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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: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand movie poster

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) saw a major change for the X-Men franchise: Bryan Singer, who directed both X-Men and X2, left the Marvel Universe and went over to DC to do Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to take over. Singer did such a great job on the first two films. I think it’s fair to say his voice was missed here.

The film picks up an unspecified amount of time after X2 left off, with the team still dealing with Jean’s death. Cyclops in particular is pretty much broken after losing his true love. But then … surprise! She’s not really so dead after all: she reappears mysteriously, kills Cyclops quite unceremoniously (he just disappears from the movie so James Marsden could go with Singer and play the nice guy in Superman Returns), and returns to the X-Mansion where she and her immense power become film’s focus.

We see a flashback to the time Professor X and Magneto (played by heavily airbrushed versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) first visited Jean when she was a child, at which time her power amazed even them. Then we learn that Jean has a split personality, caused by the Professor’s attempts to create roadblocks that prevented her from accessing her full powers. This raises some interesting questions about the morality of mind control. More generally, control and the violation of free will are the major themes of the movie. Wolverine, who has strong feelings on the subject thanks to his own past, is appalled by what the Professor did to Jean, but the Professor strongly feels he acted in her best interests. For her part, Jean seems kind of pissed off. So, she disintegrates Professor X with her mind and goes to join Magneto.

The other big development in the film is the creation of a “cure” for mutation. Some of the mutants see this as a good thing, in particular Rogue, who almost immediately goes off to get cured. If you hadn’t seen any of the other X-Men movies, you might look at Rogue’s actions and think she was just doing it because she was jealous of Bobby’s flirtation with Kitty Pryde. In the context of the series as a whole, though, we know that Rogue has always been uncomfortable with her powers. On the other hand, she seemed to be coping better in X2, and that does make this seem like a step back in her character development. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with her given the extreme nature of her mutation.

But Rogue seems to be in the minority and many other mutants most definitely do not like the idea of being cured. Storm is offended by the very word “cure,” asking “when did we become a disease?” Meanwhile, Magneto is convinced that regular humans will eventually use the cure as a weapon against mutants — and he’s quickly proven right. Magneto’s righthand woman Mystique is among the first victims of the cure as weapon … and he drops her instantly, leaving her lying naked in the road after declaring that she’s no longer “one of us.” Ouch. It’s a sad end for Mystique, who I found to be one of the more interesting characters as I watched the series this time around. I’m not sure whether X-Men: First Class may have altered my perception of her — possibly — but I find her anger at the way the world treats outcasts like her very striking. She’s also extremely competent and smart, and after Magneto abandons her she gets back at him very quickly by giving evidence to the government. Screw you, Magneto.

The cure seems to bring out the worst in everyone, human and mutant alike. Even the X-Men, some of whom have expressed serious reservations about the cure’s very existence, end up using it as a weapon against Magneto. This is at best a morally questionable action. At worst, it’s a huge violation of Magneto’s rights. There’s no way to see it as anything other than massively hypocritical coming from people like Storm, who’s been vocal about her hatred of the cure, and Wolverine, who was so hard on the Professor for his treatment of Jean. And then there’s the end of Jean’s story (presumably), which sees Wolverine kill her to save her from herself after the two re-enact the yellow crayon scene from Buffy. At least she asked him to do it, I guess?

My point is there’s a lot of moral outrage in this movie that doesn’t end up meaning much when characters actually find their philosophies tested. The cure is a complex issue, no doubt, but it just feels as though some characters give up on their principles a little too easily. The whole film feels somewhat garbled, with old characters dying suddenly — at least they stop to mourn Professor Xavier; poor Cyclops’ passing is hardly noticed — or, like Mystique, suffering unsatisfactory endings. New characters like Angel, Colossus, and Kitty show up for a few brief scenes but aren’t well developed. Angel in particular is wasted: a couple of (admittedly very cool) shots of his wings end up being his major contribution to the movie. Kelsey Grammer as Beast is the only one of the new cast members who gets enough screen time to make a strong impression.

All in all, it’s a disappointing ending to this porton of the X-Men series. I leave you with a glimpse at what might have been had Superman Returns never happened (quick answer: we’d all be better off) via Cracked’s article on 6 Famously Terribly Movies That Were Almost Awesome. Interestingly, Bryan Singer has rejoined the world of mutants to direct the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, and has said he’ll used that film to try to “fix” some of what happened in The Last Stand. It’s an intriguing proposition. Hopefully it’ll work out.