With Marvel’s Thor Ragnarok right around the corner, now would be as good as time as any to assess the comic behemoth’s cinematic universe and to gauge where my preferences stand as compared to some of the other staff writers (and hopefully you at home) here at this site. While this does leave the door open for some (hopefully) constructive criticism from both colleagues and you the public out there, at the very least may this contribution to pop culture spark a conversation about what are the favorite (and not so beloved) choices out there for what has become a giant movie franchise even before Disney’s takeover of the company back in 2009.

Some have claimed it to be unfair that Marvel continually ignores any of its movies before 2008 (sorry Blade), but the realization hits that with Iron Man a new focus of how their characters were portrayed on screen took shape and how the continual missteps such as Daredevil, The Punisher and Elektra helped force that new direction. So without further adieu from worst to first, here are the humble suggestions from one reviewer on what will be named “Gerald’s Pop Culture Cosmos Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe”, so here goes nothing…(box office numbers from Box Office Mojo)

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The Incredible Hulk “breaking” Harlem (Marvel/Universal Pictures)

16. The Incredible Hulk (2008, $134.8 million domestic/263.4 worldwide) – This film, among all the others truly has gotten the rotten end of the Marvel deal. While this movie’s attempted reboot of the beginnings of the Hulk doesn’t ever measure up to an audience (as did the first time Marvel tried five years earlier) the fact that it took a third time (with Mark Ruffalo in Avengers) before the character would connect to an audience proves just how much of an enigmatic property the big green guy really is. This effort to bring Bruce Banner’s (played by Edward Norton in this go around) tale to life once again as he tries to escape from the US Army led by Ross while hearing word of a possible cure for his gamma radiation problem never really seems to find its own path cohesively.

Adding onto all of this is the introduction to the “Abomination”(Tim Roth) that feels more “shoehorned” in than anything else. It seems on the surface that Marvel has distanced itself from many aspects of the movie and that the company itself was not happy with the results the second time around, with only General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) being thought of enough to warrant a return to the series (in Civil War) and the only other throwback to the film ever mentioned was by Ruffalo when he reminded us in Avengers that he “kind of broke Harlem”. After watching this movie its easy to see why this registers as a low point in the series because with this movie it’s not just Harlem that is broken but virtually everything else as well.

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Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) in Iron Man 2 (Marvel/Paramount)

15. Iron Man 2 (2010, $312.4 mil domestic/623.9 worldwide)- Universally thought of as the least favorite among the Iron Man films, from that standpoint there is no argument here. With a convoluted plot centering around Ivan Vanko’s (Mickey Rourke with an unforgettably bad Russian accent) thirst for revenge, the competitive jealousy of arms dealing rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) and Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) downward spiral of self destruction the movie disappoints at virtually almost every turn. Even in the brief moments of enjoyment as Tony learns more about his father’s legacy, director Jon Favreau’s attempt to recreate the same magic as he did in Iron Man but never even comes close no matter how much Downey Jr.’s character hams it up on screen.

What makes this even more disappointing is that a great supporting cast of Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, Samuel l. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow and yes even Favreau himself makes this movie a whole lot better because the movie’s weakest points are doubled when it comes to the time devoted to the evil plans of both Hammer and Vanko. Had this been a story just focusing on the dark path Iron Man was taking, the impending reality of being killed by the very arc reactor that was keeping him alive and the possibility of him not becoming an Avenger it might have ended up quite a bit higher on the list. Unfortunately for audiences (as this reviewer), the road that was traveled was one it should not have taken.

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Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) continue their family squabble in Thor: The Dark World (Marvel/Disney)

14. Thor: The Dark World (2013, $206.3 mil domestic/644.6 worldwide)- Let’s just cut to the chase, this movie maybe above all the others is truly a mess. Something about Dark Elves and Dr. Jane Watson (Natalie Portman) gets infected by an Aether and a Convergence and how it all ties into each other that could potentially throw England, the Earth and the rest of the Nine Realms into chaos is utter garbage. What seems to solidify it even more is an antagonist in Malekith that the audience cares very little about which on the surface would make it far and away the bottom choice on the list.

But alas once again it is the performances of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and his on again off again brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) that makes the entire movie almost watchable because of our continuous fascination in viewing this major league family quarrel. Here’s hoping the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok gets a great deal more attention paid to the plot the next time around because the two certainly deserve to be surrounded by a good movie experience not starting with the word Avengers on it.

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Iron Man 3 has more than a few “Iron Men” hanging around. (Marvel/Disney)

13. Iron Man 3 (2013, $409 mil domestic/1.215 billion worldwide)- Sitting squarely in the aftermath of the “Battle for New York” which is the basis for The Avengers movie, we find ourselves on familiar ground with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) once again finding new ways to self implode.The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the battle that begins to take over aspects of Stark’s life is a cruel and haunting reminder of what soldiers encounter in real life and a take very seldom seen in our comic book landscape. Mix into this is another dose of reality for Stark in his having to pay for his past arrogance and one would think you have the basis for a really good film.

As much as there is the desire to place director Shane Black’s movie a bit higher on the list especially in light of how financially successful a non-Avengers film like this ultimately (especially with Ben Kingsley’s magnificent turn as “The Mandarin”) became, eye-rolling situations the audiences are sometimes put through prevent any such thing from happening. Ridiculous sequences while aboard Air Force One and on an oil tanker utilizing multiple Iron Man suits take away from the central conflict between Stark and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) which given more depth could have been truly a memorable one. The film does something with strong characters like Pepper Potts (Gwyenth Paltrow) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) and gives them both a chance to shine, but like the movie itself it is only enough to leave one wanting a bit more.

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Thor feels the pain of his banishment…and his Mjolnir hammer. (Marvel/Paramount Studios)

12. Thor (2011, $181 mil domestic/449.3 worldwide)- As an origin story, Thor is not going out of its way to proclaim itself as a highly recommended option. The lessons that needed to be learned by a banished would-be king (Chris Hemsworth) and the secretive string-pulling behind the scenes by his jealous, scheming brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and the extremely strong interplay between the two are the only reasons one would be interested to see this film. But alas like in Iron Man, the performances by the two main characters are so adept at what many fans were hoping for in the troubled family strife that one almost can look past the giant plot holes that plague the story both on Thor’s home planet of Asgard and the small New Mexico town that his love interest Dr. Jane Watson (Natalie Portman) has set up shop in…almost.

Unlike Iron Man however, the failings in the story and pacing in director Kenneth Branaugh’s movie are large enough to prevent this film from getting any higher on this list because it didn’t always stick to what it does best. Which is a shame because it is through Hiddleston’s brilliance and Hemsworth’s instant knack for their respective roles that we as an audience see a reason why the Thor movies should not be missed, even when the actual films themselves do by a wide margin (as is the case with The Dark World).

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The Guardians of the Galaxy (From L to R) Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are ready for action. (Disney/Marvel)

11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017, $389.8 mil domestic/863.5 mil worldwide) – A follow up to the 2014 break out hit of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Guardians attempt to go on the hero path takes a left turn and along the way has them meeting up with Ego (Kurt Russell), the half deity-half planet that happens to be the long lost father of leader Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). What on the surface looks to be a warm and fuzzy family reunion turns into anything but as the secrets uncovered end up threatening the entire galaxy unless the Guardians can do something to stop it.

Directed again by James Gunn, the movie tries very hard to impress with its reliance on comedy and the cuteness of Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) in the first two acts but in the process feels more forced more times than not and leads to quite a few pacing lulls. The third act is one of the better in the series as the movie climaxes with parental themes that give the film a passing grade but not much else beyond it. Guardians 2 feels like a missed opportunity to do something really special to build upon the uniqueness of the first go around but instead relies too much on choosing the safe route and in the process becomes a rather unremarkable experience even with the promise of a volume three in the future.

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Marvel’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron..L to R: Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)..Marvel/Disney

 

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, $463.5 mil domestic/1.405 billion worldwide) – As the group of superheroes rallies again to save a city (the ca[ital city of the fictional Sokovia) from total destruction, the Avengers gear up to face Ultron (voiced by James Spader), an evil force made even more dangerous due to being created by members of the team themselves. The premise itself is strong and engaging buoyed with the additions of Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) as twins experimented on who see the error of their ways.

Where this movie goes off the rails for director Joss Whedon is during the process of the narrative, when the film begins to cram in elements that set up themes for future films in the series. While that sounds great in theory and has been done extremely well in other movies (see: Winter Soldier), the execution in these scenes comes off as something that looks out of place and distracting. Almost as if one had a beautiful ice cream sundae but then topped it off with some anchovies instead of a cherry on top. While Age of Ultron does have it share of group superhero fun, it ultimately can’t save the film from being higher on the list because of all the different agendas pulling the movie apart.

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Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) wonders what kind of mess he has gotten himself into in Ant-Man. (Marvel/Disney)

9. Ant-Man (2015, $189 mil domestic/519.4 worldwide)- Presented as a stylistic and cool crime caper by director Peyton Reed rather than a straight forward superhero drama, the tale of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) who gets himself mixed up into a return to a life of crime and ultimately a chance at heroism is fun at times but ultimately there was the feeling that the movie could have been a lot more. Trained by the super scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangaline Lily) and supported by his good friend Luis (by the very amusing Michael Peña), the film’s best scenes are those after Lang becomes aware of what the Ant-Man super suit actually can do.

Ultimately the style of the movie doesn’t overcome its substance as a weak ending battle between Lang as Ant-Man and an even weaker villain in Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) don’t allow this film to reach the heights it truly deserves. Yes, the movies intentions and goals are not as far advanced as some of its larger targeting movie brethren. But even in its execution, Ant-Man leaves you wondering what could’ve been. Maybe Reed should have consulted with Baskin-Robbins because well, Baskin-Robbins knows…everything.

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Benedict Cumberbatch is “Doctor Strange” (photo by Entertainment Weekly)

8. Doctor Strange (2016, $232.6 mil domestic/ 677.7 worldwide)- This psychedelic feast for the eyes directed by Scott Derrickson entertains in how it portrays the journey that Stephen Strange takes from superstar doctor to Sorcerer Supreme. With Benadict Cumberbatch taking on the role of this mystical leader, the film itself serves as yet another origin/coming of age story for a budding superhero whose whole life gets turned upside down and new world he’s brought into he must learn how to manipulate and ultimately defend. Even though some of the scenes were ripped straight from the outtakes of Inception, the visuals do not cease to captivate as fighting scenes take on a whole new meeting as Strange and his companions Wong (Benedict Wong) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) battle the evil Dormammu and those that are trying to align with the evil spirit such as the mystic Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and his band of demented followers.

Cumberbatch does a solid job in the film but it’s the great work of Ejiofor as the conflicted Mordo and Tilda Swinton, who as the Ancient One steals one scene after another as Strange’s mentor and sometimes antagonist whenever she is on screen. As the remaining origin tale before the Infinity Wars get started in 2018 (Black Panther technically doesn’t count since he’s already spent time with the Avengers in Captain America: Civil War), Doctor Strange proves to be a solid eye-catching experience that while it has quite a bit more style still has enough substance in its story to be a welcome viewing for Marvel fans.

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Team Cap goes to war. From L to R Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Shaw) (Marvel/Disney)

 

7. Captain America: Civil War (2016, $408 mil domestic/1.153 billion worldwide)- Through two acts this film was well on its way to taking the top spot with a well developed build and ultimate payoff in the form of a superhero battle royale that still has fans talking to this day. The Russo brothers again deserve high marks for creating a conflict that gave many a welcomed opportunity to refresh their characters to the eyes of audiences in advance of the upcoming Infinity Wars film )with Spider-Man and Black panther played respectively by Tom Holland and Chadwick Boseman getting some extra needed love.

With each of our much adored heroes and heroines having to make a stand on one side or another on the controversial Sokovia Accords, it appears the opportunity for a united front against whatever evil approaches in the future could be in peril. The movie declines sharply however is in its third act as the movie gets an opportunity to utilize Helmut Zemo (played by Daniel Bruhl) as a true threat to the Avengers but only ends up making a decision that still leaves me shaking my head on what could have been. For at least a good percentage of the film there is no question that Civil War stands up to the rest of the top five. It’s just a shame that Marvel didn’t make the call to go all the way.

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Robert Downey Jr. suits up as Iron Man. (Marvel/Paramount Studios)

6. Iron Man (2008, $318.4 mil domestic/585.2 worldwide)- The reason why this list was made and most importantly why the Marvel Cinematic Universe exists in the first place and didn’t die a horrible box office death like so many other movie series before it. This tale puts a modern spin on the origin story for one of the most respected figures in the comic book genre that with the help of Robert Downey Jr. created a whirlwind of notoriety for Marvel. Despite some story shortcomings with the famed arms dealer turned superhero tale, Downey Jr.’s performance gave audiences a reason (along with The Dark Knight) to enjoy coming back for more superhero movies down the road.

Director Jon Favreau was smart not to overpopulate or complicate the movie and just set it up for RDJ’s virtual “One Man Show” that completely drives the film. True, the expense needed to have Downey Jr. in Avenger-related films thereafter can make for a producer’s nightmare, but after watching Iron Man one can see why Disney and Marvel have developed his character into a cornerstone of the franchise and a reason why he has been worth every penny to the series.

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Captain America (Chris Evans) battles the forces of HYDRA in The First Avenger (Marvel/Paramount Studios)

5. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011, $192.7 mil domestic/370.6 worldwide)- Of all the movies on this list, it is probably one of the easiest movies to fall into when scanning the television channels for something to watch. This straight forward and simplistic tale outlining the origins of Captain Steve Rogers and how he became Captain America lends itself to casual viewing, as it has seemingly found more life as a film modified for television than it ever did when it was circulation on the silver screen. Some would scoff at the notion of it being so high on the list for exactly the same reasons why it is so endearing to me, it does set a better foundation for future iterations in the series than its Marvel origin counterparts and also at the same time gives structure to an evil organization (HYDRA) that becomes a major opposing force in this superhero timeline (and multiple television shows and movies) for years to come.

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Tom Holland in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (Sony/Marvel/Columbia Pictures)

4. Spider-Man Homecoming (2017, Sony Pictures, $333.9 mil domestic/879.8 worldwide)- Sony’s hopes for a successful reboot of the Spider-Man franchise come to fruition as Homecoming strays away from many of the pratfalls of its predecessors films and in the process creates a dual identity with both its own and a shared Avengers timeline. Clearly working with Marvel Studios starting with Civil War was the right step to take as the injection of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) brings a whole new dynamic to the movie and a sense of place that marvel fans can relate to much easier. But the smartest move Sony and director Jon Watts made was bringing the Peter Parker saga back to high school realm and dealing with the teenage twists and turns in an intelligent and thoughtful manner. A solid turn by Michael Keaton as the Vulture, who heads a crime group specializing in selling arms originating from the superhero battles of the past (like the Avengers Battle for New York for example) helps push the narrative even further and gives an extra dimension to Peter’s struggles for acceptance and his true place in the superhero world.

With much of the story taking place months after Parker (Tom Holland) gets bit by the now infamous radioactive spider, Homecoming avoids many of the repeated and clunky exposition points that audiences have seen before and bringing in a youthful charm that highly resembles a John Hughes-directed pic from the 1980’s. It’s this spirit that gives the Spider-Man series new life as it will attempt going forward to delicately balance his own story line while being involved with the upcoming Infinity Wars movies and also building a separate universe of their own (like the Venom movie for example). That’s a lot to ask of anyone but after watching Spider-Man Homecoming, as long as they get the Marvel timeline straight (the movie’s one glaring error) in future films things should be just fine for fans of the web slinger.

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The Avengers gear up for battle. L to R: Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)  (Marvel/Disney)

3. The Avengers (2012, $623.3 mil domestic/1.519 billion worldwide)- The first grand vision of Marvel aligning up all of its Phase One elements into one blockbuster film, this is one star studded film that actually lives up to all the hype given by all the films that preceded it in the series. Faced with the destruction of New York by Thor’s much familiar nemesis Loki and legions of his new found galactic troops, the Avengers look to get past their personal differences with each other to assemble together to fend off the alien horde. While the movie’s decision on how to portray Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) may have not been the best for his character’s popularity long term, director Joss Whedon scores where it counts the most in its truly engaging and fun  battle sequences which at the time set the benchmark for large scale superhero conflict that today still holds up with every viewing.

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The Guardians of the Galaxy are out for justice. (From L to R) Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) (Marvel/Disney)

2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014, $333.1 mil domestic/773.3 worldwide)- From a cinematic standpoint, not much was expected when this somewhat obscure comic book iteration debuted to film audiences. But a thrilling story of heroism, destiny and revenge catapulted this movie to greater heights than anyone (Marvel included) could have ever expected. The movie itself centers around a group of miscreants who through circumstance, chance and misfortune see the opportunity to do something good and join together to prevent planetary destruction. James Gunn’s direction and the commanding presence of Peter Quill/Star-Lord (in a spirited performance by Chris Pratt) helped put Guardians out into the forefront of the superhero universe. With a sequel on the way, it appears that the group will also be playing a key role in the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe due in large part to the strength of this film.

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Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans) has his hands full dealing with the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Shaw) (Marvel/Disney)

1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, $259.7 mil domestic/714.4 worldwide)- When taken as a whole, this film breathes as much as a well-constructed spy thriller as it is superhero flick and in essence this combination makes for a welcome change for us as an audience. With his best turn as the conflicted super soldier, Chris Evans carries us through the tumultuous inner workings of the S.H.I.E.L.D agency he works for and why the secrets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and others keep from him may come back to haunt them both. The agency’s biggest secrets include a couple of major plot twists that affect a great deal of the Marvel Universe moving forward.

Ever following the righteous path, Cap along with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, in yet another instance that her character deserves her own movie) and Falcon (Anthony Mackie) try to overcome all the odds and an enigmatic assassin (Sebastian Shaw) to save millions of people from getting exterminated. Kudos to directors the Russo brothers for not only reminding us of the greatness of acting legend Robert Redford but coming up with a story that combines so many quality elements while still making The First Avenger even more relevant watching it in hindsight today.

So that’s one reviewer’s take on the highs and lows so far in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we look forward to not only a grand introduction to the world of Steven Strange but also the unfolding of all the events and signs pointing to all encompassing Infinity Wars when it hits the big screen in 2018. What’s your take on this comic movie box office franchise juggernaut? Let us know in the comments, on our social media or send us an e-mail to info@popculturecosmos.com because we would love to know what your thoughts are on all things Marvel.

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