Let’s be real. We don’t always come to the Marvel Cinematic Universe for the action. Instead, we return to the MCU over and over again for the characters. The villains are cool (sometimes). The fights are thrilling (mostly). But it’s the characters we love, and we’re more interested in how their lives will turn out in the next film than whatever baddie they’re going to punch. Most superhero franchises sequel-ize plot. The MCU sequel-izes emotion.
The best MCU action sequences are the ones that build from character, and there is always at least one scene in every film that fulfills this idea. When ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe in terms of action, I scoured through the franchise looking for those moments. This list became less about ranking the 25 Best Action Sequences and more about ranking the entire MCU by the best action sequences within each of the films. Otherwise, this list would be mostly comprised of bits from Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War.
I invite your critique. Come find me @MouthDork and tell me what I got wrong (or, hey, what I got right, that would be nice too). You don’t craft a thing like this without thinking about the eye-rolls and the dismissals. You should know going in that this is a very personal selection and arrangement. I imagine your take will look quite different from mine. That’s cool. That’s actually really cool. If you want to see how I rank the movies as a whole, click on over to my Letterboxd list, and feel free to shout at me over there as well.
Now, onto the show — sorry, Thor.
25. Thor: The Dark World
I don’t hate Thor: The Dark World. I don’t even dislike it. It’s merely my least favorite. On all fronts. There are many beats, or ideas, hidden within its various action sequences that delight, but none of them particularly gel into a cohesively badass sequence. The bit with Malekith and Thor hopping around the universe while Mjolnir races to meet Thor’s hand is fun, but my favorite action is the calm before the storm that occurs right after the Dark Elves invade Asgard. A Dark Elf Harrow ship (those bladed nasties) smashes upon the palace, and the Asgardian guards slowly approach. Inside the enemy vessel, we get a slow pan across the Elves. They’re bathed in red. These beasties look more like slashers from The Strangers than they do your typical MCU bandits. The Harrow ship opens, and the creatures tear their way through Odin’s minions.
From one Thor to another. Kenneth Branagh‘s film is a significant entry within Marvel’s first phase. It’s the film that kicked the door down in regards to the franchise’s weirder corners. Without it, would we have met the Guardians of the Galaxy so quickly or ever reached Wakanda? Maybe, maybe not. But we’re not here to worry about that. We’re here for the action. The first Thor has its moments, but The Raid it most certainly is not. The standoff between a Mjolnir-less Thor and the Loki-controlled Destroyer (looking like Jack Kirby drew it on the frame) is an exceptionally mighty battle. The automaton decimates goldilocks, and his sacrifice reinstates his worth. When the lightning falls, and the real Thor stands up, it’s hard not to mouth “Oh…My…God…” alongside Natalie Portman.
23. The Incredible Hulk
The Incredible Hulk‘s climax featuring two ill-defined CGI blobs smashing upon each other does nothing for me. However, Bruce Banner letting his rage out for the first time while attempting to rescue a co-worker from some brutes is deeply satisfying. Even better, the shadowy brutality that’s waged within the Pingo Doce soda factory after General Thunderbolt Ross sends in his goon squad. The Hulk demolishes the works sending green goo spraying everywhere. The CG titan’s ferocity is sold by Tim Roth‘s expression of utter awe. He wants what the big guy’s got.
22. Spider–Man: Homecoming
Spider–Man: Homecoming is a damn delight, and Tom Holland captures the comic book Peter Parker better than any of the previous actors who wore the suit. The action is okay, and the digital Spidey doubles are pretty wonky. Although, character, concept, and performance can rectify any unrefined or technically goofy execution. This moment from early on in the film is a perfect example. Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man interrupts some doofuses attempting to crack an ATM while wearing Avengers Halloween masks. Peter doesn’t realize it at first, but these dopes have outfitted themselves with some serious alien hardware. When they turn their gravity canon upon Spidey, the jokes quickly shift into genuine terror. Spider-Man fails to control the scene, and his favorite sandwich shop is eradicated in the process. The kid is still learning that whole “with great power there must also come great responsibility” thing. And that constant self-education hits at the character’s core appeal.
21. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is another Phase One flick that gets a bad wrap. It’s an overstuffed sausage of a movie, but one that tastes a little bit better with every added MCU link. On the MCU action front, Whiplash’s Monaco Grand Prix attack has to be the crown jewel, with Tony Stark donning the suitcase suit for the first and last time being its shiniest moment. The Nanobite armors that would come later just can’t touch the retro-future cool that is the Mark V. Its physics are super sci-fi, but the human eye can still track all the pieces and how they fit together. Tony straps that beast to his chest with the same energy as a fist pump. It signals to Whiplash that it’s on like Donkey Kong; prepare for a thrashing.