Spider-Man: Far from Home is like the “Scouring of the Shire” for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yep, the Ring’s been destroyed and Sauron is gone. But residual evil’s still afoot, and someone’s gotta take care of it.
Spider-Man is that someone in Far from Home, and pretty much by default. The rest of the Avengers are dead, in outer space or otherwise engaged when the Elementals start showing up. They’re sentient monsters bent on destruction, according to a super-soldier nicknamed Mysterio (who apparently followed them from another dimension). And while he’s willing to fight ‘em, he can’t do it alone.
But what if Spider-Man doesn’t want to fight? What if he wants to be a normal high schooler for a while? It’s an interesting narrative flip for Spidey/Peter Parker: In his first MCU film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter was all about proving himself worthy of the Big Leagues before finding peace as your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. In Far From Home, Spidey’s being pushed out of that neighborhood and into a bigger, much more intimidating role—not just an Avenger understudy, but a leader.
But if Spider-Man is going through a huge transition in the movie, Far From Home represents a huge transition in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe itself.
It’s the last film in the MCU’s Third Phase, serving as a coda to an 11-year, 23-movie saga. It had the unenviable task of following up the climactic Avengers: Endgame, which continues to break box-office records. And it must somehow begin to cast a vision as to what might come after the events of Endgame: give fans a reason to keep shoveling their money into this franchise.
With Far From Home serving as both the end of one book and the beginning of a new one, I think it’s time to look back and really take stock of the MCU franchise as a whole. What were its best outings? What were its worst?
Here’s my completely subjective (but totally right) rundown of the MCU, from the really great to the mostly OK. (If you click on the occasional links, you can read more about what I said about each film, especially its spirituality.) And we begin at the bottom.
- Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The film had two big problems: Its hero and its villain. The MCU wasn’t quite sure what to do with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor just yet, I don’t think. We knew from the first movie that he could be pretty funny, but the Asgardian prince takes a more self-serious turn here. He’s opposed by the Dark Elf Malekith (Chris Eccleston), who upon awakening from thousands of years of suspended animation, seems to have just one goal: To break the galactic record for scowling. I didn’t hate this movie. It’s a measure of the MCU’s success that The Dark World marks the franchise’s darkest time.
- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Marvel’s big green machine may smash a lot of things, but he turns into an Infinity War-era weakling when faced with his greatest challenge: anchoring his own stand-alone movies. The Incredible Hulk was meant to be something of a course correction after 2003’s very weird Hulk. And in that respect, it worked. But even then, it felt pretty pedestrian compared to Iron Man (released a month earlier). And now, of course, it comes with a bit of weirdness of its own since the movie’s star—Edward Norton—was later booted in favor of Mark Ruffalo.
- Iron Man 2 (2010)
Hard to believe that the MCU turned out to be the juggernaut it became, given what its second and third chapters looked like. Still staggering a bit from the “meh” returns of The Incredible Hulk, Marvel returned to the character that launched the MCU (then just a gleam in franchise-runner Kevin Feige’s eye) and, of course, the actor that played him: Robert Downey Jr. But despite signing Mickey Rourke as the movie’s main bad guy (Ivan Vanko) and introducing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in the movie’s best action sequence, Iron Man 2 felt—at least compared to its high-flying predecessor—like it was made of lead.