In 2008 Marvel almost innocuously dropped Iron Man on the world to little hype or fanfare. I remember as a comic-book fan being much more excited for Christopher Nolan’s Batman follow-up The Dark Knight and being much more lukewarm towards Marvel as their recent track-record was less than impressive (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man 3, and X-Men: The Last Stand being the trifecta of disappointing Marvel films I had most recently seen). The fact that Iron Man turned out to be the best Marvel movie in years was a fantastic development. But one post-credits scene featuring Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury as he talked about “The Avengers initiative” did nothing more than fundamentally change the movie industry forever.
With those fateful words Samuel L. Jackson set in motion the bold concept of a cinematic universe – where several movies featuring different characters in all of them would inhabit a theoretical shared universe where events in one film might affect outcomes in others. The biggest excitement for this shared universe would be that as the universe grew the prospect of characters such as Captain America and Iron Man might actually inhabit and visit one another’s movies leading to the culmination in the aforementioned “Avengers initiative”.
Such is the success of this experiment that today we take for granted its existence. Year after year multiple instalments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) are released and every year we flock to these movies with such regularity that they have become the rare blockbusters that make more money the more instalments come out. What started out as a grand experiment has not become an industry (for better or worse).
So what better thing to do than to rank them definitively? For purposes of brevity I will refer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the MCU. Also for clarity the MCU is officially divided into three phases currently. Phase One covers all the movies up to The Avengers (2012), Phase Two includes all the movies up to Ant-Man (2015), while all the movies after that fall into Phase Three. And with that, let’s dive right in.
17. THE INCREDIBLE HULK (2008) dir. Louis Leterrier
The Incredible Hulk is in many ways the forgotten black sheep of the MCU. The movie was released during the heady days following the phenomenal success of Iron Man but before that success made Marvel Studios decide to try their grand cinematic universe idea. As a result it is the least connected and least referenced film in the MCU. The grand legacy of this film is that it basically forced any other standalone Hulk films of the table while necessitating a recasting of Bruce Banner in future films with Edward Norton getting the boot in favour of Mark Ruffalo. As for its quality, it cannot even garner enough enthusiasm for people to say it is undoubtedly better than Ang Lee’s ambitious but highly flawed Hulk (2003) and at least Lee’s film was much more memorable.
16. THOR: THE DARK WORLD (2013) dir. Alan Taylor
Thor has the dubious distinction of being the least popular of Marvel’s big three (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor). Most of that has to do with the fact that as a Norse god who comes from a kingdom in another transdimensional realm he is easily the least relatable of the big three. While the original Thor movie played up the “fish-out-of-water” angle to comedic effect, this sequel leans hard into the medieval epic Game of Thrones-like aspects of Thor’s backstory to less than compelling effect. It doesn’t help that this movie also commits two of the grand cardinal sins of the MCU, namely having a bland and completely forgettable villain and using most of the runtime as a setup for future movies as Thor tries to retrieve one of those infernal Infinity Stones. Thank goodness Tom Hiddleston makes an appearance as Loki or the whole thing would be a waste of time.
15. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015) dir. Joss Whedon
Age of Ultron is a classic example of how not to make a sequel. Where the original Avengers was a tight and focused ensemble movie that mostly focused on the relationship between Iron Man and Captain America, the sequel is a sprawling mess of a film with no less than ten characters who have their own narrative arc, a cavalcade of cameos of past and future heroes, that takes place over four continents with each continent being the scene of some epic action set-piece, while somehow finding time and place to set up future movies in the universe. If all that sounds exhausting to read, let me assure you that watching it provides a very similar experience. It makes me genuinely afraid for the success of the future Avengers movies because by all accounts these new ones are supposed to somehow even more epic that this one. The ultimate proof of the failure of this movie is that every subsequent MCU movie can easily be read as a course-correction to Age of Ultron.
14. DOCTOR STRANGE (2016) dir. Scott Derrickson
Doctor Strange isn’t so much bad as it inspires absolutely zero emotion in me. It is perhaps the most visually ambitious of all the MCU movies, and by visually ambitious I mean “looks kind of like Inception.” But apart from that, it is a paint-by-the-numbers origin story made in the age when the superhero origin story has more than run its course. It doesn’t help that Benedict Cumberbatch’s excellent casting is hurt by his horrible attempt at an American accent (Would anybody really have objected if they had just made Doctor Strange British? I didn’t think so). Toss in a generic “destruction-from-above” type finale (previously seen in The Avengers, Avengers:Age of Ultron, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and a host of other non-MCU superhero movies) and it lands decidedly in the “meh”-category of MCU movies.
13. IRON MAN 2 (2010) dir. Jon Favreau
No question about it, Iron Man 2 suffers from the sophomore slump. In typical superhero form, the movie trades the one villain from the original for two in the Russian physicist/supervillain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and Tony Stark’s corporate rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Meanwhile the movie also drops in the introduction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) into the mix. The result is a movie that is much less focused than the original while still trying to run through all the same beats that made the original the smash hit it was making the whole package seem just a little bit less fresh that the original. Still, the movie does introduce one of the best members of the MCU in Black Widow, so it is worth a watch for that point alone.
12. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011) dir. Joe Johnston
There is no doubt in my mind that no matter how often Robert Downey Jr. shows up as Iron Man in these movies that the most important and interesting character in the MCU is Captain America. Unfortunately what makes him the most interesting character is his unwavering commitment to truth, justice, and the American way who finds himself transported to a much more cynical, opportunistic, and corrupt version of the America he loved. And that juxtaposition is decidedly absent in the first movie that traces his origins as a patriot in World War II, resulting in a much more blatantly patriotic movie. While there’s nothing terribly wrong with the movie, it just does not resonate with this recent citizen as much as it probably does to those born in America.
11. ANT-MAN (2015) dir. Peyton Reed
Ant-Man came at a time of peak superhero exhaustion following the inevitable disappointment from Age of Ultron. As a result it comes across as a breath of fresh air as paradoxically the choice to go for a much smaller and much more intimate story revitalized the MCU. The movie plays more like a heist-comedy than a traditional superhero movie where the stakes are decidedly lower than the CGI-filled end-of-days scenarios of the last movies in MCU’s Phase 2. By making the movie smaller (in many more ways than one), it places much more pressure on the central players to deliver great performances and fortunately the cast, helmed by a very funny Paul Rudd, is up to the task. Unfortunately, this movie suffers from being the biggest source of “what-if”-ness in the entire MCU as the original director for this movie was Edgar Wright (a director that my sharp readers will recognize is someone I am somewhat obsessed with). Even if it doesn’t match up to the theoretical version that could have been, it is still an entertaining romp.
10. THOR (2011) dir. Kenneth Branagh
With Thor Marvel started to step into the business of universe expansion by bringing the norse god of thunder into the mix. It was also a test to see if Marvel could do different types of stories as the movie dove into more mystical and Shakespearean territory. Fortunately Marvel went two-for-two in terms of casting. First they cast Chris Hemsworth as the titular character who imbibed the perfect mix of gravitas and bro-dom to make him the most underrated character in the MCU. And in Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, they managed to create the most compelling villain of the MCU (something that is often sorely lacking in many other movies). Add to that the “fish-out-of-water” comedic elements that ensues when Thor arrives on earth, and the movie becomes much better than you probably remember it for.
9. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2 (2017) dir. James Gunn
We’ve established this before with Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World but sequels are just hard to get right. And unfortunately Guardians Vol. 2 suffers the same curse as those aforementioned movies, though not to the same extent. The second time out finds the gang more or less in their acerbically effective groove so to make it interesting the writers have to employ discord to break the gang up (in order to achieve the same grand feeling of getting the band together that the original had). Unfortunately splitting the gang up reveals that the whole really is more than the sum of their parts. In addition, the music soundtrack which was so much the hidden star of the original is in Vol. 2 only really solid without being a standout. Mind you, none of this makes it a bad movie, just not as good in comparison to the Guardians stunning debut.
8. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR (2016) dirs. Anthony & Joe Russo
The ultimate sign that Age of Ultron was less than the stellar success that Marvel was hoping it would be is that exactly one year later they basically co-opted a Captain America movie in order to make a better Avengers movie. And that decision pays off because in spite of the fact that twelve superheroes face off against one another, the movie never loses focus on the fact that this is truly Caps film. The movie successfully closes Captain America’s “patriot” cycle as he moves from literal propaganda machine in the original to an enemy of the state as he chooses loyalty to the people he loves over country. In between we get a full on brawl between superheroes, the fracturing of previous alliances, and a semi-decent and balanced exploration of the inherent tension between freedom and safety. All in all, not a bad movie.
7. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) dir. Jon Watts
Spider-Man: Homecoming continues what was a great trend in keeping the Marvel movies somewhat fresh and interesting. Rather than simply creating a superhero movie, Homecoming firmly plants itself in the realm of the high-school movie genre and the results are incredibly rewarding to watch. By placing Peter Parker back in high school not only does it return the character back to its roots but it suggests that the “superhero genre” is in fact an extremely fluid genre that can blend extremely well with other well-established genres for fresh and new expressions of something we are already familiar with. Additionally, in what will be a familiar theme for most of the movies at the top of this list, it is a self-contained story with little concern for larger world-building and can safely and satisfactorily be viewed without having to be savvy to most of the MCU’s backstory. As the MCU becomes increasingly bigger and unwieldy, this is a valuable quality for an MCU movie to have.
6. THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) dir. Taika Waititi
With Taika Waititi’s entry into the Marvel universe Thor finally gets the sprawling and magical epic that befits his character. It also helps that this is arguably the funniest movie in the MCU. But the comedy here is less of the iconoclastic fourth-wall variety but is the thoroughly earned comedy of superhero veterans who have been around long enough to appreciate the absurdities of their world-saving job descriptions. Chris Hemsworth has never been better as Thor and the supporting cast comprising of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki along with Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, and Idris Elba among others make for a star-studded and entertaining affair. It also manages the impossible trifecta of being a stand-alone movie with a self-contained storyline while simultaneously functioning to retro-fit all of Thor’s individual movies into a coherent trilogy and also (briefly) setting up where the MCU is going to head for next. One hopes future MCU borrow from this template more when setting up the next movies.
5. IRON MAN (2008) dir. Jon Favreau
The grandfather that started it all is remarkable for how many things it got right straight off the bat, which only helped pave the way for the movies to come (a lesson that other cinematic universes have not heeded to their peril). Robert Downey Jr. was the perfect person to cast as Tony Stark/Iron Man as his own personal story matched up perfectly to Stark’s own darkness. But the biggest thing that makes the movie (and subsequent MCU) successful is that it had a clear vision of the kind of superhero movie it wanted to be, and that was to be a fun movie that tapped more into our childhood imaginations rather than our adult cynicisms. While it suffers slightly from a bland villain, Iron Man just had to accomplish two things: It had to produce a compelling superhero and leave us wanting to see more. And that it succeeds in doing, and in spades.
4. THE AVENGERS (2012) dir. Joss Whedon
In many ways, this is the most important movie in the MCU because it was the “proof-of-concept” movie. Had the movie failed, the whole idea of cinematic universes would have been cast aside by studios as an untenable concept. Now with the advent of cinematic universes in the intervening years for DC, Spider-Man (failed), King Arthur (DOA), Universal monsters (DOA), and even Hasbro among others we can debate whether the success of The Avengers has been a good thing for movies in general. But what is indisputable is that The Avengers was an incredible gamble by Marvel Studios that required four years and five movies worth of build-up. And it was a gamble that worked, paving the way for everything that was to come.
3. IRON MAN 3 (2013) dir. Shane Black
Iron Man 3 had the unenviable task of being the first movie in Phase 2 following the ridiculous success of the billion-dollar grossing The Avengers. Wisely, director Shane Black decided not to try and match the epic scale, and instead created an intimate story as Tony Stark deals with his PTSD following the events of The Avengers which not only taps into the self-destructive darkness inherent in Stark’s character but also moves the MCU into a slightly more grounded reality where the fantastical actions of superheroes have real-world implications. The portrayal of the Mandarin by Ben Kingsley is a fantastic and unique subversion of his character, even if it does ultimately rob us of another great villain in the MCU pantheon. But the importance of this movie is that is showed that Marvel could go small and still be as compelling as its more sprawling epics. While The Avengers is the most sensational peak of the MCU, Iron Man 3 reveals exactly how the series has managed to sustain itself and remain fresh.
2. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) dir. James Gunn
If The Avengers was Marvel showing that the previously impossible concept of a cinematic universe could be pulled off, then Guardians of the Galaxy is Marvel simply rubbing it in the faces of their competition. There was absolutely no reason why a comic book hero team featuring a one-liner tree and a talking racoon should have worked. Even within the comic-book reader realm the announcement that they were making a Guardians movie elicited a collective “huh?” But such was Marvel’s confidence in superhero storytelling that they were able to take the perennial B-listers and turning it into one of the funniest, exciting, and action-packed space epics to have come out in years. Plus the true ace-in-the-card for this movie was the astounding soundtrack which served as the perfect backdrop along with the surreal landscapes for the most interesting corner in the MCU.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER (2014) dirs. Anthony and Joe Russo
One of the biggest questions for the MCU in the early was how to translate Captain America, who was conceived during an age of unquestionable patriotism, into an age where rah-rah American exceptionalism was much more of a questionable notion. And their solution in The Winter Soldier was brilliant because they leaned into Cap’s wanting to defend truth, justice, and the American way but placed him in a world where his own allies no longer believed in those same principles. In doing so Captain America became no longer a symbol of an outdated Americana, but a prophetic reminder to us of all that we had lost. On top of that, The Winter Soldier is a fantastic conspiracy thriller with a compelling villain, fantastic chemistry between Captain America, Black Widow, and the Falcon, and a truly game-changing reveal that fundamentally altered the rest of the MCU. In short, the best that the MCU had to offer.