“Mr. Stark, you’ve become a part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” – Nick Fury
When Samuel L. Jackson appeared from the shadows after the end credits of 2008’s “Iron Man,” nobody had any idea just how big that universe would become. Twenty-two interconnected movies. Billions of dollars in box office and merchandise sales. A collection of the universe’s mightiest heroes, sidekicks and villains so massive, even the most ardent fans can go dizzy trying to track it all.
The journey that began in “Iron Man” culminates this weekend with “Avengers: Endgame,” a three-hour epic that will reveal the fallout and resolution to last year’s snappy cliffhanger in “Avengers: Infinity War.”
To celebrate the “Endgame,” take a ride with Thor and Mjolnir (his magic hammer) on a journey through the best and not-so-great moments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
All hail the king – the prestige prize – “Black Panther,” 2018
While most films in the MCU have been embraced by critics and audiences alike, “Black Panther,” directed by Ryan Coogler, finally took the franchise to the Academy Awards. Nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, “Black Panther” scored three trophies to cap off a year in which the film dominated the cultural conversation.
The critical success of “Black Panther” was no fluke. It’s brimming with incredible production design, a propulsive score and several dynamic performances, including the MCU’s best villain arc courtesy of Michael B. Jordan.
Unfairly maligned – “Iron Man 2,” 2010
After the staggering success of the original “Iron Man,” returning director Jon Favreau had to not only follow a great origin story, but also establish a broader superhero universe from scratch. Much of it admittedly doesn’t work (Mickey Rourke’s villain, Whiplash, falls flat, especially in an anticlimactic final fight), but Robert Downey Jr. shines again as Tony Stark struggles with the responsibility of being a hero even as his technology slowly poisons him.
It’s definitely not in the upper tier of MCU movies, but it does lay some of the groundwork necessary to make Iron Man’s later adventures even more compelling.
Fairly maligned – “The Incredible Hulk,” 2008
Production woes contribute the most to the Hulk’s failure as a standalone movie star, not to mention how actor Edward Norton notoriously clashed with the filmmakers on the direction and tone of the movie. Norton would be replaced by Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Bruce Banner in “The Avengers,” and he’s been a standout of the MCU ever since.
Best bait-and-switch – The Mandarin in “Iron Man 3,” 2013
Many disagree with the direction of Ben Kingsley’s depiction of Iron Man’s most famous comic villain. However, a traditional version of the Mandarin would have been near impossible to execute given his Asian stereotype-tinged origins. Kingsley’s performance as a drugged-out thespian hired to “play” a mega-terrorist on TV gave “Iron Man 3” a fresh path away from the mech-suit fight climaxes we got from the first two installments.
The moment the MCU went to the next level of awesome – Elevator fight in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” 2014
Action sequences get predictably humongous later on in the MCU, but in terms of kinetic, bone-crushing fun, nothing has topped Chris Evans as Steve Rogers fighting off a pile of corrupt S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in a tiny elevator. Producer Kevin Fiege and other Marvel top brass must have agreed, because “Winter Soldier” directors Anthony and Joe Russo have been in charge of the biggest MCU smackdowns ever since.
Best sidekick – Luis (Michael Peña), “Ant-Man,” 2015, and “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” 2018
Plenty of excellent candidates for this prize, including Falcon, the Winter Soldier and Baby Groot. Luis gets the nod because he helps out as much as he can without any superpowers or advanced tech. He can also tell a mighty convoluted story.
Best “grand” action sequence – Airport clash, “Captain America: Civil War,” 2016
It didn’t have the word “Avengers” in the title, but “Civil War” delivered the most entertaining brawl of the series by pitting most of the MCU’s existing heroes against each other. So much of this fight works because of the memorable and efficient introductions the Russos provide for Black Panther, Spider-Man and Ant-Man before the fight. (Paul Rudd is funny in “Ant-Man,” but every second of his brief appearance in “Civil War” is gold.)
Secret MVP – Chris Hemsworth as Thor
The first “Thor” movie from director Kenneth Branagh often gets ignored for just how well it introduces the cosmic side of the MCU. It’s high Shakespearian drama with some cool hammer throws. The sequel, “Thor: The Dark World,” gets too bogged down in its own nonsense, but at least Hemsworth’s confident swagger remains in focus.
Hemsworth got stuck with some of the clunkier story moments in the first two “Avengers” movies, but he’s been a strong comic presence throughout the series. That mode was maximized to full potential in “Thor: Ragnarok,” which is probably the most goofy fun of all the MCU movies.
Then in last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” Hemsworth stole the movie with a haunted and heartfelt performance. The scene with Rocket Raccoon where he laments the loss of his Asgardian comrades is devastating.
Best single line of dialogue – Bruce Banner, “The Avengers,” 2012: “I’m always angry.”
Points to actor Mark Ruffalo and screenwriter Joss Whedon for finding a way to encompass the entire dramatic arc of the Hulk into three words.
Runner-up: “Puny god.” The Hulk, after crushing Loki to smithereens in “The Avengers.”
Directorial flair – James Gunn, Joss Whedon and Taika Waititi
Critics of the MCU often cite the “sameness” problem with the franchise – that too many of the movies look and feel the same. The argument was further fueled by the sudden exit of acclaimed cult filmmaker Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”) from “Ant-Man,” a movie he worked to bring to the screen for years.
But the MCU has a healthy share of personality unique to a few of its most successful directors. Joss Whedon’s snarky, quippy style worked well to bring together several different personalities in 2012’s “The Avengers’ and 2015’s overstuffed-but-fun “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”
James Gunn, director of cult flicks like “Slither,” didn’t seem neutered by Disney influence with 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” (still a blast from start-to-finish) or its sequel from 2017.
And Taika Waititi, the offbeat filmmaker behind the vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows,” found new and creative ways to smash Thor, the Hulk and Jeff Goldblum together in the colorful and retro-infused “Thor: Ragnarok” in 2017.
Biggest waste of star power – Idris Elba, as Heimdall
Sure, Elba wasn’t a household name when the first “Thor” arrived, but even efforts to beef up his parts in subsequent Thor movies and “Avengers: Infinity War” were a bit strained.
Buddy cop superstars – Captain Marvel and Nick Fury in “Captain Marvel,” 2019
Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson are apparently good friends in real life, and their camaraderie shows in the quieter moments of this year’s fun, ’90s-set “Captain Marvel.” Carol Danvers is arguably the most powerful superhero in the universe, and Fury is just an Earthbound government suit, but it’s sweet how she lets him pick a locked door every now and again.
Best eye candy – special effects in “Doctor Strange,” 2016
Doctor Strange and his fellow sorcerers bend time, buildings and dimensions in several jaw-dropping moments that resemble and exceed the visual mastery on display in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” We also hear people really like that Benedict Cumberbatch fellow.
Underrated team players – Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner)
Even without powers, these two stand on the front lines alongside lightning gods, jolly green giants and guys with bulletproof tank-suits. Hey, Tony Stark, you have like a hundred Iron Man suits… maybe let these two borrow a couple from time to time.
Best evil monologuing – Michael Keaton in “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” 2017
Syndrome in “The Incredibles” taught us that villains should never talk too much about their evil plans. Keaton, playing Adrian Toomes (Vulture), isn’t saying all that much when he realizes his daughter is dating dating Spider-Man, but he gives poor Peter Parker the scariest Dad-prom talk in history.
Best post-credit stinger – paging Captain Marvel, “Avengers: Infinity War,” 2018
Hard to beat the original Nick Fury appearance in “Iron Man,” but Sam Jackson (almost) uttering his most-famous catchphrase before being dusted into oblivion serves as a nice bonus cliffhanger on top of the grander shocks of “Infinity War.”
Best Stan Lee cameo – “Captain America: The First Avenger,” 2011
The recent “Captain Marvel” has a sweet moment for the late legend, as does the non-MCU-related “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” While Lee was never much of an actor, he delivers a hilarious line as an attendee of a military press conference celebrating a successful campaign led by Steve Rogers.
After Captain America is announced, a short, random government suit comes out from behind the curtain instead. Lee remarks, “I thought he’d be taller.” It’s a simple gag that works because of the sincerity in Lee’s voice. You’ll be missed, Stan.
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