There is no doubt that comic book movies, and superhero comic book movies in particular, are reigning supreme in Hollywood right now. It’s almost hard to imagine that there was a time when these types of films were uncommon and successful comic book movies were virtually non-existent.
Before the millennium, the two exceptions were were Richard Donner’s Superman from 1978, Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989 and their sequels although both series had really already completely ran out of steam by the time the third entry hit the theatres. Most other superhero comic book films produced before the mid-nineties were all pretty sad affairs and didn’t seem to draw in anyone over the age of twelve.
But towards the end of the nineties, things started to change. 1998’s Blade was a clear precursor but it wasn’t until X-Men was released in 2000 that superhero films found large mainstream success. Ever since, all bets have been off and the popularity of the genre seems to have reached a fever pitch, with no end in near sight. This year alone, four Marvel properties were produced, which currently all rank within the top six most profitable films of the year.
Part of this surge has a lot to do with Marvel Studios, who, after having seen other studios been highly successful with their properties, started producing their own content and even surpassed the success of those other studios when they started creating the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). They first established separate superhero movies and then had them all come together in 2012’s The Avengers, which became the third highest grossing movie at the box-office ever.
With Warner Brothers ambitious plans to imitate Marvel’s model of a shared universe with their DC properties (they also announced no less then ten interconnected films for the next five years), Fox riding high on the success of their various X-Men movies and with a Fantastic Four reboot in the works and Marvel about to close their second phase of movies with next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and another ten movies scheduled for the next four years, it looks like superheros are going to reign supreme in the foreseeable future.
But before Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theatres May next year, let’s have a look back at the ten films that Marvel Studios has so far released in their MCU. So far, they are the only studio to have successfully pulled off anything on this scale, a fact which is even more impressive as its first in-house production was released in 2008 when they burst onto the screen with the first Iron Man.
Roughly speaking, half of the Marvel Studios’ movies so far have been great creative and high quality successes whilst the other half varies from not so good to passable fun entertainment. Let’s have a look.
10. The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008)
By far the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, The Incredible Hulk was in itself a reboot of the 2003 Ang Lee effort, simply named “Hulk”. Whilst that first movie was produced by Universal and considered a critical as well as a bit of a financial flop, Marvel’s own reboot for their MCU didn’t do much better.
Both movies might have made their money back but neither broke the box-office and both films were panned by critics. The biggest problem with The Incredible Hulk was its director. Louis Leterrier has never made a good movie in his career and when compared to the other directors of Marvel’s phase one films, this becomes particularly apparent.
The film felt more like a building block in a franchise than a stand-alone entry and suffered greatly from a weak screenplay. All surface gloss and very little body and soul, The Incredible Hulk is without a doubt Marvel’s weakest entry so far and even though Edward Norton was fine in the role, it didn’t come as a major surprise that he was the only actor to be replaced when the character reappeared in The Avengers four years later.
9. Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013)
Iron Man 3 might have been a giant financial success, becoming Marvel Studios’ second biggest film as well as the sixth most successful film of all time with its 1.2+ billion dollar box-office revenue, but it’s also one of Marvel’s worst movies so far. It’s success can be contributed to the fact that Iron Man, as played by Robert Downey Jr., is still Marvel’s most popular character and that the movie was the first film to be released after the giant success of The Avengers, which left the audience begging for more.
Once again the director is probably mostly to blame here. Directed by Shane Balck, Iron Man 3 felt like a re-tread of his eighties action movies, complete with a Christmas setting and an underwhelming climax on a freighter, which seemed to be a copy of the finale of Lethal Weapon 2.
On top of that, we saw Iron Man hang out with a kid and it certainly didn’t help that (spoiler ahead) the film’s iconic and seriously threatening villain was suddenly reduced to a goofy English actor, only to be replaced by a bunch of fire-breathing second-rate villains.
It’s not because I am a purist that I didn’t like what Black did to the Mandarin (in fact, Ben Kingsley is pretty damn funny in the role and it was a genuine surprise) but it simply left the movie without a worthy villain and if there’s one thing a good superhero movie needs, it’s a worthy adversary. A financial success but ultimately an extremely disappointing entry into the MCU, Iron Man 3 actually managed to be worse than the already disappointing Iron Man 2.
8. Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013)
The sequel to Thor is not a bad film, it just is very average. It’s greatest assets are Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, who both perfectly capture their respective roles and have rightfully become fan favourites (Loki is still the best villain we have seen in any Marvel film so far).
Apart from that, the entire supporting cast is in fine form too and it’s only Natalie Portman who lets the team down. Not only does she fail to bring anything interesting to her character, her chemistry with Chris Hemsworth is also severely lacking, which is quite problematic since it’s supposed to be so central to the story arc.
The film did feel bigger than Iron Man 3, which was released a few months earlier, and exploring the different realms made for some interesting changes of scenery but an underdeveloped villain in the form of Malekith and a sometimes overly generic storyline and pretty silly plotting kept this one from reaching its full potential.
Basically pretty similar to the sequel to Iron Man, in that it’s sort of fun but nothing special, Thor: The Dark World is fun while it lasts but ultimately quite forgettable. The film does get special bonus points for that inspired Captain America cameo though. That was amazing and arguably the highlight of the entire movie.
7. Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010)
Just like the sequel to Thor, Iron Man 2 felt like Marvel playing it safe. And whilst they amped up the action, introduced both War Machine and Black Widow and opened up their universe, the overall effect of the movie felt less fresh than its predecessor and more like a set-up movie for The Avengers.
Robert Downey Jr. is the film’s strongest asset and director Favreau actually gave the movie a far more comic book-like feel than its predecessor but an unnecessary convoluted plot and an underdeveloped villain (even though Mickey Rourke is an imposing adversary) kept this one down.
Once again not as bad as the first two entries on this list but just overly safe and therefore just way too average, Iron Man 2 is fun enough for fans but a disappointment when compared to the first Iron Man film, which had kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe in style.
6. Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
The first Thor movie is a bit of a frustrating affair. It lands higher than the previous entries on this list as the first half of the movie is pretty damn great. Director Kenneth Branagh uses his Shakespearean background to great effect when setting up the story and introducing us to the world of Asgard. Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins all shine as the Nordic gods inhabiting this other world, the designs were grand and the first major action set piece, where Thor and his buddies take on the Frost Giants, is fantastic.
On top of that the rivalry between Thor and Loki is very well handled and placed front and centre whilst the film is also infused with a healthy dose of humour. It’s just such a shame that the second half of the movie, when the action moves to earth, is such a disappointing affair.
Set in a little desert town in New Mexico and with a completely underwhelming climax, the movie completely fizzles out as the stakes never seem all that high. It’s so bad that the second half of the movie almost makes one forget about the great stuff that came before it. A real missed opportunity, Thor nonetheless managed to deliver a solid origin story and introduced the audience to the third major Avenger.