Featured: Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe
We are the verge of Avengers: Endgame this weekend, so I took it upon myself to rank all of the previous 21 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s been a fun journey since all of this started back in 2008, and while not every film is great, there have been more hits than misses in my humble and geeky opinion. There is a good chance you’ll disagree with some of these picks, which is fine, so let’s debate and jump right on in.
Here is my ranking of the MCU:
22. Thor: The Dark World
I’ll be honest. Even though Thor: The Dark World comes in last place here, I don’t completely hate it. Brian Tyler’s score is perhaps the most memorable of Phase Two aside from The Winter Soldier and there are some great laughs to be had here. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston’s dynamic chemistry is palpably captivating and helps transcends the film’s obvious scripting flaws. Jane’s inclusion may be muddled and [insert bad guy’s name] is forgettable, but Thor: The Dark World isn’t a complete waste. It’s bad enough to be the worst of all the MCU though.
21. Iron Man 2
Like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2 is flawed but interestingly flawed. Robert Downey Jr is still crackingly funny and Tony’s relationship with Gwenyth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts gets spicier. We are also introduced to Black Widow in Iron Man 2, in which we see her hilariously upend Tony in the boxing ring. War Machine is back with an interesting role and we finally get to see him team up in the suit next to Iron Man at the end. Iron Man 2 is the first time we see the MCU grapple directly with the Avengers initiative, which could narratively stifle the film’s momentum, but I find those scenes still interesting on their own. Whiplash may not be a great villain either, but I do find the ideas behind his motives compelling enough. They do lack in execution though. Lastly, Iron Man 2 gets a few bonus points for a very funny Sam Rockwell.
20. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
Okay, let me explain. I can already see many of you rolling your eyes at me. Part of this may just be subjective on my part, but there’s something about splitting up the Guardians in Vol 2 that left me surprisingly frustrated and dramatically disengaged. The team dynamic is easily the best part of Vol 1, so dismissing that here is a head-scratching move. I understand that James Gunn didn’t want to just copy and paste the same script, but the loss of team comradery is felt as Vol 2 becomes more disjointed in individual threads that I found less compelling. Also, the first half was unrelenting in its jokes. I like jokes. They are fun. They’re great in Vol 1. But they also need to be balanced within the film’s drama and characterization, and Vol 2 veered toward being more of a stand-up comedy routine at times. Lastly, and more problematic, as a result of those aforementioned issues Ego becomes an underutilized villain. I love what he represents on paper, but his turn isn’t earned because we don’t really spend that much time with him. Yet, Vol 2 treats his betrayal as some sort of massive revelation and I just kind of shrugged at it. And this is coming from the guy who weeps over most father/son relationships in film. Take that FWIW I guess, but sadly Vol 2 didn’t work for me. There are many positives to the film that I loved (Rocket forever), but I figured I would spend my time here arguing as to why it’s low on my list.
19. Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 is one of the more fascinating films in the MCU. It comes off the heels of The Avengers, which was heavily praised by fans and critics at the time, so the hype for Phase 2 was strong. Then came the twist. And boy, oh boy, did that divide people. As for me, I think the twist suffocates much of the film’s drama as the true villain in Iron Man 3 is…not great. Would The Mandarin as depicted by Ben Kingley be any better? Maybe not. But Kingley’s performance seemed to be transcending the stereotypes he emulated in his physical appearance, so there could have been potential there for it to play out in an interesting way. That said, while it may not work as a superhero film, the twist is refreshingly wonderful as a Shane Black film. If you remove the fact that it’s an Iron Man movie, there is a lot of joy to be had with Iron Man 3. Not sure about the Pepper Pots thing at the end though. That was weird.
18. Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange sits somewhat lower on this list, but I actually quite like it overall. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a committed performance that is both parts humorous and dramatically inviting. Once he becomes the hero Doctor Strange, coupled with the mannerisms that come with magic, and it’s really fun to watch as he gives it his all. The visual imagery and cinematography do a great job of complimenting all of that as well, so kudos Scott Derrickson’s direction. Chiwetel Ejiofor has a surprising role that concludes in a mysterious way that has me intrigued. I can’t wait to see more of that character (assuming he is coming back). Benedict Wong is the best sidekick you could ask for (his little role in Infinity War is lovely too). The Tilda Swinton controversy perhaps hinders this film a bit, and I can sympathize if that is not something you are willing to forgive. I will say though, regardless, I found her scenes poignant and effecting in execution. Perhaps miscast, but she gives a striking performance in her limited screen time. Last note – Michael Giacchino’s score is severely underrated. It’s very good.
17. The Incredible Hulk
I’m glad that Marvel finally started to embrace the fact that The Incredible Hulk exists within the MCU. For the longest time it seemed as if they tried to forget, but I don’t think it’s as bad as everything claims it to be. Between that statement and everything I said about Guardians Vol 2, you may be willing to disown me. Certainly fair. But for some reason, this film speaks to my sensibilities. It’s essentially about a guy struggling to get his life back, comes across the love of his life only to realize that he can’t be with her, and then turns into a raging green monster to fight another raging green monster. It may be messy at times in execution, but it’s surprisingly very simple in its narrative. The score is quite good and the action beat at the end is thrilling as well. Plus, a little cameo from Tony Stark is fun.
16. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Ant-Man and the Wasp is slightly inferior to its predecessor, but still an enjoyable entry into the MCU. Its scope is slightly larger (figuratively and literally) than the first one and tries to juggle more characters this time around, which mostly succeeds I think despite a few blemishes here and there. Where Ant-Man and the Wasp stings the most is with Hannah John-Kamen’s Ghost character, who I think is one the more alluring villains of the MCU. Her backstory is tragic, her powers don’t help matters much and her fight for normalcy is poignant. I’m eager to see more of her should she come back. Evangeline Lilly has more to do this time around, at least as her superhero persona, and that was fun to see. Her chemistry with Paul Rudd is as wonderful as the first time around. And lastly, Michael Pena once again steals the show when he’s on screen.
Thor is an interesting experience in that much of its first act is a Shakespearean family drama, but then it turns into a hilarious fish-out-of-water comedy for the rest of the film. Perhaps those varying tones won’t work for everybody, but I think it works marvelously. Those opening scenes set the foundation well for who these characters are, where they come from and why they are important to the safety of the galaxy. As a result, the earth-comedy that follows is biting thanks to well-timed editing and Chris Hemsworth’s committed performance. He’s somehow very funny while maintaining a straight persona, and it makes for a stimulating experience that compliments Thor’s arc well. Tom Hiddleston is great and Anthony Hopkins is perhaps the unsung hero. Great score by Patrick Doyle.
The smallest film in the MCU. No, I mean dramatically! Ant-Man is pretty small (pun intended?) in scale and mostly focuses on Scott’s attempts to get closer to his daughter. And who doesn’t want to become a superhero to get closer to their kid? All joking aside, I love how isolated, contained and simple this story is overall. Paul Rudd is perfect for the role, playing up the humor of Scott well, but also being able to ground him when needed. Peyton Reed’s Edgar Wright editing style makes for some great gags too. Michael Pena is of course the MVP though. Ant-Man may sit at number 13 here, but subjectively I quite adore this film.
13. Thor: Ragnarok
This is perhaps another one where many of you get angry with me as it may be “too low” for you. I understand. Really, I do. Thor: Ragnarok is one of the more aesthetically enthralling films in the MCU. It’s arguably the funniest film of the MCU as well. Korg is phenomenal. Thor’s dynamic with Hulk is sublime and quite humorous in its own right. Jeff Goldblum is here(!!) doing Jeff Goldblum things, and it’s perfect. They somehow convinced one of the best working actresses in Cate Blanchett to be the main villain. Tessa Thomspson’s constantly drunk Valkyrie is a sight to behold. The soundtrack/score is wonderful. There is a lot to love about Thor: Ragnarok. At the same time, though, the film’s humor is so incessant that it suffocates its drama at times. There’s a lot going on here and consistency becomes secondary to the prowess of its humor. As visually alluring as Hela was, her scenes often came off as thin, uneventful and somewhat contrived. Still, a very fun film that is endlessly re-watchable.
12. Captain America: The First Avenger
I genuinely really like this film a lot. It’s the weakest of the Captain America films, but it’s chock full of heart and unexpectedly biting comedy. Chris Evans is the embodiment of perfect casting. He looks and acts every bit the part, and is in every way Steve Rogers. Tommy Lee Jones, coming off the heels of an Oscar-nomination I might add, is equally as great. He’s a big reason why Captain America: The First Avenger is surprisingly funny at times. Of course, you can’t have Captain America without his good ole’ buddy Bucky, and Sebastian Stan is very good. Red Skull is perhaps a trite villain in many respects, but I love Hugo Weaving’s performance and I wish he had done more in the MCU. Captain America: The First Avenger also features what is perhaps one of my favorite endings as well. Poignant and effective.
11. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Spider-Man was my favorite character growing up, and when the MCU began I (as we all did) had to accept that Spider-Man would not be a part as his home was over at Sony. Then, thankfully(?) The Amazing Spider-Man 2 happened. As a result of that debacle, the character all of a sudden became open to Disney/Marvel and it opened up a floodgate of emotion in me. His appearance in Civil War was everything I wanted it to be, and then we got Spider-Man: Homecoming, a charming John Hughes-esque story that centers on Peter figuring out how to balance his teenage life with that of being a new Avenger. And…I loved it. Tom Holland emulates the character – both Peter and the hero – exactly as I read him on the page as a kid. He’s awkward, he’s confident, he’s snarky, he makes mistakes and saves the people he loves. His dynamic with Tony Stark is great. And Vulture is the kind of villain that the MCU had been missing. Don’t get me wrong, he’s no Heath Ledger Joker or anything, but his backstory is interesting as it relates to previous MCU stories and Michael Keaton gives him a motivation that jumps off the screen. The “car” scene near the end is something that most of these films lack. And once again, Michael Giacchino with an irresistible score.
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron has become one of the more divisive films in the MCU and I can certainly understand why, however I lean on the more positive end of that spectrum. It’s unquestionably inferior to its predecessor, but Ultron still has a lot to offer in how it tackles themes of morality, mistakes and grappling with our imperfections. The script may lack in consistency, but I admire its ambition and there are enough character moments to help make up for its faults. The “farm house” sequence is one of the best of the entire MCU. The nightmarish visions that some our heroes experience carry a gravitas with them. Speaking of, Vision himself is interestingly complicated in how he amplifies the film’s themes of morality. The character banter is still often biting and dramatically riveting. So, yeah, it’s not perfect, but that’s exactly what the film is about and I like that about it.
9. Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel is the latest film in the MCU and most likely a significant game-changer. Captain Marvel is very powerful and her powers haven’t really been tested yet. I imagine Endgame will change that. As for the film itself though, it’s an endearing throwback to 90’s action films and becomes an absorbing road buddy movie. Which is somewhat ironic given the digital de-aging on Samuel L. Jackson and how he looks like he’s coming straight out of one of his actual 90’s road buddy movies. What moves me about Captain Marvel though is simply Brie Larson’s performance. She is ridiculously charming. Carol has a snarky personality and sense of humor that I found enthralling. She smiles often as to be giving fanboys the middle finger and that sense of awareness is perfect. Her chemistry with Jackson is palpable as well. They’ve both mentioned in various interviews how they are real life friends and that comes through on screen.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
Ronan is perhaps the worst villain in all of the MCU. Now with the negatives out of the way, please bare with me as I gush over this film. Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the best surprises that any superhero film has given us. It may be hard to remember now given how normal it is, but in 2014 we were all dubious as to how a talking racoon and tree were going to work as heroes. The idea was bizarre, but exciting at the same time. Of course, it didn’t take long before Bradley Cooper brought Rocket to life in glorious ways. To this date, he’s one of my favorite characters in the MCU and Cooper’s performance is severely underrated. Rocket’s dynamic with Groot is poignantly wonderful and the way it crystallizes in the end is very affecting. I know some of you find Chris Pratt annoying, but I like him as Peter Quill. He’s charming and magnetic, but when things get grounded Pratt is able to switch that gear awfully fast. James Gunn’s direction and screenplay is astounding (Ronan aside). Everything from the costuming to the production design to the color palette to the special effects and action, it’s all handled with vigorous diligence. Shout out to Dave Bautista, who at the time nobody in the film world really knew all that well, but he slays this role.
7. Iron Man
The one that started it all. When Iron Man came out in 2008, the superhero genre was barely alive. The fact that any of this exist is beyond my wildest dreams as a fan of Marvel comics. And I remember how dire the genre was at that time. No one could imagine what a team-up film could look like because Hollywood coudn’t consistently do solo films right. I’m getting ahead of myself, but that’s the impact Iron Man had on the system. The response to Jon Favreau’s film was so strong that it launched an ambitious idea to completely flip things on their heads. “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers initiative” is perhaps the single greatest line uttered in all the MCU. It sill gives me chills. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. My entire crowd rightfully lost its mind. And it felt right because Iron Man was great and Robert Downey Jr. was in every way Tony Stark. His journey through the cave, to becoming Iron Man to fighting off his first foe, it was exactly the boost of energy the genre needed and I love it.
6. Black Panther
There is no denying that Black Panther is the most blistering thematic film in the MCU. Its ideas on moral dissension, oppression and identity is emotionally striking and balanced. Ryan Coogler’s thumbprint is all over this film in his direction, but it’s his writing that carries the most heft. What makes Black Panther different is in what Coogler does with Killmonger. We sympathize and emotionally understand the “villain” as we do the hero. Killmonger’s motives are justified. The only thing that separates him from T’Challa is how he goes about seeking his justice. This is even more visceral in the hands of Coogler and how he channels those perspectives through the culture of Wakanda. The first time we are introduced to Wakanda, through evocative imagery and a moving score, it’s spellbinding. Chadwick Boseman is the perfect Black Panther and works impeccably against Michael B. Jordan, who was one of my favorite supporting performances of last year. Add in Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Daniel Kaluuya, Sterling K. Brown, Winston Duke and a few others around our two leads here. That’s one hell of a cast. I agree the action in Black Panther isn’t the best, but it’s sufficient enough. The rest of the film is what makes it easily one of the best in the MCU to date.
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Enter in the Russo Brothers. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the film that turned a page for Marvel. This was the first time that it became something more than just a superhero movie. It was also a captivating spy thriller. It’s raw and gritty. It moves and breathes with an energy we hadn’t experienced before. The Winter Soldier himself was a unique villain in the sense that he’s not a villain the hero wants to defeat. Steve Rogers wanted to help Bucky, not destroy him. This elevated the emotional stakes of the film. Then there’s the great action sequences that came out of a Jason Bourne film. The street fight with the knife is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, action sequence of the MCU. The staging and choreography of everything here is immaculate. The road buddy journey of Steve Rogers and Black Widow is also great, and tonally more suspenseful than the comedic trip of Captain Marvel. The narrative twist and reveal of Hydra was a great surprise as well. Captain America: The Winter Soldier has arguably the best score of all the MCU. Henry Jackman’s music is excellent and “Captain America” specifcally may be the best track aside from “The Avengers” theme.
4. The Avengers
I mentioned this earlier, but I cannot stress enough, it’s amazing that this film exists. How in the world did the genre go from being on its death bed to having a team-up movie just four years later. The approach was perfect. Let’s build up each of these characters individually first, so when The Avengers come we don’t have to spend any time on unnecessary exposition. The only backstory we get is mostly on Loki’s involvement and what his endgame was. But even that is small as we already know Loki, and personally I was moved by his arc in Thor. Joss Whedon somehow took something that shouldn’t work, and made it into some of the most fun I’ve ever had at the theater. The banter is hypnotic, the action is geeky fun and tonally each character feels as if they were dropped just out of the film they were featured in. It had all the pieces needed for a great team-up movie. The stakes then get elevated by the death of Coulson and it’s game on. The battle in New York still resonates at a high level for me. Alan Silvestri is God.
3. Avengers: Infinity War
The title is a red herring. This is not an Avengers film. It’s a Thanos film. Infinity War is a two hour exploration of a being who is distraught that his home planet was destroyed by ignorance. His motives to “fix” the universe is rooted in something emotional. His means might be misguided, but his argument has merit. And I love how Infinity War gives Thanos a pathos (I may trademark that) to his actions and why it means so much to him. Out of all the villains in the MCU, the most powerful, badass and formidable is also the most emotionally vulnerable. The sacrifices he makes is gut-wrenching to him. Cue thanks to Josh Brolin’s performance – who gives a stunning motion-capture performance. And I love how the Russo’s never stray from that central emotion. Even as Thanos has five of the six stones and could have easily killed the Avengers, he doesn’t. He just does enough to move them out of the way to get the last stone. Which almost costs him. If Thor had slightly higher aim, his plan would have ended abruptly. Instead he walks away alive with a chest scar and a victory smile. Regardless of what Endgame does to reverse Thanos’ actions, he still won. He defeated The Avengers. And we got to linger in that for a whole year. Side note: Thor’s arc in this film is phenomenal and Chris Hemsworth gives maybe the best individual performance of all the MCU. Sooooo good!
2. Avengers: Endgame
It’s impossible for me to separate Avengers: Endgame and Avengers: Infinity War. The two films tell one collective story and compliment each other so well that it would be a disingenuous to keep them away from each other. Endgame just also happens to be one of the best film in the MCU, thanks to the Russo’s vision and a smart screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It is a magic trick in how they simultaneously move the story forward using nostalgia for plot while poignantly tapping into how our heroes are grappling with their past failures and regrets. In some way, shape or form, every single one of them had to face who they were in order to overcome the struggles of their present, and there’s gorgeous irony in that they were forced to grapple with that internally, but also literally. It’s incredible to me how Endgame explores that dichotomy to sift through the aftermath of Infinity War, and build a really fun and entertaining ride at the same time. Your 11 years of investment does not go without rich compensation. It’s breathtaking to see how everything crystallizes in this film, one that is emotionally driven, character focused and a love letter to the last decade of Marvel films. That approach is not only robust for marrying theme and characterization, but it’s handled with such care that you don’t care that Endgame lacks action. There isn’t a single major action beat until the two-hour mark and I wouldn’t of had it any other way. Of course, what we get in that climactic battle is epic, majestic and nerdy, but it’s also emotionally arresting. The Infinity Saga couldn’t have asked for a better swan song.
1. Captain America: Civil War
Captain America: Civil War is the best, and my favorite, film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is the smartest film (with the exception of maybe Black Panther) and the most thematically captivating for me. Thanos defeating The Avengers is the most devastating blow they experienced, but it was technically their second in the L column. Baron Zemo has no magical abilities, yet he was able to do something that not even Loki could do. The true villain of Civil War isn’t Zemo. If we saw this film from his perspective, we would root for him in the same ways we do Jason Bourne, James Bond, etc. Like Thanos, his motives are sympathetic. His family was stripped from him and the Avengers did nothing to take responsibility for it. That in and of itself is great irony as Ultron was all about grappling with our mistakes. Unlike the mechanic down the street, though, Zemo has a background and skill set that allowed for him to seek justice. And what does he do? He doesn’t seek an alien army. No. He uses guilt to beat our heroes. He turns them against each other in a way that’s visceral and stirring. The final fight between Cap, Iron Man and Bucky has an intimate intensity that no other action sequence in the MCU has. It’s incredible. Not to mention, there’s the whole Black Panther and Spider-Man thing, which is electric on its own terms. The airport battle that is mesmerizing. I am a fan of all these films in some way, but Captain America: Civil War has it all for me.
Well that’s it. That’s my ranking. I know many of you disagree, so let me know what you think. Hit us up on Facebook, Twitter or Intagram. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s all have fun with Avengers: Endgame this weekend!