The official entries began in 2008, with Iron Man and Incredible Hulk (a quasi-sequel to the 2003 film). And then they kept coming, and they keep coming. None of them has to my mind even approached the sheer brilliance of Batman Begins, say, which itself is not nearly as awe-inspiring as The Dark Knight. But they've been entertaining, easily the best movies ever based on Marvel characters (though X2 will always be the highwater mark for some, and the original Sam Raimi Spider-Mans 1 & 2). When you strike such instant gold as Robert Downey, Jr. pulling the Johnny Depp/Jack Sparrow synergy with Tony Stark, a character who had no cultural relevance at all until 2008, you've done something very, very right.
So here's how I rank the first eight in the cycle:
- Iron Man 2 (2010) For most fans, this was actually one of the more disappointing efforts, but for me it's the one that best understands Downey, Jr.'s Stark and manages a complete and satisfying film around him, contrasted nicely with Sam Rockwell (who is always awesome) as Stark's exact opposite. Toss in Mickey Rourke (who is also always awesome), Scarlett Johansson's debut as Black Widow, John Slattery as Howard Stark (making technology more essential to Iron Man than simply being a superhero basically in order to survive), Gwyneth Paltrow (who's always awesome), and Don Cheadle (who's always awesome!), and it's the best ensemble for any Avengers movie to date. And this one's not at all afraid to make a statement about the nature of the superhero in terms of the public, or government, either. Through and through a solid effort.
- The Avengers (2012) I've been all over the map on this one, but finally, I've come to determine it to be what everyone else on the planet has decided, that it's just plain great entertainment. The gang's all here, and the best villain of the cycle, Tom Hiddleston's Loki, manages to steal the show. More and more, I've decided that the proper attitude toward this one, even if there's no real weight behind any of it, is what's not to love?
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) The straightest version of a superhero movie Marvel has managed to do, and actually manages to capture pretty much the whole history of the genre in a single film. Impressive.
- Thor: The Dark World (2013) The most recent release, I found this to be a vast improvement over its Norse predecessor. Anthony Hopkins, for one, seems to have been inspired (and the inspiration came directly from his Alexander performance as the aged Ptolemy, which is not a bad thing to evoke, considering that's my all-time favorite movie). It plays like a cross between Hellboy and Lord of the Rings. Loki actually doesn't have a terribly strong showing in this one, but that's okay. This movie has Kat Dennings, in the single greatest comedic performance in a superhero movie to date, with a game Natalie Portman attempting to keep up with her. Thor is busy being as straight a superhero as you can get, but manages to hold his own with Loki for the first time.
- Iron Man (2008) The first half of this one sets the perfect tone and is probably as good as anything else in the cycle. The second half, not so much, about as generic as anything else in the cycle.
- Thor (2011) For the sheer dynamite of Loki's debut, it's better than it actually is, which is about as mediocre as you can get.
- Iron Man 3 (2013) A disappointment after everything that came before it, not terrible but also almost instantly completely pointless. Its one thrill is Ben Kingsley's unexpected reclaiming of his own cinematic persona from Daniel Day-Lewis, who's raided it at least twice (seriously, There Will Be Blood).
- The Incredible Hulk (2008) I love Edward Norton, but there was nothing he could do to salvage this entirely generic affair.
How will next year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier compare? (All signs point to "very favorably.") Will Guardians of the Galaxy be considered related enough to the cycle to be relevant in the discussion? What about 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron? Will Paul Rudd be able to make Ant-Man vastly different from the thematically similar and routinely disappointing Hulk efforts? And why was Benicio del Toro so laughably channeling the Schumacher Batman era as the Collector, anyway? And when will we reach Thanos? And will it be worth it???