Marvel Studios’ Guardians Of The Galaxy will hit cinemas August 1st, a movie that marks the next step in expanding the already vast Marvel Cinematic Universe, a realm populated by the earth-dwelling Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America and the slightly more intergalactic Thor. The studio’s efforts to create a shared space in which these heroes could have their solo adventures and would eventually team up payed off greatly with Marvel’s The Avengers, the movie that marked the end of the first phase of Marvel Studios’ plan and set up the next, to be concluded with Avengers: Age Of Ultron, a film with a May 1st 2015 release date. To ease the wait for Guardians Of The Galaxy and more news regarding Phase 3 films such as Ant-Man, Captain America 3 and Doctor Strange, here’s a list that takes a look back at the achievements spearheaded by Marvel Studios’ Kevin Feige and company, a list that singles out the five most rewarding MCU experiences.
5. The Incredible Hulk While 2008’s The Incredible Hulk wasn’t a big hit with audiences, it tells a well-crafted story of a man on the run from the authorities while struggling with his dark side. Bruce Banner, portrayed here by Edward Norton, is hiding in Rio de Janeiro at the start of the film, working hard on keeping the green and mean monster inside of him in check and searching for a cure. He’s a man doomed to leave a sober life, who has left everything behind to protect his loved ones from the Hulk. When an old nemesis arrives Banner’s forced to face the devil on his back though, and maybe even learn to control him. It’s Norton’s performance here that carries the movie: his Banner is always restrained, extremely guarded in an effort to keep his inner rage from bubbling up. This haunted turn really pulls you in and, additionally, the movie really takes its time to illustrate what Banner’s life like, making sure the main character is interesting, compelling and believable before it serves up some great action moments: a chase through the Brazilian favelas, a factory shoot-out that expertly uses monster film tropes and a final clash that pulls out all the stops.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
Marvel Studios has never been afraid to take some chances, and with 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger the studio did not just deliver a superhero film: it also delivered a World War II epic and an adventure film that harkened back to the tone of the original Indiana Jones trilogy. As it turned out the film’s genre blend worked extremely well and in Chris Evans Marvel found the perfect actor to make their hero sympathetic instead of vanilla, something that’s crucial to Captain America, a hero who has to come off as someone who carries the best traits humanity has to offer but who’s still a person and not a bland archetype. Evans made Steve Rogers a warm, vulnerable and honest man, a guy it’s very easy to root for, and by doing so he anchored a film with magic-wielding Nazis and a deliciously evil villain, called the Red Skull. While the film’s action wasn’t its strongest suit, its characters proved to be very compelling and its ending was quite the tearjerker. In retrospect The First Avenger expertly set up Marvel’s The Avengers and The Winter Soldier, quite the example of effective universe-building without hitting you over the head with it, like Iron Man 2 did. Furthermore the character of Peggy Carter turned out to be very popular with fans, so popular that, now, she’s getting her own television show; another win for the strong female characters that populate Marvel films but are still shockingly absent from most other blockbuster movies.
3. Iron Man 3
Many fans hated 2013’s Iron Man 3: they wanted more Tony-in-suit action and thought that, tonally, it was quite the departure and one for the worse. Additionally comic book fans threw a fit because of a daring surprise twist that played fast and loose with a huge and beloved comics character. It was too out of the box for most, but that’s exactly why others like it so much: Iron Man 3 was a breath of fresh air and it also showed audiences that Marvel Studios was willing to give a screenwriter and director some creative freedom. The movie starts with a voice-over, at a New Year’s Eve party, with Eiffel 65’s ‘Blue’ booming out of the speakers, and, later on, there’s even some buddy cop action. Right from the start it’s evident that director Shane Black and writer Drew Pearce really had fun with the superhero genre while writing the script, but also tried to cater to Black’s strengths, something that worked incredibly well for the end result. While Iron Man 3 to this date is the most direct follow-up to The Avengers, it’s also off-beat, darkly funny and it oozes Black’s signature style. And, let’s be honest here: the action in the film is also nothing short of breathtaking, using Tony Stark’s new tech to full effect and, for the first time in the Iron Man franchise, doesn’t resort to a robot suit on robot suit finale. The mansion infiltration scene in which Tony has to rely on his wits and improvisation skills instead one of on his expensive gadgets, may in fact rank as one of the movie’s coolest moments and also serves as a great reminder of Stark’s brilliance and character.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Much like the first Cap film, this year’s The Winter Soldier isn’t just a superhero film: it’s also a political thriller that evokes memories of the type of movies made in the ’70s. This right out of the gate makes for an interesting proposition: how would a hero as uncompromising and straightforward as Captain America find his way and take his place in a very nebulous world? The movie treats this question in many interesting ways, while it also delivers some great action set pieces and even genuine tension: the movie’s antagonist and Cap’s new circumstances really convince you that anything could happen at any time and that no one is safe. As if that isn’t enough this sequel also makes it its business to alter the entire state of the MCU, something which will be explored further in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. In short: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a movie that takes risks, poses interesting questions, develops its interesting cast of characters and makes sure there’s also plenty of action to keep your jaw on the floor. As I put it in my review: “it’s this seamless integration of all the different components the film has to offer that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier such an accomplishment.”
1. Marvel’s The Avengers
I also wrote the following in that same review: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier may be Marvel Studios’ best film yet.” While that movie is incredibly well-made, and in that regard it tops Marvel’s The Avengers, it doesn’t offer you the unique sight of Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye teaming up to take down a colossal threat. Joss Whedon’s film did and, for comic book movies, it was quite the historic moment to see these characters cross over. But it’s important to note it didn’t just throw these characters in for the sake of having them show up together: it also managed to make their interactions incredibly fun and interesting to watch, hardly a surprise with Whedon at the helm, a man famous for working with great ensemble casts and spunky dialogue. Assembling the Avengers made for more compelling character moments and developments, showed you sides to these characters you hadn’t seen before in their solo outings, and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk proved to be even better than Norton’s portrayal had been: Ruffalo conveyed the same angst and gravitas, but also brought a warmth to the character that was largely absent from The Incredible Hulk‘s more cerebral and fevered take on Banner. The Avengers also took Thor‘s Loki and ran with him, resulting in one of the best supervillain portrayals to ever grace the screen, thanks to the writing and Tom Hiddleston’s magnetic take and presence. To top that off the movie’s climax delivered all the wow moments you want from a blockbuster starring your favorite superheroes. Flawless entertainment is what we wanted, and that’s exactly what we got.
Will this list change in the future? That’s very likely: the imminent Guardians Of The Galaxy looks extremely promising and next year’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron is going to try and top the experience offered by its direct predecessor. But for now, these are my picks. But how about you? Agree? Disagree? What would your five choices be? Comment below and let me know. And, if your still not sold on Guardians, check out this past column of mine which goes into a bit more detail regarding why I am looking forward to it so much.