This feature originally ran in April 2015 and will be periodically updated and re-published with the latest Marvel releases.
Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we sort through the best and worst of Marvel’s seemingly never-ending cinematic universe.
Though it’s perhaps bad business to have you look at another website before you read and remain on this one, have a quick glance at this:
That was April 2006. Now, 12 years later, the outline for Marvel’s ambitious (many at the time said overzealous) plan to take over movie theaters has been made manifest. A Marvel movie is the closest thing to truly untouchable, from at least a fiscal perspective, that Hollywood has seen in decades upon decades. Under their watch, a movie partially centered around a sassy talking raccoon and a giant tree fighting space evil became one of the highest-grossing films of 2014. In 2008, Robert Downey Jr.’s career was still on the mend, and now he’s one of the biggest and highest-paid movie stars of the current era. Serialized superhero stories on TV are enjoying their biggest-ever boom period for Marvel and others alike, thanks to the brand’s immense success.
The point is, Marvel’s a big ‘ol deal. As the branding of the MCU enters new lands this week with Black Panther, the imprint is likely going to enjoy another hit, and for good reason. The how and why of Marvel Studios’ gambit working out so well is more complex than some will realize, but one simple explanation is that there’s a certain standard of quality expected from Marvel’s output, one that’s been consistently delivered upon with each production within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While we obviously like some of the films and shows more than others, there’s not a movie on this list that we could even come close to equating with the worst that your average film critic sees in a given year.
So join us as we dissect what Marvel has accomplished so far by way of the 28 Marvel Studios offerings that have been released (theatrically, on TV, or via streaming platforms) as of this publication. Because, as we’ve learned in abundance over the better part of the past decade now, there’s more than one way to tell a great superhero story.
28. Inhumans (2017-present)
Runtime: Eight episodes to date, which is eight too many; if it gets renewed, there’s no hope left for any of us. (It probably won’t.)
Press Release: To most of humanity, the moon is just that big beautiful thing in the sky. To a group of people who are definitely, certainly, absolutely not the X-Men, it’s home, a place where they can hide their extraordinary abilities from the rest of society. But when a crisis in the royal family sees some of them banished to Earth, the Inhumans must stay hidden, make friends, and find a way back home.
Cast: Anson Mount, Serinda Swan, Ken Leung, Eme Ikwuakor, Isabelle Cornish, Ellen Woglom, Iwan Rheon
Artistic Pedigree: Showrunner Scott Buck has been nominated for seven Emmys. He was also the showrunner for the last several seasons of Dexter and was the creator and showrunner for Iron Fist, but was replaced after the first season. I’m sure Scott Buck is a lovely person, and yes, that is shade.
Let’s Put It In IMAX…And Make It Shorter!: There’s a lot about Inhumans, which this writer watched all of, god help her, that’s baffling, but the choices made about the show’s early rollout might be the most bewildering. Marvel and ABC took a cool idea — film the first two episodes of their hot new property in both standard format and in IMAX, giving audiences a chance to see larger-than-life characters in a larger-than-life setting before it launches on the small screen — and made it both a waste of time and money. The IMAX version highlighted the comically bad design elements, and rather than including more content for the die-hard fans determined to buy a ticket to something they could see for free, they actually chopped 10 minutes from the pilot. Why?
At Least There’s a Good Dog: There are some skilled performers on Inhumans, with Ken Leung coming closest to making Buck and company’s terrible dialogue work — though in Buck’s defense, the worst of the bunch is the almost entirely dialogue-free Anson Mount, who chooses to communicate the silent Black Bolt’s interior life through approximately three facial expressions. Oh, and it’s only three if you’re rounding up from two and a half.
Still, this is a section about the best character on Inhumans, who, coincidentally, also doesn’t speak. There is such a good dog on this show! Lockjaw is a giant teleporting pup. He’s enormous and adorable. He has something resembling a personality. He’s brought to life by CGI, and the CGI is well done. He’s not only not insufferable — a rarity on this show — but he’s a damn delight. If someone can find a way to work Lockjaw into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., I will be very happy indeed.
Hero for a Day: Vin Diesel was rumored to be in contention to play Black Bolt, a prospect he seemed pretty excited about. Our loss is Vin’s gain.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!”: It’s possible that there’s a poster somewhere that we didn’t spot, but as far as we can tell, Stan Lee gave this one a wide berth. There’s no cameo to be found.
Summary: You may be thinking to yourself, it can’t be that bad! You would be wrong. If you want to experience the best of Inhumans, just find a clip of Lockjaw online, preferably one where he’s alone. Better still, maybe just find a GIF. This is easily the worst entry in the MCU, and it’s not remotely close.
27. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Runtime: 2 hr. 4 min.
Press Release: As the military pressures him to share the technology behind his Iron Man suit, billionaire inventor Tony Stark faces declining health and a new nemesis from Russia.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson
Artistic Pedigree: The first Iron Man may have cemented Jon Favreau’s reputation, but the director had already delivered strong work with the hit comedy Elf and the underrated sci-fi fantasy Zathura. It was a no-brainer to bring him back onboard for Iron Man 2, especially given his rapport with Downey.
Glass Half Empty: The infamous “Demon in a Bottle” story arc deals with Tony Stark’s alcoholism and remains a comic book touchstone to this day, but the Iron Man films generally shy away from such heavy themes. Favreau commented on this, stating: “I don’t think we’ll ever do the Leaving Las Vegas version, but it will be dealt with.” What we see is what we got, which is a shame, because Iron Man 2 could have used a more menacing villain than the outmatched tag team of Rourke and Rockwell. But don’t throw all the blame to Favreau; after all, director Shane Black was rebuffed by Disney when he tried to turn the page on the same story for its sequel.
The Cockatoo in the Room: Can we talk about that cockatoo for a second? Yeah, it’s a little weird. Rourke reportedly suggested the addition of the pet bird and even paid for it himself. Fresh off his Oscar-nominated stint in The Wrestler, he seems to be having a pretty good time hamming it up as Russian supervillain Ivan Vanko.
Hero for a Day: Gee, Rhodey, something about you looks … different. Terrence Howard originally intended to reprise his role as Lt. Col. James Rhodes for the sequel to Iron Man, but a contractual dispute led him to quit. Years later, in 2013, a still-bitter Howard suggested that Robert Downey Jr. had betrayed him and stolen his paycheck. Whatever the truth, it’s hard to find fault with Don Cheadle and the film’s tongue-in-cheek way of introducing the new Rhodey to the world.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Lee plays off his likeness to Larry King, impersonating the legendary talk show host as he tries to steal a moment with Tony Stark.
Summary: The least compelling entry in the Iron Man trilogy plays like a standard Hollywood action flick, failing to capture what made its successor and predecessor so special. Still, you could do a lot worse than War Machine’s silver-screen debut.
26. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Runtime: 2 hrs, 22 mins
Press Release: After raiding a Hydra outpost, Tony Stark decides to use the gem in Loki’s scepter to complete the Ultron program, a global defense force that would ideally streamline the Avengers’ necessity, and finally bring an end to supervillains. Instead, Ultron becomes sentient, decides that humanity is the greatest threat to the future, and looks to destroy both the Avengers and humankind at large.
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, James Spader, Paul Bettany, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, and the list goes on …
Artistic Pedigree: Joss Whedon returns after the rousing success of The Avengers, for a second round tenser than the first. We’ll come back to that shortly.
What’s in a Name?: Curiously enough, Age of Ultron bears incredibly little resemblance to the 2013 event arc of same name. There are no X-Men, Hank Pym hadn’t showed up in the MCU just yet, and that’s to say nothing of the alternate realities in which the comic Age of Ultron deals heavily. The film borrows far more heavily from an Avengers storyline from 1968, at least as far as the creation of Vision and Vision’s eventual transition to the hero cause is concerned.
It’s a shame Ultron is done away with by the end of the film; eventually in that same Sixties story, Ultron comes to resent Hank as a father figure and becomes attracted to the Wasp. How would that be for an Ant-Man 2?
On Troubled Waters: And now, more on Joss Whedon. Age of Ultron was marked by a troubled production cycle, but perhaps the most telling factoid is the one about the alternate version of the film that existed at one point. According to Vulture, “Whedon’s first cut of Age of Ultron came in at nearly three and a half hours; eventually, he and Feige worked together to slice the film down to 142 minutes.” The fact that over an hour of film was excised from Age of Ultron ends up explaining a lot about how the film turned out. Whedon, in general, was very clearly burnt out, and started to distance himself from the MCU as soon as the film’s press run was wrapped up.
Hero for a Day: Curiously, James Spader was the first and only choice for Ultron. After all, what’s more sinister than Robert California’s signature droll-yet-menacing delivery? Spader also jumped into the role; initial plans had him simply voicing Ultron, but the actor ended up doing the character’s motion capture work as well. Sasha Pieterse and Saoirse Ronan were initially looked at for Scarlet Witch, before Elizabeth Olsen took the part. Apparently, her work with Aaron Taylor-Johnson on Godzilla played some role in both of them taking the parts as the Maximoff siblings.
“Hey! It’s Stan Lee!” Early on, at the Avengers’ ill-fated “mission accomplished” party, Thor and Steve Rogers start knocking back some ancient Asgardian liquor. Unimpressed with their bravado, Lee’s World War II vet asks for a pour, and is promptly carried out, trashed and declaring “Excelsior!”
Summary: It’s clear that a lot went on behind the scenes of Age of Ultron, and we’ll never know the story in full. But Whedon’s declaration that over an hour of film was excised is, again, pretty telling. Age of Ultron feels rushed from its opening raid to its immense, city-lifting climax. Though isolated moments are entertaining, particularly the Ultron introduction, the whole film feels like it’s racing to meet a series of predetermined objectives, rather than telling its own story. The surplus of subplots Whedon has hinted at might have worked in a long-form, epic story, but here they feel digressive. For instance, why is Thor in an underground cave? The film explains enough for it to belong without it actually mattering to the larger story. Rarely has a Marvel film felt this scattershot, and you can’t even really blame the necessities of universe storytelling here; The Avengers performed most of the same tasks, with only a few less characters, and did it just fine.
The chief issue is that Ultron (the character) feels so doomed to be defeated from the onset that it’s hard to invest in much of what’s going on. Spader does fine, menacing work as the rogue AI, but the film is so concerned with advancing the personal stories of the many Avengers now involved that Ultron almost becomes tangential at points to a film called Age of Ultron. While scenes like the film’s much-debated Hawkeye farm sojourn feel even more unrelated, the MCU has always been in the business of telling character stories. It’s why their villains have often felt underwritten; the story is the heroes, never the villains. And for all of Age of Ultron’s efforts to shake up that formula, it’s never been clearer than it is here.