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Marvel Movies Project: Best & Worst

After five months and 27 films, I am finally finished this Marvel Movies Project. It was a fun experience; even if a few of the movies are not of the highest quality, it was still interesting to go back and watch them all in order, seeing the evolution (and ups and downs) of Marvel on film. To wrap up, here are some of my picks for the best and worst of Marvel Movies.

Best Movies

  1. Spider-Man 2
  2. The Avengers
  3. Spider-Man
  4. Thor
  5. Iron Man
  6. X2
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger

I tried to pick a top five, but I couldn’t get it below seven. Then I tried to do a top 10, but I also couldn’t justify a number higher than seven (although X-Men came close to making the list). Basically, I think these seven are pretty easily the cream of the Marvel crop. They all feature solid casts, directors, writing, and effects, and all tell really good stories with a good mix of humour, action, and drama. All are also fun to watch — an important quality in a comic book movie.

Worst Movies

  1. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  2. Punisher: War Zone

Again, I tried to make a top five but although there are definitely some other bad Marvel movies, I feel these two stand out in terms of total suckitude. Something like Daredevil is bad, yes, but it at least doesn’t feel like it was intended to go straight to video. Both these films are also significantly worse and more painful to watch than their predecessors.

Worst Threequels

  1. Blade: Trinity
  2. X-Men: The Last Stand
  3. Spider-Man 3

Only three Marvel franchises have made it to three instalments, and in all three cases the third instalment has been a huge step down in quality for the franchise. The first two Spider-Man movies: amazing. The first two X-Men movies: astonishing. The first two Blade movies: well, they were pretty good horror/action films. Unfortunately, Blade: Trinity features an insulting script aimed directly at the lowest common denominator, X-Men: The Last Stand sees almost all prior character development tossed out the window along with the characters’ principles, and Spider-Man 3 turns its lead character into an unsympathetic jerk to make a point about … something. The terrible threequel: a worrying trend for Marvel.

So yeah, who’s looking forward to Iron Man 3!? Don’t worry; it’s the first Marvel Studios threequel so I’m sure none of this applies to it and I will in no way regret using a vacation day to go see it on May 3.

The Noble Failure Award

I cannot in good conscience call Hulk a good movie, but I can at least see that the filmmakers were trying to do something interesting with it. Although it is a bloated, boring mess, it gets credit for its ambition.

Most Improved by Time and Lowered Expectations

Elektra, which actually seemed pretty decent this time around. It’s not a masterpiece, but in terms of comic book movies about women — a very small and not very illustrious group — it might be the best. Which also goes to show that we need more comic book movies about women.

Most Unnecessary

I’ve been told over and over by my friends from the local comic book store that the Raimi Spider-Man films have not aged well, and The Amazing Spider-Man is a big improvement. I guess this proves that even cool people can be wrong, because nothing will convince me that The Amazing Spider-Man is anything more than a tired rehash of something that was done much, much better just a decade ago. Even if it was a good movie, which it isn’t, but hypothetically — the point is, you’ve still already seen it. Recently.

Key Actors

There are two actors whose performances I think have essentially built the Marvel movie world: Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey Jr. Wolverine is of course one of Marvel’s most well-loved characters, and Jackman’s excellence ensured that his popularity carried over to the big screen. Plus, the guy has appeared in five films, with two more on the way. It’s impressive. Downey, meanwhile, deserves a huge amount of credit for the success of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If Iron Man had tanked, things might have gone very differently for Marvel Studios. That it didn’t is in large part thanks to his charismatic presence.

Other than those two, I think Wesley Snipes has to get some credit; after all, it was Blade‘s surprising success that ushered in the modern Marvel movie era. Chris Evans is the standout actor to have played more than one Marvel character. Steve Rogers and Johnny Storm are both major figures in the Marvel universe, and Evans is great as both.

Best Female Performances

The X-Men movies give us the most to choose from here: Famke Janssen (Jean), Anna Paquin (Rogue), and Rebecca Romijn (Mystique) stand out for me, and I also think their characters are the three most interesting female mutants in the movies. In terms of love interest type roles, I like Kirsten Dunst as Mary Jane a lot. Hayley Atwell and Natalie Portman are also very strong in Captain America and Thor. Speaking of Thor, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Kat Dennings’ hilarious performance. Rosemary Harris is wonderfully warm and grandmotherly as Aunt May in the Raimi Spidey films.

But most of all, there is Scarlett Johansson, who is doing spectacularly as the Black Widow and giving Marvel its first legitimate shot at making a really good female-centred movie, if they would just freaking take her up on it.

Best Villainous Performances

  1. Tom Hiddleston as Loki in The Avengers
  2. Ian McKellen as Magneto in the X-Men trilogy
  3. Michael Fassbender as Magneto in X-Men: First Class

Magneto just has a certain … animal magnetism. Unfortunately for him, he got Loki’d.

Best Comedic Performances

  1. Chris Hemsworth and Kat Dennings in Thor
  2. Mark Ruffalo/CGI Hulk in The Avengers
  3. Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and The Avengers
  4. Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis in Fantastic Four
  5. Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man trilogy

It’s true that, strictly speaking, these aren’t all 100% comedic performances, but they all have very funny aspects and I would say the movies listed are the funniest Marvel movies. I would also give an honourable mention to Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer in Iron Man 2, because he’s so absurd and Tony’s hatred of him is so hilarious.

Tobey Maguire has a lot of haters for some reason I do not understand, but just think back to the sequence in Spider-Man 2 where Peter, having given up being Spider-Man, dons his glasses and happily goes about his everyday nerdy life. It’s very funny stuff. How much of the “comedy” in Spider-Man 3 is intentionally funny, or funny at all, is very debatable, but I think credit goes to Maguire for trying to go along with whatever Sam Raimi was trying to do.

Best Action Sequences

  1. The Avengers: Helicarrier Attack
  2. Spider-Man 2: Train (the Bank/Saving May sequence is also superb)
  3. X2: Wolverine Is the World’s Most Badass Babysitter
  4. Iron Man: Building the Suit/First Flight (this is a bit of a cheat because it could include most of the movie, but hey)
  5. Spider-Man: Wall-Crawling & First Webs

It’s tough to pick just a few scenes from 27 such action-packed movies. In the end, though, there’s a handful that stand out.

Best Cast

The Avengers wins this automatically, but other than that: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy has a truly marvellous cast. Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Rosemary Harris, Cliff Robertson, Willem Dafoe, Alfred Molina, J.K. Simmons (who is like the old Spidey cartoon come to life), Elizabeth Banks, Bill Nunn, and Ted Raimi are all fantastic. They also have great chemistry as a group.

The cast of Thor would be my other choice. The Asgardians: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Rene Russo, Jaimie Alexander, Josh Dallas, Ray Stevenson, and Tadanobu Asano, plus Colm Feore as Laufey. The Earthlings: Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, and Clark Gregg, with a cameo from Jeremy Renner. All of these people are good actors, and incredibly, almost all of them make a memorable impact on the movie.

Best Stan Lee Cameo

As much as I hate The Amazing Spider-Man‘s existence, I do love Stan Lee’s appearance as an oblivious school librarian. However, his cameos in the Iron Man movies as “Hugh Hefner” and “Larry King” would probably top the list if not for the fact that he plays the FF’s lovable mailman, Willie Lumpkin, in Fantastic Four.

Some Favourite Dialogue

“That’s my secret, Captain. I’m always angry.” – Bruce Banner, The Avengers

“I need a horse!”
“We don’t have horses, just dogs, cats, birds …”
“Then give me one of those large enough to ride.”exchange between Thor and a pet shop employee, Thor

“This is really … heavy …” – Peter Parker, Spider-Man 2

Those are my impressions of the movies themselves. I’ll be back tomorrow with a few final thoughts on comic book movie adaptations in general, and that will be my very last Marvel Movies Project post (as far as I know). My goal was to finish before Iron Man 3 — I made it!

Marvel Movies Project: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Movie poster for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012).

Nicolas Cage returns as Johnny Blaze in 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the sequel to Ghost Rider, which came out in 2007. Five years between movies … I don’t know; maybe this indicates that a Ghost Rider sequel was not all that necessary? Cage is the only cast member from the first movie to return, which, again, might suggest that perhaps they could have skipped this one. Peter Fonda said back in 2007 that he’d be willing to play the Devil in a sequel, but maybe he changed his mind. Or it’s possible he was joking, seeing as this is what he said: “I hope so! It would be a huge payday.”

Yes … well. The generally admirable Ciarán Hinds steps into Fonda’s role. The equally excellent Idris Elba also co-stars for some reason along with some randoms. Anthony Stewart Head — Giles from Buffy! — briefly appears, making me sad that he doesn’t have a better movie career.

The story involves the antichrist. It climaxes with the apparent death of the devil and then, poof, the movie’s over, just like that. No extended denouement here. The whole thing is directed with a fair bit of shakycam and stylized camera angles that seem bizarre until you realize it was shot for 3D, which is fitting since 3D is as pointless a technology as this is a film.

This movie and Punisher: War Zone were both released under the “Marvel Knights” line, which focuses on the darker, more mature Marvel stories. So far I’m not impressed. Maybe now that Marvel has the rights to Daredevil back we’ll see them try out a Marvel Knights version of the character. That could be interesting. The rights to Ghost Rider, meanwhile, remain with Sony/Columbia; however, Nicolas Cage said last month that he believes he is done with the series. That’s a shame.

The most notable thing about this movie for me is Idris Elba joining the relatively short list of actors who’ve played more than one character in the Marvel movieverse. Here’s a visual survey of that illustrious company:

Collage of actors who've played more than one Marvel character in the movies.

Chris Evans as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers; Ryan Reynolds as Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity and Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Rebecca Romijn as Mystique in X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and briefly in X-Men: First Class, and Joan in The Punisher; Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone and Volstagg in Thor; Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor and Moreau in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance; Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson in Daredevil and Happy Hogan in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, both of which he also directed; Ben Foster as Spacker Dave in The Punisher and Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand; and Sam Elliott as General Thunderbolt Ross in Hulk and Carter Slade in Ghost Rider.

Did I miss anyone (other than Stan Lee)?

The awards for most impressive physical transformation have to go to Rebecca Romijn (obviously) and Ray Stevenson. The man is Volstagg and The Punisher — an impressive feat.

Marvel Movies Project: Captain America: The First Avenger

Movie poster for Captain America (2011).

Despite having the word “first” in its subtitle, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is actually the last of the pre-Avengers setup movies. Captain America is the first Avenger chronologically speaking — although really, having been worshipped by the Vikings, Thor predates pretty much everyone — but he’s the last member of this Avengers team we’ll meet on screen.

Most of the events of this movie take place in the 1940s just after the United States’ entry into World War II. We meet the weakling Steve Rogers, who wanted nothing more than to serve his country but couldn’t because his small body betrayed him. (The puny Chris Evans special effects are amazing! How’d they do that? Here’s how.) Rogers’ determination to join the service catches the attention of Dr. Erskine, a scientist who’s working on a top secret super soldier serum project. Steve becomes the pilot subject for Erskine’s experiment and emerges from it with superhuman powers, which he immediately puts to good use chasing down an assassin who’s been sent in by the Germans to take out Dr. Erskine. This is one of the most entertaining discovery-of-powers sequences in the Marvel movieverse, almost up there with the first Spider-Man movie.

Denied the chance to go into active battle after Dr. Erskine’s death, Steve, in his new identity as Captain America, becomes a sort of mascot for the military. He travels around selling bonds and performing in a live stage show in which he punches out an actor playing Hitler — a reference to the cover of the very first Captain America comic book from 1941. Captain America Comics #1 came out about a year before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans were still opposed to the idea of entering the war. Joe Simon has said he and Jack Kirby conceived of Cap partly as a political statement regarding their feelings on the subject. (Michael Chabon draws on this story for inspiration in his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which is worth reading whether or not you’re a comic book fan — it’s a brilliant book.)

I really like that they decided to go the WWII flashback route and show Cap’s origins. This is a compelling story and it’s used to full effect in the film to show us everything that makes Steve such a special guy. Thor started out powerful and had to learn humility before he could become truly heroic; Steve Rogers earns his power by being noble almost to a fault. As Dr. Erskine tells Steve in the movie, he’s “not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”

The “goodness” which is Captain America’s most outstanding quality makes him one of Marvel’s most appealing characters, in my opinion, but also one of the most difficult to portray. It’s just a fact that in fiction, the evil/morally grey characters are often more interesting than the pillars of virtue. Look no further than X-Men: First Class for an example: Magneto blows everyone else out of the water. You can get around this “good = boring” problem by giving your shining hero a good enough problem to deal with. In Cap’s case, sometimes his solid character and strong principles become his problem; for example, Marvel’s Civil War storyline saw his belief in civil liberties lead him to take such a strong stand against the Superhuman Registration Act that he ended up in jail (and also dead, sort of). This is all fitting when you consider the character’s origin as Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s statement against American hesitance to get involved in Europe’s problems. In the case of Captain America: The First Avenger, Cap’s problem is his desire to prove himself in an actual combat situation and to eliminate Dr. Erskine’s big mistake, the Red Skull. (By the end of the movie, his problem will be overcoming the effects of his 70-year nap … but that’s a topic for another film.)

Chris Evans, back in the Marvel Universe post-Fantastic Four, is excellent as Steve Rogers. I’m not sure how he manages to be so good as both the egotistical playboy Johnny Storm and the unfailingly polite and noble Captain America. Maybe he’s just likable. Whatever it is, I’m glad they found him for this role; I had a lot of trouble imagining who on earth could convincingly play Cap.

The rest of the cast is also great: Colonel Phillips is an ideal Tommy Lee Jones role, and the Red Skull is an ideal Hugo Weaving role. I like Hayley Atwell and I think she’s very good as Peggy Carter. It makes me a little sad that there’s only one female character in this whole movie, but I can forgive it due to the World War II setting. Plus, Peggy is quite a solid character: she’s very competent at her job and her relationship with Steve is appealing.

The other thing I like a lot about this movie is the visual style, particularly the muted colours. It reminds me a little of the Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting run on the Captain America comics, which I really enjoyed. Brubaker and Epting get a special thanks in the movie’s credits, so perhaps the filmmakers did indeed have their work in mind. Probably: the sequel to this film is called Captain America: The Winter Soldier; that title comes from a storyline in the Brubaker-Epting comics in which Bucky, thought dead in the comics and in this movie, returns as an assassin called the Winter Soldier, having been brainwashed by the Soviets. So that’s something to look forward to.

Another thing to look forward to: Cap becoming a Capsicle and then being brought back to life by SHIELD is the final piece of the Avengers puzzle. The other major piece revealed in this film is the Cosmic Cube, aka the Tesseract, which becomes the central MacGuffin in The Avengers. The post-credits scene for this film is actually a shortened scene from The Avengers, and it’s followed by a sort of mini-trailer for the movie all this has been leading up to.

But before we get to that, there’s still Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to get through.

Marvel Movies Project: Iron Man 2

Movie poster for Iron Man 2 (2010).

Iron Man was for the most part a movie about a guy building a fancy metal suit. Much of the movie consists of Tony Stark alone or nearly so, locked in a room (or cave) somewhere working on the Iron Man armour. By contrast, Iron Man 2 (2010) goes big: a crazed Russian villain, a rival arms manufacturer, US Senate hearings and a military plot to steal Tony Stark’s tech, car racing, Nick Fury (well before the end credits this time), drunken antics, Rhodey in armour, flashbacks of Howard Stark, an army of drones, Tony with a life-threatening case of blood contamination, and a mysterious new assistant for Pepper, who has taken over as CEO of Stark Industries.

It’s a lot. It’s almost too much, bringing the movie close to the level of clutter in other not-so-successful sequels like X-Men: The Last Stand and Spider-Man 3. However, while I don’t think this film is nearly as good as Iron Man, Iron Man 2 does manage to avoid disaster because all these elements actually work together towards the same goal: an exploration of Tony Stark’s pyschology.

Ivan Vanko’s rage at Howard Stark brings up the spectre of Tony’s difficult relationship with his father, who always seemed aloof and vaguely disappointed in his son. This feeling that he would never live up to his father led Tony to create his playboy persona, which he has raised to new heights of irresponsibility and arrogance because of his fear of an early death due to the blood contamination he’s suffering from overuse of the Iron Man suit. The resolutions for both these sources of inner drama are one and the same, as Howard speaks from beyond the grave to provide both paternal pride and the solution for his son’s illness.

The choice of John Slattery to play Howard Stark is a piece of genius: wouldn’t Roger Sterling (Slattery’s Mad Men character) get along famously with both Howard and Tony? The rest of the casting in Iron Man 2 is equally good. I don’t think anyone but Mickey Rourke could have played Vanko. The always excellent Sam Rockwell is hilariously smarmy as Justin Hammer. (I normally prefer Sam Rockwell to be more sexy and less gross, but oh well.) Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard as Rhodey, and, being Don Cheadle, he’s very good.

Am I forgetting someone? … oh right, there’s also Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman, an employee at Stark Industries. Natalie turns out to be none other than Natasha Romanov, code name Black Widow, a SHIELD agent sent by Nick Fury to watch Tony Stark. Johansson’s role in this film isn’t huge, but she has a couple of memorable butt kicking scenes. She and Pepper also develop a good working relationship, which I appreciate: it was nice to see them not do the traditional “hot young woman becomes rival to threatened older woman; bitchiness ensues” plotline they seemed to be leading up to.

The introduction of Black Widow, a larger role for Nick Fury, and the reappearance of Agent Coulson — who casually mentions that he’s been called away to New Mexico on SHIELD business part-way through the movie

Thor's hammer appears in the post-credits scene for Iron Man 2.

— all serve as more buildup for The Avengers. When Iron Man 2 was released, the future existence of an Avengers movie had been confirmed and we knew Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson would be in it. Thor was already being filmed, Chris Evans had just signed on to play Captain America, and Joss Whedon was rumoured to be in talks to direct The Avengers. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, first hinted at in Iron Man‘s awesome post-credits scene, was in full swing at this point. It was a good time to be a Marvel fan.

Marvel Movies Project: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Movie poster for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007).

Well, this is something of a milestone in the Marvel Movies Project: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) is the first one of these movies I had never seen before. I’m not sure why I didn’t go see it at the time, but it’s possible my disappointment with Spider-Man 3, released just a month earlier, had something to do with it.

We rejoin the FF an unspecified amount of time after the first film. The people all seem much the same, but relationships have progressed: Reed and Sue are trying (repeatedly) to get married, Ben and Alicia have become a serious couple, and Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny have settled into the routine of being the Fantastic Four and saving the world on a regular basis. They are truly a team now; even Johnny, once the rebel of the bunch, is committed to the group identity.

When Johnny overhears Reed and Sue talking about giving up the superhero life after their wedding to try to raise a family, he takes it hard. There isn’t much by way of character development in this movie, but Johnny has the closest thing to a character arc as we see some cracks in his bravado and get indications that the Torch may actually be growing up. Although this is somewhat interesting, the downside is that it makes him a bit less funny. His humour was Fantastic Four‘s main asset and Rise of the Silver Surfer suffers from a lack of it.

The film’s plot sees the Fantastic Four recruited by the government to help deal with the threat posed by the mysterious Silver Surfer, who is flying around the planet creating bizarre weather and giant craters and also making Johnny’s molecules unstable, causing him to swap powers hilariously with other team members when he touches them. The team eventually discovers that, despite all the chaos he causes, the Surfer is not himself the threat: he is merely the herald of Galactus, the devourer of worlds, who is on his way to consume planet Earth.

In the movie, Galactus is portrayed as a sort of giant cloud-like thing. Comic book readers may be familiar with him in a rather different form. Apparently, the filmmakers made him this way to preserve the impact of revealing Galactus’ true appearance for a future Silver Surfer spinoff movie, which of course never happened — at least, not yet. J. Michael Straczynski had written a script at one point, but it was abandoned, and as far as I can tell there’s nothing concrete in the works in terms of a Silver Surfer movie right now. However, we know from reading the Marvel Movies Project post about Daredevil that Fox declined to trade the rights to the Surfer and Galactus back to Marvel in exchange for keeping the rights to Daredevil, so it seems a future Silver Surfer movie shouldn’t be ruled out.

Anyway, the Surfer, who never tried to stop Galactus before but wants to this time because Sue reminds him of his one true love, turns out to be an ally against Galactus. Unfortunately, Victor von Doom does not: after shocking the FF by being still alive, Doom completes the evil comeback by stealing the surfboard which is the source of much of the Surfer’s power. The only way the Fantastic Four can defeat Doom is by taking advantage of Johnny’s unstable molecules and giving him all their combined powers. With that boost, Johnny takes Victor down, thus paradoxically demonstrating the power of teamwork through solo action. The Surfer gets his board back and defeats Galactus, and Sue and Reed finally have their wedding.

I didn’t dislike this movie, but I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as I did the first one. The humour is not as strong and the team doesn’t have quite the same dysfunctional energy that made them so fun to watch the first time around.

It seems this was the last big screen go-round for this particular Fantastic Four team; Chris Evans has obviously moved on to bigger and way better Marvel pursuits, and Fox’s so far castless upcoming Fantastic Four franchise reboot is scheduled to be released on March 6, 2015. That one’s been in the news lately: last week it was reported that Seth Grahame-Smith, author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, has completed a “polish” of the film’s script. Mark Millar, who is working on the reboot as a consultant, has been hyping the project:

“What I wasn’t expecting actually was just how funny and likeable he could make this as well as getting the more awesome moments on screen — I use awesome in the traditional British sense and not the California sense awesome, you know? The Ridley Scott moments, and the Fantastic Four really are jaw-dropping in the same way you feel when you saw Alien for the first time. There’s some moments in this — not to be specific — that are actually gonna be phenomenal on screen and stuff you haven’t seen in a superhero movie before.”

He probably doesn’t mean the Fantastic Four reboot is going to be a terrifying space horror movie featuring a pointy-toothed alien monster and creatures bursting from the FF’s chests, but that’s all I can imagine now.