The Three Tiers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)

With Avengers: Age of Ultron hitting theaters early in May and Ant-Man putting the finished touches on Phase II, I found myself thinking again about the other ten films that form the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Generally speaking, these blockbusters based on Marvel’s comic book heroes offer a fun movie-going experience, but having seen them all, I think there are a few standouts that contribute more than an enjoyable distraction. It was in this spirit that I began to categorize entries in the MCU into three broad groups, and included this summer’s contributions as well:

  1. The Solid Superhero Flicks
  2. The Cash-grab Filler Flicks
  3. The Overachieving Flicks

Solid Superhero Flicks

The first group, the Solid Superhero group, contains the movies that are enjoyable, have memorable scenes, and generally meet our expectations for a Hollywood blockbuster release. They don’t have particularly interesting choices made by the filmmakers or actors, there are some unnecessary or unfortunate scenes that detract from the film, or maybe the villain is uninspiring. But, these small qualms don’t sour us on the movie in any serious way. There are your solid C- to B+ grade movies.

And there are a ton of ’em.

Movies in this group include: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Iron Man 3, Ant-Man, Captain America: Civil War, and Doctor Strange. Each of these movies is good, and their flaws are generally inherent to the comic book movie genre itself (MacGuffins all around, semi-disposable bad guys, and no real stakes or danger for our heroes). But, there are a couple of close cases here: Iron Man and Ant-man for the stand-alone films, and both The Avengers and The Avengers:  Age of Ultron on the high end, and Captain America on the low end.

I believe that all of these films each have small weaknesses that keep them out of the glorified air of the masterpieces that we will discuss later – but they are so close. Iron Man of course kicked off the MCU, and director Jon Favreau’s style and prowess with witty dialogue and banter mesh brilliantly with Robert Downey Jr.’s lippy portrayal of the engineering genius Tony Stark. The glaring flaw in this film is the unfortunately forgettable enemy in the form of Jeff Bridges’ slightly larger Iron Man suit. Though certainly not the worst baddy in the franchise, it is disappointing that Iron Man seems bereft of bad guys right out of the gate. And frankly, it is amazing how similar Ant-Man is to Iron Man with regard to both its strengths and weaknesses. Paul Rudd and his associated cast are as funny as Robert Downey Jr. and company, there are some great training montages, and the film feels smaller overall than most other Marvel flicks. As far as the weaknesses go – Ant-Man also re-treads the powers of our hero in the form of a slightly more powerful suit. Both of these movies are strong – but these lackluster bad guys mar otherwise amazing films.

As for The Avengers movies (and Avengers 2.5 aka Captain America:  Civil War), the problems are more diverse. The original has a different villain problem, as it decides to simply recycle Loki, give him a magical MacGuffin mind-control wand, and provide him with a gigantic alien army. With Joss Whedon’s comic tone and the first appearance of these heroes fighting side-by-side, this film is still great – but it could have been outstanding. This is even more true for Age of Ultron, as the vast array of characters and story lines begin to feel a little forced and tired. Ultron himself was a great villain – and it was disappointing to see him go (although he probably is hiding somewhere, right?), and there are some fantastic action scenes, but Age of Ultron falls just shy of the original – which fell just shy of the higher tier. Captain America:  Civil War falls short on the villain as well, but also lose points for being a poor enactment of a freshman 101 political science class. There is too much awkwardness, too many fights that could be solved by a simple discussion, and too few stakes throughout. “The Airport Scene” is fun, but it has very little substance – it’s cotton candy, not a meal.

All of these films mentioned here are above-average, and one could even say “great” – but they are not the height of the MCU.

The Cash-Grab Filler Flicks

The second group, The Cash-Grab Fillers, I’ll admit I have identified with a little more cynicism. These are the movies that just don’t work. Not only do they have some of the same flaws of our previous group, they have multiples, and are often egregious. We probably do not care much about the main character and their story, the villain is completely forgettable, and there is actively poor writing that manifests itself in nonsensical, wandering plots . These movies exist to pass time between the more important movies with interesting characters or things to say. These are not good, and are in the D grade and below.

The Cash Grabbers are: Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor: The Dark World. I love Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell (go watch The Wrestler and Moon, respectively), but they make a terrible bad guy duo in the Iron Man sequel. The Incredible Hulk was a reboot of The Hulk, with only five years in between those two movies, and was so poorly esteemed that the character was rebooted again only four years later for The Avengers! The third time (in a decade) is the charm, I guess, but this second film in the MCU is most certainly the worst and most forgettable. The Thor sequel has almost nothing new to say, and truly feels like spinning the wheels until Avengers: Age of Ultron, especially for Thor, himself; it is entirely skip-able.

The Overachieving Flicks

And finally, we have the Overachieving group. This group not only has interesting characters, great special effects, and able directing / writing and acting, but the movies in this group have something important to say. There are clear stylistic choices, poignant and relevant themes being discussed, and great performances. These movies should not just be considered, “Great comic book movies”, but great films in general. The only movies to ascend to this height so far are: Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a gigantic wildcard for the MCU, and not many people really had it on their RADAR when it came out (myself included). Where Guardians succeeds so well is through the stylized vision of director James Gunn. He is able to place his mark on the genre with his quirky storytelling and peculiar characters, in each of whom we are invested. From the moment Starlord snatches the MacGuffin stone (or whichever one it was), we are enamored with him. And, if you think I am ignoring the MacGuffin in this movie while punishing the one in The Avengers, there’s a reason for that: Guardians calls attention to the absurdity of this plot element, and so achieves a self-deprecating style of humor (which, by the way, Gunn is known for; see Slither, and also anything else he’s ever done). The most glaring problem with Guardians is undoubtedly the disposable bad guy, but at least in this case he is unabashedly evil, almost to the point of caricature. Emphasizing evil to the point of nearly being over-the-top is a more forgivable problem than coming away with a bland evil-doer, so for that reason I am a little less harsh on this movie than I was on something like Iron Man 2. Guardians of the Galaxy is the perfect comic book movie comedy – we care about the main characters, it pokes fun at itself, and it has a great deal to say about relationships.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier goes the other direction as the perfect dramatic comic movie, and it came out of left field for me. The original was very close to landing in the Cash-Grab category, but this sequel is certainly the best movie in the MCU, and likely contends with The Dark Knight for best superhero comic movie of all time. With a feel much more akin to a wartime spy drama, The Winter Soldier transcends the comic genre in a way that no other film in the MCU has yet accomplished. In addition, the theme of the film is the danger of relying on the virtue of a clandestine government agency with few checks on its power, especially with regards to state-sponsored surveillance. This is powerful and important subject matter, particularly in the current political environment, and it is handled very well by what many consider to be just another popcorn flick. The sequel to this film handles a very similar subject matter much worse. The movie is not without its flaws, including some baffling actions by the evil-doers throughout the second act, but for tackling matters fundamentally more important than how angry the Hulk is, or why Thor and Natalie Portman’s character even care about each other, it distinguishes itself beautifully.

So, there you have it: unnecessary labeling of the films in the MCU based solely on my very own criteria. Why am I an idiot? Where have I gone wrong, and would you like to move some films around in my categorized system? Are these categories even legitimate, or have I taken some dumb comics movies too seriously? It pains me to keep Iron Man out of the Overachievers – but the poor imagination shown in developing a villain that is something more than our hero but bigger docks points from them. Throw your voice in the ring in the comments below if you’ve got some kind of opinion on the films of the MCU!

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