There have been a LOT of movies based on Marvel comics. Since 1998’s Blade kicked off Hollywood’s current fondness for adapting the mighty world of Marvel into movie magic, nearly 40 films based on Marvel properties have been released, ranging from takes on popular characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men to more obscure ones like Kick-Ass and this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy.
In the early days, Marvel licensed its franchises to film studios like Fox (X-Men, Daredevil, Fantastic Four) and Sony (Spider-Man) but after this approach saw mixed results (Elektra anyone?) Marvel decided to start making its own movies. Iron Man, released in 2008, represented Marvel’s first stab at controlling its own movie destiny and it was a resounding success. Great reviews and a huge box-office haul encouraged Marvel to repeat this approach with more of its characters and while the likes of the X-Men and Spider-Man will likely forever remain off-limits due to those early deals, Marvel has gradually created its own little world of interconnected movies.
Marvel’s most recent and unexpected smash, Guardians of the Galaxy, marks the 10th official entry in Marvel’s ‘cinematic universe’. By this point, the Marvel movie machine looks unstoppable. They’re taking more risks, while simultaneously honing the winning formula they hit upon with Iron Man all those years ago. There have been a couple of missteps along the way but even at their most overstuffed and formulaic, Marvel’s self-produced movie output has been alarmingly consistent. They’ve never made a bad movie, and several of their instalments rank among the best – and highest grossing – action movies of recent years. But which of their movies are amazing and which are merely serviceable? Read on to find out!
10. Iron Man 2 (2010)
I said earlier that Marvel have never made a bad movie and I stand by that statement. That said, Iron Man 2 often gets a lot of flack from fans and it’s easy to see why. After the success of the Iron Man, this eagerly-anticipated sequel was a bit of a let down. Whereas the original was lean and focussed, this sequel was overstuffed with plot elements – Tony Stark’s escalating ego and alcoholism, the introduction of War Machine and Black Widow, not one but two villains – and it was a bit of a mess as a result. Still, even if all hangs together a bit loosely much of what made the original work still remained. Robert Downey Jr is still note-perfect as Tony Stark and his buddy-cop chemistry with Don Cheadle (replacing Terrence Howard) as James Rhodes is great fun, as is the exhilarating early action scene set during the Monaco Grand Prix. A slight misstep, maybe, but a largely enjoyable one.
9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
After Ang Lee’s initial stab at adapting the Hulk to the silver screen (2003’s underrated Hulk) underwhelmed fans and underperformed at the box-office, Marvel went back to the drawing board with the leaner, more action focussed Incredible Hulk. Wisely choosing not to waste time with a lengthy retelling of the Hulk’s origin story, The Incredible Hulk gets straight to the action as Bruce Banner (here played by Edward Norton) tries to keep out of the hands of the government. The film’s opening act plays out like a tense thriller with a particularly great Bourne-esque chase sequence through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, like Hulk before it, The Incredible Hulk doesn’t really seem sure what to do with the Hulk himself, with the final showdown against Tim Roth’s equally hulking Abomination boiling down to two very CGI-looking characters punching each other for a while. And Liv Tyler is terrible as love interest Betty Ross. Given how Norton has since been replaced by Mark Ruffalo as the not-so-jolly green giant, The Incredible Hulk has found itself in the unfortunate position of being possibly the least essential Marvel movie – though it’s still pretty solid in its own right.
8. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
A film of two halves, Thor: The Dark World is a pretty good sequel to the pretty good Thor that loses out slightly due to its uneven tone. The first hour and a half or so of The Dark World delves further into the history of Asgard and while it’s all very visually appealing stuff, it’s mostly just scene upon scene of dry exposition with the threat of the dark elves making for the most generic and least fleshed out Marvel movie villains to date. Thankfully, things really pick up in the second half. Thor and Loki get a number of great scenes together (though much has been made of Tom Hiddleston’s turn as the acid-tongued god of mischief, he really comes alive when playing off the stoic sincerity of Hemsworth’s Thor) and the surprising London-set finale is one of the most imaginative action scenes yet featured in a Marvel movie. It’s actually a pretty funny movie too, continuing its predecessor’s tradition of great fish-out-of-water gags, though that opening slog counts against it somewhat.
7. Thor (2011)
Unlike Iron Man and Spider-Man who are essential regular guys in spectacular situations, Thor is a demi-god from another dimension who fight ice-yetis and travels across a rainbow bridge while speaking in ye olde English. That his movie debut would be quite as successful as it was came as a great surprise to many people, but a success it is thanks to some brilliant casting and Kenneth Branagh’s stately direction. When the brash Thor’s warmongering sees him banished to Earth by his father, Odin, he begins to understand the true cost of his actions and gradually learns humility as he befriends simple humans, eventually defending his new friends from the actions of his scheming brother Loki. Chris Hemsworth is a suitably godly Thor and the excellent supporting cast includes Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins. A bit formulaic in places and with a disappointing climax, Thor nonetheless is largely successful fish-out-of-water movie with real heart.
6. Iron Man 3 (2013)
If the first few entries on this list ranged from ‘alright’ to ‘pretty darn good’, the remaining six can all be considered varying degrees of excellent. There’s not a lot to separate Iron Man 3 from the two or three movies above it but someone had to lose out…Anyway, if Iron Man’s appearance in Avengers Assemble did a lot to make up for the underwhelming Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 took that momentum and ran with it. Stripping back much of that film’s excess, the real secret to Iron Man 3’s success is the way it removes Tony Stark from the suit for large portions of the movie to focus on the troubled man beneath, rather than on shallow spectacle. The other secret is director/co-writer Shane Black, whose snappy script injects fun and humour into the proceedings while still allowing for some genuine surprises.
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
This second instalment in the Captain America franchise not only trades the 1940’s for the present day but also changes genres entirely, from pulpy retro adventure to tense conspiracy thriller. There’s a real sense of danger here as Captain America and S.H.I.E.L.D sidekick Black Widow try to uncover a shadowy internal threat that has somehow turned America’s most clean-cut superhero into public enemy number one. The titular Winter Soldier is somewhat underused but adds an interesting wrinkle to the proceedings and Anthony Mackie is a welcome addition as Falcon. A surprisingly brave action movie that tackles the heavy topics of surveillance and government control (while making some pretty dramatic changes to the Marvel movie landscape), The Winter Soldier is only really let down by a final action sequence that feels a bit too like the one at the end of Avengers Assemble.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s most patriotic hero always seemed like he might be tricky to adapt to film – post Iraq, how do you make a character running around in a star-spangled outfit not seem a bit tasteless? Thankfully, Marvel found a way. Rather than being righteous and jingoistic, Captain America is simply, well, nice. In a world of dark, brooding superheroes, Captain America’s infectious earnestness, optimism and desire to do the right thing (played to pitch perfection by Chris Evans) makes for a really refreshing superhero movie experience, as does the 1940’s setting. Hugo Weaving makes for a menacing villain as the Red Skull, and director Joe Johnston infuses the whole thing with a good old-fashioned sense of fun. Plus, sticking it to the Nazis always feels great.
3. Iron Man (2008)
The one that started it all. There had been plenty of great superhero films before Iron Man (X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins to name but a few) but Iron Man proved that Marvel could handle its own characters just as well as any other movie studio. A fairly standard origin story at heart, Iron Man follows a lot of the same beats as 2002’s hugely successful Spider-Man (which would be repeated again with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) but still feels fresh thanks to its snappy script, topical subject matter (the negative consequences of US arms-dealing) and inspired casting. Robert Downey Jr is perfect as the brilliant but narcissistic Tony Stark and his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts makes for the best romantic pairing in the Marvel movie universe.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
The most recent movie on this list, Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel’s most surprising success yet. Unlike the likes of Iron Man and Thor, the Guardians of the Galaxy are a team of characters only familiar to the most avid comic book readers and yet Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocky Racoon and Groot make for one of the most memorable movie teams in recent years. With wide-eyed enthusiasm and a warmly nostalgic sensibility, director/co-writer James Gunn brings this most unusual cast of characters to life with aplomb. Frequently hilarious, pleasantly good-natured and with a killer soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy represents Marvel at their most carefree and is all the better for it.
1. Marvel Avengers Assemble (2012)
Could it be anything else? What initially started as a couple of fun cameos at the end of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk gradually grew into a series of increasingly interconnected films, culminating in Marvel’s biggest smash yet. With heroes like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Hulk already familiar to the masses thanks to their successful solo films (and less known heroes Black Widow, Hawkeye and Nick Fury already introduced in smaller roles), Avengers Assemble was free to hit the ground running.
Written and directed by Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedon, Avengers Assemble plays like a classic team-up comic with our various heroes learning to put aside their differences and work together to defeat Loki and his inter-dimensional army. Though the action is spectacular – particularly the stunning finale – the best part of Avengers Assemble is the way Marvel’s various heroes play off each other, with sizzling dialogue keeping even the movie’s quieter moments entertaining. It may not be the best superhero film ever but it’s certainly up there, and should be the standard by which all family-friendly summer blockbusters are judged.