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Image source: comicvine.com

Its strange, in a way, to look retrospectively upon the MCU at this point. Certainly, before that fateful October day two years ago when Feige made his grand Phase Three reveal, one would have assumed that the forthcoming films would all merely be minor components, engaging but isolated fragments that would coalesce in some final form around the Mad Titan so tantalizingly teased at the end of the first Avengers film; only then to be scrutinized and taken in as part of a bigger picture. Indeed, pressed back then to even imagine what might come in the time until Thanos’ arrival, what tales to astonish the House of Ideas had in store, there would be nary a person so bold as to suggest that the highlight of those forthcoming films, the most hotly anticipated and ambitious film Marvel Studios would dream up would be the third installment in a franchise that had, at that point, proven to be the worst grossing film of their cinematic outings thus far (excluding The Incredible Hulk, bogged down by its attachment both to a less confident studio than Marvel’s current mouse-eared owners as well as the still fresh wounds of Ang Lee’s big green flop). From our 2012 vantage point, the prospect of more Captain America (and indeed Thor) films seemed to promise as little as what the initial installment seemingly offered: Bland but necessary speed bumps on the road to more quippy Downey in CGI suits.

Then Marvel shattered the mold with their second phase films, no more so than with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. With a gamble as ambitious as the Ed Brubacker revamp from which it took its name, Marvel rewrote the rule of the game they themselves had invented, sending shockwaves through the many facets of their universe (which had just begun to branch out into comic books and tv shows that functioned as part of the overall universe) and solidified Steve Roger’s status as one of the most complex and engrossing characters Marvel had to offer, and setting the stage for perhaps the ultimate Captain America story (even though it came late in the character’s lifespan) when they announced their intent to adapt Mark Millar’s 2006 massive crossover event Civil War.

The symbol of the American Way would be forced to battle not only the government he swore to uphold but the allies he’d made over these many years; and though Thor and Hulk were MIA for this particular venture (which is fair, as both were for the comic book event as well), Marvel pulled out all the stops to bring in everyone they can from their past cinematic outings onto the battlefield for the divisive and titanic battle (indeed, save the latest revelation that Tony Stark will appear in Spider-Man Homecoming, this will presumably be our last time seeing any of these old characters until Infinity War). Even though Thanos has been teased and re-teased, and still further re-teased, its hard not to feel like the culmination of everything is indeed this moment, this turning point, this philosophical and emotional battleground that fans have been desperately hoping for since the Avengers first assembled.

Therefor it seems only fair to take a look at the MCU thus far, now that it’s been forever changed by the lines drawn in the sand. We’ll take a look at every single component of the MCU canon thus far released; not just the films and television programs, but the short film “Marvel One Shots” and the official tie-in comics as well. As we’ll discuss in due time, with those it gets a bit dicier determining precisely what is or is not canon, and in some cases voices within Marvel were listened to, in others determinations were made based on whether it conflicted with more certain canonical elements.

Each week we’ll discuss a new component, ranked and reviewed as we recover from the epic Civil War, so strap in, because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

The Films

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The films are the backbone of the MCU, enough to be embedded within the overall term for the universe (despite its presence in print and television, its still dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after all). While not everyone has travelled down the rabbit hole of comics or TV, anyone with even a passing interest is familiar with the films. They’re the foundation upon which the entire franchise was built (with 2008’s Iron Man setting the stage well before the idea of a prime time TV show devoted to S.H.I.E.L.D was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye), and they remain the franchise’s heart; whether its a matter of budget or the caliber of character, the films can craft sweeping epics, swashbuckling ales of heroism or deep philosophical meditations, sometimes within the same story. Yes, sometimes there’s a swing and a miss, when lassoing the tornadoes necessary to hold together so ambitious and endeavor result in a sloppy single film, but one can forgive those missteps in the face of the bigger picture. And at the end of the day, when Marvel gets it wrong, its still a somewhat satisfying product; but when they get it right, they get it so damn right.

13) Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Plot: Returning to Asgard with his brother Loki and the Tesseract in tow, Thor is confronted with an ancient evil who wishes to utilize a destructive force known as the Aether to take his revenge. The two brothers are forced to team up to take down this grave threat, while Jane Foster finds her way to the realm of Asgard and back into Thor’s heart.

This film is so muddled I found myself struggling to even write its synopsis. Its actual plot isn’t terribly clear, its events inconsequential and its storytelling and tone all over the place. The film feels as though perhaps there’s a truly engrossing story justifying Doctor Who star Christopher Eccleston to have endured the hours worth of make-up he presumably sat through, but then someone stood over the director’s shoulder yelling “More of the love story. Women like the romance. And more Loki! Chicks dig Loki!” forgetting of course that chicks dig a coherent and engaging story even more, because they’re human beings with brains. While its Phase 2 counterparts has definitive genres and styles they attempted to embody to break the mold, Thor: The Dark World stands out as easily the weakest of the pack (and the franchise) by slipping into the standard sequel trappings of trying to do the same thing again, just bigger. Combine that with some behind the scenes shenanigans that left the film without a singular sense of purpose, and you get the least watchable (but still watchable) MCU movie to date.

12) The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Plot: Bruce Banner (a different Bruce Banner than the one you’re picturing) is hunted down by government operatives due to his big green alter-ego. As the Hulk, he battles the Army, the Abomination, and his love for Betty Ross, the daughter of his primary antagonist, General Thaddeus Ross.

Personally, I have no real fondness for this film, and would sooner sit through Thor 2. At least that possesses that special Marvel spark in fleeting moments (Loki disguising himself as Captain America comes to mind instantly), where there’s not an ounce of that spark nor any sense of originality in this film, who seems to share far more DNA with the turn-of-the-millennium Fox and Sony cinematic endeavors into the genre than the new way of telling stories Marvel Studios had founded itself to undertake. What sets it above Thor 2 and saves it from the bottom slot is a three-pronged advantage: 1) It does tell a coherent, if basic, story. When you consume something like Thor 2 in such close proximity to its counterpart, you realize just how loose and aimless the movie really is, so even a straightforward story like Incredible Hulk has the advantage. 2) Tim Roth managed to imbue enough electricity and charisma into his performance as Emil Blonksy that we were invested in his behemoth Abomination after the transformation. Marvel’s struggles with crafting engaging villains has been well documented in the past, and Abomination could have easily been another forgettable, empty brute (a la Ronan the Accuser or the Destroyer). Instead, they gave us one of the two elements so memorable from The Incredible Hulk that its been continually nodded to in the universe, and fans actively hope he makes his return, just like: 3) General Thaddeus Ross. William Hurt is utterly engrossing as the infamous Thunderbolt Ross. His commitment to the role and powerful presence provide a necessary counterbalance to the dead weight that is Liv Tyler’s Betty Ross, and his return in Civil War is a welcome addition to a universe that has mostly shunned the film in which he originally appeared. No, The Incredible Hulk isn’t a terribly memorable film, but if its perhaps the one MCU film you’ve skipped, its worth a viewing, if just for the above listed elements.

11) Iron Man 2 (2010)

Plot: Hounded by the government for access to his Iron Man technology and with a business competitor breathing down his neck, Stark responds with his trademark arrogance. But that high horse is cut down by the son of his father’s former business partner, who becomes the villainous Whiplash…

…which of course represents the “sins of the father” trope, which is maybe the theme of this film, but maybe isn’t, because it turns out the dad who he resents in this film for being neglectful also his a magical plot device in the model for a 40 year old expo that not only lays out the atomic make-up for a new element, but provides the exact element needed to save Tony’s life at that precise point in time where he watched additional footage his dad shot during his apparent Wonderful World of Disney promo for the Stark Expo telling Tony that even though he’s been a terrible father he decided to show his love by stashing a theoretical blueprint of protons and electrons in a decades old model train set and hopes the tech will just catch up just in case his son ever needs to create a small arc reactor to keep a bullet from hitting his heart but then that arc reactor itself starts to kill him because, oh yeah, Tony Stark is apparently dying but that’s not really super relevant to the story which is Vanko, Mickey Rourke’s bird loving character who has a vendetta against Stark because of the aforementioned father thing and teams up with Stark’s semi-rival Justin Hammer, who’s working with the government after Tony dismisses them in a glorious Hank Rearden meets Zack Morris congressional appearance which causes them to send a less Hustle & Flow, more Boogie Nights James Rhodes to commandeer an Iron Man suit during one of Tony’s drunken parties because he has an alcohol problem and unrelated to any of THAT government hoopla Nick Fury has sent Natasha Romanov, elite assassin, to pose as a secretary at Stark Enterprises to monitor Tony because apparently their talk about the Avengers Initiative at the end of the first Iron Man didn’t go over well but good thing she’s there as they’re gonna need her, Rhodes and a sober and fueled by an element he created Tony Stark to battle an army of killer robots designed by Vanko who also creates a new, improved Whiplash suit to carry out his vendetta during a newly revived Stark Expo resulting in Vanko’s defeat and Stark being commissioned as a “consultant” for the Avengers Initiative.

Any English majors would look at the above review and say “Now, there’s some good ideas in there, but its just too much. It’s unfocused, things go by too quickly and it all just feels like one run on sentence without any real sense of purpose.” Which, at the end of the day, is the best representation of Iron Man 2 possible. It’s not terrible, nor dull, but it simply suffered from being caught in the middle of Marvel’s shift from solo films to shared universe.

10) Thor (2011)

Plot: After being goaded by his brother Loki, Thor the son of Odin, ruler of Asgard invites war with the frost giants, causing him to be banished to Midgard, also known as Earth. There he meets a team of scientists led by Jane Foster who want to unlock the secrets of other dimensions. The two worlds collide when Loki sends the Destroyer to Earth and Thor must prove his worth by battling for the future of two realms.

Despite its low ranking (and trust me, from here on out they’re all varying degrees of great anyway), Kenneth Branagh had a great vision for this introduction to the god of Thunder, was the right man for the job, and ultimately delivered the best you could possibly get under the circumstances (ok, maybe the best possible film would have had less Kat Dennings “comedic relief” but still). The scenes in Asgard are the peak of Shakespearian glory, with the type of grandiosity that rivals all the cinematic swords and sorcery not called The Lord of the Rings (and yes, better than those unnecessary Hobbit movies). When the film falters, it falters out of necessity, as for the sake of fitting into the Road to The Avengers, Branagh is forced to pluck us from the Westeros among the stars and banish Thor to earth, leaving us to slog through “just alright” interaction between Thor and the slew of scientists played adequately by Stellan Skarsgard, Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings as we yearn for a return to the epic, mythic majesty of Chris Hemsworth verbally sparring with the legendary Anthony Hopkins as Odin and breakout star Tom Hiddleston. Admittedly, the stakes fairly small for the “big showdown”, and a fair chunk of the film is forgettable, but its an overall serviceable film, and a satisfying enough introduction for a character who’s thus far only truly shined in the Avengers films (here’s hoping his Midnight Run escapades with Hulk in Thor 3 change that).

9) Ant-Man (2015)

Plot: In order to curb the destructive intent of his former protege, genius and former Shield operative Hank Pym recruits burglar Scott Lang to don Hank’s old uniform, the Ant-Man suit, capable of shrinking and telepathically controlling ants; much to the chagrin of Pym’s daughter, Hope Van Dyne.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with the sordid affair that occurred before Ant-Man hit the big screen (either a petulant perfectionist refused to relinquish even a modicum of control to the people who were actually bankrolling the film and owned the character, or the project was cruel ripped away by money grubbing monsters from the greatest auteur of our time, depending on who you ask) was expecting the film to feel a bit disjointed, but save one very awkward and out of place fight scene with the Falcon, it was remarkable how well the finished product held up. The Atlas-like feat Peyton Reed performed, fusing the old ideas with the new, did what it could with some of the remnants of Edgar Wright’s original drafts (upon some consideration, its not hard to see how what would have been Simon Pegg’s Scott Lang would have made far more sense surrounded by bumbling misfits like Nick Frost and co. than TI and David Dastmalchian would up doing with the otherwise grounded Paul Rudd’s character arc) while giving perhaps a more fully formed portrait of its three protagonists (Lang, Pym and Van Dyne) than any Phase One film short of Iron Man was able to do with its single titular hero. Yes, its undeniable Lang is more delightful and memorable in his scenes in Civil War (no longer needing to be the emotional anchor to the story, he’s free to be the out-of-place schlub Rudd plays so well), and the film does suffer the “forgettable villain” problem the vast majority of Marvel films encounter. That said, from its strong humor, utterly engaging supporting cast (particularly a spirited Michael Douglas, whose young Hank Pym shown matching wits with Hayley Attwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slatery’s always welcome Howard Stark deserves his own movie full of Cold War-era espionage. Bridge of Inch-High Spies, anyone?) and for having the wherewithal to actually acknowledge the biggest plot hole in any non-Avengers film (namely, why not call the Avengers?), Ant-Man turns out to be a solid and fun ride. Sure, it’s perhaps the most childish of the Marvel films, definitely playing more towards the viewers young enough that an ant named Ant-ony elicits laughter instead of groans, but in a phase that tackled PTSD and government surveillance, a little whimsy is always welcome.

8) Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Plot: The year is 1942. Johan Schmidt, a disciple of Adolph Hitler and founder of Hydra has obtained an ancient Asgardian artifact known as the Tesseract. To try and turn the tide of the war back in the favor of the Allies, Dr. Abraham Erskine, the German scientist who gave Schmidt both his super strength and his scarlet skull, uses his now perfected formula on a scrawny Brooklyn boy named Steve Rogers, who inadvertently becomes a national icon and, in time, the embodiment of American pride and values, before a heroic act of self-sacrifice leaves him a man out of time.

This first film has received a lot of flack for being “unimaginative”, “by the numbers” or even “creaky”, but that’s precisely what it needed to be. It was an utterly brilliant piece of 1940’s comic book storytelling, indeed perhaps the most “comic book-y” comic book movie since Richard Donner stopped making movies about the man of steel. For all the “modernizing” Marvel has done with their onscreen characters, The First Avenger is the only one of the Marvel films you could show people who were fans of Steve Rogers back when he was selling war bonds for real and they’d recognize every element. There’s a semitone hopefulness about the film, a Rocketeer/Sky Captain sense of single-minded optimism that pervades the story even in its darkest moments and keeps the film’s marvelous momentum going. The film also crafts arguably the most endearing and honest love story in all of the MCU in Hayley Atwel’s brilliant and fiercely independent Peggy Carter. Yes, the film lacks the kind of murky moral grey areas allowing it to be little more than a propaganda film about “the American way”, but that’s precisely what it needed to be, not only for future films, but to simply allow its utterly heart wrenching final moments to be all the more poignant (“I had a date”. Those are the final words. For all its saccharine nostalgia, First Avenger is the only MCU film to straight up end on a down note). It’s easily the most brutal and gory of the Phase one films (a dude gets thrown into a propeller and blood flies everywhere), segues brilliantly into its follow-up The Avengers while still feeling like a complete story on its own; most importantly, where other MCU films waiver in quality upon multiple viewings (Thor isn’t quite as bad as you remember it, Iron Man isn’t quite as good, etc.), The First Avenger has a consistency to it and a sense of purpose and theme that allows it to maintain and indeed rise in one’s esteem with every viewing. It’s a hearty, wholesome and ultimately pure kind of film with a reverence to the period it depicts and the values that period represents, with Steve Rogers shining as the beacon of hope, a symbol of what America once was, who shines so brightly here that his future conflicts are made all the more powerful.

7) Iron Man (2008)

Plot: Kidnapped by terrorists who use his own weapons to advance their cause, weapons manufacturer Tony Stark creates a weaponized suit to escape and decides its a pretty sweet idea, so he makes an upgraded one to tackle global crime while trying to maintain control of his company in the face of a gradually more power-hungry Obadiah Stane.

The one that started it all. By now, nearly a decade after its release (the same year as The Dark Knight, which may historically be remembered as the year “dark and gritty” hit its high water mark while a new era of fun films was born), so much has been said about Iron Man it seems silly to delve too deeply here. We all know Iron Man. We all remember it fondly. Ultimately, a little too fondly. Yeah, it’s still the best pre-Avengers Phase One film. Yes, its still leagues above a slew of comic boo films that came before and since, and one of the true highlights of the pre-MCU era of comic book movies in general. But it’s got a really sloppy third act, an underwhelming climax, and is far slower in the wake of films that perfected the formula. Its still an utterly solid film, well worth the watch whenever you flip past it on FX (so, you know, every damn day). It just doesn’t hold up when compared to the near-revelatory fun the peak MCU films have achieved, and its a testament to the quality of those films that they beat out an engrossing game changer like Iron Man.

6) Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Plot: Faced with his own irresponsibility and still reeling from the Battle of New York, Tony Stark dreams of a “suit of armor around the world” to bring “peace in our time”, resulting (through the use of the Mind Stone embedded in Loki’s staff) in a sentient machine bent on riding the world of any threats to its safety, which apparently includes the Avengers themselves and indeed all of humanity. The titular team must unite to stop Ultron in a globe-spanning adventure that introduces new characters and shows us old friends in new ways.

Age of Ultron, upon release, was unfairly bashed because of simple superhero fatigue and of course an internet outrage machine that loves to devour anything people like. No, the film isn’t sexist, it isn’t an affront to the very idea of cinema, or any of the other hyperbolic accusations it had leveled at it. Its worst sin is being underwhelming in comparison to both its predecessor and its fellow Phase 2 films (well, ok, besides Ant-Man and the dumpster fire of Thor: The Dark World). Its been accused of being nothing but set-up for future installments, and while there’s a kernel of truth to that, such criticisms are far too overblown. Yes, that awkward “Thor takes a bath” scene bogs down the film a bit, but the excursion to Wakanda works just fine to anyone not combing the film for things to ridicule, and the oft-chastised Black Widow thinks she’s a monster scene is a reflection of her own poor self-image, not an indictment of women everywhere. No, Age of Ultron doesn’t hold up quite as well upon repeat viewings, sure. Spader may not have been the perfect choice for Ultron, and the film lacks as clear a message and point of view as the five films that outrank it. But when its could, it’s (almost) unbeatable. Every character is extraordinarily written and utterly three-dimensional. It re-introduces the concept of the Infinity Stones and tackles the birth of both Ultron and the Vision, two insanely comic book-y origins, with the ease of a master storyteller (much as he maligns it, Joss Whedon did a brilliant job with the film), and as more films are released in the MCU, the less pressure will be on Age of Ultron to be some sort of culmination like its predecessor was, and the more we’ll see it as a well-composed component of the most ambitious cinematic undertaking of our time.

5) Iron Man 3 (2013)

Plot: Reeling from the Battle of New York, which stripped him of his signature swagger, Tony Stark soon finds himself stripped of his home, his partner and indeed even his titular suit as he ventures to take down the mysterious terrorist known as the Mandarin and wrestles with rival Aldrich Killian’s newest creation, Extremis.

And here we find another film unfairly maligned upon release for not being another cookie-cutter, by the book Iron Man story. First off, expecting anything ordinary from cinematic rebel Shane Black is a huge mistake. The man’s work is the closest thing mainstream Hollywood has to punk rock, in a career of genre subverting, game changing films that show he was chomping at the bit to reteam with Downey Jr. to tear up the entire formula and piece together a Frankenstein’s monster of action and attitude. I could go on about the Lethal Weapon scribe’s skills, but Tom Lorenzo provided a far more in depth analysis than I have room for here, so we’ll simply focus on why the film isn’t held in the reverence it so clearly deserves. Simply put, its due to expectations. The marketing sold us a by the numbers Iron Man film with a realistic, gritty take on Stark’s legendary foe the Mandarin, played with terroristic menace by Ben Kingsley. The trailers promised high-flying action, a menagerie of armors and the most intense and memorable Marvel villain yet. So when the menacing Mandarin turned out to be a misdirect, and the film as a whole less action and more introspection, fans didn’t know how to respond. Its inarguable that the marketing sold them a wholly different film, but rather than be pleasantly surprised by being, for once, surprised at the movies, they en masse revolted at being sold a false bill of goods. Iron Man 3 is an extraordinarily bold departure from not just the cliches of the MCU but of the comic book genre as a whole, and ultimately a more subtle and profound exploration of the horrors of PTSD than American Sniper (then again, even the massively underrated, gone-too-soon sitcom Enlisted provided a more nuanced depiction of PTSD than American Sniper). In a summer of massively disappointing blockbusters (Man of Steel, Star Trek: Into Darkness), Iron Man 3 disappointed audiences simply by not being a blockbuster at all. While its not completely without flaws, like its typical-of-Iron-Man-films weak climax and underwhelming real villain (Aldrich Killian proves to be the sole dead weight of the otherwise taut film, and one wonders how much ore shocking the “real bad guy” reveal would have been had Black been allowed his female villain), but ultimately Iron Man 3 is a brilliant tour de force and offers the richest character study of any MCU film to date. If it proves to be Stark’s final solo outing, its a hell of a high note to go out on.

4) Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Plot: An incident in South Africa proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, sparking the Sokovia Accords, an international act calling for the regulation of The Avengers. Tony’s guilt and Steve’s distrust of the government come to a head when it appears the Winter Soldier commits an act of domestic terrorism. Lines are drawn in the sand, old friends on opposite sides with new allies charging into battle alongside them.

So, since the film is so fresh, it’s admittedly hard to discuss it without a MASSIVE amount of spoilers, especially since the Russo bros. did a hell of a job packing a fair amount of twists and turns into this massive movie; its even harder to judge the film objectively so close to its release (which is why this piece didn’t come out until now, to give it time to settle and my fanboy glee to subside). If you had asked me as soon as I walked out of the theatre the day it served as the tail end of the epic, 14 hour Captain Amer-athon, I would have told you Civil War is the single best Marvel film of all time (I would have also told you that a movie theatre concession stand can not provide you with the adequate nutrition necessary for three square meals). And while the edges of the film have frayed a bit as the fog has lifted, with a few elements not working quite as well as they could have (for the way she was emphasized in merchandise and marketing, Agent 13 was virtually squandered, while Baron Zemo and his plan and its relation to the Sokovia Accords could have used a bit of clarity. Indeed, the entire plan could have, as I could help but feel a bit reminded of the awkward “architect of your pain” drivel from Spectre during the final confrontation with Zemo), Captain America: Civil War still proved to be an absolutely stellar piece of cinema. Of course, you can find a full review from Tom on a different part of the site, but we’ll focus here on a few of the film’s highlights, namely the outstanding new additions of Chadwick Boseman’s riveting T’Challa, the Black Panther, and of course Tom Holland’s right-off-the-page flawless Peter Parker/Spider-Man, the first to get the tone of both identities right. While setting up countless future installments, Civil War never suffers the fate of Age of Ultron, never once feels bogged down, and indeed makes even the heretofore unfamiliar viewer excited to see these characters again (I encountered a middle-aged mother who had reluctantly taken her children to the film raving about how much she wanted to see Black Panther), particularly Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, played with such everyman glee that Ant-Man and the Wasp went from an unnecessary last minute add on to a can’t-come-soon-enough slice of surefire fun. Yet the most remarkable thing is the film’s moral ambiguity. Not since Do The Right Thing have I seen a film provoke such heated discussion about what the film “clearly meant” in terms of who was “right” or “wrong”. My takeaway from the film sees Stark as the tormented hero, whereas Mr. Lorenzo has asserted how obvious it seems to him that the film is pro-Cap. The film’s true brilliance is how it draws the viewer in by perfectly capturing the tone of Winter Soldier for the Cap-centric moments, yet feeling like the natural next step from Iron Man 3 for Stark’s solo scenes, allowing us to connect to both sides, see both arguments, and ultimately determine who was “wrong” or “right” based on our own biases. The film manages its massive cast with incredible grace and moral shades of grey, a tightrope walk on the edge of a razor blade whose edge may indeed dull further over time, but that will make the feat itself no less stunning.

3) The Avengers (2012)

Plot: After Loki comes to Earth by way of the Tesseract, Nick Fury must finally call upon the Avengers he’s been assembling to unite and save the world; if only they’d just stop fighting each other.

While Iron Man may be beloved by many, when the dust settles on the MCU, The Avengers will stand as the undisputed, undeniable classic of the bunch. Less than a lustrum (fun fact: our website’s spellcheck doesn’t believe that’s a word, but takes no such umbrage at the words like “Jedi” or “Chewbacca”) after its debut, it already feels like a well-worn classic, countless moments feel iconic, its lines quoted with as much frequency as the finest quips from landmarks like 1989’s Batman and the original Richard Donner Superman. So what if Hawkeye is brutally underused, and there’s not exactly a labyrinthine plot to it all? You’d be hard pressed to find another comic book movie half as fun as The Avengers when it came out to rave reviews. Iron Man was a memorable movie, for sure, and Winter Soldier altered the MCU, but The Avengers is an absolute landmark not only for the genre but indeed cinematic history as a whole. Some superhero movies fade with time, other rise and fall in esteem. The Avengers, though, that will always be there, its sharp script and an undeniable chemistry amongst its cast functioning as the foundation for a flurry of thrills and chuckles that never fails to satisfy.

2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Plot: After an assassinated Nick Fury warns Steve Rogers to “trust no one”, Cap must turn his back on boss Alexander Pierce, S.H.I.E.L.D and indeed even his namesake nation in order to uncover the truth behind the insidious conspiracy behind the legendary assassin, the Winter Soldier.

The Avengers may have been the game changer, but it was Captain America: The Winter Soldier which flipped the script, raised the bar, and whatever other cliches you wanna use as a stand-in for “Holy shit, how good was that movie, right? Like how god damn good was it?” Community and Arrested Development don’t seem like a good resume to direct a superhero movie, and in truth the Russo bros. ultimately didn’t make a comic book movie at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, taking a cue from Shane Black’s radical departure from form, and drawing from films like The Day of the Jackal and Three Days of the Condor (the latter starring Alexander Pierce himself, Robert Redford), the brothers opted instead to drop the man out of time in the midst of a 70’s spy film, with just a few more jump kicks and shield throws. It’s a testament to not only their vision but the work of screenwriters Markus and McFeely, who previously penned Captain America: The First Avenger, that this pulse-pounding, gripping conspiracy thriller is absolutely airtight, so much so that the often vicious Honest Trailers famously couldn’t mock it without self-acknowledged nitpicking, a fact the Russo brothers admitted was a goal in mind during the film’s production. But in an effort to make a Youtube-critic-proof sequel to an ignored initial installment, they wound up making a critically beloved, audience astounding thriller that proved just because its based on a comic doesn’t mean it has to be a “comic book movie”. Chris Evans finally gets the chance to show off his acting chops in scenes of torment and resignation, no better than his brief hospital visit with an elderly Peggy Carter. Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t just one of the best MCU movies ever made, but easily one of the best superhero movies period, and the greatest sense of awe comic book fans have felt since The Dark Knight. It raised the bar so high for comic book drama that nothing has been able to reach it before or since. Yet, there’s one other MCU film that stands above the rest by going in a completely different direction…

1) Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Plot: Space scavenger Peter Quill, the self-dubbed Star-Lord, falls in with a deadly assassin, a deadlier warrior, and even deadlier heavily armed rodent, and a walking and somewhat talking tree as they attempt to keep the Power Stone, one of the six legendary Infinity Stones, away from the vicious Ronan the Accuser and therefor the Mad Titan himself, Thanos.

Here’s the part where I’m supposed to justify this ranking, but…is there any argument? Was there any real doubt where this was going to land? James Gunn managed to achieve what no other MCU director has been able to yet, blend the sensibilities of the broader cinematic universe and yet maintain a clear and definitive auteurist vision for what is sure to be a career defining film for so many of the people involved. The Avengers was huge, but that was an expected hit. For a movie many were preaching as the death-knell for Marvel’s winning  streak, this scrappy underdog of a movie sent shockwaves as the whole world got hooked on its feelings. When the kind of folks you’d think wouldn’t even sully themselves with such trifles as comic book movies like Spielberg and Pacino are zealots for a film about a gun-toting raccoon, you know its gotta be something special. Guardians of the Galaxy is so well-crafted, so smart and sincere that we feel as though its been around our entire lives, the its a fundamental piece of the cinematic lexicon that we grew up with, every beat of the story feels so warm and familiar on repeat viewings that you’d swear we had an old VHS of it snug between The Goonies and The Return of the Jedi in our childhood playrooms. The cast is phenomenal, the script sublime, and from the minute the opening riff of “Come and Get Your Love” ignites a giant title to appear over a dancing Chris Pratt, you know you’re in for something special. It’s a fearless film with heart, integrity and a sense of whimsy that made it instantly iconic. Guardians of the Galaxy did the impossible, defied the odds, and remains the most rewatchable and utterly delightful entry in the MCU catalogue. If you don’t get a charge out of the “Fooled Around and Fell in Love” scene or relish in quick cutaways like Peter Quill negotiating for the absolutely essential robotic leg,  you’ve profoundly lost your sense of fun, my friend.

Well, that’s it for our first installment of PCI’s Civil War Journal. Feel free to ague viciously in the comments about how dead wrong I was, and get ready to froth at the mouth when we tackle the TV side of the MCU and I take the surprisingly controversial stance that Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D isn’t a horrendous failure on all levels. See you true believer then, and until next week, Excelsior!

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