Tales to Astonish

Ant-Man is small scale fun with a large scale impact. As the twelfth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ant-Man was a long time coming for the shrinking superhero. Hank Pym was originally created as a genius who developed Pym Particles to shrink himself to the size of an ant. “The Man in the Ant Hill” was originally a straightforward monster comic, but Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Larry Lieber liked the concept so much that he was turned into a superhero 8 issues later. Ant-Man first appeared in Tales to Astonish #35 in 1962. Despite debuting after the Fantastic Four, Ant-Man was never as popular as the more A-list Spider-Man. Ant-Man and his girlfriend the Wasp boosted their appeal when they joined the Avengers.

Hank Pym was unique for constantly changing his persona since joining the team. Such identities include: Giant-Man, Goliath, and Yellowjacket. Although The Avengers omitted Ant-Man and the Wasp, a solo film has actually been in development since the 80’s. Marvel foolishly selling the rights never resulted in a movie since Honey, I Shrunk the Kids came out around the same time. Ant-Man has what is easily the most complicated production history in the MCU. It actually predates the MCU with comedic genre director Edgar Wright making it his passion project since 2006. Producer Kevin Feige allowed Wright to take as much time as he needed, but his standalone take on the story eventually led to his unexpected departure. Although audiences expected Marvel’s first failure, Ant-Man became the most enjoyable shrinking flick I’d seen in a long time…

25. Ant-Man

Ant-Man runs with the ants

Ant-Man was always meant to be an astonishing action adventure superhero film with comedic overtones. Exactly the kind of tone that works in the MCU. Edgar Wright was always an Ant-Man fan who wrote a script with his equally comedic writing partner Joe Cornish. Kevin Feige and Stan Lee were on board with his portrayal, but the screenplay changed multiple times to fit within the MCU. Ant-Man could’ve been released in the middle of Phase Two, but Wright completing The World’s End made it seem like the beginning of Phase Three. Despite the massive size of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man became the end of Phase Two instead. It was an unusual decision, but I think a small stakes origin story was more than welcome after so many event films. Wright is probably the most high profile director to leave sighting “creative differences.” No one expected much from Bring it On replacement director Peyton Reed, but he was just as passionate about the character. Wright’s genre bending directing style would’ve been fun to see, but at least most of his ideas remained in tact.

Although I would have prefered seeing Dr. Hank Pym as the star, Wright’s mantle passing storyline was a good idea. There definitely aren’t many movies that focus on the second incarnation of a superhero. Scott Lang assumed the Ant-Man mantle in the 1979 Marvel Premiere #47. He was never as iconic as Pym, but Lang’s reformed criminal past as a struggling single father did endear him to readers. The third incarnation, Eric O’Grady, isn’t worth mentioning. I was still a much bigger fan of the original Ant-Man, but I gave Scott Lang a chance. Much like the schlubby Chris Pratt, Paul Rudd became another very unexpected comedian cast as a superhero. Rudd’s easygoing sense of humor and everyman charisma made him the highlight of many R rated Frat Pack comedies. He wasn’t in terrible shape, but he did get ripped for his obligatory shirtless scene. Rudd is already hilarious, but he was surprisingly perfect at taking the admittedly silly sounding Ant-Man seriously. Rudd actually co-wrote most of the revised script with Adam McKay.

Like the comics, Lang is a burglar with engineering skills who tries to become a better father for his daughter Cassie Lang. Much like Thor, Scott’s supporting cast are mostly original characters made for the movie. Ant-Man has true Latin charm thanks to Michael Peña stealing every scene he’s in. Luis is a fast talking happy-go-lucky hispanic friend of Scott who picks him up from prison in his ugly brown van. His habit of telling overly detailed stories will always be comedy gold. Ant-Man is very much a heist film with a superhero in it. So Scott needed a crew to match. Luis finds the lead, Kurt operates the computer, and Dave drives the car. They’re not the deepest characters, but they have their moments. At times it feels like they were only included for diversity sake. Peña is the latino, rapper T.I. is the black guy, and character actor David Dastmalchian is the Russian. Scott’s criminal record can’t even get him a job at Baskin-Robbins (they always find out), but that doesn’t stop him from visiting his adorable daughter played by Abby Ryder Fortson.

Rather than give Cassie a heart condition, the movie lightens things up with a standard divorced parent subplot. Judy Greer was everywhere in 2015, so she plays Scott’s ex-wife Maggie. Bobby Cannavale gives Scott a hard time as Paxton, a San Francisco cop who acts as the other guy in the relationship. Scott has a heart of gold, but he agrees to Luis’ burglary job when he has no other options. Lang really shows his engineering expertise when he breaks into a rich man’s house. The vault happens to contain the Ant-Man suit. Hank Pym is now portrayed as an elderly supporting character. The change suits the story, but it might’ve also had to do with Pym’s unfortunate history as a wife beater. Pym can be hotheaded, but thankfully respected actor Michael Douglas makes him very likable. As a nod to the comics, the movie makes the clever decision to have Pym perform secret missions as Ant-Man during the Cold War.

He didn’t create Ultron, but Pym is very much a genius who developed Pym Particle shrinking technology. The MCU connection comes from Pym formerly working for S.H.I.E.L.D. in 1989. This was their first extensive use of digital de-aging. Michael Douglas looks just like Gordon Gekko as Pym resigns in response to S.H.I.E.L.D.’s attempt at replicating his formula. Martin Donovan is partially de-aged as the more devious Agent Mitchell Carson, Hayley Atwell wears old age makeup to play Peggy Carter, and John Slattery didn’t need to do anything as Howard Stark. Pym is untrusting of the Starks and unwilling to go to the Avengers for help (especially after they dropped a city in Age of Ultron). Ant-Man is very similar to the first Iron Man since Hank’s company Pym Technologies is left to a trusted bald guy who turns out to be unhinged. Corey Stoll does his best with Darren Cross, but he’s just like most over-the-top bad guys. Spouting evil one-liners and being an evil reflection of the hero. Cross is the reason Lang becomes the new Ant-Man in the comics, but he was originally an ordinary villain with a heart condition.

The Yellowjacket persona was Pym’s third identity that earned a negative reputation, because it’s the costume he hit his wife in. So it made sense to make Yellowjacket the villain with Cross in the prototype suit. Cross gets dangerously close to replicating the shrinking formula that he plans to sell to the highest bidder. An army of microscopic Yellowjackets assassinating enemies without being seen is actually way more evil and high stakes than it seems on the surface. It’s enough to make Pym Technologies chairman Hope van Dyne team up with her estranged father. In the comics, Hope Pym is the daughter of Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne who becomes the obscure villain Red Queen in an alternate reality. It’s lucky she exists in the comics, because a reworked version of her was a perfect female lead for the movie. Rising action star Evangeline Lilly sports a pixie cut and fully commits to her strained relationship with Hank. Perfectly illustrating the movie’s theme of fathers trying to do right by their daughters. Hope takes her mother’s name since Janet apparently died when she was a child.

Like the comics, wearing the Ant-Man suit for years took a toll on Pym. Although Hope is the natural choice, Hank chooses Scott Lang instead. Hank orchestrated Scott’s theft in order to see his skills in action. It takes about 30 minutes to finally see Lang wear the Ant-Man suit, but it was well worth the wait. The Ant-Man costume is mostly black leather with a red design and a series of tubes. The shrinking science is given a lot more logic with his trademark ant-like helmet being fully inclosed. It makes plenty of sense when you take microscopic oxygen into account. The first shrinking sequence is a terrifying thrill ride that sees Ant-Man face a giant bathtub, giant record players, a giant vacuum, and a giant rat. Garrett Morris who dressed up like Ant-Man in an SNL sketch even cameos at the end. The retired Rick Moranis sadly doesn’t cameo despite his reputation in shrinking movies. Technology has come such a long way since then. Macro photography mixed with impressive CGI gave the miniature surroundings a more believable feel.

Scott gets arrested trying to return the stolen suit, but Hank breaks him out with the help of his ant associates. I was definitely curious about how Marvel would believably translate an army of telepathically controlled ants to the big screen. Every ant is realistically rendered with great attention to detail. The classic image of Ant-Man riding a flying ant is brought to life when Scott mounts a numbered ant that he affectionately names Ant-thony. Ant-Man is very residential with most of the action taking place in Pym’s house. As Cross grows progressively more unstable turning his employees to goup and testing his shrinking technology on lambs, Hank and Hope train Scott so that he’s prepared for the big heist. The main objective is stealing the Yellowjacket suit and destroying all the research in Pym Technologies. Scott trains in a fun montage that also reveals a few crucial bits of information. Hope helps Scott to perfect his fighting style while wearing the suit and they grow closer with their natural chemistry.

Hank warns Scott against messing with his suit’s size regulator or else risk entering the Quantum Realm. Pym also supplies the suit with handy shrinking and enlarging discs. I’ve always been fascinated by ant behavior, so I was pleased to see the movie explore different species of ants. Carpenter ants are used for ground & air travel, fire ants use their bodies to build structures, crazy ants can conduct electricity, and bullet ants pack a painful bite. Hope tries to prove she’s more qualified for the job, but Hank is very much against his daughter risking her life. Turns out Janet van Dyne was the Wasp in past missions with her husband. I was happy to see Ant-Man and the Wasp together, even if it resulted in her going subatomic to defuse a missle. The final part of the heist is a piece of technology Pym needs from an old Stark warehouse. Turns out that warehouse is really the new Avengers compound in an unexpected sequence that pits Ant-Man against an Avenger. It’s definitely the most excited I’ve been to see Falcon. Since he’s B-list enough to be on equal footing.

Anthony Mackie finally gets a cooler red wingsuit that was designed before his appearance in Age of Ultron. Their fight is a great mix of shrinking and flying. When Cross increases his security, Lang’s crew is called in for backup. They each do their part in a nail-biting heist that only half succeeds. Hank is shot by Cross, but he and Hope flee the imploding building with a giant tank keychain. A totally insane Cross tragically shoots Ant-thony and wears the Yellowjacket suit to exterminate Ant-Man. The Yellowjacket suit is similar, but more yellow with high tech stingers. Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket is a very dramatic climax when small, but it’s made more hilarious at normal size. Cross trying to kidnap Cassie leads to the most high stakes battle in a little girls bedroom I’ve ever seen. Made more humorous with an enlarged ant and Thomas the Tank Engine toy. Scott’s only hope is using his regulator to go subatomic. Yellowjacket is shrunken from the inside out and even loses an arm for the sixth time in Phase Two.

The Quantum Realm is a trippy psychedelic microverse that hints at stranger things to come. Scott only escapes using the power of Cassie’s love and an enlarging disc placed inside his regulator. The experience gives Hank hope that he can still save his wife. Hayley Lovitt stands in for Janet just to make room for a more high profile actress in the sequel. Scott and Hope share an out of nowhere kiss and Scott gains acceptance from his family. Ant-Man is also accepted by Sam Wilson in a last minute Luis story that hints at Spider-Man and features Stan Lee’s cameo as a bartender. The fan pleasing mid-credits scene reveals an incomplete Wasp suit that finally gave me hope for her future. The after-credits scene was great too, but it’s just a clip from Captain America: Civil War. The only Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. connection was news coverage of the film’s events. Despite all the behind the scenes drama and need to connect to the MCU, Ant-Man was a success that really grew on me.

26. Ant-Man

Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket

Followed by: Ant-Man and the Wasp

United We Stand

Avengers: Age of Ultron reassembled our heroes with mixed results. As the eleventh installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Age of Ultron is objectively the weakest large scale crossover by default. Age of Ultron is the only Avengers movie I didn’t see twice in theaters. The Avengers was admittedly a tough act to follow. I don’t doubt that giving the 6 original Avengers enough screen time, introducing new superheroes, acknowledging events that came before, hinting at future projects, deciding on an Avengers level threat, and doing something different was a difficult task. Joss Whedon was a mess after filming and hasn’t directed an entire film since (for one reason or another). The Avengers is still my all time favorite Marvel movie, but that doesn’t make Age of Ultron a disappointment.

It’s a miracle it ended up as good, fan pleasing, and coherent as it was. My anticipation for the sequel increased as soon as the title was announced. Ultron is an evil artificially intelligent robot with a long history connected to the Avengers. Although a comic storyline titled Age of Ultron came out 2 years earlier, the movie follows its own continuity. Phase Two of the MCU can mostly be described as an experimental era. Producer Kevin Feige took a chance on different tones and genres. Age of Ultron was meant to be the darkest chapter yet. Even the trailer managed to make “I’ve Got No Strings” from Disney’s Pinocchio sound sinister. Although Age of Ultron does manage to tear the Avengers apart, it was every bit the joke heavy spectacle it was before…

22. Avengers Age of Ultron

Avengers assemble

Avengers: Age of Ultron opens with the new and improved Marvel Studios logo. Since there was only 2 hours & 22 minutes to tell such a complex story that took years to properly tell in the comics, Age of Ultron drops us right in the middle of the action. The first superpowered individuals we see are Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. I was beyond excited to discover the iconic twins would make their debut, but I wasn’t sure what it meant in the MCU. In the comics, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were Romanian Mutants who first appeared in The X-Men #4. They were initially part of the Brotherhood of Mutants before joining the heroic Avengers in Avengers #16. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver were such a big part of both teams that 20th Century Fox and Marvel Studios had co-ownership of each character. X-Men could use the twins, but not mention the Avengers and Marvel could use the twins, but not refer to them as Mutants or acknowledge Magneto as their father.

The mid-credits scene from The Winter Soldier referred to them as “miracles” who volunteered for Hydra experimentation. Loki’s scepter seems to be the cause of Pietro’s superspeed and Wanda’s mental manipulation. Age of Ultron refers to them as “enhanced” and changes their home country of Transia to the equally fictional Sokovia. Although the Mandarin threatening the President, Malekith attempting to plunge the world in darkness, and Hydra targeting civilians using armed Helicarriers seem like Avengers level threats, it turns out to be Loki’s scepter in a secret Hydra compound. All Avengers assemble for another awesome group shot. The best thing about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s lack of involvement is that it gives the Avengers a chance to work as a well oiled machine. Tony Stark upgrades their tech with personalized gadgets, the newly rebranded Avengers Tower, and J.A.R.V.I.S. overseeing an army of robotic Iron Legion peacekeepers. Hydra agents are briefly seen sporting Chitari inspired uniforms. They’re no match for Thor swinging his hammer, Captain America throwing his shield on a motorcycle, Iron Man firing his repulsors in the Mark XLIII suit, Hulk smashing everything in sight, and Hawkeye shooting his arrows while Black Widow drives.

Despite his reputation in the comics, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker is very easily defeated by Cap. Hydra sends in the twins to slow the Avengers down a little. Pietro quickly takes out Hawkeye and Wanda messes with Stark’s mind after he finds Loki’s scepter. The first hallucination is extremely important with how it sets up the inevitable Avengers level threat. Tony sees his fellow teammates dead as the Chitauri invade the Earth. Cap’s broken shield was clearly meant to be a shocking image for the trailer. As Stark takes the scepter, the Avengers: Age of Ultron logo appears on-screen alongside a much more ominous score. After destroying all of his suits and removing his arc reactor in Iron Man 3, Stark is back to his old ways of making suits and trying to protect the planet as Iron Man. His Iron Legion doesn’t go over too well in war torn countries like Sokovia. After turning down the throne in Thor: The Dark World, Thor is content with living amongst mortals. Obtaining Loki’s scepter is the final piece of Asgard to give him closure.

After S.H.I.E.L.D. fell in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Steve Rogers shifts his focus to leading the Avengers. Maria Hill is also working for the team as part of Stark Industries and Natasha Romanoff tries to atone for past mistakes. Apart from falling asleep in the Iron Man 3 after-credits scene, the Incredible Hulk hasn’t been seen since the first Avengers. Bruce Banner only Hulks out for Code: Green emergencies and it starts to take a toll on his psyche. Clint Barton hasn’t even been mentioned in 3 years. They really lean into Hawkeye being a useless member of the team, but Age of Ultron gives him a lot more attention than you’d expect. A new character is introduced in the form of Korean scientist Dr. Helen Cho. She uses her Regeneration Cradle to rebuild Barton’s damaged tissue. Stark making terrible decisions that create enemies isn’t exactly new, but he does it again when he convinces Banner to help him build Ultron. In the comics, Hank Pym is the one who creates the maniacal mechanical menace. Despite Ant-Man being only a few months away, Tony Stark is now responsible for Ultron’s creation. I suppose it makes sense considering Stark already developed artificial intelligence with J.A.R.V.I.S.

The scepter’s mind altering energy gives Stark and Banner another brain to work with. Ultron is meant to act as a suit of armor around the world to protect the Earth from the endgame (remember that!). Like most evil robots, Ultron turns on his creator, views the Avengers as a threat through the internet, and destroys J.A.R.V.I.S. in an unexpectedly abstract sequence. Meanwhile, the team celebrates a job well done at Avengers Tower. As cool as it is seeing the Avengers fighting together, it’s just as fun to see them in their down time. The party was the best place for Rhodey and Sam Wilson to make an appearance. Pepper Potts and Jane Foster’s absences are explained in a girlfriend measuring contest between Tony and Thor. At least Stan Lee gets his cameo as a veteran who can’t handle Thor’s liquor and says “Excelsior.” The night concludes with the best non-action scene in the movie. As the entire team attempts to lift Mjolnir in a variety of humorous ways. Barton can’t budge it, Tony and Rhodey can’t lift it with their armor, Banner jokes about Hulking out, and Natasha declines the offer. The only person to make Thor’s hammer move is Cap, but he doesn’t lift it (remember that!).

Ultron finally makes his presence known in a damaged Iron Legion body. His motivations are creating peace by ensuring the Avengers extinction. A dramatic fight breaks out between Ultron controlled robots and the Avengers in their civilian attire. As Thor destroys the last machine, Ultron’s consciousness survives in Strucker’s Sokovian Hydra base. It’s there that he builds himself a more formidable body. Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch honor their villainous roots by teaming up with Ultron instead of Magneto. Their goal is to destroy the Avengers since a Stark Industries missile is responsible for killing their parents and nearly costing the twins their lives. Stark’s secret creation of Ultron begins to unravel the team, but they work out a plan of attack. Banner mentions Wakanda for the first time in the MCU as they track Ultron to Johannesburg. Ultron talks business with South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue in order to obtain Vibranium. The most impactful Phase Two dismemberment comes when Ultron chops off Klaue’s arm in anger.

The Avengers assemble to face Ultron, but Iron Man spends most of the time fighting his creation. Meanwhile, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, and Hawkeye fight the Maximoff twins. Pietro runs circles around the team, but gets taken down when trying to grab Thor’s hammer. Wanda gains a lasting advantage by messing with the minds of Thor, Cap, and Romanoff. Hawkeye incapacitates Wanda since he’s already experienced mind control. Each hallucination is crucial for uncovering a characters past or setting up a future storyline in the MCU. Black Widow sees her Russian born past as she’s trained to become a deadly assassin in the Red Room. Cap sees the life he could’ve had in the 1940’s when Peggy Carter asks him for a dance. Thor is visited by a blind Heimdall in an Asgardian celebration that ominously sets up Ragnarok. Although Iron Man’s high tech fight with Ultron ends in his favor, Stark’s problems are just beginning when Wanda unleashes the Hulk. Easily the best one on one fight in Age of Ultron is between Hulk and the Hulkbuster. All the chaos and mental manipulation is enough to bring the Avengers to their lowest point in the sequel…

23. Avengers Age of Ultron

Hulk vs. Hulkbuster

Avengers: Age of Ultron may take more liberties with its source material, but it’s just as comic book accurate as what came before. Joss Whedon managed to juggle so many plot threads without sacrificing his intended vision. Age of Ultron deals with heavier themes and has the darker color palette to match. I am gonna miss Whedon’s directing style, but his persistent humorous dialogue started to go a little overboard. Buffy Speak worked for the more lighthearted first installment, but now characters quip every chance they get. Cap saying “Language” in the opening scene is referenced at least a dozen times throughout the movie. It’s funny, but Cap swears in every movie he’s appeared in up to that point. Ultron is one of the more terrifying villains in the comics. There’s always something unsettling about an expressionless android. Although James Spader can be perfectly threatening, Whedon knew he could be just as funny. Ultron’s CGI design makes him a physical match for the Avengers, but I was never crazy about his expressive face. Ultron’s god complex is fitting, if a little overdone. I expect those kinds of Whedon trademarks, but giving Hawkeye the spotlight was an odd choice.

Hawkeye was first introduced as an Iron Man villain in 3 separate Tales of Suspense comics. Joining the Avengers made him a steady presence on the team, but never anyone’s favorite. Jeremy Renner does show a lot more charisma and an occasional sense of humor that Barton had in the comics. His best joke is acknowledging the fact that he only has a bow & arrow in a fight against robots. At least most of them are trick arrows. Although he still doesn’t have a mask, Hawkeye’s dark purple costume is better with a more archery inspired look. Fallout from Hulk’s rampage leaves the team in need of a place to lay low. Barton is surprisingly revealed to have a family on a secret farm that Nick Fury set up for him. Like most of his character traits, Laura Barton is from the Ultimate universe. Linda Cardellini plays Hawkeye’s supporting wife and mother of two with a third on the way. Age of Ultron gave Scarlett Johansson a chance to explore Nat’s affectionate side. Understandable considering Johansson was pregnant while filming. Black Widow is still a skilled fighter with a similar short haircut, electrified catsuit, and widow’s bite batons, but she’s also a caring Aunt to Barton’s children. Which is traced back to her tragic past in the Red Room. All assassin’s are sterilized to become more efficient killers. I just wish the reveal didn’t factor into what is arguably the worst part of the sequel for me.

I absolutely hate the Black Widow and Hulk romance. I don’t care if they’re the only single heroes on the team, Bruce Banner is supposed to be with Betty Ross. Without her, Romanoff is the one calming the Hulk down with the now iconic “Hey big guy, the sun’s getting real low” lullaby. Steve is the first person to approve of the relationship since he’s gotten a lot closer to Natasha since their time in The Winter Soldier. Without a solo movie to tell his story (thanks a lot Universal), all of Banner’s inner turmoil has to be shown amongst his fellow Avengers. Mark Ruffalo more fully owns the role with more of the Hulk than we’ve seen before. This is the first movie to begin and end with the Hulk, but he doesn’t have a single line for some reason. The Hulk’s CGI appearance is about the same as before with Stark’s contribution being a pair of purple stretch pants. Although Andy Serkis was strangely cast as the non-CGI Ulysses Klaue, he did help Ruffalo with his motion capture. Like before, Banner’s best interactions are with Stark. Whether they’re performing mad science together or fighting on the streets of Johannesburg.

Given the way Iron Man 3 ended, I honestly never thought I’d see the Hulkbuster armor on the big screen. The Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight is everything a Marvel fan could ask for. The Mark XLIII armor is about the same as the red & gold suits that came before, but it can also operate inside the Veronica. The nickname is a nod to Archie comics and the closest we may ever get to Betty being acknowledged again in the MCU. The Mark XLIV Hulkbuster suit is beyond awesome with a logical amount of contingencies to fight the unpredictable Hulk. A satellite hovers around to deploy an electrified cage and spare parts for destroyed limbs. All the unintended destruction is enough to give Banner a reason to leave. Robert Downey Jr.’s contract was up as soon as his trilogy was completed. Fortunately Marvel kept him on board, since Iron Man is simply too important to the story. Downey Jr. is a bit more serious with Stark’s need to build Ultron, but he still cracks jokes along the way. Stark and Cap’s conflicting ideologies begin to show again as they chop wood on the Barton farm.

Their civil war will have to wait for Nick Fury to reamerge with a pep talk for the team he helped form. Despite S.H.I.E.L.D. being no more, Samuel L. Jackson needed to appear no matter the size of the role. Cobie Smulders had a chance to show Maria Hill’s humorous side before she rejoined with Fury. Steve Rogers is still a perfect soldier, but Chris Evans definitely shows more of Cap’s fun side. He’s more comfortable on a team afterall. Hayley Atwell’s mid-Agent Carter cameo is Steve’s only link to the past. After the response to his previous Avengers costume, Captain America returns to a padded suit with a darker red, white, & blue with brown boots & gloves. Stark’s contribution is an electromagnet that summons Cap’s shield the way Thor summons his hammer. Cap and Thor continue to get along well with their own set of takedowns involving the hammer and shield. The only Avenger absent from the safehouse is Thor. He flies off for a majority of the film to get answers regarding his vision. Chris Hemsworth is now more in tune with Thor’s humanity on Earth. His long hair and outfit is about the same as previous designs since there’s no fixing perfection.

This was Thor’s first time not interacting with Loki, since Tom Hiddleston’s cameo was cut. Idris Elba as Heimdall and Stellan Skarsgård as Dr. Erik Selvig are Thor’s only link to his supporting cast. Selvig helps Thor in a confusing Norse water ritual that reveals the emergence of the Infinity Stones. Although it was probably an excuse to get Hemsworth’s shirt off again. Fury’s most valuable piece of information is discovering Ultron is unable to use nuclear launch codes thanks to an unknown firewall. Tony uses the Nexus internet hub to track the source and Banner only contributes by realizing Ultron may go after Helen Cho in Seoul, South Korea. Claudia Kim does well in her small role that sees her mind controlled by Loki’s scepter. The Maximoff twins switch allegiances when Wanda senses Ultron’s ultimate goal for global human extinction. Cap has his shield losing one on one fight with Ultron as Barton and Romanoff take Cho’s Regeneration Cradle containing Ultron’s incomplete “Vision.” Romanoff is taken, but Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch prove their loyalty by saving passengers on a runaway train.

The most bizarre thing about the twins is that they were played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen one year after playing husband and wife in Godzilla. More bizarre is the fact that Taylor-Johnson and Evan Peters (who plays the Fox Quicksilver), both appeared in Kick-Ass together. Although I appreciate Marvel Quicksilver’s comic accurate accent and blue running sequences, there’s no denying Fox did a better job. Their version wasn’t overly accurate, but he was fun and super powerful. This version is mostly protective of his sister and wears a blue tracksuit. The closest he comes to a personality is his repeated line “You didn’t see that coming.” Olsen on the other hand, was genius casting with no competition from Fox. Little did we know her big screen career would one day surpass her famous twin sisters. Wanda is unhinged, super attractive, and more powerful than she realizes. Her vaguely magical powers are visualized with red energy. Instead of full witch attire, Wanda dons a short black dress and scarlet jacket in the final battle. The Avengers’ only advantage is Ultron’s “Vision,” but they all fight over how to proceed. Vision is undoubtedly the one Avenger I never expected to see a comic accurate portrayal of on the big screen. Yet he was too important to Ultron and Scarlet Witch to ignore.

Vision made his first appearance in Avengers #57 created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema. Stan Lee’s only contribution was making him an android instead of an alien. Vision was highly logical like Spock and had a series of advanced powers like flight and intangibility. The movie somehow manages to make his red face and silly green & yellow costume work. Vision comes together in a highly convoluted way that actually makes a lot of sense. Ultron uses Vibranium in Cho’s Regeneration Cradle to construct the body. Revealing the blue energy from Loki’s scepter that really contains the yellow Mind Stone. My theory was correct, but I think the color choice was an accident. Stark and Banner attach J.A.R.V.I.S.’s A.I. to the Mind Stone and Thor brings Vision to life with his lightning. Paul Bettany had it very easy voicing J.A.R.V.I.S. ever since the first Iron Man, but now he gets into the action by playing Vision. The technical makeup retains his classic colors with a costume that synthetically forms around him. Vision assures the team that he’s on the side of life and proves he’s worthy by surprisingly lifting Thor’s hammer (a first in the MCU).

The Avengers assemble to rescue Natasha and save the world from extinction. Ultron makes himself a stronger new body, aligns himself with an army of robot drones, and plans to wipe out all life using a Vibranium infused Sokovia as a meteor. Stark permanently replaces his A.I. with the less memorable F.R.I.D.A.Y. and dons the sleeker Mark XLV armor. Iron Man keeps Ultron busy while Cap and Thor tend to civilians. Meanwhile, Banner rescues Black Widow from her underground prison. They only share one kiss before she unleashes the Hulk. Although Hawkeye is very much a loner on the team, his best interactions are with Wanda and Pietro. Barton gives Wanda the pep talk she needs to become an Avenger in a particularly badass sequence. Thor has his one on one fight with Ultron when he’s taken to the center of town. Fortunately Vision arrives to swing Mjolnir and wipe the internet from Ultron’s mind. The Avengers assemble in another awesome group fight that gives every hero a chance to show off their unique skill set. Iron Man, Thor, and Vision use their range attacks on Ultron while Hulk smashes him.

With Sokovia flying in the air, Nick Fury arrives with S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarriers in a deus ex machina to evacuate civilians. Don Cheadle is the only supporting superhero with a substantial role. Rhodey redons a sleeker Mark II armor, tries to tell a War Machine story, and helps destroy flying drones. Whedon’s incessant need to kill beloved characters comes when Quicksilver takes several bullets for Hawkeye and a child. I don’t think I’ll ever truly forgive the controversial decision. Hulk throws Ultron out of the Quinjet, a traumatized Wanda rips Ultron’s heart out, and Iron Man destroys Sokovia with Thor’s help. Vision saving Wanda from the wreckage made me so happy, because I knew what that meant for their future. Vision has an intriguing philosophical conversation with the last Ultron drone before destroying him for good. In the aftermath, Hulk exiles himself using a Quinjet set to stealth mode. Clint retires with his family and names his baby Nathaniel Pietro Barton in Quicksilver’s memory.

Just like the comics, a new Avengers compound is built in upstate New York with most of the team leaving. The Marvel trinity say goodbye with Thor seeking answers in Asgard and Tony leaving to get his life straightened out. Black Widow and Captain America stay to train a new team of Avengers. My excitement was through the roof as soon as I saw Wanda in an all scarlet costume surrounded by Vision, War Machine, and Falcon in his redesigned uniform. Anthony Mackie briefly appears to discuss Winter Soldier matters with Cap, but he had to be digitally replaced at the end. Age of Ultron ends in a previously frustrating way with Cap shouting “Avengers!” before “Assemble” is cut off. The after-credits scene continues to hype up Thanos as he dons the Infinity Gauntlet and promises to find the Stones himself. Phase Two expanded the MCU in such a big way. TV was suddenly crucial with episodes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. directly tying into Age of Ultron. Daredevil also premiered on Netflix, but it didn’t tie into anything. Avengers: Age of Ultron is more game changing than it’s given credit.

24. Avengers Age of Ultron

Ultron strikes

Preceded by: The Avengers & Followed by: Avengers: Infinity War

Hooked On a Feeling

Guardians of the Galaxy is an unexpectedly awesome space romp. As the tenth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Guardians of the Galaxy turned one of Marvel’s most obscure titles into a massive success. I may be a huge comic book fan who knows more than most, but even I don’t claim to know everything. With the rights to X-Men and the Fantastic Four belonging to Fox, the MCU had no choice but to adapt a team that mainstream audiences never heard of. It seemed like a joke when producer Kevin Feige hinted at the possibility, but I was in utter disbelief when I read the full Phase Two slate. I was more shocked that hard R superhero movie director James Gunn was the one helming the project.

The cast was just as weird, but I had to admire the poster’s tagline that simply said “You’re welcome.” It wasn’t till I saw the trailer that I actually started to think it looked cool. I sort of had to convince my parents to see it, but by the time we left, Guardians of the Galaxy became a household name. It was hilarious, action-packed, surprisingly heartfelt, and full of nostalgic songs. That’s not exactly how the comic started out. The original 1969 team created by Arnold Drake, Roy Thomas, and Stan Lee was completely different than the 2008 team that the movie is based on. Even they weren’t the same as the Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot we ended up with. I’m so glad Guardians of the Galaxy took a chance on a bunch of a-holes…

20. Guardians of the Galaxy

The Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy was the furthest Marvel had ever gotten into the cosmic side of its universe. Thor hinted at the possibilities, but he was still a superhero with a strong link to Earth. Despite feeling like space Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy was almost completely separate from anything else in the MCU. Its largest contribution was setting up another Infinity Stone and giving Thanos his first full appearance. You might think Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. would have nothing to work with, but they were the first ones to introduce the infamous Kree race. James Gunn was surprisingly perfect for such an obscure title. He’s a true fan that remained faithful to the greater Marvel universe, yet made the characters as original as possible. It’s an impressive balancing act that makes Guardians of the Galaxy one of my personal favorites. Even though my knowledge of the team was limited to light research and a rare pre-movie cartoon appearance on Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.

The original 1969 team never had much lasting success. It wasn’t until the 2008 Annihilation: Conquest storyline that Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning assembled a team of existing Marvel space heroes and/or villains. The 2008 roster consisted of Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Phyla-Vell, and Adam Warlock. The latter two would’ve been too tricky to pull off, and that’s acknowledging the fact that there’s a talking raccoon and tree on the team. Peter Quill was originally a half human/half Spartoi astronaut turned interplanetary space cop named Star-Lord. His first appearance was in the 1976 Marvel Preview #4. Guardians of the Galaxy is the first MCU film to begin before the Marvel Studios logo. Gunn’s greatest contribution was the use of an Awesome Mix Vol. 1 soundtrack. The mixtape seems like an excuse to listen to hits from the 60’s and 70’s, but it ended up being the heart of Quill’s journey. In 1988 Missouri, young Peter Quill is first seen listening to “I’m Not in Love” by 10cc. His mother Meredith Quill dies of cancer before giving him one final gift. A disrought Quill runs away, only to be abducted by aliens.

Thus begins an adventure that’s about 95% outer space. The furthest reaches of the galaxy are explored with more aliens, advanced technology, and planets than we’ve ever seen before. Each set was specially designed and multiple colorful alien races were so impressive that Marvel got their first Best Makeup and Hairstyling nomination. Plus a nod for Best Visual Effects since there was more CGI needed than usual. Star-Lord is at least partially brought to life with a very comic accurate breathing mask. The rest of his outfit is a much cooler red trench coat instead of a stuffy blue uniform. Guardians of the Galaxy was the first MCU property to cast an unlikely comedic actor as a superhero. Chris Pratt of Parks and Recreation fame, went from pudgy comedian to ripped leading man like it was nothing. 2014 was a perfect showcase of Pratt’s likable sense of humor and raw sincerity. Quill dancing to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone on planet Morag was enough to establish the tone of the movie. Most jokes are similar to The Avengers with a more adult edge that works surprisingly well.

Star-Lord steals a shiny orb and the character’s obscurity is hilariously lampshaded by no one recognizing his name. Quill is pursued by a very different non-blue Korath the Pursuer played by Djimon Hounsou in one of his many comic book movie roles. Quill’s personality is humorously frozen in the 80’s. It shows in his awesome ship the Milano, his walkman tape deck, and troll dolls. Like the rest of his eventual teammates, Star-Lord is a criminal thief who sleeps around with alien babes. A major change is Quill being abducted by an original crew of rough smugglers. I was never crazy about the Ravagers, but they do have their moments. They’re led by 1969 Guardians team leader Yondu Udonta. Gunn’s frequent collaborator Michael Rooker is a lot more southern, but very comic accurate with his blue skin, red mohawk, and whistle activated arrow. Gunn’s younger brother Sean Gunn plays second-in-command Kraglin and does some awkward stand-in work. Yondu has a soft spot for Quill, but he puts a bounty on him when he double-crosses them.

The Dark Aster is also in pursuit with Ronan the Accuser at the helm. The Guardians of the Galaxy don’t have a whole lot of strongly associated villains, but they do borrow existing cosmic antagonists. Lee Pace is perfectly intimidating, but his straightforward motivations are about as deep as Malekith. Ronan is a blue Kree zealot hellbent on destroying Xandar. He retains his war hammer, but Ronan’s outfit is black instead of green. If that doesn’t make him a Darth Vader clone, than his subservience to a higher power does. Thanos continues to sit and grin as he makes his presence known after Ronan kills the Other. His purple skin looks kinda blue with motion capture used instead of makeup. Josh Brolin has only a few lines to hint at the Mad Titan he would become. The orb contains the third Infinity Stone known as the Power Stone. The purple energy is enough to devastate entire planets. The children of Thanos accurately consist of Gamora and Nebula.

Gamora was originally an orphaned green alien trained as an assassin by her ruthless adoptive father. Her first appearance was in the 1975 Strange Tales #180. Princess of sci-fi Zoe Saldana was an absolutely perfect choice to play Gamora. She went from blue skinned mocap to green skinned makeup in a slightly less revealing sexy blue leather outfit. Gamora is an expert fighter and voice of reason when she betrays Thanos, but she can still get laughs. Nebula is her opposite with a heated sibling rivalry and need to please her resentful father. Her appearance closely resembles a later iteration with cybernetic body replacement. Scottish redhead Karen Gillan shaved her head and synthesized her voice to play the deadly blue cyborg. Although Nebula doesn’t always have time to shine. Star-Lord and Gamora’s meet cute sees them fighting for the orb on Xandar. It’s there that Rocket and Groot are hunting for potential bounty. Their scanning device even picks up Stan Lee’s cameo as a Xandarian ladies man.

Rocket Raccoon was originally an anthropomorphic raccoon from an all animal world called Halfworld. His first appearance was in the 1976 Marvel Preview #7. Although they dropped the animal part of his name, a talking raccoon was still a bizarre thing to see in a live-action superhero movie. Real raccoons were studied to make sure Rocket’s CGI appearance didn’t seem cartoony. Bradley Cooper was an unexpected choice, but thankfully his smartass Brooklyn accent was perfect for Rocket. Better than a comic accurate cockney accent. Rocket is genetically-engineered, doesn’t know he’s a raccoon, provides weapons, and is very funny with his comments. Groot was originally a totally different alien monster accidentally created by Stan Lee. His first appearance was in the 1960 Tales to Astonish #13. A talking tree was just as weird, but Groot ended up being a true breakout star. He’s an innocent with realistic CGI plant features that can regrow and produce magical spores. Gamora chops off Groot’s arms for the fourth time in Phase Two. Franchise action star Vin Diesel was cast, but all he had to say was “I am Groot” a hundred times. A big reason for Groot’s unexpected fame. Rocket and Groot have a believable partnership that gets them roped into the story.

All four are arrested by the Nova Corps. An intergalactic police force from the comics with accurate helmets and blue & yellow uniforms. John C. Reilly and Glenn Close play high ranking Nova members who have their moments with the team. A prison line up (different from the trailer) runs through each team member. The movie’s signature song “Hooked On a Feeling” by Blue Swede plays as Quill’s walkman is confiscated. Drax the Destroyer was originally a saxaphone player named Arthur Douglas placed in a strong alien body. Instead of Thanos, Ronan is the villain who killed Drax’s wife and daughter. The human thing is also dropped to make Drax an alien who doesn’t understand metaphors. Pro-wrestler Dave Batista can be both vengeful and unintentionally hilarious. Muddy green makeup and heavily detailed red tattoos were used to cover his already jacked shirtless physique. Drax is the final teammate introduced in the high tech alien prison the Klyn. Nathan Fillion makes things uncomfortable as an alien inmate who pushes the movie’s edgy humor.

Drax goes after Gamora, but Quill convinces him to save it for Ronan. Rocket comes up with a plan of escape that Groot humorously messes up. At least it starts a badass prison break with Rocket firing a big gun on top of Groot. The team of criminals, a-holes, and petty thieves successfully come together to escape on the Milano. But not before Star-Lord retrieves his walkman to the tune of “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes. Guardians of the Galaxy had 2 hours & 5 minutes to believably bring together this group of misfits. Their banter is just as entertaining as their fight scenes. Their main goal is getting the orb to a buyer on the severed head of a celestial called Knowhere. While they wait, Quill tells Gamora about the legend of Footloose and they get closer by listening to “Fooled Around and Fell in Love Song” by Elvin Bishop. Meanwhile, Drax clashes with Rocket and Groot during an alien death match. The buyer is Benicio del Toro as the very flamboyant Collector, first seen at the end of Thor: The Dark World. He’s a classic comic villain with a vast collection full of easter eggs. Including a Dark Elf, Chitari, and Cosmo the Spacedog. The Collector explains the origin of the Infinity Stones for the first time in the MCU. Can’t say I ever expected to see a Celestial on the big screen, but such is the power of the Power Stone. It’s enough to kill the Collector’s slave girl Carina.

Things take a turn when Drax foolishly calls Ronan and it leads to a battle in space pods. Nebula blows up Gamora’s pod, Ronan beats Drax, and the team is at their lowest point when the Dark Aster obtains the orb. A very unconventional heartfelt moment comes when Quill gives Gamora oxygen in deep space. The Ravagers pick them up, but they strike a deal as Drax, Rocket, and Groot decide to “save” them. They come up with 12% of a plan that really comes together when Quill decides to do what’s right. The climax is awesome with the Guardians, Ravagers, and Nova Corps coming together to face the Power Stone infused Ronan and his Sakaaran army. It’s not comic accurate, but it is badass to see the team dressed in matching red uniforms set to “Cherry Bomb” by The Runaways. Infiltrating the Dark Aster gives everyone time to shine as Gamora has a heated confrontation with Nebula, Drax rips out Korath’s robotic implant, Groot takes out several Sakaaran with a smile, Yondu takes out several Sakaaran by whistling, and Star-Lord fires on Ronan.

Rocket crashes the Milano as many Nova ships are lost, but it sends the Dark Aster hurtling towards Xandar. Groot’s tearful sacrifice protects them long enough for him to say “We are Groot.” Ronan mockingly calls the team the Guardians of the Galaxy in an evil monologue that’s interrupted in the most cringy way imaginable. Quill proposing a dance off using “O-o-h Child Song” by Five Stairsteps never worked for me. It does succeed in destroying Ronan using the team’s united power over the Power Stone. Yondu and Kraglin allude to Quill’s father, but it’s Nova Prime who confirms Star-Lord is half alien. Rhomann Dey thanks them with a rebuilt Milano and Peter finally opens his mother’s gift. Awesome Mix Vol. 2 closes the adventure with the Guardians together listening to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye. A pre-credits scene really steals the show with an adorable baby Groot dancing to “I Want You Back” by Jackson 5. You’d think the after-credits scene would set up Avengers: Age of Ultron, but the audience is trolled big time with a clever cameo by none other than Howard the Duck. Seth Green voices the CGI duck 28 years after his first big screen disaster. It’s that level of Marvel appreciation that made Guardians of the Galaxy so out of this world.

21. Guardians of the Galaxy

Groot lights the way

Followed by: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The Fall of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier succeeds by trading in a 40’s war picture for a 70’s political thriller. As the ninth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: The Winter Soldier exposed all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets. If The First Avenger followed Captain America’s history in World War II, then The Winter Soldier needed to follow a man out of time. Just like the comics, Cap was first recruited by the Avengers before having his own solo series in the 1970’s. Unlike Tony Stark or Thor, Steve Rogers no longer had a supporting cast to return to. So the aftermath of The Avengers is shown from the perspective of the remaining S.H.I.E.L.D. agents.

Since Cap slept through most of the best U.S. conspiracies, S.H.I.E.L.D. was used to tell a genuine political thriller. The Winter Soldier is easily the best second installment in the MCU. It’s not just a great superhero flick, it experimented with the genre in a way that felt fresh. A big reason for its success is producer Kevin Feige taking a chance on the mostly comedic directing duo the Russo brothers. Since Joe Johnston’s pulp superhero direction was no longer needed, Joe & Anthony Russo increased the real world thrills. I was especially excited to see The Winter Soldier, because it was based on the 2005 story arc of the same name. The Winter Soldier was the perfect way to bring some old fashioned action into the modern world…

18. Captain America The Winter Soldier

Captain America confronts Black Widow

Captain America: The Winter Soldier delivered on everything I was hoping to see as a longtime Cap fan. Chris Evans is perfect as a Jason Bourne type of action hero fighting with expert precision and throwing his mighty shield with ease. All of Steve Roger’s shock from waking up in the modern day was used in The Avengers. So Cap’s adjustment only extends to a clever booklet that Steve uses to catch up. The contents of which, changes depending on the country. Captain America’s 1940’s allies weren’t nearly as recognizable as his modern day allies. Peggy Carter was a fairly obscure love interest in the comics and the Howling Commandos originally belonged to Stg. Fury. Steve meets his newest ally during a friendly jog through Washington D.C. “On your left” was all we needed to turn Steve and Sam Wilson into instant friends. Falcon is the first African American superhero created for the mainstream Marvel comics. A major step forward that Stan Lee & Gene Colan brought to life. Falcon first appeared in Captain America #117 before headlining a team up series called Captain America and the Falcon.

Anthony Mackie desperately wanted to be part of the MCU, so he was given the opportunity to become the icon hero. Mackie’s cool charisma came out even when the cameras weren’t rolling. Sam Wilson is depicted as a former pararescueman with military training who now helps wounded warriors. It’s the best way to have a connection between the radically different soldiers. Speaking of different, The Winter Soldier was the best place for Black Widow to reappear. Ironic considering all the movies Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson appeared in before they were superheroes. Teaming up with Captain America made perfect sense since they share a history in the comics and Natasha Romanoff is far too important to be given the Hawkeye treatment. He’s strangely absent despite the greater emphasis on S.H.I.E.L.D. Johansson dials up Romanoff’s mysterious spy nature in a way that challenges Steve’s honest all-American nobility. Black Widow’s catsuit is just as seductive and her red hair has now been straightened.

The Avengers still don’t assemble, because Cap is working a lot closer with S.H.I.E.L.D. Captain America trades in his red, white, and blue uniform for a cool all blue stars & stripes uniform that resembles his Super-Soldier costume from the comics. His shield is also painted blue for stealth missions with his counter-terrorism S.T.R.I.K.E. team. Frank Grillo is definitely intimidating as the team’s commander Brock Rumlow. Don’t expect a skull & crossbones just yet. For now he’s just a shady S.H.I.E.L.D. agent. Steve and Natasha’s banter mostly consists of her trying to find him a date in the 21st century. Persistent humor is thankfully reduced to make room for brutal well choreographed hand to hand combat. The Russos were sure to prioritize as many practical effects as possible. The shaky cam is what really makes it feel like a Bourne film. Cap becomes all the more awesome when he jumps without a parachute, takes out enemies, and infiltrates a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship that was hijacked by French pirates. The surprisingly comic accurate Batroc the Leaper leads the pirates and has a fast paced fight with Cap.

Steve begins to lose his trust in S.H.I.E.L.D. when he discovers Romanoff was there to retrieve secret data. Cap’s main source of conflict is his conflicting ideologies with Nick Fury. This was Samuel L. Jackson’s third top billing performance as the secretive S.H.I.E.L.D. director. It was a chance to really get to know the man behind the eye-patch. Fury alludes to the origins of his mistrust and tries to convince Cap that the world is no longer black & white. It’s at the Triskelion that S.H.I.E.L.D. unveils their plans to launch three cannon equipped Helicarriers powered by repulsor technology. That and a character wanting Iron Man to appear at a birthday party are some of the few Avenger references we get. Project Insight plays on our current fear of satellites being used to eliminate threats before they happen. A seasoned performer like Robert Redford helped legitimize The Winter Soldier as a 70’s political thriller. Senior S.H.I.E.L.D. secretary Alexander Pierce has a long history with Nick Fury and holds clearance over Project Insight. There’s a lot of complex political discussions with the World Security Council from The Avengers, but you’re never bored.

The First Avenger is mostly referenced when Steve tries to relive the glory days. There’s a swell Captain America museum that houses a replica of his World War II uniform, a memorial for Bucky, and grainy black & white footage. Despite being in her late 90’s, Hayley Atwell needed to return as an elderly Peggy Carter to give Steve closure. CGI was used since makeup would’ve been too distracting. It was nominated for Best Visual Effects, but they should’ve gotten a Best Picture nod as well. A conspiracy starts to grow when compromised agents ambush Nick Fury in his heavily fortified spy van. It’s a tense sequence that shows Fury at his most determined. The car chase ends when the Winter Soldier takes out the vehicle. The mysterious assassin is the best possible choice for lead villain in the sequel. The Winter Soldier leaps off the page with his long hair, tactical suit, and metal arm with a star symbol. They just replace his domino mask with a goggle mouthpiece combination.

The final vital Captain America character is his longtime love interest Sharon Carter. The lovely blonde Agent 13 is only given a few scenes to hint at her potential relationship with Steve. Emily VanCamp does a good enough job at hiding her identity as Steve’s neighbor before showing off her S.H.I.E.L.D. devotion. Nick Fury manages to hide in Steve’s apartment and pass on the message not to trust anyone. When Fury is shot, he gives Steve a flash drive containing the secret S.H.I.E.L.D. data. The most striking image in the movie comes when Cap chases the Winter Soldier and he catches his shield with his metal arm. Cobie Smulders understandably returns as Agent Maria Hill when Nick Fury “dies” on the operating table. Cap thinks he can trust Pierce, but he turns out to be part of an even larger conspiracy that’s compormised most of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fortunately it gives us the greatest fight scene in the movie. As Rumlow and other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents pile into an elevator, Cap quickly realizes it’s an ambush. The close quarters fight gets better when Cap leaps out of the building, lands on his shield, and takes out an entire Quinjet on his motorcycle.

The on the run mystery kicks in when Black Widow finds the flash drive and tells Cap all she knows about the decades old Winter Soldier. They both become fugitives when they trace the data to a S.H.I.E.L.D. bunker in New Jersey. They may not be a romantic pairing, but Steve & Natasha do share a kiss when trying to hide from agents. The bunker happens to be the same sight where Rogers did basic training. It’s in the former S.S.R. building that the flash drive connects to an old supercomputer. It was the best way to have Arnim Zola appear on a comic accurate screen with a camera on top. Instead of a robot body, Zola’s consciousness was preserved on a computer before his death. Although Red Skull doesn’t physically appear, his legacy lives on when we learn the shocking truth that Hydra has been growing inside of S.H.I.E.L.D. for decades. Zola’s algorithm will allow Project Insight to take out individuals that Hydra views as a potential threat. Cap and Romanoff are nearly buried with the evidence, but they escape long enough to partner up with Sam Wilson. Since he’s the only non-agent that they can trust. His qualification is an awesome specialized wingpack that resembles his metal wings from the comics. Falcon just wears military garb instead of the red spandex that Mackie wanted.

Their next move is getting answers from a secret Hydra agent who happens to be Jasper Sitwell. Maximiliano Hernández has been around since Thor, but this was his chance to take center stage. Senator Stern from Iron Man 2 also returns and Garry Shandling manges to give everyone chills by uttering the infamous “Hail Hydra.” Sitwell reveals more of Hydra’s plan and even names Bruce Banner and a certain neurosurgeon named Stephen Strange as potential threats. A highway fight begins when the Winter Soldier manges to get the jump on Cap and his team. Black Widow and Falcon do their part, but it’s Cap who has the most intense confrontation with the assassin. The Winter Soldier uses Cap’s shield against him and pulls out a knife before Steve pulls off his mask. Turns out he was Bucky all along! I’d be surprised if I wasn’t a huge Marvel fan. After plummeting from a speeding train, Bucky survived thanks to Hydra experimentation. His left arm was torn off for the third time in Phase Two. Zola picked him up and brainwashed Bucky into the Winter Soldier he is today. He’s still alive thanks to cryogenic freeze that thaws every few years to carry out assassinations. Sebastian Stan is even better as a haunted figure with no memory of who he is.

The incredibly faithful Winter Soldier comic arc is emphasised by its creator Ed Brubaker making a cameo as one of his doctors. He may be the secondary villain, but Redford is just as intimidating when Pierce shows his true colors. Maria Hill rescues Cap’s team when they’re captured by the Hydra agents. She takes them to the obviously not dead Nick Fury who agrees to Cap’s plan of letting S.H.I.E.L.D. fall. They just have to get close enough to the Helicarriers in order to manually override their system. The battle for S.H.I.E.L.D. is enough for Steve to don his classic World War II uniform. Something he “barrows” from the Captain America museum. Stan Lee cameos as a security guard who makes the hilarious discovery. The climax brings out Cap’s best speech yet, as he tells his fellow uncompromised S.H.I.E.L.D. agents that the price of freedom is high. Sharon is a big help when she stops Rumlow from starting the launch. Unfortunately, the Helicarriers are still deployed with Captain America and the Falcon making their way through Hydra agents. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier square off in a fight that leaves Sam grounded. A Triskalen fight between Sam and Rumlow gives the latter the scars he needs to become Crossbones. Meanwhile, Black Widow stops Pierce with fancy face disguising technology.

Stopping the launch is even enough to finally see Fury’s damaged left eye, but the best part is the friend vs. friend fight between Cap and the brainwashed assassin. It’s one of the more emotional final fights in the MCU. Steve manages to reach his best friend when Bucky saves him from the Helicarrier explosion. In the end, Agent Romanoff releases all of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s secrets and Pierce goes out with a final “Hail Hydra.” The fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. concludes with Natasha facing her exposed past in a courtroom, Sharon joining the CIA, Hill joining Stark Industries, and Fury erasing his existence. The unexpected fallout actually helped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. more than it hurt it. The Hydra twist meant way better storylines and even a surprise TV appearance from Samuel L. Jackson. Natasha parts ways on more equal terms and Sam stays by Steve’s side to help find Bucky. The after-credits scene reveals Bucky learning all about his forgotten past, but it’s really the mid-credits scene that’s worth screaming about. Since it reveals longtime Hydra leader Baron Wolfgang von Strucker using miraculous test subjects in his experimentation with Loki’s scepter. Along with the awesome reveal of a certain witch and speedster known as Wanda and Pietro Maximoff. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an action-packed game changer that was with me till the end of the line.

19. Captain America The Winter Soldier

The Winter Soldier catches Cap’s Shield

Preceded by: Captain America: The First Avenger & Followed by: Captain America: Civil War

Journey into Mystery

Thor: The Dark World is mighty middle-of-the-road. As the eighth installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: The Dark World is crucial for introducing the second Infinity Stone. As well as dealing with the aftermath of The Avengers from the perspective of the Asgardians. Thor: The Dark World has the unfortunate distinction of being one of, if not the weakest installment in the MCU. The Incredible Hulk notwithstanding. The sequel nevertheless bears a few admirable qualities. It was the first MCU movie to have a subtitle. Although they could’ve done a bit better with something as generic as The Dark World.

It was also the first Marvel Studios film to go without the Paramount Pictures logo. Turning the Marvel logo into a longer, more dynamic image. I was probably more excited about Thor: The Dark World than most fans who were still conflicted about the God of Thunder. The production was just a bit more complicated since Kenneth Branagh opted out of directing. For a time, he was surprisingly replaced by future Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins. It’s probably best they didn’t stick with her, because she originally wanted a Romeo & Juliet style story. So Jenkins was instead replaced by Game of Thrones experienced director Alan Taylor. With his direction came a gritty realism that made Thor: The Dark World work…

17. Thor The Dark World

Thor in Vanaheim

Thor: The Dark World is pivotal for being the first MCU movie released during the fall. Proving that a tentpole superhero flick didn’t need a summer release to be successful. Sure it wasn’t the billion dollar success that Iron Man 3 was, but it still turned a profit. Even with a Rotten Tomatoes score as low as 66%. Thor: The Dark World was the last MCU film to have its Blu-ray accompanied by a Marvel One-Shot. All Hail the King brought back Ben Kingsley as an imprisoned Trevor Slattery in order to hint at a possible redemption for the real Mandarin. There was even a surprise cameo from Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer. It was the last One-Shot since Marvel TV was becoming the more definitive source of universe expansion. Since Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. aired in 2013 months before The Dark World, there was an episode that directly tied into it. The episode amounted to S.H.I.E.L.D. agents cleaning up the mess and commenting on how dreamy Thor is.

Chris Hemsworth is now even more confident as the stoic God of Thunder. Although he is a bit mopey walking around in a blue robe. Like the comics, Thor is more torn between worlds than he was before. His look is so much better with heavier detail on his chestplate and longer blonde hair with a Viking braid. His flowing red cape and hammer were already perfect. Of course Hemsworth also has his obligatory shirtless scene. Alan Taylor was sure to bring a lot of Game of Thrones influence to the look of Asgard, as well as grand scale battles. Asgard can’t look too different than the golden CGI kingdom it was before. The environment is the same, but you can definitely see more age and beauty in the architecture. The rest of the Asgardians have similarly improved armor. Since there’s still no time to explore all Nine Realms, The Dark World focuses on the titular dark world Svartalfheim. Home of the Dark Elves and its power hungry leader Malekith. Apart from Loki, Thor doesn’t have the most recognizable rogues gallery.

Malekith is arguably the weakest villain in the MCU. The wildly eccentric dark elf from the comics is turned into the most generically evil stock villain you could imagine. Christopher Eccleston tries his best, but a pointy eared elf with dark armor isn’t gonna beat Loki. After his attempted rule over Midgard, the God of Mischief is finally given his punishment from Odin. Tom Hiddleston was born to play Loki at this point. He understood that apart from a trick here or there, Loki needed to grow from his experience as a villain. He’s sentenced to an eternity in the Asgardian prison. The most interesting part of The Dark World is how much more blurred the line between magic and science becomes. Despite their viking appearance, the Dark Elves fly around in a swordlike spaceship, Asgardians use energy weapons, energy force fields, and ride in skiff aircrafts. There’s still too much of Earth, but at least the Nine Realms are given more attention. As are the returning actors who are given more to do in the shockingly short 1 hour & 52 minute runtime. Anthony Hopkins continues to narrate the origin of this movie’s McGuffin.

Centuries ago, an epic battle was fought between Odin’s father Bor and the wicked Dark Elves. Instead of the already established Casket of Ancient Winters, Malekith is after the Aether. Red space sludge that can transform all of reality. Malekith’s evil plan is to plunge the realms into eternal darkness with the help of the Convergence. An event that aligns all Nine Realms together. The Avengers are once again not involved since most of the movie’s events take place off world or in London. Thor’s excuse for not returning to his love Jane Foster, is his obligation to restoring peace to the warring Realms. Asgard’s sister realm Vanaheim is briefly seen as a village where Thor and company fight the good fight. Only ending when Thor reduces a Kornan to a pile of rubble. Thor’s friends are each given some time to shine. Jamie Alexander explores Lady Sif’s love for Thor as they continue to fight side by side. It could’ve started a love triangle, but this was Sif’s last theatrical appearance for a long time. Alexander did however make two seperate appearances as Sif on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The Warrior’s Three are separated when Tabano Asano’s Hogun chooses to stay with his Vanaheim people. It’s a shame since Hogun is actually given a comic accurate Japanese beard. Ray Stevenson’s Volstagg has the most attention of the three, but his hearty appetite isn’t shown much. Not that anyone would notice, but Fandral was recast for the third time in a row. Stuart Townsend was the original actor chosen before being fired for his primadonna behavior. Joshua Dallas was recast in the part, but Once Upon a Time prevented him from returning. So Flynn Rider himself Zachary Levi was recast in his place. Idris Elba takes a much more active role as Heimdall. Since the Bifröst Bridge is fully restored, Heimdall shows more comradery with the Prince of Asgard. His all-seeing eyes alert Thor to Jane when she’s put in danger. Earth is easily the weakest part of the movie since the humor doesn’t always match what goes on in Asgard. Natalie Portman has an expanded role as scientist Jane Foster, but it feels like she’s phoning it in at times. Jane is now living in London and going on a date with a hapless Chris O’Dowd.

Although her absence was explained in The Avengers, Jane’s frustration with Thor’s absence seems a little over done. Since Dr. Erik Selvig was the most affected by Loki’s mind control, Stellan Skarsgård strips naked to go on a crazy rampage. He talks about the Convergence in a mental institution that also houses Stan Lee’s humorous cameo. Kat Dennings continues to get a few laughs as Darcy, but giving her an intern was a bit much. Ian is just kind of there to be kissed or pushed around by Darcy. Jane, Darcy, and Ian all witness the Convergence affecting reality. Trucks float in mid-air and portals send objects between realms. Jane becomes the “fish out of water” when the Aether possesses her body. So Thor returns to Earth to take her to Asgard. Thor and Jane are even more in love than they were before, but I still wouldn’t call it a deep relationship. Odin is very much against Jane’s presence until he helps them to better understand the Aether’s ancient power. The Dark Elves awaken to search for the Aether and Malekith enlists the help of Algrim played by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. Like the comics, Algrim is transformed into the monstrous Kurse.

The best character expansion is given to Thor and Loki’s loving mother Frigga. Rene Russo got to explore her nurturing side, her witch magic, and her fighting spirit. Frigga is the only person Loki truly cares for as he passes time in his cell. She’s also the only one who approves of Thor’s relationship with Jane. The Dark Elves attack Asgard when Kurse breaks out of their prison and disables their shield. All of Frigga’s increased importance was due to her death at the hands of Malekith. A blast from Thor’s lightning gives Malekith his comic accurate blackened face before he escapes. All of Asgard mourns the loss of their queen in a beautiful Viking funeral that sends her to Valhalla. Events from the first movie are sort of rehashed when Thor decides to commit treason in order to save Jane and destroy the Aether. Heimdall, Sif, and the Warriors Two each play their part in holding off Asgardian forces. Meanwhile, Thor enlists the help of his estranged brother since he knows all the secret exits out of Asgard. Turns out Loki looks much worse than he was letting on, but he perks up by altering his and his brother’s appearance. His funniest appearance change is pretending to be Captain America in a surprise cameo from Chris Evans.

Of course Loki’s help earns him threats and a slap from Jane in response to New York. Thor and Loki’s brotherly banter is always a highlight and it really shows in a fun spaceship flying sequence. Loki backseat drives as Thor crashes into everything in sight. They only escape when a portal sends them into the dark world. Svartalfheim is a very bland and lifeless location, but it is the best place to face Malekith. It seems like Loki is betraying Thor by chopping off his hand, but it was all a ruse to extract the Aether. Except it can’t be destroyed by mere lightning. Malekith absorbs the Aether and finally looks a little closer to his comic book counterpart. A battle sees Thor and Loki fighting together, but Kurse wounds Loki before his destruction. Loki’s second “death” is a bit more emotional as Thor stays by his brother’s side. Thor and Jane only return to Earth through the London portal where they reunite with Darcy and a recently released Selvig. Thor is still pretty serious, but Chris Hemsworth does sneak in some lighthearted moments like hanging up Mjolnir on a coat hook. The climax takes place in Greenwich where Malekith plans to unleash the Aether on the Convergence. Jane and Selvig prove themselves useful by installing devices that open portals on his army.

Thor and Malekith’s fight is at first traditional, but it gets very over-the-top when they hop from realm to realm and his hammer is sent flying in all directions. They even end up in Jountinheim where an ice beast chases after them. It’s only by using Jane’s device that Malekith’s arms are torn off for the second time in Phase Two. Then a portal sends his ship crashing onto him in the dark world. In the end, Thor decides he can’t be king when he has so much to do on Earth. Little does he know he’s been talking to Loki disguised as Odin sitting on the throne of Asgard. That striking image is followed by a crucial mid-credits scene that confirms the Aether to be an extremely important Infinity Stone. Sif and Volstagg bring the stone to the Collector as they explain that they want it separate from the equally powerful Tesseract. The after-credits scene is less crucial as it sees Thor returning to Earth and an ice beast running amuck. Fun fact, Hemsworth was actually making out with his wife Elsa Pataky since Natalie Portman had scheduling conflicts. Thor: The Dark World may not have struck thunder, but its impact is greater than its execution.

16. Thor The Dark World

Thor and Loki in the dark world

Preceded by: Thor & Followed by: Thor: Ragnarok

Tales of Suspense

Iron Man 3 is more downgrade than upgrade. As the seventh installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Iron Man 3 dealt with the aftermath of The Avengers. I wasn’t sure how to accept solo adventures after such a game changing crossover. Turns out the financial high of The Avengers was enough to make Iron Man 3 another billion dollar success. Iron Man 3 marked the official start of Phase Two of the MCU. A phase that addressed the fundamental plot hole of all shared universes. Why doesn’t every Avenger assemble when a new threat arises? Iron Man 3 answers that question by making Tony Stark’s struggle a personal one. When Jon Favreau opted out of directing, Christmas loving action director/writer Shane Black completed the trilogy.

The new director was brought on board at the insistence of previous collaborator Robert Downey Jr. Black’s fresh direction seemed to promise a true tale of suspense. The dark atmospheric trailer indicated the most serious MCU film yet, but that was complete false advertisement. Iron Man 3 is much more joke heavy than it let on. It’s called Iron Man 3, but it should really be called Tony Stark 3. The surprising lack of Iron Man action made the threequel a bit of a personal disappointment. My excitement for the movie was nevertheless met to a degree. I was still in school in 2013, so I had to avoid spoilers from my friends who saw it before I did. Iron Man 3 made a lot of controversial decisions that didn’t affect much in the long run…

14. Iron Man 3

Tony Stark suits up in his Mark XLII Iron Man armor

Iron Man 3 is the final MCU movie to open with a Paramount Pictures logo. Disney may have been the permanent distributor, but a deal was made with Marvel Studios to allow The Avengers and Iron Man 3 to keep the logo. Despite the kid friendly studio at the helm, the threequel maintained the adult edge of the previous Iron Man movies. The director change was noticeable since Shane Black set Iron Man 3 during Christmas for no reason. Unlike other unconventional Christmas movies, there’s hardly any direct seasonal influence. Iron Man 3 also opens during New Year’s Eve 1999 to the tune of “I’m Blue” by Eiffel 65. This is sadly the only Iron Man movie not to feature an AC/DC song, but we do get a “Jingle Bells” remix. In order to personalize the story, Tony Stark narrates how he managed to create his own demon.

Iron Man 3 is primarily based on the 2005-2006 storyline Extremis created by Warren Ellis. The modern armor and Afghanistan setting were a big influence for the first movie. Other parts of the storyline included characters like Aldrich Killian and Maya Hansen. Iron Man 3 really feels like every last minute Iron Man character being repurposed to fit the narrative. The New Year’s party is important for establishing Killian’s persistent business proposal, giving Tony a former flame, and finding a place for Ho Yinsen to meet Stark before they were imprisoned in a cave. Months after the Battle of New York, Tony Stark has kept himself busy creating suit after suit. Robert Downey Jr. is a bit more muscular and subtly serious than he was before. I always enjoy Stark’s smartass charisma, but I never asked for this much. Despite over 42 armors being built, Tony is kept out of his suit for far too long. I don’t want to see a Tony Stark action thriller. I was entertained, but stripping a hero of their power can feel cheap sometimes.

Although there’s an entire hall of armor in the basement, the main focus is on Mark XLII. The suit is mostly gold with red accents. Stark implants himself with sensors that allow J.A.R.V.I.S. to assemble the armor on his body mid-air. Despite Mark XLII being a faulty prototype, he continues to use it in even the most dire circumstances. Unlike the comics, Stark is no longer dealing with persistent heart problems. Instead, the Chitauri invasion and narrowly escaping a wormhole gives Tony severe anxiety attacks. The Avengers are only mentioned in passing or by someone calling Thor the “Big dude with a hammer.” That’s why they’re not around to help Iron Man face his archenemy. Iron Man 3 was finally the time to introduce The Mandarin. In the comics, the Mandarin is a Chinese megalomaniac with ten rings of power. In the movie, the part-Indian Ben Kingsley has a long beard instead of long hair and is draped in a green & yellow robe. At first he’s depicted as a behind the scenes terrorist threat who delivers ominous lessons on TV. I was just happy to see Iron Man’s greatest enemy front and center after his previous omission.

After her inclusion in The Avengers, Gwyneth Paltrow makes her fourth appearance as Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts. She’s now a much more confident career woman and loving girlfriend. Pepper is just frustrated by Tony’s distraction of making suits. It only gets more messy when his remote controlled suit activates in the middle of the night. After his unexplained absence in The Avengers, Don Cheadle made me completely forget that he’s a replacement. Rhodey’s War Machine armor is redesigned by the military as an all-American symbol. Although originally meant for Norman Osborne, Rhodey is the one donning the red, white, and blue Iron Patriot armor. Bizarre cameos from Bill Maher and Joan Rivers even comment on the outfit change. You’d think Iron Patriot would make up for the lack of Iron man action, but Rhodey is just as shortchanged. He may not be directing, but Jon Favreau is still around to get laughs as head of security Happy Hogan. He’s the one who first suspects the other antagonist Aldrich Killian is up to something.

An extremely obscure comic book villain is made the center of attention with a charismatic Guy Pearce going from goofy nerd to slicked back supervillain with an attraction to Pepper. Killian’s motivations are almost exactly like Syndrome’s from The Incredibles. He was once spurned by Stark and now seeks revenge with his own groundbreaking inventions. His Extremis formula is now part of the think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics. In the comics, A.I.M. soldiers are dressed in yellow hazmat suits. In the movie, they kind of just use the name. Along with the names of several lesser known comic villains repurposed as superstrong veterans with fire regeneration. Fire spouting Extremis soldiers are certainly different than another villain in a suit of armor, but it’s still a very weird direction to go in. Eric Savin is the more annoying Extremis henchman who keeps popping up and Ellen Brandt is an unassuming Extremis assassin who also makes an impression.

Happy is severely injured during a Chinese Theater Mandarin attack and Tony makes the dumbest decision he’s ever made by giving the terrorist his home address. Apart from casual use like attempting to woo Pepper, the Mark XLII armor is finally used as a precaution to defend his home. It’s at that moment that Tony’s one night stand Maya Hansen drops by with suspicions of her boss Killian working for the Mandarin. Rebecca Hall does well in her small but crucial role as the creator of Extremis. She was originally meant to be the main villain, but Marvel opposed the idea. The first major action scene was worth the wait as Stark’s Malibu mansion, Mark I-VII armor, and robots are all destroyed by helicopters. Pepper dons the armor for the first time as Tony uses it to protect her. The destruction is full of suspense as Iron Man sinks to the bottom of the sea with debris falling on top of him. Stark is presumed dead, but J.A.R.V.I.S. manages to save him last minute by charting a course to rural Tennessee. Although Tony is there to investigate a previous Mandarin bombing, it’s more likely that they just wanted to have snow in this “Christmas” movie. At least it gives us the image of Tony dragging his disabled armor through the snow.

Killian is later confirmed to be working on the Mandarin broadcast as they become more threatening when the President gets involved. Fortunately they make the wise decision to have William Sadler play the fictional President Ellis. Although I wasn’t crazy about him at first, I must admit Ty Simpkins is a good comedic foil as original character Harley Keener. He’s a kid with a potato gun who helps the mechanic Tony on his journey. Their banter is surprisingly funny and Harley turns out to be pretty useful with trying to fix the suit. When femme fatale Extremis Brandt attacks Stark, he finishes her off without his armor. When Savin grabs Harley, he’s blinded long enough for Tony to use a repulsor device. The next exaggerated character Tony meets is a superfan named Gary who’s covering a local beauty pageant. A beauty pageant being judged by an excited Stan Lee cameo. Using an A.I.M. password, Tony views footage of the Extremis formula in action. It’s around this time that Maya sells Pepper out to Killian and Extremis soldiers capture Rhodey for his Iron Patriot suit. When Tony has another panic attack, Harley suggests he build something to help. So he once again doesn’t wear a suit while using store made weapons to infiltrate the Mandarin’s hideout.

The biggest twist in the movie is either really clever or really stupid. I’m somewhere in the middle. It turns out the Mandarin was a bumbling British actor named Trevor Slattery all along. On one hand, the reveal is comedic gold and Kingsley is pretty hilarious. On the other hand, I hate that they wasted such a menacing villain. It turns out Killian is the true main antagonist who created the Mandarin as an intentional stereotypical terrorist to distract from his own nefarious purposes. In case it wasn’t already so similar to The Incredibles, Killian explains it all to Tony as he’s tied up. He wants Stark to perfect Extremis in order to save Pepper and he kills Maya when she opposes him. The armor action finally kicks in again when Tony summons his rebooted Mark XLII suit. Guards are humorously taken out and Tony meets up with Rhodey. His Iron Patriot armor is used by Savin as a trojan horse to kidnap the President aboard Air Force One. Trevor gives them the details and they take his boat to the location. Iron Man takes care of Savin, but is too late to save the President. At least it leads to one of the best superhero rescues in the MCU. Iron Man saving a bunch of Air Force One passengers from falling is extra awesome when you discover the stunt was performed by professional skydivers. Moreso when Stark is revealed to have been remote controlling the armor all along.

Killian’s final Mandarin statement involves a Roxxon oil rig. The company had been seen several times in previous MCU projects, but this was its most prominent appearance. Even in the epic climax Tony and Rhodey are far more reliant on guns than armor. All that sort of changes when J.A.R.V.I.S. activates the “House Party” protocol. New armor is still the highlight of any Iron Man movie and we’re given a grand total of 35 distinct sets of armor. My biggest source of anticipation was seeing the suits in action, but even the most heavily marketed suits are given a few minutes to shine. My personal favorites are “Heartbreaker,” “Silver Centurion,” “Igor,” and “Starboost.” Props to whoever came up with this many unique Iron Man suits. Rhodey isn’t given armor as a joke, so he has to save the President a more creative way. As Tony tires to save Pepper, Killian shows his true colors with a dragon tattoo and calling himself the Mandarin. He’s not the best villain, but at least his arm is sliced off for the first of many times in Phase Two. Tony hops from suit to suit until he has Mark XLII blow up Killian.

When he survives, an Extremis fueled Pepper Potts in a sports bra uses a repulsor ray to finish him off. Just like the previous Iron Man movies, I was ultimately confused and/or frustrated by the ending. It was a little painful to see Tony blow up all of his suits. He also has the shrapnel removed from his chest in a procedure performed by Chinese doctors. I only know that because Iron Man 3 has a bizarre Chinese director’s cut with additional footage starring well known Asian actors. Tony makes a promise to Pepper, Trevor is imprisoned, and Harley is given a bunch of upgraded tech as a Christmas present. Ending with a CGI Tony Stark double throwing away his arc reactor and saying “I am Iron Man.” The credits show clips from every Iron Man movie and the after-credits scene reveals Bruce Banner to be the one listening to Tony’s story all along. He humorously nods off much like the audience probably did. I’m happy Iron Man 3 exists, but it could’ve been so much better. At least it encouraged more universe expansion. It was at this time that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was premiering. Plus the Blu-ray exclusive Marvel One-Shot Agent Carter that would also influence its own TV spin-off. Iron Man 3 went out with a suitable bang.

15. Iron Man 3

“The Mandarin”

Preceded by: Iron Man 2

Rule the Dark

Riddick returns to the gritty R rated roots of Pitch Black. After the lackluster response to The Chronicles of Riddick, Vin Diesel obtained full ownership of the character in exchange for a cameo in Tokyo Drift. Diesel and series director David Twohy worked tirelessly to get back to the basics. Riddick feels like the best of both installments, but it still depends on how much you tolerate someone like Richard B. Riddick. I definitely prefer the first act over the rest of the pitch black creature feature.

Riddick’s role as Necromonger leader is addressed in the opening. Karl Urban returns as Vaako to abandon Riddick on another bright desert planet. The R rating is quickly confirmed by its infrequent F bombs, graphic dismemberment, and very naked women. The first act is better since it follows Riddick alone trying to survive on a planet that wants to kill him. I was especially fond of the relationship he develops with a CGI dog hyena alien creature. Since an entire movie can’t support a premise like that, the second and third acts bring in another group of disposable mercenaries.

Most of them are unlikable, but some stand out thanks to their actors. Katee Sackhoff is the tough female merc Dahl and Matthew Nable plays the father of Johns from the first movie seeking closure for his son’s death. Dave Batista is also present in a bit of ironic foreshadowing. The action is very similar to Pitch Black, except that everyone has weapons to fight the monsters. The most stand out scene this time involves Riddick, once again chained up, but killing a man by kicking a machete at his head. Riddick very much delivers on familiar thrills.


Riddick and his dog

Preceded by: The Chronicles of Riddick

You Keep What You Kill

The Chronicles of Riddick ditches the R rated horror of Pitch Black for a PG-13 action flick. I may not have known about Pitch Black, but I remember seeing a trailer for the sequel very well. It was released right as Vin Diesel’s stardom was beginning to rise. Suddenly a simple sci-fi horror movie wasn’t enough for Richard B. Riddick. The Chronicles of Riddick is a fitting title since it goes for an overly complex story with larger than life villains and an all-star cast. Instead of nocturnal alien creatures, Riddick faces the multi-face masked Lord Marshal and his army of Necromongers. They have laid waste to entire planets and converted their inhabitants.

The movie introduces ideas like an Underverse, elementals, soul stealing supernatural powers, and a prophecy that foretells Marshal’s demise. It’s way more action than I’d expect from a space criminal like Riddick, but he’s just the Furyan for the job. In the time since his escape, Riddick has been outrunning bounty hunters. His price is linked to one of two Pitch Black survivors. Keith David returns as the Muslim preacher Imam when he suspects Riddick is a Furyan. Jack (the teenage boy who was really a girl) returns later on as a badass fighter named Kyra played by Alexa Davalos.

The rest of the cast includes Colm Feore as Marshal, Karl Urban as his scheming subordinate Vaako, Thandie Newton as Vaako’s manipulative wife, and Dame Judi Dench as a wind elemental. The middle act is pretty disconnected when Riddick is brought to a prison planet by miscellaneous mercenaries. The PG-13 rating may be lame, but at least his sun scorched rescue and “death by teacup” is pretty cool. The ending is especially unexpected as Riddick claims the Necromonger throne after killing their leader. The Chronicles of Riddick shines in some areas, but increased scale was its downfall.

The Chronicles of Riddick

Riddick escapes Crematoria

Preceded by: Pitch Black & Followed by: Riddick

You’re Not Afraid of the Dark, Are You?

Pitch Black made a star out of Vin Diesel. Although I was alive in 2000, I don’t think I ever heard of Pitch Black. For years I thought The Chronicles of Riddick was a stand alone movie. Little did I know Vin Diesel’s first iconic character made his debut in a horror themed sci-fi action flick. Pitch Black feels like a slasher movie, if the slasher was forced to work alongside his victims to face a greater threat. The simple premise sees a spacecraft from the distant future transporting a group of cryogenically frozen passengers.

When the ship crash lands on an alien planet, a cast of unique individuals try to survive. There’s a reluctant captain, a cop, a Muslim preacher and his followers, some prospectors, and an impressionable teenager. Although the guilt ridden Carolyn Fry is technically the heroic main character, Pitch Black is more interested in following the villain. Richard B. Riddick is a murderous criminal with a permanent eye shine that gives him night vision. Between his goggles and Diesel’s intimidating physique, I can see why Riddick earned a following.

I just wasn’t a fan of his nihilistic outlook, the disorientating early 2000’s camera work, or the disposal feel of most of the characters. It’s really the concept that drew me in the most. The desert planet has 3 suns that give the film a unique look of either orange or blue light. The R rating is put to use when a horde of nocturnal winged CGI alien creatures hunt the passengers after an eclipse turns the planet pitch black. Although it suffers from conventions of the time, Pitch Black stands out for its intense darkened action.

Pitch Black

Riddick lies in wait

Followed by: The Chronicles of Riddick


Kung Fu Panda 3 is the perfect conclusion to the awesome journey of Master Po. Unlike Kung Fu Panda 2, the third installment is a bit more comedic with a strong supernatural element. The exaggerated fantasy element of martial arts was always present, but they go full chi this time around. Kung Fu Panda 3 was unique for being a co-production between DreamWorks Animation and their Oriental division. Giving China a greater say in the success of the project. I didn’t rewatched DreamWorks animated movies that often after I turned 20, but I should because I forgot just how epic Kung Fu Panda 3 is. After a physical threat like Tai Lung and a mental threat like Lord Shen, the next ruthless villain became the supernatural Kai. A yak spirit warrior with the typically comedic voice of J. K. Simmons. If Tai Lung had a personal connection to Master Shifu and Lord Shen had a personal connection to Po, then Kai has to have a personal connection to Master Oogway. The wise tortoise was absent in Kung Fu Panda 2, but this was a chance for Randall Duk Kim to return. The colorful computer animation used in the spirit world is breathtaking.

Kai uses a set of jade swords and his own power to extract the chi from the great kung fu masters. Turning them into his own jade zombie (jombie) minions. Such animal masters include Master Croc, Master Bear, and Master Chicken. Meanwhile, every other major voice actor from the first & second movies return to finish Po’s story. Although envisioned as a 6 part saga, a trilogy is really the way to go. Jack Black fully understands Po as the beloved Dragon Warrior. The Furious Five are his greatest allies & best friends. An aging Dustin Hoffman is even given more to do as Master Shifu plans to retire. Giving Po the disastrous task of becoming a teacher in the Jade Palace. The previous movie’s cliffhanger is addressed by having Po’s biological panda father find him. Bryan Cranston replaces the previous actor as Li Shan. He’s a big hungry panda most concerned with connecting with his son. The other father gives Mr. Ping a much bigger role as the goose in the middle, but the valley is attacked by Kai’s jombies before anything can come of it. They learn of Oogway’s past with Kai as they both discovered a village of pandas that possessed chi.

It’s enough to bridge both stories together and an excuse to have an entire cast of marketable panda characters. Each panda delivers their own comedic banter, but the most interesting case is the ribbon twirling Mei Mei. Although she was clearly modeled after Rebel Wilson, Kate Hudson replaced her in post-production due to scheduling conflicts. Li shows his son what it means to be a real panda, but he never knew chi to begin with. Something Po desperately needs to learn in order to beat Kai. The Furious Five are split up with the more comedic Mantis and Crane scouting ahead. Then the Jade Palace falls as Monkey and Viper are also turned to jade. I always expect Angelina Jolie to have the biggest role as Master Tigress. This time she goes to warn Po and also ends up being loved by a female panda cub. Much like Seven Samurai, the only logical solution is for Po to train the village how to fight like pandas. All the martial arts action is on par with the entire series, but the visually dazzling spirit world fight is a major highlight. It’s enough to make Po a true Dragon Warrior. Ending with a satisfying kung fu demonstration set to “Kung Fu Fighting” and uniting everyone. Kung Fu Panda 3 is an other worldly way to end a trilogy of awesomeness.

30. Kung Fu Panda 3

Po trains a village of pandas

Preceded by: Kung Fu Panda 2