The Top 10 Moments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 26: A general view of Marvel Studios' Avengers: Infinity War Screening at The Fox Theatre on April 26, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for Avengers: Infinity War)

Last week saw the release of Captain Marvel which exceeded expectations by lightyears and brought in a shocking $153 million dollars opening weekend. Captain Marvel is the 21st film in this massive saga that began 11 years ago with Iron Man. But the secret to this franchise’s longevity has never been about the special effects or the whiz-bang action, it has always been about the stories, the characters, and most importantly, the moments they share.

With that in mind, here is my list of the greatest moments, scenes, and interactions in a series overflowing with all of the above.

*WARNING!!! There be SPOILERS ahead!!!*

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Top Ten Moments

10. Killmonger usurps the throne. – Black Panther

Black Panther was more than just a fun time at the movies, it was an exhilarating, epic, and rewarding experience, as well as a tidal wave of a cultural moment we’ve not seen in a superhero movie since The Dark Knight consumed the planet’s attention in ’08. There’s a palpable sense of regal, almost Shakespearean importance throughout Black Panther that sets it apart from all other Marvel movies except maybe the first Thor.

And at the heart of all this conflict is the breakout character of the picture, Erik Killmonger played by Michael B Jordan. The son of royalty with a hell of a chip on his shoulder, Killmonger, accuses King T’Challa of ignoring his responsibilities to his brothers and sisters across the globe, and challenges him to a life-or-death battle for the throne. 

Buoyed by the tragic King’s leitmotif by Ludwig Göransson and excellent fight choreography, the battle atop the waterfall is a rough fight between a character we’ve grown to love and a villain we sort of agree with. And Black Panther’s defeat is just about as crushing a defeat as a character can sustain …or so we thought.

9. Vision has a bad day twice. – Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War was a devastating ride. From the opening frames, I knew we were in for a relentlessly bleak time, and boy did Marvel exceed my expectations.

The final conflict of this almost three-hour exercise in loss takes place on the fields of Wakanda, where Captain America and company try to bide some time so Shuri can remove the Mind Stone from Vision’s forehead before Thanos arrives. Honestly, if you aren’t keeping up with these movies, you’re going to be completely lost.

Unfortunately, time runs out and it is up to Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlett Witch, to use her abilities to remove the stone from her boyfriend’s head, killing him. 

It’s a rough scene to watch, even if you don’t give a darn about their relationship, and just as Thanos arrives to take the stone, Wanda destroys it, and Vision in the process. What Wanda doesn’t know is that Thanos has just received the Time Stone, which he uses to turn back time, bringing Vision back to life before tearing him to pieces.

The anguish in the theaters was rife and the pain is in every frame. We’ve already watched multiple characters kill or attempt to kill their loved ones to save the day, but the brutality, inevitability, and helplessness that comes with this scene is too heavy to be ignored.

And the rest of it is equally brutal.

8. “You don’t deserve that shield.” – Captain America: Civil War

I swear these aren’t going to all be super downers from Downsville.

When people think of Captain America: Civil War, they probably think of that wonderful bit of fan wish fulfillment at the airport. That fight is definitely the fun of the movie, but the final conflict, the titular Civil War between Cap and Iron Man, that’s the meat and potatoes.

Having learned that Bucky Barnes (aka The Winter Soldier) was the assassin who killed Tony Stark’s parents, Iron Man seeks revenge. Between them is Captain America, who stands up for his friend, even at the cost of losing another.

At this point, we’ve come to love these characters (and tolerate Bucky), and watching these two titans of righteousness share blows is an agonizing experience. Like the Waterfall Fight in Back Panther, we understand both sides and their motivations. Unlike Black Panther, this is not the fall before the rise, but the fall before the end of the movie, which shows Captain America turning his back on Iron Man and even abandoning his symbol of patriotism, The Shield, which was made for him by Tony Stark’s own father.

As I said before, it’s a real downer, but you just can’t beat a bloody Steve Rogers putting up his fists and stating “I can do this all day”, a cheeky callback to his first movie. As I said before, the MCU is all about characters and interconnectivity, and this little character interaction is a perfect reminder of who Steve Rogers is and why we fell in love with him in the first place.

7. The Mandarin Reveal. – Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 gets a lot of guff and I can understand that to some extent. The script is flippant and some of the characters are stupid beyond belief, but one area I will absolutely defend until I die was the treatment of The Mandarin.

Iron Man 3 finds Tony in his most precarious position yet. He’s suffering massive PTSD from the Battle in New York, he’s away from Pepper, his suit isn’t working, AND on top of that, he’s being pursued by a Bin Laden-esque figure known cryptically as ‘The Mandarin.’

Using his intellect and proving that he’s more than just a hunk of metal, Stark creates Christmas gadgets (trust me, it makes sense), and infiltrates the Mandarin’s base with the intention to kill the terrorist mastermind, only to discover that he’s nothing of the sort.

Instead of the villain to end all villains, we’re greeted with a drug-addled buffoon with a passion for soccer. It’s a twist so ingenious, so well-conceived and hidden by the marketing, that even Iron Man and War Machine can’t believe it. And that’s why it is great.

Instead of a racist caricature, Shane Black and company argue that a vague middle-eastern threat isn’t as serious as the military industrial complex that props them up and benefits from the war. Its a message that is unexpected and perfect for someone like Iron Man to do battle with. And yet, I imagine its the main reason IM3 isn’t well-regarded amongst the fans.

When people talk about “not liking” this scene in the movie, I think what most of them mean is “I don’t like the twist because I wanted a badass villain.” To which, I say the fault lies with Aldrich Killian, played by Guy Pearce. Had Pearce revealed himself to be a massive threat, I suspect no one would have a problem with this scene. Unfortunately, Ben Kingsley is so phenomenally good in both roles, that he far outstripped his competition.

Iron Man 3 is a movie I find myself revisiting more often and every time I do, it creeps up my list.

Besides, what did you want? This?

6. “I’m a monster parents tell their children about at night.” – Thor

At the beginning of the Marvel experiment, most moviegoers knew very little about superheroes who weren’t Batman, Spider-man, or Wolverine. So it seemed almost ludicrous that Marvel intended to go toe-to-toe with giants by bringing together a bunch of heroes nobody had heard of.

Indeed, when Marvel started the MCU, they didn’t have the rights to Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, or The Fantastic Four. Those were all sold off to other studios years prior to stave off bankruptcy. That’s right, the biggest franchise on the planet was cobbled together from characters they literally couldn’t sell.

Most audience members had never heard of Thor: God of Thunder, or Loki: God of Mischief. I doubt they could even pronounce ‘Mjolnir’. But ten years later, everyone knows. And everything you like about Loki, everything you like about Tom Hiddleston, it all starts here, with Thor.

Odin’s son, Loki discovers that he is not Asgardian but the orphan child of a Frost Giant, taken in and raised by strangers and taught to hate that which he is. Directed by Kenneth Freakin’ Branagh, the scene we got is so gripping, and intensely, unexpectedly personal, it single-handedly paved the way for Loki’s success for the rest of the MCU.

Loki will always be known as a trickster, but what drew audiences to him in the first film was his complexity as a character. He’s a loyal son, the brains of the family, who never got what he deserved, and now he knows why. It is a heartbreaking scene in a genre not exactly known for providing those. Also, understanding Loki so well gave him room to swim in the River of Ham in The Avengers. And we can all be grateful for that.

Top 5 time, guys!

5. Tony Learns to Fly. – Iron Man

Everyone wants to fly. Pure and simple.

I truly believe that was part of Iron Man’s success in 08. The film of that summer was and still is The Dark Knight, but what caught people’s attention was the joy that Robert Downey Jr brought to the role. Who among us, if given the chance, wouldn’t choose to be a genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist who has all the resources available to craft their own suit that allows them to fly and look stylish doing it? I thought so.

Also, he has robot buddies! Top that!

Meeting Tony Stark for the first time was like meeting a new friend. And it wasn’t just his cool lifestyle or his quippy, off-the-cuff banter, but the sense that he could make the world a better place that attracted audiences. We felt we knew him and we wanted him to change, and then we got to see that happen. Iron Man is, above all else, a satisfying film, because it knows not just what we would do in his position, but what we would want to do.

The MCU’s origins had humble beginnings but the giddiness you feel watching him learn to fly is palpable. It is a challenge to intellectualize something so primal. Iron Man tapped into something deep within us. It took innovation, inspiration, and delight, captured it on celluloid, and injected it right into our veins. And we were hooked.

Batman can glide. Iron Man can soar.

4. “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain.” – Doctor Strange

That’s right! A Doctor Strange clip is in my Top 5! And you know what? I’m tired of having to justify my love of Doctor Strange. This movie rules. The cast is great. The score is awesome! The powers are cool. The visuals are neat. He’s got a sweet look! I love it.

But I digress.

Doctor Strange brought magic to the MCU. We’re no longer trying to justify magic as science like in Thor. Nope, we’re onto full-on magic, baby! And that opens a lot of doors with a lot of possibilities.

The fight in the New York Sanctum involving portals, the gravity-defying chase through Manhattan, the astral projection hospital fight scene, or the Ancient One’s passing during a thunderstorm are all standouts. But Marvel movie’s need to stick the landing and my God does this film stick the landing.

After defeating an army of minions (in reverse, no less), Strange must confront Dormammu, a massive, ethereal being intent on consuming our planet. However, Doctor Strange has a trick up his sleeve, literally. Using the time stone, he creates a loop in time and space. He bargains for earth’s protection using the only chip he has in his possession, Dormammu’s freedom. Every time Dormammu kills Strange, time loops and we’re back to where we started, making it one miserable Groundhog Day, but as the Doctor says, “pain’s an old friend.”

Doctor Strange gets dinged for being “Iron Man goes to Hogwarts” (credit Moviebob) and that’s fair, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t great. There is immense satisfaction watching Doctor Strange grows from an egotistical doctor to a Master of the Mystic Arts humbled by responsibility, ready to lay down his life repeatedly for mankind. The MCU has repeatedly shown stories about seemingly ordinary people stepping up to shoulder the responsibility of the planet, and that’s exactly what we get here.

There is a lot to enjoy about this scene. But most notable is that this is a climax where nobody throws a punch. Instead, Strange outsmarts the villain using the tools he’s spent the movie learning. And that’s pretty darn cool.

3. The Star Spangled Man. – Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain America is the secret weapon of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He is the stout heart that ties the entire series together. As goes Captain America, so goes the world.

The living embodiment of all that is right, he’s more ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way’ than Superman! And for years, nobody knew what to do with him. He’s always right. Always polite. He’s a boy scout! It wasn’t until they put him in a crowd that they realized Captain America’s true potential as a character; how can you do right when it is so much easier to toe the line?

While Captain America often shines as a moral beacon in a choppy sea, in his first film, he was just a kid from Brooklyn who didn’t like bullies. Given the Super Soldier Serum, Rodgers bulked up fast, but before he was able to take down Nazis, he was shunted aside and used as a mascot for the war effort, complete with a catchy tune.

This sequence ROCKS. This sequence RULES. This sequence is UTTER PERFECTION.

There’s nothing in any other Marvel movie half as tonally adventurous as this sequence in Captain America: The First Avenger. Just think for a second. How rare is it that we see superheroes do anything that isn’t Avenging? And how often is it engaging? Directed by Joe Johnston, of the equally brilliant The Rocketeer, and portrayed to perfection by Chris Evans, this musical montage simultaneously shows everything Rogers was, is, is in danger of becoming, could be, and is to the people.

Starting as a humble young man with notes taped to the back of his shield in a small theater somewhere, Rogers begins his military career as a shill to motivate the populous. That “aw shucks” quality has always been Steve Rogers secret skill, and as the song progresses, we watch him begin to lose himself, swallowed whole by the literal anthem that follows him from city to city.

It’s a classic beat of any story. The rise before the fall. The seduction of fame. But never has it been done so well and I challenge you to not have a grin on your face as Cap punches out a Hitler impersonator to the cheers of children, even if it is false pride.

It even contains tongue-in-cheek references to Cap’s original suit with tiny feather ears and his comic book origins as wartime propaganda!

At first, this sequence was a stand-out moment in phase one. But now it reveals itself to be a stand-out moment in the entire series. With every new film, we stray further from this film’s light. I can only hope storytellers will have the courage and conviction to try something this audacious and this right in the future but I doubt we’ll ever see anything this stylish ever again.

I understand if it is not your jam, but it is mine, and I like it spread to the edges.

2. The Battle of New York. – The Avengers

This scene is everything. Everything this crazy Marvel experiment had been building towards. Is there a world in which a man in a metal suit, a Viking god, a WWII vet, and a giant green monster can co-exist? We weren’t sure it could be done. Now everyone wants what Marvel has.

As illustrated in Moviebob’s comprehensive video, the secret to The Avengers’ success is that it is not about whether or not they will defeat Loki, but rather if they can make a good movie at all. The answer, in my opinion anyway, is a resounding YES. And nowhere is that more prevalent than the massive climax that is The Battle of New York.

Whereas with the other films on the list, I had to explain the machinations of the plot, some of which sound really silly when I read them out loud, here, the story is extremely simple. Loki brings aliens to invade New York. The Avengers put aside their differences and work together to contain the fight. And the rest is glory.

What Joss Whedon understood better than any other director to ever helm a Marvel Movie, is the power and beauty in a Splash Page. Poses are not enough. They’re fine, for a page. But for the big moments, you need something that spills over into the next page. A Splash Page. But how do you do that when the limits of the frame are already set? You do what Joss Whedon does. You move the camera from one moment to the next.

The proceeding fight is almost too big to be described, and yet we know it will only get bigger in future movies. From Thor turning the Chrysler Building into a lightning rod, to Black Widow flying the Chitauri ships, to Hawkeye firing headshots without looking, to Captain America earning the trust of the NYPD, to Iron Man literally flying through one of those floating worm monsters to blow it up from the inside, to Hulk smashing Loki, every single frame is a painting Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and a million other artists over the years wouldn’t even dream of seeing. It is a wonder to behold.

The entire sequence is effectively a 30-minute end zone dance to themselves.

But what I want to highlight most importantly is ‘the shot.’ This shot, this circling shot, as the Avengers assemble for the first time, and Alan Silvestri’s score swells, is Dorothy walking out of monochrome and into the technicolor of Munchkinland. It is Trinity freezing mid kick. It is the shot that changed everything.

1. Vision Lifts the Hammer. – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Yes. My number 1 pick is a controversial one indeed.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a big, sloppy mess which is equal parts too complicated and too simple for its own good. The conflicts behind the camera between Joss Whedon and Marvel are well documented, with Whedon feeling constrained and limited while also feeling dragged into unnecessary plots at Marvel’s command.

That conflict certainly made its way to the screen because the film itself is choppy, cluttered, and bulging at the seams. The result is a film that left a lot of people disappointed and spurned Whedon away from the Avengers films permanently.

And that’s a shame because there is amazing stuff here. And I’m not just talking about the scene on Hawkeye’s ranch, although I am a defender of that! Steve’s nightmares about Peggy and the War are wonderful. The score is great. The costumes are the best the series ever had. The villain’s plan to turn a small European town into a comet is so comic-booky, it is insane! But most importantly, Whedon understood how to make superheroes feel like people and people feel super.

A chief example of this is this scene in which the Avengers chill after a party and try to lift Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir; a hammer forged in a dying star that can only be lifted by ‘the worthy.’ While this scene is amusing, it is actually a clever setup that pays off two hours later, when Tony Stark creates Vision, a robot powered by the Mind Stone, to help defeat an all-powerful robot named Ultron. However, the team is wary of Vision since the last time he created AI, it put them in this pickle. Vision explains that he doesn’t want to kill Ultron but they have no choice. They have no time. They have to move.

And with that, he lifts Mjolnir and hands it to Thor.

Film is a medium of show, don’t tell. And that has rarely been better illustrated than here. What we are witnessing is a Marvel specific affirmation of the hero. No other franchise can accomplish this because they haven’t put in the legwork. It’s that same legwork that allows us to grieve with Thor when he loses Mjolnir in Ragnarok and cheer when he earns Stormbreaker in Infinity War.

At this point, Marvel was so powerful, they could turn props into characters because they are capable of imbibing meaning and emotional weight and purpose into their props. Iron Man has his arc reactor. Captain America has his shield. Doctor Strange has his cloak. Peter Quill has his tape. All loaded with character, all packed with meaning. Thor’s hammer is no exception.

People can hate on the movie all they want, but I can’t deny the beauty of that moment, which shocked my audience into silence. It is a brilliant moment of storytelling. With a single gesture, he confirmed everything we needed to know and earned our trust.

It’s so simple, it looks effortless.

That’s the power of Marvel.

Main Image Credit:
Embed from Getty Images

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