Ranking the Films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s release this past week marks the continuation of Marvel’s “Phase Three” (I like to think of the “phases” as seasons of the most expensive TV show ever made). Since 2008, Marvel has released 15 films. As this chapter continues, we thought it would be fun to debate the ranking of these movies. So here is how we rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe from worst to best.

 

15. Iron Man 2 (2010)

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Certainly not as terrible as some say, Iron Man 2 still isn’t very good. The first sequel in this whole pantheon of superhero movies is a lazy Iron Man follow-up that’s really just here for world-building purposes. We get more Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D., as well as the introduction of Black Widow, but at the sacrifice of originality. It doesn’t help that Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash is somehow both laughable and boring. But even Marvel’s worst film has a few redeemable qualities, most notably Robert Downey Jr., his chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow, and the spectacular racetrack sequence.  Luckily, Marvel learned from their mistakes early and has yet to repeat this mess.

 

14. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

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Back in 2008, The Incredible Hulk was something of a surprise. It was far better than Ang Lee’s moody Hulk and actually featured some smashing. But comparatively, the acting and writing are a pretty big step below the rest of the Marvel canon. Edward Norton is fine, but nothing compared to what Mark Ruffalo would eventually do. The plot holes are the size of a big green monster and nothing that Marvel would be able to get away with today. So why isn’t it the worst? It stands on its own far better than Iron Man 2 does. Also, this film actually features one of the better climaxes of them all. Hulk vs. Abombination is the live-action Hulk fight fans have been yearning for for decades.

 

13. Doctor Strange (2016)

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There’s a tough balancing act between new and old in Marvel’s fifth and weakest solo-superhero origin story. Visually speaking, the film is like watching Inception on LSD, stretching the action of the MCU to exciting new limits that dare to be flat-out weirder than everything that came before it. Otherwise, there’s nothing fresh here added to the generic superhero origin that’s been perfected elsewhere. In fact, this film introduces a slew of problems previous Marvel films hadn’t had before, especially the supporting cast being made up of thinly drawn characters. Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a strong Stephen Strange, but he hardly joins the ranks of Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and the rest.

 

12. Thor (2011)

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After two Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk, Marvel seemed to be based in at least some form of reality. The introduction of Asgard and the nine realms was a risky move, but it mostly paid off. Chris Hemsworth turned out to be a perfect Thor and the fantasy elements worked well enough, even if Asgard wasn’t as fleshed out as it would become in this film’s sequel. The character arcs are rushed, but Marvel managed to mesh fantasy into a world of science fiction without us batting an eye. If anything, the most questionable thing about Thor is how it’s hero fell deeply in love, conquered his demons, and regained his honor in three short days in the New Mexico desert.

 

11. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

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As with the first Thor, the character arcs are a complete mess here, if not messier. But The Dark World still manages to be an improvement over its predecessor by amping up the fantasy elements and building a world worthy of Thor. There are different races, worlds, and ships out the wazoo, making this one of Marvel’s best world-building movies. Not to mention the riveting family dynamics of Thor, Loki, and their parents. But, you know, mostly Loki. Tom Hiddleston steals the show when he’s on screen, reminding us that under that devilish smirk is a man that at least on some level cares about those who raised him.

 

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Of all the films since Iron Man 2Age of Ultron comes the closest to making those same mistakes. This massive blockbuster just has too much going on, but Joss Whedon does everything he can to make everything feel satisfying in the end. It mostly works. Ultron’s characterization is really strange (too many sarcastic quips, not enough menace), but the new heroes work really well, particularly Elisabeth Olsen’s Scarlett Witch and Paul Bettany’s Vision. The action is awesome for the most part, but this film is a superhero onslaught that lost just a little too much of what made the first one so special. Luckily, it’s still so much fun to have all these super-egos on screen at once that Age of Ultron gets by relatively unscathed.

 

9. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) Film Frame ©Marvel Studios 2013

The third solo outing for Shellhead seems to be the most forgotten Marvel movie that’s actually pretty strong. Its biggest crime is that the marketing promised us a showstopper of a villain and we instead got more confirmation that Marvel simply isn’t that interested in their foes. But Iron Man 3 features one hell of a redemption arc for Tony. Some of the best moments in any of the Iron Man movies are in the second act of this one, where Tony is stripped of his armor and has to survive and save the world on his whits alone. However, the most remarkable thing about the film is that it feels like a natural end for the Tony Stark character. If Robert Downey Jr. retired here, it would make sense. He doesn’t of course, but this movie puts a nice period on the Iron Man story.

 

8. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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Surprised to see it so low? Look, I like Guardians a lot, but, as Honest Trailers so perfectly points out, it’s Avengers in space. It also isn’t as self-aware as it thinks it is, and even includes some cringe-worthy moments of cheese. But there’s no denying how energetic this movie is when the five chief characters are in the same room just talking. The fact that previously unheard of raccoon and tree characters can so immediately rival the likes of Iron Man and Thor is simply amazing. Guardians also has a delightfully dark sense of humor, making this meaner Marvel movie feel just off-beat enough to ascend to something different from the rest of the canon.

 

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

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It’s narrative structure isn’t as clean or as polished as a lot of the other films on this list, but the second outing for Peter Quill’s team of space losers gets a lot of points for being genuinely surprising and emotional. The film’s best quality is its character development. Everyone from Star-Lord to Nebula grows and changes throughout the sequel. Also on display here is one of the MCU’s best villains in the form of Kurt Russell’s Ego, the Living Planet. Making him Peter’s father effectively personalizes the film’s larger, CGI-manic action sequences. Yet also, through a significant, and rare for these films, death, Vol. 2 solidifies itself as a Marvel film that breaks the mold just when the larger franchise clearly needed it to. But I’d be remiss not to mention the shamelessly adorable Baby Groot. Exposition may get in the way of some of the film’s goals, as well as some wonky editing, but this sequel manages to improve upon its predecessor thanks to its huge heart and lurching surprises.

 

6. Ant-Man (2015)

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So much could have gone wrong through the director drop-outs, rewrites, and general bad press surrounding this little gem of a superhero movie before its release. But Ant-Man came out and shocked everyone by being Marvel’s funniest and potentially most wondrous movies to date. Ant-Man creates its over-sized worlds in such a thrilling way, making the other eight realms look like nothing compared to this one just made really, really big. In the end, it hits all the same beats as other superhero origin stories. But the film is grounded by two perfect performances from Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas that make this hilarious, jaw-dropping film more human than most of what came before, as well as Marvel’s most surprising success.

 

5. Iron Man (2008)

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It was nine years ago that we all sat in the theater during the end credits gushing over one of the most fun superhero films ever made when the Black Sabbath stopped and Samuel L. Jackson walked out with an eye patch talking about the Avengers Initiative. It was the end credits stinger that changed cinema forever. But before that, we watched Iron Man, the one that started it all and set the standard for all Marvel movies to come. It has since been dethroned as Marvel’s best film, an achievement that seemed unlikely throughout most of “Phase One.” But even now, it’s impossible to forget how instantly perfect Robert Downey Jr. was as Tony Stark, how much fun it was to watch him build the suit, and the relevant post-9/11 retelling of Iron Man’s origin. It’s all capped with the film throwing out a trope found in all superhero movies, with Tony just admitting “I am Iron Man” to the press. It’s still the best ending of all these films.

 

4. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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This is easily Marvel’s most underrated movie. It’s the closest we’ll probably ever get to Steven Spielberg-directed Marvel film. The First Avenger feels like a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style adventure. It’s obviously not as good, none of the Marvel movies are, but for Captain America, a Nazi-fighting superhero, it’s the perfect tone to introduce him with. It’s a simple good guys vs. bad guys story told in an old school Hollywood way. Chris Evans is just the right amount of humble and courageous as Cap. Supporting him, you’ve also got Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter, still one of the strongest female roles in the MCU, and Hugo Weaving’s deliciously evil Red Skull, a villain that stands just behind Loki as Marvel’s best. It’s also notable for having one of the few successful romances in these films, shared between Cap and Peggy, which leads to one of the only moments in all the films that is actually a tear-inducing. Batman Begins may still set the standard for superhero origins, but The First Avenger isn’t far behind.

 

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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If only all the standalone superhero movies in the MCU were this good. In a brilliant contrast to The First Avenger, the new America Steve Rogers has woken up in isn’t nearly as black and white. Does Captain America have a place outside of World War II? The Winter Solider plays like a cautionary tale about the NSA. Over the decades, our methods in conflict have changed because so have our enemies’. Cap’s haven’t, and he plans to prove them effective in the modern age. Teaming up with Black Widow (and sharing a refreshingly plutonic male/female friendship), the two Avengers look to uncover the mysteries behind the HYDRA/SHIELD connection, leading to a huge twist that ripples through the entire MCU. The fall of SHIELD starts with one of the most intense scenes in any Marvel film: the attack on Nick Fury. It culminates in Steve fighting his brainwashed best friend, Bucky as the Winter Soldier. Every moment feels earned and necessary, something unheard of in these movies. There’s no doubt that The Winter Soldier is one of the smartest, most thrilling superhero films to date.

 

2. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

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Civil War is the near-perfect culmination of everything that happened before it across the first two phases of the MCU. Featuring everyone besides Hulk and Thor, the third Cap outing plays far more like a third Avengers outing. Or at least a far better sequel to the 2012 mega-blockbuster than Age of Ultron ever had a chance to be. Perhaps the darkest and most dramatic Marvel movie so far, Civil War puts violent stretch marks on the Steve Rogers/Tony Stark friendship as their respective teams, made up just about everyone else, duke it out both in quiet boardrooms and huge airports. The script miraculously justifies every side every hero lands on, while also giving them the great moments of comedy and awesome action they deserve. It’s a balancing act that Age of Ultron and even its predecessor struggled to perfect. Tossing in perfect introductions to Black Panther and Spider-Man takes nothing away from an emotional final showdown between Captain America and Iron Man. The overall outcome leaves a little to be desired, but there’s no question that Civil War is pure Marvel magic in a way seen only once before.

 

1. The Avengers (2012)

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“Will they actually pull this off?” was the question on every fan’s mind after Nick Fury uttered the words “Avengers Initiative” at the end of Iron Man. Four years later, we found out, and the answer was a resounding “yes.” Everything, and I mean everything, came together so perfectly under Joss Whedon’s writing and directing. He found humor in these inflated egos meeting for the first time. He used the mythology built in the five films before it to make one of the best blockbusters of the decade. From the early Iron Man vs. Thor skirmish to the grand final battle in New York, The Avengers is a comic book come to life. Tom Hiddleston is at his best here as Loki, finally giving these heroes a villain we want to watch them fight. But the best surprise is how well the film makes a previously troublesome character its trump card. I’m talking about the Hulk. Despite not showing up in any other Marvel film before it, Mark Ruffalo immediately shows that there is in fact a right way to do the character: charming, tortured, and reluctantly ready for war. But he’s just one part of team that is endlessly watchable. The Avengers conquers its ambitions and even makes them look easy, setting a benchmark for all superhero movies after it.

 

Did you agree with our ranking? What’s your order? Let us know in the comments below!

 

By Matt Dougherty

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