Ranking the MCU: The Middle Five

Hello, happy hump day, and welcome back to my ranking, from worst to best, of the feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There have so far been 25 of these pictures released to the public, and I have been writing on each of them in chunks of five. You can read about my thoughts on the bottom 10 films here and here.

Today on Wednesday, this most middling of days, I’ll be writing on those films of the MCU that aren’t so terrible, but don’t quite make it into the top 10 either.

Just a quick reminder before I begin: these rankings represent my opinion, which as comic-lover and aspiring filmmaker is as informed as it can be, but it is by no means authoritative. Secondly, organizing these films in numerical order is really just a formality for convenience’s sake. On some days I may feel more strongly about one film over another. I may like it less, or like it more. Time will tell. What I am describing to you here are my emotional responses to these movies, what I value in film. Should any of you reading this want to be storytellers yourself, especially in the realm of film, then you may find this project of mine somewhat educational. There’s value in that.

With all that out of the way, let’s get on with the list:

#15: Black Panther

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa. Photo: Marvel Studios

2018’s Black Panther introduced audiences to a whole new corner of the MCU, one filled with characters–so many, in fact, that the film fails to develop its own titular lead as a unique and distinct voice among them.

Who is T’Challa? That was one question (among others) that I came into and disappointingly left the movie with. I see that he is a dear friend, a good son and brother, a nervous romantic, and a king that weighs all his options carefully. He is so many different things, has so many different sides to him and in that way he is just like us and is kind of relatable–but that does not make him interesting. He is so normal, so varied and human, that he has no driving personality trait, nothing that consistently informs how he changes from one scene to the next. He is not a strong protagonist.

Thankfully, the film makes up for this serious flaw with a few clearer personalities among the supporting cast, namely Okoye, W’Kabi, and Killmonger. Indeed, Killmonger is one of the MCU’s better villains with one of the more sympathetic motivations yet, but herein lies another problem of the film: there’s too much of him. There’s too much of a lot of things!

If all Killmonger needed to do was present Klaue’s body to Wakanda to gain entrance, why not just cut to the chase? Why all this fluff with the museum and the deal-gone-south and the other thieves? And why would he need Klaue? Doesn’t he already have two identifying factors as a Wakandan, one of which will even mark him as a royal? Why does the movie need Agent Ross, if Shuri has proven just as capable to pilot drones? Why is Shuri’s dialogue just so damn expository? How does T’Challa reprimand W’Kabi for his betrayal?

Beautifully produced (albeit with the exception of some piss-poor CGI in the final fight), Black Panther needed to hone in on key elements and simplify its plot to be among the MCU’s greatest.

#14: Captain America: Civil War

Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff, Chris Evans as Steve Rogers and Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes. Photo: Marvel Studios

You know everything I’ve been saying for the past two articles, all that nonsense about character arc and transformation? Well, forget it. This movie is dumb, its characters really only become worse as it goes on, and in context it really fails to tell a complete story of its own.

But boy, is it fun to watch.

The Russo Bros. prove their competence as directors with this, their sophomore turn in the MCU. At two-and-a-half hours, Civil War was the longest MCU film ever at the time of its release, but it never slogs. Things proceed with an exhilarating action-packed pace, maintained by a strong cast and one of the MCU’s most intriguing villains yet.

However, I will risk repeating myself for the sake that it cannot be understated: this movie is dumb. Yes, the characters are quippy, but there are so many of them stuffed in here, several of them without strong motivations of their own and are written in with some of the most convenient, conflict-free entrances. Any moral high-grounds that its two leads try to maintain are proven null (Steve for his wanton destruction at the airport, Tony for trying to murder Bucky), and there are so many twists and turns to the story that I can’t really say for certain what the film is about.

Then again, it’s probably not about anything. Plenty of films are made simply for profit and entertainment. This one succeeds just well enough at that where I wouldn’t always call it terrible, but out of respect for the artform I can’t place it much higher than here.

#13: Doctor Strange

Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Strange. Photo: Marvel Studios

Doctor Strange is a fine film. The special effects are impressive and Stephen displays plenty of growth in a no-brainer of a story arc. But… haven’t we seen it before?

Indeed, where Doctor Strange finds success in its main character (an egomaniac who really turns out to have a heart of gold), audiences have already found plenty of other times before in the MCU. It’s too tried and too true. Couple that with an underwhelming villain who contains only but a modicum of sympathetic motivation and a snappy script that seems overhandedly dependent on pop culture, Doctor Strange is just okay. I have no qualms at putting it right here in the middle of the list.

#12: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Iron Man and Spider-Man as they appear in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Photo: Marvel Studios

Spider-Man: Homecoming is fun, fresh and exciting. It features a full hero’s journey, driven by a protagonist who is supported by a variety of charming characters. But it is not a Spider-Man story, and as such Homecoming is a failure as an adaptation.

The key word for Spider-Man is consequences. Actions have consequences and Peter, stretched thin between two lives, sees how more attention to one of them will negatively affect the other–at least, that’s all in a typical Spider-Man project. Here in Homecoming though, everything is fine–always. Stolen alien tech blows up Peter’s favorite deli? Don’t worry about it! Peter abandons his best friend in order to save the day? No problem! Peter’s double-life is built on a foundation of deceiving Aunt May, the mother-figure that does nothing but love and support him but whose world would be rocked if she ever found out the truth? Who cares!

The only time Peter is ever reprimanded is when Tony comes to take away the Stark-engineered spider-suit, but this plot point and Peter’s angst against it seems so terribly… selfish. The point of Peter, usually, is how his drive for selfLESSness ironically turns against him. He should already be past selfish, in a plot point that the film fails to even mention at all: the death of Uncle Ben. Look, I understand that audiences may have been a little fatigued by seeing Uncle Ben die twice on screen in the past 15 years, but to not even mention him by name? Ouch.

I know what you’re thinking: Marvel Studios has artistic license, this character is their property, and they can do whatever they like with it. Yes, sure, that’s all true, and just as easily someone could adapt Othello and cast a white man in the titular role–but something would be lost.

#11: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi. Photo: Marvel Studios

The most recent release out of the MCU, Shang-Chi falls just short of greatness. It must be commended for its multitude of wonderful characters, fantastic set pieces, and faithfulness to Chinese myth.

You may have noticed that though at the outset of this ranking I said I would be considering all aspects of filmmaking in my decisions, I seem to really have only been focusing on a few so far: namely character development, performances, and story structure. This is because that in so many other departments, MCU films are so typically standard. They don’t strive for anything stylistic in terms of music or camerawork. They know what’s “just good enough.”

Here is where Shang-Chi stands separate from the rest: it has the absolute best original score out of any MCU film yet. It is moving, impactful and true to its roots. The most inspired thing after this would just be that one (one!) flipped-orientation shot in Black Panther. But again, that’s just one shot; Shang-Chi’s score satisfies for a whole two hours.

So where does Shang-Chi fall short? In the man himself. Simu Liu’s performance is fine, and every other main character is brilliant, but our titular master of kung fu is just… a little boring. The plot carries him away, so determined to save the world that we never really get a moment to understand his own desires. There are insights here and there, but nothing comes together as a whole.

‘Nuff Said… For Now

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to let me know what you think. Come back sometime soon for all that there is the top 10 of the MCU. Excelsior!

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