With Avengers: Endgame opening this weekend, I felt it only right to take a look back at where we have come over the course of the last 11 years and 21 movies. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is historic in a number of ways, unlike anything that came before, and laying the foundation (for better or for worse) of what is likely to come in the future. You may suffer from superhero fatigue, and you are right to find yourself in such a state, but what Disney and Marvel have done with these films is undeniable and immeasurable feat. I did a ranking of the Marvel movies back in 2017 and in 2015 but for such a momentous occasion as Endgame, I thought we should bring in a few more voices than just my own. We started off with the rankings of Megan Spell from the On the Download podcast. Yesterday, we featured Ariel Rada from the Geek101 podcast. And I’ll conclude the series tomorrow with my updated rankings. Thanks for reading! -Brian
NOTE: I put the movies in tiers in part because I have the NFL Draft on in the background and it feels right and in part because, for me, so many of these movies are very close in overall quality. Consider each tier to be a handful of movies that are, by the letter grade system, all about the same grade in my book.
21. Thor: The Dark World
Still the only MCU property that I consider to be actually bad. Lots of these movies have flaws but Dark World is an entire movie of flaws. It took the shine off of both Hemsworth and the titular character and it is, frankly, completely pointless.
20. The Incredible Hulk
I think both Ed Norton and Tim Roth give strong performances here and the movie itself is far from a lost cause. It feels disconnected, however, from the rest of the MCU and it just lacks most of the craftsmanship you come to expect from these movies.
19. Iron Man 2
IM2 is incredibly watchable and mostly competent. That’s…about it? Perhaps its greatest sin is having Sam Rockwell at its disposal and making him a beating. Still, there’s plenty of fun Tony Stark-iness and it’s fine overall.
I really, really like elements of Ant-Man, starting with the casting of the immortal Paul Rudd, and the movie has some great moments. But there’s a real struggle to translate (and, perhaps, dumb down) Edgar Wright’s script and as a result, I always walk away from this one feeling like it could amount to so much more. (Turns out they just needed another go round to get it right. See below.)
17. Doctor Strange
Strange has two big factors in its favor. One, the visuals are stunning. The fight scenes are relatively bland, but the look of the movie is outstanding. Two, it’s got a great cast. Cumberbatch, my beloved Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, etc. are all excellent actors slumming it for a silly superhero movie. I love that. The plot, though, is very lackluster and I think it feels like a 2010 movie, not a 2016 movie. For me, it’s one of the least rewatchable MCU movies.
I have a soft spot for Thor because it launched Chris Hemsworth and for that, we all owe the movie a great debt. I also think Kenneth Branagh did yeoman’s work in making this movie work AT ALL even if its actual returns are mostly above average. The settings and themes should’ve made this movie inaccessible but instead it ticks along quite well for the most part. A miserable usage of Natalie Portman, however. At least this was rectified in Dark World oh wait it super was not.
15. Captain America: The First Avenger
This is a strong, capable origin story. No more and no less. The stroke of genius comes in the final scene when Steve Rogers is brought out of the ice into the present day rather than succumbing to the temptation of having Cap spend two or three movies in the 40’s before jumping him to the future. You get just enough of Cap’s righteousness, his war-era moral fortitude, and then drop him into the modern age where his virtues are dorky but refreshing instead of obnoxious.
14. Captain Marvel
There’s a lot to like here: Brie Larson is excellent in her role, and of course I love the 90’s vibe. It’s a fun movie but one that feels a bit insubstantial in its actual content compared to the best of the MCU. Like Doctor Strange, there’s a bit of origin story fatigue in play here as well.
13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
There are some real highs within Ultron that I greatly appreciate. That said, you can also see the studio interference on this one more so than anywhere else in the MCU. But it does feel like Whedon lost the plot a few times and Spader’s Ultron never quite reaches the heights that we expected and the movie demands.
12. Iron Man 3
This is, somewhat shockingly, the most divisive movie within the MCU. Its fans will argue its virtues vehemently and its detractors will go so far as to compare it to the worst of the worst superhero movies. I come down much closer to the former rather than the latter. In fact, I LOVE two thirds of this movie and I think Shane Black brought out the absolute best in both Tony Stark and Iron Man. The issue for me is the last 30 minutes. The movie squanders a great twist on the Mandarin character and then drowns us in a sea of Iron Man suits (ALL OF THE IRON MAN SUITS!!!) and by the end you’re just like, “Enough. Please. Please stop.”
11. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2
My expectations for Volume 2 were very high. Too high, it turned out. Separating the Guardians from one another had mixed results and I think James Gunn rested on his laurels a bit too much when it came to copy-pasting the formula. But still, what a fun movie! And, as I’ve said many times, no movie or franchise has ever been made worse by the addition of Kurt Russell.
10. Ant-Man and the Wasp
This movie got everything right that the first movie missed on but still maintained the tone that Edgar Wright’s original script was going for. It just feels more comfortable overall and thus, it flows much better than Ant-man does for me. The addition of Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp as a character who is equal to or greater than the established hero is AWESOME and it strengthens this franchise moving forward exponentially.
9. Captain America: Civil War
Captain America is the least interesting of the core Avengers to me and thus, you have to stick him into interesting storylines to make his movies work. Mission accomplished here in what is basically Avengers 2.5. It is remarkable that the Russos were able to pit our heroes against each other without making any of them unlikable (except Vision who, I think we can all agree, can kick rocks). My issue with Civil War remains the pacing (there are, like, 450 scene changes in the first 30 minutes) and the overstuffed nature of the plot. I get it, I understand why this was necessary, but still, it’s a lot to take in and it doesn’t always flow seamlessly.
8. The Avengers
I think this remains the greatest achievement in comic book movie history. The team-up thing has almost become blasé at this point and I’m not sure younger generations, like my son, who were born into a movie world dominated by cinematic universes can quite understand what a massive undertaking this movie was for Joss Whedon and how risky the entire phase one was for Disney/Marvel. We’re now seven years and 157 Marvel movies out from Avengers and still, it looks good, the characters mesh well, the stakes feel significant, and the movie works really, really well. It’s almost impossible that this thing worked, and still works, as well as it did.
TIER II (Stands alone for the time being.)
7. Avengers: Infinity War
I’ve had Infinity War both higher and lower on my list because, in actuality, it’s an incomplete. Until I see Endgame later today, I don’t think I can properly evaluate and understand the implications of Infinity War. Regardless, this movie has a grand story, the fight sequences bang, and, against impossible odds, they brought the long-awaited reveal on Thanos home in a big, spectacular way.
TIER I (Truly, these could go in almost any order and I’ve rearranged them several times.)
6. Iron Man
The OG of the MCU, much like Avengers, deserves so much credit for setting the stage and building the foundation not just for this universe but for the modern blockbuster in general (for better or for worse). It’s an outstanding example of how to do a true origin story, how to stoke interest in your universe, and how to cast your characters. Can you imagine Tony Stark being played by anyone other than Robert Downey, Jr.? NO! And the entire MCU rests upon his shoulders.
5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Finally. Finally, we got a Spider-Man movie that got both Peter Parker AND Spider-Man right. FINALLY. Tom Holland is outstanding in both parts of this role, the John Hughes-esque feel of the movie is the perfect conduit through which to tell the story, and Michael Keaton gives us the best villain within the MCU and does so with grit.
4. Captain America: Winter Soldier
You can make a strong case (as Ariel did yesterday) that Winter Soldier is the best movie in this universe. Much like its descendant Civil War, the story surrounding Steve Rogers is what makes the movie work and boy, is this an exciting, well-designed story that essentially turns the movie into a spy thriller with incredible action. (INCREDIBLE action.) The only dips in quality are Robert Redford’s mailed-in performance (so disappointing to me) and the weird Nazi Computer scene that really goes off the rails. The Winter Soldier himself, however: AWESOME.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Of all the movies on this list, I remember my first Guardians viewing the best. It was an INCREDIBLE theater experience, one of those all-too-rare occasions where the audience was totally with it and the movie brought us all pure, unadulterated joy. It was a wholly unique experience and while the vibe has been copied (by its own sequel, even) since, it still retains its brilliance after many, many viewings.
2. Thor: Ragnarok
Ragnarok did so much to restore Hemsworth’s movie star status while casting the character in a whole new light. I remember thinking Taika Waititi was a weird choice for director and holding a bit of skepticism going in and then, within the first three minutes, understanding exactly what the movie was going for and knowing that it was perfect. To top it all off, whereas Guardians suffers a bit from a mediocre villain, Ragnarok brings in Queen Cate Blanchett who absolutely nails her role and gives the movie some bite. ALSO JEFF GOLDBLUM!!!
1. Black Panther
This is a perfect comic book movie and very nearly a perfect movie overall. It has substance, it has style, it has an outstanding lead actor surrounded by even more outstanding supporting players, and it has a great villain. Black Panther is the total embodiment of what can happen when a studio gives a great director a ton of money and total freedom to make the movie he/she wants to make. The cultural importance of this movie cannot be overstated but I think that, in some ways (for all the right reasons), has come to overshadow how good the movie is just as a movie. I see lots of movies every year that have great intentions and tell an important story but are not actually good movies. Black Panther is a great movie.