Comics on Film: Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the Road to 'Infinity War' – Phase Two

Comics on Film: Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the Road to 'Infinity War' – Phase Two

Apr 06, 2018

As we continue our march towards this month’s release of Avengers: Infinity War, we’re continuing our ranked look back at the films that have comprised the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. Now, we move onto Phase Two, arguably one of the most daring streak of films that Marvel has ever released.

After the critical and commercial juggernaut that was their conclusion to Phase One in The Avengers, Phase Two is the last remaining set of films that includes a film release dedicated to each of the three “major” Avengers: Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. While Cap and Thor have their own films in Phase Three, they’re also generally seen as bigger crossover efforts, especially in the case of Cap. And, an Iron Man 4 was nowhere to be found.

Still, Phase Two represents some pretty bold risks on the part of the MCU: a movie that completely upends the table of one of the world’s primary sources of good? A relatively standalone Avengers movie? How about largely abandoning the heroes established in Phase One to go off into space for an entirely different kind of story?

So, let’s take a look at the films that comprise the MCU’s second Phase, from worst (which is still not that bad) to first.

 

6) Thor: The Dark World

Originally supposed to be directed by future Wonder Woman helmer Patty Jenkins, the second film featuring the Son of Odin in an adventure throughout the Nine Realms is unfortunately underwhelming when compared with his first solo adventure, and certainly comes short in comparison to his Avengers appearance alongside brother Loki.

The primary purpose that The Dark World seems to serve in hindsight is to establish the destructive power of “the Aether,” a dark power that actually ends up being the Red Reality Infinity Stone. While a lot of comics fans were encouraged by the casting of actor Christopher Eccleston as Malekith the Accursed, a Thor villain from a legendary comic book run by writer/artist Walt Simonson, much of the harsh, cackling horror Malekith represents in his comics stories was nowhere to be found in Dark World. Indeed, both Eccleston and Odin actor Sir Anthony Hopkins seem to infuse little emotion at all into their scenes, which doesn’t do the movie any favors.

Still, Chris Hemsworth charms once again as the heir to Asgard’s throne, while Tom Hiddleston excites once more as his mischievous brother Loki. Natalie Portman gets a good slap in on Loki for his actions in The Avengers, and Stellan Skarsgård makes an undeniably humorous return as Dr. Erik Selvig. All in all, The Dark World is a perfectly watchable movie, but just doesn’t compare when set beside the other movies in this Phase of the MCU.

 

5) Ant-Man

Our introduction to the adventures of Scott Lang, Hank Pym, and Hope van Dyne is not a bad movie, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that it’s likely a shadow of what it could’ve been.

Shepherded under the watchful eye of director Edgar Wright for nearly a decade, “creative differences” ultimately drove Marvel and Wright apart, landing the movie in the lap of capable successor Peyton Reed. Ant-Man is a laudable effort in a lot of ways: it cast a comedian in the primary role and took a comparatively different look at the kind of heroism that can arise from both a certain set of circumstances, and in meeting the right people at the right time.

On concept, Ant-Man isn’t abundantly different from the first Iron Man film, but the specifics are completely different. Scott Lang is an almost ludicrously-likable protagonist, played with dedication and heart by Paul Rudd. On top of that, the supporting cast is impeccable: Michael Douglas makes for a thoughtful and somewhat enigmatic Hank Pym, while Evangeline Lilly just owns her part as Hope van Dyne.

Sometimes the humor doesn’t land where it could, and Corey Stoll’s performance as the villain Yellowjacket can get a little too much like 1966 Batman, but overall Ant-Man is one of the most fun movies Marvel Studios has made.

 

4) Iron Man 3

The return of Tony Stark in his third solo outing stands on its own as a great examination of the toll the events in The Avengers have taken on the MCU’s first hero, but perhaps more importantly, director Shane Black went into the creation of this film aiming to make a bit of a splash on what was, even back in 2013, starting to be a recognizable formula.

The first way he does this is by peeking behind the public visage that Tony has established for himself. While you can most certainly say that Iron Man is still very much who he has been in his previous appearances, Robert Downey, Jr. is given much more material that focuses on what it actually means for him to put that suit on and put himself in harm’s way. He’s a little more tortured by the things he’s seen and experienced, but it also comes with a higher level of determination.

By far, though, the biggest risk that the movie takes is with its primary villain. Distracting you with a decoy while the true adversary works behind a proverbial — and literal — curtain, actor Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian makes for a vicious villain for Iron Man to face off against, and who can forget Sir Ben Kingsley’s uproarious performance as “the Mandarin?” In the end, Iron Man 3 very much owns its identity as a movie featuring Tony Stark, while also pushing the MCU in legitimately unexpected directions at times. It probably doesn’t outdo Tony’s original movie, but it’s certainly a more engaging sequel than Iron Man 2.

 

3) Avengers: Age of Ultron

The second outing teaming up all of the MCU’s major heroes was an attempt — right from the outset — to be different from its predecessor. Very much resembling the tonal shift between Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, the story of the creation of the A.I. Ultron at the hands of Tony Stark and, to a lesser degree, Bruce Banner, very much stands as something of a paradox: it’s a standalone team-up crossover movie. Taking full advantage of the casts of characters established in every MCU film up to this point — well, save for one, at least — Age of Ultron tells a story largely disconnected from the broader narrative of its universe and sows a conflict to get to the heart of what this team is all about.

That’s not to say that Age of Ultron doesn’t lay down some major building blocks for the other movies, though: it most definitely does. Tony’s visions of his actions potentially leading to the destruction of the team, and maybe even the subjugation of the world, are elements we may see followed upon by the time Infinity War comes to theaters. It establishes that Thor is going to try and find the Infinity Stones, something dealt with in Thor: Ragnarok. Captain America, still reeling from the calamitous events of The Winter Soldier, must confront his place as a leader of this team and what he will contribute to its future.

Then there’s the far more personal look at Hawkeye, the introduction of Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and the creation of Vision, to name just a few of the major incidents that occur in Age of Ultron that will have an adverse effect on the MCU going forward. So, while Age of Ultron isn’t the sheer payoff we got from the first Avengers film, it’s still very solid, and most definitely important.

 

2) Guardians of the Galaxy

Now, talk about a departure in more ways than one…

Guardians of the Galaxy was, on paper, a risky proposition. It didn’t feature any recognizable Marvel characters in its primary cast but still featured prominent Marvel branding, it would have to introduce not just one new character but a team of new characters, and it completely left the Earth behind to tell a story that, largely, takes place among the stars. Perhaps, though, it was a little too easy to underestimate just how much audiences would eat up a movie featuring a gun-toting, trash-talking raccoon shooting wildly from the shoulder of a talking tree.

Guardians of the Galaxy is an enormously engaging outlaw buddy movie in space, where the outlaws are put in a position to save the universe, and existence itself. Writer-director James Gunn leaned heavily on incorporating recognizable aspects of the comic book mythology, while also using his keen sense of humor to provide a relatable, humanistic perspective on this band of people from other worlds. The star-making turn for Chris Pratt as Star-Lord was at the forefront of one of the funniest movies Marvel has ever made, while also managing to be emotionally engaging on a visceral level.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a revelatory Marvel movie experience when it was released at the tail-end of summer, 2014. It’s one of Phase Two’s absolute best because it successfully combined a biting wit with an enormous spirit of adventure and managed to keep the heart we’ve come to expect from the MCU even through the difficult task of introducing worlds of new characters. It’s hard to get much better than that. That being said…

 

1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The best solo Cap movie by a comfortably wide margin, The Winter Soldier took its basis in one of the most celebrated Marvel Comics stories of the preceding decade and took it to the absolute limit. By taking advantage of the fact that the MCU was operating off a perception of balance and security, The Winter Soldier tells the people that depend on the security organization S.H.I.E.L.D. that you can’t always trust those charged with keeping you safe. Drifting into threat management territory that Cap himself is very wary of, using the moral certitude and compass of Steve Rogers to tell this kind of story is a brilliant stroke: not just for this movie, but for the wider universe.

Combine all of the political intrigue and bombastic, gritty, street-level action with a very personal adversary for Steve to face off against, and you have the makings of both a good and powerful movie. The casting of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce is a wonderful red herring in and of itself, since the presence of the renowned actor almost has a reassuring quality that is completely, and masterfully, subverted by the writing when we start to get a more complete picture of what’s going on.

Add to that stakes that are palpable and a ludicrously strong first showing in the MCU from the Russo Brothers, and you have the highest heights that Phase Two was able to achieve, easily. Maintaining heart, wit, tension and action the way that this movie does is far from an easy task, but if anything, the Russo Brothers prove that two talented heads are better than one.

Little did we know that both Civil War and Infinity War would be arriving from these guys in the future, and the MCU is much, much better for it.

 

So, there’s our rankings! What’re yours? Leave a comment below, be on the lookout for Phase Three’s rankings article, and we’ll see you next week on Comics on Film!


Chris Clow is a comics expert/former retailer, and pop culture critic/commentator. He hosts two podcasts: Discovery Debrief: A Star Trek Podcast and Comics on Consoles. Find his column "Comics on Film" weekly at Movies.com, and follow along on Twitter @ChrisClow.

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