Worst to Best
The Marvel
Cinematic Universe

The phenomenal success of Marvel movies in modern cinema is astounding considering its history. TV movies aside, the only live action product the company was putting out before the late eighties was a Captain America serial and a much-derided adaptation of Howard the Duck. In 2018 it's a franchise that is pushing a box office of $15 billion and counting.


by
THE ANORAK
APRIL
2018


With the release of the new Avengers movie, many websites are covering the series and ranking the interconnected "Cinematic Universe" entries. Before you can say "sell out", The Anorak Zone casts its own view on the franchise, with spoilers possible under some entries.

The series is currently available to buy online from Amazon.

UPDATED AUGUST 2018: Now including a ranking of Ant-Man and the Wasp

20 Ant-Man (2015)

Ant-Man has the unfortunate distinction of being one of just two post-Avengers MCU films not to break the top ten box office during its year of release. While Doctor Strange had a respectable haul of just under $678m and was unfortunate to be released in a competitive year, Ant-Man's $519.3m take from a $142m budget saw it as only a moderate hit. It's a shame because, as a quirky heist caper it has a certain appeal, and a lot of the vision of original writers Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish appears to have been retained.
      However, as the twelfth MCU film to be released, the showcase of yet another "origin" story causes it to lack both serious intrigue and, crucially, rewatch value. There's some interesting elements involved, not least the "quantum realm" (microverse for comic readers) that Ant-Man explores, but it's all very by-the-numbers, lacking the true innovation and wonder that such a hero would require. More crucially, even for a comic book movie the characters are two-dimensional, despite the efforts of all involved, while the villain of the piece is pretty much a cardboard cut-out. Edgar Wright leaving the project as director caused some adverse publicity, but the real issue is the one-note villainy on display from Corey Stoll as the underwritten Yellowjacket. It makes the whole venture a comicbook movie in the worst sense of the term, though it's still far from a terrible movie.
      Maybe the ideal solution was not needing to keep Wright as director, but to go with someone truly esoteric; the prospect of a Marvel movie helmed by the likes of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch is as enticing as it is completely unworkable... Marvel Movies are a business, first and foremost, and by 2015 they were heavily invested in playing it safe.

19 Avengers: Age of
Ultron (2015)

The oft-repeated claim that the Marvel Universe movies have weak villains is perhaps somewhat overstated. Certainly, while some of the best Marvel Comics supervillains have appeared in films not actually made by Marvel studios - Magneto, Dr. Octopus and more - there are more than enough decent foes making up the movies, even if, narratively, they do lean more heavily on the heroes. However, this first really comes to light with Age of Ultron, where the titular android, while nearly invulnerable in the comics, poses only an arbitrary threat. It's not entirely his fault, as, despite James Spader's best efforts, the movie never really presents him as a tangible menace, and there's a complacency to events, with even Ultron descending to Josh Whedon's trademark post-modern quipping.
      The humour, which, while giving the films broad appeal, never threatens to be anything but the most basic idea of jokes... a constant stream of meta humour, semi-slapstick and instant reverses, but no real trace of genuine wit. Take, for example, the scene where Thor asks Ultron "is that the best you can do?"... surely only a single cinema goer would have been genuinely surprised by the response. Perhaps the film's only real evidence of a joke above the obvious is Tony talking about reintroducing "prima nocta" on Asgard... which is a deeply disturbing and inappropriate exchange, not suited to a family movie.
      Then there's the fact that Age of Ultron seems so studio mandated. While the first Avengers film intelligently meshes together several different plot strands, Age of Ultron seems there to act as a trailer for future movies. Putting aside the fact that Tony Stark seems to have unlearnt his character's final arc resolution from Iron Man 3, we also get the completely unrelated plot strand of Klaue's introduction, and new heroes who have barely time to make an impact next to the "no mask" egocentric antics of the regulars.
      Aaron Taylor-Johnson does quite well as the character of Quicksilver, but is hindered not only by the shadow of the rights-secured version of the character being more dynamic in two Fox X-Men movies, but also the shadow of his own, more commanding turn as the title character in Kick-Ass. Ultimately the characters are written so thinly in this movie that they make the poorly CGI'd Hulk look three dimensional in comparison. It's a movie that presents an entire city in the sky, but such things fail to engage when the characters aren't presented with realistic emotional responses.
      While Marvel movies are fun and extremely financially rewarding, they can be bland and "easy", an entertainment with little to say. While it's tempting to suggest that such a viewpoint is taking throwaway comicbook characters too seriously, it must be noted that the four-colour comics often had far more depth than their screen counterparts. Yet while this review is highly critical of a movie that remains too pleased with itself, it should also be noted that Age of Ultron is passable, watchable entertainment... albeit nothing that you would be likely to remember once the final popcorn kernel has gone down.

18 Ant-Man and
the Wasp (2018)

Ant-Man and the Wasp is two hours of characters running around and throwing laboured exposition and glib one-liners at one another. Like the original Ant-Man movie, it's watchable fluff, though, like that film, will also probably fail to contain much rewatch value. The core problem is, even in the "happy meal" ethos of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe", the Ant-Man characters are particularly one-dimensional, meaning any attempt at emotional pay-off falls flat, and director Peyton Reed lacks the visual eye to really make the most of the film's potential.
      There's a couple of gay gags in there like it's still the 1980s and, even though the Pez dispenser bit is kind of cute, generally it's a film that doesn't respect its audience with any humour that's not immediately obvious. It's a time-passer with some so-so sequences, but ultimately what shines through a lot of the MCU content is disdain for the audience, a feeling that "it'll do". Ant-Man and the Wasp has been a moderate success for the studio, and will probably clock up around $500m off a sub-$200m budget. While no flop, it's the lowest-grossing film since 2011's Thor... meaning that the sound you hear throughout is not the sound of till registers, but the sound of an audience being patronised.

17 Captain America:
The First Avenger (2011)

Three years into the "Marvel Cinematic Universe", this was the fifth film in the series, but chronologically the first. Probably around 20 minutes too long, it does drag in parts, though contains enough ironic detachment to make its jingoistic concerns palatable. There is, of course, a difference between creating a children's comic book in the 1940s promoting the fight against the Nazis, and creating a mainstream film in 2011 doing the same. One is there to offer children hope in troublesome times, the other can't help but seem something of a trivialisation of a very serious time, making a war that killed over 60 million people the province of costumed superheroes.
      Captain America is one of the least nuanced of the Marvel characters, but has some of the better entries in the movie range. The First Avenger, ropey German accents aside, is by no means a bad effort, though would have been unlikely to have set the "shared universe" alight the way the first Iron Man film did. It's a solid movie - and none of these movies are bad - but ranks low here for being just not as interesting as the films ranked above it.

16 The Incredible
Hulk (2008)

The Incredible Hulk is the forgotten film of the Marvel Universe, actually coming a month after Iron Man, but seeming far longer in history. The main problem with a film featuring the Hulk (including Ang Lee's much-derided and underrated 2003 effort) is that the technology isn't up to a point where the human eye can honestly acknowledge the character as anything other than moving pixels... even almost a decade on, Hulk's appearance in Thor: Ragnarok has to be watched with a squint and a kind heart.
      It's a shame, because both are good movies, despite their technical limitations. Made before the MCU truly evolved into something of an assembly line, there's still a sense of risk here, with some beautiful location shooting in Rio de Janeiro and a colour palette that isn't rendered in a primary sheen. French director Louis Leterrier tries to do something a little more artistic with the character in this underrated film, though, like Lee before him, finds that the character doesn't quite gel with genuine film-making, both in execution and audience appreciation. Iron Man is the better overall film, though outside of the genre moviegoers might prefer Edward Norton's more realistic portrayal instead of Downey Jr.'s brash and showy series of tics and mannerisms.
      There's also the problem that the Hulk is such a well-known character, his superhero "A List" status almost working against him in this endeavour. The mainstream knowledge of the character perhaps comes not from the comic book but from the very successful television series with Bill Bixby... so much so that the entire origin story can be told in a series of brief silent scenes during the opening credits with no further explanation necessary. This is a film so ensured of its audiences' familiarity with the source that a joke around Edward Norton misquoting the TV series' catchphrase is added to the content, along with the series' "Lonely Man" piano theme.
      While an audience might not have wanted another origin story just five years later, and $263,427,551 box office off an $137m movie isn't exactly a flop, this was a film that underwhelmed with theatregoers and is, inflation notwithstanding, the least profitable Marvel movie to date. While it must be acknowledged that it didn't benefit from 3D or modern ticket sales, when The Incredible Hulk was released, the concept of a shared "Marvel Cinematic Universe" that would generate billions of dollars was still an experimental dream, and was by no means guaranteed.

15 Thor: The Dark
World (2013)

The Dark World is one of the most slated of Marvel Movies, seemingly loved by no one, and resulting in a severe change in tone for the follow-up Thor movie. Most vocal about their dislike was Christopher Eccleston, as the forgettable villain, elf Malekith. Even at the time of release he was on record as doing it for the money, but 2018 saw him even more explicit when talking to The Guardian, stating "Just a gun in your mouth [...] I really paid for being a whore."
      While The Dark World is unlikely to top many peoples' list of best Marvel movies - and certainly doesn't here - it's a decent enough timepasser, a watchable fantasy. While Ragnarok went for full comedy in a seemingly desperate attempt to win over audiences, The Dark World has the courage to try for sincerity, along with Tom Hiddleston's always entertaining exploits as Loki. Eccleston has an intensity that doesn't really lend itself to light comic book movies, though the real gimmick here is a climax set in London.
     While the UK has been the shooting location for a vast number of superhero antics (with Shepperton Studios including, to date, half a dozen of the MCU movies) it's rare to see a superhero movie where London plays itself, the comparatively low-key London street making for a left-field choice of action climax. If nothing else, the Thor movies benefit from their relative brevity, their combined 356 minute runtime over fifty minutes shorter than the (admittedly more entertaining) Captain America trilogy.

14 Thor (2011)

There's a certain arbitrary feel to the first Thor movie, a collection of formulaic elements crowbarred into place without any undue drama or urgency. While a fine introductory film for the superhero, it feels more like a chapter to introduce Avengers characters rather than a film in its own right. It would help if the romance between Thor and Jane Foster had any semblance of reality, but it's all buried beneath somewhat obvious humour, making Ragnarok, in hindsight, less out-of-the-ordinary than it first appeared. One of Marvel's more fantastical characters, it seemed as if the producers didn't have faith in bringing the Thunder God to screen without a level of irony, though despite such detractions, the film works well as passable entertainment, a collection of green screen spectacles in search of a true narrative.

1 Next