Thursday, May 10, 2018

Top Ten Things: Marvel Cinematic Universe Films

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!  This being the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the release of the climactic Avengers: Infinity War (part 1 of 2), I thought I'd take a look at the MCU series and pick my ten favorites.  

Partly inspired by the rebooted Avengers series The Ultimates, the MCU had a rather modest launch in 2008 with the somewhat unexpected smash hit Iron Man (which ONLY pulled in a measly $585 million worldwide).  If you asked me ten years ago if I thought Tony Stark and his suped-up metal rocket suit would become a household name and the central character of a 19-movie series I'd have laughed all up in your face.  The average moviegoer back then hadn't clue fucking one who Iron Man was, aside maybe from "some guy made of iron."  That Marvel was able to take such a comparatively obscure superhero and use him as the backbone of this extended, multi-billion-dollar film series is astonishing.  That a decade later they found even more success with an even more obscure character like Black Panther speaks to how focused and diligent Marvel Studios is in producing quality, crowd-pleasing popcorn film entertainment.  Where most blockbuster film franchises are subject to the law of diminishing creative and commercial returns, Marvel has somehow managed to actually improve on their formula over time, taking this universe in new, unexpected tonal directions and even making pop culture icons out of third and fourth-string comic book characters.  This is a film company with discipline, attention to detail, and a thorough understanding of the dozens of characters involved, plus a comprehensive long-term vision for exploring them.  The result (so far) is $16.5 billion over 19 films.  An incredible accomplishment, and there's much more to come.

But which are the best of the bunch?  Let's count 'em down.....

10. The Avengers: Age of Ultron

While perhaps a bit disappointing compared to its predecessor, the second Avengers film was nonetheless an enjoyable potboiler in the same spirit as the first, with our heroes teaming up to fight an omniscient robot named Ultron.  Created by Tony Stark, Ultron becomes self-aware and goes all Skynet, attempting to destroy humanity to "cleanse" the Earth.  The six Avengers, plus Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Stark's other creation Vision, engage in a battle with Ultron's robot army in Sokovia, where Ultron intends to crash the capital city into the planet to cause an extinction-level event.  AoU is a tad messier than the first Avengers film but still has a lot of fun set pieces, such as the scene where a hypnotized Hulk fights Iron Man in a Hulkbuster suit (reminiscent of a similar sequence in The Ultimates comic book series).  I also liked the new additions to the team, and James Spader as Ultron's voice delivers a delightfully sinister performance.  Age of Ultron is a flawed but worthy culmination of MCU Phase 2.

9. Avengers: Infinity War

The latest MCU epic is the first half of the Phase 3 climax, centered around Thanos's plot to acquire the six Infinity stones, allowing him to eradicate half of all life in the universe and "restore balance."  The Avengers have put their Civil War aside to stand in Thanos's way, assisted by the Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, Spider-Man and Black Panther.  Nearly every established MCU character is present in this 150-minute film, and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a pretty stellar job of making this overcrowded movie work, while leaving lots unresolved for the second half.  As a standalone film it's hard to judge Infinity War, but as part 1 of a season finale of sorts, this is pretty damn good stuff that mixes exciting action, heavy thematic and character elements, and signature MCU comedy moments.  Overall it's an affirmation that the Marvel film series is in very capable hands.

For a more in-depth look at Infinity War, click HERE.

8. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Leave it to Marvel Studios to do what, for me at least, Sony never could: produce a Spider-Man movie that really captures the character as presented in the comics, starring an actor who fully nails the portrayal.  The third film incarnation of the web-slinger in 15 years, Homecoming stars Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spidey and expands on his brief appearance in Civil War.  Parker was thrilled to assist the Avengers and has been pestering Tony Stark and his right-hand man Happy Hogan ever since, hoping to officially join the team.  Stark insists Parker isn't ready to be a full-fledged member and urges him to stay in school while fighting small-scale neighborhood crime.  Where his movie forerunners were either overly dorky (Tobey Maguire) or overly emo (James Garfield), Holland is note-perfect in this role, finding just the right mix of smart-aleck geekdom and naive enthusiasm.  Just as much of a standout though is Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes (The Vulture), a city contractor who has a very valid beef with Stark Industries and begins selling advanced weapons fashioned from Chitauri technology (recovered from Loki's 2012 attack on New York).  Keaton is legitimately scary as the film's villain, particularly in a scene where he and Peter each realize who the other is.  Homecoming is everything one could want out of a Spider-Man film, improving immensely on the two previous versions and tying in nicely with the larger movie arc.

7. The Avengers

The long-awaited climax of MCU Phase 1 turned out to be one of the most purely fun popcorn movies in many years.  Helmed by Joss Whedon, The Avengers was a refreshing callback to a time when summer action movies were all about exhilaration and escapism.  The deftly assembled (no pun intended) Marvel team-up blockbuster combined the already established major characters in such a way that we didn't need to spend much time on expository scenes (that was done in the previous films) and were able to get right to the meat of the story and how these characters interacted with each other.  Whedon managed to fit all these larger-than-life personalities into one film without it becoming overcrowded, and kept the action set pieces fairly simple but memorable, resisting the temptation to make them overly long and tedious.  Looking back it's amazing how few major action sequences are in this movie - most of it involves the characters getting to know each other and their personality quirks.  Plus this film found the right balance for the Banner/Hulk character, between Ang Lee's heavy 2003 drama and the 2008 Edward Norton action vehicle.  Not surprisingly The Avengers was a monumental smash hit, becoming the third-highest grossing film of all time in 2012 and showing everyone what a superhero team-up movie should be.

6. Guardians of the Galaxy

Here's a movie I thought I'd hate.  When the first GOTG trailers were released it looked like Marvel had lost their minds and veered into dumb screwball comedy.  First off, who the hell are Starlord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot??  Why am I supposed to care about these weirdos?  Little did I know I was looking at one of the very best parts of the MCU.  Guardians is like Superheroes Meet Star Wars, a mashup of exciting action, hilarious comedy and pretty poignant character exploration.  Our motley team of galactic criminal misfits convene by accident while pursuing a rare mystical orb (which turns out to be one of the Infinity stones) and find themselves teaming up to stop the evil Ronan from delivering the stone to Thanos.  Led by Parks & Rec goofball Chris Pratt, the perfectly cast principles have absolutely incredible chemistry together and find natural, delightful comedy while delivering the requisite sci-fi/action thrills.  My favorite performances are from Bradley Cooper as the sarcastic, mouthy Rocket Raccoon, and Dave Bautista, hilariously bone-dry as Drax the Destroyer.  The most surprising MCU sensation, Guardians is a wonderfully entertaining space romp with characters I can't get enough of.

5. Black Panther

Probably the most unexpected mega-hit in the MCU series was Black Panther, a film featuring a very obscure Marvel character that amazingly ended up grossing over $1.3 billion worldwide.  This was a rare case when introducing a new hero in a team-up film made more sense than in a standalone movie; the average filmgoer had never heard of Black Panther until Civil War, and by the time his solo movie came out they were ready to see more.  Directed by Ryan Coogler, this film establishes Black Panther's comprehensive backstory and richly detailed universe, playing against real-world sociopolitical themes and surrounding him with memorable supporting characters.  We pick up this story with the coronation of T'Challa, who has taken up the mantle of Black Panther after his father's death in Civil War.  He becomes the new king of Wakanda, a hidden African nation whose technology is far advanced from the rest of the world's thanks to vibranium, an indestructible metal of alien origin (used to fashion Cap's shield) that can also bestow superhuman abilities.  T'Challa is just becoming adjusted to his new role when his power is challenged by long-lost cousin Erik "Killmonger" Stevens, who plans to share the vibranium technology with all people of African descent and take over the world.  The ensuing power struggle draws parallels to present-day politics and lends multiple layers of depth to this extremely imaginative, visually stunning superhero epic.  This film has possibly the most dramatic substance of the entire franchise thus far. 

4. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2

As great as Guardians 1 was, vol. 2 actually improves on it, introducing a new villain that expands on the established characters and adds layers to their various backstories.  We also get to meet a few new faces and get a resolution to some of the loose threads from the first film.  In Guardians we were shown how Peter Quill came to be a space traveling mercenary but were never told where he truly came from.  This film shows us that Quill's father was a godlike alien named Ego, who in humanoid form traveled to Earth and fell in love with Meredith Quill.  The couple conceived Peter, and after Meredith's death Ego spent years trying to find his son, needing Peter's latent powers to help him spread his own consciousness to every planet in the galaxy.  That such an odd, nebulous storyline works so well is nothing short of astounding, and it allows much deeper character exploration, from Quill's relationship with his adoptive father Yondu to Gamora's feud with her half-sister Nebula, to Drax's newfound friendship with Ego's assistant Mantis.  Guardians 2 gives the entire ensemble cast time to shine, enriching what came before and leaving plenty of room for more fun in the inevitable third installment.  This is a fantastic sequel.

3. Iron Man

2008 was the year the superhero film really began to transcend the genre, starting with Jon Favreau's Iron Man - the movie that launched the MCU.  Beginning with the genius casting of Robert Downey as Tony Stark, this excellent origin story begins with the weapons manufacturer being taken hostage by a Middle Eastern terrorist organization and having to invent a militarized suit of iron in order to escape.  He then dedicates his life to fighting terror and developing clean, renewable energy from an arc reactor, the device that saved his life.  Upon his return to the States, Stark develops professional friction with his mentor and right-hand man Obadiah Stane (played with charismatic, festering menace by Jeff Bridges), who is deeply concerned about Stark's decision to shift away from weapons development.  The fantastical material is handled in a realistic way so we're always able to identify with Stark and understand how his technology works.  Between the thorough exploration of the flawed but likable Stark character and the understated action scenes, Iron Man helped redefine the superhero film genre and turn so many of Marvel's characters into universally beloved film icons.  It's still mindboggling that a lesser-known character like Iron Man became such a huge figure in pop culture, and it's all thanks to the stellar work by Favreau and Downey.

2. Captain America: Civil War

By far the largest in scope of any MCU "standalone" film, Civil War is a multi-thread action thriller that sees the Avengers team splintered down the middle, as the US Government demands control over their actions and exploits.  A guilt-ridden Tony Stark urges the Avengers to comply, while Steve Rogers insists they are better off as an autonomous organization.  Tensions build as Rogers' best friend Bucky Barnes (having been brainwashed by the Russian government as The Winter Soldier) is blamed for a fatal UN summit bombing, and the Avengers implode, climaxing in one of the best superhero fight sequences ever put to film.  But even aside from the exciting action stuff, this movie still manages to make the conflicts very complex and personal, exploring the character relationships and ratcheting up the human drama.  The Captain America films are for me the most effective aspect of the MCU, and Civil War is a big reason why.

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

This one took me completely by surprise.  2011's Captain America: The First Avenger was a fun 1940s adventure that introduced what I thought would be one of the lesser characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  I hadn't been much of a Cap fan growing up and pictured him as a flat, boring boy scout.  Joe Johnston's film gave the character of Steve Rogers some depth but more or less underlined the idea that he wasn't the most multifaceted of our Avengers heroes.  But then in 2014 Anthony and Joe Russo blew the doors off the Captain America mythos with The Winter Soldier, a tighter, more complex, eminently more compelling film that in my estimation is the best MCU entry to date.  In this powderkeg of a sequel Cap is still adjusting to life in the 21st century when the mysterious title character bursts on the scene, ambushing Nick Fury and throwing SHIELD into chaos.  Cap then learns that the entire SHIELD organization has been infiltrated by Hydra and he can no longer trust anyone.  With The Winter Soldier, Captain America has for me become the most interesting of the Avengers, and this absolutely riveting film has become the new Marvel yardstick.

There's my list - comment below with your thoughts, and join us on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter (@EnuffaDotCom)!

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