6. Black Panther (2018)
“You’re a good man with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king.”
Black Panther was more than a movie, it was a cultural landmark that packed cinemas with entire communities desperate to see themselves represented on the blockbuster stage. Marvel’s first Oscars Best Picture nominee imagined a vivid Afrofuturist utopia and took the real world to task over why it could never be.
Unflinchingly confronting the West’s legacy of slavery and colonialism, Black Panther presents the late Chadwick Boseman as the newly crowned king T’Challa fighting usurper Erik Killmonger who wants to bring about a worldwide Black uprising to redress the balance of power. Michael B Jordan plays one of the great Marvel villains who really does have a point, and T’Challa’s sprightly, strikingly-staged and action-packed struggle to stop him comes loaded with a hint of regret.
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5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
“The universe has judged you. You asked it for a prize and it told you no. You failed. And do you wanna know why? Because you love nothing. No one.”
The first part of the grand finale of the “Infinity Saga”, involving a cast of dozens of superpowered and highly skilled individuals both on Earth and across the universe, is endlessly ambitious, operatic in its themes, and comes with the bleakest cliffhanger ending in franchise filmmaking since The Empire Strikes Back.
The Mad Titan Thanos finally makes his big play and gathers the Infinity Stones to rewrite reality itself, prompting the Avengers and their allies to make a desperate last stand. Part 1 of the Russo Brothers’ magnum opus somehow manages to give pretty much everyone their moment to stand in the spotlight and splits the many characters off into smaller groups with their own fascinating dynamics, Downey Jr’s Tony Stark reliably not playing well with every new hero he meets.
Picking standouts in such an impressive ensemble is tough, but Josh Brolin and Zoe Saldaña are comfortably the acting highlights as they get to delve into the twisted wrongness of Thanos and Gamora’s abusive father-daughter/tyrant-killer relationship, while Thor and Doctor Strange’s many and varied display of powers have never looked more eye-catching.
4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
“Are you Thor, the god of hammers?”
In his MCU debut (not counting the amusing but throwaway Team Thor one-shot), Taika Waititi brought his trademark brand of quirky humour, as well as bright Jack Kirby sci-fi visuals and surprising tonal juxtaposition to the Thor series, not to mention making its space Viking lead a fully-rounded and compelling hero once again.
The prophesied Asgardian apocalypse begins with the return of Cate Blanchett as Hela, Odin’s firstborn and the Goddess of Death who expels Thor and Loki to a distant junk planet, where they reencounter the Hulk fighting as a gladiator and plan their strike back.
Chris Hemsworth seems to relish playing a more doubtful Thor who has lost everything and needs to be reminded where his power really comes from, and he shows effortless chemistry with Ruffalo, Tessa Thompson’s snide Valkyrie and Waititi himself as affable rock monster Korg.
Waititi pitches this just right with the personal stakes never higher and the character moments rarely more profound and surprisingly insightful, with a heap of irreverent fun and unique imagery that outshines much of the rest of the MCU along the way.
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3. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
“I know you’re doing what you believe in, and that’s all any of us can do. That’s all any of us should… So no matter what, I promise you, if you need us – if you need me – I’ll be there.”
The third Captain America movie was understandably dubbed “Avengers 2.5” by many, and saw the previously inseparable team facing scrutiny as living WMDs and seeing themselves fractured in unexpectedly personal ways. This thankfully did not attempt to directly adapt the “Civil War” arc of the comics which relied on everyone acting completely out of character, but instead built on what had come before and took things to their painful, logical conclusions.
Civil War did a lot of heavy lifting for what was to come, introducing both Spider-Man and Black Panther, scattering many heroes to the four winds in time for the universal threats in Infinty War and Endgame, and for the TV series like ‘Falcon and the Winter Soldier’ that dug further into the underlying psychologies of key players.
Whether or not Daniel Brühl’s villainous mastermind Zemo’s plan relies too much on extraordinary coincidence, it ultimately comes down to taking revenge by laying bare dark secrets and exploiting grudges between meta-humans who may be powerful but are still very fallible. This is a rare superhero movie that actually debates the cost of being a superhero in a real-ish world wielding extraordinary and dangerous power, and it does it all without too much monologuing.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
“We are Groot.”
With Guardians of the Galaxy, former purveyor of schlock (for Troma) and Scooby-Doo screenwriter James Gunn brought to life a team of characters including a tree-man with a three-word vocabulary and a fast-talking, gun-toting raccoon that nobody but the biggest comic book nerds had ever heard of. Miraculously, he somehow made them into everyone’s favourite adventuring intergalactic dysfunctional family.
It’s a familiar story in a new garb, with Chris Pratt’s space scoundrel Star-Lord banding together with a scrappy crew of ne’er-do-wells to overcome their worst natures and do something right for a change by saving a planet from destruction. The intended tone is set by the opening credits sequence that sees Star-Lord going all Indiana Jones treasure hunting in an ancient temple before bopping along to soft rock on his Walkman as the cast’s names flash by.
The humour is immature when it wants to be and the film delivers all the expected flashy space opera spectacle you could want, but it also has the biggest heart in this comic book movie universe by quite some distance, everything coming down to how much you’d sacrifice for your found family, two of which are creatures so flawlessly realised by motion capture technology that the very thought of them being hurt will bring on the waterworks.
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1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
“Now, I get that you miss your mom, but she’s gone. Really gone. And there are plenty of people who are only kinda gone. And you can help them.”
Ten years of superhero stories came to a simply spectacular and achingly affecting end with Avengers: Endgame, a blockbuster of truly epic proportions that somehow pulled off its unimaginably complex gambit of bringing together a decade of interconnected stories to become one of the most gratifying genre films of all time.
Previously in the MCU, the Avengers lost everything and everyone. You’d be forgiven for thinking that would be a bleak point to start a new film from with so many of the survivors hitting absolute rock bottom, but long-time MCU scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely came up with a carefully plotted but deliriously fun route to undoing the oblivion of half the universe. Our scattered and decimated superhero team must undertake a daring “time heist” quest to key points in their previous adventures to reunite the Infinity Stones and wish back the half of the universe that was dusted by Thanos.
It looks and sounds fantastic, with intricately choreographed, massive, multi-tiered battle scenes, and vistas that look like the most spectacular comic book splash pages come to life, plus stirring, career-best work (and that’s saying something) from returning Avengers composer Alan Silvestri.
Nothing could compete with the opening night buzz of this one, a decade of investment in beloved characters, wracking sobs for those we lost and roars of approval at the perfectly-pitched resolution of plotlines seeded many films ago. Again, everyone gets to take their bow and much of the film feels like an extravagant victory lap, but it’s easily a two-way tie between Downey Jr and Evans for film and franchise MVP, probably just edged by the former for the heart-rending poignancy he brings over the latter being the face of so many of the movie’s most awesome moments.
One of the few downsides to Endgame was that it was such a nailed-on masterpiece to conclude the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It remains to be seen whether the studio will ever hit such heights again, but they’re going to keep trying. You could say they… “can do this all day”.
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Where do you think the Marvel Cinematic Universe will go next? Do you wish we’d seen different versions of the stories told so far? Do you wish you’d seen Edgar Wright’s version of Ant-Man? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to follow @thefilmagazine on Facebook and Twitter to never miss another insightful movie list.