From Iron Man to Doctor Strange, a visual journey.
There are many things that can make a perfect shot, but for me in particular, I like to look for how a single image helps propel or develop the story, how it acts as its own narrative agent that when blended with the plot helps to form the final product. That’s the point of film as a medium after all, not just to show but to tell, to use images as well as words to craft stories, and when these two facets align just so in certain moments, the effect and impact can be truly perfect.
With this criteria in mind and in honor of the release of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s latest chapter, Doctor Strange, in theaters November 4th, take a look at these 25 perfect shots from the MCU, presented unranked but in order of release.
Iron Man (2008) dir. Jon Favreau, D.o.P. Matthew Libatique
In one pose we are introduced to all of the pomposity, bravado, and ego of Tony Stark.
In this pivotal scene in which power is literally shifted from good to evil, the use of a Dutch angle helps drive the imbalance home.
The Incredible Hulk (2008) dir. Louis Letterier, D.o.P. Peter Menzies Jr.
Using meditation to finally achieve peace and control over his Hulk side, Banner’s mental balance is reflected by his centered position in the frame.
This shot perfectly encapsulates the humanity, the monster, and the mystery of Bruce Banner and the Hulk in the hand, the cracked glass, and the smoke, respectively.
Iron Man 2 (2010) dir. Jon Favreau, D.o.P. Matthew Libatique
Using a wide shot shows the scope of Ivan Vanko’s obsession with Stark, and by positioning him at the center of this scope, extra emphasis is given to how vengeance has become all that his life revolves around.
Thor (2011) dir. Kenneth Branagh, D.o.P. Haris Zambarloukos
This family photo is framed in revealing ways. At this point, Thor is about to be banished, so he is seen to the left of his father Odin, or the sinister, bad side. But that’s just to an audience’s perspective. To Odin himself, Thor stands to the right, and it is his other son, Loki, the true villain, who is actually on the left.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) dir. Joe Johnston, D.o.P. Shelly Johnson
Cap surrounded like this, one man against dozens, is representative of how his super-soldier status equates him to the might of a small army. The formation of the other men also makes him the star at the center of a circle, like his shield.
After decades of suspended animation, nothing better displays the differences between the world Steve Rogers left and the one he returns to better than the hyper-kinetic, overwhelming and tireless energy of Times Square, here shown towering over Rogers like a wave of the future about to break and drown him.
Marvel’s Avengers (2012) dir. Joss Whedon, D.o.P. Seamus McGarvey
This shot is what every Marvel fan was waiting for their entire lives: the Avengers, assembled. The balance of everything here from character size to costume color is perfect.
These are the playing cards from his youth that were in Agent Coulson’s coat pocket when he was “killed” by Loki. This simple image reveals three things: Coulson’s earnest dedication to the Avengers and what they stand for, Steve Rogers’ heartfelt and personal sense of duty, and Nick Fury’s manipulative form of leadership.
Iron Man 3 (2013) dir. Shane Black, D.o.P. John Toll
As a kind of mirror to the shot that opens this list, the one in which destruction is representative of all that Tony Stark’s brilliance has given him, this shot of the same man humbled now by the destruction of his home is representative of all that his brilliance has cost him.
Too often Iron Man’s worth is chalked up to the power of his suit, his wealth, and his intelligence, but as this shot proves with its simple, silent determination, while anyone might be able to wear the suit, only Stark – yes with his cash and brains but also and more so with his perseverance and dueling needs to make progress and make amends – transforms the machine into a hero. It’s also a notable shot for how it positions Stark in an also-stark landscape, on his own, reflective of his life’s journey.
Thor: The Dark World (2013) dir. Alan Taylor, D.o.P. Kramer Morgenthau
This film occupies a decidedly unique place in the Marvel canon as being full-on dark fantasy, and nothing better symbolizes this than a shot of a pair of dark elves with their crimson-soaked faces like gothic masquerade masks.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) dir. Anthony and Joe Russo, D.o.P. Trent Opaloch
Steve Rogers and his eternal conflict between image and identity in one perfect shot.
And this is just badass, from its composition to its contrast.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) dir. James Gunn, D.o.P. Ben Davis
Everything Peter Quill, and indeed GotG as a film, is – defiant, irreverent, heroic, and confidant – is found in this frame.
This one is perfect for delivering all the sci-fi feels, and could very well be the most beloved shot in the MCU.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) dir. Joss Whedon, D.o.P. Ben Davis
Another shot the superhero-team movie was designed for, this one as opposed to the one above showing our heroes in action, as well as their ability to function as a unit.
From the end of the film, this shot sets up our first real look at Phase Three, which is where the original MCU starts to give way to the next generation of heroes (and actors). It is simultaneously a coda to the past – with Black Widow and Cap out of focus – and a portal into the future via the heroes seen in full at the center of the screen, framed by their mentors.
Ant-Man (2015) dir. Peyton Reed, D.o.P. Russell Carpenter
In universe already pretty heavy with comic relief, Ant-Man is the clown prince for gags like this.
In the comics Ant-Man and the Wasp are perfect partners because they are just that, partners, equals, intellectually and heroically, and because their strengths and deficits complement one another. It’s one of the reasons they also make good romantic partners. This shot of the two of them together, each positioned so the well-lit and slight distance between them is at the center of the frame, hints at this balance of respect to come.
Captain America: Civil War (2016) dir. Anthony and Joe Russo, D.o.P. Trent Opaloch
This shot was a classic from the first second the trailer dropped. In it the playfulness, the power, and the iconic appeal of Spider-man are all represented. It’s also perhaps the one single shot from the film that best captures its narrative and themes.
Until this point of the film, the Avengers were only fractured. This was the moment they broke. The dark smoke in the background would seem to say the bridges are burned and there is nothing between Tony and Steve now but a chasm.
Doctor Strange (2016) dir. Scott Derrickson, D.o.P. Ben Davis
Doctor Strange is a mystical and metaphysical hero, and so the world of his film should reflect that. It was images like this one that first let us know we were in for the trippiest Marvel film yet.
This beautiful backlit shot of the Doctor ascending the stairs – just a hint of red in his cape – broadcasts awe and mystery, both of which Strange commands. It also emits a sense of passage, as in the MCU’s to broader, less-defined realms that phase 4 titles like GotG 2, Avengers: Infinity War and Captain Marvel are bound to occupy.
Let us know what you think of the selections, and if you have alternative suggestions, feel free to post them on Twitter with the hashtag #MarvelShots or toss them below in the Responses.