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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: X-Men: First Class

Movie poster for X-Men: First Class (2011).

We’re coming to the end of this project now: 22 movies down, five to go! The fifth last film in our series is X-Men: First Class (2011), which goes back in time to the 1960s to tell the story of how Professor X and Magneto met and became friends, then enemies. It also exposes for the first time the Professor’s childhood friendship with .. Mystique?

There are things I really like about this movie, most notably Michael Fassbender’s excellent performance as Magneto. 2011 was the Year of Fassbender and based on the presence he shows here it’s not hard to see why. His menacing, powerful Magneto dominates the movie. The other standout is Nicholas Hoult, who beautifully plays Hank McCoy as a shy, vulnerable nerd. X-Men: First Class also has some good action setpieces along with standout scenes like the fun training sequence at Xavier’s mansion, Wolverine’s cameo, and basically any scene where Magneto is the main focus.

The film makes interesting use of Mystique, or more specifically the way the male characters react to her — Charles is uncomfortable with her true form and wants her to hide, Hank flat out tells her she’s ugly, and Erik finds her beautiful. This of course reflects their attitudes to mutation — Charles wants to fit in with society at large, Hank doesn’t like feeling like a freak, and Erik thinks mutants are superior. I have become a real Mystique fan through this rewatch, and I think the shocking nature of her appearance is in large part what makes her so fascinating. Rebecca Romijn played her in the first three X-Men movies with a very confrontational attitude: you can see in Romijn’s performance that Mystique’s “nudity” is one of her weapons. She loves it when people stare, especially if they seem disgusted by what they see. Jennifer Lawrence is playing a version of Mystique who’s much less sure of herself and still trying to work out how she feels about her body. I think Lawrence plays this well, but her version of Mystique is by nature less dynamic than Romijn’s.

A few things I’m not crazy about with this movie: well, January Jones is pretty terrible as Emma Frost. She’s very lucky to have been cast as Betty on Mad Men; it’s a role that apparently falls right into her sweet spot as an actress. It seems clear she doesn’t have much range. However, this random fact from the IMDb trivia page almost makes up for her performance:

This is the second time that January Jones has been cast in 1962 opposite an actor with a pork based name. The first was in Mad Men opposite Jon Hamm and then this alongside Kevin Bacon.

Almost.

Talking about Emma Frost leads me to the next thing I’m not crazy about, which is the fact that this movie is really sexist. It especially stands out as such when you watch it right after Thor, as I did this week. All four major female characters appear undressed at least once. Emma Frost’s bra might as well be credited as a supporting character (pun intended). Angel is a stripper, plus she’s the first good mutant to turn evil.

I will also take this opportunity to mention the film’s treatment of non-white characters: they’re all evil except Darwin, who’s dead. And speaking of Darwin, how about that moment where Shaw offers the mutants a choice: they can either be enslaved [SHOT OF BLACK GUY TO EMPHASIZE REFERENCE TO SLAVERY] or rise up to rule. Really?

Director Matthew Vaughn has said the sexism is intentional (he doesn’t mention the racism): they were trying to re-create the feel of a 1960s Bond movie, which they do successfully through the movie’s visual style, and yes, the depiction of women is accurate for that type of movie. However, the X-Men franchise is supposed to be progressive. This is supposed to be a story about diversity, equality, and acceptance. The heroes are the outcasts: the ones oppressed by society and treated as inhuman for being different. Surely the film has some kind of responsibility to reflect those ideals in its portrayals of real life oppressed groups.

First Class was the second lowest grossing X-Men movie so far, ahead only of X-Men, but it was still quite successful for Fox and they’ve planned a sequel for 2014. I’ve already mentioned this briefly in my post about X-Men: The Last Stand, but it bears repeating that Bryan Singer will be back in the director’s chair for this one and he intends to use the opportunity to correct some of the mistakes from The Last Stand.

The really intriguing thing about Days of Future Past is the cast, which will combine actors from the original X-Men trilogy with those from First Class. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are in it, but so are Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Hugh Jackman will be back for what will be his world record seventh go round as Wolverine (The Wolverine is out July 26th). Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Ellen Page, and Daniel Cudmore (Colossus) will also be back, as will Jennifer Lawrence (fresh off her Oscar win) and Nicholas Hoult. It’ll be very interesting to see how that all plays out.

Also interesting: apparently, X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past will share continuity not only with the original X-Men movies, but also with Fox’s Fantastic Four reboot. Fox is creating its own Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Mark Millar presiding over the whole thing. I feel a bit like they’re stepping on Marvel Studios’ toes here. On the other hand, this might be really cool. I guess we’ll see.

Marvel Movies Project: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Movie poster for X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Hugh Jackman is back for a fourth go-round as Wolverine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). As the title suggests, this film focuses on Wolverine’s origins, which were previously hinted at in X2. Here, we see younger versions of several familiar characters as Wolverine becomes “Weapon X” and gets his skeleton upgraded from bone to adamantium.

Our story begins in northern Canada in 1845 because it turns out Wolverine is really that old, as is Sabretooth, apparently. In a surprise twist, Sabretooth, here going by his real name, Victor Creed, turns out to be Wolverine’s brother: in this version of events, it is revealed that Victor’s father is also Wolverine’s real father, even though Wolverine’s fake father is played by an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hugh Jackman. Alright then.

After fathers real and fake both end up dead during a household dispute, Wolverine and Victor go on the run together. They become brothers in arms as well as in blood, and fight together in several wars: the US Civil War (despite being Canadian), World War I, World War II (they probably knew Captain America!), and finally Vietnam (again despite being Canadian). In Vietnam they meet Stryker — familiar to the audience from X2 — who invites them to be a part of an elite team of assassins, all of whom have “special skills,” which is to say they’re mutants. Wolverine becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the group’s activities and ultimately quits.

One of the countless pieces of useful life knowledge I’ve picked up from TV and the movies is that you should never join an elite team of assassins because chances are good that someday someone is going to decide it’s too risky to keep you alive. Indeed, this is what happens: Victor starts killing off the members of his old crew one by one. Wolverine has established a new life for himself back in his old Canadian stomping grounds: he’s a lumberjack, and he’s ok. But when Victor shows up and kills his lady love, Wolverine agrees to a deal with Stryker that will turn him into a stronger soldier and allow him to get revenge on Victor. And the rest is history.

The cast of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is large and includes some fairly big names, both real and fictional. A few well-known mutants — notably, Scott Summers, Emma Frost, and (surprise!) Professor X — appear briefly. In terms of celebrities from the real world, there’s multi-platinum recording artist will.i.am as John Wraith and Ryan Reynolds, here making his second attempt at a comic book movie, as Wade “Deadpool” Wilson. Poor Ryan Reynolds. Of all his superhero-related efforts, this is probably the best if only because Blade: Trinity and Green Lantern are both so wretchedly awful. Personally, I hate Deadpool in any form so I did not enjoy his performance here.

Also in the cast are a couple of actors known and beloved by certain audiences for their roles in iconic series: Dominic Monaghan — Merry in the Lord of the Rings movies and also Charlie on Lost — and Taylor Kitsch, who will always be Friday Night Lights‘ Tim Riggins to me. At the time Wolverine was released, I was really excited about the prospect of Riggins in an important role in this movie. It was disappointing, then, to find out how little screentime he actually has.

Most of the cast’s roles, in fact, are little more than cameos. But given the calibre of the people involved, it feels like this film was cast as an ensemble piece. Perhaps because of its association with the team-oriented X-Men movies, it was also marketed that way to an extent, with some of the posters featuring multiple characters. In reality, it’s almost a one-man show, with only Liev Schreiber (Victor) and Danny Huston (Stryker) coming anywhere close to matching Hugh Jackman’s screentime (oddly enough, Huston didn’t feature on any posters). To be fair, a one man show is what the title suggests.

But the result of having all these characters floating around not doing much is that the film suffers from a bit of overcrowding. It’s not as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand because all the minor characters are presented as, well, minor characters. Wolverine‘s problem is more comparable to the introduction of Gwen and Captain Stacy in Spider-Man 3: why hype the known names if you’re not going to use them?

Still, the movie is entertaining enough in a mindless sort of way. More notable from my perspective than the movie itself is the fact that I saw it being filmed. I was a student at the University of British Columbia when Wolverine was filming in Vancouver. The part about 10 minutes into the movie where Stryker’s team attacks a compound in Nigeria to find out where the adamantium comes from was filmed on campus, right outside the building where I had all my classes.

Image from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

They built a shantytown set like you see in that image (although in reality it wasn’t as big) outside the building. My friend and I wandered around trying to find out what was going on and she discovered it was for Wolverine. Then one night I was coming home from pub trivia and I saw a big crowd gathered around the area, which was all lit up. I went over to watch and I saw them do a few takes of some soldiers shooting at an unknown something represented by a green screen. Sadly, no stars were present. I did not get to see Hugh Jackman. It was pretty cool to see a Marvel movie in the flesh, though.

Marvel Movies Project: X-Men

In my first Marvel Movies Project post about Blade, I noted that it was partly Blade the character’s relative obscurity that made Blade the film’s success such a positive step for Marvel on film: if even Blade, 1970s Vampire Hunter, could sell tickets, surely some of Marvel’s really popular characters would do even better.

Enter the X-Men, dominant characters in the world of comics — according to Marvel, they were selling about 30 million X-Men-related comics every year by the time the first film based on the characters was being produced — and beyond: a very popular animated series based on the X-Men comics ran on Fox Kids from 1992 to 1997. According to Wikipedia, it was at least in part the success of the cartoon that inspired 20th Century Fox to buy the film rights to the characters in 1993.

X-Men (2000)

The resulting film was released in 2000. And Fox definitely got the bang they expected from their buck: the world’s most beloved team of mutants’ first foray onto the big screen grossed $54 million on its opening weekend, making poor old Blade‘s previously impressive $70 million total US box office look like a pittance. Ultimately, X-Men brought in about $296 million worldwide, which, okay, doesn’t even put it in the top 10 Marvel movies anymore. But at the time, it was a big deal.

The movie, directed by Bryan Singer, presents the ideological conflict between two mutant leaders who are also old friends: Magneto (the awesome Ian McKellen) and Professor Charles Xavier (the also awesome Patrick Stewart). Magneto, much like Deacon Frost in Blade, wants to see humans subjugated to a superior race — in this case, mutants. He believes regular humans will never accept mutants, so mutants must claim their rightful place in the world by force. Professor Xavier, meanwhile, remains hopeful that someday mutants and humans can coexist in peace and wants to to work with human leaders to achieve that goal. Professor X runs a school for “gifted” (mutant) children, where the teachers include X-Men team members Scott “Cyclops” Summers, Jean Grey, and Ororo “Storm” Munroe. Wolverine and Rogue come to the school after the X-Men rescue them from an attack by Magneto’s crew. Eventually, the team realizes that Magneto has a plan to turn many world leaders into mutants — and that Rogue is the key piece in his plan.

I re-watched X-Men last week for this project, but — unlike Blade, which I hadn’t watched since it first came out — I’ve seen the movie several times. In fact, X-Men was one of the DVDs I bought on the day I bought my first DVD player (along with The Matrix and season one of Buffy), which is to say that I really like this film. I think it does a great job of introducing the viewer to the world of mutants by showing Magneto and Rogue’s frightening origin stories. The furtive look that passes between Rogue and Wolverine at the bar in Alberta when the story about mutants is on TV also tells us a lot about the kind of secrecy and shame mutants have to deal with. I like the relationship between Rogue and Wolverine as it’s portrayed in the movie. Anna Paquin and Hugh Jackman have good chemistry and both do some nice work with their characters.

Speaking of Hugh Jackman: he has to be considered one of the best Marvel movie actors. I can’t prove this, but I’m going to go ahead and say everyone loves Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Why? Because despite being a full foot taller than Wolverine, and despite doing a lot of musical theatre, which I can’t help feeling Wolverine would disapprove of (I, on the other hand, can’t wait to see Les Mis), and despite not actually being Canadian (a serious flaw) — despite having all those obstacles to overcome … he’s bloody fantastic. Plus, he’s played the role five times so far (including his best-part-of-the-movie two-second cameo in X-Men: First Class) with two more projects in development, according to IMDb (The Wolverine, which is in production now, and the First Class sequel X-Men: Days of Future Past). That, my friends — that is dedication.

Thumbs up for Hugh Jackman.

One of the truly interesting pieces of X-Men movie trivia is how close we came to being deprived of this extended run of cinematic excellence. Russell Crowe, soon to be seen as Jackman’s nemesis in Les Misérables, was originally offered the role of Wolverine, but he wanted too much money so they went with Dougray Scott. From Entertainment Weekly:

Singer […] was set to roll last summer [1999]. Then came the monkey wrenches. First there was Fox’s decision to move X-Men from Xmas 2000 up to July 14, putting pressure on Singer to get the film into postproduction as quickly as possible, since it required more than 500 special effects. Complicating matters was actor Dougray Scott, originally cast as Wolverine, whose availability became increasingly doubtful as shooting on M:I-2 ran long. Singer was forced to start filming in September without him, and ultimately Scott had to drop out. It wasn’t until late October that Singer got Scott’s replacement: Hugh Jackman, a charismatic Aussie coming off Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed London stage production of Oklahoma!

There is probably some horrific, Fringe-like alternative timeline in which Fox never moved up the release date and now Dougray Scott is playing Jean Valjean.