When Marvel kicked off production on “Iron Man” more than a decade ago, few would have thought they were creating a movie that would birth a shared cinematic universe spanning more than 20 films, grossing more than $18 billion to date, and changing cinema forever. With “Avengers: Endgame” set to arrive later this month, it’s worth looking back at how far they’ve come by ranking every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Let’s go in reverse order, starting with the worst.
21. “Captain Marvel”
Let’s jump right in with a hot take: “Captain Marvel” is not a good MCU film. In fact, it’s quite possibly the MCU’s weakest. A thoroughly uncharismatic lead? Check. Plot holes large enough to pilot a Quinjet through? Check. Underwhelming action set pieces? Check.
While the majority of MCU films have delivered likable characters and memorable moments, this film was shockingly short on both—a shame given Carol Danvers’ iconic status.
20. “The Incredible Hulk”
Many fans hesitate to count Edward Norton’s take on “The Incredible Hulk” as part of the MCU, but hey, Tony Stark shows up at the end, and you can’t forget Gen. Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross, who comes back later to make life difficult for the Avengers. This Hulk film is basic stuff, but it’s entertaining enough. I definitely prefer Mark Ruffalo’s take on Bruce Banner, though.
This one will also get me in trouble with the fans, not only because everyone loves Paul Rudd (seriously, how does he manage to always look so young?), but because I rank it below “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” And if Marvel films have taught us anything, it’s that the sequel is almost always worse. But this one just feels cookie-cutter (looking at you, Corey Stoll), and while it has some enjoyable moments, the film is fairly forgettable.
18. “Thor: The Dark World”
This film gives us a better introduction to Asgard, something we didn’t really get the first time, and Thor springing Loki out of prison is entertaining, but this film didn’t really deliver much else, with a generic, under-developed villain as its chief fault. “The Dark World” was very much emblematic of the early-Phase 2 MCU.
17. “Iron Man 3”
WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT WITH THE MANDARIN!? Sorry, am I yelling?
Seriously, though, why? This film could have been so, so good, but director Shane Black decided to undercut all dramatic tension with some very poor story-telling decisions. Tony finally coming to realize that he, not his suit, is Iron Man, is a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy’s arc, but wow, what a missed opportunity.
16. “Iron Man 2”
We take for granted how successful this series ended up being, and much of the credit should go to Jon Favreau. This film is weaker, of course, than its predecessor, and man, is Sam Rockwell annoying as Tony’s nemesis. But Favreau’s style shines through in genuinely funny quips and his effort to show us a superhero grappling with, and overcoming, his own limitations.
The Good Ones
15. “Doctor Strange”
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Stephen Strange is impeccable casting, bringing just the right amount of cynical realism, balanced with scientific hope, to the role. This film was the first in the MCU to really introduce us to magic, and it’s a fun ride.
14. “Black Panther”
“Black Panther” is a solid film, and I walked out of the theater very pleased. It has many engaging components, like the Busan sequence and solid performances from Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Martin Freeman. On subsequent viewings, though, it gets weaker. The third act is visually messy, and this film continued the MCU tradition of killing off compelling villains after one feature performance. RIP Killmonger and Ulysses Klaue.
13. “Ant-Man and the Wasp”
That’s right, it’s the rare sequel that’s actually better than the original. The stakes are higher in this installment, and the characters’ motivations are relatable. Evangeline Lilly is a criminally underused talent in the MCU. This film also took the best aspects of the first, like the X-Con Security crew, led by Michael Pena, and built on them.
Quite possibly the most underrated film in the MCU is “Thor.” (No, I’m not kidding. Yes, I will fight you.) The “fish out of water” plotline is a great way to introduce us to Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic version of the character. Another underrated part to this film? While many of the MCU films have very forgettable scores, Thor’s theme is iconic and incredibly moving.
11. “Captain America: The First Avenger”
If “Thor” isn’t the most underrated MCU film, this one is. Perhaps more than any other MCU character, I am always struck how Steve Rogers is good for the sake of being good, and how that affects everything he does. It makes his conflict with Tony even more believable, and it makes me always want to root for him, even if he may be wrong about something. That all starts in this film.
10. “Captain America: Civil War”
If Marvel wasn’t going to follow the true “Civil War” storyline, this was a good alternative. The conflict between Cap and Tony is real, the set pieces are fantastic, and we get some extra depth we’re not used to in a Marvel film. Hopefully we get more Zemo in the next phase.
9. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
Volume 2 may never reach the classic, take-the-world-by-storm status as the original, but it never ceases to make me laugh. Drax’s constant one-liners, Baby Groot, and its subversion of expectations with the famous “Assemble!” circling shot are just a few of the highlights. Still waiting for that Adam Warlock payoff, though.
8. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
While it didn’t live up to the original “Avengers” hype, there are plenty of things to love about this film, like Tony breaking out the Hulkbuster armor, Thor finally getting a chance to shine, the personalization of Hawkeye, new characters in Scarlet Witch and Vision, and, of course, James Spader as Ultron. The finale is entertaining, too.
7. “Spider-Man: Homecoming”
You wouldn’t think the third Spiderman in two decades would really be a breath of fresh air, but Tom Holland proved everyone wrong. Kudos to Marvel for skipping the backstory and putting us right into Peter Parker’s high school world, with Tony there to be a guiding hand. This movie isn’t “epic” like some others, but it doesn’t need to be.
6. “Guardians of the Galaxy”
The minute Chris Pratt started playing “Come and Get Your Love,” I knew I was going to enjoy this movie. Marvel took a huge chance pouring millions into this film, and wow, did it ever pay off. “Guardians” made me laugh from start to finish, the chemistry between the leads is strong, Lee Pace is an underrated villain (although again, Marvel, come on), and even a simple cameo from Thanos is chilling.
5. Marvel’s “The Avengers”
Besides “Iron Man,” no other film in the MCU has had such cultural impact. What Marvel did in this film had never been done before, but its success changed cinema for the better. So much of the MCU as we know it today stems from what Marvel created in this film, from the plotlines, of course, to the interpersonal relationships that are still paying off in films seven years later. And honestly, can you beat the “Avengers Assemble” shot and that theme?
4. “Avengers: Infinity War”
As much as “The Avengers” introduced us to superhero team-ups and launched so many interwoven storylines, “Infinity War” represents the near-culmination of those stories, and of those character arcs. It’s a beautiful movie to watch, and moments like Thor’s arrival on Wakanda are chill-inducing. Of course, Thanos as the lead villain does not disappoint, and hey, he’s even still alive for a second movie!
3. “Thor: Ragnarok”
I didn’t think an MCU movie would make me laugh just as much as the Guardians films. I was wrong. I was chuckling to outright laughing throughout this entire film. Hemsworth absolutely knocks this performance out of the park, Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster was a revelation, finally getting the reconciliation between Thor and Loki was moving—and that ‘80s vibe in the score is spot-on.
2. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
This was Marvel’s first real attempt at a genre film, and the Russo brothers nailed it. The spy-thriller approach worked perfectly for a movie featuring Cap, Black Widow, Nick Fury, and The Falcon. The concept that S.H.I.E.L.D. had just been a front for Hydra for decades was not only a game-changer for the film, but changed the course of the MCU. The score for this movie is also underrated. A near-perfect film.
1. “Iron Man”
Was there ever any doubt? The one that started them all, the one that introduced us to Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, reigns supreme as the top MCU film. I still remember seeing this with friends on opening night in college, and having an absolute blast.
If you had told me it would be the first of more than 20 shared universe films, I doubt I would have believed you. With perhaps one of the greatest castings of all time, this film is always a pleasure, and Tony Stark’s cinematic legacy is completely secure.
There you have it. As a fan of these films and characters for many years, it’s a bittersweet moment to be nearing the end of this phase in the MCU, but I’m thankful to have been witness to them all, and to be able to discuss and debate them with anyone interested enough to argue.
What comes next, after “Endgame?” Your guess is as good as mine, but I am excited to find out together.