Hard-Traveling Fanboys: Countdown (Top 5 Marvel Studios Movies)

Mild-mannered reporters by day, Greg Phillips and Nick Duke share an intense love of comic books that has made them the Hard-Traveling Fanboys. And if there’s anything that fanboys love, it’s debating what book is better than another book or which character is “cooler.” Enter Countdown, a monthly column where Greg and Nick will give a top five list and debate the merits therein.

Nick: Greetings and salutations, dearest consumers of the World Wide Web address known as placetobenation.com. We are the Fanboys who are also occasionally hard and/or traveling, and who even less occasionally choose to actually write columns.

Greg: But rather than dwell on the past, we always prefer to look toward the future. Well, actually, that directly contradicts the point of several of our regular columns, so … disregard that.

In any event, Marvel’s Ant-Man is currently sitting atop the box office in the U.S., representing yet another success for the movie side of the Marvel Universe. We figured, what better time to count down our favorite iterations within the Marvel Cinematic Universe? As the great Ranjin Singh might say, there is none. What follows will be our personal favorites among the high-quality output from Marvel Studios, which really hasn’t put out a bad movie yet.

MV5BMjM2NTQ5Mzc2M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTcxMDI2NTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Nick: Yes, and it’s important to emphasize that. Any time I discuss these movies and wind up putting one of them at the bottom of the list (which is unavoidable given the nature of such things), I always hear “what’s wrong with INSERT MCU MOVIE HERE?” Well, it’s not that there’s anything necessarily overly wrong with any of them — just different entries that speak to me more than others. So, if your favorite MCU movie happens to be one of the Shellhead sequels, understand I like them just fine. I just happen to like them less than all the other MCU movies. And with all that out of the way, let’s see Greg’s No. 5 choice.

Greg: Indeed, speaking of Tony Stark, let’s kick things off with one of the more divisive movies within the genre.

"Genre!"
“Genre!”

Greg’s No. 5: Iron Man 3

iron-man-3-13hNick: Ah yes, admittedly my least favorite MCU entry. Greg and I have always varied wildly on our enjoyment of the Iron Man solo movies, but more on that in a bit.

Greg: While we don’t get the opportunity to talk about movie preferences that often, one thing you should know about me going into any movie review or list is that I adore traditional, ’80s-style action movies, especially buddy cop movies. If you asked me for my ideal movie, it probably involves a renegade cop and his partner fighting corruption and foreign terrorist sometime in the mid-to-late ’80s.

That is, perhaps, why Iron Man 3 appeals to me as much as it does. The movie was written and directed by Shane Black, the chap responsible for writing the first two Lethal Weapon movies (among my favorite film franchises) as well as the endlessly entertaining Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and he imbues it with the same sensibilities that made those action comedies so entertaining and endearing. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was the film that relaunched Robert Downey Jr.’s career in Hollywood, so it’s appropriate that the chemistry between director and actor is so strong in Iron Man 3.

If there is a valid complaint that could be levied against the MCU, it’s that some of the movies tend to jumble together and follow the same basic style. Black eschews some of those melodramatic trappings while staying within the basic framework of the universe as established in the very first Iron Man flick. It’s arguably the least superheroic of any of the Marvel movies, but I think that’s why I dig it so much. This is basically an action comedy that turns into a buddy cop movie with RDJ as Riggs and Don Cheadle as Murtaugh.

Gary Busey as main villain in Iron Man 4 confirmed.
Gary Busey as main villain in Iron Man 4 confirmed.

I can’t lie and say the villain is particularly compelling (he isn’t), and I can’t lie and say the plot is particularly original (it isn’t), but one thing I feel comfortable saying is that this is the funniest of the Iron Man movies. The strides made in CGI over the years pay off in the action scenes, and Black makes sure to dial back the comedy when it’s appropriate and let RDJ expose Stark’s scars after the events of The Avengers.

For me, it doesn’t get much better than Stark and Rhodes launching a Lethal Weapon-style infiltration on the base of Aldrich Killian. It’s a tremendously fun scene that caps off a tremendously fun movie. As for my take on the Mandarin stuff … well, I find the Mandarin to be a wretched character, so it was one of my favorite aspects of the film.

Nick: We’ve had our share of debates on this film since its release, but I’ll briefly restate my criticisms for our readers who haven’t discussed them ad nauseum. As you’ll see in a bit, I love the first Iron Man movie, mainly because I feel it strikes the perfect balance of comedy, action and drama in a way that its two sequels haven’t yet approached. I felt Iron Man 2 lingered too much on its character moments, while this one, to me, relied too much on the comedy. Comedy in an Iron Man movie, to me, is like the sauce on a pizza. It’s what really makes it an Iron Man movie, but overdo it, and I’m not likely to rate it among my favorite experiences.

As you mentioned, the villain here isn’t very compelling, as is sadly the case too often in the MCU. And, in regards to the Mandarin, you loved the choice. I hated it. To me, if all the character is to you is a joke, then you as a filmmaker should probably just use a different character. Just my two cents. I understand the criticisms some have of the Mandarin as a character, but the fact remains he’s as intrinsically tied to Iron Man as someone like, say, Ra’s Al Ghul, is to Batman. Use him, or don’t use him, but don’t mock a character that some have fond memories of.

In the end, though, there are aspects of this movie that really, really work. It’s by far the best usage of Rhodey in the Iron Man films, and the chemistry between Cheadle and RDJ just pops off the screen at times. All in all, despite the warts I think it has, IM3 is a damn fine time at the movies.

However, it isn’t as fine as the film that started it all…

Nick’s No. 5: Iron Man

M Payoff 1shtGreg: This is a movie that I love, but I undoubtedly love it less than the vast majority of people. It’s actually in some ways my least favorite of the three Iron Man movies, even though it’s incredible in its own right.

Nick: The debut entry in what would become known as the MCU had a lot riding on it at the time. It was Marvel’s first effort at self-financing and producing one of its own films, and the gamble seemed to be riding mostly on the shoulders of one Robert Downey Jr. I’ll admit, I loved the casting the moment I heard about it, but even I didn’t foresee RDJ taking the character of Tony Stark and completely reinventing him for the big screen.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that Stark has NEVER, in any incarnation I’ve read, not even the beloved Demon in a Bottle, been half as charismatic, interesting and flat-out entertaining as RDJ made him here. It’s one of the greatest pieces of casting in movie history, and I don’t feel that’s hyperbole.

Greg: No arguments here. As far as I’m concerned, Downey is worth every penny he asks for from Marvel Studios.

Nick: But it isn’t just Stark’s show. We get a decent effort from Gwyneth Paltrow, though she’s one of the few aspects of the franchise I completely agree has gotten better as it goes along. We also got a small, but perfect, usage of director Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan.

And while, yes, he isn’t overly compelling or original, I have a bit of a soft spot for Jeff Bridges’ outing as Obadiah Stane. He’s there to chew scenery most of the time, but you could do a whole hell of a lot worse than Jeff Bridges as far as scenery chewers go.

"We're Iron Mongers, Tony. Hey, wait a minute..."
“We’re Iron Mongers, Tony. Hey, wait a minute…”

The movie also has the benefit of being able to tell what is a fairly solid origin story. The characters’ motivations and reactions to the events that lead to the creation of Iron Man are well-reasoned and serve each character’s arc that will play out over the course of the film.

And, as I mentioned earlier, this is just a perfectly balanced movie. Just the right amount of sauce, cheese and toppings to call back to my pizza analogy. In a universe where Marvel has just kept increasing the stakes, it’s telling that one of its smallest movies in terms of scope still holds up eight years later.

Greg: All right, now for my dissenting view. This is, without question, the most important movie the studio has produced, as it set the template that most of the rest of the Marvel films have followed. It’s also really good even without that qualification.

However, Obadiah Stane is flat-out boring. In fact, he may be my least favorite villain we’ve seen in any of these movies, certainly the weakest of the Iron Man series (even below the IM3 baddie). Never do I feel he’s a viable threat to Tony, even when in the midst of my next complaint, the action scenes. Sure, there are some good ones here. But most of them are unimaginative and don’t really take advantage of the possibilities in the same way the sequels have. The CGI is mostly on-point, but there are a few misses here and there. And while there’s plenty of comedy, it’s probably the lightest on laughs on rewatches of this particular series.

Nitpicks aside, it’s a good movie and has earned its respect by setting the table for the superhero boom we’re all relishing these days.

But there’s another Marvel movie that perhaps exceeded all others in the action department.

Greg’s No. 4: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

winter-soldier-poster-no-mask

Nick: No real disagreement here. If this had been a Top 6, this one would have been on my list. Love this one, which is stunning given my general apathy for all things Steve Rogers.

Greg: My expectations for this one weren’t sky high going in. Sure, I’d read some of the glowing reviews, but the first Captain America picture is probably my least favorite in the Marvel catalog (although, again, it’s still good, so put the pitchforks down). Honestly, the aspect I was most excited about was seeing one of my longtime favorite mixed martial artists, Georges “Rush” St-Pierre, take on the role of Batroc the Leaper.

I also have a somewhat embarrassing confession to make — on first watch, at the theater, I didn’t quite get all the love. Sure, it was great, but it didn’t fully reach me the way it did others. And then, recently, I watched it again. Wow.

This has, hands down, the best fight scenes Marvel has ever produced. Let’s just get that discussion out of the way right now, because it ain’t even close. I have no evidence to support this, but I have to believe GSP helped out in the fight choreography, because the hand-to-hand battles are brutal, efficient and realistic (well, within the confines of super soldiers, anyway) — chokes, armbars, knees and elbows are used throughout the movie, and each fight tells a story. The best fight, perhaps, is the first one between Batroc and Cap, a quick and brutal affair that demonstrates GSP’s flexibility and Chris Evans’ physicality.

There’s a breathtaking car chase scene early, in which Nick Fury tries to outrace SHIELD/HYDRA agents only to come face-to-face with the titular Winter Soldier. It’s a pulse-pounding sequence that, again, blows away any action scenes that have come before it in the MCU. The Russo Brothers prove themselves as adept as the finest action directors working today.

But it’s not all explosions and broken noses. Robert Redford turns in a captivating performance in a rare villainous turn, and Scarlett Johansson smolders on screen as the Black Widow. But it’s the Falcon who owns the movie every time he appears. Anthony Mackie makes Sam just as relatable, just as likable and just as heroic as Steve Rogers was in the first Cap movie, and it’s his presence that adds some levity to a pretty serious political action thriller.

The movie’s so good that it gives me faith the Russos will do a fine job picking up the Avengers franchise from Joss Whedon.

Nick: I really have nothing to add. That response, with the exception of not being blown away the first time you saw it, sums up my thoughts exactly.

Nick’s No. 4: Thor: The Dark World

Thor_The_Dark_World_poster_006

Greg: Here’s one I loved in the theater.

Nick: Now, in a perfect world, we should be able to evaluate each of these movies on their merits and faults in an objective, well-reasoned manner. Yeah, fuck that.

When it comes to the God of Thunder (AND ESPECIALLY CHRIS HEMSWORTH HOH YEAH), all objectivity goes out the window for me. Of all the solo Avengers, the Odinson is easily the one I’m most invested in, and the one that is often able to thrill me with references alone.

"Hoh yeah!"
“Hoh yeah!”

This movie builds so well upon the foundation laid by the first Thor flick by expanding the bubble, allowing us to see new Asgardian technology, various realms and a new race of villainous creatures. In addition to Hemsworth as Thor, there are also great supporting performances by the likes of Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins, Zachary Levi, Ray Stevenson and others.

But the real scene, and movie, stealer here is the return of Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Loki in this film is simultaneously dangerous, relatable, hilarious and detestable. He’s easily the best villain the MCU has to offer, and no offense to Josh Brolin, but I don’t see that changing any time soon.

And while it certainly has its faults, mostly once again of the villain-related variety, I can’t help but be extremely biased in favor of a film that gave me FREAKING FLYING LONGBOATS on the screen FOR GOD’S SAKE!!!!

Hate if you must, but I’m looking forward to making return trips to The Dark World for years to come.

Greg: As I mentioned above, I loved this one in the theater. Unfortunately, subsequent rewatches haven’t been quite so kind, thanks largely to a terrible villain and some meandering subplots. It also drags on a bit too long for my taste. Still, this is definitely in the top half of my favorite superhero movies, and a huge portion of it is due to the amazing chemistry between Hemsworth’s Thor and Hiddleston’s Loki.

Greg’s No. 3: The Avengers: Age of Ultron

avengers-age-of-ultronNick: CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER.

I will have plenty more to say on this one in a bit, but I must say I’m surprised to see it outside the top two.

Greg: Admittedly, this is the Marvel movie I’ve seen the least. In fact, I’ve only seen it once, which puts it at a disadvantage against the top two on my list (or perhaps an advantage against the rest of the list). However, I have no problem calling this one of my favorite superhero flicks from any studio. Are there technical issues here and there? Probably. I honestly couldn’t tell at the theater. I was too busy turning into a giggling little schoolboy.

Look, the same way it’s hard for Nick to objectively review Thor, it’s hard for me to objectively review an Avengers movie. As my fellow Hard-Traveling Fanboy can attest, I spent most of the movie with a big, stupid grin on my face. Joss Whedon is a master of comedic dialog, and it’s on display from beginning to end here (especially in a movie-stealing party scene at the tower).

But it’s the chemistry between the cast that makes this, like its predecessor, a classic. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo and Jeremy Renner play off one another like a great “Saturday Night Live” cast. In the first, they were costumed heroes uneasily meeting one another for the first time. Here, they come off like old friends battling the problems old friends sometimes go through — personal strife, trust issues, differing interests. Even the stuff that doesn’t work so well (the love story between Black Widow and Bruce Banner, the complete ignoring of the events of Iron Man 3) doesn’t detract from the pure joy found everywhere else in the movie.

For the first time, Hawkeye feels like a relevant, important character. The two new heroes, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, are introduced in a way that makes me interested in those characters for the very first time. Elizabeth Olsen, in particular, is stunning as Scarlet Witch and pretty much my top celebrity crush right now. She and Aaron Taylor Johnson play Wanda and Pietro like real human beings, capable of screwing up and seeing the error of their ways.

Bae.
Bae.

And if there’s one villain in the MCU who can give Loki a run for his entertainment money, it’s James Spader’s Ultron. He simply dominates the screen, taking an occasionally one-note character and making him a force of artificial nature. Spader’s charisma turns Ultron from a lifeless robot to a living, breathing character capable of trading razor-sharp barbs with Tony Stark while simultaneously beating the Hulk’s brains in. It’s a wonderful experience.

Nick: I agree with everything written here, but more on the most recent assembly later.

Nick’s No. 3: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-2-1308x1940

Greg: It’s a movie that made the world care about an angry raccoon and a dancing tree.

Nick: As Greg mentioned during his discussion of The Winter Soldier, expectations often can play a huge part in one’s enjoyment of a film the first time they see it. For me, coming into GotG, my expectations were as low as they’d ever been for an MCU movie, and, I would suggest, deservedly so. This, up until the last couple of weeks anyway, is Marvel’s most out-there, riskiest, most “because comics” concept they’ve attempted on the big screen so far. And they completely, utterly knocked it out of the freaking park.

I mentioned earlier wanting balance from my Iron Man movies. Well, those rules do not apply here, as director James Gunn and a phenomenal cast pour on the laughs from beginning to end, and I couldn’t have enjoyed the end result more. Stellar performances from Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, DAVE BY GOD BAUTISTA, Bradley Cooper and yes, even, the monosyballic Vin Diesel make this not just a Marvel movie for the ages, but an action-comedy that will stand the test of time alongside other all-time greats of the genre.

Throw all that together, however, and it’s just a great movie. Wrap it in the blanket that is quite possibly one of the best soundtracks this side of Forrest Gump, and you’ve got a movie that begins to approach something near to perfect. Is GotG a perfect movie? Of course not, it’s not The Dark Knight, for God’s sake, but it’s hard to imagine anything I wish they’d done differently. It’s easily the most unique Marvel movie, and it’s one that proves you don’t need a certain earth-based super team to be considered among the studio’s best.

Greg: Excellent thoughts, and hey, guess what?

Greg’s No. 2: Guardians of the Galaxy

galaxy

Greg: I concur with all of my cohort’s thoughts on this, the most unexpectedly amazing of all superhero movies. I just recently rewatched Guardians of the Galaxy with my parents, and it had me laughing just as hard on that old sofa as I did in the theater a year ago. It’s the funniest comic book movie I’ve seen, and it manages to be that without sacrificing emotion, character or action.

I’d never read a GotG comic book in my life before seeing the film, but it spurred me to go find some. Gunn managed to draw out performances that defied expectations — particularly those of Chris Pratt and DAVE BAUTISTA. Pratt was known almost exclusively for playing comedic, light-hearted roles going into this one, and sure, he brought those qualities to Star-Lord. But he also managed to be a convincing action hero and provided much of the movie’s emotional weight. Bautista, known to wrestling fans as Batista, was … well, a wrestler. In this movie he’s a show-stopping dynamo, making Drax even more compelling than his comic book counterpart.

And we haven’t yet mentioned the rest of the wonderful casting (a hallmark of the MCU) — Glenn Close and John C. Reilly in the Nova Corps, Benicio del Toro as an awesomely creepy Collector, and my personal favorite, Michael “Merle Dixon” Rooker as Yondu. Or, if you prefer, Blue Merle.

TWD-Merle-DixonSure, Ronan the Accuser isn’t a great villain, but who cares when everything around him is so darn entertaining? And heck, I’ll admit it: I teared up a couple times during this one, thanks to Rocket and Groot.

So with that being said, everyone has a favorite Guardian. Nick, who was yours?

Nick: Favorite Guardian has to be Drax, right? I mean, I know Rocket and Groot get most of the love, but Drax was legitimately hilarious in this, what with his failure to understand comparisons and figurative language. Good stuff. But if Blue Merle counted as a Guardian, it’d be Blue Merle. “They ain’t never had no Terran before!”

Greg: Drax is definitely mine, too. Yeah, maybe it’s partly due to the wrestling connection, but he’s so amazing. Almost every line he delivers is memorable, and considering he’s probably the least likely guy on the team to be funny, it makes it all the more hilarious. Great character.

Nick’s No. 2: The Avengers

The Avengers 04Greg: HOHO WOW!

"HOHO WOW WHAT A SEGUE!"
“DID SOMEBODY SAY HOHO WOW?!”

I’ll have more to say on this classic a little bit later.

Nick: Listen, all these solo movies are varying degrees of good to great, but the real main events, if you will, are the big blowoffs we get every few years when The Avengers finally assemble. Back in 2008 when this whole MCU journey began with Iron Man, the idea of actually making it all the way through to The Avengers seemed laughable. It had never been done before, and it was essentially based on the assumption that the four movies between Iron Man and The Avengers would be successful.

Well, much to the delight of comic book fans worldwide, the strategy didn’t just succeed — it exceeded every expectation that was imaginable. The stage was set, Joss Whedon was called in to assemble Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, but could even this collection of star power live up to what was an unprecedented level of hype? The answer, as it turns out, was a resounding yes.

The Avengers is a fantastic, if a bit simplistic, film. Every scene lands, and the movie never has to reach too far for a bit of intriguing interplay between characters or a new pairing to let brawl for a bit in one of the movie’s excellent fight scenes. Every Avenger, save for perhaps Hawkeye, has their moment to shine here, something Whedon’s experience with writing for and directing ensemble casts undoubtedly helped.

We see our heroes come together, bicker, pushed to the brink of defeat, bond, and finally, in a moment that everyone knew was coming, yet felt so earned in so many ways, ASSEMBLE. That panning shot of The Avengers as the Battle of New York rages on just filled every nerd heart with joy and every geek eye with a tear. It was, and remains, one of those classic images that can never be duplicated or repeated.

The film as a whole just felt like a love letter to the fans who had helped Marvel get to that point. A thank you for four years of enthusiasm and ticket sales. I’ll never forget the first time I saw it. It’s a film that left an unforgettable mark on audiences around the world and Hollywood itself. Everyone is now chasing the success of The Avengers, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a phenomenon quite like this again.

Greg: Well, crap. You kind of stole my thunder with that terrific description, because …

Greg’s No. 1: The Avengers

Cap's suit is remarkably clean.
Cap’s suit is remarkably clean.

Greg: It’s hard to say it any better than Nick did, but to quote a buddy of ours from a certain blog, The Avengers was truly an experience. I’m not sure any Marvel movie will be able to replicate the sheer cathartic feeling of walking into the theater that first night after four long years of anticipation. And for the movie to pay off that anticipation with such a timeless experience, it just added to the memories for me.

There are so many scenes and moments in Joss Whedon’s masterpiece that people remember today, it’s hard to count them: The Iron Man/Thor throwdown. “I understood that reference.” “That man is playing Galaga!” “Puny god.” Black Widow punking out Loki.

What Whedon succeeded at most of all, though, was making childhood fantasies a reality. I NEVER thought I’d see the day that these titanic heroes and villains would be clashing on the big screen. Sure, we had ensemble superhero films before The Avengers, and even some good ones (X-Men, primarily). But none of them were ever built to. None of them had benefit of the wonderful journey of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. It’s partly because of that journey and partly because of the destination that The Avengers is the greatest Marvel achievement.

Nick: Well, I agree that the Avengers get the top spot, but I prefer the follow-up.

Nick’s No. 1: Avengers: Age of Ultron

There are no strings on him.
There are no strings on him.

Greg: Another instant classic starring Marvel’s mightiest heroes.

I can’t begrudge this being atop your list. Honestly, the three movies atop my list are somewhat interchangeable.

Nick: As we discussed earlier, we all have our own biases when it comes to superheroes and comic book films. One of mine is that I love me some brooding. If others are calling it “grimdark” or “too mopey,” I’m probably loving it. I love seeing our heroes put through the wringer and coming out the other side changed, yet still the same heroes we know and love. So, if I had any criticism of the first Avengers outing, it would be that the Avengers didn’t quite suffer enough, both mentally and physically.

No worries about that here, however, as one of the movie’s major plot devices involves each Avenger facing down their own personal nightmares. Stark faces guilt over his actions or inactions, Thor faces an unknown threat looming in the background, Steve faces the idea of uselessness in a world that doesn’t need soldiers, Natasha faces her past and Bruce faces the idea of completely losing the control he’s worked so hard to gain. These are beautiful individual stories, all of which serve the larger plot and none of which detract from the fact that this is still an Avengers movie. Jokes and banter are still flying 100 miles an hour, and the action scenes are still balls-to-the-wall awesome.

As Greg mentioned, we also get easily the second best MCU villain in Ultron, and one that might even give Loki a run for his money. Throw in a fantastic subplot involving Hawkeye’s personal life that totally landed for me and the introduction of Paul Bettany’s Vision as well as the aforementioned Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and you’ve got a film that expertly builds upon the successes of the original, giving us something that was both familiar and unexpected.

"Ugh, the design is too dark!"
The Vision decked out in his UAB Blazers attire.

I love THAT moment in The Avengers when the assembly is finally complete, but I also feel the movie’s reputation is built largely upon that moment landing. Age of Ultron has no such moments to rely on. These are heroes we’ve seen before, and as such, the movie has to find new spins to put on the superhero team-up. For me, it does so nearly perfectly — more than well enough to take its spot at the top of the MCU pile.

Greg: I can’t find much fault with any of that. It’s a great movie, and it illustrates the detail and effort that’s gone into building this wonderful franchise.

With that, we’ll bring things to an end. We hope you bring some headphones next week, because we’ll be dropping a very special Giant-Size podcast in which we unveil our 2015 Halfies!

Nick: Until next time, let us hear your feedback on our lists and send us some lists of your own! Hit us up on Twitter (@gphillips8652 and @nickduke87), email (GregP@placetobenation.com and NickD@placetobenation.com) or through the Place to Be Nation Comics Facebook page.

Author: Greg Phillips and Nick Duke

Greg and Nick share two passions above all others, both of which involve people in spandex punching each other. Reporters by day, they also insist on being called "Two Dudes with Attitude" but can't decide who is Kevin Nash and who is Shawn Michaels.