The superhero movie has long since become a genre on par with the western; an apt comparison, given both genres’ ubiquity in spite of their lack of universal appeal. If ever there was an effort to see all that superhero movies represent (and by extension, all that comic books represent) accepted by the general populace, then the Avengers saga is it: a multi-film exercise in universe-building all leading up to next year’s The Avengers epic. Now seems as good a time as any to take a step back and appraise the Avengers films that have been released to date.
#1 – Captain America: The First Avenger. Let this list begin with the most recent, and best, Avenger film thus far. Seeing its DVD and Blu-ray release today, Captain America is a love-letter to comic book and classic adventure fans alike. Eschewing the recent trend of modernizing superhero tropes ala Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, this movie plays everything completely straight, and is all the more engaging because of it. The director, Rocketeer and October Sky’s Joe Johnston, knows how to artfully evoke a sense of idealistic nostalgia. That, combined with the terrific performances from Chris Evans and Hugo Weaving, sees Captain America rise, appropriately, as the leader of the Avengers pack, followed closely by…
#2 – Iron Man 2. It seems odd, in retrospect, that this film was considered a disappointment upon its release. It’s in this follow-up to the 2008 surprise hit that Iron Man, or rather Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark (a role seemingly custom-made for the actor), comes into his own, facing the struggles and foes that have long defined the character. Iron Man 2 isn’t afraid to cash in the good will generated by its star power and immensely entertaining action sequences on the opportunity to pose some interesting question of the responsibility of power and vice versa. More than its entertainment value or its intellectual deftness, Iron Man 2 is a satisfying film that sees its central conceits carried out to their logical and long-awaited conclusions, a trend that will hopefully continue with the final film, expected to release in 2013.
#3 – The Incredible Hulk. If any of the Avengers films can be called underrated, it is this action flick from 2008. In addition to following on the heels of Iron Man’s success and being viewed as an apology for Ang Lee’s controversial Hulk from five years prior, there’s also the fact that the Hulk itself is less identifiable than the heroes played by Evans or Downey Jr. (a fact not helped by the recasting of Edward Norton with Mark Ruffalo for the upcoming Avengers film). These aspects alone are the only perceivable weaknesses in a film that manages to match its contemporaries for pacing and sheer visceral impact. Appropriate that The Incredible Hulk would be an immovably rock-solid action film; were its ambitions as high as the two previously discussed films, it may very well have climbed higher on this list.
#4 – Thor. The odd duck of the series, Thor may also be the lynch-pin to the Avenger films’ continuity. With its grandiose plot involving inter-dimensional warfare and mythic super weapons, it is here that much of the series’ drama lies in wait for next year’s team-up extravaganza. And like Downey Jr. with Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth fully embodies the titular character, ensuring that the more personal, fish-out-of-water elements of the story are just as entertaining as the fantastical battle scenes. Unfortunately, the film suffers in its execution of the Asgard-half of the story, attempting to convey the epic scope of its plot while only focusing on a handful of characters and utilizing environments comprised almost entirely of CGI. These issues hurt the film, it is still a warm and inviting move that promises even more excitement and wonder still to come.
#5 – Iron Man. Given the fervor that surrounded the film’s initial release (coming as it did at the start of one of the largest and most influential summer movie seasons in recent memory), it is easy to be distracted from Iron Man’s shortcomings. Granted, it is in no way a bad film, remaining incredibly watchable years down the road. Still, this first step in Warner Bros. attempt at Avenger-establishment was rather shaky, taking the entirety of its running time to establish its hero as the character he would become (thus allowing for the far more engaging and deep sequel). Add to this the clichéd and disappointing villain, as well as some puzzling leaps and inconsistencies in character development and interaction, and you have what is easily the weakest of the Avenger films to date. Fortunately, given the caliber of all the other films, that isn’t too harsh a slight.
Captain America: The First Avenger is available on blu-ray for $25 and DVD for $17 (prices vary by location and edition). The Avengers films are rated PG-13 for Violence, some sexual content, varying use of adult language and thematic content.