Twenty movies, ten years, one wholly incontrovertible ranking.
Everyone loves ranking things. Books, restaurants, vacations, sex partners – we all love a good ranked list that puts things (or people) in their place ahead of or behind other things (or people). It may not offer much room for serious and deep critiques, but it’s a fun way to see where other people’s opinions stand against the objective truth of your own.
Honestly, we really thought someone would have done this with the Marvel Cinematic Universe by now. It seems like a no-brainer, but after nearly two minutes of googling on AskJeeves.com, we were forced to acknowledge that no one else had ranked these twenty movies yet. So it’s up to us to fill that void.
It probably goes without saying, but we’re only including the actual MCU films here meaning no X-Men, pre-Tom Holland Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Deadpool, Punisher, Blade, Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, or Howard the Duck. We’ll save that epic endeavor for some lazy day down the road.
20. Iron Man 2 (2010)
What else is there to say about this bloated and busy sequel that hasn’t already been said? It earns points for introducing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow into the MCU, but just about every other decision feels like Marvel thinking it can ignore gravity and safely poop upwards without consequence. Success and ego, perhaps befitting of a Tony Stark film, misled them into going the more is better route except for when it came to story, character, humor, and smarts. Robert Downey Jr. remains charismatic, but excessive villains and bland, endless action make it the MCU’s least appealing entry.
19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
A successful stand-alone Hulk film remains an elusive thing, and it’s becoming more and more clear that the character is probably best suited as part of an ensemble. Ed Norton is solid here as Bruce Banner, and you can’t help but wonder how he would have integrated into the Avengers (although we all agree Mark Ruffalo is aces), but he’s saddled with a too serious take on the character. The threat here is also muddled by a villain (Tim Roth’s Abomination) who plays too aggressively cartoonish and ultimately feels like a thrown-together afterthought.
18. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
As much as the first Avengers felt like a miraculous long shot, Joss Whedon’s follow-up should have been a slam dunk. And yet… it’s a near disaster. Like Iron Man 2 it tried too hard to include too many characters, but it at least has the advantage of more personality at its disposal. Plenty of zingers slip between the over-stretched and over-stuffed story beats and character moments guaranteeing at least a few laughs. It feels every minute of its running time though, and the sense that so much of it is groundwork being forced in for future films makes it more of a chore than a fun experience.
17. Thor (2011)
There are a lot of little moments that work here, and most of them are centered around the presence of a tall, hunky god among a handful of mere mortals. And that’s the problem. Thor is a god, a larger than life presence, a supreme being dabbling in humanity, but this movie too frequently feels like a somewhat serious indie entry in the MCU as the “big” action is relegated to a “town” in the middle of nowhere that looks to have been constructed just weeks earlier. Still, bringing a god to Earth could have been disastrous, and thanks to some laughs and some Asgard wonder this definitely isn’t that.
16. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
The MCU’s back half sees its films falling into two categories — some are casual fun, some are more serious as they move the franchise forward — and like its predecessor, this recent sequel belongs in the former camp. That’s not a bad thing, but too much of the humor feels like heavy riffs on the first film’s jokes, and when paired with a fairly meh story it leaves the movie with lots of downtime. You watch it, it’s fine, and then it’s over. We do get a trio of engaging female characters, though, brought to life by Evangeline Lilly, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Hannah John-Kamen, and that’s no small thing.
15. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Alan Taylor’s Thor sequel is far from beloved, and for good reason, but it’s a clear improvement on its predecessor if for no other reason than it understands that Thor is a god. Most of the action occurs in other worlds where he fits more naturally into his surroundings, and the film also broadens the character of Loki with fun and twisted results. He’s one of the MCU’s best villains — although Black Panther’s Killmonger has knocked him out of the top spot — and his brotherly interactions raise Thor’s entertainment value by sheer proximity. Christopher Eccleston’s main baddie suffers as a result of being in Loki’s shadow though, and as is MCU protocol, it all ends poorly.
14. Ant-Man (2015)
Like Thor, this feels at times like an indie film masquerading as an MCU movie, but unlike Thor this actually fits the character. It’s a heist comedy with the smallest stakes of the franchise, but beneath the surface it’s dealing with some issues of absentee parenting that add a personal, intimate weight absent from most of the MCU. It’s a full-blown comedy that, like Guardians of the Galaxy, infuses those laughs into the action sequences in fun ways including a third act that makes the action better by making it smaller. And can we just go ahead and make Michael Pena a mandatory presence in future MCU films?
13. Doctor Strange (2016)
As difficult as it could have been integrating Thor into the MCU the arrival of a certain mystical physician was even more fraught with risk. He is a wizard, after all, in a world populated by wealthy inventors, brave soldiers, and yes, a god. The film succeeds, though, with a combination of Scott Derrickson’s eye-popping visuals and Benedict Cumberbatch’s dryly comic humanity. It stumbles with some of the doctor’s early training scenarios, and that Dormammu time-loop gibberish doesn’t help — why wouldn’t the big D lie, get out of the loop, and immediately kill Strange?! — but it’s ultimately an MCU film that stands apart (and that’s no small feat).
12. Iron Man 3 (2013)
I wasn’t the biggest fan of Shane Black’s entry on first viewing even though I’m in the tank for anything Black touches, but re-watches have corrected most of its faults. Bringing his unique voice into the MCU was the perfect antithesis to Iron Man 2 as he moved Tony Stark out of both the suit and his comfort zone, and his take on the Mandarin was exactly the kind of shake-up the MCU needed to prove it’s not beholden to other mediums (ie comics). The one issue that remains though is the abomination of a third act fight. Generic, dull, and empty, the sight of empty suits fighting is Marvel’s greatest sleep aid.
11. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Sam Raimi achieved something special with his first two Spider-Man films, but Sony’s attempt at rebooting the franchise with Andrew Garfield never quite felt right. A new Peter Parker was found for his official entry into the MCU (via Captain America: Civil War), and Tom Holland took to the character like a spider to a web. There’s a bot too much Tony Stark on display, but the film belongs to Holland and effortlessly captures the character’s playful, youthful energy and attitude better than any previous iteration. It’s a fun movie with low-key stakes and big heart.
10. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
It’s probably too soon to properly assess this film’s placement among the MCU as in addition to being relatively new it’s also one hell of an epic kick to the nuts. Sure it’s part one of two, but it ends on such a dire note of failure for all of our beloved heroes. They fail, and billions pay the price — including more than a few of those same heroes — and it’s as depressingly shocking an ending as you’re likely to see on a comic book film or otherwise. It’s the “part one of two” bit that also holds it back, though, as it leaves this film feeling less than whole. We also know that most of it will ultimately be undone which in turn lightens the film’s intended dramatic weight. Still, it’s something of a stunner.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Captain America could have been an incredibly dull screen presence and extremely bland hero (like, say, Superman), but thankfully, and wisely, we’re introduced to Steve Rogers with a full embrace of his good-natured humanity and terrifically self-effacing sense of humor. That “aww shucks” mentality and a tragic romance work well with Chris Evans’ combination of charm and physical presence. The WWII setting and grounded action are refreshing, and while Red Skull is slightly underwhelming and some of the CG work feels unfinished the whole works beautifully to capture a comic book experience.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
There was a time where it felt almost unfair including James Gunn’s sci-fi action/comedy in this list as it just feels so damn removed from the rest of the MCU. Since then, though, we’ve seen a strange doctor, a bonkers Thor, and a sequel so it’s all relative now. This is just a ridiculously entertaining romp filled with bursts of personality, action, and laughs. It’s still one of the most purely fun films in the MCU, and while the full-blown comedy occasionally overwhelms the film’s attempts at drama it’s a forgivable offense thanks to the laughs and exciting action it gives us in exchange.
7. Black Panther (2018)
Marvel made news after losing Edgar Wright as director on Ant-Man, and the charge at the time was that they were no home for directors with their own unique voices. That’s since been proven wrong with the likes of James Gunn and Taika Waititi, and Ryan Coogler’s turn at bat is exhibit C. He brings the African superhero to glorious life and ties him beautifully into the African-American experience through the catalyst of the MCU’s most intriguing and affecting villain, Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. You fault his methods, but you can’t help but support his cause. The action’s a bit underwhelming, and the advanced nature of Wakanda is suspect — they’re so advanced they determine their king through a fist fight? doesn’t that exclude most women from ruling? why can’t their brilliant medical team fix Forest Whitaker’s genetic eye droop? — but the film’s ultimate importance is undeniable.
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The wisdom of keeping the same writers across all three films means the Captain is the MCU’s most fully-formed hero, and Chris Evans continues to nail the required combination of integrity and charm. The story tackles familiar themes (accountability, hero vs hero) with creativity and smarts, and it avoids a common Marvel issue by delivering one of the MCU’s best third acts. That airport set-piece is an all-timer. It also juggles multiple characters, including a pair of fantastic intros, essentially making it the second best Avengers film by a wide margin.
5. Iron Man (2008)
The very first entry in the MCU remains its riskiest venture. The year prior had seen three lackluster Marvel-related titles (Ghost Rider, Spider-Man 3, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer) so hopes were tempered, but Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau’s playful direction, and a pace fueled equally by action and fun won the world over. It did begin the MCU trend of wobbly third acts, but it’s also a rare pairing of actor (Downey Jr.) and character (Tony Stark) that couldn’t possibly be any better. Iron Man is more than just Batman in a tin can, and his inaugural adventure confirmed that in a big way.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
James Gunn’s second entry in the MCU is only the second “first sequel” to improve on what came before. Like The Winter Soldier, the film expands on its predecessor with bigger action, more emotion, and deeper character connections. It also adds two things that make it unique among the MCU. Kurt Russell co-stars and marvels in the process, and the film’s third act will leave you bawling. Other entries feature emotional beats, but this one is alone in beating your heart into submission with its take on the fathers we lose and the fathers we find. All that plus it’s once again a frequently funny ride.
3. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Before Thor: Ragnarok the MCU’s funny bone rested almost exclusively with James Gunn and the Guardians of the Galaxy, but there’s a new king of comedy in town, and his name is Taika Waititi. Going back to the previous Thor films after watching this is such a letdown as he’s so restrained and serious in those adventures — Chris Hemsworth is a multi-talented performer whose comedic skills demand exposure, and Ragnarok offers it in spades. Mark Ruffalo, Jeff Goldblum, and Waititi himself all bring the funny and help make this one of the best and funniest comedies in years. The action is thrilling and varied, the visuals are stunning, the music is inspired, Tessa Thompson is divine, and the film is just so damn re-watchable.
2. The Avengers (2012)
The films of the MCU are a mix of sure things and risky ventures, and this first epic team-up offered both in one film. Fans were clamoring for the team to come together, but it very easily could have leaned too far in Iron Man’s direction or worse, become a messy jumble of too many characters and personalities. Happily, luckily, miraculously, Joss Whedon managed to corral everyone into a cohesively shared adventure punctuated with spotlight moments for each of them and terrifically orchestrated action set-pieces. Wit, humor, and a sharp eye for character interactions didn’t hurt either.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
There have been five “second” films in the MCU acting as sequels to origin stories for their respective heroes, but few come close to The Winter Soldier‘s successful expansion of story/character without repetition or a multitude of missed opportunities. The title villain poses a real threat, both physical and to the heart of who Steve Rogers is, and the film’s appropriation of ‘70s-style paranoia thrillers pairs beautifully with Rogers’ character and integrity. The relationships (Cap/Bucky, Cap/Black Widow) carry weight, the action scenes are visceral and thrilling, and both story and character take precedence over another bland CG sky battle.