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Rey Not Only Isn’t A Mary Sue — She Has One of the Best Character Arcs In All of Star Wars

Rey is the perfect example of how internal conflict, NOT external conflict, is the real key to strong character building.

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Note: I know it is a very frightful time right now for finding The Last Jedi spoilers sprinkled throughout the internet, but don’t worry: though this article will delve into full spoilers for The Force Awakens and the rest of the previously released Star Wars films, no plot details or other potentially spoiler-y bits of information from The Last Jedi will be revealed. Any assumptions or predictions made about Rey’s potential character development in the next few movies are simply that: predictions. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing about how this particular story will actually pan out. With that long but necessary disclaimer out of the way, let’s get right into it.


When I think back to middle school and the time in which I was taught the basic fundamentals of storytelling in a substantial way, I am left with one rather distinct memory, one that I return to time and time again as both a consumer of storytelling and a creator of it.

It was a run-of-the-mill English class right at the start of the school day — that dreaded time of consciousness where you were technically awake, but your brain had yet to get the memo. The class featured both the students eager to learn what the teacher was trying to teach, and those who would prefer to simply stare at the clock in hopes that they could somehow move time backwards and return to their nice, warm beds. Judging by the fact that I am spending my free time writing a long, meandering piece about character development, you can probably guess which category I belonged to.

In any case, my teacher was valiantly trying to teach a crowd of New Mexican public school attending seventh graders (49th in the nation, woohoo!) the tenets of characterization in literature and, seeing the glazed over eyes of many in the crowd, pulled out an age old tactic: the pop culture stand-in. Rather than explaining the contrast between the static and dynamic characters of the short story from the literature book that none of us (not even the indoor kids like myself) read, my teacher decided to illustrate his point by breaking down the characters of a hit blockbuster film that he assumed we all saw. Off the top of his head, he chose Pixar’s Cars, which was the style at the time.

Opening the floor to the class, he asked them to explain what made main car-guy Lightning McQueen a dynamic character, one who changed and developed throughout his story. Most of the students explained that Lightning was dynamic because he started off the movie as the best racer, and ended it by no longer being the best racer. Our teacher listened to their comments, but pushed them to explore deeper. According to him, all those developments were just plot points, merely skin-deep readings of what happened through the course of the film.

To explore characterization further, he wanted us to examine how the Lightning McQueen character behaved, how his attitude towards others and himself was, and how he changed throughout the course of the film. He explained to us that Lightning began the film as arrogant and self-centered and, through his experiences interacting with the people (err…cars) of Radiator Springs, he grew into a more kind and thoughtful person. Lightning McQueen was a dynamic character not because his status changed in the film, but because his world view did. Because he grew as a person not through an external conflict, but an internal one. As my teacher continued to explain, Lighting’s story fell into the first category of conflicts in literature: man vs. self.

Just in case you need a refresher, here’s the complete list. Personally I always found the four types rather reductive, but if you’re teaching a horde of dumb seventh grade monsters, probably best to keep it simple.

Now, obviously, Cars is not a paragon of complex character development, nor should it be — it’s a kid’s movie, and not even one of Pixar’s more thoughtful ones at that (for the record, I hadn’t even seen Cars yet at the time of this lesson, and was mostly wondering throughout the demonstration why we weren’t talking about Monster House instead. I really liked Monster House.)

And if you’re reading this, I imagine you were taught the same principles of characterization that I was back in school, and probably understand them quite well. I am certainly the last person in the world who should feel obligated to teach the fundamentals of storytelling to the public at large, because I’m far from an expert at them. But I like to think I know a good character when I see one, and can adequately explain why to boot.

So when I see people bashing Rey of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for being a poor character and, most pointedly, a “Mary Sue,” sometimes I wonder if we could all use another trip to middle school English class, to learn a thing or two about what really makes a well-developed character.

Because characters in fiction are more than just their base collection of skills, a simple list of the things they can and can’t do assembled on some spreadsheet of power rankings. In my mind, what makes a well developed, “good” character is that they have character flaws (be it emotional or physical or mental or pretty much any other combination of “-als), and they fought to overcome it throughout the course of a story (or many stories, as the case may be.) And, when it comes to Rey, she ABSOLUTELY fits that bill. In fact, her emotional arc and character development is stronger than pretty much any other Star Wars character I can think of.

Which, admittedly, isn’t a tall order. It’s true that most Star Wars characters don’t have the strongest arcs, and those that do have them are rather simplistic (character does A, regrets A, decides to do B.) There’s nothing wrong with simplistic, especially within crowdpleasing blockbuster movies, but it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Star Wars puts spectacle and fun ahead of in-depth character retrospection. But in all the defenses I’ve read or heard about how Rey isn’t a Mary Sue character, almost all of them resort to a straw man fallacy of sorts — they jump to explaining the character of Luke Skywalker, and how amazing his abilities were, and how no one seemed to particularly mind back then.

And, hey: that’s a fair point, and does seem to reinforce the underlying strain of sexism that can seem to be a factor in critiques about Rey’s character. While not all of the Mary Sue complains are borne from this inherent misogyny, it seems a large faction of them stem from the same thought process I’ve seen banded about a whole lot now: that writers and directors only chose to make a character a certain gender or race for “virtue points,” and purposely made them vanilla and perfect to further impress all their fellow SJW’s (or whatever the new silly parlance is.)

Not only do I think the thinking behind that is misguided and flush with bias, but that it makes many people warp their view on any character who might not be a straight white male. They chose to focus on the fact that she is super strong in the force, and defeated Kylo Ren, and a good pilot, and a whole bunch of other admittedly positive traits. Just looking at those surface abilities, sure, she does seem like an all-powerful, wish fulfillment character. But, to quote my sixth grade English teacher…explore deeper. Because Rey ISN’T a perfect character. In fact, the girl is actually pretty messed up. But that’s what also makes her so damn great: seeing her overcome her mental and psychological issues works as the backbone for a satisfying — and still very much developing — character arc.

Rey throughout all of The Force Awakens has one primary goal: to return to Jakku, and reunite with her parents. At the beginning of the story, from the moment she rescues BB-8 and becomes enveloped in an adventure she had absolutely nothing to do with, all she could express was how, after the next stop, she was taking off. A little like her brief mentor Han Solo (who, at the time, probably had the best Star Wars character arc by almost default), Rey didn’t want to be involved in any of this. Sure, she got excited by the possibility of being in a dog-fight, and meeting her heroes, and helping the Resistance…but the entire time, there was a very vocal part of her that also couldn’t wait to get out of there, and return to her life of scavenging through derelicts and eating disgusting insta-bread (if you can really even call it bread.) Luke Skywalker, she wasn’t: while that kid dreamed about overcoming his farmboy heritage and becoming a hot shot Rebellion pilot, Rey was hesitant to do anything outside of the immediate radius of her derelict home on Jakku.

And when the call to adventure literally shouted out to here through the lightsaber at Maz Kanata’s castle, she didn’t heed it instantly and become the badass hero who saves everyone, defeats Kylo Ren, creates all porgs, and saves the day: instead, she got the hell out of dodge, overcome by her emotions and feelings that, even with all these things happening around her and all the signs that she could be meant for something more, she was not supposed to get involved. Unlike Han Solo’s departure in A New Hope, her decision to leave wasn’t based on selfishness or self-preservation or not wanting to be blown up by a giant, planet destroying beam — it was born out of self-doubt, and the fear that she simply wasn’t good enough to take on the mantle so swiftly thrust upon her. This conflict created a standard, but still effective, reluctant hero archetype.

But, like all good characters, it’s the cause of her mental setbacks that makes her an interesting character, not the setbacks themselves. And in the scene just before Rey flees from the rest of the group, we get her character motivation clear as day: crippling, very much unhealthy, abandonment issues. You know, the kind of abandonment issues that only perfect, wish-fulfillment based Mary Sue characters get. After all, don’t we all dream of being a character in our favorite properties who suffers from low self-esteem and a crippling lack of self-worth?

Ugh, look how perfect her emotional anguish is! What a Mary Sue!

Anyways, let’s return to the point. In the scene where Rey touches Anakin’s lightsaber and goes through a whole montage of events, we see our first and only glimpse into Rey’s childhood — the moment she is dropped off on Jakku as a child, left in the (assumingly not great) care of Unkar Plutt, screaming into the sky in a vain attempt to get the attention of those that abandoned her. And while we can only guess how her life unfolded after that based on how we are introduced to her in The Force Awakens, it wouldn’t be a jump to think that her time on Jakku wasn’t pleasant.

Rey spends her days digging through trash looking for anything of value and, most depressing of all, returns home to a life of loneliness, eating that once again awful-looking bread and dreaming that her parents will return and whisk her back to a life full of love and fulfillment. And since she can’t find it within herself to abandon said dream, (the only one she’s ever had since she was a young child) she refuses to move on with her life. She has to believe that her parents will return and save her, because that’s the only thing that she allows herself to believe. After all, she was left there for a reason — surely they will return in time, right? The alternative is a life knowing that she was simply discarded, thrown away, to never be found again. And no one wants to live life thinking that.

But the theme of being thrown away is a powerful one for Rey, and the point in which I get completely college-level essay all over this assignment. Because Rey’s choice of occupation (if you want to call it that) isn’t simply a coincidence — it’s a pretty simple metaphor for her character arc in The Force Awakens. She is a scavenger, literally scouring thorough garbage in order to find the things of value it might contain. The things that were thrown away or left behind by people, but that can ultimately still can serve a purpose somehow.

You see where I am going with this, right?

Rey believes herself to be a discarded thing of little worth, but as The Force Awakens shows, the opposite is true. She’s one of the valuable objects — a diamond in the rough. She’s powerful in the force and has a variety of skills, yes, but more importantly, she’s a kind and compassionate person who can be a force (ugh, really, no pun intended) for good in the universe…if she only can gain the willpower to push forward with her life and take control of her own destiny. In fact, that part of Rey’s characterization is one of the reasons I am desperately hoping that her parents turn out to be of little importance in the grander scale of things, and that her abandonment doesn’t have some big complex conspiracy at the center. For me, the “mystery” of why Rey was abandoned on Jakku is pretty much an afterthought — in fact, I would be totally fine with us never finding out the root cause. Rey being a character of no real importance, who determined her own path and forged her own destiny outside of her lower status, is an infinitely more satisfying story and character arc than her turning out to be Ponda Baba’s grandaughter or whatever.

But even with that unlikely to happen, I still feel we are left with a pretty compelling picture of who Rey is as a character, and what internal struggles she had to go through to end up where she was by the end of The Force Awakens. And, look, I’ll even meet you Mary Sue truthers halfway — maybe you’re not wrong. Maybe Rey is super powerful, and maybe all her abilities do make her something of a wish-fulfillment character. But A) there’s nothing wrong with having a character others wish they could be and B) if that’s the case, then maybe deciding whether or not a character is a Mary Sue is just a stupid way of judging a character’s worth.

Because, if Rey IS a Mary Sue in terms of skills and powers, that’s still ignoring the second half of the equation here. In fact, maybe Rey being a Mary Sue is part of the plan after all — maybe she IS the most powerful Jedi ever, who will beat Snoke with two hands tied behind her back, restart the Jedi, convince Captain Phasma to take her damn helmet off, and push Finn and Poe into finally becoming the couple we all want them to be. Sure, Rey might be capable of all that. But Rey’s internal struggles cripple her in a way that no Wookie bowcaster or lightsaber swing can: until she can overcome her self-doubt, it doesn’t matter how powerful she is on paper — she still has a lot of development to do until she becomes an all-and-out hero.

And while you might roll your eyes about the conclusions I’m making in this piece and how stereotypical and boring Rey’s internal struggle might be…you do realize this is LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE HERO’S JOURNEY EVER, right? Batman isn’t interesting because he trained and became a ninja — he’s interesting because he suffered a trauma when he was young, and copes with it by doing something that may or may not be healthy for him. Spider-Man is a character I love to watch not because he’s fighting a bunch of powerful foes, but because he’s doing it as a young kid juggling the troubles of teenage life, and what responsibilities he owes to the world he occupies.

Or, to go to one of my favorite versions of the heroes journey in recent years, Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t a dynamic character because he only knew air-bending at the beginning of the series but, by the end, he knew all the elements. He was dynamic because he doubted his ability to be a hero at the beginning of the story but, through episode upon episode of character growth, embraced his destiny in time to (spoiler alert) save the world. Sounds familiar, huh?

And Avatar: The Last Airbender is an interesting comparison here because, in my mind, judging Rey on if she’s a successful character based on The Force Awakens alone is like evaluating the entire character arc of Aang based on the end of the pilot episode. By the conclusion of The Force Awakens, Rey’s journey has literally just begun. She was able to overcome her arrested development in the first film, but her self-doubt still seems to very much be at the forefront of The Last Jedi, if the trailers are any indication.

Which might make my proclamation in the headline a bit contradictory: I can’t say that Rey has the best character arc overall in the Star Wars franchise, because we have yet to see it completely take shape. But is it one hell of an introduction to her, one that does an excellent job of explaining her motives and exploring her psychological struggles, perfectly setting up what I hope will be a powerful emotional journey for our main character?

I just wrote like three thousand words about it, so what do you think? At the very least, I know one thing for sure: I can’t wait to see what happens with the character next. And shouldn’t that be the entire point?


Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in theaters this Friday. But I doubt you needed me to tell you that, nerd.


Also published on Medium.

Matthew Legarreta is the Editor and Owner of Freshly Popped Culture. A big ol' ball of movie, TV, and video game loving flesh, Matthew has been writing about pop culture for nearly a decade. Matthew also loves writing about himself in the third person, because it makes him feel important (or something.)

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Avengers: Infinity War Crushed My Dreams in the Dumbest Way, and I’m Okay with it

We might never see Secret Wars properly adapted to the big screen, and I am at peace with that now.

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Spoilers ahead, so be forewarned. Although at this point it’s impossible for this article to spoil what could possibly be the biggest blockbuster of all time, on a website nobody reads, but consider yourself warned. And a loser, let’s be real here.

So first and foremost: I very much liked this movie, and so did most of you, from what the box office tells us. I very much look forward to seeing it again to crystallize my real thoughts on it, because time ends up being the best critic of them all. It’s too soon for the test of time to enlighten us on where this thing ranks amongst the pantheon, but most of what has been said and written about is true; it’s a landmark, a milestone, impressively crafted and a miracle to watch. The ending has emotional stakes (though not real ones),  and it really leaves an imprint. And yet…

https://film.avclub.com/infinity-wars-ending-packs-a-wallop-if-you-dont-think-1825658641

The link above is a terrific examination about what I’m talking about, but I’m only really here to somewhat facetiously let you into my head beat by beat as the characters we love turned to ash and floated away. Mouth agape, I thought “they can’t be seriously doing this”. And most of you did the exact same thing! But I was referring to something else entirely, and as the screen cut to black, and Thanos’ big dumb expression still lingering fresh in our minds, my fellow audience members and space travelers all collectively gasped. Everyone did it for reasons that seem normal, “oh no our favorite heroes are dead and we have to wait a whole year to find out what happens!”. Except me, because I have a one track mind and was somewhere else entirely (and I’m not going to get suckered into believing anything that happened in that film actually has any consequence whatsoever, in terms of plot or story or the ability for Disney to make money and sign actors to long-term contracts).

No, I gasped because I actually thought Kevin Feige had the balls to go where I didn’t think they would ever go, and I yelled out in the crowded theater, in the pitch black surrounded by strangers, at the screen with credits rolling slowly:

IF THIS END STINGER DOESN’T TEASE SECRET WARS THEN THERE IS NO POINT IN HAVING A SEQUEL, BECAUSE IT WILL RENDER OUR MOURNING OBSOLETE AND MEANINGLESS.

I didn’t actually yell that, I said it quietly to the brunette in the college sweater next to me who I was trying to hit on before the movie started. There was a seven foot tall teenager in a business suit sitting in front of me, blocking the lower left quarter of the screen, and he turned around at the same time as his mother, who loved him very much and was proud of her son in that suit I tell ya, and they asked “what is Secret Wars? Is that the title of the next Avengers movie after this?” And I replied:

IF THEY DON’T SHOW BATTLEWORLD AFTER THESE CREDITS THEN ALL OF THESE CHARACTERS DEATHS ARE FOR NOTHING BUT THE SHEER AND BLATANT ATTEMPT TO SEEM EDGY AND BOLD AND DARING, BUT IN REALITY WE WILL ALL GET OVER IT IN TWO WEEKS WHEN THEY ANNOUNCE THE NEXT SLATE OF FILMS IN PHASE FOUR.

I didn’t actually say that either, but in the final moments of Infinity War I kept expecting the disintegrating bodies to reveal the truth: they weren’t dead, just going somewhere else, potentially the mirror dimension, or another parallel universe, or a representation of hell inside the Soul Stone. And then I realized that the only other gigantic crossover storyline not used so far in these movies is Secret Wars, which would have been the most amazing and ideal way to segue into next year’s Avengers 4: Secret Wars. Imagine, the most famous comic book story for Marvel (also seen on the 90’s Spider-Man cartoon) redone on the big screen: the possibilities endless, the potential for blowing minds unfathomable for fans.

But alas, no, they did not go there, and instead left the cliffhanger to just sit with us. In the dark, no answers, like a gut punch from the screen to our seats. I’m not going to explain why Secret Wars is worth doing, or what it’s about — the cover below says everything you need to know, really. Just look it up online after this, or read the original run, or the newer ones. It’s unreal they didn’t go for this, they had the chance and they blew it!

I like the ending in a vacuum, on paper, but we don’t live in a vacuum anymore. We live on the internet, where every production has leaked set photos and breakdowns, every project in development has casting choices ruined and surprises sold off to the highest bidder. The next five years are set in stone, the signatures already in ink, and it only lasted five minutes before I realized the head fake ending would have been better off being done without the obvious sign that A) the original team of old heroes and actors who should have died and said they’re about done all lived B) all the new characters and actors that are the backbone of Marvel’s future all died C) they already shot the untitled sequel so it’s not like they did that whole movie / marketing without Spider-Man and Black Panther and D) I’m going to end this run-on sentence being mad they didn’t finish the FOX merger fast enough to do Secret Wars.

Infinity War Crushed My Dreams

Secret Wars, the only way to naturally introduce a space alien getting stuck to Peter Parker’s suit so the symbiote travels back to earth to battle Tom Hardy as Eddie Brock. Secret Wars, the only way to seamlessly transition the X-Men and Fantastic Four into the MCU, by forcing them to battle on Battleworld for the enjoyment of the masses. But no, they didn’t show those characters on a new planet. They didn’t bring in Ant-Man and the Wasp and the original Wasp (Michelle Pheiffer) through the subatomic quantum realm. They didn’t hint at the Beyonder, or She-Hulk, or Spider-Woman, or Titania, or Absorbing Man, or Kang the Conqueror, or Molecule Man, or Silver Surfer, or Volcana, or the Wrecking Crew, or Galactus! They didn’t bring back older villains sans Red Skull (good job on that one, actually) to fight and die again against different heroes (how hard is it to just show Ultron fighting without him talking?).

Oh well. I’m not actually that upset, and the odds of that were low enough I’m not shocked. I just really thought they were going in that direction, and now they are not, and that makes me sad. A man can dream, though. Infinity War was pretty good all things considered, even if the stakes they focused on are really just not doable anymore, in this culture of capitalism and engineering fandom into capitalist milk udders. Just milking us nerds dry, with no regard for anything but the almighty dollar. What can you do about it, honestly? At least my favorite characters aren’t being handled by Warner Bros.

Tune in next time when I write an article about how Thanos was just stealing all of his ideas and motivations off of Bill Maher, thanks for reading true believers. Excelsior!

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It Took The Entire Kitchen Sink, But Marvel Has Reclaimed The Highest Grossing Opening Weekend of All Time Record

The combined might of the Avengers, Black Panther, Spider-Man, and the Guardians of the Galaxy was the only thing that could take down a galaxy far, far away.

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Going into Summer 2018, there was no question whatsoever whether or not Avengers: Infinity War would end up being a success. There’s a reason we all chose it as the de facto box office champ in our Summer Movie Wager, after all — there was no chance in hell this movie wasn’t going to make money. In fact, the only question we were all asking about Infinity War’s box office was just how well it would do — were we just talking pretty massive, or record-breaking massive? We’re only one weekend into the film’s release, but the answer has already presented itself as the latter, with the film already breaking one of the most important box office records out there: the highest grossing opening weekend of all time record.

Which, as you might recall, used to belong to Marvel not too long ago. The studio first earned the laudable accomplishment back when The Avengers came out in 2012, snagging an (at the time) insane opening weekend of $207 million. The team-up film was able to hold onto that record for years, with even its sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, unable to topple the number. But in June of 2015, a challenger appeared from out of nowhere — long-in-development reboot/sequel, Jurassic World. Apparently, demand for dino action was at a high with audiences, as the film managed to barely take the record away from Avengers with an opening total of $208 million. Jurassic World wasn’t able to hold on to that record for long, though, as a little movie called Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out mere six months later to take the crown — and by a huge margin too (over $39 million, in fact.) For a long time, it was unclear what if any big movie could ever top such an insane number.

But leave it to the crossover film to end all crossover films to do such a thing. Even with estimates putting it just slightly beneath The Force Awaken’s opening (between $225 to $245 million were the predicted numbers), the film managed to outpace its expectations by a significant degree. Taking in a total of $257 million in its first three days of release (well, four if you count Thursday previews as a separate day…which Hollywood for some reason doesn’t), Infinity War indeed has a gross to match its scale. And things look even better when you factor in its worldwide launch — at a total of $640 million, it easily became the highest grossing global opening of all-time, surpassing previous record holder Fate of the Furious (yes, really.) That’s even more impressive when you consider that the film didn’t have a China opening, as it won’t be bowing in the Middle Kingdom until May 11. Then again, China seems to be the only place that DIDN’T get the film this weekend, what with Disney’s decision a few months back to push the film up in many major markets.

Either way, Disney certainly won out no matter how you slice it. As I wrote about back at the beginning of the month: the Mouse House has been working overtime to sell Infinity War as the event film to end all event films. And the gigantic opening weekend take, both domestically and globally, certainly proves their work paid off.

The only question now, really, is whether or not the film will prove to have legs. On that, I’m rather torn. While there’s a part of me that believes the film isn’t as crowdpleasing as Avengers, Force Awakens, or even Jurassic World, I certainly know that my first instinct after seeing the film was the desire to see it again. Is that the case for many others? Time will tell, but if it wants to beat current MCU champ Black Panther, it will have to play the long haul, not just the opening sprint. Case in point: Black Panther is still in the Top 5 this weekend, even with Infinity War coming out. Either way, Disney is facing a competition amongst themselves, no matter how you slice it. I doubt they (or Marvel for that matter) have much to complain about no matter which film ends up on top.


Also published on Medium.

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In Which I Rank All The Current MCU Movies, As Internet Law Demands All Movie Bloggers Must Do

Kevin Feige has marked me for list-making, and now the internet must feast on my hot takes and controversial rankings.

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For the most part, blogging about movies is a ton of fun. Vomiting your opinion all over the internet is of course a millennials favorite pastime, and when I get to do it in honor of a medium I love as much as film, even more so. However, the gig does have its drawbacks — mainly in the form of a disheveled, hungry Kevin Feige coming to my home in the middle of the night and demanding a ritual sacrifice of Marvel movie rankings come next Avengers Eve.

Yes, I’ve heard rumblings for years that Kevin Feige installs a curse on all movie bloggers to write detailed, thousand words essays on the various films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And, sure, I’ve heard rumblings of the cruel, perverse punishment that’s instilled upon those who don’t present their work to the internet in time to tie into the release of Avengers: Infinity War (a 24 hour, back-to-back marathon of Inhumans AND Iron Fist…in 4DX! *shiver*) And, to be fair, when I registered this domain, I read the terms and conditions, which specifically pointed out I was obligated to present my thoughts on how The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World compare to each other to, like, no one in particular at some point in the near future. I knew what I was getting myself into by creating this blog, but that still didn’t prepare me for the horrifying image of a withering Feige pressing his palm to my face, whispering “RANKER!,” and scurrying off into the night.

Regardless, the mark of the beast is now upon me, and it is my obligation to feed him in the only way I can — meaningless organization and endless bloviating. Those are my two true superpowers, and like a certain Marvel character said, with great power comes…well, he never said it in the MCU, so who the hell can remember anyways?

Without further ado, let’s get this show on the road. Here are all 18 current MCU movies, ranked.


18. The Incredible Hulk

Of all the MCU films so far, The Incredible Hulk is the only one I would say has aged poorly. At the time, I rather enjoyed the reboot (and felt it an improvement over Ang Lee’s disastrous Hulk), but upon re-watching it earlier this year…oh boy. Not only does it now feel out of place within the rest of the universe (Edward Norton as Bruce Banner makes the whole thing feel very much “out of canon,”), but it also feels stunningly old-fashioned. While conceptualizing the Hulk story as a Bourne-esque chase thriller was a novel concept in 2008…it’s mostly just dreadfully boring now. There’s some fun to be had in the smash em’ up action of the climactic scene, but even that feels rather retro in a cinematic world that includes The Battle of New York and Sokovia. There’s simply nothing fresh or, hell, even interesting about The Incredible Hulk, which has only become even more apparent in the decade since its release.


17. Iron Man 2

For years, I thought Iron Man 2 was the nadir of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But in my MCU rewatch, I realize it was not…but only because The Incredible Hulk aged worse, not because Iron Man 2 aged better. No, Tony’s Starks second adventure is as messy and unfocused as I remember it being, a cacophony of chaos that, ultimately, leads to not much of anything. It routinely whiffs on every single plot development it comes across, and not even Robert Downey Jr.’s aggressive charm can make something like the mindless, ugly climax any more interesting. Years ago, I thought my lack of passion for Iron Man 2 was because it tried to squeeze in to much Avengers set-up (like the completely boring version of Black Widow that shows up for no goddamn reason.) But now that we’re 18 films into this series…nah. Even on its own merits, the film just isn’t very good.


16. Ant-Man

Ant-Man is…fine. Paul Rudd gives it his all in the central role, and some of the shrinking mechanics leads to inspiring places. But the heist movie concept never really pans out conceptually, with the superhero movie failing to ever feel like anything else but, well, a superhero movie…and a rather bland one at that. And yes, I will never not be able to think about what Edgar Wright could have done with his version of the film every damn time I think about it. Unfair, maybe. But if the film itself was more interesting, I like to imagine it wouldn’t even be an issue to begin with.

Luis is cool, though.


15. Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World isn’t as bad as everyone says it is. But that is mostly due to the fact that everyone thinks its REALLY bad. In my mind though, the film is just pretty mediocre. I like how it expanded the scope of the Thor universe, and I think the ending action sequence is a lot of fun, but the worst villain in the MCU really kills the momentum of the film dead. That being said, there’s a lot of great Thor/Loki work here, and I do appreciate the film on that front. But after the release of last Thor movie, let’s just say this one suffers by comparison.


14. Thor

Yes, the first two Thor movies are really close in my mind, and I think the original is only a smidge better than The Dark World at the end of the day. While the sequel improved on the action and scope front, the original far better handles the dramatic moments, most likely due to director Kenneth Brannaugh’s experience behind the camera. While the Shakespearean tone ultimately proved to be too limiting for the character and his world in the long run, as a way of establishing his origin and setting up the tragedy of his and Loki’s relationship? It does the trick quite well. Too bad the superhero stuff surrounding it is rather weak. Even as a New Mexican who craves every ounce of acknowledgment possible, I can’t quite figure out where the decision to throw the Asgardian god of freaking thunder in Nowheresberg, New Mexico came from.


13. Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange has some really neat visuals. And, as always, I applaud Marvel on its casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the central hero (they really know how to cast their iconic characters, don’t they?) But, man, as an origin story, this one might fall more flat than any of the other ones in the entirety of the MCU. Stephen Strange’s journey to becoming the Sorcerer Supreme is both unoriginal AND poorly defined, with a lack of real growth plaguing the character’s transformation at every turn. There’s a lot of cool abilities and skills that Doctor Strange has in his arsenal, and seeing him learn how to harness such abilities would be really fun…if the film gave a crap about that at all. Instead, Doctor Strange seems determined to plow through the character’s origins as quickly as possible, taking the titular character from asshole doctor to THE BEST SORCERER OF ALL TIME in the span of one shaving sequence (if any film is in need of a training montage, it’s this one.) On the one hand, it makes a lot of sense — all the best things in Doctor Strange (namely the inventive action sequences) come AFTER the characters training is concluded, and the movie begins in kind. But because the film failed to lay the foundation for the transformation in its first half, none of it feels as riveting as it should. The arc is simple here (too simple, if we’re being entirely honest): Strange is arrogant at the beginning, and through the course of the film, he becomes humble. Except the film fails to really show its work time and time again, primarily because it wants to squeeze in another cool action scene into the mix. But, man…are those action scenes really damn cool.


12. Iron Man

I like Iron Man! It’s really fun and, re-watching it now, you really do have to commend it on how well it sets up exactly what a Marvel movie is, and what can be done with the universe and its characters. But like all good starting points, it also allowed plenty of room for its follow-ups to grow and become even better. I don’t have any substantial problems with Iron Man, but it’s really a testament to Marvel Studios talent that this film is barely the tip of the iceberg for how great the franchise can be. But, boy, what a fun tip!


11. Iron Man 3

Now, Iron Man 3? Iron Man 3 is dope as hell, and I just want all of you naysayers out there to know how wrong you are, with your naysaying. Sure, the bad guy is a bit weak and some of the plot gets a bit muddy towards the end…but it’s Shane Black directing a Marvel movie. And that’s as positively delightful as I would expect it to be. It’s the best Iron Man movie, hands down.

Also, Trevor Slattery is a Top 5 MCU character. Nothing you can possibly say will convince me otherwise.


10. Spider-Man: Homecoming

I’ve written tons about how much I love Spider-Man as a character, but very little about what I thought about his latest movie outing. To simplify the shit out of it: I thought it was pretty great! Tom Holland is perfect, the film’s version of Peter Parker is perfect, and a lot of what it does with the concept of Spider-Man brings out everything I love about the character. It also features probably my favorite MCU villain in Michael Keaton’s Vulture character — he’s just the right amount of sympathetic and relatable, while reliably nasty and menacing when he needs to be. And the second act twist involving his character is one of the best ones I’ve seen in a blockbuster film in a LONG time (that car scene, my god.)

Honestly, the film would be a lot further down the list if it wasn’t for one element: the action sequences, which were shockingly kind of lame and unexciting. The dynamism and energy of Spider-Man lends himself to amazing set pieces (the train one from Spider-Man 2 is still unmatched in superhero cinema in my eyes), but Spider-Man: Homecoming fails to utilize his skillset to any memorable degree. I mean, the film doesn’t even have any web swinging sequences! I get it was purposely trying to stay focused on the “friendly neighborhood” angle, but having a movie where Spider-Man doesn’t swing across skyscrapers is like having a Superman movie without flying, or a Batman movie without the Batmobile…it’s just unforgivable. I can only hope that the film’s forthcoming sequel will rectify the mistake. The humor and heart of the character is there in spades, though. Throw a little “wow” factor on top, and we can end up with the perfect Spider-Man movie. Next to Spider-Man 2, of course.


9. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Look, I just wrote a fucking treatise on Spider-Man: Homecoming there, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time with Avengers: Age of Ultron. Just know I probably like it a lot more than you do, think the final action sequence is some of Marvel’s best material, and will really miss what Joss Whedon brought to this corner of the franchise. Also, Hawkeye is the MVP of the movie. Hell, the MVP of The Avengers overall, really. Don’t @ me.


8. Guardians of the Galaxy

The Chris Pratt, talking raccoon, anthropomorphic tree movie is so damn good, you guys. And I love the MCU for letting me write that sentence. Much has been said about how miraculously good the Guardians franchise is considering just exactly what it is about, but that’s the charm of the whole thing, isn’t it? The fact James Gunn was able to take this and make it A) uproariously funny B) stylistically unique and C) surprisingly riveting is one of the 21st centuries best unexpected blockbuster stories. I think the first film suffers a bit by its origin nature (and its incredibly weak villain, which comes part and parcel with that element), but boy is Guardians of the Galaxy a hell of a lot of fun. And if that’s not a defining factor in what makes a strong Marvel movie, what the hell are we even doing here?


7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

But — HOT TAKE — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is even better. Getting the origin stuff out of the way proved to be a massive boon to the series, as its main story and characters were able to fly far higher without all the set-up baggage. The jokes come faster, the action is bigger, and the emotions hit harder — WAY harder, in fact. There was always a sneaky heart at the center of the first Guardians, but this one’s extend run time and thematic focus allows that heart to come front and center. While the brunt of Guardians of the Galaxy was spent just seeing a bunch of wacky misfits learn to work together, Vol. 2 has something to say about family and relationships and the way in which we chose to focus on the people in our life. It does that through low-brow dick jokes and pop-rock action set pieces, but also through moments of spectacular gravitas and heart. Vol. 2 builds up on what made the first Guardians great, and for that it stands as the superior movie in my mind.


6. Thor: Ragnarok

But as much as I really like the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, the space adventure comedy that really captured my heart is, surprisingly, Thor: Ragnarok. It’s the funniest movie of the MCU, while also serving as its most creative and skillfully created. Taika Waititi is one hell of a director, and in Thor: Ragnarok he finally imbues this sub-section of the MCU with the style and tone it always deserved. It’s the rare third superhero movie that actually works, and works so well that it retroactively made the ones before it worse…and made me regret that this couldn’t have been the tone of the trilogy to begin with. Mostly, I’m sad we didn’t get three movies of Korg. Please, Marvel: give us more Korg. #KorgDiesAndWeRiot


5. Black Panther

What more can be said about Black Panther in 2018 that hasn’t already been said? Undenaibly the cultural event of the year (maybe even more so than Infinity War), the best thing about Black Panther is that its completely deserving of all the hype. Ryan Coogler delivered yet another knockout with this one, and single-handledly upped the dramatic game of the MCU by creating one heck of a dramatic narrative for King T’Challa’s first standalone outing. How it combines Game of Thrones style intrigue with thought-provoking social commentary is a marvel (it’s my first time using that word in this context for the ENTIRETY of the list — give me a break!), and the story that unfolds is completely unique and riveting for the superhero genre. It might lack the strong humor of the other Marvel movies, and doesn’t have the best action set pieces of the MCU…but Black Panther honestly doesn’t need those elements. The story is good enough on its own to still shine amongst its superhero brethren.


4. Captain America: The First Avenger

As you might have noticed, most of the Phase 1 movies are towards the bottom of my rankings, something I didn’t even realize until I kicked off my MCU rewatch in the past few months. It’s not to say those movies are bad (honestly, I don’t think any of the Marvel Studios movies have sunken quite that low yet), but I do think that the MCU has developed and changed mostly for the better since the days of Thor and Iron Man. All that being said? Captain America: The First Avenger still rocks. It’s earnest as all hell and, even at the time, felt rather old-fashioned in its design. But you know what? That just made me love it either more. As you’ll see in the remainder of this list, Captain America is probably my favorite MCU character, and he couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling start to his journey than this movie. It’s Marvel’s best origin story, and a movie that just fills me with such joy and optimism everytime I see it (even with the fantastically somber ending.) And at the end of the day, those feelings are what makes the entire concept of superheroes so great, aren’t they?


3. The Avengers

The Avengers is great, and everyone in the damn world knows it’s great. The film already has its place in the annals of modern film history, so I doubt anything I write here could do more to increase its status as a cultural milestone. Just know that the Battle of New York is purely perfect blockbuster filmmaking, and I could watch it on repeat forever. And, with luck, I can do just that come Avengers: Infinity War!


2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I remember being filled with doubts about Captain America: The Winter Soldier when it was first announced. Despite my love of Captain America: The First Avenger, I was worried that a sequel to the film would could easily go the route of Iron Man 2. After all, without the setting and characters that made the first film such a winner, how could Winter Soldier succeed? Certainly not by having The Russo Brothers at the helm, two TV directors who seemed like the cheap, “work for hire” choices to bring the sequel to life. Obviously, Winter Soldier was doomed to be an inferior superhero sequel, right?

Nope — not even a little bit, in fact. Instead, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is kind of amazing, and The Russo Brothers turned out to be one hell of a movie directing pair. How The Winter Soldier takes the character of Cap and throws him into the modern age is inspired, and the whole Hydra storyline remains one of Marvel’s most captivating plot threads. The Winter Soldier makes for an absolutely spectacular little conspiracy spy thriller, and what it says about government surveillance and our inherent trust in institutions is relevant not just to the character of Captain America and what he represents, but our modern world in general. Throw on some of the best action sequences ever put to film (DAT ELEVATOR FIGHT), and you have the recipe for one of Marvel’s most ably crafted films. But not quite it’s best. As close as Winter Soldier gets to that status, it was bested by a hair just a few years later with…


1. Captain America: Civil War

If there’s any sort of running theme throughout the first ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s this — Marvel Studios is adept at taking things that absolutely should not work, and making them work in ways that you can’t possibly even imagine. Washed up movie star Robert Downey Jr. hunting down terrorists in a rocket suit (while making quips the entire time!) shouldn’t have worked. Throwing said character in a movie with four other huge characters (plus Black Widow and Hawkeye) and telling a strong story utilizing all of them shouldn’t have worked. The aforementioned Chris Pratt talking raccoon anthropomorphic tree movie (yes, I just wanted another excuse to type that phrase, humor me) shouldn’t have worked. The movie about the ant guy who hangs out with Michael Douglas shouldn’t have worked. And combining half a dozen main characters into the film of one main character, whilst making them fight, whilst also continuing the story of two other branches of a franchise DEFINITELY shouldn’t have worked.

But it did. And it did so spectacularly.

I’ve ranted and raved about Captain America: Civil War in the past two years of its release, and there was a small part of me that worried revisiting it now would curb my massive enthusiasm on the superhero epic. But…nope! I’m still as high as ever for this miracle of a movie. What the Russo Brothers created here is astounding: a superhero movie that not only serves as the perfect closing chapter of its main character’s trilogy, but also operates as the dramatic crescendo of the entire damn franchise. Civil War manages to pull on everything we know about the MCU and the characters who populate it, blowing it all up in exciting, often heartbreaking ways.

Much has been said about the grand airport battle at the center of Civil War, and of course I’m not going to disparage it much here (it truly is something to behold, even now.) But for me the real high of the film is its final action sequence, which pits Captain America, Winter Soldier, and Iron Man in a brutal, no holds barred three-way duel. It’s a hell of an action sequence, but also one that pulls on nearly a decades work of character building and relationship work. Marvel knows we love these characters, and seeing them come to blows over real, human conflict is just the kind of sting that only a dozen films worth of set-up and character development can really achieve. Thor: Ragnarok might be fun, The Winter Soldier might be expertly crafted, and Black Panther might have a strong thematic issue at its core. But when I think of just what the Marvel Cinematic Universe can be at its best, and the kind of expert films that only they could possibly craft, Captain America: Civil War absolutely takes the cake.


…But will The Russo Brothers once again be able to top themselves yet again with Avengers: Infinity War? We shall find out this weekend but, if this list is any indication, they have their work cut out for them. That’s just how consistently good the MCU movies are, at the end of the day — they truly make up a league of their own in the world of crowd-pleasing blockbusters. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.


Also published on Medium.

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