For a $4 billion dollar corporate enterprise, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is remarkably endearing. True to form for a property that had been dreamed-up in advance by adolescent boys the world over, this series of big-budget spectacles remains defined by its absence of cynicism, opting to forgo the portentous faux-gravitas of its post-Nolan superhero contemporaries in favor of something generally lighter and more fleet. The result is a loose-knit collection of films that, even at their least successful, are nonetheless easy to like; it’s hard to imagine such a trifle ever feeling like even a bit of a slog.
This weekend’s release of the latest addition to the ongoing franchise, “Iron Man 3”, officially kicks off what’s known as the fictional Universe’s “Phase 2”. In honor of the new beginning, we’ve rounded up the films in the first phase and have ranked them in ascending order of awesomeness.
7. “Iron Man 2”
Perhaps the only outright bad film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date—thankfully this canon does not include “Daredevil”—“Iron Man 2” remains a strange sort of failure. On paper it seems a guaranteed success: the best qualities of the first “Iron Man” have been ported over faithfully, the cumbersome origin details of its predecessor have been dealt with and are now out of the way, and Jeff Bridges’s somewhat milquetoast villain has been exchanged for Mickey Rourke’s more memorably zany alternative. The problems, then, relate largely to execution: intriguing set-pieces, like a cleverly devised showdown in the middle of a Nascar circuit, are badly paced and dismally choreographed, showing off Jon Favreau’s worst qualities as a director. And because this sequel emphasizes action over laughs, Favreau is at a film-long disadvantage, straining to deliver a level of spectacle to which he clearly isn’t suited.
6. “The Incredible Hulk”
Certainly the most disposable episode of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and not only for the fact that Edward Norton didn't return for "The Avengers"), "The Incredible Hulk" is nevertheless lean and mean enough to avoid the dubious distinction of being the worst film of Phase One. Norton brings a volatility to the role of Bruce Banner that no other actor has been able to match, and – during the film's opening chapters – director Louis Leterrier capably exposed the favelas of Rio de Janeiro as a ripe and dynamic setting for blockbuster action (this before "Fast Five" got hip to the idea). Unfortunately, Leterrier failed to translate his lead character's storied pathos into anything beyond the obvious, and the set-pieces – particularly that incoherent final battle outside of The Apollo – were forgettable at best, and boring at worst.
5. “Iron Man”
Weirdly enough, Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3” is so good that it actually makes the first “Iron Man” look worse: what once seemed a potent combination of blithe humor and big-budget action—a particular trait a colleague has dubbed “wise-craction”—now looks a bit muted compared to the funnier gags and better-conceived set pieces of the latest and greatest Marvel spectacle. Nevertheless, there’s still much to admire about “Iron Man”, especially as always-awkward origin stories go. Robert Downey Jr. is still the principal draw, and rightly so: he walks the fine line of the likeable asshole so adroitly that he makes a personal brand look like a science, dropping tossed-off zingers without an air of action-flick cliche.
4. “The Avengers”
Joss Whedon’s much-beloved ensemble blockbuster does indeed have casual charm and irreverence to spare, but at nearly a year’s remove the film’s blemishes have become more apparent: the lack of balance between the powers of its central players (where nigh-invincible Nordic gods brush shoulders with ordinary humans wielding pistols) makes some of the group-fight stuff feel conceptually uneven; the two-setpiece structure is a bit unwieldy, especially in terms of pacing; Jeremy Renner is painfully dull. In any case, Whedon’s knack for feelgood action and fan-satisfying nerdiness are put to good use in what remains, frankly, a best-case-scenario for a project so inflated and anticipated, and it’s probably a credit to the distinctiveness of his style that a 220 million dollar blockbuster still feels wholly his own.
Though much-maligned upon release, Kenneth Branagh's “Thor” looks much more appealing with the privilege of hindsight. The key to appreciating what Branagh is up to is recognize the film’s thinly veiled theatrical qualities: through the Asgard sequences, especially, “Thor” pretty obviously resembles one of Branagh’s vaunted stage productions, as though he’d assembled a superhero team of classically trained actors—between Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Colm Feore and Idris Elba there’s more raw acting talent than in any of the other Marvel casts combined—to put on an expense show of interdimensional Shakespeare. Less successful, of course, is the film’s handling of Thor’s exile on Earth, which amounts to little more than Encino Man with hipster chicks. Would that it were a space opera all the way through.
2. “Captain America: The First Avenger”
A frail, dweebish all-American boy is barred from his true army calling by his asthma and a host of other ailments, only to fall upon glory through nobility and sheer force of will. That’s right: it’s Preston Sturges’s “Hail The Conquering Hero”. That one of the most delightful screwball comedies of the 1940s would serve as a touchstone for a multi-million dollar Captain America blockbuster is a testament to the gleefully old-school sensibility of its underappreciated auteur, Joe Johnston, whose career-long predilection for nostalgia began with his work as an effects artist on “Star Wars”. Johnston’s indulgence in sumptuous period detail is certainly a highlight, but perhaps the most appealing quality of “Captain America” is its earnestness: unlike the exaggeratedly smarmy playboy humor of the “Iron Man” films, “Captain America” is characterized by its unabashedly wide-eyed and winsome style, as fun to watch as it is totally dorky.
1.) “Iron Man Three”
It’s to Marvel’s immense credit that, as their Cinematic Universe has continued to expand, they’ve hired directors with genuine signatures rather than the expected assembly of hacks who will bend to their will. Joss Whedon may not quite qualify as a proven “auteur,” but his brand is unmistakable, and impossible to divorce from his work (as “Much Ado About Nothing” will surely illustrate, not even William Shakespeare can silence Whedon’s voice). It’s much the same with Shane Black, whose snark and shipyards defined a generation (or two?) of Hollywood action movies, and whose most recent directorial effort – the infiitely quotable “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” – proved that he has no interest in deviating from what he does best. In hiring Black to helm a film the size of “Iron Man Three,” a movie that’s success was never going to be judged by box office tallies alone, but also how it set up the next multi-billion-dollar chapter in an unprecedented ongoing cinematic experiment, Marvel was obviously making a bold choice.
Damn, did it ever pay off. “Iron Man Three” represents a brilliant synthesis between the mandates of a Marvel movie and Black’s immutable personality, a mega-budget throwback to the action cinema of the late 80s and early 90s that manages to successfully transition the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a post-Avengers era while simultneously providing the best possible version of “Lethal Weapon 5.”