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The Beat Goes On: Every Madonna Single Ranked

In honor of Madonna’s 60th birthday, we’ve ranked all 78 of the Queen of Pop’s singles.

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The Beat Goes On: Every Madonna Single Ranked

In 2013, Billboard named Madonna the top Hot 100 solo artist of all time. She holds the title for the act with the most Top 10 singles in the United States, and reigns as the female with the most #1 singles in the U.K. According to Mediabase, the music industry service that monitors radio airplay in the U.S., there are currently no less than 20 Madonna songs in regular rotation on adult-contemporary and classic radio stations across the country. By every objective measure, she’s the most successful singles artist of all time.

But Madonna cast aside her reputation as a “singles artist” relatively early in her career, with albums like Like a Prayer, Erotica, and Ray of Light making a case for the singer as a consummate artist. (Listen to our list of Madonna’s greatest album cuts and B-sides here.) Her colossal success on the pop charts, which generally rewards familiarity and predictability, was possible not because she bucked the system—though from “Live to Tell” to “Justify My Love” to “American Life,” she’s rarely played it safe—but because she struck a balance between embracing trends and setting them.

This month the Queen of Pop hits another milestone. In honor of her 60th birthday, we’ve ranked all 78 of her singles. (To be eligible, a single had to have been released as an A-side in at least two major markets.) The bottom of our list is, not surprisingly, populated largely by Madonna’s most recent singles. But the decline in the quality of her latter-day output is a mere footnote in a 35-career that has spanned—and, for the most part, mastered—pop, R&B, dance, electronica, and beyond, while simultaneously tackling taboo topics, elevating underground trends, empowering minorities, and pushing the boundaries of so-called good taste. Let’s get to it. Sal Cinquemani

Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire list, minus “Gambler,” on Spotify.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbWbI9vo7NM

78. “Revolver”

From the new songs on 1990’s The Immaculate Collection to…whatever the hell this is. Forget the uncharacteristic desperate crassness of choosing the then-hot Lil Wayne as a collaborator—much less deciding that he, of all people, is who you want adorning 2009’s Celebration, your most comprehensive greatest-hits package yet, one which still managed to find no room for “Deeper and Deeper” or “I’ll Remember.” Also, ignore the half-heartedness of the track’s electroclash gestures. What you have left is a clumsy sex-equals-guns metaphor that, with each passing year in America, grows more and more tone deaf. Eric Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUVNXoOPkX0

77. “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”

That Evita turned ostensibly liberal musical nerds into authoritarian apologists by emphasizing only the most superficial aspects of Peronism would be sinful enough, but in typical Andrew Lloyd Webber fashion, its songs are musically rote and lyrically bludgeoning. So goes “Another Suitcase in Another Hall,” a sleepy travelogue set to schmaltzy acoustic guitar and saxophone and a male chorus echoing Eva Perón’s—and by extension Madonna’s—self-pitying complaints about moving from one place to another. Political and psychological nuance, meanwhile, are nowhere in sight. Paul Schrodt


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7hPMmzKs62w

76. “Bitch I’m Madonna”

Yes. Yes, you are. And you fucking ought to know better. Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYkwziTrv5o

75. “Girl Gone Wild”

The poison running through 2012’s “Girl Gone Wild” isn’t really its evidently deliberate disposability. Madonna could’ve covertly made a mockery of Benny Benassi’s crude David Guetta sheen if she’d been on her game. But the crassness of her performance reads sadly oblivious, and the demands to have fun are left sounding desperate. Like a Tumblr-meme version of “Get Together,” “Girl Gone Wild” is a rabbit hole of repurposed content (right down to the somewhat sacrilegious “Act of Contrition” swipe), ready for you to share if you want but of which you’ll unquestionably be done with by the time you hit “send.” It may not be the nadir of Madonna’s career, but I can think of few moments that feel as much like a betrayal of her legacy than the way she deadpans “It’s so erotic” right before chirping “This feeling can’t be beat.” Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTLq2bIrndU

74. “You Must Love Me”

We have no particular qualm with Alan Parker casting Madonna as Eva Peron to sell tickets. In the ‘90s, movie musicals just didn’t sell themselves, and they needed any extra help they could get. We also have no problem with Madonna winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress over Frances McDormand in Fargo, an oh-so-Hollywood Foreign Press Association choice that AMPAS even more predictably rendered irrelevant when they didn’t give Madonna an Oscar nomination. If “You Must Love Me” just barely misses taking the dishonor of being ranked the worst of the singles released from the soundtrack, it certainly chides that its entire mad existence was to push Andrew Lloyd Webber that much closer to an EGOT. Henderson


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWTDR6ztcnQ

73. “Celebration”

Recorded for Madonna’s 2009 greatest-hits collection of the same name, “Celebration” was clearly intended as a throwback to her early dance anthems. And it’s an embarrassing failure. Producer Paul Oakenfold’s incessant, four-on-the-floor beat may as well have come from a generic EDM sample pack. Worse is Madonna’s beleaguered singing, which sounds like a Gen-Z wannabe’s imitation of the Queen of Pop. “If it makes you feel good, then I say do it,” she tosses off through garish digital vocal effects, coming off like a Real Housewife too sauced on rosé to actually care one way or another. Benny Benassi added some much-needed sonic interest and rumbling bass on the superior remix, which Madonna was at least smart enough to use both for the music video and on tour. Schrodt


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cItHOl5LRWg

72. “Give Me All Your Luvin’”

“Every record sounds the same/You gotta step into my world,” Madonna sings on “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” the lead single from 2012’s MDNA. Even if the song didn’t really sound like anything on the radio at the time, it also didn’t sound like what “Justify My Love” sounded like in 1990, what “Frozen” sounded like in 1998, what “Music” sounded like in 2000, or even what “Hung Up” sounded like in 2005. The song is catchy, sure, but its few charms—‘60s surf-pop guitar, vintage video-game effects, and references to her past songs—are fleeting at best. “Beautiful Stranger,” which shares more than a few similarities with “Give Me All Your Luvin’,” at least sounded like it was being sung by a grown woman rejuvenated and exhilarated by love at first sight. Here, Madonna’s just playing head cheerleader for a team of one—and despite the presence of Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. The issue isn’t Madonna’s age (she’s made a career out of thwarting expectation and convention, which is why she still matters), but authenticity: The difference between, say, “Into the Groove” and “Give Me All Your Luvin’” is that Madonna’s demand for us to give her all our money—err “luv”—is coming from a queen on a throne, not an unknown hipster on the dance floor with the whole world at her fingertips. Cinquemani


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHHUhcV2eVY

71. “4 Minutes”

The 2008 hit “4 Minutes” is so meta—and its creators so egomaniacal—that it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Madonna and Justin Timberlake actually sat down with the intention of writing a song that could literally save the world and, instead, wound up writing a song about the hassle of writing a song that could literally save the world. Put simply, the song’s lyrics—which at first seemed confusing and muddled to those who expected it to be about, you know, saving the world from climate change or the AIDS pandemic in Africa—seem to attempt to illustrate what it’s like to write or perform a pop song that could actually succeed at doing one of those things, or at making the bourgeoisie and the rebel come together in every nation. Thank God for that colossal, ridiculously infectious horn riff. Without it, “4 Minutes” would be nothing but a busy assemblage of dubious clichés, irritating vocals, and Timbaland’s marching-band beats and irksome “ick-y ick-y” banter. Cinquemani


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aa2idqmpGQs

70. “One More Chance”

Due in part to her limited vocal range, Madonna’s ballads are often refreshingly understated compared to those of her contemporaries, her voice homing in on a specific emotional texture rather than bludgeoning you with shrill vocal gymnastics. Though she drifts toward maudlin on “One More Chance,” recorded for 1995’s slow-jam compilation Something to Remember, her pleas for a lover to come back so she can prove her worth are expressive. Regretting her tendency to “play the Queen of Hearts,” however, she sounds downright pitiable. Schrodt


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vkYyqxHdwNg

69. “Turn Up the Radio”

Among MDNA’s many disparate attempts at pop relevance, “Turn Up the Radio” is an innocuous but pleasurable enough anthem. The lyrics, aping “Music” without the ironic wit, praise the restorative power of blasting tunes on a drive and forgetting your problems (“We gotta have fun, if that’s all that we do” goes one clunker). In the end, though, Madonna isn’t able to put a distinctive stamp on the track, succumbing to producer Martin Solveig’s relentless beats and supersized bass. Schrodt


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgDxv0Qg_Rg

68. “Ghosttown”

With its rote production and gratuitous use of Auto-Tune, 2015’s “Ghosttown” is far from one of Madonna’s more searing ballads, but its portrait of a couple’s steadfast commitment even amid the ravages of a post-apocalyptic world feels poignant and relevant, evoking the personal impact of institutional collapse. Schrodt


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1CWXjk40yWE

67. “American Life”

If you can forget that “American Life” contains possibly the worst white-girl rap of all time, rhyming “soy latte” with “double shot-ey” and in the process making Debbie Harry sound like Jay-Z, then it’s actually an admirably gutsy lead single for an album that would effectively end Madonna’s reign on the U.S. pop charts. She and producer Mirwais fuse a dreamy acoustic chorus with harsh skittering drums and laser-like synth sounds, and the disorienting shift reflects Madonna’s state of mind in the lyrics, questioning the demands of the Dream Factory and moving toward something resembling personal satisfaction. It’s pop as bomb-throwing protest. Too bad her list of extensive household staff doesn’t exactly help make the point. Schrodt


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIiykBUPYWI

66. “Nothing Fails”

Well, nothing like the queen does, anyway. Henderson

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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


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


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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