Marvel Comics spent most of the 20th century as a scrappy underdog, forever eclipsed by its big brother company DC, but with the turn of the 21st century, that all began to change. As X-Men and Spider-Man reinvigorated the comic book movie genre, Marvel managed to capitalize on the new wave of superhero films in a way that no one else has quite managed, even creating a unique network of interconnected films designed to reward viewers who watch all of them.
This concept is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It doesn’t always work narratively — although it certainly works financially — but the formula has produced more than a few worthwhile films for their stories, their humor, their spectacle, and their characters. To celebrate the strange cinematic monster that is the MCU, we’re counting down the movies from worst to best.
17. Thor: The Dark World
Thor works well as part of an ensemble, but his self-serious shtick gets old fast in his own film. The second film to star Thor suffers from a lot of extraneous pieces and characters that viewers never really have a reason to care about, including a collection of forgettable Dark Elf villains who only serve to highlight how much better a villain Loki is. Thor: The Dark World might have worked better with a little more Loki and a little less filler, but as is, it’s simply forgettable. And that isn’t what you want in a movie about a Norse God saving the universe from evil elves.
16. The Incredible Hulk
Some superheroes just don’t translate well to the big screen in live action. Marvel has since perfected their CGI version of the Hulk as much as is possible, but this film starring Edward Norton instead of The Avengers’ Mark Ruffalo can’t quite manage to bring the beast convincingly to life. The film has some of the playful wit that’s made MCU so popular, but it’s unfortunately stuffed full of meaningless CGI destruction as well, veering too far away from Ang Lee’s thoughtful but flawed 2003 Hulk, so far to become virtually thoughtless.
15. Captain America: The First Avenger
The old-fashioned pulp of the first Captain America film has its charms, particularly for fans of the character and his origins. Marvel’s usual formula is subverted thanks to the period setting, allowing them to explore a different American landscape and fight bigger villains in the Nazis and in Hugo Weaving’s Redskull, who isn’t quite as scary as he should be. This is a competent story with plenty of pieces to like, but it doesn’t come together in any sort of meaningful or memorable way, like the best MCU efforts do.
This is the right way to do a Thor film, though there are still plenty of flaws to weigh the first Thor down into the lower tier of MCU movies. Thor isn’t just a Norse god — he’s a young rogue who needs to learn some responsibility, and his story becomes far more compelling as an outcast.
The film blends Shakespearean royal power and struggles with a surprisingly funny fish-out-of-water angle to create a truly odd but enjoyable popcorn flick. It winds up lower on this list due to some flat characterization, occasionally ham-fisted comic relief, and plenty of faux-significant gravitas.
13. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is the weakest of the Iron Man trilogy, but it still has plenty going for it, and it’s anchored as always by Robert Downey Jr.’s magnetically jerk-ish performance as Tony Stark. As with many sequels, it’s often overstuffed and features multiple villains, none of which ever become all that interesting, but it does offer the welcome addition of Don Cheadle, whose presence and chemistry with RDJ makes the movie feel a bit more like a buddy cop comedy, a welcome change from MCU’s often tiring formula.
12. Doctor Strange
Despite its fairly low ranking on this list, Doctor Strange is a solid film. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Stephen Strange to perfection and opens up the MCU to a new world of mysticism.
But we watch Marvel movies for the fighting and the camaraderie, neither of which are in abundance in this flick. Still, the story is a captivating one, and the effects are like nothing else in the MCU, making it an undeniably entertaining ride.
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron is an intensely flawed movie, but it still manages to entertain throughout its long runtime. While the first Avengers found time to serve all its characters, the sequel has to sort through so many character moments and set up so many plot threads that it didn’t have much time for, you know, fun.
Ultron is a whiny teenager of a menacing robot, Quicksilver is a wasted opportunity, Hawkeye’s development felt forced, much like Black Widow and Hulk’s relationship — the list goes on. It’s saved from mediocrity thanks to the inspired introduction of Vision and the chemistry between the talented lead actors when they have time to simply hang out and speak with each other.
10. Iron Man 3
The third Iron Man found its footing by exploring the character of Tony Stark rather than the mechanics of his suit. With no further Iron Man films on the way, this feels like a conclusive journey for his character, as he comes to term with his own humanity and softens up in the presence of a surprisingly not-annoying kid without ever letting go of his prickly, sarcastic exterior. The humor and the occasional heart is here to save the day and elevate Stark’s final solo flight, even when the story, populated by a relationship crisis and passable villains, isn’t.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It’s hard to know where to put this sequel to one of the greatest Marvel films of all time. On one hand, it offers a lot of the same humor, jam-worthy soundtrack, and thrilling space visuals as the first. But on the other hand, it can’t quite live up to its predecessor, as is the issue with so many sequels.
The movie is a little overcrowded, and let’s face it — the soundtrack isn’t quite as good. While Kurt Russell shines as Ego, the whole “my daddy is a planet” thing was hard to absorb. Although the resulting music video was such as treat that it was all worth it, in the end.
Ant-Man will forever be bogged down in the minds of some by what could have been, had Edgar Wright been allowed to handle the material as originally planned. Instead, we wound up with a film that skirts the edge between the lower- and upper-tier Marvel films, breaking new ground simply by keeping the story contained to its small scale.
The film is made by its most inspired moments — a suitcase fight, a giant ant, Thomas the Tank Engine, etc. — and weighed down by some obligatory and overly-familiar character/MCU beats, but it earns its spot especially for how well it employs the shrinking conceit to create a new kind of action.
7. Captain America: Civil War
The final installment in the Captain America trilogy wasn’t really a Captain America movie at all. Sure, Steve Rogers is on screen a lot, and it does deal with a conflict he is having, but a more apt title might be Avengers 2.5: Civil War. After all, the battle in question is between members (most old, but some new) of the larger team.
This flick is considered another one of the greatest in the MCU, but it wasn’t as action-packed as many of the others, and seemed to serve primarily as a way to bring various members of the crew together and (once again) reaffirm Steve’s devotion to Bucky. Also, it gets points deducted for the forced romance between Steve and his ex-girlfriend’s great-niece, Sharon Carter.
6. Iron Man
Before it all felt familiar, Iron Man virtually invented the MCU by bringing a new kind of superhero to the screen, one who doesn’t feel the need to moralize and agonize over his responsibilities. Tony Stark never felt so fresh as he does here, and the movie still feels unique for its distinctive structure, incorporating a thrilling escape from terrorist captors and even a worthwhile villain (the rarest thing of all in the MCU) in Jeff Bridges.
5. The Avengers
The Avengers is pure popcorn, but it’s well-done nonetheless, especially when you consider how it could have gone wrong. Cramming so many disparate personalities into one film could create a vacuum of confusing story and action, but instead, it allowed for an epic final battle filled with enough rah-rah moments to have any audience member cheering, even if the alien creatures they fight aren’t exactly well-developed.
The film’s best parts, however, come from simply having the heroes under one roof, arguing and quipping and hashing out their many differences. This flick could have been in the running for No. 1, were it not for a slow opening and a bland MacGuffin of a plot.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The first Captain America film had its charms, but its sequel figured out how to put the character to perfect use, by placing him within a modern world where his idealism is the exception, not the rule. Using Cold War-era paranoia to force Captain American and friends into hiding, The Winter Soldier outdoes almost all of its peers by giving the proceedings some actual real-world weight while still developing Cap as a character, dealing with his past and his place in a new, unrecognizable world.
3. Thor: Ragnarok
It was a really close race between the top few slots. But despite missing that top ranking, Thor: Ragnarok was an accomplishment unlike any we’ve seen in the Marvel cinema: The least-liked franchise of the universe ended with a film that blew the others out of the water, largely in part to new direction brought forth by Taika Waititi.
The film embraced the comedic timing of its star, Chris Hemsworth, added in some phenomenal supporting characters played by Jeff Goldblum and Tess Thompson, and leaned into the Loki-Thor relationship that fans had grown more and more invested in. It gave Hulk some time to shine, while closing out the Thor trilogy with a satisfying conclusion that also established a clear path toward Avengers: Infinity War.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy has all the fun of The Avengers without the added weight of setting up a half dozen solo MCU films. Oh, and it’s funnier. And it’s in space.
But it’s also much more than that, thanks to the spirited directorial choices of James Gunn, who makes sure his playful space opera is more than just another MCU entry. It’s its own entity, containing a well-told story of a group of intergalactic misfits that find solace in each other despite their differences. Its only true flaw is in its thinly sketched villain (par for the course), but the villain hardly matters when the true conflict and thrust of the story comes from the adversarial banter of our lovable heroes, each one of them well-developed and often hilarious.
1. Black Panther
It’s hard to summarize just what makes Black Panther so great. It’s visually beautiful, chock-full of African (and African-American) representation, features several compelling characters, and even has a strong plot that manages to tie in to the MCU while easily standing on its own.
The film’s opening set box office records left and right, and has sparked powerful social media campaigns like #WakandaForever and #WhatBlackPantherMeansToMe. It resonates with today’s audience by incorporating relevant political themes while also providing an extremely entertaining cinematic experience. What more could you ask for?
Bonus: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Technically, this film can’t be considered part of the MCU, as far as legality goes. But it is the first joint Marvel-Sony undertaking of the web-slinger, and because of the pointed overlap in characters and storyline between this film and Civil War, it deserves a bonus spot on this list.
Tom Holland brings a fresh take on Peter Parker in the film, finally bringing the true youthful humor the character is known for to the part. The story is maintained within its own universe and can hold a candle to its counterparts in the MCU, while creating a launching point for a new solo franchise.
Additional reporting by Nathanael Arnold and Becca Bleznak.
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jrindskopf.
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