With Avengers: Endgame just about to hit theaters, I and everyone else obsessed with movies whether professionally or otherwise have decided to look back to the beginning in 2008 and rank and talk about the 21 movies which have been released prior to the epic finale of phase 3 and of the entire Marvel story line thus far. The feature films in the MCU could arguably be the most consistently entertaining, crowd pleasing group of movies ever released by a studio, but that doesn’t mean they are all equal nor that they don’t have their share of issues.
The secret to Marvel’s success and consistency, in my opinion, is a deep understanding of their characters and themes. While they have had an issue giving life to their villains at times (and certainly not all the time, there are a few great villains in their canon), they otherwise give us three dimensional, exciting, witty people we can get deeply invested in. Where they fail is in lack of stakes and in being so true to visual and storytelling formulas that all their films look and feel far too similar, creativity gets lost to what is seemingly studio mandate.
From their worst to their best, here is how I feel about the pre-Endgame MCU feature films.
21. Thor: The Dark World (Taylor; 2013)
Underwhelming writing, dull cinematography, and a cast which doesn’t seem to want to be there make for Marvel Studio’s worst film by a rather large margin.
If any of the MCU films can be called downright bad, it would be Thor: The Dark World. The villain problems extant in much of the MCU is at its worst here with a villain so basic, so lacking in any personality or distinguishing traits that he’s nearly impossible to remember for most. The heroes aren’t much better with Chris Hemsworth not being used to the best of his ability, yet, and obvious lack of chemistry between most of the cast, and supporting characters who don’t seem to have much of a reason to be in the film beyond exposition and snark. Even Tom Hiddleston, the best part of the first two Thor movies, is somewhat wasted here as Loki is only in half the film and his character is written inconsistently.
20. Iron Man 3 (Black; 2013)
Much like Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 3 is a mess of a movie with dull villains and an unnecessarily complicated story line. The exploration of Tony Stark’s PTSD after the events of The Avengers is a fantastic idea, but the idea is poorly executed and diluted by too many unrelated subplots.
Iron Man 3 does take its fair share of risks, something I wish more Marvel Studio’s films would do, but in this particular case those risks don’t pay off and can be actively aggravating.
I admit to this low of a ranking being subjective. I did not see Iron Man 3 until many years after its release by which time I had seen a few MCU films which already grappled some with Stark’s PTSD and so the impact wasn’t as great as it could have been had I seen the films in order. I decided to not take that into account in my rankings, however, as this demonstrates one of the many ways personal experience can impact one’s investment into and enjoyment of art.
19. The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier; 2008)
The Incredible Hulk is sort of the poster child for what makes a bad MCU film. It understands the character of its protagonists well enough, but it again has dull villains (yes, that will be said a lot throughout this list), is predictable, takes no risks with its story, and outside of its action sequences has little creativity in its technical aspects. The tensions between Edward Norton and the studio are also well known, and almost certainly played a part in The Incredible Hulk‘s lack of inspiration.
William Hurt’s role as General Ross was arguably the movie’s highlight, and his return in later films was appreciated. Hulk – not a smash.
18. Iron Man 2 (Favreau; 2010)
Iron Man 2 is undeniably a mess. It touches on Tony Stark’s irresponsibility and alcoholism, but not to the degree necessary for those themes to contain any weight. Its story line is a little all over the place trying to grapple with more conflicts and character arcs than its running time can reasonably allow. And, its action sequences are arguably the hardest to follow in the entire MCU.
It does have two often forgotten saving graces, however, in Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell as well thought out, well acted villains. Mickey Rourke famously hated working on the film and refuses to return to the MCU, which is too bad because his professionalism still allowed him to give a captivating turn as Whiplash, but the fact that Rockwell has never returned as Justin Hammer is a little bewildering as he was excellent as well.
17. Thor (Branagh; 2011)
Thor’s origin movie suffers from the same problems as its sequel where the cast chemistry is concerned, but has the advantage of Hemsworth being allowed to flex is comedic muscle a bit more and Tom Hiddleston has a much larger role. The film does suffer from pacing issues, and the fact that Hiddleston and Hemsworth are separate for the majority of the film means we are stuck with Hemsworth and Portman’s comedically bad rapport for most of Thor.
The screenplay does do an excellent job of getting the primary characters personalities down, Branagh’s direction does add a distinction most MCU movies don’t contain, and Hiddleston was so great that I believe he is the reason Rourke and Rockwell were all but forgotten about from Iron Man 2. Thor has more positive than negative, but is still far too inconsistent and rocky to be considered among even the more moderate movies of the MCU.
16. Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston; 2011)
By the time the first Captain America movie came along, Marvel Studios had a plan and it showed. However, it did not have a complete formula and that also shows for better or worse.
When Chris Evans was chosen to play Captain America the general consensus was that he looked perfect for the part, but since he was just coming off of a short run as The Human Torch in the not so great Fantastic Four movies many were dubious as to his being able to give the role the calm charisma needed. We know now that he perfectly embodied the role to the same degree Hugh Jackman embodied Wolverine, Ron Perlman did Hellboy, or Ryan Reynolds Deadpool.
The rest of the film is not quite as great. Cap’s relationship with Bucky is near perfect, but the rest of the characters don’t fare quite as well. His chemistry with Peggy is certainly better than Thor’s with Jane, but it’s still not stellar, and Hugo Weaving gives a so-so performance as Red Skull. Overall, a solid, but slightly underwhelming entry into the Marvel canon.
15. Ant-Man and the Wasp (Reed; 2018)
Ant-Man and the Wasp is a film which may epitomize both the best and the worst parts of the MCU in one film. On the one hand, it understands the majority of its characters intimately, nailing their relationships with one another, the positives and negatives of their personalities, and what their talents and abilities allow them to accomplish on both a practical level and in a fun for the audience way. It’s humorous without devolving into pure camp, its action is creative and exciting, and its dialogue witty but light and unpretentious.
However, it suffers from having a truly underwhelming and underwritten villain in Ghost (which is particularly annoying here since the last few Marvel films had gotten past this flaw), and it’s primary plot shows that stakes in Marvel films are not just light, but non-existent. It’s a running gag that people never die in the comics, but the Marvel films could fix that since actors have contracts and while Spider-Man in the comics has to survive for decades to sell books, the movies not only don’t have that problem, they can’t even if they wanted to. So, to have the Marvel films constantly resurrect their dead protagonists lowers the stakes when we know it isn’t ever permanent, to have a plot which revolves around essentially bringing a character back from a point of no return epitomizes and exacerbates that.
14. Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon; 2015)
What Marvel having a cinematic universe allows it to do better than any series of films before or since is have large event films with dozens of characters and gigantic action scenes which don’t need the usual exposition and set up since this has already been done in other movies. Personally, I enjoy these large event movies more than the smaller films (spoiler alert as to which films are going to be toward the top of this list) as they allow me to see something on an epic scale done in a manner few if any films prior to the MCU have been able to accomplish.
Avengers: Age of Ultron most definitely has the touch of its director Joss Whedon with witty dialogue, a light tone which uses self awareness and verbal prestigitation, and death to evoke an emotional reaction. Unfortunately, these very qualities undercut the film’s tone giving us a villain more snarky than scary (though not dull, at least), a film with emotional beats more manufactured than earned, and an action movie which depends more on what the characters say than what they do.
Add to all that inconsistent tone and many scenes which have little to do with the main story and break the narrative flow, and that makes Avengers: Age of Ultron the worst of these large event films.
13. Ant-Man (Reed; 2015)
One thing Marvel did in its second phase of films is start branching off into different genres than straight comic book action dramas. In Ant-Man we got Marvel’s first heist movie with all the fun and large supporting cast heist movies generally entail.
Going with the Scott Lang version of Ant-Man rather than the original Hank Pym version was a bit inspired as it allowed Ant-Man to be portrayed by Paul Rudd with his “aw shucks” brand of hilarious charisma rather than an Ant-Man who is incredibly intelligent but otherwise bland as Pym is in the comics. It also created a far more interesting character dynamic than Pym’s origin had in the printed version.
Unfortunately, Ant-Man was severely hampered by a plot far too similar to the other Marvel origin movies, including the usual lackluster villain, and the comic, light-hearted tone means the film didn’t even have high stakes tension to lean on for excitement factor.
12. Dr. Strange (Derrickson; 2016)
The fact that a movie as solid as Dr. Strange is this far down the list speaks to why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has struck such a chord with general audiences. We’re not even halfway through the list and we’re to films that aren’t just good, but have positive qualities which far outweigh their negatives.
Dr. Strange is nearly perfectly cast, it has trippy, creative visuals, it separates the magic of the Marvel world from the fantasy magic we are used to from traditional fantasy films, and it is written with a deep understanding of its characters without being afraid to change their more problematic elements.
All that being said, Dr. Strange still has horrible villain problems, the only interesting factor involving the villains is how the ultimate enemy is finally defeated, and is predictably formulaic to an extreme. Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect for the role, and Ejiofor as Mordo showed a lot of promise as a future villain, so I have to believe that the second solo Dr. Strange film will be superior.
11. Spider-Man: Homecoming (Watts; 2017)
The only entry in the MCU not distributed by Disney/Marvel Studio’s, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a solid entry for Sony, one of the best of the Spider-Man films, but not quite good enough to break into the top 10. Sony made the very intelligent choice to not make Spider-Man: Homecoming and origin story, figuring most likely correctly that its audience already knows this story and more than a little sick of it. Another aspect of Spider-Man: Homecoming which demonstrates a lot of intelligence on the part of its creators is a phenomenal cast including the rare for Marvel movies fantastic villain Vulture played by Michael Keaton and Tom Holland as Spider-Man the first person to take on the role who is excellent as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker.
The very personal story line of Spider-Man: Homecoming allows for one of the most intimate character studies in a Marvel movie to date of both Peter Parker and Adrian Toomes (Vulture) but it also makes for much smaller stakes than we are used to in an MCU film. I do like the fact that this means for his first MCU feature we get a “friendly neighborhood” Spider-Man, I don’t like that this makes for a movie which has very little to say beyond its surface.
Still, what we get is enough to make it a strong entry in the MCU, the second best live action Spider-Man film after Spider-Man 2, and while its themes of working class man who gets screwed over by the powers that be are shallow, they are enough to make for a bit more than just surface level investment.
10. Thor: Ragnarok (Waititi; 2017)
I’ve stated that Marvel has never made a truly bad movie, except possibly for Thor: The Dark World, but past this point we go beyond mediocre and good into exceptional. Which if you have already calculated the very simple math means I believe that nearly half of the output of Marvel Studios enters the exceptional category (though, I don’t believe any approach anything resembling a masterpiece).
Thor: Ragnarok is the first Thor film to recognize and utilize Chris Hemsworth’s talent for comedy to its fullest extent, which makes sense since it is directed by Taika Waititi the New Zealander responsible for What We Do in the Shadows. What doesn’t make sense, yet absolutely works anyway, is that this comedic tone is taken in a film which focuses on gladiatorial combat, the end of the universe, and the goddess of death.
The first Marvel Universe film which is a straight-up comedy also deals with its darkest subject matter (until we get to Infinity War) but Waititi somehow manages to balance the light tone with the heavy stakes without turning to cynical dark comedy. It’s an amazing feat, and I hope that Waititi and Marvel Studios can somehow find a way to work together again sometime down the line.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Gunn; 2017)
This was perhaps the most difficult film for me to place on this list as it does the thing I love most in a film better than any other Marvel movie, and that’s use the fictional and the fantastic to grapple with a theme relevant to reality. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s case its using superhero space opera to cast the light from a semi-warped mirror onto the dysfunctions present in most every family on Earth. It sheds that light primarily onto those with “daddy issues”, but it also tackles sibling rivalry, being overly attached to a parent, and issues prevalent in foster families.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 also has the best cinematography of any MCU film. Somehow, Gunn managed to get away with more than just the standard practical but farthest away from anything which could be considered art cinematography of the other Marvel Studio’s films and gave us a few scenes, in particular the opening credits scene of all things, which have a definite artistic personal style to them.
Even though GoG 2 does two things better than any other MCU entry, though, I can not rank it any higher than this because it suffers from the same villain problems as most other Marvel films (though not quite to the usual degree) and its comic tone never finds a true balance and is often downright distracting in it inability to just let a tender emotion sit and stew with the audience.
8. Black Panther (Coogler; 2018)
There is one reason and only one reason that Black Panther isn’t far enough up on the list to make it the best of the Marvel solo origin movies, and that reason is that starting with Iron Man we had already seen this film 5 times before in the MCU. Man lives morally questionable lifestyle, said lifestyle threatens man’s life, man makes better choices and acquires superpowers simultaneously, man meets his villainous mirror image, man overcomes villainous mirror image in final battle to make up for past self is the Marvel solo movie formula, each one having one variation on the theme, and Black Panther is no different. But, this no different is the 6th time it was no different.
Beyond that, though, Black Panther is brilliant. There’s the obvious fact that it highlights a continent and a culture which too much of the world is largely ignorant of. While T’challa may not be the first black superhero to lead a film, not even the first time for a Marvel movie, Black Panther is the first superhero film to have a very predominantly black cast and, in my opinion even more importantly, crew. It has a solidly African American message, too, which may be handled with the subtlety of a jackhammer, but not every movie needs to be subtle, and it being primarily a big budget, epic scale, superhero action movie I can definitely forgive it not making its audience discover its themes. In fact, that was absolutely the right way to go in a film of this sort.
Black Panther is also the very rare Marvel movie which has a villain more interesting than its hero. Its costumes won it an Academy Award, every aspect of its production design was incredible, and even its soundtrack was excellent and original. Except for its way too derivative plot, Black Panther is top notch superhero origin movie material.
7. Captain Marvel (Boden & Fleck; 2019)
Captain Marvel is far from a perfect movie. It tries to do too much in its just over 2 hour running time to maintain consistency. Its tone is a little all over the place, its humor is inconsistent, and its the rare Marvel movie which neglects protagonist characters as well as its villains. But, this all occurs because Captain Marvel is an incredibly ambitious, risk taking movie – a quality far, far too rare in Marvel films – and those risks make for a unique experience among the MCU, and while that uniqueness occasionally is discordant, it more often adds up to a very powerful experience.
The risk that always works is its overtly, and also sometimes not so overtly, feminist themes. Wonder Woman was an inspirational film, and it was wonderful to see a well made movie about a woman with godlike powers finally do well with both audiences and critics, but Captain Marvel not only has all those same qualities, but it also intelligently scrutinizes the way women are treated by their male peers (lest anyone think that means this movie “hates men”, may I point out her closest companion throughout the movie is a man).
But, what sets Captain Marvel just ever so slightly above Black Panther in my esteem is the fact that it finally breaks the MCU solo origin movie formula. Rather than show a man overcome his past both literally and metaphorically, we get to see a woman gain power through her own heroism, then realize there is nothing wrong with fully embracing that power despite what the men around her whisper in her ear.
6. Avengers: Infinity War (Russo & Russo; 2018)
This is the ultimate example of what the Marvel Universe was created to do. It would be impossible in any other circumstance to make a movie with dozens of protagonists all with established personalities, motivations, and backgrounds. Even a television show, which in many ways the MCU resembles more than any other series of films, would take multiple seasons to establish a cast of characters as Marvel has, and a television series wouldn’t have anywhere near the budget a feature film has.
Avengers: Infinity War‘s genius is that it does even one better than would seem necessary, though. Not only did Marvel studios have the patience to wait for 20 films so that it could tell a story so epic in scale without having to use the majority of its running time for exposition and character development, it wrote its villain as its protagonist so that we still do have that exposition and character development for a singular character for which it’s most important. This also has the not incidental side effect of making it so Avengers: Infinity War does not have the MCU’s usual villain problem.
Avengers: Infinity War is not the smartest, most emotional, most artistic movie in Marvel Studio’s canon. But its epic scale, particularly where the sheer number of characters is concerned, has arguably never been matched in any film before. It does that without sacrificing cohesion or audience investment, and that’s damn impressive.
5. Iron Man (Favreau; 2008)
The movie that established the MCU is still one of its very best. Prior to 2008, Iron Man was at best a third stringer superhero. If you said the name people had heard of it, though it’s just as likely it was because of the Black Sabbath song as the comic character, but they probably couldn’t say much more. As someone who collected comics for a while in my teen years, I still had never bought a title in which he was a main character. But, post 2008 Tony Stark is a household name just as much as Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne.
The secret to Iron Man‘s success (and Dr. Strange‘s, and Thor‘s, and Ant-Man‘s, and Black Panther‘s, and The Incredible Hulk‘s if it can be considered a success) was that the story came from the character and his growth and experience rather than the other way around. Tony Stark isn’t a man reacting to circumstances beyond his control, he’s engineering his own fate and everything that happens to him from his accident, to his change of heart, to his battle with his former partner comes naturally as an extension of who he is.
Iron Man is not just the first of the Marvel movies, it’s still the best of the origin movies and it’s the movie that defined what the Marvel formula was to be (at least until Captain Marvel – we shall see what happens from here).
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo & Russo; 2014)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier has as much, if not more, in common with The Bourne Identity as it does with other superhero movies. This, the second Captain America movie, was the first of the Marvel movies to play around with genre by giving its audience a political spy thriller instead of straight comic book action/adventure. Its success both with audiences and with critics meant it wouldn’t be the last Marvel film to incorporate different genres into its story and tone.
What made the success of The Winter Soldier more surprising than perhaps any other factor, was its directors. Prior to this movie, Joe and Anthony Russo were known for directing comedies. Television situation comedies for that most part, at that. Many thought prior to The Winter Soldier‘s release that the heads at Marvel Studios had lost their marbles and had made their first major, possibly studio ending, mistake. What the heads at Marvel had actually done was demonstrate their genius, or at least their luck, in a grander fashion than ever before.
The Winter Soldier is a fantastic film on its own merit even if none of the other Marvel Studios films had ever existed, but it ended up being more as much of the storyline still going on derives from this movie. The first Captain America movie defined his character, but this is the movie that defined his place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and thus the path of the MCU in general to a very large degree.
3. Marvel’s The Avengers (Whedon; 2012)
The first big Marvel event movie had huge expectations partially due to the quality of the films leading up to it, partially due to Joss Whedon helming the project, and partially just from pure hope that it could be as much fun as the idea seemed. It not only met those expectations, it exceeded them and became one of the top grossing movies of all time as well as a critical success.
It was made in the days before Marvel Studios forced the same visual style on all of its directors, and so had some truly fantastic visuals including a long, unbroken shot during its final fight scene which has been equalled in artistic and technical merit only by the opening credit sequence of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 mentioned earlier. It also had Joss Whedon’s style tattooed all over it from its witty dialogue, to its subversion of both character and genre, to its use of humor and drama when least expected to heighten the impact of each.
Marvel’s The Avengers created the template for the huge event movie of today, and remains one of its best examples still.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (Gunn; 2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy was Marvel’s greatest risk not only because it was a property which not even die hard comic book nerds had much familiarity with let alone the majority of its potential audience whom had never heard of it at all, but also because it had to be an origin story for an entire group, not just a single person, and could thus very easily have lost focus. done a disservice to its characters, or more likely both for a movie this large in scale with this many moving parts.
It not only pulled off giving us five fully fleshed out, engaging, charming protagonists within an epically scaled space opera along with just as fully formed side characters, Guardians of the Galaxy and director James Gunn created the tone which would propel forward not only the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but which would also be copied by movies such as Baby Driver, Suicide Squad, Atomic Blonde, and many more.
It broke the mold on Marvel movies and action movies in general, created a new one which everyone wanted to get their hands on, made household names of characters whom nearly no one had heard before, and did it all in a movie seemingly cram packed with too much material for anything to get the attention it deserved, yet somehow was actually perfectly paced. Its only real glaring problem was, say it with me, the villain, whom even by Marvel standards was especially bland.
1. Captain America: Civil War (Russo & Russo; 2017)
Like Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War somehow managed to have its cake and eat it too by being both one of Marvel’s epic event movies and a piece which was personal in scale by focusing more on character than on plot. It has the large scale action and fight sequences with many characters and moving parts to keep your heart racing and your eyes glued to the screen, but at its heart is a movie about duty, friendship, and responsibility and what those values mean to different people.
Captain America: Civil War‘s secret to success was to focus not on the accords nor the assassination attempt, those were merely excuses to move forward the action, but on Captain America’s friendships with both Bucky and Tony Stark and the lengths to which he’ll go to protect those people and ideals which mean the most to him.
Everything great about any individual Marvel movie is present in Captain America: Civil War, except for the occasional brilliant camera work. It has relatable, engaging characters who change and grow throughout the movie, it takes risks in making those we’ve always seen as heroes before into the villains here, it has some of the greatest action sequences ever put into a Marvel movie which means they are in the running for greatest of all time, period, and it does all this while also having themes with far more depth than all but a handful of the other Marvel films and it introduces two characters brand new to the MCU on top of all of that. If Marvel ever manages to top this movie, it will only be because they somehow managed to add art to their formula, because aside from that missing factor Captain America: Civil War is a near perfect comic book movie.