Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
This weekend, New Mutants finally sees wide release after two years of delays thanks in large part to the Disney acquisition of Fox and the dismantling of everything that made the once-great studio what it was. Being unceremoniously dumped on the second weekend of national cinema re-openings, Disney definitely wants the film to fail. Regardless, this is one of my most anticipated films of the last few years, a picture that was supposed to continue down the R-rated route Fox had found success in with the Logan and two Deadpool movies.
With the final Fox-produced X-Men film finding release, I thought I would take a look back at everything that has been produced based on Marvel comics. Although the first film produced from a Marvel comic was 1944’s Captain America, which no one remembers, it wasn’t until Blade in 1998, X-Men in 2000, and Spider-Man in 2002 that the promise of Marvel properties was seen as a potentially fruitful one. The Marvel properties had been split between three separate studios with Fox owning the rights to the X-Men-related properties and the Fantastic Four comics, Sony having rights to the Spider-verse, and Disney owning just about everything else. Apart from a couple of films, I have seen everything Marvel-related since 2000, so I have no issue selecting the absolute best of the bunch.
Some of the titles I didn’t choose to highlight in detail are The Amazing Spider-Man, an attempt by Sony to reboot Spider-Man with the best rendition of the character portrayed by Andrew Garfield with Emma Stone sterling as Gwen Stacy. Guardians of the Galaxy was a fun and hilarious effort as was Deadpool. I might have also selected the original X-Men if the second film weren’t so much better, which also just barely fell outside the top 5 (I would rank X2: X-Men United as the seventh best Marvel film ever produced). The same is true of X-Men: First Class, which also rebooted the X-Men films, but was surpassed by the second film in that series, which did ultimately make my list. Additionally, Spider-Man 2 was better than Spider-Man and the former sits sixth on my list of favorite Marvel films. And then there were five. Here are my choices for the best Marvel films, two from Fox, two from Disney, and one from Sony.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The Marvel comics universe has a long history of tackling important topics in unique and compelling ways. Most of what’s come out at movie theaters, though, have been fairly straight forward action thrillers based on the comic characters’ sensibilities, but not most of their sociopolitical commentary. That’s especially true under Disney’s watchful eye. When Captain Amerca: The Winter Soldier tackled corporatism and politics in a convincing and frightening way, it was the first time I felt that the Marvel films could deliver genuine and topical storylines.
The second solo outing for Captain America (Chris Evans) finds Steve Rogers at the crux of a political maneuver to undermine S.H.I.E.L.D. and enact the goals of Hydra, an international criminal organization that has infiltrated the U.S. government as well as the core of S.H.I.E.L.D., once thought of as the only line of defense against stronger, superheroic threats.
This taut espionage thriller weaves in and out of its compelling plot, giving the hyper-patriotic Rogers a glimpse of the dark and dangerous elements of the government threatening to upend all that he and the soldiers of World War II fought against. That only one Disney Marvel film before or since has been able to hold a candle to the richness of plot in this film, a case could be made that this was the pinnacle of the Avengers era.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
2014 was really a banner year for Marvel comics adaptations. Not only was the prior entry in my top 5 (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) released that year, so too was Guardians of the Galaxy (a top ten finisher) and this film. It’s too bad that the Marvel properties would largely decrease in quality after this point.
Returning to the X-Men franchise after a multi-film absence, Director Bryan Singer showed why his first two films (X-Men and X2: X-Men United) were early high water marks for the genre. Herein, he takes the plot of one of the most popular comic storylines ever and turns it into a rousing success.
Combining the casts of the original X-Men films with the younger versions from X-Men: First Class, this time-hopping narrative sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to convince the young mutants to work to undermine the Sentinel program before it can get started and lead to the dystopian future from which he and the others came. It was a rousing adventure that was better than anything Disney had released before or after with the exception of their two films on this list.
With the X-Men films struggling to make the kind of money they once did, Fox decided to shake up the genre by shifting towards R-rated features. With the raucous Deadpool, they got their foul-mouthed humor in delicious doses, but with Logan, the studio went with something much more down to earth.
In the near future, many of the world’s mutants have been killed. A small number have gone into hiding, including Wolverine (Jackman) who has been keeping the increasingly frail Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in seclusion. Xavier’s Alzheimer’s has begun to wreak havoc on his mind and, as a result, he has started to lose control of his powers, risking the lives and safety of all those around him. Pursued by an organization that wants to experiment on and weaponize mutants, Wolverine embarks on a cross-country road trip to escape persecution and deliver a younger version of himself into the safe arms of a rumored mutant sanctuary.
The first Marvel film nominated in non-tech categories, Logan brought renewed interest and faith in the X-Men universe to the franchise. James Mangold directed the film while he and co-writers Scott Frank and Michael Green claimed a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for their efforts. The film showed that Marvel comic books didn’t have to be turned into big budget blockbuster thrillers that pandered to broad interests. The gritty Marvel movie could be a success and it was. Unfortunately, this wasn’t long before Disney’s acquisition of Fox and the unlikelihood of anything like this ever being attempted again dramatically increased.
Black Panther (2018)
It took 10 years for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to embrace inclusivity. While female characters and Black characters had been introduced previously, Black Panther became the first to put those characters at the forefront of the adventure. The end result was nothing short of spectacular. It was a gorgeously designed, brilliantly acted, handsomely photographed, and unparalleled success.
Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) must return home to fight a duel to the death that will determine who becomes the new leader of fictional Wakanda. An overconfident T’Challa finds himself outclassed and outmatched by Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). As the vengeance-seeking Killmonger attempts to leverage the power of Wakanda against the outside world, T’Challa must find his way back from defeat and overcome Killmonger in order to lead his people back to the peaceful prosperity they had benefited from for years.
The excellent cast of performers were enabled by the immense talents of director Ryan Coogler who co-authered the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole. Proving that an all Black cast could not only match all the White-led Disney Marvel films that came before it in terms of quality, the film scored bountiful box office numbers, becoming the third highest grossing film (not adjusted for inflation) of all-time, beating out the same year’s Avengers: Infinity War), but was the most successful of the franchise until it was surpassed by Avengers: Endgame the following year.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
The one area that Marvel’s cinematic fortunes hadn’t fully explored was animation. Sony decided to take its Spider-Man property and develop a feature-length big screen adventure for the web slinger and the end result is nothing short of extraordinary.
One of the Spider-Verse’s numerous Spider-Man incarnations was that of teenager Miles Morales who dons the guise of Spider-Man in numerous comics and is at the center of this computer-animated adventure. Although it’s designed with computers, the aesthetic, a healthy blend of traditional animation and old-style comic coloration, is something more compelling than that. Throw in a witty and frequently hilarious script and some superb vocal performances and you have a great Marvel adaptation that stands uniquely and convincingly on its own. Not only is it one of the best the Marvel landscape has ever produced, it’s a grand animated feature in its own right standing alongside some of the best: Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, and Laika.