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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: Spider-Man

Spider-Man (2002) movie poster

Who am I? You sure you wanna know? The story of my life is not for the faint of heart. If somebody said it was a happy little tale, if somebody told you I was just your average ordinary guy, not a care in the world … somebody lied.

So begins Spider-Man (2002), the absolutely excellent first film about Marvel’s flagship costumed character. But let me assure you: this film, like most superhero films worth watching, is all about the man behind the mask. In this case, that man is Peter Parker, played by Tobey Maguire. Peter, aside from being a superhero, is also a nerdy high school student who lives with his elderly aunt and uncle. One day during a school science field trip, Peter is bitten by a genetically-enhanced spider and develops many spider-like abilities. After inadvertently causing the death of his beloved Uncle Ben through inaction, Peter decides to use his powers for good. Uncle Ben’s words — “With great power comes great responsibility” — become Spider-Man’s crime-fighting mantra. Meanwhile, Peter must also deal with more normal problems, such as the fact that he’s in love with the girl next door. That girl, Mary Jane Watson (oh, boy), is unfortunately also admired by more popular and less geeky guys like the school bully Flash Thompson and Peter’s best friend, Harry Osborn, whose father Norman is not only a billionaire scientist, but also Peter’s arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin.

Spider-Man was easily Marvel’s biggest hit to this point — in fact, it is still the third-highest grossing Marvel movie ever: it made over $800 million worldwide, more than double X-Men‘s gross. And yet, despite the massive success that seemed inevitable given the character’s status as one of the most universally-known superheroes in the world, the movie took a long time to get made.

(As an aside, I wonder which superheroes have the greatest name recognition among the general, non-comic-book-reading public. I have always considered Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man to be a sort of “big three,” with Wonder Woman and the Hulk likely rounding out the top five and Wolverine floating just at the edge of the list. I hesitate to put him in the top five only because my mother, who is probably a pretty good representative of the average person who knows superheroes from their work outside comics, saw a picture of him and had no idea who he was. But of course, the Marvel movies may have changed some of these rankings. You’d have to think Iron Man is pretty well-recognized by now, possibly eclipsing the dormant-outside-comics Wonder Woman among a younger audience. Anyway.)

Like the story of Peter Parker’s life, the story of how Spider-Man came to the big screen is not for the faint of heart. There’s an interesting summary of all the drama at io9, but here are a few of the main points: Marvel had sold the film rights to the character as early as the 1970s. Roger Corman bought Spidey’s rights in 1982, then James Cameron was involved in the early 90s. A few years later, there were lawsuits over which of the several companies who thought they owned the rights actually did: ultimately, it was Marvel. But they sold the rights again — for good, this time (so far) — to Sony in 1999, at which point production finally got started.

I have a book called Spider-Man Confidential: From Comic Icon to Hollywood Hero by Edward Gross. Gross has put together a timeline of developments during the production of Spider-Man, which includes the names of the many actors who were at various points rumoured to be up for the role of Peter Parker. It is a mind-boggling list; some of the possibilities open up a whole world of “what if?” scenarios. A few examples: Jason Schwartzman, Wes Bentley, Nicholas Brendon, Freddie Prinze Jr., Heath Ledger (who was offered the role and turned it down), and Leonardo DiCaprio. In Daredevil #16 from May 2001, Peter Parker looks uncannily like DiCaprio; I’ve often wondered if this was a consequence of the casting rumours. Maybe not, though, because Tobey Maguire was confirmed to have been cast in July 2000. Kirsten Dunst, cast in December 2000, was the last piece of the main cast to be put in place, and filming began in January 2001. The movie was released at long last in May 2002.

This isn’t a perfect movie. The fact that both the hero and the villain wear masks takes away somewhat from their early confrontations. The film also doesn’t do a good job of showing Spider-Man’s wisecracking side.

But those small flaws aside, it’s pretty awesome. Right from the opening credits, featuring Danny Elfman’s excellent score, to the closing credits with the only semi-decent song Chad Kroeger was ever involved in, it is a thoroughly entertaining and satisfying experience. The script has a great balance of comedy and more serious moments, plus it includes some fun stuff like the montage of New Yorkers talking about who they think Spider-Man might be with the nod to the “Spider-Man, Spider-Man” theme tune. Peter’s crush on the unattainable Mary Jane makes for an engaging love story, and the pair’s upside down rain kiss has of course become legendary (even being re-created on one of my favourite TV shows). Sam Raimi’s direction is spectacular: he and the visual effects team bring Spidey to life perfectly in all his webslinging glory.

The early part of the film where Peter is discovering his new abilities is one of the most irresistibly fun sequences in the history of movies; the scenes of Peter chasing down the man who killed his uncle are also excellent. The film so effectively portrays the euphoria of his first climb up the building, and then later, the fear mixed with excitement as he goes after the thief. It also captures the kind of hokey 1960s tone of the early Spidey comics very, very well. It is a completely earnest movie about a good kid who just wants to be responsible. Aunt May and Uncle Ben are like a wonderful pair of kindly, good, old-fashioned grandparents. Peter and Mary Jane’s romance is sweet and innocent, and some of their dialogue is, uh … “corny” seems like an understatement — but it works with the tone of the movie. The purity (for lack of a better word) of their young love is juxtaposed against the ugly and rather disturbing back alley attack on Mary Jane and Norman/the Goblin’s disgusting sexual comments about her.

Willem Dafoe was a solid choice to play Norman — he plays the crazy well. The entire cast is great: James Franco makes Harry pathetic but still likable; Rosemary Harris and Cliff Robertson as May and Ben are the salt of the earth; J.K. Simmons is J. Jonah Jameson from the old 1960s Spider-Man cartoon brought to life; and Kirsten Dunst brings a lot of depth to Mary Jane, whose party girl persona is clearly a cover for the serious low self-esteem issues arising from her home life. I am also a huge fan of Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker. He was basically typecast in “wide-eyed innocent” roles at this point and it serves him well here, in portraying both a hero trying to find his way and a young man whose unaffected admiration makes the girl he loves feel good about herself. Plus, he’s superbly geeky, and much closer to what I’d expect Peter Parker to be like than Andrew Garfield was in The Amazing Spider-Man this year.

I must admit, it’s been a pet peeve of mine that people seem to be so very dismissive of the original Spider-Man now that the completely unnecessary remake “reboot” is out. We all loved this movie for good reason when we first saw it and it has aged well, too. The effects still look good, Sam Raimi is still a great director, and Spider-Man is still the best, most amazing Spider-Man origin movie.

Though, it’s not quite the best Spider-Man movie ever — we’ll talk about that one in a few weeks.