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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 (and Half-Way Roundup!)

Movie poster for Ghost Rider (2007).

Ghost Rider (2007) is the story of stunt motorcycle rider and monkey documentary devotee Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to the devil, here named Mephistopheles, in order to cure his father’s cancer. To work off his debt, Johnny is forced to become the “Ghost Rider,” which involves being the devil’s bounty hunter. Then there is some deal about a contract so evil that another Ghost Rider hid it, and now Mephistopheles’ son, whose name is Blackheart, wants to used it to show his father up … or something. Meanwhile, Johnny reunites with Roxanne, the love of his teen years. Eventually, Blackheart threatens Roxanne and Johnny has to save her.

Nicolas Cage is a fun actor and he seems to enjoy being Johnny Blaze, who is an offbeat character with some absurd quirks. The whole movie, really, is odd and cannot be taken seriously, with its paper thin plot and the cheesetastic delivery of lines like “I am speaking to the fire element within me” and “My name is leeeeeeeeegion. For we are maaaaaaaaaaany.” Most of the cast give silly performances to match the movie’s tone. Peter Fonda hams it up as Mephistopheles. Sam Elliott, making his second Marvel movie appearance after playing General Ross in Hulk, is in full mysterious stranger mode as a former Ghost Rider named Carter Slade.

Eva Mendes plays Roxanne. It’s not much of a role; she wears tight, low-cut clothes and looks pretty — as if to drive home the point, Roxy even desperately asks a waiter at one point if he think she’s pretty — and gets rescued after making ineffectual attempts to help Johnny. Ghost Rider is probably the worst movie so far in terms of female representation.

Ghost Rider also marks the half-way point of this Marvel Movies Project, being the 14th of 27 films! To celebrate this milestone, here’s a quick look back on some of what we’ve seen so far.

Origin Stories

Blade, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider all show us how the heroes got their powers. All of these except Blade and Daredevil, which pick up the action with the protagonist already in evil-fighting mode, also show the characters’ transitions from normal person to something more.

In every case but Fantastic Four, the hero’s story involves the death of a parent or loved one — several loved ones in poor Frank Castle’s case. Castle, Matt Murdock, Peter Parker, and Johnny Blaze have all lost their fathers, while Bruce Banner is haunted by the sudden reappearance of his. Castle, Blade, and Banner’s stories are different enough that you almost don’t notice the similarity, but I think Daredevil and Ghost Rider probably suffer from being too similar to Spider-Man, which is the original and still the best dead father figure story in the Marvel Universe.

It’s also worth noting that Daredevil acts as an origin story for Elektra in some ways, and it’s the death of her father that prompts her to put all her martial arts training to use.

Sequels & Spinoffs

Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man all feature in more than one film. I’ve watched three sequels and two threequels so far. The X-Men films rely strongly on continuity, with developments that take place in the earlier films affecting the later ones. The Blade movies are less continuity-based: there are very few references to the earlier films in the sequels; it would be pretty easy to follow Blade: Trinity without having seen Blade. Spider-Man 2 most definitely builds on a foundation established in Spider-Man, and in my opinion the two movies work best when seen in relation to each other. The core characters are all the same and many scenes in Spider-Man 2 call back directly to scenes from the first movie.

Elektra is the lone spinoff so far. The link to Daredevil exists but the filmmakers obviously intended Elektra to be a standalone movie.

Villains

Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the Green Goblin (sort of) are the only villains who appear in sequels. Every other villain appears in one movie only. Most of the main villains have personal connections to their adversaries: either they’ve known each other for a long time, or the villain was involved in the murder of someone close to the hero. The exceptions are the Blade sequels, where the villains want to kill Blade mostly because he’s a pain in the butt.

My picks for standout villains are probably Magneto and Mystique from the X-Men series, as well as Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Doctor Doom was unfortunately disappointing; I was all ready for him to be awesome after I saw the first photos of his costume, but then he pretty much just relived Norman Osborn’s arc from Spider-Man.

Romance & Love Interests

Doomed pairings (Bruce and Betty, Daredevil and Elektra), token love interests (Eva Mendes in Ghost Rider, Goran Visnjic in Elektra), some extremely disinterested heroes (The Punisher, Blade — no woman in the Blade trilogy even makes it into more than one film), and one love triangle which turns into a doomed pairing (Wolverine-Jean-Cyclops) add up to not much in the way of heartwarming romance in the Marvel movies. There are a few bright spots, though. In the X-Men trilogy, Bobby and Rogue’s young love is very sweet. In Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm meets the kind-hearted Alicia after being dumped by his horrible wife. Reed’s hilariously inept attempts to woo Sue are also enjoyable, and their story ends well.

The one epic love story to be found is Peter and Mary Jane’s. Their courtship plays out over the course of the first two films and Peter’s love for Mary Jane drives a lot of the action. They’re both fully-developed characters who know each other well and support each other, even though their actual relationship has its fair share of bumps. By the end of Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane is aware of Peter’s secret identity and has made the choice to be with him anyway. The final shot of the movie is a closeup of her worried face, setting up their relationship to continue as a major source of drama in Spider-Man 3.

Best & Worst

Spider-Man 2 is possibly my favourite movie of all-time, so obviously I’m sticking with that as my choice for the best film so far. X2, Spider-Man, and X-Men are also a cut above the rest. Blade and Fantastic Four stand out as very enjoyable, too.

I’d probably place Blade: Trinity, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Hulk, and Daredevil in the bottom five.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I haven’t found some of the movies I thought were awful the first time around as painful this time. Even Daredevil and Hulk, though I still don’t think they’re good, don’t seem quite as bad now that my expectations are lower. Elektra is probably the movie that benefited most from this “adjusted expectations” effect: I remembered it being terrible, but this time it seemed ok. On the other hand, I remembered thinking Ghost Rider was ok at the time, and when I watched it again I was disappointed.

My opinion of Blade: Trinity hasn’t changed. It sucked then and it still sucks now.

Marvel Movies Project: Elektra

Movie poster for Elektra (2005).

Remember last post when I was saying how of all the Marvel movies I’d watched so far, only Blade: Trinity and X2 would pass the Bechdel Test? Well hey, look at this — it’s a movie with a female lead! A comic book movie … about a woman. And not only is a woman the main character, a teenaged girl is the second most important character! This movie is like a unicorn or something.

I remember back when Elektra was released, I went to see it and thought it was terrible. Upon watching it again last night, I have changed my opinion a bit. It’s still not very good, but terrible is probably too harsh. For the most part, it’s visually interesting; I particularly liked the way the filmmakers sometimes used brief flashes of red to show Elektra moving through the darkness. The Vancouver area scenery is lush and mysterious as always. The story, about a legendary female warrior who will play a role in the eternal battle between good and evil, is engaging enough. The characters, on the other hand, are mostly lacking. Elektra and Abby, the young girl she’s protecting, have spark, and a couple of the villains — Typhoid and Tattoo — do some cool tricks. But everyone else in the film is fairly generic, from Goran Visnjic as Abby’s dad/Elektra’s love interest to Terence Stamp (whose voice I can no longer hear without thinking of his work as Jor-El on Smallville) as the grey-haired wise man figure, to Will Yun Lee as Elektra’s main antagonist.

One of the things I originally really did not like about this movie was the fact that they took Elektra, solitary unemotional badass, and essentially made her a mom. “Why must a female character only find fulfilment through motherhood?” my self of eight years ago asked. There are aspects of this I still don’t like very much, but mostly my perspective has changed. Now, I can see the good in the fact that instead of the traditional story about a man with daddy issues, we get a film about two “motherless daughters” with some mommy issues. (I felt the same way when I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild: a quest story where a young girl goes looking for her mother.) Elektra not only helps Abby cope with the absence of her mother, she even gets to avenge her own mother’s death in the end. I also quite like the fact that there’s a superhero movie where a female protagonist serves as mentor to a future heroine. Abby’s idolization of Elektra is kind of adorable: stuck with a weighty destiny in a male-dominated world, Abby clearly craves a female role model. So, when Elektra — who is basically the perfect role model for Abby’s situation — shows up, she goes Mini-Me. Aww.

All that said, though, there are things I hate about the way Elektra’s gender comes into play in this movie. For starters, the satiny corset costume she wears for her most important fights is ridiculous (though admittedly not more ridiculous than comic book Elektra’s outfit). Fortunately, she only wears it in a couple of scenes, both of which, perhaps coincidentally, are shot in a way that calls to mind either a Victoria’s Secret ad or a Meat Loaf video. I can’t decide.

Then there’s the way the film is marketed. See the poster above: the tagline “Looks can kill” is obviously awful and stupid. Really? Elektra kills with her looks? Here I was thinking she used knives. See also the description of the movie in the iTunes store: “Superstar Jennifer Garner proves that looks can kill as the sexiest action hero ever to burst from the pages of Marvel Comics.” Ick. Based on this, it sounds like Jennifer Garner’s hot body in her battle lingerie is apparently the only reason to watch this thing. Hey Hollywood! How about making a movie about a female superhero and marketing it, I don’t know, to women? Too revolutionary? Here’s hoping Scarlett Johansson can use her clout do something about this situation if a Black Widow movie ever makes it onto Marvel’s list of confirmed projects. The fact that nothing has been announced yet is discouraging, though.

Marvel Movies Project: Daredevil

Daredevil (2003)

After the huge hit that was Spider-Man, the next Marvel character to make his way to the big screen was blind lawyer Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, the Man without Fear, in 2003. Daredevil is a much less popular character than Spidey, of course, and Daredevil the movie unsurprisingly didn’t come anywhere close to matching Spider-Man‘s box office performance. This is not only a reflection of the two characters’ relative popularity; it also reflects the quality of the two films, as Daredevil is unfortunately one of the weaker entries in the Marvel movie genre. (I should note that, for this rewatch, I went with the theatrical version of the movie. People kept telling me the director’s cut was far superior so I watched it a few years ago and concluded that actually, it’s not that much better.)

It’s too bad, because Daredevil is a pretty cool character and this movie has a semi-decent cast. Ben Affleck, who seems like a good guy and has become a very good filmmaker in the last few years (Argo was one of my favourites of 2012), stars as Matt Murdock. It’s not one of his greatest performances — safe to say Affleck might go back in time and erase 2003 if he could: his other big movie that year was Gigli — but it’s also not his fault he has to deliver terrible lines like “I hope justice is found here today … before justice finds YOU.” The late Michael Clarke Duncan is quite menacing as Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin — I totally believe he could throw Ben Affleck across a room, too — and Colin Farrell gives an enjoyably psychotic performance as Bullseye. Jennifer Garner is good as both versions of Elektra: early Elektra, who’s a typical superhero love interest, and the revenge-obsessed post-father’s murder Elektra. (And doesn’t her stance on the poster bring to mind that “male superheroes posed like female superheroes” meme?) In some ways, this film works better if you view it as an origin story for Elektra; overall, though, there isn’t enough focus on her arc to make that totally effective.

The major problem I have with the movie is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. It starts off trying to be all gritty, with a muted colour palette and the miserable Matt Murdock’s sad life of isolation. But then it becomes a cartoon with Matt and Elektra’s absurd fight in the park, which is one of the most ridiculous meet cutes ever. Bullseye is also more on the funny side of psychotic than the scary side. Personally, I’d have preferred it if they’d stuck with the darker version of the story, because that’s more how I, being most familiar with the character from Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker’s runs on the comic, see Daredevil. Instead of going for the full on noir version of Daredevil, the movie goes with a watered down emo take on the character, complete with a training montage of Elektra stabbing sandbags set to an Evanescence song.

Ah well. Despite its flaws and general silliness, this movie is fairly fun to watch. If I saw the blu ray on sale for under $5, I would consider buying it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil in the movie world at this point is the situation with the character’s film rights. 20th Century Fox, which produced Daredevil, needed to get another Daredevil movie in production by October 2012 in order to hang on to the character. They did not — though they had something in the works — and so the rights have now officially reverted to Marvel. Interestingly, at one point, Marvel is said to have offered Fox more time to get their Daredevil reboot going in exchange for Fox returning the rights to Galactus and the Silver Surfer, which Fox owns as part of its ownership of the Fantastic Four, to Marvel. Fox, who appear to be firmly committed to the idea of a Fantastic Four reboot, declined. It seems both 20th Century Fox and Marvel see more potential for box office glory with the Silver Surfer than they do with Daredevil, but I think Daredevil done right could be a great movie. Let’s hope Marvel comes up with something that shows off the character’s full potential.