BY MATT TUCK, BLOGGER SUPREME
FB@The Comic Blog
The Blogger Supreme takes a look at the best MCU films in this week’s Wicked 10.
If you caught last week’s Wicked 10, you may think I detest the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While I won’t turn a blind eye to the MCU’s flaws, the truth is that I love most things Marvel. Whether it’s comics, movies, or shows, I have enjoyed all that Marvel has had to offer since the 1980s. Admittedly, I am critical of Marvel’s recent use of these characters, but that doesn’t make me anti-Marvel. Even in the MCU’s worst moments, there is obvious talent at work behind the scenes. Sometimes, it is more apparent than others.
It is clear that Marvel has an extraordinary cast and crew piecing these stories together. When they’re allowed to tell a proper, dramatic story, those filmmakers can create magic deserving of the MCU’s worldwide following. Here are 10 examples that show what Marvel Studios is capable of delivering.
The first of two comedies on today’s list, Ant-Man succeeded because it was legitimately funny with low fan expectations.
These days, the phrase “fan expectations” is treated like a reviled curse. Anytime you deal with classic, beloved characters, there will ultimately be expectations, and that’s not a bad thing. We want the characters taken seriously and to stay true to what we loved about them in the first place. It can be tricky for popular characters like Captain America and Spider-Man, but when it came to Ant-Man, he didn’t have that many fans in the first place.
When it comes to Marvel’s penchant for the sillier side of comics, it works best when the subject matter doesn’t have legions of fans. It worked for the Guardians of the Galaxy and for Ant-Man. Sure, Ant-Man is a well-known Avenger since day one, but how many diehard Ant-Man fans could you name before the movie? Not many, I wager. That left the filmmakers to work with basically a blank slate, at least for the mainstream audiences. Plus, the name alone is so ‘60s that it’s hard to take it too seriously.
What also worked well for Ant-Man were the supporting characters. Granted, the antagonist, Yellow Jacket, was less than creatively inspired, but Hank Pym and Hope Van Dyne’s troubled father-daughter relationship was at the core of the story. Don’t forget that the original script was co-written by Edgar Wright, the director behind Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World. Although Marvel and Wright parted ways, his influence on the story was sorely missed in the sequel.
9. SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME
Next to Avengers: Endgame, this movie may have had Marvel’s best second halves in its 14-year history. In many aspects, Spider-Man: No Way Home mirrors Endgame. These are both films that narrowly survived their campy first two acts.
I rank Endgame lower because it completely dropped the proverbial ball after the magnificent Infinity War. Thanos, who remains the most intriguing protagonist in all the MCU, was reduced to a background role. In an attempt to lighten the mood of what should have been a dark story, Marvel injected a boring, silly time heist that fell flat. On the other hand, NWH delivered all the hype Marvel had promised from its octane-fueled trailers. Bringing together all three Spider-Men from the live-action movie franchises induced cheers from even the most cynical viewers, including myself.
Where NWH truly succeeded was allowing the franchise to mature. The first half of the movie was the standard nonsense we’ve come to expect after Homecoming and Far From Home. The plot was flimsy at best with dialogue seemingly written for third graders, and Peter’s plucky sidekicks, MJ and Ned, were awkwardly shoehorned into a sequence best left to a bad video game. Then Willem Dafoe saved the day by being the evil Green Goblin we always wanted. He upped the emotional stakes by killing Aunt May, which set the stage for a brilliant finale. Even better, the film seemed to understand the need to correct its mistakes by giving us a self-made hero in Spider-Man.
8. BLACK PANTHER
The first superhero movie to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, what Black Panther represents has exceeded the actual movie. Not only did it signify a new artistic perspective toward superhero films, it also was an achievement to bring to life an African-American superhero who means so much to so many people.
For all intents and purposes, this was a relatively average Marvel film. I appreciated it leaning more toward a serious tone, but the superhero origin story was nothing we hadn’t seen before. Plus, the trendy lines are not aging well, either.
Where the film takes a giant step forward and above much of Marvel’s other ventures is in its antagonist, Killmonger. In the tradition of Magneto, Killmonger is no doubt a villain, but he is a villain with an understandable reason to be angry. He makes a valid point about the ramifications of Wakanda staying hidden while its neighbors were being enslaved. While his methods made him the story’s villain, there’s no arguing that he wasn’t exactly wrong. In the end, his character elevated the film.
7. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
By no means will I call this movie perfect, but it was a solid entry for the MCU. Despite Captain America’s name on the title, this was an Avengers movie. Truth be told, the Sokovia Accords made sense. Superpowers or not, vigilantes administering their own brand of justice regardless of international borders isn’t a good idea. What made this section of the plot interesting was the use of simple logic. While the idea of operating under supervision may have sounded reasonable in theory, the events of Winter Soldier would logically make Cap suspicious of government involvement.
The real trademark of this film was that Iron Man became one of the two antagonists. That forced the audience to choose sides between two fan favorites, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Honestly, who could blame Tony for being angry?
Like most films on today’s list, this was another entry that did something Marvel is shying further away from: taking the subject matter seriously. In general, it was a more mature film that didn’t add an abundance of slapstick comedy or dumb down the dialogue for the 10 and under crowd. Let’s not forget that the Russo Brothers did more with eight total minutes of Spider-Man than Homecoming or Far From Home combined.
6. DOCTOR STRANGE
In some ways, Doctor Strange was the opposite of Black Panther. Where Panther’s villain stole the show and the hero’s journey was rather average, Strange put all its efforts into making the Sorcerer Supreme a dynamic character. That and the magical special effects, particularly those psychedelic shots of the Dark Dimension straight from the ‘60s comics, made this one of Marvel’s top efforts. If only Kaecilius and his followers had been fleshed out, Doctor Strange could have been a contender for the MCU’s best.
One of the film’s strongest features was the performances from its main cast. Benedict Cumberbatch shined in the first act as the narcissistic surgeon who worshipped at the altar of Stephen Strange. Cumberbatch’s early scene with Rachel McAdams in which he vents his anger and frustration at the one person who cares about him felt genuine. Perhaps exceeding that was the Ancient One’s death. Tilda Swinton’s moving speech as she accepted the inevitable and vanished was all too human for an ageless being. Seeing the once egotistical Strange breakdown into tears showed the vulnerability he had so desperately tried to conceal and countered the stereotype of superheroes being made of stone and granite. It accentuated the movie’s ability to take magic and sorcery and bring it down to a relatable experience, which is what raises Doctor Strange so high up the list.
The most underappreciated aspect is the music. Whether it was the understated piano during Stephen’s countless - and ultimately futile - surgeries or his harpsichord theme, it was unique to the world of Doctor Strange. The pity was that it was all replaced for Multiverse of Madness.
5. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Another Captain America film and the second of three directed by the Russo brothers, Winter Soldier truly brought Cap into the modern world. First Avenger gave us a retelling of his origin story but with more lasers and an Infinity Stone. A little paint by numbers and superficial? Sure, but it was entertaining, and it’s hard not to get caught up in Captain America’s all-around goodness. As easy as it is to roll your eyes at the Boy Scout routine, that is also what makes it impossible to cheer for him.
Along came Winter Soldier, which forced Cap to lift the rose-colored glasses on SHIELD. Here was the perfect solider, who was certain he was fighting for the good guys only to have the rug pulled out from under him. Cap realized he had been inadvertently working for Hydra all this time. It’s almost a coming-of-age story for Steve Rogers, who had been born and bred to never question the good ol’ US of A. Right under his nose, Hydra had infiltrated the U.S. government.
This wasn’t quite the moral dilemma he faced in Civil War, but it set that stage. The world was not what he thought it was, and that mindset carried into the franchise’s third movie.
Again, what the Russos got right here was the tone. Instead of bringing a comedy writer to add oddly placed jokes, Winter Soldier worked on a more serious note. Of course, this was at a time when Disney wasn’t so set on making every MCU entry the next Pirates of the Caribbean. Each movie was allowed to have its own narrative voice rather than being crammed into the cookie-cutter action-comedy adventure for the entire family.
4. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
More so than almost any other MCU movie, GOTG fully embraced Marvel’s sillier aspects. There’s been no turning back ever since, to the detriment of the MCU. You would think that would be enough to rate the first GOTG film on the worst list, yet here it is in the fourth spot.
As I pointed out in the previous post, there’s a difference between good and bad comedy.
On one hand, there’s Ant-Man and the Wasp, a completely underwhelming action-comedy. On the other, there’s GOTG, a movie that proves Marvel movies can be both funny and moving.
GOTG’s clever humor disguises a heartfelt story about loss, acceptance, and familial bonds. The film showcased James Gunn’s brilliance as a storyteller by fully delivering on the comedy, CGI action, and drama. Nothing felt cut short or cheap and trendy.
As a character, Peter Quill has been criticized for being supremely average and underwhelming, but that is precisely the point. Until he learned to set aside his childish and self-serving nature, he was an underachiever. The title “Starlord” was a joke in itself because Peter was anything but lordly. As good stories tend to do, we see him grow into his potential by the climax. That’s what makes it such a wonderful movie.
3. THE AVENGERS
Ten years ago, Marvel Studios did the impossible by bringing together the stars of five different movies into one giant team-up flick in a way that actually made sense. It took four years of carefully orchestrated teases and connections, the basis of which gave us the ever-expanding MCU.
In many ways, The Avengers doesn’t stand the test of time. Captain America’s Avengers suit is by far the worst he wore in the MCU. There’s the cliché “intellectual villain outsmarts the heroes by planning to get caught” moment, not to mention the “intellectual villain in a glass cell” straight from Silence of the Lambs. It also helped convince Kevin Feige that all superhero movies are sitcoms in disguise, for better or worse.
Despite all the cringe-worthy moments, there’s no denying Avengers’ place in MCU history. For one, Avengers had to succeed. This was the payoff to all those post-credits scenes and allusions planted from Iron Man to Captain America: the First Avenger. From the moment Nick Fury pitched the Avengers Initiative to Tony Stark in 2008, the hype was real. Anything other than a smash hit could have derailed the entire MCU. If you don’t believe that, the prosecution would like to present to the jury Exhibit A: Justice League. Another Joss Whedon project, JL’s box office failure nearly ended the DCEU. Had Avengers suffered a similar fate, Disney might have rethought its Marvel brand.
For those reasons, Avengers deserves its place on today’s list not because it was necessarily a great movie, but because it was such an important milestone that laid the foundation for all things to come afterwards.
2. IRON MAN
If only Marvel Studios would return to its roots and see what made the MCU such a blazing success in the first place. Up to this point, Marvel was not known for making good superhero movies. New Line Cinema had struck gold with Blade, but that was not truly a superhero film but rather a cool martial arts movie fused with horror. Fox was doing well with X-Men, and Sony made waves with Spider-Man, but the two franchises had nearly killed superhero cinema with X-Men: the Last Stand and Spider-Man 3.
As beloved as Robert Downey, Jr. has been in the era of the MCU, that wasn’t the case in 2008. Not known for blockbuster action movies, most fans were leery of his casting as Tony Stark/Iron Man. Many were predicting it would be another forgettable miscue in the troubled history of Marvel movies. Then magic happened.
Critics and audiences were blown away. RDJ made believers of all the skeptics with a surprisingly grounded performance, especially for a superhero in a flying suit of armor. The updated origin story that rang true for the post-9/11 world hit all the right marks for audiences. For younger fans, it may be hard to believe that most viewers missed the Iron Man post-credits scene the first time around. That actually made it much more fun to discover because it wasn’t standard affair.
Like Avengers, Iron Man laid the foundation for the entire MCU, and its importance cannot be understated. Now if only Marvel would rewind the clock to 2008 and give us more action and drama than slapstick comedy, that would be excellent.
1. INFINITY WAR
Ten years after Iron Man kicked off the MCU, Marvel Studios unveiled its crowning achievement. A decade of interlocking stories and teases led to the company’s greatest villain making his entrance. It was a moment that tore through fan expectations, and Infinity War stunned audiences.
What sets this movie above every other Marvel film was the raw emotional stakes with the most gasp-inducing scenes in all the MCU. This was a much heavier and darker film than anything Marvel had done prior, and it was glorious. Beginning the film with both Loki and Heimdall’s deaths was bold, but it was a debt that would be paid off in full when the best version of Thor ever captured on film roared, “Bring me Thanos!” We reeled when the Mad Titan shed a tear on Vormir as he sacrificed Gamora for the Soul Stone. Just when it seemed the cavalry had arrived to save the day on Wakanda, Thanos snapped half the universe’s sentient life out of existence. Our hearts broke as hero after hero turned to dust and vanished. No one was safe, not even Spider-Man or the Guardians of the Galaxy.
What truly made this movie great was the risky decision to make Thanos the protagonist. There was no mistaking the Mad Titan for a hero in any sense, but directors Joe and Anthony Russo presented him as a complex character who viewed himself as a necessary evil. Thanos transcended the supervillain stereotype in every way, and it was marvelous, if you will.