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Best To Worst: Every Marvel Movie Ranked

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 3, 2014 at 4:00PM

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.
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Spider-Man 3 emo

22. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
Much derided at the time, Sam Raimi’s overstuffed, sometimes ill-judged “Spider-Man 3” certainly remains the weakest of the “Evil Dead” helmer’s three films in Marvel-land, but retains just enough of what the director did right in the first place to, seven years on, make it worth a little reevaluation. Yes, Peter Parker’s emo makeover is questionable, yes that musical sequence is kind of lame, and yes, there are probably two villains too many, particularly when it comes to Topher Grace’s Venom, whom Raimi was forced to include by the studio. But the director still has an excellent sense for energy, tone and comic-book framing, it’s well cast across the board (even Grace, playing Eddie Brock as a sad mirror image of Parker, is strong), and in Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman, has a villain with pathos to match that of Doctor Octopus in the second film. And to go with it, one truly remarkable visual effects sequence: the desperately sad birth of the Sandman, a monster sequence that James Whale would be proud of. [C]

Fantastic Four 2004

21. “Fantastic Four” (2005)
Released in that awkward period of superheroics in the '00s between the 'Spider-Man' and 'X-Men' movies that birthed the modern craze, and the Marvel movies that took them to new heights, Tim Story’s “Fantastic Four” movies don’t get much love these days (or even at the time). But maybe it’s having spent a few days wallowing in the worst of what the genre has to offer, but we’d say that Story could have done a lot, lot worse, even with his inferior first attempt. The 2005 film is, admittedly, essentially plotless, focusing on the origin story at the expense of an actual story, and has a bright, cheap look that’s aged it remarkably quickly (what you get from hiring a studio comedy journeyman like Story, we’d wager). But the brightness carries over to the tone, which is about right, and while Ioan Gruffud and Jessica Alba are pretty bland as Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, future Cap Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis are enormously likable as the other half of the central quartet. The action sequences also do what too few superhero flicks even attempt, and make the characters actual heroes, rather than gods who punch other gods into buildings. It’s slight and instantly forgettable, but not a particularly bad time at the movies. [C]

X- Men: The Last Stand

20. “X-Men: The Last Stand” (2006)
How to disappoint fanboys: make a third film of the trilogy that started the comic book movie craze, but replace credible original director Bryan Singer with internet whipping boy Brett Ratner. “X-Men: The Last Stand” is certainly the weakest of the first three X-films, with too many characters, too much plot, and with some decidedly half-assed performances. But it’s not a write-off either. Yes, the screenplay (credited to Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn) appears to have literally been written by a committee and the new additions, bar perhaps Ben Foster’s Angel, are unmemorable. But Ratner has a better handle on the subtext than most would give him credit for (the scenes involving a mutant "cure" are often fairly potent), and he does know how to stage a set piece: the battle in Jean Grey’s house might be the best action sequence in the trilogy. And it’s hard to dislike a film with the wanton ballsiness towards killing of its characters. It’s still an absolute mess, but one that has stuff to like in places. [C]

Iron Man 2 Scarlett Johansson

19. “Iron Man 2” (2010)
The rocky transition between the first “Iron Man” and the triumph of “The Avengers,” “Iron Man 2” was undoubtedly disappointing for everyone concerned, but again, one with enough going for it that it doesn’t prove to be a complete waste of space. The one element where the film improves on its predecessor (other than the upgrade from Terrence Howard to Don Cheadle) is in its villains: in place of Jeff Bridges’ half-baked businessman, we get snarling Russian convict Mickey Rourke, and the charmingly smarmy Sam Rockwell (the latter having a total blast, with one of the best performances in a Marvel Studios film to date). But Justin Theroux’s script is a bit muddy (likely the result of conflicts between director Jon Favreau and the studio), being unable to commit to the darker character arc it seems that Favreau and Robert Downey Jr. want to go for, and for all the benefits of their performances, not making Rourke or Rockwell much of a threat. The action is still pretty disappointing too, with a rushed finale and a general lack of memorable sequences. But Downey Jr. is still charm personified, Scarlett Johansson has fun as Black Widow (even if, like much else with the script, she’s extraneous set-up for “The Avengers”), and it’s generally watchable. [C]

X-Men

18. “X-Men: First Class” (2011)
There were high hopes for the semi-reboot/prequel “X-Men: First Class,” with a promising retro setting that looked to play more into the subtext of the characters than ever before, and some top-notch casting, with Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Xavier (and Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult also joining). The actors certainly lived up to the promise: when Fassbender and McAvoy share the screen, you see the potential of the series. And there are, here and there, some vivid images and good ideas. But the short gestation period (director Matthew Vaughan was hired with writing partner Jane Goldman barely a year before the film hit theaters) shows, with a forgettable villain in Kevin Bacon’s Sebastian Shaw, and a general sense of unfulfilled promise, particularly when it comes to depth: Vaughn and Goldman show little engagement with real ideas except on the surface level. Like most of the X-movies, it suffers from too many mutant characters, has a particularly icky view of the female characters, almost every one of whom ends up in a state of undress at some point. It’s still better than the two X-films that came before it, but it could have been so much more. [C]

Silver Surfer

17. “Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer” (2007)
For better or worse, no super-hero movies are as close to each other in quality as the two “Fantastic Four” films. If you liked the first, you’ll probably like the second, if you hated the first, you’ll probably hate “Rise Of The Silver Surfer” too. By a hair’s breadth, we’d probably pick the second film over the first: the cast are more settled in their roles, the action is more memorable, and most importantly, it has the Surfer, a genuinely impressive visual effects creation (played by Guillermo Del Toro alumnus Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence Fishburne) that gets surprisingly close to nailing a tricky character who’d been in failed development for years. It still basically botches Doctor Doom (in part because Julian McMahon is terrible as the character), but the script, by “Simpsons” writer Don Payne and “Twin Peaks” co-creator Mark Frost, has some zip to it, and the scope and scale is much greater this time around. The bar is still low enough that Josh Trank’s upcoming reboot doesn’t have to perform a miracle to clear it, but there’s fun to be had here. [C+]

Punisher War Zone

16. “Punisher: War Zone” (2008)
We’re very much aware that the placement of this one will raise some eyebrows (it did around Playlist HQ as well, in fairness). But hardcore genre fans know what we know: that this is a stupid, nasty, bloody blast that’s rather well directed, even if you need a bit of a shower afterwards. We’d repeat what we said earlier, that the character’s sort of a nothing, and we don’t really see the point of bringing him to the screen. But if you’re going to do it, do it like director Lexi Alexander does here: shamelessly. This time, The Punisher (played indifferently by Ray Stevenson) faces off against classic villain Jigsaw (Dominic West, devouring the scenery and then picking bits of it out from between his teeth), and it’s still a deeply generic set up, one that’s weirdly reminiscent of old-school 1990s superhero flicks. But she does shoot the action beautifully with real style, and with an absolute delight — Castle doesn’t just take a bad guy out when he can cut off their head with a butter knife and fire a rocket into the remains. It’s far from being a good movie, but the splattery grindhouse glee with which it’s executed makes it oddly pleasurable. [C+]

The Incredible Hulk

15. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008)
Second time around for Marvel’s green giant, for the second official Marvel Studios 'Avengers' tease (tied in through a Robert Downey Jr. cameo, though little else, given the subsequent recasting), and it’s something of a mixed bag, likely because of the conflicts between star Edward Norton, who took a pass on the script, director Louis Leterrier, and the fledgling studio. It’s a much less interesting film than Ang Lee’s, but has some charms, at least in the early going: the “Fugitive”-esque feel of the first half, throwing back to the TV series, is fun, and the high caliber of casting (Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson and William Hurt joining Norton) pointing the way, along with “Iron Man,” to the likes of Robert Redford and Glenn Close in Marvel movies to come. Even so, there isn’t much in the way of substance, and things really fall apart in the third act, culminating in a punch-up that feels more like a round of “Tekken” than anything remotely involving. It remains to be seen whether a really good “Hulk” movie can ever be made (“The Avengers” suggests that he might be best as part of an ensemble), but it’ll need someone less workmanlike than Leterrier to pull it off. [C+]

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Marvel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier , Iron Man, The Avengers


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