32. Man-Thing Brief theatrical run that was so brief it’s a direct-to-DVD in spirit. You have probably never seen it. You missed absolutely nothing. It is a mess in every possible way you can imagine, like Roger Corman came back from the dead (well, he’s not dead, but he hasn’t directed a movie in years so he might as well be, that’s what I say) and decided to make a SyFy Original Marvel Movie, which is basically what this is.
31. Elektra A completely joyless slog that feels five times longer than it is, looking muddy and dull throughout – I mean, we all rightfully criticize today’s action blockbusters for adhering to that teal/orange color dichotomy like it is law, but at least teal and orange doesn’t look awful and bland all the time like Elektra does. Tack on a nearly incoherent plot and the pacing of a dead turtle and you have what is easily the worst “true” theatrical Marvel release of the modern era. Heck, it’s probably worse than the 1990 Captain America and the Corman Fantastic Four. (It’s definitely worse than the Dolph Lundgren Punisher.)
30. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer An incoherent load of below-par SFX, a storyline that made little sense, next to no jokes (and how can you have a good F4 movie without at least some jokes?), but at least it’s over relatively soon. A complete waste of Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans. Not even ironically fun.
29. X-Men Origins: Wolverine Proof that you can spend an immense amount of money on a superhero movie, have competent filmmakers, have a solid cast (seriously: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schrieber, Ryan Reynolds, Danny Huston – that’s damn good) and it can still be a creative failure in every way that matters. The grimness of the later X-franchise flicks permeates this on every level.
28. Punisher: War Zone It has a sort of craziness to it that I admire, Ray Stevenson is an inspired casting choice for the Punisher and Dominic West’s Jigsaw is enjoyably loony. But the problem is that simply taking Garth Ennis comic dialogue and putting it on screen does not work – there is printed page material and there is reading aloud material, and what is poetic on the page falls flat when you say it aloud. And the action is mostly bland.
27. Ghost Rider I think Nicolas Cage’s commitment to the wackiness of the idea of Ghost Rider is underrated even though he was slightly too old for the role when he first played Johnny Blaze – but when you’re saying “hey, 2007 Nicolas Cage is the best thing about this movie,” you know it’s probably not that good a movie – this one overexplains like all get out, which is fatal in a movie that is about a guy who has a flaming skull for a head and rides a motorcycle that is also on fire. (ASIDE: Peter Fonda should have been a lock to be Mephisto and it just doesn’t sing.)
26. Blade: Trinity A mediocre third outing to the franchise which more or less killed it. (FUN FACT: they were hoping to spin a Nightstalkers franchise out of this film. Man, did that not work or what?) At this point the Blade flicks were running out of ideas – when you go to the Dracula well in a vampire-related franchise that’s rarely a good sign unless you invert it cleverly (a la Buffy) and this movie did not do that. It’s not outright terrible by any means: there are some fun performances here (Patton Oswalt!), Wesley Snipes is quite reliable as Blade as he always is, and the action sequences are mostly competent. But it’s not anything other than a third movie in a dying series and it doesn’t elevate beyond that.
25. Fantastic Four It’s more coherent than its sequel, but remains mostly not very good. You see this for Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans’ performances, which are both excellent. Everything else about this movie is bland: Jessica Alba’s Sue is boring, Ioan Gruffud’s Reed doesn’t really work (it’s like he’s got an idea of who Reed is but can’t quite get there to make it work) and the less said about Julian McMahon’s Dr. Doom the better.
24. Hulk There are a lot of contrarians who like to pretend that this is a good movie. It isn’t a good movie; it’s a misfire. A misfire by talented creators: Ang Lee was trying to do something, work outside the superhero box, and it shows: the film is a substantial whole, a work unto itself, trying to say something in a visual language entirely new to comics movies by outright adapting comics visual vocabulary to do it. Which is a really interesting idea, to say the least. The problem is that this language is visually unappealing and in service to a story that is simply dreadful (I defy anyone to explain the ending in a way that makes sense).
23. The Amazing Spider-Man Excellent performances by Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone can’t redeem a clumsily plotted Spider-Man origin story and a mangling of Spidey’s character (if your Spider-Man story has him consumed by revenge, you are doing it wrong).
22. X-Men: The Last Stand This one gets pounded a lot because it’s supposedly the weakest of the X-flicks (it’s not) and because it awkwardly merges multiple classic comics storylines into a weird melange (yeah, okay) and because Brett Ratner’s direction is, to say the least, uninspired (totally fair). But it has some nice bits. It has Ellen Page in it as Shadowcat! And Kelsey Grammer’s Beast is exactly who Beast needed to be. Plus you get Ian McKellen’s last hurrah as Magneto (well, until Days of Future Past comes out this summer, anyway). It could have been much worse.
21. Spider-Man 3 Some nerds love to hate on the Dancin’ Evil Peter sequence, and I am not one of them – it’s fun. That having been said: like the other Spider-Man movies, this has a lot of craftsmanship in it. But it again goes to the “Spider-Man needs to have someone to seek revenge against for Uncle Ben’s death” well, which is awful and terrible and completely misses the point of the character. (It really drives home how ambitious Christopher Nolan was to remove revenge as a motive for Batman in his trilogy.) Combine that with the needless inclusion of Venom as demanded by the studio’s marketing department and you have a movie which is cluttered, confused and flawed.
20. Daredevil Another victim of the “what makes a superhero more relatable is making the superhero grittier and more morally compromised” school of superhero moviemaking, but at least ends with Daredevil rejecting that philosophy. Ben Affleck’s performance as Matt Murdock is underrated, Michael Clarke Duncan’s Kingpin is good and Colin Farrell’s Bullseye is greatly entertaining. Jennifer Garner’s Elektra is kinda meh, but the movie is perfectly acceptable, forgettable popcorn fare in the bare-minimum sort of way.
19. The Wolverine This is the “okay” Wolverine solo movie. It is defiantly average as superhero movies go. There are ninjas. And Wolverine. And that is basically it. I mean, it’s nice to see a superhero movie with a majority-person-of-color-cast, that’s certainly true, but you can’t shake the feeling that this entire $100 million movie was sort of improvised on a page-by-page basis based on when the ninjas were available. But at least they’re fun ninjas.
18. Iron Man 2 I know some people are going to complain about a Robert Downey Jr. As Iron Man movie being ranked this low, but here is my counterpoint: tell me what this movie was about off the top of your head. Because you can’t. I had to actively think for a while to remember who the villain was (it’s Mickey Rourke! Remember that? Mickey Rourke was the villain in the second Iron Man movie) or any detail of the plot other than “RDJ quips, and War Machine stuff, and um Black Widow makes her debut in the Marvel movies.” That was all I had. This is not to say that Iron Man 2 isn’t entertaining. It is. But it’s also mostly insubstantial.
17. Blade II Guillermo del Toro’s only Marvel movie is visually striking and has that gritty-B-movie fun factor that the original Blade had as well. And it’s got tons of great genre actors in it: Donnie Yen, Ron Pearlman, a very young Norman Reedus, the guy who played Cat in Red Dwarf, that sort of thing. But it’s got a boring plot (basically: vampires versus zombie vampires) that’s just there to string together the fight sequences. Which are great, so… yeah.
16. The Punisher This one is one of the really underrated Marvel flicks, mostly because people had enormously overinflated hopes for a Punisher movie “done right.” Because the Punisher, outside of comics, is just your bog-standard vigilante/murder fantasy, and that doesn’t translate remarkably well to film because it just becomes, well, a vigilante movie. The Thomas Jane Punisher movie, however, is probably the best of them; if you forgot Marvel Comics existed, this would be a decent crime/revenge movie. It has good action, decent performances from Jane and John Travolta, and a solid plot. Certainly it can be described as unambitious, but then again this is a movie that aims for “solid” and hits it, and there are worse things.
15. Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance This is basically the opposite of Punisher in that it is ridiculously ambitious and shoots for the moon and misses quite a bit, but it has great action sequences, and Ghost Rider turning a giant digger machine into a Hell-cycle, and Nic Cage and Ciaran Hinds and Idris Elba and Johnny Whitworth having a contest to see who can chew the most scenery. It is insane. And it’s fun. High peaks and high valleys, though, to be sure. But it’s never boring.
14. The Incredible Hulk Probably the poster child for ensuring a lack of downside risk in a Marvel movie, which likely makes it the blueprint off which future Marvel films were based. There is nothing wrong with Incredible Hulk, other than that it is fairly predictable and fairly safe as entertainment goes, avoiding risk in vast chunks and doing its level best to avoid offending any viewer regardless of preference. But, again: this is a movie that knows what it wants to do and does it competently and professionally. Artistry is sort of an optional extra.
13. Thor: The Dark World It is relentlessly entertaining. This is the one that was hardest for me to rank, probably because on the one hand it is the Marvel film I enjoyed terrifically while watching and then later, on sober second thought when the adrenalin of the experience was gone, thought “hmmm” – because enjoyment of the film helps one forget that the villain is bland and the magical McGuffin is meaningless and the plot just a series of excuses to have Loki do neato things and the film’s gender politics are just plain bad (especially after the first Thor was so good in this regard). And then I watched it again and it was still super-entertaining. But it still bugs me.
12. X-Men Deserves credit for inspiring the new wave of superhero movies in the first place, and beyond that it holds up surprisingly well. A nice balance between nerd callouts and easy access for newbs, well-directed by Bryan Singer with tight editing and gorgeous cinematography, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine is still a revelation (he was never better in the role than he was his first time out) and the script balances pathos, action and moments of comedy quite well. It still has its weak spots (Halle Berry, and also Halle Berry), and the pacing is definitely off at times, but it’s amazing how much this film got right on what was more or less the first try when so many others failed when they had examples of what worked and what didn’t.
11. Thor Kenneth Branagh’s direction is perhaps a touch overly staid at times (which is amazing to say considering that this is a frigging Thor movie – but it’s true, as he doesn’t really mesh well with the “house Marvel style” of moviemaking), but the movie’s narrative arcs all satisfy and Chris Hemsworth delivers the goods and Tom Hiddleston earned his stardom as Loki. I still think Anthony Hopkins’ Odin is, well, dull, but other than that I have no complaints about this.
10. Spider-Man The general lack of Spider-jokes (other than the inspired “go web!” sequence) is a shame, but other than that Spider-Man is an exceptionally well-crafted film in just about every respect. If, tonally, it is not quite accurate to its source material, that is forgivable given the impressiveness of its visual skill (Sam Raimi spent a decade making these films and it was time well spent), its strong story, fine performances from Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and Willem Dafoe, and excellent special effects (which he would improve upon in the sequel, but even so). Of course, now that we’re in the top ten all of that is basically to be expected.
9. X2 Everybody understands that this sequel is simply superior throughout to the original; bigger stakes, mostly superior performances (Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler and Brian Cox’ Stryker are standouts, but this is also Famke Janssen’s best work in the franchise and Ian McKellen is at the height of his powers as Magneto), and by this point Bryan Singer was developing his previous visual flair into a sense of craft that results in a film that is just endlessly watchable. Everything about this is good and nothing is bad.
8. Iron Man 3 Of all the Marvel Studios movies, this is the one that is perhaps the most idiosyncratic, the result of a singular vision. Which is to say that Iron Man 3 feels like a Shane Black movie that happens to be a Marvel movie, rather than a Marvel movie that happens to be directed by Shane Black. (For the sake of comparison, Thor is certainly a Marvel movie that happens to be directed by Kenneth Branagh.) It is smart and clever (recognizing that Movie Tony can’t really work as an alcoholic and substituting PTSD for it was particularly brilliant) and at times barely feels like a superhero movie at all. Of course, that is a bit of a problem because it is a superhero movie, or at least intended to be. But only a bit of a problem.
7. X-Men: First Class There’s a lot of silly bits in here and a lot of things you can quibble over or complain about (how it instantly becomes Team Whitebread as the good guys, how the guy whose power is “don’t get killed” IS LITERALLY THE FIRST ONE WHO DIES, January Jones being completely awful at everything she does, etc.) but mostly smart writing, the gorgeous art direction and overall sense of design, the skilled direction by Matthew Vaughn, and the stupidly good performances of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are what push this one into the top ten.
6. Iron Man Let’s be honest: the third act of this film is at best a hot mess and at worst confused sludge, and we all forgive it that, because RDJ kickstarted the Modern Marvel Movie Movement ™ and because you get to see Jeff Bridges’ performance as The Dude Except Now He’s Evil (IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!) and because the first two-thirds of the film are just about perfect, so we let it limp to the finish and nobody says boo to that goose. But that limp to the finish is what keeps it out of the top five.
5. Blade If X-Men is responsible for the modern superhero movie, we have to give Blade credit for making Hollywood think that Marvel Comics was something that could be exploited in the first place. But Blade is more than that; it is in its own right an amazing action/horror picture, just about flawless in every respect – the sort of B-movie that filmmakers imitate endlessly (and have done). There is simply nothing Blade does wrong.
4. The Avengers Now, if you want to point to things The Avengers does wrong – the lighting for many of the interior shots is insipid at best and cheap-looking at worst (Joss Whedon may not have been the cinematographer but it seems he wanted it to look like boring TV), the primary arc of the movie really is just a Cap/Iron Man buddy story, Thor doesn’t get enough dialogue, the Hulk reveal doesn’t make sense really, and the Thanos end-reveal is nerdwank of the highest order. But, on the other hand, they successfully made a superhero team movie of epic scale, the Battle of New York is probably the best long-form action sequence on film since the end of Hard Boiled, it doesn’t sag and it’s never boring. When we talk about movies being ambitious, it is worth remembering that Avengers was attempting to do something that had never been done and almost entirely pulled it off.
3. Spider-Man 2 Ebert’s favorite superhero movie and justifiably so: this is the height of Sam Raimi’s creative vision. Just watch any of the Spidey/Ock fights; they are simply perfect filmmaking. The balance between action and drama is expertly maintained. Alfred Molina’s performance is staggeringly good. I could say so many more things but they would all be superlatives.
2. Captain America: The First Avenger As Iron Man 3 is recognizably a Shane Black movie, so is Captain America recognizably a Joe Johnston movie (if somewhat less so); the lush colour palette Johnston utilized in The Rocketeer is present, as is Johnston’s well-documented love of homaging old Republic serials. But what makes Captain America so good is the emotional notes of regret and loss that are omnipresent throughout the film: despite being a superhero movie, this is a film whose core emotion is sadness, and that feeling hits at every beat of the movie, most notably in Chris Evans’ magnificent performance as Cap – he’s not as showy as RDJ’s Iron Man is, but I think it’s a more fully realized performance on the whole. The overall effect is to make the film slightly downbeat (which I think hurt it) but it also feels more mature and adult. Until recently I thought this was the most fully realized Marvel film…
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier …until last week, anyway, because Winter Soldier is even better, taking numerous visual cues from 1970s conspiracy thrillers in service of a story more ambitious than any Marvel has yet told (government overreach as tyranny is a bold statement in a superhero movie at present to say the least), with a cast of heroes who, it must be noted, are mostly women or black – seriously: Cap is the token white guy, and how great is that? This is a film that has the narrative confidence to simply skip a difficult and exciting heist because it needs to put the time elsewhere, a film that doesn’t bother explaining its tropes because it trusts the audience not to be stupid, a film that doesn’t feel the need to justify Arnim Zola as a living bank of computers or how Falcon’s jetpack works, but just shoves it out there immediately. This is the Marvel movie in maturity, and it feels so good to see it.