An interesting question came up as we were recording this week’s podcast. Now that all of the pre-Avenger movies are out – that is, the individual films that serve as feeder movies for Marvel’s big shin-dig next summer, how would we rank them? It became a quick point of discussion during the show that I thought I would expand on here.
For the record, the pre-Avenger foundation movies are:
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
These are the only movies that feed into next summer’s The Avengers. Although characters like Spider-Man and Wolverine have spent time among the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (the Avengers tagline), due to contractual issues those characters don’t have a chance of appearing in The Avengers (Spidey is set up over at Sony and Wolverine and the X-Men are at Fox, while the rest of these pictures and The Avengers are at Paramount). This actually simplifies things a bit, since we don’t have to worry about the Spider-Man films or the good and bad X-Men movies.
So how would I rank them? From Best to Worst…
1. Iron Man
Maybe I’m being unfair. After all, when Iron Man came out, it was built as a stand-alone picture with hopes of building a new franchise (i.e. sequel). It didn’t have to lay a foundation for an epic combination of heroes. It just had to tell the origin of Tony Stark becoming Iron Man and set a few threads for future films (such as the “Next time!” like spoken by Rhodey, who goes on to become War Machine in the sequel). Iron Man had less to undertake, but it did exactly what it needed to do. Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect casting choice for Tony Stark, Jeff Bridges made an interesting antagonist, and the effects pull off the Iron Man armor marvelously without it feeling like you’re watching CG creations fight each other.
The Good: Robert Downey Jr is the perfect Tony Stark. From the arrogant opening interacting with the soldiers in the humvee to the more humble (but rapidly becoming arrogant) press conference at the end, RDJ nails it. Jon Favreau simply couldn’t have chosen any better.
The Bad: I still don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow and the chemistry between her character and Tony Stark just doesn’t gel. Thankfully, among the origin story and the fight with Iron Monger, there isn’t a whole lot of time for the poor romance to stall the movie.
The Biggest Benefit for The Avengers: Even though The Avengers is a team, it’s one that’s still ideologically challenged, with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers on opposite ends. Stark’s ambition is soundly established here, setting the stage for the team’s internal conflict without much work.
The Biggest Drawback for The Avengers: After developing the character so deftly over the course of two solo movies, how will RDJ rein it in for an ensemble picture (and will fans be okay with that?)?
Establishing a character as a God and then asking audiences to accept him as a superhero is a bit tricky, but Kenneth Branagh pulled it off marvelously this year with Thor. A large part of the movie works because, unlike most of the other pictures on this list, it’s not an origin story. Thor is a God from the get go. What it is, however, is a story of the Thunder God discovering humility – an important aspect of the character – and gaining an appreciation for humanity – something he’ll need in order to server as part of the Avengers. While it would have been easy to make this just a puzzle piece of pictures designed to set up The Avengers, Branagh’s picture is a stand-alone story that doesn’t even leave a clean connection at the end of the movie for Thor to join the superhero team in the future. I guess that’s Joss Whedon’s problem, eh?
The Good: Audiences really grow to like Thor over the course of the movie. He starts out as a defiant, overconfident, arrogant, brash warrior but by the end he’s discovered something worth loving and revealed a part of himself worth getting attached to. While I’m crediting the actors with fantastic performances, a lot of that is how this story is constructed as well, designed to watch the character grow and to allow the audience to grow a bit with him.
The Bad: Yet another romance that doesn’t work for me – not because it feels stagnant like in Iron Man but instead because it doesn’t seem to grow as much as just appears out of convenience. I’ll be curious to see if the love interests are putting in an appearance in The Avengers. Personally, I’d take Portman over Paltrow regardless.
The Biggest Benefit for The Avengers: Even though the movie focused on the titular Thunder God, a lot of the movie was spent with Thor working as part of a team, either with the humans or with the Warriors Three. Seeing him work among the Avengers will be easy to buy into, even if he is a Thunder God among super-powered men.
The Biggest Drawback for The Avengers: As mentioned above, the story really isolates Thor by the end, making his integration into the Avengers a challenge. There will have to be some expository time spent getting Thor back among the humans – and providing a motivation for that may be a challenge if Portman doesn’t return.
3. The Incredible Hulk
I think Louis Leterrier’s take on the Emerald Giant was given an unfair chance by many people. First of all, comparison’s to Ang Lee’s horrific Hulk were inevitable, with Marvel putting this “reboot” on the heels of the other far too quickly. Add in the press war that was going on between Edward Norton and the studio and there was definitely a pall cast over the film. Still, there’s a lot to like here, including Norton’s conflicted performance as Bruce Banner and the nice homages to the Bill Bixby television series (and avoidances of accidently Ang Lee references). I will concede that I haven’t revisited the movie since I saw it in theaters, but I wouldn’t mind seeing it again, which is more than I can say for other films. Add in the development of a villain who didn’t impact this movie and Hulk probably has the best foundation for a follow-up movie. Still, I’m hoping we get to see the Green Goliath on the opposite side from The Avengers, at least for a little while.
The Good: Edward Norton made a great Bruce Banner, which is actually unfortunate since he is gone from the franchise (although Mark Ruffalo should make a decent replacement). Mostly this is a good balance of watching Hulk smash things and understanding Bruce’s feeling of isolation from humanity, largely because of his own loss of humanity. It’s a tough balancing act to keep the movie from being too much one story or the other and Leterrier pulled it off well.
The Bad: While we (thankfully) avoided the clichéd origin story we had already gotten in Ang Lee’s Hulk, it was kind of hard to tell where this movie lay. From a narrative standpoint, it followed right on the heels of Lee’s movie, even though producers insisted it was a reboot and not a sequel. Add in the homages to the television series and some people had some confusion over the relationship between this and other Hulk stories.
The Biggest Benefit for The Avengers: Seriously: if they follow the Ultimate Avengers storyline and let Hulk play the villain for a while, they could have some epic fights between the big guy and Iron Man, Cap, and Thor. Then let Mark Ruffalo play the scientist who helps them out after they’ve tamed the savage beast.
The Biggest Drawback for The Avengers: With this movie having gotten less attention and the least amount of follow-up, it’s probably the character fans will care about the least. They may have to bulk up the story to make people care about Hulk again or push him to the sidelines, which would be a huge shame.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
By title alone, you would think Captain America: The First Avenger would be the biggest setup for The Avengers, right? I mean, this is the guy who was the first Avenger. Surely this should be a setup. Instead, most of the movie is spent decades before the setting of the rest of the movies, following the evolution of the wimpy Steve Rogers into the heroic Captain America. Cap gets a great story but (I’m starting to sound like a broken record here) I just didn’t buy into the romance, mostly because I knew both from my knowledge of Cap’s story and because of the opening of the movie that Cap’s story would end abruptly in his own time period. The romance obviously wasn’t going to work out, so why invest in it? Honestly, as much as I enjoyed Chris Evans’ performance and the origin story, I had trouble getting invested at all. Somehow the story just missed a connection with me, which is why I rank it lower than others might.
The Good: Chris Evans manages an earnest portrayal of Steve Rogers without him being the hyperbolic boy scout. As long as the story can keep that characterization, Evans’ performance should serve The Avengers and any sequel rather well. Hard to believe this is the same guy whose performance of Johnny Storm was the highlight of the Fantastic Four films.
The Bad: With the disjointed time period of the movie, there wasn’t a lot of hope for any sort of romantic storyline. They should have probably culled that from the story from the beginning. Instead time is spent developing a romance that will never happen. Oh well, at least Hayley Atwell was awesome.
The Biggest Benefit for The Avengers: It’s going to be really interesting to see Chris Evans spar with Robert Downey Jr, particularly if the script lets them keep their existing characterizations. Mostly, I’m just looking forward to hearing Evans scream out, “Avengers Assemble!” and I hope Joss Whedon can give that moment the same stylistic justice that it would get in the hands of Joe Johnston.
The Biggest Drawback for The Avengers: With most of this movie taking place in the past, there’s almost no setup for Cap joining the Avengers. He’s not even a part of our time period. This is another gap The Avengers is going to have to take time to develop before it can comfortably move into its own narrative.
5. Iron Man 2
After the awesome first Iron Man, a sequel felt natural. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the sequel we wanted. Instead of giving us more of what made the first movie cool, too much time was invested in building Stark’s resistant relationship with Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and adding in more characters like Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson). Add in the silly moments for Favreau’s own character and this was a disappointment. There are still some good moments (Rhodey becoming War Machine, for example, and Rourke’s performance is an interesting one) but too much of the movie is spent being a foundation for the future – a future Stark isn’t even willing to be a part of by the movie’s end. While this may have solved some of the expository problems for bridging Iron Man and The Avengers, it didn’t live up to our expectations after the first movie was so fun.
The Good: I know many people missed Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but Don Cheadle was an adequate substitute, and his robot suit suit battle against Stark is one of the movie’s highlights – or would have been if…
The Bad: … it hadn’t looked so bad on the CG side. While Iron Man gave us battles between CG creations, it didn’t feel like that’s what we were watching. Here there’s just something a bit off about the way the suits move. Watching them trash Stark’s home is fun, but it feels like watching CG graphics. Maybe it’s a technical problem. Maybe it’s because the story didn’t draw us in as well. Either way, it’s another blemish on the Iron Man sequel.
The Biggest Benefit for The Avengers: Pretty much the whole Avengers foundation is laid here. S.H.I.E.L.D. is developed further, it’s the most we see of Nick Fury (especially if you’ve skipped out before the credits were done on any of the other movies), and the underlying philosophy that Fury wants to build a super-powered team is established, even if Stark is resistant to the idea. The more subtle thing it adds is Stark’s troubled relationship with his father – you know, the father who gave Steve Rogers aid in Captain America? That could become an interesting point of contention between the two heroes.
The Biggest Drawback for The Avengers: This gives Stark and Iron Man one more movie than the other characters. This means a lot of people are going to expect to see more of him than the others. Then again, the argument could be made that we need less of him than the others, since he has had two pictures already. Either way, I don’t anticipate it will impact The Avengers much.
So, how would you rank these lead-in movies?