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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!

127 Hours & The Bog People Moment

Movie Review: 127 Hours
Directed by Danny Boyle. Starring James Franco.

WARNING: This review contains spoilers!

If you’ve heard anything about 127 Hours, then you know it’s not like most other movies. Based on the true story of Aron Ralston, who went for a hike one day in the canyons of Utah and came back minus his right arm, 127 Hours is basically a one-man show: there are other actors in the film (including Amber Tamblyn, Kate Mara, and Clémence Poésy), but it’s James Franco as Ralston who fills most of the screentime. Franco does a great job of keeping the movie interesting with no one but his character’s video camera to play off of for large chunks of time.

The most talked-about part of the movie is no doubt the scene in which Ralston finally decides to amputate his own arm in order to escape. I heard those Exorcist-type rumours about people fainting because the scene was so graphic; however, I didn’t have a problem with it. Oh, it was definitely graphic, but unless you have a very low tolerance for gore it shouldn’t scar you for life. By the time he started to cut, I was almost too impressed by the determination he showed to overcome the many difficulties of his situation to be grossed out.  To me, the most difficult scene to watch was one in which Ralston becomes overwhelmed by the sound of his own rapidly beating heart, which the audience also hears. The sound really helped to create the sense of claustrophobia and panic Ralston must have felt at that moment.

Although I didn’t care for Slumdog Millionaire, I have liked just about every other Danny Boyle movie I’ve seen. Slumdog was described by a lot of reviewers as “kinetic,” and the bulk of 127 Hours is definitely not that. It is largely stationary, as of course the main character spends almost the entire movie completely immobilized. But we also see glimpses of Ralston’s inner life — the hallucinations and memories that keep him going while he’s trapped — so it doesn’t end up being just an hour and a half of a guy stuck in a cave. Having said that, Franco is engaging enough that an hour and a half of a guy stuck in a cave would probably have been quite entertaining in this case.

Of the other Danny Boyle films I’ve seen, 127 Hours shares the most in common with The Beach, which was in my opinion a very underrated movie. It’s also about a young man who goes into nature expecting something idyllic and finds something very frightening instead. One other movie that seems like an obvious point of comparison is 2007’s Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn. Into the Wild was also based on a true story: that of Chris McCandless (played in the movie by Emile Hirsch), who gave up on civilization to go live in the wilds of Alaska, took almost no food or supplies with him, and — unsurprisingly — ended up dying of starvation. I was not a fan of Into the Wild. I felt the movie portrayed McCandless’ foolishness as admirable, turning someone who was essentially kind of an idiot into a hero. 127 Hours takes the opposite approach, making a big deal out of the fact that Ralston could have avoided his entire situation had he simply told someone where he was going. The movie even includes a funny scene in which Ralston conducts a fake interview with himself and mocks the series of idiotic decisions that led him to his predicament. To me, this made Ralston a much more sympathetic figure than McCandless could have been.

The Bog People Moment

You know how sometimes you’re watching a movie or a TV show, and something happens that makes you think of something else completely unrelated? Then the connection makes you laugh, and the thing  you’re watching suddenly becomes hilarious, even if it’s in fact very, very serious. I call this the “Bog People Moment,” after an incident that occurred when I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. There’s a scene early in that movie where Frodo and Sam pass through the Dead Marshes, and Frodo sees the bodies of dead warriors just under the surface of the marsh. When I saw the movie, the Museum of Civilization was heavily advertising and exhibit called “The Mysterious Bog People,” which featured, among other things, the bodies of ancient people which had been preserved in bogs. When Frodo saw the bodies, I turned to my friend and said “Bog people!” And from that moment on I could not take the movie seriously.

127 Hours also featured such a moment at the very end, when text on screen presented an epilogue telling us how Aron Ralston’s life changed after his accident. One change: now when he goes out climbing, he always leaves a note. I could not help thinking of Arrested Development and J. Walter Weatherman, the one-armed man George Bluth liked to use to scare various lessons into his children by suggesting that their failure to do certain things had caused this man to lose his arm. One such lesson? “And that‘s why you always leave a note!” I always thought George Sr. was exaggerating with this stuff. Now I know better.

While I do feel like a horrible, insensitive person for thinking this way about a very serious thing that actually happened to someone, I’m fairly sure any Arrested Development fan would have had the same thought — completely involuntarily, too. That’s the insidious nature of the Bog People Moment: you can’t help thinking it and once you’ve thought it, it can’t be unthought.