With Thor: Ragnarok finally in theaters we’ve officially reached the end of one of the biggest years in Marvel Studios history. This year was the first year that Marvel put out three new movies, and all of them were critical and box office sensations: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming AND Thor: Ragnarok. It’s part of Marvel’s current phase of lightly upping its production slate and testing how much the market can handle in a single year. They’re doing it again next year, delivering Black Panther in February, Avengers: Infinity War in May and Ant-Man and the Wasp in July.
So, now feels like a good time to stop and take stock of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe, the industry-altering giant which was once just a little thing dreamed up by Robert Downey, Jr. and Jon Favreau in Iron Man. By some measures, Ragnarok is the best-reviewed film in MCU history, but is it really their best film? And is The Incredible Hulk still the worst? Your picks will most definitely vary, but here are mine:
Apart from the surprise re-appearance of The Incredible Hulk’s General Ross (William Hurt) in Civil War, this is likely the least-referenced and least-impactful film in the entire MCU. It’s something Marvel made with Universal for legal reasons and didn’t have as much say on. Its director, Louis Leterrier, hasn’t minced words about his experience making the movie nor has Norton (although that’s normal for him). All involved have mostly agreed to pretend it never happened.
All of which probably makes Incredible Hulk out to be worse than it actually is. It’s not a truly terrible movie, though. It’s not good one either. Instead, it’s a perfectly ho-hum mid-2000s superhero movie, the kind Fox was churning out at the time. There’s no real hint of Batman Begins-style gravitas nor of the signature, Marvel Studios blend of comedy and action. That makes Hulk a film without a country or identity and thus easily the most skippable in MCU history. If Iron Man signaled where things were going Hulk mostly told us where we’d already been.
16. Iron Man 2 (2010)
For around an hour, Iron Man 2 is a perfectly adequate sequel, sending Tony Stark off into self-destruct mode as newfound fame, corporate competition and the emergence of an old family foe with a vengeance causes his life to come crashing down. He loses his best friend, the true love of his life and teeters as close to full-blown alcoholism as the film’s PG-13 rating will allow. It all lacks the vibrancy and certainty of purpose of the first Iron Man, but as superhero sequels go it’s not bad.
Then the Avengers set-up happens. Black Widow and Nick Fury and, later, conveniently rediscovered videos of dead old dad drag the plot into too many directions, and a finale of CGI robot action does little to salvage anything. At best, you leave the film kind of remembering Mickey Rourke was in it.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
One of the downsides of the MCU is its occasional need for purely transitional movies, those movies they kind of had to get away out of the way to help set up something bigger. Iron Man 2 was the first MCU film to suffer that fate; Age of Ultron was the second.
This overstuffed sequel, which almost literally broke Joss Whedon and caused him to jump ship to DC, does everything it can to start laying the groundwork for Civil War, Black Panther, Ragnarok, and even Infinity War while also trying to be a satisfying sequel to one of the biggest films of all time. Not surprisingly, it struggles under all of that weight and leans a little too much on expecting us to actually care about Hawkeye and his secret family. Plus, no amount of quipping (and there’s a lot of it) can cover for the absurdity of Ultron’s evil plot to weaponize the fictional country of Sokovia into an asteroid aimed at the planet.
Ultron, of course, has its charm. It’s event cinema of the highest order with enjoyable action aided considerably by James Spader’s inspired vocal performance as the titular villain. There’s also the continued joy of seeing the Avengers toss verbal tennis balls at each other. The courage to try something different with the Scarlet Witch-induced Nightmare on Elm Street dream sequences at least gives Ultron a unique flavor in the MCU, and I still can’t believe The Vision’s creation manages to work as well it does.
14. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Perhaps all you need to know about The Dark World is its critical and financial reception caused Marvel to wait four years to release a sequel, the longest gap to date for any of the MCU’s sub-franchises. They had gone full-on Game of Thrones with Dark World’s magic, sword fights, and Alan Taylor-directed grit, but watched in surprise as critics and audiences suddenly decided they liked Captain America’s sequel (Winter Soldier, released the same year) a lot more than Thor’s. So, it was back to the drawing board for them.
The euphoric reaction to Ragnarok indicates the massive, entirely comedic course correction they took was desperately called for, yet it also leaves behind those, like myself, who actually dig The Dark World’s twisty mix of high fantasy, doomed romance and Tom Hiddleston in Hannibal Lecter mode. That the villain, Malekith, never even learns Thor’s name is a problem as is the plot’s sidelining of Jane Foster and the brief detour into making her the literal MacGuffin. However, Dark World gets a lot of good mileage out of turning Thor into a fugitive forced to conspire with Loki, and the planet-hopping finale is the best live-action Portal rip-off we’re likely to get aside from fan films. Plus, for those audiences who actually like Thor and Jane’s romance this is sadly the last you’ll ever see of it since Natalie Portman and the MCU have since parted company.
13. Doctor Strange (2016)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then what about self-imitation? Is that just you patting yourself on the back?
This is the trap Doctor Strange does its best to avoid. After all, the central character’s journey from rich jerk to hero has long been criticized by comics readers as “just Iron Man with magic,” and the film version can’t completely get around that. At its core, Doctor Strange really is the MCU re-doing Iron Man with magic and prophecies instead of mech suits and industrial intrigue.
Even though Benedict Cumberbatch’s journey is overly familiar and oddly upstaged by his own CGI cape, Doctor Strange manages to stand out by deftly mixing in mind-bending, city-folding visuals lifted from Inception, bursts of psychedelic energy and an ingenious third act which upends the Marvel formula and allows the hero to repeatedly die while stuck in a time loop of his own creation. Doctor Strange is also in the running, if not a shoe-in, for the MCU’s best (or at least most accomplished) cast with the likes of Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton and Rachel McAdams running around.
12. Ant-Man (2015)
One of these Marvel movies had to finally tackle fatherhood from the dad’s point of view. So many of the MCU characters are products of absentee parents, but Ant-Man, be it Michael Douglas (who wore the suit in his younger years) or the perfectly cast Paul Rudd (donning the suit for the first time and managing to look simultaneously cool and idiotic), is a shitty dad trying to make amends. The film’s famously fired first director, Edgar Wright, would have undoubtedly made a more visually inventive film, but one wonders if he would have leaned as hard into the sentiment as his replacement, Peyton Reed. Ant-Man might have been the poorer for it since the most effective material on display is Rudd striving to be a better father to his young daughter and Douglas struggling to explain himself to his adult daughter.
Reed, either on his own or following Wright’s original impulses, crafts a suitably smaller film than usual for the MCU. It focuses more on character than circumstance and dutifully executes a heist story that leans on a rich supporting cast, most notably Michael Pena’s scene-stealer, and ends with one of the MCU’s best gags: a final battle waged by miniature people on a child’s train set. Next year’s sequel will give Evangeline Lilly the co-headlining role she deserved in the first place and will likely serve as the perfect smaller-scale palette cleanser after Infinity War’s universe-threatening insanity.
11. Thor (2011)
The best part of Thor is the mid-movie humbling of the conceited, titular hero when he is exiled to Earth and forced to learn the true nature of heroism; the worst part of Thor is everything you have to sit through to finally get to Earth.
Well, that’s not true. The best part of Thor is clearly Loki, but just go with me here.
For years, whenever the topic of MCU rankings has come up I’ve consistently placed Thor near the top of my list. That’s because I was going off my memory of how much I adore the fish-out-of-water mid-section in New Mexico. It’s only upon a relatively recent re-watch I remembered Kenneth Branagh’s bombast, dutch angles and overly shiny visuals. The idea of Thor as a sort of cocky athlete who has yet to experience the sting of defeat is established and established and, come on, we get it already. Thankfully, Hemsworth carries it with his “a star is born” charisma, and Loki’s Shakespearean subplot with Odin is still the best villainous turn in MCU history.
What Marvel’s Phase 1 movies really excel at are characters and relationships. They take the absurd and superheroic and ground them in universally understood drama. Thor, of course, is the most absurd of them all, yet Branagh manages to make it palatable by wrapping it up in Thor and Jane’s adorably old-fashioned, star-crossed romance and the familial drama on Asgard which breaks hearts with Loki’s anguished, “I could have done it father. I could have done it. For you. For all of us.” In fact, let’s watch that scene right now:
10. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Three movies. Three different directors. Three completely different takes on the character.
That’s the Thor trilogy for ya’. Turns out, all they really needed to do was finally let Chris Hemsworth be himself. Robert Downey, Jr.’s been doing that since day one as Iron Man, and based on his various anti-Trump social media statements there’s a lot of Chris Evans in Captain America. At the very least, he’s more like Cap than he ever was Johnny Storm.
That’s not to say these superhero actors are best when they’re just playing themselves; more, it works best when the role is perfectly tailored to their strengths. Hemsworth, as shown in Ghostbusters and the “Where Thor Was During Civil War” viral video, is a natural clown with impeccable timing and fine-tuned improv skills. While the prior Thor and Avengers films took occasional advantage of that, Ragnarok is the first to completely cut him loose. The result is a film so funny it might even be too funny.
New-to-the-franchise director Taika Waititi doesn’t take any of it seriously nor does he expect us to, and new additions like Cate Blanchette’s Hela, Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster, and Tessa Thompson Valkyrie up the fun factor considerably. However, there is a disposable element to it all which wasn’t there before, and the action scenes are decidedly ho-hum. Ragnarok is the rare trilogy-capper which seems to have been made for people who didn’t really like or never even saw the first two films in the trilogy.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Similar to what Joss Whedon did with the Avengers in Age of Ultron, James Gunn’s approach to a second adventure with the Guardians is to tear them apart. However, unlike Ultron Gunn does this in the most low-key way possible, delivering a movie where nothing much of consequence actually happens until the inevitable universe-threatening finale.
Peter, Gamora, and Drax go off on their own adventure to meet Peter’s dad and his odd servant Mantis while Rocket and Baby Groot get entangled with the Ravagers. This gives Vol. 2 the freedom to simply take a breath and allow the characters to grow into a family instead of a partnership of convenience while also placing a surprisingly heavy emphasis on adding more depth to some of the first film’s one-note antagonists (Nebula, Yondu). Bickering, crazy outer space action, and groovy tunes ensue, and the pleasure of being in the company of these characters again is more than enough to make it worthwhile. You’d just better care as much about Nebula and Yondu as James Gunn clearly does, though.
8. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
The trick with The Avengers, at this point, is to remember what it was like to see it for the first time. With each new Avengers sequel or superhero team-up movie, the genius accomplishment of Joss Whedon’s original seems less and less special. Moreover, the sluggishness of the film’s first half becomes harder to ignore. Still, the pure comic book joy of seeing Black Widow, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, Iron Man and The Hulk on that bridge together for the first time was something unrivaled in film history. It’s why people, myself included, kept going back to see it again and again, even if those rewatches have become increasingly infrequent over the years.
7. Iron Man (2008)
The film that started it all. To think, Iron Man was only supposed to be the also-ran with The Dark Knight that summer. In fact, at the time it was easy to differ on the two. Iron Man was the film for people who wanted fun superhero movies, The Dark Knight for those who wanted gritty, Oscar-caliber. Iron Man is more than just a “fun superhero movie” though, and its value isn’t solely linked to the cinematic universe it helped set up.
Iron Man is actually about as good as it gets for superhero origin movies, giving us a selfish man forced in selfless action by circumstance and, more importantly, conscience. Robert Downey, Jr. owns the role instantly and shows us something we’d never seen before: a superhero tinkering and testing his costume like a good engineer, and a hero who ultimately decides against hiding behind a secret identity. The villain might eventually go crazy for no good reason, a common MCU problem, but the hero was strong enough to build an entire universe out of nothing but spare parts found in a cave somewhere. Feels like an apt metaphor for the entire MCU.
You might still hold a grudge against Iron Man 3’s Mandarin twist. Or maybe the out-of-nowhere buddy cop approach to the story. Or the crazy third act twist which sees wounded soldiers turned into exploding mutants. Or the maddeningly “could have been great if they hadn’t suddenly lost their nerve” treatment of Rebecca Hall’s character.
All polarizing aspects of the film and certainly debatable. What’s not debatable, though, is Iron Man 3’s effectiveness as a true showcase for Robert Downey, Jr., who gets to play a chapter in Tony Stark’s life where he loses everything and has to prove exactly what he’s capable of without that suit while also getting over lingering PTSD symptoms. If the Iron Man franchise is ultimately the story of a man accepting responsibility for his actions and coming to terms with who exactly he is without his most famous creation then Iron Man 3 is the perfect encapsulation of that journey. Plus, they finally made one of these movies which figured out a way to put off burying Robert Downey, Jr. underneath CGI armor for as long as possible.
5. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Homecoming checks off all the familiar Marvel Studio boxes. There’s an inexperienced, youngish director (John Watts) whose contributions are hard to pinpoint considering how much of the film was likely finished off by Marvel’s post-production experts. Jokes are repeatedly prioritized over drama or sincerity, maximizing the film’s enjoyment factor but limiting its ability to have a Wonder Woman-like impact on audiences. A superhero narrative is molded onto a familiar, yet somewhat dormant genre (in this case, the coming-of-age high school movie), creating an intriguing blend which must regrettably always revert back to superhero story beats. There are plenty of nerd-baiting moments derived from the inter-connectivity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (e.g., Captain America PSAs are exactly as corny as you’d expect), and the villain could have been better.
When I put it that way, it sounds like a cynical, paint-by-numbers affair. It’s not. Homecoming is one of the most joyous films in the entire MCU and possibly its most post-modern. This is a film about a 15-year-old kid who has grown up in a world full of superheroes, which gives his modified origin story a refreshingly original “just trying out for the big team” feel. Tom Holland plays the extreme exuberance and anxiety of the scenario to perfection, and slings into his own colorful cast of villains and co-stars which promises great things for years to come from the inevitable sequels.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Excuse me. I’m just going to be over here watching this:
Damn you, First Avenger! That scene gets me every time. Niagara Falls.
Of course, if great endings were the only criteria here I’d have Thor higher on this list. And First Avenger definitely has one helluva an ending. It’s so effective Wonder Woman saw fit to rip it off.
But the ending only works because it is the natural, tragic end for a movie about old-fashioned heroism (and, of course, Evans and Atwell are so good together). Moreover, apart from the time-jumping coda which leads straight into Avengers this Captain America origin story is unique in the MCU for having an entirely unique tone and visual style. They wanted something like The Rocketeer. So, they went out and got the guy who directed that movie, and he gave them exactly what they wanted and even worked in a clever dramatic commentary on Captain America’s real-world history as a propaganda character created specifically for WWII. There was and remains something remarkably charming about First Avenger’s unabashed idealism landing smack dab in the age of cynicism. That kind of naked sincerity is usually missing in the MCU. Not here, though.
3. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014)
Captain America trades up from the WWII genre to a 1970s-style conspiracy thriller, and the result remains one of the finest films yet accomplished by Marvel Studios. The action is not without some hiccups, and there isn’t nearly as much of the actually Winter Soldier as you might expect. However, this is a more mature, politically topical, and intricately plotted effort from Marvel than usual. Impressively, it never forgets to also be fun and emotionally affecting, with Chris Evans coming into his own as a man out of time whose idealism is perfectly checked by Scarlett Johansson’s amorality. Hail Hydra!
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy, like much of the MCU, has a villain problem. Heck, it has an MCU problem in general. Lee Pace’s Ronan is forgettable and the hamfisted injection of Thanos into the storyline is regrettable. Apart from that, Guardians is nearly flawless – perfectly cast, impeccably paced and directed and sneakily heartbreaking. Underneath all of Guardians’ irreverence, 80s nostalgia and jukebox soundtrack beats a sentimental heart, one which celebrates the formation of a group of damaged people and weeps when the least verbose among them makes the ultimate sacrifice.
1. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
I find it hard to argue Civil War is actually a complete movie that can stand on its own. It’s even more indebted to Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron than expected. Tony Stark’s “the end of the path I started us on” line from Age of Ultron could have been used in Civil War instead and it would have worked nearly as well. This is the end of a narrative path which started the moment Nick Fury popped up in Tony Stark’s mansion, or when Bucky Barnes fell from that train somewhere in the mountains during WWII. The first moment an innocent civilian died during one of the MCU’s climactic battles, Civil War became inevitable, and our engagement in the conflict was always going to be greatly enhanced by the relationships we’ve formed with these characters (and they with each other).
Thus, Civil War is less a movie, more the season finale to one of the best TV shows ever. Yeah, but what a season finale it is, dragging the heroes into a conflict perfectly tailored to the times. We are our own worst enemies these days, torn apart by ideological divides easily manipulated by those who want to see us fall, and here we have the mighty Avengers brought down by their own inter-team conflicts after receiving just a light push from an outsider with a legitimate ax to grind. This set-up, as with Winter Soldier, flirts as closely as the MCU likely ever will with Nolan-esque topicality, but it’s still the MCU so of course there has to be an impossibly fun airport fight scene. If the MCU at this point is just one giant TV show with various spin-offs then Civil War is the best event episode they’ve ever done.
What does your MCU ranking look like? Let me know in the comments.