With the imminent release of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and following the multiversal hi-jinks of Spider-Man: No Way Home, the lines between the canon MCU films and the other ‘legacy’ films are becoming more and more blurred. In No Way Home, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Men appeared alongside Tom Holland’s MCU incarnation, with their respective villains in tow, and in the upcoming Doctor Strange sequel it appears Patrick Stewart’s Professor Charles Xavier is about to make a return. This is sure to make him the actor with the widest spanning Marvel superhero career, having first appeared in 2000’s X-Men (well, unless Wesley Snipes makes a surprise appearance as Blade). To honour this, I thought I would whittle down the 60+ films based on Marvel Comics to just the top 5. That’s 1998’s Blade all the way through to Spider-Man: No Way Home (I am intentionally forgetting about 1986’s Howard the Duck because… eugh). There might be some surprising entries on this list… let me know in the comments below if you agree or disagree with my choices and what your top 5 Marvel movies are!
5. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
It’s easy to forget that in 2014, between the release of the MCU’s fantastic Captain America sequel; Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the brilliant, game-changing Guardians of the Galaxy, FOX and Marvel released the latest in their non-MCU X-Men series, X-Men: Days of Future Past. Through some wonderful time-travel McGuffin, the film combines the X-Men cast from the original trilogy I grew up with the new actors from the 60’s set prequel/reboot film, X-Men: First Class. Arguably this was a recipe for disaster – especially since, unlike the MCU, FOX’s X-Men series couldn’t even keep their timelines and continuity consistent over the space of 5 movies. Plus, back in 2014, most Marvel superhero fans were clamouring for the much prophesied MCU Civil War (and eventual Infinity War) – did anyone actually care about the non-canon X-Men anymore? Well, despite all of this, Days of Future Past succeeds with its grand plans and delivers a thrilling and cerebral superhero film with just as much nostalgia-baiting as recent MCU movies but with even more heart.
I won’t go into the well-publicised scumbaggery of the film’s director but despite the controversies on and offset, the film is poignant, beautifully made, and a unique throwback to the earlier, simpler days of superhero movie making. It’s carried by great performances by Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewert, Ian McKellan, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, and so many more. As a fan of the FOX X-Men films since early childhood, you can bet I teared up when the now ancient Charles Xavier pleads with his past self (McAvoy) or cheered at the return of even the lesser-known heroes, like Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman or Kelsey Grammer’s Beast. I love how the X-Men series wears its emotions on its sleeves and Days of Future Past is no different; it’s melodramatic but it works wonderfully. Patrick Stewart may be returning soon in the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness but I doubt his appearance will be as great or as heart-wrenching as it is in Days of Future Past.
4. Iron Man (2008)
I couldn’t make this list without including the film that started the MCU as we know it, and one of my favourite Marvel films to this day, 14 years later; Iron Man. The film not only launched the wider Marvel cinematic universe; it also shot director Jon Favreau’s career into hyperspace and relaunched the career of leading man Robert Downey Jr. The reason the film still endures today and still remains a standout in a film series with 25+ movies is predominantly down to these two. Downey Jr. was born for the role of the charismatic and arrogant playboy billionaire Tony Stark, a role that will certainly define him for the rest of his life. And while I absolutely adore his performances in the later MCU films (his versus with Captain America in Civil War is another highlight) he was never better than in his phenomenal debut in Iron Man.
Favreau is on top form in Iron Man also, laying down the blueprint of the modern superhero film. The action is punchy and clever and the set pieces feel like they are there for a story purpose – not just for spectacle (something not all superhero movies have achieved). Favreau also manages to weave some impressive practical effects into the film also (the Mark 1 cave escape scene is almost entirely practical) which is something sadly sometimes lost in more recent Marvel movies. The CGI sequences in the film are brilliant though and have barely aged in the intervening 14 years. Jon Favreau has a great talent for visual effects directing and because of that, the film is practically seamless between the real and the digital effects.
Iron Man also has one of the most underrated Marvel movie villains in Jeff Bridges Obidiah Stane, whose villainous performance I still don’t think has been bested. His father-figure-turned-villain shtick isn’t unique but Bridges gives it 110% and the dialogue between him and Downey Jr. is electric. He towers over Tony (both literally and figuratively) and gives Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark a vulnerability that I don’t think he ever really had again.
3. Logan (2017)
After X-Men fans were subjected tot he the disastrous X-Men Origins: Wolverine, director James Mangold (who had helmed the magnificent 3:10 to Yuma) returned Wolverine to the big leagues with his underrated Japan set adventure The Wolverine. It’s already evident in this film, the harder direction Mangold and Jackman were taking the character – especially if you’ve seen the R rated cut of the film. And after that film was a modest success Mangold and Jackman returned one last time, to make the Wolverine film X-Men fans have always assumed would never get made; Logan.
You could watch Logan without seeing any of the other X-Men films and you’d still probably recognise how brilliant it is. But for fans of Wolverine’s previous adventures, his journey through Logan means so much more. The whole film is, quite simply, about how old age eventually catches up to us all. And as if to match the films leading man, the age rating of the film got aged up too. The violence is ferocious and there’s enough swearing to make up for the 17 years of PG-13 language control, but the film uses the certificate in even darker ways. Even in the gloomiest and most pessimistic of the X-Men films, there was always hope. Good always won out and there was always a sliver of optimism before the credits rolled. But in Logan, there are no miraculous last-minute saves. Charles Xavier isn’t magically resurrected into a different body after being killed, à la The Last Stand; he just bleeds to death, confused and scared. It’s the sort of heavy stuff that wouldn’t have happened in the Bryan Singer era but Mangold executes it brilliantly and the film’s stars, Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart (as Logan and Professor X, respectively) have never been better. It’s a beautiful and thoughtful end to a fantastic character that transcends the superhero movie genre. Like losing an old friend, it’s sad to see the end of a character that’s been a huge part of many people’s lives for almost 2 decades. But as Jack said in his review of the film back in 2017 “if he has to go, I can’t possibly think of a higher note to go out on than with the superb Logan.”
2. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
I was torn as to which of the Russo Brothers MCU movies to include in this, although I knew I wanted to include at least one. All four of the brother’s films are some of the very best of the superhero genre and redefine what the genre can be; whether it’s the conspiracy-thriller aesthetic of Captain America: The Winter Soldier or the operatic space operas of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. However, for me, it is the tragic Captain America: Civil War that takes the crown as the very best of their quadrilogy. As I wrote here on this blog back in 2016 during my review of Civil War; ‘The action is as good as ever, the film remains funny despite the subject matter, and every single character in it (including the villain for once) is note-perfect. But more than that, the film is a culmination of every film before it in a way that the Avengers films never really managed.’
One of the unique skills the Russo Brothers possess is the ability to perfectly balance the disparate elements of a big superhero crossover film, and that is something not all directors can pull off. And in Civil War, the Russo brothers also manage to recapture the intensity and brutality of their fight scenes in The Winter Soldier and apply it to other heroes, like Iron Man. The final showdown between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky, is made even better by the brothers’ more brutal, up-close action style (although they proved in Infinity War and Endgame that they can pull off big, fantastical, world exploding set-pieces too).
The cast are all on top form here as well and I personally think Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark has never been better than he is in this film. It’s hard to make all the characters sympathetic in a film about a debate between characters where one of them is wrong and the other right. But Downey Jr. sells the character’s motivation. And while you might be Team Cap on the film’s issue of superhero registration, I challenge anyone to not be sympathetic to Tony’s outburst of rage towards Steve and his pal Bucky when he finds out the latter murdered his parents. Civil War is a masterclass in big, character-stuffed superhero stories. And it’s a credit to all involved that the small moments shine just as brightly as the big ones.
1. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
How fitting it is, with the impending release of Sam Raimi’s return to superhero cinema with Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness that his 2004 masterpiece, Spider-Man 2 takes the top spot on this list of the greatest ever Marvel movies. And it’s a credit to the man that the previous film in the series, 2002’s Spider-Man, could have also taken the top spot (Spider-Man 3, not so much – but I do have a soft spot for that film also). There have been 6 more Spider-Man films released since Spider-Man 2’s release in 2004 and to this day, I don’t think there has been a better portrayal of Spider-Man on screen. Everything about the film works and it’s still the gold standard of superhero film sequels.
For me personally, it’s Raimi’s singular visual style that sets this film apart from other superhero films. His horror roots are obvious, just watch the hospital scene where Doc Ock’s arms brutally murder the medics – it’s ripped right out of his Evil Dead series. But his love for comic books is evident too and his over-the-top camera movements and shots could be taken straight from the pages of one. His fight scenes emphasise each punch, like panels in a comic book. Even the oft-maligned, over-the-top sentimentality of Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy feels like something taken straight out of a comic book. The performances are all brilliant too, especially Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He and Alfred Molina (as Doctor Octopus) are so good in this film (and that’s evident all the way through to their recent appearance in the MCU). I get that the messy, metatextual multiverse storylines in Marvel’s 4th phase may not be to everyone’s tastes. But if it means we can again celebrate Raimi’s wonderfully colourful Spider-Man universe, then sign me up.