Marvel Countdown: Civil War
A list where we weigh in on the entire modern Avengers universe, including each television series.
By Quentin Hoffman and Anya Crittenton
The Modern Marvel Universe’s Avenger’s Project has produced a unique space in filmography by telling a large story over the span of 10+ films. As this universe continues growing, bloggers and critics alike increasingly attempt to produce definitive rankings of all its works. So, to follow this trend, I thought I’d join the conversation and offer a ranking with my own twist.
Since these films tend to be subjective, I thought it would interesting to arrange some rankings alongside my friend Anya for counterpoint, as she has joined us for Marvel discussions in the past. To do this, we first made our own list, then brought them together and rearranged each title based on its average number between our two respective placements. Each entry will feature a back and forth commentary based on our takeaways and how much we agree or disagree.
First, let’s preface with the titles that either one or both of us haven’t seen (we’re not ranking these for obvious reasons):
Quentin: Luke Cage is fantastic, do yourself a favor and watch it, Anya.
Anya: I know, I know! Among all the other movies and TV shows and Netflix series I need to see. Listen, this “peak TV” thing is really not working out for my free time. But it’s on my list, I promise.
A: This series is worth it for Hayley Atwell alone, but in all honesty, it’s not a great show. Its pacing is awful and the script is just okay and I have already forgotten both seasons’ plots. But again: Hayley Atwell.
Q: Interesting. I always enjoyed her story arc with Cap, though it does seem like a stretch to give every minor character their own storyline — Avengers is spread thinly enough as it is.
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Q&A: … We never got into it.
17. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Q: This should really be called The Avengers: The Pre-Game.
A: While this is lowest on our list, it’s not my least favorite Marvel film by any means (though it is down there) on the mere fact that it introduces Don Cheadle as Rhodey (who’s great) and Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer (who’s amazing, I mean those fake tanned hands alone).
Q: Ehh, I don’t know. I liked Robert Downey Jr.’s chemistry with Terrence Howard a little more, and in spite of getting Mickey Rourke, the plot didn’t really hold much weight. Not to mention, that finale was one of the biggest letdowns ever.
A: But the fake tanned hands!
16. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
A: This movie’s fine. Just fine. Edward Norton is good and I remember everyone freaking out over Mark Ruffalo replacing him, but now we all love Ruffalo.
Q: Yeah, I was disappointed because Norton is known for really pushing the envelope with studios, so he clearly lost that battle. Ang Lee’s Hulk was all over the place, but it at least produced a few genuine scares and some iconic action sequences. This Hulk story could be summed up as “Bruce Banner tries not to get mad, but they make him mad.”
15. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
A: My love of the first Thor movie makes this a hard one for me, but honestly I think this is one of the worst Marvel films by far. It’s so forgettable and bland, and sometimes being incredibly average is worse than being bad.
Q: I agree 100%. I respect films with great ideas that miss the mark more than ones that settle for less. That being said, I found this one more watchable than Thor. It may have been bland, but the narrative was less erratic and we got to see more of the Thor-Loki dynamic play out.
14. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Q: I’m predicting this placement will infuriate a few fanboys.
A: Fine by me! This movie, for whatever reason, is praised over and over again for what? Being flashy? Being funny? It doesn’t really explore anything interesting, and while it may pass Bechdel Test, it also has so much casual misogyny. Plus, Gamora should have been the protagonist. The sheen on this film faded fast for me.
Q: That’s an interesting point, I definitely remember wondering when we were going to hear more about Gamora. To me, it’s just a whirlwind of jokes and minor twists in an otherwise cliched plotline. I saw it twice and I can’t remember anything about the villain other than him being big and blue. I’m also shocked at how much people love the soundtrack. It’s just a mixtape, people — have you never seen a Tarantino film?
A: Gamora had so much more of an investment in the overall plot of the film and an actual relationship with the villain. I get maybe Peter Quill was meant as an audience surrogate, but eh. Also now Chris Pratt is playing the same character over and over, which is a shame.
13. The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
A: Listen, as much as I don’t care for Guardians, that is at least better than this movie, which I consider an actively mediocre film. So I am blaming you, Quentin, for its placement here.
Q: Hey! Ultron is clunky for sure, but it has the party sequence, which is a high point in the saga! And I never said it was great. The plot hinges on Tony Stark being unstable and the climax just falls flat on its face. Not to mention, this has to be the tipping point in the series where there are simply too many characters to stay focused… BUT, James Spader’s portrayal of Ultron was genuinely creepy and I felt a touch of dread, which I can’t say about any other Avengers movies. Marvel villains should take notes.
A: Spader is great and so is the party scene, but here’s my ultimate issue which will come up again: I do not like Joss Whedon’s handling of these characters and he never wants to play ball with the other movies. Tony suffered PTSD in Iron Man 3 and it’s as though Whedon didn’t even watch that film. Also the Bruce and Natasha stuff was terrible. Here’s what I’ll give this film, though: It has a better Quicksilver than the X-Men films. There. I said it. Listen, I get this is an unpopular opinion, but Quicksilver in the X-Men films is a one-trick pony. And once you see the cool slow-motion and hear the needle drop, there’s not much more to him. Whereas Avengers’ Quicksilver, while it’s a shame he can’t be a mutant, has an actual personality, and layers, and feels so much more like the Pietro Maximoff I know and love from the comics. Also we get to see his relationship with Wanda, which is crucial.
12. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
A: On the whole, a good script and good characterization is most important to me. And Steve is my favorite Avenger (and Bucky is a favorite character of mine in general), so this movie’s excellent script and characterization makes up for its very average directing. Also, the Red Skull is one of the worst Marvel villains (and they have a lot of those).
Q: Yeah, I respect it more in concept than execution. I like the whole aesthetic and the message, but it was really lackluster to me. The whole propaganda element was more interesting than the actual conflict.
11. Ant-Man (2015)
Q: … Did Paul Rudd really star in a superhero movie?
A: And bless him for doing so! I love Paul Rudd. This movie’s pretty alright. I do wish we had gotten to see Edgar Wright’s vision, but Paul Rudd and Michael Peña make this film. Although it’s another case of the qualified female character having to step aside for the unqualified male hero (which is seen time and time again in these films).
Q: Oh yeah, there’s another example of how you can’t square off against the Marvel studios and win. I do like that this is more of a heist film than another cookie cutter superhero flick, but a film with Edgar Wright at the helm would have simply been better. Can you imagine a superhero in the Cornetto universe?? I don’t think we’re worthy.
A: … Maybe it’s best we didn’t get it.
10. Dr. Strange (2016)
A: Here’s the thing with this film — it’s exceptionally well made and a lot of fun. I liked it as an introductory film more than Guardians and Ant-Man. But it has glaring flaws that definitely bring it down. Is Tilda Swinton good as the Ancient One? Absolutely, she’s great, she nails it. But to say an Asian actress couldn’t have done just as good of a job, if not better, is blatantly untrue. And it wouldn’t have been a stereotype (fun fact: to avoid the Dragon Lady stereotype, you simply don’t write the Dragon Lady stereotype). The same can be said of Benedict Cumberbatch and the trope of a White Man Going East (and then perfecting what he’s taught amazingly well). So this film has flaws, and it is lesser for these flaws, but I still like it. Furthermore, it seems like director Scott Derrickson listened to the criticisms and will hopefully take them into account in the future. Okay, essay over. Whew.
Q: Doctor Strange was solid. I was wowed by the visuals and thought they did a good job breathing life into a pretty stale Marvel formula. The acting is quite good all around, but I wanted to see them do more with the amazing Mads Mikkelson. It fell short of being great for me, though, because the story still felt very familiar and pardon the unfortunate comparison to Man of Steel, but you eventually get numb to the stakes because the scale becomes too much to absorb.
9. Thor (2011)
A: All right, the gloves are coming off. This is one of my absolute favorite Marvel movies (seriously, it’s in my top three), so I’m gutted that it’s so low. Thor is one of the most underrated Marvel heroes, and the character work in this film is beautiful. His relationship with Loki is like a Shakespearean tragedy (thanks, Kenneth Branagh!) and this film, simply put, makes me happy. Once you get past all the Dutch angles, I think it’s one of the best-crafted of all the Marvel films. And it introduced us to the best villain in the MCU.
Q: How dare you bring Shakespeare into this — his hands were CLEAN! Thor is a thoroughly average film and its greatest strength was the comic relief. To me, it’s a masterclass in misusing A-List talent. This film featured Anthony Hopkins, Natalie Portman, and Idris Elba, but I left feeling that their parts could have been played by anyone else. I don’t think it’s necessarily Branagh’s fault, but the stark difference in tone throughout the locations doesn’t pay off for me. And couldn’t they have done better than the Destroyer? Loki is an evil genius; anyone could have thought of turning one weapon against its owners.
A: I will grant you that Idris Elba definitely deserves more screen time in all Marvel films, but most everything else in this film works for me, various tones included. This movie is a fantasy film in a sci-fi/action/superhero cinematic universe and I think sometimes the Thor movies struggle finding their place because of that. But the reason I love Thor so much is its character work, which I think is great across the board, especially Thor and Loki’s relationship. Loki is an evil genius and I can write you an essay on why Branagh’s Loki respects and reveals that in this film. We will never agree on this film, though, I fear.
8. Daredevil: Season 2
A: The best part of this season was Vincent D’Onofrio. As per usual.
Q: Easily. I’ll expand on him later, but how interesting that he steals the show when he’s only in like two episodes. Now that I have fresher eyes, I will say that season one is objectively better, but season two is still excellent. Elektra is fascinating. I could never make up my mind on whether I trusted her or not, which is hard to pull off. She’s a great catalyst for some great character development with Matt, as she brings out a side of him he’s tried to repress. I also liked The Punisher, who was a captivating anti-villain. Season two gets my respect for not trying to simply recycle the highlights from season one- it plays out like a proper second act. I have to say that the whole Hand organization missed the mark for me, though.
A: Yeah, I think the Hand stuff fumbles here as well. In fact, I agree across the board here. I think Daredevil wowed people so much as the first Marvel Netflix series and through what it accomplished, but I don’t think it’s Marvel’s best work on Netflix by any stretch.
7. The Avengers (2012)
Q: How did this end up so low??
A: Oops? This movie is fun, yes, but as I mentioned before, Whedon in the MCU does not work for me. At all. And I especially find his characterization of Steve grating and awful and like a shallow cut-out of the deeply complex and layered character Steve is in his own films. And truly, this film is a masterpiece in the sense that it exists at all: it’s incredible that this whole endeavor by Marvel worked as well as it did to be able to get to this point. But whenever I revisit this film, its glaring problems stand out more and more (especially now that I have so many other MCU movies to hold it up against and after realizing the Russo Brothers are much better at the helm).
Q: I mean, with so much going on, the Avengers characters are only going to get so much dialogue. It is the most purely plot-driven entry in the series, and it pulls it off in almost every way. Besides, Whedon gets in the standoff between Cap and Stark:
Cap: Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off and what are you?
Stark: A genius billionaire playboy philanthropist … you’re a lab rat, Rogers, everything special about you came out of a bottle.
In your words, Anya, it’s a “masterpiece.” A *ahem* Modern Marvel, if you will.
A: I am rolling my eyes so hard right now. Steve is so wildly out of character in this film and most of the humor doesn’t work for me (but that’s a problem I have with Whedon at large). The “I’m always angry” line falls apart immediately, Coulson’s “death” makes no sense as a narrative piece, and this movie is more spectacle than anything else. And as I’ve said, spectacle ranks low for me compared to a good script, which this film doesn’t have.
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Q: This movie was really good, but it is erratic with a capital “E.” The driving tension and character development is exceptional — having Iron Man take the more interventionist position than Captain America seems strange in concept, but they earned it. That being said: HOO BOY! Too. Many. Characters. How can we possibly follow everything now? It is so distracting and it totally undermines the intensity in many scenes. And that airport fight was cool and all, but it felt like I was watching a high school director get to produce a multimillion dollar fan fiction, I don’t know.
A: Yes, and I still have issues with Spider-Man’s entire presence in this movie. I am still also slightly bothered by a Captain America film being co-opted as an Avengers film. While I think the shine of this film has definitely worn off, I also think it’s still very solid throughout most of it. And there’s good character work for the main characters (because as you said, definitely too many characters). I also disagree with people who don’t like Steve’s phone call at the end.
5. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Q: This has to be the most divisive Marvel film.
A: And one of my absolute favorites — definitely in my top three. As solid as the first Iron Man is, I think this one is far cleverer, more mature, and more interesting. Tony (and RDJ) is at his absolute best in this film (hence why it’s so frustrating that Whedon totally ignored him in Ultron), and Shane Black’s direction and script is wonderful. Also, the Mandarin twist is FANTASTIC, and Ben Kingsley is hilarious.
Q: Oh yeah, I think it’s great! We had a few examples of talent losing the creative battle with the Marvel executives, so it’s frankly amazing to me that Shane Black got to adapt Iron Man to his vision. I think he gets away with it because Tony has been through so much that they needed someone to bring a new slant to things. It will be hard to top this level of deconstruction in a mainstream superhero film… it’s also the only one I can think set on Christmas other than maybe Batman Returns.
A: Yes, although it is a shame that Black didn’t get to go with his original plan of Rebecca Hall’s character being the main villain because of merchandising (of which Marvel then had like none of!). But I will always love this film.
4. Daredevil: Season 1
Q: Bravo, Vincent D’Onofrio! Wilson Fisk is one of the most vile, terrifying villains I’ve ever seen… and I even empathized with him, somehow. We’ve been talking about how lackluster the villains in the Marvel series are, but give them a chance to flesh out a story and it’s a whole different ballgame. What sets Daredevil apart is the grittiness. The show is quite violent and it drops the special effects, opting for some single shot fight sequences. I also love the role that the priest plays to build for some fabulous discussions of faith and personal conflict.
A: Bravo, D’Onofrio indeed! As someone who is 99% of the time on Team Good Guys, when it comes to Daredevil, I am with Wilson Fisk all the way. Frankly, this first season does suffer slightly if only because D’Onofrio and the writing for Fisk so overshadow Charlie Cox and Matt Murdock. Don’t get me wrong, the whole cast is great, but D’Onofrio stole this season ten times over and he’s still the most compelling part. Partly because of his acting, but also because the writing does such an excellent job of showcasing that in a villain’s story, they’re not the villain, they’re the hero. … And yup, I’m pretty much only going to talk about Fisk because he’s the best. (Although props to some really great female characters as well.)
3. Jessica Jones: Season 1
A: And here we are, what I think is Marvel’s best Netflix series by far (I know I need to see Luke Cage still, shh). Besides the fact that it’s female-centric (although the fact that it’s pretty much only white women is a problem), this show has the best writing to me. David Tennant continued D’Onofrio’s work of creating a memorable villain (though a far less sympathetic one) but it’s obviously Krysten Ritter and Rachael Taylor who own this series. The friendship between Jessica and Trish is wonderful and so is the series’ handling of various themes like abuse, trauma, grief, sexual assault and rape (without actually nee to show it!), and love (in a variety of ways). It really is an incredibly sophisticated, mature, and compelling show.
Q: What I love about Jessica Jones is that it feels less like a superhero universe and more like a detective series with superheroes in it. I agree with you about the poignancy of this series, I think it has more gravitas than something like NCIS because it doesn’t resort to exploitative scenes to capture an emotional core. It started off a bit slow for me, but the culmination of the plot was a lot more rewarding than your typical superhero story because everything builds on each other. You’re right that that D’Onofrio soars higher, but Tennant’s character is worthwhile, particularly when you realize his powers have made him feel tormented and victimized for losing his humanity. A high point for me is the sequence where Jessica gets Kilgrave to do something heroic, the level of cognitive dissonance is hilarious! There are certainly examples of supervillains doing heroic things, but usually it’s played as redemption or tragedy, not comedy.
2. Iron Man (2008)
Q: The one that started it all… I love this movie! Iron Man proved that Marvel was still relevant even after releasing many ho-hum films over the prior 10 years. Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma is infectious, but I also think it’s a testament to Jon Favreau’s fluid direction — the storytelling is so crisp, yet, he obviously gave the performers room to improvise a bit. You can also tell that they had a ton of fun making this movie which is pretty huge.
A: Yes, I am still amazed by this film, even if it’s not my favorite of the trilogy. I remember seeing it the weekend it came out, having very little knowledge about it or Tony Stark going into it, and being completely floored. And it still holds up quite well — it’s still plenty of fun and seeing Robert Downey, Jr.’s first outing as Tony is as great as ever. He really inhabits the role well.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
A: I am so glad this film is first on our list because it’s far and away my favorite of the MCU films — and I still think the most accomplished and well made. I admit to some bias (again, Steve and Bucky are some of my favorite Marvel movies), but I also think objectively there’s much to admire about this film. It’s complicated, while still accessible to mass audiences; it has excellent character work on all fronts (not just with Steve); the action is heart-pounding and thrilling (especially when combined with that score by Henry Jackman!); and it showed very well what the Russo Brothers can accomplish. Winter Soldier is not only the best movie within the MCU as a part of a whole, it’s also, on its own, an incredibly great film.
Q: No question! It hits the mark on almost every front for me — the characters are strong and the screen time is divided appropriately, the writing is tight, and the action sequences are phenomenal. I mean, Nick Fury’s car sequence is on par with something you’d see in a 007 or Jason Bourne film. Not to mention, the central debate surrounding Winter Soldier is very strong. How important is the balance of liberty vs security and what would it take to compromise? Bringing on Robert Redford paid off more than I could have ever imagined.
A: I agree completely about the themes and questions of the film as well. You can really see it in their handling of Bucky and the idea of victim vs. weapon and who bears the responsibility.
Q: ALSO, fun fact: Nick Fury’s “tombstone” cites Ezekiel 25:17- the same verse Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield quotes in Pulp Fiction. One of the great Easter Eggs in any film.