By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 3, 2014 at 4:00PM
7. “Blade II” (2002)
Speaking of weird, who gave Guillermo Del Toro a superhero movie to make? The first “Blade” was a surprise hit, but it was exceeded when the Mexican madman got his grubby hands on the Daywalker, with a follow-up that saw Wesley Snipes team up with a Dirty Dozen-esque band of vampires to take down a greater threat. Del Toro’s film still has some scripting issues, and a more anonymous villain than the original in the shape of former Boy Band-er Luke Goss (although the grisly design of the Reaper creatures is great), but the action is terrific, the atmosphere nicely rank, and the engagement with vampire mythology continually inventive. The CGI can be ropey in places, but the practical effects, and general style with which proceedings are helmed, more than make up for it, while the director’s fine sense of character is kept up with the way he nicely sketches the various members of the Bloodpack. Del Toro would go on to make more expensive superhero pictures with the “Hellboy” films, but we’d argue that this remains his best attempt at the genre. [B]
6. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014)
The most recent Marvel movie (at least for a few weeks...), and a pretty decent one at that. Our review won’t be long in the mind at this point, and we do still agree with the problems we raised there: the title villain is mostly wasted in the film, it reaches a sense of action fatigue by the time it reaches its conclusion, and the politics are kind of muddy at best (even if it’s pleasing that the film even tries to engage with the real world, which all too few of these films do). But we’ve definitely warmed to it in the few weeks since we saw it, and the benefits of the film have lingered more than the demerits: the fine performances by Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie and Robert Redford, the confidence with which it’s all executed, the twists and turns of the plot, the stylish way in which the action sequences are executed. Like most of the latter-day Marvel Studios pictures, it overstays its welcome. But the tone is so well judged, and the characters so involving, that you don’t begrudge that extra twenty minutes or so too much. [B]
5. “Iron Man” (2008)
The film that really kicked off Marvel’s billion-dollar mega-franchise, and it’s a rarity among these movies in that it works because of, essentially, one element alone: Robert Downey Jr. That’s not to say that the other elements are disastrous: the script might be a beat-by-beat reconstruction of “Batman Begins,” but it does its job, director Jon Favreau keeps the tone bouncy without losing the stakes, and it even managed to make Gwyneth Paltrow a winning screen presence for the first time in a long while. But really, this is the Robert Downey Jr. show, and it’s really a remarkable tour-de-force of a performance that rightly relaunched the once-troubled actor to being the biggest, and best paid movie star on the planet. His improv-y comic energy lets us warm to Tony Stark even when he’s at his most jackass-like, but he lends the character a vulnerability and, when it matters, a seriousness that made him an instant iconic. More than any of its rivals, Marvel (mostly) understand that the most special effect you can ask for is an actor that people want to pay to see, and it’s hard not to feel that their enormous success simply wouldn’t have happened without that gamble on Downey Jr. to begin with.
4. “Iron Man 3” (2013)
That said, the first one is still not the best “Iron Man” movie — last summer’s threequel took the momentum from the “Avengers” and ran with it, with the most distinctive and, arguably, daring Marvel Studios movie to date. As the director of only one film beforehand (the brilliant, but mostly unseen “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”), the choice of Shane Black to direct the movie raised some eyebrows, but even more surprising was the way that it had turned out that Marvel had let Shane Black be Shane Black — “Iron Man 3” was less superhero formula, more quippy '80s action movie, and all the better for it. Black (and co-writer Drew Pearce) understood what we were saying above about Downey Jr. being the heart of the movies, and brilliantly decided to put him out of his suit as much as possible, reconnecting him with the audiences that loved him so. They also had the best action sequences of the trilogy (the Air Force One rescue sequence, done mostly with practical skydivers, is one for the ages), and best of all, a humdinger of a twist, a daring subversion of one of Marvel’s best known villains that enraged fanboys, but delighted the rest of us. The film’s imperfect — Guy Pearce’s ultimate villain is a bit weak, and Rebecca Hall is shamefully wasted — but it’s also ludicrous amounts of fun when it does work. [B+]
3. "Spider-Man 2" (2004)
If Sam Raimi got most of the way with his first Spider-film, he lapped back around with "Spider-Man 2," which, short of an unprecedented turnaround with "The Amazing" franchise, is likely to remain the best incarnation of the character for at least another reboot cycle or two. Pitting Peter Parker and his alter-ego against former mentor turned robo-armed bank thief Dr. Octopus (Alfred Molina), it manages the tricky balance of keeping the focus on its hero while also giving him a villain (importantly, one villain) worth fighting (and saving) and a girl worth nearly dying for. Tobey Maguire's at his most winning in this installment, even when Peter's being a bit of a dick (the balance then tipping over in the third film), James Franco's a useful foil without developing his full-on subplot, Kirsten Dunst is charming, and Alfred Molina brings real pathos to Doc Ock. Perhaps more importantly, the film lets Raimi off the leash: the famous tentacle sequence is the director through-and-through, while the other action sequences are consistently satisfying. What we're saying is that it's good enough that we forgive Raimi for "Oz The Great & Powerful." [A-]
2. "X2" (2003)
Another example of the superhero sequel proving superior to the original (which is unusually common in the genre, it seems), "X2," as it was called for some reason, develops everything that works about the original film and takes it further. From that cracking opening, as Alan Cumming's Nightcrawler (still a hugely impressive make-up effect) tries to kill the president, it's a more confident, rich and exciting film, turning the set-up on its head by forcing the two sides of mutants to uneasily work together, while still giving Ian McKellen's Magneto room to plot and scheme. Brian Cox makes an excellent villain (and importantly, a properly motivated one), the new additions mostly work, but aren't prevalent enough that the film feels as overstuffed as the others, the action is leaps and bounds better than in the first film, and, more importantly, it still has a soul: few scenes in these films are as affecting as when Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) 'comes out' as a mutant to his parents. Except, perhaps, for the death of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) at the end. Laced with humor and thrills, this is the superhero sequel done right, and the only reason at this point that we're holding out hope for Singer's return to the franchise with "Days Of Future Past" next month. [A-]
1. "The Avengers" (2012)
The math shouldn't have added up: films are all too rarely the sum of their parts, and it shouldn't have held that the movie with the most superheroes — the one that combined four existing franchises into one mega-franchise — would be the best. But somehow, against all expectations, Joss Whedon (only a second-time feature director, let's not forget) pulled it off. But then, anyone who knows his work wouldn't have been that surprised: Whedon carried over his strengths — real stakes, disarming humor, a deep abiding love for his characters, an ability to surprise — over to the film. He can't take all the credit — the casting in the previous films really starts to pay off as the stars, joined by an excellent Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, butt heads — but Whedon certainly deserves the lion's share, which is why the studio paid through the nose to have him return for the sequel. With huge laughs, real drama and proper comic book action (one of the few comic book action movies that feels like it has), everyone involved pretty much nailed it. And while box office is rarely an indicator of quality, there's a reason this is the third biggest grossing movie in history. [A-]
Now we know there's absolutely no possibility that out of 36 films you agree with the placement of all of them, so go ahead — the comments section awaits.