Ranking the Marvel Movies

In keeping with my recent thinking on Referendums and such, it's worth noting another edge case. Like Pixar, a new Marvel Universe movie has, of late, yielded a general referendum on the state of the overarching franchise (rather than just a simple review of the latest movie). All the cook kids have been posting their rankings, ranging from the absurdly comprehensive, to official, indisputable rankings, to unofficial, disputable rankings.

For my part, I'll only be ranking the official Marvel Universe films (so no Spider Man or X-Men movies, etc...) and with the added caveat that every one of these movies has achieved a certain level of base competence that is pretty solid. The fact that they are all connected helps strengthen and reinforce even the "bad" movies, and the all tend to be fun. Another thing worth noting is that these all seem to be infinitely rewatchable, which isn't the only or even primary measure of a movie's worth, but it is one of the things that I think ties these movies all together. Let's get this party started at the bottom of the heap:
  • Iron Man 2 - This movie is a total mess, groaning under the weight of an ill-advised multi-stranded plot, with multiple villains, too much Avengers prep work, and an otherwise limp story. In this movie, Tony Stark is basically a jerk, and not the lovable kind he is in all the other movies. I kinda hate the whole "poisoning" plot thread and Tony's lame attempts to hide it all. The friendship with Rhodes never really works, and that party scene is severely lame. I did revisit this movie somewhat recently, and must admit that it's growing on me. I no longer hate it, but it's still a mess. I have grown to really enjoy Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell's performances, even if their plot is a bit on the incoherent side. I could see this potentially taking a jump up one rung on this list, but that's pretty much the ceiling on this one.
  • The Incredible Hulk - This is a movie I want to like, but it ends up pretty low on the list because it's the one Marvel movie that everyone always forgets is part of the universe. Plus, while I enjoyed Edward Norton's take, Mark Ruffalo completely owned the character in The Avengers, which makes this movie a bit of an oddity. On the other hand, there's nothing really dramatically wrong here, and it's got some fun action at the end.
  • Iron Man - I'm a little surprised that this one is as low as it is, but on the other hand, I was never as in love with it as everyone else, even at the time. Sure, Robert Downey Jr. is a revelation in this role, and that's the one thing that really keeps this movie afloat for me. I'm not a huge fan of the opening of the movie, but the second act is fantastic (in particular, the sorta buddy-comedy aspect of Tony working with Jarvis on the new suit). Alas, the finale is a bit strained. I actually really liked Jeff Bridges here, but as with a lot of origin stories, he's given short shrift. Upon rewatching, the ending sits better with me and the movie is still a fair amount of fun, so I'll give it that much credit. It's also worth noting that for its time, it really did represent a shift in comic book movies, which were in danger of getting mired in grimdark. This came out in 2008, the year of the excellent but pretty dark The Dark Knight and the decent but super-dark Watchmen. Batman is allowed to be dark and brooding, because that's his schtick, but it seemed like the comic book movie was burning itself out, and Iron Man (particularly the second act) made comic book movies fun again. It may not be my favorite, but it is probably one of the more important films on the list.
  • Captain America: The First Avenger - Upon first exposure, this was my favorite of the pre-Avengers films, but on subsequent rewatches, I got a little tired of the montage-heavy second and third acts. That being said, this has, by far, the best origin story in the Marvel universe films. The first act of this movie is superb, and while it does slowly trail off into montages and a rather odd climax, I do like Red Skull as a villain and the present-day ending piece is a nice setup for The Avengers (this was the movie that immediately preceded that film, and it does an excellent job leading into it). In general, I'd consider this on par with Thor, and the two movies sorta go back and forth for me.
  • Thor - I expect that this movie would be way lower on most other people's lists, but for whatever reason, I tend to connect more with the Thor movies than most everyone else. Maybe it's the fish-out-of-water comedy or the Shakespearean theatrics, or perhaps just the charismatic lead performances from Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. The romance with Natalie Portman is a bit rushed, and I understand that it doesn't work for some, but it worked fine for me (there is something similar going on with Thor's friendship with Stellan Skarsgard's character). The ending is definitely a weak point, but that is an affliction that all the phase 1 Marvel movies (pre-Avengers) suffer from (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and Captain America all have lackluster third acts). Something about this movie just works for me.
  • Iron Man 3 - After Iron Man 2, I was not sure what to expect out of this, especially coming off the high of Avengers. I was pleasantly surprised to really enjoy this movie. I know in the comics, Tony Stark has struggled with alcoholism, but that's not something that would really work in movie form. In Iron Man 2, they tried to get at it by making Tony a total dick and calling his little chest reactor poisonous, but that clearly didn't work. Here, Shane Black rather cleverly substitutes PTSD as Tony's problem, and it fits (perhaps not as perfectly as some would like, but it worked for me). One couldn't ask for a better kickoff to Marvel's Phase 2, and what you see here is a higher degree of competence and indeed, confidence. This is one of the more even movies in the whole enterprise.
  • Thor: The Dark World - Again, this is probably higher than most would put it, but it does represent an across the board improvement over the first film, and given my feelings on that film, you can see why this one would be this high. The broad humor works really well here (excepting the pantsless Stellan Skarsgard, a rare miscalculation in an otherwise solid movie), along with some reversal fish-out-of-water elements. Like Iron Man 3, you can see Marvel's confidence really coming across here. I will admit that I have not rewatched this or Iron Man 3, so perhaps I'd flip-flop them, but for now, I'll stick with Thor.
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier - I just saw this last week, so maybe I'm a little too high on it, but I don't think so. Marvel is really making this stuff look easy. I can't get over how well this film balances all of its disparate elements. It's extremely well paced, it's got an amazing amount of action, but for the most part, it's not repetitive (there's a little shaky cam here, and I normally hate that, but the situations were all excellent enough that I didn't really mind). There's a big conspiracy (consciously evoking those paranoid thrillers of the 70s) uncovered here that will have huge implications to the universe, and I love that they went there, but it's the little things that really got to me. In particular, I love that this movie continues the blossoming of Black Widow as a fully realized, charismatic character. Her introduction in Iron Man 2 was hackneyed and underwritten, but she came into her own in the Avengers, and shows even more here. Likewise with Anthony Mackie's Falcon character, who has a great introduction and comes across well for the rest of the movie. I love the little character interactions in this movie, and they get at why these Marvel movies are doing so well. They're just so much fun, and this movie is a prime example. This is a remarkably even movie, and again, indicative of the confidence of Marvel in this second phase.
  • The Avengers - Right now, this movie is hanging on to the top slot by a hair. It's certainly got some flaws. It takes a little while to get going, and I've never been a fan of the sort of Thor vs Iron Man fights that happen in this movie, but Joss Whedon managed to make it work, and while there are plenty of things that I'm not particularly in love with for this movie (the helicarrier, the fact that Hawkeye is mostly sidelined, etc...), it also reaches the highest-highs in the entire series. Unlike the rest of Marvel's phase 1 movies, this is one that gets stronger as it goes, and the big action scene in the finale is actually worth the buildup (unlike the rest of phase 1 movies). Also of note, the aforementioned Black Widow really shines here, and is given really distinctive and important talents. Also, Mark Ruffalo's Hulk is a total revelation. Again, it's the little character interactions and showcases that just work so well here. Most of the characters get some great marquee moments, and there are single lines here that just work so well that any flaws in the movie just sorta melt away. I mean, come on, when the team is finally assembled in New York and Iron Man asks Captain America to call their play (which is pretty cool in itself), and Cap starts handing out orders and finally says "Hulk: Smash." Perfect, and the movie is filled with similar moments. It's definitely not as evenly constructed as the second phase Marvel stuff, but it does have the highest peaks, even if there are plenty of valleys.
So there you have it. Who knows, all this stuff may swap around with future movies or rewatches (of which, I will probably do a lot of). Plus, I'm really looking forward to some of the weird stuff that's coming down the pike, like Guardians of the Galaxy and even Ant-Man.