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Interview: Michael Sheen on Far from the Madding Crowd

The actor discusses what drew him to Far from the Madding Crowd and Vinterberg’s approach to improvisation.

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Interview: Michael Sheen on Far from the Madding Crowd
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

After great acclaim for the Oscar-nominated The Hunt, director Thomas Vinterberg turned to screenwriter David Nicholls’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd for his next project. Set in 19th-century Wessex, Hardy’s idealized version of the British West Country, the film tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan) coming into property and dealing with three very persistent suitors: steadfast farmer Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), the Sergeant Troy (Tom Sturridge), and wealthy landowner William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). On paper, the middle-aged, anxiety-ridden Boldwood is the least attractive romantic prospect, but Sheen brings such remarkable empathy to the role, such devotion to etching out the man’s attempted reach toward the light of romantic and moral salvation, that the character’s melancholy is understood to be irresistible. On the eve of Far from the Madding Crowd’s theatrical release, I sat down with Sheen to discuss what drew him to the period piece, as well as Vinterberg’s illuminating approach to improvisation and the humanity that the actor felt was crucial to fleshing out Boldwood’s complex trajectory.

To begin at the beginning, what drew you to this project?

The idea of doing a British period drama in itself wasn’t particularly interesting to me. But reading the novel, it made me realize how specific Hardy was about this world, and about capturing the rhythms of farming and rural living. And because it’s an extraordinary story with a complex woman at the center of it—flawed, brilliant, law-breaking, transgressive, and who’s an employer, a boss. I asked David Nicholls earlier, “Can you think of any other story, any other classic literature story, where there’s a woman who’s the main character and an employer?” And it’s almost impossible to think of one. Even today, in films where there’s a woman as an employer and a boss, she’s usually written as bad, or as a sort of caricature. But I suppose one of the other main things was that Thomas Vinterberg was directing it.

So you have a Danish director helming a classic British story?

Less the fact that he’s a Danish director and more that this is the man who did The Celebration, which I think is such an extraordinary film, and, more recently, The Hunt. So, thinking about what he would bring to this was really intriguing. I knew it would be something very different and fresh. And to have Cary Mulligan as Bathsheba, Matthias as Gabriel, and David doing the adaptation, I thought it was something I’d want to hook my wagon to.

I read that you had done some improvisation exercises to get into character. What sort of preparation did that entail?

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One of the exciting things about working with Thomas was that he uses improvisation a lot. Not on the set, but before you start working. We had a week of rehearsals with the four of us together, not only improvising around the scenes that were in the film, but improvising things from my character’s past, what I felt were the events in his life that had a real effect on him. So that made a massive difference to me. I can’t imagine what I would have done in the film if I hadn’t done such improvisation. It was very impactful.

You mentioned that Carey Mulligan was a large component in you joining the project. You two share such great chemistry on screen. How much was informed by preparation and improvisation between you two?

Well, when you’re shooting, the script is the script. That was decided and that’s what we do. But the scenes with Carey had a sense of play in them. The improvisatory nature of the scenes wasn’t in what we said, but in the dynamic between us. Working with an actress like Carey—she’s so responsive to your craft. The process feels very alive. And the scenes that are so complicated, with so much going on under the surface, all the awkwardness and difficulty and vulnerability, to be able to play with someone like Carey is great because you feel like you’re really working with each other, rather than, like, “I’m going to come here and do my bit and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing.” We were very, very connected, and that’s something you only get with very special people.

For a feature in the Telegraph, you said that working with Vinterberg wasn’t quite a “Mike Leigh thing,” but that there was, again, a focus on improvisatory exercises.

We improvised a scene where I was a young man after my heart had been broken by this woman, and I holed myself up in the house, with Carey, playing my sister, trying to get me to leave the house, and I have a big argument with her and, in that moment, I shut the door on the rest of the world. Carey also did an improvisation where she was Bathsheba applying for a job as a governess, because we know that she’s done that in the past, and I played the boss, not Boldwood, but a man who was giving her an interview. Thomas really brought that history into the heart of everything, which really stops you from playing into clichés. You have to make very specific choices when you’re improvising like that. And then that followed on into the piece itself. Thomas allows his actors to have a lot of input into what they’re doing, but he also has a very strong vision himself. It’s a really great combination for a director to have a sense of what they want to do and how they’re going to do it, but at the same time, not be kind of micromanaging everyone.

Is it true that you hadn’t read the novel until preparing for the film?

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Yeah, it was my first time reading the novel. We had never studied Hardy when I was at school. I was able to come to it fresh. Again, he has such a brilliant way of describing this other world—this farming community, this rural world, its rhythms and the cycles and the connection to the land and the seasons. He sort of gives you everything. So the combination of the novel and a little bit of research about the society of the time, where someone like Boldwood would fit into that, and the improvisation, that did a lot of it.

Did you watch any of the other screen adaptations?

No. I think I saw the John Schlesinger version when I was much younger, but I don’t have much of a memory of that. And I haven’t seen any other versions, so I decided to keep away from that really and just focus on what we were doing.

While doing research, did you think of Boldwood’s gentry status in relation to your more liberal politics? Your interpretation of Boldwood seems so heart-wrenching, so humanist.

I hope I have a humanist perspective to everything I do. I just humanize the character I’m playing as much as I can. I suppose your personal politics will always inform how you do that, but I wasn’t leading with that sense. I guess inevitably it does creep into everything you do. My take on this character was that this was a man who, because of his wealth, because of his social position and so forth, he was able to withdraw into a world and still be able to survive without necessarily being in connection with people. When he does come out of that sort of seclusion, when he gets that invitation back into the world from Bathsheba, then the difficulty he has with that, I found that very interesting. He has a very different social situation than the people he’s around, and he’s kind of envious of Gabriel. Maybe he would like to have his life, at least in the way he imagines it in his head—this simpler life where he doesn’t have any duty or responsibility to people, where he’s not burdened with social standing, and can live very simply and on the land. It’s an idealized view of what life might be like for him. He crosses boundaries a lot, I think, throughout. Knowing what that meant at the time, socioeconomically and politically, it just helps to inform the character emotionally and psychologically without making any kind of point politically.

In the film, you captured such a vulnerability in Boldwood. Compared to Peter Finch’s performance in the Schlesinger film, yours has such a subtlety and he becomes such a tragic figure.

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The key to that, for me, was finding out, as you hear early on in the story, that Mr. Boldwood had his heart broken. This is a man who had been really hurt and wounded and spent the rest of his life protecting that. “I’m never going to let that happen to me again.” Of course, he has wealth, so he’s able to withdraw from the world and protect himself, but my theory was that by the time the film begins, when the story begins, he’s already starting to unravel because of his seclusion, because of his sympathy, because of being holed up in this huge house, he knows that he needs to save himself. When Bathsheba’s valentine comes, that’s what he holds onto. That’s what’s going to save him. He really needs her, and he’s prepared to give all of himself away. There’s the awful sadness of the scene where he says, “If you marry me just out of pity, that’s fine. I’m okay with that.” His vulnerability is revealed in that scene. It’s not that he discovers the vulnerability. It’s that the layers that have been put on top of it are peeled away as the story moves on, and as a result he becomes a tragic figure.

Not to be a bit of a spoiler, but that last pivotal scene is so devastating, with Boldwood on his final string. How did you approach that?

It’s all to do with what he’s experienced before. Before the film begins, when he was younger, the fact that he lost someone, and is constantly on the verge of losing someone else again with Bathsheba all the way throughout. He proposed to her early on and she says no. But there’s hope, just a glimmer of hope, and so by the time he gets to the end of the story and he’s unraveled already and he’s become so vulnerable, and the fear of losing someone again because of how much pain he felt the first time, he’s just not going to let that happen again. It was all about charting that journey. It’s shocking, but hopefully, to the audience, it’s totally believable how he got that point. Creating that inevitability, that tragic aspect, is all about charting from the beginning and starting from the right place.

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Interview: Jia Zhang-ke on Ash Is Purest White and the Evolution of China

Jia discusses what he likes about digital video and how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life.

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Jia Zhang-ke
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Unshowy yet unshakably self-assured, sincere but with glimpses of a sly sense of humor, and unhesitatingly frank even about touchy topics like the Chinese government’s censorship of his work, Jia Zhang-ke comes off in person just as a fan of his films might expect. Ever since his 1997 feature debut, The Pickpocket, and 2000’s Platform, in which young people struggle to adapt to China’s increasing Westernization, Jia has been creating a kind of unofficial history of his homeland, quietly defying his government’s determination to erase its tracks as it barrels along by doing things like rewiring the economy, rewriting the social contract, and depopulating whole cities and erecting new ones in a matter of months.

Jia’s films operate in metaphorical deep focus, surfacing the ways that these sweeping societal changes affect individual lives and relationships by zeroing in on sensitively detailed portrayals of two lovers, or of a group or pair of friends, while just as clearly portraying the socioeconomic backdrops to their stories. And often at the center of his films is Zhao Tao, his wife and longtime muse. In Jia’s latest, Ash Is Purest White, Zhao reprises the role she played in 2002’s Unknown Pleasures: Qiao Qiao, a strong-willed woman from Jia’s hometown of Fenyang, this time over a span of 17 years that starts when she’s the young lover of a gangster and ends with her in charge of the gambling den he once ran.

In a conversation before Ash Is Purest White’s debut at the New York Film Festival, Jia explained what he likes about digital video, how Zhao Tao helped bring her role to life, and how he deals with his government’s suppression of his work.

The music in your films is always an important part of the story. Can you talk about how you picked the songs for this one, starting with “Y.M.C.A.”?

Since I wanted to set the story starting in 2001, I wanted to find a piece of music that can trigger that particular era very authentically. And back in the day, in 2001, the younger generation, they didn’t have a lot of sources of entertainment. They might have had a disco club and karaoke, and that was about it. Two songs very popular at that time were “Y.M.C.A.” and “Go West” [the Pet Shop Boys song that was a motif in Jia’s Mountains May Depart].

The reason that we liked “Y.M.C.A.” was not because we understood the lyrics or understood who sang them or who was involved in the production. We had no idea what they were singing about. But we did enjoy the rhythm, the melody, and the beat, which is matching the heartbeat of the young people. It really got you going and brought up the energy of the room.

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Another song that is particularly important in the film—you hear it again and again—is “Drunk for Life” by Sally Yeh, a Cantonese pop singer. This is a song I listened to when I was in junior high. At the time, young people tended to hang out in the video arcade, and this was one of the songs heard there. It was also a theme song for John Woo’s The Killer. That film, in the triad genre, is very similar to the John Woo motif that I want to evoke in this film.

The third song in this film is “How Much Love Can Be Repeated?” This sequence was actually shot 12 years ago in Three Gorges, when I made Still Life. I think the reason why I wanted to use it was that it could create this interesting contrast between what was happening on stage and Zhao’s character off stage, when you see her reaction watching this performance. Mind you, the on-stage part was shot 12 years ago, but Zhao’s part was shot last year. Hopefully, you cannot tell that these two footages were from two different times and spaces.

Was any of the other Three Gorges footage shot for Still Life, or shot when you were making that film? I know you shot a lot of documentary footage there at the time.

Only that particular clip was shot 12 years ago. The rest, we went back to the same location and tried to capture what we did in Still Life. But, unlike in other parts of the film, where we tend to use digital video, for the Three Gorges part we use film stock. That’s why it gives you a sense of nostalgia, evoking what happened in the past.

You’ve worked in digital video for a long time, partly because it allowed you to bypass processing labs, which would not have developed your films because they weren’t government-approved. Digital video also made it much easier for your films to be copied and disseminated in China when they weren’t being played in theaters. Are there also things that you prefer artistically about using digital video, especially now that it can do so much more than it could early on?

Starting in 2001, using DV to shoot Unknown Pleasures, I didn’t think of it just for practical purposes. DV as a medium has its own aesthetics that I can really explore and develop. Using DV you can create a close proximity between the camera and the actors and actresses, a kind of intimacy that cannot be done through the traditional camera.

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The other thing is, things that happen unexpectedly can be easily captured with DV cameras. With cameras that use film stock, things are usually highly scripted in a contained, particular environment. With DV you tend to have a lot of spontaneity and a lot of impromptu happenstances that can be easily captured.

It’s so important for people to share their stories and learn from history. To me, one of the most important forms of disruption in China since Mao is the way people have been barred from telling their stories, or made to alter what they say to fit some official narrative. So you’re performing an important service by writing history with your films, recording the story of the present and the recent past for the people of tomorrow.

I think that’s also why I rely a lot on DV. I joke that only the pace of the evolution of DV equipment can keep up with the pace of the development of China. For me, this film is very much about how, in this time span of 17 years, human connections and human emotions—the interpersonal relationships between people—evolves and changes as a result of all that. On the surface, you can see very clearly the changes pre-internet era and post-internet era, [things like how] in the past you had slow trains and now you have high-speed trains. But that is on the surface level. What I’m interested in exploring is what happened in terms of the inner world of those people in this particular historical context, how their relationships evolved or dissolved and the reasons for the dissolutions and the evolutions of their relationships.

You’ve said you like working with your wife partly because she becomes a kind of second author of your screenplays, adding detail to what you have written. Can you give an example of what she brought to this movie?

When she was in the cabin of the boat and the lady in black [a cabinmate] came in, she just, almost as a kneejerk reaction, stood up, suddenly and immediately. She was trying to capture what it would be like for someone who has been in prison for five years, how she would have reacted to a security guard entering the jail cell and how she would react the same way when this lady in black entered her cabin.

I see her training as a dancer a lot in the physicality of her acting.

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Yes. Another example would be the water bottle in this film. It was used to evoke this same character in Still Life, and she carried that water bottle there too. It makes sense because of the weather; it was very hot so she would need to drink. But the water bottle also came in handy to enhance the mood I was trying to create. Zhao Tao took this on and really went for it. She used it as a weapon, she used it as a way to stop the door from closing,

And to avoid holding hands with the man she met on the train.

Exactly. She was using this bottle as a kind of third character in the film, thinking about how this can be expanded and explored.

Your work has faced such strong resistance from the Chinese government. What is the government’s response to your films these days, and how does that affect how you work or how your films are seen?

I make films based on my own ecology, my own tempo and rhythm. I don’t really think too much about whether or not the film can be shown in China. Of course, I would love if my film could be shown in China, but that’s not the only reason why I make films. The most important thing for me is to understand that that’s not the end goal, so I don’t need to somehow sacrifice and change the way I make films in order to be shown in China.

I will make the film I want to make, and if it can be shown in China, great. If not, so be it. That’s the way I interact with this particular censorship system. But I have to say that the situation has improved in terms of the communication channels. Those have opened up a lot more, so after I finish the film, I will do my best as a director to communicate to the censor bureau why this film should be shown in China. That I am willing to do. But I will not compromise the quality or any subject matter.

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Translation by Vincent Cheng

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of Cannes’s most prestigious prize.

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Every Cannes Palme d’Or Winner of the 2000s Ranked
Photo: Wild Bunch

There’s a certain formula that often defines the recipients of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious top prize, the Palme d’Or. These films, in recent years especially, tend to have a sense of importance about them (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), frequently due to their sociopolitical awareness of the world (Laurent Cantet’s The Class), or of specific societal ills (Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days). Very occasionally, the Palme d’Or goes to a bold, experimental, and divisive vision from a well-liked auteur (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), but more often it’s awarded to a film in the lineup that the most people on the Cannes jury can probably agree is good (Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake). And in less than three months, we’ll see if Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s jury will follow any sort of predictable formula when it announces its winners.

You’ll find us on the Croisette this May, covering most of the titles in Cannes’s competition slate. Until then, enjoy our ranking of the Palme d’Or winner from the 2000s. Sam C. Mac

Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on May 1, 2018.


The Son’s Room

19. The Son’s Room (2001)

Halfway through The Son’s Room, director Nanni Moretti shifts the rhetoric of his narrative away from an exaggerated view of happy domesticity and into a realm of weepy melodrama. Psychiatrist Giovanni (Moretti) is a perfect father and husband: he helps his daughter with her Latin homework (perducto means “without hardship you will be guided”—wink, wink); allows her boyfriend to exalt grass (when high, the boy says he’s “looking at the universe”); and initiates group lip-synching during the family’s car trips. Nicola Piovani’s score grotesquely heightens the joy behind every smile, meaning disaster is inevitable. As Moretti delves deeper into Giovanni’s work, focus is shifted away from the family arena. Though the film blooms when Paola (Laura Morante) and the family seek deliverance from their pain by connecting with a girl their deceased son, Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice), met at summer camp, Paola remains a cipher throughout. Cue Brian Eno’s “By This River,” which blares from a car radio as the family stands near the sea that killed their Andrea: “Here we are stuck by this river/You and I underneath a sky/That’s ever falling down, down, down.” In this one stoic moment, not only does the family seemingly escape their grief but also the Rob Reiner soap opera Moretti trapped them in. Ed Gonzalez


Fahrenheit 911

18. Fahrenheit 911 (2004)

A mediocre director but a master PR man, Michael Moore is the father of the Happy Meal documentary: big fonts, quick-fire montages, celebrity cameos, causing elaborate scenes. Fahrenheit 9/11 is no less an attention-grabbing stunt than his Bowling for Columbine, but what a scene it is. At the time of its release, Moore’s compilation of the Bush I administration’s bamboozling of the American public in the wake of 9/11. More than 10 years after its release, though, what lingers most about the film is Moore’s self-aggrandizement and forced sanctimoniousness (he rah-rahs from the sidelines when an interviewee says something he agrees with, and you sometimes get a sense that he wouldn’t call a dying man an ambulance if it meant getting the money shot of the guy croaking). At least it’s some kind of mercy that he spends very little time on screen. Gonzalez


Amour

17. Amour (2012)

There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Michael Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end. Calum Marsh

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I, Daniel Blake

16. I, Daniel Blake (2016)

English stand-up comedian Dave Johns brings the sort of spontaneous energy to his eponymous character that’s consistently made Loach’s films worth keeping up with. But Blake’s storyline veers from its emotionally grounded setup and into grandstanding displays like the Michael Moore-worthy stunt from which I, Daniel Blake takes its title. Both principal actors have a strong enough sense of their characters, even as they’re pulled into increasingly harrowing places, to make the film a more successful one than Loach’s last few, but it’s still schematic and predictable, and it aggressively stacks the deck against Blake and Kattie (Hayley Squires) in a way that makes it more effective as social activism, and less so as drama. The Loach of two or three decades ago, who made intimate, naturalistic films about the working class, like 1969’s Kes and 1994’s Ladybird Ladybird, is distinctly different from the Loach of today—and the soapbox-prone I, Daniel Blake reaffirms how unlikely it is for that to change. Mac


The Class

15. The Class (2008)

When a plot finally emerges, it’s all about the quandaries of privileging principle (and principal) or empiricism, duty or personal preference, questions that have been implicit all along, even in kids’ protests that they’re always being picked on or favored. As a clever late twist suggests, the interactions themselves are almost all riffs on Socratic debates—usually, the teacher seems to be asking students to verify their claims so he can give himself time to rebut—and as director Laurent Cantet said at The Class’s New York Film Festival press conference, the school’s a place “where democracy is at stake.” Instead of the usual righteous monologues, this is a film of dialogue and dialogues, in which the bickering teachers’ conferences begin to echo the kids’ troublemaking and skepticism but for the adults’ pretense of understanding and decorum (everyone, in any case, has their reason and handily states it in close-up). It would make a perfect, though not particularly good, double feature with Frederick Wiseman’s documentary State Legislature or Advise and Consent. David Phelps

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked

On the eve of Captain Marvel’s release, we ranked the 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Every Marvel Cinematic Universe Movie Ranked
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Most of Marvel Studios’s films are the cinematic equivalent of breadcrumbs, which have been dropped into theaters strategically so as to keep one looking for the next sequel or crossover, when the endless televisual exposition will eventually, theoretically yield an event of actual consequence. Occasionally, however, a Marvel film transcends this impersonality and justifies one’s patience. Weird, stylish, and surprisingly lyrical, Ant-Man, Iron Man 3, and Doctor Strange attest to the benefits of the old Hollywood-style studio system that Marvel has resurrected: Under the umbrella of structure and quota is security, which can bequeath qualified freedom. Chuck Bowen

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on April 25, 2018.


The Incredible Hulk

21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The aesthetic dexterity and psychological depth of Ang Lee’s Hulk is corrupted by Marvel’s “reboot” of the superhero franchise, Louis Leterrier’s intermittently kinetic but depressingly shallow The Incredible Hulk. In response to complaints that Lee’s unjustly excoriated 2003 effort was too talky and slow, Leterrier swings the pendulum to the opposite side of the spectrum, delivering a slam-bang spectacle so lacking in weight that, until the impressive finale, the film seems downright terrified of character and relationship development, as if too much conversation or—gasp!—subtextual heft will immediately alienate coveted young male fanboys. Nick Schager


Iron Man 2

20. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Upgraded with the latest CGI hardware but also more shoddy screenwriting software than its system can withstand, Iron Man 2 is an example of subtraction by addition. For a sequel designed to deliver what its predecessor did not, Jon Favreau’s follow-up to his 2008 blockbuster piles on incidents and characters it doesn’t need while still managing to skimp on the combat that should be this franchise’s bread and butter but which remains an element only trotted out at sporadic intervals and in modest portions. Schager


Captain Marvel

19. Captain Marvel (2018)

As another of the character-introducing MCU stories existing mostly to feed new superheroes into the Avengers series, Captain Marvel looks like something of a trial run. You know the drill: If the film lands with audiences, then you can count on Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)—like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and even Ant-Man before her—getting her own series. But if not, then, hey, she’s at least assured of being asked to pop by the game room at Stark Industries for a kibitz in somebody else’s franchise down the road. Based on what’s on display here, Captain Marvel could well get her own star turn again at some point, but hopefully it will be with a different crew behind the camera. Chris Barsanti


Avengers: Infinity War

18. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

What is this, a crossover episode? After 18 films, the overlords at Marvel Studios have gathered almost all of their indentured servants, er, star-studded stable together into the ever-crashing, ever-booming, and ever-banging extravaganza Avengers: Infinity War. Whether you look at this whirling dervish and see a gleefully grandiose entertainment or a depressing exemplar of the culturally degraded present moment will depend on your investment—in all senses of that term—in Marvel’s carefully cultivated mythos. The film is all manic monotony. It’s passably numbing in the moment. And despite the hard-luck finish—something an obligatory post-credits sequence goes a long way toward neutering—it’s instantly forgettable. Strange thing to say about a film featuring Peter Dinklage as the tallest dwarf in the universe. Keith Uhlich

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Thor

17. Thor (2011)

With some notable exceptions, Marvel Studios-produced films usually plateau at a glossy but totally indistinct level of mediocrity, and Thor continues the trend of weakly jumpstarting a franchise based on a Marvel comic with an adequate but instantly forgettable origin story. Kenneth Branagh’s film is reasonably well put-together, but unlike even his worst films, it has no internal life, instead feeling like an impersonal, assembly-line product. The film’s most notable feature is that it serves as a continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe set up by the Iron Man movies. Characters from those films pop up during Thor’s main narrative and after the end credits, living up to Marvel’s commitment to populating their films with the same bland versions of perfectly acceptable characters. While Thor is certainly competent, that’s just not enough. Simon Abrams


Captain America: The First Avenger

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

A spectacle of star-spangled superheroics, Captain America: The First Avenger gives sturdy big-screen treatment to Marvel’s square-jawed—and square—jingoistic military man. With Joe Johnston delivering pyrotechnical action-adventure in a period guise, à la The Rocketeer (which was similarly fixated on its female lead’s buxom chest), this costumed-crusader saga is a capable, if somewhat unremarkable, affair beset by the same origin-story shortcomings that plagued another U.S.-virtue-via-army-weaponry fable, Iron Man—namely, a bifurcated structure in which the introductory first half exceeds, in compelling drama and kick-ass thrills, the latter fight-the-baddies combat. Schager


Avengers: Age of Ultron

15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

While writer-director Joss Whedon takes considerable strides to make Avengers: Age of Ultron’s narrative feel more nuanced and personal, his few sublime scenes of expressive melodrama are drowned out by the massive amounts of exposition and backstory that make up most of the dialogue and subsequently make the film feel overworked. When the talk isn’t about the intricate plot and the characters’ mythology, it’s a whole lot of dick-centric jabs. In cases like the competition over who can pick up Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) hammer, there’s a vague sense that Whedon is in on the joke, but then there’s a plethora of other exchanges that don’t seem so tongue in cheek. The bro-isms that underscore these interpersonal relations might explain why Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff strikes up a romance with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), a.k.a. the Hulk, the only male Avenger who isn’t consistently preoccupied with the size of his…ego. The growing relationship between Romanoff and Banner is the tender heart of Age of Ultron, and Whedon clearly thrills in the cheesy but heartfelt melodrama that builds between them. Unfortunately, as the film has approximately another half-dozen or so plotlines to tend to, this section of the story barely makes up a sixth of the narrative. Chris Cabin

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