Ranking Marvel’s Phase 2 Movies

6.  Thor: The Dark World — Although undoubtedly the weakest of Marvel’s post-Avengers production cycle, Thor’s second solo outing never-the-less proved to be a monumental gain for the MCU as a whole and this franchise in particular.  It may have come in the form of baby steps, but The Dark World both set up and enabled everything from Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War.

Gradually, Marvel learned that Thor was far more interesting when taken on his own terms: when drenched in the trappings of Norse mythology and Marvel’s on cosmic weirdness, as opposed to the everyday mundanity of 21st Century Earth.  We see Thor dispatched throughout the Nine Realms: not just to Midgard (Earth) and Asgard, but Jotunheim, Alfheim and Svartalfheim.  It proved to be a crucial link between the pissant New Mexican town in Thor and Ragnarok‘s Sakaar.

5.  Ant-Man — Although in many ways a step back from the exponentially raised stakes of this and future phase, Ant-Man answered a nagging question on the minds of many Marvel fans: is the MCU big enough to dial back the scales.  Is there room, in other words, for (pardon the pun) smaller stories and smsaller heroes, or does every last movie have to be The Avengers in order to draw in a crowd.

The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.’  Not only are smaller, less Earth-shattering movies possible in the post-Avengers world, but they are wholly welcome.  Ant-Man is the perfect chaser for the likes of The Winter Soldier of Age of Ultron: a movie confident enough it what it wants to be that the climactic showdown can involve staring down a toy-sized Thomas the Train for the sake of one little girl.

4.  Iron Man 3 — After The Avengers, we thought that we knew Iron Man.  We thought that we had his shtick down pat.  He was the smartest man in the room and he knew it, backed up by a hundred suits of futuretech armor and facing down an increasingly sophisticated breed of tech-based villains.  We even thought that we knew what we were in for when it was revealed that the Mandarin, his arch nemesis from the comics, would be squaring off against him in the third franchise outing for the iron avenger.  We were wrong.

With every fiber of its being, Iron Man 3 resists the natural compulsion to give audiences more of what they want.  Thankfully, the studio and director Shane Black had learned from Iron Man 2 and instead deconstructed the very concept of the character: stripping him down to bits and pieces that he bought from the local Home Depot and reminding everybody watching that he is Iron Man — and in fact was before he ever cobbled together his suit of armor.

3.  Avengers: Age of UltronAge of Ultron had the impossible mission  of outdoing its predecessor, The Avengers: the biggest movie on the face of the planet that singlehandedly remade the modern blockbuster in its image.  In a lot of ways, it even succeeded.  It gave us a far more complex villain than the admittedly already sophisticated Loki.  It worked overtime to develop characters that had thus far drawn the short end of the franchise stick.  It even managed to take everybody’s favorite superheroes to task for their failings since the franchise’s conception.

While it is hardly the best Avengers movie, it more than earns its high ranking in the Marvel pantheon.  It is a fun, fast-paced and deceptively deep film that improves mightily on repeat viewings.  Ultron is perhaps Marvel’s most interesting villain: which is saying something, seeing as how the studio now has Loki, Mandarin, the Winter Soldier and Thanos to boast of.  Ultimately, it was the perfect follow-up to what has since proven to be the perfect blockbuster.

2.  Guardians of the Galaxy — Why anybody ever thought that this Z-list comic property would work on the big screen is beyond me.  Set in the far-flung reaches of Marvels bizarre galaxies, it more fully embraced the possibilities of the Marvel universe than anything that came before it: up to and including The Avengers itself.

Its heroes included a man-child. An Orion slave girl, a wrestler, an Ent and a talking raccoon with a gun fetish and they on-again / off-again fought angry Papa Smurf for control of a shiny space rock.  And yet, everything about it worked.  No matter how head-scratchingly weird or brazenly unorthodox, it told the story of its character with absolute sincerity and transformed a scene of a crying raccoon clutching a twig getting pet by a half-naked brawler into one of the most memorable and touching scenes that entire year.

1 . Captain America: The Winter Soldier — For the longest time, this was my favorite Marvel movie.  Not either Avengers.  Not Iron Man.  Not Guardians of the Galaxy.  For all of the wonderful weirdness only beginning to be tapped by the mega-franchise, the series’ most polished and evocative entry was perhaps its most mundane. : not a cosmically inflated battle for the galaxy nor an extra-dimensional invasion of the planet, but a starry-eyed boy scout battling for the fate of his best friend.

No matter how out-there or complex the series became, The Winter Soldier serves as a testament to the endearing power of these characters.  We don’t come to see them blow up weapons of mass destruction or punch bad guys in the face — not really — but to see how they grow and develop and affect the world around them.  Its their choices, the hard ones that stick with you long after the credits stop rolling, that is the real strength of these movies.  It’s why we keep coming back for more, again and again, movie after movie.

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