The brainchild of Kevin Feige, the producer and president of Marvel Studios, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (also known as the MCU) has become a worldwide phenomenon, having gone on to reach staggering peaks and heights ever since it all started with Iron Man back in May 2008. Having gone from Earth to outer space and other mystical realms, the ongoing franchise currently ranks as the second highest-grossing film franchise of all time – just behind the Harry Potter movies – having its high points, as well as its struggles. Yet despite all that, each new film has still managed to constantly exhilarate, surprise and thrill us with each new film with its own roster of unique characters and fascinating storylines, intertwining and connecting with others. Its success has even led to various TV spin-off shows, including ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, and Netflix’s upcoming Daredevil and AKA Jessica Jones. It has also been announced just recently, much to the excitement and relief of others around the world, that thanks to an agreement between Marvel and Sony, Spider-Man will be making his grand entrance in the MCU with Captain America: Civil War in May 2016, as well as a solo movie in the summer of 2017. With the highly-anticipated Avengers: Age of Ultron coming on April 23rd, now is the best time to look back at the highs and lows of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and rank the top 10 MCU movies so far.
1. Avengers Assemble (Joss Whedon, 2012) – Of course it is! The Avengers (as it should be known) was also a big gamble on Marvel’s, uniting all the big heavyweight superheroes that were set up in the previous instalments together for one big blockbusting event, and a lot was riding on it. It was the culmination of Marvel’s Phase One and was the reason why the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe existed in the first place. Yet, it’s become Marvel’s biggest success worldwide to date, and is the third highest-grossing movie of all time, and this is all down to writer-director Joss Whedon, who we know is one of the good guys. He’s a filmmaker who respects the source material and is someone who’s completely engaged with his fans, and this is why he’s currently one of the heavy hitters in Hollywood. He successfully manages to combine powerful character development with spectacular action and special effects, as well as plenty of iconic moments (“Puny God”). Hawkeye was underused, but that’s a minor niggle as the other heroes get their moments to shine: the wisecracking Robert Downey Jr. at his sharp-tongued best, Scarlett Johansson superbly ass-kicking and Mark Ruffalo being a huge revelation, creating the best Hulk portrayal to date. However, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki still manages to steal the entire movie from under everyone’s noses, giving a serpentine performance laced with sardonic glee and menace. The Avengers was an impossible challenge for the maestro Whedon and he prevailed; it lived up to its enormous hype and is, without a shadow of doubt, a masterpiece of the superhero/comic book movie genre, laying the foundation for future Marvel movies. Now, bring on the Age of Ultron and the whole of Phase Three, please!
2.Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014) – By all accounts, Guardians of the Galaxy should’ve been a disaster. It was Marvel’s riskiest project to date, having an array of cartoonish characters (including both a talking tree and racoon) that nobody’s familiar with in one big gamble, yet somehow the film worked its charm, becoming the box office champion of 2014. An immensely enjoyable extraterrestrial romp with inventive and charming characters and creatures, plus plenty of ‘LOL’ moments that’ll stay with you. It has action, adventure, drama, wonderful retro music, sublime CGI and a cast that are having a blast (especially Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista). Guardians of the Galaxy might’ve been risky, but it’s one hell of a ride, and it completely engages with its core audience.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2014) – Whilst Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World did what they set out to do, Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a huge game-changer to the MCU’s status quo. Aiming for a more realistic and gritty vibe, with it now set in the modern world, the Russo brothers give the film a 1970s espionage-vibe whilst still delivering on the action in spades. HYDRA’s emergence as S.H.I.E.L.D.’s puppeteers was a huge twist, impacting future films as well as TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which saw a HUGE improvement following the events of this film). It had both the best Nick Fury and Black Widow performances, and Chris Evans proves once again why he’s the perfect choice for Steve Rodgers. It’s a shame that the Winter Soldier himself is criminally underused, but the sequel is still an intriguing and exhilarating entry in the MCU canon.
4. Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013) – Every bit the sequel Iron Man 2 never was, Iron Man 3 is the best, if only just by a fine margin, solo outing from Iron Man to date. Director/co-writer Shane Black deserves plaudits for getting Iron Man back on track again, providing a sardonic, quick-witted and twisty story that’s bold, yet polarising among fans. It deals with the events of The Avengers in a neat and logical manner, allowing us a deeper and more personal take on the relationship between Downey Jr. and Paltrow, and Stark’s interactions with the young kid, Harley Keener, was genuinely humorous and heartfelt. It’s not an overly complex film, yet Iron Man 3 romps along nicely, and is the shellhead’s finest solo outing.
5. Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008) – The point where it all began, the future of the MCU rested on Iron Man, proving to be a huge gamble that paid off. It took one of their lesser-known characters and turned it into a bankable blockbuster, and resulted in Robert Downey Jr. becoming one of Hollywood’s superstars. Iron Man made him, and it’s all down to him as to why that character is so beloved now to audiences’ young and old. Also, his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow is pure entertainment alone with it being sharp, sardonic and not at all grating. Although the final showdown with Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Jeff Bridges’ Iron Monger is pure Transformers fodder, Iron Man succeeds on so many levels and brilliantly sets the stage for what’s to come.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, 2011) – Captain America was always going to be tricky to adapt as there’s always the risk of everything descending into patriotic flag-waving, but it’s clearly more about the acts of heroism and courage than the former, and the most old-fashioned superhero is successfully brought to life in slick, pulpy fashion. Chris Evans perfectly embodies the character of Steve Rodgers, and connects with the character in a way that’s genuinely fresh and heartfelt. Plus, Hayley Atwell is brilliantly feisty and believable as Agent Carter, so no surprise that she landed her own spin-off TV series. We hope there’s a second series of that soon! Just like Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger embraces its knowing sense of humour, whilst being beautifully retro and nostalgic in its style and tone. Even though its closing moments feel the need to tie everything into The Avengers, it just manages to work as a standalone movie in its own right.
7. Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011) – Back before Guardians of the Galaxy became the diciest movie that Marvel ever attempted, Thor was the riskiest hurdle to tackle. Early scepticism was laid on whether or not Kenneth Branagh could pull it off, but he does with ease and style, creating a rich, vibrant world that even manages to be self-aware of its own silliness. Chris Hemsworth plays the hammer-wielding thunder god with pure screen charisma, and has a very good comic romance with Natalie Portman’s astrophysicist. Although it’s Tom Hiddleston who clearly steals the whole show as the vengeful, manipulative, yet oddly tragic, Loki, and he never strikes a wrong note. The ending may be somewhat anticlimactic, but Thor is a ludicrous slice of pure fantasy entertainment.
8. The Incredible Hulk (Louis Leterrier, 2008) – Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk offered a bold new direction for the titular green goliath, promising to deliver on both the action and the humour. This is something that was clearly lacking with Ang Lee’s Hulk, which was both ponderous and humourless. Edward Norton delivers a deep portrayal of the tortured Bruce Banner, and his interaction with Liv Tyler provides genuine emotion and heart to the film. The film is at its best when Hulk himself is nowhere on-screen, which is very surprising; when he does turn up, the film immediately turns into a typically generic action-fuelled, CGI-fest with massive explosions, cascading fireballs, and a climatic showdown involving a CGI’D Tim Roth. It may still be the best solo Hulk movie we have so far, yet the fact that the film’s most exciting sequences don’t involve any computer-generated monsters is very telling indeed.
9. Thor: The Dark World (Alan Taylor, 2013) – Still retaining the wit and charm of Kenneth Branagh’s original, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World boasts a multi-layered story that would make Tolkien weep, and dark, sombre interludes, which is what we would expect from the man that was involved with Game of Thrones. He brings plenty of visual flair to the proceedings, especially during the lengthy action sequences, but it’s still the love-hate dynamic between Thor and Loki that is the driving force, and is the heart of the film despite what’s going on around that. However, you get a sense of fatigue settling in as the whole thing seems pretty generic and formulaic at times with the plot occasionally becoming convoluted and half-baked at the best of times, and Christopher Eccleston is tremendously underused as the main villain, Malekith the Accursed (the weakest MCU villain). We should expect fewer elves and more Loki next time, hopefully.
10. Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010) – For about 40 minutes, Iron Man 2 looked set to be every bit the sequel we were hoping for after the successful first instalment: Robert Downey Jr. having a blast, the AC/DC soundtrack pumping up the atmosphere, and Justin Theroux’s script bringing both the laughs and the smarts. Yet frustratingly, it doesn’t have enough going for it to escape the bottom of the MCU’s ladder, dangerously treading into Spider-Man 3 territory. Various characters and plot-points came in and out of nowhere and went nowhere, the plot is baggy and all-over-the-shop, it runs into the classic superhero sequel problem of throwing in too many villains at our hero’s table, and it all felt too much like prep-work for the future Marvel movies to follow. Whilst it still has its few good qualities (Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow’s chemistry), it’s simply not as good, or as fun, as Iron Man, plus we’ve seen all this before.
With all of that taken on board, what are favourite films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Which one has stood out for you? Which one has left you sighing? Are you excited about Avengers: Age of Ultron? And what are most looking forward to for the rest of the MCU? Get in touch with us via the comments below or firstname.lastname@example.org for the chance of being printed in the mag.