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Ranking Phase 2 of the MCU

How do you follow a knockout that made $1.5 billion at the box office?

The world was hugely changed after the release of Marvel's The Avengers. Never had a superhero franchise, hell, any franchise itself, held so much power over the industry. Only two months had passed before the marketing process for Iron Man 3 began and Downey Jr. (and co) were at San Diego Comic-Con holding a panel for 6,500 people to gasp and cheer at the discussion of a third Iron Man instalment.

Not only was Iron Man 3 the talk of the town, but the entire slate for Phase 2 was announced at the same SDCC by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige: six brand new films for Marvel fans to sink their teeth into.

While it's very fair to say that this selection of movies does not match the original phase in terms of originality and freshness, they have their own quirks and features that make them exciting and ambitious.

6. Iron Man 3

Was it not a big warning sign when Favreau chose not to return for a third film? While the film was a huge box office success (grossing just $0.3 billion less than The Avengers), and received favourable reviews from critics, the extenuating amount of digital and innovative plot points bleed the eccentric Tony Stark energy out of the movie's essence. Shane Black's trademark humour and the injection of a darker and more serious narrative help to evolve the franchise's tone. But the resources and physical power of the film's villain are just a tad *too* unrealistic and unconvincing. And even though the plot twist with the Mandarin was unique (and classic Marvel), it was a bit deflating for the all-powerful, doomsday terrorist to be a drunk, madmen who was enjoying a new acting gig. The big take-away from the movie is that Tony can basically do all the "Iron Man stuff" without actually having to be in the suit. We know that it's not the metal and machinery that makes Iron Man who he is but the emptiness of the suit matches the emptiness of the film. A dissatisfying ending to a trilogy that established the central character to the entire cinematic universe.

5. Thor: The Dark World

We watch this film for Darcy Lewis and Darcy Lewis alone: the rest is just white noise. This is possibly one of the MCU's weakest sequels despite grossing nearly $650 million worldwide. While it does a fantastic job of developing the relationship between Thor and Loki (imagine Step Brothers but with more Norse magic), the plot and overall development of key characters seem to get left behind. It's always risky combining action and fantasy elements within a superhero movie and TTDW's biggest pitfall is the lengthy, exposition sequences in Asgard and the Yggdrasil. The MCU is all about eye-dropping visual effects, cheeky humour and high-stakes action, which it doesn't necessarily sacrifice in this film, but there's just a bit too much family drama that takes away from all the exciting stuff. And the film's villain, vengeful ruler of the Dark Elves Malekith, doesn't make quite the impact that maybe the producers were hoping for? Alan Taylor said that many scenes depicting Malekith's backstory had to be cut to make the movie "more efficient". Although as viewers we can understand the motive for his actions, foregoing that important character history make the final battle scenes less consistent and impactful.

4. Ant-Man

Oh, Paul Rudd - you wonderful human being. Even though Ant-Man doesn't have the all-or-nothing stakes that you generally find in MCU movies, it's still a fantastic film. Having so much influence by Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish (two of England's best comedy filmmaking exports) works to make the film feel more individualistic and less like its produced in the Marvel filmland factory. Ant-Man is all about a normal guy who happens to stumble (well, it's more of a pre-planned stumble) upon superhero technology and is trusted to use it despite having no actual history with sci-tech, combat or what it takes to be an "Avenger". Scott Lang is fundamentally charming and his foundation into the MCU is silly and melodramatic. The infusion of humour within the plot of Ant-Man makes it light on its feet and more playful than some of the other flicks in the MCU. And the introduction of Pym Particles, Pym technologies and the Quantum Realm expanded the capabilities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in a hugely low-key fashion which is so, SO clever. Also, we all need someone in our lives like Luis - just imagine the stories and shenanigans that he would bring.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians is a key instalment within the MCU that changed how this franchise works. It's strong inclusion and transformation in its use of music, narrative and character dynamics are just a handful of the reasons why it's so successful. Space and extraterrestrial life was an integral part of the previous movies but GOFG opened the door (literally) to plenty more worlds, alien species and technology. Not only did Chris Pratt rise to the challenge (after quite a bit of convincing), it also skyrocketed his power as a serious, comic filmstar. However, it was a large group effort that aided his ascension into star power status. The quirky, unconventional ensemble of Guardians place five of the most hostile and unagreeable characters into a team that somehow fit together perfectly to create this rag-team squad of hero-bandits. And despite all the comic-book style action, absurdity and emotion, Guardians is a film that those who aren't fans of the superhero genre can enjoy: just like Star Wars did for those who didn't enjoy sci-fi. It's a fun treat that is always a refreshing watch, no matter how many times you have seen it.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I'm a Cap stan so, of course, this was going to rank quite high within the list but let's be fair: there's a lot of reasons for this. TWS was a critical and commercial success that blew the minds of Marvel diehards and even the general MCU fan. It canonically follows the events (and style) of The Avengers beautifully and took a bold step in terms of focusing on suspenseful, old-school action rather than lots of CGI spectacles. The sequence where Nick Fury is trapped in his tinted SUV while a million (slight exaggeration) Hydra agents have him surrounded is effortlessly unreal. Every ounce of hard-hitting action is matched with jarring sound that makes each of these scenes so rich and astute. Even the surprising character development and formation of new friendships (I'm looking at you, Nat and Steve) is a pleasant contrast that helps to draw away from the breathless suspense of it all. Regardless of the fact we all knew who The Winter Soldier was before the film's release (it's what happens when you draw inspiration from a comic book series with the EXACT SAME NAME), this sequel is one of Marvel's best and provides a jaw-dropping escape into the world of The Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D.

1. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Of course the superhero, team-up sequel was going to rank at the top. This film ranks second as one of the most expensive movies ever made (which is just ridiculous) and looking at the extreme level of breathtaking special effects and hugely intricate sets, it makes a lot of sense. Following an artificial intelligence's absurd desire for mass human extinction, Earth's handy team of heroes reunite and join forces with some new faces to defeat the destructive Ultron. The concept behind Ultron's creation is genius, and then using it to create another android (Vision, the absolute legend) who ends up becoming a fully-fledged member of The Avengers is, again, genius. The introduction of the Maximoff twins appears to be (especially currently) one of Marvel's smartest moves that help to redefine what it means to be a superhero. Some of the action is a little bit intense and overstuffed but Whedon does a terrific job in creating a resolution that is completely epic and satisfying to watch. It's a hard task having to consistently recreate narratives where the world is inevitably saved at the final hurdle, yet Phase 2 of the MCU proves that Marvel can tackle anything and everything.

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