My Marvel Diary: Conclusion

Image: Marvel/Disney

Over three weeks ago, I set out to watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film. Somewhat sceptical of the whole thing, and fed up of admitting to people that I’d only seen one of the films, I thought it was finally time to get it done. This conclusion to My Marvel Diary summarises my thoughts come the end of the project: my likes and dislikes, my overall ranking, and my ultimate judgement on the MCU.

Mission Accomplished?

Am I a Marvel convert? That’s the question you want answering come the end of My Marvel Diary, right? The short answer is yes. You can stop reading now if you like. The full answer is a bit more long-winded and self-important. Firstly, I’m not sure I ever really needed ‘converting’. I had my doubts about the MCU, of course; I usually do about anything so widely popular that I haven’t seen for myself. But I had no real reason to believe that Marvel films were bad, nor did I want them to be. I might attempt to give off the demeanour of ‘cool indie film dude’ but I didn’t really want the MCU to disappoint me so I could be wilfully contrarian. I wanted to enjoy it, and enjoy it I did.

Both the individual filmmakers and, I imagine, Marvel supremos like Kevin Feige, the biggest of big cheeses, recognise that spectacle alone does not make a good blockbuster. Every one of these films features physics and medicine-defying action, big explosions, and some form of villain. Yet they won me over not because of that, but through their characters. There’s an individual characteristic that I appreciate about each member of the MCU’s band of heroes. I like how disapproving yet loyal Rhodey is to Tony; I like Rocket’s sweet vulnerability; I like the way Nebula has been literally torn apart and ‘improved’ by Thanos; I like Peter Parker’s floppy hair and his adorable enthusiasm. That I like some detail of each character means I care about them, so I invest in their stories. This is why, come the time Cap says ‘Avengers… assemble’ in Endgame I wanted to fight the war alongside them. In terms of getting me to like and root for the heroes involved, the MCU has most certainly succeeded.

Having seen all of the films I do still have some caveats, despite my generally positive conclusion. The attention to character that makes the heroes engaging is frequently forgotten when it comes to supporting characters. This usually occurs with love interests and villains. There are some notable exceptions, but as a general rule the MCU doesn’t do villains as well as it does heroes. This means that their plans, and their relation to the hero, are less compelling than they should be. Similarly with romantic relationships, unless I know something about the other person, I find it hard to care about the hero’s love for them.

Repeating mistakes is one of the more frustrating issues with the MCU and, interestingly, repeated successes can also come off as a weakness. Whilst I have praised a lot of these individual films, I have often praised them all for doing the same things. These moviess are inherently a bit formulaic, following a similar structure each time. There’s a reason I’m such a big fan of The Winter Soldier, Iron Man 3, and Black Panther; they have different strengths and are enjoyable in different ways to the other films. Despite individually really liking Ant-Man, Iron Man and Doctor Strange, they impress for a lot of the same reasons. They’re funny, they have entertaining action, they have a vague redemption arc with a lot of emotion in it. The MCU’s habit of sharing both strengths and weaknesses across its films makes the flaws more irritating and the strengths less exciting. That said, the ordering of the films means that there has usually been something left-field and fresh often enough to keep each individual films enjoyable, even when watching them on consecutive days.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that what makes the Marvel Cinematic Universe special is its hitherto unseen universe-style storytelling. The nature of it as a vast interconnecting web makes it both stronger and weaker as a whole, perhaps limiting its maximum power. When one film is good, it sets up room for the pay-off in a later film. When one is bad, or makes a poor plot decision, it ripples through the other films. The arc we got with Tony Stark over 22 films was fantastic, and kept us in touch with a character over a time period rarely experienced outside of TV. This was why the whole Infinity Saga project worked. Yet for every few of these successes, there was one mistake, introducing a character poorly or making a story decision that would be to the detriment of what followed.

Art vs. Commerce

There is an argument that views the whole MCU as a cynical Disney cash-cow. A gross machine that puts profit, ticket sales and memorabilia rights before making an actually good film. I don’t agree with this view. I do understand it, though. It seems to me that people are often either anti-Marvel or pro-Marvel, which is in many ways just the modern-day pinnacle of the age-old high art vs. low art debate. They either think the MCU is cynical and artless, or they worship the ground Kevin Feige walks on and adore the films.

My position, as I often find myself saying, is a bit more nuanced. Or it may just be cowardly fence-sitting. I prefer to think of it as nuance however. It is correct that Infinity War attempts to trade off the films you liked before, and works very hard to make sure you will watch more Marvel movies in the future. It’s also true that the MCU has made Disney a lot of money and that when these films are commissioned, profit is a contributing factor. I think you would be naive not to assume that is the case. There have been times in the MCU when the never-ending tale it tells has been prioritised by good individual storytelling. Unnecessary cliffhangers and complications, not letting anyone stay dead so they can get them in another film, adding in so many characters that some of them are flat and underwritten: all of these things are to the detriment of the films, but to the benefit of Marvel as a money-making exercise.

Marvel movies, to an extent, clearly are vast commercial entities, as are most films that make much money at all. Where the critical approach is wrong, I believe, is in thinking that these films exist only for commerce, and that they are therefore bland or uninteresting. There are definitely people in Marvel and Disney meetings who don’t care about the film, just the money it makes, but I do not believe that they are the people behind the camera. The writers, directors and actors involved in MCU films are not cynical toymakers. They have put a lot of heart and soul into these films.

When Taika Waititi came in and Thor: Ragnarok went in a new direction there was creative verve and flair to the MCU. There have been blockbusters made that are surely cynical cash-ins, and people can usually spot it. Broadly speaking, film critics, the most sceptical people of all, like the MCU. That’s because they are good films. It is possible that, whilst making a ton of money and broadly following a certain formula that is to the benefit of ticket and merchandise sales, that the films have personality, and are made by individuals with care and attention.

You can enjoy the MCU and also think it should not dominate the box-office as much as it does. I am first and foremost a film lover, which means that I want to see good films at the cinema. The MCU provides some of those good films. Sometimes, it also crushes the opposition so spectacularly that it appears getting financing for smaller, non-franchise projects can be quite difficult in Hollywood these days, and that is a shame. I do not think people should exclusively be watching blockbusters based on existing comics, toys, or rollercoasters, but it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy and appreciate them too. I am glad that I supported smaller films at the cinema instead of watching every MCU film when it came out. I am also glad I’ve finally caught up.

The Ranking

Likely the most interesting bit of this project for readers has been my ongoing ranking of the Marvel movies. It’s the thing that gets the most complaints, but I tried very hard to have good, fair reasons for every decision I made. If this was based purely on how much fun I had watching each film, then the ranking would look a bit different (Ant-Man would be way higher up for a start). But I can’t overlook clichéd storytelling, poor writing, or weak plotting when producing a ‘best’ ranking. This is just a reflection of what I think are the ‘better’, more well-made films in the MCU. The final table looks like this:

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. Captain America: Civil War
  3. Thor: Ragnarok
  4. Avengers: Infinity War
  5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  6. The Avengers
  7. Black Panther
  8. Iron Man 3
  9. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  10. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
  11. Guardians of the Galaxy
  12. Iron Man
  13. Captain Marvel
  14. Doctor Strange
  15. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  16. Captain America: The First Avenger
  17. Ant-Man
  18. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  19. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  20. Iron Man 2
  21. Thor
  22. Thor: The Dark World
  23. The Incredible Hulk

Some of the decisions were very difficult because the films are so bunched together in terms of quality. It might help if I roughly split the ranking up into sections. I rate every film I watch out of 10, and the MCU was no exception. The average score for the MCU come the end of My Marvel Diary is just under 7.5. The lowest rung on the ladder is the following: 

  1. Thor: The Dark World
  2. The Incredible Hulk

These two are just pretty poor, getting a 5/10 from me. They offer very poor character development, flimsy supporting players, and banal, uninteresting villains. The boring smashy-smashy element of the MCU I was sceptical of comes out most in these two. They do offer some fun, and hold the attention throughout, which is why nothing in the MCU goes below a 5/10, but this is Marvel at its worst.

The next chunk of the ranking is a bit bigger:

  1. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  2. Ant-Man and the Wasp
  3. Iron Man 2
  4. Thor

These are all 6/10, three star films in my book. They’re alright. I enjoyed them more than the bottom two, but there are glaring faults in them all. Thor was the biggest disappointment, proving to be the worst-handled character until Ragnarok came along. Age of Ultron, meanwhile, had the most wasted potential. Coming off the back of some great solo films, it was a real missed opportunity for Marvel, and by far their weakest team film. The other two are both second instalments offered similar charms to their predecessors, but with weaker films supporting them.

The next section, where we move into very respectable 7/10 territory, is the following:

  1. Doctor Strange
  2. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  3. Captain America: The First Avenger
  4. Ant-Man

All of these films have great merits, and on a good day any of them could maybe have been bumped up a notch. But when the quality and style of the MCU films is fairly uniform for a while, you’ve got to make distinctions somewhere. Doctor Strange is the one I suspect I may regret putting so low when I eventually re-watch all of these, but a weak villain meant it had to sit a notch below a lot of the MCU for me, despite brilliant visual work. Ant-Man and Far From Home I loved watching, but just rested a bit too much on overused story tropes for me, particularly when it comes to bad-guy backstory. The first Captain America film, meanwhile, falls into this category for slightly different reasons. It’s arguably harder to fault than these other films, but it also lacks the sheer entertainment value, humour and panache of them too. It’s a solid film, but can’t compete with the MCU’s best.

The biggest part of my MCU ranking, which is a credit to the franchise in itself given that these are all 8/10 films, looks like this:

  1. Black Panther
  2. Iron Man 3
  3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
  5. Guardians of the Galaxy
  6. Iron Man
  7. Captain Marvel

This is one of the closest sections, and difficult to set in order. Captain Marvel is the instantly least striking or memorable of the bunch, perhaps why some people would have it lower. It is a really good film for the most part though, ticking almost all my personal boxes for a superhero film. The next four all encapsulate the best qualities of the MCU, shoving barrel-loads of humour into action plots and a lot of emotion too. If I had to show somebody the variety but also essential spirit of this series, I reckon Homecoming, Guardians and Iron Man would just about do it. They are all well worth praising, and strike me as very four-star films. The top two within this category push the 9/10 bracket for trying to give us something different than we have seen before, and generally succeeding. They both eschew the common redemption or origin story arcs to probe more complex ideas and challenge their audiences. A lot of the time I would rather watch the other films in this category, but without works like Iron Man 3 and Black Panther the MCU would have become too shallow and repetitive. To continue enjoying the others, you need films like this in your franchise. They both miss the top tier, though. Black Panther sometimes lacks the fun and vitality of much of the MCU, making it a less entertaining watch overall; and Iron Man 3 strays into cliché with the damsel-in-distress plot, wasting the best chance yet to show us more of Pepper Potts. It is still one of the most undervalued contributions to the MCU, however.

Finally, we have Marvel’s finest, the closest they get to the perfect blockbuster (they haven’t quite managed it yet):

  1. Avengers: Endgame
  2. Captain America: Civil War
  3. Thor: Ragnarok
  4. Avengers: Infinity War
  5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  6. The Avengers

Like Black Panther and Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier, Civil War, and Ragnarok give us something different. They all injected a new lease of life into the MCU, but in different ways. Civil War is the best blending of thematic weight and pure entertainment that the MCU have ever managed; The Winter Soldier took on a different genre and made one of the most compelling, bone-crunching thrillers of all; and Ragnarok did comedy and delirious fun like nothing else before, plus it finally got Thor right. The other three, the big team movies that bookended the infinity stone arc, all master the Marvel formula in a way the lower films never quite manage. Humour, action, heart, and character depth are all there for us to enjoy. Each one had a crucial role in the MCU triumph, and each of them performed it wonderfully.

Thank you so much for reading My Marvel Diary. I hope you have enjoyed it, and that my thoughts haven’t outraged you too much. ReelTime has lots of other great content, so don’t forget to keep coming back.

Andrew Young