13. Ant-Man (2015)
Hopefully this is the last time Marvel has to deal with the director change-up issue on a movie. Because this movie, while charming enough, is clearly the victim of a movie where there was no clear authorial voice. It’s a movie that was finished more gracefully than “Thor: The Dark World,” but still feels incomplete. Like it was two drafts away from being something really special.
A few more months of pre-production would have given Peyton Reed a little more time to dive deeper into the premise of the characters, but they didn’t, and the movie suffers for it. It has, by far, the worst villain in the entire enterprise.
Corey Stoll is a really good actor and he’s trying so hard to make this character work, but he can’t. He’s horribly written, given the barest of reasons to be a villain and there’s scenes that feel like they were edited in out of order. A lot of the comedy, which this movie focuses more on than action, is not that funny.
Paul Rudd is fine enough in the role of Scott Lang but the writing for him is messy, too. He isn’t allowed to be a screw-up enough, nor is he allowed to be enough of a criminal, nor is he allowed to be heroic enough. He’s stuck in a purgatory that makes him feel like a nonentity.
The only characters here who work are Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, getting really good material to work with and elevating it thanks to their sheer talent. Don’t bring Michael Pena up, as his entire schtick is annoying wannabe Edgar Wright material.
What stops this movie from rising above average is that it just isn’t a complete picture. It doesn’t work completely on any level, the screwed-up production preventing the measures from making it sing from taking place. Like Lang, it’s stuck in a purgatory where it can’t really be any one thing. There’s some really good material with the shrinking powers, but it also feels like it could have used more to juice the proceedings.
12. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The red-headed step child of the MCU, the movie that’s basically been forgotten despite Hulk still being a big part of the Avengers world. That’s due to it falling under the Universal banner and being, like “Iron Man,” a movie made before real plans were in place for the MCU. So it may not add up completely to a movie that works on the same level as the other MCU movies, but it works better as a movie than the first Iron Man.
It’s got a complete feeling to it. There’s a progression to the movie and a clear-cut villain. A villain who is also really fascinating, one of the more under-appreciated in the MCU. Emil Blonsky is a character that works well within this movie, a clear mirror of Bruce Banner. His drive to be a better soldier and his need to turn back the clock drives him to embrace the monstrosity that is the Hulk.
But what’s interesting is that there is a bit of a thematic connection to another MCU movie, “The First Avenger.” In that movie, Dr. Erskine tells Steve Rogers that the super soldier serum just enhances what is already inside a person. So when a watered down and incorrect version of the same drug enters a man as impure as Blonsky, it makes sense that he would fall down a dark hole and allow himself to become the Abomination.
And for how little they’ve acknowledged the movie, it’s important for the Banner. It’s the movie wherein his last-ditch effort to get rid of the Green Idiot fails and he realizes he can guide the Hulk and just maybe control it. It also gives us William Hurt as General Ross, a great performer who does the role justice enough to be brought back in “Civil War.” Edward Norton was a good Banner, but even I’ll admit that they traded up with Mark Ruffalo.
Of all the Phase One movies, it has the best action of the bunch. And it made the smart decision to portray the Hulk as the monster he really is, going for him as the primal beast he is. There’s a ferocity to him. He’s kinda scary. And Whedon would carry that torch in his two Avengers movies. The movie shouldn’t be forgotten. We should appreciate it for the under-loved semi-gem it is.
11. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
They got Spidey right. No matter what can be said about this movie, the prevailing opinion is they finally got the web head right. And rightfully so. Despite all the hand-wringing about three Spideys in 15 years, there was a reason people were excited that Marvel got Spider-Man back, and it was because they knew the balance would be met.
Tobey Maguire got the Parker aspects down but whiffed a bit when he’s in the suit, whereas Andrew Garfield felt like Spidey in the suit but whiffed it categorically as Parker. Tom Holland showed up in “Civil War” and nailed it, so his own outing was bound to be a fun time for all. Even for a non-Spidey fan like myself.
And the movie is just that. It’s fun. As Marvel does, they got the characters and the interactions just right. They go with a high school movie feel for this one and it’s a smart play. No global stakes, just a kid trying to be a hero and having to stop a “blue collar” thief. It’s a fun ride and an easy watch. But as has plagued some of these Marvel movies, the micro is great but the macro is weak. The narrative at play here with the Vulture is not great.
The idea in and of itself isn’t bad, and utilizing the whole shared universe thing to have a thief steal the remnants of all the crap they’ve gone through thus far and selling them on the black market is a good idea. But the execution is off.
Vulture is introduced as a 60 plus year old construction boss who just decides to be a super criminal. Maybe if we spent more time with him breaking bad, it would work, but we don’t and it doesn’t. Because you throw some bootleg Falcon wings on him and all of a sudden he’s one of the baddest men around. He can go toe to toe with a superpowered hero without breaking a sweat, his AARP riddled reflexes being lighting fast enough to fight Spidey and conduct some sweet ole trick shots with his super weapons while flying at jet speeds. Keaton is great in the role but the writing for Vulture is weak.
And it has to be said, but Peter’s arc here is weird. He wants to be an Avenger and he is taken down a peg, but when push comes to shove, he decides not to be an Avenger. It feels a little half-assed and kind of cynical. Especially when “Infinity War” comes out and Stark knights Peter into the Avengers and Peter is super happy about it.
But again, Stark comes out of this movie like the winner. His continued presence in the MCU and his growth is great. Learning all the hard lessons thus far and trying to impart some hard-won wisdom onto the next generation of superheroism is great. His father figure placement in Peter’s life is great and Downey Jr. sells it.
Maybe the most egregious of all the movie’s sins is how awful the action is. It is so unappealing and shot so blandly that you really have to wonder how late in the game they realized they had to put action in the movie. It starts out fine enough, but you get the distinct impression early on that there will be nothing as awe inspiring as Sam Raimi’s action sequences or even the airport sequence in “Civil War.”
And it only gets less and less interesting as the movie progresses, to the point that the final action sequence is just an impenetrable barrage of special effects. It’s absolute nonsense and maybe the worst action sequence in the whole of the MCU. But the strength of the characters and the charm elevates this movie so much higher than it almost has any right to be.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
For the longest time, this was such an disrespected movie in the MCU, especially as the wannabe intellectual sequels came along. But the dirty little secret of the MCU is that this is easily the best movie in Phase One and is the Captain America movie we need. Here Cap is an actual character and not a walking ideology. The acting is great all around and there is genuine emotion abound. The relationship between Steve and Dr. Erskine is surprisingly engaging in the short amount of time it’s on screen.
The highlight, of course, is Steve and Peggy, a relationship for the ages that “Civil War” just trampled on. Peggy is such a rich character that they gave her two seasons of a show on ABC, cut down way too shortly so ABC can keep pumping out the walking incarnations of mediocrity that is “Agents of SHIELD,” and the worst comic book property of all the companies with Inhumans.
The visual style of the movie is great too, as it gives a real heightened period piece feel. Which is maybe the best element of the movie. Of all the Phase One movies, it’s the first to feel like a living comic book. It’s so colorful and fun and thrilling. Red Skull may not be the greatest villain in the world, but Hugo Weaving makes him fun as hell.
The cast all around is great. It has the best Captain America moment in the whole MCU, which is him diving on the grenade. It’s a really good movie that should get more love than it does, but doesn’t because it isn’t grimly dark enough or “deep” enough.
9. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The best of the Thor movies by an absurd margin. This is the most purely fun movie in the MCU. That’s because it almost plays like a parody of MCU movies, with Taika Waititi taking the reins and shoving 10 pounds of humor into a five pound bag.
The movie is colorful and breezy and exciting. It’s got a brain on its shoulders too, tackling the idea of colonialism and the sins of the past weighing on the present with Hela’s arrival. Hela suffers a bit from the MCU problem of not being given enough time to breathe, but Blanchett gives her enough verve to make her stand above most.
What’s sad to say about this movie though is that it is so focused on being funny that it whiffs it on the dramatic moments. Much happens in this movie that is heavy and has repercussions on Thor and the MCU, but the movie is so dedicated to undercutting itself every two minutes that it all ends up feeling weightless. Which is a shame, because if it could have nailed the tonal balance that James Gunn perfected in his Guardians movies, this could have been an all-timer.
What becomes even more unfortunate is that “Infinity War” almost immediately renders this movie kind of pointless and more like a weird tonal outlier. But the movie is so successfully funny and entertaining that you can’t help but love it.
8. Doctor Strange (2016)
The best pure origin story in the MCU and it’s thanks to a clear vision from Scott Derrickson. Derrickson has proven himself to be a talented filmmaker in search of the right story to unlock the potential in himself that shoddy producers have stifled before. And here, as a spiritual man, he found his story. A story about a man who is not unlike Tony Stark but one who has a spiritual awakening and finds his purpose in life that goes beyond himself.
Benedict Cumberbatch is great as Strange, the immensely self-important surgeon who is broken down and builds himself back up. You believe his journey. The movie may start in a rote fashion, but it has to set up a familiar archetype to then break that down by putting it through the ringer in a different way than Stark. By the end, Strange is no longer like Stark. He is truly changed. It’s tackling of the spiritual world is great, giving the movie a flavor all its own.
And Derrickson brings a genuinely awe-inspiring visual splendor to the movie. The head-tripping visuals on display as Strange traverses the magic world. Cities folding in on themselves as Strange and Mordo fight a gang of Dormammu acolytes is thrilling and brilliantly executed. It’s some of the best action in the MCU and it’s not really brought up in conversations. Maybe the most brilliant aspect of the entire movie is how it handles it’s climax.
At first you get a kind of sinking feeling in your stomach at the thought of another climax with a bright light in the sky destroying a city. But then the movie subverts all expectations and has Strange turn back time and have the city rebuild itself while he fights off the bad guys, as he then proceeds to allow himself to be killed over and over again in a time loop to drive Dormammu so nuts that he gives up his invasion of Earth.
This really sets up who Strange is as a character. He’s not the self-aggrandizing brawler. He’s a man of spirit and of mind. It’s a great movie and it may suffer a little bit from origin story oversaturation, but it overcomes those issues to make one hell of a ride.
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Another movie that is unjustly criticized because it’s a much more ambitious, albeit sloppy, movie than its progenitor. Joss Whedon just knows how to write a movie. He is just so great at writing a big cast of characters, bouncing them off each other and letting the sparks fly.
Ultron himself is probably the weakest aspect of the movie, coming off a little too clownish to be taken seriously. But James Spader is amazing in the role, so magnetic that you can’t help but watch the robotic lug. The leap in Whedon’s directorial abilities is huge, making a bigger and better looking movie than the one prior.
Once again we get a great movie for Stark, hinging the whole enterprise on his PTSD-driven need to make the world safe and his hubris causing the problems they must face. A controversial element for people too bored by life to engage with the movie they’re watching is the relationship with Bruce and Natasha, but it’s one of the best elements within. The two people in the group who were made against their will and feel like monsters thanks to their pasts. It makes sense they’d get together.
The Maximoff twins are fine, mainly thanks to Aaron Johnson not being a great screen presence in these kinds of movies. Elizabeth Olsen does the lord’s work with Wanda, making her a compelling character and making her turn toward the light side all the most exciting. Hawkeye is given a great little part here as the necessary human element in the gang of larger-than-life persons.
Vision is born here as Tony’s last-ditch effort to fix his mistakes, learning what went wrong with Ultron and doing it better. With a little help from Thor that is. And Vision gets the best scene in the movie, lifting Mjolnir and rallying the team to take the fight to Ultron.
The movie is big and the action is great, but what makes Whedon’s movies work so well is those little character moments like the pre-Ultron party or the sojourn to Hawkeye’s house. He made one of the more enjoyable and ambitious blockbusters in recent memory. I guess ambition is not something fanboys wanted.