It's been a decade since Tony Stark first swaggered onto multiplex screens in Iron Man, jumpstarting the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe and permanently altering the way contemporary blockbusters were made, marketed and released. Since then, we've all gotten older while Robert Downey Jr. has seemingly aged in reverse, and we've watched as other companies (including DC Films and Universal) have mostly bungled attempts to duplicate Marvel's world-building model.
As the studio prepares to release Avengers: Infinity War, its 19th — and, arguably, its most ambitious — canonical film, the Inlander's resident Marvel buffs reflect on the highs and lows of the Hollywood juggernaut's first 10 years.
MOST MEMORABLE VILLAIN
DANIEL WALTERS: Vulture, Spider-Man: Homecoming
You thought I'd say Loki? Loki's fun. But Michael Keaton's Vulture is the first Marvel villain who seems like a real person. The small scale helps. He wants to make a quick buck, not blow up the world. His grievances are real, but petty. Best of all, as a high school superhero movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming uses Vulture for a brilliant riff on the most intimidating nemesis a high school kid could ever face: His girlfriend's dad.
NATHAN WEINBENDER: Killmonger, Black Panther
All the way through Black Panther, you're thinking, "Killmonger's got a point!" Which is the last thing you'd expect from a character named Killmonger. He's the most complex character in a movie full of them, a militant activist who, like Vulture, has seemingly become a supervillain as a last resort. He's got the germ of a good idea — Wakanda should be more generous with its natural resources — but is going about it in the worst way.
LEAST MEMORABLE VILLAIN
DW: The villain from Thor: The Dark World
Marvel has this maddening habit of taking some of our most interesting character actors — Lee Pace, Hugo Weaving, Josh Brolin — and suffocating them under pounds of latex and CGI. Nowhere was this as prominent as in Thor: The Dark World, where Christopher Eccleston had the gall to squeeze out all his personality as a sub-Star Trek: The Next Generation villain. If you care, according to IMDb, his name is Malekith. (You don't.)
NW: Whiplash, Iron Man 2
OK, so maybe Whiplash isn't as forgettable as some other Marvel baddies (quick — name the villain from Ant-Man!), but he's certainly one of the biggest missed opportunities in the studio's history. Casting Mickey Rourke, fresh off his comeback role in 2008's The Wrestler, as an electricity-harnessing Russian megalomaniac was a brilliant move. Giving him nothing to do — and abandoning him completely for long stretches of time — was not.
MOST IMPROVED CHARACTER
Thor always had his funny coffee-mug-smashing moments. ("Another!") Yet, especially in his first two solo movies, his Shakespearean frat boy persona was weighed down with ponderous discussions of Asgard and the Bifröst. But gradually, the Joss Whedon-y quippiness of the Avengers crew began to rub off on the Norse god, and by the time last year's Thor: Ragnarok rolled around, he was smirking and exchanging bon mots. He's gone from inert to downright electric.
Thor's muscle-bound compatriot Hulk also had a rocky cinematic start. Bruce Banner's MCU debut was in 2008's The Incredible Hulk, starring an out-of-his-depth Edward Norton, which felt more like a pre-Avengers placeholder than a satisfying standalone feature. Replacing Norton with Mark Ruffalo, who's not only a more approachable screen presence but is more convincing as a nebbish scientist, and making Banner a comic sidekick with a soft side was a smart choice.
THE DIRECTOR WHO SHOULD TAKE ON THE NEXT MARVEL PROPERTY
DW: Edgar Wright
Imagine it: Edgar Wright (Baby Driver) being handed the full power of the Marvel machine. OK, you nerdy nitpickers out there might insist that, technically, Edgar Wright did direct a Marvel movie. Then he was kicked off Ant-Man (2015). See, back then, Marvel was nervous about giving their directors too much freedom. But no longer: Black Panther was a Ryan Coogler movie. Thor: Ragnarok was a Taika Waititi movie. Let Edgar Wright make an Edgar Wright Marvel movie.
NW: Ang Lee
Hear me out. Two-time Oscar winner Ang Lee has handled comic book material before, having directed 2003's oft-derided Hulk, which was stylistically ambitious but dramatically inert. But now that Marvel has its formula down to a fine science, I think Lee deserves a second chance. He embraces technological razzle-dazzle and has crafted stunning visual effects sequences in the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi. Just get him a solid script.
OBSCURE MARVEL CHARACTER MOST DESERVING OF A FILM
DW: Squirrel Girl
Most Marvel characters (Spider-Man and the Hulk excepted) were obscure until Marvel decided to make them a thing. Who beyond comics obsessives had ever heard of Groot before he inspired a new generation to take up topiary? So handing a film to Squirrel Girl — whose powers include chewing through wood, jumping from tree to tree and speaking the language of squirrels — isn't as nuts as it sounds. Heck, a buddy movie with Squirrel Girl and Rocket Raccoon practically writes itself.
A black Brooklyn teenager who had an unfortunate run-in with some toxic sludge, Rage is a 450-pound tough who sought revenge on the gang that killed his grandmother and once scolded Captain America for the Avengers' lack of diversity. Rage didn't get any decent storylines within the comics, but produce a stylish, socially-conscious film about a black superhero vigilante on the streets of New York and you'd have a hit on your hands.
THE BEST MARVEL FILM
DW: Thor: Ragnarok
Ragnarok blows up everything that was dull and boring about the Thor franchise — in some cases, literally. It breaks up with Natalie Portman. It brushes aside all the tedious teasers for the movie promised by Doctor Strange and Age of Ultron. It crushes Thor's hammer and rips out his eye. And in its place, it adds Jeff Goldblum in eyeliner. It turns New Zealand director Taika Waititi into a soft-spoken rock monster. It plays Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," not once, but twice. It's silly, yes. But superheroes are silly. And silly is fun.
NW: The Avengers
The first time I saw 2012's The Avengers, wherein the MCU's disparate strands finally fused, I found it a reasonably entertaining, if needlessly elaborate, piece of mass marketing. But upon rewatch, I've come to appreciate its wit, snap and effortless pacing. It's more lithe and dexterous than a 143-minute film with at least a dozen main characters should be; its sequel, Age of Ultron, seems bloated and overworked by comparison. Writer-director Joss Whedon is spinning a remarkable number of plates here, but he does it with panache. Oh, and it's really funny. ♦