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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 Origins: Wolverine

Movie poster for X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

Hugh Jackman is back for a fourth go-round as Wolverine in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). As the title suggests, this film focuses on Wolverine’s origins, which were previously hinted at in X2. Here, we see younger versions of several familiar characters as Wolverine becomes “Weapon X” and gets his skeleton upgraded from bone to adamantium.

Our story begins in northern Canada in 1845 because it turns out Wolverine is really that old, as is Sabretooth, apparently. In a surprise twist, Sabretooth, here going by his real name, Victor Creed, turns out to be Wolverine’s brother: in this version of events, it is revealed that Victor’s father is also Wolverine’s real father, even though Wolverine’s fake father is played by an actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hugh Jackman. Alright then.

After fathers real and fake both end up dead during a household dispute, Wolverine and Victor go on the run together. They become brothers in arms as well as in blood, and fight together in several wars: the US Civil War (despite being Canadian), World War I, World War II (they probably knew Captain America!), and finally Vietnam (again despite being Canadian). In Vietnam they meet Stryker — familiar to the audience from X2 — who invites them to be a part of an elite team of assassins, all of whom have “special skills,” which is to say they’re mutants. Wolverine becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the group’s activities and ultimately quits.

One of the countless pieces of useful life knowledge I’ve picked up from TV and the movies is that you should never join an elite team of assassins because chances are good that someday someone is going to decide it’s too risky to keep you alive. Indeed, this is what happens: Victor starts killing off the members of his old crew one by one. Wolverine has established a new life for himself back in his old Canadian stomping grounds: he’s a lumberjack, and he’s ok. But when Victor shows up and kills his lady love, Wolverine agrees to a deal with Stryker that will turn him into a stronger soldier and allow him to get revenge on Victor. And the rest is history.

The cast of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is large and includes some fairly big names, both real and fictional. A few well-known mutants — notably, Scott Summers, Emma Frost, and (surprise!) Professor X — appear briefly. In terms of celebrities from the real world, there’s multi-platinum recording artist will.i.am as John Wraith and Ryan Reynolds, here making his second attempt at a comic book movie, as Wade “Deadpool” Wilson. Poor Ryan Reynolds. Of all his superhero-related efforts, this is probably the best if only because Blade: Trinity and Green Lantern are both so wretchedly awful. Personally, I hate Deadpool in any form so I did not enjoy his performance here.

Also in the cast are a couple of actors known and beloved by certain audiences for their roles in iconic series: Dominic Monaghan — Merry in the Lord of the Rings movies and also Charlie on Lost — and Taylor Kitsch, who will always be Friday Night Lights‘ Tim Riggins to me. At the time Wolverine was released, I was really excited about the prospect of Riggins in an important role in this movie. It was disappointing, then, to find out how little screentime he actually has.

Most of the cast’s roles, in fact, are little more than cameos. But given the calibre of the people involved, it feels like this film was cast as an ensemble piece. Perhaps because of its association with the team-oriented X-Men movies, it was also marketed that way to an extent, with some of the posters featuring multiple characters. In reality, it’s almost a one-man show, with only Liev Schreiber (Victor) and Danny Huston (Stryker) coming anywhere close to matching Hugh Jackman’s screentime (oddly enough, Huston didn’t feature on any posters). To be fair, a one man show is what the title suggests.

But the result of having all these characters floating around not doing much is that the film suffers from a bit of overcrowding. It’s not as bad as X-Men: The Last Stand because all the minor characters are presented as, well, minor characters. Wolverine‘s problem is more comparable to the introduction of Gwen and Captain Stacy in Spider-Man 3: why hype the known names if you’re not going to use them?

Still, the movie is entertaining enough in a mindless sort of way. More notable from my perspective than the movie itself is the fact that I saw it being filmed. I was a student at the University of British Columbia when Wolverine was filming in Vancouver. The part about 10 minutes into the movie where Stryker’s team attacks a compound in Nigeria to find out where the adamantium comes from was filmed on campus, right outside the building where I had all my classes.

Image from X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

They built a shantytown set like you see in that image (although in reality it wasn’t as big) outside the building. My friend and I wandered around trying to find out what was going on and she discovered it was for Wolverine. Then one night I was coming home from pub trivia and I saw a big crowd gathered around the area, which was all lit up. I went over to watch and I saw them do a few takes of some soldiers shooting at an unknown something represented by a green screen. Sadly, no stars were present. I did not get to see Hugh Jackman. It was pretty cool to see a Marvel movie in the flesh, though.

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.

Marvel Movies Project: X2

X2 movie poster

X2 (2003), aka X-Men 2: X-Men United, is a great movie. We’ve got the director of X-Men, Bryan Singer, directing essentially the same cast, playing the same characters we met in that first film: it’s a world we’ve already been introduced to, so X2 is able to dive right into the action — which it does fairly spectacularly, with the amazingly choreographed and CGI-ed opening sequence featuring the attack on the President of the United States by the teleporting German mutant Kurt Wagner (whose circus name is Nightcrawler). This is but the first of many brilliant action setpieces in X2. My favourite is probably the one where soldiers attack Xavier’s school while all the X-Men are away from home and Wolverine is babysitting. Talk about bad timing — for the soldiers, that is.

Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler is one of a few major new additions to the cast. He’s terrific, and I must note what a trip it was to see him in full blue again after having watched him as the forever-suit-and-tie-wearing Eli Gold on The Good Wife for the last three years or so.

Same guy? Same guy.

The other important new castmembers are the always excellent Brian Cox as William Stryker, Aaron Stanford as Pyro, and Kelly Hu as Lady Deathstrike. All the new additions work well; Lady Deathstrike is perhaps less well-used than some, but her fight scene with Wolverine is memorable, as is her horrific death by adamantium.

A couple of characters from the first film also take on larger roles in the sequel: Shawn Ashmore as Bobby “Iceman” Drake, boyfriend of Anna Paquin’s Rogue, and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. Mystique wasn’t exactly invisible in X-Men, but I feel Rebecca Romijn gets more of a chance to shine in X2 as Mystique is clearly shown to be Magneto’s right-hand woman, and valuable for more than just her mutant power. Iceman, who really only had a cameo in the first film, is much more prominent here; the scenes featuring the “younger generation” — Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro — are integral to the plot, and each gets some good character moments. The scene that takes place at Bobby Drake’s house is classic, as his parents try to deal with the revelation that their son isn’t just really smart. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” his mother asks, calling to mind the real life struggles of GLBQT people (as well as a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). According to Bryan Singer, it was this metaphorical element of the story that drew Ian McKellen to the role of Magneto in the first place. From the Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex blog:

As for Ian, he liked the idea of the movie because of the gay allegory — the allegory of the mutants as outsiders, disenfranchised and alone and coming to all of that at puberty when their ‘difference’ manifests. Ian is activist and he reality responded to the potential of that allegory.

Strangely enough, I sometimes find it harder to write about the movies I really love than the ones I’m not so crazy about. At this point, I’m kind of running out of things to say about X2 other than “it’s awesome,” so I will tell you a little story about the first time I saw this film in theatre. About half way through the movie, I started to feel a need … a need to have peed. Problem: the movie was so good I didn’t want to miss anything. So, I held it. And held it. I really, really had to go. I was just trying not to think about it, but it became a little bit hard to avoid what with the climax of the film featuring a dam bursting. Luckily, the flooding only happened on screen.

Next film in the series is Ang Lee’s take on the enormous green rage monster in Hulk. I didn’t like this movie much at the time, so I’ll be interested to see if my feelings have changed.