We’re finally at the end. After 22 films, ten years and at least one broken retainer, the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know came to a close (don’t tell me Spider-Man: Far From Home “technically” in Phase 3. I don’t care and won’t listen). Avengers: Endgame opened this weekend, and so in celebration of the true culmination of everything the MCU has done to this point, Lewton Bus has picked our favorite moments, characters, Chrises and films from this unprecedented series. Here is our breakdown of the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
For the record, we’re ignoring anything from Endgame. We don’t want to ruin anything for you fools who haven’t seen that masterpiece yet.
Best Action Scene – Battle for New York (From The Avengers)
It’s a testament to Marvel that a lot of the “firsts” that took place in The Avengers have become well-established parts of our pop culture fabric, and the MCU has built off the friendships and relationships borne from this movie. The Battle of New York also proved once and for all that superhero team-ups built off the back of Tony Stark and Captain America could be epic and visually stunning.
When you pair the Avengers theme with the shot of the Avengers readying themselves for another wave of Chitauri and eventually, the shot of all the Avengers together, it creates something quite special. It all seems pedestrian now, but it’s vital that we remember how striking these things were at the time. As we each go into Endgame, which is supposed to be the end of a chapter, if not a whole book, we must remember that we were once completely wowed by this wholly new cinematic experiment, a first for many of us. – Diane C.
Best Visual Effect – Rocket Raccoon
In blockbuster movies, special effects are practically an obligation. Audiences crave spectacle and, since filmmakers can’t literally blow up planets yet, they gotta fake it till they make it. But even if we often associate special effects with space ships, dinosaurs, and scenes of mass destruction, some of the most remarkable examples are small. Peter Jackson and his massively talented crew at Weta proved that with their groundbreaking depiction of Gollum. Special effects are at their best when you don’t recognize them and accept them as part of the reality of the film.
For all the spectacle of the Marvel films, some of their best effects work has been more subtle. The pre-serum version of Captain America in his first film stands out. The de-aging of multiple characters over the course of the franchise, from Robert Downey Jr. to Kurt Russell, is downright incredible. But the best special effects work in the MCU has perhaps been glossed over: Rocket Raccoon.
A completely CGI character like Rocket, portrayed over four movies, could have face-planted in Jar Jar fashion. But Rocket is a character, anchored by a great voice performance by Bradley Cooper, and embodied by what I’m sure is an army of artists. On a technical level, Rocket must have been a challenge. He had to be recognizable as a raccoon and be anthropomorphized in a way that wasn’t cartoonish and distracting. Hell, fur, even two decades after Jumanji, is tough to pull off convincingly. But the effects crew came through.
Rocket is now simply part of the MCU. A beloved character. His presence in scenes with human (or human-ish) characters is accepted at face value, or at most acknowledged with a snarky one-liner. He’s a genius, a criminal, a trash panda and a hero. He’s also a special effect, and the fact that we don’t think of him that way says how successful he is. – Shannon Ellery Hubbell
Best Chris – Chris Hemsworth
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor was a movie that I absolutely needed to see. Partially because I was thirteen when it came out and I was down for superhero films from an early age, but also for the effect that this movie has had in my life. It introduced me to British auteur Kenneth Branagh, who is one of my favorite actors and one of my favorite directors now. It was the first MCU film I ever truly became invested it. But most importantly, it introduced me to the Best Chris, Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth is a fantastic actor who can do dramatic and comedic in his sleep and look absolutely marvelous while doing it, but that’s not what I mean when I say that he’s my pick for Best Chris. When I was thirteen, I was so closeted that it is devastating in hindsight. I was down a Rational Atheism hellhole, a complete edgelord and misogynist who needed to be slapped a few times. But when I saw Thor, it helped me realize something major: I was not straight. That first shirtless shot of Thor blasted through every bit of toxicity and cemented itself in my mind, and was the first time I ever crushed on a man. Throughout time, as I embraced my queerness, I also realized that despite what society told me, I was not a man. Without Chris Hemsworth, I would probably still be hopelessly closeted and nowhere close to the person I am right now. And for that, I say thank you, Chris Hemsworth. In my heart (and in the minds of the Lewton Bus writers) you are the Best Chris. – Mavis McGee
Best Villain – Killmonger
What makes Erik Stevens, aka Killmonger, the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It’s certainly not an award for most laborious means of getting his villain name (some of the bad guys don’t even get that, so we’ll accept Ross’ lame explanation in the movie). It’s not even that he handily defeats the titular hero of Black Panther in single combat. Killmonger, given evocative and manically focused energy by Michael B. Jordan, rises above other villains in the MCU because his actions have direct and long-term impact on our hero and his universe.
Though Killmonger chooses death at the end of the movie, his desires and dreams for his people help inspire T’challa to open the borders of the isolated country of Wakanda. T’challa’s methods are ones of peace and aid rather than Killmonger’s choice of war and destruction, but they are still aimed at the goal of helping members of the African diaspora around the world, starting in Killmonger’s hometown of Oakland, California.
MBJ, already one of the most fascinating and powerful actors working today, instills the role with a fiery passion that inspired more than it’s share of “Killmonger was right” pieces following the film. He’s a ruthless, driven man, but one we still are able to empathize with. We understand his hate and rage, if not his methods. In a film franchise that has had more than it’s share of villains who don’t live up to the heroes (at least before Phase III), that’s a powerful thing that puts him above and beyond his contemporaries. – Andrew Clark
Best Hero – Captain America
There are certainly flashier heroes, and there are absolutely more powerful ones, but none of them hit me quite the way Steve Rogers has over the course of the MCU. Marvel gave us a hero who is first and foremost a good man and used him to examine the issue of what it means to be good in an extremely complicated world that contains few easy answers. Cap’s struggles with adapting to a modern world he was thrust into and the pull between his responsibility as an Avenger and his responsibility to the people he cares about make him deeply human and one of the best genre characters around. – Allen Strickland
Best Sidekick – Korg
Sidekicks make a lot of sense for superheroes because they satisfy a lot of needs that they have, as pulp heroes. Sidekicks are teammates, so Batman can teach Robin his gadgets in a way that also gives exposition for the audience. They’re weaker, so Superman has to rescue Jimmy Olsen for extra drama. They’re friends, so Captain Marvel can talk to Captain Marvel Jr. about his problems. They tend to be more normal, so Sherlock Holmes seems even weirder by association with Dr. Watson.1
I only listed DC superheroes and sidekicks up there, for a couple of reasons: One, I like being a bit of a contrarian, and two, Marvel have always shied away from sidekicks in the classical sense. Captain America had Bucky in the ’40s, but Spider-Man broke ground by being a teenage hero in his own right instead of just a sidekick, and after their success there, they’ve always been reticent to make formalized partnerships in the same way.
Just as with a lot of their storytelling decisions, the Marvel movies have interpreted the comics through a different lens, and a lot of the MCU’s greatest hero are paired off with normal, weaker teammates/friends, who fulfill those same needs: Captain Marvel can teach Maria Rambeau her gadgets, Iron Man has to rescue War “Rhodey” Machine for extra drama, Captain America can talk to The Falcon about his problems, and Doctor Strange seems even weirder by association with Wong The Wizard.2
For the best sidekick, though, you have to go to Taika Waititi’s Korg. Waititi made his name on finding the absurd and everyday in grand, romantic situations, and he brings every ounce of that creative energy to the role he played himself via mo-cap: A big tough rock monster battle slave who’s really just kind of a well-disposed dork.
In the original Planet Hulk comic, Korg was a proud warrior who was barely restrained from murdering his captors in cold blood, and who befriended the Hulk thanks to their macho, martial respect. Thor: Ragnarok reuses the design of a cannon-fodder enemy from The Dark World and turns him into an instantly comic figure: A soft-spoken, polite and laissez-faire companion who was only enslaved because he didn’t like his step-dad.
Thor has always been a character who works best with other people around him: He’s a big, strong, gorgeous, Shakespearean-talkin’ heartthrob with a big hammer, and he sticks out like a sore thumb pretty much everywhere outside Asgard. You could call any one of a dozen characters his sidekick, from Loki all the way to Kat Dennings,3 but Korg is the one who complements him the best: A pair of emotional, smiling doofuses, who’d be winningly pathetic if they both weren’t so ripped.
Also, Korg has his own sidekick in the form of Miek. Miek rules. – Adam Bumas
Best Film: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I have written quite a lot about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. I can’t help it. Steve Rogers resonates with me on a spiritual level. I often get guff from others about my favorite characters in pop culture ensembles. Characters like Jon Snow. Like Superman. Like Steve Rogers.They’re sometimes seen as “the boring one”, or “the square”, or “the boy scout.” And I get it! When you’re surrounded by colorful, complex, and compromised individuals with oodles of pathos and brooding charm, it can be easy to let your eyes glaze at the calm, quiet dignity and will to do what’s right that these characters embody.
Morally flexible characters navigating morally complex (or even downright rotten) battlegrounds, fighting for a sense of themselves from which to find the purchase to pursue their goals is also catnip to me (I don’t want you to think me a pollyanna, here. I like just as much nihilism as the best of ‘em). But, perhaps because of way I grew up, witnessing the strong routinely preying on the weak, or perhaps because I learned most of my morals from comics written by Stan Lee, I’m simply unable to see someone take a righteous stand on behalf of others and not feel moved; Not feel inspired.
When the Marvel Cinematic Universe finally got underway, the big question mark that left everyone nervous was, “How in the hell do we make Captain America work today? Aren’t the stars and stripes a little old-fashioned?” And against all odds (and with a little help from Joe Johnston’s throwback period piece Captain America: The First Avenger), they pulled it off. But once The Avengers managed to defy expectations to storm box offices, as well, they were right back at square one. What do you do with Captain America in today’s world? Anthony and Joe Russo had the perfect answer: You take Steve Rogers, virtuous hero out of time, and you put him in today’s world and you watch what happens. You don’t avoid the uncomfortable dissonance. You run toward it. You change the question from “What do you do with Captain America in today’s world?”, to “What does Captain America do with today’s world?”.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier works because, like Steve Rogers, it isn’t afraid to face right up to the ways our world has changed (or maybe hasn’t changed so much as we would like to think). The film works on myriad levels, functioning purely as an expertly constructed, practical action movie for those who want just that. But it also excels in the metatextual and thematic layers, giving each character a full arc, rooted in their own ideology. And while some initial takes balked at the conceit of making resurgent Hydra Nazis the villains in a movie that ‘pretends’ to the legacy of complex 1970s espionage films, one look at the state of America in the past 3 years is sufficient to make you question what is more naive; thinking this superhero film paints the evils of our time in too-broad strokes, or thinking that the same pragmatism and culture of deniability that took root in a post-war world led us to a point where actual Nazis now hold political power.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a film that dares to embrace the very dissonance of its concept. And because of that, the Russo brothers were able not only to plumb the depths of Steve Rogers’ psyche, but tell a whole and thrilling story that resonates at the desired frequency of the audience member. It holds thematic treasures within, sure. But if you don’t feel like diving, a beer on the beach never tasted so good. – Ryan Roch
Best Post-Credits Scene: “Patience” from Spider-Man: Homecoming
By 2017 everyone knew, or at least should have known, one thing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: wait through the credits. Sometimes you got a glimpse at what to expect with the next film, maybe a little added nugget from the film you just watched, or occasionally a you got the punchline to a joke offhandly set up in the film itself.
One time, though, you got the piss taken out of you. Hard. Hearkening back to the pre-recorded PSAs of Captain America we saw in the film (even though he’s a war criminal now), Spider-Man: Homecoming finishes off its credits with another message by Cap about the virtues of “patience” but how sometimes waiting for something can just leave you disappointed.
This is a series/franchise/shared universe that has long been noted for its character driven humor, this might be the best joke they ever wrote. It’s a beautifully playful dunking on audience expectations, counting on you waiting for an extra five-ten minutes of people’s names and then actively making fun of you for it. It’s helped by Chris Evans’s continued commitment to his character, playing it with the utmost sincerity until he finally breaks and asks “how many more of these?” I still smile thinking about all of the people who this actively pissed off. The MCU is arguably the most crowd-pleasing franchise in history, so them getting one little jab in was a refreshing change of pace. – Kevin Kuhlman