The Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed the way we look at superheroes. Through stellar casting, fluid continuity, and the clever planning of Marvel president Kevin Feige, the studio has created an experience that will come to define the current generation of moviegoers, just as Star Wars did in the past. That said, the success of the MCU has made it so that Marvel films that fall outside of its jurisdiction are generally seen as inferior.
One needn’t look hard for examples as to why. The very mention of critical misfires like “X-Men: The Last Stand,” “Ghost Rider,” and “Fantastic Four” (Pick one) is enough to send any self-respecting comic book fan into a fit of rage. But for as inconsistent as these films can be, they have also gone places, dramatic or otherwise, that the MCU never could. Some have taken storytelling risks that remain unparalleled in the genre and should be seen as “game changers” in their own right.
So, with the upcoming release of “Deadpool 2” (Which is not included in this list), we decided to focus on the ten non-MCU Marvel films that did it best.
10. The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)
Time has not been kind to Marc Webb’s “Spider-Man” films. Derided by those who grew up with Sam Raimi’s original trilogy and overlooked by fans who prefer Jon Watts’ MCU reboot, it‘s generally seen as the weakest iteration of the teen web-slinger. Here’s the thing: 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man” is actually pretty good. It’s no classic, but Webb (what a name for a Spidey director) manages to put his own spin on the material, and deliver a surprisingly intimate blockbuster in the process.
A lot of the film’s charm has to do with the casting of Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone as Spidey and Gwen Stacy, respectively. They have a genuinely convincing romance that raises the dramatic stakes whenever Spidey is in mortal danger. Where the movie falters, and where 2014’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” eventually falls apart, is when it tries to juggle too many things at once. We didn’t need Spidey’s conflict with Gwen’s dad, and the mystery of what happened to his parents, and the tragic backstory of the Lizard, and Uncle Ben’s death in one film. Less would have been more here.
9. The Wolverine (2013)
While 2013’s “The Wolverine” may not be the best film on the list, there’s an argument to be made that it’s among the most important. It’s the first time we see director James Mangold assume control of the Wolverine character, and consequently, the first time we see the character (Hugh Jackman) in a vulnerable state, forced to confront his own mortality or lack thereof. There had always been emotional pain, but suddenly there was the physical pain as well, and the film’s best moments are when Mangold is delving into these extremes, and using them to piece together a sort of superhero character study.
Perhaps fearing that he would alienate X-Men fans, however, Mangold sells himself short in the finale, ditching the emphasis on character for a boring fight that crams in a ton of CGI camp. It’s a steep letdown. This compromise is what ultimately keeps “The Wolverine” from reaching the heights of 2017’s “Logan,” though, in terms of precedent, it’s safe to assume the latter wouldn’t exist without the former.
8. X-Men (2000)
Bryan Singer’s “X-Men” is rightfully hailed as the film that ushered in the modern age of superheroes. It was the first of its kind to ground comic book mayhem in a world that mirrored the fears and prejudices of our own. Even today, with superhero movies coming out at a record pace, the parallels that Singer makes– the poor treatment of mutants as an allegory for homophobia, the Charles Xavier and Magneto dynamic echoing that of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X– feel revelatory, and matured in a way that the director has struggled to replicate in later installments.
Given that “X-Men” is nearing twenty years old, the biggest flaws here are cosmetic ones. The special effects have not aged well, and the muted, leather-clad style reeks of the early 2000s when everyone was still trying to bite “The Matrix.” Thankfully, neither deters from the enjoyment of the message or the performances of Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, and Jackman, which continue to serve as genre benchmarks.
7. X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014)
Where Singer’s first “X-Men” was sparse and gritty, 2014’s “X-Men: Days Of Future Past” is sprawling and ridiculous. Its ambitions are lofty as any in the genre, as the film sets out to mix social commentary with dystopian time travel, bring together two generations of X-Men actors, retcon the events of the despised “X-Men: The Last Stand,” and honor the titular storyline, one of the most beloved in all of comics. One false move and the whole thing would have collapsed. Incredibly, Singer rises to the challenge, crafting not only a cohesive film but one of the most rewatchable in the entire franchise.
Seeing Stewart and McKellen act opposite– and in some instances, alongside– their younger selves, played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, is a delight, as are the laughs that come from Wolverine clashing with 1970s culture. Things drag a bit towards the end, and the attempt to clean up the franchise’s continuity only results in more holes being made, but as a fun popcorn flick, you could do a lot worse.
6. X-Men: First Class (2011)
Part reboot and part prequel, “X-Men: First Class” was the breath of fresh air that the franchise desperately needed in 2011. Co-writer/director Matthew Vaughn ditches the increasingly stale drama of the previous films (“X-Men: The Last Stand” & “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) and gives us a taut, sexy spy thriller instead. In doing so, he manages to reinvent superheroes we thought we already knew, while newcomers McAvoy, Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence project an inexperience and a youthful sparkle that makes them feel more relatable.
Vaughn’s penchant for brightness and bombast also stands out. This is the first time we see the classic blue-and-yellow costumes from the comic books, the first time the characters seem to be having fun with their powers, and the first time we see them impact historical events. The latter started a trend of setting “X-Men” films in different decades, though the splashy pop-art cinematography makes Vaughn’s homage to the 1960s feel more vivid than what Singer managed to do with the ‘70s or the ‘80s (As seen in the boring “X-Men: Apocalypse“).
5. Spider-Man (2002)
Let’s be perfectly frank: Sam Raimi’s original “Spider-Man” has some flaws. The CGI looks a little too rubbery, the Green Goblin’s costume is a disaster, and some of the dialogue is next-level cheese (“It’s you who’s out, Gobby. Out of your mind!”). So why then does it rank so high on the list? Well, for starters, it’s still a lot of fun. Few directors have captured the excitement of being a superhero better than Raimi, who shoots every fight scene and set piece with the boyish enthusiasm of a fan. He gives us a titular hero (Played by Tobey Maguire) that we can both relate to and idolize.
The iconography of “Spider-Man” is another reason, as many of its scenes have burrowed themselves into our cinematic conscious: Spider-Man dodging the Goblin’s spinning blades, Uncle Ben’s tragic death, and, of course, the upside-down kiss between Spidey and Mary Jane. Marvel Studios may have offered a more polished take on the character with 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” but they’ll be hard-pressed to match this one in terms of pop culture relevance.
4. Deadpool (2016)
“Deadpool” hit like an atomic bomb in 2016. The film held up a middle finger to dramatic superhero fare like “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and the MCU’s “Captain America: Civil War,” and audiences went crazy for it. Nevermind that the film wasn’t as subversive as it claimed, or that it followed a number of origin story clichés, it had killer attitude and the guiding hand of director Tim Miller, who made sure that all of the crass humor was balanced out with genuine heart. In fact, Deadpool’s troubled romance with Vanessa remains one of the most charming and believable in the entire genre.
Miller (Along with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) also manage to pull a career-best performance out of Ryan Reynolds, who rattles off one-liners with such proficiency that you may forget his powers are physical and not verbal. The actor commands every scene with ease, making Deadpool a character that, contrary to Raimi’s Spider-Man, we can both relate to and laugh at.
3. X2: X-Men United (2003)
The pinnacle of Bryan Singer’s tenure with the X-Men, “X2: X-Men United” was the first superhero sequel to be seen as an improvement on its predecessor. Everything is bigger, from the threat the mutants must face to the ensemble of supporting characters, but more importantly, Singer improves as a storyteller, deepening the theme of alienation that he established in the first film. The scene where Iceman “comes out” to his family is still one of the franchise’s most resonant, as it cleverly uses fantasy elements to examine social issues happening in our own world.
In terms of action, “X2: X-Men United” is also a big step up. The scene where Nightcrawler infiltrates the White House is still exciting after all these years, the fight between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike is wildly intense, and Singer even manages to tease the Dark Phoenix saga with the film’s epic finale. It’s a shame the director wasn’t able to bring it home with the franchise’s third installment, but as it stands, “X2” is a pretty great condolence prize.
2. Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Another sequel that surpassed expectations, “Spider-Man 2” is still considered by many to be the finest Spidey movie, and it’s easy to see why. Sam Raimi strips away some of the cheese and clunky dialogue of the original, while doubling-down on what made it such a big hit in the first place. We get to see Spidey mature into a stronger character, as he simultaneously deals with the superhero dilemma of not having his powers and the human dilemma of still being in love with an engaged Mary Jane.
Maguire, for as bad as he is in “Spider-Man 3,” does good work here, ensuring we’re just as invested in Peter Parker’s journey as we are in Spidey’s. Everything else in the film is superb, from the dazzling subway fight to Alfred Molina’s surprisingly layered performance as Doctor Octopus, but the time spent on the main character, and seeing the emotional toll that being a hero takes on him, are what make “Spider-Man 2” such a timeless viewing. It is the blueprint for nearly every superhero film that’s followed.
1. Logan (2017)
That 2017’s “Logan” tops our superhero list is almost a misnomer, as the movie follows very few superhero tropes. Co-writer/director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman pull influence from a number of outside sources– namely, George Stevens’ “Shane” and Peter Bogdanovich’s “Paper Moon” – to create a subversive, oftentimes heartbreaking, account of Wolverine’s final days. It’s the first genuinely adult story the “X-Men” franchise has been allowed to tell, and it’s a credit to the synergy of Mangold and Jackman that every R-rated encounter strikes an emotional chord and not just a gratuitous one.
Jackman, Stewart, and Dafne Keen, who plays Wolverine’s daughter/clone, give revelatory performances, each complimenting what the other is doing in a given scene. The fleeting moments of happiness they find are tender and lovely, just as the tragic moments are brutal and horrific. Nothing goes according to plan for our hero, but the fact that he continues to be just that, a hero, is what makes “Logan” such a groundbreaking achievement. It proves that the restrictions of the genre no longer apply.
So what do you think? Do you agree with our list? What are your favorite Non-MCU Marvel films? For those who have seen it, where does “Deadpool 2” fall into this list for you? Let us know in the comments section below and be sure to vote on this week’s poll for the very same question here.
You can follow Danilo and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @DaniloSCastro