I haven’t actually watched all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Films in a while. I revisit my favorites when the mood strikes, but otherwise I haven’t really gone back in a way that’s comprehensive. But given it is the 10th anniversary of Iron Man and Avengers: Infinty War is coming at the end of April, it seemed like an ideal time to reflect. I’ll be going chronologically, and covering at least two films per entry, since there are eighteen of them in all.
This first batch is a little bigger than the others since The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor all take place at the same time, so it makes sense to cover them all together. For next week, I’ll be revisiting Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers, then going year by year after that.
1. Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008)
In some ways, Black Panther is the film that brings the Marvel Cinematic Universe full circle. While Avengers: infinity War is the culmination of the first ten years of the films, Black Panther serves as a fitting bookend to cap off the pre-Infinity era of the MCU. There’s even a direct nod to this in Black Panther, deliberately echoing the ending of Iron Man with the press conference reveal to the world.
All of the Marvel films deal with the idea of legacies and father figures (Black Panther is no exception). Every single one of them. Iron Man starts us off right out of the gate. At the core of Tony Stark’s character is that he lost his father, but he is the “prodigal son” who returned to take over his father’s company. His need to rebel against his heritage because he feels he can never live up to the expectations of his father can be traced through all of the Marvel films, and comes to a violent head in Civil War.
Up until the Marvel Cinematic Universe, villains often stole the spotlight in superhero films (Nolan’s Batman Begins is the exception that presages the rule. Magneto is the hero of the X-Men films, don’t @ me). The film is entirely structured around Tony Stark, and if there was a need to spend time establishing a motive and plan by Jeff Bridges Obadiah Stane, there’s a good chance it would just make the film too slow. Making the identity of the villain a mystery works better here than it does in some other films, in part due to how counter it runs to Bridges’ images. Some of the best scenes in the film happen when Tony and Pepper know that he is the bad guy, but Stane doesn’t know that they know.
One thing that sticks out watching Iron Man now is that other than the Nick Fury appearance during the post-credits scene and a few tiny easter eggs, there isn’t much worldbuilding here when it comes to building a cinematic universe. Favreau and Marvel were much more concerned about making a good film than they were about setting up a universe, and that helps the film immensely. That’s the attitude that should mostly continue going forward. And making these crossovers feel organic to the story of the individual film is something that took Marvel a few years to figure out. Also, it’s a good reminder how much of an upgrade Don Cheadle is over Terrence Howard, who is really the weak link in this film.
My ongoing MCU films ranking had this at number 11 after seeing Black Panther, but I’ll be re-ranking them as we go along, and I expect this one to end up somewhat higher on the list. This is one of the few films in the franchise that not only stands on its own, but remains a landmark within the entire genre. There’s a reason that superheroes have remained popular since the middle of the last century, and Iron Man absolutely shows why.
2. The Incredible Hulk (dir. Louis Leterrier, 2008)
Hulk Smash. Having been in high school when Ang Lee’s take on the big green guy came out, I remembered not hating but not loving it either. The lack of smashing was a big part of it, I haven’t seen that one since the theater but given that this is the 15th anniversary, it might be the time to reevaluate.
But that’s not the film we’re here to talk about. This film technically may be a sequel to the earlier film, as well as drawing a huge influence from the most popular version of the character from the 1970s television show. So it’s sort of a reboot, though in the ten years since its release, it has been given a lot more distance from Lee’s take. While it certainly delivers more smash (using the Abomination as the villain is a good guarantee of that), it isn’t much more than a chase film, and a big step down from Iron Man. It’s a valid choice in the wake of the reception of Ang Lee’s film, but you can still make a film about things and have plenty of smash!
Mostly it’s the look of the film that hampers it. The night scenes are too dark, making the film look muddy. And Tim Roth is an inspired choice for a villian, but probably not the right one. There’s not much to his character, and none of it is interesting. If they hadn’t brought back William Hurt’s General Ross for Civil War, this film could mostly be ignored. I think the only other reference to this one is in the first Avengers film, when Banner (now played by Mark Ruffalo) mentions having destroyed Harlem last time he was in New York.
Fun fact: This was Martin Starr’s first appearance in a Marvel film. He presumably plays a different character in his appearance as Spider-Man: Homecoming high school teacher.
3. Iron Man 2 (dir. Jon Favreau, 2010)
For a long time, I would have told you that this was the worst of the Marvel films. And while it will likely remain near the bottom, I ended up being really pleasantly surprised. The reputation is that this is the film where Marvel started building a universe and it got in the way of Favreau making a good movie. Yes, Coulson keeping Tony under house arrest in the middle of the film adds nothing, but overall, it’s not as bad as my memory believed. Unfortunately, the film’s other issues stick out more.
It’s clear that Favreau was building toward Tony Stark being a loose cannon and eventually dealing with his alcohol issues (drawing from the “Demon in a Bottle” storyline in the comics). The fight between him and Rhodey at the party in Tony’s house is likely the cringiest scene in any of these films. It’s awkward on a few different levels, and also doesn’t make any sense based on how these characters behave in other parts of the film.
But seeing Robert Downey, Jr. and Sam Rockwell bounce off each other is really fun, and Mickey Rourke’s offbeat choices make his snooze of a villain at least somewhat interesting. Of course, in between Hulk and this film, Disney acquired Marvel entirely. Casting John Slattery as a Walt Disney-like Howard Stark was a fantastic choice, even if it is retconning his role as mainly a weapons developer in the first film.
So this one is messy, there’s some additional cringe in the way Downey interacts with Scarlett Johansson’s character (for better or for worse the rest of the films generally avoid sexuality altogether) as well. Also Bill O’Reilly appears, as well as Jim Cramer, and those are unfortunate inclusions. I have no idea why superhero movies insist on including real-life media figures. It takes me out of the film every time. However, thumbs up on the Elon Musk camaro.
4. Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
The first Thor film is my exact weak spot. Not only is Thor my favorite Marvel comics character, but the grandiose Shakespearean family drama tempered by fish-out-of-water comedy just works for me. While Tom Hiddleston’s Loki gets a lot of the attention here, Chris Hemsworth’s presence and comedic timing is so good it often goes unnoticed. There’s a sense of casualness that helps to demonstrate his sense of power as well as contrast his Asgardian speaking style.
But the film’s secret weapon is actually its female characters. Natalie Portman as Jane Foster (updated from the comics’ nurse to an astrophysicist) is the kind of earnest scientist we rarely get to see portrayed by a woman on screen. And her performance is the key to selling Hemsworth’s Thor. The way that she reacts to him, even just the way she looks at him, that simple sense of awe, makes him appear that much more majestic. Jane sees him the same way she would a nebula, but tall and with killer abs. Sadly, after Thor, no other Marvel franchise would introduce romance as anything other than a third-tier subplot until 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. It is a staple of the superhero genre, and it’s seriously lacking from the Marvel films.
Darcy is a great audience surrogate, moderating the faith of Jane and the disbelief of Stellan Skarsgård’s Selvig. Kat Dennings is great as a confident know-nothing. Jaime Alexander as Sif should have been given even more to do, but she has great presence. And while she really shines in Dark World, Rene Russo as Frigga is the kind of understated performance needed when Hopkins is going all out as Odin.
But we do need to talk about Loki. Branagh told Hiddleston to study Peter O’Toole for the kind of raw emotional intensity he wanted from the performance. And it comes across, which allows the film to highlight the similarities and differences between the two brothers. Thor is impulsive and quick to react with his hammer, while Loki is often seen as a schemer, planning moves ahead. In reality, much of Loki’s plan in this film feels improvised. And his raw, seething anger at Odin (as well as some opportunity with some too-convenient Odinsleep) is what propels a merry prank into near-regicide.
This still feels mostly like a standalone film, with the exception of Coulson and a last-minute Hawkeye cameo, there’s not much to indicate that there’s more going on (especially given that these last three films take place simultaneously). That will change with the next entry in the franchise.
Ranking after this viewing:
- Iron Man
- Iron Man 2
- The Incredible Hulk
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.