ENDGAME IS HERE, Y’ALL. This is not a drill.
Now, I have A LOT of thoughts on the movie, but in the interest of everyone going to see Endgame (and me going again twice, probably three times), I’ll refrain from posting until after opening weekend. In the meantime – and in the spirit of the mammoth Marvel celebration this weekend will undoubtedly be – I’d like to zero in on my 5 favorite MCU movies.
As Marvel Studios churns out excellent fanfare year after year, a list like this gets harder to pin down. *I had a version of this last year prior to Infinity War, but I was SO indecisive about what made the cut and what didn’t that, ultimately, I elected to shelve this list.
Dawn of Endgame and I have FINALLY settled on my clear picks. This of course is subject to change as time passes— because time, I believe, is the true determiner of a film’s greatness and impact. But I’m getting ahead of myself. (*Deep sigh*) Here they are, finally:
I had one rule in crafting this list – NO MCU FILMS WITHIN THE PAST YEAR. Initially, I left Infinity War, Ant-Man & the Wasp, and Captain Marvel out of contention. Because I know how deceiving first impressions can be. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about Captain Marvel. Yes, it’s the most recent MCU entry so of course it’s on my mind, but there’s just so much to enjoy, and so much this origin film does right. (No small feat in the wake of the “most ambitious superhero crossover.”) Captain Marvel juggles threads from Iron Man 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy, and, since it’s a prequel, it has to carefully weave them into the larger MCU-fabric. This is all before we get to the meat of who Carol Danvers is. So on the onset, Captain Marvel could easily be a shoe-horned mess. Somehow, the film gets to have its many cakes and eat it too; Captain Marvel gets to be a SHIELD prequel, a subversive tale on the Kree-Skrull war, AND a bold introduction to a long-awaited fan-favorite character.
What makes Captain Marvel sing is how all three work in tandem with the others. We learn about Carol’s empathy and heroism through the Kree-Skrull conflict, the same way we learn about SHIELD and Nick Fury’s inspiration for the Avengers through Carol. I have seen Captain Marvel three times and it became SO MUCH more rewarding to see the narrative handoff fall into place. Sure, the film relies on its ‘90s setting to give it a personality, and the dimness of the action scenes undercut its own romp, but Captain Marvel above all else answers the why of the superhero— something that’s becoming largely ignored as more of these veritable “cinematic universes” pop up: because Carol Danvers gives a shit. Without being preemptive, I’m going to jot the film safely as a runner-up to my Top Five. Though, if my current five aren’t careful, Captain Marvel may unseat one of them come the next Avengers go-around.
If Ant-Man and Doctor Strange are B and C-level characters (in terms of popularity), then the Guardians of the Galaxy are Z-level. Hell, even Inhumans are comparatively more mainstream than this obscure bunch. So you can imagine my surprise when Marvel fast-tracked Guardians back in 2012, and how the property went from meh to one of the most anticipated movies of 2014.
Guardians of the Galaxy is James Gunn’s ode to Lucas, Spielberg, and all the science fiction-fantasy-western-actioners in between; an interstellar Wild Bunch that kicks off very Raiders-esque (with a charming dance number to boot), then blasts off into further self-referential territory. (Its prison breakout set-piece ranks among the most entertaining sequences in the MCU.) The film consciously wears its old-school soundtrack and influence on its sleeve, yet it achieves something magnanimously original— where a walking tree and a talking raccoon exist in the same universe as Steve Rogers. You don’t question the ludicrousness of that; you just go along for the ride. This movie turned “Hooked on a Feeling” into a rallying cry for outcasts and losers alike, the same way it turned Guardians from an obscure comics line into a popular culture mainstay alongside Cap, Iron Man, and Thor. (It’s influence on Ragnarok cannot be overstated.) Guardians was the MCU film I never knew I needed, one I still can’t get enough of.
After The Dark World, I started to feel bad for the Norse God. Because he’s great as part of the Avengers-ensemble, but in his own standalone films, he wasn’t nearly as compelling. The success of Guardians demonstrated to Marvel just how crucial it was to not only bring in talented filmmakers, but to allow them their own creative stamp on the project. In came Taika Waititi, and Thor was never the same. Thank god for that.
In Ragnarok’s opening minutes alone, Thor is given waaaaayyy more personality and so much more to do— while strung up in chains, mind you. You can hear the looseness and liberation in his voice. He’s no longer the big oaf that characterized him in the first two films. You could tell me that they improv’d the entirety of Ragnarok and I’d 100% believe you. Everyone, not just Hemsworth, gets an enhanced dose of wit and witticism that makes the film feel less consequential and just… fun. I say that knowing Ragnarok dispenses with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster, kills off the Warriors Three, AND roasts Asgard – though not by Surtur, but by Jeff Goldblum when he lays the term, “Ass-gard.” (There’s NO coming back from that.) If you were a believer in Thor & Jane, or were hoping for more adventures with Thor and the warriors, then chances are Ragnarok wasn’t your cup of tea. As for me, I loved that the film flexes more than just Hemsworth’s killer arms; that it’s willing to dispense of redundancies and evolve into something weirder and no less entertaining. This is the wildly exuberant breath of fresh air that the God of Thunder needed. Three more Ragnarok movies please and thank you.
I like to think of Iron Man 3 as the MCU’s Last Jedi. The subversive Mandarin-twist echoes a great deal of TLJ’s (non)reveal of Snoke. So it comes as no surprise that die-hard fans hated what The Mandarin turned out to be. I too resisted the twist on my first viewing, but the more I watched Iron Man 3, the more I came to recognize its ingenuity.
The Mandarin is largely considered Iron Man’s greatest foe in the comics. There’s only one problem: he’s a largely racist rendering of the white man’s xenophobia towards Asian culture. I get that The Mandarin is “pivotal,” but to bring such a damaging caricature to cinematic life, he may as well be Fu Manchu, or Mr. Yunioshi.
Writer-director Shane Black knows this; the film’s repeated anecdote of the American-made fortune cookie clues us in – how America took cultural iconography and manufactured them for its own purpose. It’s a deliberate play on the U.S.’ augmentation and obfuscation of the public’s perception of the War on Terror. Not Zero Dark Thirty-levels of indictment, but a nice prelude for what The Winter Solider would go on to say about surveillance and homeland security in the 21st Century. Reminder: this is a Marvel film.
Setting aside its larger context, Iron Man 3 is RDJ’s definitive rendering as Tony Stark. Weirdly enough, Tony having bouts of PTSD was the best thing that could’ve happened to the character; it enables Shane Black to put Tony back in the cave where we first met him, and he has to rely less on his tech and more on his wit and intellect to find a way out. And, as a meditation on trauma, Iron Man 3’s deftness on the matter gets better over time. “You experience things, and then they’re over and you still can’t explain them?” I couldn’t have put it any better myself. What better way to show Tony’s mental dissociation than his remote controlling over the Mark 42, where he can be in multiple places at once but emotionally present at neither. MCU may be reaching peak crossover and overlap, but these films are at their most dramatically compelling when they strip characters of their resources and force them to rebuild. Iron Man 3 is RDJ’s best performance as the character. And, though it may have taken time, it is unreservedly my favorite Iron Man film of the three.
With Ryan Coogler at the helm, I knew Black Panther was gonna rule; I just didn’t know it was going for the jugular, too. Coogler is given the reins of a massive studio franchise, is tasked with the proper introduction of a long-awaited superhero, and he still somehow manages to make a Ryan Coogler film. Right off the bat, Coogler’s deftness and assurance as a storyteller takes foothold. That opening one-shot sweep across the basketball court subjects us to a young Erik Killmonger. So when we cut back to him halfway through the film, we’re immediately sympathetic to the way his world ended that night— and are haunted by the question of what he could’ve been had King T’Chaka had taken him in. Coogler gives equal time and attention to his villain as he does his hero. Heroes, after all, are only as good as their villains.
Black Panther asks questions that would normally lie outside the realm of the MCU, or any superhero movie for that matter: What are the limits of individual heroism in the face of cultural suffering? What are the virtues of a closed border, when you have the means to keep it open a hundredfold? And what is great power when you don’t take responsibility? In his first solo venture, T’Challa already comes face to face with his Joker-esque nemesis. Black Panther has already become one of the MCU’s most pivotal sagas this side of the superhero spectrum. I have no idea where T’Challa, Shuri, Okoye, Nakia or M’Baku go from here. I’m just happy to bear witness to history in the making.
The Winter Soldier will go down as the Russo Brothers’ best film, but, for my money, they created my all-time favorite Marvel film in Captain America: Civil War. Backing up a bit, Civil War was my dream comic book-adaptation. Walking out of Iron Man in the summer of 2008, my friends and I laid out our picks for where this could go if Marvel were to truly build this thing out. One friend threw in Age of Ultron (my, how it seemed out of the realm of possibility at the time); another threw in the ultimate foe in Galactus (we’re still waiting on this one), and mine was the newly finished run of Civil War. Of those we tossed into the well, my friends believed Civil War was the least likely to get made. (Because licensing!) You can bet I let my buddies have it after the reveal of this press conference.
I had an inkling of Civil War’s greatness during the axis-tilting trailer reveal. But I knew it would go on to be my favorite MCU movie with this scene alone. In the midst of all this world-building and fantastical set-pieces, the MCU – despite hiring the best actors in the business – was shockingly light on drama and performance. RDJ and Chris Evans, with Ruffalo’s supporting stint as Bruce Banner, were the only MVPs on that front. In Civil War, EVERYBODY gets to act as much as they get to throw down. Like, that’s why I came here in the first place. We’ll gush over countless 20-minute action-packed finales, but it’s scenes like the one above that lend to the film’s dramatic weight. Such a scene would not be possible without the legwork of the previous films. It’s because of those films that, when we get to a talk-y scene where are heroes are dressed down, they may as well be donning the costumes because the actors playing them have taken such ownership of their respective mannerisms, gait, and the way they sit in the chair.
Civil War is all the more impressive in the way it deconstructs Steve Rogers’ worldview as naïve and privileged. We were there for his birthing sequence; we know exactly how superpowered he is. This Cap goes on to make crucial errors, recruiting guys like Hawkeye and Ant-Man knowing the consequences of their allegiance. It’s reckless, but that human fallibility is what makes the centerpiece conflict of Civil War so. damn. compelling. (Tony Stark is fallible too, but then again what’s new?)
RDJ gets his own Iron Man 4 in the process, while giving his next best performance as Tony Stark. Everyone in the film gets the chance to progress their arcs forward by their allegiances alone. Civil War is essentially the Russo Brothers’ audition for Infinity War and Endgame. If Sam Raimi established the vernacular of the modern comic book film with Spider-Man, then the Russos refine it to a staggering degree where you don’t question why Vision just pops up in the middle of a scene, or groan when Hawkeye unexpectedly shows up. This interconnected universe earned its interconnectivity. It took two phases to get here, but Civil War achieves the jam-packed, splash-page comic book aesthetic without sacrificing dramatic substance. I could watch Steve Rogers and Tony Stark trade verbal jabs and lay the smackdown on each other all day.
Marvel Studios doesn’t need to impress me anymore. I got all that I wanted out of these movies with Civil War alone. And yet, they continue to floor me year after year. I wouldn’t know where (*or if) Endgame would rank on this list. I suppose time will tell.