All 19 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films Ranked

Here’s my list. Fight me.

19. Thor: The Dark World. The only MCU film I haven’t even finished. I got bored halfway through and turned it off–it was predictable, irrelevant, and trying too hard to be something it didn’t have to be. By far the weakest Marvel movie.

18. The Incredible Hulk. There’s a reason Hulk never got another stand alone movie after the first year of the MCU. Not awful, but also predictable and pedestrian. Also, Edward Norton.

17. Iron Man 2. The MCU’s flagship character returned with a pretty meh sequel where the internal and external conflicts are both so forgettable that they’ve literally never been mentioned again. 

16. Thor. A fun little movie that hits all the standard beats, Thor’s strongest suit is Kenneth Brannagh’s underrated directing, which helped cement Marvel’s colorfully glossy look more than people acknowledge. Also, Tom Hiddleston.

15. Iron Man 3. By this point, the ongoing soap opera arc of the MCU was well under way, and this entry provided a nice small-scale opportunity for Tony Stark to get some of the lasting character growth that Iron Man 2 oddly only played around at creating. Super derivative, though.

14. Ant Man. We’re in the realm of really good movies now, and this one captures the fun of the MCU as well as anything else. Another standard template is at work here–not all that different from Iron Man–but Paul Rudd is a joy to watch, and where this movie is “fill in the blanks” in its structure, it gets creative with the details, allowing itself to never take itself too seriously. 

13. Doctor Strange. Yet another movie where the details are creative–the gorgeous visuals alone make this movie worth it, and they’re even organic and solidly integrated–but the narrative is generic. Strange’s hero’s journey is forced, but everything about him is forced, like at beginning when we see that he has a complete mastery of obscure pop music trivia, which never gets mentioned again. It’s like the screenwriters said, “OK, he needs some random quirk in Act I, then we can move on…”

12. Captain America: The First Avenger. The skill of the MCU is to take their formula (and by now I hope we see that Marvel is a very formulaic outfit) and just use it with as much pop energy as possible. This genuinely rousing movie is the zenith of that art, with all the wholesome “gee whiz!” spectacle of the Superman movies of the 80’s. Also, Hugo Weaving.

11. Avengers: Age of Ultron. I remember one review of this one saying that it was a miracle it was any good at all, what with all the pressure and competing agendas at work here, and while that may be true, the consistent success of the Russo brothers in making movies even better than this one proves that it’s possible. Joss Whedon is a genius, but even genius can be overrated. Still, this Avengers outing was a solid follow up and immensely enjoyable. Also, James Spader.

10. Guardians of the Galaxy. Even more fun and even funnier than Ant Man, this is the movie that proved that Marvel could make a great popcorn movie out of anything.  Continue reading

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What Avengers: Infinity War Is Really About [SPOILERS]

Warning: this is a very spoiler-heavy analysis. Do not read this unless you’ve seen the movie. (I’ve already seen it twice!)

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Consider these key details from the film:

  • Vision tells Wanda to run when they’re attacked and he’s badly hurt, but she refuses, joking that in a romantic moment before the fight started, he had asked her to stay.
  • Vision later says that the stone in his head must be destroyed, even if it kills him, so that he can ensure the safety of others. Steve Rogers declines that plan, saying that “We don’t trade lives.” Later, when Steve tells Vision to run so he can save him from death, Vision stays and kills the attacker, saving Steve instead. Vision then tells Steve, “We don’t trade lives.”
  • In a twist on this theme, Gamora asks Quill to kill her if she’s taken by Thanos, so he won’t be able to use her to hurt anyone else.
  • In fact, both Quill and Wanda are forced by people they love to kill them in order to save others. In each case, they hesitate and only do so with extreme pain to themselves evident on their faces.

All of these are examples of self-sacrifice, motivated by love and honor, but there’s a third instance of someone killing a loved one in the film.

Thanos, of course, kills Gamora, but not to save others, and not at her request. Where all the acts listed above were voluntary and selfless, Thanos acts against the will of others, for his own selfish wants.

But this isn’t a generic theme of loving sacrifice here. Consider three other moments:

  • Loki, in a singularly unusual act, attempts to kill Thanos after noting his relationship to Odin in an aside to Thor, to stop Thanos from torturing Thor to get what he wants. Loki dies as a result. The only motivation the generally selfish Loki could have had for this is to save others, probably a result of character growth in Thor: Ragnarok.
  • In a parallel scene of saving a sibling from torture, Gamora gives up secret information to Thanos to stop him from torturing her sister Nebula, with whom she had reconciled in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
  • We first see Tony Stark in this movie as he enthusiastically tells Pepper about a dream where he would become a father. Though there’s no baby, Pepper says, Tony spends the rest of the movie becoming an ever closer mentor to Peter Parker, even holding the younger man as he dies in Tony’s arms, which devastates him. That’s why there’s no Uncle Ben in the MCU: Tony is Peter’s surrogate dad here. [This is another missed opportunity by DC, who created their current franchise with an aging, grizzled Batman and a young, inexperienced Superman. A lot could have been gained by having Bruce Wayne become a father figure to Clark Kent. Alas.]
  • Thor and Quill share some darkly humorous banter about the stresses of having family members kill other family members, obligating you to kill them in return. In fact, with Gamora’s situation as the focal point there, they bond over it.

All of these details emphasize family, especially the power of love in a family. Thanos is the villain here because he is the one character who perverts that power and twists it backward for his own good. Everyone else sacrifices for family love. Thanos abuses it for his own glory. In the moral universe of Infinity War, that’s what makes him evil. And sacrificing yourself out of love for family is what makes the heroes truly heroic.

Two Examples of Cultural Whitewashing In Recent Movies

hfNot long ago, I saw this essay pointing out a huge hole in the otherwise excellent Jackie Robinson biopic 42: the total absence of his faith, which was ubiquitous in his real life.

Such changes to how we tell stories about history say more about our time than they do about times in the past.

Two small examples I noticed in movies I’ve recently seen:

Hidden Figures was a fantastic movie. I loved everything about it. Except one tiny detail kept nagging at me.

Not a single person is ever seen smoking.

Continue reading

Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

Great Gravitas in Two Popcorn Flicks

We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.

The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.

An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.

We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.

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Wonder Woman is Basically Eve

Wonder Woman is a great movie, but I couldn’t help noticing how much it fits a scriptural template for Latter-day Saints:

(wee bit spoiler-y folks; you’ve been warned)

This movie is about a demi-goddess who’s the only one to recognize her evil demi-god brother. He’s trying to force humanity into his vision of paradise, but she ultimately realizes that all individuals are both good and bad and must choose love on their own. There are a lot of speeches about what we “deserve” vs. what we “believe” (with object lessons in justice vs. mercy). She and the man she loves inspire each other and set an example for others. She is part of the confrontation where the power of the gods casts her evil brother out. Then, she stays in the world of mortals to serve them and show them the way to love.

I wonder if the screenwriter consulted the Pearl of Great Price, or if this is just a coincidence!

Reviewed But Not Recommended: Facing the Giants

Facing_the_giantsI’m a big fan of the Christian movies Fireproof and War Room, so I was looking forward to Facing the Giants, which looked like basically the same thing, but with high school football.

The other two movies have actual struggles and hard change and some serious real world difficulties in them…but not Facing the Giants.

In the first act of this movie, we see all the things wrong in the life of a losing football coach at a private Christian school: a failing job, a broken down house and car, infertility. Then he decides to turn his life over to God more fully, and suddenly everything magically turns around. He gets a new car. His wife gets pregnant. His team wins the state championship.

No, I don’t have a problem with the concept of miracles, but I don’t like a story where it’s that easy, or that selfish.

This movie turns God into Santa Claus, just waiting for us to say the right words politely enough before showering us with all the toys we want.

The big change he makes as a coach is really just doing his job a little bit better than before. And merely for that, a player’s father buys him a new car. What a materialistic gospel this movie preaches! It’s the definition of cheap grace.

Continue reading

Women in Science Fiction Movies

Movies where a woman’s adventures in space and/or with aliens is prompted by the death of a loved one: Contact, Interstellar, Arrival, Aliens, Gravity.

In the latter three, the death of a child is involved. In Contact, it’s her father; in Interstellar, it’s her lover.

I have to wonder why Hollywood has such a specific template. Girls can have science fiction adventures, too, but it has to be because someone they love died?

BONUS! Movies where Scarlett Johansson plays a woman whose abilities were enhanced without her consent, for nefarious purposes: Lucy, Ghost in the Shell, The Avengers series. (Summer Glau in Firefly fits the same mold.) Interesting contrast: In the film Her, Johansson plays a disembodied voice which consciously evolves itself. 

Notice that in all of these movies, Johansson’s character is overtly sexualized (with the possible exception of Lucy). Hollywood says that women can have superpowers, as long as it makes them more attractive?

So what’s the overall message here? The ultimate female sci-fi character would be a brainwashed, sexy ninja who kicks butt in memory of her dead family?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed: Risen

5759_RISEN_dvd_lgI recently saw last year’s film, Risen, about a Roman officer tasked with finding the “stolen” dead body of Jesus Christ.

It was good, but not great. Here’s why:

I liked the unique take on a familiar story–turning the Resurrection into a detective case–and I loved the great production values.

But…but…but…

The macguffin here is always referred to as “Yeshua,” which is historically accurate (a plus), but which is clearly used here so the film can avoid saying “Jesus” all the time, so it won’t appear to be one of those movies–the kind that always get hammered on Rotten Tomatoes (a minus).

Such a love/hate relationship with its subject is typical of Hollywood’s approach to the Bible in the 21st century.

Still, the content of the film is strong enough to warrant giving it a try, I suppose. I especially appreciated the very realistic depiction of the Crucifixion (not nearly as romanticized as in The Passion of the Christ), and the fact that the film starts with that. Bold.

But Joseph Fiennes’ protagonist is too flat to care about–another sadly typical trait of such films, be they faith-promoting or secular. In the first half, he’s a grim stoic. In the second, he’s a wide-eyed convert, like the other hippie-apostles around him.

Finally, about an hour after watching it, I realized why I ultimately didn’t care about the film: it didn’t make me feel anything. This is a movie for the head, not for the heart. Maybe for some, that’s a feature, not a bug.

But for me, in a movie about the Savior’s greatest miracle, it’s an unforgivable sin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1989: Hollywood’s Best Year?

I’ve said before that 1939 was Hollywood’s best year, but I think there’s also a strong case to be made for 1989, at least for blockbusters.

All of the following great movies came out in 1989:

  • Batman
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  • Back to the Future Part II
  • Dead Poets Society
  • The Little Mermaid
  • The Abyss
  • License to Kill
  • Born on the Fourth of July
  • Field of Dreams
  • Glory
  • Lean On Me
  • Do the Right Thing
  • Lethal Weapon 2
  • Say Anything
  • Honey, I Shrunk the Kids

 

It was an especially good year for comedy:

  • National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
  • Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
  • Turner and Hooch
  • Parenthood
  • Major League
  • UHF

And even the bad movies from that year are the very WORST bad movies:

  • The Karate Kid Part III
  • Ghostbusters II
  • She-Devil
  • Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
  • Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

Clever Short Horror Films

I recently discovered the popular short films of David F. Sandberg and Lotta Losten. These are terrifically inventive little no-budget slices of dark fantasy, only 2-3 minutes each. Rich micro-storytelling with clean content, folks. I think “Attic Panic” is my favorite.

 

 

My Favorite Scene From It’s A Wonderful Life

My favorite scene from It’s A Wonderful Life; a great–but tough and sobering–lesson is taught here:

“Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.”

“That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport!”

“Every man on that transport died. Harry wasn’t there to save them, because you weren’t there to save Harry.”

CineFix

I’m a bit of a film nerd, and as much as I love YouTube channels like CinemaSins and WatchMojo, those are just fluff. However, I get a much deeper enjoyment out of the CineFix channel. I’ve really learned quite a bit about film from them. Here are a few of their more recent videos that I think are especially valuable for the critical film fan:

 

Stolen From The Library

I was just looking at my library district’s web page to see which branches have copies of some movies I’m looking to check out over the long weekend. One of them is The Expendables 3. Below is a screen shot of part of the results page for that one.

This is hilarious. Look how many copies were checked out and never returned! (Those are the ones marked “billed.”) Between this and the other branches shown on the rest of that page, there are dozens of copies borrowed and kept forever.

I’ve seen this note on other movies before, but never in quantities like this.

So, what is it about The Expendables 3 that makes so many people check it out and keep it?

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