4) Captain America: The First Avenger
The First Avenger was one of the few Marvel films where I had no doubt that it would be good. Joe Johnston, known for pulpy adventure flicks like The Rocketeer, Jumangi and Hidalgo, was the perfect choice to direct.
Right from the start, the inspirations for the aesthetics are clear as most scenes have a surreal-like CGI finish to them a la Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Rocketeer. The World of Tomorrow fair scene with Howard Stark in particular shows off great style.
The casting was near perfect. While the main players, Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, and Hugo Weaving were all fantastic, the supporting cast was where the film shined. Tommy Lee Jones played the clichéd army general completely straight and had some of my favorite lines in the film.
The film’s biggest achievement is its believability. Every piece of technology, even the laser guns, while still surreal, feel like they fit into the 1940s era. The CGI work was well done with Steve’s pre-transformation physique, despite being done with stand ins and effects, looking real. If they had lied and said Chris Evans actually started out as frail pipsqueak and put on muscle for the transformation, I wouldn’t have doubted them.
The First Avenger also has the best end title sequence out of the entire MCU.
3) Guardians of the Galaxy
Even Marvel films are, for the most part, guilty of being too serious. Enter Guardians of the Galaxy, a space opera revolving around a thief, two assassins, a tree, and a raccoon-like creature who have to save the galaxy from impending doom.
Right from the get go, James Gunn sets up the tone of the movie perfectly. What starts out as seemingly serious soon turns into a dance number set to Redbone’s “Come and Get your Love”. This tone is seen throughout the entire movie.
Bringing in a mix of actors and actresses from different backgrounds helps give the film chemistry. The Guardians all played off each other well with the arrogance of Star Lord often clashing with the more sophisticated and honorable Gamora, while Rocket fought with everyone over money and bravely running away like Sir Robin. Coming off of plenty of bad roles, Dave Bautista surprised many with his acting chops as he portrayed Drax, a man with nothing but vengeance left in his body. Special props to Vin Diesel for performing Groot’s lines over 1000 times in different languages. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.
Based on his prior work, I wasn’t expecting any high energy action from James Gunn but he pulled it off. The attack on Knowhere took the action of classic Star Wars and brought it to a modern audience.
While the cast and action are all well done, the soundtrack is what makes this film. From more traditional choices like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for emotional scenes to a gearing up montage with “Cherry Bomb” in the back, Guardians flawlessly sets the tone with every song choice.
2) Iron Man 3
One of the more controversial films in the MCU, Iron Man 3 turned out to be one of Marvel’s most thematic and culturally relevant films next to The Winter Soldier. It’s more of a Tony Stark film than an Iron Man film and is all the better for it.
In Iron Man 3, we see Tony Stark at his most helpless as his near death experience in The Avengers changed him forever. The Tony who could talk or build his way out of any situation is taken away. After losing nearly everything during a Mandarin attack brought on by his own arrogance, Tony is forced into a situation where he must survive on his cunning and ingenuity rather than his suit of armor.
Robert Downey Jr. gave it his all in this darker portrayal of Tony Stark. While the charismatic wise crack we all know and love is still present, Downey Jr. gives Stark a touch of humanity that we haven’t seen before. For the first time since the original, we see Stark feel guilt for his actions as his past catches up to him.
Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce (playing Aldrich Killian as well) both portray the film’s villain, The Mandarin, in different ways. While this character caused lots of controversy, I loved the portrayal of this character. The point behind the false villain was that people will believe anything they hear over media. All Killian had to do to throw everyone off was give his to crusade a face for people to latch onto.
The film also brought some fantastic action to screen with the attack on Stark’s house being a major highlight. It was filmed, and scored, with a mix of desperation and hope. It ties in with the theme of Stark’s helplessness.
1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier is a masterpiece. Much like The Dark Knight, it took what could have just been another big budget action blockbuster and explored darker themes that still permeate our culture today.
Following The Avengers, we join Captain America as he’s finally getting acquainted to modern life while dealing with covert ops for SHIELD. Though he quickly finds out he’s taking out “threats” pre-maturely and begins to question the nature of SHIELD.
Chris Even and Sebastian Stan were both standouts as Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes. Whenever they shared the screen, there was a mix of emotion and dread as you realized these best friends would have to fight other.
Coming from a background of comedy TV, it’s hard to imagine that the Russo’s would be able to pull off action that was anything other than decent. Instead, they brought some of the best action of the MCU to screen. With plenty of practical effects and stunt work, including lots of stunts from the cast themselves, The Winter Soldier brought plenty of great action setpieces to the table with the highlights being the car chase and Cap’s first encounter with the titular villain.
Badly photoshopped Scarlet Johansen aside, The Winter Soldier is a crowning achievement for Marvel. It’s a superhero film and political thriller all bundled up in a tidy package.
The wait for Age of Ultron is nearing its end as the countdown of the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes to a close. As an extra bonus, we’ll be doing a rundown for the MCU shows for next week detailing how they fit in the MCU as well as tie-ins we’d like to see the shows delve into.
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