Monday, July 20, 2015

The Current Marvel Movie Standings

With the release of 'Ant-Man', we're now in a situation where enough Marvel movies have been released that you can have entire sets of sub-preferences based on the specific characters, styles and creative teams involved, just like you can with the comics. We're sitting on an even dozen movies right now, after all, and it's no longer just a case of, "'Iron Man 2' did/didn't live up to the first one," or "'Avengers' is clearly the best." So, with the caveat that this could change at any time based on rewatching or new releases or just my mood that day, here's where I think the current state of the Marvel movies are, from "worst" to best.

12. Incredible Hulk. This, to my mind, is pretty much the bar that Marvel movies need to clear. It's not a bad film by any means: The acting is good, if functional; the script is coherent and hangs together as a story, albeit a functional one; and the action sequences, while uninspired, are well-shot and drive the plot. However, you'll clearly note words like "functional" and "uninspired" in the above description--this is such a conscious attempt to steer clear of the marmite visual stylings of Ang Lee's 'Hulk' movie and play it safe that it winds up with no particular character of its own. It's not bad, but every other Marvel movie has aspired to be better, so it drops to the bottom by default.

11. Iron Man 3. Yeah, that's right, not 'Iron Man 2', 'Iron Man 3'. The third movie, while certainly filled with a lot of flair and action and humor and a really great concept for the Mandarin that examines the "evil foreigner" trope he emobies, suffers from a slightly saggy stretch in the middle where Tony Stark is hanging around with a cute kid and feeling self-doubt, and more importantly from a lack of introspection on Tony's part. Yes, that's kind of a central fault to Tony's character--he's never really introspective, being narcissistic to the point of solipsism--but it would have been nice if the film had drawn a clearer moral line between Tony and Aldrich Killian. As it is, it feels uncomfortably like Tony is primarily fighting the Mandarin for breaking his toys.

10. Thor. This one could have fallen into the same pit as 'Incredible Hulk', if not for a really talented cast that elevates every single moment above what it should be. Chris Hemsworth imbues Thor with a puppy-like charm that leavens his character's arc and makes him sympathetic despite his bad decisions, and Tom Hiddleston underplays Loki in a way that really gives the character extra dimensions and makes him less a villain than a protagonist in a conflicting narrative. Even the supporting cast makes the most of their roles, with Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgard walking away with scenes that they're barely in. (Poor Natalie Portman gets utterly wasted on this script, but that's been a problem with Jane Foster for ages. As a legacy character from an era where sexism was rampant, she doesn't really have much to her beyond "Thor's love interest", despite decades of work to try to change that.)

9. Iron Man 2. Much better than anyone gives it credit for. Mickey Rourke is magnetic as Whiplash, especially in the middle section of the movie where the plot is scattering in all directions (and I think this was a conscious artistic choice designed to emphasize Tony's feelings of loss of control as his various personal crises all converge and the sharks begin to circle). Scarlett Johannson makes her debut here as Black Widow, and while she doesn't get as much to do as she later will, she's great in her role here. Don Cheadle is an instant upgrade as War Machine, and Sam Rockwell redeems himself for 'Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy'. (Oh, and the Garry Shandling scenes take on a whole new meaning in retrospect...)

8. Ant-Man. New boy! It's really a thing of parts, which limits it somewhat. On the one hand, the human drama is kind of pat and uninteresting, despite the actors' attempts to breathe life into it; of course Scott Lang is going to rise above his vaguely-altruistic criminalish past and defeat Yellowjacket, and of course Hank Pym is going to achieve rapprochement with his estranged daughter. (As for the love interest, it's so perfunctory that it literally takes place off-screen.) But once Ant-Man shrinks, suddenly you realize that this is a super-power that screams with interesting possibilities. From literally hanging onto the grooves in a record to surfing a cluster of ants along a water-pipe to the final climactic battle that turns a little girl's bedroom into an epic landscape, the shrinking scenes show that Ant-Man deserves a movie.

7. Thor: The Dark World. It shares the flaws of its predecessor (a generic fantasy concept) but in lesser measures, while improving on all of the virtues of the first 'Thor'. Hemsworth is freed from the predictable "brash jerk becomes humbled and learns virtue" arc of the first film, and is allowed to really inhabit his character. Hiddleston's Loki is fascinatingly mercurial, following his own unpredictable nature and giving astonishing depth to the villain of the past two movies. Christopher Eccleston is wasted, but the final battle is a dynamic set-piece that really showcases imagination and cleverness rather than just two people hitting each other. And it's sweet and charming, too.

6. Iron Man. The face that launched a thousand ships. This one still holds up, primarily because Robert Downey Jr takes an immensely flawed character and makes him sympathetic purely through the force of his charisma. His Tony Stark is arrogant, foolish, oblivious to the human cost of the decisions that keep him in his billionaire lifestyle...and then, when everything is taken away from him, we see that underneath all that he is a man with a strong moral sensibility and a belief that he can truly make the world a better place. Tony Stark wants to solve all the world's problems, and the hubris of that melds with the heroism of it to create a character that's the keystone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

5. Captain America: The First Avenger. I truly believe that this was God's gift to Joe Johnston. I really feel, deep down, like God saw 'The Rocketeer' and said, "This is a charming, clever, inventive, well-realized period piece that captures everything that was wonderful about the era in which it was set...and nobody saw the damn thing in theaters. That's just wrong. I'm going to give you the chance to do it all over again, with a more iconic hero and a bigger budget and the promotional muscle behind it to make it the hit you deserve." And that was 'Captain America: The First Avenger'. A love letter to the heroes of World War II, a charming and lively adventure story, and oh yeah, Chris Evans absolutely nails Steve Rogers. And we get Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter, a role so good she's still doing it.

4. Avengers: Age of Ultron. We're getting into some rarified heights, here. Everything from about #6 on up is a personal favorite of mine, and so I will make it clear that the fact that there are three other Marvel movies better than 'Age of Ultron' should not be taken as an indictment of the movie. It is a movie that's working on a lot of levels, as an exploration of the characters and as set-up for Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it does all that without sacrificing its own plot, mainly thanks to James Spader's turn as a reckless, almost-stoned apocalyptic villain whose bemusement at the antics of the human race would be comical if he didn't plan to destroy us for it. All that and a fight scene so good they have to go into slo-mo for it.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy. Big, dumb, goofy fun. It's a quirky comedy about a group of misanthropes and loners who wind up liking each other, it's the bizarre and hilarious caper movie that 'Ant-Man' wishes it was, and it's also a cosmic space opera in the vein of 'Star Wars'. All at once, almost overlapping each other. There are certainly better films out there, but there's not many that are as much fun to watch.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If I were to be honest, I'd admit that this is the best of the Marvel movies. It's got amazing performances from all of the Marvel regulars and some great work from Robert freaking Redford, it's got stellar action sequences, and it's got a script that really does take a courageous stance on the "War Against Terror" that didn't so much stop when Bush left office as get swept under the carpet. Plus, it's a very bold movie in terms of what it does to the metastory, and while I'm someone who frequently complains when metastory is invoked as a reason to love something, it's okay when it would be an absolutely amazing movie anyway that also happens to take the gutsy step of demolishing SHIELD and forcing everyone in the Marvel Universe to re-evaluate their position in events. It really is the best movie. But...

1. Avengers is the movie I've been waiting for since I was eight years old. It is Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk all meeting for the first time and teaming up against the threat of Loki. It is the movie that had the most work to do--simply convincing people that the stars of three films with such disparate styles belonged in the same room together was its own massive undertaking, to say nothing of rehabilitating the Hulk after two underwhelming movies, giving the Black Widow the characterization she deserved in the absence of her own movie, making Hawkeye a believable superhero (although let's face it, most of the heavy lifting there was done in the sequel). On top of all that, it had an absolutely amazing battle sequence that raised expectations for pretty much every subsequent action movie, Marvel or otherwise. And it hit every single one of those notes perfectly. So while there may be reasons to recommend 'Winter Soldier' as a better movie, this is the Marvel film I love the most...and probably always will.


Jim S said...

Mr. Seavey,

Well written review. I would like to share a couple of thoughts. First, all the Marvel movies are well made. Both in the technical sense and in the story sense.

I was not a fan of Man of Steel for a variety of reasons, not the least because seeing all the buildings tumble down made me uneasy in a sort of "this reminds me of 9/11 footage I saw and now I am uneasy" way. In Age of Ultron, they show the actual people on the streets, their terror and the aftermath of such a terrbile incident. Even psyched-out Hulk is taken aback by the destruction and feels guilty.

But I also want to share this thought with you and hope that you use your insight from my, as far as I know original observation, for a column in the future. (I won't argue is someone were to go on the Internet as say "Hey, someone else came up with this first).

My observation is this – Marvel isn't make movies as we understand them. The studio is really making a TV show where the final product is shown on movie screens.

Jim S said...

Part II

My thinking is this – Take a show like Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul. (I count them as one show. Same show runners, same crew, some of the same actors operating in the same universe).

Vince Gilligan is the boss. Yes, he works with directors, writers and actors. And he's been generous in giving them credit for their strong contributions to his universe. But he's the boss. He's the final decider. Everything that appears on the screen has his final stamp of approval. And no one blinks an eye because that's the way TV works. A director is a "gun-for-hire" who serves the vision of the head producer. So there's no way a TV director would try to impose his vision ahead of Vince Gilligan. Now I use the Breaking Bad example for a couple of reasons. First Gilligan is putting out quality shows that no disputes are good. Second, in addition to putting some TV directors on the map - Michelle MacLaren (who was going to direct Thor until artistic differences ensued) he also hires feature film directors - Rian Johnson, who directed Bruce Willis in Looper. These guys served Gilligan's vision.

Now to Marvel Studios. It serves Kevin Feige's vision. Directors like Joss Whedon (He really isn't a director. Two of his three films are Marvel films. He is himself a show runner. I suspect much of the friction he had in Avengers II can be traced to him not liking to take orders. He's the guy who gives orders.) Kenneth Branaugh, Well, I don't think he was ever going to be a company man. Good choice for Thor, but he still didn't make Brian Blessed Volstagg - there is a guy who could have made a meal of that part.)

Joe Johnston - You named it right. WWII comic movies are his wheel-house.
Jon Faverau- bold choice. But his indie habits failed him in Iron Man II. A good film, but you could see the seams, and they weren't because of the Black Widow. I think Cowboys and Aliens show that Indie looseness can really fail.

MacLaren thought she was a movie director and not a TV director with Thor. I think Alan Taylor had the same problem with Thor II. Given the disaster that is Terminator Genysis, the firm hand of Kevin Feige has again shown its value.

The artists who work best in the Marvel system - The Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stepen McFeely - are used to working in a system where there's always a "next." Just look at the Narnia movies. Each movie has to be a movie on its own, but they are part of a larger whole.

The Russos are known for Arrested Development and Community. TV shows where their styles serve the vision of people like Dan Harmon and Mitchell Hurwitz. And they also directed their own movies, but understand their role in TV.

Jim S said...

Part III

And so working for Feige, for both teams, is not something they haven't seen before. The problem with hiring auteurs is that perhaps they don't understand that. Afterall, it's been said that movies are a director's medium while TV is a producer's. The directors who don't understand that get in trouble. James Gunn has no problem being a "Marvel" director despite being an indie himself. He seems to have written some things about Edgar Wright and Joss that shows he understands both sides of the issue. Marvel isn't the evil overlord, but it's system maybe isn't for everyone.

Remember, Joss had all he wanted for Serenity and it was a bomb. (It was also a poorly directed movie, with its action scenes appearing static and movement obviously very choreographed. Having a company like Marvel with its resources covering your back an really help make a writer like Whedon appear to be a much stronger director than I suspect he really is.

At least these are my thoughts. Now that I've read this, I suspect I haven't left you anywhere to go. If you agree, you agree. If you disagree, then maybe you can comment. But I really think I am on to something here. Marvel isn't making movies, it's making one long TV show that appears in movie theaters.

I suspect that's where DC will go wrong. They pick strong directors for each indivdual film, so a single film might be strong, but they will clash and make wanting to see all the films to understand the universe less than important.

Or I could be wrong.

magidin said...

Do the two "Fantastic 4" movies not count because of the impending reboot?

Brian said...

What's been neat about the Marvel Studios films, which you point to and others illumine, is that we're seeing a sort of return to old Studio System. For the past few decades, even the most intrusive studio or production interference with projects didn't hold back that the Auteur System was the One True Way that film was being done. When Marvel Studios got back the Avengers properties and started making these films, the real change wasn't just the continuity interconnection but the logistical infrastructure – the role of Kevin Feige and later how Joss Whedon and others would bounce between projects to keep consistency. While the trades make note of production-versus-individuals, it's really Marvel being an old-school Studio System – which the experience of the comics Editorial Office and Bullpen model always drew directly from. That's where we get this fine-tuned series of one good film after another – and I'm curious how other studios will learn from that (Warners has a very different structure; having Geoff Johns as a liaison between independent projects that have continuity nods isn't the same as a Studio System, so its not going to have the same modular logistics – and that's not the debate that anyone's having). The reason that THE INCREDIBLE HULK, for example, was a bit sloppy (although a good film) was Marvel learning to rebuild the old Studio System and make it work (similarly, the critiques about IRON MAN 2 really boil down to learning how to structure a sequel in the new model, so like with TIH this was a 'first-draft' sort of film where they learned how-tos on things).