Even by the ambitious standards of Marvel, 2014 is going to be a big year. They've got this weekend’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (review here) and hopeful franchise-starter “Guardians of the Galaxy,” while rival studios have the forthcoming “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (at Fox) and “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (at Sony). No matter who is bringing them to the screen, Marvel has become a blockbuster brand, underscored by “The Avengers” scoring the third-highest-grossing-film of all time.
But with the silver lining of world-conquering ubiquity, comes the cloud — overfamiliarity, potential consumer burnout (we have to confess the “Spider-Man” reboot still falls squarely into the “What? Again?” arena for us) and at the very least, their product being regarded as something plasticky and disposable and free inside every cereal box. Especially compared with rivals DC, who’ve taken their properties in the opposite direction, delivering gritty, brainy blockbusters instead (and “Man of Steel,” meow) that aim to be as prestige pic somber as Marvel’s are colorful and quippy. But before we get caught in the crossfire of a Biggie/Tupac style turf war, let us just say that we believe there’s plenty of room for both approaches, and both studios have produced films we’ve counted as among our favorite tent poles of recent years.
And so we thought it high time we took a long, hard look at the films stamped with the Marvel logo, from best to worst (ranking them in reverse order), looking at all the Spider-Mans, Avengerses, X-men, Blades, Punishers, Daredevils, Fantastic Fourses and, um, Howard the Ducks. Or to put it another way: who’d win in a fight?
36. “Captain America” (1990)
Even if you’re not a fan of the current “Captain America” movies, you have to acknowledge that they’re “Rome, Open City” in comparison to the 1990 take (which never surfaced in U.S. cinemas, though got a theatrical release in some international territories). A low-budget tossed-off take produced by D-movie legend Menahem Golan, and directed by “Cyborg” helmer Albert Pyun, it's a moderately faithful take on the character (other than the Red Skull being Italian, for some reason), but a pretty terrible, and weirdly nasty, actioner that sees the Captain (Matt Salinger, son of J.D) battle the Red Skull in WW2, then have to save the world all over again in the present day in an attempt to rescue the President. The split structure is baffling and overstuffed, the dialogue terrible (“He’s still alive. We don’t know where he is, or who he is”), the casting baffling (Ronny Cox and Ned Beatty crop up in the weirdest possible “Deliverance” reunion, while Salinger is just terrible), and even the most vulgar auteurist couldn’t defend Pyun’s inept direction. There’s the occasional decent idea in among them, but if you’ve ever wanted to appreciate the modern-day movies, this is a good way of doing so. [F]
35. “Man-Thing” (2005)
In fairness, “Man-Thing” is hardly one of Marvel’s best-known characters (originally a scientist who turns into a plant monster), and these days would probably be lucky to be a one-off villain in “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” But even someone who’d never heard of him would feel that he’d been hard done by this 2005 film (which aired on SyFy in the U.S, but hit cinemas in Asia and China). Directed by Brett Leonard, helmer of “The Lawnmower Man,” it’s about as generic a horror film as you could come up with, as various low-grade Australian actors wrangle with Louisiana accents (unsuccessfully: most sound like they’re having strokes), as they’re picked off by the swamp’s guardian spirit, who turns out to be Man-Thing. Who looks ridiculous. Leonard does layer on some atmosphere occasionally, but the plot is both rammed with clichés and unnecessarily convoluted, there’s little in the way of decent gore or scares, and fans of the character, if such things exist, are surely still furious by the way it turns him from sympathetic creature to mostly-off-screen killer monster. This (man) thing probably still brings Kevin Feige out in hives. [F]
34. Ghost Rider” (2007)
Nicolas Cage is a long-time comics fan, who’s flirted with a number of characters over the years, most notably DC’s “Superman” for an aborted Tim Burton movie in the late 90s. He finally got his chance for Sony’s “Ghost Rider” in 2007, having been attached to versions of the project since the turn of the decade. Unfortunately, the final product saw him team up with writer/director Mark Steven Johnson, who hadn’t got the message from the reception to “Daredevil” (see below) that maybe superhero movies just weren’t for him. The character, Johnny Blaze, is a motorcycle stunt rider who sold his soul to become the Devil’s flame-headed bounty-hunter to save his father’s life, but there’s little chance for Cage to do what he’s do best -- when in human mode, he looks sleepy, and when he’s the rider, he’s replaced by an unconvincing CGI head. Some of the casting is nominally fun (Sam Elliott as a previous Ghost Rider, Donal Logue as the best pal, Peter Fonda as the Devil), but everyone’s thinking principally of the paycheck, not least Wes Bentley, at the height of his troubles with drugs, as super-generic principal villain Blackheart. Johnson can’t write the script, he can’t handle the tone, which lurches from morose to campy, and he can’t shoot action: thankfully he hasn’t yet tried to complete his trilogy of terrible comic book movies. [F]
33. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (2009)
As we’ll see, the “X-Men” movies have covered basically the complete range of the quality spectrum, but whatever happens, it’ll be some feat if this summer’s “X-Men: Days Of Future Past,” or any future X-movies, turn out to be worse than this. Hugh Jackman’s mutton-chopped semi-immortal was always better suited to a solo effort than most of the other characters from Fox’s franchise, and on paper, it should have worked: Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” director at the helm, Jackman facing off against great actors like Liev Schreiber and Danny Huston, etc. And in fairness, the film was one of many hampered by the 2007 writers strike, going into production without a finished screenplay. But one can only imagine from the results that Fox used a room full of monkeys with typewriters as scabs, because the result is nonsensical, illogical, wasteful, overstuffed with inconsequential characters and hugely uninvolving. Gavin Hood’s direction seems concerned principally with finding shots for the trailer (there are at least two moments when Wolverine looks to the sky and cries out), too. Having adamantium grafted to your bones would be preferable to sitting through this again. [D-]
32. “Howard The Duck” (1986)
Technically the first-ever Marvel movie (the “Captain America” serials in the 1940s predate the existence of Marvel as a company), and what a weird, weird place to start. Howard, a cigar-smoking anthropomorphic mallard, was always an outlier in the Marvel stable, closer to the subversive alt-comics world than to Spider-Man, and it’s hard to think of an unlikelier person to bring it to the screen than George Lucas, who made it a passion project after he left directing to focus on producing. Originally intended to be an animated film, it eventually ended up as a live action film helmed by “American Graffiti” co-writer Willard Huyck, with Howard (the voice of Chip Zien) transported to Earth, and battling an alien Dark Overlord (Jeffrey Jones) with the help of scientist Phil (Tim Robbins) and musician love interest Beverly (Lea Thompson). With superhero movies following such a close formula these days, in some ways one should be thankful for something as weird as this, but there’s a reason it’s still a byword for critical and commercial failure: there’s little consistency to the way that Howard interacts with the world, it tries to water the weirdness down into a very 1980s family adventure, and it simply isn’t very funny. [D-]
31. The Punisher” (1989)
We’ve never really seen the appeal of Frank Castle, aka The Punisher, as a character: even, or especially, within the context of the Marvel universe, he’s just another ex-cop vigilante, who could have walked out of “Death Wish” or a dozen B-movies like it. But we suppose that the generic nature of the character (and the relative budgetary ease of bringing him to the screen) appeals to studios, because he keeps coming back. This 1989 version, the first and worst, stars Dolph Lundgren as Castle, who’s persuaded to help the Mafia he hates so much when the Yakuza kidnap the mobsters’ kids. Despite a script by some reasonably well-known writers (Robert Mark Kamen, who’d later pen “Taken,” and Boaz Yakin, who went on to direct “Fresh”), the script might as well be a Steven Seagal vehicle, and veteran editor Mark Goldblatt shows that he probably should have stuck to the day job with some pretty uninspired action direction, and a complete lack of interest in the dialogue scenes. Unless you’re writing a thesis on Hollywood’s late '80/early '90s xenophobia/paranoia towards the Japanese (see also: “Die Hard,” “Black Rain,” “Rising Sun”), there’s basically nothing to recommend this, and Lundgren’s bland presence firmly makes it the least of the three “Punisher” films to date. [D-]