Leading up to the launch of Avengers: Infinity War on April 27, television and film writer AJ Caulfield, The Young Folks’ Film Editor Allyson Johnson, and The Young Folks’ Television Editor Mae Abdulbaki joined forces for a three-part Marvel series called “Marvel: The Good, The Bad, and The Strange.”
Think of your life in the last 10 years. How many awkward dates have you reluctantly dressed up for, nervously laughed through while trying as hard as possible to catch the attention of the waiter for the check without tipping your would-be romantic partner off that you’re having a decidedly Not Good Time? Can you list the number of things you’ve said to a friend or family member you’d give all your saved-up shekels to reverse time and take back — because you regret what came out of your mouth that much? How much have you grown as person? How have you remained the same?
As humans, we’re not built free of flaws. We’re meant to change, forever shift from old selves to new, chase improvement, avoid stagnation. It’s simply the way of the world, and a lot can change in 10 years. At 13, I had short and spiky flame-orange hair, a crush on a boy who was in no way interested in conversing with me, and a custom-coded MySpace page. Now, at 23, my hair has grown past my hips in brunette curtains; I pine for no one (well, except for maybe Chris Pine, but that’s just a poor attempt at a pun); and my MySpace is as dead as things can be on the internet. Point being: I wasn’t perfect then, and I’m not now. I’ve had moments of significance and times of serious shame — as I’m sure many of you have. It’s how people operate.
I often wonder: Should we expect the things we consume to be any different?
The impending release of Avengers: Infinity War marks the culmination of a decade of Marvel movie greatness, an occasion that rouses reflection and revisitation in nearly all fans — myself, Allyson, and Mae included. As my mind flipped through the Rolodex of series installments, everything from 2008’s Iron Man to 2018’s Black Panther, to remember what thrills and moves me about the MCU, I made an important realization: Some Marvel movies, like some moments in life, aren’t as great as others.
Of the 18 total MCU entries to date, there are six flicks that pale in comparison to their franchise fellows, are dwarfed when juxtaposed against other Marvel films: The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange. Though none are total stinkers or entirely ineligible to be enjoyed, they do serve as dark spots in Marvel’s otherwise illumined and illustrious cinematic stockpile. Here’s why.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
When it comes to ranking actors who have played the Hulk on the big screen, the only acceptable hierarchy is Mark Ruffalo in the top spot (sympathetic, multifaceted, human when he’s Bruce and appropriately hulking when he’s not), Lou Ferrigno sitting proud in second place, and Edward Norton and Eric Bana falling to the bottom. (Sorry ’bout it.) Bana’s performance in the 2003 Ang Lee-directed The Hulk was lackluster (and the film as a whole a CGI-fied Greek tragedy mess), and Norton’s in 2008’s The Incredible Hulk was much the same — and that’s perhaps the movie’s hamartia.
The Incredible Hulk is what I like to call “mindless watch material.” You could easily load the Louis Leterrier-helmed pic up on your laptop or television screen and not actively watch it, but still glean from it the bare-bones premise and find a smattering of satisfaction in the drippy color palette. While the film executes its story far more methodically than its five-years-earlier predecessor, it doesn’t deliver anything new or compelling — and even its action is underwhelming, its pacing near momentum-less. Norton doesn’t bring to Bruce Banner what movie lovers admire the actor for either, and for a good chunk of the film, he does little more than monitor his heart rate. Not exactly the high-octane hero you’d hope to see, right?
Arguably the most forgettable entry in the MCU, The Incredible Hulk fails to live up to its title. Instead, it’s a middle-of-the-road movie whose merits are few: it helped Marvel figure out the tone and sensibility of the overall comic book movie franchise, and made studio execs realize someone other than Edward Norton is better fit to take on the role of the Hulk.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
I’m of the belief that Iron Man is one of the finest pieces of film Marvel has ever produced. I’m also of the belief that recreating movie magic is easier in theory than in practice, and is always harder when attempting to follow up something so universally loved as the Robert Downey Jr.-starrer. And that’s exactly what happened with Iron Man 2, a continuation that plays like a parody of its precursor.
From the same hands that handled the OG, longtime MCU luminary Jon Favreau, the sequel suffers a number of ailments: It’s a little too snarky for its own good; it slips into a kind of self-awareness that comes across both pandering and confusing, especially considering how smart the first film was; and it, not consistently but at times, feels like it’s racing against its a self-set clock to build the foundation for the Avengers movie that would come two years later. That’s not to say introducing Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, and the notion of S.H.I.E.L.D. as an entity created by Tony Stark’s old-timey innovator father wasn’t necessary or important — it was, it’s just that the characters fans know and love now are bizarrely obnoxious here.
Perhaps the only silly saving graces of Iron Man 2 are Mickey Rourke’s weird portrayal of Whiplash, which is never not a trip to watch, and Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, who essentially exists to make fun of Whiplash.
If Iron Man was what put Robert Downey Jr. on the Marvel map and made its eponymous hero one of the sickest, slickest, suavest heroes to grace the silver screen, Iron Man 2 is what made both the actor and the red and gold-clad vigilante he plays seem a little less super.
Okay, hear me out: Kenneth Branagh’s Thor isn’t a pile of garbage, and it’s not that I hate Chris Hemsworth or Tom Hiddleston or Anthony Hopkins. (Quite the opposite, really; I enjoy all three very much as actors.) The main issue I find with Thor is its counterintuitive narrative. A character who is a literal god should make a strong debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Thor doesn’t slide in with quite the bravado you’d expect. Rather than give him a typical origin story, director Branagh strips Thor of his abilities and thrusts him into life on Earth, specifically New Mexico, after he reignites a dormant war on his home planet. This premise aids in strengthening the idea that an everyday human powered by a high-tech suit like Tony Stark could brush shoulders with a Norse deity, which, in turn, serves useful down the line in crossover movies, but it leaves something to be desired.
Though Hemsworth as Thor and Hiddleston as Loki keep the movie buoyant (both actors’ performances are rock-solid and wonderful) and the sequences on Asgard are gorgeous, everything that surrounds them shakes out stale. At the time of the film’s release, Thor’s inclination for sacrifice felt admirable; in retrospect, it seems the standard for all Marvel heroes. Similarly, what once was cutesy but still charming in Thor’s love story with Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and the movie’s kitschy humor becomes kind of corny with repeat viewings.
Thor in five words? Not horrible, but not good.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Now, Thor: The Dark World in five words? Yeah, it’s actually pretty disappointing.
The follow-up to Thor is one of the MCU’s only two entries to not receive a Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is currently the lowest-scored installment on the review aggregator. And there’s a reason for that: Thor: The Dark World is Marvel at its most mundane. The sequel sees Thor back home in Asgard, appearing less ace than he did in the fish-out-of-water (god-out-of-kingdom?) first installment, and its story — a paint-by-the-numbers plot involving the nine realms coming together and the Dark Elves attempting to destroy Asgard — is essentially a poorly executed defense for ensuring Thor and Jane can remain together.
Thor: The Dark World exists without a whole lot of personality, and looking back, it’s easy to see that it’s here where Hemsworth grows weary of playing a character who hasn’t been gifted the same three-dimensionality as his series counterpart — Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, who is every bit as malicious as he is magnetic.
Though crafting a sturdy sequel is no easy feat, director Alan Taylor had every chance to make up for what Kenneth Branagh missed the mark on in Thor and remedy it in The Dark World. Viewing it solely for what it is, fans have largely considered The Dark World one of the worst Marvel movies to date, but it’s the context — that the film came immediately after 2012’s The Avengers and 2013’s Iron Man 3, two stellar entries — that pushes it even further down the MCU pecking order.
If the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the total group of pizza restaurants near your apartment, Ant-Man is the place that exclusively sells made-ahead-of-time pies for just a few bucks. It’s satisfying, sure, but collated with what other doughy, cheesy, saucy options stand around it, it’s kind of lame.
Paul Rudd does a commendable job portraying a character — the ex-con Scott Lang who steps into a suit, gets teensy-tiny, and controls a throng of mechanic, militant ants to become Ant-Man — that he doesn’t seem entirely right for, and Michael Douglas is predictably primo as Hank Pym. But apart from that, Ant-Man is nothing to write home about. The film proves Marvel’s penchant for undercooking its female characters, this time Evangeline Lilly’s Hope van Dyne, who simply wants to have a hand in the action but is shut down again and again and again, and features my personal least favorite Marvel villain: Darren Cross/Yellowjacket, played by Corey Stoll. Moreover, director Peyton Reed of Bring It On fame angled Ant-Man as a ribald comedy, a choice that would have been less jarring and off-putting had it not launched just 11 weeks after the ultra-dry Avengers: Age of Ultron and marked the official end of the MCU’s Phase Two.
That Ant-Man didn’t drum up as much enthusiasm from fans as past entries is a telling sign, one that could read “It just doesn’t feel like a Marvel movie!”
Doctor Strange (2016)
Truthfully, I still struggle to decide whether Doctor Strange is more unusual than it is unsatisfactory. Sure, the 2016 film is a visual treat, one that could fuel your eyeballs for days on end. Yeah, Benedict Cumberbatch is always a doll on screen, and the opening fight scene is undoubtedly one of the most inventive, ingenious, and beautiful things Marvel has ever given to the masses. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Cumberbatch’s iteration of the character is pretty hackneyed, and that Doctor Strange’s scenes are stitched together in a way that feels uninteresting and mechanical, like it’s actively trying to hit the same beats as the many Marvel movies that came before it. Which is bizarre, because Doctor Strange literally serves as the Sorcerer Supreme, protecting the Earth against magical and mystical threats and serves, and exists in what could be a lush and enthralling magical world if only Marvel would have actually tapped into it far enough to reach that juice.
Maybe Marvel played it safe since it was venturing off into new territory with magic, maybe it kept its cards close with Doctor Strange to save up material for a potential sequel — it’s anyone’s guess. What’s clear across the board is that Doctor Strange isn’t as good as it could have been. The story doesn’t serve the talents of its top-notch cast, its characters (barring an obvious few) are by and large bland, and it never achieves the type of witty humor or whimsy of other Marvel fare.
These six Marvel movies may have fallen flat when trying to keep up with their pantheon pals, but even with their shortcomings, they grant us fans one very important thing: a reminder that in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as in life, there are always going to be things that are good, others that are strange, and some that are simply, well, bad. And that’s what makes the whole experience so damn special.