(Updated May 28, 2017)
I had the chance to watch “Captain America: Civil War” fairly recently and I have ruminated on it a bit.
This probably reads fairly silly to some of the deeper thinkers out there, but it is what it is I suppose. I’m not going to make a convincing enough argument in this space that anyone should ascribe a whole ton of deep meaning to these kinds of movies, but for whatever’s it worth, they generally make me think a bit. It’s probably fair to say that some blockbusters are dumber than others, and for some, the style of fare that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) churns out (and at 2-3 movies a year, it is by now accurate to call it a churn) just doesn’t do it for them. It’s clearly turned into a significant money maker for the mouse, and the time commitment to consume them all, let alone the repetitive nature of the films are all good reasons to stay away.
That said, I enjoy them a great deal. I appreciate escapism for its own sake, as mentioned above I can take away some decent life lessons and social commentary from them, and perhaps most importantly, they are movies I can bond with my family over. When my son Nate tells me he wants to watch “Thor,” and I can watch it with him, that is an experience I treasure.
I thought I would re-rank these films in the interest of sparking a little debate OR encouraging people to check a couple of them out if they haven’t. Some of this stuff I would recommend above the rest, and I guess that is the point more than anything. Also, this is sort of fun.
I’m writing a few words on each of the main movies in the MCU, but for shits and giggles, I’m including my placement and thoughts on the rest of most mainstream comic book superhero movies too … but I only include them if I’ve watched them and if they fit that criteria: super heroes that were in a comic book that was adapted into a live-action film that got a fairly wide release. No cartoons. No comic-booky things that had different roots. No movies I haven’t seen (that’s hardly fair). Them’s just my rules.
I will also update this list as I watch new films or if I feel like a re-rank. And though I mostly feel fortunate for having missed any omissions, this is the reality: Not everything is going to be on there. Feel free to offer suggestions/disagreements as you see fit.
On this first edition, I noticed (and you may agree) that there is a precipitous decline around Nos. 35-40. The first half of the list mostly only has camp to recommend it. The second half is pretty darn watchable. I think we can safely say the bar has been raised in recent years.
Anyway, let’s get to it.
76. Kick-Ass 2 – Rape jokes are sooooo funny.
75. Catwoman – A movie about a female superhero has to involve cosmetics, right? Good, glad that’s settled.
74. Judge Dredd (1995) – A good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, saw this atrocity and wanted me to go see it with him. He offered to pay my way if I didn’t like it. It is absurd to me, upon looking back, that not only didn’t I collect upon his debt, but also that any person in the history of humankind would actively attempt to watch this film twice.
73. X-Men Origins: Wolverine – I probably hate this film to an irrational degree. I imagine this is how many people feel about Episode I … I never should have built it up, and that is my own damn fault.
72. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014) – As putrid as one might expect with literally nothing to recommend it.
71. Supergirl – My recollection is iffy, so despite its ludicrous plot summary, I still want to give this more credit than Catwoman, so here it sits.
70. Superman III – There’s enough really weird shit here to warrant a watch if you enjoy torturing yourself. Or simply stay for the musical number during the opening credits. Yes, that happened. (Side note: This movie gave me some pretty potent nightmares as a kid thanks to that scene where a lady got eaten by a computer and became a robot. I don’t think I came out from under my covers for about a month. Good times.)
69. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer – Jessica Alba was given more to do … making this an inherently weaker film than its predecessor.
68. Amazing Spiderman 2 – Truthfully, I haven’t watched it in its entirety, but I feel as though I have seen enough.
67. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze – Um, I sort of liked “Super Shredder” as a general concept at the time. Beyond that…
66. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – It’s just sort of there. Sean Connery can’t even save it.
65. Men in Black 3 – Entirely forgettable.
64. The Punisher (2004) – Meh.
63. Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – Nuclear Man! Mark Pillow! Superman gets sick! Whiny kid badgers Superman into ridding the world of nukes! Jon Cryer! The cheese is everywhere, but it’s reasonably entertaining at least (as bad as it is)
62. 300 — Though I don’t consider it pure tripe, I just don’t like “300.”
61. Daredevil – Almost okay, but mostly boring.
60. The Amazing Spiderman – Almost okay, but mostly boring.
59. Green Lantern – There’s this scene where the hero goes through training to be a superhero, except for no rational reason at all, they train him not to fly into a star, meaning at some critical point he’s going to have to avoid flying into a star. Sure enough… (Sigh.)
58. Batman Forever – Tommy Lee Jones is a pretty great actor, yes? Watch his performance here. I still can’t figure it out.
57. Men in Black 2 – The law of diminishing returns is in full effect here.
56. Man of Steel – How does this film play so lifelessly? They blow lots of crap up … and yet it means nothing.
55. Ghost Rider – Nick Cage going fully mental, and the movie still somehow doesn’t work. Disappointing.
54. Spider-Man 3 – What is this shit? Seriously, this movie ruined Spiderman for me until Civil War.
53. Fantastic Four (2005) – I sort of liked the final showdown with Dr. Doom.
52. Howard the Duck – At least it’s weird. It’s like a better version of Green Lantern actually. (That’s damn sad.)
51. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice – It’s long, it’s dour, it’s unfunny, and some of the imagery is just plain bizarre (why all the lingering shots of horses?). It gets points for its portrayal of the lady folk, as Louis Lane is sympathetic and Wonder Woman is just plain enjoyable.
50. Mystery Men – Decent cast with a few funny bits here and there. Still pretty bad though.
49. X-Men: Apocalypse – The triumphant return of Quicksilver as well as the younger versions of Cyclops, Jean etc. are fun. Everything else isn’t.
48. The Wolverine – It loses all of its steam, but it’s fun and unique for a while.
47. X-Men: The Last Stand – This movie does not work. Decent ideas, poor direction.
46. Hulk – It kind of works as an origin story still since they thankfully didn’t do it again in the MCU movie a few short years later. Still….
45. Spawn – I love the clown. John Leguizamo, you can be in my movie anytime.
44. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990) – It’s not as bad as you remember. Or maybe it is. But it’s not as bad as the movies below it on this list.
42. Blade – It’s perfectly fine.
41. Blade 2 – It’s a little better than perfectly fine.
41. Kick-Ass — The presence of Matthew Vaughn makes a considerable difference methinks. As does the presence of an ass-kicking little girl, which is played for an appropriate amount of laughs.
40. Wanted – Speaking of fun, I look at this movie as being a precursor to Kingsman: The Secret Service in a lot of ways. Violent, silly, fun (when it works).
39. The Punisher (1989) – Dolph Lundgren stars. There’s no way to sell this as anything other than a bad movie and a guilty pleasure. But for me it sure is an absurdly enjoyable watch.
38. The Mask – It’s pretty silly, but it features Jim Carey at the top of his comedic game, so there’s that.
37. Men in Black – Will Smith when he was a star, Tommy Lee Jones doing proper Tommy Lee Jones things, and a clever script. It works.
36. Sin City — Forgettable enough for me to leave if off of my initial list? The facts say yes. That said, I appreciate it for its style and format quite a bit.
35. Superman – It’s well constructed and influential for sure, but it pales in comparison to its own direct sequel.
34. Superman Returns – I know I’m weird, but I actually enjoy watching this more than the original. In terms of actual reasons it might be better: direction, pacing, special effects, and the humor works a little better for me.
33. Batman Returns – What a ball of weirdness this film is. I appreciate its darkness and kookiness. It has some good lines, too.
32. Spider-Man – The little touches make a big difference here, with memorable moments like the upside-down kiss and awesome supporting turns from actors like Willem Dafoe and J.K. Simmons. The biggest thing working against this movie is all of the movies (save one) that came after it. Guilt by association I suppose.
31. Batman (1966) – It’s sweet, delicious camp. And I love it.
30. The Incredible Hulk – It has the good sense to let “Hulk Smash,” but it’s still the weakest of the MCU.
29. Ironman 2 – I like a lot of what goes on here, but it’s a bit scattered.
28. X-Men – The world building here was pretty impressive at the time; it really made me wonder more about each character’s history and back story. It followed “Star Wars’” lead in that way, dropping the audience into the middle of something that had pre-existed, and giving you a character(s) new to the proceedings to be introduced to things along with the audience. Smart. And it can be credited (blamed?) for kick-starting the modern superhero blockbuster.
27. Thor: The Dark World — This is a very good popcorn movie, and there’s really nothing wrong with that, despite the angst/desire for some deep meaning in modern superhero fare. Plus Loki; you can’t go wrong with Loki.
26. The Dark Knight Rises – I appreciate ambition, and the ambition here was admirable. It’s a bit of a slog to get through ultimately, but the quieter moments still mostly work, and I appreciate pretty much all of the performances here.
25. Logan — It’s not quite violence for violence’s sake, but it’s close. It’s a difficult watch, but I appreciated the new insight into the character we gained as well as the Prof. X storyline. It’s definitely in the upper half of X-Men movies.
24. The Avengers: Age of Ultron – I like it well enough, and I truly believe there’s a great movie hiding inside of it. But there are weaknesses in editing/construction I can’t overlook.
23. Ironman 3 — The finale is kind of meh, and I understand the aversion to mega fire zombie Gwyneth, but Robert Downey is fabulous in this. That’s enough to make it supremely (re)watchable.
22. Dr. Strange – It’s still fresh, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to fall in line with most of Marvel’s other origin stories in the long term. I absolutely adored the climax + ending.
21. X2 – It doesn’t hold up quite as well as some people like to think it does, what with the general lack of spectacle and the ending cribbed directly from “Wrath of Khan.” But it’s still an entertaining romp.
20. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — The emotional bits didn’t quite resonate with me as well as they did in the first movie, but that’s less an issue for me than the action taking a slight step back. The stakes are good, the movie is funnier, and there’s good character development, so it’s a worthy sequel, but it’s not a classic to me either.
19. Deadpool – Yeah, I put it ahead of X2. It’s better. Deal with it.
18. Thor – Flipping the modern super hero story on its ear — introducing a fully powered hero and taking away his abilities to cut into his hubris – was really pretty brilliant. It also would have been easy to flub the Asgard stuff, but they got that right too. Also, Loki.
17. Spider-Man 2 – I’m sure some will cry foul at this being so low. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good film, but I haven’t had any inclination to go back and watch it anytime over the last 5-plus years. Again, I think it might be hurt by its lesser sequel and remakes. (And now we have another new Spider Man to watch, so that doesn’t help either.)
16. Captain America: The First Avenger – It’s a beautiful piece of nostalgic cinema, regardless of one’s feelings on comic books. Chris Evans here is a revelation, standing toe to toe with such heavyweights as Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones.
15. Hellboy – Speaking of weird, Hellboy is that and more. Some films just seem to tap into the sensation of joy and manage to mine it for magic. This is one of those movies.
14. Hellboy II: The Golden Army – What I wrote about Hellboy, except even better.
13. Ant-Man — It’s best not to think too hard about some of the details. Paul Rudd is great, as is his supporting cast. This is one of Marvel’s weirder and funnier efforts.
12. X-Men: Days of Future Past – Tapping two separate casts to play younger and older versions of the same characters, this movie was smart (lucky?) enough to bring back all of the original actors for scenes in a post-apocalyptic future. Those scenes are the most effective, though it’s a welcome sight to have Hugh Jackman running around in the past with the younger crew. And that scene with Quicksilver is just brilliant.
11. Captain America: Civil War – I like it. I don’t quite love it (at least not yet). It borrows a lot from “The Dark Knight,” in my opinion, though if you’re going to use any movie as a template, that’s sure a good starting point. I appreciate the stakes and the general sense of foreboding. And the scene in the airport is zany and hilarious and awesome all rolled into one (and worth the price of admission alone).
10. Superman 2 – Three words: “Kneel before Zod!”
9. Batman (1989) – I was 12 when this movie came out, ergo it’s nearly impossible for me to distinguish quality from nostalgia. Ultimately, I have to believe it’s worth ranking this high if only for the batshit crazy performances of Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson, the general impact (this was the definition of the superhero blockbuster for nearly a generation), and mother-effin’ Prince.
8. Watchmen – It works for me. It doesn’t work for everyone. But to me, it’s a faithful adaptation, and that is really all that needs to be said if you’re at all familiar with the source material (widely considered the top comic in existence).
7. X-Men: First Class – For my money, this is the best X-Men movie, which almost pains me to admit given my regard for Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. But the “soft reboot” reinvigorated the franchise, and it did it with style and grace.
6. Ironman – This kick-started the MCU, and it still holds up as one of the best comic book movies of all time. It’s very much worth checking out if you still somehow haven’t.
5. Batman Begins – And we’ve reached the top five. I didn’t watch this in the theaters thanks to “Batman Forever,” which actually kept me from ever watching “Batman and Robin” (which I apparently owe it thanks for). So it was shocking to me to say the least to see such a serious tone here when I eventually did watch. This film builds on the mythology of the title character and eschews the silly, boosting the proceedings considerably. By the end of the film, we’ve been thrilled, surprised, and teased … making it perhaps one of the most satisfying super hero films ever.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier – This is what a tightly-constructed thriller with stakes looks like. The action is very well choreographed, and the big set pieces are often spectacular. The looming sense of danger is palpable (which is a genuine achievement in these type of movies where many of these characters often seem invincible), and I enjoy the little character moments a great deal. It’s thankfully not over-stuffed with characters, and that enables it to maintain its focus. It’s such a well-made movie, one could easily make a case for it being the best comic book movie ever.
3. The Avengers – “The Avengers” is just so damn watchable. I’ve seen it more times than I can count, partly thanks to my kids, who love it, but also because whenever it’s on TV I stop to watch it. What’s even nuttier: I can still get goosebumps during the climactic battle. I just wrote about “Winter Soldier” benefitting from fewer characters, but this movie gets the balancing act right. You never feel like someone is getting the short end of the stick. It’s not crowded, even though it could have been. I could devote a lot more to this, but the simplest way to sum it up is this: It’s just plain fun.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy – This film gets me in the feels. It’s just the callback at the end. The path to victory isn’t “let me shoot them with my gun.” The self-sacrifice of one of the main characters, along with the message of love … like I said, it gets me in the feels. People talk about its humor and how it’s this grand space adventure in the tradition of “Star Wars,” and all of that is true. However, “take my hand” is what really does it for me in the final analysis.
1. The Dark Knight – Flaws? It’s overlong. The end. It’s messy and flawed because like the rest of the Nolan Batman trilogy, it’s ambitious. The difference here, and what elevates this movie above everything else (at least for me), is the presence of Heath Ledger’s Joker. The sense of chaos is palpable throughout as a result, and it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats until the very end … there’s never a sure sense of where all this is headed, save a growing feeling of inevitable tragedy thanks to the Harvey Dent storyline. And that is paid off in a very real way: there are ultimately consequences and sacrifices, as there are in real life. This is the king of comic book fare until further notice.