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: Infinity War is coming out at the end of April, it seemed like an ideal time to reflect.
For this final installment covering Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnaork, and Black Panther, (since they are all films I reviewed here within the last 12 months), I’ve assembled a teamup of my own. Cinedelphia Avengers Jill Malcolm, Catherine Haas, and Dan Scully join me for this to help push this epic series to it’s finale. Excelsior! Previous installments are here.
15. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (dir. James Gunn, 2017)
I don’t think I’m the only one that is getting “Marvel fatigue” at this point, especially now that we are at the end of the road of films for this particular lineup of Avengers. But for me, Guardians is a franchise that could continue indefinitely and I’d look forward to every one. The first film, Vol.1, had the unenviable task of selling a group of virtually unknown weirdos for the wider, non-comic book reading public. Even comic enthusiasts were scratching their heads. Why, when we already have a million characters to keep track of and kind of care about do we need to add an adorable talking raccoon and plant to the mix? I answered my own question.
If Vol. 1 was about the formation of a family unit, then Vol. 2 explores the dynamics that occur in that family to make it stronger. It’s amazing that after only two films, Guardians is able to accomplish more in terms of character connections than 15 or so Avengers films. A lot of that has to do with the fact that none of the Avengers are particularly “sharers,” talking about their feelings and plans for the weekend. Each leads their own life outside of the Avengers, only answering the call when needed. The family unit in Guardians exists because each member of the team has experienced loss that the others can and do empathize with even under their rough exteriors. This is even more the case in Vol. 2. This film is about how shared loss strengthens bonds, loyalty, and love in a family. The loneliness each of these characters has felt in the past, and their inability to take care of themselves half the time, leads to their desire to take care of each other. This is especially true with Groot.
Baby Groot seems like an unabashed marketing ploy and to a certain extent he is. His adorable face sells a lot of merchandise. But his character is literally the glue that holds the Guardians together and he has been since Vol. 1. Groot’s relationship with each of the other characters is one of parent/child. Groot is also most definitely a stand-in for the galaxy that the Guardians are tasked with protecting. There are many moments in Vol. 2 of each character interacting with Groot in this way, from the opening scene with Rocket making him spit out something nasty he’s eaten, to Gamora tenderly saying goodbye when the group splits up, to Drax cradling him at the end of the film. The responsibility of taking care of Groot, and therefore, each other, is something they all share.
Yes, they take care of each other, but like any family. there’s also a ton of fighting in this movie. Fights resembling those between siblings (Gamora-Drax, Rocket-everyone, Quill-Gamora, Gamora-Nebula), parent/child (Groot-everyone, Quill-Yondo, Rocket-Yondo, Quill-Ego), parent/parent (Quill-Gamora) and so on. The fights feel personal, the stakes are higher, and when it’s time to make-up, it’s incredibly gratifying and heart-felt. It’s actually quite amazing how much relationship dynamics is packed in this film, and I haven’t even brushed the surface. We could get into father worship, and children being a disappointment but I’ll leave it for another time.
The last thing I wanted to mention before signing off is the music. Of course. Some people weren’t fans this time around because there were less easily recognizable songs, but I found this soundtrack superior to the first because each song was chosen and used to perfection to enhance the meaning of the story being told. Fleetwood Mac’s “Break the Chain,” was a great choice to buoy everything thematically. And how could you not end a movie about daddy issues with Cat Stevens?
16. Spider-Man: Homecoming (dir. Jon Watts, 2017)
This will be a very unpopular opinion, but for the sake of total transparency, I must admit I don’t typically care for comic book movies. Yes, this is a sweeping generalization, and there are a dozen or so exceptions. This is all to make the point that I really, really love Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s funnier than it has any right to be, and it’s generally just so enjoyable. It’s also cast perfectly. Aunt May is young and hot now? Sure, why not. Sweet, innocent Zero (Tony Revolori) from Grand Budapest Hotel is playing an arrogant high school jerk? Sign me up. Anyone other than Tobey Maguire plays Spider-Man? Excellent. But really, Tom Holland is much more than simply not Tobey Maguire (although that certainly helps).
Peter Parker is just a goofy, nerdy high schooler, who idolizes Tony Stark and is champing at the bit to fulfill his role as Spider-Man and be accepted by the Avengers. Peter’s unbridled enthusiasm for his new lifestyle is so charming. Holland himself seems to have that same level of enthusiasm for what he does, and this really shines through in Homecoming. Michael Keaton, of course, plays an excellent villain, who also happens to be the father of Peter’s crush, Liz (Laura Harrier). Keaton is an intimidating dad by day, and the seriously evil Vulture by night. This movie has earned its place among the MCU greats, and it even appeals to the minority of people who aren’t totally enthused with comic book movies (aka me and other losers like me).
I am also very biased when it comes to loving this movie. I saw this for the first time at a drive-in movie theatre in Vermont last July. Homecoming was part of a double feature, and was followed by Baby Driver. I was more excited to see the latter that night, and yet something about Homecoming won me over. I actually ended up enjoying it more than Baby Driver. But the real reason this movie will forever be so special to me? I got engaged later that night. The previous weekend’s showing included Cars 3, so I think we lucked out in terms of the movie billing. I can’t think about Homecoming without going back to that perfect and important night, which is so special to me. —Catherine Haas
17. Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)
Upon initially seeing Thor: Ragnarok, I was a bit torn regarding the direction it took. On the one hand, it’s a purely entertaining movie. It serves its function of driving us closer to the “cosmic” Marvel Universe and subsequently, to Infinity War. On the other hand, pretty much everything unique about the first two Thor movies is brushed under the rug. So if you’re big on the mythos of this particular wing of the MCU, sorry, we’ve got nothing for you. But if you’re more of a casual fan, it’s a pleasingly bonkers romp.
After my second viewing, I find I’m somewhere in the middle. I never read a Thor book. I don’t know a lick of Thor trivia. Never gave Thor any thought at all, really. But I unexpectedly took to the films. I liked the weird imagery, the dry comedy, and the utter commitment of all of its players. I also fully understand that it’s all kinda dumb. As a result I’ve grown to enjoy my time with the solo Thor adventures. Even the wonky second one. All this meaning that while I do lament the departure of a lot of the Thor DNA, it’s a small price to pay for Taika Waititi, Cate Blanchett, and Jeff Goldblum. And not just a little bit of Jeff Goldblum. Tons of Goldblum. A giant hologram of Goldblum doing the most Goldblumian Goldbluming Gold has ever Blumed.
It’s a smart choice for the MCU to bring Waititi in this close to Infinity War. In terms of juggling the tone of the larger franchise, leaning hard into comedy helps set up the playing field for what I’m assuming will be a darker film. Granted, one of the things that Marvel does well is weigh doom and gloom evenly against joy, so we have no reason to expect Infinity War to be a drastic alteration in tone. But I don’t think I’m alone in assuming at least one major player dies (money on Cap). So opening the door with a silly, low-stakes-but-giant-scale colorforms Thor adventure, sandwiched by a two killer sorta-origin stories cleanses the palette in a way. And since Thor sat out Civil War, it’s good to have him back for a bit before throwing him into the stew again.
Plus, it really is quite funny. Waititi’s politely dry style translates well to this world, and Hemsworth (assisted by Waititi himself – in rock monster form) delivers it naturally. Since Ragnarok only spends about five minutes on Earth, the typical fish out of water shtick isn’t used, and instead Thor pulls the “cocky to a fault” bits from his repertoire. Add to that the weirdness of Jeff Goldblum and the society he has created on Sakaar, as well as Tessa Thompson’s drunken badassery, and you’ve got yourself a consistently funny adventure. It’s not all top notch, however. The banter between Thor and Bruce Banner is a gag that just doesn’t work for me. It’s not awful, but there’s just something about Bruce Banner being dumb and aloof that I can’t purchase.
Thematically, the film plays with a few cool ideas. First off, I love the whole notion of “Asgard is not a place, it’s a people.” That possessions should not define their possessors is a universal truth (as well as a clever riff on Marvel’s power/responsibility ethos), and here it is baked into every aspect of the script. In the end we learn that Asgard is wherever Asgardians make their stand, just as Thor learns that he needn’t some hammer to tap into his powers as the God of Thunder.
Secondly, Hela’s ultimately self-destructive rise to power is a small success in that it turned out to be a pretty effective awareness campaign for a valuable and relevant mindset. Namely, that we should always be reverent to even the darkest moments of our history, both out of responsibility toward the future, and respect towards the suffering shoulders upon which we all stand. Unfortunately for her, she gets a little crazy with it, so she’s gotta go.
The visuals are a mixed bag. Ragnarok ups the game a bit design-wise, but a lot of it still takes that crisp-yet-rubbery look, especially the big Hulk fight. As with every film in Marvel’s third phase, I found it all looked a little better on my tablet screen than it did in the theater. A smaller screen makes it feel a little less like I’m looking at nothing during the heavy CG scenes. What Waititi and his team have done to change the sheen of “samieness” that washes over all MCU properties is focus on the action blocking. There’s a fluidity to it that more often than not plays as a punchline to a visual gag, and it’s rapid-fire in a way that isn’t numbing. If you have the time, I recommend checking out Waititi’s Boy. It’s a damn good movie and it makes plenty of direct visual references to pop-culture (his Thriller material is top-notch), serving to illustrate just how tuned in Waititi is to film as entertainment; as function. What I’m saying is that he is the perfect filmmaker to toss into a behemoth franchise machine in the hopes of knocking a few (but not too many!) cogs loose.
This time around, having made peace with the tonal departure, I found Thor: Ragnarok to be a much more solid entry into the MCU canon than I had previously thought. While it doesn’t get me 100% of the way there, I can appreciate that much like Asgard, a Thor movie doesn’t necessarily need to look a certain way or be set in a certain world in order to be a Thor movie. It just has to have Thor in it. Thor: Ragnarok has Thor in it.
18. Black Panther (dir. Ryan Coolger, 2018)
There’s something timeless about the superhero origin story. Maybe because it is where the symbology linked to a character is strongest, like how everyone knows Superman’s origin story, but no one can tell you where they learned it from, or how Batman’s defining moment has been depicted on screen no less than a dozen times. But they also most closely follow the classic hero’s journey that film seems to be perfectly suited to depict. That’s one of the reasons that Black Panther has so deeply resonated with audiences, even if it is one of the less important.
From seeing his other films, Fruitvale Station and Creed, director Ryan Coogler is similar to Guardians director James Gunn in that he can take the fantastical elements of this world and weave it around something that resonates deeper than your average blockbuster. It’s also interesting that this came a year after Get Out, which directly engages with racial prejudice, not because they are similar, but because they are so different. Jordan Peele’s horror film turns the everyday anxieties faced by many African Americans and puts the audience in that place, all while digging deeper and deeper into the implications of this bias.
But Black Panther is more about colonialism, and how the African American experience does–and doesn’t–relate to that of others of African descent around the world. It’s not that the messages are contradictory, but this is the real win of having diverse voices in film. Superheroes are a typically white genre, and having a black creative team build it from the ground up allows for that voice to come through even louder when compared to the other films in the genre It is completely baked into the film, most obviously in Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, but it touches every single aspect of the film. Nakia (Lupita Nyongo’) is one of the best characters in the film, as she represents the real world peeking into our escapist fantasies, as she reminds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) of the suffering the world beyond Wakanda’s borders. These ideas are laced into every aspect of the film, including the costumes and superpowers. Until Dan pointed it out, I didn’t even connect that his superhero suit being able to turn violence against him into power is a microcosm of the struggle for black rights in America.
It is easy to make a “message movie” that tries to demonstrate these ideas, and I tend to think those films are good at reaching people who need a reminder at best, but won’t change any minds. That’s part of the power of popular cinema, to deliver an exciting and engaging film that mainstream audiences flock to, and seamlessly work in these bigger ideas, not as dog whistles, but as a call to wake up and think. And the fact that this film belongs to a franchise that Disney is building theme parks around, selling action figures, and as much other merchandise as you’re willing to buy actually makes it even more powerful.
After revisiting all of these films, I can’t help but feel like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is moving in the right direction (and not just because the music has been getting better). Phase One (Iron Man – Avengers) was mostly about getting the fundamentals correct and taking the big risk on bringing all of these heroes together in one film. Then Phase Two (Iron Man 3 – Ant-Man) was a lot of growing pains. Those films took less risks, but lurched forward into other tones and genres, all while trying to maintain an interconnectedness to varying degrees of success. But it almost broke Marvel, because any delay or change of course is a catastrophic ripple effect. Phase Three (Civil War – 2019’s Avengers 4) mostly seems to be a reaction to Phase Two, playing everything a little looser when it comes to trying to move the entire universe forward step by step. More importantly, that loosening allows for more of a directorial touch rather than a producing one.
Sure, not every film will be Black Panther, but the higher the risk, the more the reward. Marvel seems to struggle most when the films are playing it safe, or putting the needs of the universe ahead of the individual films or characters. They’ve gotten much better of being able to drop the breadcrumbs a little more organically in the last few years (Ant-Man is pretty good at this, and Homecoming is even better). They seem to be getting to a balance of attracting film fans while also pleasing the die hard Marvel zombies. It’s not easy, and these 18 films are an amazing achievement no matter what happens in Infinity War this week.
Ryan’s Overall ranking after this viewing:
- The Avengers
- Guardians of the Galaxy
- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
- Black Panther
- Captain America: The First Avenger
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier
- Captain America: Civil War
- Avengers: Age of Ultron
- Iron Man
- Thor: The Dark World
- Spider-Man: Homecoming
- Iron Man 3
- Thor: Ragnarok
- Doctor Strange
- 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.