Sunday, July 2, 2017

Me vs. Them: A Comparative Ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

I guess the upcoming release of Spider-Man: Homecoming sparked the ever-present ember of comic nerd-dom within me. I just went back and watched most of Phase One of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The MCU is an absolute beast that has grown into a bit of a "love it or hate it" kind of juggernaut for many moviegoers. Despite its ongoing financial domination of box offices, the number of highly respected critics who are growing increasingly upset with the idea of movie "universes" and "franchises" is growing. Erudite NPR critic David Edelstein has had few kind words for the last handful of MCU movies, despite their highly positive reception among many critics and audiences. I completely understand his and others' points about such franchises overwhelming the film industry, elbowing out smaller, independent, and more creative movies. At the same time, the MCU is my go-to film series for enjoyable popcorn entertainment.

I've done more than a few posts dedicated to the films in the MCU. The massive film franchise has now churned out 15 movies and grossed enough money to take over several small countries. As such, many a comic book and/or movie nerd such as myself has ranked the movies from best to worst, often modifying the rankings with each new film's release. While there's a general consensus about some of the film's general position within the MCU, I have found that some films receive more or less praise or criticism than I offer them. It's these kinds of differences of opinion that can be fascinating, and so I did a closer look at them.

General Rankings (A Small but Representative Sample)

After surfing around on the Interwebs a little, I noted down the most recent rankings from five different websites, done shortly after the release of the most recent MCU movie, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. The sites included: c|net, Collider, slashfilm.com, USA Today, and comicbook.com, all of which seemed to have fairly credible comic book and movie fans ranking the films, and all seem to represent the general trand of how critics rank the MCU movies. I noted down their rankings of the films and took the average of all five, not unlike aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. From that, here are their average rankings of the full series:
  1. Guardians of the Galaxy 
  2. The Avengers
  3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  4. Captain America: Civil War
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  6. Iron Man
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger
  8. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  9. Iron Man 3
  10. Doctor Strange
  11. Ant-Man
  12. Thor
  13. Thor: The Dark World
  14. The Incredible Hulk
  15. Iron Man 2
This list partially reflects my own agreements and disagreements with critical feelings on these films. To really get into it, however, requires a closer look at the above list as well as my own rankings.

My Rankings

I typically don't go more than about a year or two without rewatching any one MCU film at some point, so they are always fairly fresh in my mind. Currently, here is how I have them ranked:
  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. The Avengers
  3. Captain America: Civil War
  4. Iron Man
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Iron Man 3
  7. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
  8. Captain America: The First Avenger
  9. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  10. Ant-Man
  11. Doctor Strange
  12. Thor
  13. Thor: The Dark World
  14. Iron Man 2
  15. The Incredible Hulk
Sympatico?

As you can see, there are plenty of areas where I feel the same as most others. My bottom six are the same as the group average, with my specific rankings never being more than one off of the group's. The consensus of fans of these movies feels that these films, from Ant-Man through The Incredible Hulk, are the weakest so far in the MCU. (Interesting to note that the bottom four are among the earliest in the franchise, illustrating how the quality has generally improved over time). I'll also point out here that I don't think that even the "worst" of the MCU films, like Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk, are particularly bad movies. Their flaws are not crippling, and they both have some merits. It's just that they are merely mediocre fare, whereas much of the MCU has been markedly better than average for the realm of fantasy/action/adventure films.

There are also four other films with which I am more or less on the same page as most other fans. The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Avengers: Age of Ultron are all in exactly or within one of the same positions between the two lists. Some of these movies have wild variance between the individual rankings (like one writer having The First Avenger  as #1, while another has is at #13), but the average sense matches my own.

The curiosities start with the differences, which I'll look at below, going from the smallest to the largest differences:

Iron Man

Their rankings: #6 (highest: 3; lowest: 11); My ranking: #4

I literally just rewatched this three days ago, and it still holds up extremely well. If I were being thoroughly objective about it, I suppose I would knock it down to a position similar to where the other lists have it, but I can't bring myself to do it. The jokes still hit, thanks to a timelessly smug and hilarious Downey Jr.; nearly all of the action sequences are still a blast; and the theme of personal redemption is still timely.

I suppose that others have this film ranked lower due to one primary reason: the third act. In what has become a persistent weak point in the MCU, the final showdown between Iron Man and Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger is nothing more than a CGI slugfest between giant Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots. With the benefit of hindsight and the 14 MCU movies that have followed, the general lack of imagination in this final confrontation is a bit more glaring. All the same, I don't find that it overly diminishes what is otherwise still one of the five best movies in the franchise. And it is the Godfather of them all. If Jon Favreau, Robert Downey Jr., and the rest of the crew had dropped the ball on this one, the MCU would have died a very early death.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Their rankings: #3 (highest: 1; lowest: 6); My ranking: #1

So this discrepancy also isn't tremendous, and there's little to break down here, except that only one of the five rankings that I pulled from had this film at #1, like I do. I still find Winter Soldier to be the single best film in the MCU. In nearly every respect, it stands above the others, from the sophistication of plot, to the deeper messages about privacy and security, to the action sequences, to its ability to stay mostly self-contained. It speaks to this film's excellence that none of the five lists, with their many wild disagreements, had it lower than #6 (which still feels almost insultingly low, in my eyes).

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Their rankings: #5 (highest: 1; lowest: 7); My ranking: #7

As you'll see more explicitly in a moment, the two Guardians movies are where I most differ from much of MCU-loving fandom. This most recent MCU film had many audiences (and clearly some cirtics) going pretty gaga. One friend of mine went to see it in the theater at least four times (that I know of) in its first week of release. Generally, though, the lists I used here had it slightly higher than I did. I did find some of the action scenes well done, and there are certainly many solid gags, right in keeping with some of the best humor in the MCU. Still, some of the joke-every-ten seconds dialogue felt forced or even sometimes out of character. There were even some plot points that were glossed over a little too breezily for my liking, and even though director Gunn didn't overuse it, the "cute" factor of baby Groot had the slightest stench of "Ewok" on it.

It's still in the top half for me, but I'm not as enamored of this one as many fans.

Iron Man 3

Their rankings: #9 (highest: 3; lowest: 13); My ranking: #6

"The Mandarin" - arguably the single most
argued-over villain thus far in the MCU.
Along with Captain America: The First Avenger, the third Iron Man movie is one of the most divisive films in the MCU, as you can see from the range of rankings. For those who aren't familiar with the comic books, the vast difference might seem a mystery. The movie has plenty of excellent qualities. Directed and co-written by the brilliant Shane Black, it has the sharp wit, clever plot, and solid action sequences and effects of many of the best fantasy/action movies. No, this isn't what fans disagree over. The sticking point for most comes down to one thing: The Mandarin. Many viewers who know the Iron Man character from the comics knows that The Mandarin has always been one of Tony Stark's most powerful and feared nemeses. So when the movie had the character portrayed as a complete fraud, being played by a hedonistic, degenerate British actor, such dedicated fans were enraged enough to burn their Predator posters and go berserk on message boards. The vitriol still lingers today, four years later, with Iron Man 3 often being ranked near the very bottom of some MCU rankings.

For my part, I loved the Mandarin plot twist. Maybe it's because I never read or followed the Iron Man comics (one of the few Marvel staple comics I didn't follow at any point), but I thought it was genius to turn the expected villain on its ear. To this day, it is arguably the boldest and cleverest slight-of-hand plot move in an MCU film. The reason I don't have this movie higher than #6 is primarily because the third act does, like all three Iron Man movies, become little more than a CGI monster truck rally with metal suits flying around, blowing stuff up. It was already tired a few films before this one, so seeing it yet again did this otherwise strong film no great favors.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Their rankings: #1 (highest: 1; lowest: 5); My ranking: #5

My greatest difference with the general and critical public is with the two Guardians movies, especially the original. I have it as currently the fifth best MCU film, just breaking into the top third of the series. Not bad at all. However, I have come across one list after another that has it as #1, 2, or 3. The love for this movie is almost off the charts, even in these most recent rankings, which were all done just a month or two ago, a full three years after the movie was released. This is still clearly not just a hot take on something that is brand new.

I always liked the movie, to be sure, but I never found it to be better than fourth best in the franchise (Civil War bumped it, once it came out). I did understand much of the enthusiasm, to be sure. Guardians was a really fun return to the epic space fantasy, action/adventure films of the 1980s and even early 1990s. Despite being the 10th film released in the ever-more-connected MCU, it was almost completely self-contained, making it more accessible to viewers. The characters were quirky and weird, and Peter Gunn's comic writing was on full display. All the same, I have never been able to overlook two pretty glaring weaknesses with this movie. One is that the villain, Ronan the Accuser, it about as dull as they come. He was basically just a rage monster who wanted to destroy stuff. Sure a reason is given, but it is never explored in any compelling ways. Second is that the third act, like so many in the MCU, is mostly a mind-numbing, CGI shoot-'em-up showdown with a dizzying number of ships zipping around. There are a few other little gripes I have, but these two primary weaknesses are why I've never put it among the absolute elite of MCU films.

So why is it so obviously more beloved by others? My guess is the combinations of its strengths really strike a chord with people. Heck, even my 69-year old mother, who is in no way a fan of comic book action movies, really liked the two Guardians movies. There's something about a giant living tree, a wise-cracking squirrel, and the rest of the oddball crew that has captured people's imaginations and attention. Another possible reason I have it ranked lower may come from a broader look at my own perspective on comics and films in general:


Where I'm Coming From

Comic books and movies were two of my earliest loves. From around age 11 or 12, I began to really get into certain comic books, eventually growing into a full-blown reader and collector of dozens of different comic series, mostly in the Marvel comics realms, but eventually in some of the darker, more mature settings from the Vertigo imprint and others of its ilk. I even worked in comic book stores for a few years between high school and college. By my mid-twenties, however, my passion had dimmed enough that I sold off nearly my entire collection and was only buying the occasional comic from one of a very few writers whom I followed. Such has remained the case to this day.

Movies, on the other hand, have seen no such twilight in my eyes. Not long after my interest in comic books had been sparked, I was starting to develop the beginnings of an actual "taste" in movies that went beyond just watching things that made me laugh or had stuff exploding in it. My freshly-pubescent self was surprisingly dazzled by movies like Milos Foreman's Amadeus and the gritty and stylish classic spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone. Ever since, my tastes and awareness of the richness of cinema as an art form has continued to expand to this very day.

It's not a movie most of us will watch over and over with the
feverish joy inspired by popcorn movies like those offered
by the MCU, but
Ikiru has more depth, soul, and sublime
artistry than even the best in that massive film universe.
As of now, in 2017, there have been hardly any film adaptations of comic book stories that have been objectively high-quality movies. I don't mean this as an insult. It is simply that the entire premise of comic book superheroes is inherently limited. The notion that a person has supernatural powers and uses them to right the wrongs of the world is, ultimately, a juvenile fantasy. The reason that costumed superheroes appeal to anyone is that it is purely escapist fantasy. The most creative comic stories have had to do with the deconstruction and analysis of such fantasies, typified by Alan Moore's seminal Watchmen, which was itself adapted with moderate success several years ago. However, even these tales cannot penetrate into the deeper realities and dramas of real people. Because of such limitations of scope, I feel that even comic superhero films of the highest quality will not approach the level of great humanist or satirical films. Love it as much as I do, I will never suggest that The Winter Soldier is of the same overall quality of Pather Panchali, Ikiru, or Network.

And this is where I think the difference between my rankings and the general rankings lies. People who are stronger fans of the genre of comic book movies rather than films in general are more likely to rank movies like Guardians of the Galaxy higher than slightly more objective film-watchers. Likewise, they are more likely to be displeased with Iron Man 3 than someone not as invested in the Iron Man character's mythology. While I am not and never will be completely oblivious to the origins of the comic book heroes of Marvel's vast universe, I can more easily set aside my fandom than others and see many of these movies more as movies and not just high-quality film adaptations of characters whom I love.

This will always be an engaging exercise for me. As each new MCU film is released (and there are at least nine more confirmed to be released in the next four years, with plenty more being planned), the merits and weaknesses of each will be hashed out endlessly. And as with many things, it is when I differ from the general public or the majority of critics that my curiosity is piqued. Trying to get into other people's heads regarding why they do or do not enjoy movies is an enjoyable exercise, and one that I will likely get to experience more as the MCU marches on.