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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 3

Movie poster for Spider-Man 3 (2007).

Given my extreme love of/obsession with Spider-Man 2, I was just about ready to burst with anticipation for Spider-Man 3 back in 2007. I’m sure I drove everyone around me crazy talking about it, counting down to it, analysing the trailers and ads … oh boy. My excitement took a hit when I first saw the ad which revealed that it was actually Flint Marko, the Sandman, who’d killed Uncle Ben, and not the thief we saw in Spider-Man. A major retcon like that screams trouble. Still, I really wanted to love this movie. Unfortunately, I do not. There are things I like about it, but it has so many problems.

First of all, they try to introduce too many new characters. Eddie Brock. Flint Marko. Gwen Stacy. Captain Stacy. The weird-ass alien symbiote. The big issue for me is: why did they bother introducing Gwen and Captain Stacy at all? They’re both such iconic characters that anyone who knew anything about Spider-Man comics would hear their names and think, wow! And then neither one of them does anything very interesting. Captain Stacy is barely there. Gwen is more important to the plot, but she could have been replaced with literally any other girl in the entire world and Spidey’s upside down kiss with her right in front of Mary Jane would have seemed just as cruel.

A related issue is that Spider-Man 3 has too many villains. Not only that, two of these villains are new characters with new backstories that have to be explained. Harry’s turn to the dark side makes sense; it’s something the filmmakers had been building towards since the end of Spider-Man. I can accept the addition of one new villain on top of Harry, but two is excessive, especially when Peter himself is fairly villainous for a large part of the film. The Sandman, although I hate almost everything about his backstory in this movie, is the more developed of the two new villains. Eddie Brock and Venom are completely shoehorned in. Venom does not even appear until 104 minutes into the movie, and he’s dead 20 minutes later. What was the point? There isn’t one.

With all of these new characters, the movie ends up feeling extremely cluttered. So why would they try to cram all these people into this movie? According to Sam Raimi, it was the producers’ idea. Thank you for that, Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin.

But we can’t blame everything on the overabundance of characters. There are plenty of other problems. Harry’s venture into supervillainy starts out looking like a promising plot development and the first fight sequence between him and Peter is an excellent action setpiece. Unfortunately, the fight ends with a bump on the head and one of the world’s most cliched soap opera plot devices: amnesia. Argh! They spend all that time building up Harry’s hatred of Spider-Man and then undo it with a single blow. Making things worse, it’s a pointless case of amnesia because Harry later gets his memory back. Here’s what I suggest if they ever decide to re-edit this movie and make it not suck: Harry pretends to forgive Peter, but actually works against him through the entire movie. See? Isn’t that more interesting?

I also don’t like that they use Peter/Spidey’s sudden success as the main source of conflict between him and Mary Jane. The ending of Spider-Man 2 set up that the couple would have problems, but I think the suggestion was that Mary Jane would simply find the stresses of being a superhero’s girlfriend — worry, constant danger, always being left behind — hard to handle. That alone could have worked to create drama (as it has in the comics) and it would have been very natural; adding this new dynamic of Peter high/MJ low feels overdone.

Speaking of overdone, Peter’s out of control ego is the most overblown thing about this film, and leads to its most cringe-worthy moments. There are a couple of interesting articles in defense of this aspect of Spider-Man 3: Devin Faraci’s Badass Digest post on the movie’s dance scenes is a good read, and it makes a lot of sense; Entertainment Weekly picks up the same theme. Both argue that “Dark Peter” is so ridiculous because the concept of “Dark Peter” is simply ridiculous: emo hair and douchey dance moves are about as evil as dorky, decent Peter Parker gets. It is possible that with Spider-Man 3, Sam Raimi was almost trying to parody the idea of the gritty superhero movie. I can see that, and it makes sense especially given that we know Raimi didn’t particularly want to make a movie about Venom.

If this was in fact Raimi’s intention, I can relate to it: I also don’t much like gritty superhero movies (except in cases where the character’s nature calls for it — Daredevil, for instance, wasn’t gritty enough), and I am particularly annoyed by the fact that for many people, gritty equals good. A big part of the reason I love the first two Spidey films is that they are not gritty. They are heartfelt movies based on fairly normal, everyday life emotions: Peter’s guilt over his uncle’s death, his simple desire for Mary Jane to love him back, and his anxiety about finding his true path in life are things I think many people can relate to. This everyman quality is and always has been pretty much the entire point of Spider-Man.

Peter’s sudden superstar status takes all that away. And this is my major problem with the whole Dark Peter storyline. Even if it is an intentional parody, in doing it, the filmmakers destroyed everything that made the first two movies good.

As the Entertainment Weekly article I linked above points out, with Peter off making public appearances and becoming totally absorbed in his own hype, Mary Jane becomes by far the most sympathetic character in the film. I like her storyline in Spider-Man 3, probably because it’s the most in keeping with what these movies had been up to this point: she’s a young woman struggling fairly realistically in her chosen career.

Imagine if they had had Peter continue on a similar path as well: Peter and Mary Jane, now in a relationship but both struggling to make ends meet, on top of Mary Jane’s uncertainty about the whole Spider-Man thing, plus Harry working against them in secret, and (even though I don’t like this storyline) Peter discovering that the man who killed Uncle Ben was still out there … sounds like a pretty good movie to me. If they really had to include the symbiote, there’s enough potential for darkness in that scenario without turning Peter into a raging narcissistic megadouche: instead of making him even more of a self-centred jackass, the symbiote would play off Peter’s insecurities and anger about the Sandman. Rather than introducing and immediately killing Venom in this film, they could have waited and shown him right at the end. This is an awesome setup Spider-Man 4, and shazam. Franchise saved. You’re welcome.

Ah, what might have been.

There’s so much other bad stuff I could discuss — the massive amount of the plot that relies on coincidence (symbiote on a scooter, convenient butler), the terrible Greek chorus of TV reporters at the final battle, the questionable CGI, the misuse of the Daily Bugle staff, the failure to make the most of the Sandman — but I will leave it here. If Raimi and co. had stayed on the course they laid out for themselves with Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, they could have made the best superhero trilogy (or maybe even quadrilogy) of all time. But they didn’t. It’s a real shame.

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.