Ranking the MCU: #20-#16

Hello and welcome back to my ranking of the feature-length films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which make 25 with the recent release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. You can see my thoughts on what I consider to be the bottom fifth here.

Just a reminder of two things I went over in the original post: this list represents my opinion. In no way would I consider myself an objective authority, but I do think I know a thing or two about storytelling and filmmaking. Whatever I lament or commend these movies for, I hope readers can learn from it, should they choose to be storytellers themselves someday. The second is that the numerical order of this list is really just a formality; in no way were these films quantitatively judged against each other. On some days I may feel more strongly about a film than another, for good or bad. Films are emotional experiences, and what I am relating to you here are my emotions as reaction.

With that in mind, let’s get on with the next chunk of the list:

#20: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Ultron as he appears in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Photo: Marvel Studios

This film really truly is just an absolute mess, and there are only two reasons why it is not lower on this list: the chemistry fostered between its leads (which, to its discredit, is found in all Avengers films), and the absolutely undeniable charisma of James Spader’s performance as the titular villain. Ultron’s wit is as sharp as metal, he’s angry, he’s ruthless and (for the more cynical of us out there), the movie makes you think he has every reason for being so.

Other than that, however, Age of Ultron accomplishes nothing over the first film. Once the plot really begins, they are essentially the same story. The heroes band together; a challenge emerges that brings to the surface broiling tensions; they disband; they reunite, overcoming their differences for the greater good. It’s all the same, only with a few more convolutions of the plot thrown in–which don’t make the story any more engaging and instead just really drag down on the movie’s run-time.

Said convolutions include: Tony and Banner designing a worldwide security program “Ultron” (losing their groundedness and caving into comic-book buffoonery); Thor going on a little cosmic romp when he recognizes the nature of what the team is up against; Ultron wanting an additional shell of vibranium, oh-WAIT!, now he wants an entirely new synthetic body that will for some reason be better than his previous one even though it resembles far more closely the race he claims to despise; and so much more!

There’s too much crammed in here, and it all just falls apart in the end.

#19: Black Widow

Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh as Natasha Romanoff and Yelena Belova. Photo: Marvel Studios

The trademark flaws of all the MCU are on full display here in this picture, a sort of “lost episode” that is bookended by the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. Any relevant themes of manipulation and abuse in the era of #MeToo are lost in its superheroic absurdity, with perilous set pieces that feel unjustified given the humanity of the film’s protagonist.

That humanity is even recognized in the film’s script, as Natasha is at first only approached as a middle-man, with hopes that she can contact one of the “bigger guys” to bring down the criminal organization known as the Red Room. But it is this same humanity that the film casually disregards, as Natasha is seen throughout the movie being thrown, choked, blasted, stabbed, and even defenestrated, all to only get up, shrug it off, and run (not walk!) back into the action. Belief can only be suspended so far.

The villains are absolute bores and while Johansson does a great job like always, Natasha’s character as written here isn’t enough to sustain the film’s story. Instead, her character ruthlessly drives the plot forward. Her determination in bringing down the Red Room is what gets the audience from point A to point B, but where along this line does she grow as a character, at what point does she accept her adopted family as legitimate? The film may try to convince you that it was during the tender one-on-one with Milena, but that’s cinematic illusion. There is nothing in that scene that should push Natasha to her emotional terminus, and there’s nothing in any of the scenes past that point to get her there either.

Black Widow would score a lot lower on this list if it weren’t for the fact that it is, well… pretty damn funny at times. David Harbour is hilarious and Florence Pugh’s Yelena is one of the sharpest, wittiest, and best relatively new additions to the MCU yet. The movie works great as film as entertainment. But any movie, even if it is produced and marketed for release to the lowest-common demographics, should never do away with its potential for film as art. What kinds of themes or ideas a project wants to present to its audience are part of what justifies that film existing in the first place.

#18: Thor: The Dark World

Chris Hemsworth as Thor. Photo: Marvel Studios

This sequel to 2011’s Thor is often considered the absolute worst among the MCU. Obviously, with its placement here on this list I don’t at all agree with that, but there isn’t too much to love about this movie either.

Worth some commendation is that The Dark World seems to actively try and undo some of the sins of its predecessor. Jane and Darcy are now actionable agents in the plot, their choices affecting the course of the story. Thor and Loki’s arcs are far more fleshed out and take satisfying turns when they should. And, while it may be based in the weak foundation of the first film, if we accept outright that Thor and Jane do love each other at the onset then it is hard to deny that the chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman is anything other than scintillating.

Still, though, The Dark World does have its faults–namely that it is particularly standard adventure fare. While ostensibly the fate of the universe is at stake here, it never really feels that way, likely due to the film’s other serious shortcoming: its villain. Malekith is just not that intriguing, which is such a waste of Christopher Eccleston’s massive talent. Had some more time been spent with our antagonist, in turn raising the sense of danger, then maybe the film could have been remembered more brightly in the eyes of others.

#17: Spider-Man: Far From Home

Jake Gyllenhaal as Quentin Beck and Tom Holland as Peter Parker. Photo: Marvel Studios

The epilogue to the MCU’s “Infinity Saga,” Far From Home ushers viewers into a Marvel universe that is coping with the traumatic disappearance and sudden return of half the life on earth. Or so it claims.

In actuality, several of Peter Parker’s cohorts seem to be doing quite well with the temporary nonexistence of over 3 billion human lives. Everything is fine and there are no serious consequences. This is a problem I had with the first MCU Spider-Man movie, and one which I think I can best go into detail when I discuss that film. But, the fact that said problem repeats itself here for the sequel is not a good thing and is why I am knocking it down a few notches away from the first foray.

There are a lot of plot lines in this movie, carried by a lot of trite dialogue, with their only express purpose being to provide comic relief. I have no problem with laughing or humor in a movie, but these things should be introduced as a result or in the aid of the main story, and none of these other side plots at all seem to reinforce Peter’s emotional journey, or ones of their own.

On the note of Peter’s arc, this is what makes criticizing the MCU Spider-Man films so unique among the other entries: their flaws are more conceptual than they are executional. Peter’s journey is not his own, but rather some posthumous avatar for Tony Stark. Even the villain (which was not at all a clever twist), is more invested against the dead Tony than the living Peter and so he falls into generic bad guy-dom.

Still, though, for all its flaws the movie has its moments. Its not bad to look at, at times, and that Mysterio scene really is unlike anything yet done in the MCU.

#16: The Avengers

Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, Mark Ruffalo (motion-capture) as Hulk, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers and Robert Downey, Jr. (motion-capture) as Iron Man. Photo: Paramount

It’s strange, how a movie that was so groundbreaking and record-setting upon release can now in retrospect seem so terribly… by-the-numbers.

Yes, the characters bristle wonderfully against each other and the cast is stellar (Ruffalo as Banner really excels here), but rarely, if ever, is there a stand-out bad actor among MCU players to begin with. So then, the movie just seems so… typical. The plot unfolds as one would expect out of a generic roadmap that I’ve already described in my thoughts for Age of Ultron.

And I haven’t much else to say about this first film, because it doesn’t give me or anyone else much else to chew on. It’s not terrible, but it’s hardly okay.

‘Nuff said… for now

That’s all for this installment. How do you feel? To what extent do you agree or disagree? Feel free to let me know. Until next time, for when we get to the middle batch of movies. Excelsior!

3 thoughts on “Ranking the MCU: #20-#16

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