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, starting with…
12. 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.
11. 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.
10. 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. [Correction, 5/2/16: Changed “Greek god” to “Norse god.”] 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.
8. 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 asshole-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.
7. 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.
6. 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.
Ant-Man will forever be bogged down in my mind 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 of 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.
4. Iron Man
Before it all felt familiar, Iron Man virtually invented the MCU universe 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 unique structure, incorporating a thrilling escape from terrorist captors and even a worthwhile villain (the rarest thing of all in the MCU) in Jeff Bridges.
3. 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 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 would be a shoo-in for No. 1, were it not for a slow opening and a bland MacGuffin of a plot.
2. 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.
1. 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-sketched and often hilarious.
Bonus: Captain America: Civil War
The latest installment in the MCU wasn’t released when this list was first compiled, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t give it a shout out. With a critical ranking (90%) from Rotten Tomatoes that is almost equal to the wildly popular Guardians of the Galaxy (91%) it could be argued that Captain America: Civil War deserves the second place, if not the top spot, on this list. In any case, we’ll leave that up to you, dear reader. We’re just glad that Marvel is still churning out quality movies after eight years and that Civil War managed to avoid any bad luck that could have been associated with the thirteenth entry in the MCU.
Additional update by Nathanael Arnold
Follow Jeff on Twitter @jrindskopf
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