Going Through the MCU

Since it is now just under a week at the time of writing this from the release of Avengers: Infinity War, I thought it would be best to go over the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to build up my anticipation for Infinity War and to have something more concrete in place for my thoughts on all the MCU films to be collected. Now to start with, I feel that the MCU has been the greatest success of the modern blockbuster landscape. Other studios have tried and failed to replicate the success of the MCU, but none of them have even come close to replicating Marvel’s success and the reason why, in my opinion, is that they put too much stock in creating the world and not the characters. Films like The Mummy and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice got bogged down in setting up the details for the world rather than creating a world that people want to come back to. Marvel meanwhile has focused on giving us characters we care about first so that we want to see them unite together and not have it feel like an obligation. Now for this, I’m going to give my brief thoughts on each of the MCU films in chronological order, then rank them at the end of the piece. Hope you enjoy.

IRON MAN

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The film that started it all and one where so many things could have gone wrong. Since it was the first time that Marvel had made the films in house rather than licensing the properties out to another studio there was a greater degree of risk here than in any of the other films, if Iron Man was not a success then it’s likely that we wouldn’t have the MCU in this level, it’s why the Nick Fury scene was at the end of the credits. Thankfully, this film was a massive success and most of that success is down to the perfect casting of Robert Downey Jr. His performance is what makes the film, showing the humility of the character, someone who understands the damage that he’s done to the world and is trying to mitigate it to the best of his ability, whilst still showing that he is a narcissist and arrogant, which is what makes Tony Stark such a compelling character. The typical issues that crop up in the other MCU films are present here as well, the villain is weaker and the third act action scenes go on a bit too long, but the character of Tony Stark and the wider world that’s presented in this film shows the signs of a promising universe to come.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK

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Now this is the film that has had the least impact on the other MCU films. Aside from William Hurt reprising his role as Thaddeus Ross in Captain America: Civil War, there has been no lasting impact of this film. It is a bit of a shame as there are promising elements seen in this film for the future, but I would be lying if I said I missed a lot of elements, with this mainly being seen with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. Now Norton is an excellent actor and he does a solid job as Banner, but he doesn’t bring the same quality to the character that Mark Ruffalo does, feeling a bit too cold at points, not having the mannerisms that Ruffalo brings that makes his version of Banner so compelling (like his tendency to hide away in the background and the chemistry Ruffalo has with Robert Downey Jr). There are some great moments and every time we see the Hulk, particularly in the factory in Brazil, the film jumps up in quality, but this is one of the weaker MCU films.

IRON MAN 2

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This is another one of the weaker MCU films, and it’s one of the few that falls into the trap of focusing on the universe over the characters. There is a lot of great comedy in the film, Robert Downey Jr is as excellent as always as Stark and Don Cheadle was a great choice for Rhodes, much better than Terrence Howard, but the second act was a drag by focusing on setting up The Avengers, Mickey Rourke as Whiplash is one of the weakest villains in the MCU, and I feel the character of Black Widow could have been introduced more effectively than she is here. There are some good moments in the film but it is easy to skip it.

THOR

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This is where the crazier decisions for the MCU start to come into place with the decision to hire Kenneth Branagh to direct. Whilst he was a bit of a left field choice, the skill he has with Shakespeare is well suited for the Norse gods, his bombastic style being perfectly suited for the scenes on Asgard. Whenever we’re in Asgard the film shines, showing off the potential for the MCU, but the scenes in New Mexico and the fish out of water story isn’t as strong. We also get some of the best casting decisions in the MCU here, Chris Hemsworth being the right level of over the top as Thor, but the real standout is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, who gives such a powerful performance, showing the burden that Loki feels is on him and his feelings of inadequacy compared to Thor, especially in his relationship with Odin. This is more of a mixed film but the scenes in Asgard and with Hiddleston make the film.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

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This is where I think the real success of the MCU started. The character of Captain America could have gone so wrong so easily, either coming across as corny or too jingoistic. The balance created here, in showing Steve Rogers as someone prized for his intelligence, perseverance, acceptance of his emotions and bravery shows off the best qualities of America and having the film be set during World War 2 gives the film a feel unique to the other MCU films. This is more of an old fashioned film, reminiscent of the style of the 50s and 60s war films, but that tone is what is needed to introduce a character like Captain America and have it feel believable, and Chris Evans brings the good hearted nature of Rogers across perfectly, with supporting performances from the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones fitting the old fashioned archetypes that are needed to convince the audience of the world of the film, with Joe Johnston’s style fitting the classical nature needed for this character.

THE AVENGERS

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This was the main hurdle for the MCU to pass after the success of Iron Man, making it so the audience would accept all the characters sharing the same space and show that they could make a film that would work for both fans of the other MCU films, and also for people who hadn’t seen any of the other films. This could have easily gone wrong but Marvel made the right decision in hiring Joss Whedon to helm the film. His skill in balancing large casts of characters is second to none and was necessary for creating a film that feels like a team up and not an extended showcase for one of the members and the decision to focus the plot on the formation of The Avengers, showing how they come together and only having them truly team up at the end of the film was a genius decision and allows the final action scene to act as a victory lap for Marvel, showing off how successfully they nailed the film and giving each character a chance to shine (the Puny God scene still being one of the best individual moments in the MCU). As much as the other films succeeded, it was here that Marvel showed their dominance and the success of The Avengers is one of the rare times when you can see the film industry change overnight. If you want a more thorough look, check out Bob Chipman’s Really That Good episode on The Avengers.

IRON MAN 3

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Now this is one of the more divisive films in the MCU, some people love it, some cannot get behind the changes made to some of the characters in this film. I’m firmly in the first category. Shane Black once again shows his skill in writing for Robert Downey Jr after Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, creating a film that really explores the psyche of Tony Stark, showing him coping with his near death experience in The Avengers and how to reconcile the Iron Man and Tony Stark sides of his persona. The most controversial element for this film was the change made to The Mandarin, making the character fictional in-universe. Some see this as disrespectful to the character but I found the decision to be the right one, allowing for a good bit of social commentary as to the media exploitation of terrorist attacks to be brought into a blockbuster film, with it also leading to a hilarious performance from Ben Kingsley.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

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Now this is easily the weakest film in the MCU and probably the closest the MCU has come to producing an outright bad film and I really wish, especially considering the success she had with Wonder Woman, that Patty Jenkins directing this like she was originally intended to. Now not all of the film is bad, Tom Hiddleston is once again great as Loki and the relationship between him and Thor gets developed a bit more, it’s great to see more of Asgard and the final action scene is one of the best in the MCU. However, Malekith is the worst villain in the MCU, despite good make-up work, with Christopher Eccleston being completely wasted and the supporting characters on Earth are more annoying than the first one, with the exception of Stellan Skarsgard as Dr Selvig.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

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The character of Captain America was always going to be the hardest to put in a modern setting so having that be the core of the film was a brilliant move. By taking a tone more along the lines of John Le Carre, we get a more thorough understand of the good nature of Captain America and how this ideology doesn’t fit in the modern world, and how distrust will be seen in every area, with the revelation that Hydra has been operating inside SHIELD being the icing on the cake for this. On top of the moral complexity in the story we get some of the best hand to hand action scenes in the MCU and the darker tone of the film really allows Chris Evans to shine, especially as he shows the character coming to terms with his place in the world and how much has changed since the 1940s, for good and ill, the scene with him and Hayley Atwell being an emotional gut punch to show the life Rogers could have had.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

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Now even though some other MCU films may be better, this is still my favourite film in the MCU and easily has a place in my top 10. From the moment Come and Get Your Love started playing I was hooked and it was one of the rare films where I knew I needed to see it again as soon as it ended (I ultimately ended up seeing this in the cinema 4 times). This was a risk for Marvel, not just with hiring James Gunn, primarily known before this for his work with Troma and for writing the remake of Dawn of the Dead and the Scooby Doo films, but also with doing a Guardians of the Galaxy film due to its obscurity. What Gunn (along with co-writer Nicole Perlman) did injected a new life into the MCU, helping to establish the tone that would come to define other MCU films, mainly the great sense of humour and embracing of the most ridiculous elements of the MCU, even going so far as to bring in Howard the Duck. The relationship between the characters is where the film shines though, allowing the audience to connect with all of the Guardians, which in turn allowed the humour to land harder and the emotional beats to work well since you care about what happens to each of the characters, all of it set to an incredible soundtrack which other films (looking at you Suicide Squad) are trying to rip-off.

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

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This is one of the cases where I am generally more positive about a MCU film than other people. Whilst others saw it as too stuffed with elements that don’t really go anywhere, I found this to be an interesting look at the potential consequences of the actions of the Avengers and the danger caused by responding to threats prematurely. Once again the heroes are well developed, with interesting new elements coming in. I found the relationship between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov to be one of the highlights of the film, the two having a strong connection to each other, aided by the great chemistry between Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo, whilst the added character development for Hawkeye gives the character layers that he was previously lacking, showing his true importance for The Avengers. All of this, plus James Spader being great fun to watch as Ultron is why I rate this higher than a lot of other people do.

ANT-MAN

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Like with Thor: The Dark World there’s an element of what could have been with this film due to the involvement of Edgar Wright, who was originally set to direct it. The film we got, whilst probably not as good as what Edgar Wright would have done, is still a good film. Paul Rudd is a great charismatic lead and I can’t wait to see Evangeline Lily get more to do in Ant-Man and the Wasp as she is more impressive as a hero on paper at the start of the film. The way the film works with size creates both great comedic potential and some really beautiful images showing the subatomic level of the world. We also get some of the best comedic set pieces in the MCU through monologues by Michael Pena, the brilliance of these being that I originally thought they were the elements that were definitely in Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish’s script, but were actually elements added after they left.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

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Now this probably contains the single best action scene in the whole MCU. The airport fight is such a perfect mix of brilliant action choreography and humour, with the nature of getting to know the characters helping to make the scene work on a whole different level, seeing how each of the characters fight against each other and being the perfect showcase of why the focus on character in the MCU was the right call. Even ignoring the airport fight, this is still an excellent film. The moral complexity seen throughout the plot, both with the Sokovia Accords and the role of Bucky Barnes in the film, gives the film a great deal of weight, with the decision to make the central conflicts small and personal helping to give the characters and the ultimate conflict more power than something like Batman v Superman. What Civil War gets and Batman v Superman doesn’t is that, as much as we want to see the heroes fight, we should want them to stop and at the end of Civil War I just wanted Stark and Rogers to stop fighting, but the personal issues the two have could not be overcome, with the performances from Robert Downey Jr and Chris Evans showing the pain in the characters as they fight each other, complimented by an excellent villain performance from Daniel Bruhl, creating a more human villain than any of the other MCU films.

DOCTOR STRANGE

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More so than any other film in the MCU, this is a film where the visuals are the star. The way that the magic world is visualised in the film is absolutely beautiful, the mirror world being a particular highlight. The way the visuals play around with the physics of the world and the way the magic interacts with the buildings is just stunning, and when time is introduced we get some unique moments, like an action scene in an environment that’s going backwards in time and using a time loop to essentially annoy a villain into submission. Story wise this is another version of Iron Man, although Benedict Cumberbatch plays the role well and shows the growing humility and skill of the character effectively. A complaint I do have is how cast members like Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Michael Stuhlbarg were underutilised, but hopefully a sequel will fix this.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

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In some ways this is a superior film to the first one, the villain is more compelling, bringing in issues of the nature of egotism, the focus on the damage caused by abusive relationships and overcoming trauma gives this film more thematic depth than the first one and I personally find the soundtrack to this one better than the first (mostly for it having The Chain, My Sweet Lord, Mr Blue Sky and Father and Son on it). However, as strong as the film is in these areas, the film just doesn’t have the same impact on me that the first one had. Maybe it’s due to the surprise factor in the first one unavoidably being gone in this one or some of the characters not connecting to me the same way as in the first one, but I don’t connect to it the same way as the first one despite it being a better film in most areas. The Guardians of the Galaxy films do show my feelings on favourite and best really, for me the two aren’t always mutually exclusive so, whilst I do think Vol. 2 is a better film, the connection I had with the first one means that one will be my favourite.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

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I know that a lot of people have this high up in their perceptions of the MCU but I left the film feeling disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, Tom Holland is excellent and probably the best version of Spider-Man, Michael Keaton was an excellent, more grounded, and thus more threatening, villain and having the tone be more like a high school film with a street level feel to the action helps to set it apart from the other Spider-Man films. However, I just didn’t connect emotionally to the film, the absence of Uncle Ben really hitting the film, and having Tony Stark in the Uncle Ben role just didn’t work for me as it didn’t have the strong connection that showing a version of Uncle Ben would have created. It also doesn’t help that there isn’t a strong enough visual style to the film, along with the suit kind of cheapening the intelligence of Peter Parker to me since so much of his skill comes from the suit, not his own talent. It is still a good film, but it could have been so much better.

THOR: RAGNAROK

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It’s always been difficult for the Thor films to manage a consistent tone, the clash between Earth and Asgard in Thor and Thor: The Dark World creating a tonal whiplash. What Taika Waititi does here is embrace the most ridiculous elements of Thor, creating a consistent tone and making easily the best Thor film. This embrace of the ridiculous and seeing the humour in it all, with this film making great use of Chris Hemsworth’s natural comedic talent, has made it one of the best pure comedies in recent years. I think the last time I laughed as hard as I did in the cinema watching this was when I saw 22 Jump Street. The humour isn’t all that works though as Waititi knows when to allow the serious moments to play, using this film to showcase people using alcohol to numb their pain with Valkyrie, the conflict between Bruce Banner and the Hulk and using Hela to offer an indictment of colonialism and the white-washing of history so that the uglier side of things is overlooked. Waititi balances the tone better than in the previous Thor films by offering these scenes in a similar tone to the other moments in the film, so they don’t come across as jarring, helping to give the film strong emotional value alongside its comedic value. Two last things with this, if you get the chance listen to Taika Waititi’s commentary on the Blu-Ray, it is just as good as the film, and we are treated to Jeff Goldblum at his Goldblum-iest.

BLACK PANTHER

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It’s fair to say that Black Panther isn’t so much a film as a cultural event. The embrace and empathy that this film has for the black experience worldwide and the showcase of the Afrofuturist aesthetic of Wakanda gave this film a life that few other pieces of media have seen. The world was craving a film like this and Ryan Coogler delivered it. It also doesn’t help that it is an excellent film, Chadwick Boseman really coming into his own as T’Challa following a great introduction in Civil War, with the supporting performances from Danai Gurira, Lupita Nyong’o, Winston Duke, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Sterling K Brown adding to the world of the film, showing the moral complexity of the characters brilliantly, each one being worthy of their own film. The design of Wakanda in all areas, production design, costume design, music etc is incredible, the embracing of the Afrofuturist aesthetic giving it a unique style that others will be imitating in years to come, the whole culture of Wakanda being a brilliant display of creativity and respect for traditional African culture. What gives the film its real weight though is Michael B Jordan as Killmonger. The fact that the name Killmonger could be said straight and it not feel out of place already shows the skill in the writing of the film, with this writing and Jordan’s performance making Killmonger easily the best villain in the MCU, with the feeling that there is truth in his ideas helping to make the character so compelling, even if the methods he uses are extreme. What Ryan Coogler did here was make a film the world needed, one that would have been a cultural event even if it wasn’t the best film. The fact that Coogler, in only his third film, gave us such a great example of the power of the superhero film is a testament to both the endurance of the MCU and the talent of Coogler, helping to establish that he will be remembered as one of the great directors of the modern age.

So with my brief thoughts on all of the MCU films out there, this is how I would rank them so far, along with star ratings for each film in brackets.

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy (5)
  2. Black Panther (5)
  3. The Avengers (5)
  4. Captain America: Civil War (5)
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (5)
  6. Thor: Ragnarok (5)
  7. Avengers: Age of Ultron (5)
  8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (4.5)
  9. Iron Man 3 (4.5)
  10. Iron Man (4)
  11. Doctor Strange (4)
  12. Captain America: The First Avenger (4)
  13. Ant-Man (4)
  14. Thor (3.5)
  15. Spider-Man: Homecoming (3.5)
  16. The Incredible Hulk (3)
  17. Iron Man 2 (3)
  18. Thor: The Dark World (2.5)

What I ultimately wanted to do with this was not only share my thoughts on the Marvel Cinematic Universe through its ups and downs, but also to show just how unique it was for any franchise to have the success rate that Marvel has had. The fact that, over the course of 18 films, there is only one that could be considered okay at best, is a true testament to the talent of those involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As other studios have tried and failed to create their own version of the MCU (mainly the DCEU and Dark Universe), it becomes more apparent just how unprecedented the success of the MCU has been and how studios and rampant to cash in on the success. But, as I stated at the start, what those studios don’t get that Marvel does is that you need to create characters people care about and films that don’t get bogged down in details about the universe. Marvel has created a series where you can go into pretty much any of the films blind and get some level of enjoyment from them, allowing as wide an audience as possible to connect with them, but it’s also a series that rewards watching the whole, with a whole new level of enjoyment and engagement being seen in those who have stayed attached throughout the whole process. Back when Iron Man first came out, there was concern that The Avengers wouldn’t be made, that Iron Man would not work and it would kill the MCU before it began. The success of Iron Man allowed the MCU to flourish from strength to strength, making one of the few franchises that you can say, definitively, changed the nature of cinema, up there with Star Wars, The Godfather, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I am eagerly awaiting Infinity War and I hope that my anticipation for the MCU stays for years to come.

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