Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ranked

Marvel’s been putting out movies and TV shows in its connected universe for almost a decade now, to generally high acclaim. They’ve had a few misses here and there, but their worst movies are still better than half of DC’s offerings, so let’s not get too worked up about it.

For the purposes of this list, I’ve put some parameters in place. First of all, I’m only ranking the theatrically-released Avengers movies, and the full Netflix series of the Defenders characters. I’ve watched 3 seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., with varied enthusiasm, but ultimately decided against ranking those seasons. Likewise, I only watched a handful of episodes of Agent Carter and didn’t care for it, so I didn’t finish it. Inhumans and Cloak & Dagger both look interesting but I’m going to put them in the same camp. I think the level of their production quality (the TV shows) is beneath the threshold of the Netflix properties or the big screen films.

If you’re still reading, here’s my ranking.

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The more I think about it, the less of a contest it is. So far, TWS is the best Marvel movie. No plot is airtight, and the idea that half of S.H.I.E.L.D. is composed of Hydra soldiers presents some logistical problems, but the delivery and reveal of that twist blew me away on the big screen, and was executed to perfection. On top of that, we see Cap realize that he’s not exactly allied with the good guys, and he had the courage to go after both factions when they were wrong. A timely lesson indeed.
  2. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. Just wow. Marvel took a barrel full of lesser-known characters and gave them more heart than almost any other roster in the MCU. The graphics, the humor, the music, and the ultimate story centering on the meaning of fatherhood and love…I’m sorry but I’ve never seen that in a space opera before, and had it hit me so hard. Superb.
  3. Captain America: Civil War. My post-theatrical impression was AHHH, THE PERFECT MOVIE! I’ve felt this way before about other Marvel films, which speaks to the skilled execution by the cast and directors. Once the high wore off, I would figure out some of the flaws. I think the plot was tighter than a lot of critics claim, and made a lot of sense. It just gets bumped down on the list because it’s slightly less of a Cap film and slightly more of a broad-roster Avengers film wherein Cap just gets the most screen time. Still immensely epic.
  4. Iron Man. With The Dark Knight still looming on the summer schedule, I didn’t expect this one to seize my attention as much as it did. It was our first taste of a well-rounded character with a healthy serving of humor, mixed in with the elements that would eventually make the hallmarks of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The guys at Marvel probably didn’t even know what they’d unleashed at this point, but 9 years later, this film still holds up.
  5. The Avengers. Like Iron Man, it holds up even five years later, with its mix of all the right elements. To top it off, it pulled off a highly ambitious achievement with soaring colors, and solidified crushes on Tom Hiddleston the world over.
  6. Captain America: The First Avenger. An excellent period piece that introduced one of the lesser-liked (if still better-known) comic characters, and turned him into a widely emulated icon for his traditional patriotic values. Despite following the initial Marvel movie mold (good guy and bad guy have the same powers, but different values) it still found its footing and made a name for itself quickly, setting up the best trilogy (so far) in the entire MCU.
  7. Guardians of the Galaxy. There is nobody who expected this movie to be as good as it was. An entire generation discovered a mixed tape of rock hits from the 1970s, and even though the zealot villain and MacGuffin plot were nothing super original, the characters and execution definitely were.
  8. Daredevil (Season 1). Honestly, the bar wasn’t very high after the Affleck debacle from 2003. Still, the present-day MCU operators took this property and breathed new life into it with vigor, to the point where a large portion of its viewers were almost disappointed when Matt Murdock shed his DIY costume for the more iconic armor of the comics. Add in Vincent D’Onofrio as the villainous Kingpin, and you have an on-screen powerhouse. My only knock was that it went overboard on the violence several times in the first half of the season.
  9. Spider-Man: Homecoming. Finally! It only took 13 years, but we got another great Spider-Man film, and with a villain we’ve never seen before! Not only was the teenaged Peter Parker highly believable, the Vulture was an excellent, grounded, blue-collar villain with whom I could actually sympathize…right up to the part where he decided he didn’t give a crap about killing people. And come on…the state-mandated Cap videos at school stole the show.
  10. Doctor Strange. This was among Marvel’s more ambitious attempts, and without Cumberbatch, I think it would have fallen flat. That said, he played the character to near perfection, and even though the plot followed the formula of bad-guy-has-same-powers-but-is-evil, Kaecilious’s motivation was more profound than other cookie-cutter villains in the franchise.
  11. Luke Cage. This one worked on a lot of levels, as an insight into both a location and a demographic of which I have never been part. One of the other parts that worked well was the fact that I didn’t know much about it going into the pilot, beyond Luke’s appearance in the first season of Jessica Jones. If I have any complaints, it’s that it moved slow, and while that worked often, it really needed to pick it up in a few parts. The jazz music was rich and used well, much like the rock music in Guardians. Diamondback was another unique villain, even if his costume at the end was a little bit…weird.
  12. Daredevil (Season 2). I was really revved up for this after season 1, and while I still liked it, I think it bit off more than it could chew. It was almost two seasons in one, with the Punisher arc and the Elektra arc, even though they intersected a few times here and there. While the ninja stuff was cool, I felt like later in the season it struggled to find its identity, and the decay of the hero’s personal life is never a fun journey to watch, even when it’s credible. Still, the characters shined, especially the Punisher. Much like the first season, the violence went overboard more often than I would have liked.
  13. Ant-Man. Like Guardians, this is among the more humorous entries in the MCU, even if the plot is really pedestrian, and the villain was little more than a beardless Obadiah Stane who lived farther up the California coast. But it set up a lot of really good stuff, including the WASP in a future volume.
  14. Avengers: Age of Ultron. This was another film that I thought was wonderful after I left the theater, only to spot its flaws later. It still works as an awesome spectacle, but falls victim to corporate control as Disney forced Joss Whedon to shoehorn a ton of stuff into it that distracted from the central story. I admit to being a little confused and even annoyed when Vision showed up. He was almost the hardest part of this to accept, but the Russo brothers put him to good use in Civil War. I liked it, but it had problems.
  15. Iron Man 2. Another one that I liked because it was fun and cool, despite getting a little big for its britches. Whiplash was a bad villain, but Mickey O’Rourke did a good job with him, and of course Sam Rockwell plays an excellent corporate tool. It worked a little bit as a sequel to its great predecessor, though its function was clearly to help segue the franchise into a future Avengers conglomeration.
  16. The Incredible Hulk. I liked this one better than a lot of people gave it credit for, and Edward Norton was far better in the Bruce Banner role than Mark Ruffalo. What started as a cerebral story later devolved into a smashfest, which was fine and fun to watch, but did very little to advance Banner’s personal arc.
  17. Iron Man 3. I feel like Tony Stark’s story here was a little bit of a rehash from the first two, as well as what he did in Avengers. We get it Tony, you’re a mess. This is a story about a guy you were mean to coming back for revenge. Like the HISHE video points out, it’s pretty much an MCU version of The Incredibles, with slightly less hard than its predecessors. The change of directors really showed.
  18. Thor. What a perfectly average installment whose only purpose was to get one of the three pinnacle members of the Avengers on the big screen, so that they’d have an excuse for him to be in the real movie next summer, along with that movie’s villain.
  19. Jessica Jones. This one had flashes in the pan, real moments of greatness from a good number of its characters (like Jessica, Kilgrave, Trisha, and Luke Cage). Then it went off the rails, focusing on Jeri Hogarth’s pointless affair and divorce arc, or giving far too much screentime to the incestuous ginger twins who lived in Jessica’s building. Kilgrave was a top five Marvel villain, and Jessica definitely had her hands full dealing with him. That part of her story was great. The rest of it (seriously, how many scenes to we need of her and Luke power-boinking her bed into splinters?) was trying too hard to be edgy or dark, and lost its purpose. Where Daredevil was often over-violent, Jessica Jones was in equal measure over-sexual.
  20. Thor: The Dark World. Wow. This movie only got made because it had to. And about the only relevant part of it for the MCU at large was the fact that the villain was using an Infinity Stone, which won’t be relevant on screen for a few more years. Boring story, boring acting, and only a few laugh-out-loud moments…all of which were sparked by side characters whose main career work is on TV sitcoms. To date, this is the only MCU movie I didn’t bother to see in the theaters, because it just didn’t look like it was worth it from the trailers…and I was right.
  21. Iron Fist. If Thor 2 was boring and pointless, Iron Fist stands alone on an island of awful. It was mooning-the-crowd-at-a-preschool-graduation bad. This thing had no idea what it was trying to be, trying to accomplish, or trying to go. I can’t give you a solid breakdown as to why, without outright parroting Larry Correia’s shakedown of it, which is pretty detailed. They really dropped the ball with this one.

 

So that’s my rankings so far. In a few more months, we’ll get another Thor movie, which so far looks like it’s carved from the same stuff as the Guardians flicks. Then we get another Avengers movie next year, plus Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp. I’m revved up. I’ll update this as they come out.

Graham Re-Watches Pirates, part 2: Dead Man’s Chest

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Part 1 here

In the time between the first and second films in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, I served a two-year church mission in Spain, came home, changed jobs a few times (in a period I like to call “career A.D.D.”), and crashed at least two different relationships, maybe three. I don’t remember all that well. 2006 wasn’t great for me, in general.

So I was more than a little excited for a trip back down to the Caribbean during the golden age of piracy, sailing the seas with old Captain Jack and his merry band of miscreants. Gibbs, Marty, Cotton, Pintel, and Raghetti were still out there having adventures. I’d be dipped if I wasn’t going to be part of it.

There’s a hazard with watching a movie under those circumstances: you tend to overlook the flaws. And while Dead Man’s Chest was still a really good movie, it shot itself in the foot by not figuring out just a few things. I didn’t realize it back then, but after rewatching DMC last week, I thought I’d weigh its strengths against the weaknesses:

  1. Gore Verbinski. I will stress this again in my review of At World’s End, I’m almost sure of it. Now that I’ve watched 1 & 2 back-to-back, I’m much more aware of the thematic continuity that made these earlier films better than the later ones. Verbinski is the right director for these characters and stories.
  2. Jack once again was not the main character, but he managed to derail their lives. Doubtless Disney didn’t want to foul up the formula that had made Black Pearl such a success, so once again they started out with Will & Elizabeth in love, only to be foiled by Jack and his antics…which center on him dealing with a curse from his past. This promptly results in Will leaving Port Royal to hunt down Jack, and Elizabeth escaping custody to hide amongst sailors and find Will.
  3. Davy Jones managed to be an even more formidable villain than Hector Barbossa. Jack finally had to go up against someone that he proved unable to outwit, out-charm, or outmaneuver. Granted the antics of Commodore Norrington resulted in Davy Jones losing control of his heart, but that wasn’t Jack’s doing.
  4. Commodore Norrington proved he was more than a knock-over villain. While Black Pearl could have ended on a lighthearted note, with Norrington giving the pirates a slight lead before going after them, Dead Man’s Chest shows the writers’ commitment to following through on the events of the previous movie. What better way to motivate Norrington than to strip him of what he needs in order to be great–his crew and support staff–and leave him wanting? Without him, Jack would have gotten what he wanted (Jones’ heart) and the story would have ended very differently, possibly with Jack being forced into the captaincy of the Flying Dutchman.
  5. They patched up a stealth plot hole from the first film. Anyone who thinks about Black Pearl after the fact could only come to one certain conclusion: if Bootstrap Bill was a victim of the Aztec curse, then he was strapped to a cannon somewhere at the bottom of the sea, unable to die. (Which was why the pirates needed his blood.) However, that meant that he was still alive somewhere at the bottom of the sea, so the pirates could have easily dropped down there beside him and walked around until they found him, cut him loose, and brought him back to the surface to end the curse. BUT. In the likely event that they wouldn’t find Bootstrap, then breaking the curse would instantly kill him via drowning, wherever he was. We see how they resolved this in the second film: Bootstrap was shanghaied into Jones’ crew.
  6. Once again, the supporting cast were not overly hokey or weird. Aside from the aforementioned pirates on the Black Pearl, we also got introduced to Tia Dalma and Davy Jones, who were superb in their roles. The directors of Dead Men Tell No Tales tried to recapture this magic and succeeded…but only halfway. More on that in part 5.

 

Now that I’ve mentioned the strengths, I do want to address a few weaknesses:

  1. The practical effects for Jones’ crew were great. The CGI was not. And this became very apparent during my re-watch these 11 years later. While the pirate CGI from Black Pearl is still as good as ever, the sea monsters in Dead Man’s Chest were a touch too ambitious, to the point of being almost comical once the Kraken shows up to eat Jack.
  2. Some gags and sideplots took a little too long to play out. This was pretty clear with the Pelegostos natives. I feel like that segment of the story slowed the pace a touch too much, even if it was enjoyable on its own. It was, though, delivering on a side-joke from Black Pearl, when Jack told the British sailors that an unnamed band of natives “made me their chief.” We got to see this mystical legendary side of Jack, but at a cost to the pacing.
  3. The biggest complaint I have for this movie, and any of the Verbinski trilogy: they completely screwed up Elizabeth’s character in the second half. She starts out great–a scorned woman whose wedding was derailed by an ambitious and blackmailing sea lord!–only to be demoted from “character” to “mechanism” in the name of adding forced controversy. There was no prior indication that she should ever have fallen for Jack. That whole sidestory was bunk and it made her character obnoxious for this stretch of the plot.
  4. In their efforts to recapture the magic for the first film, they kept forcing too many things for the second film. This was never clearer than it was on Isla Cruces, when everyone showed up to grab Davy Jones’ chest. The three-way fight between Jack, Will, and Norrington–while certainly a great visual spectacle–was a major tonal shift from everything else leading up to it. In trying to showcase Jack’s agility and acrobatics, they shoved him into a water wheel and put a completely impractical–and highly distracting–fight on screen, hoping to remind audiences of the great fight between Jack and Barbossa in Black Pearl without outright copying it.
  5. There’s no way Gibbs would have left Jack like that. Yes, I understand they have to “stick to the code.” But when they asked where Jack was, and Elizabeth said he’d opted to stay behind and give them a chance, everyone had to know that that was bunk, and all anyone had to do–especially first mate Joshamee Gibbs–was look up over the side of the boat, or even call out to Jack (who would have called foul play or shouted for someone to let him loose). So on a second watch-through, that didn’t pass the smell test.

All that said, I still liked it overall. Those things weren’t major surgical problems (except for the misuse of Elizabeth’s affections at the end) they were just bits that stood out here and there and took me out of the story. If you’re asking me to sit through two and a half hours, they’d better all be worth it.

Still, it was better than Tides or Tales. 

Next up, part 3.

What “Pirates” needs if they’re reeeeeeeally determined to keep milking this cow.

After a trip to California this last weekend, I snuck out to see the latest Pirates flick, hoping it would be better than the last one (which was the worst of the franchise.)
It was okay as a flick, but I didn’t walk out loving it. I don’t know if it’s my age or frame of reference or whatever, but the movies that used to do it for me way back when are no longer working for me. (Though plenty of you liked it, and I’m glad)
The Curse of the Black Pearl came out in 2003. I didn’t see it opening day, but I planned to. I think it’s only real competition that year in terms of blockbusters was the bad Hulk film, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which I still have a soft spot for). My little brother saw Pirates before I did, and the next day he couldn’t stop talking about it. Anyone who knows him knows that he’s not the guy to give you a blow-by-blow rundown of a movie. He never gets that excited about it. So I knew this was a big deal.
I loved it, like most people. Even took my grandma to see it. Then in 2006 Dead Man’s Chest hit theaters, and I liked, even if a lot of other people didn’t. Totally made my summer, especially with X-Men 3 and Superman Returns being mutual letdowns.
And I don’t care what anyone said, At Worlds End was great. The magic was there through all three movies.
The problem with the last two was that they were both color-by-numbers attempts to replicate a product without recapturing that magic. Yes, you have a cool intro for Jack, a whimpy tagalong, a feisty love interest, and a scary villain. There’s a MacGuffin. There are monsters and curses. There are quippy one liners…but it never came together. I was looking at pieces glued together like ransom-paste cut out of magazines: I would rather see a masterpiece.
Dead Men Tell No Tales was at least better than On Stranger Tides.
But I think the lesson we learned is that Jack is the main character, the anti-hero, but he can’t carry this franchise by himself. What’s worse, he can’t use a supporting cast of no-names playing bit parts. Penelope Cruz was really good in OST, and the Thwaite/Scodelario duo had chemistry (even if their roles and dialogue were…not great).
But if you’re going to make a Pirates film, you need Jack, and Will, and Elizabeth.
(And a great story and writing, but that should go without saying.)

Poldark: In Print and On Screen

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I have Aprilynne to thank for introducing me to Poldark, the PBS/BBC program based on the Winston Graham novels of the same name. At first I was skeptical, figuring it was just eye candy for the ladies. (Again, that’s on Aprilynne. This was the first thing I remember her sharing:

So yeah.)

But then a bunch of my other friends got into it, and I did a little homework, and with Aprilynne giving me the final nudge, I decided to try it out back in November. After the first episode, I was hooked.

Poldark is about a fictional man, Ross Poldark, from Cornwall, England. It takes place in the late 1700s, right at the close of the American Revolution. Ross was a soldier for England, having joined up to avoid prison after the law caught up with him back home. When he returned to Cornwall three years later, he finds his father dead, his estate in ruins, and his One True Love engaged to his fop of a cousin.

So things aren’t going great for Ross.

In 8 short episodes, the show covers a span of about 4 years, so things move pretty dang fast. In episode 1, Ross (Aidan Turner, you might remember him as The Dwarf Who Loved The Hot Elf Chick In The Hobbit And Died in the Third Movie) is rescuing a scum-class street urchin woman, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) from a band of hooligans, hiring her to be his kitchen maid, and then beating up her father when he comes looking for her. By episode 3, he’s marrying her.

As all of this is going on, he’s trying to get his family mines back in business, engage in a cloak-and-dagger battle with the local banker (a complete bastard by the name of George Warleggan, played to bastardly perfection by Jack Farthing), deal with the marriage of Elizabeth (Heida Reed) to Francis (Kyle Soller), and try to take care of the poor broke peasants who work for him all at the same time. (For any number of reasons, be it starvation or greed or shortsighted idiocy, lots of these twits can’t seem to stay out of trouble.)

There are a number of things that impressed me about the show, which caused me to blitz it in a week (half of which happened all in one night as I had to camp out on a job site in town.) In no particular order, here they are:

Period Piece

Winston Graham is said to have meticulously researched the time period when he wrote these books. ROSS POLDARK was published in the 1940s, some 160 years removed from its setting, and yet nothing about the book (or the show) feels like a present-day story that just happens to be set in the past. There are details here and there, whether they are geographical considerations, character behaviors, or habits of everyday life, that pop up all over the place to remind you that you don’t know everything about this time or setting…but the characters do, and you need to pay attention to what they’re doing and why.

Clashing Characters

This isn’t just Ross’s tale. Everyone has their motivations, and you’re either rooting hard for a character to succeed, or else crossing your fingers and hoping they get horse-kicked in the mouth. Ross wants to do well by his inheritance, and the people that depends on his mines for survival; Demelza wants to fit in with the upper-class folk, and is eager to please those few in her new ranks that are kind to her; Francis is dissatisfied with his dwindling wealth and the lack of ease in his life after his father passes away; George is a greedy bastard who greeds, and has a silent, calm, still way of taking people apart and profiting from their misery; Verity lives a life of love and service to everyone, and her one chance at romance is smashed apart by her horrible family.

Immense Intrigue

In fact, it is the combination of Verity and Demelza, perhaps more than any two other characters, that drives the culminating conflict at the end of the first season. For six or seven episodes I thought I was just watching interesting characters do interesting things, hoping their individual storylines might neatly resolve themselves somehow in the 8th episode. Then, in one simple scene, you realize that you’ve been watching a crazed man set up a line of dominoes, and his finger quivers as he flicks the first one in line, watching with the zeal of a three-year-old as they all come falling down.

No Punches Pulled

I was mistaken to think any aspect of this show would wrap up with a clean, happy ending. It’s a little more true to life, without being nihilistic or cynical.

Again, this comes back to Winston Graham getting the period right. Whether I know anything about Cornwall or not, this production feels like an accurate representation of life in a time and place that had to have been hard for living. England in the late 18th century was a broken empire, crumbling at the edges with increasing momentum, broke from the effort of so many far-flung wars, taxed beyond all hope of relief and with no end in sight, and these stories take you right to the ground level of what it must have been like for the people who were left to bear it on their backs.

And not just the financial hardships, or the hunger, but the dying cries of the rich and fat, who ferociously resisted the waning of their power and comfort, and oftentimes took their frustrations out on those who couldn’t fight back.

As always, there were plenty of differences between the book and the show. I missed the second season as it aired, and despite really liking the show, I don’t want to cough up $20 to watch it on Amazon when it will be free on Prime next summer, so I gave the first book a listen on Audible. It yielded even more insights into the time period, the characters’ motivations, and the nature of their relationships. The changes between the show and the book were pretty self-explanatory, and while both media were good, I elected not to read the next book until I’ve watched the next season. I enjoyed the show so much and I know I wouldn’t like it if I watched it with foreknowledge of the story’s developments.

Long story short, I highly recommend watching it if you get a chance, and give the books a try when you’re done. I’m glad someone suggested I try it out, and I’m looking forward to more.

 

“Spectral” on Netflix is an amazing three-star effort.

All the way back in 2012, I heard of a movie in development with the working title of Spectral. The premise–a militarized anti-ghost squad battles a sudden swarm of ectoplasmic visitors–sounded an awful lot like my then-work-in-progress, Specter Cell. I even emailed my then-agent in a fit, screaming that once again the frigging Idea Gnomes had broken into my house while I slept, and that it was time to start sleeping with tin foil nightcaps again.

With all of her trademark good judgment, Joan told me not to worry about it, so I got back to work. Specter Cell never got picked up by any of the fifteen publishers that looked at it, and Spectral got booted back from its 2013, 2014, and 2015 release dates.

Then, last month, a trailer finally surfaced, along with an announcement declaring that Spectral would be a Netflix-only release, and I soon saw why. Plotwise, it didn’t look all that more complex than something you’d see on SyFy at 2AM, and the leading cast members weren’t exactly A-listers. An IMDB search reveals that James Badge Dale’s biggest role was as Right Hand Man Henchman #1 in Iron Man 3. Max Martini, the rugged military character, was best known for his semi-side role as Hercules Hanson in Pacific Rim (as well as just about every TV show ever.) Emily Mortimer, the female lead, was in Shutter Island in 2010.

None of these actors are bad, they’re just never top-billed material, nor are they near the top. That said, they all put on solid performances for their characters, especially Dale, who was the Science McGyver of the flick.

The premise is simple: Dale plays a scientist who developed some high-tech specs for the military. When an Eastern European battle zone starts running a high casualty rate, the military geeks notice strange apparitions on the recordings from the soldiers’ specs, and they call in Dale to analyze. Soon they realize that the battlezone is overrun with ghosts, phantoms that can kill you just with a touch, and none of the military’s weapons can touch them.

So in true sci-fi/horror flick fashion, it’s a race against the clock to figure out what the monster is, figure out how to kill it, make something that can kill it, and then kill it.

That said, I’m pleased and surprised to report that the science-babble and methodology behind the ghosts (what they were, how they worked, why they were there) was interesting and even somewhat sensical, beyond “ooooh it’s paranormal magic, so whatevs.” There were pieces of dialogue all throughout the movie that reminded you just what you were watching, interspersed with dialogue and moments that slightly elevated it above what it truly was.

If you’re not all that jazzed about what’s on your Netflix watchlist, I’d suggest sitting down one night with Spectral and giving it a try. I think it’s cool that the studio not only finished their project, but admitted to themselves what they had, and released it via a channel that would be good for them, good for the platform, and good for the product.

There certainly are worse “kill ghosts with high-tech laser weapons” movies that hit the screen this year.