Comedy is the element that once set Marvel comic books apart from its competitors, and over the last decade, it’s set Marvel movies apart as well. Marvel movies are funny. It’s part of what you’re being promised when you buy a ticket. In some Marvel movies, the comedy is an added bonus, like a sweet treat at the end of a hearty meal of big human muscles punching big CGI muscles; others feature some of the funniest scenes in the last ten years.
Vulture decided to look back and pick and rank the five funniest Marvel films thus far. We break down how comedy was used differently — or more effectively — in each of the movies: Some introduced a totally new tone, some showcased a new way to build relationships between the film’s leads, and others just had more jokes — and those jokes were better than those we’ve come to expect from comic-book films. We limited the list to five (fine, essentially six) because, though each of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have a semblance of comedy, most just offer a glimpse — or essentially duplicate — the wit of the films we unpack below.
Honorable Mention: Iron Man 2
In retrospect, it’s funny how funny people thought the first Iron Man was. Save for the scene when Tony Stark blows up, and the scene where Jarvis keeps spraying him with a fire extinguisher, it’s mostly fairly straightforward. What it did have, though, was Robert Downey Jr. giving a much looser performance than we’d come to expect from a superhero. RDJ’s Iron Man, unplagued by the self-doubt of, say, Spider-Man or Wolverine, or a Nolanian gray backdrop, had the energy of a guy always entering a party in his honor. It was a revelation.
In comparison, however (and though it’s a worse movie), Iron Man 2 is way funnier. In Iron Man, director Jon Favreau showed us the tiger; in Iron Man 2, he let him out of the cage. And by tiger, I mean something just as dangerous: improvised comedy. Arguably, the Second City–trained Favreau’s biggest contribution to the MCU was showing the Marvel higher-ups that their superhero movies could include a ton of improv and it wouldn’t get in the way of the BOOMS! BLAMS! and POWS! There are clearly scenes in Iron Man 2 where Favreau just let RDJ go and filmed whatever happened.
Notice the crosstalk. It’s why Vulture comics expert Abraham Riesman jokes in conversation that Iron Man 2 sometimes feels like a mumblecore movie. I love that little touch of RDJ walking to hit the bell, which seems like something that was decidedly spontaneously. At its core, that’s what was so exciting about these two Iron Man movies: You had a star at the center who felt more present than we’d come to expect in the genre. There’s almost a Bill Murray quality to RDJ’s Tony Stark; he’s able to walk the line of being both in character but a little outside of it. It’s why he’s the MCU actor that would be the hardest to replace.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
Another case where the sequel is worse, but the comedy is better — or, at minimum, more bountiful. This is largely because the titular Avengers all know each other now, and know how to push each other buttons (learning a bit from what worked so well in Guardians of the Galaxy). It’s all very cute, because they’re giants acting like babies. And it gets at what is, arguably, the most consistent, repeatable source of comedy in the MCU: the egos of super men bouncing against each other. [Leans back in a therapist chair and pushes glasses up nose.] Here’s the thing about so-called “super” heroes: Yes, they save the day, but why? Of course, of course, they don’t want innocent people to die. However, people are motivated by their desires — superheroes save people because it feels good. They think of themselves as individuals who deserve the power given to them to save; they deserve the muscles bestowed upon them by God, or Gods, or by some chemical
Because the gang is together in various pairings for the entirety of Age of Ultron, this playfulness is allowed to continue throughout (Vision’s eventual arrival, with his British-accented, robot deadpan is a great addition) — until, eventually, the film gets sucked up by Ultron’s melodrama. The shawarma scene from the first Avengers movie will probably be Joss Whedon’s most-remembered comedic moment from his turn at the helm, if only because the first film was much more of a sensation. Ultimately, Ultron earns the director his nickname, Jokes Whedon.
The two Iron Man movies set a broad template for the MCU that most of the films have since followed. It was less about defining a story structure or visual style, and more about setting the parameters of what we could expect from the universe — namely, charming superheroes coming to terms with being a superhero, while either cracking wise (Dr. Strange, the latestCaptain America movie, and obviously the Iron Man movies) or getting made fun of for being a fish out of water (the first Captain America and first two Thor movies). MCU jokes are what I like to describe as “script-doctor comedy,” meaning those little quips at the end of scenes that either can be easily replaced by a comedy writer hired to do a pass on the script, or by the director or actor while shooting. (On an upcoming episode of my podcast with Thor: Ragnorak director Taika Waititi, he told me he was given a script with jokes like this that he just ignored.) But there’s nothing wrong with this! With a good cast, these jokes can get legitimate laughs.
Ant-Man represents the funniest version of this sort of comedy. It helps that Paul Rudd is just a funnier actor than, say, Chris Evans or Benedict Cumberbatch, so his smart-alecky quips just hit a little bit harder. It also helps that Rudd worked with Adam McKay to rework Edgar Wright’s original after he left due to those infamous creative differences. As a result, Rudd and McKay find a little bit more room for comedy than in other, similar films in the franchise.