4. Guardians of the Galaxy
Marvel proved it owned the superhero genre with The Avengers — the culmination of all their Phase 1 efforts. But they weren’t content to stay in one genre alone. With Thor and The Avengers Marvel had hinted at a vast universe with aliens and adventures. They chose to take us there with 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. The concept seems ridiculous — a talking raccoon, a talking tree, two green warriors, and a human fly around and have adventures. But somehow it worked.
Much credit must be given to director James Gunn. He brought a vision of this universe, and made it fully realized. His band of rouges each have their own agendas, but they combined long enough to form a team. With amazing CGI bringing Rocket Raccoon and Groot to life, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista playing the straight-man roles, and Parks and Recreation star Chris Pratt in the lead, the team gels. Every moment spent with them is a joy.
This is aided by a variety of 70s rock hits — the first Marvel Studios film to feature such a robust soundtrack. It all created a party mood and an infectious feeling of fun.
As with nearly every Marvel Studios origin story, Guardians of the Galaxy does suffer from a weak villain who is evil for evil’s sake. He reminds me too much of the antagonist from Thor: The Dark World. Lee Pace owns the role, but his Ronin is simply not written well. Any menace is completely undercut by the film’s climax, which may be the one time Gunn should have used action instead of a joke.
But when the little Groot smiles out at you while dancing to The Jackson 5, this film’s charm cannot be overstated.
3. The Avengers
Could four superheroes share the same screen? Could any hero stand alongside superstar Downey as Iron Man? Would this film buckle under its own weight? Questions and skepticism abound during the build up to The Avengers. Audiences turned out in droves, but the question was “Can it work?”
To juggle all these moving parts Marvel Studios hired Joss Whedon — a director best known for his television work. He had dealt with ensemble casts on his shows Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Firefly and those skills were in full effect with The Avengers.
Previous movie stars Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk all had their own emotional journeys. No matter which of those four you loved, you had something to enjoy.
Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Loki had been lackluster in earlier movie appearances. Truthfully, I dreaded both Hiddleston and Johansson after their previous Marvel works. Walking out of The Avengers Black Widow and Loki were my two favorite characters. Wheadon’s script fixed those characters, and his directing took their performances to new heights.
The film has laughs, action, and adventure. I can’t decide which fight is my favorite — Hulk vs Thor? Iron Man vs Thor vs Cap? Thor vs Loki? They’re all so good that I’m never let down.
Yes…it’s another origin story, and the final victory over Loki’s alien army is a bit too simple. The plot conveniences are pentiful. Yet the result set a new standard for superhero films. Marvel had thrown down the (Infinity) gauntlet, and to this day every other studio is playing catch-up.
2. Iron Man
Marvel Studios’ opening gambit was big. The company knew they wanted to make their own films, but they had sold off the rights to their biggest characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men. So for their very first film they chose Iron Man — a name more known for a Black Sabbath song than comic books.
This film turned Iron Man into one of Marvel’s biggest names.
There’s no single person who can take this credit. This movie’s success is the result of a cadre of creative and talented individuals working to make the best damn superhero film to date.
The team was led by director Jon Favreau, a man more known as an actor than a director. He had directed three previous films, and of those only Elf was successful. But thanks to connections he made while filming 2003’s Daredevil he was brought in to helm Iron Man. Immediately Favreau surrounded himself with artists and writers who worked on the Iron Man comic books, working to immerse this movie in the tone of the source material.
But enough cannot be said for Favreau’s choice to play Tony Stark/Iron Man — Robert Downey Jr. The comic book Tony Stark had a well-known alcohol problem, but yet was a rich playboy with a sordid past. Downey’s casting may have been on-the-nose, but the actor’s real-life troubles and sheer charisma filled the screen — in and out of the armor. Downey was more than an actor, he worked closely with Favreau on the script and crafting Stark into a “likable asshole.” Truly, the character’s quiet, dramatic moments of reflection are as spectacular as his flying in the sky wearing a CGI suit.
The movie is lacking on plot. The middle of the film simply exists for Downey to (literally) shine in various suits of armor. The film’s final twist where Tony’s business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges) puts on his own suit is strains incredulity and is obviously only there as superhero films must end on a big fight. But none of those quibbles matter when put up against the rock-and-roll attitude of the film.
The legacy is great. Not only is this the first film in the MCU, but the first two Iron Man films were the only Marvel Phase 1 blockbusters. Iron Man personally carried Hulk, Captain America, and Thor into The Avengers — and those heroes follow-up films all benefited by their association with the team.
Even this weekend, while a Captain America film is opening, it’s the inclusion of Iron Man that has fans buzzing. On Twitter #TeamIronMan is trending alongside #TeamCap. Now Stark is rumored to appear in next year’s Spider-Man film to raise its profile as well. Iron Man now helping Spider-Man out is quite a reversal from when this film came out in 2008.
It all shows that, no doubt, the armored Avenger still is one of the shining stars of the Marvel Cinematic universe. All of that is because of this first Marvel Studios film.
But if this weekend’s Civil War release is any indication, Iron Man may not like coming in second to the best Marvel movie yet.