Since 2008, Marvel has released a total of fourteen films as part of their interconnected cinematic universe.
Broken into three “Phases”, these movies include Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger – all of which lead up to The Avengers, which serves as the grand finale of Phase One. In Phase Two, meanwhile, we got Iron Man 3, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World, and Guardians of the Galaxy – all of which lead up to Avengers: Age of Ultron, with Ant-Man rounding out the end of this block of movies. Since then, Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange have kicked off Phase Three which is set to include Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnorak, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and the (as of now) untitled Avengers 4. Every one of the movies that have been released so far have managed to score a “Fresh Rating” on Rotten Tomatoes, having been well received by both the general audience and critics alike, and altogether, they’ve amassed over ten-billion dollars worldwide.
With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 due to hit theaters in just over a month’s time, and Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnorak due out later this year, I thought it was time to look back on the films that have come before and reflect on where I think they rank against one another. Mind you, I don’t hate any of the Marvel movies, but I do prefer certain ones over others. Having said that, here we go – starting with my least favorite.
14. Thor: The Dark World
Let me start off by admitting that out of all of the main Avengers who’ve gotten their own movies, Thor is by far my least favorite. As a God, I find him un-relatable as a main character; he’s too far removed from what a human being is. Not that a giant green monster or a super soldier are completely relatable, but at least they’re human and from Earth.
I find Thor’s fish-out-of-water shtick played out at this point, but it really started wearing thin on me with this one. I understand why his first movie had to take place on Earth, and obviously why he had to come to Earth in The Avengers, but his second movie should have taken place completely in one of the other nine realms. I didn’t like any of the human supporting characters, and when you add in the completely un-intimidating, weak villain that is Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith, this film becomes complete filler compared to the other Marvel movies. The only parts I truly enjoyed were any time the Warriors Three were on the screen (specifically the gorgeous Jaime Alexander’s Lady Sif) and whenever Tom Hiddleston’s Loki showed up. No matter how bad the script, Hiddleston always manages to inject a crackling energy into every scene he’s part of.
My hope for Thor: Ragnorak is that the majority of it takes place completely off of Earth. At least with the Hulk taking part in the proceedings, it’s almost guaranteed that it’ll be my favorite of Thor’s solo outings regardless.
13. The Incredible Hulk
The Hulk is definitely my least favorite Avenger after Thor. Bruce Banner is hard to nail down in a solo film. He’s not really much of a “star” character. He’s a man on the run, desperately trying to find a cure for his condition, which makes for uninteresting storytelling because of the fact we know that he’ll never be cured; it’s an empty threat.
In this movie, I don’t appreciate the fact that Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner as more of a misanthropic, angry individual than a bumbling, kind-hearted doctor trying to help people as he’s trying to help himself like Mark Ruffalo plays him in The Avengers films. I also think this film suffers due to the fact that it was shot at the same time as the first Iron Man movie; Marvel wasn’t sure which of the two films would resonate more with the audience – the more light-hearted, humorous one or the darker, more thoughtful one. Ultimately, Iron Man was a much larger success and The Incredible Hulk became the literal dark horse of the MCU – both in terms of tone, and in terms of the fact that it’s the only Marvel movie not to have ever received a direct, standalone sequel.
The God of Thunder’s first solo outing was leagues better than his second, though it still doesn’t reach the greatness of all of the other MCU movies (minus The Incredible Hulk). When this was released, Thor’s fish-out-of-water gambit was fresh and charming, and the reactions of the human characters to his boorish, outlandish behavior was funny. This was also the first time we were introduced to the relationship between him and Loki, who was a brand new villain and not yet overused.
Despite all of this, I didn’t feel like the story was epic enough – its only two standout set pieces in my mind are the Thor vs. The Destroyer fight, and the the Thor vs. Loki fight on the visually stunning Rainbow Bridge. (Though I’ll also give credit where credit’s due and point out how hilarious the montage of regular people trying to pick up Mjölnir is.) I am, however, deducting points for how they shoehorned Hawkeye and S.H.I.E.L.D. into the film just to remind us that this movie is connected to the rest of the Marvel Universe, but I’ll add a point back for the organic, implied mentions of Bruce Banner and Hank Pym.
Overall, Thor isn’t the worst of the MCU films, but it’s far from being one of the more memorable ones, and its one of the Marvel movies that I tend to skip the most when I go back to re-watch them all.
11. Iron Man 2
The biggest problem concerning Robert Downey Jr.’s second outing as Tony Stark was how overcrowded the movie was, and how it tried to imply some really dark themes – such as Tony’s alcoholism – without fully going there, which resulted in a lackluster payoff. Between Tony Stark realizing he’s slowly dying and deciding to recklessly drink more to deal with it; Scarlett Johansson’s introduction – and by far worst turn – as Black Widow; two villains in Justin Hammer and Whiplash; giving Rhodes the War Machine suit (and reintroducing Don Cheadle’s version of Rhodes, who is leagues and bounds better than Terrence Howard’s); having Tony Stark invent a new element (What?); shoehorning in cameos by Nicky Fury and Agent Coulson just so we can find out that Tony Stark isn’t fit to be part of The Avengers Initiative (seriously, what?); and trying to balance two narratives running concurrently with one another about sons continuing their fathers’ legacies, even a fan of the comics can get dizzy trying to follow it all and make sense of this plot. Half of the things introduced didn’t even receive a satisfying resolution – such as Whiplash’s villainy; he turned out to be nothing more than a glorified henchman! There’s no denying Hammer was the real villain of the movie.
This movie is also widely criticized, and rightfully so, for the fact that it seems more like a trailer for the future of the MCU than a film in its own right. This is an enormous problem that, as I mentioned in a previous post, Marvel suffers from in a lot of their movies – trying to add too much connective tissue to allude to the rest of their wider universe.
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I’ll probably catch some flack for having this one so low on the list, but I honestly think this is the most overrated of Marvel’s films to date. It’s a great movie, don’t get me wrong, but I can’t for the life of me understand why so many people consider it to be one of their favorites.
Look, there’s a lot that I like about it. In fact, I only have a few nitpicks with it compared to what I feel the film did correctly. By this point in time, Chris Evans is a natural at playing Steve Rogers and the filmmakers consistently handle his feeling of being an outsider in the modern world much better than the studio ever handles Thor’s outsider status when he arrives on Earth in his movies. I also loved the addition of the Falcon, the fact that Black Widow fit much more naturally here than in Iron Man 2, the emotionally riveting and expertly handled relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky, a believable introduction to Zola in the live-action MCU, and the whole political thriller aspect of this movie; the political angle grounded it, and made it more realistic than any of the other Marvel movies up until this point, while still making it feel like it belonged in the same universe.
Ultimately, it’s the realism of the movie that makes it lose major points with me. Not that I hate the gritty realism – in fact, I prefer that in storytelling! – but this movie was so realistic throughout except for the one, stupid scene where Nick Fury is in his SUV getting attacked by Hyrda. The intelligence of that damn car, coupled with how many gadgets and tricks it had up its sleeve, took me out of the film completely – it may as well have been the Batmobile! And when Fury escapes through the car’s bottom with some sort of laser, I was done. I can buy Helicarriers rising from the Potomac River, and a mad, Nazi scientist putting his consciousness into a computer, but I drew my line at the smart car. In a movie that was otherwise pretty realistic, I found that entire scene to be distracting. And it’s for this reason, and this reason alone, that this movie falls as low as it does in my ranking.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger
Is Captain America: The First Avenger honestly better than Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Absolutely not. This movie borders on campiness for much of its run time, and doesn’t really have an “ending” so much as a series of cliffhangers that are supposed to propel us into the next wave of Marvel films. Having said that, I find this to be Marvel’s most charming movie. Maybe it’s the World War II setting, or the Indiana Jones vibe this movie exudes, but I find myself re-watching this Captain America solo outing far more than its direct sequel, and for that reason alone, I’m ranking it higher on my list.
Plus, how great were the effects used to turn Chris Evans into scrawny Steve Rogers? So well done! And is there a man (or woman) alive that watched Steve’s instant transformation into a bulky Adonis that didn’t wish that the super soldier serum actually existed in real life?
8. Iron Man
Ah, Iron Man; the movie that started not only its own extremely successful trilogy, but an entire universe of interrelated movies. Without it, the MCU – and, I’d wager, the DCEU – wouldn’t exist today. Marvel risked it all betting on this horse, and it was gamble that paid off in spades. Casting Robert Downey Jr., who at the time had fallen out of the Hollywood spotlight due to his party boy persona and drug problems, was an inspired choice, and I’d even go as far to say that Marvel has never balanced the realistic tone with their trademark lightheartedness better than they did in this movie.
There are only two gripes that I have with the film overall. I don’t like Terrence Howard as James Rhodes; I don’t like his chemistry with Downey Jr. or the way he plays the character. And I also don’t think the effects of the Iron Man suit in this movie stand up today compared to many of the special effects utilized throughout the rest of the MCU’s first films. Also, there’s a reference to Myspace. Even when this movie was released, Myspace was old news; a tech guru like Tony Stark definitely wouldn’t be utilizing it. They’re small gripes, but they’re enough to take me out of the movie a little bit, helping it to earn it’s eighth place ranking on my list.
7. The Avengers
I think The Avengers is the most overrated superhero movie of all time. There, I said it. I know it’s a controversial statement, but that’s what I truly believe. I remember the joy and excitement leading up to seeing this on opening night, and I remember buzzing with happiness after exiting the movie theater two hours later. But during re-watches, it becomes clearer each time just how flimsy and weak the story actually is. It takes almost an hour to have all of the Avengers on screen together, which was fine the first time watching it, but gets annoying every subsequent time.
Having said that, once the Avengers are all sharing the screen, it’s magical – no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie. The actors/the characters interact so well together, and I truly believe Marvel will never be given enough credit for the fact that they took a huge gamble by taking four completely, disparate characters and managing to make them work in one, enjoyable film. It seems like a simple concept in retrospect, since that’s the exact formula every Hollywood studio is trying to replicate nowadays, but Marvel was the first, and for that reason – along with the humor and the amazing action set pieces – The Avengers comes in at number seven on my list.
I’m sure many of you are surprised that Ant-Man ranks so high, but I’m going to explain this by making the opposite statement of the one I made about The Avengers – I think that Ant-Man is probably the most underrated superhero movie of all time. I think people forget how successful this movie turned out to be when comparing it to the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, which was the last “original” Marvel film to come out before this. Just look at the numbers though – Ant-Man made more money in it’s first outing than The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger. Considering how the character, similar to DC’s Aquaman, has always been the butt of so many pop culture jokes, this is an incredible achievement.
Why was it so successful? Besides the fact that Paul Rudd is charming as hell, Evangeline Lily is the most kickass female to appear in the MCU so far, and it co-starred Michael Freaking Douglas, I think it’s because of how unique Ant-Man’s power set is compared to any of the Marvel heroes that have come before him; all of which – besides the Guardians – we’ve seen at least three or four times at this point. Ant-Man injected a breath of fresh air in what was becoming, for me, a somewhat stale movie universe. It’s original, it has one of the best and most unique third acts of any of the Marvel films, and it’s as self-contained as could be, while still subtly alluding to the rest of the MCU. Plus, how awesome was that Ant-Man vs. Falcon fight?
I guarantee that the members of the general audience who missed seeing this film in theaters saw Scott Lang show up in Civil War alongside Captain America, they’re going to be rushing to see Ant-Man and the Wasp in 2018.
5. Doctor Strange
I’m a sucker for origin stories. I always have been. (Though I do admit, for certain heroes like Batman and Spider-Man, they don’t need to be done anymore since everybody on this planet, fan or not, knows their beginnings.) The only problem with there being such an abundance of comic book heroes on the silver screen nowadays is the fact that movies detailing their beginnings tend to fall into a trap of feeling extremely similar in terms of story beats and tone. Doctor Strange manages the remarkable in that, while being as cliche an origin story as possible, it also manages to feel remarkably new and fresh.
The arc that Stephen Strange’s story details – charting his course from brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon to humble hero – is not only remarkably similar to Tony Stark’s journey of becoming Iron Man, but also Bruce Wayne’s path to becoming Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins. Due to an accident that forces him to reevaluate his life and everything he believed to be true, Strange ventures to Nepal to find a little-known place called Kamar-Taj in the hopes that somebody there may be able to fix his mutilated hands. What he finds instead is a world of magic and mysticism that helps him to bring out the hero within, allowing the doctor to continue saving lives in a completely different way.
This movie ranks as high as it does on this list for a few reasons. Firstly, Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play Doctor Strange. He inhabits the role so completely, it’s difficult to completely separate the two from one another – much like Robert Downey Jr. and Tony Stark. I believe Marvel knows they struck gold with this casting coup because while watching the film, it’s clear that the studio is hoping Cumberbatch’s Strange will become the poster boy for Marvel’s brand when the day comes that Downey retires from the role of Iron Man. Without Cumberbatch’s natural charisma as an actor, this movie would not have worked as well as it did.
Secondly, the cinematography and visuals in this film are absolutely stunning, probably more so than any other movie that Marvel’s released so far. In particular the representation of magic, which we’ve yet to really see in the MCU up until this point. Indeed, Stephen Strange’s trip through the astral plane is so trippy and inspired, I’d wager it’s worth the price of admission/the price of the Blu-Ray alone. Thirdly, but not unrelated, the action sequences are particularly creative, thanks to the inclusion of said magic. In particular, I loved the big action sequence in the mirror dimension about two-thirds of the way through the movie, and the choice to have Strange beat Dormammu with his wit and intelligence during the climax. The second scene was a nice change of pace from the usual bombastic endings that Marvel is known for.
The movies’ unique differences to any comic book movie that’s come beforehand, regardless of studio, is what truly sets it apart in my eyes and is the reason I’m ranking it so high on the list. If the filmmakers continue embracing the strangeness that makes this character so unique, the return of Doctor Strange to the big screen will be a very welcome one.
4. Iron Man 3
You read that correctly! I’m ranking Iron Man 3 higher on my list than its two predecessors. Why? Because I think it’s a more enjoyable movie all around than the other two, and it really delves into Tony Stark’s post-Avengers mindset. At this point in the timeline of the MCU, Tony Stark is a man who spent the past few years of his life dealing with threats of a more human nature before fighting off an alien invasion– of course that’s going to rock him to his core! I love that Marvel was brave enough to give him PTSD in this film, even though I wish they had gone farther with it.
I also loved that they stripped Tony of his suit and forced him to reach deep within himself in order to rediscover the inventor within in order to survive. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the buddy cop aspects of the film between Tony and Rhodes, and Tony and the child, Harley, were both really well done. This was also, by far, Gwyneth Paltrow’s best turn as Pepper Potts yet. My love for this movie may also have something to do with the small fact that it’s set during the Christmas season. (Typical of a Shane Black movie!) While it doesn’t have a huge bearing on the overall plot, just the little things like seeing Christmas trees, Christmas lights, and snow in the background – or hearing Christmas Carols quietly underscoring a scene – definitely add to my enjoyment and help to establish the film’s atmosphere.
In addition, unlike many others, I have no problem with the Mandarin twist. I can understand why people hate it, especially hardcore fans of the comics – I’d be furious if DC tried to pull something similar with The Joker, for instance – but let’s face it, the comic book Mandarin is a racist stereotype. Do I believe Ben Kingsley could have pulled it off in a way that was dark, intimidating, and non-stereotypical? Absolutely! I love his scenes as “The Mandarin” and still wonder to this day what the movie would have been like had he turned out to be the real one. But I think the twist that Marvel decided to go with is clever and legitimately surprising. Kudos to them for keeping it from leaking until after the movie opened! That’s quite an amazing feat in today’s day and age.
If I had one, small gripe with the film – which I do – it’s about the fact that Tony had the arc reactor and the bullet fragments removed from his chest so easily at the end. Why didn’t he just do this in Iron Man 2 when the arc reactor was killing him? Or in Iron Man when he escaped his captors and returned to America?
3. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Age of Ultron had an advantage over The Avengers before the movie even open in theaters. Not only was it riding the success of the first film, but Marvel didn’t need to worry about bringing all of the characters together again for the first time – they were able to just do it. And that, in my opinion, made all the difference. We didn’t need an hour of all of our heroes introducing themselves to one another, or exposition as to why S.H.I.E.L.D. was putting together the team; at the start of the film, we as an audience are just thrown right into the midst of a mission The Avengers are directly in the middle of. Throughout the next twenty minutes of the film, we get bits of throwaway dialogue informing us of everything we need to know – that the Avengers have been going on reconnaissance missions trying to recover Loki’s staff that went missing after the downfall of S.H.I.E.L.D., and that Tony Stark has been bankrolling the team since the spy agency fell, while at the same time looking for a permanent solution that will allow the Earth to be protected while giving him and his teammates a well earned retirement. All of this is conveyed to us quickly and succinctly, without any long, drawn out, boring scenes of exposition.
I also think this movie has an advantage over the first in that it introduces us to a brand new villain, rather than reusing one from a previous solo film. Ultron is one of the stronger MCU villains, and a staple adversary of the Avengers in the comics; I think, as far as the MCU pertains, he’s second only to Loki in effectiveness as an antagonist. Do I have any qualms with Ultron? Absolutely. He looks like a CGI creation most of the time, and way too much humor was injected into his character – I wish they had gone darker with him. Nevertheless, James Spader managed to convey what Marvel was going for perfectly, thanks in large part to that iconic voice of his, and I managed to enjoy the character nevertheless. The additions of Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver were most welcome – as was giving Hawkeye more to do in this film than any movie prior to this – and I loved how at the end we received our first look at the new group of heroes that would be making up the Avengers going forward.
Which brings me to my biggest problem with this movie. Much like Iron Man 2, I feel like this film spends way too much time establishing future films – Black Panther, Civil War, Thor: Ragnorak, and Avengers: Infinity War – instead of using its runtime to give certain characters, like Thor, anything to do that has substantial bearing on this film’s plot. Also, the fact that the end of the movie – while visually stunning – devolves into the Avengers vs. one villain and a faceless army, much like the first film did, is a huge problem.
Having said that, there is a lot of good in this movie (the opening raid on a Hydra base, the house party at Avengers Tower, the Hulk vs. Hulkbuster fight, the comic book “splash page” moments we get throughout, Vision, etc.), and seeing all of the Avengers come together once again to share the screen hasn’t lost any of the magic that their solo movies have. Plus, it’s just extremely fun. Ultimately, I truly do believe this movie is going to be able to stand the test of time as being much more re-watchable than the first one.
2. Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War is a better Avengers movie than both official Avengers films that came before it. With only the Hulk and Thor missing from the proceedings, but introducing Black Panther, the Russo Brothers deftly demonstrated to audiences worldwide why Marvel chose them to helm the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers 4. This is the closest we’ll get before either of those films to getting every single hero introduced so far in one movie, and the directors handled them all pitch perfectly.
Though Steve Rogers and Tony Stark (in the best performance Robert Downey Jr. has given as the character to date) get the bulk of things to do within the context of the movie, the Russo Brothers manage to get the points of view of all of our other heroes across and explain why they’re all joining the conflict in the limited screen time that they receive. This movie is a master class in directing, writing (thanks, Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely!), and acting. Along with Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and James Mangold’s Logan, Civil War is a prime example of the fact that comic book movies can transcend the genre and be great dramas first, regardless of whether or not there are costumed heroes within them.
In addition, the fifteen minute airport sequence that marks the end of the second third of the movie is probably the most well-choreographed action sequence in any superhero film to date. In fact, it was so spectacular and such a treat seeing all of the heroes we’ve come to love over the years fighting one another (some of whom were meeting for the first time!) that had the movie only been those fifteen minutes, I would still be satisfied.
The film also gets bonus points in my mind for leaving all of our heroes in such interesting places, both physically and emotionally, that they’ll have to come back from in Avengers: Infinity War in order to defeat Thanos together.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is far and away my favorite Marvel movie released thus far, and it doesn’t earn my number one spot by a small margin either. I’ll start with the one flaw of this film, since I literally only have one flaw with it – Ronan is a weak villain. I don’t mean that he’s weak in a physical sense, because he manages to kill The Other, stand up to Thanos, intimidate Nebula, and defeat Drax in hand-to-hand combat. I mean it in the sense that he’s written as extremely one-note with no character development. It’s a shame, because Lee Pace is such a great actor. I feel like I can’t even blame the writers or James Gunn for this – every single Marvel villain, minus Loki and Ultron, has been weak, so I think somewhere in the larger studio something is going wrong in terms of notes given about the villains during the screenwriting process.
Now that I got that out of the way, let’s dive into the good. I think this movie was so well received because it’s completely different. It’s really not a superhero movie, so much as a western set in space. It has a real Indiana Jones/Star Wars vibe to it in terms of the plot and the humor, which is why I think it exceeded everybody’s expectations and did amazingly well upon its release. Chris Pratt is utterly charming and endearing as Star Lord, and his companions are just as compelling to watch – whether it’s Drax taking everything literally, Gamora being confused by all of Quill’s Earth references, Groot’s complete innocence, or Rocket giving somebody attitude, every moment one of them is on the screen it’s impossible to look away. Have all five of them together interacting and it’s like watching magic being performed right in front of your eyes – their chemistry is that good.
Guardians also succeeds where some of the other movies fail in that its connective tissue to the wider MCU is much more organic. The explanation about the Infinity Stones was one of the best pieces of exposition I’ve ever seen given in any movie, and Thanos’ inclusion felt essential to the story. The fact that Drax wants revenge on him for killing his family will make the inevitable crossover between the Guardians and the Avengers in Infinity War feel natural, as opposed to forced, as will the fact that Thanos will eventually make his way toward Earth, where Quill is from. Speaking of which, how great will it be when we get to see Tony Stark, Scott Lang, Steven Strange, Peter Quill, and Rocket Raccoon sharing a scene together? It’s going to be insane! In the best way possible, of course.
Guardians of the Galaxy also has the most heart compared to all of the other Marvel films. You can’t help but feel for Rocket due to the experiments he underwent in the past, or tear up when he and Groot are saying goodbye after Groot decides to sacrifice himself in order to save the team. Also, the opening scene of the movie was like a punch in the gut. Having had many people in my life die of cancer, or contract cancer and survive, seeing Peter Quill’s mom die of the disease and seeing how broken up he is about it was heartbreaking, and completely relatable; not to mention how sweet it is that it’s the memory of his mother that helps to save him in the end, as well as his mother that gave him the nickname “Star Lord” before she died. The entire movie continuously switches back and forth between heartwarming and heartbreaking, all the while infusing enough humor and action to keep the audience engrossed the entire time.
Judging by the film’s box office success, I can’t be the only one in the world who thinks that Guardians of the Galaxy is the best Marvel movie, and I certainly can’t be the only one anxiously awaiting their appearances in Infinity War and their own standalone sequel. On the topic of the sequel, how great is it that it’s called Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2? The music used in this first one was so perfectly chosen and important to the story, and I’m sure the music chosen for the second will be just as good and integral as well; there really is no better possible title for the second movie than Vol. 2.
So there you have it, folks! My ranking of every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far. Reading it back, I think it’s clear that a lot of my choices were swayed by personal preference for certain characters over others, but I don’t think my ranking is too far off from how others would rank them. You tell me, though! Am I crazy for listing Iron Man 3 so high or The Winter Soldier so low? What about for preferring Age of Ultron over The Avengers? How would you rank all of the movies that Marvel has released so far? Leave a comment below and let me know!