Ranking the (Modern) Marvel Movies

Yeah, so on Twitter today I posted this ranking for the (Modern) Marvel movies:

And that list deserves some unpacking, so I'm going to unpack it.  First, the assumptions:

  • I have excluded the properties developed by non-Marvel studios.  All of them fall below the Hulk in this ranking anyway.
  • I have included the Ed Norton Hulk only because it is the last pre-Disney Marvel Movie.
  • I think this is a great topic for discussion but I don't think you can change my rankings on this list by more than +/- 1 for any movie without really missing the point.

OK, so that said, let's unpack in reverse order:

13. Ed Norton Hulk: Honestly, it's the best comic book movie up to the point it was made, but by the standards we have today it's a very bad flop.  The two biggest reasons it flops are (A) special effects, and (B) Ed Norton as Bruce Banner.  Norton in this movie is just a version of Norton's character in Rounders (which may be Norton's only trope), and he's not really very Bruce Banner-y.  Maybe that's the director's fault; maybe that's his fault.  Maybe it's the casting director's fault who cast him because he "looks like" Bruce Banner. Also, CGI was not ready for prime time, and this movies suffers greatly for it.  But the one thing this movie is clearly trying to do is to establish the "Marvel Formula" for superhero movies, and we have to give it props for that.  It makes the list at the bottom, but I would propose that none of the other movies on this list had a chance at all until/unless this movie tried to work out how Marvel Comic translate into Marvel Movies - more so than Iron Man 1, even though that was the first movie to succeed at delivering the Marvel movie formula.

12 + 11. The Thor Movies: OK, without the Thor movies, we don't have Hiddleston or Hemsworth, and without them we don't have the first Avengers movie.  They delivered something the Marvel Universe needed, and these movies were entirely serviceable as such. I also enjoyed much the visual effects in these movies as I am a fan of the Kirby-esque version of Asgard, and I think we mostly saw that in these movies.  But: nobody is dying for the third Thor movie.  The epic tale (which is what Thor comics thrive on) is out of vogue in movie-making.  This is testified to by the adverse fan reaction to the newest Superman movies: Man of Steel was Epic SciFi, and fans are not amused.  I'm not sure I share all the aversion, but these movies are simply not epic enough to deliver space-spanning awe and wonder toward the Realm Eternal.  They are good movies.  They are not Great movies.  Fingers crossed for Thor 3, I guess.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy: My huge bias here is that I'm an old-school Guardians fan.  I'm a Vance Astro guy; I'm a Starhawk guy.  The modern Guardians is dumbed down for my tastes, and this movie is dumbed down in a huge way from other Marvel movies in that it relies on cussing as "funny" dialog.  However, it is better than the Thor movies for a couple of reasons, not the least of which are the soundtrack (which is used as a kind of narrator) and the clever remix of the antihero type in almost all of the main characters.  This movie is better than Deadpool by a lot, and it does what Deadpool really wanted to do -- which is to create sympathetic and funny antiheroes to off-set the semi-seriousness of the Avengers cycle of movies.

9. Avengers 2: Rather than beat this movie up, let me say this: Cap 3 is everything that Avengers 2 ought to have been.  Avengers 2 is proof that Joss Whedon was not the reason Avengers 1 was a great movie.  And the great shame of it is that it wasted Ultron in a spectacular way.  But: there would not be a Cap 3 without Avengers 2, so it can't be all bad.  It is still a very watchable film.

8, 7, 6. the Iron Man films: I have no doubt that my ranking these films here in the middle of the pack rubs a lot of people the wrong way, and that my order of their ranking is utterly out of step with the common comics nerd.  But I can completely justify my ranking with one question: in which movie does Tony Stark make the most progress as a character?  That is to say, which story actually means the most in the audience understanding who Tony really is?  IM1 is where he makes the least progress even though it is necessary to get him in the suit and under the arc reactor.  IM3 is simply closing the loop on open plot points (albeit in a very satisfying way).  IM2 is the movie in which we really get to know something about Tony and why he is the way he is (toward Pepper, toward the world), and that makes this movie the most interesting of the 3.

5. Ant Man:  I think someplace I ranked this movie above Avengers 1, and I'm not sure that evaluation holds up.  I think it deserves a place in the top 5 Marvel movies because it gets so many things right, from the nostalgia for Hank Pym's Ant Man to the sort of lovable rogue we get in Scott Lang.  It has a great tone, and I love it that it's a caper movie as opposed to something way out of line for the scope and scale of Ant Man's powers and also the sort of guy we have in Scott Lang.  I like that this movie is really a movie about how families work and how fathers love.  I like it that it ends with the ant staying giant-sized.  This isn't a serious movie at all but it is pretty serious movie-making, and it deserves to be up above the movies we already covered.

4. Captain America 1: let's be honest - a lot of people would put this movie way farther down the list for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that they don't understand that it is a costume drama -- a period piece paying homage to WWII-era movies and movie-making, as well as to the comics of the day which were from a much simpler time.  The point of this movie is that it ought to be more like a 1950's Disney movie (like Davy Crockett) -- until the very end where Steve finds himself in Times Square in 2011, and very literally the dream is over.  I mean: he literally wakes up and discovers that he isn't in that old world anymore where love sacrifices everything for others, and the Marvel Universe as we know it where he arrives.  This is a really great movie that gets better every time you watch it -- unless you don't understand it at all.

3. Avengers 1: we really can't deny that this movie set a very high watermark for the Marvel Movies in spite of my criticism of Whedon's less-spectacular outing in Age of Ultron.  It did a great job of Assembling the Avengers; it had a lot of balance and some really great beats.  My son and I watch it and we always say every time: this next scene is great.  It's as good as a movie about a team coming together for one specific reason can be, and for that it deserves to be in the top 3.

2. Captain America 3: As I said above, this is actually the better Avengers sequel, right?  This is the one where all sorts of things comics fans are dying to see happen, but unlike Avengers 1 and 2, it is character driven, not a just a string of tropes.  For a full-length review, see my Rotten Tomatoes review of it.

1. Captain America 2: Well, of course a Cap movie is going to sit in my #1 slot, so don't act surprised.  Here's the thing: Iron Man 1 demonstrated that a comic book movie could be a good action movie if you spent enough money on it.  If you cast RDJ against Jeff Bridges, and you write their dialog in a competent way, you are going to get a winner.  Cap 2 did something that the other movies had not tried yet: it tried to be a genuine thriller in the same mould as the Bourne Identity or The Day of the Jackal.  And: it succeed in a way nobody expected (except maybe the Russos).  Everything about this movie works, and it really does break out from being a "merely" formula movie into being something so much better.

That said, the floor is open.  Feel free to post your own list, but be prepared to defend it.


Jon Swerens said...

Another wonderful aspect of Cap America 2: Steve and Nat turned it into a true buddy movie. How lazy and conventional it would have been for romantic sparks to fly between the two — well, beyond the normal flirty teasing Black Widow does to throw people off. That true friendship non-romantic chemistry made everything around them click.

LeeC said...

I should have known you are one of two people I know who "gets" Cap 1. It's an amazing, and very underappreciated work IMHO.

Justin Orman said...

Iron Man 2-3 way too high. Thor 1 and Guardians too low. Appreciate seeing Cap 1 and Ant Man being given their due, though.

Frank Turk said...

You should list some reasons to change my mind, Justin. I'd love to know why IM3 is not far better than GotG or Thor 1.

Justin Orman said...

Full disclosure: My personal rankings -

Captain America 2
Guardians of the Galaxy
Captain America
Ant Man
Iron Man
Avengers 2
Thor 2
Iron Man 3
Iron Man 2

Seeing Cap 2 today. Wasn't able to over the weekend.

The strength of the Iron Man sequels is that they relate significantly to the universe as a whole. The weakness of them is that, imo, the story suffers from way too much going on. Too many robots, and uninteresting villains. And while I liked Tony and Iron Man in film 1 and Avengers, Iron Man essentially bored me in Iron Man 2-3. I watched both one time and have no particular desire to see either again. While Tony progresses as a character, the same can be said about Thor in Thor 1.

I would put both of them (in either order), right above Hulk. While I get that Thor isn't as 'big' as some of the other films, I really dig the shift between Asgard and New Mexico(?). Thor's growth throughout the movie and a solid (albeit restrained) plot easily knocks it over the Iron Man movies for me. Guardians has little to do with anything else in the series so far (aside from Thanos and the orb), but it's old school Star Wars (and a trace of Firefly) with and 80's soundtrack. The characters and story are, imo, as good as just about anything in the series.

Thor 2 over Iron Man 2-3 is just a matter of taste, I suppose (call it the Zachary Levi effect, if you want). I'll allow Iron Man 2-3 are more important films for setting up the Avengers, I just didn't care for them particularly.

Justin Orman said...

Correction: Seeing Cap *3* today. Unranked currently.

Frank Turk said...

Hi Justin - you're watching these movies in a different way than I am which is just fine. Your approach is a lot more passive than mine. As a way to enjoy a movie, that's not anything anyone should get right with God about, but I think it makes your enjoyment as a member of the audience occur only at the lowest possible level

The strange thing, I think, is that most people watch movies that way, which means that movies are made to really spoon-feed to viewer. These movies have some of that, but they have more than that as well.

I think your thoughts are good ones from your perspective.

x said...

When you say non Marvel studios movies - are you including the X-Men movies?