As many others probably did, I rewatched the entire MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) over the past two months to prepare for Avengers: Infinity War this weekend, when Thanos finally comes to town.
While the entire process was fun, it wasn’t equally enjoyable throughout. Some entries in this expansive universe are simply better than others. But which of the eighteen films thus far is the best, and which ones fall behind?
After much deliberation, I present the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked from worst to best. In anticipation of Infinity War, read these over and see how much (or how little) you agree.
#18 – The Incredible Hulk
Undoubtedly the black sheep of the franchise, no one wants to remember that this 2008 Hulk iteration is part of the MCU, and for good reason. Edward Norton is an awkward and cringe-worthy Bruce Banner, and his romance with Liv Tyler’s character is even worse. Even the action is subpar compared to what later entries do with the Hulk. Not much can be salvaged from this one other than some (very) scant connections to later MCU films.
#17 – Iron Man 2
The MCU owes everything to Iron Man, but this entry on its own merit was simply a disappointment. Ivan Vanko (I had to look up his name, he was so uninteresting) is a placeholder of a villain at best. Stark’s drunken duel with Rhodey was such obvious fan service that the writers didn’t even try to make a good explanation for it. The actor switch to Don Cheadle for Rhodey, while it worked out well in the long run, was quite off-putting when Iron Man 2 first came out.
All in all, the briefly satisfying fight scenes and a halfhearted attempt at developing Stark’s daddy issues could not save what is by far the weakest Iron Man film we are likely to ever see.
#16 – Thor
Natalie Portman just seems doomed to star in awkward love stories. Her romance as Jane Foster with the god of thunder in his debut film is nowhere near as bad as her stint with pubescent Darth Vader, but it’s still a long way from good.
And bless Thor’s heart. He really tries, but he’s not terribly interesting on his own. He’s a prideful, musclebound dipstick, and while that character archetype works quite well as on a piece of the Avengers whole, as the standalone hero he really falters here. Yes, Thor’s arrogance is part of his character development as he gradually becomes worthy of Mjolnir… only it isn’t gradually. His worthiness just kind of appears, completely unearned, as the movie’s climax demands that Thor be returned to power.
For a character who’s pretty much a meatstick, there isn’t a lot of good action in this film, and the gimmicky “I’m not from this world” humor can only tide viewers over so long. No doubt about it, this is definitely as bad as Thor gets.
#15 – Thor: The Dark World
Sadly, Thor’s series improves only marginally in its second outing. For what it’s worth, Loki fulfills the anti-hero role here better than the true villain role in Thor or even Avengers. Unfortunately, his replacement, Malekith the dark elf, is one of the stalest villains among the many subpar MCU baddies.
Thor and Jane are still awkward together, and the thunder god’s character is still as bland as ever. In a way, it’s no one’s fault: this is who Thor is supposed to be. He works much better as part of a whole than as a solo hero, at least from a viewing perspective. Like Superman, it’s hard to have compelling character development when you’re so far removed as a being from the humans watching. Like its predecessor, Thor: The Dark World does too little to ground its hero in something viewers will spend the energy to empathize with. At least there’s somewhat better action this time, and that’s about all that lifts this sequel above the first.
#14 – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
The best way I can describe the failure of Guardians 2 is that it simply tried too hard to be a Guardians movie. Viewers had such high expectations after the unique and joyful romp that was the first Guardians, and this time around it seemed like James Gunn tried to force-feed humor in places it didn’t need to go.
Somewhere under the endless, sometimes needlessly extended gags is a decent story of a man (Chris Pratt’s wonderful Star-Lord) trying desperately to find out what family means. But this story is crippled by countless distractions: a wasted side villain in the Sovereign, the worthless screen time given to Mantis, a random and unearned tenderness between Yondu and Rocket, and SO. MANY. NEEDLESS. JOKES.
Seriously, every time a serious moment dares to try rearing its head in this film, a low-brow joke cuts it down before it can come to fruition. Because of the amazing main cast, this film is still much more enjoyable than the ones lower on the list, but I simply cannot justify having it any higher when so many other MCU movies accomplish their goals more effectively.
#13 – Iron Man 3
We’ve left the bad movies behind. From here on out, it’s just comparing good to better. At the bottom of the good comes Iron Man 3, an enjoyable movie with some undeniable problems all the same.
We see more solid character development from Tony Stark than in either of his previous solo entries. His time stranded with 10-year-old Harley was an especially nice touch. From PTSD to continued relationship issues, we see Stark at may of his lowest points yet. While the resolution to these issues (Stark destroying his suits and vowing to retire) seems nice, it is incredibly cheapened by the fact that everyone knows it will be short-lived. After all, you can’t have the Avengers without Iron Man.
And then there’s Mandarin: a very popular Marvel villain completely ruined by this movie. Killian isn’t a terrible true villain, but fans really wanted Mandarin, and all they got instead was a cheap parlor trick. I’m still salty about that one. So yes, Iron Man 3 is a decent watch, but luckily it gets much better.
#12 – Thor: Ragnarok
I’m more conflicted about Ragnarok than any other MCU film. In a vacuum, Taika Waititi gave viewers a hilarious and well-written piece. But is it really a Thor movie? I don’t think so.
Thor is finally interesting, but only because he is no longer Thor. Go back and watch the opening scene, where Hemsworth is suspended in chains, taunting a giant fire demon. Close your eyes and listen to his quips, and picture Tony Stark saying them instead. Now keep that picture for pretty much the entirety of Ragnarok. Beginning to see the problem?
More than anything, Ragnarok feels like a better Guardians of the Galaxy sequel: intergalactic antics, colorful characters and creatures, and glorious humor everywhere. But this is Ragnarok, people! The Norse Armageddon! Somehow this film managed to make the end of the world seem like a vacation, and I don’t think that’s exactly to its credit.
Interestingly, Ragnarok is a great Hulk movie. We see better Hulk/Banner depiction than anywhere else in the MCU. But Thor? None of his scattered attempts at levity or real development make much sense. All we get is his random Bayonetta-style sister making his life miserable, a long stint on a gladiator world that serves no purpose but fan service, and some posthumous nonsense advice from dear old Odin, who is less relatable now than ever before.
Ragnarok uses its myriad of jokes to much better effect than Guardians 2, but at the expense of presenting anything even resembling a Thor movie.
#11 – Ant-Man
I really do like this movie. Paul Rudd plays a great Scott Lang, and the size-shifting action is executed pretty well. Still, I think its failure to make the top 10 in the MCU comes down to pacing issues.
A huge chunk of this movie is devoted to Ant-Man training for a mission. Other than a chuckle-worthy run-in with Falcon, there’s not much going on to break up the preparation for a climax that doesn’t really happen. The entire plan the heroes have been working toward fails very quickly and amounts to nothing, leading to the real semi-satisfying climax elsewhere.
Aside from the pacing problem, there really is a lot to like about Ant-Man. His power concept feels like a breath of fresh air in a world of musclebound Avengers. There’s a genuine feel-good family story going on behind the action as well. I was surprised when I found I couldn’t get it into the top 10, but here we are.
#10 – Iron Man
Ah, the godfather of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. This really is Robert Downey Jr.’s universe, and he starts it off with a bang. From the first watch of this now-classic, you could tell RDJ was the perfect cast. That man is Tony Stark, and his performance carries this film on its back.
No one knew about the MCU, about Thanos, about the master plan already set in motion. All we knew was that Iron Man blew up tanks and didn’t look at the explosions, and he was awesome. Aside from the action, Iron Man’s origin story really is his best: a pampered man of privilege forced to engineer his own survival or perish. An arrogant genius who must face the bitter reality that his rise to fortune came at the cost of lives.
But it’s mostly the explosions. Maybe it’s nostalgia (it is a decade old), but this movie doesn’t have to be complicated or thought-provoking to keep my attention, even in 2018.
#9 – Doctor Strange
Adding Benedict Cumberbatch to the Marvel world could never have been a bad idea. Though his character is a bit of a magic version of Tony Stark, Stephen Strange still tells a compelling and enjoyable story as he strives to retain balance in his hands and later, in the multiverse.
Despite its wild popularity, the MCU has run into its fair share of complaints. Scott Derrickson addresses several of these in Doctor Strange. Don’t like bland villains? Here’s Kaecilius, a guy with some decent layers of depth to his motivation. Marvel movies getting too convoluted? Here’s a simple but effective plot path that’s not too hard to follow. Best of all: tired of massive collateral damage? Here’s one of the most creative fight scenes in MCU history that literally puts the world back together again. Once in a while, you can save everyone.
#8 – Spider-Man: Homecoming
Talk about great casting. If RDJ embodies Tony Stark, Tom Holland is even more so the epitome of Peter Parker. Squeaky, awkward, insatiably curious, and quick with the puns, this version of Spider-Man finally feels just right. Or at least, the acting does.
Despite the spot-on delivery, some of Spidey’s writing makes me sad. While certainly a little green, Spider-Man is more than a bumbling Iron Man protege. As the film went on, I found it harder and harder to ignore that Iron Man was still having to bail Spidey out. And while interesting, the automated suit really isn’t my favorite thing for Spider-Man either.
Regardless, Homecoming nailed a ton of aspects of this film. One of the best villain performances in the MCU, a believable and hilarious depiction of high school life, and serviceable side characters all help make this movie one of the best attempts at putting the Scarlet Spider on the big screen to date, possibly even the best.
#7 – Captain America: The First Avenger
Cap really is the best. His attitude is unwavering, his quips are adorably outdated, and his struggles are believable without ever compromising his character. This remains the only Marvel film I saw three times in theaters.
Captain America’s camaraderie with the soldiers and other personnel of World War 2 is later upstaged by that with his fellow Avengers, but here it more than suffices. The First Avenger combines the patriotism and fascination of a war documentary with the quick wit and liveliness of a Marvel movie at its best.
Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull, while engaging, wasn’t much more than another “I wanna kill everybody” generic baddie, but for Cap’s first outing, that’s exactly what he needs. The complications will come later. From beginning to end, the first Captain America is a pleasurable story for the history books.
#6 – Black Panther
Perhaps the most important film to ever grace the MCU, Black Panther boldly embraces the cultural issues its cast so obviously brings to mind. Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan portray the two possible responses to racial injustice: forgiveness and cooperation vs. hatred and revenge.
I cannot devote the space necessary to fully unbox the issues Black Panther so masterfully addresses, but suffice to say that I applaud the efforts of everyone involved.
Aside from these weighty matters, Black Panther is a unique and captivating film that sometimes doesn’t even feel like a Marvel movie. The action, themes, characters, and dialogue are all top notch. If you somehow missed this one in theaters, grab it on DVD as soon as possible.
#5 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Remember those moral complications I mentioned a couple sections ago? Here they are!
After living a life of following orders, Captain America must face the reality that the good guys may not always make the right choices. As S.H.I.E.L.D. crumbles and Bucky Barnes returns a shell of a man, Cap navigates much more personally compromising waters than he ever did back in the forties.
This film employs an expanding cast of characters (Nick Fury, Black Widow, Falcon, Winter Soldier) to great effect without ever losing sight of its star. Some creative fight scenes and set pieces complement the weightier themes quite nicely. All in all, Winter Soldier is a bold and worthy expansion on the series following the greatest Avenger.
#4 – Captain America: Civil War
Captain America is the only hero whose series truly improves with each installment. Civil War somehow expands its scope to more than a dozen characters and still manages to develop and care for each one. It comes perilously close to becoming more like Avengers 3 than an actual Captain America movie, but the focus remains on Steve’s struggle just enough to prevent this.
While the main conflict from Mark Miller’s “Civil War” comic series had to be significantly edited to fit the film, the core struggle of liberty and security is still present. Cap and Iron Man’s disagreement tears the Avengers in half, culminating in the long-awaited six-on-six brawl of heroes.
What made this “war” so enjoyable is its self-awareness to not take itself too seriously. No civilians were in harm’s way in the big fight, and no planet was on the verge of destruction. There were definitely compelling issues to fight for, but nothing so immediate that the characters couldn’t have a little fun along the way. Also, Spider-Man’s entrance into the MCU in this film was definitely the most fun I’ve had watching a Marvel scene. Ever.
#3 – Guardians of the Galaxy
This bizarre concept should never have worked on the big screen. The names aren’t recognizable, the settings are even less so, and the entire tone is like nothing the MCU has ever seen. But somehow, it all came together and made something beautiful.
The strange and otherworldly team of Star-Lord, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot are a perfect shakeup to the Avengers paradigm, giving audiences across the galaxy something they didn’t know they needed. Unlike its sequel, Guardians perfectly integrates its humor into the story without compromising it.
Rather than uniting a bunch of already powerful and amazing heroes like the Avengers, Guardians assembles a group that cannot function without one another. Each character brings unique and entertaining assets along with crippling flaws. The diverse settings and wonderfully retro soundtrack add to the experience until you’re left with something utterly different and satisfying.
I may not be explaining well, but I love everything about this movie.
#2 – The Avengers
To borrow from the A-Team, I love it when a plan comes together. After all the context is laid, the characters are developed, and the stage is set, in the end, there’s nothing more satisfying than watching it all come together before your eyes.
When Avengers came out in 2012, it seemed too good to be true. All those heroes in one place? It’s easy to take it for granted now, but when Cap, Iron Man, Thor, and Hulk first hit the big screen together, it blew my mind.
This movie was the epitome of a good time. Countless now-classic one-liners flew even faster than the punches. There were some scant weighty themes to process, but mostly it was just the kick-butt romp everyone wanted. I’ve never heard a theater howl with laughter more than when Hulk tossed Loki around like a rag doll.
At least until Infinity War blows us away (hopefully), the first Avengers still feels like the pinnacle of what every fan dreamed of from the MCU. And yet, it’s still not quite the studio’s best outing.
#1 – Avengers: Age of Ultron
Liking the Avengers sequel more than the original is probably a minority opinion, but I stand by it, and I’ll try to summarize why.
Some superhero films lean heavily into the lighthearted, let’s-kick-baddie-butt side, while others focus on more complex and thought-provoking struggles and themes. The former can be incredibly fun when presented well, such as in the first Avengers and Guardians movies. The latter may not be as initially engaging, but it leaves you thinking and grows on you over time.
The longer the MCU has gone on, the more it taps into the weightier side, with some exceptions. This culminates, at least for now, in the political divergence of Civil War. What I love about Age of Ultron is that it’s the closest thing the MCU has to a perfect mix between these two types of film.
This movie is a great transition between the lighthearted Avengers type and the lofty issues of Civil War. It makes you think and shows you a good time in equal measure. The Avengers are starting to doubt one another and struggle with complex issues, but they’re still working together to take down the bad guy. And what a bad guy he is.
The new characters really make this movie special, and that starts with James Spader’s Ultron. Every time I watch this villain’s first few scenes, I get chills. Ultron has compelling and well-developed motivations, and he is also an intimidating and formidable presence as a threat to the heroes. Very few Marvel villains have this combo. Most are either strong but shallow, or deep but not very threatening. After rewatching the entire MCU, I can confidently say Ultron is my favorite villain.
Additions like Scarlet Witch and especially Vision were crucial to tying this film together as well. Vision was the glue that stopped Age of Ultron from becoming Civil War too early, and I really hope he somehow survives Infinity War in one form or another.
I could give more reasons for this film topping the list, but I’ve probably already lost some readers along the way. Just give it another watch and see what it does for you.
So that’s it, the entire MCU up to Infinity War, ranked from worst to best. What are your thoughts on these selections? Are they fairly accurate, or did I “screw the pooch,” as Stark would say? Let us know on social media.
And whatever your opinions may be, catch Avengers: Infinity War this weekend, and let’s see where this decade-long wild ride takes us next.
Some of Caleb’s earliest memories involve watching his father battle Ganon in A Link to the Past on the Super Nintendo. Since then, his love of gaming has steadily grown, along with a passion for the written word. When not playing games or writing, Caleb can be found watching Doctor Who reruns, finding Star Wars plot elements in everything, or loudly explaining the history of the Elves. They never let him finish…