9. Iron Man 2
When Marvel launched their Cinematic Universe in 2008 they had an end-goal: The Avengers. But other than some cameos and cross-overs, there wasn’t a solid plan to get there. After the success of Iron Man that all changed. This is readily apparent in 2010’s Iron Man 2.
On paper this film looked like it should be as good or better than the original Iron Man. Jon Favreau was back as director, and Robert Downey Jr. was back and even more confident as Tony Stark. The supporting cast was full of notable and acclaimed actors including Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, and (thanks to a contract dispute with Terrence Howard) Don Cheadle.
Calling back to Iron Man’s classic “Demon in a Bottle” comic arc, Iron Man 2 has Stark turning to alcohol and dangerous behaviors while the ARC reactor that keeps his heart going slowly poisons his blood. Added to that was Rourke’s Whiplash–a Russian criminal with a vengeance against the Stark family. Truly, Whiplash’s first fight on a Monaco race track is one of the best fights in all 12 Marvel movies.
Unfortunately, Favreau was also saddled with laying the groundwork for The Avengers. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury was a cameo, a tease, at the end of Iron Man. Now he and his S.H.I.E.L.D. family were supporting characters, going on about their “Avengers initiative.” Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow was a needless element whose participation in the climax still confuses me. I left the film hating Black Widow, and dreaded her return in any future film.
These scenes dominated the second half of the film, and meant many other character moments were cut (watch the trailers and see how much never made it to screen). This truncated Stark storyline meant too easy a resolution for his blood issue and a finale as soulless as the drones Iron Man fought.
The end result, The Avengers, corrected many of these errors, but it was a disappointing trade-off to get there.
8. The Incredible Hulk
Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor — these Marvel Phase 1 heroes had never before appeared on the big screen. While not A-list comic characters like Spider-Man or Wolverine, Marvel Studios had a clean slate with the audiences. That wasn’t the case for Hulk.
Just five years before The Incredible Hulk the green goliath starred in Ang Lee’s 2003 disappointment Hulk. That moody drama may not deserve its reputation, but it failed to be a box office “Smash.” That shadow loomed over The Incredible Hulk. Many creative choices, including Marvel Studio’s tapping The Transporter director Luis Leterrier, seem poised to make this film the anti-Hulk full of action and bombast.
The Incredible Hulk has a lot of things done right. Star Edward Norton held tremendous creative sway, rewriting the script and bringing his Bruce Banner closer to the beloved ’70s television version. Norton brought the same good-natured heroism to his Banner. Then when he did turn into Hulk the action was stupendous. It was a comic book come to life, giving Hulk fans the excitement many felt Ang Lee missed.
The supporting cast is almost uniformly great. Tim Roth brings experience and danger as Emil Blonsky (who would become CGI beast Abomination). William Hurt has gravitas as Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. Even Tim Blake Nelson and Ty Burrell shine in roles that were intended to grow in sequels. And Liv Tyler…well, I’ll focus on the positives here.
Unfortunately there was behind-the-scenes strife as Norton clashed with Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige. Norton wanted more character scenes, including a moment where Banner attempts suicide only to be stopped by Hulk. Feige was intent on the anti-Hulk though, cutting an hour of character scenes and focusing solely on action. The result was a public dispute and Norton would be replaced by Mark Ruffalo in all future Marvel Cinematic Universe films.
The end result was a box office nearly identical to Lee’s 2002 effort. Due to this, and Hulk’s co-ownership by Universal Studios, this film had seemed Marvel Studios’ red-headed stepchild. Many promising plot threads, including future Hulk antagonists Doc Sampson and The Leader, were never revisited. In TV specials and retrospectives, The Incredible Hulk was most often left out entirely. It’s quite a shame as I feel Hulk’s rogue’s gallery is second only to Spider-Man’s, and the big guy deserves another chance at solo success.
Perhaps Marvel Studios is starting to come around, too. Shockingly, Hurt reprises his role as Thunderbolt Ross in this weekend’s Civil War. If they can bring him back eight years later, maybe there’s hope yet.
But Hulk was just one of several problematic origin stories from both phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As seen in our next three films.