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
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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

 

 

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

“The price of freedom is high. Always has been. And it’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

And so we turn from the worst movie in the MCU to one of the best…which is also,  incidentally, my go-to Fourth of July film.

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, etc.
Music By: Henry Jackman
Released: 2014

Displaced in time and without a world to save after the events of The Avengers, Captain America is busy working for SHIELD. But although he’s got the internet figured out, he’s still having trouble adjusting to the 21st century, with its surveillance technology and morally ambiguous conflicts. His unease with the modern world in general, and with SHIELD in particular, gets worse when he finds out the organization is planning to launch a fleet of high-tech satellites with the power to identify and eliminate people who could threaten the world…before they actually become threats. As if that weren’t enough of an ethical red flag, some of the top brass at SHIELD seem to be hiding something, even from Director Nick Fury himself. And a mysterious one-armed assassin known as the Winter Soldier is gunning for Fury and all his allies. Cap may have punched Hitler in the face over 200 times, but this time he can’t count on recognizing his enemy by a funny moustache. He can’t even rule out the possibility that the enemy could be one of his friends.

Before The Winter Soldier came out, I enjoyed Marvel movies. I saw them in theatres when I could, and I even re-watched a couple of them when they came out on DVD. But I didn’t feel duty-bound to see every single one on opening night, I didn’t really care about the continuity of the whole series, and I wouldn’t have talked about even my favourite MCU movies in the same breath as, say, the Dark Knight saga or even the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. They were just fun summer entertainment.

This was the film that made me realise Marvel movies could be more than fluffy summer popcorn flicks. It was the first entry in the MCU that took a serious look at some real-life political issues (even if they ended up being kind of a cop-out–more on that later). It was the first one that showed the movie universe was willing to shake up its status quo in a big way. And, perhaps most importantly and improbably, it turned Captain America into the coolest Avenger of them all.

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Ditching the spangly outfit helped.

Let’s start by talking about what this movie did for Cap. Personally, I always slightly preferred him over the other Avengers, just because he seemed like the most uncompromisingly heroic of the bunch. I have a lot of respect for a guy whose first instinct when he sees a grenade is to throw himself on it to save others–and that was before he got superpowers. But physically, he just didn’t seem all that intimidating, especially compared to the other Avengers. Sure, he’s got a cool shield, and we’ve seen him tear the door off a car, but that’s not so impressive when you’ve got the Hulk smashing buildings and Iron Man shooting missiles out of the sky. When he told Tony in their team-up movie to “put on the suit and let’s go a few rounds,” I remember thinking Captain America wouldn’t stand a chance against a suited-up Iron Man.

The Winter Soldier changed all that. From the first moment he knocks out a pirate with his shield in the movie’s first action scene, you just know you’re not dealing with your granddad’s Captain America anymore. All the action scenes in this movie feel painfully real, and they firmly establish that Cap is a force to be reckoned with. He can jump out of a plane without a parachute! He can take on a dozen trained fighters single-handed (literally)! He can take out a fighter jet with his shield! The elevator scene alone would have been enough to change my opinion of Cap’s fighting prowess, and by the end of this movie, it no longer seemed ridiculous to imagine him fighting Iron Man. Which is important, considering his next movie would feature him doing exactly that.

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“It kinda feels personal.”

But even more important is what this movie did for Steve Rogers’s character. Like I said, he’s a hero through and through. All he wants is to stand up for the little guy and fight bullies, which made him a great fit for the U.S. Army in World War II, where he got to punch Nazis a lot. He’s less of a great fit for a U.S.-sanctioned spy agency in the 21st century, where the bad guys hide in plain sight and the good guys have weaponised drones. Captain America deals with some major ethical dilemmas in this movie, and to me, as an American, they often feel familiar. What do you do when the country where you were born, and to which you’ve pledged allegiance, is guilty of violating people’s privacy, killing innocent civilians, and even plotting outright genocide? How much of that crap do you put up with in the name of “peace and security” within your country’s borders? Ultimately, it turns out that although the Captain has an America in his name for a reason, he’s not blindly patriotic. He wants to protect the people of America, and the ideals on which America was founded…and sometimes that means going up against the American government. Ultimately, his way of fighting a war has always been more about protecting the guy next to him than defending the generals behind him, and this movie doesn’t change that.

Of course, The Winter Soldier isn’t quite gutsy enough to make the U.S. government its actual villain. The blame for all the bad things that happen in the story falls on a conspiracy that has infiltrated the government, and it’s explicitly shown that many political leaders were never aware of it. Still, this movie, which came out in the midst of a big controversy over the NSA spying on American citizens, touched on some very real political anxieties that are still relevant today, and will probably remain so for some time. It was the first Marvel movie to venture into that territory, and it did so without getting preachy or dating itself too badly. An impressive feat, considering how often political messages in superhero stories go horribly, horribly wrong.

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“SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be.”

But Cap himself isn’t the only character who shines in this movie. It also contains, hands down, the best portrayal of Black Widow in the MCU. Yes, the camera still seems unnecessarily fixated on her rear end, but this is the first movie where Natasha doesn’t feel like she’s just there for eye candy. As one of Steve’s few allies when SHIELD starts to go south, she develops a great platonic friendship with him, and gets some much-needed character development of her own along the way. Sure, she’s a super-spy who often does morally questionable things, but in this movie we see that she’s also a loyal friend and competent strategist, and she cares just as much about keeping the world free as Cap does.

Then we have the introduction of Sam Wilson, aka The Falcon. He also proves to be a great friend in times of need, and not just because of his sweet metal wings. While Cap bonds with Natasha over their shared world-saving experiences, he relates to Sam as a fellow soldier, one who is also having a hard time leaving the battlefield behind. Sam may do everything slower than Steve, but he also provides him with some excellent life advice and much-needed support. He also provides much-needed comic relief in one of the MCU’s least comedic movies.

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Also, those wings are ridiculous and awesome and I need way more of them in the MCU.

The Winter Soldier himself also gets an excellent character arc in this movie, as both a menacing villain and a victim of the same conspiracy that threatens everyone else. I won’t get too much into his character’s complexities, on the off chance that anyone reading this hasn’t seen the movie, but he’s an excellent focal point for Cap’s moral conflict and a great character in his own right. And the fights involving him are easily some of the best in the MCU.

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KNIFE FLIIIIIP!!!

Besides being a great movie in its own right, The Winter Soldier greatly improved the whole MCU. After this movie, I didn’t feel like I could walk into a Marvel movie knowing exactly what to expect anymore. I knew there could be some genuine surprises down the road, and that major things about the universe could change for good. And so far, the franchise has kept that promise.

Someone more knowledgeable about the art of film than I could probably find problems with The Winter Soldier, but honestly, I can’t think of anything about it that I dislike. Okay, the shaky cam gets a little excessive at times, but that’s about it. I’ll have to rewatch some of the newer movies before coming to a final decision, but this is definitely a strong contender for my favourite MCU film.

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Its only real competition has a scene…very much like this one.

I’m with the Captain ’til the end of the line.

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

 

Thor: The Dark World

This is the last of the MCU movies I missed seeing in the cinema. I was kinda broke when it came out, and the trailers didn’t really wow me, so I skipped it.

Having finally watched it on DVD, I can now confirm that was a good decision.

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Thor: The Dark World
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, etc.
Music By: Brian Tyler
Released: 2013

Following the events of the first Thor movie, the Bifrost has been fixed, and Thor and his buddies are busy cleaning up the marauders and monsters that apparently wreaked havoc in the Nine Realms while it was out of commission. Back on Earth, Jane Foster is continuing to use her genius scientific mind to search for her boyfriend, but instead she finds a portal to another Realm, where she gets infected by some red swirly stuff called the Aether. Turns out this stuff is a necessary ingredient in a plan by a species called the Dark Elves, who want to turn the universe into darkness. Another necessary ingredient is a rare event called the Convergence, when all Nine Realms will occupy the same space (somehow…it’s sort of unclear), and this event is coming up fast. It’s up to Thor, and, much to his regret, Loki, to save the girl from the Dark Elves and prevent the end of the universe.

Honestly, the best thing I can say about this movie is that it’s watchable. Strictly speaking, there’s nothing bad about it…no noticeably terrible dialogue, no bad acting, no particularly awful CGI or cinematography. But there’s not much good about it, either. Everything about it is so bland and boring that it’s hard to have any kind of emotional reaction to it. It just sort of sits there on the screen, like the film equivalent of slightly freezer-burned vanilla ice cream.

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Hope you like this slightly bemused/bored expression, ’cause Thor keeps it on for 80 percent of the movie. 

Don’t get me wrong: there are good moments, here and there. There’s a Viking funeral at one point that looks quite lovely. Some of the humorous moments on Earth got a laugh out of me, especially whenever Thor interacts with Darcy and her boyfriend. Also, just about everything to do with Loki works. Tom Hiddleston continues to nail his performance, and we learn a bit more about his relationship with the rest of the family, particularly Frigga, and how he got to be the mischief-making scoundrel he is today. whenever he and Thor are together, their complicated brotherly relationship breathes life into the story. We also see Loki being funny, intentionally, a lot more than in previous films.

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And winning the hearts of teenage girls on Tumblr like never before.

But to me, the main problem with this movie is similar to the main problem with Iron Man 2: it doesn’t move the main character’s story forwards in any meaningful way. We get to know Loki a little better, sure, but we don’t learn anything new about Thor himself. He doesn’t grow or change at all–he just saves the girl, fights the bad guys and calls it a movie. There’s no internal conflict for him to overcome, no lesson to be learned, like there was in his first movie. And when the main character of a movie doesn’t have a character arc, that’s a problem to me. Honestly, based on his performance here compared to the first and third movies, I think Chris Hemsworth would agree. Poor guy looks so bored.

The side characters fare even worse. A sequel like this should have been the perfect time to expand characters like Lady Sif and the Warriors Three, give them something interesting to do, or at least flesh out their backstories a bit. But nope! They continue to be glorified extras with no significant impact on the plot. Even Jane, despite playing a major role in the story, gets treated more like a plot device than a character. Natalie Portman seems pretty bored most of the time, too.

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This is her “I need to have a serious talk with my agent” face. Fans of the Star Wars prequels should recognise it.

As for the villain…boy. What a tragic waste of Christopher Eccleston and some decent makeup. As a Doctor Who fan, and specifically a huge Ninth Doctor fan, Eccleston’s treatment here hurt my soul a little bit. He barely has any lines in English, and the few that he does have are so generic they could have been swapped with dialogue from just about any other supervillain ever created, and I wouldn’t have noticed. His motives are vague, his methods aren’t explained all that well (despite some quite lengthy exposition scenes from Dr. Selvig), and he just leaves no impression whatsoever on the viewer. Which is probably a big part of the reason this movie’s plot feels so low-stakes, even though it’s all about saving the universe.

Here’s a criticism that probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I’d seen this movie in theatres: it’s boring to look at. There are sequences where characters bounce between at least four different Realms, and I have a feeling that if it were made in 2017, those sequences would have been filled with colourful scenery, weird aliens, and maybe even some mind-bending otherworldly physics. But here, with the exception of Asgard, they just look like different places on Earth. The home of the Dark Elves, especially, just looks like an empty rock quarry with a perpetual thunderstorm over it. I feel like I have to cut the movie a little slack for being made before the big wigs at Marvel decided they could go all-out with visual craziness in their space-themed movies, but it doesn’t change the fact that, visually speaking, it could have been subtitled “The Dull World.”

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It’s also dark, though, so not completely false advertising.

The really annoying thing is that you can’t skip this movie if you want to know all about the Infinity Stones. We get introduced to our second one here, and an end-credits stinger helps to set up the finding of the next one. This movie also lays some important groundwork for Thor: Ragnarok. But mostly, I’d recommend watching it just to be reminded of how badly Thor needed that makeover from Taika Waititi. Even gods need saving from bad movies sometimes.

Thor: The Dark World is going straight to the bottom of my list, and I don’t think it’ll be moving out of that spot anytime soon.

  1. The Avengers
  2. Captain America: The First Avenger
  3. Thor
  4. Iron Man
  5. Iron Man 3
  6. Iron Man 2
  7. The Incredible Hulk
  8. Thor: The Dark World

Iron Man 3

The exciting conclusion to the Iron Man trilogy!

…Which is mostly just Tony Stark on a road trip in his sweatpants.

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Iron Man 3
Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black and Drew Pearce
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr.
Music By: Brian Tyler
Released: 2013

The events of The Avengers–specifically, his own close brush with death-by-wormhole–have left their mark on Tony Stark. He can’t sleep, he’s having anxiety attacks, and he’s coping in his usual healthy way: by ignoring his longsuffering girlfriend and spending way too much time doing dangerous things with metal suits. The hero business comes calling again, though, when an attack by a terrorist known as the Mandarin hits a little too close to home. Tony goes on a quest for vengeance, with a side of protecting Pepper Potts, but it turns out the real reward is the friends he makes along the way.

Out of all the Marvel movies so far, this is the one that improved the most for me on the re-watch. I remember being massively disappointed by it when it first came out, but in hindsight, I think that was mainly due to false advertising. The trailers made me think I’d be getting a dark, intense action thriller with a creepy terrorist as the villain. So when I instead got an introspective road trip comedy about Tony fighting his inner demons (again), it felt like a let-down. Watching it again, though, I found a lot to love.

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Just bros bein’ bros.

First of all, once I came to terms with the fact that it’s meant to be a comedy, I had to admit it’s a pretty good one. It’s got a ton of great one-liners and memorable quips (“It’s a giant bunny, relax about it!” “Well, I panicked, but then I handled it;” “I just stole a poncho from a wooden Indian;” etc.). It also has my favourite evil henchman moment in any movie ever: There’s a scene about a third of the way through where Tony blasts a few goons in the baddie’s lair, and the remaining one throws his hands up and says, “Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird.” And Tony lets him go. I need more evil henchmen like that one in my life.

It also has some heartwarming moments that show real growth for Tony, especially in his relationships with the two loves of his life: Pepper and the suits. Sure, Pepper is still kind of a useless damsel in distress, which is unfortunate, but at least in this movie, Tony learns to put her interests ahead of his own once in a while. He also learns that he can still be a hero even without his tech. (In theory, anyway; in practice, he’ll still need the suits for every single superhero adventure in the MCU.) It’s not a lot of growth, but it sure beats re-hashing the same lessons he learned in the first movie, like Iron Man 2 did.

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He should probably get a different therapist, though.

And although this movie is fairly light on action as superhero movies go, it manages to have a pretty spectacular climax that showcases the power and variety of Stark tech better than any previous film. It also lets Rhodey get a few good scenes in. Even Pepper gets to do a few cool things…okay, maybe one.

Of course, none  of that changes the fact that it’s heavily weighed down by its villain. Normally a bland Marvel villain would be nothing to write home about, but in this case, the movie spends over half its runtime trying to convince us the villain was going to be really intimidating for once. But then there’s a twist that reveals…nope, he’s just another cartoon who wants to take over the world for vague reasons. The twist is funny in its execution, but harmful in its effects…especially for fans of the comics, where the Mandarin was an iconic nemesis for Iron Man, albeit one with troublingly racist overtones.

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“You’llll neverrrr seeeee me coming.”

Something I notice about a lot of Phase 2 Marvel movies is that they have a feeling of being held back. There’s an outline of a great, original idea, but it’s diminished somehow, twisted to fit into the same formula that Phase 1 followed. In this movie, I think it would have been fantastic if the Mandarin really was the creepy terrorist with a vendetta against the U.S. that he appeared to be in the beginning. It would have given the story a chance to do some real political commentary, which would have been a first for Marvel at the time. It also would have been nice to delve deeper into Tony’s struggles with wormhole-related PTSD. It’s portrayed well enough in the first part of the movie, but it doesn’t have much real impact on the plot, and it’s “solved” in a pretty glib way at the end. It’s like the filmmakers (or the studio behind them) were too squeamish to tackle anything that felt too much like a real-world problem.

Still, Robert Downey Jr. continues to be awesome in this movie, and this time he’s backed up by a fair number of good side characters. In addition to Rhodey, there’s also the inventor kid with whom he forms a “connection,” and as unfortunate as the twist is, it allows one of the villains to become quite…memorable for comedy reasons. JARVIS also feels more like a real character in this movie than he ever did before, trading snark with Tony like a pro and even going through a bit of an arc himself.

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“Sir, I think I need to sleep now…”

Overall, Iron Man 3 is a good movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just don’t think it’s quite as good as it could have been. Maybe if it was made just a little later in Marvel’s development, it could have made my top five or six films in the franchise. But as it is, I’ll have to rank it below the first movie, as well as quite a few others.

  1. The Avengers
  2. Captain America: The First Avenger
  3. Thor
  4. Iron Man
  5. Iron Man 3
  6. Iron Man 2
  7. The Incredible Hulk