The perpetual box office dominance of the Marvel Cinematic Universe means that superhero comic book movies haven’t quite run out of steam, even if they’ve felt a bit like they’re spinning their wheels since the end of Avengers: Endgame. Right now, the new Spider-Man movie is dominating the box office. This dominance is reflective of a longer trend that some critics and fans of cinema find unnerving—while there is undoubtedly room in some of our hearts for four-quadrant films with computer-generated backdrops alongside surrealist thrillers and period dramas, there’s less and less room in the movie theaters. Fewer options means less diversity of perspective, fewer new ideas, fewer types of verbal and visual rhetoric. It means stagnation in art as corporate consolidation creates the market circumstances for a self-fulfilling prophecy of what sells. Disney is the market’s visible hand, pushing their key franchise to the exclusion of mid-budget films and even other spectacles geared toward broad audiences.
Yet the Marvel films are not creatively bereft, and they have done some impressive things beyond the box office. Tying together a continuity of more than 20 live-action films is unprecedented. While the MCU often lacks specific directorial vision from film to film, producer Kevin Feige’s vision overarches across them. And, while they frequently undercut their drama with humor and are always encouraging their audience to look toward the next release instead of the release they’re watching, they nonetheless emotionally activate their audiences through the charisma of the actors.
However, it’s more than okay to want a more challenging or enriching experience from film, and it’s just fine if your path toward that experience runs through the gateway of the MCU. I came away from Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings thinking that the greatest value of the MCU to its audiences is in introducing them to talent (in front and behind the camera) and themes they might not otherwise be exposed to. It is a place where interesting directors and actors, even if limited by genre parameters in what they can do, are able to work together, showcasing their talents and influences, in some cases forging bonds that lead to external projects. Even if you only go to the theater to see blockbusters, you might be exposed to artists and creatives whose work you pursue on one of the myriad streaming services. And it isn’t just the talent in front of or behind the camera, but also the ideas throughout a film that resonate and cause you to seek things like it. Sometimes those structures and themes are what’s most appealing and lasting for a film.
So, for those that enjoy the MCU or those seeking alternatives, I’ve collected a recommendation corresponding to every MCU movie. Some will be obvious, some less so. Regardless, they will be connected in some way that will make you a better moviegoer and, hopefully, be fun for you to watch—whether you liked their MCU equivalent or not.
Here are the movies to watch if you like the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
Fans and critics of the superhero film phenomenon are always looking for its roots—comic book movies, after all, have been coming out for a long time. The MCU was preceded by Sony’s Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Fox’s Bryan Singer X-Men movies, and Universal’s Ang Lee Hulk. Before them was Blade; before Blade was The Crow and Judge Dredd. Similar to Judge Dredd’s themes was the earlier non-comicky RoboCop, Paul Verhoeven’s cyberpunk/steelpunk action film. Written by Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the film satirizes the depraved failures of Reaganite political philosophy as well as the pervasiveness of 1980s action films celebrating authority and violence. Like Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Peter Weller’s Alex Murphy is set up by people he trusts and left to die in what seems like a tragic accident. While Stark creates his own salvation by building the Iron Man suit, Murphy is turned into a cyborg while he’s on the brink of death. Just as Stark learns the Ten Rings are funded and equipped by Jeff Bridges’ Iron Monger, RoboCop learns that the company that built him (Omni Consumer Products) has a partnership with the gang that tried to kill Murphy. And just as Iron Man started a massive multimedia franchise, RoboCop started a massive multimedia franchise, with two sequels made in 1990 and 1993, a remake in 2014, two live-action TV series, two animated series, eight videogames (with a ninth coming out in 2023), and numerous comics and novels. RoboCop started as a commentary on violence and the American dream and evolved into a cyberpunk superhero franchise. Iron Man might not be cyberpunk, but Iron Man is a warring superhero—and Tony Stark is both a man and a machine.
The Incredible HulkWe Recommend: City of God
One of the things I like most about The Incredible Hulk is that it could ostensibly be a standalone sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk, which ended with Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) hiding in the Amazon rainforest, helping Indigenous people and refugees receive medical care. By the time of The Incredible Hulk, Banner has migrated into urban Rio de Janeiro (and transformed into Edward Norton), where he works at a soda bottling plant. For my tastes, the film doesn’t spend enough time in this wonderful locale. You know a film that does? City of God, the legendary Brazilian crime film that serves as a coming-of-age story and shines a light on favela life while examining race, class and gender as intersecting factors of Brazilian life. Written by Braulio Mantovani, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, and based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins named for the hard-knock suburb Cidade de Deus, City of God is a must-see for anyone with an interest in the cinematic depiction of Brazil by Brazilians.
Iron Man 2We Recommend: Seven Psychopaths
Iron Man 2 began the ongoing Marvel trend of making a movie with a forgettable plot that mainly exists to connect the stories around it, and the less tedious but equally persistent trend of filling the MCU with antagonists that have personal grudges against Tony Stark. One of his adversaries in this film is Justin Hammer, portrayed by Sam Rockwell, who at the time was coming off of critical darling Moon and would go on to portray George W. Bush in Vice, among other performances. In Seven Psychopaths, Rockwell brings all the energy and gusto he can muster to portraying dog-kidnapper Billy, best friend of Colin Farrell’s aspiring screenwriter, Marty, in Martin McDonagh’s second black comedy crime film. The plot gets rolling when Billy and his partner Hans (Christopher Walken) steal the dog of local mob boss Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), bringing trouble to them and their loved ones. This culminates in a showdown but, as in McDonagh’s In Bruges, the competency of the characters committing violence isn’t intended to make them look cool. It’s a story about storytelling that centers a writer, not a totally novel concept, but he’s thrust into madness through friendship as opposed to coincidence. It’s topped with dramatic allusions to 20th century U.S. race relations, the war in Vietnam and the interpretation of dreams. It’s a very funny film that’s dark and thoughtful. Next time you’re rewatching the MCU, just skip Iron Man 2 and watch this instead.
ThorWe Recommend: Hamlet
Thor is directed by Sir Kenneth Branagh, who’s won three BAFTAs and two Emmys, and has been nominated for five Oscars. One of those Oscar noms came from the screenplay he wrote for his 1996 adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first unabridged film adaptation of the play, the film runs over four hours long and stars Branagh in the title role. For those unfamiliar, Hamlet is the story of a man who believes his uncle to have killed his father. His uncle marries his mother, and the ghost of his father visits him to confirm his suspicion. An interesting matter of interpretation is over whether the ghost literally exists or is a figment of a mad prince’s imagination. It’s a story that inspired The Lion King, Sons of Anarchy, and dozens of more and less direct interpretations. The key stylistic choice distinguishing Branagh’s take is the costume style from Costume Designer Alexandra Byrne and set design from Production Designer Tim Harvey and Art Director Desmond Crowe, who drew from 19th century Russia. Besides sharing a director, Hamlet and Thor share themes about the weight of a crown—the difficulties of leading, the secrets a ruler keeps, the compromises one makes with their principles in the service to some greater good. It’s also about an heir that acts rashly in a time of crisis and struggles with growing into his role. If you liked Thor, you might love Hamlet.
Captain America: The First AvengerWe Recommend: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
While Saving Private Ryan or The Dirty Dozen might be more obvious choices, you’re less likely to have seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a film set in a technologically advanced 1939 and one of the first to be shot entirely on a digital backlot (something Marvel films have a reputation for, though they still do some on-location shooting). The film always reminded me of the videogame Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge because the protagonist, played by Jude Law, is the titular “Sky Captain,” Joe Sullivan, swashbuckling leader of a private air force, but it makes the list here because he and his allies fight giant robots controlled by a German scientist (portrayed posthumously by Lawrence Olivier through reconstructed footage). Avengers actress Gwyneth Paltrow plays Polly Perkins, a journalist romantically linked with Sullivan that is investigating missing scientists when the robots attack New York City and kick the plot into swing. Over the course of the film, Perkins and Sullivan work with the commander of the Royal Navy’s flying aircraft carrier (sort of an old-timey S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier), Francesca “Franky” Cook (Angelina Jolie, now of Eternals). While the connection to Captain America is chiefly through them both being WWII-era films with advanced technology, the reason this movie is worth watching is because of the striking visual style enabled by the use of CG effects. Like much of the MCU, it feels almost like a blend between animation and live-action, but the characters fit in more than stick out. It reminds me of the full-motion video days of videogame cutscenes (like Command & Conquer) but stylized to simultaneously harken to the adventure novels and serials of the early 20th century while invoking the interwar period of the retro-futuristic dieselpunk sci-fi subgenre.
The AvengersWe Recommend: Independence Day
Independence Day is a film about a global alien invasion starring a quippy action hero (Will Smith) that ends up on an improvised team, and that hero has to go into the belly of the beast to stop the invasion. Independence Day is one of Roland Emmerich’s most iconic movies, influential as a large-scale disaster film and part of the mid-to-late ‘90s sci-fi resurgence that included The Fifth Element, The Matrix and the more visually aligned Michael Bay film, Armageddon. The devastation that made the film so visually stimulating set a tone that Avengers emulates, though whether it recaptures it is up for debate. But, unlike Avengers we don’t have any emotional attachment to any of the villains, or any expectation of sequels because of decades of comic book lore. What we do have is explosions, a trip to Area 51, and an ensemble cast that includes Bill Pullman, Mary McDonnell, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Randy Quaid, Vivica A. Fox, James Rebhorn, and Harry Connick Jr. If you like alien invasion films and modern blockbusters and you’d like to see where some of the seeds were sown, Independence Day is a great place to start.
Iron Man 3We Recommend: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has the same writer and director (Shane Black) as well as the same lead actor (Robert Downey Jr.) as Iron Man 3 and is similarly set around the winter holidays. Downey stars as burglar Harry Lockhart across from Val Kilmer—who was once Batman, if you need a superhero connection—in this black comedy crime film that also served as Black’s directorial debut. Lockhart gets flown to L.A. for a screen test after narrowly escaping arrest, and gets paired up by a producer with private investigator Perry van Shrike (Kilmer). The two of them get pulled into a murder investigation while Harry reconnects with his childhood best friend, aspiring actress Harmony Faith Lane (Michelle Monaghan). The film plays on the tropes of hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir; it’s a straightforward comedy while also managing to be a competent and engaging detective story. It’s sharp, engaging and easy to follow, and if you enjoyed Downey as Tony Stark, imagine a dumber, more regressive version of those performances. Harry may aspire to be a decent guy and he’s definitely witty, but he’s neither saint nor angel. At the same time, he’s not some hyper-competent arch-criminal. He’s frequently dumb and occasionally buffoonish, in ways that feel authentic and understandable. His pairing with Perry and his relationship with Harmony make for a lot of fun encounters, and these relationships blend well with the plants-and-payoffs of the plot.
Thor: The Dark WorldWe Recommend: Rush
Thor: The Dark World is seldom included in the top tier of Marvel films, but the same year it came out, Chris Hemsworth starred alongside future MCU villain Daniel Bruhl in Rush, a biographical sports film about the Formula One racing rivalry between British James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Austrian Niki Lauda (Bruhl). It’s just over two hours long but never slogs. It’s a movie about racing and it likes to go fast. However, it’s also a film about people’s lives, about struggling with and overcoming tragedy, about resiliency and drama and what it takes to win. Granted, the off-the-track relationship between the two men is portrayed as angry and intense in the film, as opposed to their real-world friendship. All the same, it’s an emotionally impactful movie where you get to see cars flying down tracks, learn some of the intricacies of Formula One racing, and see Chris Hemsworth act like a reckless party boy. Rush was directed by Ron Howard, who has worked with Vision actor Paul Bettany on a number of occasions, including going on to direct him in Solo, a mixed-success from Disney’s other money-printer franchise.
Captain America: The Winter SoldierWe Recommend: Three Days of the Condor
Much like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Three Days of the Condor focuses on the uncovering of a deep state conspiracy. Much like William Hurt went from being the protagonist in 1984 to being the Big Brother-style character in V for Vendetta, Robert Redford went from being the CIA analyst that discovers the conspiracy in Three Days of the Condor to being its central orchestrator in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Like The Winter Soldier, Three Days of the Condor revolves around a cat-and-mouse game where a government employee must try to outwit and outrun corrupt bosses. Coming off of The Great Gatsby and preceding a historical work that highlighted a real-life conspiracy in All the President’s Men, Redford was at his peak. Like Cary Grant in North by Northwest, he’s the accidental main character in a spy charade, a shell game of assassinations and unethical operations intended to uphold a status quo of U.S. hegemony. While the MCU has a great many films that receive Defense Department assistance, some of those films also include themes that vaguely question authority. The Winter Soldier is one such film, which the Pentagon approved of in part because S.H.I.E.L.D.—which they didn’t like in Avengers because of its vague, extragovernmental nature—is compromised within the film; it is fallible because it has been breached by sinister actors. Three Days of the Condor is believed by some to unwittingly have served the same purpose, as its focus on rogue CIA elements might allow citizens following the then-contemporaneous Church Committee Hearings on CIA operations involving mind control experiments, blackmail, sabotage and attempted assassination of foreign leaders to be the results of a few bad actors, rather than institutional rot.
Guardians of the GalaxyWe Recommend: Blade Runner 2049
Blade Runner 2049 is the rare sequel that stands on its own merit, even as it references the original Blade Runner, Ridley Scott’s work which helped pioneer the cyberpunk visual aesthetic. 2049 stars Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford, with Jared Leto as the antagonist and Ana de Armas stealing the show, though the most memorable single moment for me is from Robin Wright. Blade Runner 2049 channeled familiar existential questions about memory and humanity that cyberpunk frequently evokes, and it also gave us the knowledge that Dave Bautista can act. The 52-year-old that officially retired from wrestling in 2019 after a five-year hiatus may not be the first person that comes to mind when you consider the wrestling-to-acting pipeline. What he calls to mind for me is the rare wrestler that doesn’t need to be the star, but can genuinely act. That’s incredible to me. Just think about transporting to 2005’s Royal Rumble and telling McMahon or some kid in the crowd that Bautista will one day be a character actor in sci-fi films. That his humility and attention to craft will make him a better actor than John Cena, whose sense of humor about himself will make him a better actor than The Rock. There have been a lot of bulky leading men in action movies. Some have tended to play the same character in every film regardless of what’s required. Bautista has texture, he has nuance. As Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy, he announced himself to the world as a major star because he was in a major film. As Sapper Morton, a replicant farmer who gets retired by a blade runner (cops with the specific duty of forcefully retiring replicants), he is able to convey so much grief, so much rage with a low-key tenor that wasn’t necessarily present for Drax. Bautista announced he could demonstrate a refined craft, invoking the ethical questions around replicants while Morton engages in a literal knockdown, drag-out fight for survival. The character—set up in the short film 2048: Nowhere to Run—catalyzes the plot while engaging the audience with spectacle and substance. If you found Drax compelling at all, you’ll love Morton (and maybe also see Bautista in Dune: Part One).
Avengers: Age of UltronWe Recommend: Ex Machina
One major theme of Age of Ultron, a motivating factor and consternation for the lead antagonist that also occurs to a late-addition ally, is the question of what makes life real. From the overtaking of Jarvis to the final fight with Vision, there is a persistent concern about what constitutes an individual soul. With Vision, this concern would continue to play out into Infinity War and WandaVision, and will likely play out in more Avengers stories to come. With Ultron, the story ends here. I’m not sure how I feel about Age of Ultron, though when I originally watched it I enjoyed it more than Avengers just because I was impressed that they were including characters like Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and especially Vision, invoking the Wonder Man-inspired costume in a universe where Wonder Man doesn’t exist, leaning all the way into the strangeness of superheroes and super-science. Ex Machina doesn’t have years of comic books to draw directly from; rather it draws from ideas about what can be drawn out of a machine—can a machine make life? Can a machine be alive? Where does consciousness begin and end? What makes a person? If a machine crosses the line into personhood, does it deserve rights? Can it be trusted? Written and directed by novelist/screenwriter Alex Garland (writer of 28 Days Later and Dredd, and more recently writer/director of Annihilation), Ex Machina was one of the best films of 2014. Shortly before they would star on opposite sides of Star Wars, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac respectively play programmer Caleb Smith and the CEO that invites him to his private compound to introduce him to Ava, an artificial intelligence in a robot body with a human face (Alicia Vikander). Ava’s ambitions are not quite as wide-ranging as those of Ultron, but it’s possible she shares with Ultron (and Vision and the Replicants and HAL 9000 and Agent Smith and C-3P0) the gift and burden of sentience in a world where she’s intended to be an object.
One thing the two Ant-Man films have in common that separates them from the rest of the late-stage MCU and endears them to me is that they rely less on crossover than a lot of the recent movies; they’re mostly standalone films. Still, a throughline between them and Endgame is the theme and structure of heist films. In Ant-Man, rehabilitated thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) gets pulled back into the criminal underworld shortly after he gets out of jail. He steals scientist/inventor Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) shrinking suit and helps Pym stop Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), shrinking supervillain and CEO of Advanced Idea Mechanics. Ant-Man is directed by the man that brought us Bring It On, Down with Love and Yes Man. Heat is directed by Michael Mann, a master of action thrillers that gave the world both the original Miami Vice TV show and its film adaptation, as well as The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral. Michael Mann’s films are often about tension and intimacy through action and dialogue, while frequent collaborator Danet Spinotti’s camera in Heat moves between opening on people in love to seeing the emotional space in the relationship represented by the physical space between them; from the calculated planning of heists to the visceral consequences when things go wrong. Heat stars an ensemble cast led by Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, but the character whose life trajectory is most similar to anyone’s in Ant-Man is Dennis Haysberth’s Don Breedan. While I personally feel the dialogue written for Breedan could have been just a little bit better, his arc—out of jail, attempting the straight and narrow and getting screwed over by his work-release restaurant job boss, leading to being roped-in last minute to the bank job—parallels that of Scott Lang in Ant-Man (as well as illustrating the post-incarceration effects of the judicial system, like Imperial Dreams). Heat is an incredibly entertaining and captivating film that’s great at laying out the stakes and helping an audience sit in the tension of its moments. It’s also known for an incredible gunfight sequence that inspired missions in multiple Grand Theft Auto games; fun as the interactive versions are, it’s worth experiencing the drama and tension of the original in context. If you’ve ever wanted to feel a film pull you into a heist, and make your heart thump as you worry about getting caught while you carried your assault rifle and huge bag of cash through Los Angeles city streets, Heat is the movie for you.
Captain America: Civil WarWe Recommend: Point Break
I’ve always felt like Point Break represented a transition in styles of mainstream action films, or—if not a transition in tones and themes from the films in the late ‘80s to the films of the ‘90s—a transition with its stars. Patrick Swayze, who two years earlier had starred in Road House and Next of Kin, was handing the baton to Keanu Reeves, who would go on to make the Speed, Matrix and John Wick films. Civil War, of course, acts as a narrative pivot for the MCU: Moving from the team that is together in Age of Ultron to the team that fights the same enemy far afield from one another in Infinity War before the reunion in Endgame. Point Break focuses on former quarterback and rookie FBI agent Johnny Utah (Reeves) as he goes undercover to infiltrate a bank robbing gang of surfers that disguise themselves with dead president masks, led by Bodhi (Swayze). Along the way, Utah falls in love with Tyler Endicott (Lori Petty), a surfer and waitress that used to date Bodhi and that introduces the two of them. Eventually Bodhi finds out Utah is undercover and uses the romantic relationship as leverage. Where Civil War’s philosophical conflict involves whether the Avengers should answer to the government or not, Point Break’s is based around a rookie agent in a straight-laced unit dealing with the living-in-the-moment lifestyle of an adrenaline-junkie bank robber. In either case, the conflict leads to multiple fights between the main characters, though in Point Break the action is a bit more grounded. While Captain America has to rescue his rebel Avengers left in the Ark superjail, Johnny Utah lets Bodhi escape into the waves of a 50-year storm, noting, as other FBI agents wait for him to return, that “he’s not coming back.” So, yes, the endings are pretty divergent aside from taking place in the ocean. But, like Captain America has to leave S.H.I.E.L.D. to follow his principles and fight for his beliefs, Johnny Utah throws his FBI badge into the ocean, walking away from law enforcement in pursuit of a better way to spend his life.
Doctor StrangeWe Recommend: The Green Knight
The Green Knight is my favorite movie of 2021 and everyone should see it. Like Doctor Strange, it stars a protagonist who has his life turned upside-down when he seeks to fulfill the destiny and purpose he thought was meant for him. In the case of Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), it’s the recovery of the use of his hands to continue his career as a surgeon. In the case of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), it is the quest to uphold his honor and gain renown as a knight. Both films center on these protagonists experiencing wild psychedelic visuals as they humble themselves in pursuit of courage. Doctor Strange’s casting of Tilda Swinton as the old Marvel comics character “The Ancient One” (traditionally depicted as East Asian) got…a mixed reception. The Green Knight cast Dev Patel as the protagonist, with racial differences among the king’s court left as subtext hiding in plain sight; never addressed but always present. Both films even conclude not with traditional martial combat, but with travels through the mind’s eye as the heroes match wits in bargains and games with their opponents. The way it works out in The Green Knight is quite a bit different than Doctor Strange: Sir Gawain doesn’t exactly become The Sorcerer Supreme. But, like Dr. Strange in Infinity War, he sees multiple paths laid out for him, and must choose to do not what is convenient, but what is right. It’s a movie about wrestling with your morality and the strength of your convictions, about choice and responsibility, destiny and fate, and all the death and renewal invoked by a color. Plus it’s trippy in the way of aesthetic spectacle as well as inspiring thoughtfulness. Far out.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2We Recommend: Jupiter Ascending
There are a lot of things that made Guardians of the Galaxy a departure from superhero movies as we’d come to imagine them, but some of that just demonstrated how well James Gunn’s style fit Kevin Feige’s MCU mold—I’m thinking specifically of the quippy, sarcastic characters and the heavily nostalgic licensed soundtrack. They’re staples of the Guardians series, but they’re also something that existed in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. What made GotG and its sequel conceptually interesting was moving away from Earth as the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to explore the great unknowns of space. In this way, these films are able to maintain variety and vibrance in their spectacle even if it doesn’t exactly feel real. The Wachowskis’ Jupiter Ascending is a space opera with a lot in common with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the film features a male action star with rocket boots (Channing Tatum as half-canine, genetically-engineered soldier Caine Wise). Like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the film centers on the power and responsibility foisted on someone’s shoulders based on their genes and forebears. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Star Lord has to deal with the fact that his dad, Celestial superbeing Ego (Kurt Russell), wants him to conquer the galaxy. In Jupiter Ascending, domestic cleaner Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) gets drawn into a family drama wrapped around resource rights and planet ownership, and has to stop a rich immortal from destroying the Earth. Jupiter Ascending feels very much like a “subtext is for cowards” movie, with rich people razing the planets they’ve colonized to grind down living people into a serum to keep them forever young. There’s also a sequence where Jones has to deal with a mile of bureaucratic red tape to be granted the rights she’s been promised, and accepted as who she says she is. There are a lot of ways to interpret that (and I hope I’m not doing the Wachowskis a disservice by reading a trans allegory in it) and the film is also very forthrightly about how some people think they’re better than others, and can treat other people however they would like—which is to say, poorly, as if they were objects to be used and not people to be cared for.
Spider-Man HomecomingWe Recommend: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The best scene in Spider-Man Homecoming, the best single shot, is when Peter and his date to the prom are sitting in the back of the car on the way to the prom and her father (Michael Keaton) realizes that Peter is Spider-Man. It happens at a red light where the audience sees the face of realization on his face as he looks into the rearview mirror at Peter. Keaton has been a consistently good performer over the course of hs career, and the stretch from 2014 to 2017 had some really interesting and spectacular stuff—Spotlight and The Founder in addition to Homecoming—but preceding those was Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It’s a movie with a distinct visual style based on making nearly the whole film look like one unending shot, while primarily focusing on the setting of a play. Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione), Birdman is a dark dramedy about a faded star: An actor famous for playing a superhero in a blockbuster film trilogy in the 1990s who is trying to achieve prestige and respect by acting in a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The film doesn’t have all the persistent tropes of superhero films, though it comments on the genre in the third act while Keaton’s Riggan Thomson spends the entirety of the film wrestling with his legacy as an artist, as a performer and as a father. It’s an entertaining film that serves to comment on mental health and the conflicts entertainers have with their private personhood. It’s also intentionally ambiguous in a lot of ways; it tells a satisfying story to its audience while trusting the audience to think through the possible consequences instead of being spoon-fed an exact resolution. Birdman keeps the audience hooked without leaving them hanging.
Thor: RagnarokWe Recommend: Sorry to Bother You
Thor: Ragnarok has been called “anti-imperialist” seriously and sardonically because the film’s plot rests against the lies and secrets of a king who hid his conquest, and ends with a revolution on a planet of enslaved people. Like the Iron Man movies—and the Spider-Man movies as their functional spin-offs—keep showing us villains wronged by Tony Stark, the Thor movies persist in introducing villains inspired by Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) past misdeeds. Cate Blanchett plays Thor and Loki’s long-hidden elder sister Hela, who helped Odin conquer the Nine Realms and whose appearance helps usher in the destruction of Asgard. Jeff Goldblum plays the secondary antagonist, The Grandmaster, who owns and controls the wacky planet of Sakaar. Director Taika Waitiki would go on to make Jojo Rabbit, a dark historical dramedy about German citizens during World War II. I recommend it, but another comedy with interesting themes to apply to today’s world is Sorry to Bother You, directed by musician/activist Boots Riley, and starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson (who plays Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok). The film also includes among its cast Terry Crews, Danny Glover, Omari Hardwick, Steven Yuen, Armie Hammer and the voices of Lily Allen, Patton Oswalt, Forest Whitaker and Rosario Dawson. I have never experienced a film that took so many left turns. Whenever you think you know what’s going on, you’re introduced to new information that expands on what you already know while throwing you for a loop. Sorry to Bother You is about a man who learns to use his “white voice” to succeed in telemarketing. It’s about late capitalism; about big businesses buying and selling people like commodities, about people being pushed to sell their souls, and to sell weapons and other people. It’s about how the governing and media apparatus of the United States will endorse and protect any venture that makes enough money, regardless of its ethics. It’s about art and labor rights and building community. Sorry to Bother You is funny and surreal, with its darkness coming from taking existing social phenomena and cranking them up, creating gut-busting satire that also makes you grimace, but which calls its audience to action.
Black PantherWe Recommend: Judas and the Black Messiah
Black Panther had a startling cultural moment in 2018, bridging the plots between Civil War and Infinity War (alongside Homecoming) while demonstrating that diversity in casts doesn’t kill blockbusters, especially when they’re powered by the Disney engine. Black Panther is not without its flaws—notably, that the movie uncritically treats a CIA intervention as positive, that the villain’s critiques of the world order aren’t rhetorically resolved and that Wakanda’s solution is decidedly neoliberal. Nonetheless, I was among the many people that enjoyed it. Like all of these films, there are themes and ideas to unpack beyond the simple fun of an engaging spectacle. And if you have a genuine interest in the performers involved, there’s far more to see. Judas and the Black Messiah takes a more serious and incisive look at structures of oppression. It’s about a man who tried to change things for the better, a youth killed at the age of 21 for inspiring and looking out for working class people under capitalism’s heel. Judas and the Black Messiah stars Lakeith Stanfield as real-life FBI informant William O’Neal, who helped the FBI and Chicago PD assassinate Fred Hampton, the revolutionary socialist chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. Though he’s worked as an actor for more than a decade, Daniel Kaluuya’s breakthrough role was in Get Out. He followed that by playing W’Kabi, T’Challa’s traitorous minister of defense in Black Panther and, in Judas and the Black Messiah, he stars opposite Stanfield as Fred Hampton. Stanfield and Kaluuya are incredibly captivating, with Kaluuya winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Dominique Fishback plays Deborah Johnson, Hampton’s surviving fiance, who was on set during the filming of the scene where Hampton was killed in bed during a raid on their headquarters. It’s an entertaining movie because it’s an undercover thriller that reminds one of the feelings inspired by The Departed; it’s an important movie because, with minor changes, it recreates the real history of American domestic intervention into grassroot social protest movements. Art may not be capable of changing society on its own, but it can inspire people to work together to change their conditions.
Avengers: Infinity WarWe Recommend: Alexander: The Ultimate Cut
I may live to be wrong, but I believe that the MCU peaked in Phase 3. Infinity War was its apex. While its ability to stand on its own as a film is contested because it was the culmination of storylines across nearly 20 prior movies, and its final drama was undercut by wide knowledge of the Disney-Marvel release schedule, it was nonetheless a financial triumph and was widely praised by fans and critics. Its greatest distinct trait as a piece of storytelling was casting the series antagonist as the film’s protagonist through the structure of the narrative. The film begins and ends with Thanos. The rest of the ensemble is split up into different physical spaces and narrative trajectories, while the plot follows his movements. We know what Thanos wants to do is wrong—the What If? Disney+ series refers to it as “genocide with extra steps”—but we see him succeed, nonetheless. Thanos reminds me of Alexander, the legendary Greek-Macedonian hero whose life formed the basis of Oliver Stone’s 2004 historical epic drama starring Colin Ferrell. To fulfill what he believes to be his destiny, he must carry out great violence upon masses, with doubt and emotional turmoil coming from his close interpersonal relationships. In Alexander, this is fulfilled through the friendship/romance with Hephaistion (Jared Leto), his marriage with Roxana (Rosario Dawson) and the oedipal vibes coming from his relationship with his mother, Queen Olympia (Angelina Jolie). In Infinity War, it’s chiefly through Thanos’ relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana). Like Blade Runner has five different versions with things added and subtracted by Ridley Scott, Stone rearranged Alexander as a Director’s Cut in 2005, a “Final Unrated Cut” in 2007, and then the “Ultimate Cut” in 2014. Pick the Ultimate Cut.
Ant-Man and the WaspWe Recommend: 48 hours
Ant-Man and the Wasp does a better job of standing far afield the rest of the MCU than the original Ant-Man, and the centrality of the heist changes dramatically. But one consistent other thing separating the duo from the rest of the MCU is its location: San Francisco. And, while the relationship between Scott Lang and Hope van Dyne is first established in the original Ant-Man, it is in Ant-Man and the Wasp that it blossoms into a fully formed partnership. Turns around chair to sit down while using Youth Pastor voice: You know who else fully formed a partnership in San Francisco? The answer is Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte in the seminal buddy comedy action film 48 Hours. Perhaps best remembered for Eddie Murphy singing “Roxanne” in a jail cell, 48 Hours centers the iconic comedian approaching the height of his powers, toward the end of his run at SNL and about to go on a five-year run that included Trading Places, two Beverly Hills Cop movies, two legendary standup specials (that didn’t necessarily age well) and Coming to America. If you’re wondering what Edgar Wright’s Ant-Man would have looked like, well it probably wouldn’t have been anything like this, but he made Hot Fuzz, so who knows? 48 Hours is about a police officer, Nolte’s Inspector Jack Cates, who gets a 48-hour release for former burglar Reggie Hammond (Murphy) to help him solve a case focused on Hammond’s former partner in crime, the psychopathic Albert Ganz (James Remar). I’d never endorse the film’s politics—it’s a movie about the necessity of loose-cannon asshole cops—but it’s a fun watch. Moreover, it does with San Francisco what so many films claim of New York, allowing the setting to be almost like a character.
Captain MarvelWe Recommend: The Favourite
Like Top Gun before it, Captain Marvel was actively used by the Air Force to recruit. If it makes you feel uncomfortable for your Hollywood entertainment to have a Pentagon-approved script, the silver lining is that the blockbuster (which features a real Blockbuster Video store, because it’s set in the 1990s) textually condemns xenophobia and endless war. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck in their major studio debut after four independent films, an ESPN documentary and some TV episodes, Captain Marvel is also laced with feminist themes blunt and subtle. Brie Larson plays Carol Danvers, a soldier for the Kree Empire and former USAF pilot who unlocks her full potential as a warrior and a hero by learning about her past. The thing I found most frustrating about the film was the way it did everything to imply Danvers had a romantic relationship with Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), down to them raising a kid together, without ever saying it out loud. But as frustrated cinephiles are quick to point out whenever Disney wants to pat themselves on the bat for their close calls with explicit queerness, there are other kinds of movies besides action-comedy blockbusters. Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, and starring Olivia Colman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, The Favourite is a dark comedy set in 18th century Great Britain, based on historical rumors about Queen Anne, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Marsham. Like Sorry to Bother You, when you think early on that the film will focus on a particular angle (a secret lesbian romance between the Queen and her court Favourite), it shifts (to the competition between two cousins to be that Favourite). It’s a drama about empire and court intrigue that focuses on relationships between women. The Favourite is a startling and funny dark comedy from the director behind The Lobster—not every award-winning film is this much fun.
Avengers: EndgameWe Recommend: Back to the Future
Where Infinity War was an emotional climax that ended on a dark cliffhanger with the interesting narrative choice of making the bad guy the structural protagonist, Endgame’s innovation was to make Nebula the structural protagonist (while the rest of the female heroes get a less significant amount of screentime which culminated in a loved-and-hated battlefield cutscene). While Infinity War was a superhero epic with a cat-and-mouse game at its center, Endgame was a superhero epic with a time travel heist as its core. There are many stories that use time travel as the core plot device, but there’s only one Back to the Future. (I mean, technically there are two sequels and a spin-off cartoon and there was a ride at Universal Studios, but there’s one original.) The 1985 Robert Zemeckis film stars Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, a well-meaning but hot-headed skateboarding musician with a beloved girlfriend, dreams of a nice truck and mixed feelings about his family. His co-lead is his mad scientist mentor Dr. Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc converts a DeLorean into a time machine using plutonium he swindles out of some Libyan guerillas, who pull up in the mall parking lot demanding satisfaction and killing Doc. Marty goes back in time to 1955, has to slowly adjust and convince Doc he is who he says he is. Marty nearly prevents himself and his siblings from existing, before successfully reuniting his parents (played by Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) and changing their life trajectory. It’s a wilder movie than I’ve fully encapsulated here, but—while it’s not without its faults—it’s widely beloved and greatly influential. Like all time travel films, it uses the plot device to explore ideas that maybe aren’t as lofty as the meaning of the universe, but as simple as exploring what makes people (especially the people we look up to) who they are.
Spider-Man: Far From HomeWe Recommend: The Devil All the Time
Spider-Man: Far From Home stars Tom Holland as Spider-Man and Jake Gyllenhaal as Mysterio, a familiar villain that appears, initially, to be a hero. While the MCU films have divorced Peter Parker from newspaper photography and poverty, they’ve maintained one key element of the character: With great power comes great responsibility. Far From Home is about Spider-Man weighing Iron Man’s legacy and his responsibility to carry that legacy on. It’s also a film where multiple characters have secret identities and double lives. Mysterio is revealed as a villain, then sets Spider-Man up and reveals his secret identity in the mid-credits stinger. The end credits stinger reveals that this film’s version of Nick Fury and Maria Hill are members of the shapeshifting alien species the Skrulls, filling in for the real Fury and Hill while the two are in space with other Skrulls. The Devil All the Time is a psychological thriller based on Donald Ray Pollock’s debut “Hillbilly Gothic” novel of the same name. Pollock narrates the film, which stars Holland as well as fellow MCU actor Sebastian Stan and future The Batman star Robert Pattinson. Holland plays the son of a disturbed World War II veteran and the film is about their family’s struggles in Southern Ohio and West Virginia, as their paths intersect with corrupt local leaders and the cruel hand of fate. Pattinson plays a morally bankrupt preacher, the second to touch the lives of the family after Roy Laferty (Harry Melling), who is positively out of his mind. Stan plays Lee Bodecker, a corrupt sheriff whose sister is married to a devout sociopath. The film is all about the evil things people can do when they believe their position in the world or their beliefs about it empower or justify taking advantage of others. It’s not a rollicking good time, but engaging performances, a smartly-woven plot and strong themes sell a captivating drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat, hoping against hope for something to go right.
Black WidowWe Recommend: Midsommar
I had mixed feelings on Black Widow but what was clear to me from beginning to the end is that Florence Pugh is an absolute star. Pugh was so good that I had to watch Midsommar, a horror film that doesn’t traffic in jump scares but rather psychological terror that comes from the tangible practicality of the plot. The plot—a group of college students visit a friend’s community in rural Sweden and are beset by mysterious tragedy while having their sanity ripped from them—feels like something that could really happen, in a place that could really exist. Still, the psychological terror comes from a few different points as the interpersonal conflicts between Pugh’s Dani and her boyfriend’s friend group coalesce while they find themselves wrapped in the mysteries of the midsummer cultural traditions of a Swedish commune. The movie is shot to feel real while interwoven with psychedelic plants and effects. It’s not the most startling horror film I’ve ever watched, but it’s the one that’s haunted me the longest after watching it, and one which will stay with me even if I never turn it on again.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten RingsWe Recommend: House of Flying Daggers
Your mileage may vary personally on the quality of Shang-Chi, but one thing that it brought that the MCU has been sliding away from is well-choreographed, tactile combat. Director Destin Daniel Cretton drew on Chinese mythology and Hong Kong action films for a lot of his aesthetic, while the combat tied to a mystical romance clearly drew from the wuxia tradition. Michelle Yeoh, who plays Shang-Chi’s aunt, was one of the stars of beloved wuxia Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which is of inestimable importance for expanding the genre’s global impact. However, the movie I kept thinking about while watching Shang-Chi is 2004’s House of Flying Daggers. Directed by Zhang Yimou and counting among its stars Zhang Ziyi (Rush Hour 2, Memoirs of a Geisha), House of Flying Daggers was nominated for Best Cinematography at the 2004 Oscars. Another medieval Chinese epic that came to mind was Curse of the Golden Flower, but that might be a better match for Endgame because of its large-scale battles. House of Flying Daggers fits here because its romantic notions aren’t just in sweeping plot tropes that we in the West attribute to chivalric literature and see replicated in Westerns and action movies. House of Flying Daggers is a real love story between the alleged daughter of rebel House of Flying Daggers’ leader (Zhang) and a police officer investigating the group (Takeshi Kaneshiro). The plot unfolds with reveals that might remind you of The Departed, which feels more fun when you consider Andrew Lau, the director of Infernal Affairs—which The Departed was based on—is the third star of House of Flying Daggers. The intricate fighting styles, the incredible camera and wire work, the intrigue and complex character motivations all cause House of Flying Daggers to stand out as an example of the possibilities of martial arts filmmaking. If you enjoyed Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, you owe it to yourself to see House of Flying Daggers.
EternalsWe Recommend: The Rider
Chloe Zhao may have made her Oscar splash with Nomadland, but it’s the lyrical and lovely story of The Rider that best captures her abilities with community, nature and self—all somehow timeless in the golden light and rural setting she favors. Following a cast filled with non-professional Indigenous actors, this neo-Western is an intimate look at sacrifice and family all narrowed through the lens of the impoverished and neurologically fragile ex-rodeo rider Brady (Brady Jandreau). Options are scarce and needs are many. Stoic masculine pride has its dictates. Simultaneously interconnected and isolating thanks to its shots of farms and families juxtaposed with sweeping Badlands vistas, The Rider will make you understand why Kevin Feige was awed by Zhao’s ability to go outside—and you’ll also understand why this writer/director was perhaps thrown under the bus when asked to introduce a giant cast and broad comic concepts.—Jacob Oller
Spider-Man: No Way HomeWe Recommend: Looper
Unfortunately, it’s against the spirit of this project for me to recommend watching the excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which does the No Way Home multiverse thing much better and in service of something greater, so I’ll instead go with Looper. A movie that’s also about confronting different versions and possibilities, a movie about knowing a nebulous amount about how things could turn out, Looper is as much a showcase for its central Joes (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) as it is of writer/director Rian Johnson’s ability to blend big genre concepts and digestible human problems. Using time travel rather than multiple dimensions, the thrilling and funny Looper drives the stakes all the way up while telling its nuanced tale and watching its central character both grow and having grown. Time travel makes grammar hard, ok? If you enjoyed seeing Peter Parker irrevocably changed by the sci-fi events of No Way Home, Looper’s brainy and character-driven storytelling will give you more of what you need…even if it has fewer comic book villains.—Jacob Oller