With Avengers: Age of Ultron hitting theaters this week, likely to claim the spot of “best Marvel movie ever!”, we thought it was time to rank the 10 previous Marvel Cinematic Universe films. I decided to take on the task, one that I knew wouldn’t be easy. The following ranking is the result of many sleepless nights, hours of watching and re-watching, mentally (and physically) preparing myself for attacks on my character and cinematic tastes. I promise you, no choice is arbitrary. No choice came without grueling hours spent wrestling with every aspect of each of these films. Marvel Studios hasn’t made a bad movie and when it comes down to it, I like all of them, but some to lesser degrees than others. Disagree with my placement? Well, bring on the hate mail. But remember what Jeff Bridges would say: “that’s just, like, your opinion man.”
Despite its great casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, Thor is largely enjoyable. But, there’s something empty about the film that makes it feel like an assembly line imitation. The film actually starts off quite strong; everything on Asgard is great and really captures the fun fantasy aspect of the comics. But when we get to New Mexico, things take a sharp turn. There are funny moments, but for every joke that lands, there comes another one from Kat Denning’s Darcy that makes me cringe. Everything about the film from its humor, to its romantic relationship, and Thor’s arc feel too easy. Unlike Iron Man’s, Thor’s redemption doesn’t feel earned. He learns humility after three days of dicking around in New Mexico and making eyes at Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. While the finale is thrilling, Thor’s sacrifice in destroying the rainbow bridge doesn’t have much weight because he and Jane barely know each other. Throw in the fact that director Kenneth Branagh liberally uses dutch angles like he just discovered them, and you’re left with a film that’s a mixed bag in every way.
9. Thor: The Dark World
The Dark World is a major improvement on the first, but for a studio that does so well in adapting its characters, Marvel Studios just doesn’t get Thor and his world. Once again, the film shines when we’re in Asgard. Even though Anthony Hopkins is phoning it in most of the time, Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and an underutilized Rene Russo make up for it. For the life of me, I’ll never understand why when we have nine realms of wonder, fantasy, and Asgardian heroes, we have to return to Earth and check in on dullsville characters. Natalie Portman clearly didn’t want to be in the movie, and she’s basically a prop the whole time. There’s nothing interesting about Jane Foster, so the story is pretty damned from the get go by relying so much on her. Sidekick Darcy is back with an unnecessary sidekick of her own and once again drains every scene (she’s the Jar Jar of the MCU). The focus on the earthbound characters takes away from much of Malekith’s screen time and as a villain he’s pretty much a non-event. Where the film succeeds is in the banter between Thor and Loki, the action scenes, and a great ending. While there’s an interesting theme on the acceptance (or lack thereof) of death, it’s too far below the surface to really make an impact. The Dark World is an improvement, but all the brotherly conflict and creative action elements can’t make for an interesting story.
8. Iron Man 3
I like Iron Man 3 a lot more now than I did when I first saw it. Robert Downey Jr. is great as usual, the additional screentime for Don Cheadle’s Rhodey is a plus, the finale battle is pure eye candy, and there are a lot of great, clever lines. Still, I don’t think it’s Shane Black’s best work. Aldrich Killian is a cliché, the kind Black usually shows a talent for avoiding. The lowly nerd who cleaned up and is back for revenge belongs in another decade. While Killian’s plot and the Mandarin twist are clever in theory, I don’t think they quite work for the world the MCU has already established. I could never wrap my head around Killian’s supply and demand brand of terrorism for weapon contracts when the first two Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk already established a government looking for better weapons technology and super-soldier programs. I mean aliens just attacked NY, Killian should have been set without the secret plot. I get the thought process behind the homemade terrorist, but I think the film would have been better served without the Mandarin element, or better yet if the film didn’t rely on the evil white businessman trope we’d seen in the first two installments. Iron Man 3 succeeds in a lot of ways, but it couldn’t stave off the franchise fatigue I felt. Overall, I don’t think it pushed the Iron Man series ahead far enough.
7. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 had the thankless task of setting up the rest of the Marvel Universe and getting everything in order for The Avengers. It’s a crowded film at times, but none of the added elements feel shoehorned given Black Widow and Nick Fury’s heavy involvement in Iron Man lore. The film comes close to capturing the excitement of the first one albeit with a weaker overall storyline. All the lead and supporting actors bring their A-game and there’s nothing I love more than seeing Robert Downey Jr. going head to head with Sam Rockwell. From its quick zingers, thrilling set pieces, and action beats, the film still feels exciting and full of energy, though perhaps slightly tinged by the nostalgia of remembering an MCU still new. The film’s greatest flaw is its underuse of Mickey Rourke. But even though he gets very little development, he still manages to craft a memorable performance that leaves an impact on the film. The finale pulls out all the stops in terms of special effects, but loses sight of the central conflict between Stark and Vanko, opting instead for quick and easy out. Iron Man 2 despite its faults feels consistent and made major strides towards expanding that universe. Iron Man 2 may be more of the same, but it’s a damn good time.
6. The Incredible Hulk
Hear me out, The Incredible Hulk is Marvel Studios’ most underrated movie, and it also happens to be its worst marketed film with Marvel Studios putting all their attention on Iron Man that summer. It’s clearly visually distinctive from the rest of the MCU, and that added to the recasting of Bruce Banner, likely has a lot to do with Marvel Studio’s treatment of the movie. But The Incredible Hulk is one of Marvel’s best looking movies. The opening sequences in Brazil and Banner’s man on the run journey create worldliness that never takes away from the film’s personal stakes. The CGI doesn’t hold up quite as well by today’s standards, but the Hulk looks far more Hulkish than he does in Ang Lee’s bore of a film. Ed Norton makes a great Bruce Banner, and his story arc is unmuddled, beautiful in its simplicity. Without showing audiences an origin story, Banner still has one of the best character journeys. The same can be said for Tim Roth’s villainous Blonsky. He isn’t evil for the sake of being evil and his desires are straightforward. He’s one of the few Marvel villains with a transformative character arc. The movie may be too straightforward for many tastes, but I think the Hulk works best when it’s a monster movie about a guy on the run from the government. The film’s final fight between the Hulk and the Abomination is one of the rare moments in Phase-I where a Marvel film’s final battle didn’t drop the ball and rush it. The Incredible Hulk gets most things right, and it’s unfortunate that it’s overlooked because it doesn’t fit cleanly in the mold of the rest.
5. Captain America: The First Avenger
The best decision Marvel Studios made with Captain America was to set the entire film in WWII. The fact that Captain America is a period piece not only makes it a novel superhero film but also adds much needed diversity to Marvel’s lineup. The first hour or so is absolutely perfect, and that Alan Menken musical number adds a few extra points to the film all around. Joe Johnson’s pulp sensibilities are put to great use and the film feels like a comic through and through. Chris Evans nails everything about the character, and the same can be said for the supporting cast, particularly Stanley Tucci, Hayley Atwell, and Dominic Cooper. In fact the only weak link, surprisingly, is Hugo Weaving as the Red Skull. Weaving has played so many villains at this point that he’s just kind of going through the motions. Red Skull’s not a bad villain, but he doesn’t create much of a threat either. Still, Captain America is paced so well in that first hour that the lack of strong villainy barely matters. The second half becomes a little rushed and we get green-screen battle montages that weaken the film a little. Still, the emotional stakes in the second half make up for that. While I would have liked more Bucky (we can always use more Bucky), his “demise” is well handled and provides a great moment of vulnerability for our central hero. The final battle between Cap and Red Skull is kind of lame, but the last scene between Cap and Peggy is so emotional that it’s still a satisfying climax. The film’s final downbeat lines of “I had a date” are so perfect and heartbreaking that I still think it’s the best ending in the MCU.
4. Iron Man
The one that started it all. Iron Man’s success largely falls on how different the film’s take on the superhero origin story was. Instead of being based in the tragic demise of a loved one, Tony Stark’s rise to heroism is far more self-centered. Here’s a hero who doesn’t need to be a hero, who doesn’t have to live up to anything except his own self-worth. Coupled with the fact that Stark could be a hero while still remaining kind of an asshole, Iron Man broke a lot of the rules superhero movies had established. Robert Downey Jr. is perfect and there isn’t much I can add to that which hasn’t already been said. So instead I’d like to mention how great Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, and Terrance Howard are in their respective roles. RDJ gets the film’s best moments, but the supporting cast gives him a lot to work with, particularly Bridges who revels in his villainy. One of the things that still amazes me each time I watch is how personal the stakes of the film are. It’s a relatively small cast built on interpersonal relationships and that’s where the threat comes from. There is no world-ending or city-wide disaster hanging in the balance, just a man determined to take control of his life for the first time. Iron Man is still brilliant, and it’s proof that tight scripts and unexpected casting can make all the difference in the world.
Winter Soldier is Marvel Studios’ most topical film, and also the one that feels most rooted to filmmaking of the past. One of the things that it does so well is that it clearly defines its hero as a hero. There is no gray moral line Cap must tread, he’s the good guy and in this day and age it’s unprecedented to have a hero without shades of darkness who audiences can still cheer for and call a badass. This isn’t to say Cap doesn’t face challenges. He does, but they never feel like a deconstruction of the character. Though we witness countless acts of destruction, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is all about building up. Also the film doesn’t avoid giving the hero friends. The support Cap gets from Black Widow, Falcon, Hill, and Fury, not only in terms of defeating threats but also in dealing with emotions, make the whole character journey feel all the more worthwhile. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the expertly choreographed action scenes, which are some of the best action beats in a superhero movie, ever. There was a time I feared what the Russos would do to Marvel properties. Now, I’m simply glad we have them around for the long run.
Like Iron Man had done seven years prior, Guardians of the Galaxy broke the rules. It gave us complex not-quite-heroes that most people knew nothing about as our leads, it charted new territory in the MCU, and existed largely without relying on any of the Marvel films that preceded it. Guardians is a testament to the fact that when Marvel has faith in their properties, directors, and screenwriters, they can really turn out something special. The sense that James Gunn cares about these characters and these worlds permeates the entire film. Nothing feels arbitrary, no character gets slighted, and every joke hits its mark. It’s Marvel’s funniest film and one of its most honest in terms of crafting a rational arc for all its characters. Chris Pratt and his gang of Guardians all fit their roles perfectly, creating a likeable motley crew that I’d venture to say hadn’t been seen since Star Wars. Guardians is a film that can have fun without making fun of itself in the self-depreciating way so many “out there” comic adaptations do. It’s weird, bright, musical, and pretty impossible not to fall in love with. If there’s any Marvel film that can be called a “feel-good film” it’s this one.
1. The Avengers
The placement of the top three films on this list could all be alternated and I wouldn’t put up a fight. But The Avengers is still the one that feels like an event for the ages. It’s partly because it’s the culmination of years worth of films, partly because it’s the film I dreamed of as a child but never believed would happen, and party because it’s freakin’ Joss Whedon in the Marvel Universe! The Avengers is Marvel’s most satisfying film because against all odds it manages to fit moments of fan-service within a well-crafted story that for the most part manages to balance all of its players. While there are some plot elements of Loki’s plan that are a little muddled, and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets the shaft in terms of character development, as an end result The Avengers turned out better than I think most people could even hope for. Few directors can successfully mix action elements and humor as well as Whedon without feeling forced or unfunny. And the tracking shot showcasing each of the Avengers doing their thing against the alien invasion still gets me every time. The Avengers is the kind of awe-inspiring blockbuster that works so well that whatever few flaws there may be, they just don’t seem to matter.
So tell us dear readers, how would you rank the MCU? Where do you think Age of Ultron and Ant-Man will fall on the spectrum?