With the release of Black Widow right around the corner, Film Editor Matt Taylor takes a look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far, and wonders just how the Infinity Saga stacks up
I’m not going to pretend that most of you reading this won’t have seen at least one Marvel movie – for the biggest movie franchise of all time, it seems impossible for that to be the case. I do, however, expect that I’m in a minority when I say that I’ve seen every MCU movie in a cinema since 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. To save you the trouble of counting, that’s fifteen films – it’s a lot. Now I’ll admit that once I moved past my teenage fanboy days, I was able to see a handful of flaws in the MCU: some of the middling chapters are rather generic in places; there have been plenty of issues with weak villains that have only just been resolved in the past few years; and three movies a year is a hell of a lot, leaving not much space for anything that isn’t a blockbuster to get a relatively clear opening weekend.
However, I draw the line at the debate that sprung up last October, when mob movie artiste Martin Scorsese ignited a flurry of online discussion about whether or not Marvel movies were actual ‘cinema,’ or simply ‘theme parks.’ I’m not going to address Scorsese’s words here: not only is that old hat by now, but his comments were massively misinterpreted by just about everyone who partook in the discussion (in the original interview with Empire, Scorsese was specifically talking about the de-aging tech that he’d used in The Irishman, that several Marvel films have also used). Having said that, I still see a lot of criticism online about the MCU – much of it unfairly malicious and perpetrated by ‘keeno’ fanboys who hate the idea of liking anything popular. Again, that isn’t something I’m going to get into here: instead what I’m going to do is use their hate as a springboard for my own passion. Most MCU movies are solid, some are even great, and a handful manage to be even more than that. So, with much of the MCU’s first three Phases now streaming on Disney+ (in 4K no less!), and Black Widow’s upcoming release this November, now seems like the perfect time to take a look back at the Infinity Saga, and see just how it stacks up.
I’ll be honest, I had to make some very tough decisions here, and it’s likely that people will disagree with much of my rankings – as such, and in no particular order, let’s round up a few honourable mentions before we get into the top five.
It surely goes without saying that Black Panther is one of the best entries in the MCU. Not only that, but it featured the franchise’s first black lead, its first black director, and was the first to take home an Oscar. It’s a thrilling movie with more socio-political commentary than any MCU movie before or since, grounded with superb performances and some fantastic production design. It is only held back by a less-than-stellar final act, but even this is almost redeemed by N’Jadaka’s speech on the clifftop.
Yes, Guardians 2 is better than the first one. Why? For the simple reason it has a better villain. For all the strengths of the first film, Ronan was a poor antagonist, and is greatly improved upon by the presence of Kurt Russell’s Ego. Yet again the character work is incredible, managing to coax a few tears out of even my most hard-hearted of friends, and the tone is as wonderfully bonkers as we’ve now come to expect. Writer-director James Gunn hones his use of music even more than he did the first time around to deliver some absolute belters, and the film’s ending is one of the most satisfying in the whole of the MCU.
The one that started it all. If you’d told my ten year-old self that this one movie I happened to see with my dad one Saturday morning in May 2008 would spawn a multi-billion dollar franchise that would go on to define much of the 2010’s, I’d probably have keeled over laughing – yet here we are. Jon Favreau’s franchise kick-starter still holds up over a decade later, thanks to stellar action, a grounded story, and, of course, the introduction of Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark. Superhero cinema would never be the same again.
At the time, it was the biggest risk Hollywood had ever seen. Taking six pokey comic book characters, most of them relative unknowns, and putting them in one film together? Marvel Studios must have been mad! What a thrill, then, when Avengers Assemble turned out to be one of the most satisfying summer blockbusters of the century. Writer-director Joss Whedon took the skills he’d learned on shows such as Firefly and Buffy and simply applied them to a superhero ensemble – and it worked. Everyone gets their moment to shine, the cast play off each other beautifully, and the whole affair is lighter and nimbler than it has any right to be. Even though later instalments upped the stakes dramatically, there’s something inherently satisfying about the relative simplicity of this entry.
Before Ragnarok, I don’t know a single person who was actually interested in Thor. Chris Hemsworth did a fine job, but Thor didn’t have much of a character outside of hammer, hair, and ye olde English speak – then along came Taika Waititi. Who else could have done such a character reinvention? By leaning into his own comedic strengths, as well as those of Hemsworth, Waititi completely transformed Thor, firmly placing him as a fan-favourite heading into Phase IV. Ragnarok itself is a gem of a movie, a Waititi film first and superhero epic second; every joke lands, and is balanced extremely well with its rather dark narrative. A win on all fronts.
Speaking of character reinventions, the only one to better Thor’s sudden turnaround is that of Steve Rogers. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo took the Boy Scout and flipped him completely on his head in what still stands as one of the MCU’s most exhilarating instalments. It’s biggest strength is easily its tone shift; in making itself a political/espionage thriller, it forces something interesting to be done with Steve Rogers. For the man who’s always prided himself in his ability to put faith in authority, there’s nothing more fascinating than to see all of that ripped away from him (an arc that continues, in fact, until Avengers: Endgame). Forcing Steve out of his comfort zone means that we get to see a totally new side to him, and, in turn, to the MCU.
A gritty and relatively grounded tone, the best action choreography of the entire franchise to date, and a gorgeously eerie score courtesy of Henry Jackman help to push this away from previous entries, while the charming chemistry between Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie lightens up proceedings a little when necessary. The reintroduction of Bucky as the Winter Soldier works extremely well (even if just about every member of the audience knew his true identity), and any movie that gives Samuel L Jackson an opportunity to kick ass automatically garners extra points. It’s final act perhaps gets a tad bombastic, but it in no way undoes all of the excellent work that comes before it, which more than earns it this number five spot.
This is where things get a little tricky. Any of the remaining entries in this list could be classified as ‘five-star movies’ – but what’s life without a little competition? Taking the number four spot is Jon Watts’ Spider-Man: Far From Home, also known as the best live-action Spider-Man film to date. It had a lot to live up to, being the MCU’s first post-Endgame instalment, but Watts and co proved they were more than up to the task with this entry. The standout aspect of Far From Home is easily Jake Gyllenhaal’s astounding turn as Mysterio; Quentin Beck’s smiley and easygoing nature more than gets the audience on-side before his true motivations are revealed, and Gyllenhaal gets to do some delicious scenery chewing. With Mysterio comes some superb action choreography as Peter is forced to hone his spider-sense to overcome Beck’s illusion technology – to mixed results for Peter, but excellent results for the audience.
Tom Holland and Zendaya also shine as Peter and love interest MJ respectively; their chemistry together is delightful, perfectly capturing that feeling of teenage romance we all remember, but without ever feeling artificial or saccharine. Peter’s own, solo journey is fascinating; the film grapples with ideas of sacrifice and legacy, and how you try to cope when a legacy as big as that of Tony Stark’s is thrust upon your shoulders. Holland proves himself as a true Spider-Man for the ages in such moments, while his athleticism lends the action set-pieces a feeling of fun freneticism. He ties Far From Home together in every possible way, and his enthusiasm leaves audiences with a huge grin on their faces – and what more could you want from a Spider-Man movie?
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Avengers: Endgame, and I’m sure it won’t be the last – but what other movie defines a generation like this one? We’d never seen anything like it at the time, and in all honesty I doubt we’ll see anything like it again for years to come, and that’s part of what makes it so special. One of the biggest strengths of this three-hour epic is that it is sure to take its time; the first hour of the film is set in Thanos’ post-Snap universe, and the Russo brothers make sure we feel every possible moment of the emotions that come with it. It’s a heavy opening that plays out as an examination of grief and trauma with nary an action sequence to be seen. The focus here is all on character, and so much of that work is done so incredibly: of course Thor goes for the head when given the chance, and of course he blames himself when things can’t be fixed; of course Steve is looking out for the little guy, because that’s what he’s always done; of course Natasha is trying to keep things in order around the world, because that’s all she’s ever had to cling onto; and of course Tony takes a step back from superheroing, because he lost harder than he ever had. The film’s first act is entirely dedicated to finding out how the Avengers pick up the pieces after their biggest loss, and it makes that third act all the sweeter when it rolls around.
The time-travelling second act is Endgame’s only wobble, and is really the only thing that holds it back from taking the top spot. That isn’t to say that it’s ‘bad,’ or anything close, it just doesn’t hold up to the perfection of acts one and three – in any other movie it would be great, but here it feels like a tiny step down. In any case, it’s soon forgotten when that third act comes into play because goodness it is a doozy. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen this last hour, but it never once loses any of its emotional impact. Natasha’s sacrifice is a heartbreaker, and it doesn’t really get any easier after that. I don’t need to dwell on the best moments as we’ve surely all seen the movie, but shall we just run through them anyway? Cap lifting Mjolnir? Check. Thanos’ terrifying speech before Cap stands up one last time? Check. The portals, and the score and tears that come with them? Check. Captain Marvel’s amazing entrance? Check. All the women of the MCU banding together? Check. ‘I am Iron Man’? Check. Tony’s funeral? Check. Steve’s happy ending? Check. Is this fan service? Absolutely – but it’s done in the best possible way: well.
When there is clearly so much emotion, care, and technical craft crammed into an hour of film, who cares how gratuitous it feels? Marvel earned these moments over eleven years of filmmaking, and who are we to deny them? Frankly, I’m still staggered that the studio pulled off something of this scale and made it coherent, never mind exciting and emotionally impactful – but then again, why wouldn’t they? You could almost say it was inevitable.
This is where things get really tough – I imagine it’s like asking someone to choose between their two children, both equally perfect but in completely different ways. Regardless, the number two spot goes to Infinity War. The crossover to end all crossovers (at least until Endgame came along), the sheer audacity involved in even thinking of this as an idea is incomprehensible. And yet, Infinity War works, and it does so for a variety of reasons (one of which is, of course, Cap’s beard).
It goes without saying that, by this point in the MCU, the performances are stunning. Every single actor leaves it all on the table, and choosing an MVP is virtually impossible. Having said that, Josh Brolin is a stellar addition to the cast as protagonist Thanos. Yes, you read that right: protagonist. This is Thanos’ movie after all, and it wouldn’t have worked any other way. Framing him and his quest to obtain the Infinity Stones as the film’s driving narrative is an extremely smart move, as it gives us plenty of time to get to know him. Brolin is absolutely stellar; physically and verbally terrifying when he needs to be, but surprisingly emotional in a series of scenes that will surely bring tears to the eye.
As with Endgame that comes after it, Infinity War’s strongest section is its conclusion. The film’s breakneck pace slows down just enough for the audience to honestly contemplate the idea that Thanos might win (personally, the moment he got the Time Stone was the moment I knew things weren’t going to go the way of our heroes), and the fifteen minutes or so between when Thanos arrives in Wakanda and the credits are genuine cinematic perfection. It’s the Avengers’ last stand against Thanos, and the Russos do a fantastic job of tricking their audience. The Mind Stone is destroyed, Thor stabs Thanos in the chest, the score turns triumphant, and then … snap. And just like that, the entire world came crashing down. It’s a testament to the power of this ending that, even knowing how it is resolved in Endgame, I still find myself sobbing through the credits of Infinity War. Each death is more emotional than the last, and to end the franchise’s biggest movie to date on such a low is bolder than we ever thought Marvel could be. Words fail to do justice to this ending, and to the film as a whole; it simply needs to be experienced. Were it not for one sneakily good entry, it would easily take the crown of best film in the Infinity Saga.
In my personal experience, this is easily the MCU’s most controversial film to date – but it’s also its best. Whether you’re Team Cap or Team Iron Man, I think we can all agree that Civil War is an extraordinary film. A good chunk of that is because it feels so organic; prior to this film’s release, plenty of people had been complaining about the needless and wanton destruction that had become so common in the third acts of Marvel movies, so dedicating an entire film to hashing out that idea feels extremely timely. Not only that, but each character’s decision feels true to their nature and their circumstances. Better people than myself have laid this out in much more detail than I can here, but every character decision that is made feels true to that character. Steve is unable to sign the Sokovia Accords because his entire journey up until this point has been teaching him to distrust authority. Tony feels he has no choice but to sign because he wants to shift some blame from his own conscience. The rest of the characters fall into play naturally, but the focus is on these two, and, regardless of whose side you take, what’s most fascinating about Civil War is that the film itself takes a side.
It is not the equal presentation of two perfectly valid arguments we might have expected; instead, the film chooses to vilify Tony Stark. It takes the protagonist of the entire MCU, and makes him the bad guy. In the four years and countless times I’ve seen Civil War since its release, this always catches me off-guard. It’s such a bold character choice, but again, it makes sense. Steve comes to his decision after taking the time to weigh up his own personal morals against his want to help people, and decides that he ultimately cannot put his trust in authority again – he’s had too many bad experiences of that. Tony, on the other hand, acts emotionally: he makes his decision out of guilt, plain and simple. His emotions cloud his judgment throughout the film, but never more so than at its ending; when faced with the reality that Bucky killed his parents and Steve knew, Tony has no other choice but to deal with it himself by trying to kill Steve’s oldest friend. Not to say that this is right, but it feels natural given what Tony has already been through during the film. What Civil War does so spectacularly is to pit these two ideologies against each other, and take a side: Cap comes out on top because he refuses to change – in the face of overwhelming odds and circumstances, he does not compromise his own moral stance; Tony loses because he simply becomes a bully.
This is where Civil War’s greatest strengths lie, and why it ultimately takes the crown. Yes, it is cemented by its small-scale conflict that feels refreshing, by its incredible performances all-round (though particularly from Evans and Downey), by its tight-knit, emotionally charged action sequences, by its unusually bright colour palette for an MCU movie set on Earth, by its stellar introductions of Spider-Man and Black Panther, and by Henry Jackman’s score yet again knocking it out of the park – but what really separates it from the pack is its inherent philosophical discussion that is still so uncommon in superhero movies. It’s a film that ultimately asks us where our beliefs come from, and how important they are to us. Although it may not leave you in tears like Endgame or Infinity War would, it leaves you thinking more than any blockbuster I can recall of the past ten years. It asks deep and meaningful questions about our own internal morals and provides no easy answers. It’s the only MCU film to date to have so much bubbling under the surface, and that results in it feeling richer than all other entries. In showing that the MCU had the potential to be more than simple blockbusters, Civil War takes the superhero film and morphs it into something political, something ideological – no other entry could possibly take the top spot.
The Infinity Saga is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and 4K UHD, and is also available to stream on Disney+.
Spider-Man: Far From Home imagery courtesy of Sony Pictures.
All other imagery courtesy of Marvel Studios. All rights reserved.
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