Thor is another one that benefited from (my) low expectations. At the time, it seemed unlikely that Marvel could successfully integrate Norse Gods and magic into a world that up to this point was strictly in the realm of science fiction. If we imagine the difficulty of combining the worlds of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, we can see how tricky a feat it was for Marvel to do something similar. That they managed it at all is to be applauded, but that the film's tone and distinctive aesthetic never feel at odds with the rest of their films was a triumph for the studio. The film's success can be attributed to a witty script, director Kenneth Branagh's theatrical sensibilities, and a perfectly-pitched performance from Thor himself, Chris Hemsworth. Alongside the likes of Robert Downey Jr., I think that it's often forgotten how diverse an actor Hemsworth is, incorporating the comedic, heroic, arrogant and noble layers of Thor into a coherent and convincing performance. Thor's secret weapon, however, is in the deliciously evil turn from Tom Hiddleston's Loki, who is by far the best villain in the MCU. Revelling in his scheming, with a grin to rival Jack Nicholson's, Hiddleston gives us one of the best performances in any of Marvel's films, and like Iron Man and Downey Jr., it's now impossible to imagine another actor filling the role with such aplomb. Moreover, Loki and Thor's fraught relationship is genuinely emotional, even moving, which shines a light on something else lacking in Marvel's characters up to this point: depth. Thor's redemption narrative, coupled with Loki's jealousy and betrayal of his brother are the first examples of real character development in the series. As a consequence, Thor is the first MCU film with a complete narrative: several intertwined plot points that come together to create a proper conclusion that works emotionally. It's ironic that where the previous three films (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2) focussed on the character concepts to audiences, their most outlandish character to date was given the most depth and most satisfying narrative arc of Phase One.
4) Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 is a cracking entry in to the MCU canon, and the best Iron Man film by miles. While Jon Favreau did a fine job with the previous instalments, hiring Shane Black was a great move, especially given his work with Downey Jr. on the superlative noir thriller, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Just as Joss Whedon was the perfect choice to direct the ensemble cast of Avengers Assemble, Black is excellent at channelling the irreverent exuberance of Downey Jr. and his world. Moreover, while it's a Kevin Feige-produced Marvel film first and foremost, Iron Man 3 has Shane Black's stamp all over it; the Christmas setting, the dock-based finale, and Tony and Rhodey's buddy-cop-esque relationship, Iron Man 3 recalls both Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and his Lethal Weapon screenplays. Furthermore, we finally have an Iron Man film whose climax doesn't disappoint, and a plot that doesn't just not run out of steam halfway through, but actually takes it up a gear in one of the most unexpected and smart twists in any superhero movie to date. When I first saw Iron Man 3 at the cinema, I remember being a little put off by the Fox News-esque footage of a vaguely-defined foreign looking man issuing terrorist threats. The genius of the Trevor Slattery twist, of course, is that it disrupts those borderline racist depictions of terrorism, not to mention challenging the Reaganite politics of the previous Iron Man films. I can't decide decide whether I like this aspect of the twist more, or the fact that it caused legions of interminably vocal fanboys to howl with derision at the fact that the Mandarin had been changed from the comics.
Iron Man 3 isn't perfect, however. While the finale is undeniably exciting, it could be said that it's all a bit much, given how relatively understated and idiosyncratic the rest of the film is. Plus, Pepper Potts is again given almost nothing to do, and of all the (few) female characters in the MCU, hers seems the most extraneous. Finally, and this is a little contentious, even though the mid-point Mandarin twist is great, it kind of robs the film of a really great villain: dubious as the politics were, there is no denying that the Mandarin was an intimidating and seemingly formidable enemy for Tony, helped in no small part by Ben Kingsley's fantastic voice. After the twist, we're left with Guy Pearce's Aldrich Killian, who while serviceable, feels a little like a stock revenge-baddie of the type we've seen before.
These niggles aside, Iron Man 3 is great entertainment, easily the best Iron Man film, and one of the best MCU films.
3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
A year after its release, I still can't believe how much I like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, especially after its disappointing predecessor. The Winter Soldier is so good, in fact, that it makes the first Captain America seem better in retrospect, partially by channelling all of the Cap's straightforward simplicity and sincerity, and placing in the moral ambiguity of a 1970s spy thriller. Known primarily for their work on Community, Anthony and Joe Russo are a solid choice as directors, and it's little surprise that they'll be returning for Captain America: Civil War, as well as directing Avengers 3 and 4. What is especially great about The Winter Soldier is its completely different aesthetic to The First Avenger, working both visually and thematically as Steve Rogers finds himself as a man out of his own time. Most importantly, however, is the fact the The Winter Soldier's plot is far and away the most accomplished of all the MCU films. In fact, it's the only MCU film whose story feels like a proper, grown-up film, daft superhero action aside. Robert Redford is particularly good at providing the necessary gravitas as Nick Fury's boss, and at times he really does a good job of muddying the narrative's moral waters; there's a degree of ambiguity and complexity here that really doesn't exist in the other MCU films, and The Winter Soldier provides an especially effective counterpoint to the black and white morality of The First Avenger.
Clearly taking its cue from the Bourne films, The Winter Soldier finds a good balance between Cap's superhuman abilities, ridiculously advanced technology, and the story's need to keep things relatively grounded in a believable reality. In addition, Samuel L Jackson's role is much beefier and more satisfying that in other instalments, finding himself at the centre of one of the series' best set pieces to date when his car is attacked by Hydra agents. Plus, who can resist grinning at the cheeky epitaph on Fury's gravestone, 'The path of the righteous man...'? Similarly, Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow gets her best supporting role in the series yet, in a team-up with Cap that yields a surprising amount of chemistry.
As with Iron Man 3, the film's not perfect, and the eponymous Winter Soldier is suprisingly absent in his own film. It was difficult deciding whether I like Iron Man 3 or Captain America 2 more, but Captain America just pips Iron Man to the post with its excellent action, great cast, and vast improvement on The First Avenger.
2) Avengers Assemble
Is The Winter Soldier a more cohesive, maturer, better told story? Probably. Is Iron Man 3 smarter, with its subversive and irreverent spirit? Yes, I'd say so, but there is simply no denying the fact that Avengers Assemble is one of the giddiest, satisfying and unfailingly fun pay-offs ever, ahem, assembled. Playing effectively as the joint third act climax to Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, Avengers Assemble achieves the seemingly impossible by cramming together seven (if you count Hawkeye and Black Widow) superheroes into one film and making it work. Writer-director Joss Whedon is of course at the core of the film's success, and following Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly / Serenity, demonstrates once again that he is the best in the business at getting ensemble casts to work in harmony. Smartly re-using Loki as the main anatagonist, Avengers Assemble establishes a paper thin but efficient premise, before giving us everything we want: the Avengers fighting each other, Hulk smashing, and finally, the team coming together, culminating in a money shot that has jumped directly off the comic page.
Beyond that, what else can I say about the final film in Marvel's Phase One? Jeremy Renner gets the short shrift in one of the film's few bum notes after being Loki hypnotises him, but Mark Ruffalo proves to be Marvel's best re-casting decision, replacing the good-but-pain-in-the-arse-to-work-with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, and becoming the accidental star of the film in the process. The dynamics of the team work perfectly, if a little predictably, which again is thanks to Whedon's expert and steady hand. Avengers Assemble is not particularly deep or complex, but as a pay-off for Marvel's four-year experiment it is near flawless.
1) Guardians of the Galaxy
The only film that can match, let alone outdo, Avengers Assemble for wit, inventiveness and sheer moxy, Guardians of the Galaxy is not only far and away the best MCU film to date, but one of the best 'fun' blockbusters to come out this decade. Guardians of the Galaxy the only MCU film other than the first Iron Man that can truly stand on its own, with only minimal and inconsequential references to wider Marvel continuity. Yet again, Marvel hits it out of the park with their casting, with main players Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel bringing life and dimension to what could easily have been one-note, annoying characters. The revelation, of course, is Dave Batista, who plays his Drax the Destroyer with an intoxicating mixture of deadpan humour, unexpected nuance and real menace. This, I think is Guardians' secret weapon: conjuring action, humour, and emotional drama in one effortless flourish. It's little surprise that following Guardians' release, Chris Pratt has been tipped to play Indiana Jones; Raiders of the Lost Ark is a clear tonal reference point for director James Gunn, and he references that film throughout.
I think it's somewhat of a misnomer, however, to describe Guardians as a risk, as so many commentators did prior to its release. Marvel, above all else, know how to make money and they never would have thrown the dice as recklessly as some have suggested. Moreover, since when did enormous, special-effects laden summer blockbusters from major Hollywood studios constitute large risks? Sure, a lot of the material of Guardians is odd, but cut from the same cloth as Indiana Jones and Star Wars, and with an established base of millions of loyal fans, Guardians of the Galaxy was always going to be a financial success in 2014. In 2008, before Marvel started their project, we might have reasonably called Guardians of the Galaxy a gamble, but not after the success of Iron Man, Thor and Avengers Assemble. What is to be commended, is that Guardians of the Galaxy works; a joyous mass of strange characters, daft humour and colourful action. Like Shane Black and Iron Man 3, Guardians' success lies in the fact that it feels like James Gunn's film, while still connecting to the wider MCU. Guardians of the Galaxy is far and away the best Marvel film to date, and the imminent Avengers: Age of Ultron is going to have to do something very special indeed if it intends to match it.