Back Row Thoughts – Across the Universe

I’ve had about a week to recover from Avengers: Infinity War, so as promised, it’s time to finally go through and do a nice little quickie journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As I mentioned in my review, before undertaking the task of seeing the entire MCU to get full context, I had originally only seen three of the films considered as part of this canon. Why did I miss the rest? A combination of apathy and lack of funds, honestly.

Back in 2008, when all this madness began, I still had the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy to satisfy my comic book adaptation needs, so I wasn’t all that interested in making the jump to Marvel, especially after the X-Men and Spider-Man films had declined in quality (not knowing at the time that various corporate licensing structures made them separate entities). On top of that, I was working both nights AND weekends for a certain Worldwide Leader, so my free time was at a premium, and I wanted to spread my movie-going dollars out among commercial fare and more arthouse/indie stuff while living in Connecticut. I know now that I missed out on a few great films, as well as a few that were okay, but nothing special.

So here we are, apparently midway through Phase Three, and I’m officially caught up. Well, I’m caught up on the movies. I’m not going to bother with the plethora of TV shows. Maybe someday in the distant future when I have years of free time to spare, but not now. So, for funsies, let’s go through the MCU up until this point, with some brief analysis and reviews (including for the two I’ve already reviewed in full this year), followed by a definitive (in no way) ranking.

Iron Man – 2008

I’ll admit this was more fun than I had anticipated. Tony Stark is a much cooler version of Bruce Wayne, in that he really embodies the billionaire playboy lifestyle, while being infinitely smart enough to create his own tech (suck it, Lucius Fox!). Robert Downey, Jr. is tremendous in the title role, and when he’s not quipping you can really feel for his life-or-death battle, not just to escape captivity, but to keep his heart beating. Terrance Howard didn’t elicit a reaction from me one way or the other, same with Gwyneth Paltrow. The ending scene where Stark gives in equally to his ego and sense of morality by declaring that he is Iron Man is a top 5 moment for the entire franchise. Grade: B+

The Incredible Hulk – 2008

I love me some Ed Norton, mostly because he’s a great actor and he and I have the same birthday. However, almost everything in this movie apart from him fell flat. Stan Lee drinking hulk juice just reminded me of the episode of The Simpsons when Homer pretended to be a hippy and accidentally put peyote in Seth and Munchie’s juice. Tim Roth (who I normally love) and Liv Tyler (to whom I’m pleasantly indifferent) did nothing for me. Almost every loose end tease of future spinoffs goes unresolved. And most importantly, even by 2008 standards, the CGI is… how do you say in your country… utter shit? Yes, utter shit. It’s better than the Ang Lee Hulk movie, but that’s not really saying much. Grade: C-

Iron Man 2 – 2010

Second verse is almost the same as the first, only a little bit louder and a whole lot worse. Don Cheadle makes more of an impression than Terrance Howard as War Machine, but it’s still a while before I’m on board with the character. We get introduced to Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, but the only thing memorable about her first impression is that leopard print dress. Also, while it’s clear that Jon Favreau is having tons of fun both directing the films and playing Happy, there’s some narrative laziness throughout, chiefly in the fact that Mickey Rourke is wasted as the villain. He has one cool fight scene at the Grand Prix, then goes out like a chump in the end. Finally, this is the only film I’ve seen where I didn’t like Sam Rockwell’s performance. Grade: C+

Thor – 2011

While I know it fits the character, Chris Hemsworth was way too wooden in his first outing as the god of thunder. Also, Asgard looks fake as shit. Natalie Portman is boring, and Kat Dennings is criminally underused. That said, we get some fun from Hawkeye’s introduction, the interference from S.H.I.E.L.D., and in the dynamic between Thor and Loki. Tom Hiddleston always played the trickster god to the hilt, and I sincerely hope he returns to the franchise. Grade: B-

Captain America: The First Avenger – 2011

One of the unfortunate trends of the MCU is to use weird CGI tricks to age down some of the actors, or in the case of Chris Evans, make him short and puny. Still, there was a lot to enjoy with this movie, mostly because it’s the first in the series that, to me, truly felt like seeing a comic book come to life. Steve Rogers is so over-the-top patriotic (and that’s before the recruitment films) and buff that you can almost see the speech bubbles forming over his head. Combine that with Hugo Weaving as Red Skull chewing the scenery into a finer mush than his prosthetic face, and you’ve got a really fun action romp. The fact that there were some salient points about the fog of war and propaganda thrown in for good measure just increases its prestige. That said, Cap’s “sacrifice” made no sense, and the Agent Carter stuff sadly had to be paid off multiple times in future movies to pay lip service to shippers when it shouldn’t have even been a plot point to begin with. Grade: B+

Marvel’s The Avengers – 2012

Joss Whedon took the MCU from a loosely-connected think piece and delivered on all the promise the franchise was capable of. We got genuine conflict, real stakes in the climactic battle (which kicked copious amounts of ass), and most importantly, we got a new Hulk in the form of Mark Ruffalo. We’ll probably never get a stand-alone film with Ruffalo in the lead (Ragnarok will have to do), but he’s fleshed out the character more in supporting roles than either of the two lead movies combined. Grade: A-

Iron Man 3 – 2013

Phase Two begins in earnest with the last stand-alone film for Tony Stark, which gets so bad at points that it comes back around to being good for sheer camp value. We do get the plus of Guy Pearce as a villain, but we also get the disappointment of Paltrow surviving what should have been a fatal fall for anyone. The destruction of Stark’s mansion was pretty cool, though, and the reveal that Ben Kingsley was just playing a terrorist is a meta joke at the highest level. Grade: C

Thor: The Dark World – 2013

I’ll level with you. This movie made no impression on me whatsoever, apart from Loki’s fake sacrifice. I honestly don’t know what to say about this. You have Thor, and a Dark World, and a guy from the Dark World (Christopher Eccleston, the 9th Doctor) who, get this, wants to make the world dark. At least they destroy random bits of London instead of New York this time. Grade: C-

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – 2014

Remember Bucky? Steve Rogers’ best friend? He fell off a cliff or something in the last movie? Really, nothing? Well, he’s a bad guy now, revived and brainwashed by Hydra. Incidentally, did Hydra rip off Spectre’s logo, or was it the other way around? Anyway, we do get some decent nuance in how various Avengers (in this case Rogers and Natasha) deal with the rules and government interests laid out before them. Robert Redford is a bit of fun as well, as is Anthony Mackie as Falcon, one of the most underrated superheroes of all time as far as I’m concerned. Grade: B

Guardians of the Galaxy – 2014

Brace yourselves, this was the first MCU movie I ever saw, and I absolutely loved it. I laughed at the brilliantly written comedy. I was amazed by the visual effects. I danced in my seat to the Awesome Mix. I was fascinated by the dynamic between Gamora and Nebula. And I’ll even admit that I teared up ever so slightly when Groot sacrificed himself. He and Rocket are the secret MVPs of the MCU. Grade: A

Avengers: Age of Ultron – 2015

It was at this point that things seemed to get a bit too crowded. Adding Scarlet Witch to the mix, along with Vision (while killing off Quicksilver for some reason) pushed the limits of team-building. The whole climactic raising of Sakovia was utterly absurd. And while I love James Spader’s smarmy voice, he just seemed out of place as Ultron. Also, why did Ultron have movable, flexible metal lips while he talked? Just too weird. Grade: B-

Ant-Man – 2015

From a plot perspective, this is something of a weak entry. Michael Douglas’ motivations make little to no sense when it comes to grooming Paul Rudd, and the same goes for the baddies. Also, I’ve never really been a fan of Evangeline Lilly. I’m sure she’s a nice lady, but after six seasons of Lost where she was the only character to survive that EVERYONE wanted to die, I just sort of default to an eye roll whenever I see her. Still, Rudd as Ant-Man is one of the most charismatic players in the franchise-wide ensemble, and some of the size scale special effects were a lot of fun, particularly the fight on Thomas the Tank Engine’s tracks. I also really liked the lip sync work done on Michael Peña’s rumor mills. Grade: B

Captain America: Civil War – 2016

Marvel wasted no time bringing Ant-Man back for this mini-Avengers outing, pitting about half the total crew against each other, including introducing Tom Holland as Spider-Man (we’ll get to him in a bit). I wholeheartedly believe in the convictions of the various characters on either side of this schism. What I don’t believe in is the cause of it all. I mean, a rules of engagement treaty? Where the Avengers are blamed for collateral damage as they save millions of lives? That’s almost as bad as the trade disputes and tax laws that served as the basis of conflict in the Star Wars prequels. Grade: B-

Doctor Strange – 2016

My undying heterosexual platonic love for Benedict Cumberbatch compelled me to see this when it first came out. To this day I still love it, and like Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man, Cumberbatch really is the only one who could convincingly play Strange. My mind still boggles as to how this film lost to Jon Favreau’s “live-action” Jungle Book remake for the Visual Effects Oscar. Seriously, on the one hand you have a somewhat realistic looking tiger. On the other you have a visual mindfuck on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey. How did this lose? Really, the only flaws of the film are that Strange’s predicament is entirely of his own making, and Rachel McAdams is wasted in a thankless role. Grade: B+

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – 2017

This movie took everything I loved about the original and cranked it up to 11. The soundtrack is even better. The jokes are even funnier now that the characters have settled into their roles (god Drax is hilarious). Mantis is a tremendous addition to the team. Sylvester Stallone makes a fun supporting appearance. And of course, we got two of the defining moments in all of cinema in 2017. One, “I’M MARY POPPINS, Y’ALL!” Two, Baby Groot is life. Grade: A

Spider-Man: Homecoming – 2017

I’ll admit I was skeptical about Spider-Man’s inclusion in the MCU. I really enjoyed the first two Tobey Maguire movies, and even the third had some camp value. The Andrew Garfield ones are totally unwatchable, and the mind truly boggles that out of the ashes of those cinematic abortions, Garfield has been nominated for an Oscar and Emma Stone has won one. But the preview we got in Civil War laid the groundwork, and this movie confirmed it that Disney/Marvel getting Spidey back from Sony made for the first film to EVER truly get the character right. Tom Holland’s performance is perfect, and Ned’s an absolute hoot. Also, the guidance from Tony Stark and Happy helps ground things and make them even more funny. Even the sting of Marisa Tomei as Aunt May seeing Peter take off his mask and scream, “What the fuck?!” at the end felt right. The only flaw the film has is that Peter getting a Stark-ified Spidey suit from Iron Man takes a bit of the genius out of the character, because half the fun of Spider-Man is watching him adapt to his powers. Spidey sense doesn’t even make an appearance in the film (weird), and his standard origin story is either glossed over (radioactive spider bite) or ignored completely (Uncle Ben). Still, this is the first movie in six tries to truly be worthy of your friendly, neighborhood webslinger. Grade: A-

Thor: Ragnarok – 2017

It was at this point that the last of the core franchises finally surrendered to the fourth wall-breaking humor of its colleagues, and the film is vastly improved for it. Thor is finally as funny as he is strong. Plus this is the closest we’ll ever get to a stand-alone Hulk movie with Mark Ruffalo. His fight with Thor was better than the entire titan clash of Civil War, and it was played for laughs. Jeff Goldblum is a delightfully slimy villain. And the Matt Damon cameo playing a dying Loki was priceless. Cate Blanchett didn’t do much for me as the main baddie, and Karl Urban was just sort of there, but still, they functioned a lot better than the previous Thor villains. Grade: B+

Black Panther – 2018

It’s been three months, and I’m still processing how awesome this film was. Really, the biggest shame is that Michael B. Jordan’s character had to die. He’s arguably the best villain in the entire MCU, the most realized, and the most relatable. Wakanda forever, muthafuckas! Grade: A-

Avengers: Infinity War – 2018

Like I said in my review, the deaths didn’t hit as hard for me as for others, mostly because there are announced sequels for at least four of the characters offed at the end, so something will reverse the vast majority of the losses, if not all of them. Still, I will admit that a certain someone begging, “I don’t wanna go,” tugged at my heartstrings just a bit, mostly because it reminded me of David Tennant’s regeneration from his 10th Doctor to Matt Smith’s 11th. Grade: B+

Well, that’s the series up to this point. We still have Ant-Man and the Wasp to look forward to this summer, as well as Captain Marvel early next spring before Infinity War resolves itself, and we enter Phase Four. To recap, here’s how I rank the 19 films to date:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy
  3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  4. Black Panther
  5. Marvel’s The Avengers
  6. Iron Man
  7. Avengers: Infinity War
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger
  9. Doctor Strange
  10. Thor: Ragnarok
  11. Ant-Man
  12. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  13. Captain America: Civil War
  14. Thor
  15. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  16. Iron Man 2
  17. Iron Man 3
  18. The Incredible Hulk
  19. Thor: The Dark World

Man, that’s a lot of comic book property! I need a respite. Maybe some more documentaries…

Join the conversation in the comments below! What’s your favorite MCU movie? Which Stan Lee cameo is the most gratuitous? Which hair color suits Black Widow best? Let me know!

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