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RANKING THE MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE

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I was a Marvel geek as a kid, and I pretty much love the current wave of movies they have put out.  Having just seen Guardians Of The Galaxy, I thought I'd use this space to talk about it a bit, see if I can get into the heads of those that dislike the MCU in general, and of course do the ranking thing, because this is the internet, and the internet don't take kindly to opinions what don't come in list form.

 

11. AGENTS OF SHIELD

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I’ve written about my problems with this show before, but this is just a remarkably small, unimaginative show to place in such a colorful, expansive universe.  It made some strides at the end of the year, post-Winter Soldier, but the characters remain bland and undistinguished, the dialogue routinely falls flat, and the production values are embarrassing.  It’s only bone-deep Marvel partisanship that will bring me back next year.  They’re adding Mockingbird, guys!!!

Guys?

Guys???

 

10. Iron Man 2

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The complaints aren't wrong.  It’s too concerned with setting up the shared universe, at the expense of its own story.  Which is true but not as big a sin as some make out – the shared universe is at the heart of what makes these movies special in spite of the fairly rigid formula and frequently lackluster villains.  That’s another critique that comes up for this film, which is only partially accurate.  The villains are actually pretty good, and have distinct motivations that go beyond “get magic rock, destroy world”. But Rockwell is having too much fun to be menacing.  Although he may just be further ahead of the curve than Favreau or his studio overlords were at this point; as time goes on, it becomes more and more apparent to me that these movies are as much comedies as they are EPIC ACTION SAGAS (something DC seems determined to deny, to their overall detriment).  Rockwell is giving a performance for an 80’s comedy, someone who wants to bulldoze the rec center, not rule the multiverse.  Unfortunately, Rourke is also underused as the legitimate threat, and his backstory actually makes him the scrappy underdog to Tony Stark’s trust fund D-Bag, which feels a bit off.  Also, it suffers from speeding through some potentially rich Tony/Rhodey conflict with a newly recast Cheadle, who hasn’t had time to settle into a groove with Downey.

But in the end, there’s only so bad you can make a movie with that cast and suits of over-weaponized flying armor. This is the bottom of the heap for the films, but still slots in just fine on FX’s Sunday afternoon hangover rotation.

9. The Incredible Hulk

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Probably the most forgettable of the bunch, due largely to none of the principals making it out of Phase I (though there’s technically nothing to stop the Abomination or Tim Blake Nelson’s Leader from joining Red Skull, Loki and whoever else in a Masters Of Evil movie down the line).  It does have a pretty great action sequence, though true to what will become form for many of these flicks, it comes in the middle rather than the climax.  And it has an underrated villain, with distinctive motivations, in Tim Roth’s Blonsky.  As mentioned, one of the biggest gripes with the Marvelverse is the generic baddies, but looking at my rankings, I’m struck that the ones with the best realized villains are crowded near the bottom, and my favorites overall tend to have the most standard “KILL ERRYBODY CUZ YAY EEEEEEEEEEEVIL” schemes.  Which underlines just how much these movies live by their heroes, which they are universally nailing….with the exception of Norton’s Banner.  He’s perfectly serviceable, and honestly makes more sense as a physical presence than either Bana or Ruffalo, but the latter just managed to resonate with audiences in a way that Norton didn’t.  Though to be fair, he never got to work off Downey, Evans, or even Sam Jackson.

8. Thor

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There are a few Marvel movies that I’m just amazed work on any level, much less found a real degree of mainstream acceptance.  Of them, Thor is both my least favorite and probably most miraculous, if only for coming first.  The problems it has are really quite glaring.  Arbitrary, distracting Dutch angles.  One of the few casting bum notes (not that it isn’t perfect on paper) in the MCU with Anthony Hopkins’ lethargic performance.  An almost grindhouse-y budget consciousness that sends a truly cosmic storyline on an extended detour to a deserted backlot.  A glaringly tacked-on introduction of Hawkeye that can’t even manage to look cool to counterbalance its utter superfluousness.

. But what it nails is the big stuff that saves even these lesser efforts – tone and casting.  Thor was always my least favorite character in the comics, combining about all the worst aspects of superheroes.  Overpowered a la Superman (he’s literally a god, after all), with an unappealing combination of low IQ and high ego, and a costume that stands out as overly goofy even when sharing a panel with Captain America and Quasar.  But Chris Hemsworth was a hell of a find, not just because he could make the ridiculous Technicolor toga sexy.  He finds a real heart to the Odinson that I never saw on the page, and gives him a genuine sense of humor despite most of the humor of the character being of the unwitting kind.  And he’s matched at every step by Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, the most unlikely breakout star of the whole shebang.  He’s sly, he’s funny, he’s tragic without ever becoming fully pitiable.  I don’t want to start throwing the word “Shakespearean” around, because I don’t think I really know what it means in this context, but suffice to say that the relationship between the brothers is a wellspring of both humor and something approaching gravitas.

 

7. Iron Man

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This is many people’s pick for best of the bunch, but that’s mostly because it came first, in my opinion.  That’s a perfectly good reason, as it means that the elements it shares with its descendants are freshest, but also roughest around the edges.  The action beats are more fun than exciting, and it peaks well before the climax, but the groundwork for everything is laid here, including Robert Downey Jr. effortlessly establishing that Marvel Studio productions are, for all their CGI boomsplashery, modern film’s most pure star vehicles.  It’s his very particular charisma that carries the film as a stealth comedy, and made us even kinda like Gwyneth Paltrow again.

Ultimately, though, I look at this like a great TV pilot. It can be really good, but it doesn’t (and shouldn't, really) represent the very best of what the series is going to be capable of, if it is to run for a dozen plus more entries.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger

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This is the first Marvel movie to garner bonus points for deviating from the established tone and setting of the MCU.  Now, there are some who say that the differences are “merely” cosmetic, that this is just every other Marvel movie, transplanted to 1945.  A similarly themed debate is currently going on about how Guardians Of The Galaxy is just “surface weird” or “colorful” and not genuinely weird because it has a traditional 3 Act structure built around a shameless Macguffin.  I can only surmise that to some, words like “weird,” “creative,” “personal,” “innovative,” etc. only apply to films that feature entirely original characters with no recognizable relation to established archetypes, and creates an entirely new setting with no discernible influences from scratch, while utterly disregarding every convention of dramatic storytelling. Which are all fine goals, but if you try to do them all at once, you’d end up with an unwatchably incoherent, plotless, paceless soup (or maybe a Jodorowsky movie, if you’re really lucky).  It doesn’t mean that movies that mix up a formula by introducing a throwback vibe or a talking raccoon as a major dramatic character aren’t taking risks.  It’s just that the magic of hindsight has a way of making any risk that paid off into a boring, safe, obvious choice.

. Which is to say, it’s remarkable in general that Marvel has been able to drag the mainstream to a place where they accept their sentient tree and jock-y magic psuedovikings spouting pseudo-Olde Englishe as legitimate heroes.  And it’s remarkable in particular that Chris Evans and Joe Johnston were able to get them to embrace such a square, old-fashioned hero in the age of the antihero.  Sure, the movie relies a bit too heavily on montages for action beats, and it doesn’t use Hugo Weaving to the best of his cartoon-villainy abilities.  But Evans and Atwell bring a ton of personality to a very sweet, chaste, ultimately sad romance, it fully commits to being a throwback piece, and allows Captain America to endear himself to us the old-fashioned way: by punching Nazis.  And yes, I know HYDRA are not really Nazis in the film.  They’re more like uber-nazis that think the SS are too pansy, which is just as good.

5. Thor: The Dark World

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I don’t remember the specifics of this movie too well a year later.  But I remember that I was thoroughly entertained throughout, and laughed a ton.  I remember that the bad guys had a great design but little personality, a victim of Loki’s breakout status.  Which is a fair trade-off, imo; Loki and Thor’s dynamic is the best part of this sub-franchise by far, and as discussed earlier the alchemical secret that Marvel has uncovered is how to not make the villains matter too much to the overall strength of the film.  I’m still puzzling over how that works, actually.  All other superhero movies I can think of, most notably the Batman and James Bond franchises, really live and die on the strength of their villains.  It’s not even just superheroes; even at this point I'm hesitant to say that you can make any sort of decent fantasy/action movie without striking villains (if you want a single sentence explanation for what makes the original Star Wars trilogy so much better than the prequels, that’s as good as any).  But here these 10 movies are, with about 2.5 effectively realized baddies between them, and me either kinda liking or outright loving every last one, like some sorta sucker.

. Maybe it’s something about having a hero that is so fully formed and engaging that you don’t even need a full on nemesis with their own POV to depict their character. It’s enough to put them in front of a really steep hill and watch them struggle to climb it. If you think about it, the main conflict in the Avengers doesn’t arise from wondering how the team will ever be able to overpower Loki.  It comes from the question of whether they’ll be able to get out of their own ways in time to kick his ass (which several of them can, and do, by themselves).  And the entire Iron Man series up to this point has been populated with villains that are riding the hero’s coattails in terms of creating weapons to challenge the ones he already has.

. Or maybe it’s just that these movies really are just comedies, where truly imposing villainy is secondary to general flair.  This thesis is still under construction.

4. Iron Man 3

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The best thing about the Iron Man movies is that they felt like ersatz Shane Black movies.  So it stands to reason that the best of the bunch should result when they just cut the shit and brought Black himself in.  The climax is a little overly busy, in a bad, weightless way (as opposed to Thor 2’s overly busy, but fun and inventive climax), and I am annoyed by how transparently they went for the Pepper death fake-out (a comic trope that is no less shitty for being “classic”, and is already getting overused in the films).  But…it’s funny.  And surprised me way more than these “cookie-cutter” productions are supposed too.  Particularly with everything involving Trevor Slattery, which was sort of genius in how it elided a troublesome bit of comics history, but also, come on, “His Lear was the toast of Croydon” is just a funny string of words, whether you understand the actual idea they’re supposed to convey or not.

. I guess by the 8th time out, this isn’t exactly rocket science.

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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I’ve been talking about how these movies work largely based on their comedic chops, and more or less despite the effectiveness of their action and suspense beats. So naturally, when you bring in a pair of directors whose primary credit is from the (transcendent) sitcom Community…you wind up with one of the least comedic efforts, with the best shot action in the entire MCU.  Shrug.

Having succeeded making First Avenger a throwback to 40’s war movies, they naturally went on to make Winter Soldier a throwback to 70’s conspiracy thrillers. One can only imagine that in 2017, Captain America: Serpent Society On A Plane will be a throwback to 90's slacker comedies, with Cap sharing an incongruously-spacious loft space while struggling to get their boutique record label off the ground, and Sam has to gently push Cap to stop denying his feelings for Black Widow and eventually parachute in to interrupt her wedding to Quicksilver….

. Anyway, Winter Soldier.  It underuses the titular figure by relegating him to a mute henchman role, seemingly afraid to push him too far into villainy before the inevitable redemption arc.  Which is not too terrible, as his action sequences kick enough ass to make up for it.  The only really bum note is the elaborate Fury death fake-out, which is a load of shit, because if any of the “major” heroes is actually expendable to the MCU going forward, it’s that guy.  But it also effortlessly nails the introduction of Falcon, integrates Black Widow well, and succeeds in turning Captain America into something approaching an ensemble piece.  And I’ll take one of those over a one-man show every day of the week.  It’s probably why the widely-favored Iron Man movies rank comparatively low for me, and why my top two spots are reserved for:

2. Guardians Of The Galaxy

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I loved this movie.  It’s colorful and goofy and fast-paced and heartfelt at the right moments (things got a bit misty at Groot’s last line, and at the moment where Rocket lets Drax pet him, and not only because I was half drunk).  And I'll acknowledge most of the complaints, or at least the ones that don't revolve around everyone thinking they are experts on the effects of human exposure to the vacuum of space.  Yes, Ronan is thinly sketched bad guy.  Yes, the Infinity Stone is a particularly naked Macguffin; it’s even lamp-shaded with a line*.  Yes, the climax is straight out of the Care Bears.  Yes, Thanos does nothing but sit and look kind of dumb.  Actually, that last one does bother me a bit. T hey have not done well building up Thanos so far, though I suppose they have another 4 years to work out the kinks before he has to take center stage.

. But here’s a few ways to get me to overlook any flaws your movie might possess:

. -   Include a talking raccoon as a major character, and not have him be a joke sidekick, but basically the Han Solo of the group. -   Put a combination jack-off joke/Jackson Pollock reference in a family film. I spent the next 5 minutes cackling while thinking about all the parents in the audience wracking their brains trying to figure out how they were going to explain that when their 8 year-old asked why it was funny. -   Balance your ensemble well. Give everyone a purpose, a personality, and some moments to shine. Guardians has to introduce 5 different heroes, none of which have any mainstream cache, but it is one shiny-ass movie from top to bottom. -   Have Zoe Saldana kick ass in green body paint. Look, I told you not all of this was rocket science. -   Set a good chunk of a movie in the severed head of a dead god floating in outer space. -   Have a running gag about the heroes stealing prosthetic limbs from handicapped people, for no real reason. -   Keep it to 2 hours. Seriously, not everything is an epic, particularly comedic action romps. -   Howard the Duck easter egg. This is kind of a no-brainer in a Marvel movie, but it applies all the same to westerns, erotic thrillers, and period musicals. -   Have the hero challenge the evil space overlord to a dance-off. -   Have Michael Rooker play an asshole.  If he’s painted a stupid color, all the better. -   End in a big Care Bears climax.  Seriously. It’s hokey, but I’m a sucker for stories about ragtag groups pulling together to do things they could never accomplish on their own.  Fantasy stories like this can make that theme very literal, and I’ll fall for it pretty much every time.  I am a skeptic by nature.  I do not believe in gods or ghosts or magic or reincarnation or Celestials.  But I do believe in a very specific kind of alchemy, a mysterious process that happens when people come together and become more than the sum of our parts.  There can be a weight that I could never hope to lift, that would crush me into the ground if I tried to shoulder it.  But give me one good friend, and together we can carry five of them.  It’s nonsensical, it’s sappy, it’s neither grim nor gritty nor grounded, but it is always going to resonate with me. Because it’s the one kind of magic I believe in.

 

1. The Avengers

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Guardians may get off to a stronger start, but I can forgive a wobbly start very easily if it leads to a strong finish, and The Avengers has the strongest finish of any superhero movie…yeah, just any.  Even the best of the genre, like Spiderman 2 and The Dark Knight, blow their big action load before getting to into an entirely new sequence for the emotional climax.  And as wonderfully as Guardians introduces and integrates each member of its team, their coming together can’t match the momentousness that comes from bringing together multiple established franchises in such a shockingly coherent, effortless, and fun way.  I’ve gushed at length about the amazing high-wire act The Avengers makes look easy, but I’ll just add that another of its accomplishments is to make the most entertaining scenes come from the heroes bickering with each other.  We’ve already become attached to each of these heroes individually, and it’s no mean feat to make these clashes pop while not making any one of them act out of character or into the “jerk” for the purposes of a particular argument.

Also, Avengers has a Hulk.  And it’s not afraid to use it, but also has the discipline to withhold it until the moments it will have maximum impact.  And it has the best Marvel villain running around with Loki, and Thanos still removed enough to be mysterious rather than looking silly and nonthreatening.  Plus, for no real reason, cameos from Harry Dean Stanton and Powers Boothe.  But mainly, it’s got great action, great characters, and is really funny.  To the extent that Marvel has a secret, that’s about it.  It’s about having a good time with charismatic heroes.  It’s not dark or edgy or even “cool” really, but it is simple and fun and good-natured in a way that maybe even holds them back from creating truly memorable, hateful villains, but also makes all the shortcomings easy to overlook.

For me, anyway. Your mileage probably varies, but that’s only because you’re probably an asshole.

Love and kisses,

Schwartz

 

*which includes a reference that has bothered some, since Pulp Fiction came out after Quill left Earth, but given that Earth and its culture are not unknown or inaccessible to the rest of the galaxy, it doesn’t feel worthy of a No-Prize to concoct as scenario where he might have seen the most popular movie of the 90s