With the release of Ant-Man we celebrate the conclusion of Marvel’s Phase 2. A shorter event than phase 1 by about a year, Marvel’s second phase stretched from Iron Man 3 in 2013 all the way up to Ant-Man this year and included 6 Marvel movies including plenty of blockbuster installments and a few less than spectacular numbers. To celebrate this conclusion and to cap off the 9 month wait till Captain America: Civil War let’s rank the Phase 2 Marvel films from least to best.
6. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
One of the odd things about the Marvel films is that none of them are objectively bad movies but that doesn’t stop a lot of them from being flawed experiences and it’s hard to think of anything more flawed than Thor: The Dark World. There are strong elements to the film like keeping the Thor/Loki dynamic at the center of the story and the protracted mid-film battle is just incredible but there’s honestly just too much of it that relies on formula over engagement or innovation; Malekith is the best example of Marvel’s terrible film villains, the plot is a bit all over the map, and the conclusion set the standard for the kind of dull blockbustery finales that have punctuated far too many phase 2 films. Still there’s enough here to make it an enjoyable experience.
5. IRON MAN 3
Iron Man 3 was the film that kicked off Marvel Phase 2 and easily had the most metatextual point behind it pre-Guardians of the Galaxy. That point was specifically “will anyone still care about Iron Man without the Avengers?” Obviously the answer was yes and Iron Man 3 works really well at solidifying the franchise’s ‘80s action comedy tone. As is a common theme with the Phase 2 films the middle act is really where Iron Man 3 shines the brightest as Tony Stark is dropped into a DYI mystery in rural America that highlights how interesting Tony Stark can be without his armor. Additionally the villains are a ton of fun and it’s nice to see a foe who isn’t just a derivative of the hero’s powers. At the same time a lot of phase 2’s more artificial aspects are kept to a minimum here and integrated better like the multi-suit toy commercial ending battle or Tony’s Malibu dream house blowing up.
4. AVEGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Avengers: Age of Ultron is an absolute mess from top to bottom but it’s a mess more due to ambition straining against limitation than technical incompetence. If you can put aside a lot of the circuitous storytelling and that’s been dragging down so much of phase 2 there’s a lot of good stuff there. All the characters have solid focus and enough of an arc to adequately reflect the film’s central themes of creators, creations, and self-definition. James Spader is also a knock out as Ultron and Paul Betney’s Vision is a really fun new addition to the cast. This is probably the only phase 2 film to be dragged down by its second act as everything past the Hulkbuster fight but pre-final battle is a bit too draggy and focused on setting up phase 3 but when things finally kick-off for act 3 it really comes together strongly.
3. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Guardians of the Galaxy is easily the best realization of a compromise between the artistic emotion I wish had dominated more of phase 2 and the emphasis on universe maneuvering and blockbuster branding that did inform this run of films. The characters all sport much more engaging and challenging personas that spring from being really broken people trying to fix a broken world. The dialogue and content are all also a lot rougher than most Marvel films, depicting a world that’s nowhere near as morally or visually smooth as the back half of phase 2. There’s a good reason Guardians of the Galaxy has proven THE breakout film of phase 2 with audiences and it’s that this is the only film that does something elevating with all the blockbuster artifice Marvel always insists upon.
Where Guardians of the Galaxy managed to smuggle in morally broken heroes and complex world Ant-Man jettisoned the blockbuster elements entirely to double down on this. All of the main heroes are very well rounded and engaging characters with infinitely more personality than is usually found in the mid-range Marvel offerings. What’s more, on the whole Ant-Man is just an incredible breath of fresh air for how much it’s not a standard Marvel film. There’s no McGuffin or Doomsday weapon or even any henchmen or all that much action. All the things that usually force the Marvel films to twist and contort their deeper personality and identity into an artificial shape are gone and Ant-Man is just allowed to BE the film it wants to be. It’s fun, it’s fresh, it’s full of heart, and it’s an absolute blast.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Most folks would probably tell you that Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t just the best phase 2 Marvel but the best Marvel film overall and they’d probably be right. All the things that worked about Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy can be found in Winter Soldier only turned up to 11. The roughness of the universe, the harsh view of characters and morality, the central challenge for the heroes being one of morality and self-definition over just punching the bad guys, it’s all on display. What’s more Winter Soldier does a great job slipping its blockbuster chains by grounding itself in classic tropes of the genre that predate Marvel’s formula. Stuff like the henchmen and doomsday devices serve to prop up the emotional focus and inform a plot that’s culled more from ‘70s or ‘00s spy thriller than the big, Star Wars inspired blockbusters Marvel likes to crib from. It’s dark, smart, and deeply emotional and all driven around the issue of trying to be a moral man in an amoral time. Of all the phase 2 film Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the one that means the most.