With this week's release of X-Men: First Class, we revisit highlights like X2 and lowlights like Daredevil.
Marvel Studios has a long and spotted history. While its output is massive compared to DC's, it's produced as many misses as hits. Luckily, it seems like the studio's been learning from its mistakes, and this week's X-Men: First Class may be their best film yet. In honor of that upward trend, we've ranked all the studio's films from worst to best.
23. Elektra (2005)
Who could have thought, after seeing Jennifer Garner kick so much ass in Alias, that she would kick so little in Elektra? Her version of "cold and removed" stops being stiff only when the CGI artists start animating her themselves. I can think of exactly one thing that might entice some of you to revisit this movie, but please, spare yourself the trouble and just look up pictures of that skimpy costume online. Because this film itself is so deeply boring thatzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...
22. Punisher: War Zone (2008)
Did you know there was a sequel to The Punisher? (Related: did you know there was a movie called The Punisher?) While Marvel films stand apart from DC's for their bright, more "comic book" feel, P:WZ gets dark and gory in some terrifically uninspired ways. It's like Marvel's attempt at Saw. ("What if another object was stabbed into another guy's face?!") Interestingly, this film also features a villain named Jigsaw; uninterestingly, he never dresses like a transvestite hooker wearing a pig's head.
21. The Punisher (2004)
Do you think Thomas Jane ever gets angry that this wasn't his Batman? I bet he does. And the film plays like an extremely dumb version of the same: after witnessing the death of his family, one man becomes a vigilante, driven by revenge. The only problems are the utter lack of psychological nuance, action scenes that may have been imagined by my four-year-old godson, and a main villain who is the powerful mob boss of… Tampa, Florida. Said mob boss is also played by John Travolta in what I pray is a hairpiece.
20. Ghost Rider (2007)
Something Marvel had trouble realizing for a long time: a lot of superheroes are kind of silly. Maybe you can get over that silliness on the page, but live-action is not as forgiving. So the studio needs to be very careful about what they adapt, because if you choose the wrong guy and don't offset that with some smarter choices — like hiring Shakespearean go-to Kenneth Branagh to direct the potentially silly Thor — you end up with Ghost Rider. Nicholas Cage, a man well known these days for screaming about bees and burns, is just not going to balance out a motorcycle from hell.
19. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
If you're going to adapt a story about an incredibly powerful cosmic entity that eats planets and sends, as his herald, a surfer, you need to be committed. That story will never not sound insane, so at the very least it should be insane and fun. Sadly, the makers of this undeserved sequel didn't have the chutzpah to actually bring Galactus to life on-screen, and changed him into a cloud. (But, like, a menacing cloud.) Their decision to smooth out the weird edges takes this film out of the running for even "so bad it's good" consideration. Rise of the Silver Surfer is about as bland and as dead as they come.
18. Fantastic 4 (2005)
Somewhere out there, Chris Evans should be thanking the universe for his escape from the terrible gravity of this film. Perhaps more than any of the others on this list, Fantastic Four suffers in the page-to-screen transition — we do not yet have the power to make The Thing look realistic, and too often the leads come off as goofy. These shortcomings were all the more obvious next to the year's other big comic-book adaptation, the much darker Batman Begins.
17. Daredevil (2003)
Add another page to Marvel's "Why don't we have a Batman?" notebook of sadness. Daredevil is hampered by some serious plausibility issues, even if you're feeling generous with your suspension of disbelief. How is the main character a lawyer all day and a vigilante hero by night? I was always under the impression lawyering was hard work. (And I know all about hard work — I watched Elektra recently.) Beyond that plot contrivance, though, the casting for this movie is insaaaaane. Casting Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, and Colin Farrell as the leads is like dressing a five-foot-tall guy as Michael Jordan for Halloween. You can make the costume as cool as you want; you're never going to sell it.
16. Blade Trinity (2004)
Blade Trinity is not good, of course. The plot is far too confused, bouncing back and forth from a revitalized Dracula, to a vampire plot to destroy all humans, to a human plot to destroy all vampires. You'll lose focus as much as Jessica Biel does. But there is one thing about this movie I cannot criticize, and that is Parker Posey as a villain who turns her Pekingese into little doggy vampires. That is what I would do were I a vampire, because it is amazing.
15. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Was it a prequel? Was it a reboot? Who knows! The most important fact about this film, the one you can never forget, is this: it prominently features Will.i.am. As, like, an actor. He looks never more than a few seconds away from Boom Boom Pow-ing. That being said, I've always found Hugh Jackman easy to watch as Wolverine, even here, and he and Liev Schreiber, as Sabertooth, had an enjoyable chemistry.
14. Spider-Man 3 (2007)
This movie made me feel weird, and also like I was reading fan fiction. Note unprecedented emo outbursts and an incoherent story that somehow incorporated a musical number; this movie has a place, and that place is called LiveJournal. But still, the visuals are generally good, and this film doesn't completely erase the touches that made the first two films so enjoyable, like the ever-welcome J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson.
13 . X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Should I give a movie credit for having grand ambitions when it fails so completely? The Phoenix storyline could have been a wonderful cap on this trilogy, but instead the filmmakers fumbled by adding in too many plots and characters, as well as a less than captivating story to explain Jean Grey's new abilities. On the one hand, actors like Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart were still great fun to watch. On the other, "I'm the Juggernaut, bitch."
12. Blade (1998)
This film ranks this high mostly because it didn't totally screw up; it's a pretty straightforward action film from the late-'90s school, and I couldn't in good conscience put it below any of the others. But to give credit, it also features some delightfully campy ideas, like a vampire nightclub that sprays blood out of the sprinkler system — in a very wasteful manner, I would say — or a morbidly obese vampire librarian named, apropos of nothing, Pearl. Come for those touches and stay for Stephen Dorff before he got respectable again.
11. Blade II (2002)
You must ask yourself how Guillermo del Toro, of all people, agree to direct Blade II on the strength of Blade. (I guess he likes to save all his heartbreaking stories of lost childhood for his Spanish-language films?) But thankfully he did, because while Blade II has a pretty standard plot — new threat unites opposing sides, romance or whatever occurs — his ghoulies are, as ever, exciting to watch on the big screen. If a bit gross.
10. Hulk (2003)
Choosing Ang Lee to direct Hulk seemed like the kind of crazy idea that just might pay off beautifully, especially since Lee was just coming off the huge success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Unfortunately, for most people this flick was a non-starter. It was a smart choice for Lee to incorporate more of the psychological aspects of the Hulk — you can only get so far on smashing — but the at-times beautiful fight scenes aren't enough to stop the movie from feeling so. Fucking. Long.
9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
I've long believed that The Incredible Hulk never got credit for some very witty moments. Just look at the way the original song of the Hulk momentarily plays as Edward Norton shuffles down the street, or when he blunderingly translates his iconic catchphrase into Portuguese. ("You wouldn't like me when I'm hungry.") Those things aren't enough to make a superhero film a smash, of course, and at times the movie drags. But I still find Norton's portrayal has a nerdish charm that contrasts well with the big green guy.
8. X-Men (2000)
This is the breakthrough film that probably inspired Marvel Studios to think, "Hey, we can really do this!" Perhaps the most surprising thing about it still is the film's balance between realism (it lost those super-'80s costumes) and the knowledge that sometimes you want to see a statuesque mutant with blue skin and red hair kick some ass. It has some clunkiness, to be sure — I don't even want to bring up Halle Berry, but my God, it's like she's on 'ludes — but it was a nice indication of what Marvel Studios might be able to do.
7. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Any follow up to something as flat-out fun as Iron Man requires a delicate touch — you need to deepen the pathos without getting dour, and at times in Iron Man 2, Tony Stark's recklessness in the face of his own impending death threatens to kill the momentum. Luckily, the film is propped up by game performances from Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, and Mickey Rourke, who may just be playing himself with a Russian accent. It is also propped up by Scarlett Johansson's ass, which I hear demanded its own trailer and a cut of the international gross.
6. Thor (2011)
Expectations were not high for this film, and not just because Thor's full-on Norse god regalia looks a bit silly in practice. But it's saved by a healthy self-awareness and a surprising amount of humor, much of which is provided by Chris Hemsworth's instantly appealing lead performance. (I must also praise Kat Dennings, who really should be a big movie star and not relegated to bad CBS sitcoms.) That Hemsworth has arms the size of fire hydrants doesn't hurt, either.
5. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
More than any other film on this list, Spider-Man 2 emphasizes the cost of dedicating your life to doing good. Spidey is flat-broke, his personal life is in shambles, and he's not exactly loved by the public or his friends. Fortunately, Tobey Maguire manages to keep Peter Parker from coming off as a whiny man-child, for the most part. But even more credit must go to Alfred Molina's insane Doc Ock; the combination of his robotic arms and his pudgy scientist body could have come off as laughable, but Molina sells his character so well that his ungainlyness just seems even more menacing.
4. X2 (2003)
What makes this mutant-filled sequel better than the first go-around? X2 takes most of the good bits from number one and leaves many of the rough patches behind. For one thing, it lets its British prestige actors shine while reducing the screen time for those who weren't really shining as much (cough). It pushes the allegorical idea of mutant rights in a way that's not exactly subtle but very satisfying for a summer blockbuster. And it manages to include a whole second blue mutant. In the end, I probably remember more specific scenes from this movie than from any other on this list, from Iceman's coming out to his suburban family to the kick-ass opening scene of Nightcrawler's attack on the White House.
3. Spider-Man (2002)
It would have been embarrassing for Marvel's most famous character to make it to the big screen only to fall flat on his face. (Especially from such heights!) Luckily, Spider-Man succeeded in bringing your friendly neighborhood web-slinger to life without getting dragged down by a very familiar origin story. The film never takes itself too seriously, and Willem Dafoe makes a very convincing and, more importantly, very creepy villain as the Green Goblin. The film also includes the single most iconic image from any of the movies on this list: the upside-down, soaking-wet, wow-you-can-really-see-her-nipples-in-this-scene kiss between Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. Even today this scene is still being parodied.
2. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Deftly revitalizing the X-Men franchise, this isn't a reboot (some enjoyable little surprises make that very clear), but it very nearly plays like one, with a joyful feeling of newness throughout. Perhaps the filmmakers' smartest choice was remembering that, while the characters' abilities can be a burden, sometimes having superpowers might be fun. X-Men: First Class also features some stellar performances, with the best overall a tie between the amazing Jennifer Lawrence and the charismatic Michael Fassbender. When it comes to Marvel films, Fassbender is clearly the new Robert Downey, Jr.
1. Iron Man (2008)
Part of the pleasure of Iron Man was the surprise. If things had gone wrong, the film would've been obliterated from our cultural consciousness by The Dark Knight. Instead, it more than held its own against the much grittier Batman film, with some even claiming it was the superior of the two. (Don't worry, internet: you've already found those people and killed them.) Iron Man is witty and sharp with an unflagging pace, but while the script is great, Robert Downey, Jr. must deserve most of the credit for the film's success. Tony Stark could easily be someone you hate — he's rich by birth, doesn't feel especially tortured about anything at all, and really loves his job as a weapons manufacturer. But in Downey's hands, he's a lovable scamp, the kind of guy everyone loves hanging out with. (As long as he lets you try the suit.)