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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: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Movie poster for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012).

Nicolas Cage returns as Johnny Blaze in 2012’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, the sequel to Ghost Rider, which came out in 2007. Five years between movies … I don’t know; maybe this indicates that a Ghost Rider sequel was not all that necessary? Cage is the only cast member from the first movie to return, which, again, might suggest that perhaps they could have skipped this one. Peter Fonda said back in 2007 that he’d be willing to play the Devil in a sequel, but maybe he changed his mind. Or it’s possible he was joking, seeing as this is what he said: “I hope so! It would be a huge payday.”

Yes … well. The generally admirable Ciarán Hinds steps into Fonda’s role. The equally excellent Idris Elba also co-stars for some reason along with some randoms. Anthony Stewart Head — Giles from Buffy! — briefly appears, making me sad that he doesn’t have a better movie career.

The story involves the antichrist. It climaxes with the apparent death of the devil and then, poof, the movie’s over, just like that. No extended denouement here. The whole thing is directed with a fair bit of shakycam and stylized camera angles that seem bizarre until you realize it was shot for 3D, which is fitting since 3D is as pointless a technology as this is a film.

This movie and Punisher: War Zone were both released under the “Marvel Knights” line, which focuses on the darker, more mature Marvel stories. So far I’m not impressed. Maybe now that Marvel has the rights to Daredevil back we’ll see them try out a Marvel Knights version of the character. That could be interesting. The rights to Ghost Rider, meanwhile, remain with Sony/Columbia; however, Nicolas Cage said last month that he believes he is done with the series. That’s a shame.

The most notable thing about this movie for me is Idris Elba joining the relatively short list of actors who’ve played more than one character in the Marvel movieverse. Here’s a visual survey of that illustrious company:

Collage of actors who've played more than one Marvel character in the movies.

Chris Evans as Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Captain America in Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers; Ryan Reynolds as Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity and Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine; Rebecca Romijn as Mystique in X-Men, X2, X-Men: The Last Stand, and briefly in X-Men: First Class, and Joan in The Punisher; Ray Stevenson as Frank Castle in Punisher: War Zone and Volstagg in Thor; Idris Elba as Heimdall in Thor and Moreau in Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance; Jon Favreau as Foggy Nelson in Daredevil and Happy Hogan in Iron Man and Iron Man 2, both of which he also directed; Ben Foster as Spacker Dave in The Punisher and Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand; and Sam Elliott as General Thunderbolt Ross in Hulk and Carter Slade in Ghost Rider.

Did I miss anyone (other than Stan Lee)?

The awards for most impressive physical transformation have to go to Rebecca Romijn (obviously) and Ray Stevenson. The man is Volstagg and The Punisher — an impressive feat.

Marvel Movies Project: Punisher: War Zone

Movie poster for Punisher: War Zone (2008).

Like The Incredible Hulk, Punisher: War Zone (2008) is a reboot. Thomas Jane is out as Frank Castle, replaced by Ray Stevenson. In The Punisher, Castle was an undercover cop whose entire family, including his wife and son, was killed in revenge for the death of a mobster’s son; in this version of events, Castle’s wife and two children are murdered after the family witnesses a mob execution during the worst family picnic ever.

Also like The Incredible Hulk, though, Punisher: War Zone largely skips over its protagonist’s origin story, only providing bits and pieces through explanatory dialogue and some brief flashbacks. Again, we get the feeling we’re supposed to come into the movie with prior knowledge of who this guy is and an understanding of his mission statement. That mission, of course, is killing criminals — specifically, the members of mafia crime families.

Enter Dominic West doing a very bad Italian-American accent as “Bobby the Beaut,” an extremely vain mobster who falls into a vat of broken glass; due to the resulting facial scarring, he renames himself Jigsaw. He and his brother, Loony Bin Jim (Dough Hutchison, who will always be Tooms from The X-Files to me), are the cartoonishly horrible bad guys in this film. First Omar shows up in The Incredible Hulk, now we’ve got McNulty in this movie: The Wire fan in me is loving this trend. Speaking of classic HBO, I’ve been having a bit of a Sopranos marathon lately, which made the mobsters in this movie feel even more exaggerated than they already are.

In a raid on one of Bobby/Jigsaw’s hideouts, The Punisher accidentally kills an undercover FBI agent. He feels immensely guilty over this and tries to make up for it by protecting the agent’s wife and daughter when Jigsaw’s crew goes after them. In an interesting bit of casting, Julie Benz, known to many as Rita from Dexter (and also Darla from Buffy and Angel), plays the wife. Dexter Morgan, the serial killer who only kills criminals who escape justice, is of course very similar to The Punisher in a lot of ways. (Ray Stevenson has also appeared on Dexter since this film was made.)

My main complaint about the first Punisher movie was that it made almost no attempt to deal with the character’s moral ambiguity. Punisher: War Zone does a slightly better job of at least raising the issue, but ultimately it pretty much lets him off the hook, with Benz’s character telling him he’s “one of the good guys” and an ending that seems to compare Frank Castle to Jesus!? Right then. It occurs to me that Dexter might provide a good model for any future Punisher-related projects. The show is masterful at making the audience think of Dexter as the hero while also reminding us how messed up it is that we think of him that way. Both Punisher movies have leaned too close to the side of glorifying him for my taste.

This one is also a little too violent for me. Never before have I seen a movie with so many exploding heads in it. I am generally not that bothered by violence, but this was excessive to the point that I felt a little sick to my stomach. I also feel this film suffers from the same mixed tone issues that sunk Daredevil. On the one hand, Frank Castle is the dark, broody, stoic hero. On the other hand, the villains are all totally outlandish. It doesn’t quite gel.

Apparently, the movie rights for The Punisher are now back with Marvel and there are plans to put him on screen in some form again, or at least there were in 2010. Call me crazy, but I think it would be possible to do a really excellent, high class Punisher movie or TV series. I’d use Dexter as a model, and I’d go with a more serious tone: No Country for Old Men comes to mind as something to emulate. (Ok, maybe I really am crazy.)

Alternatively, get Quentin Tarantino to direct the next one. That’s a match made in heaven right there.