6. Black Panther (2018)
This movie came out only a few months ago and immediately sealed its place in the pantheon of the greatest comic book movies ever. Ryan Coogler is one of the best young directors today and he sealed that here. It’s a movie that is big and bold and perfectly fitting within the MCU.
It’s a thematically rich movie where every element works within that theme. The casting is perfect and has maybe the best villain in Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. A villain who isn’t wrong, but who is so misguided in the ways he goes about them. Chadwick Boseman already proved himself great in “Civil War” and doesn’t falter here.
The visuals are amazing, and the world building of Wakanda is great. The Afro-futurism gives the movie a rich and unique tangibility. On every level, this movie works. And Coogler continues the arc started in “Civil War” with T’Challa and his continued desire to be better and learn to work with others to make the world better, especially considering that he stopped himself from doing something not too dissimilar as his father did. At this point in the list, we’re basically at a moment where these movies could be interchangeable on a given day or based on who you are.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
James Gunn came in with this gang of supremely unknown characters and made a pop masterpiece. This lovable gang of weirdos are so watchable. The movie is fun as hell, throwing us into this immensely weird and colorful cosmic side of the Marvel world.
The only weak links in the movie is the tying in to the MCU, and the Ronan stuff with Thanos. It makes it hard to take any interest in Ronan as he just becomes a bland henchman type to a bigger threat and it takes away from our lovable a-holes. Everyone is perfect here in their roles as the Guardians.
Aside from the humor and the really good action is how nakedly emotional the movie is. It’s clearly about decent at heart, but with fundamentally broken individuals coming together to form the family they never had or lost. So by the end when they take off into space as a familial unit, we are just as happy and emotional as they are. Gunn proved himself to be one of the best talents in the MCU with his first trip at bat, and would only go on to prove that even further with his next outing.
4. The Avengers (2012)
The moment it all clicked into place. The (accidental) promise made in “Iron Man” built to this moment and thanks to Joss Whedon’s magic touch, he pulled it all together to make one of the best blockbusters of all time. It’s so watchable and the final third of the movie is one of the best action set pieces ever. It’s the first time we got truly grand comic book action. Seeing all these heroes thrown together and interacting in a big battle against an unwavering horde of aliens was a treat. It’s like a comic book come to life.
The first act getting all the Avengers together may be a little rough, but it gets the job done and then we can get into it. Loki being the bad guy makes sense here based on the past movies, and making him a clown works better than making Ultron a clown. If only because Loki isn’t a clown so much as that every single Avenger gets a moment to just lay into him.
At its heart, the story is simple, but in that simplicity we are given the treat of some of the most pure comic book interactions. It just pops and never stops being watchable. Anyone who likes these kinds of movies can’t say they didn’t love the fight between Thor and Iron Man in the woods, or the helicarrier battle where we get our first peek at the Hulk, or “I’m Always Angry,” or the moment when Iron Man goes through a wormhole with a nuke.
It’s just powerful stuff and without it, the MCU might not have made it past Phase One so easily. Because we kind of forget how Phase One doesn’t add up too well because it wasn’t really planned until after the massive success of “Iron Man,” so Whedon had to streamline and make all of these disparate elements congeal into something workable. And he did. Six years later, Whedon’s touch is still evident.
3. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The grand promise of Thanos coming for Earth has arrived, and somehow these wonderful men at Marvel managed to not disappoint. Mainly because they made the smart move with a movie featuring roughly 500 heroes to make the main character the villain.
Thanos needed to be the villain because they needed to make him a character after building him up all this time. He couldn’t be another bland Marvel villain that just wants to destroy things for reasons. They made Thanos a compelling character in his own right, a contender for best villain, not just in the MCU but in the entirety of blockbuster cinema. Mainly because you understand why he’s doing what he’s doing and you kinda get it.
Like Killmonger, he isn’t necessarily wrong, but goes about it in such a destructive and wrongheaded way. You kind of can’t argue with him because to himself, he’s the hero and his logic is “sound.”
No one else here really has an arc, as we already know all these heroes and can just throw them into a situation that’s been building for some time. One of the big themes in this movie is how their differences have separated them and made it even easier for Thanos to achieve his goals. These characters are all heroes because they won’t give a life to save a life.
All life is equal. But that’s a harder ideology than Thanos’ and it splinters the MCU. So much so that by the end, the heroes are so spread out and not on the same page that Thanos wins. He gets all the stones, snaps his fingers, and wipes out half the population of the universe. Because Thanos is driven and won’t let a measly thing like the life of the only person he loves, his daughter Gamora, get in the way. To Thanos, a life is an easy thing to waste.
The Russos may not have lit my world aflame with their Captain America movies, but this time out they came to play. And holy crap is this movie relentless. It starts at level 11 and just keeps getting crazier. It’s nonstop. How they were able to keep the pace up and diversify the action so it never gets old or boring is an achievement.
How they were able to logically justify how all of these heroes are in the story and their places within. How they were able to play for blood and never wimp out and kill their darlings. Some may criticize the movie for being impenetrable to the uninitiated, but that’s a bit silly for the 19th entry in a massive franchise, especially one that is supposed to be the grand culmination of the whole thing.
There’s a criticism going around stating that there’s no weight to the ending because we all know the dead will be brought back since the gauntlet can do anything, and that this movie is not it’s own movie, just one half of a bigger story. Which is kind of silly for multiple reasons.
The movie clearly can work on its own. If they just decided to not make a sequel, it would work. Thanos had a goal and he achieved it. It is a complete picture. And the no stakes thing? Absolute nonsense, as the movie literally shows us the stakes. If they don’t succeed in getting the gauntlet, Thanos will kill them and everyone will still be dead. It’s the first time death has entered the equation and the heroes don’t know what to do.
This is Marvel’s Empire Strikes Back. We end on a down note, with the heroes on the ropes with no hope in sight. It’s a brilliant movie and one that gives comic fans what they want that works as a movie.
2. Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
James Gunn came back and delivered a masterpiece. Gone are any of the weaknesses of the first one and all of the strengths are back even stronger. The raw, naked emotion is back with an even stronger bite this time.
This is a big, bold, colorful, fun blockbuster about the weight of parental abuse. How the broken children of horrid parents deal with their trauma, and how that trauma can bond them together to make a unit stronger than they could have thought. He managed to make a movie about how Ego is a killer and made the villain of the movie a sentient celestial planet named Ego. That’s how strong this movie is and how smart a writer/director Gunn is.
Everything adds up and works to strengthen the themes within. It’s got a killer performance by Kurt Russell as the ultimate deadbeat dad, continuing his career-long trend of using his rugged good looks to subvert them. You get sucked into his graces like Quill and are betrayed when he reveals how monstrous he really is. The movie got some flack for splitting the crew up, but it’s a smart move by Gunn.
We already saw them come together in the first one and saw how they were fracturing a bit in the beginning. Splitting them up and forcing them to confront their traumas separate from each other makes their connections even stronger. So much so that when they all come back together to save Quill from his own abusive father, it is all the more stronger. Absence makes the heart go stronger and the like.
It also can’t be said enough how funny the movie is. Every moment is filled with killer lines and moments. But Gunn never loses sight of how heavy narrative is and that balance is key to making this arguably the best of the bunch.
It’s a weird movie, operating on its own wavelength and showing no need to play by the MCU’s strict playbook. Any movie that can end with a CGI raccoon crying as he realizes that he is loved and he loves back and there may be a God in this crazy universe and that scene works? That’s a masterpiece.
1. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Shane Black is one of Hollywood’s greatest treasures. He is a masterful writer and understands genre filmmaking on a molecular level. He takes big risks with his movies and doesn’t care if he alienates people wanting the same old stuff. So it’s kind of not surprising that this movie alienated people. His risk of stripping Stark down to his own wits and keeping the armor away from him for the majority of the movie is brilliant.
As was the decision to surprise all of us with the goddamn genius Mandarin twist. A twist that isn’t for twist’s sake, as it is a metatextual dig at both the problematic nature of the Mandarin character, who is simply a white creator’s creation used to other Asian people and use that otherness to scare whites, while also saying that Marvel itself has a tradition of using a name of a villain but not actually translating that character to the screen. And best of all, he’s not really the Mandarin so they could still theoretically use him. He didn’t destroy the character like some less attentive viewers believe.
The movie is funny as hell, as Black as want to do, with his usual dark humor permeating the affair in perfect tandem with Downey Jr. Their past affiliation with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” helped this movie greatly.
And on a narrative level, this movie is perfect. Reckoning with what happened in “The Avengers,” and with the egotistical Stark realizing that he isn’t the best thing in the world and there is more out there than him and how he had to learn to sacrifice himself for the greater good instead of figuring out a way to cheat death, riddling him with PTSD is great.
Tony has to come to terms with what happened and who he is. Has to learn how to stop hiding behind his neverending suits of armor. So stripping him down and forcing him to fight a threat with just his wits helps him come to terms with his issues.
And that the bad guy isn’t some brown guy in “weird” clothes but is a crappy white businessman in a suit trying to sow international discord by faking terrorist acts and to profit off the war on terror is a more potent sociological point than anything in the empty Captain America sequels. Again, it’s a villain that mirrors Tony, albeit in a much more interesting way than Whiplash was.
And it has the best action in any Iron Man movie by a long stretch and maybe the best in any solo outing. The attack on Tony’s home, the plane sequence, the final battle with Tony leaping between all the suits in the midst of a fight with all the Extremis soldiers.
Black made the leap to big budget filmmaking with ease and made, arguably, the best movie in the whole endeavor if you’re able to watch the movie on its own terms and not some misbegotten idea of what it “should have been.”
Author Bio: Tom Lorenzo is from Long Island, he’s NY’s most preeminent pop culture fanatic. If it’s a western or a horror movie, he wants to see it. No argument is too minuscule or flawed for him to go full force with.