Ranking every Marvel Cinematic Universe film

My memory is slightly fuzzy on this point, but I believe I had already heard of the excellent British comedy Coupling the night I happened upon the hysterical Series 4 episode “Nightlines” sometime in late 2004 or early 2005; the show first aired on May 17, 2004. Despite being completely unfamiliar with any of the characters or previous storylines, I have rarely laughed that hard before or since.

And I was hooked, to the point where I have seen all 28 episodes multiple times. In so doing, I learned the name of the man who wrote every episode: Steven Moffat.

A little over five years later, in the late spring of 2010, a friend sent me this short video to watch. This was what finally convinced me to set aside my reticence and watch an episode of Doctor Who; please see here and here to see how THAT turned out.

Among other things, that video marked the advent of Moffat as Doctor Who showrunner, a fitting reward for writing some of the best episodes of the post-2005 revival to that point. It also meant that by the end of 2010, two of my favorite television shows—period—had Moffat’s fingerprints all over them.

This probably made it inevitable, especially given my lifelong obsession with detective fiction, that I—along with my wife Nell—would eventually start watching the television show Moffat co-created and co-wrote with Mark Gatiss,[1] the one which debuted on October 24, 2010, just six months after his tenure as Doctor Who showrunner began:

Sherlock

Though I had seen him act before, in 2013’s Star Trek Into Darkness, Sherlock marked the first time I was aware I was watching an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch.

Flash forward to early January 2020, by which point I had seen every episode of Sherlock, as well as every episode of Coupling and post-revival Doctor Who. Having worked through my obsession with Stranger Things, I was casting about for the next film or television series over which to obsess. I was well aware of the pop culture phenomenon that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but until then I had not been especially interested in watching any of its 23 interconnected films. Curiously, one of our daughters had already seen and loved Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as portions of Avengers: Infinity War, while the other one had seen Captain Marvel on the big screen with one of her best friends. As much as I had enjoyed the Spider-Man trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, though, none of the other characters who seemed to inhabit the MCU—Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America and Thor—particularly spoke to me. And that could well be because my primary association with those characters was spending five days as a nine-year-old in early January 1976 staring blankly at Captain America on my Mighty Marvel Bicentennial wall calendar as I recovered from one of the worst flus I have ever had.

Well…there had been one mild exception. When Doctor Strange was released in 2016, starring Cumberbatch in the title role, I was intrigued. Nell and I had loved Cumberbatch in Sherlock, and there was something about his being both a doctor—my Twitter handle is @drnoir33, after all—and a “master of the mystic arts” that felt like a fresh twist on the classic superhero epic battle trope.

Plus, I was really curious about the sparkly golden circles he kept making with his hands.

Which is how I found myself watching—and genuinely enjoying—Doctor Strange roughly six weeks ago. Following a pre-credits fight scene and the opening credits, we meet Doctor Stephen Strange as he prepares for surgery. A short time later, nearing the end of the procedure, he asks a fellow physician to play the “challenge” round in a musical trivia game. After easily identifying “Feels So Good” by Chuck Mangione, along with its correct year of release—1977, not 1978—Strange is asked about all the “useless” knowledge he has.

His flabbergasted response recalls my own immersion in musical esoterica: “Useless? The man charted a top ten hit with a flugelhorn!”

Doctor Strange FunkoPop

As we have been told for years about Pringles, you cannot stop at just one MCU film—especially not when your wife has a massive lifelong crush on Robert Downey, Jr., who portrays Tony Stark/Iron Man in nine MCU films. Subsequent days of film watching culminated with the four of us watching the wholly-satisfying, 3-hour-long Avengers: Endgame on the evening of February 16, 2020; for me, I now only have Spider-Man: Far From Home left to watch. And we are already making plans to see Black Widow when it is released in May 2020.

**********

In two previous posts, I gathered online film rating data to rank…

As I watched the MCU films, I decided to perform a similar analysis of this set of films.[2] Opening a blank Microsoft Excel worksheet, for each film I entered its:

  • Title
  • Date of release (according to the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb)
  • Year of release (ditto)
  • Length in minutes (ditto)
  • Estimated budget (ditto)
  • Gross worldwide earnings (ditto)
  • IMDb score and number of raters
  • Rotten Tomatoes (RT) Tomatometer score (% RT-sanctioned critics deeming film “fresh”), average critic rating (0-10) and number of critics
  • Audience Score (% RT users rating the film 3.5 or higher on 0-5 scale), average user rating and number of user raters

I collected budget and earnings data because I was curious whether, and how much, estimated profit—gross earnings minus budget—was related to perceived quality. Data are current as of 1:30 am EST on February 24, 2020. Analyses were performed using Microsoft Excel (Office Home and Student 2016) and Intercooled Stata 9.2[3].

History of a financial juggernaut.

As Table 1 reveals, the Marvel Cinematic Universe kicked off on May 2, 2008 with the release of Iron Man. Produced for an estimated $140 million, it ultimately earned nearly $585.4 million worldwide; the resulting $445.4 million profit was more than three times what the film cost to make. At the end of the film, in the first MCU post-credits scene, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) first reveals something called “the Avenger initiative” to Downey’s Stark.

Table 1: MCU Films by release date and financial status

Title Release date Run time (mins.) Estimated budget Gross worldwide earnings Estimated profit Profit/

Budget

Iron Man 5/2/2008 126 $140 million $585,366,247 $445,366,247 3.18
The Incredible Hulk 6/13/2008 112 $150 million $264,770,996 $114,770,996 0.77
Iron Man 2 5/7/2010 124 $200 million $623,933,331 $423,933,331 2.12
Thor 5/6/2011 115 $150 million $449,326,618 $299,326,618 2.00
Captain America: The First Avenger 7/2/2011 124 $140 million $370,569,774 $230,569,774 1.65
Marvel’s The Avengers 5/4/2012 143 $220 million $1,518,812,988 $1,298,812,988 5.90
End of Phase 1
Iron Man 3 5/3/2013 130 $200 million $1,214,811,252 $1,014,811,252 5.07
Thor: The Dark World 11/8/2013 112 $170 million $644,783,140 $474,783,140 2.79
Captain America: The Winter Soldier 4/4/2014 136 $170 million $714,421,503 $544,421,503 3.20
Guardians of the Galaxy 8/1/2014 121 $170 million $772,776,600 $602,776,600 3.55
Avengers: Age of Ultron 5/1/2015 141 $250 million $1,402,805,868 $1,152,805,868 4.61
Ant-Man 7/17/2015 117 $130 million $519,311,965 $389,311,965 2.99
End of Phase 2
Captain America: Civil War 5/6/2016 147 $250 million $1,153,296,293 $903,296,293 3.61
Doctor Strange 11/4/2016 115 $165 million $677,718,395 $512,718,395 3.11
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 5/5/2017 136 $200 million $863,756,051 $663,756,051 3.32
Spider Man: Homecoming 7/7/2017 133 $175 million $880,166,924 $705,166,924 4.03
Thor: Ragnorak 11/3/2017 130 $180 million $853,977,126 $673,977,126 3.74
Black Panther 2/16/2018 134 $200 million $1,346,913,161 $1,146,913,161 5.73
Avengers: Infinity War 4/27/2018 149 $321 million $2,048,359,754 $1,727,359,754 5.38
Ant-Man and the Wasp 7/6/2018 118 $162 million $622,674,139 $460,674,139 2.84
Captain Marvel 3/8/2019 123 $175 million $1,128,274,794 $953,274,794 5.45
Avengers: Endgame 4/25/2019 181 $356 million $2,797,800,564 $2,441,800,564 6.86
Spider Man: Far From Home 7/2/2019 129 $160 million $1,131,927,996 $971,927,996 6.07
End of Phase 3

Six weeks after Iron Man hit theaters, The Incredible Hulk was released—and while it turned a modest $114.8 million estimated profit, it remains the only MCU film to have a lower estimated profit than estimated budget. Perhaps this is why the third MCU film, Iron Man 2, did not arrive in theaters for nearly two more years; while not as successful as its predecessor, its estimated profit was still more than twice its estimated budget. The same was true of the next two films, which introduced Thor (and Clint Barton/Hawkeye) and Captain America; we had already met Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow in Iron Man 2.

On May 4, 2012, these six “Avengers” would unite in the most successful MCU film to date: Marvel’s The Avengers. This was not only the first film in the franchise to earn more than $1 billion in estimated profit—a staggering 5.9 times its estimated $220 million budget—it is fully 23 minutes longer than the first five films, on average; it also contains my favorite post-credits scene. Avengers provided a highly profitable end to what is now known as “Phase 1,” with the six films combining for more than $2.8 billion in estimated profit.

Phase 2 launched almost exactly one year later with Iron Man 3, the second consecutive MCU film to top $1 billion in estimated profit and have a profit/budget ratio (PBR) of at least 5.0. The next five films, ending with the more explicitly-comedic Ant-Man, all had a PBR of at least 2.79, with Avengers: Age of Ultron becoming the third MCU film to top $1 billion in estimated profit. Overall, the six Phase 2 films earned nearly $4.2 billion in estimated profit, as the franchise steadily increased in popularity. Besides Ant-Man (and, by implication, The Wasp) this Phase also introduced War Machine/James Rhodes, The Falcon/Sam Wilson, Vision/Jarvis, Scarlet Witch/Wanda Maximoff, Rescue/Pepper Potts, Winter Soldier/James “Bucky” Barnes and the Guardians of the Galaxy: Star-Lord/Peter Quill, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora and (though not yet an Avenger) Nebula.

Phase 3, the final Phase of what is known collectively as “The Infinity Saga,” began with the release of Captain America: Civil War on May 6, 2016; this film was the longest film to date, at 2 hours, 27 minutes, and it featured the debut of Spider Man. The aforementioned Doctor Strange was released six months later, also introducing Wong, with three films—one introducing Mantis and another introducing Valkyrie, Korg and Miek—following in 2017. The release of Black Panther on February 16, 2018 not only signaled the impending showdown with Thanos in the subsequent Avengers: Infinity War, it also introduced four more Avengers: the titular Black Panther/T’Challa, Okoye, Shuri and M’Baku, bringing the total to 31. Black Panther and Infinity War would become the fourth and fifth MCU films to top $1 billion in estimated profit; the latter’s estimated $1.73 billion in profit easily made it the most profitable film in the franchise to date.

Following an Ant-Man sequel and the introduction of Captain Marvel, the interlocking storylines reached their crescendo on April 25, 2019 with the release of Avengers: Endgame. This latter film, the most profitable of all time at an estimated $2.44 billion—6.9 times its $356 million estimated budget, was just over three hours long, continuing a trend of increasing run times; the previous nine Phase 3 films average 2 hours, 12 minutes in length. Overall, the 11 Phase 3 films accrued $11.16 billion in estimated profit—meaning the average Phase 3 film netted more than $1 billion—bringing the total estimated profit across all 23 MCU films to $18.15 billion, for an average of more than $660 million per film.

As for the sheer length of these films, they combine for 2,996 minutes of run time: 2 days, 1 hour and 56 minutes in total. So, you could knock them off in one weekend-long epic marathon, though I would not recommend it.

Online ratings and increasing public awareness.

Table 2 presents five online ratings and three counts of online raters for the 23 films in the MCU.

Table 2: Ratings Measures for MCU Films

Title IMDb Score

(# Raters)

Tomato-

meter

Mean Tomato-

meter Rating

(# Raters)

RT Audience Score Mean

Audience Rating

(# Raters)

Iron Man 7.9

(898,514)

94 7.7

(278)

91 4.3

(1,082,398)

The Incredible Hulk 6.7

(416,152)

67 6.2

(231)

70 3.7

(739,115)

Iron Man 2 7.0

(686,963)

73 6.5

(297)

71 3.7

(480,400)

Thor 7.0

(711.939)

77 6.7

(284)

76 3.8

(247.469)

Captain America: The First Avenger 6.9

(701,165)

80 6.9

(267)

74 3.8

(188,979)

Marvel’s The Avengers 8.0

(1,218,614)

92 8.1

(384)

91 4.4

(1,135,342)

Iron Man 3 7.2

(721.159)

79 7.0

(318)

78 3.9

(484,684)

Thor: The Dark World 6.9

(565,662)

66 6.2

(271)

76 3.9

(310,425)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier 7.7

(698,659)

90 7.6

(295)

92 4.3

(281,813)

Guardians of the Galaxy 8.0

(996,682)

91 7.8

(322)

92 4.4

(255,076)

Avengers: Age of Ultron 7.3

(700,440)

75 6.8

(360)

83 4.0

(288,171)

Ant-Man 7.3

(533,917)

83 6.9

(321)

86 4.0

(166,462)

Captain America: Civil War 7.8

(621,385)

91 7.7

(406)

89 4.3

(179,582)

Doctor Strange 7.5

(554,767)

89 7.3

(364)

86 4.1

(109,969)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 7.6

(624,996)

85 7.3

(403)

87 4.2

(108,403)

Spider Man: Homecoming 7.4

(472,178)

92 7.7

(384)

87 4.2

(107,475)

Thor: Ragnorak 7.9

(534,496)

93 7.6

(409)

87 4.2

(93.959)

Black Panther 7.3

(565,228)

97 8.3

(494)

79 4.1

(88,211)

Avengers: Infinity War 8.5

(748,778)

85 7.6

(455)

91 4.5

(57.790)

Ant-Man and the Wasp 7.1

(277,244)

88 7.0

(417)

76 3.7

(24,169)

Captain Marvel 6.9

(395,538)

78 6.8

(504)

48 2.9

(94,460)

Avengers: Endgame 8.5

(670,991)

94 8.2

(504)

90 4.5

(68,431)

Spider Man: Far From Home 7.5

(264,988)

91 7.5

(427)

95 4.6

(69,222)

 Table 3, meanwhile, summarizes all 14 measures.

 Table 3: Summary MCU Film statistics

Measure Mean

(SD*)

Median Minimum Maximum
Year of Release 2014.7

(3.4)

2015 2008 2019
Length (mins.) 130.3

(15.5)

129 112 181
Estimated Budget $192,782,609

($55,961,802)

$175,000,000 $140,000,000 $356,000,000
Gross Earnings $982,024,151

($576,952,326)

$853,977,126 $264,770,996 $2,797,800,564
Estimated Profit $789,241,543

($52,6038,263)

$663,756,051 $114,770,996 $2,441,800,564
Profit/Budget 3.8

(1.6)

3.5 0.8 6.9
IMDb Score 7.5

(0.5)

7.4 6.7 8.5
# IMDb Raters 629,584.6

(216,222.3)

621,385 277,244

 

1,218,614
Tomatometer 84.8

(8.9)

88 66 97
RT Critic Rating 7.3

(0.6)

7.3 6.2 8.3
# RT Critics 363.7

(80.2)

360 231 504
RT Audience Score 82.4

(10.5)

86 48 92
RT User Rating 4.1

(0.4)

4.1 2.9 4.5
# RT User Raters 289,652.4

(308,813.2)

179,582 24,169 1,135,342

*SD=standard deviation, a measure of how tightly packed values are around the mean: the smaller the value, the tighter the packing. In a normal distribution, 68% of values are within 1 SD, 95% are within 2 SD and 99% are  within 3 SD.

Two conclusions emerge from these data:

  1. As a group, these films are relatively well-regarded
  2. There is minimal variation in how well-regarded these films are.

The median IMDb score for the MCU films is a more-than-respectable 7.4, meaning half the films have a lower score and half have a higher score. Only four films have a score below 7.0: The Incredible Hulk at a good-but-not-great 6.7 and three films at 6.9. The median Tomatometer score was a very-high 88, with a solid average RT Critic rating of 7.3. Only Hulk and Thor: The Dark World have a Tomatometer score less than 70 and an average RT Critic Rating below 6.5. Finally, the median RT Audience Score is an impressive 86 and the median RT User Rating is a very solid 4.1. Only Captain Marvel has an RT audience score below 70 and an average RT User Rating below 3.5, a medicore 48 and 2.9, respectively.

For comparison, the median IMDb Score, Tomatometer, RT Critic Rating, RT Audience Score and RT User Rating values for the 557 films I analyzed in my “guilty pleasures” post are 7.2, 85, 7.1, 76 and 3.5, respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, meanwhile, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame both have an IMDb score of 8.5, with two other films scoring 8.0.  Fully 10 films have Tomatometer≥90, topped by Black Panther at an eye-popping 97. Black Panther also has the highest RT Critic Rating at 8.3, followed closely by Endgame and The Avengers. Seven films have RT Audience Score≥90, topped by Far From Home at an astonishing 95. Finally, Infinity War, Endgame and Far From Home all have RT User Ratings of 4.5 or 4.6.

As for how little variance there are in these rating measures, all five standard deviations were lower than or (RT User Rating) identical to those for the far more disparate 557 films I analyzed in the earlier post. Broadly speaking, these films are clustered around an appraisal of “good, just shy of great.” Even the (relatively) lower-rated films like Hulk, Dark World and Captain Marvel are far more “meh” than “awful,” while films like Black Panther, The Avengers and Endgame approach “critical darling” status.

The three “number of raters” measures also have relatively low variance. Perhaps because it is the more-established online movie information resource, there are consistently many more IMDb Raters than RT User Raters. At the same time, while none of the 557 films discussed in the earliest post had more than 342 RT Critics, fully 13 MCU films do, topped by the 504 who weighed in on Captain Marvel and Endgame. Curiously, while the number of both IMDb Raters and RT User Raters appears to be lower for more recent films, as one would expect, the number of RT Critics actually seems to increase over time. Correlations (“r”)—a measure ranging from -1.00 to 1.00 of how closely two variables are linearly related to each other[4]—between date of release and each of these three measures confirm this: the former two are negatively correlated (r=-0.47 and -0.78, respectively) with date of release while RT Critics is very highly positively correlated at 0.88.

**********

To assess these films in a more sophisticated way, I used a statistical technique called factor analysis, which groups variables into underlying “dimensions,” or “factors,” used the 14 variables in Table 3. Each variable has a “factor loading” for each factor, essentially its correlation with the underlying dimension. This technique[5] generated three factors accounting for 90% of the total variance in these data, which is remarkably high.

The first factor (accounting for 39% of total variance) is dominated by gross worldwide earnings (0.96), estimated profit (0.96) estimated budget (0.93), run time (0.84) and PBR (0.77); number of RT critics (0.61) and IMDb score (0.56) also load relatively high on this factor. As this dimension mostly combines the cost and profitability of each film with its length, I label it “Epicness.”

The second factor (30%) is dominated by RT audience score (0.91), average RT user rating (0.88), Tomatometer (0.85), RT Critic Rating (0.81) and IMDB Score (0.74). This dimension is clearly “Perceived Quality” (PQ).

The third factor (21%) is dominated by year of release (0.88), number of RT audience raters (-0.84), number of RT critics (-0.74) and number of IMDB raters (0.72): precisely the same pattern outlined above. This dimension is effectively “Recency;” I do not dwell on it below, echoing the “guilty pleasures” post.

Table 4: How MCU Films Compare on Three “Ratings” Dimensions

Title

Epicness

Perceived Quality Recency
Iron Man -0.66 1.19 -1.97
The Incredible Hulk -0.81 -1.55 -1.25
Iron Man 2 -0.12 -1.27 -1.01
Thor -0.80 -0.61 -0.54
Captain America: The First Avenger -0.96 -0.55 -0.39
Marvel’s The Avengers 1.05 1.01 -1.64
Iron Man 3 0.68 -0.73 -0.92
Thor: The Dark World -0.35 -1.30 -0.48
Captain America: The Winter Soldier -0.64 0.97

-0.30

Guardians of the Galaxy -0.54 1.24 -0.48
Avengers: Age of Ultron 0.96 -0.76 -0.41
Ant-Man -1.05 0.15 0.35
Captain America: Civil War 0.33 0.62 0.19
Doctor Strange -0.67 0.44 0.55
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 -0.36 0.30 0.73
Spider Man: Homecoming -0.42 M 0.64 0.80
Thor: Ragnorak -0.48 0.76 0.81
Black Panther 0.47 0.49 1.06
Avengers: Infinity War 1.87 0.32 M -0.03 M
Ant-Man and the Wasp -0.74 -0.35 1.68
Captain Marvel 0.68 -2.47 1.50
Avengers: Endgame 2.98 0.47 0.33
Spider Man: Far From Home -0.66 1.19 -1.97

Table 4 reveals how many SD above or below the mean (set to 0) all 23 films are on these three dimensions.[6] Values≥1.0 are boldfaced, and values≤-1.0 are italicized; median value is marked with an “M.”

When reading these values, keep in mind that each of these factors is as “disentangled” from the other two as possible, though Epicness and PQ still overlap to some extent. This is why, for example, Infinity War and Endgame have by far the highest “Epicness” scores—they are the longest films with the highest budgets earning the most money—but do not have as high PQ scores despite their generally high ratings: they are far more “epic” than they are “high quality” according to these data. And it is why Guardians and Iron Man top these films on PQ—they are the highest-rated films which, while very profitable, were not quite on the scale of the final two Avengers films; the well-received Captain America: The Winter Soldier falls into this category as well. Somewhere in between are epic, but not well-regarded films like Ultron and less-epic, but relatively well-regarded films like Ant-Man and Doctor Strange.

The only film, meanwhile, with value≥1.0 on both measures is The Avengers, while the only film to have positive values on all three measures is Civil War.

At the other end of the spectrum, not surprisingly, are films like Hulk, Dark World, and Iron Man 2 that made far less money and are relatively lower-rated, as well as the anomalous Captain Marvel, which turned a tidy profit despite the lowest PQ score by far. In fact, every film between Iron Man and Avengers has negative values for all three measures, as does Dark World.

Summary. For those new to the MCU, these data suggest starting at the beginning, with Iron Man then jumping ahead to The Avengers; you do not miss much along the way, with the mild exception of First Avenger, which introduces key characters and plot points. Watch Winter Soldier and Guardians next, then Civil War. I personally would watch Ant-Man, Doctor Strange and Black Panther after that, if only because each is interesting in its own right and, like First Avenger, relay key characters and plot points. And then you can conclude with Infinity War and Endgame, bearing in mind their combined run time is 5 hours and 30 minutes.

Or, you can choose your own MCU adventure, which these data strongly suggest you would enjoy.

Until next time…

[1] I strongly recommend Gatiss’ three-part series on the history of horror films. Part 1 may be found here.

[2] Only to learn Leonard Maltin stopped publishing his annual Movie Guide in 2015. ata Statistical Software: Release 9. College Station, TX: StataCorp LP.

[4] Essentially, a positive correlation means that as one variable increases, the other one does as well, while a negative correlation means that as one variable increases, the other one decreases.

[5] Principal factors, with an orthogonal varimax rotation, forced to three factors.

[6] Using the “Predict” command—regression scoring method—in Stata. In essence, it converts each variable to a “z-score” (mean=0, SD=1), recalculates the factor loadings, then sums each value weighted by the factor loadings.

Why I chose…Earnest and Arms

My mother died in March 2004, having outlived my father by nearly 22 years. As I often use humor to process the most intense emotions, I began to quip about “being orphaned at 37,” often adding some variant of this quote:

To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

This quote elicited many a blank look.

If pressed, I would name the quote’s author, though I did not always remember the quote’s context.

It is thus a window into my interior thought processes to realize, having completed the seven-day Facebook book challenge (seven covers in seven days, no explanations), that the quote originally appeared in a book I selected for that challenge.

Before I explain further, just bear with me while I describe my late mother’s favorite story as a child.

Called “The Selfish Giant,” it tells the story of a giant who walls off his lovely garden from the children who used to play there, causing winter never to end in it. Only when children find a way back into the garden does spring return. That the story ends with some maladroit Christian symbolism detracts little from its overall elegance.

This VERY short tale, one in an anthology of stories I used to browse in a favorite maternal great aunt’s high-end Philadelphia apartment, was my first encounter with Oscar Wilde.

**********

I was most likely exposed to the alchemic mix of high- and low-brow that is British comedy in sixth grade, when “in the know” classmates started talking about something called “Monty Python.” Perhaps this was because the seminal comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, released just two or three years earlier, was already achieving cult status.

It is true that by sixth (or maybe seventh) grade I was regularly watching reruns of the surreally-brilliant Monty Python’s Flying Circus; it was one of a series of half-hour shows I would watch at 11 pm on Saturday nights, just before the Charlie Chan movie on Philadelphia’s Channel 48.

Around the same time, I discovered the decidedly-lowbrow (but no less funny) The Benny Hill Show. Entering high school a few years later, I happened upon the slap-dash lunacy of The Kenny Everett Video Show, the intelligent sci-fi surrealism of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the witty and well-written Doctor in the House (OK technically, Philadelphia’s PBS station WHYY was airing the 1972-73 follow-up series Doctor in Charge).

I was so enamored of this sitcom that I tape-recorded episodes 5 and 6; I still have the cassette, though I long ago taped over both episodes.

In short, by the spring of my senior year of high school, I was already an ardent fan of the broad slapstick and respect-for-audience-intelligence that defines British humor.

One afternoon that spring, I came home from school, sprawled out on our navy blue living room sofa, and pulled out a slim paperback.

Reading the paperback, I started to laugh. These were not soft chuckles or suppressed giggles. This was from-the-belly, out-loud, roll-around-on-the-floor laughing.

And I did not stop laughing until I finished the paperback a few hours later.

This is what I read.

IMG_3764 (2).JPG

That I read this comic masterpiece as part of a small-group (n=2) presentation on the works of Oscar Wilde for my senior year English class—one of the most challenging and rewarding classes I ever took—is certain. What I forget is whether everyone in the class had to read The Importance of Being Earnest or just my presentation partner and I.

He and I also read and analyzed The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel and the basis of this film, occasionally labeled noir[1] (including being screened in 2016 during NOIR CITY).

For that presentation, I freely admit that I dressed (as closely as I could with what I had) as Oscar Wilde and spoke in a mediocre British accent (yes, he was Irish…but we were presenting him in the context of late Victorian-era literature, or something). Despite my theatrics (because of them?) our presentation was very well-received by our peers. There are always critics, of course, including the one who noted that I sounded like “someone from Monty Python.”

Sorry, no photographs of me in that attire exist, nor do any recordings of my accent.

Clearly I had enjoyed this performance, though, because a few days later, my cousin and I went for cheesesteaks in a now-defunct joint just off the Roosevelt Boulevard in North Philadelphia—and I wore my Oscar Wilde attire and used the same accent. The reaction from fellow patrons, such as it was, was muted.

As for the play itself, I think it perfectly encapsulated everything I loved about British humor: it was irreverent, intelligent, silly and insightful all at the same time.

And it was laugh-out-loud funny.

Besides the ageless Dorian Gray, I would eventually read other works of fiction by Wilde: the plays Salome, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance come to mind, as does the novella The Canterville Ghost. I enjoyed all of them, but none knocked me flat they way Earnest still does.

Incidentally, our eldest daughter read The Canterville Ghost for the first time tonight. She enjoyed so much she needed to relay its entire plot to me while brushing her teeth.

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Perhaps it was in the advanced United States history class I took my junior year, or perhaps it was in the (surprisingly mediocre) introductory political science course I was allowed to take at Villanova the following year[2].

At some point in my last two years of high school I was introduced to the Fabian socialists, a group of late-19th-century British writers and thinkers who advocated for needed social reforms, albeit more gradually than their Marxist counterparts. The Fabian Society, founded in 1884, morphed into the Labour Party in 1906; Labour remains one of the primary British political parties.

I was fascinated enough by the Fabian socialists that I wrote a paper (for what class, I could not tell you now, though it was probably in high school) on them. And I learned that one of their key members was an Irish-born playwright by the name of George Bernard Shaw.

Until then, all I really knew about Shaw was Monty Python member Michael Palin’s absurdist portrayal of him in a sketch in which Shaw, Wilde and James McNeill Whistler (the artist renowned for painting his mother) trade insulting witticisms directed at an unnamed King at a party.

And then I read this play.

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I was most likely assigned it in that same high school English class, but it might have been in a college course. Regardless, I was immediately moved by its simple and direct anti-war message.

Central to the story is that Bulgaria (backed by the Russian Empire) is at war with Serbia (backed the Austro-Hungarian Empire) in 1885; the alliances are eerily prescient of World War I, which would not start for another 29 years.

The play begins in the upstairs bedroom of the daughter of the highest-ranking Bulgarian officer (Major Petkoff) serving in the conflict. Raina and her mother Louka share the naïve romanticism about war and the soldiers who fight in it that would itself be shattered in the trenches of World War I.

Louka tells Raina her handsome young fiancée Sergius has that day led a “cavalry charge! think of that! He defied our Russian commanders—acted without orders—led a charge on his own responsibility—headed it himself—was the first man to sweep through their guns.”[3]

Filled with visions of her fiancee’s noble heroism, she settles down to sleep, only to be startled by a man creeping into her room. He is a Swiss mercenary fighting for the Serbs trying to escape capture. Despite the fact that he paints a far less flatteing picture of the cavalry charge and openly mocks its leader (unaware he is the fiancée of the woman whose bedroom he has entered), Raina ultimately decides to protect him. She gives him her last three chocolate creams (“Bless you, dear lady! You can always tell an old soldier by the insides of his holsters and cartridge boxes. The young ones carry pistols: the old ones, grub. Thank you.”[4]) which he ravenously consumes. Derisively (for now), she calls him a “chocolate cream soldier.”

As you might expect, over the course of the play, including the unexpected return of  her “chocolate cream soldier,” Raina rethinks her attitudes toward the nobility of war, apprehending its banal horrors more fully.

Unlike the film Johnny Got His Gun (the unforgettable backdrop for Metallica’s “One” video), which uses Grand-Guignol-style horror to convey its anti-war message, Shaw’s play is more subtle, using gentle satire and romance to make the same point. Shaw is sympathetic to all of his characters, allowing their debate to unfold without overt mockery or caricature.

Let me be clear: I am neither anti-soldier nor anti-military. I am a realist who honors the sacrifice of untold millions in wars and recognizes their occasional grim necessity.

But I am staunchly opposed to the glorification of war as the pinnacle of an aggressive form of heroism. I am staunchly opposed to government officials who have never served themselves using war as a political weapon. I am disgusted by candidates who use “Swift Boat” tactics to defeat those who have actually served in combat. To take one example: my maternal aunt is good friends with former Georgia Democratic Senator Max Cleland. Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm serving in the Vietnam War, was defeated for reelection in 2002 after one term in part because his Republican opponent Saxby Chambliss attacked his patriotism in the context of his votes on various post-9/11 homeland security measures. This may also have been an early example of the clannish us-vs.-them nature of contemporary politics.

As with Wilde, I would read other plays by Shaw, including Candida, Major Barbara, Saint Joan and the astonishing Man and Superman. And as with Earnest, I enjoyed them (particularly Man and Superman), just not nearly as much as I did Arms and the Man.

Honorable Mentions:

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

I read this in that challenging high school English class as well as in at least one college class. My only new thought on this masterpiece, perhaps the only work of fiction more often quoted than Casablanca, is how drawn I have always been to the character of Horatio. He is the quiet and loyal friend who tries (unsuccessfully) to get his friend Hamlet through his existential crisis and survives while everyone dies. Nice work if you can get it.

Complete Stories of Edgar Allan Poe (International Collectors Library)

Forget that in just five stories[5] Poe essentially invented modern detective fiction. Forget the bizarre circumstances of his life (marrying his 13-year-old cousin) and death. This tortured artist was THE master of the short story (one that he felt should take no more than two hours to complete)—“the form in which the ‘highest genius’ might most advantageously exert its powers [and whose] compactness made possible both high excitement in the reader and maximum artistic control by the writer.”[6] If nothing else, Poe’s unrivaled tales of horror and suspense allowed Vincent Price to have a long and distinguished career.

Stalking the Nightmare by Harlan Ellison

Yet another collection of short stories, this time in the vein of science fiction and fantasy. Written by the controversial Ellison, these are mind-bending stories of genies and sewers intermixed with three real-world stories, including his aborted screenplay efforts for the first Star Trek movie. Actually, as good as this collection is, my all-time favorite Ellison work remains his script for the single best episode of ANY Star Trek: “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I wanted to include at least one non-detective-fiction novel, and I chose this satiric dark comedy masterpiece in a close call over John Kennedy Toole’s absurdist posthumous gem A Confederacy of Dunces. Breakfast may not be Vonnegut’s most famous novel, but it is the first one I ever read, back in the carefree summer between graduating high school and enrolling at Yale. That is probably why it has stuck with me all these years, because I associate it with one of the happiest times of my life. It is also laugh-out funny.

The Aeneid by Virgil

When my mother, our keeshond Luvey and I moved in with my aunt and cousins in the middle of 7th grade, I was thrust into a new school in the middle of a school year. The most challenging part was choosing a foreign language to study in media res. I chose Latin. Having no choice, I quickly caught up, finding that I enjoyed Latin’s logical structure. Two years later, having moved into a beautiful new apartment (just Mom, Luvey and I), I inadvertently enrolled in the sophomore Latin class at Harriton High School while still a freshman; this choice helped me win Harriton’s first ever Latin award. In that class, we read the other epic poem about the Trojan War, this one from the perspective of Aeneas, son of King Priam of Troy. After the fall of Troy, Aeneas finds himself in North Africa, where he falls in love with Queen Dido (infelix Dido). Forced by the gods to relocate (leading Dido to commit suicide), he eventually helps to lay the groundwork for the founding of Rome. After reading much of it in Latin, I read it again for a freshman-year English class at Yale, making it the only major piece of fiction I have studied in two languages.

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I began this post with a quote about lost parents. Let me end it with another quote from The Importance of Being Earnest:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

I do not necessarily agree with the first part (Nell is nothing like her mother, for example). However, if I can be anything like my mother, who I miss (along with my father) every day, then so be it.

Until next time…

[1] For a film noir research project, I compiled 32 published film noir lists (minimum 120 titles) and 12 smaller lists (25-119 titles); a total of 4,825 films appeared on at least one of these lists. Dorian Gray appears on five of 32 LISTS, with 6.5 total POINTS (LISTS plus appearances on “sublists” within the 32 larger lists and/or one of the 12 smaller lists). Only 889 (18.4%) titles appear on more LISTS that Dorian Gray, and only 838 (17.4%) have more POINTS.

[2] I was one of two Harriton High School seniors who, by virtue of our exceptional PSAT scores, could take one of a selected group of courses at Villanova; my equally-bright classmate took a math course.

[3] Shaw, Bernard. 1984. Arms and the Man. Definitive Text (originally published 1898). New York, NY: Penguin Books, pg. 7.

[4] Ibid., pg. 16.

[5] The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, The Purloined Letter, The Gold Bug, Thou Art the Man.

[6] Silverman, Kenneth. 1991.Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, pg. 166