Top 10: Marvel Studios Films by Jerry Whitworth
Since choosing to independently produce and finance its own film properties in 2004, Marvel Studios has forever altered the landscape of the film industry. Borrowing a concept from its comics to tell an ongoing narrative in an interconnected continuity, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been a juggernaut at box office producing an impressive array of hit films (as well as television series). The stream shows no signs of slowing down as Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2, and Inhumans are slated for the future. Marvel Studios’ MCU television series are also on a roll with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Agent Carter, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders (with Damage Control in development). There’s also short films called Marvel One-Shots like The Consultant (2011), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer (2011), Item 47 (2012), Agent Carter (2013), and All Hail the King (2014). Lets then take a look at what feature-length live action films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe released thus far that stand atop Marvel Studios’ current library.
The third and perhaps final film in the Iron Man film series featuring Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark (the first film giving birth to the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Iron Man 3 (2013) was undoubtedly a polarizing film. Therein, the billionaire inventor and armored superhero Tony Stark is under attack by Aldrich Killian (portrayed by Guy Pearce) and his organization Advanced Idea Mechanics (abbreviated in the comics as A.I.M.) in a plot that centers around revenge and taking over the United States of America. However, the film maybe best remembered for its elaborate red herring of making the audience believe the antagonist of the piece to be the Mandarin, nemesis of Iron Man in the comics and alluded to in the first two films (the assault that forced Stark to miniaturize the arc reactor caused by a member of the Ten Rings, Mandarin’s organization, in the first film and the Ten Rings responsible for the second film’s primary antagonist Ivan Vanko getting into America to target Stark). Rather than introduce the Mandarin, whose name and corresponding ethnicity may have been controversial and whose alien rings may have not aligned with the atmosphere of the MCU Iron Man series, the character of Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley) was introduced. An actor portraying the Mandarin for Killian’s propaganda videos, Slattery was used to create misdirection about the involvement of A.I.M. Further, when Stark’s Vault is destroyed by Killian and he’s left with an unreliable experimental suit of armor, the story heavily features an unarmored Tony Stark employing gadgets and his wits to get him through his ordeal. And while the first two films focused on armored foes, the third also broke away with instead humans enhanced by a treatment called Extremis. Standing alone, while Iron Man 3 wasn’t a perfect movie, it was a good and an entertaining piece upping the danger factor by removing Stark’s armor (saved for the end when he employs his Iron Legion), offering a sleight-of-hand with the Mandarin reveal, and providing an interesting relationship between Stark and Harley Keener (played by Ty Simpkins), a ten year old boy who helped Stark. But where it suffers is as a piece of both the Iron Man franchise and the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe, seeming more like a sidestory than a final chapter bringing Stark full circle in his underlining conflict with the Ten Rings, his evolving arrangement with S.H.I.E.L.D., and furthering his posthumous relationship with his father (who created the original arc reactor that inspired Stark’s miniaturization and later its evolution in the second movie). This departure proved so galvanizing, the short film All Hail the King (2014) actually tackled the idea that the Mandarin is real and has yet to emerge, which in hindsight only further made Iron Man 3 seem like a sidestory removed from the natural series that story should have traversed.
The latest offering from Marvel Studios, Ant-Man (2015) was a film in development for nine years before making its way to theaters where some questioned it maybe the first stumble in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ant-Man told the story of reformed burglar Scott Lang (portrayed by Paul Rudd) caught in the middle of a conflict between billionaire inventor and former armored secret agent Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) and his former protege Darren Cross (played by Corey Stoll). Pym had discovered a particle that allowed him to shrink in size while maintaining his full height’s strength which he used as Ant-Man, operative for the spy organization S.H.I.E.L.D. (not trusting anyone with his revolutionary discovery and its implications for mankind and warfare). However, after Cross stole Pym’s company from him, he would eventually uncover the particle and planned to sell suits of armor employing its abilities to Hydra (a terrorist organization bent on world domination). Lang would be coerced by Pym into adopting the Ant-Man mantle in order to stop Cross. One of the original ten films Marvel Studios sought to produce, Edgar Wright of Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy fame pitched his idea for the picture in 2004 and was brought on in 2006 to co-write, co-produce, and direct the movie. However, as Marvel Studios gained access to Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor, the picture was consistently delayed in favor of more marketable alternatives until finally in 2013 it was placed in the line-up for 2015 release. Sadly, Wright would part ways with the picture in 2014 due to creative differences as Peyton Reed (Bring It On, The Break-Up) replaced him in the director’s chair. What sets Ant-Man apart from other Marvel films to this point was that it was a heist movie but with super-science mixed in with a couple armored fight sequences. Of those sequences, the shrinking and growing aspects of it made for an interesting take in action not done prior to this film. But perhaps its greatest strength is its use of comedy. While most Marvel Studio films have a good blend of humor with action, Ant-Man is perhaps only bested by Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) in its execution of humor in its narrative. Much of this credit goes to Lang’s crew in Luis, Dave, and Kurt (portrayed respectively by Michael Peña, T.I., and David Dastmalchian). As Ant-Man becomes involved in the greater MCU and the opportunity to expand the scope of the franchise by including the Wasp (played by Evangeline Lilly) unfolds, it will be interesting to see where the character and his supporting cast ends up.
The fourth feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor (2011) stars Chris Hemsworth as the eponymous character who disobeys his father Odin (portrayed by Anthony Hopkins), king of the gods, and is banished to Earth until such time he is deemed worthy to return. Desperate to come back to his homeland, Thor enlists the aid of astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (played by Natalie Portman) to help him as Thor’s adopted brother Loki (portrayed by Tom Hiddleston) manipulates the malevolent Frost Giants in a bid to prove himself worthy to Odin. What’s interesting about Thor is that it features the comedy and pathos of many of the features produced by Marvel Studios but its action comes off a bit lacking. Part of this likely comes from the quantity of threats present, with the Frost Giants, the robot-like Destroyer employed by Loki, and Loki himself. Rather than a clear singular obstacle that is presented initially where the path of the story goes about overcoming the threat, Thor does a dance where first Thor battles the Frost Giants only for them to be essentially dispatched offhand by Loki as a Loki who can’t quite seem to decide if he’s a hero or villain sends the Destroyer to kill his adopted brother (which is actually the catalyst for him becoming worthy to return) ending with Thor trying to stop Loki from doing essentially what the protagonist wanted to do in the beginning of the film (namely, destroy the Frost Giants). While certainly a journey, at some level the story felt rudderless but seemingly ended up where it was suppose to go (Thor become a better hero and Loki stepped closer to becoming a villain). Oddly enough, the film’s sequel Thor: The Dark World (2013) had better direction, but seemed a bit more lax in the humor and charm of its MCU contemporaries.