10. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Though its titular hero spends 2/3rds of the film outside his armor, Iron Man 3 works. The film provides just the right mix of action (much of it explosive), chuckles (mostly via banter) and plot (fairly comprehensible). Some of that credit goes to director Shane Black, no stranger to the action genre as a screenwriter (Lethal Weapon, The Last Action Hero), nor to Robert Downey Jr. as a director (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). At a time when Whedon’s Avengers still loomed large in the rearview mirror (and provided much of the impetus for Tony Stark’s personal character arc in Iron Man 3), Black keeps the plot and pacing under much firmer control than Jon Favreau did in Iron Man 2.
But though Iron Man 3 is a better constructed film than its predecessor, ultimately it succeeds for the same reason the first two films did—Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Whereas most actors, no matter how adept the performance, play second fiddle to the character they portray, Downey Jr. has pretty much displaced Tony Stark, 50 years of comic book character development notwithstanding. In part, it’s because the character himself has never been as compelling as the armor he wore, but mainly, it’s because Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is just so damned much more enjoyable to be around than Stark Classic. It doesn’t matter that, in terms of hero profiles, Downey Jr.’s breezy, edgy quipping is pure Spider-Man. In fact, it’s telling that, in a realm pretty much defined by a fandom that will wail and gnash teeth about even the slightest deviation from canon, no one really cared.
It’s the primary reason why a superhero film where the protagonist spends most of his time out of his armor rather than in it is not just bearable, but downright fun. It’s why the neutering of an arch-villain—though still a troublesome precedent for the Marvel film universe as a whole—works fine within the framework of the film. It’s why, in the frivolous debates of the future, the question “Who was the best Iron Man?” will really be, “Who has done the best version of Robert Downey Jr.?” (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
9. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
For every frenetic fight scene in Avengers: Infinity War—and there are plenty of them—there are myriad character interactions and emotional beats the audience has been prepped for by the previous films (okay, maybe not 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). As a result, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have ample room to riff and play as characters meet for the first time or see each other again. Some of the interactions are easy to anticipate (if no less enjoyable)—the immediate ego clash between Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, for example—but our familiarity with these characters adds resonance to nearly every scene and every line, as the vestiges and ripples of emotional arcs laid down in the last decade’s worth of movies bolster even the smallest moment. (It grounds such moments in ways that viewers unfamiliar with the bulk of the MCU will likely still recognize, as well.) It also generates a surprising amount of humor, especially for a two-hour-and-twenty-nine-minute film about a godlike being trying to exterminate half the population of the known universe. (It will forever bear repeating—when all is said and done, the casting of the MCU may go down as its most astounding achievement of all.)
For anyone familiar with the source material—or anyone who has been paying attention to the movies—it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say things don’t go well for our heroes. In fact, in the genre of fantasy-sci fi franchises, probably only The Empire Strikes Back can make a case for ending on as dire a note. That, too, is sort of exhilarating, especially for those of us who remember seeing Empire in the theaters. Sure, you knew deep down that Han would get out of that block of carbonite and the Empire eventually be thwarted in the next film, but somehow that didn’t make you feel any better in the meantime. (See full review.)—Michael Burgin
8. Iron Man (2008)
There are plenty of important moments in the development of the superhero film, but the first Iron Man film boasts a few: It’s the first entry in Phase 1 of the MCU, and thus the easy-to-define dawn of the Marvel Age. But more interestingly, it showed that an actor could so overshadow the hero he portrays that he supplants that character, and it be a good thing. Before Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Iron Man was a great suit of armor with a pretty boring alter ego. Stark’s personal story arcs involved heart trouble, alcohol abuse and intellectual property disputes. Downey Jr. brought the quips and the irreverence, and made Tony Stark on film much more fascinating than he had ever been in the comics. And comic book fan and neophyte alike loved the result. On a more basic level, the casting of Downey Jr. represented what would be a triumphant trio of casting moves—Downey Jr., Evans’ Captain America, and Hemsworth’s Thor—that would set the tone for the entire MCU. While Evans and Hemsworth are their respective characters, Tony Stark is Robert Downey Jr.
As for the film itself, Iron Man had what all the initial MCU brand launches have had thus far: a first-time-on-film freshness as an invigorating expression of the core character that had 40+ years under its belt yet not one good film to show for it. Add the increasing ability of CGI to handle the “super” of it all, and it’s pretty easy to overlook some of the film’s weaker plot points (e.g., the rushed “Wait, how does Jeff Bridges know how to operate that armor?” ending). As a result, even as we’re raging through an already strong Phase 3, the debut of the Downey Jr. show still ranks among the MCU’s most solid efforts. —Michael Burgin
7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
To a large extent, GotG Vol. 2 follows the playbook from the first film, though now, with the entire cast familiar faces to the audience, Gunn skips introductions and goes right to the funny. In this case, that means an opening credits sequence featuring the entire team and what amounts to a highlight reel of character traits meant to amuse: rapid banter from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), humorous ’roid-rage from Drax (Dave Bautista), quiet bad-assitude from Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and an extended cute-Groot frolic. During this sequence and throughout the movie, the comic elements of this particular space opera feel as if they have been ratcheted up. But though he doesn’t seem to want the audience to have too much time between laughs, Gunn also seems determined to match the increased comic volume with more heart. Daddy issues, sibling rivalry, friendship struggles and questions of what makes a family, all themes present in the first film, are even more evident in the sequel. That’s not to say they are subtly or deeply explored—this is space opera, after all—but they give the proceedings a bit more oomph than if it were all quips and pratfalls. By the end of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the audience is unlikely to feel they’ve seen anything that different from Vol. 1, but it’s clear that Gunn and company knew exactly what qualities made the first film so enjoyable, and what they needed to do to make sure this particular sequel was worth the wait. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The Russo brothers’ second film in the Captain America trilogy, and their last before tackling the upcoming two-part Avengers: Infinity War films, Civil War maintains the same balance of action and significant (if brief) character development/interaction that made Winter Soldier so enjoyable. The fight and chase scenes are frenetic without being confusing, while the comic relief, mostly supplied by our bug-themed heroes, provides a Whedon-flavored lightening of the otherwise dark proceedings. Even more impressive, the film introduces two additional MCU Phase Three stars—one brand new to filmgoers and the other oh-so familiar—and both generate a real sense of “Man, I can’t wait to see his solo film!” All this is achieved without once veering too far from the core plot of the film.
If one thinks of the each MCU film as a juggling act—and each hero’s origin, “flavor” and power set as its own subset of items that must be kept in motion and in proper relation with each other—then as a series both Avengers films and Captain America: Civil War can be seen as an escalation of the routine that’s as impressive as it is necessary. After all, with each additional hero added, with each additional demand placed on the script in both action and dialogue, Kevin Feige and company are building toward Infinity. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
When Guardians of the Galaxy was added to Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) lineup, much was made of how risky a move it was—the first of the MCU properties that didn’t feature a major Marvel character. Surprise, surprise, when you make the most enjoyable space opera romp since The Fifth Element, name recognition just not seem to matter.
Director (and co-writer) James Gunn takes the somewhat obscure (to non-comic book fans) team and keeps the source material’s tone, attitude and bombastic settings intact. As the self-named Star-Lord, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) presents viewers with a pretty irresistible amalgam of Han Solo, Mal Reynolds and Captain Kirk. (Pratt owns this role.) The scene-stealing duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) also provides the latest reminder of how convincing mo-cap-aided CGI has become. (Within moments after being introduced to them, I was yearning for a Rocket and Groot buddy picture.) Frankly, it’s hard to compete with Quill, Rocket and Groot, but Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) don’t need to shine as brightly—unlike The Avengers, one doesn’t get the sense each team member’s time center stage is being meticulously measured. Not everything fits together perfectly—there’s a mining pod sequence that felt like it was put there for the videogame tie-in, and at times the “Let me tell you about me!” exposition strikes one more as an effort to allay studio exec nerves than to meet actual audience needs—but ultimately Guardians is too fun to be much weighed down by it flaws. The film’s final position on this list is also recognition of the heavy lifting it did, reassuring studio execs that 2nd and 3rd tier characters—like Ant-Man or Deadpool, for example—were worth the risk. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Like the GotG films, the closest non-Thor cousins in tone and spirit to Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi’s film opens with a lively prologue/set piece involving its protagonist Thor-ing like a boss accompanied by a rockin’ tune. In a nod to all the comic book fans jonesin’ to see Mjolnir put through its paces, Thor just all-out wrecks all who oppose him. From there, Waititi keeps the pace swift, resolving a few plot cliffhangers, throwing down an extended cameo from the Master of the Mystic Arts, introducing this film’s big bad in Hela (a dependably enjoyable Cate Blanchett), propelling Thor (and Loki) to their next stop on the “it’s a big universe” express, meeting new faces (Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie foremost among them), and reuniting with everyone’s favorite green-thewed god-pummeler before bringing it all back for the big finale in Asgard. The result? One of those two-hour-plus films that you’ll swear was just an hour-forty.
Granted, there are times when Waititi’s signature deadpan conversational levity doesn’t quite work—when the achieved effect is “distracting awkward” instead of “funny awkward”—but that’s an unavoidable by-product of prolonged comic riffs and, more importantly, the audience is not given much time to ponder before the next joke (or gorgeous action shot) is upon them. By now, it’s not saying anything new to appreciate how well Chris Hemsworth occupies the role of the God of Thunder. Or even, after his turn in the Ghostbusters reboot, to marvel at his comic chops. Nonetheless, Waititi seems to delight in exploring the interplay between Hemsworth’s physical and comic presence. It yields a version of Thor that might annoy some comic book purists (but certainly didn’t this one), but it’s an undeniable asset for the franchise. Some years and a few Avengers films remain before we’ll know what’s next for Thor (and whether it will involve Hemsworth), but after seeing Thor: Ragnarok, I’m suddenly eager to find out. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up post Avengers with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) in the modern day trying to be that quaint relic from his earlier life during World War Two—the good soldier. But the black-and-white ethical landscape of that time has been displaced by countless shades of gray. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) and S.H.I.E.L.D. itself are all embodiments of a more complex present than that to which Cap is accustomed. To their credit, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely suggest early and often that no matter how much simpler the age from which Captain America has sprung, he’s not stupid. They also suggest—and this is something Captain America has had in common with Superman almost from the beginning—that one of Cap’s unofficial and less showy superpowers may just be a keen, correct sense of what’s right and wrong.
But no worries, Captain America: The Winter Soldier consists of more than moral quandaries and Steve Rogers sending discerning or suspicious looks in the direction of those around him—the brothers Russo have made, first and foremost, a thrilling action film. Starting with a perfectly paced rescue mission nicely leavened with relationship banter between Evans and Johansson’s characters, the film has little down time. This is especially true once the titular bad guy (Sebastian Stan) enters the picture (in an effort to erase Fury from it), but in truth, the movie is filled with enjoyable moments, both quiet and action-packed. That, along with the pitch-perfect casting of Evans as Cap makes The Winter Soldier a worthy addition to the ranks of “flat-out fantastic sequels.” (See full review.) —Michael Burgin
2. Black Panther (2018)
might be the first MCU film that could claim to most clearly be an expression of a particular director’s voice. We shouldn’t go so far as to call it auteurist, because it’s still a Disney movie and (perhaps ironically) a part of that monopolizing Empire—i.e., eat the rich—but Black Panther’s action scenes, especially, feel one with Coogler’s oeuvre. Look only to an early scene in a South Korean casino, in which T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurire) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) plan to intercept a deal between Klaue and everyone’s favorite CIA milquetoast, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, lovable) for a vibranium-filled artifact which Klaue stole from some colonizer-run museum with Killmonger’s help. We’re introduced to Klaue through the surprising spryness of his violence—Andy Serkis, too, freed from mocap, is still an amazing presence, even as a gangster shitbag—and Coogler gets on his wavelength, carving out the geography of the casino in long tracking shots, much like he convinced us to love stained, shitty-seeming Philadelphia gyms in Creed by helping us to comprehend the many crevices and corners of each hole in the wall. When the casino brawl breaks out into the streets, morphing into a death-defying car chase (slow motion thankfully kept to a minimum), we feel as if we know exactly what these characters—and this wonderful director—are capable of.
His vision for Wakanda—shot by recent Oscar nominee Rachel Morrison as an Afrofuturist paradise—rightly draws its inspiration from an omnibus of natural sources, just the a casino scene affords Morrison the chance to go full Deakins (James Bond references all over this thing), imagining the world of the MCU as Steven Soderbergh might have scoped out Traffic, developing a fully sensual visual language to define the many locations of this world-hopping adventure without resorting to sterile maps or facile borders. If T’Challa’s whole narrative arc concerns the need for him to realize the importance of bringing Wakanda into our globalized world, of revealing its riches to a world that probably doesn’t deserve them, then the vastness of that world, the many different kinds of people who populate it, must be felt in all of its ungraspable diversity. (See full review.)—Dom Sinacola
1. The Avengers (2012)
Nestled amongst the gaudy box office numbers ($1.55 billion) of Joss Whedon’s blockbuster is a much simpler achievement. Yes, The Avengers should evoke a deserved appreciation of Whedon’s directorial skills. And yes, the film’s release and reception make for a natural “And that’s when it was official” moment that the MCU took over Hollywood. But for comic book fans especially, The Avengers represents the first instance of the superhero team dynamic truly captured and sustained on film. Even though the X-Men (four times) and the Fantastic Four (twice) had received big screen treatment, those films were all still pretty static. The interaction between both heroes and villains were slow, separate vignettes rather than two-way, three-way or more-way battles. If Raimi’s Spider-Man showed why comic book superheroes are fun, The Avengers showed why superhero teams are. (The X-Men franchise fared much better at this with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot, not so much.) (See full review.) —Michael Burgin