Hello! The Marvel Cinematic Universe now number 12 movies, verging from great to the passable. While Captain America: Civil War has met with almost universal critical acclaim, I think it’s useful to look at the other movies in the MCU that deserve praise – so without further ado, here’s my top 5 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
5. Iron Man 3
(Directed by Shane Black, written by Drew Pearce and Shane Black, starring Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley)
What’s it about?
After the events of The Avengers, Tony deals with the terrorist threat of the Mandarin and the Ten Rings. Meanwhile, he is forced to confront his own inner demons as his PTSD after the Battle of New York gives him panic attacks and leads him to obsess over the Iron Man, secluding himself from his friends and loved ones. When all his wealth and technology is stripped away from him, Tony must ask himself the question: when you take away the money and the armour, what can Tony Stark do?
Why is it good?
After The Avengers blew the roof off of people’s expectations for superhero movies, Iron Man 3 had a lot of pressure to deal with. Did it beat them? Well, that’s up to the viewer, but I think that Iron Man 3 is a fantastic movie. Directed by Shane Black, it presents a witty and character-focused take on Iron Man that feels different from Jon Favreau’s films while still perfectly in line with the character.
While the film gathered controversy on release due to a certain plot element, I found it really enjoyable. The action is clear, dynamic and well-directed, with the climactic fight at the end being a cathartic treat for any lover of the Iron Man suit. The humour ups the ante from any Phase 1 film – the quips fly as much as ever, but there’s the dry buddy-cop tone that Shane Black excels at thrown into the mix too. It also offers a much-needed breather (by Marvel standards) after The Avengers, keeping the focus on Tony’s character and inner demons. Iron Man 3 is certainly my favourite Christmas movie, offering heartwarming and touching moments aplenty.
Is it perfect? No. The heartwarming moments come off a bit cliché in places, the villain is underwhelming and it wastes a few characters with great potential. However, Iron Man 3 is funny, enjoyable and heartwarming and a great way for Marvel to launch their more introspective Phase 2.
4. Iron Man
(Directed by Jon Favreau, written by Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, starring Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges)
What’s it about?
Billionaire weapons dealer and futurist genius Tony Stark is captured by Middle Eastern militants, and forced to come to terms with his weapons falling into the wrong hand. He creates a high-tech suit of armour and breaks out, vowing never to build another weapon. As Tony upgrades the armour further, he faces corporate intrigue and betrayals. Can Tony deal with how his armour has changed the world?
Why is it good?
Iron Man is a fireworks display, the opening riff at a rock concert, an amazing statement of intent for every Marvel movie to come after it. There is a clear line in action-movie history in the last 16 years: those films that came before Iron Man and the MCU, and those that came after. It’s hard to look at it objectively, but here I go:
Iron Man did things with the superhero genre that no movie before had tried. While X-Men achieved success by seizing the Matrix-esque elements of action movies and Spider-Man hewed close-but-not-quite to the comic books, Iron Man is unrepentant comic book action. From the unveiling of the Jericho to the final fight, the movie genuinely looks like it could’ve been lifted from the pages of a comic book. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is iconic, and has practically become the version of the character in every comic since then.
The surprise success story doesn’t hurt matters either. Marvel was forced to hinge their hopes upon a B-list superhero due to financial troubles leading to them selling their A-listers’ rights to FOX and Sony. They took out an 800-million dollar loan with the rights to all of their characters as collateral. And what did they bet their hopes on? A washed-up movie star with a troubled past and a director whose last film was a flop. Everything was pointing to this film failing and it succeeded so well.
The lead actors are incredibly charismatic. Downey Jr. turns in the performance of his career, bringing neurotic energy and flair to the billionaire businessman. Jeff Bridges plays against type with a delightfully hammy performance as Obadiah Stane. The soundtrack by Ramin Djawadi is amazing. The stinger revealing Samuel L. Jackson is actual perfection, throwing open the doors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with aplomb. The directing combines comic-book flair with realism to make a truly astounding movie.
I said that I was going to try and look at Iron Man objectively, and, well… I don’t think I can. But I don’t think it matters anymore. Like Alien and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Iron Man has entered into the action movie Hall of Fame, and it’s damn hard to review a movie that’s gone there.
3. Marvel’s The Avengers
(Directed by Joss Whedon, written by Zak Penn and Joss Whedon, starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner and Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston, oh my!)
What’s it about?
When Thor’s half-brother Loki steals alien technology to conquer the world, S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury activates the Avengers Initiative. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk and SHIELD agents Black Widow and Hawkeye must team up to face threats that none of them could withstand alone. However egos clash between the team almost immediately, leading to one of the movie’s central questions: can the Avengers even work together, let alone save the world?
Why is it good?
How do you review a movie that means so much? If Iron Man is the most Important movie on this article, than Marvel’s The Avengers has to come a close second. After all, it did make an astounding amount of money. And how is that a surprise? Avengers capitalises on not one, not two, but four big superhero brands and franchises and has a ridiculously star-studded cast. Just look at that list up above!
If Iron Man opened the door to joyously comic-style movies, Avengers rips the door off the hinges. This is a gloriously bright, colourful movie that just pops and it knows it. Scenes like Thor attacking Captain America’s shield and the now-infamous pan over the Avengers are shots that know they’re going to be iconic, like splash pages pulled from a comic book. It even borrows tropes from the comics, like ‘superhero fights other superhero over misunderstanding before teaming up’ or ‘helicarrier gets blown up’. For a young comic book geek like the Cathal of 2012, seeing this movie happen and nail it was just incredible.
The cast are, of course, fantastic. Does that even need to be said? They’ve all won so many different awards that it feels unnecessary. Samuel L. Jackson pulls off his most bombastic and best MCU performance yet. Clark Gregg goes out memorably in what may be his last Marvel movie. Everyone has ridiculous amounts of chemistry with everyone else. All the interactions are a joy to watch. I’ve gushed over Joss Whedon’s directing before in this review, but it’s so good. Avengers is just a movie that works on nearly every level with supreme confidence.
And it pulls off this confidence so well. Not with the smug smirk of Age of Ultron or the overcompensating arrogance of Batman v. Superman, but with a wink and a nod to the audience. Avengers knew exactly what the audience wanted, and by god did it deliver.
I apologise for gushing over this movie. It’s not perfect, although it comes close. While most of the Avengers are characterised perfectly, Hawkeye gets the shaft (heh). Maria Hill could also have done with more screen time. However in a movie with this many characters… I can see why they didn’t have time. The only reason this didn’t take the top spot is because the top two go beyond the limits of the superhero genre. Marvel’s The Avengers may not be the best Marvel film, but it’s the perfect superhero film.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
(Directed by Joseph and Anthony Russo, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford)
What’s it about?
Captain America now works as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., but finds adjusting to the modern day difficult. He’s been thrown into a world with a new culture, new technology and morality that only comes in grey. When Nick Fury is almost assassinated by a modern HYDRA, Cap fights bureaucracy and conspiracy to get to the movie’s titular mystery: who is the Winter Soldier? The answer lies through layers of corruption and will throw doubt on everything that Steve Rogers holds dear.
Why is it good?
Before we start this, I should say that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is probably the best-written, best-directed movie on this list. It is a film which not only delivers in both genres it goes for (superhero with a twist of conspiracy spy thriller ala Bourne), but elevates the superhero genre as a whole.
A review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier is by nature less a review than a list of things that works excellently, so let’s go do that.
- It builds on Captain America’s character fantastically. Gone is the happy-go-lucky all-American hero of The First Avenger, replaced by a more world-weary Cap. This makes his idealism and hope shine even brighter in a more morally ambiguous world. While he was faced with some serious trauma in The First Avenger, The Winter Soldier kicks it up a notch by giving him some serious internal conflict that isn’t easily solved. Suddenly, he becomes a serious contester for the title of most interesting Avenger! It also can’t be understated how much the film benefits from keeping the writing team of Markus and McFeely on from The First Avenger. Cap’s development as a character is subtle but feels natural.
- The fight choreography is fantastic. While I can’t list off examples for fear of spoilers, there is a fight scene early on that is probably the best-directed fight scene in a Marvel movie. The Winter Soldier is a standout fighter with some really cool moves, although everyone gets a chance to shine. The action is clear and while it gets a bit of shakycam in some places and a bit too spectacle-driven in others it’s always clear.
- Understandably, Cap needs a new supporting cast in the modern day. However, much to my surprise, he got the best one of any Avenger. Falcon, Nick Fury and Black Widow all become ‘Captain America characters’ in this movie, and Chris Evans shines in his interactions with them.
- In general the cast in this movie is fantastic. Chris Evans delivers his best performance to date as Captain America. Scarlett Johansson does likewise as Black Widow, who gets many more humanising and down-to-earth moments with Steve Rogers. Samuel L. Jackson, as usual, is amazing. Robert Redford was a stellar casting choice. The Winter Soldier also shines, exuding menace and pathos.
- It’s so topical! Like its Bourne influences, The Winter Soldier is driven by heavy questions. How far should the government go in the name of national security? What price should freedom be? If these freedoms and this national security come into conflict, than what happens? Of course these questions are solved with Marvel-style bombast and explosions, but the questions are still posed and it’s left to the viewer to decide what to take home.
- Surprisingly, there isn’t any romantic subplot. For a movie that’s already packed to the gills, it’s great to see that it didn’t feel the need to stuff more in.
- The tone of this movie is perfect. After the quippy Avengers, dry Iron Man 3 and almost self-parodying Thor: The Dark World, people were understandably concerned. Had Marvel evolved a house style of humour, forcing their creators to make every character a quip machine? Thankfully, The Winter Soldier knows when to keep a straight face. It’s gritty and very dark in a lot of places, but like Captain America it never loses the inner optimism that Marvel has.
- This is a movie that uses continuity fantastically. Obviously Black Widow and Nick Fury are characters who showed up in the Iron Man films, but they feel right at home here (if not more so). Characters and themes from the first Captain America film return here and are used quite well. Major events happen that reverberate not just across the Marvel movies but in the nascent Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, redefining the MCU as a whole.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
(Directed by James Gunn, written by James Gunn and Nicole Perlman, starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Dave Bautista and Lee Pace)
What’s it about?
Peter Quill, a space-faring treasure hunter/loser, teams up with a dysfunctional group of extraterrestial rogues and misfits to defeat Ronan the Accuser. Along the way they bicker, fight, and maybe even become heroes.
Why is it good?
Ranking Guardians of the Galaxy above The Winter Soldier was a hard choice. They’re both amazing, genre-bending films. They both stand with Avengers as the best Marvel has to offer. But something about Guardians just made me give it the top spot.
Maybe it’s the film’s charm and charisma? Because this film has oodles of both. As soon as the film starts it pulls you in. The writing, the characters and the actors that play them all are eminently likable. Peter Quill is possibly the most lovable loser I’ve ever seen and Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel managed to become the surprise buddy-comedy hit of 2014. Although all the Guardians are criminals to various degrees, every one is eminently likable and charming in their own way.
Maybe it’s because of the soundtrack? Guardians shows its unique style in how it uses music. It weaves it in and out of the movie, choosing the perfect music for the right time. Not only is it just plain great music, but it also serves a purpose in the story that I won’t spoil but is absolutely fantastic. The way music and visuals combine in the movie leads to one of the few soundtracks where listening to every single track brings back vivid memories of the movie. It’s easily the best use of music in any Marvel movie to date.
Is it the direction? Although Guardians is a triple-A blockbuster movie filled with stars, it feels like an indie movie. You can feel a singular creative vision here, from the direction to the casting to the writing and the music. It doesn’t feel like something that Marvel had to tell James Gunn to rewrite a million times to fit with their plans [hack hack Age of Ultron cough cough Ant-Man], it feels like the movie that he wanted to make. It gives it a refreshing feel-good vibe, and that really helps it stand out amongst the other movies on this list. If Marvel had kept on making Avengers movie after Avengers movie it would’ve been dull, but that they were willing to take such a risk on one man’s superhero-space-opera-comedy vision shows that they still have the same risk-taking spirit that led them to take out that 800-million dollar bond that funded Iron Man.
Or is it some combination of all of the above? The movie just effortlessly fuses its many moving parts into a sometimes gut-bustingly funny, sometimes touching and heartwarming treat for the eyes and ears. It’s a movie that begs to be watched and experienced alone and with others, and a movie that can be watched over and over again. And I guess that’s why I put it at the top of this list; because like Star-Lord himself this movie is scrappy, independent and intensely, insanely likable.
Thanks for reading!