In 2008, film fans with a small amount of patience were treated to an “after the credits” sequence at the very end of Iron Man. Lasting less than thirty seconds, the scene featured Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) slowly entering the living room of his sprawling Malibu mansion to find an unknown man, facing away from him, gazing out of the large bay window overlooking the ocean. “You think you’re the only superhero in the world, Mr. Stark?”, asks the stranger. “You’ve become part of a bigger universe…you just don’t know it yet.” Stark, looking both alarmed and confused, asks, “Who the hell are you?” The man steps from the shadows. “Nick Fury, director of S.H.I.E.L.D. I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative”. Four years and four (more) films later, the wait is finally over. Marvel’s The Avengers opened in theaters across the nation this weekend, and shattered box office records, grossing a mind-blowing $200.3 million in just 3 days (estimated..final numbers will be in on Monday). In celebration of the film’s release, I thought it would be fun to rank the movies that introduced the Avengers to audiences (I’ll keep this as spoiler-free as I can, just in case you may have missed one or two of these…).
I know it’s probably not the popular choice, but I throughly enjoy Captain America…both for its qualities as a period piece as well as its comic book roots. It has great production values and a first-rate cast, including Chris Evans (in the title role), Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, and Hugo Weaving as the evil Red Skull. The visual effects are terrific, the script is solid, and the performances are uniformly believable, especially from Weaving and Evans, whose turn as Steve Rogers/Captain America is nothing short of patriotic. He represents the very best of what it means to be an American: he’s brave, honest and selfless…all traits I believe most of us aspire to have. His character can be summed up in one small scene: when attempting, for the fifth time, to sign up for the Armed Services and do his part to defend his country, he’s asked if he wants to join so that he can “kill Nazis”. He answers with “I don’t want to kill anyone..I just don’t like bullies..no matter where they’re from.” That’s a hero to root for.
This is the film I expect will be first on this list for most fans, and it IS a great film, without question. The movie that “started it all”, Iron Man was hugely popular among fans and critics alike, and also features a distinguished cast in the lead roles, including Robert Downey, Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard. Not surprisingly, the visual effects are top-notch, and the script is quality stuff. I believe that Robert Downey, Jr. was born to play Tony Stark/Iron Man…his self-assured attitude makes him a natural for the role of the billionaire weapons manufacturer, and I honestly cannot picture anyone else playing it. However, it’s the Tony Stark character itself that makes Iron Man second on my list. While he’s likeable in a wouldn’t-it-be-great-to-be-him sort of way, Stark is the exact opposite of Steve Rogers: he’s vain, arrogant, and believes the meaning of patriotism is to have more bombs than the other guy does. Although a life-altering event causes him to change his world view for the better, he never really loses the attitude completely. He’s flawed…but it’s fairly easy to forgive him for it.
The story presented in Thor has more than a hint of Shakespearean influence, so I was happy that Oscar-nominated director Kenneth Branagh was chosen to bring it to the big screen, having directed terrific versions of Hamlet, Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing over the course of his career. Unfortunately, the end result is a bit uneven: the portions of the story that take place on Thor’s home world of Asgard are fantastic, as we bear witness to the fall of the headstrong, arrogant son of King Odin…stripped of his power and banished to Earth as punishment for endangering his kingdom. Branagh’s talent simply shines during these scenes. Once Thor arrives on our planet, however, the story becomes less interesting, and plays out as a fish-out-of-water story, albeit with some exciting moments and a few good laughs. It’s not that the story is bad, per se…I just kept wanting to return to Asgard. The cast, as it is in ALL of these films, is full of real talent: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Anthony Hopkins, Kat Dennings and Tom Hiddleston as Thor’s treacherous brother, Loki (who, incidentally, is also the villain in The Avengers). This is also the film that introduces Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner in a brief cameo). Overall, I really like Thor…I just don’t love it.
This isn’t the first time the Hulk starred on the big screen: a film titled simply Hulk hit theaters in 2003, and featured Eric Bana in the role of Bruce Banner. The response from both critics and fans (including myself) was lukewarm at best, and the film barely made a dent at the box office, grossing a total $132.2 million. Five years later, the big guy got another chance, with practically the same results. Despite being superior to its predecessor in every way, The Incredible Hulk struggled to find an audience, and made only $134.8 million. Part of the reason, in my opinion, is the bad taste the other film left in the mouths of fans who had been sorely disappointed by the lack of action and spectacle we have come to expect from these big-budget comic adaptations. The other reason is that while the 2008 film gets the action back on track, it also suffers from a horribly generic storyline. As usual, the cast is loaded with big names: Edward Norton takes on Banner, with Liv Tyler, William Hurt and Tim Roth in supporting roles. Unfortunately, the lead role is poorly cast. Edward Norton is a great actor, there’s no question about that, but I just didn’t find him believable as the brilliant scientist that Bruce Banner is known to be. Despite great visual effects and some genuinely cool “HULK SMASH” moments, the by-the-numbers plotline and miscast lead performance by Norton make The Incredible Hulk a disappointment…but worth a watch nonetheless.
Yeah, I know…Iron Man 2 has absolutely no business being at the bottom of this list, and I wish it wasn’t. And yet, here it sits. It was a hard call to make, but ultimately the reason for the decision came down to this: after the fantastic thrill ride that the first film provided me, the second film was just a letdown. Yes, in many ways it is a better film than The Incredible Hulk, but the issue is that I went into that film expecting to be underwhelmed because the film that came before it was absolutely terrible. With Iron Man 2, the bar was set really high by the first film in the franchise, and my expectations were simply not met. The plot was serviceable, but unremarkable, and not near as much fun as the original. Sure, Tony Stark develops more as a character, as he faces his mortality and learns the truth about his father, who Stark grew up believing to be a cold man who didn’t care for him (he’s still the same arrogant, vain narcissist we know, however..being Iron Man hasn’t made him a better man). And yes, we get to see War Machine in action, although Don Cheadle replaces Terrence Howard in the role of James Rhodes, the man inside the machine. We even get introduced to Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, in a role far more expansive than the one offered to Jeremy Renner in Thor). I think what disappoints me is the severe under-use of the villain, Ivan Vanko, a.k.a Whiplash (Mickey Rourke). Rourke’s performance is menacing enough, and his motives in the film are easy to understand, but he’s never given a lot to do as Whiplash…he spends most of the movie working in a lab, coming up with a plot device that just seems like an excuse for the folks at Industrial Light and Magic to strut their stuff for the visual effects department. There’s no massive showdown between hero and villain, no major payoff for the viewer. In fact, Rourke appears “in costume” for 8 minutes of the film’s 124-minute length…with the “grand finale” fight taking two of them to complete its course. That’s it…two minutes. Maybe I’m wrong to have expected more…but I know I’m not alone. I’m not saying Iron Man 2 is awful…I’m only saying that I’m in no hurry to see it again.
Well there you have it folks. I’m sure you all have your own way to rank these films, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Am I totally insane? Straight-up WRONG? Or do we see eye-to-eye? Sound off in the comments!