5. Iron Man 2 (2010)
It’s a messy casserole of Avengers promotion and crossover frippery, shoehorning in unnecessary supporting characters and dual archvillains, devolving its hero to the shallow dickweed he was at the start of the first movie just to generate some character conflict, throwing in a little slapstick martial arts so its director can have an onscreen star moment alongside a sexy A-lister …
… and occasionally remembering to note that, oh yeah, Tony Stark’s family empire might be built on a foundation of lies, espionage and betrayal, and there could be consequences to that. Perhaps worst, it allows its hero to triumph by becoming exactly what his late father wanted him to be, rather than by surpassing his father as heroes have done since days of yore.
4. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
If Iron Man 2 was dumb and not fun, The Incredible Hulk at least had the advantage of being dumb and sort of fun, with characters whose motivations were believable. Bruce Banner’s backstory was dispatched in a wordless prologue, and as played by Edward Norton he was a man who was taking responsibility for a crushing burden of monsterhood. But the movie was too eager to refer ahead to Captain America (Banner’s research and the serum used to counteract him are drawn from the Super Soldier program) and sideways to the contemporaneous release Iron Man (Tony Stark shows up to consult on General “Thunderbolt” Ross’ “Hulk problem”). Even if it gave us some bone-crushing spectacle, it was too much a facet of a larger, more cynical plan: pushing its title monster toward ill-fitting herohood. Even the comics realized early on that was a lost cause.
3. Thor (2010)
Alongside Captain America the most direct ancestor of The Avengers, Thor had an Augean set of tasks: Introduce a hero few mainstream moviegoers had ever heard of, do homage to a complicated mythos …
… respect a formidable design tradition (it is Jack Kirby) …
… get audiences to care about Norse gods punching each other, and tie in with the larger onscreen Marvel universe (which I just learned today has a name and numeric designation, God help us all).
Success on all counts. Its epic themes were treated with appropriate lightheartedness by director Kenneth Branagh, no slouch at epics, who flubbed a few things (oh the hair! the terrible, terrible hair!) but otherwise kept an unwieldy vessel afloat. Sometimes that meant spending quadrillions on CGI Asgards while the quaint desert town of False Front, N.M. stood out as so much paint and plywood (dig the scene where the blacktop street peters out into dirt just over Thor’s shoulder), but Chris Hemsworth gives one of those performances that make you wonder how anyone else could’ve been considered for the role (e.g. Hugh Jackman as Wolverine).
2. Iron Man (2008)
The story of a profiteering narcissist who builds himself a better heart recharged Robert Downey Jr.’s star power — I mean, really, this was a guy who had reached Lohan levels of infamy — and touched on America’s anxieties about military interventionism, “smart warfare,” corporatism, terrorism, energy resources and transhumanism. We want to believe that our weapons are only deployed for Right, that our GEs and GMs wouldn’t sell us anything that was bad for us, that we can go beyond petroleum and internal combustion, that technology will make us better as a people and as individual persons. Simultaneously, we fear — worse, we subconsciously know — that all these dreams are lies, and that our dependence on the machines that now drive our society will result in catastrophic withdrawal. The Old Hollywood repartee between Stark and Pepper Potts laid the ground for the less-tempered dialogue snark of The Avengers, and made us root for a cyborg asshole who halfway decided to liberate himself from assholishness — but then reasoned it was okay if he simply reinvented himself as a prick. What mattered was that he was prick for the right reasons.
1. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
The anti-prick. Joe Johnston’s Captain America is the hero we want to believe in, and to be. No dark past motivates him, no traumatic loss led him to don the Stars and Stripes. He’s a good man, recognized for such despite his physical ailments, and made more than whole as recompense for his fighting spirit. Outlaw Vern pointed out the sheer number of vehicles from which Captain America tosses bad guys as he fights his way across Europe (in The Avengers, he tosses a dude off the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier), and he does so with a purpose: He’s out to fight bullies. That’s it. And Captain America has a propulsive innocence, if that makes sense — it appeals for its nostalgia, its sheer go-get-’em-ness, its crafting of a world where there is Good and there is Evil and the thing Good guys do is go out and fight Evil wherever it threatens the innocent. And it has loads of what every other entry in the Marvel pre-Avengers canon fails to deliver: pathos. The hero is supposed to win the fight, receive the accolades, get the girl. Captain Steve Rogers saves history, but finally his film ends with the most heart-tugging words uttered in any superhero movie. Ever. The nicest guy in the world finishes last, and we weep for him.
TOWERING OVER ALL: Hulk (2003)
Reviled for years, today defended and embraced, Ang Lee’s Hulk was at times tone-deaf but mostly elegant, visionary, and enveloping. It took its source material seriously, wanting to translate the experience of reading a comic book to the screen — hence all those strange dissolves, elements of one shot erupting into the one prior, the multiple screens within the frame … and this:
Did you laugh at that? Good. I’m pretty sure you were supposed to, yet most people seemed to treat that shot as a ridiculous mistake. Lee was conscious of what he was doing, conscious of the Hulk as a stand-in for the repressed id, conscious of Peter David’s outstanding run on the comic book, which (from seeds planted by Bill Mantlo) affixed Bruce Banner’s affliction to abuse in his childhood. He was also conscious, as subsequent movies have not been, that the Hulk is a desert creature, born in a test-range blast and most at home when he’s alone in the great arid outdoors.
This movie has thought about pain and the place it gives us in the world, about anger and its destructive cost, about how a comic book can be as painterly as one of the Masters. (Witness the fight between the Hulk and his father as it’s carried on in the stormclouds, in a series of flash-images rendered like Sistine Chapel ceiling panels.) It’s thought about the inheritance of trauma, about the echoes across generations, about how parents can cannibalize their children. And it’s thought about how we find healing in the arms of others, and what a mixed blessing that may prove — this is a film, remember, in which the monster/hero detumesces in the presence of his true love.
When moviegoers turned their backs on Hulk, they were voting. The pain of a superhero movie could not be allowed to overpower its empty pleasures. Captain America would go on, somehow, to pinpoint that perfect balance, where every other Avengers prequel (that’s all they are at this point) wobbled off its axis. Hulk lay forgotten, despite being the most ambitious comic-book movie ever attempted. But film appreciation is cyclical — like its namesake, I doubt it will stay dormant for long.