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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.)