“Avengers: Infinity War” opens soon, and set a box office record a few weeks ago in terms of opening weekend pre-sale tickets…breaking the record set by none other than the previous Marvel film, “Black Panther.” Suffice to say, expectations are high.
If you are a MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) newbie with plans to see “Avengers: Infinity War” at theaters, count on being in over your head. By my count, there have been 18 films preceding this one, their stories ultimately interconnected, their protagonists’ fates intertwined. Even such seeming stand-alones as “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) and “Ant-Man” (2015) tie in to the decade-long ramp-up of characters and events that began with 2008’s “Iron Man” and culminates in what looks to be a two-part battle for the fate of the universe.
Some Marvel films and characters – Deadpool, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four spring immediately to mind – exist in their own separate universes. But for the connected MCU mega-verse that is presided over by Nick Fury’s Avengers, audiences have gotten to enjoy an uneven, but mostly fun, cinematic ride. Here are my choices for the Top Ten Marvel Films (So Far):
1) Iron Man (2008): It would seem that Robert Downey, Jr., the twice-Oscar-nominated actor who brought such persons, real and imagined, as Charlie Chaplin and Sherlock Holmes, to cinematic life, was born to play Tony Stark, the billionaire playboy and heir to his father’s industrialist empire. The actor’s trademark smarm and self-confidence pairs effortlessly with director Jon Favreau’s interpretation of Stark himself. In the first MCU film, refreshingly low-key compared to many of the entries that followed, Stark has a crisis of conscience after surviving hostage capture in Afghanistan and learning the damage that can be done if Stark-made weapons land in the wrong hands. He famously manufactures a super suit to escape and to reverse the collateral damage done by his firm, mismanaged in his absence by senior partner Obadiah Stane (a terrific Jeff Bridges). But don’t worry, despite the calming presence of driver Happy (Favreau), secretary Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and robotic assistant Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Stark has no intentions of humbling himself in any other way, shape, or form. If not for the juggernaut that was DC’s “The Dark Knight,” “Iron Man” would have easily been the best comic book movie of its decade.
2) The Avengers (2012): Released internationally as “Avengers Assemble,” this rip-roaring epic was, as directed by über-geek Joss Whedon of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” renown, was leagues better than anyone expected it to be. Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s charismatic, insecure younger brother, returns to wreak more havoc, this time on New York. Loki is promised an extra-terrestrial army through which he can rule our planet, in exchange for delivering a powerful energy weapon called the Tesseract into the hands of the Chitauri. Meanwhile, under-developed Avenger character Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) becomes temporarily brainwashed, while former Russian operative-turned-Black Widow Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johannson) recruits scientist/Hulk Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo, taking over for Edward Norton), an Avenger who could best be described as “moody.” None of this matters; Marvel Studios mostly gambled on audiences interest in seeing a) Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Incredible Hulk together, and b) stuff blowing up, which we get in spades. The coherent editing, Oscar-nominated visual effects, and welcome humor are added bonuses.
3) Black Panther (2018): By now, so much has happened in the MCU since Tony Stark first fashioned his iron man suit in 2008 that you can barely keep track of it all. The most recent, pre-Infinity War adventures were those had by T’Challa, new ruler of Wakanda, a secretive African nation possessing unparalleled geological riches courtesy of a foreign mineral known as vibranium. T’Challa (Chadwick Bozeman, who got his start playing Jackie Robinson in “42”) is also known as Black Panther, a stubborn yet fierce fighter whose exposure to the greater forces of evil as confronted by the Avengers in “Captain America: Civil War” has only made him more likely to keep his nation’s riches a secret. But T’Challa’s well-intended selfishness backfires when his rule is challenged by the aptly-named Killmonger (a very good Michael B. Jordan), the supposed descendant of N’Jobu, T’Challa’s father’s best friend. Confused yet? Don’t worry; the plot reveals are handled well in this thrilling installment, the most emotionally involving entry to date in the MCU. The film’s nearly all-black cast is a first for the genre, as is using its main setting, sub-saharan Africa, as a source of power, not poverty. A triumph.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): A friend of mine mentioned that he saw “Guardians” three times in the theater and holds it in the same esteem that he holds the original “Star Wars.” While I wouldn’t proclaim this, the tenth film in the MCU, to be on par with the movie that has since been rebranded “A New Hope,” it is good, and it does have that film’s motley crew of outer space ne’er-do-wells, including Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, in a star-making role), a human abducted as a child by space pirates and now a scavenger of his own, hoping to gain international notoriety under the name Star-Lord. A stolen orb, which may or may not be one of the sought-after Infinity Stones from the greater MCU, brings Star-Lord in contact with green-skinned orphan Gamora (Zoe Saldana, following up her success in “Avatar” and “Star Trek”), vengeance-seeking warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and tree-like Groot (Vin Diesel). Together, they bicker, banter, and upstage fellow cast members like Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, and Benicio del Toro, accompanied throughout by a best-selling soundtrack of 70’s one-hit wonders. Be sure to stick around through the end credits for a cameo by none other than Howard the Duck!
5) Thor: Ragnarok (2017): “Thor: Ragnarok” gets my vote for Funkiest Marvel Movie. New Zealand-born filmmaker Taika Waititi brings a fresh take to cheesy material by filming much of the film as a comedy. This scattershot entry unites Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) against Hela (Cate Blanchett, having a blast), Thor’s older sister and the Asgardian goddess of death. If that doesn’t sound particularly funny, let me assure that the humor comes from the periphery, with Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, and even Waititi himself (playing a rock-shaped gladiator named Korg) stealing their every scenes…not an easy feat when acting opposite Hiddleston and Blanchett. Even Hemsworth, who didn’t appear to be enjoying himself in the second “Thor” movie, “The Dark World,” is firing on all action comedy cylinders, as if he is finally in on the joke.
6) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014): One of the best-reviewed films in the MCU, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” works on two levels. First, as a character study of a fish out of water, namely that of Steve Rogers, ole “Cap” himself, an old man in a young warrior’s body courtesy of having been frozen ice for several decades at the climax of his original film, “The First Avenger.” As Cap makes new friends (Black Widow, Falcon) and comes to terms with the fact that the love of his life, Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell) is now an old woman, he also learns that national defense is a for-profit business and that foreign policy today is not about black and white but about shades of gray. This brings us to the second level, a conspiracy film in the style of “Three Days of the Condor” (making the meaty, against-type supporting turn by “Condor’s” Robert Redford all the more ironic). Why did S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) get shot at? Who is pulling the strings of the mysterious Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan)? Rich in both plot and character, this one’s a winner.
7) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011): Only slightly “less good” than its aforementioned 2014 sequel, “The First Avenger” is a refreshingly old-fashioned origin story. The film was directed by Joe Johnston, who helmed one of my favorite serial adventures, 1991’s “The Rocketeer.” Johnston’s technical prowess, as well as his comfort working with period-specific material, shows. If you don’t know the back story of Captain America (Chris Evans), you’ll learn here that he grew up as über-patriotic, über-wimpy Steve Rogers, consenting to take part in a science experiment that would, essentially, make him the world’s first super soldier…just in time to take on Nazi villain/Hydra commander the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), who hopes to get his hands on a weapon called the Tesseract (which we next saw in the following summer’s “The Avengers”). I won’t reveal how Steve/Cap ends up in 21st century Manhattan, except to say that his journey is worth the price of admission.
8) Ant-Man (2015): With 2015’s fun, funny “Ant-Man,” Marvel Studios gave us the first “second tier” MCU superhero. Said hero, in this risky at-bat, is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a divorced ex-con who returns to his life of crime as a small-time crook. He finds himself the target of nefarious types after lifting what he thinks is a retro motorcycle helmet from a safe that he creeked, only for it to be a chemically-enhanced suit that shrinks him into the size of a…you guessed it. And who knew? Following a series of increasingly-apocalyptic confrontations in “The Avengers,” “The Winter Soldier,” etc., audiences found it refreshing when “Ant-Man’s” light touch and lower stakes made this –at least until this point in the MCU timeline – the second-most-fun installment in the series. Raise your hand if, like me, you didn’t think actor Rudd had the gravitas to play a superhero. Well, Marvel did, and with this entry – and the assured hand of director Peyton Reed – the studio continued to bat 1000.
9) Captain America: Civil War (2016): This acclaimed follow-up to events set up in the first two “Captain America” films and expanded upon in “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “Civil War” is about dissension in the Avengers ranks following a terrorist bombing that may or may not have been caused by Cap’s WWII buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) the “Winter Soldier” of that film. Cap (Chris Evans) finds himself at odds with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) over how to proceed, and in the process each “Senior” Avenger brings others into the fight, including Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and newcomers Spider-Man (a scene-stealing Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Bozeman). Ultimately, I found the climatic Cap-vs-Iron Man showdown a bit absurd; despite the fact that things turned out differently in the comic book, was there really any worry that either of these characters would be killed off before the concluding “Avengers” film? Until then, though, “Civil War” was a solid entry, making Cap’s trilogy of films arguably the best of them all.
10) Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017): Poor Spidey. Unlike Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America, he didn’t get his own origin story film. Heck, even Ant-Man had an origin story film! Well…this is not entirely accurate. Sony Pictures twice gave Spidey an origin story, once with man-child Tobey Maguire and once with the already-forgotten Andrew Garfield. So by the time we met Spidey and his geeky high school alter ego Peter Parker (Tom Holland, wonderful), he’s long been bitten, and merely wants to use his powers for good. Star struck after meeting Iron Man and others in the previous summer’s “Civil War,” he gets a Tony Stark-made, custom Spidey suit and much more than he bargained for when weapons trafficker Vulture (Michael Keaton) builds a super suit of his own. The age-appropriate casting of Holland (age at the time of casting: 18) as Spidey and Marisa Tomei (50), along with a seamless integration into the MCU suggests that this is not your parents’ “Spider-Man.”
“Avengers: Infinity War” opens Thursday, April 26th. Be sure to sit through the closing credits…keep an eye out for the requisite Stan Lee cameo…and enjoy!