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Best To Worst: Every Marvel Movie Ranked

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist 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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Thor

14. “Thor” (2011)
Marvel’s first big risk. If “Thor” had tanked like, say, “Green Lantern” did for Warners, it made the “Avengers,” and everything after it, a much, much dicier prospect. There’s plenty wrong with the finished product — some garish design, an anonymous setting for the third-act, the “Iron Man 2”-esque shoehorning in of S.H.I.E.L.D, and in particular the Jeremy Renner afterthought cameo. But it gets some of the important things right, and that helped the movie become a hit. The fish-out-of-water humor embraces and owns the inherent silliness of the character. The unlikely choice of Kenneth Branagh lends some gravitas, and though much-mocked, his fondness for dutch angles gives a nice comic-book feel to proceedings. Two movie stars were born, in Tom Hiddleston’s surprisingly multi-faceted Loki, and Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic, deftly comic Thor. There’s enough room to grow from this one that we’re still a way off from seeing a definitive movie starring the character, but Branagh and co. did a pretty good job at laying the groundwork, and making a space Viking someone to root for. [C+]

The Wolverine, Logan, Mariko

13. “The Wolverine” (2013)
Director James Mangold (who replaced the much more tempting Darren Aronofsky on this long-delayed second Logan-centric spin-off) talked a big game in the lead up to the film’s release, dropping references to Ozu and Kurosawa in relation to his Japanese-set tale, which sees Hugh Jackman’s mutant embroiled in the battle for succession for a major Japanese corporation. It’s hard to really see the influence of either in the final film, but for much of the running time, the “3:10 To Yuma” helmer does a pretty good job — the smaller scale, more character-led plotting is a good guideline for how to make a solo movie like this one work, and Jackman’s as good as he’s ever been in the role, with a new vulnerability that stops the character from getting old the sixth time around. Unfortunately, it screws the pooch a bit in the final moments: Fox, it seems, couldn’t resist stuffing in extraneous mutants and CGI setpieces, and the final act is overblown and uninvolving. But it is a moderately valiant effort, even if there’s little trace of “Floating Leaves” when all is said and done. [B-]

X-Men 2000

12. “X-Men” (2000)
The film, more than any other, that revived the comic book craze, and finally made Marvel characters viable on the big screen, Bryan Singer’s adaptation of the mutant heroes arguably changed cinema, or at least studio thinking, in a big way. After a 1990s full of campiness and gaudiness like “Batman and Robin,” Singer found a way to connect with far-out material in the parallels he drew with civil and gay rights (which, in fairness, were always there in the comics), and approached them with a seriousness that fans appreciated. And in Patrick Stewart’s Professor X, Ian McKellen’s Magneto and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, he had three immediately iconic performances that, fourteen years on, are still gracing our screens when almost every other franchise has been rebooted at least once. That said, his first attempt wasn’t entirely satisfying: the script has the fingerprints of many hands, and the tone wobbles occasionally (that famously botched Halle Berry one-liner being one example), while Singer’s not especially confident with action at this stage, probably in part thanks to a surprisingly thrifty budget for the genre. Nevertheless, the solid foundations were here: it’s just a shame that only one subsequent film really went on to build on them. [B-]

Blade 1998

11. “Blade” (1998)
All that said, if “X-Men” was the film that opened the door, “Blade” was the one that wedged its foot in first — the first moderately successful Marvel movie, and one that suggested that an audience existed for these films beyond the geek crowd. “Blade” stars Wesley Snipes as the titular part-vampire vampire slayer, who takes on dickish upstart Deacon Frost (Stephen Dorff), and the moderately-budgeted B-movie proved a surprise hit for New Line, giving them a new franchise. The film might mark Snipes' shift from being a decent actor to being a lunatic, but there’s no denying the power of his screen presence here, and there’s fun to be had in the supporting cast below him, with Kris Kristofferson lending gravitas, and Donal Logue lending further dickishness. Goyer’s script is genuinely inventive with vampire lore and goes through some fun twists and turns, and director Steven Norrington (who would blow up his own career a few years later with the execrable “League Of Extraordinary Gentleman”) directs with real style. Some of the trendy nightclub scenes have aged swiftly, but this is still mostly something to be thankful for, and not just for the most baffling kiss-off line in film history (“Some motherfucker’s always trying to ice skate uphill”). [B]

Spider-Man 2002

10. “Spider-Man” (2002)
Like Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi did a lot right the first time around with his big-budget superhero property, while leaving enough wrong that there would later be things to correct. The filmmaker, who’d worked in the studio system before but never with a budget like this, was a somewhat surprising choice to direct, but immediately felt like a safe pair of hands: he gets the underdog nature of the character, the thing that makes Spider-Man unique among heroes, and nails the origin story side of things, with a loose and fun teen-movie feel to the early proceedings — there’s genuine heft to the death of Uncle Ben, and the change it causes in Peter. He’d go on to make bigger and more confident action sequences in the franchise, but there’s still some iconic moments here (that swoonsome upside-down kiss, for one). The biggest downside to the film is, as is often the case, the villain: Willem Dafoe gives a good performance, but the design of the Green Goblin is ill-conceived, and the arc somewhat rushed. Still, as the first movie to open over $100 million in its first weekend, Raimi had done his job, and had more to build on the next time around... [B]

Captain America: The First Avenger

9. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011)
Thor” was the trickiest task of Marvel Studios’ Phase One, but “Captain America: The First Avenger” presented an equally difficult challenge: a patriotic and irony-free hero in a time where neither of those things are popular. But making “Captain America: The First Avenger” a period piece was the perfect way to introduce the character, and Joe Johnston’s film is the rare superhero film to really make the origin story sing — you love little Steve Rogers (ably played by Chris Evans) from the first moment, and the film makes his transformation into an unlikely superman relatable and genuinely moving (it helps that strong performances from Stanley Tucci, Tommy Lee Jones and Hayley Atwell are around to make this arguably the most purely human of the Marvel movies). The retro feel makes it visually distinctive as well, at a time when more and more superhero films were clogging up multiplexes. But like Captain America himself, the film can’t stick the landing: the second half, so much of which is delivered in montage, descends into rather interchangable superheroics, and some faintly disappointing action. It pulls it back with somewhat of a tearjerker ending (a rarity for one of these films), but it’s still hard not to feel that, had the whole film been as a good as the opening, we’d have had a different movie atop this list. [B]

Bana, hulk

8. “Hulk” (2003)
Ah, Ang Lee’s “Hulk”: the red-headed (green-skinned) totally bonkers step-child of the Marvel movies. The chameleonic Lee was always a bold choice for a superhero movie, even after the majestic action of his “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but no one expected anything like what he eventually delivered: an existential actioner with a unique pop-art look and feel (he seemed to be literally mimicking comic books with his cutting), and a final act that sees Nick Nolte growling incomprehensibly before turning into a giant jellyfish or something. The film was extremely divisive at the time, but it’s aged well: an esoteric and idiosyncratic picture with more personality than most of the films below it on this list combined. But it’s not without its problems: the cast feel a bit adrift for the most part (Eric Bana, as Bruce Banner, doesn’t quite find a way to let us into his head), and the finale is borderline incoherent. Still, as we approach superhero overload, we find ourselves wishing for more swing-and-misses like this in the genre, versus the competent-but-unexceptional films we already have plenty of. [B]

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


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