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Superhero Worship: Top 40 Marvel Movie Ideas, Ranked

From smart casting choices to Spidey and X-Men reboots, we rank the decisions that have shaped Marvel’s superhero universe, from worst to best

To date, movies based on Marvel Comics characters and titles — some 33 films in all — have grossed nearly $6.18 billion at the U.S. box office, and more than double that worldwide. Marvel Studios, the in-house company set up by the comic book publisher (now a part of Disney) has taken in $2.6 billion alone, courtesy of the nine pictures (The Avengers, as well as the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America films) released under their banner. Meanwhile, studios like Sony and Fox also milk the brand with their respective properties, e.g. Spider-Man and the X-Men — both of which, coincidentally (or not), are gracing theaters with new entries this month.

How Spider-Man Conquered the World

But Marvel hasn't always been a commercial juggernaut, and for every good choice made regarding a movie based on a Marvel Comic, you can bet that a wrong-headed one was executed as well. Aside from one lone Captain America serial in 1944, the history of Marvel Comics on the big screen encompasses only the last 28 years — and those nearly three decades have had their share of highs, lows, hits and misses. So on the eve of X-Men: Days of Future Past taking over multiplexes around the world, we invite you to follow along as we look back through 40 decisions that shaped the Marvel movies — the very worst, the very best, and all those that could have gone either way. After all, as any Marvel fan will tell you, superheroes aren't perfect. By Don Kaye

X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

Copyright 20th Century Fox Film Corp/Courtesy Everett Collection

36

Wasting the Character of Deadpool

The wisecracking, fourth-wall-breaking mercenary and antihero who first appeared in the New Mutants comics has a certain cool factor that's always endeared him to many readers. So what a way to ruin the character with an appearance in the lousy X-Men spinoff film, 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine. To wit: The plan was to introduce him in the form of an extended cameo by Ryan Reynolds, then warp him into another actor entirely for his climactic return as a half-assed mutant hybrid? Both Reynolds and producer Lauren Shuler Donner have recently been saying a solo Deadpool film is in the works, but if the intention is simply to repeat the same mistakes and mishandle the fan favorite, they should let the "Dead" rest in peace.

Sony Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

35

Jamming Venom Into ‘Spider-Man 3’

Sam Raimi set out to make Spider-Man 3 (2007) with Sandman as the main antagonist, but Sony Pictures and producer Avi Arad insisted on shoehorning another, even more popular nemesis into the movie — specifically, a parasitic alien goo that possesses its host and turns them into a grotesque parody of Spidey named Venom. (Naturally, this vicious villian would be played by…That '70s Show's Topher Grace?!?) The result was an overstuffed and incoherent film, as well as blowing the chance to bring a fan-favorite bad guy to the big screen. Worse, the decision caused a rift between the filmmaker and the studio that never really healed, leading to the cancellation of a Raimi-helmed Spider-Man 4.

FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, Doug Jones, 2007

20thCentFox/courtesy Everett / Everett Collection

34

Mishandling the Big-Budget ‘Fantastic Four’ and its Silver Surfer-ed Sequel

Granted, it wasn't as bad as the 1994 Roger Corman-produced version (see No.49). But almost nothing worked about 20th Century Fox's big-budget 2005 version of the landmark Marvel comic book — the scope, the tone, the casting (except for future Captain America star Chris Evans as Johnny Storm) and the script were all disappointing. Its 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, wasn't much of an improvement; the iconic title character — played by Doug Jones and vocalized by Laurence Fishburne — actually came across reasonably faithfully, but not even that could save it. Thankfully, the franchise is set for a reboot (see No. 23).

0th Century Fox Films

33

Making That ‘Elektra’ Movie

While we'd like to see more female protagonists in comic-book movies as a whole, this 2005 misfire was not the way to go. The perky Jennifer Garner is insanely miscast as the Greek assassin/lover-enemy of Daredevil, and since the 2003 Ben Affleck star vehicle (see No. 28) that introduced the character wasn't so well received, why build a whole movie about the blind hero's girlfriend? Given the hand that fate deals her in that earlier film, the producers had to go to great lengths in order to bring the character back. They needn't have bothered.

20th Century Fox Films

32

Blowing the ‘Dark Phoenix’ Storyline

The saga of Jean Grey and her transformation into the Dark Phoenix is one of the most, if not the most, significant story arcs in the long-running history of the X-Men — that it needed to be included in the films at some point was a given. Which is why the seriously short shrift the storyline gets in this third X-Men chapter — directed not by Bryan Singer, but by the guy who made the Rush Hour movies (see No. 29) — feels like such an epic missed opportunity. This powerful tale didn't deserve to be treated like just another piece in a movie that already felt like it was constructed on an assembly line. The disservice  made no one happy — least of all the X-fans.

Alan Markfield

31

‘Killing off’ Cyclops and Professor X

It's not that X-Men: The Last Stand is a bad movie (because in many ways, it's not); it's just fatally indifferent to so many foundations of the X-Men canon — including these two beloved characters. At least Xavier (Patrick Stewart) got a somewhat epic death scene; poor Cyclops is killed off-screen five minutes into the movie. (Yes, James Marsden was committed to Superman Returns, but there's this thing called recasting….) We've always heard that then-Fox CEO Tom Rothman wanted to kill the franchise with this film. Ultimately, he didn't (nor did he permanently off Professor X, per the post-credits sequence and Patrick Stewart's presence in the new X-Men: Days of Future Past), but it sure seems like he tried his hardest to put a stake through its heart.

Iron Man 2

Paramount Pictures

30

Turning ‘Iron Man 2’ Into a Coming-Soon Commercial

The first Iron Man was sleek, effective and remarkably well cast (see No. 1). Its sequel, on the other hand, felt like little more than a hodgepodge of superhero-film conventions, and gave the impression of a project made by committee. Part of the problem was that Marvel hadn't figured out how to effectively weave its Marelverse together yet, so huge chunks of Iron Man 2 came across as sneak previews for other movies. (Here's Cap's shield! Here's Black Widow for no apparent reason!) It would take another film or two before Marvel Studios got its M.O. down.

X-MEN: THE LAST STAND

Century Fox Film Corp

29

Replacing Bryan Singer With Brett Ratner on ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’

One more jab at The Last Stand and then we'll leave it alone. When Singer went off to revive/reboot the Superman franchise, Fox hired "The Rat" (as fanboys call him) to make their release date for a third X-Men movie. Ratner knows how to shoot a movie, though you could argue that almost everything he does lacks any kind of real heart or substance. That's why this follow-up to two stellar superhero films feels so rushed and inconsequential — even when it's killing no less than three major characters!

Mary Evans/Marvel Enterprises/New Regency Pictures/Ronald Grant/Everett Collectiom

28

Putting the ‘Daredevil’ Mask on Ben Affleck

 Affleck actually isn't that bad as the Man Without Fear (though the actor himself has taken to trashing his performance and the film in recent interviews), but everything from the script to the ridiculous actions scenes in Mark Steven Johnson's 2003 misfire does nothing to support him. (One imagines that everything swirling around him off the set — including his tabloid-fodder relationship with Jennifer Lopez and a string of other high-profile flops — proved quite a distraction as well). There's a longer director's cut of Daredevil that works better, but the movie will never be able to escape the context of its release. It's best seen as a cautionary tale, though clearly it did not put Affleck off from the notion of getting involved with high-profile superhero films.

Justin Lubin/ABC

27

Ignoring ‘Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’

Marvel's first major foray into network TV since The Incredible Hulk has been a bit of a disappointment, but the show is supposed to co-exist with and expand upon the movies — which have treated it like that odd cousin that no one really wants to acknowledge at family dinners. A cameo or two from Samuel L. Jackson doesn't cut it; perhaps Agent Coulson and most of his crew could show up in a future film instead. Either way, "big" Marvel could give a helping hand to its small-screen offspring, especially with an Agent Carter series coming to ABC and four additional spin-offs on the way from Netflix.

Rhythm & Hues

26

Letting Ang Lee Make an Art-House ‘Hulk’

Marvel Studios proper has been known for its offbeat directing choices, but this early experiment with acclaimed director Ang Lee (Life of Pi) didn't pass muster. Lee actually tried to make his Hulk film look like a comic book, with the screen breaking into panels, psychedelic flourishes of color and so on. But in the end, just making a comic-book movie resemble the source material wasn't enough; neither, for that matter, was trying to turn a Hulk origin story into a psychological character study. Add in some wildly inconsistent performances from Eric Bana and Nick Nolte, and you get a movie that, while laudable in some ways, was far from incredible.

Niko Tavernise

25

Approving the Script for ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’

The sequel to the 2012 Spider-Man reboot suffers from the same problem as so many superhero films: too many villains and not enough good writing. With a few tweaks, you could have taken Electro (Jamie Foxx) out of the movie with little or no consequences — a major problem when you're talking about your primary bad guy. And let's not even talk about introducing Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) in the second act and turning him into the Green Goblin 20 minutes later. Essentially, any part of the film that isn't just Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone trading screwball banter (see No. 24) is D.O.A. All this courtesy of screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the same gents who sent fanboys into a tizzy with Star Trek Into Darkness.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

24

Rebooting the Spider-Man Franchise

There are definitely pros and cons to this choice: Andrew Garfield has been strong in the role, and he and Emma Stone have had solid chemistry in their two films together. There are also some individual sequences in both Amazing Spider-Man entries that really shine (the you-are-there webslinging scenes around New York; Spidey saving Time Square tourists from Electro's singular brand of shock treatment in Amazing Spider-Man 2). But retelling his origin story was a poor choice, the handling of the villains have been lackluster at best and trying to build out a whole new universe (with four films coming in the next five or six years, including a possible Sinister Six spin-off) seems like a real stretch. We're not sure this is headed in a good direction.

The Amazing Spider-Man

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for MTV

23

Giving the Fantastic Four Yet Another Chance

The third iteration of the Fantastic Four story, which is now filming, has a lot going for it: an interesting director (Josh Trank, writer-director of the clever teen-superpowers film Chronicle), some strong casting (Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, Miles Teller as Mr. Fantastic, Toby Kebbell as Doctor Doom) and a fresh approach. But the question remains: Will the approach be too fresh? The film's origin story will be based more on the Ultimate Fantastic Four series, a point of controversy for fans. And can a story about a stretchy guy, a man made out of rock, a kid who turns into fire and an invisible woman be told in a "grounded, gritty way" as the producers have hinted?

Alan Markfield

22

Hiring Top-Shelf Actors for Key Roles

Although various Marvel-based productions can sometimes skew towards being effects-heavy thrill rides (and Marvel Studios itself is known for frugality), the movies have attracted a shining roster of talent that only expands with each new entry. Did you ever think you'd say the words "Robert Redford" and Captain America in the same sentence? Bringing the likes of Redford, Ian McKellen (X-Men), Edward Norton (The Incredible Hulk), Anthony Hopkins (Thor) and Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3) into the Marvel realm has elevated the productions and made the industry take them much more seriously.

Guardians of the Galaxy

Marvel 2014

21

Taking a Big Risk With ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

The bedrock of Marvel Studios are established crowd-pleasers like The Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America. But rather than merely churn out sequels, the studio is also moving forward with riskier material. Even a lot of diehard fans had to refresh their memories about the obscure Guardians of the Galaxy, and the general public is not exactly beating down the door for an Ant-Man movie. But this proves that the compnay is not resting on its laurels, or relying on nothing but its cash cows. Potential films like Doctor Strange, Black Panther and Captain Marvel may push the studio even further outside its comfort zone — a good place to go if it wants to stay fresh.

Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

20

Having Lou Ferrigno Voice the Hulk in ‘The Avengers’

That may be Mark Ruffalo playing Bruce Banner and doing the motion capture for his alter ego in The Avengers, but the voice of the big green guy is delivered by the man who played him first. Ferrigno's portrayal of the Hulk for five seasons on CBS back in the late Seventies and early Eighties is still beloved by many, and it's a nice nod to his contributions — and to the character's history — to get Ferrigno involved in the current films as well. He's a smash.

Iron Man 3

Film Frame

19

The Mandarin Twist in ‘Iron Man 3’

Not only was it one of the best-kept secrets of the year — not easy in an age of spoiler-hungry fanboy websites — but the revelation that the film's super-villain Ben Kingsley's Mandarin was not a master terrorist but [stop reading now if you want to avoid a spoiler] a drug-addled, unemployable British actor named Trevor Slattery was a genuinely jolting and delightful surprise in writer-director Shane Black's clever contribution to the series. Some fans were disgruntled that they didn't get the "real" Mandarin — he is, after all, Iron Man's greatest enemy in the comics — but it arguably made for a better movie.

X-MEN, FIRST CLASS, Lucas Till,

20th Century Fox Film

18

Rebooting the X-Men Franchose With ‘First Class’

After the twin disappointments of The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the franchise was at a tipping point. A prequel chronicling the early years of Magneto, Professor Xavier and the young X-Men didn't sound very appealing at first, but director Matthew Vaughn surprised everyone with a funny, sexy and thoroughly satisfying reboot — helped immensely by terrific central performances from Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as the professor. X-Men: Days of Future Past looks set to build on that foundation, and hopefully, puts the mutants squarely back on track.

Niko Tavernise

17

Casting Actors With Screen Chemistry

Marvel films were shaky on this at first — Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst? — but things have markedly improved in the last few years. We already mentioned how well Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone work (see No. 24), but watch how Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow generate sparks in the Iron Man movies, and the relationship between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in The Winter Soldier — they grow to care for each other without sex ever entering the equation — wouldn't work half as well without those particular actors. It may seem like a little detail amongst the sturm und drang of a superhero movie, but in terms of humanizing these Marvel films and making us care about the characters, the chemistry makes a huge difference.

The Avengers

Film Frame

16

Making the Hulk a Team Player

Neither of the two standalone movies starring Marvel's favorite super-monster —Hulk, starring Eric Bana, and The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton — was a satisfying experience. But while writing The Avengers, Joss Whedon realized that the not-so-jolly green giant worked much better as part of an ensemble — the character generated a lot more tension when you thought he could turn on his friends as well as his enemies. There are rumors about a new solo Hulk film to follow the next Avengers installment, but we kind of like him right where he is.

Blade

New Line Cinema/courtesy Everett Collection

15

Making ‘Blade’

The modern age of superhero movies really took off in 2000, when X-Men came out of nowhere and proved Marvel could be every bit a big-screen player as its rival, D.C. Comics. But the groundwork had been laid two years earlier with this action/horror hybrid, starring Wesley Snipes as a half-vampire/half-human who hunts down other bloodsuckers. It was the first Marvel-based movie since Howard the Duck to actually get a wide release; more importantly, it was also a hit, generating $70 million at the U.S. box office alone and proving that a well-made movie based on a Marvel comic book property could get butts in seats. Blade paved the way for the deluge that followed.

THOR: THE DARK WORLD

Jay Maidment/©Walt Disney Studio

14

Embracing the Mythical Nuttiness of ‘Thor’

After the huge success of The Dark Knight, studios suddenly wanted all their superhero movies to be dark, gritty and realistic. But how do you do that with a tale of superior beings who live on a different plane of reality and are inspired by the legends of the Norse gods? Answer: You don't. Rather than try and hide the wilder (or sillier, if you prefer) aspects of the Thor comics, Marvel Studios embraced them fully. Frost Giants, Asgard, the Rainbow Bridge, the Nine Realms — they're all present and accounted for, in eye-popping living color. The two movies haven't been great, but they've never tried to hide the garish, far-out fantasies that they are.