11 years, 21 films and enough quips to make The Three Stooges blush, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an absolute cinematic juggernaut unlike any other, spanning thousands of years and hundreds of characters. 2008’s Iron Man seems like a mere start-up in scope compared to the absolute insanity that would become the norm by the time Avengers: Infinity War rolled around. Though the mere existence of Infinity War and Endgame are to be achievements in their own rights, the MCU is not without their fair share of lowpoints and stumbles with each film being churned out like clockwork. Without further ado, let’s do something no one’s done before and talk about superheroes!
*Spoilers follow for all of these films*
21. Iron Man 2
Nick Fury: Sir! I’m gonna have to ask you to exit the donut.
The follow up to 2008’s classic is a pretty drastic misfire. Everything I take away from Iron Man 2 is not the story, plot points, or even the action. This is less of a film and more of a set up for the first Avengers film: introducing Black Widow, introducing Nick Fury for those who didn’t stay after the credits of Iron Man (I was guilty of this), and Howard Stark (whose presence would play a huge role in future films). The content of the movie itself is drab, complete with a laughably bad villain played by Mickey “I want my BIRD” Rourke and ditches the (somewhat) realistic technology in place of bland, generic future tech that removes any uniqueness its predecessor had.
20. The Incredible Hulk
HULK SMASH! (this film had the balls to use that line. Respect.)
The black sheep of the MCU, rightfully so: Universal still owns the rights to a solo Hulk film, explaining why Ragnarok will probably be the closest thing we’ll get, and of course, Edward Norton plays Bruce Banner. As a film, it’s not too bad, but as an MCU movie, it feels like it takes place in an alternate dimension, mostly in the worst way possible. Norton is a fantastic actor, but is much too serious and burdened than the perfect balance Mark Ruffalo is able to achieve. It’s a standard superhero film that managed to be spoken in the same breath out of convenience rather than merit.
Thor: I have no plans to die today.
Heimdall: None do.
This absolute pains me to rank it this low. I love Kenneth Branagh as a director (his Shakespeare stuff is magnificent) but his stab at a superhero film is a bore. Thor is filled with filled to the brim with outstanding talent behind and in front of the camera, and incorporates intimate, Shakespearean themes of family betrayal. However, the mere discussion of these themes are much more interesting than its execution. Branagh wants to make a family tragedy within the superhero realm, and it just didn’t work for me. More power to you if you loved it.
18. Thor: The Dark World
Thor: If you betray me, I will kill you.
Sif: If you betray him, I will kill you.
Volstagg: If you betray him…
Loki: You’ll kill me? Evidently there will be a line.
This is often considered to be the bottom of the barrel when it comes to the MCU, and as a film, Thor 2 is practically the definition of mediocre. However, The Dark World manages to edge out the past entries by being a by-the-numbers MCU film, complete with the typical quips, generic music, out of place humor and stunning visuals we all come to expect by now. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston do their absolute best with the material given, resulting in an inoffensive, but bland affair.
17. Ant-Man and The Wasp
Luis : So anyway, this guy gets out of jail and starts working for Hank. And that’s when he met Hope. And Hope’s all like, “I want nothing to do with you. Look at my hairdo. I’m all business.” And then Scotty’s like, “You know what, girl? My heart’s all broken, and I’ll probably never find love again. But damn, if I want to kiss you!” But then you fast-forward and they’re all like into each other, right? And then Scotty’s like, “You know what, I can’t tell you this, but I’m gonna go trashing the airport with Captain America!” Then she said, “I can’t believe you split like that! Smell you later, dummy!” So Scotty goes on house arrest, and he won’t admit it, but his heart’s all like, “Damn! I thought Hope could’ve been my new true partner. But I blew it!” But fate brought them back together, and then Hope’s heart is all, “I’m worried that I can’t trust him. And he’s gonna screw up again and ruin everything.” And in my heart, it’s all like, “That fancy raspberry filling represents the company’s rent. And we’re days away from going out of business! Oooh!”
The second Ant-Man film is a good time, pure and simple. Paul Rudd is effortlessly lovable as the one-half of the title characters, and Evangeline Lilly more than holds her own as The Wasp. It carries the same tone and feel of the original, which is welcome (especially Scott Lang’s group of bank robbers), and the action scenes are super fun given the character’s size dynamic, but I can’t help but feel underwhelmed by the overall film. It’s very much a MCU film, and virtually nothing else, so for this to be the follow-up to the insanely epic Infinity War deflates whatever momentum it once had. Still a lot of fun, but just completely inconsequential (until the after-credits scene…).
16. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Tony Stark: “Does anybody remember when I put a missile through a portal, in New York City? We were standing right under it. We’re the Avengers, we can bust weapons dealers the whole doo-da-day, but how do we cope with something like that?”
Steve Rogers: Together.
Tony Stark: We’ll lose.
Steve Rogers: We’ll do that together too.
By far the weakest of the Avengers films, though perhaps the one with the most distinct voice. Joss Whedon follows up his masterful 2012 juggling act with a far more ambitious, large scaled, more intimate, darker, funnier, light-hearted, action packed film. Age of Ultron is bigger than the original in just about every way, but is a far cry from the quality and brilliance of its predecessor. The word “more” is essentially the basis of this sequel, beginning with a huge battle, and ending with the Avengers fighting on what is basically a meteor. Whedon’s love of quips and one liners shine through, almost becoming a parody of himself at one point.
There is so much to love about Age of Ultron: the dynamic between all the characters are consistently entertaining, James Spader does the most he can as Ultron, a character ripe with menacing potential, and I personally love the sequence at Hawkeye’s home. It showcases character moments that hardly any other superhero film does nowadays, which is a nice break from the traditional formula. However, there is far too much fluff and oddly place humor in a film that wants to be The Empire Strikes Back and instead ends up like Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
15. Doctor Strange
For the sake of transparency, I’ve never seen Doctor Strange, so its placement on this list was decided by an anonymous source who totally isn’t my brother. Though I do have one complaint: Benedict Cumberbatch is possibly my favorite actor working today, and doesn’t need to be burdened with an American accent. There I said it.
14. Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers: You have three names. What do people call you?
Nick Fury: Fury.
Carol Danvers: Just Fury?
Nick Fury: Yep. Not Nicholas. Not Joseph. Just Fury.
Carol Danvers: What does your mother call you then?
Nick Fury: Fury.
Carol Danvers: What do your friends call you?
Nick Fury: Fury.
Carol Danvers: Kids?
Nick Fury: If I ever have them? Fury.
The most recent entry of the MCU adopts the formula to a tee, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Taking place in the 90’s, we get to see a few old favorite characters in a new light, primarily Nick Fury and the tragically underrated Agent Phil Coulson. Their buddy cop dynamic, as brief as it is, is a highlight for those who have been with these characters since the heyday of the first Iron Man film. Brie Larson is one of my favorite actors working today, but comes off as stiff and oddly one note as the title role, though she shines in the action scenes. The twist of having the Skrulls be the oppressed race of Aliens is quite clever, playing with the typical typecasting of Ben Mendelsohn (deploy them garrisons, son). Captain Marvel is a straight line, prototypical MCU film that is a genuinely good time, contrary to being the man hating romp that so many would have you believe.
13. Black Panther
T’Challa: We can still heal you…
Erik Killmonger: Why, so you can lock me up? Nah. Just bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from ships, ’cause they knew death was better than bondage.
Black Panther has the distinction of being the first superhero film nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Was is deserved? As a film, no. It’s still a good movie, though given the cast and the director, a “good” film is basically a given. There is so much to love about Black Panther. The world of Wakanda has the potential to be the next iconic cinema place, like Tattoine and Pandora. Michael B. Jordan is phenomenal as Killmonger, finally showing us a villain that has layers and legitimate motivations for his evil endeavors. The typical MCU humor is in full glory here, complete with a horrible WHAT ARE THOOOOSE joke. It was bad in 2018, it’s even worse just a year later. The special effects are oddly unpolished for a Marvel film and the score, which won an Oscar, is above average, a far cry from Ludwig Goransson’s brilliance in Creed. The cultural impact of this film outshines the quality of the film itself, as it’s a pretty good that could easily attain greatness if it just bothered to reach for it.
Luis: Yeah, this dude sounds like a bad-ass, man. Like he comes up to him and he says, y’know: I’m looking for this dude who’s mo’ unseen, who’s flashing this fresh tat, who’s got, like, bomb moves, right? Who you got? She’s like: Well, we got everything nowadays. We got a guy who jumps, we got a guy who swings, we got a guy who crawls up the walls, you gotta be more specific. And he’s like: I’m looking for a guy who shrinks. And I’m like: Daaamn! I got all nervous, ’cause I keep mad secrets for you, bro. So I asked Ignacio: Did bad-ass tell the stupid fine writer chick, to tell you, to tell me, because I’m tight with that man that he’s looking for him?
Scott Lang: And? What’d he say?
Luis: He said yes.
We will never know what Edgar Wright’s version of Ant-Man would’ve been like. Though it is likely that this film will always be overshadowed with its directing drama, Peyton Reed does a more than acceptable job at the helm. Paul Rudd is picture perfect as Scott Lang, bringing his effortless charm and humor to Scott Lang. The heist aspect is well done, and offers a bevy of good comedy, especially from Michael Peña (still waiting for that MCU recap!). The visuals are cleverly done whenever Ant-Man shrinks, offering for so much well done humor and genuinely well thought out action sequences. Corey Stoll is such an uninteresting and cliched villain, which is the main fatal flaw to nearly all of these films. All in all, the first Ant-Man was a pleasant surprise, introducing us to an instant fan favorite, though what Edgar Wright would’ve done will always be in the back of my mind.
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Yondu: He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy.
While not as memorable or fresh as its predecessor, the second Guardians film is a crazy, wildly entertaining ride that has a touch of darkness and melancholy. The central cast is better than ever in their now iconic roles, with Michael Rooker being the surprise MVP (you know why). The soundtrack, notably Groot dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” is utterly fantastic and fun to a contagious degree, offering a nice audio backdrop to some of the most beautiful shots in the entire MCU. Kurt Russell plays a villain who is actually interesting and not generic as all hell. The humor is a bit excessive, deflating some of the more dramatic scenes’ potential (why would Peter morph into Pac-Man after learning that his dad killed his mom?) Also, the orchestral score done by Tyler Bates is incredibly generic and forgettable compared to the Awesome Mix. Guardians 2 is also tinged with sadness and so, so much grief within all these characters, exploring themes of family, depression and existentialism, culminating in the saddest ending to any of these films. Only James Gunn could pull this off, thank the good lord above he’s directing Vol. 3.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger
Nick Fury: You gonna be okay?
Steve Rogers: Yeah. Yeah, I just… I had a date.
Cap’s trilogy is easily the most consistent and best among the original characters, with each entry getting better and better. The brilliance of The First Avenger is that it doesn’t really try to line with the tone and feel of the previous movies. Sure, there’s humor and crazy fantasy elements, but it is first and foremost a story about Steve Rogers, and how he comes into his own. The supporting cast of Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter and Tommy Lee Jones bring their collective A-game among the charming WWII aesthetic. Chris Evans is literally perfect as Steve Rogers, effortlessly bringing the likability, charm and insecurity of a man who just wants to do good. While the best action scenes are done in a montage, and the villain of Red Skull is a bit one note despite Hugo Weaving’s natural charisma, The First Avenger is the best Phase One film that doesn’t involve a tin man.
9. Iron Man 3
Colonel James Rhodes: Are you okay?
Tony Stark: I broke the crayon.
Perhaps the most divisive film in the entire Marvel catalogue, the third (and I assume final) Iron Man film is a weird, offbeat, and surprisingly original effort by Shane Black. When I first saw this film back when it first premiered, I almost hated it. The Mandarin twist was jarring as it was also weirdly comedic, and with Ben Kingsley being the front man to nearly all the trailers, I felt duped. Watching this now, given the MCU’s tendency to deliver stale and overtly similar films, Iron Man 3 feels like a breath of fresh air. Robert Downey Jr. shows off an erratic and paranoid side of Tony Stark that is super compelling, and adds layers to the reluctant hero he has become. He spends the majority of the movie outside of the suit, having to resort to his ingenuity and genius to get him out of absurdly dangerous plights, just like the original. Though it doesn’t add much to the grand narrative of Phase 2 or the Infinity Saga, Iron Man 3 is perhaps the MCU’s diamond in the rough.
8. Iron Man
Tony Stark: [reading the newspaper] Iron Man. That’s kind of catchy. It’s got a nice ring to it. I mean it’s not technically accurate. The suit’s a gold titanium alloy, but it’s kind of provocative, the imagery anyway.
Just like every single ranking you’ll find on the MCU, this is tHe OnE tHaT sTaRtEd iT aLl. Nearly everything about Iron Man was an insane, futile gamble: hiring the director of Elf and Swingers to the helm, starting a cinematic universe (which was unheard of) with one of the lesser known heroes in Marvel’s canon, and hiring recovering addict Robert Downey Jr. to the man the ship. Eleven years later, the gamble’s paid off, and it’s one of the most influential superhero films ever made. Almost every aspect of this film set precedence as to how later films would shape, and as its own film, it’s a hell of a time. Nearly everything holds up extremely well, with Tony Stark’s journey from brash, arrogant playboy to brash, arrogant hero being a thing of beauty. Robert Downey Jr. is picture perfect as Stark, in ways that have been said and repeated at nauseum. The only sore spot is the final act, which is a pretty common trait among these films, but other than that, Iron Man is still one of the most iconic and fun superhero films out there.
7. Thor: Ragnarok
Bruce Banner: [on Loki] I was just talking to him just a couple minutes ago and he was totally ready to kill any of us.
Valkyrie: He did try to kill me.
Thor: Yes, me too. On many, many occasions. There was one time when we were children, he transformed himself into a snake, and he knows that I love snakes. So, I went to pick up the snake to admire it and he transformed back into himself and he was like, “Blergh, it’s me!”. And he stabbed me. We were eight at the time.
It took six years, and four films, but Thor FINALLY comes into his own in his third solo outing. Chris Hemsworth has made it public that he was growing tired playing Thor, mainly to how one dimensional his arcs had become. Ragnarok obliterates whatever’s expected of his character, ditching Shakespearean influence for straight up comedy. Thor is a straight up goofball, and with the help of Taika Watiti, it’s played off as legitimate instead of pure parody. The movie is so wildly different compared to the rest of the series, with gorgeous visuals and a color palette that feels otherworldly. The supporting cast is fantastic, with Tom Hiddleston’s Loki at an all time best, and Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk portrays the character’s iconic temper fueled burden to perfection. With a killer soundtrack and well earned hilarity in nearly every scene, Ragnarok is the Thor film we’ve all been waiting for.
Immigrant Song, am I right?
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Ms. Warren: [Finds Ned in the computer lab] What are you doing here? The dance is going on.
Ned Leeds: [Trying to come up with an excuse] Oh I was just, um… looking at… porn.
Now we get to the good stuff.
Spider-Man’s first solo outing in the MCU is the most sincere and true to heart portrayal of the character up to that point. It’s a high school comedy starring a kid who has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he always keeps his spirits up despite this. Tom Holland was fantastic in his brief stint in Civil War and is able to flex his acting chops here. He perfectly embodies the friendly neighborhood quality of Spider-Man and shows the warm optimism that makes Peter Parker such an iconic character. The high school tone is literal perfection, with jokes and teen drama that would make John Hughes blush. This is Spidey’s movie through and through, with the much advertised Tony Stark only taking up maybe 5-6 minutes of screentime. Michael Keaton (in another bird based role) is one of the best MCU villains, containing one of the absolute best twists in any superhero film. Homecoming is the best live action Spider-Man film to date, and is a much needed shift in pace and tone to a formula that was starting to get tired.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy
[Groot grows a cocoon of branches to cover his friends]
Rocket Raccoon: No, Groot! You can’t! You’ll die! Why are you doing this? Why?
[Groot uses a thin branch to wipe away Rocket’s tears]
Groot: We are Groot.
This movie shouldn’t have worked. One of the most obscure and weird Marvel properties, with even weirder characters (a talking. Freakin. TREE voiced by Vin Diesel) directed by the insane mind behind Slither and Super. If you wanted any proof of Kevin Feige’s ability to pick the right people for the job, look no further. The oddball, sci-fi odyssey that is the first Guardians film is a phenomenal showcase as to what these films can be. From the legendary casting of Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, to the beautifully different visual effects, to the amazing soundtrack known as the Awesome Mix, Guardians of the Galaxy is simply one of the greatest superhero films of all time, almost in spite of the traditions of the MCU.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
[about to fight a squadron of black ops]
Steve Rogers: Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?
Directed by the Russo Brothers, Cap’s post Avengers adventure is a testament to the MCU’s ability to be more than typical superhero fare. This film is a political thriller, taking notes from Cold War era films that highlight The Winter Soldier’s ever-present theme of paranoia. Steve Rogers is still adjusting to modern life, worrying for what will come out of S.H.I.E.L.D’s increasingly shadowy tactics. The prototypical MCU structure is thrown for a loop when the agency turns out to be a front for Hydra, completely dismantling the status quo for Cap’s already tragic life, and actually bringing a sense of stakes and consequence to these films. The action scenes are still some of the most hard hitting and well made out there, especially the iconic tussle in the elevator. The Winter Soldier is really the first MCU film that brushes with the mortality of these larger-than-life characters, a trait that is the basis for these later entries.
3. Captain America: Civil War
Hawkeye: I don’t think we’ve been introduced. I’m Clint.
Black Panther: I don’t care.
The start of Phase 3 was basically the Avengers movie that Age of Ultron should’ve been. Matching the intensity of The Winter Soldier, the Russo Brothers flex their storytelling muscles in a Marvel film that is familiar, yet thematically unique from the rest. Whether you side with Iron Man or Captain America, the conflict between these characters was captivating and surprisingly emotional, with me genuinely believing someone was going to die (turns out Rhodey just lost got paralyzed lol). Civil War is the first film that requires you having seen the other Marvel films, as pre-existing relationships and character dynamics are done with a break neck pace, using almost a decade’s worth of character investment to its advantage. This also saw the debuts of Black Panther and Spider-Man, who both steal the show whenever they’re on screen, with the Airport Battle being the MCU’s crowning achievement. Though it’s not as epic as The Avengers, Civil War works best in its more quiet and character driven moments, offering a conflict that’s intimate and methodical, with Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo being an understated, yet effecting villain. This is the beginning of the end; once Cap dropped his shield in front of Tony, the endgame truly began.
2. The Avengers
Steve Rogers: Big man in a suit of armour. Take that off, what are you?
Tony Stark: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.
Steve Rogers: I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.
Tony Stark: I think I would just cut the wire.
Steve Rogers: Always a way out… You know, you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.
Tony Stark: A hero? Like you? You’re a lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.
If Iron Man was a huge gamble, was the impossible payoff. Joss Whedon writes and directs one of the biggest cinematic experiments ever, weaving four years of characters and storylines in a juggling act for the ages. The first Avengers movie is true cinematic bliss, with an ever present tone and mood that makes you feel like you’re watching history in the making. Every single one of the performances are near career best, with each actor truly becoming in sync with their characters and co-stars. Character moments are the true highlight, with the movie being its absolute best when these characters are bickering with each other. Whedon has such an ear for dialogue, that nearly every piece of spoken word has his distinct style, but done in a way that is tailor made for each character.
“That’s my secret, Cap. I’m always angry.”
The Battle of New York is one of cinema’s greatest third acts, with absurd action anchored by comedy that is done to perfection. If Justice League showed us anything, it’s that filmmakers need to earn those iconic moments, to take their time and care with these characters so the audience will actually care about them. When the Avengers finally assemble, with Alan Silvestri’s iconic score playing, the entire landscape of cinema changed forever.
1. Avengers: Infinity War
Rocket Raccoon: You speak Groot?
Thor: Yes, they taught it on Asgard. It was an elective.
Every single film before Infinity War was made in service to it. Every character moment, post credits scene, Stan Lee cameo, the occasional reference to an Infinity Stone. This is less of a film, and more of an event. It’s the result of ten years of careful planning that was done so well, it looked easy. The film itself, is superhero perfection. It’s the most fun, epic, crowd-pleasing, anxiety inducing and darkest film of the entire MCU. As it progresses, the jokes fade away, the music dies down, and the sense of dread and defeat cloud our heroes. Thanos won, and the road that led to the Snap hear around the world is a testament to ten year’s worth of being with these characters. The 150 minute run time flies by with impeccable pacing and storytelling by the Russo Brothers, who have proven to be the golden boys for the MCU. It’s a legitimate anomaly how one film can perfectly encapsulate so many characters who were previously done by completely different people and ends up being perhaps the best representation of each one of these characters. Avengers: Infinity War is a cinematic achievement, the result of the experiment known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
And that was just part 1…