Doctor Strange is the seventh dedicated origin story film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It also is the 14th film of the MCU. Let’s see where it ranks among other MCU origin films. Here’s my list.
The following will contain minor spoilers.
7. The Incredible Hulk
None of these low-ranked films are bad per se, but I suppose there’s a reason why The Incredible Hulk ranks as the worst. First, I like want to mention that its lackluster reception may have been due to the 2003 non-MCU Ang Lee film, The Hulk. Suffice it to say, Lee took the liberty of the comic book film quite literally resulting in many annoying transition comic panel shots and a vastly underdeveloped vehicle which may have permanently damaged star Eric Bana’s film career before it really even got started.
That being said, the MCU released The Incredible Hulk five years later with star Edward Norton in the title role as Bruce Banner/Hulk with Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, William Hurt as Gen. Thunderbolt Ross, and Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky/Abomination. The film was directed by Louis Leterrier and written by Zak Penn.
Norton owned up the role the way you expected him to in his films and the supporting cast played up to their molds as well, never really adding much of anything to the film, which leaves an underwhelming feeling. Norton didn’t provide the personality or sense of comedic timing that his eventual replacement in Mark Ruffalo did in The Avengers films.
Typical MCU plot with hero trying to understand what it means to control his powers, becomes a reluctant hero and fights an evil version of himself in Abomination, so to speak.
There’s a loose end, I feel will never get tied up as Bruce’s friend Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), who becomes infected with his blood and alludes to future Hulk villain, The Leader. We leave him in the film with just his head throbbing.
Did the 2003 film sully the audience experience with the 2008 film? I didn’t think it did, but I understand why Marvel held off on any future Hulk-centric projects and let him do The Avengers films, Thor: Ragnarok, and perhaps later, Planet Hulk. Also doesn’t help that Universal has the rights to solo Hulk films.
Thor was a serviceable entry of the MCU that pitted “brother vs. brother,” another staple theme within the universe.
Starring Chris Hemsworth as the title character, the film centers about how Asgard has to defend itself and neighboring planets from its incoming threats like the frost giants. At the center of the invasion is Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who finds out he’s adopted and wishes to conquer Asgard and destroy his brother.
While we get the Shakespearean treatment for Asgard from notable Shakespearean actor and director Kenneth Branagh, the film shifts to earth where Thor is banished to Earth by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins) along with Mjolnir, his hammer until Thor is deemed worthy to wield it.
As a typical fish-out-of-water trope, the group’s interactions remind me of how lost the protagonists were in the 1987 Masters of the Universe. Along the way they meet Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), who are studying the wormhole Thor came from.
The film provided a vastly different approach than the previous other MCU films that it introduced different worlds beyond the earth as well as introduce S.H.I.E.L.D. staples Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). The most memorable scenes featured Loki, who actually became the biggest strength of the film due to his mischievous nature and overconfidence. He wasn’t an anti-Thor, but he came from the same world and became passed up for the favored “son” Thor. Hiddleston provided a masterful performance in this film only topped by his role as the featured villain in The Avengers.
It provided standard action affair, a substandard love story and cohesive plot to make it slightly beyond pedestrian.
5. Doctor Strange
The best way I can describe the film is Iron Man meets Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Interstellar.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the Tony Stark of medicine. He’s as brash as he is abrasive. He took for granted everything he’s done with his life as a doctor and one life-altering event causes him to change how he does things. Sound familiar?
Strange travels to Nepal where the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) teaches him these Inception abilities to bend reality to his will and provides the means to travel to Interstellar worlds and look at all the shiny psychedelic colors like in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
Did it offer anything new to the table? Not really. While you get Strange getting trained to being the Sorcerer Supreme, you had the “evil” version in Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and another “wronged brother” with Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
The problem is this film wasn’t first. It isn’t the last that will be doing the same things as typical MCU films do. The film is little more polished and better visually than Thor once you get past the kaleidoscope movements. Strange is a more interesting character than Thor or Hulk, but that more comes from Cumberbatch’s natural demeanor and casting. The only other person who fit into his comic role any better is Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man.
The problem with the film is the only thing we care about is Strange. Guess you do get the bare minimum enough to explore Mordo and his motivations. You get a half-assed explanation why the Ancient One decided to do what she did and why Kaecilius turned to Dormammu to end the earth. I attribute this to lazy writing from Jon Spaihts, director Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill.
You couldn’t really give Rachel McAdams any other label than token love interest as Christine Palmer, because the director barely gave her enough to do to justify her existence for the film. I can at least care Jane Foster was intricate to the plot to Thor. Palmer was just there for the roll call as much as Betty Ross was in The Incredible Hulk.
The MCU decided to change directions and not make Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) the primary focus rather his protégé, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a reformed thief trying to make right.
The two try to stop Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll) from weaponizing Pym’s research.
Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Rudd, the film takes a less serious approach providing the Frat Pack humor and toning it down enough for Disney to provide a fun ride. The film predominantly explores Pym’s failure as a mentor with Cross and father to his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). Pym and Dyne help train Lang in the ways of understanding the Ant-Man suit, which used to be Pym’s alter ego.
What makes Lang’s Ant-Man with credit to the writing and director Peyton Reed is Lang is a hero who’s not full of himself. He’s reluctant to take up the mantle until he has a chance to truly turn his life around and make a difference. Lang’s ego is never as abrasive and selfish as Strange and Stark would be. He’s far from a boy scout and he doesn’t insist on plowing through everything. It’s also not some curse he’s trying to run away from. So right away, he’s more distinctly different from the other powered Avengers and more even-tempered about his flaws.
The only issue with this film it’s not pioneering and it doesn’t really take risks. You can almost make it a comedy film but slap a superhero template to it and it would work just fine.
3. Captain America: The First Avenger
It’s a hard tossup between no. 3 and no. 2 since both Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark are such well-rounded characters and complete contrasts to one another.
Evans is great for his role the way everything falls into place for him. He never complicates things for himself as long as he sticks to his principles, which is his real strength. His path to superherodom might have come from a science experiment, but Captain America is the everyman of superheroes. He’s a man just trying to do right by the world in its simplest form.
Director Joe Johnston and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely provided a strong foundation that’s hard to mess up since they stayed true to the comic. It would only be perfected later by the Russo Brothers, who would go on to direct the sequels.
Evans’ success is complimented by Hayley Atwell, who plays Peggy Carter, a British agent who shares Steve’s inherent struggles from society to persevere in the face of adversity. The film provided a masterful job paralleling Steve and Peggy’s fights to be taken seriously.
Credit also goes to Hugo Weaving, who plays Johann Schmidt/Red Skull. While he was the obvious choice as Cap’s villain, he didn’t feel like a regurgitation and anti-thesis like so many other MCU films. He also didn’t have some deep seeded bond or past with Steve.
While I feel it’s the stronger structure-wise as a film during Phase I of the MCU, it didn’t revolutionize the way Iron Man did.
2. Iron Man
Robert Downey, Jr.’s career resurgence began with this film. There are far too few roles that were ever tailor-made for an actor as RDJ’s was for Tony Stark/Iron Man. The CGI, the depth and pacing forever provided the template and set the bar all other MCU films would go by.
Tony is a successful arms dealer under his company, Stark Industries, when he finds out how much his weapons are harming others after one such terror incident. He decides to take matters into his own hands and becomes Iron Man.
While jealousy drives his mentor, Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), Tony ultimately finds out how rampant the corruption his company has in a build up to the film’s climax between Iron Man and Iron Mongerer.
Iron Man gets this spot by virtue of being the trendsetter. One major detail that makes Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Ant-Man stand out are the female protagonists who contribute far more to the plot than in the films ranked below them.
Anchored by director Jon Favreau and writers Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, the film stands the test of time providing the balance of CGI effects with powerful performances from Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard and Bridges. It takes a lot being the first and the film knocked it out of the ballpark.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
There’s no question as to why this makes the best origins story. A film with almost no build up or teased backgrounds provided what’s the most important element about comic book movies and filmmaking, which is having fun.
Everything about the film works which is the testament of director James Gunn, writer Nicole Perlman and the cast led by Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan.
Every major and major auxiliary character has a distinguishing scene which they stand out in. Whether if it’s Gamora (Saldana) and Nebula’s (Gillan) sibling rivalry, Drax (Bautista) being literal with everything, Rocket Raccoon’s (Cooper) wisecracks, Groot (Diesel) only being able to say his name or Starlord’s (Pratt) self-awareness thinking outside of the box, the film takes the kind of risks no other MCU is willing to do even to the point of bringing back Howard the Duck from the cinematic graveyard George Lucas put him in following the 1986 debacle with Lea Thompson.
MCU directors should take notice, because this is the film you should be emulating and become inspire from.
Who do you think had the best origin story in the MCU?