Last Friday saw the release of Guardians of the Galaxy, a self-aware sci-fi romp based on an obscure comic book. The film was the latest addition to Marvel Studios’ shared universe of films in which each film about an individual superhero serves as a sequel and set-up to the next film, including the hyped and lauded Avengers team-up films. Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, brilliantly casting Robert Downey Jr. in a role of a lesser-known superhero, the films have become an unstoppable juggernaut, releasing about two films a year since then, usually consistently good and fun. How does Guardians stack up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe oeuvre? Let’s see where each film stands amongst themselves to find out.
10. The Incredible Hulk, 2008.
While Edward Norton’s version of the Hulk breaks ground in a lot of ways, surpassing Eric Bana’s portrayal of the character in 2003 Hulk, this Hulk film is revealed as the big green monster it really is when the Hulk faces off against his foil, the white-and-bone skinned Abomination. There’s a lot of yelling and explosions. Not exactly the strongest set-up to the next Marvel film on the block, and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk in The Avengers kind of blows away Norton’s. Here’s hoping Ruffalo’s Hulk gets his own movie, or at least a co-starring role in another film. The Incredible Hulk isn’t terrible, it just isn’t that memorable, either. People forget that this movie exists.
9. Thor, 2011.
The first hero after Hulk and Iron Man to get his own film, Thor is a little rocky. Starring Chris Hemsworth, this film mainly does the groundwork of introducing Thor, Loki and the Asgardian universe to the so-far “grounded-in-realism” Iron Man universe. (It also introduces Hawkeye in a throwaway scene, but whatever, Hawkeye is so far a throwaway character.) I think the best part is when the arrogant Thor is banished by Odin (“I cast you out!”). Natalie Portman adds star power to the film, but her character is under-developed. Thor’s exceptional addition to the ensemble cast of The Avengers is revealed later but right now this film is kind of dull if not for Loki.
8. Iron Man 2, 2010.
The second Iron Man film suffers by being a set-up to The Avengers, introducing Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and developing Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. It’s still a decent movie, and Downey Jr.’s charm keeps the movie alive and kicking, even through a narrative pothole in the middle. Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke and Don Cheadle make great additions to the original cast.
7. Thor: The Dark World, 2013.
Thor 2 surpasses the original, thanks to the sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki. It’s good, dumb fun, and even though the evil elf guy is kind of boring, this film is a great continuation of the Marvel saga.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger, 2011.
Captain America is introduced in a thrilling period piece that sees him face off against Nazi Germany and achieve his superpowers by “super-serum,” a euphemism for steroids. Oh well. Captain America’s sense of innocent duty is the strength here, played to perfection by Chris Evans. Typically villainous Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull is typically villainous, while Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell and Stanley Tucci have great performances in this film. Whereas Captain America: The First Avenger is a good period piece, its sequel makes for a contemporary political thriller.
5. Iron Man 3, 2013.
Iron Man 3 surpasses Iron Man 2 and is a worthy follow-up to The Avengers. Threatened by an international terrorist, Tony Stark faces his greatest threat yet, though Tony only gets help from Don Cheadle’s War Machine. Considering the gravity of the threats against Tony Stark’s life, couldn’t he have called for help from one of the Avengers? No matter – the film’s biggest strength is its sleight of hand in its portrayal of the villain. I’ll say no more, but Iron Man 3 is a refreshing subversion of the stereotypical summer blockbuster – what appears to be the hallmark of Marvel’s phase II, beginning with Iron Man 3 and concluding with The Avengers 2.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 2014.
Captain America 2 recasts the war-origin story of the first flick as a government conspiracy thriller, brilliantly casting Robert Redford as the shadowy government spook. The film is full of clever motifs – from the Smithsonian exhibit that recounts the plot from the first film to the thinly-veiled criticism of drone warfare, Captain America 2 is full of political commentary that makes it so much more than a conventional superhero flick. The further development of Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow helps make this film stand out, while Anthony Mackie has a strong turn as Captain America’s new sidekick, Falcon, even as Cap’s old sidekick, Bucky, played by Sebastian Stan, is the titular Winter Soldier. I think the film’s biggest flaw is the character of Jasper Sitwell, who is played so woodenly by Maximiliano Hernandez that the character falls quite flat. After a fantastic beginning, The Winter Soldier descends into conventional super-heroics, and while that isn’t bad, it prevents The Winter Soldier from further soaring into the heights that it had just begun to glimpse.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014.
Just who are the Guardians of the Galaxy? That’s a good question, because no one outside of a small fanbase actually knew. But people will know now, especially as Guardians, based on media reviews, is probably destined to become a cult classic. Christ Pratt channels his best young-Harrison Ford character as he plays the witty, sarcastic analogue to Han Solo and Indiana Jones in his portrayal of Peter Quill, who gives himself the nickname of Star-Lord. Zoe Saldana gives a strong performance as Gamora, while Dave Bautista’s Drax is hilarious. Not to mention Bradley Cooper’s cranky New Yorker-raccoon and Vin Diesel’s tree monster who can’t say anything but “I am Groot.” The film waxes between a Star Wars mentality and a Maltese Falcon, Indiana Jones-vibe as the motley crew sail through the galaxy on the Milano, the ship that most resembles the Millenium Falcon or Firefly’s Serenity. They do battle with Ronan, the film’s Darth Vader, who seeks to destroy the planet Xandar and the Nova Corps while trying to hang onto the mysterious orb that everyone is after. Throughout is a classic 70s-80s soundtrackt that gives the candy-colored universe a retro, self-irreverent vibe, as the script constantly acknowledges how ridiculous the film is. Guardians 2 is already scheduled for July 2017.
2. Marvel’s The Avengers, 2012.
Joss Whedon’s masterpiece of a superhero team-up movie unites Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Nick Fury into a super-team against Loki and an alien army. Granted, Hawkeye is brainwashed into an evil lackey, but that’s in service of the great character development of the dynamic between the core players. Featuring the elaborate set-piece of the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, The Avengers manages to rally the antagonistic superheroes in service of the greater good while still managing to criticize the military-industrial complex. The model blockbuster film, let’s hope the sequel to The Avengers, due out next year, is just as good.
1. Iron Man, 2008.
Six years after its release, the film that started it all is still refreshing and perhaps the strongest in the Marvel canon. Granted, some of the references are already dated – Myspace, anyone? – but Iron Man can be known as the film that revitalized Robert Downey Jr.’s career and launched one of the greatest success stories in cinema history, leading commentators to dub Marvel Studios as the new Pixar, leading to Marvel’s acquisition by Disney. How will the next slate of films fare against the ones on this list. The answer remains to be seen, but given the scheduling of seven more films through 2019, the future is bright.
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