A small, beautifully observed social realist drama about a bullied boy’s relationship with his pet kestrel in a Yorkshire mining town, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (read our review here) opens in cinemas across the nation this week. Joss Whedon‘s follow up to his own “The Avengers,” famously the third most financially successful film of all time, is undoubtedly going to make a little more than chump change at the box office, having already earned $201 million from the 44 territories worldwide in which it opened last week, which places it above the opening weekend figures for “Iron Man 3” and “The Avengers” in most countries.
Yet while we’re trained in the ways of snobby disdain for the blockbuster scramble that happens every year, we’re fonder of Whedon’s take on the Marvel canon than we are of most equivalent money-spinners, and a lot of that is to do with his handle on character, which amounts to a guiding principle governing even those films that he’s not been directly involved with. With ‘Ultron’ marking not only the end of Whedon’s tenure as the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Godfather, but the second-to-last film in phase 2 of a project that has been by far the most influential to tentpole filmmaking in recent years, and therefore a putative midpoint in the comic behemoth’s current plans, we thought we’d take a look at its ever-expanding population of heroes, villains, love interests, temporary allies, double-crossing friends, estranged parents, jealous siblings and sentient trees.
So taking only those films that count toward this Cinematic Universe ( from “Iron Man” in May 2008 up to and including ‘Ultron’ this week), we’ve selected and ranked (worst to best) the 50 characters that made some sort of an impression on us.There are many smaller characters we simply left off for reasons of space and our sanity, some of whom we’ll round up at the end, but any of whom you are welcome to make a case for in the comments.
Sure, some of his material was cut out of “Thor: The Dark World,” and the character had the natural disadvantage of being a less-than-fearsome-sounding Dark Elf, but Malekith remains the crappiest villain in a series of movies that have generally had some pretty rubbish villains. Undermotivated, buried under layers of make-up and virtually characterless, Christopher Eccleston was palpably disengaged here, but then you probably would be too if you hadn’t been given any good material to play with.
49. Ronan the Accuser
As much fun as “Guardians of the Galaxy” is, the quirky characterization of the heroes takes up rather a lot of the film’s oxygen, leaving very little for airless villains Thanos and especially Lee Pace‘s stentorian but terribly dull Ronan the Accuser. Lumbered with the old-chestnut plotline of “Baddie allying with Worse Baddie to get Gizmo” the film, so peppy and light on its feet elsewhere, screeches to halt whenever Ronan’s around.
He’s reportedly the Biggest Big Bad of the Marvel Universe, but purple-skinned alien God dude Thanos hasn’t really made much of an impression on those who only know him from the movies. He’s admittedly mostly been relegated to the sidelines so far, but even in his most prominent appearance in “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” we heard a lot about how scary he is, but all he did was get tricked and betrayed by a lesser bad guy. Also, he sucks at collecting MacGuffins, currently having a grand total of none in his possession. Hopefully Phase Three and his big appearance in “Infinity Wars” will be more impressive, and Josh Brolin will have time to ease into a character who right now is underwhelming.
Anthony Hopkins’ presence in “Thor” did a lot towards giving a veneer of respectability to the Marvel movies, but we can’t help but wish that he had more to do. He spent most of the first film in a coma, was sidelined in the second, and while you can sense Hopkins wanting to get his teeth into better material and go full-on King Lear, it’s been slim pickings so far. That he’s being impersonated by his son Loki by the end of “The Dark World” doesn’t suggest great things for his role in “Ragnarok” either.
46. Emil Blonsky/The Abomination
A long-time adversary of the Hulk in the comics, Emil Blonsky, aka The Abomination, was the principle bad guy in “The Incredible Hulk” —a Russian/British military type who takes some super soldier serum in order to catch the fugitive hero but ends up being transformed into a creature that might be even worse. Tim Roth was atypical casting and brings a certain low-key energy to a military man that makes him more interesting than he could have been, but the more villainous he becomes, the more you lose interest, and by the end he might as well have just been called Evil Hulk.
Idris Elba as a Space Viking? OMG! Except that so far one of our favorite working actors has been mostly wasted as in a role as essentially Asgard’s bouncer. Aside from that ‘Dark World’ sequence where he took on a spaceship single-handedly (and even that was shoehorned in and kind of ropey), Elba’s not had anything up to his talents yet and that doesn’t change in ‘Ultron’: every time he appears on screen, it’s a reminder that he shouldn’t be in Thor, he should be PLAYING Thor.
44. Arnim Zola
Now seemingly in every other movie (we’re still unclear what he’s doing in “The Hunger Games,” but it’s welcome), Toby Jones made his inevitable Marvel universe appearance as Nazi scientist Arnim Zola in “Captain America: The First Avenger.” He’s mostly a henchman in that film, though one made more memorable thanks to Jones’ performance, but proved to be a more interesting presence in “The Winter Soldier,” appearing in the form of a warehouse-sized supercomputer in the film’s most pleasingly weird diversion. He’ll never rank among the big bad guys, but it was a nifty way to bring the character back, and he made a sudden cameo at the end of “Agent Carter,” suggesting that his flesh-and-blood character has a small-screen life ahead of him too.
Jaime Alexander’s been a winning presence as Sif, but as is the case with several of these “Thor” second-tier characters (we’re not even going to start on the Warriors Three), she’s been underdeveloped so far. There have been hints of an unrequited love angle, but never more than that, and she disappeared halfway through “The Dark World,” left only for some vaguely humiliating guest spots on “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D.” With Natalie Portman seemingly out of the picture from now on, maybe she’ll get to shine a little more next time around.
42. Betty Ross
For the most part, Marvel has done a good job at making their female leads a little sparkier and capable than the norm for the superhero flick, from Pepper Potts and Peggy Carter to Black Widow and Scarlet Witch. Betty Ross would be the most obvious exception to that rule. Bruce Banner’s longtime love, played by Liv Tyler, is a bit of a blank on the page, and sadly Tyler didn’t get many more notes to play beyond “supportive,” and didn’t have all that much chemistry with Edward Norton. No wonder the Marvel bigwigs haven’t brought her back.
41. Brock Rumlow
We love hard-as-nails character actor Frank Grillo, and his presence in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was an undeniably welcome one. Unfortunately, he didn’t get much more to play on the page than “military henchman type,” and though his physicality was a real asset in a couple of memorable fight scenes, he faded into the background otherwise. He lived to fight another day, albeit horribly burned (the character becomes the masked villain Crossbones in the comics, and he’s said to play a major part in next year’s “Civil War”), so fingers crossed there’ll be more to come.
40. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross
A longtime adversary for the Hulk in the comics (and, not coincidentally the father of Betty), General Ross hasn’t yet ventured into the wider Marvel universe outside of his mostly antagonistic appearance in “The Incredible Hulk,” the black sheep of the Marvel movies. William Hurt did a solid job, bringing nuance and control to a character who could have just been a caricature (and kind of was, as played by Sam Elliott in Ang Lee’s 2003 entry) but not enough to render him truly memorable.
39. Ivan Vanko/Whiplash
The comeback of Mickey Rourke seemed complete when after the success of “The Wrestler,” he was picked to play the villainous Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash, in “Iron Man 2.” Covered in “Eastern Promises”-style tattoos, straggly hair and brandishing massive electro-whips, he made for a striking figure, but aside from a gloriously random parrakeet, the actor’s eccentricities weren’t really let out to play, and the villain ultimately proved to be a negligible threat, dying swiftly in Marvel’s most underwhelming conclusion so far.
38. Aldrich Killian
The real Mandarin in “Iron Man 3,” Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian gives the great actor a relatively rare chance to play a Hollywood villain. He clearly relishes the opportunity, but aside from his “I used to be nerdy and ugly” motivation, there isn’t all that much to differentiate him from Sam Rockwell’s bad guy in the second movie. Well, he does breathe fire! Killian does the job well enough, but feels just a touch too generic after the more distinctive touches of much of the rest of “Iron Man 3.”
37. Obadiah Stane
Earning consideration for this list almost solely because he was the first Marvel Cinematic Universe villain, it’s not that Jeff Bridges‘ Stane, the double-crossing ex-business-partner of Tony’s Dad Howard, was necessarily a terrible character, although it’s a trope that anyone who’d ever watched a film before could see coming a mile away. It’s just he was substantially blown out of the water in that first “Iron Man” film by the establishment of the fizzy, irrepressible Tony Stark persona, so much so it would be difficult to pick him out of a lineup today, except that he was played by a fabulously bald Bridges.
36. Howard Stark
Joining the Hulk and Rhodey as one of the few characters in the Marvel universe to have been played by different actors, Tony’s dad first appeared (and will again in “Ant-Man”) in the form of “Mad Men” actor John Slattery, as a sort of lightly hammered Walt Disney figure, before returning in the more youthful playboy form of Dominic Cooper in the first “Captain America” (and subsequently the “Agent Carter” show). Cooper’s accent is a little wavy, but it’s a fun foreshadowing of the friendly/tense dynamic between Cap and Tony Stark that’s proving increasingly central to the mega-franchise.
35. Helen Cho
An ambitious and motivated scientific genius (because the Marvelverse don’t got enough of those) who is a specialist in tissue repair in ‘Age of Ultron,’ Cho is a welcome Asian character, played by Kim Soo-Hyun and given the canny “she’s always been here”-style mid-action introduction that Whedon rightly favors, and even gets a very humanizing moment suggesting her crush on Thor. Problem is *MILD SPOILER* as with every time the Chitauri sceptre is used for hypnosis, for some of her already short screen time, she’s Ultron’s puppet and so *SPOILER ENDS* she remains little more than a cipher. With a crush on Thor.
34. Maria Hill
Aside from Nick Fury, Maria Hill, played by “How I Met Your Mother” star Cobie Smulders, is the most visible face of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the movies at this point (at least now that Agent Coulson’s gone to TV). Unfortunately, the movies haven’t given the actress much of a chance to have fun so far: she’s mostly projected a sort of humorless bureaucrat vibe, though the brief flashes of badassery have been enjoyable when they’ve come. And hey, she gets to go to the “Age Of Ultron” party!
33. The Collector
Benicio Del Toro historically doesn’t do much in the way of blockbusters (he turned down the role of Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” among others), so it was intriguing to see what it was that lured him to “Guardians Of The Galaxy,” as space-hoarder The Collector. It seems that the answer was mostly “limited screen time” or “a love of exposition,” as the character didn’t quite live up to the high hopes we had with the Oscar-winner’s attachment, with only one major scene that featured him. That said, it was still fun to see Del Toro fly his freak flag as a sort of space Liberace-with-Jarmusch-hair.
32. James “Bucky” Barnes/The Winter Soldier
Those who only knew actor Sebastian Stan by reputation from “Gossip Girl” were duly impressed when he turned up as Cap’s best bud Bucky in “Captain America” —it was a nice little performance that suggested talent beyond teen drama. But both movies, including the sequel in which he’s the (sub)title character the Winter Soldier, underuse him: his “death” in “The First Avenger” doesn’t have that much impact because he’s not been seen much, and he’s a brainwashed blank (Hawkeye Syndrome, as it’s known in Marvel movies) in the second, even if he’s much more badass. Third time’s the charm?
31. Erik Selvig
Stellan Skarsgard is always worth the price of admission, and the “Thor” movies allowed him to play a neat twist on the scientist/mentor type: bonding with the title character through boozing in the first film and being all naked and crazy in “The Dark World.” He’s not fared as well outside those two films unfortunately, being reduced to an exposition delivery device in the “Avengers” films, when he’s not a blank-eyed zombie under mind control. Still, a little dry Scandinavian wit in these films is always worthwhile.
30. Justin Hammer
Not quite a supervillain, Sam Rockwell proved one of the few real highlights of “Iron Man 2.” Rockwell had been on the shortlist to play Tony Stark before Downey Jr. bagged the gig, and plays corporate scumbag Hammer like an evil twin of the hero, with the cocky asshole dial pushed all the way up. Rockwell gives the kind of joyously detailed performance he always does (complete with tan-lines on his hands), even if the film never makes him much of a threat. To catch a little extra of the character, check out Drew Pearce’s short “Hail To The King” (also starring Scoot McNairy and Ben Kingsley).
29. Jane Foster
These Marvel movies haven’t always been a great place for women, but credit to the otherwise hyper-masculine “Thor” franchise, they made Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster more than just a love interest. Obviously you’d have to in order to attract an actress of her caliber, but the whip-smart scientist who doesn’t sit around waiting to be rescued was a breath of fresh air for the blockbuster, even if the second movie didn’t use her as effectively (she’s reportedly not going to be returning for the next film).
28. Darcy Lewis
With Alien Viking Gods, Ice Giants and Aethers and what have you, the “Thor” films needed someone to metaphorically raise an eyebrow and point out how ridiculous everything is. That person is Kat Dennings in the form of snarky grad student Darcy Lewis. She’s ostensibly there to help out Selvig and Jane Foster, but her wisecracks and unashamed lusting after Chris Hemsworth’s abs made her a welcome addition to the film (though she also suffers in the sequel from not really having a reason to be there).
Achieving a sort of geek event horizon, the Marvel Cinematic Universe touched on “Doctor Who” mythology by casting Karen Gillan (aka Amy Pond) as Nebula in ‘Guardians.’ Gamora’s half-sister and mirror image, Nebula is the “good” daughter who’s remained loyal to their father Thanos by remaining evil. She sadly doesn’t get that much screen time nor that much dialogue, but she looks fucking cool, is a deeply sadististic character and is the perfect sparring partner for Gamora, so we look forward to seeing her in the sequel.
26. Sam Wilson/The Falcon
Anthony Mackie should be in everything, so it’s great that he’s joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, seeing as pretty soon they’re going to be the only films made for the rest of time. Mackie first cropped up in “The Winter Soldier” as Captain America’s new BFF, a soldier with a jet-powered backpack, and he lent the film some graceful comic notes while also suggesting both PTSD and an adrenaline junkie’s hunger for a return to action, which added some humanity to the film. He has a brief bit in ‘Ultron,’ but it looks like he’ll be crucial to future movies, and that’s good news for everyone.
Made in Tony Stark’s image —brassy, arrogant, motormouthed— the robot Ultron may go down in the MCU books as a fan favorite, but he’s one of the weaker links in ‘Age Of Ultron.’ While he spouts ideological maxims of saving the world from itself, precautionary deterrents and using any-means-necessary preventive measures, his end game is pretty basic: world destruction. We’re a little divided overall —some of us find James Spader‘s voice work refreshingly characterful for a robot villain, while others feel the character loves the sound of his own voice too much and which gets tiresome pretty fast. Whatever your take, it’s inarguable and a bit disappointing that like the first ‘Avengers’ film, his strategy is basically “send a bunch of robots in here to blow shit up.”
24. Alexander Pierce
It’s probably time to put the ’70s-conspiracy-thriller meme to rest with respect to “The Winter Soldier” —there’s about as much “Parallax View” in that film as there was Ozu DNA in “The Wolverine.” Much of that association came from the casting of Robert Redford as S.H.I.E.L.D. head/secret HYDRA leader Alexander Pierce, and it was an undoubted coup, but perhaps less for evoking “Three Days Of The Condor” than because it was a chance to see a cinematic paragon of virtue and American indie cinema’s patron play a sci-fi Nazi. Redford’s natural gravitas and charisma made Pierce an atypically effective Marvel villain, enough so that we were almost sorry to see him go.
23. Pepper Potts
Gwyneth Paltrow might be more focused on macrobiotic diets and lifestyle blogs than acting these days, but she proved to be an unexpected boon to the “Iron Man” movies. Looser and funnier than she’s been in recent years, Paltrow brought a welcome screwball edge to her role as Tony Stark’s longtime assistant/love interest, sharing a ton of chemistry with Downey Jr. and proving genuinely pivotal to the franchise. One couldn’t help but cheer when she got superpowers of her own at the end of the third film, even if it felt a little shoehorned.
22. Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull
These Marvel movies have, as we’ve said, generally suffered from some underwhelming bad guys, but one of the better examples has been Hugo Weaving’s mad science Nazi The Red Skull, the principle adversary in “The First Avenger.” Weaving’s played the bad guy enough times that it would have been easy for him to be retreading finer hours, but complete with a Werner Herzog accent, he did a damn fine job at a difficult and somewhat obviously one-note character.
21. Nick Fury
To be fair, Samuel L Jackson has a thankless task playing Nick Fury. For so long relegated to cameo-level appearances or sudden walk-ons in post-credits sequences, his function was always to operate as a tie-in element between disparate entries in the MCU, and thereafter to deliver equal doses of exposition and tough-love motivation to the team. The first Avengers film gave him perhaps his most interesting part yet, as his motives were called into question and he got a good moment in ‘Winter Soldier,’ but all that really saves Fury from forgettable and humorless blandness within the MCU is that it’s Samuel L Jackson in an eyepatch. Which counts for quite a lot.
Zoe Saldana‘s lithe green-skinned Gamora on the one hand kicks some serious ass and has a kind of interestingly conflicted backstory (the trained assassin/adoptive daughter of Thanos, who has betrayed and rebelled against him) that’s usually reserved for the male antihero. It’s just a shame that she also has so little sense of humor: as a character, she may be strong and independent (and hot, despite greenness, natch) but she’s not really that much fun, especially when surrounded by the wisecracking Quill, the motor-mouthed Rocket and adorable Groot.
19. Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch
A new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you can see why, with Whedon wanting to get deeper into his heroes’ minds, it was time to for the “enhanced” Maximoff twins to step up: her power, never exactly defined to be honest, involves being able to read and manipulate minds, occasionally trapping her victims in a semi-catatonic fearful mental state. But she can also shoot red electricity or create seismic electromagnetic shockwaves or… honestly, we’re not too sure. While Wanda is central to ‘Age of Ultron’ it feels like it’s more for what she can do than for who she is. We hope Elizabeth Olsen gets more to work with outside of speaking in a precarious generic Rahssian accent in the future.
18. Phil Coulson
The first representative of S.H.I.E.L.D. in “Iron Man” and its longest-standing cinematic agent (though he’s now moved to TV and has been sitting the movies out), Agent Coulson was initially mostly a sort of snarky bureaucrat and lent a welcome note of ambivalence by actor Clark Gregg. But in “The Avengers,” Whedon did something cunning, making him a sort of superhero fanboy/audience surrogate and thus instantly lovable. And then he killed him off —the bastard!— his sacrifice becoming one of the most genuinely heroic acts of the films. Whedon’s right to imply that his small-screen resurrection cheapened the character somewhat, but it helps if you don’t watch “Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D” anyway.
17. James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine
In addition to doing good things for Hawkeye and Black Widow, ‘Age of Ultron’ spreads the love to include B-list superheroes, and no one benefits more than War Machine. His bit is little more than an extended gag, but it’s a cleverly self-referential one addressing directly the character’s inevitable second-string status and also giving him a moment to shine. Not since the heady early days of the Iron Man films (back before Rhodey was War Machine and before Terrence Howard was Don Cheadle) has the character really felt like there was a place for him in this new Avenger-y world.
Arguably J.A.R.V.I.S. and The Vision are two different characters, even though they are both played (or voiced) by Paul Bettany and the latter hero is born from Tony Stark’s A.I. program matter. In five movies (no really!), J.A.R.V.I.S. has essentially been Stark’s science exposition mouthpiece/personal Siri and Google Maps, explaining where the bad guys are and where they came from. But J.A.R.V.I.S. has also had some great moments of comic relief. In ‘Ultron’ he becomes The Vision, an A.I. program in human form who is hyper intelligent and powerful, but like a newborn child —he sees this new world and human inhabitants with childlike wonder. The problem with the Vision is he is superhuman, as strong as Thor. He’ll come in handy in a fight against Thanos, but if you include him in a battle against anyone who isn’t a top-tier villain, forget it. What would be the point? It’ll be an interesting challenge to see how this character can grow.
15. Peggy Carter
A character so popular she got her own (decent) spin-off TV show, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter was Captain America’s great wartime love. And little wonder: the British spy is a total badass even without superpowers or special serums, but is feisty and funny in equal measure. She’s also the source of the Marvel movies’ most effective romance to date, a tragically unrequited one that Nicholas Sparks would be proud of: that she clearly falls for Steve before he’s all buff gives it a purity that’s rare for these movies, and her brief role in ‘Winter Soldier’ is an unexpectedly brutal emotional punch in the midst of all the exploding airships.
14. Pietro Maximoff
Hot-headed, impatient and super fast, the ‘Ultron’ version of Quicksilver, aka Pietro Maximoff, is very different from the insouciant and flippant teenager version seen in “X-Men: Days Of Future Past.” And that’s because aside from their powers, they’re basically two different characters. For one, the Maximoff twins are Eastern European and their parents were killed by machinery made by Stark Industries, so they have a huge anti-American bias. Pietro, played well by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, is protective of his sister Wanda and generally goes off half-cocked —he’s so much faster than everyone else and feels like the world is half an hour behind him. The character shows some soul, yet it’s understandable and effective that Whedon chooses the character arc he does for Pietro.
13. Drax the Destroyer
Perhaps the biggest surprise in ‘Guardians,’ a film that stars a tree and a talking raccoon, was wrestler Dave Bautista‘s oddly touching portrayal of Drax the Destroyer, a role that could easily have simply been played as a big lumbering hunk-of-brawn meathead. But Bautista finds moments of humor in his character’s otherwise smashy-smashy-VENGEANCE persona (all the funnier because they’re played as though he’s unaware he’s being funny) and the relationship between him and Groot is a bromance (tree-mance) for the ages.
12. Yondu Udonta
Ambivalence is a quality in short supply in tentpole comic book movies, but Yondu, as played by the unsurpassably gonzo Michael Rooker, is a strong character in that regard: without ever compromising his darkness or dangerousness, he almost accidentally ends up fighting on the right side. So he’s never exactly redeemed per se, but his grudging, gruff and occasionally slightly psychotic affection for Quill, whom he abducted as a child then raised, makes him a far more interesting character than just the minor villain/rogue he could be, and Rooker is perfect casting.
11. The Mandarin/Trevor Slattery
Casting Ben Kingsley as Iron Man’s best-known villain, the fearsome
crime lord The Mandarin, was so obvious that it almost seemed a little
dull, and though he had a Bin Laden-style makeover, his early
appearances weren’t wildly exciting. And then, in the boldest, funniest
and most gloriously fan-alienating moment in the Marvel movies to date,
Tony Stark discovers that he’s actually a
drug-addled, narcoleptic British luvvie who took the job as a front after falling
on hard times. It’s a breathlessly unexpected reveal, and even more so
for Kingsley’s hilariously against-type performance (which got a further
showcase in “Hail To The King”).
“…and Groot, a sentient tree” went the punchline to the description of The Guardians prior to the release of James Gunn‘s film and Marvel’s then-riskiest proposition. What a difference a year makes —Groot, voiced by a Vin Diesel tasked with delivering various inflections of the line “I am Groot,” is the most lovable of the Guardians, not an easy task for a CGI character. He also comes across as a creature without malice, a cross between an Ent from the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films and Hodor from “Game Of Thrones,” and yields a highly desirable merchandising opportunity in his dancing-in-a-plant-pot incarnation.
After four Marvel movie appearances, including two of his own solo movies, Thor is gradually coming into focus, even if, aside from some nice humor evinced in ‘Ultron,’ he feels more marginalized this time out. Marvel haven’t quite nailed their quasi-fantasy universe yet, flipping between the, sci-fi ‘Lord Of The Rings’ vibe of the first film, while the second went for “Games Of Thrones”-esque intrigue. But Chris Hemsworth‘s Thor anchors the films like a really heavy hammer: a reluctant king, a god among men and a giant beefcake to boot. Arrogant and brash, it’s his family issues that are the most interesting thing about him: his treacherous devil of a brother and a father constantly disappointed in him. We can’t say we’re agog for ‘Thor 3,’ but Hemsworth is genuinely charismatic in the role.
8. Clint Barton/Hawkeye
If Hawkeye seems high on this list, it’s very possible you haven’t seen ‘Age Of Ultron’ yet. While even Jeremy Renner complained about Hawkeye’s non-character in the original ‘Avengers,’ more of a plot pawn than anything else, he gets his due in ‘Ultron.’ Without spoiling too much, Hawkeye is revealed to be in many ways the heart and soul of the Avengers team; the most physically vulnerable of them all, but also the most human. His back story and motivations are revealed, he shows off strong leadership skills, and he’s a big part of the examination of heroism theme in the movie —even non-super-gods are vital to this team. Hawkeye also gets some great lines, good comebacks and definitely comes out the other end a bit more three dimensional.
“The tree and raccoon movie” was the brief shorthand for “Guardians Of The Galaxy” in advance. It was also the shorthand as such afterwards, but only because the tree and raccoon were so completely loveable. Brought to life by some phenomenal FX and a vocal performance by Bradley Cooper that never quite gets the credit it deserves, Rocket was a pint-sized, wisecracking badass, but also, as we see when he gets drunk, a scared animal with an inferiority complex who doesn’t quite understand why he is the way he is. He might have been a raccoon, but he’s also one of the most complex heroes in the MCU, as well as one of the most iconic.
6. Peter Quill/Star-Lord
After a lengthy casting search that included everyone from Eddie Redmayne to Jim Sturgess (*shudder*), “Guardians Of The Galaxy” ended up being led by the somewhat unlikely figure of Chris Pratt, best known for playing essentially a Golden Retriever trapped in a pudgy human being’s body in “Parks & Recreation.” It turned out to be something of a stroke of genius: Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord, is Han Solo by way of John Belushi, a charming rogue walking a very fine line between being hyper-competent and sort of bumbling, and Pratt was heroic, funny, deeply likeable and even brought in a little pathos. The film needed a very human centre amidst the trees and raccoons to work, and found it with Pratt, and a star (lord) was very much born.
The temptation, when needing to create an adversary impressive enough that the entire Avengers team must for the first time assemble to defeat him, must have been to go bigger, boomier, more apocalyptic. But Loki, as played by the slight Tom Hiddleston, is not an apocalyptic presence, and that’s part of what makes hims such a great character —he is as much a petulant child/piqued, envious younger brother playing in a sandpit of things he doesn’t really understand and forces he cannot hope to control as he is a God of Mighty and Terrible Wrath. This sense that a spoiled child, albeit one with a nice line in quasi-Shakespearean dialogue delivered impeccably by an impish and deliciously malevolent Hiddleston, can nearly bring about the end of Earth is a gentle subversion of the bland bombast that blockbusters generally deal in, and makes Loki one of the most appealing and memorable villains in the cinematic blockbuster canon.
4. Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
If the Avengers are all damaged goods in one form or another, than Natasha Romanoff reveals in ‘Ultron’ how she’s way more fucked up and scarred than you initially thought. We haven’t learned much about this character over the course of three films (“Iron Man 2,” ‘Avengers’ and ‘The Winter Soldier’) other than she’s disciplined, highly trained fighting operative with smarts, stealth and devastating line in the bait-and-switch double-cross. But in ‘Ultron,’ she’s hoping to connect with Bruce Banner and decides to reveal some of her shrouded backstory, and in just two scenes Whedon brilliantly evokes the emotional cost of her training and unpacks a heavy burden of psychic baggage. More than just having a “dark past that haunts” her (what character doesn’t have one of those?), ‘Ultron’ illustrates that this is a woman still grappling with the blood on her hands (the “red in her ledger”), and the investment in this character has paid off doubly as it has coincided with Scarlett Johansson‘s irresistible rise to prominence as a strong and subtle performer.
3. Bruce Banner/The Hulk
So this is a bit of a cheat, as it’s safe to say the two previous Hulk movies failed the character in many ways, and it’s really only Whedon and Mark Ruffalo who have cracked this tough nut at all. But while the most recent iteration may not have a film all to himself, the character is still the most interesting onscreen version we’ve seen to date and singlehandedly makes The Hulk one of the best characters in the MCU. Most compellingly, Whedon has always been interested in both sides of the character, and both get to shine in ‘Ultron.’ Banner gains confidence, but ever the reluctant Avenger, he has wells of self-loathing that keep him spiritually melancholy, weary and lonely. And even during the Hulk’s rampages, Banner’s empathy, torture and confusion bleed through. Ruffalo’s interpretation says so much with so little, and if Banner is even more angsty in ‘Ultron,’ it reveals a complicated individual too worried about his inner anger to let impending happiness and even burgeoning romance in. Another ‘Hulk’ movie is maybe a bad idea, but Whedon has certainly created the most fertile and promising circumstances should Marvel ever choose to go that route.
2. Steve Rogers/Captain America
Superheroes need to be damaged and conflicted. This we know from the countless brooding ubermensch films where the hero character is all torn up inside (hell, even Superman killed someone and has daddy issues). It’s the reason everyone thought “Captain America: The First Avenger” would be crushingly dull and Captain America himself couldn’t sustain solo films outside ‘The Avengers’ —he’s too good, too uncomplicated, too old fashioned. But Captain America embraces his character’s goodness —sure, he has some demons from his past and struggles as a man out of time, but Steve Rogers is Marvel’s most well adjusted hero. In fact, he’s most comfortable as a soldier, a leader and a big part of the heroism examination of ‘Ultron’ is thanks to Captain America’s drive to push past beyond the team’s nightmares and face their fear head on. Cap isn’t remotely cool and Whedon’s movie acknowledges that in an amusing way and is beautifully played by Chris Evans, but as a traditional hero who runs counter to the conventional wisdom of moody angst, he’s become a refreshing antidote to the glum and irritable superheroes with so many personal demons it’s a wonder they haven’t become a booze-sozzled recluse.
1. Tony Stark/Iron Man
…and speaking of booze-sozzled, we come to the sine qua non of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s simply impossible to believe we would be where we are today, staring down the barrel of the end of Phase II and beginning of Phase III of the most ambitious blockbuster strategy of our time, without Iron Man (and “Iron Man“) and swaggering, rapid-fire Tony Stark anchoring the whole endeavor. Indelibly associated with Robert Downey Jr., it’s hard to tell if Marvel owes him more or less than he owes Marvel in terms of it establishing him as one of the biggest stars in the world after a long period on the rehab/bender/uninsurable roundabout. That “battle with inner demons” narrative is part of what makes RDJ such a perfect fit for the role, but we can’t underestimate the clever writing of the character and the brio of actual performance he brings. And in ‘Ultron’ as before, Stark is the team’s MVP, though here for a slightly different, more interesting and darker reason as his megalomania bubbles to the surface in a way we haven’t necessarily seen before. Of course, it’s a set up for his confrontation with Captain America down the line, but even right now it introduces notes of continuing change and evolution in a character in danger of becoming overfamiliar, and suggests that there’s life in the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist yet.
Missing from the list above but perhaps worthy of consideration (not always in a good way) are characters like Warriors Three in the ‘Thor‘ films; Jon Favreau‘s Happy Hogan in the ‘Iron Man’ films; Emily Van Camp‘s Agent 13 in ‘Winter Soldier‘; Rebecca Hall‘s Maya Hansen in “Iron Man 3“; Tommy Lee Jones as Colonel Chester Phillips in ‘Captain America‘; Stanley Tucci‘s boffin Dr. Abraham Erskine; Garry Shandling‘s oleaginous Senator Stern; Rene Russo‘s Frigga from the ‘Thor’ films and so on and so on until the end of time.
And that’s not even considering the welter of new characters that will populate the Universe between now and the end of Phase 3 —check back with us in a few years to see where the likes of Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Ant-Man and all their associated antagonists and allies will fit in. Tell us your thoughts in the comments, and if we haven’t provided you with enough fodder to get really, really mad with us above, remember we also Ranked Every Marvel Film Ever…
–Oli Lyttelton, Jessica Kiang, Rodrigo Perez