The following films are about as bad as an episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
10. Iron Man 2
This isn't just a bad Marvel movie, it's one of the more disappointing theater-going experiences I've had in a while. Iron Man 2 is muddled, embarrassing, and clearly the result are far too many cooks in the kitchen be it Robert Downey Jr telling Justin Theroux what to write, Kevin Feige shoe-horning in as much Avengers/SHIELD build-up as he can manage, Mickey Rourke doing... whatever the hell he was supposed to be doing, or Jon Favreau exerting little to no creative control or vision. Even the normally excellent Don Cheadle is a huge step down from Terrence Howard, turning Howard's fairly charismatic Rhodey into a complete personality void. Only Sam Rockwell comes out a winner here, though I like the small cameo John Slattery has as Howard Stark, I wish we'd get more of that.
9. Thor: The Dark World
An improvement! Messy as hell, but the focus is clearly aimed at the more compelling parts of Thor's mythos, and credit is probably due to a new screenwriting team taking the reigns. There are some very broad nods toward the Jack Kirby and Walter Simonson influence on the character, and a bit of a doubling down on the elements of the first movie that were best received, whether in the story's favor (more Asgard, inklings of romantic tension with Sif, other parts of the nine realms) or to its detriment (too much D'arcy, naked crazy Selvig, Loki dominating the proceedings a tad too much). The film benefits significantly from Hiddleston and Hemsworth having developed tremendous chemistry and following on from the events of The Avengers. But, a poorly fleshed out villain, and a continued reliance on the dud of a relationship between Thor and Jane (to the point of making her the a major point on which the plot device turns) really just drags the whole proceedings down. I hope for the day that Thor gets handed to a team that actively embraces the character and the weird, fun cosmic events that shape his world.
Update: This one dropped a few slots...its way worse than I remember. Thor is truly the dog of the Marvel Universe mega-franchise. And my god, the exposition...it borders on Green Lantern level awful at times. I don't know what I was thinking ranking it higher last time. The Dark World has better character design and art direction, but that's about all it has over its admittedly not very good predecessor.
These films are just above Marvel television quality, but only barely:
Another just plain bad movie. Thor has production values that at times border on the laughable, and a script that is clearly embarrassed by its source material. Instead of investigating the most interesting aspect of the Thor mythos (Asgard, the nine realms, lots and lots of Norse Myth!!), Kenneth Branagh's Thor opts instead to just talk about it, and would rather regale you with a "fish out of water" tale and a love story...that develops over the course of a day and a half. It's an indisputable fact that Thor is meant to kick-ass, not mope around on Earth for some tart that he barely knows. And once the Warriors Three show up, the whole thing starts to feel like Masters of the Universe for the 21st century. Thor is the definition of rushed, cheap film-making. Luckily, Marvel knew that its two main leads (Hemsworth and Hiddleston) were lightning in a bottle for their respective parts and made better use of them as time wore on.
Update: As above, it beats out The Dark World because this one at least has a little bit of heart and focus, and feels less like an effort of studio interference.
7. The Incredible Hulk
This second stab at a Hulk film (following on the heels of the rather glacial Ang Lee 2003 film) has quite a bit of good in it: Ed Norton making for a pretty compelling every-man, Liv Tyler giving a steady performance with good chemistry with Norton's Banner, and a nice bit of chase action throughout (with the high point being the almost Bourne-like Rio sequence towards the film's beginning). These benefits are off-set by some really hammy supporting performances, particularly from the two Tim's (Blake-Nelson and Roth) and a mindless third act where CGI thing fights another CGI thing. It's also chopped to pieces, as one can tell just by watching the deleted scenes, much of which were nice character bits for Ty Burrell's Leonard Samson. It's not a bad film, but it's really more like casual FX viewing on a random Sunday. Frankly, the bottom-line on this one is that it barely counts anymore, we have a new Bruce Banner as of The Avengers and its highly doubtful that any plot points or characters from this movie are going to return.
The following films are ones I would actively seek out to watch:
6. Iron Man 3
Shane Black and Drew Pearce bring the funny! Iron Man 3 benefits from the momentum provided by The Avengers and is a heck of a bounceback after the dreadful Iron Man 2. Yeah, Don Cheadle is still a waste and the Extremis powered bad guys are a little anonymous, but director Shane Black injected some authorial life into what could have been another messy affair. I stand as one of those people that thought the Mandarin plot twist was brilliant and one of the better moments in a superhero film I've ever seen. I also loved the Die Hard-Christmas vibe that is the backdrop for the movie's events, a constant in Shane Black's work. And yes, I thought the Iron Patriot armor was pretty nifty as well. It's the first Marvel movie (other than the Avengers) where you can feel the finger-print of its filmmaker throughout, instead of the anonymous journeymen that were helming these projects pre-Avengers. The only detriment to the film, and why it doesn't rank higher, is its' fairly dull third act which includes the ridiculous visual of "super-powered" Gwyneth Paltrow. There's only so much you can swallow before your eyes start to roll.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
The team behind this first Captain America film had a big of challenge ahead of them. How do you portray Marvel's most virtuous character without resorting to outright jingoism? Pulling together a mixture of writers that love the source material (Chris McFeely and Stephen Markus), a director familiar with period pieces (Joe Johnston), and the perfect leading man (Chris Evans) and you have the perfect combo to tackle this challenge. In so doing, they end up creating a fun adventure romp that up to that point was Marvel's most comic-book faithful film. It's still pretty cheesy in parts, but it's incredibly stylized and doesn't fall victim to the "filmed in a rush, looking cheap" trap that Thor did just a few months before. This debut feature for Cap also has my favorite love story in the entire Marvel filmography, subtle, well written and with some great chemistry between Evans and Atwell. Sure, the Red Skull is pretty poorly used, the third act montage is an annoyance, and the film completely whiffs the Steve-Bucky relationship. But when you've got a film that includes all of the Howling Commandos, crazy World War II era planes, and an awesome show-tune number written by Alan Menken, you've got a real winner on your hands, all things considered.
The following are the essential Marvel films:
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
With its intricately plotted conspiracy storyline, some of the best shot action scenes of recent memory, and some fairly compelling pathos (correcting one of the bigger sins of the previous entry). Joe and Anthony Russo take over behind the camera, and not only do they have a great handle on Cap, but they also find significant roles for Nick Fury and Black Widow. Two characters who had nice beats in The Avengers, but were still somewhat enigma-like. This is a movie packed with fun surprises as well, with call backs to a few films in the overall series (creating a sense of real history that matters to these characters) without being bogged down by them. What I think I like best though about this sequel is that its the first of the Phase Two films that doesn't rely on the events of The Avengers to stage its plot. In reality, this movie is probably the first where you didn't even have to see that team-up extravaganza and its story-beats would still make sense (unlike Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World). It's hard not to appreciate that kind of dedication to the character and his slice of the Marvel Universe. It's a heck of a ride and one I highly recommend.
Update - August 2014: I saw this on a plane on my way to SDCC, and to be honest, it could have been the atmosphere, or the uncomfortable seat, or the earbuds, but this one really didn't hold up so well, particularly its overly dull third act. I'll need to see it on Blu-ray at home though before I can call it "inessential"
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
A lot of fun. The plot itself is no great shakes, and feels a little overly familiar, but its James Gunn and a fairly chemistry strong cast that makes it all come together. The dialogue is razor sharp and full of wit, and Chris Pratt's Peter Quill is probably the heir apparent to Robert Downey Jr's Tony Stark for the "loveable asshole" crown of the Marvel universe. Guardians also benefits from being separated from the other goings-on related to S.H.I.E.L.D., Loki and the Earth-bound concerns of the previous films. Someone could go see this film and know not a lick about The Avengers, and could enjoy it on its own space opera merits. This is what a Marvel film looks like when a filmmaker really puts starts to put a personal stamp on their work. It's not quite Edgar Wright's Ant-Man (or what we assume that would be), but you can see James Gunn straining the limits of Marvel Studios house-style, to the benefit of theater goers nation-wide. Its also gorgeously shot with meticulously designed worlds and colors galore!
2. Iron Man
There's a crispness to Iron Man that I just can't shake. I remember going to the theater to see this one in 2008 not expecting a whole heck of a lot. I was blown away, it was hilarious, exciting, well-paced and on subsequent rewatches all of those qualities still hold up. Just about everything that makes Iron Man work so well can be attributed to the actors for once. Obediah Stane is one of my favorite villains in the Marvel U, mainly because of how loosely Jeff Bridges plays him. Pepper Potts is a very well rounded character because of Gwyneth Paltrow. James Rhodes is actually interesting for once due to the "swaggering stoicism" (is that a thing?) brought by Terrence Howard. And Tony Stark goes without saying really, but has there ever been a better meld of character and actor in one of these superhero romps? I love Tom Hiddleston and Chris Evans, but Robert Downey Jr IS Iron Man. Also, the movie is basically completely improvised, again, the story being formed by the strength of the actors involved. Iron Man also set everything into motion for the entire series of Marvel films, but its hard to describe just how exciting it was to see Samuel L. Jackson appear that first time after the credits rolled. This is a film that captured the public zeitgeist for a short time and is only eclipsed by our next entry in that regard.
1. The Avengers
It made over a billion dollars. Sure, there are some terrible movies that can make that same claim, but clearly something connected with the American public on this one. It's an utter spectacle, but a really well crafted one that gives equal time to basically all of its characters (unless you're Jeremy Renner). Sure, it takes a minute to dispense with the "heroes having a misunderstanding" plot beat or two but its all tempered by such sharp writing throughout that its hard to dock it too many points for the cliche. The underlying threat is strong as well (with Hiddleston really hitting his stride as Loki here), with stakes that feel suitably massive. Joss Whedon brings just enough candy coated coloring to the visual palette that it makes The Avengers a literal comic book come to life and the final results speak for themselves. Is it cinematic brilliance, not really, is it a tremendously good time once you're separated from the hype that surrounds it? Absolutely! It's only real misstep was how it handled Hawkeye, and maybe Captain America's costume. Luckily, I understand both are being fixed for the sequel.
There you have it folks! The Guardians gamble paid off and Avengers is back on top just in time for the sequel next May. We'll see how Age of Ultron shakes out!