'The Amazing Spider-Man' is pretty good. Well acted and well made, it's a middle of the road affair in every way that feels like it was designed to appeal to as many people as possible while pissing off as few people as possible. This means that the film squeaks by through not taking any chances, deliberately trying to avoid the polarizing reaction that haunts the underrated 'Spider-Man 3.' The result is a shrug of a movie, a Spider-Man film that's competent and entertaining and often exciting, but lacking any kind of soul. It's a literal popcorn movie: it tastes good but it has no lasting impact whatsoever.
The much-maligned 'Spider-Man 3' may have a toxic reputation among geeks, but it's a film so jam-packed with off-the-wall goodness and goofiness that it succeeds in spite of itself. Director Sam Raimi frequently lets the film get away from him -- Too many villains! An overblown climax! Exposition butler! -- but for every gaping issue, there are a dozen tiny charms to savor. The infamous "Spider-Man dances" scene? Classic Raimi slapstick. James Franco's gloriously hammy take on Normal Osborn? Insanely quotable. The emotionally charged conclusion that manages to tie up every loose end from the trilogy? Completely satisfying. Sure, there's no denying 'Spider-Man 3's sloppiness, but it would be irresponsible to ignore its charms.
For many people, Ang Lee's 'Hulk' is seen as a crushing disappointment and one of the worst comic book movies ever made. Honestly, that's a fair assessment. Great swaths of the film simply do not work and its artistic flourishes are frequently at odds with the poppy, silly material. But for all of its flaws, 'Hulk' is aiming for something that wouldn't be commonplace for a few more years -- it wants to be a genuinely great, thought-provoking superhero movie. Granted, it isn't that on any level, but the botched attempt is fascinating and frequently beautiful. There are moments in 'Hulk' that are borderline avant garde and that's something you typically don't get to see in this kind of movie. This is a true case of a movie getting an "A" for effort.
If you were to rank the Marvel movies based purely on the strength of their lead performances, 'X-Men: First Class' would be near the very top. Michael Fassbender's Magneto and James McAvoy's Professor X make one helluva team, so much so that it's a shame we're never going to get an entire series of films following their budding bromance as they fight to save the Mutant race over the decades. It's a shame that Matthew Vaughn's one-note direction isn't up to the par of his leads (or his and Jane Goldman's script) and the less said about January Jones' non-performance, the better. Still, there's no denying just how badass Magneto the Nazi Hunter is and there's no denying the touching chemistry between McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence (as Mystique). 'X-Men: First Class' oozes cool and sometimes that's enough.
If Ang Lee's 'Hulk' is an ambitious and artistic failure, Loius Leterrier's 'The Incredible Hulk' is the exact opposite: it has no artistic ambition whatsoever, but it's a simple superhero action film that doesn't aim particularly high and succeeds with flying colors. Although there is a debate to be had about Noble Failures VS Mid-Level Successes, 'The Incredible Hulk' is upper-tier entertainment, a movie that's unapologetically all about a giant green beast smashing his way through everything that stands in his way. Like every Marvel Studios movie, it's impeccably cast (particularly Tim Roth as the villain), but unlike so many Marvel Studios movies, the final action scene delivers in a huge, massive, amazing way, delivering a monster versus monster battle that's yet to be topped in this genre.
For better or worse, Bryan Singer's 'X-Men' established the template for the next decade's worth of superhero movies. Thankfully, it's not a bad template (although films like 'The Dark Knight' and 'The Avengers' have, thankfully, broken from it), but it has retroactively made the film feel far less fresh, fun and original than it did at the time of release. So while its many imitators may have sapped much of its freshness, there's still plenty to admire about the first 'X-Men' outing, particularly Singer's spot-on casting of virtually every role. It's an important lesson that the best superhero movies would follow: fill your cast with quality actors to help sell the potentially silly material. At its best, 'X-Men' is all about a cast of tremendous talents lending weight to a cast of colorful superheroes and that's perfectly fine.
'X-Men' may have set the stage for the superhero movie renaissance, but Sam Raimi's 'Spider-Man' is what you can truly blame for the past decade of big budget blockbuster cinema. What's so amazing about it all of these years later is how well it holds up: it feels as complete and satisfying as anything coming out today. Most of the credit can go to Raimi, who never compromises his own personal voice and instead weaves his idiosyncratic style into the story of Peter Parker. While many comic book movies still feel more like products than artistic accomplishments, 'Spider-Man' manages to be a great superhero flick and a great Raimi movie. Of course, this was just the tip of the iceberg for this series.
How much of a superhero movie's success lies on the shoulders of its lead? In the case of 'Thor,' the answer is all of it. The Norse god of Thunder as a hero in the same universe as Iron Man and the Hulk is a tough sell, but Chris Hemsworth's natural movie star charisma instantly elevates what could've and should've been a disaster into one of the most thoroughly enjoyable Marvel movies of them all, balancing the high fantasy of Asgard with the fish-out-of-water comedy of the Earth scenes. It helps that Hemsworth is backed up by a terrific supporting cast, including a rare non-sleepwalking Anthony Hopkins and the delightful Natalie Portman, whose chemistry with Thor seems to hilariously stem from the fact that they're two gorgeous people who haven't gotten laid in far too long. Sure, 'Thor' has its problems, but it's so breezy and effortless and confident in its goofiness that it's hard to hate.
The most interesting thing about 'The Wolverine' is how utterly unlike the the rest of the 'X-Men' movies it is. A stripped down, character-driven action movie, director James Mangold's take on this character couldn't be more different than everyone else's. This is a lean, mean and ruthlessly efficient movie, a superhero adventure that feels like it escaped from '70s. The entire thing falls apart in the final act, but it's hard to deny the effectiveness of everything that comes before it.
Not many people know just how great 'Punisher: War Zone' is because no one saw it. Blame the marketing or blame the fact that no one thought the first Punisher film was any good, but do yourself a favor and seek out this psychotic acid trip of an action movie, a super-vigilante movie that goes so far over the top in its violent excess that it transforms into some kind of gloriously profane art. Give some credit to Ray Stevenson, whose silent, merciless take on Frank Castle is badassery in its purest form. Give some credit to Dominic West, whose villainous Jigsaw is one of the great hammy villains in cinematic history. Give some credit to director Lexi Alexander, who used the Punisher character as an excuse to make a surreal, candy colored, utterly bizarre action film that is just waiting for its cult following. How the hell is this one of the ten best Marvel movies? Who knows? Who cares?
X-Men: Days of Future Past
'X-Men: Days of Future Past' has its fair share of significant problems, but it overcomes them with a charismatic cast, clever action and a sense of scope that's been lacking in past 'X-Men' movies. A swan song for the old cast, this old film hits the reset button on the entire franchise in a way that's both hugely satisfying and dramatically interesting, effectively erasing the worst films of the series from existence and clearing the way for more James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender-led adventures. Bring 'em on.
Confident and accessible, 'Iron Man' is the cinematic equivalent of its lead character: it's a rock star. Whereas 'Iron Man 2's loose, go-with-the-groove style causes the film to fall apart, the first film flies by the seat of its pants and makes it look easy. Although much of the public credit has gone to Robert Downey Jr. (has there ever been a more sudden or unexpected movie star?), let's take a moment to praise director Jon Favreau, who gives Downey and his co-stars the proper amount of space to trade witticisms. Not to mention, he can shoot the hell out of an armor-clad superhero racing a couple of jets. Like too many action movies, 'Iron Man' ends with a whimper when it should end with a bang, but everything up until the ending remains golden.
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