying here than it was in The Incredibles 2, though, because anything’s an improvement over Hope’s role as a glorified extra in the last movie. And it’s a lot of fun to see her and Scott working together in their matching suits. I’m a sucker for a good superhero teamup scene.

We also get to see a lot more of what Pym particles are capable of in this movie. Both Scott and Hope have gotten much better at weaponising rapid changes in size, whether it’s by shrinking down to dodge a punch or growing a Pez dispenser big enough  to stop a car. And, of course, Giant-Man makes another welcome appearance. The movie is packed with cool fight scenes and car chases, trips to the ever-trippy Quantum Realm, and a variety of stunts achieved by variously-sized ants. If you’re looking for an afternoon of sheer goofy fun, this movie delivers pretty much everything you could hope for.

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“I’m not a whale, sorry.”

But if you’re looking for anything more than that, you’ll be disappointed. Ant-Man and the Wasp seems far more interested in delivering action and laughs than it is in giving its characters anything like a compelling story arc. For the most part, this movie doesn’t build on its predecessor’s character development at all. Scott is still a good dad, Hank Pym is still a bad dad (and husband) trying to redeem himself, and Hope is still a super-competent fighter and ant-whisperer. I still find Cassie adorable, and I still don’t buy the romantic connection between Scott and Hope. Nothing changes in this movie in terms of the characters and their relationships. As a result, even though the plot is essentially about bringing a loved one back from the dead, the story has surprisingly little emotional weight.

Ghost remedies that slightly. She’s everything a villain should be: legitimately threatening, with a sympathetic motivation and a shot at redemption that still don’t negate her evil actions. And unlike our protagonists, she does have a bit of a character arc over the course of the movie. Its effect is lessened a bit by the ending, which resolves her storyline with one of the more ridiculous deus ex machinas I’ve seen in a blockbuster movie, but I was on board up until then.

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Who you gonna call?

The movie’s secondary villain, Generic Evil Businessman #7, is so forgettable I’m not even completely sure why he was in the movie. He contributes nothing except excuses for a funny scene involving Luis and truth serum, and a car chase towards the end. Both those scenes are good, but I feel they could have been achieved in a way that didn’t involve giving tons of screentime to the most boring Marvel villain since the prosthetic elf in Thor: The Dark World.

I was also slightly disappointed by this movie’s use of the Quantum Realm. Mainly because it makes no sense. A Marvel movie is generally the last place I would expect to find scientific accuracy, but this movie takes the goofiness to another level. Just about everything in the plot is resolved by never-before-seen magical powers that are supplied by the Quantum Realm in ways the movie doesn’t even attempt to explain. Yes, I know, that’s how comic book science works most of the time, but when it comes to resolving a major plot point, I like the explanation to consist of a little more than a pseudo-scientific name beginning with the word “quantum.”

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At least it still looks cool. *Sigh*

Overall, this is a fun, light-hearted summer movie that goes well with popcorn and is suitable for kids (as long as they don’t have insect phobias). After the last six or seven masterpieces of blockbuster cinema, I guess I’ve just come to expect a little more than that from Marvel.

Come on, Captain Marvel. Please live up to the hype.

Grade: B

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The Incredibles 2

The latest superhero sequel of the year continues the 2018 theme of franchises not being content to leave well enough alone.

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The Incredibles 2
Director and Writer: Brad Bird
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, etc.
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Rated: PG (for more of the same superhero violence and adult themes found in the first movie)

This sequel picks up right where its 14-year-old predecessor left off. The Parr family has just saved the day from Syndrome’s schemes, but that isn’t enough to convince the government to legalise hero work. After the family is forced underground again, a pair of tech company executives offer Elastigirl an opportunity to advocate for superhero rights by attaching a camera to her suit while she performs public acts of heroism. Mr. Incredible stays home with the kids, which turns out to be a more difficult assignment than he expected when baby Jack-Jack’s plethora of powers start to emerge.  Meanwhile, Elastigirl’s activities draw the attention of a new, mind-control wielding supervillain called the Screenslaver. It’ll take a whole family of supers (plus Frozone and a few new allies) to foil their tech-savvy foe’s plans.

The Incredibles was the first superhero movie I saw in a theatre, and even though it was intended as a deconstruction of the genre, it did more to spark my love of cape-and-cowl fiction than anything else from my childhood (except maybe the original Spider-Man trilogy). I still think it’s one of the smartest, most consistently entertaining superhero films out there, even in today’s golden age of comic book movies. It’s also a very complete movie, especially for its genre. Every plot thread and character arc is wrapped up in the end, with no loose ends demanding a sequel. I’ve heard Brad Bird quoted as saying he didn’t want to make a sequel unless he was sure it could be as good as the first movie. So this film, coming well over a decade after its predecessor, had a lot to live up to.

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Everyone looks a lot better than they did 10 in-universe seconds ago…

And it definitely does a lot of things right. It’s nice to hear all the original voice actors return (with the exception of Dash, who was recast by necessity), and Giacchino’s soundtrack is as jazzy and cool as ever. The animation definitely showcases the technological advancements that have been made since the first Incredibles. It’s actually a bit jarring to see the super-stylised characters from the last movie moving so much more smoothly, and with so much more detail in their faces and backdrops.

But it definitely helps with the action scenes. The action in this movie is as exciting and fun as it was in the first instalment, and if anything, it shows more creativity on the part of Brad Bird and his animation team. Some highlights include a train vs. motorcycle chase scene involving Elastigirl, a climactic fight involving a character who creates portals, and absolutely every scene in which Jack-Jack appears. After the hints we got in the last movie regarding Jack-Jack’s many powers, I was excited to see him use them in this movie, and he did not disappoint. An uber-powerful baby with no control over his abilities may be a parent’s nightmare, but he completely stole the show for the me.

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“No firing the baby around the house!”

Another thing I enjoy about both Incredibles movies is seeing the family work together. When you have a bunch of superheroes with different abilities fighting the same villain, it can be difficult to make them work together in a believable way without resolving the conflict too quickly or giving one superhero more to do than the others (see the end of Justice League for an example of this being done badly). But unless they’re having trouble communicating in-universe, the Incredibles always manage to do the teamwork thing really well: for example, in one scene Mr. Incredible is steering a giant machine away from some buildings while Frozone slows it down with ice and Elastigirl fights the baddie controlling it. Everybody has something to do and does it well, which is always one of my favourite things to see in a superhero team-up movie.

Another thing I appreciate about The Incredibles 2 is that it managed to maintain the same tone as its predecessor. Like that movie, this feels like a superhero film aimed at adults, which also happens to be suitable for kids, rather than the other way round. It doesn’t shy away from death, violence, or complex concepts like the role of technology in our lives.  And the setting revels in its retro-futuristic style as much as ever.

But as much fun as I had with this movie, it didn’t even come close to leaving the same impression on me as the first one did. Granted, I’m much older and far more inundated with superheroes than I was when The Incredibles came out, but I also think this movie fell a bit short in some of the areas that made its predecessor so special.

First, there’s the villain. Screenslaver has a creepy design and an intimidating power, and, at first, seems poised to bring an interesting philosophical question about superheroes to the fore, just like Syndrome did. The villain’s first couple monologues (no, the baddies still haven’t learned their lesson about monologuing) argue that superheroes should stay underground because their heroics make normal people weak and dependent. It’s a valid point that Lex Luthor and other supervillains have explored before to great effect. But this movie does disappointingly little with the idea, and I think it’s partly because Screenslaver isn’t as compelling a villain as Syndrome was.

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“The Screenslaver interrupts this broadcast for an important announcement…”

Unlike Syndrome, Screenslaver has neither a personal connection to the Parr family nor an onscreen backstory. Screenslaver’s identity is also kept secret for half the movie and treated like a major twist when it’s revealed, which I think was a bad idea. First, it relegates our villain’s motivations to one monologue and a 30-second flashback, instead of allowing the audience to see things from their point of view like we did with Syndrome. And the surprise element didn’t even work for me. There were only two possible candidates for Screenslaver’s true identity, and I figured out which one it was about five minutes after they were introduced. Surprise villain reveals are a lot more fun when they’re, y’know, surprising.

This movie also falls short of its predecessor in terms of its character arcs. In the first movie, every member of the Parr family learns a lesson or grows as a person by the end. In this movie, most of the family has everything figured out from the beginning. Bob switches roles with Helen and has to figure out how to be a better dad (kind of like he did in the first movie…), and Violet has a minor subplot where she learns to appreciate hero work and accept her role in the family crime-fighting team (kind of like she did in the first movie…), but Helen, who takes the spotlight for the most part, really has nothing to learn. Her part of the story is all about stopping the bad guy, which is fine–I love watching Elastigirl rubber-punch things. But apart from a few fleeting moments where she gets worried about leaving her family at home, she doesn’t really have an internal conflict to resolve or a flaw to overcome. It almost feels like Brad Bird was afraid to give his super-mom any weaknesses, which is a shame, because it makes her story less interesting than Bob’s was in the first movie.

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At least she gets a cool bike out of the deal, though!

But that’s about it for character arcs. Dash contributes practically nothing to the story, and although Jack-Jack goes through some changes (literally), he’s still more of an unpredictable prop than a character. We’re introduced to some new supers, but they don’t have much to do except help out in a big fight at the end.

Would I care about any of this if I hadn’t grown up with the first movie? Probably not. On its own merits, The Incredibles 2 is a fine movie that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any family with children. But I’m picky about sequels, especially when they come after classics like The Incredibles. In order for me to love a sequel, it has to do at least one of three things: continue a storyline left hanging in the first movie, develop the first movie’s characters in new and interesting ways, or take the first movie’s concept and do something totally unique with it. The Incredibles 2 doesn’t do any of those things particularly well.

But then, what did I expect? The Incredibles is about as close to a perfect superhero movie as we’re ever going to get. It has everything: suspenseful hero action, likable characters, quotable dialogue, an interesting setting, and a bunch of challenging messages designed to make the audience think. It’s basically a smarter X-Men or a less depressing Watchmen. Any sequel was doomed to pale in comparison. In a way, I’m glad the standards have been lowered a bit. Now it might be possible for future Incredibles movies to pleasantly surprise me.

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“I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”

Still, if you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend seeing this movie in the theatre–if only to make sure you see Bao, the short film that precedes it. It’s the oddest, most surprising cinematic experience I’ve had in quite some time. I won’t say anything else for fear of spoiling it, but just like Piper before Finding Dory, it’s a short that rather outshines its feature film.

Then again, The Incredibles 2 has Jack-Jack fighting a raccoon. That counts for something.

Grade: B+

Avengers: Infinity War

Well, this is it. Ten years of Marvel movies have all been leading up to this moment.

And yet, I don’t think any of us were prepared.

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Avengers: Infinity War
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo 
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Half the Universe
Music By: Alan Silvestri

Thanos is a big, powerful, purple alien we’ve glimpsed a few times before in the Marvel movies, but never really got to know. He believes the universe is dangerously overpopulated, and he has a simple solution: kill half the universe. In order to accomplish this, he plans to collect the six Infinity Stones (which we’ve also seen popping up here and there in various Marvel movies) in his Infinity Gauntlet, which will allow him to wipe out as many intelligent beings as he wants with just a snap of his fingers. The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange and the armies of Wakanda join forces to stop him from collecting all the Stones before it’s too late.

There’s basically no way to talk about this movie without giving away spoilers, so for the spoiler-free portion of the review, I’m just going to describe what it was like seeing this movie on opening night.

I live in a part of the country that doesn’t have a particularly high concentration of geeks, or people who care about movies in general. So the theatre where I saw Infinity War was only a little more crowded than usual on Thursday evening. But there was a definite feeling of excitement as we waited for the movie to start. A lot of the people there were wearing Marvel gear (except for one brave soul in a Superman t-shirt) and swapping theories about who would die, where the Soul Stone is, etc. During the first two acts of the movie, there was a lot of laughter at the jokes, and loud cheers and applause at three specific moments. But during the last 15-20 minutes, the crowd became very quiet. As the movie drew to a close, the silence started being broken by people shouting at the screen. It was mainly a repeating cycle of “What?!” “No way!” “No!” and various profanity. When the end credits began, there was applause, but also a lot of audible frustration. Same thing happened after the stinger (which didn’t come until the very end of the credits, by the way).

Personally, I spent the last few minutes of the movie giggling like a maniac, because it was exactly the ending I’d hoped and dreamed about for more than two years, and didn’t expect to see.

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It brought a smile to my face.

Without giving anything else away, all I can say is that I highly recommend Infinity Warif you’re a fan of the MCU and have seen at least most, if not all, of the previous movies. If you occasionally rent a Marvel movie from Redbox but don’t really feel invested in any of the characters or storylines, this movie wasn’t made for you, and you probably won’t enjoy it much. It doesn’t make any attempt to introduce characters we’ve met before or explain plot elements that were brought up in other movies. There’s no time for that.

It’s also important to realise going in that, despite the studio’s decision to drop the Part 1 from its name, this movie is very much the beginning of a story, not a complete story in and of itself. If the end feels unsatisfying, that’s because Part 2 is coming out next May to resolve a lot of the plot threads that were left dangling here.

So that’s my spoiler-free review. If you’re a Marvel fan, you’re not going to want to miss this one. And definitely see it in the theatre if possible, because the audience’s reactions are half the fun.

In the rest of my review, I’m not going to intentionally spoil any major plot points. But so much surprising stuff happens in this movie that I don’t trust myself not to give anything away while giving my opinion on it, and I know a lot of people like to go into a movie as blind as possible. So there may be some minor spoilers ahead.

READ PAST THIS POINT AT YOUR OWN RISK IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE!!!!
(unless you don’t care about spoilers)

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First spoiler: This shot isn’t in the movie.

So, one of the reasons I listed Thor: Ragnarok as my second favourite MCU movie was because it was the first one that truly felt like a comic book brought to life. I felt similarly about Infinity War--except that, more specifically, it feels like an event comic brought to life.

For anyone unfamiliar with comics, event comics are big crossovers that happen about once every five years in DC and once every five months in Marvel. They typically bring as many characters as possible together into one epic storyline that will have an impact on their entire universe, sometimes even rebooting the whole thing. That’s what this movie felt like to me: just a giant, comic book-y crossover with a ton of beloved characters interacting in ways we’ve never seen before, with a much higher-stakes plot than we’ve ever seen before.

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Could you imagine Iron Man hanging with this crowd back in 2008?

And while event comics can often be messy, involving a lot of contrived plot devices, people acting out of character, or pointless deaths, I felt this movie handily avoided most of those problems. Yes, the cast is huge, and some characters do get more of a spotlight than others out of plot necessity, but everybody gets at least one moment of character development or just plain awesomeness. Doctor Strange is about 10 times cooler here than he was in his own movie, Thor continues to prove that he is truly the Strongest Avenger, the Scarlet Witch/Vision romance gets more development, all the Guardians get to show off their growth from the last movie while remaining hilarious, and Tony Stark not only gets a ton of ridiculously cool new tech, but also gets to see his paranoia from the last 3-4 movies validated. (Though…he’s probably not happy about that last part.)

But if this movie has a central character, it is Thanos himself. It’s his quest for the Infinity Stones that drives the plot, and his character arc that forms the emotional core of the movie. More time is spent on his backstory and motivations than that of any other single character.

And the fact that I still hated his guts by the end says a lot about the filmmakers’ storytelling skill, as well as that of his actor, Josh Brolin. Thanos is not at all sympathetic, no matter what certain fanboys on the internet might tell you. He’s a genocidal maniac who’s so convinced his cause is just that he will sacrifice anything to achieve it. And that makes him terrifying. He’s easily the biggest threat the Avengers have ever faced, not just because the Stones make him so much more powerful than any of them, but also because he’s so dedicated to his cause that we know he will never stop, no matter how many inconveniences our heroes throw in his way. As a result, this was the first Marvel movie where I wasn’t sure the good guys would win. From the opening scene to the end credits, there was never a moment when they seemed safe, or their victory seemed assured. A constant atmosphere of dread and desperation hung over the entire two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

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Man, Thor just never gets a break, does he?

Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of the usual Marvel humour in this movie. There are quite a few moments that made me laugh out loud, mostly resulting from the interactions of characters who had never met before. The gigantic cast spends most of the movie in more manageable small groups, and each group of characters fits incredibly well together. Iron Man butting heads with the equally-arrogant Doctor Strange and Star-Lord makes for some comedy gold, as does Bruce Banner’s encounter with Shuri. Thor’s team-up with Rocket and Groot is so brilliant that I now want a whole franchise of them together. There’s a little less focus on Captain America and Black Panther’s crews, but they still have some lovely moments together.

But when it’s time to get serious, Infinity War doesn’t play around. As one might expect, this is the darkest MCU movie yet, and it’s not even close. When I went to see it a second time (to collect my thoughts and emotions), a lot of the small children in the audience were crying by the end, and I don’t really blame them. If you’ve spent the last 10 years getting to know these characters, watching them grow and change and get better…some of the stuff that happens in this movie is gonna hurt. Even though I fully expect everything to be happily resolved in Part 2, I still found a few scenes in this movie hard to watch after my marathon through the rest of the MCU.

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FOR EXAMPLE.

And that leads me to one of the few complaints I have about the movie. All the female characters seem to get the short end of the stick when it comes to characterisation and screen time. Only two Marvel women have a significant impact on the plot, and it doesn’t end well for either of them. One of those characters gets an especially raw deal that I don’t think she deserved, and worse, it seems like one of the disasters in this movie that’s least likely to be undone in the sequel. That rather upset me, especially after all the progress that had been made in Phase 3 on creating better female characters.

Also, although I think the movie did as much justice to its characters as it could without a 5-hour runtime, there were a few bits of backstory for our heroes that I felt were missing–particularly for the Guardians. We never find out exactly how long it’s been in MCU time since their last appearance, but considering their first two movies took place within six months of each other, it’s reasonable to assume it’s been three years or more. Their relationships to each other seem to have changed in some subtle but important ways during that time, and because of certain things that happen in this movie, I wish we could have seen those relationships better developed onscreen. I also would have liked to know more about Thanos’s henchmen, most of whom don’t even get named in the movie.

I have a few other minor quibbles: Wakanda’s warriors seem less powerful here than they did in Black Panther, Thanos’s motivation made more sense in the comics, once in a while there’s a CGI effect that doesn’t quite look real, etc. But despite those few quibbles, I still found this movie to be an excellently-crafted, emotional epic that paid proper tribute to the best of the Marvel Universe while also doing things no other Marvel movie has done. Despite how overstuffed it is, I came away loving certain characters–Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Gamora, Scarlet Witch, etc.–even more than before. The action is incredible, and just about all the emotional beats hit me exactly the right way.

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“Earth is closed today!”

The Russos continue to be my favourite MCU directors (except for maybe Taika Waititi, who made the Thor we see in this movie possible), and I cannot wait to see what they do with the sequel.  In the meantime, I’m glad I have Ant-Man and the Wasp to cheer me up after this emotional rollercoaster.

Grade: A for Avengers

Marvel Phase 3

It’s been fun, guys, but it’s time to wrap up my Marvel re-watch.

I started this blog right after Captain America: Civil War came out, so I’ve already reviewed all the movies in Phase 3. (You can find those reviews hereherehereherehere and here.) However, I still need to rank them in comparison to the rest of the MCU.

Before I do that, though, I have a few thoughts to share about Phase 3 as a whole. While none of the last six movies have quite surpassed The Winter Soldier for me, overall this has been my favourite era of Marvel by a long way. It’s established a wacky, colourful aesthetic for the MCU’s cosmic stories that I absolutely love, and the movies have gotten more visually creative in general. The music has improved–MCU soundtracks used to be nothing to write home about, but I listen to the soundtracks from the last few movies regularly.

In Phase 3, Marvel has also shown an increased willingness to take creative risks (something you can do when you have a money-printing franchise like this, I guess). Directors like Taika Waititi are getting more freedom to make movies their own way instead of fitting them into a set “Marvel formula,” and more odd, obscure comic characters like the Watchers are getting their moments in the spotlight. And finally, after almost a decade, the franchise is starting to take steps towards giving its female characters equal screentime and development. We’re not quite there yet, but at least the female leads in the last few movies have had more to do than look pretty.

So here’s where I’ll rank each of the Phase 3 movies, and why.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – #9

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“Can’t you just be a friendly…neighborhood Spider-Man?”

To me, this was the weakest of the Phase 3 films–which really tells you a lot about the level of quality we’re dealing with here. It’s a fantastic high school comedy with some decent superheroing thrown in. There’s a strong argument to be made that Tom Holland is the best Spider-Man–or at least the best Peter Parker–we’ve ever had onscreen, and the Vulture is easily one of the best Marvel villains ever. I’ll admit that I enjoyed the movie a bit more on the re-watch, since I’d had more time to get used to how different it is from the Raimi trilogy, but it still didn’t quite measure up to the rest of Phase 3 for me. The plot twist that made the movie so surprising the first time around loses a lot of its impact when you know it’s coming, and the actual superhero action scenes remain disappointing. Still, as a light-hearted coming-of-age story, it holds up quite well, and it’s always nice to get a glimpse of what a regular New Yorker’s life is like in the Marvel universe.

Doctor Strange – #8

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“Might I offer some advice? Forget everything that you think you know.”

Yes, the plot is identical to Iron Man in many ways. Yes, it contains the last of the really weak Marvel villains. But I am so in love with the world this movie created. The unique brand of magic, the crazy parallel dimensions, the super nerdy-sounding names like the Cloak of Levitation and the Eye of Agamotto–that’s the kind of stuff I live for. It also has some of the wildest visuals I’ve ever seen in a movie, superhero-related or not. And in the end, it has possibly the finest example in the superhero industry of a hero saving the day with brains rather than brawn. This movie opened up some wonderful possibilities for the MCU, and despite his dodgy American accent, I can’t wait to see where Doctor Strange will go next. Plus, his Cloak is adorable.

Black Panther – #6

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“In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.”

When I first saw this movie, I thought it would make my top five, but upon reflection, there were just too many other great movies in Phase 3. Black Panther is a hugely creative, colourful, and thought-provoking film that blends fictional worlds with real-life issues even better than The Winter Soldier did. It has one of the best ensemble casts in the MCU, stuffed to the gills with great characters like Okoye, Shuri, M’Baku, Klaue, and of course, T’Challa and Killmonger. Its soundtrack is rivaled only by that of Thor: Ragnarok in my heart. Honestly, the only thing that kept it out of my top five was that it was a little too predictable–it never surprised me the way most of the Phase 3 movies did. And it criminally underused Andy Serkis. Other than that, my only complaint is that it made me want to visit Wakanda, and I can’t, because it’s not real. Reality spoils everything.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – #4

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“I know who you are, boy! Because you’re me.”

It was reeeeaaaalllly tough to decide which of the Guardians movies would take this spot, because I see them as equally great in most respects. But in some ways it’s harder for a sequel to live up to a great predecessor than it is for an original movie to make an impact, and Vol. 2 is a nigh perfect example of how to do it. It keeps the tone and atmosphere of the original intact, while heightening the emotional stakes and growing all the characters into better people and better heroes. Yes, some of the humour does fall a little flat, which is a problem the original didn’t have. But to me, Vol. 2 makes up for a few lame jokes with bucketloads of character development and some of the most emotionally rich storytelling in the MCU.

Captain America: Civil War – #3 

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“Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right, even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, to look them in the eye, and say, ‘No. You move.'”

Another super tough decision! Up until this week, Civil War was the most ambitious movie in the MCU apart from Age of Ultron, and much more successful at everything it tried to do. But to me, the most impressive thing about it is not the number of characters it brought into one movie, not the introduction to Black Panther and Spider-Man, and not any of the spectacular action scenes (although I still squee a bit every time I watch the emergence of Giant-Man). To me, the most impressive thing about this movie is that it managed to portray two equally heroic characters having an ideological disagreement in which both sides are flawed but have a point, and neither is made out to be the bad guy. To this day, if you put a bunch of MCU nerds in a room, you won’t get a consensus about whether Iron Man or Captain America was in the right, and to me, that’s a mark of excellent storytelling. (I’m #TeamCap, though.) It’s also a powerful witness to the success of this whole “shared universe” idea, because it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well if we hadn’t already had half a dozen movies to get to know these characters. The only reason I’m ranking this lower than The Winter Soldier is because, unlike that movie, I can find things wrong with it if I really try. I don’t like the sudden romance between Captain America and Sharon Carter, and a part of me wishes this had been billed as an Avengers movie so Cap could finish his trilogy with a true solo outing.

Thor: Ragnarok – #2

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“Are you Thor, God of Hammers?”

This movie is beautiful, in every sense of the term. It’s the most visually gorgeous film in the MCU. It has the most epic action scenes in the MCU. It has some of the best music in the MCU. And out of all the movies in the MCU, this is the one that feels most like a comic book come to life. It’s also hilarious, of course, but the more I rewatch it, the more the humour feels like a happy side effect of everything else. This movie is what you get when an unconventional comedy director gets a blockbuster budget and decides to embrace everything about the blockbuster’s source material–no matter how wacky or obscure. The result is a movie that singlehandedly transformed Thor from the most boring Avenger to one of the best. That meant getting rid of a lot of his franchise’s unnecessary trappings, like an annoying girlfriend and some side characters who had already failed to be interesting for two movies, but it also meant making some sense out of Loki’s motivations and letting Chris Hemsworth be the comedy actor he was always meant to be. The movie’s effect on the Hulk was almost as drastic, allowing him to be so much more than the big, dumb brute we saw in previous movies. And it did so while introducing a whole new generation to Led Zeppelin and bringing us the magic of Korg. It’s only been out six months, but I’ve already rewatched this movie more than any other MCU entry except The Winter Soldier, and it’s just as good every time. It can’t quite replace Captain America’s best movie in my heart, but the seductive Lord of Thunder can’t be ignored.

So there you have it! My final, definitive ranking of the MCU. At least until Thursday. Let me know what you consider the #1 Marvel movie!

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. Thor: Ragnarok
  3. Captain America: Civil War
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Black Panther
  7. The Avengers
  8. Doctor Strange
  9. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  10. Ant-Man
  11. Captain America: The First Avenger
  12. Thor
  13. Iron Man
  14. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  15. Iron Man 3
  16. Iron Man 2
  17. The Incredible Hulk
  18. Thor: The Dark World

Ant-Man

All right, time to go from a big Avengers team-up to what may be Marvel’s smallest-scale movie.

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Ant-Man
Director: Peyton Reed
Writers: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd
Starring: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly
Music By: Christophe Beck
Released: 2015

Scott Lang is a master thief who’s just been released from prison and wants nothing more than to get his life back on track so he can spend time with his daughter, Cassie. But he gets pulled back into the life of crime when mad scientist Hank Pym recruits him to steal a piece of powerful technology from the even madder scientist who’s taken over his company. In order to pull off the heist, protect his family, and impress Pym’s resentful daughter, Hope, Scott will have to…shrink to the size of an ant and punch things really hard. Because this movie is very silly.

I’m not totally kidding when I say this is the smallest-scale Marvel movie. The fate of the world isn’t at stake (except in a vague, nebulous, “this bad guy could do a lot of damage with this technology” kind of way), and much of the action takes place on a literally microscopic scale. Sure, it ties into other Marvel movies, and even leads directly into the uber-dramatic Civil War, but taken on its own, this is just a light-hearted comedy about a slightly screwed-up guy trying to be a good dad.

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Awwww….

Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man made a lot of people scratch their heads when it was first announced. The name just sounds ridiculous (which is acknowledged in the movie itself), and to non-comic readers, a superhero whose power is shrinking doesn’t seem all that impressive in a world that also contains Captain America and Iron Man. The movie works, though, for the same reasons Guardians did: it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and its emotional core relies on lovable characters going through relatable struggles.

Scott starts his first movie where Iron Man ended his: a remorseful crook who wants to atone for past sins. He’s not very good at it, partly because of society’s unforgiving nature towards people with jail sentences and felony convictions on their records, and partly because he keeps hanging out with the wrong people: fellow thieves and a rather amoral mad scientist. But the movie does a great job making us believe his love for his daughter is genuine…and it even takes the time to make the audience share that love by showing us how adorable she is.

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“He’s so ugly! I love him!”

Meanwhile, Hank Pym is also a failed father trying to redeem himself after destroying his relationship with Hope due to some secrecy about his own past as Ant-Man. Thanks to his and Scott’s shared problems, the heist plot becomes a catalyst for what this movie is really about: two fathers reconciling with their daughters. In order for Scott to get a second chance at being a father, and for Hank to get a second chance at being a good one, they have to not only pull off a successful heist, but also demonstrate some real courage and selflessness in the face of danger. Hank tells Scott at one point that the whole point of his mission is to “be the hero she already thinks you are.” It’s a touching message, and both the lead actors really sell it by the end of the movie.

But there’s a lot of comedy layered over that emotional core. When I say this is a silly movie, I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Some of the most enjoyable parts involve Scott’s goofy ant-ics (sorry) in the ant-sized world–whether he’s running from giant mice, narrowly avoiding a tidal wave in a bathtub, or befriending actual ants. (Antony FTW.) The scale of this movie also allows it to get extra creative with its fight scenes, setting one on top of a Thomas the Tank Engine set and another inside a briefcase. Then there’s the hilarious team of misfit thieves who join in the heist: Dave, Kurt, and especially the master of storytelling known as Luis.

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“I was at a wine tasting with my cousin Ernesto…”

Although the movie manages to make the Ant-Man concept work extremely well, there are a few things that don’t work. Yellowjacket, aka Bland Marvel Villain #7, is so forgettable that I remember his killing methods (death by faulty shrinkage–yikes) better than I remember his actual name. And the romantic relationship between Scott and Hope feels very forced. In general, Hope’s lack of involvement in the plot, even though there’s a solid reason for it, is a bit frustrating and makes her seem like an unnecessary character at times. Hopefully all that will be remedied, now that she’s graduated to co-lead status, in Ant-Man and the Wasp.

Another change I’m hoping to see in the sequel is increased creativity when it comes to Ant-Man’s powers. All his shrinking scenes in this movie are cool, but I sometimes feel the characters could be more creative with their technology–especially the shrinking and growing discs Ant-Man can throw at things. It would also be nice to see more of the Quantum Realm, a dimension that rivals Doctor Strange‘s visuals in trippiness.

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“A reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant…”

But I have high hopes those desires will be granted in the next movie.

For now, we have Ant-Man: a fun, goofy adventure with great characters, creative action scenes and a wholesome message about family. It proved, once again, that the MCU can spin just about any comic book concept into cinematic gold. And it provided a much-needed breather before the massive downer that was Civil War. Plus, it made real-life ants seem a little less disgusting.

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ANTS!

After all, every big franchise needs a little comic relief. (I’m sorry, the puns are just too easy.)

So here’s my final ranking for Phases 1 and 2. Tune in next time for Phase 3!

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. The Avengers
  4. Ant-Man
  5. Captain America: The First Avenger
  6. Thor
  7. Iron Man
  8. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
  9. Iron Man 3
  10. Iron Man 2
  11. The Incredible Hulk
  12. Thor: The Dark World

Avengers: Age of Ultron

The first time the Avengers assembled, they fought an alien invasion. The second time they assembled, they needed an even scarier villain to up the ante. The internet was the obvious choice.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron
Director and Writer: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen….etc.
Music By: Danny Elfman and Brian Tyler
Released: 2015

We open with the Avengers mopping up the mess previous villains have left behind. They find Loki’s sceptre in a secret Hydra base, where it’s been used for human experiments, and they successfully take it back and wipe out the Hydra scientists–but not before Iron Man bumps into one of those human experiments, a woman with psychic powers who makes him see visions of dead Avengers and a destroyed Earth. Still shaken from his wormhole experience, Tony decides he must prevent that future from ever becoming reality. He teams up with Bruce Banner to create an artificially intelligent drone army, called Ultron, that can protect the planet from alien invaders. This plan backfires spectacularly when the AI wakes up and decides “protect the planet” somehow equals “kill all humans.” Now the Avengers have to mop up their own mess before it kills everyone.

This one is such a mixed bag for me. For each thing I love about it, there’s something else I hate about it, and vice versa. Even the tone is all over the place, constantly swinging from dark and scary to goofy and lighthearted, sometimes within seconds. So it’s a bit hard for me to pinpoint exactly where it fits in with the rest of the MCU.

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The plot points are like Ultron bots: they just keep on comin’.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there’s just too much going on with this movie. It wasn’t enough for it to be just another Avengers team-up–it also had to set up storylines for Captain America: Civil War, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther and even (probably) Infinity War, plus introduce two new Avengers. That’s a lot for one two-hour film to juggle, and Joss Whedon just doesn’t seem to have been up to the task this time around. As a result, there are a lot of subplots that don’t really make sense in the context of this movie, and a lot of things happen in the story that feel more like marks on a checklist than organic plot points.

Because of the disjointed nature of the movie, it feels more natural to talk about it in list form. So first, here are the things I really like about it:

Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Yes, their accents are terrible, and no, they don’t really get enough screen time (nobody does in this movie), but I still totally bought their tragic backstory and deep sibling bond, and their character arcs were still engaging considering how much time they had. Quicksilver is a fun, mischievous guy with a heart of gold, as befits a speedster, and Scarlet Witch is my favourite kind of Whedon character: the wispy, vulnerable-looking girl who turns out to be super dangerous. Fortunately, she got a chance to become more than that later on, but this movie laid a good foundation for her.

Vision. He rocks. That is all.

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“Well, I was born yesterday.”

The action in general. It’s always fun to see all the Avengers beating up mooks together as a team, and this movie gives us not one, but two great scenes like that. Especially considering where the MCU would go later on, it’s good to have a movie where we can see the Avengers at the top of their game, effortlessly tearing apart anything the baddies can throw at them. The Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight is similarly awesome.

Most of the quiet character moments. Special mention must go to the “lifting the hammer” scene and a few of the scenes on Hawkeye’s farm. The former is a fun moment with lots of laughs and lots of insight into each character as they try (and fail) to lift Mjolnir, and it perfectly segues into Ultron’s menacing entrance. The latter gives Hawkeye some much-needed backstory and character development, making his commitment to the Avengers team seem more meaningful.

The end credits sequence. The way it gradually reveals a giant statue of the Avengers fighting Ultron bots is really cool and creative, making it my favourite of the MCU end credits animations to this day.

Exactly 50 percent of all jokes, quips, and witty speeches. Everyone in this movie quips constantly, so much so that it’d be miraculous if all their lines were actually as clever as they think they are. But a lot of them really do work for me: “Boom! You looking for this?” “Elevator’s not worthy.” “You get killed, walk it off.” “I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan…”, etc. Good stuff.

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“You’re all not worthy.”

Now let’s talk about some of the stuff I don’t like.

The Hulk/Black Widow romance. I hate it. First, because it comes right out of nowhere. I may not be the most perceptive person when it comes to romance, but I did not detect even the slightest hint of attraction between Bruce and Natasha in the first Avengers movie. In fact, that movie had me convinced for three years that Black Widow and Hawkeye were a thing. Second, the romance is just badly done. For two attractive and talented actors, Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson have shockingly little chemistry, and all their dialogue together feels forced and out of character, especially on Widow’s part. She somehow went from an awesome double agent in The Winter Soldier to a doe-eyed lovebird whose main job on the Avengers team is to “tame” the Hulk, and the change does not look good on her. And so much time is spent on other characters talking the pair up like they’re an obvious, natural couple, and nothing gets on my nerves faster than characters I like endorsing a ship I despise. These two are easily my least favourite couple in the MCU…and there aren’t a lot of couples I like in the MCU to begin with.

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I like to pretend that this scene never happened. For so, so many reasons.

Captain America and Iron Man’s characterisation. I often forget that this movie came out after The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3, and I think it’s because its portrayal of both characters feels like such a step backwards from those movies. The awesome Captain America who singlehandedly took down SHIELD and Hydra in his last movie doesn’t really seem like the same old-timey fella chiding people about their language in this movie. And after a whole movie about getting over his anxiety and paranoia related to the New York wormhole incident, it takes all of five minutes for this movie to undo all of Iron Man’s character development and make him even more paranoid. Plus, he may be a bit of a playboy, but I don’t remember Tony Stark’s sense of humour being quite as raunchy in any of his solo movies as it is here. I mean…a rape joke? Really, Tony?

All the subplots setting up later movies. Yes, they may have been somewhat necessary for Phase 3, but the way they’re shoved into this movie’s plot feels forced most of the time. Especially Thor’s dip in the vision pool, which was just about the laziest possible way to introduce the Avengers to the concept of Infinity Stones.

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How would I have ever understood it without this handy visual?

Exactly 50 percent of all jokes, quips, and witty speeches. When they land, they’re great, but when they don’t work, they really don’t work. It gets especially annoying near the climax, when the fate of the world is supposedly at stake, but the Avengers can’t stop cracking jokes. It’s hard to worry about any kind of cataclysmic event taking place when Tony Stark keeps talking about “playing hide the zucchini.”

Then there’s Ultron himself. I’m of two minds about him, just like I am about the rest of the movie. On the one hand, like the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, he’s not nearly as intimidating as the trailers made him out to be. His motivations don’t make a lot of sense–one minute he’s talking about exterminating all humans to protect the Earth, the next he’s talking about forcing humans to evolve, and I just wind up confused. But on the other hand, he does have his moments of creepiness, and with his (sadly under-utilised) power over the internet, he is a legitimate Avengers-worthy threat. Some of his dialogue is pretty great, too. In particular, there’s a conversation between him and Vision that ranks among my favourite scenes in the entire MCU. So overall, I’d say he’s a good villain who could have used more screen time (maybe even more than one movie) to really develop him as a character.

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“When the Earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it. And believe me, He’s winding up.”

Age of Ultron is far from the best movie in the MCU, but it’s not the worst, either. It’s over-crowded, and it does not play to its director’s strengths, but instead showcases his weaknesses (an over-reliance on quips, some serious problems with writing female characters, etc.). But it has its moments of brilliance, and, if nothing else, it paved the way for a wild and wonderful new era of Marvel movies.

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“Avengers, A–“
  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. The Avengers
  4. Captain America: The First Avenger
  5. Thor
  6. Iron Man
  7. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
  8. Iron Man 3
  9. Iron Man 2
  10. The Incredible Hulk
  11. Thor: The Dark World

Guardians of the Galaxy

I like to imagine that the pitch for this movie went something like this: “So an outlaw, an assassin, a literal-minded alien, a talking raccoon, and a tree walk into a bar…”

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Guardians of the Galaxy
Director: James Gunn
Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel
Music By: Tyler Bates (and about a dozen ’70s bands)
Released: 2014

We open in Missouri, circa 1988, on the worst day of young Peter Quill’s life. He watches his mom die from cancer, and then, as if that isn’t bad enough, he gets abducted by aliens. Fast forward 26 years, and he’s an outlaw in a galaxy far, far away, stealing precious artefacts for money and going by the name Star-Lord (or trying to–no one else seems willing to call him that). But when he steals a particularly rare and powerful stone, he finds himself with a bounty on his head and a lot of competition. The worst of his competitors is a terrorist named Ronan, who wants the stone to help him wipe out the planet of his enemies. But the genetically enhanced assassin Gamora and the bounty hunters Rocket and Groot (the aforementioned raccoon and tree) also try to take the stone from Star-Lord…only for all four to wind up in prison as a result. But with the help of a warrior named Drax, who wants revenge against Ronan, they hatch a scheme to escape prison, get rich, and maybe save the galaxy along the way.

I give a lot of credit for how the MCU eventually turned out to The Winter Soldier, but an equal amount of credit should probably go to this movie. The Winter Soldier showed me that Marvel could do grown-up storytelling with real stakes and consequences. Guardians of the Galaxy showed me Marvel could do whatever it freaking wanted to.

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“IIIII AAMMMM GROOOOOOOTTTTT!!!!”

I mean, it’s one thing to make a Captain America or Iron Man movie. Sure, they were never as famous as characters like Batman or Spider-Man before the MCU, but even a sheltered, non-comic-book-reader like me had a vague sense of who they were. Nobody knew who the Guardians were before this movie came out. Even among avid Marvel comics fans, they don’t seem to have been considered heavy hitters. And how often do you see a big-budget movie for adults that features a talking raccoon? At the time it came out, this movie was probably the riskiest thing Marvel had done.

But despite knowing nothing about the characters and having no idea what to expect from the story, I was hooked from the moment Peter turned on his Walkman and started dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” past the movie’s giant title credits. From that point on, it felt like anything could happen. Once the movie established its fun, zany tone, I was ready to accept Rocket, Groot, and all the crazy visuals it could throw at me.

It has to be acknowledged, though, that this movie’s greatest weakness is its plot. It’s confusing at times (I still can’t keep track of all the planets the heroes visit within the first half hour or so), and, on paper at least, it’s not that interesting. Pretty much your basic “Generic Evil Overlord #7 wants to wipe out all life because of reasons; heroes must stop him by taking his MacGuffin.” As wacky and original as this movie’s setting and decor are, its story is one of the least original in the MCU.

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And Ronan’s dancing skills leave much to be desired.

But who needs a plot when you’ve got characters like the Guardians? They’re enough fun to keep me watching whether what’s going on around them makes sense or not. Each of them is fun and quirky in his/her own way, but they also have a surprising amount of complexity beyond the quirks. One of my favourite things in fiction is when a character who seems like a complete joke turns out to have hidden depths–a tragic backstory, an unexpectedly awesome skill, or what have you. This is a movie full of those characters.

For example, when we first meet Star-Lord, he’s an immature manchild who sleeps around, never takes responsibility for his actions, and treats everything like a joke (and/or an ’80s pop culture reference). Of course we, the audience, know from the beginning that this is all a front to help him cover up the pain of losing his childhood, and his character arc in this movie is all about coming to terms with that pain. In doing so, he takes his first baby steps toward being a responsible leader and hero. Meanwhile, his Walkman, which he loves because it’s all he has left from Earth, isn’t just the source of most of the movie’s awesome soundtrack; it’s also the source of its most powerful feels.

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“Ain’t no mountain high enough…ain’t no valley low enough…”

Similarly, Drax is hilarious because of his inability to grasp metaphors (they’re probably too slippery) and his sheer enthusiasm about everything, but it’s also easy to sympathise with his sadness over the loss of his family and his desire for revenge. Then there’s Rocket: a bloodthirsty maniac in the body of a small rodent, whose jerk behaviour is covering up a level of trauma that dwarfs Quill’s. And Groot, despite being a tree with a three-word vocabulary, turns out to be a lovable dork who will do anything to help out his friends.

Gamora is the one who left the smallest impression on me. She’s sort of the straight man of the group, which means she has fewer funny lines, and she’s also the only female in the group, which means she spends most of the movie getting rescued and hit on by Peter. Sure, she also gets some cool fight scenes, and a hint of a complicated past with her sister Nebula (who was a fun villain even before we learned more about her dark past), but most of her character development was saved for the sequel.

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“I’m going to die surrounded by the biggest idiots in the galaxy.”

Still, all five are a delightfully mismatched group, and they play off each other extremely well, both for comedy and drama. The real magic in this movie, beyond the crazy space battles and weird alien worlds, is in seeing these five losers–“as in, folks who have lost stuff”–bond and help each other as only flawed and broken people can. And it’s ultimately their friendship that gives them the power to become the Guardians this galaxy needs. Sure, it’s cheesy, but heartfelt cheesiness is sort of this franchise’s thing.

Long story short, this movie is awesome. It’s like Star Wars and Firefly had a baby and it became a huge fan of the Jackson 5. It paved the way for the more visually creative and colourful Marvel we got in Phase 3, and it did so with tons of humour and heart. It has some of the best characters in the entire MCU, which is saying a lot, and it most certainly has one of the best soundtracks of the MCU (until the sequel, that is). Which is not saying as much, but still.

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“What a bunch of a-holes.”

Man, these ranking decisions are just going to get tougher, aren’t they?

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. The Avengers
  4. Captain America: The First Avenger
  5. Thor
  6. Iron Man
  7. Iron Man 3
  8. Iron Man 2
  9. The Incredible Hulk
  10. Thor: The Dark World