That said, sometimes one needs to turn toward more light-hearted topics, at least as a way to prevent insanity. Donald Trump is the U.S. President. The planet is warming, and we aren’t doing nearly enough about it. There are wars all over the globe. We have no shortage of hatred and prejudice directed by almost every possible group of people at almost every other possible group of people. The world isn’t a hellscape everywhere, but we certainly have problems.
If I ignored these issues, I would be guilty of burying my head in the sand. However, since I don’t ignore them (in fact, sometimes I obsess over them), I feel like my sanity is best preserved by enjoying some escapism now and then. And that’s what leads me to the MCU.
I discovered comic books just as I stumbled awkwardly into my teen years. Superheroes in particular appealed to a small, nerdy, timid, unathletic kid. After spending a day in school feeling outcast, being picked on, and failing to be picked for any teams, going home and imagining myself as a physical marvel was a delightful way to occupy my thoughts. Comics were an amazing source of imaginative kindling, stoking the fires of my mind. Much of my fiction writing has centered around people with extraordinary abilities, certainly influenced by my love of comics from my youth. I happily consumed comic book-based movies along with comics (not to mention novels based on those comics), though comic book movies were almost always pretty bad when I was young. Even the best early examples of the genre – like the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films, and the first Michael Keaton Batman – were mostly just “good for a comic book movie,” rather than actually good movies.
Then came 2000, and the first X-Men movie. It was arguably the first example of a comic book-based film that could actually stand on its own as a solid film. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was generally thoughtful, reasonably complex, often witty, and well-acted. It was followed by a much-better sequel, as well as two very good Spider-Man films. DC got in on the action with an excellent reboot of Batman in 2005, and by then, comic book movies had been established as potentially legitimately good films. Well, sometimes. There was always Daredevil, and Elektra, and Catwoman, and Ghost Rider, and so on… But I digress.
Due to rather complex financial arrangements that other people have discussed in depth, Marvel Studios does not own the rights to make movies for many of its most popular characters. Spider-Man is now able to join the Marvel Studios team, but X-Men and the Fantastic Four currently belong to 20th Century Fox and Sony, respectively. But Marvel still had plenty to work with, and beginning in 2008, laid the seeds for a much larger cinematic universe. With the initial success of Iron Man that year, 20 total (mostly) interconnected films have been released, with at least a dozen more planned. The Marvel Cinematic Universe also includes three network television series, six Netflix series, and a Hulu series, with more shows on the way. All of which work together to maintain the same continuity, and for the most part, do a reasonable job.
I dig the television shows, but they are all a different beast from the movies, and should probably be ranked separately, or even by individual season. As one might have guessed, ranking things like this is fun for me. It provides plenty of opportunity for discussion and debate, and allows me to talk about comics and the MCU, which is usually more fun than discussing Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
FEBRUARY 2018 UPDATE: I have now seen Black Panther, and will add it to this ranking. There are now 18 MCU flicks, and by this summer, there will be 20, with Ant-Man and The Wasp, and Avengers: Infinity War. I will probably continue to update my ranking on this page here, for the time being.
MAY 2018 UPDATE: And now I’ve viewed Avengers: Infinity War, and have updated the rankings accordingly.
JULY 2018 UPDATE: Ant Man and The Wasp is now included in the ranking.
Many sites have already compared and ranked the MCU films, and I will include links below to some of them. In the meantime, here is my highly-subjective list of the current 20 MCU films. Let readers be warned, spoilers lie ahead:
20.) Thor: The Dark World
I enjoyed the first Thor movie, although I had trouble really getting into its strange mix of magic and gods (aliens?). The sequel, which felt more like obligatory time-killing than a necessary continuation of a character arc, still has the hokey fantasy aspect I didn’t much enjoy, but now includes legitimate boredom. The first half is dull and dour and has a lame villain, wasting an excellent actor. The movie does pick up after it brings Loki into the mix, and the second half alone is almost enough to bring it up a spot or two.
Thor 2 isn’t a bad movie, but it is the only MCU film where I was seriously bored for more than a few minutes. If a movie about gods, superheroes, and magic hammers is made to be dull and unentertaining, then it has committed the most egregious sin possible for a superhero flick.
Hits: Loki, some humor and action in the second half.
Misses: Slow first half, not enough Loki, boring villain.
19.) Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 may be the most polarizing of the MCU films. One of the below links actually puts it in at Number 1. Several others rank it near the bottom. To me, it was a series of entertaining segments, but poorly tied together, and beset by some really dumb points. Iron Man 3 didn’t have long periods of extended ennui like Thor 2, which kept Tony Stark ranked above the God of Thunder, but it was also kind of stupid in general.
I didn’t mind that Tony Stark spent so much time without the suit, and I actually enjoyed the sudden agency acquired by Pepper Potts near the end. Comic book movies have historically struggled with providing women with interesting roles where they drive the plot and action and don’t end up playing second fiddle. By her character’s definition, she is second fiddle, but the ending did a good job empowering her character.
Beyond that, the big reveal of the villain didn’t really work for me, even though I appreciate what writers Drew Pearce and Shane Black were going for. The powers provided by the Extremis virus were poorly-defined and kind of goofy. The movie itself was oddly paced, and shifted pace too frequently for me. I found it entertaining, but kind of a mess.
Hits: Good character work with Stark and the kid, Pepper saves the day!
Misses: Disjointed, messy, confusing. Poorly-handled twist with the villain.
18.) Iron Man 2
Six months or so after the events of Iron Man, billionaire inventor and industrialist Tony Stark is succumbing to alcohol abuse, and poor health from the arc reactor implanted in his chest, the US government is breathing down his neck regarding his rather cavalier attitude toward wielding advanced weapons technology, and a rival industrialist is attempting to undermine him and steal his secrets. And then a crazy Russian scientist shows up, and everything comes together, blows apart, and kind of becomes a mess for awhile.
I actually kind of like this movie, despite its low ranking on my list (and everyone else’s). I enjoyed the early stuff, with Tony enjoying his new life as a fully-out and public Iron Man, but internally collapsing from radiation poisoning and alcoholism. Yeah, the early fight with Rhodey was unnecessary, and the three villains of Congress, Justin Hammer, and Ivan Vanko are all a bit underwhelming, but the movie is filled with fun moments. The final showdown is pretty brief, and the first fight with Vanko on the racetrack is a bit silly. Scarlet Johansson’s first turn as the Black Widow is mostly wasted. And the secret to Tony’s cure is incredibly contrived. It really isn’t a good movie. But every time I’ve seen it, I end up feeling entertained. The action (when it happens) is fun to watch. And there really is some good character work there, with Tony’s gradual fall and sort-of rebirth. It’s not nearly as good as the movie that preceded it. And it feels like it’s sort of just sitting there, filling time until The Avengers. But I was never bored.
Oh, and special mention to Mickey Rourke, who turns in a bizarre, yet fun appearance as one of the villains. Yeah, his accent is goofy, and his motivations are strained. And it feels like Jon Favreau didn’t direct Rourke so much as just filmed him walking around, being himself. But that made for a scene-theft every time the camera was pointed his way.
Hits: Good character work (as always) by Robert Downey Jr. Fun action sequences.
Misses: Weak villains, underutilized Black Widow, goofy deus ex machina cure for Tony.
Thor Odinson, the scion of the alien/godly/mystical realm of Asgard, pisses off his dad with his hubris and immaturity, and is forced to redeem himself without his magic hammer, lost among strangers on the primitive planet known as Earth. There, he gets involved with a human scientist, and has to save both his world and Earth from the machinations of his evil brother Loki. Following along so far? For some, they may already be skeptical. This is certainly “high concept.”
Thor is not a bad movie. It’s probably the first on this list that can qualify as at least “pretty good.” Maybe a B- or C+. It’s got some impressive and creative visuals, and the Asgard scenes contain a sense of vastness befitting a realm of demigods. The fish-out-of-water themes are played well (and often hilariously). It’s got impressive pedigree – directed by Kenneth Branagh and co-starring Anthony Hopkins as Odin! It also introduces the best MCU villain by far, Thor’s brother Loki.
It’s also undeniably one of the silliest concepts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And that’s saying something, considering it exists in a realm with talking raccoons, a ridiculous number of blue and green aliens, unfrozen supersoldiers, and sentient AI. Thor’s escapism is certainly fun, but as a fan of pure science fiction, it’s not quite my cup of tea. It blurs the line between sci-fi and fantasy, and does it competently, albeit a bit sloppily. The third act is a bit of a letdown, and the movie doesn’t flow as smoothly as some of the other entries on this list.
Chris Hemsworth is perfectly cast as the titular character, and Tom Hiddleston steals every scene as the devious Loki. The movie serves as a solid introduction for what will become mostly a supporting character in the franchise. Not perfect, but it’s the lowest ranked film on this list that I think of as “good.”
Hits: Gorgeous scenery, epic scope, solid humor, the best MCU villain, Anthony Hopkins.
Misses: A bit slow once on Earth, hokey concept, disappointing climax, feels like a chapter in a larger saga rather than a film standing well on its own.
16.) Thor: Ragnarok
Look, Marvel managed to make a (fairly) good Thor movie! The third installment in the franchise-within-a-franchise accomplishes this feat by being the first one to not just understand, but to fully embrace the fact that even for the science fiction/fantasy hybrid that it is – the Marvel take on Thor is a ridiculous concept.
Throughout the larger MCU continuity, particularly the television series Agents of SHIELD, there has been some effort made to establish that Thor and his fellow Asgardians aren’t really gods as much as they are super advanced aliens. Aliens that live for thousands of years, have physical (and sometimes mystical) abilities far beyond those of humans, and… yeah, frequently refer to themselves as gods.
While nobody would argue that Ant Man or the Hulk are particularly grounded in reality, they have been long established as fitting within the rather loose rules and laws of the Marvel quasi-scientific canon. Thor and his ilk bend that quite a bit. However, Thor Ragnarok goes out of its way to acknowledge the absurdities in the character and his background, and finally let loose and have some fun with it.
Chris Hemsworth is a talented comic actor, and plays his role in a relaxed and wry manner – moreso than we’ve seen previously. As strange situation after strange situation is thrown his way, Thor takes everything in stride, accepting that he inhabits a weird universe.
The plot is straightforward, but well-executed. Thor’s father, Odin, seemingly dies while in quasi-exile on Earth. This – for somewhat strained reasons – causes Thor’s long-lost (maybe half?) sister to reappear. In the tradition of… well, every supervillain ever, Hela embarks on a mission of conquest – specifically back to Asgard. She kicks everyone’s ass, destroys Thor’s hammer, and in the ensuing fight, he finds himself eventually taken prisoner on a faraway world. Naturally, he runs into his old pal Bruce Banner, who has been stuck in his Hulk form for over a year now.
The team-up and eventual rematch are predictable, but fun. The final confrontation isn’t as excessive and bloated as some Marvel flicks, and there’s constant humor throughout… so much so that it almost reduces the impact of some of the more consequential aspects to the plot.
It’s got energy, it’s funny, it’s light – almost too light, but it has a heavy enough villain to keep it from turning into farce. It meanders a bit, especially toward the middle third, but it ends up a fairly satisfying entry into the series.
Hits: Seriously funny dialogue, a good primary villain, pretty epic action.
Misses: Still a silly concept, almost too reliant on comedy, script could be tighter.
15.) Doctor Strange
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Arrogant wealthy genius is injured, forced to become a superhero to survive, then gradually learns how to be a better person, all while mastering his new powers. Nope, this isn’t Iron Man. But the formula is pretty much the same.
The redemption story of the snarky genius thrown into adversity is familiar. If this entry had occurred earlier in the MCU, it may have appeared fresher. On the other hand, Doctor Strange introduces filmgoers to an entirely new aspect of the Marvel universe. Most of the characters introduced up to this point in the MCU had a certain scientific underpinning, far-fetched though they may have been. Doctor Strange largely dispenses with that and jumps into pure mysticism.
The acting is solid, the characters are reasonably interesting, the plot isn’t too convoluted (though some of the dialogue is), and while the finale does suffer from some of the standard bloat that most comic book films have, it also ends with a clever confrontation with the villain, who scores countless “victories,” before realizing he’s being outwitted by a lowly human.
There are some issues. Tilda Swinton’s character was originally a Fu Manchuesque “wise Asian” stereotype in the comics – and a more faithful rendition of the original character would have been problematic in its own right. Nonetheless, when we discuss issues of representation in media, and persistent issues of whitewashing that occur even today, it seems like a glaring problem to cast a Caucasian woman in the role of an Asian man. Of course, this is made maybe a little better (and a little worse) by the fact that Swinton absolutely nails the role, and steals the movie whenever she’s on screen. Insulation through skill.
That issue aside, it is a visually stunning film that almost demands to be seen on the largest possible screen. While quite CGI-heavy, it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or distracting. The plot is pretty familiar, but with new details. It’s a good movie, but not one that elevates over some of the other films in the franchise.
Hits: Jaw-dropping special effects, smoothly-executed plot, interesting concepts.
Misses: Glaring whitewashing issue, familiar plot, so-so villain.
14.) The Incredible Hulk
This one will probably cause the most disagreement among Marvel fans. I personally consider this one to be pretty underrated. If it hadn’t been released within a couple months of The Dark Knight and Iron Man, I believe it would have made more of an impact. It certainly isn’t as good as either movie, but the second attempt to portray the Hulk on the big screen gets most things right.
So, this film is unique in that it’s definitely part of the larger universe, but also includes a handful of nods to the painfully misunderstood Ang Lee-helmed Hulk. It’s not quite a sequel, but it’s not a pure reboot, either. And it’s a bit disconnected from the main bulk of the MCU films, although Tony Stark makes an appearance at the end, helping tie the first two films of the franchise together.
The story follows Bruce Banner (now played by Ed Norton), as he’s hiding from the US government in Brazil, and attempting to figure out a cure for his condition. The opening 20 minutes or so follows Bruce as he works in a factory, learns Portuguese, flirts with a coworker, clashes with other coworkers, learns jiu jitsu, and practices meditation. It’s a relatively low key opening that I think is quite effective in establishing who Bruce is and what he’s trying to accomplish. Quiet setups like this allow us to care more about the character (are you listening, Zack Snyder?)
Eventually, the military finds him (with a nifty foot chase through a favela), leading to the first Hulk-out of the movie (and Bruce’s first in months). He finds his way back to the States, with the military tracking him. He borderline stalks his ex, Betty (who is now dating Leonard Samson), and tries to meet with a fellow scientist Samuel Sterns for help with a cure. General Thaddeus Ross recruits a British-Russian military officer named Emil Blonsky, juices him with super-soldier serum, and sends him out to confront and capture Banner. All these names make for great fan service, and the actors mostly do them justice, particularly William Hurt as Ross, and Tim Blake Nelson in a slighty off-kilter performance as Dr. Sterns (or Mr. Blue). Liv Tyler comes across as being half-asleep portraying Betty, and doesn’t get much to do.
Blonsky is nearly killed, then ends up being treated with what transformed Banner, and becomes a dark, twisted version of the Hulk. The big final fight in Harlem of all places is done quite well, and finally gives a live-action version of the Hulk a truly worthy opponent.
I know this film is considered one of the lower points of the MCU, and even I can admit its not among the best, but I truly believe it’s underappreciated. Reasonably thoughtful dialogue, good acting from most of the cast, a solid look into the torture that Bruce goes through with his transformations, and a worthy (while admittedly undermotivated) villain. It’s not the tour de force that Iron Man turned out to be, but it really was quite good. The production was apparently troubled, and star Ed Norton feuded with Marvel before finally quitting the character, being replaced by one of the original contenders, Mark Ruffalo. Interestingly, the studio wanted David Duchovny in the title role, which would have been… interesting.
Hits: Good action, solid acting and pathos, well-paced
Misses: Betty is wasted, the movie feels shoehorned into the MCU
13.) Ant Man
Stop me if you heard this one. Roguish troublemaker gets in a jam, uses an advanced high-tech suit to get out of said jam, fights corporate takeover from the eventual main villain. Film ends with vastly-more-qualified sidekick gazing wistfully at high-tech suit, vowing to be part of the action next time. Nope, this isn’t Iron Man. Just like Doctor Strange wasn’t, either.
Along with Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange, Marvel seems to be using this movie as a way to test their limits. Yes, bigger name characters could anchor a film, but what about a relatively obscure Silver Age Avenger with the power to… get really small?
Sure, why not?
For the most part it works. Paul Rudd is charming and charismatic as Scott Lang, an ex-con lured into a job as Ant-Man, a superhero with a high-tech suit that enables rapid mass change. It was previously worn by Hank Pym, a billionaire industrialist wearily played by Michael Douglas. Evangeline Lilly is excellent as Pym’s daughter, who is tasked (rather thanklessly) with training Scott to become Ant Man, when she clearly (and quite reasonably) believes she would be better suited to that role. Corey Stoll is just okay as Darren Cross, basically playing the Jeff Bridges role from Iron Man, but without near the menace or gravitas. Michael Pena, T.I., and David Dastmalchian are Scott’s old burglary crew, meeting back up to help him out. Pena in particular provides much of the comic relief of the film. He occasionally nears cartoonishness, but doesn’t quite go that far most of the time. His contributions, along with a clever script and Mr. Rudd, help provide a more light-hearted tone than we have seen in most of these entries. As a result, the movie feels a bit less consequential, but Rudd, Lilly, and Douglas all do an admirable job keeping it grounded. Well, as grounded as a movie about shrinking superheroes can get.
Hits: Paul Rudd, fun set pieces, good sense of humor.
Misses: Fairly weak villain, feels almost too breezy.
12.) Captain America: The First Avenger
The first time I saw this movie, I enjoyed it, but left feeling a bit underwhelmed. However, after repeat viewing, especially after having seen Cap portrayed in four (kind of six) other MCU flicks, I think it looks better.
This is a fairly straight-forward origin story, and almost entirely takes place during World War II. Chris Evans is Steve Rogers, a small, frail kid from Brooklyn with a good heart and an unwavering code of honor and morals. He wants nothing more than to serve his country and fight the Nazis, to the point of lying to pass the physical exams. His best friend Bucky is already in the Army, and serving with distinction. Bucky is everything Steve wants to be; a big, athletic, charismatic ladies man. In his desperation to join, Steve agrees to an experimental procedure, in order to be able to enlist. Despite skepticism from military leaders, Steve’s selflessness and leadership potential make him the best choice to undergo a treatment to make him a “Super-Soldier.” Predictably, bad guys intervene, and disrupt the proceedings while Steve undergoes a transformation to make him the physical pinnacle of human potential. Steve’s transformation is successful, but the formula is lost, and since Steve is the only super soldier, he’s deemed kind of useless. So he spends a large chunk of the movie as a mascot for the Army, touring with the USO, and promoting war bonds as “Captain America,” a largely unfulfilling performance role.
That part of the movie is interesting to me. Turning Steve into the ultimate physical badass, then frustrating him by making him a figurehead at best helped demonstrate not just the importance of teamwork during war, but helped the character progress in a less-predictable way.
How does one make a basically ideal person interesting? Someone with completely honest and pure motives needs to have his ideals challenged, and to have his sense of duty blocked – by circumstance, or conflict, or both. And for the most part, Captain America does a good job of this.
Eventually, Steve gets his chance to see real action, where he naturally thrives, leading a group of veteran soldiers into battle in Europe, meeting (and then losing) Bucky, discovering the first man to undergo a less-successful version of his super-soldier treatment, and eventually sacrificing himself to save the day. There are clear tie-ins with the larger MCU, and a solid coda where Steve discovers that he’s still alive – but it’s now 2011.
When I first saw the movie, I thought there wasn’t enough development of his skills as a soldier and combatant, and we didn’t get to see enough action with Steve as Captain America. And even now, I do feel like that aspect was under-developed. But the more I consider how the Army utilized him, and how Steve’s moral compass was frustrated by his predicament, the more I found myself liking the choices made.
As an origin story, as a period piece, as a war movie, as a morality tale, the movie works. It’s not perfect, and its not deep, but its a good story with a good lead, and a very good supporting cast, particularly Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, who would go to her own (highly underrated) MCU series.
Hits: Great cast, good WWII atmosphere, works as both standalone film and a piece of a larger whole.
Misses: Villain is so-so (typical for MCU), not enough time spent as Cap
11.) Ant Man and The Wasp
For years, conventional cinematic wisdom held that sequels were inevitably inferior to their predecessors. While notable exceptions existed (Godfather II, Empire Strikes Back, Star Trek II), they were notable due to their rarity.
So, it’s been interesting to see that within the various sub-franchises in the larger MCU, sequels tend to be better than the first installments. At least, some of them.
Ant Man and the Wasp fits this trend well. Its predecessor was a fairly light-hearted adventure story, with less intense themes compared with some of the other installments in the MCU canon. This installment enjoys much of the same jokey tone as the first one… but the dark points are a little darker and the stakes feel just a bit higher. Also, Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne (the Wasp), is freed up to be the badass only hinted at the first time around.
It starts off with former Ant-Man Scott Lang nearing the end of his house arrest – a punishment induced by his role in assisting Captain America two years earlier during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Part of his punishment includes being forbidden to contact his former mentor Hank Pym, who, along with his daughter (and now the Wasp), is a fugitive in his own right.
But a strange dream/vision hits Scott, and he believes he has connected with Janet van Dyne, Hank’s wife believed lost in the “quantum realm” during a semi-botched mission decades earlier. This vision prompts him to contact Hank, who ends up dragging Scott into his own mission to try to rescue his possibly-stranded wife.
Scott has to dodge his parole officer, remain in the good graces of his ex-wife and her husband, and once again suit up as Ant Man, despite being in the doghouse of both Hank and Hope. Meanwhile, his sidekicks from the first one are back, still in largely broad comedic form. Now, they have a fledgling security business they’re on the verge of losing, and a plot arc that intertwines well with the larger plot.
Further complicating matters are a former colleague of Hank’s (Laurence Fishburne, classing up the place), and a mystery villain with the ability to phase in and out of matter. Walt Goggins is charming and smarmy as a crooked businessman after Hank’s tech.
The movie is essentially a race to find Janet, while dodging cops, crooks, old cronies, and a new super-powered character. It’s fast-paced, the action scenes are inventive and entertaining as hell, and Evangeline Lilly in particular gets a chance to really shine, after being relegated to a disgruntled background role the last time around.
Some of the tone shifts feel abrupt, transitioning from humor to pathos too quickly. And there are some odd plot holes that seem to be acknowledged and then immediately shoved aside (just how does one survive for 25 years in a subatomic world, not to mention remain sane through the process?).
But those quibbles aside, Ant Man and the Wasp made for a solid and fun summer action movie. It made for a welcome change of pace from the relentlessly dark Infinity War (while tying in with that film). Like the first one, the humor is generally clever while occasionally skirting the “too broad” line. The action is exciting, and makes superb use of shrinking/growing – even if the physics behind the transformations is a little murky.
Hits: Exciting, creative, often hilarious.
Misses: Some glaring plot holes, jarring tone shifts
10.) Spider-Man: Homecoming
The second reboot of Spider-Man in just a decade, Spider-Man: Homecoming avoids some of the pitfalls suffered by the Andrew Garfield reboot by not rehashing the origin story we all know so well. In this film, Peter Parker is still a teenager, but he’s now part of a larger universe, and he’s already been in action for a while. At least for a few months, anyway. He’s young (obviously), impatient, and a bit reckless. Played with considerable likeability and amusing naivete by Tom Holland, Peter feels like he’s being held back by his superhero mentor and benefactor, Tony Stark. And he’s not wrong. The movie does a great job showing the frustration and impatience of a teenager with great power and a still-developing sense of responsibility.
Moreso than the prior Spider-Man films, this captures the lives of teenagers in a (mostly) realistic and often quite funny way. The classic Spider-Man problems of finding balance with his personal life, his school life, and his superhero life are done well, and Michael Keaton is terrific as a reasonably believable and sympathetic villain.
Spider-Man: Homecoming ties in well with the larger MCU, but is also clearly meant to stand on its own, existing just a bit separately from the bulk of the larger continuity. It’s fun, energetic, witty, and has an engaging cast. The pacing is a bit inconsistent, and there’s a feeling that a good ten minutes could be trimmed from the runtime. Overall, it’s a solid outing, and is probably now my second favorite Spider-Man film (after Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2).
Hits: Likable cast, good humor, one of the better villains
Misses: Could stand tighter pacing
9.) Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
I waffled on where to place the two Guardians films. They are both fun, action-oriented science fiction films with an underlying theme of family. I could very well change my mind the next time I see this one and place it above the original, but for now, GOTG2 goes here.
Despite being a big-budget blockbuster with massive space battles and huge setpieces, it almost feels like a smaller film. Mixed in with the action are long discussions of family and belonging. There’s quite a bit of good character development, and the chemistry developed in the first one continues to improve.
Guardians 2 isn’t paced quite as well as its predecessor, and I generally enjoyed the team origin story a little better than their continuing adventure, but this is a very solid film that actually improved upon the characterization of the first one. Kurt Russell’s Ego and Michael Rooker’s Yondu were served particularly well by the story.
Hits: Excellent character stuff, good dialogue, laudable commitment to themes of family
Misses: Inconsistent pacing, sometimes tries too hard to make us laugh
8.) The Avengers: Age of Ultron
There is a scene halfway through Age of Ultron where the movie slows down, and we are treated to an extended sequence on Hawkeye’s (Jeremy Renner) hidden farm, where the Avengers regroup and lick their wounds. It acts as a sudden departure in tone from where the movie had been, but the shift works. We get to see development from pretty much every character on the team, which in turn allows us to better appreciate and empathize with them. We become invested in their outcomes, because we are given a sense of who they are. So then later events, including death and major trauma, become more impactful. And that is the big difference between the MCU and Zack Snyder’s DCEU. Concentrating on the humanity of these demigods pays off later, rather than leaping from scene to scene, searching for the next iconic moment to film in slow motion.
There are plenty of excellent character moments scattered throughout the film, that not only help keep most members of the massive cast growing as characters, but also make us care what happens to them. Of course, the biggest trauma ends up happening to one of the least developed main characters. And that ties into the biggest problem with the film – too much is happening. There are too many characters, too many scenes, too much plot development shoehorned into one movie. Much of that is necessary, as the Avengers movies tend to be used as the payoff to all the development of the prior series (Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and so on). Joss Whedon had a thankless job in many ways, trying to create a successful followup to one of the greatest superhero films ever, and trying to tie together a million plot threads and character arcs. It’s no surprise that making this movie basically broke him.
And despite all of that, to my eyes, this movie works. Despite the huge cast, most of the characters had plenty to do. The quieter moments were all pretty much perfect. The individual setpieces were often spectacular. And despite some critical complaints, I thought James Spader’s Ultron was a damn good villain. Yeah, his motivation could have been fleshed out a bit more, but he proved to be a challenge for our heroes, and was portrayed with both menace and humor.
Age of Ultron was a bit sloppier than the first Avengers, and bit overstuffed. But so much of it worked. Great character work abounded. And it was frequently a visual joy to watch.
Hits: Character development, action scenes, clever introduction to Vision
Misses: Too much going on to keep the plot moving smoothly
7.) Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy was an example of Marvel taking a risk, throwing an out-of-left-field idea out there and seeing if it would work. And by and large, it worked better than anyone could have expected. Officially based on a relatively obscure comic from the ’70s, Guardians is what happens when a studio tries to make an Avengers and Star Wars mash up, mixes in a great ’70s pop soundtrack, throws in far more humor than almost any other recent comic book adaptation, shakes it up, and sees what happens.
The main characters all receive compelling backstories, the action is exciting, and the plot moves along quite nicely. The dialogue suffers from a bit too much technobabble, and there are a few points where they seemed to try too hard to squeeze in a joke (or several). And in the recent Marvel tradition, the villains are rather underdeveloped. We know they want power, and one of them wants to kill her sister… but we aren’t really given much reason to care. But overall, this was not just a fun surprise – it was a shock to see such goofy, obscure source material work so well on the big screen. Guardians of the Galaxy showed what could happen when Marvel decided to take a risk. The swung for the fences, and hit the ball all the way to Xandar.
Hits: Great lead characters, spectacular visuals, great soundtrack
Misses: Yet another set of weak villains, Star Trek Voyager levels of expository technobabble
6.) Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War is officially the third Captain America movie, but it could arguably be considered the third Avengers movie, too. Loosely based on the “Civil War” plotline from the comics, it acts as a followup to basically every big event that occurred in the MCU up to that point. Consequences are a major theme of this film. Some science fiction and action movies have failed to demonstrate the effects of huge battles that lay waste to cities. In those films, collateral damage is often merely used as eye candy, not as a reason to discuss issues of control and fallibility.
In Civil War, the effects of the previous films is what gets the plot moving. A fight with a former SHIELD agent in Africa kills a building full of innocents. The US government (along with the UN), bring up the reasonable point that these massively powerful people are largely unregulated and unsupervised, and in several cases, untrained. Perhaps some supervision would be wise, they argue.
The film does a good job presenting the pro-superhero-regulation argument fairly and thoughtfully – but this movie is still about Captain America and why he thinks answering to the United Nations is bullshit.
Personally, I still think Iron Man has a better argument, but Cap is cooler… which is weird to say. But he is. And this whole movie – while presenting thoughtful moral dilemmas – is really about the airport scene. About 2/3 of the way through, a massive fight between every member of the Avengers (minus the two who could single-handedly turn the course of the fight) completely takes over the film. And what a battle it is. Every character gets something to do. There’s humor, pathos, and amazing action. It may feel a bit like fan fiction – but it’s really GOOD fan fiction.
Hits: One of the best movie fight scenes ever, a legitimate discussion of superhero collateral damage (you listening DC?)
Misses: There are a lot of characters here, and some are underdeveloped
5.) The Avengers
The Avengers was the culmination of what was known as “Phase One” of the MCU. Iron Man, Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America set it up, and The Avengers tied it all together.
And it was a near-masterpiece.
A mysterious… cube thing called the Tesseract is… well, not quite a Macguffin, but also not really the point. But it does help get the ball rolling as Thor’s asshole brother Loki agrees to steal it from Earth in exchange for an alien army that he’ll use to invade Earth.
Bear with me here, it still turns out great.
Nick Fury, director of SHIELD, puts together all of the most powerful people he can find into a team to fight Loki and his soon-to-arrive army. And that’s pretty much it. The final 40 minutes or so involve the invasion and the team finally putting their squabbles aside to repel it. Joss Whedon wrote and directed it, and it’s definitely the Buffy creator at the absolute peak of his powers. The dialogue is sharp and clever, and the plot manages to work despite a weak opening 20 minutes and a blue sky beam finale. It puts together the characters developed (rather unevenly) in prior installments in a way that makes sense.
And that final action sequence – yeah, it’s heavy on excessive collateral damage, it’s full of easily dispatched, disposable infantry, and again, it ends in a blue sky beam… but great dialogue, solid directing, and well-developed characters enable it all to work.
The Avengers could easily have been a mess, but instead, it’s one of the best superhero films ever made.
Hits: Action, humor, characterization, dialogue, Loki!
Misses: Tropey ending
4.) Iron Man
This is where it all began. Tony Stark snarked his way into the public imagination, and made the idea of a “cinematic universe” feasible. Everything that happened since only happened because this movie was both a critical and commercial success.
Robert Downey Jr is perfectly cast as Tony Stark, a youngish gazillionaire industrialist celebrity who is a Bill Gates with sex appeal merged with Howard Hughes, minus 90% of the emotional issues. He’s all wit and ego and brilliance. He happily parties, drinks, schmoozes with celebrities and the military, and, oh yes, builds weapons for that military. While demonstrating his newest toy in Afghanistan, Stark is captured by a fairly generic terrorist organization. He’s badly injured, and forced to recreate his new weapon for the group, while trying not to die in a cave.
The original comic had pretty much the same origin story, except it was in Vietnam. Updated times, same old story. Anyway, Tony decides to use his brilliant mind to do something different. He builds a suit of armor powered by a miniaturized fusion reactor (basically), and fights his way to freedom.
Seeing his weapons used by terrorists in bloody conflicts halfway around the world causes an epiphany. Tony decides to rebuild his suit of armor, this time sleeker and shinier, and uses it to do good – primarily by ridding the world of his weapons. At the same time, as the official head of his company, he has decided to change its focus away from weapons, which doesn’t sit too well with his number two man, a surprisingly menacing Jeff Bridges.
Bridges plays Obadiah Stane (I love these names), who figures out what Tony is doing with his spare time, and ends up stealing the reactor that’s keeping Tony alive from those wounds incurred back in Afghanistan. He builds his own suit of armor, and we get the inevitable final confrontation.
I’ve seen some rankings where Iron Man is acknowledged as the MCU OG, but then demoted, arguing it doesn’t hold up all that well anymore. I can’t get behind that. I think this flick is still one of the very best superhero films ever made. The dialogue is still sharp, the plot is well-executed, the villain is underrated, and Robert Downey Jr owns every inch of the screen for every second he’s on it. This film was released around the same time as The Dark Knight, and while it’s very different in tone and style, I think it’s just as well-made, and probably more entertaining.
Hits: RDJ, great villain, great character arc for Stark, well-written
Misses: Not much… maybe the terrorists come a bit too close to stereotype for comfort.
3.) Avengers: Infinity War
Well, here we have it… the culmination of 19 films stretched over 10 years, with dozens of characters and plot threads that eventually wound their way to this point. A movie like this can only be pulled off if the world building and character development leading up to it has been executed thoughtfully and carefully. We need to care about these characters, and about the world(s) they inhabit. And then, if that hurdle has been cleared, the movie itself needs to be able to tie up these ends in a worthwhile manner.
I can say that the first step has definitely been accomplished, especially in the larger sense. The fact that these movies warrant rankings and retrospectives is proof that the world has been developed successfully.
As for the second requirement – I can say that Infinity War does succeed, but with a few caveats. Most of the film’s flaws are structural and almost impossible to avoid. The MCU has already had three good-sized crossover events, but this one was the film to tie all of the other elements together, including characters and threads introduced in the other big crossovers. Melding these threads in a satisfactory manner without neglecting certain characters and ideas was next to impossible. Indeed, a handful of characters don’t even make the film (Ant Man, Wasp, Hawkeye, Valkyrie), and a few others don’t have much to do. Thor, Doctor Strange, and Iron Man seem to have the most going on, with strong support from Spider-Man, Star-Lord, Nebula, Vision, Scarlet Witch, and Gamora. Everyone else is just there for a few lines and some punching. So distribution is uneven, but some of that may have been intentional.
Part of the problem is that this movie was set up as the first part of a two-parter, and much of its success rides on the success of the sequel. We’ve seen plenty of situations where that sort of gamble failed – would we have looked at Matrix Reloaded more kindly if Matrix Revolutions wasn’t such a mess? Of course, Infinity War is a far stronger movie than either of The Matrix sequels, but it’s still difficult to gauge on its own without knowing what happens next – since it is directly tied to a sequel. As it currently stands, it feels incomplete as a standalone movie, which is the primary reason it doesn’t vault to number 1 on my list. That said, it speaks highly of the positive aspects of the film that it still deserves consideration for the best of the MCU. Indeed, I struggled exactly where to place it, considering all spots from 1 through 5. If it weren’t set up as a cliffhanger reliant on another film to resolve the plot, then it may have even been better than 1 and 2 on my list.
As for the good stuff – there’s plenty. As I mentioned, it does ably tie together dozens of threads and ideas. It creates interesting team-ups between characters who’ve seldom or never interacted before. And it gives us the backstory to what may be the most complex and interesting villain in the MCU. Certainly the most formidable. Early in the film, the single most powerful character – the Hulk – goes toe to toe with Josh Brolin’s Thanos – and is beaten to a pulp in seconds. This helps set the tone early that this threat is a serious one. From then on, it becomes a race between Thanos and the heroes of Earth (and a few other planets) to prevent Thanos from acquiring plot devices – er, Infinity Stones – from earlier films, and obtaining his true goal. We gain insight into his backstory with Gamora and Nebula from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, and while his side is never presented as “the good” side, his motivations come from an understandable place. It’s the conflict between the pragmatism of Thanos and the “we don’t trade lives” mentality of the painfully noble Steve Rogers that really makes this film.
The very best MCU films had a moral or philosophical debate at their core. They were “about” something deeper than strong people punching each other. Black Panther contained musings about race and class, as well as debates about isolationism, imperialism, and glasnost. Avengers: Age of Ultron discussed hubris and scientific overreach. Captain America: Civil War debated the need for government oversight and public accountability. Captain America: The Winter Soldier argued over the excesses of the national security state. The conclusions were not always clear, and the debates were sometimes unsubtle, but the discussions were definitely there.
That’s where Infinity War joins the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This Vox article summarized the debate quite well, but in short, it’s Kant versus Bentham. The Kantian ethos of unwavering moral principles versus utilitarianism. Thanos has seized on the idea that sacrificing half the population of the universe will end up improving the quality of life for everyone else. The heroes of the story obviously oppose this idea, but the “leader” of at least one segment of the Avengers – Captain America – goes to the opposite end of the spectrum – no lives shall be sacrificed, even for the greater good. I have the feeling he’s not counting himself in this equation, which may be a major plot point with Avengers 4 – but that’s another discussion. Infinity War doesn’t discuss the philosophy in such explicit terms, but the ideas are there. And it’s quite fascinating.
Avengers: Infinity War handles a nearly impossible task about as well as it can. It shoehorns in almost every character that matters, it has the most impressive villain in the series, it sets up the inevitable sequel, and it’s forced to neglect some of the other major characters in the process. It manages to be the bleakest Marvel film to date, but with plenty of humor and wit woven throughout the pain. Its structural limitations prevent it from being the number 1 on this list, but everything else is so good that its still close.
Hits: Best MCU villain yet, real emotional and physical stakes, epic scope, dazzling action
Misses: Necessary short-shrift for some characters, feels incomplete.
2.) Black Panther
Believe the hype. This is a damn good movie. Black Panther was released with enormous expectations, and by and large, it delivers. Most of the film takes place just weeks after the events of Captain America: Civil War, but there are also flashbacks to 1992, and to thousands of years ago, during an inventive animated opening sequence.
Black Panther manages to juggle so many concepts – race relations (in the United States, but also in Africa, and around the globe), international politics, imperialism, technological advancement, vengeance, justice, and honor. But it is also a superhero movie that has to fit within a larger universe. And then, it’s also an introduction to Wakanda – a nation that the prior MCU films hinted at and referenced, but we now get to see in its full glory.
Following up on the events of Civil War, T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, the recently-assassinated King of Wakanda, returns home to take the mantle of leadership, There’s so much to cover here, that in this short capsule I cannot properly do it justice. But there are debates at home, where Wakanda has been in self-imposed isolation from the world, enjoying social and technological advancement decades ahead of the rest of the world (maybe save for Stark and SHIELD, but that’s a whole different discussion). T’Challa wants to use their advancements to help the other nations around the globe. Others in Wakanda want to remain isolated, and still more want to give the imperialists and colonizers around the world a taste of their own medicine. It’s thoughtful, nuanced debate, and it continues when the villain, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens shows up. He’s T’Challa’s cousin, raised in California, trained as a special forces soldier, and brought up to believe that people of African descent around the world should directly benefit from Wakandan technology, and use it… well, it ends up being for conquest, although justified in terms of liberation. His origin and beliefs are complex and sympathetic, and his mission is highly personal, which are the essential ingredients for a great villain. As far as he’s concerned, he’s the hero. It also helps that Michael B. Jordan does an excellent job with the role, making for a fun contrast with the serene and wise-beyond-his years air of Chadwick Boseman, in the title role.
I also shouldn’t fail to mention the group of women who make these adventures possible. Lupita Nyong’o as Nakia, a Wakandan spy (and T’Challa’s ex), Danai Gurira as Okoye, the head of the Wakandan elite security forces, and Letitia Wright as Shuri, who is basically Q from the Bond movies and Tony Stark rolled into one – she designs the technologies that help make Wakanda such a paradise, and also happens to be T’Challa’s younger sister. Angela Bassett also plays a key role as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother. All are interesting, well-developed characters that are important to the story. Not one is there to be saved by the male heroes, and indeed, the reverse happens more than once.
I had some trouble deciding exactly where to place this. It is truly an excellent movie even without the deeper themes… but those deeper themes are what elevates it above most other Marvel fare – even some of the really good ones. I ended up placing it just above Iron Man, because while they both involved a scion of technological advancement coming to terms with the role of that advancement in the larger world – Black Panther went deeper.
It’s not a flawless film, but sort of like the only MCU film I ranked above it (and the one below), the nitpicks were just that – nitpicks. Minor issues only. The pacing was a little rough during the final third, and some of the action sequences suffered from the same quasi-weightlessness that has bedeviled CGI action for years. Also, the big reveal at the Jabari mountain felt a little too easy. But other than those minor quibbles, this was about as good as it could possibly be.
Hits: Excellent direction, superb performances, more nuanced themes than most superhero movies, gorgeous scenery, one of the two or three best MCU villains ever.
Misses: Very little. Slightly bloated final act, odd physics in some action scenes.
1.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Here we go. The number one movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Where “Captain America: The First Avenger was a period piece and war movie, “Winter Soldier” is a spy movie mixed with a heavy dose of political thriller. It’s smart, thoughtful, and exciting. It continues Steve Rogers’ character arc, and continues the feat the first installment pulled off – making a nearly ideal person interesting.
It’s been over a year since the events of The Avengers, and about three years since he became Unfrozen Super Soldier. Captain America is now an agent of SHIELD, commanding teams around the world, kicking ass, taking names, and slowly feeling more and more disillusioned with being a part of the modern national security state. He works with Natasha Romanoff, who is the Black Widow from Iron Man 2 and The Avengers. She develops well as a character here, both on her own merits, and in her friendship with Steve. She’s more jaded than he is, but her outlook is rubbing off on him. And she is clearly charmed by his honesty and decency. Also joining the team is Sam Wilson, a former paratrooper who has access to a winged jet pack that has all sorts of fancy toys on it… basically he’s Iron Man without the armor.
Then the plot gets going. SHIELD falls apart from within, while Cap tracks a mysterious operative with metal arm who seems to be as fast and strong as Cap himself. Nick Fury is apparently assassinated after a fun car chase through Washington DC. The coup within SHIELD is a long time coming, it seems, and Fury’s boss is behind it. Robert Redford is excellent as Alexander Pearce, a government bureaucrat who’s been a bad guy all along.
Eventually, Cap is able to connect the upheaval at SHIELD with the metal armed operative, who turns out to be his brainwashed best friend, Bucky. A slightly convoluted scheme involving a new kind of helicarrier is put into motion, and it’s tremendously exciting watching Steve, Natasha, and Sam work together to try to foil it. The movie moves right along, and doesn’t feel like there’s much fat on it, despite its 136 minute runtime. There are some rather convenient moments for our heroes, and the takeover of SHIELD was never set up by prior films, but otherwise, this is superbly crafted film. It’s serious, dark, and cynical, but with enough humor to keep it from becoming bleak.
Hits: Chris Evans is excellent, the action is fast, but filmed clearly – not too many Bourne-style quick cuts. Compelling villains, good chemistry between the leads, and a mature tone for a comic book movie.
Misses: Not much. The SHIELD collapse kind of came out of nowhere, and the Strucker reveal was a bit far-fetched, but otherwise, there was little wrong here.
So there you have it. Until Ant Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Infinity War are released later year, this is it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve included below links to several other rankings of the same universe, just as a point of comparison. I’m sure there will be many who don’t agree with me… indeed, my list varies from several of these others. But I know what I like, and I believe I’ve supported my positions.
Now, I suppose I should get back to the real world. Well, maybe after I watch Winter Soldier one more time…