Marvel continues its dominance of the superhero sub-genre with their latest chapter, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Despite it being only the second standalone Captain America movie (not including previous incarnations), anyone who’s watched a Marvel movie in the last six years knows the whole universe of their films are intricately connected.
Since 2008, when Marvel Studios exploded onto the scene with Iron Man, the studio has built an interconnected series of superhero stories that weave through and around each other, before occasionally culminating in an Avengers movie. The series – eight in all so far, not including Captain America: The Winter Soldier – hasn’t had a perfect track record, but it’s yielded more hits than misses.
8. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Dominic Cooper, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones
Premise: Weakling Steve Rogers (Evans) enlists in the U.S. Army in the 1940s to fight Nazis and winds up the test subject of a military serum designed to turn him into a super-soldier. It works and, under the emblematic guise of Captain America, Rogers hunts down and defeats Red Skull (Weaving), the head of the evil HYDRA – but not before losing his best friend Bucky (Stan) along the way.
Verdict: From the get-go, Captain America: The First Avenger had one of the most uphill battles in the Marvel catalogue, but it was unable to overcome most of it. The period setting, the preposterous villain, the heavy-handed Americanism, and the awful CGI prevented the movie was reaching the heights of its brethren, but it did set the stage for Rogers’s modern-day storylines in The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
7. IRON MAN 3 (2013)
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Rebecca Hall, Jon Favreau
Premise: Billionaire genius Tony Stark (Downey, Jr.) adjusts to “normal” life after his Avengers battle with Loki’s alien army and near-death experience, but is plagued by enemies both internal (post-traumatic stress disorder) and external (a terrorist organization headed by the mysterious Mandarin, played by delight by Kingsley).
Verdict: Writer-director Shane Black, who helped reboot Downey, Jr.’s career with Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, borrowed that movie’s plot structure in a reheated move symbolic of the entire “been there, done that” impression of the film. Much of it felt too similar to pieces from the first two Iron Man movies, and the parts that didn’t were as over-the-top as the climax of The Avengers, but without fairly earning such scale. Some plot threads added interesting character development, but the action ultimately didn’t excite like it did the first two times.
6. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008)
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, William Hurt, Tim Roth, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell
Premise: Scientist Bruce Banner (Norton), another test subject of the super-soldier program (this time, through gamma radiation), is living in Rio de Janeiro and working on keeping his Hulk-ish rage in check when he’s tracked down by the American government and ultimately ends up pitted against the similarly super-powered Abomination (Roth).
Verdict: After the bomb that was 2003’s Hulk, Marvel smartly let the dust settle on their franchise and rebooted the story with Norton in the role Eric Bana had played five years earlier. By cleverly taking place after most of its origin story and showing it instead in flashbacks, the movie remained consistently tense right from the start. While the climactic battle was a little hokey, The Incredible Hulk was much better than people gave it credit for in 2008.
5. THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013)
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Christopher Eccleston, Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Idris Elba, Kat Dennings
Premise: When a vengeful Dark Elf named Malekith (Eccleston) threatens to plunge the Nine Realms – including Asgard and Earth – into darkness, Thor (Hemsworth) cannot defeat him alone. He is forced to free his imprisoned brother Loki (Hiddleston) and team up with him, risking the Machiavellian sibling’s machinations.
Verdict: Until Loki’s release, the movie only worked in spurts. After Thor and his brother teamed up, though, Thor: The Dark World played out beautifully. The blend of science-fiction and fantasy worked even better here than in the original, although the Shakespearean drama of the royal family was notably missing. In the end, it wasn’t quite as good as the original, but it as quite close.
4. IRON MAN 2 (2010)
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, John Slattery, Jon Favreau, Garry Shandling
Premise: Picking up six months after Tony Stark admitted in the last seconds of 2008’s Iron Man that he was the titular superhero, Iron Man 2 makes Stark face the repercussions of his admission, from fighting against the U.S. government bent on confiscating his designs to fighting for his life against a vengeful Russian scientist (Rourke) bent on destroying him.
Verdict: It almost tied with the original in quality, but for quite different reasons. While Iron Man was a clever origin story, its hero-versus-villain plot was rather weak. Iron Man 2 had a more menacing villain, funded by Stark’s slimy business rival, Justin Hammer (Rockwell). The movie suffers a bit from “more is better” thinking, but it’s certainly funnier and more action-packed than the 2008 original.
3. IRON MAN (2008)
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Paul Bettany, Shaun Toub, Jon Favreau
Premise: Billionaire weapons manufacturer Tony Stark is ambushed in Afghanistan and taken prisoner. His captors want him to design a missile for them, but Stark secretly builds a robotic suit to help him escape. Upon his return to normal life, Stark has an epiphany and devotes himself to using his technology for helping and saving others instead of killing them.
Verdict: While Iron Man easily could have come off as a nothing more than a metallic Batman, Downey, Jr. and Bridges elevated the movie’s material hugely. Tony Stark was likeable and amusing in a way Bruce Wayne never had been, and the movie’s overall sense of humour did a perfect job of establishing the difference in attitude between Marvel’s new brand of superhero movies and DC’s (as demonstrated on their end by The Dark Knight, released two months later).
2. THOR (2011)
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore
Premise: The boldest movie Marvel’s attempted to date (at least, until Guardians of the Galaxy hits theatres this August), Thor shows Earth to be one of the Nine Realms, which also includes the Norse world Asgard. The hubris of Asgardian prince Thor (Hemsworth) leads to his exile on Earth, while his conniving brother Loki (Hiddleston) eyes Thor’s place on the royal throne.
Verdict: Allowing Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, and Captain America to all become mere earthlings in the grand scheme of the Nine Realms was a daring gamble for Marvel to make, especially with Thor’s unusual, blended tones of fantasy, science-fiction, and mythology. As directed by Kenneth Branagh, the royal family drama took on delightfully Shakespearean levels of drama. The fish-out-of-water comedy of Thor being stripping of his powers and banished to New Mexico also went a long way toward creating one of the most enjoyable Marvel movies to date.
1. THE AVENGERS (2012)
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgård, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany
Premise: Four years and five movies in the making, The Avengers brought together the heroes of the first two Iron Man movies, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger – as well as Iron Man 2’s Black Widow (Johansson) and Thor’s Hawkeye (Renner) – to form the supergroup known as the Avengers. Just in time, too, as Thor’s bitter villain, Loki, launches a war on Earth.
Verdict: So much could have gone wrong with The Avengers. Four of its six heroes had starred in their own movies, yet were suddenly having to share the screen with many others. The spectacle and size had to be increased to make each of the preceding movies seem smaller in scale, without diminishing any of them. It also needed to stand as its own movie, for those who hadn’t seen any or all of the prior films, while providing a fuller experience for those familiar with the characters and the Marvel universe. Thanks to the masterful work of writer-director Joss Whedon, it all came together wonderfully. Not enough time was devoted to character development in the first act and the movie was slightly too bloated for its own good in its protracted climax, but it was the richest of the first eight Marvel Studios productions and set the bar for all following Marvel movies to reach.