The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ranked Worst to Best

By Marshall Garvey   In 2018, Last Token Gaming marked the release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One with LTG’s first month-long project, Spielberg Month. In addition to a review of the film and other pieces on Spielberg-related video games, I concluded it with a thorough ranking of all 32 of the director’s movies. The…





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47 minutes

By Marshall Garvey


In 2018, Last Token Gaming marked the release of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One with LTG’s first month-long project, Spielberg Month. In addition to a review of the film and other pieces on Spielberg-related video games, I concluded it with a thorough ranking of all 32 of the director’s movies. The ranking was hugely popular with readers, thus inspiring me to conceive a similar Marvel Month project for May 2019 in tandem with Avengers: Endgame. Naturally, it would conclude with a fresh ranking of all 22 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies from worst to best. 

Due to other life commitments and developments, LTG didn’t have the time necessary to properly execute Marvel Month to coincide with the release of Endgame as hoped. Nonetheless, I remained determined to deliver the MCU ranking I promised, and I’m glad to present it to you, dear reader! Also, as Spider-Man: Far From Home was released during its writing, I have included it to represent all 23 films to date. 

The MCU is a fascinating collection of films to rank given it’s comprised of multiple franchises from many directors, thus requiring them to work not only as standalone films, but as coherent parts of a movie serial-like chronology. It was a project I was honestly originally skeptical of, due to the seemingly superfluous amount of films being churned out and Marvel Studios’ frequent “creative differences” with directors and actors. 

Over time, though, I grew to love it like everyone else, moreover as the movies grew exponentially in quality. Especially with the failure of DC and Universal’s attempts at their own interconnected universes, it’s now apparent MCU is a distinguished accomplishment in the history of popular entertainment. It’s one every movie fan should appreciate, whether or not they’re invested in it. 

With that in mind, let’s get to it. Fire up Redbone on your cassette player, give Thor’s hammer your best pull, and don’t forget to go for the head. Here is the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its entirety, from the absolute worst to the undisputed best. 

Author’s Note: There are spoilers contained in some of the passages below. That said, if you haven’t seen everything pursuant to Endgame…what are you even doing reading this? 


23. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Bad, tasteless movies come and go through cinemas every year. But precious few offend a moviegoer’s intelligence in every capacity like this infantile wreck. Iron Man 2 is the worst kind of sequel, one that takes everything that was sound about its predecessor and stomps all over it like a bratty younger sibling enviously destroying another’s toy. 

The plot, what precious little there is of it, revolves around Tony Stark’s battle with the U.S. government over ownership of the Iron Man technology. He’s also slowly being poisoned by the suit’s palladium core, which he chooses to keep a secret. To further add to his woes, he’s got a vengeful Russian named Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) hot on his trail. Which is all interesting, except little to none of it goes anywhere. The disappearance of Vanko’s revenge plot thread is especially egregious for wasting Mickey Rourke, just after his renaissance in The Wrestler no less. 

As if the negligent approach to its own story wasn’t awful enough, the movie becomes downright insulting in its badness in the second half. Out of nowhere, with no prompt whatsoever, Iron Man finds himself in a donut shop conversing with Nick Fury (who, keep in mind, was unbeknownst to many at the time) about the Avengers Initiative. In other words, Iron Man 2 effectively halts itself to become a preview for a movie two years away…that everyone was going to see regardless. 

The reason for the mess soon became apparent not too long later. Writer-director Jon Favreau made it clear the Iron Man 2 that reached theaters was not the movie he wanted to make. It was not only rushed into production, but heavily tampered by Marvel executives to become the Avengers trailer it devolves into in the second half. While he would continue to play the Happy Hogan character, Favreau was done behind the chair for Marvel, and understandably so. 

Especially with the success of The Avengers in 2012, as well as soundly crafted sequels in other Marvel franchises, Iron Man 2 only looks worse and worse in retrospect. It was the apex of Marvel Studios’ early propensity to interfere with directors’ visions, a trend they blessedly abandoned in due time. It is, to put it nicely, absolute garbage. Luckily, things only go up from here. 

Rating: * out of *****


22. The Incredible Hulk (2008) 

A major problem with the bulk of MCU’s first phase was that many of the movies were clearly made just for the sake of setting up The Avengers, at the expense of individual quality. After starting strong with Iron Man, that habit was apparent in this, released just one month later. Considering it has an equally reputable lead man in Edward Norton, it certainly had a chance to validate its title character just as much as Jon Favreau’s surprise hit did for Tony Stark. 

To put it nicely…it does not. The Incredible Hulk is borderline laughable in how clearly perfunctory it treats itself. The crucial details of Bruce Banner’s backstory, such as how he got his powers and his love interest, are passively depicted in the opening credits montage. Instead, we’re thrown into his life on the lam as the military tries to hunt him down, with no reason to care for anything that happens. To boot, the film is visually drab and unengaging, every scene a bloodless and unimaginative slog. 

The one saving grace of this banal turd is Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. Even in a film that’s way below his capabilities, Norton brings his de rigueur professionalism in every scene. It would also be his last time working with Marvel, abandoning the role for good after a much-publicized falling out in 2010. His sole turn as the mercurial green giant is still a keeper. The movie itself, on the other hand, belongs to the dustbin of superhero history. 

Rating: * out of *****


21. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

By now, sequels make up a corpulent bulk of the best films in the MCU canon. That wasn’t always the case, as this nothingburger of a follow-up showed. The Dark World certainly had potential, with Thor and Loki’s sibling rivalry continuing to spark after the latter’s crimes on Earth in The Avengers. It also hinges on the shocking death of Thor’s mother, Frigga, which raises the stakes for Thor as he seeks to prove himself worthy of Odin’s throne. 

The problem is the movie takes itself far too seriously, and not in a good way. The central plot is a stultifying bore, revolving around some nonsensical tripe about space elves fulfilling a prophecy of revenge against Asgard that’s as silly as it is uninteresting. Like the first movie, The Dark World also wastes too much time of the Earth portion with Natalie Portman’s science team. More points deducted for a shameful waste of Doctor Who veteran Christopher Eccleston as Generic Marvel Villain #32, buried beneath mountains of goofy makeup that makes enlisting his talent altogether pointless. 

You know it’s bad when Endgame was able to extract more resonance out of Frigga’s death than The Dark World itself. Especially after the untethered joy of Ragnarok, Thor: The Dark World now feels like a forgotten stepchild, one that fills out its spot in the MCU saga in the most bauge, perfunctory manner. For Marvel completists only. 

Rating: ** out of ***** 


20. Thor (2011)

Most of the Avengers, regardless of their background and powers, still hail from the planet Earth. But the team wouldn’t be what it is without the interstellar thunder of Thor, the Asgardian god with a hammer that can smite all challengers and fly through space at the speed of light. In Marvel comics, Thor made for some of the silliest and most entertaining arcs, which would provide movie upon movie of fun times in the MCU. 

Too bad there’s little fun to be had here. Thor is standard Phase One fare, placidly rolling through the motions as the plot busies itself for The Avengers. The film does have bursts of life on Asgard, chiefly when Thor and Loki’s sibling rivalry heats up in their competition to be heirs to their father Odin’s throne. But the scenes on Earth are largely a drag, alternating between flat slapstick comedy, Marvel exposition, and a romance with Natalie Portman’s scientist character devoid of even a hint of chemistry. 

There is one enormous bright spot amidst the otherwise forgettable grind: Tom Hiddleston’s breakout performance as Loki. 2011 was the year the rakish Englishman conquered movie screens, also turning in small roles in far better projects like War Horse and Midnight in Paris. But his best performance that year, and the one that endeared him to audiences worldwide, is right here. His ability to capture Loki’s cunning malice, with a dash of charisma and sympathy, ensured he’d be back for even greater adventures. 

Rating: ** out of *****


19. Iron Man 3 (2013) 

There might not be an entry in the MCU lineage that divides viewers like this one. The first installment of Phase Two, Iron Man 3 begins as Phase One did, by continuing Tony Stark’s reckoning with his newfound identity. With Jon Favreau electing not to return to the director’s chair, Downey was reunited with Shane Black, the dialogue-smart writer-director who gave his career a shot in the arm with 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

To its credit, IM3 doesn’t exist just to set up a later movie like its predecessor, trying instead to function as a character study. Following his near-death experience in The Avengers, Tony Stark is now grappling with the ramifications. He’s suffering PTSD from the Battle of New York, and is seriously considering giving up the Iron Man persona in favor of a normal life. But with the Ten Rings terrorist organization hot on his trail, his ability to handle those struggles is all the more limited.

It’s a strong premise, drawing upon the acclaimed “Demon in a Bottle” arc (albeit minus the alcoholism). But it’s one that isn’t executed well. There are highlights, to be sure. The dialogue is especially sharp, with Black and Downey reprising their collaborative synergy from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The latter half is buoyed by an endearing passage where a down-and-out Stark gets back on his feet with the help of a kid from Tennessee. But the story is inconsistent in its pacing, a big problem being it kind of forgets the PTSD plot altogether. That element would be touched on in later films, but it needed more traction to begin here, and gets shamefully little.

The area where the film’s frustrating mix of success and failure is most evident is one where many Marvel films fall short: the main villain. The switcheroo of Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin being a patsy is admittedly clever, especially in alluding to intelligence agencies’ tendency to manufacture terrorist threats. The problem is that he’s switched out for Guy Pearce’s angsty scientist Aldrich Killian. Pearce is a wonderful actor who can create a riveting character, as evidenced by his turns in L.A. Confidential and Memento. But he just doesn’t have the menace necessary to be a comic book villain, and Iron Man 3 ultimately sputters short of its potential as a result. 

If nothing else, it’s a lunar leap from Iron Man 2. But that’s not saying much, is it? 

Rating: **½ out of *****


18. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) 

How do you follow up something as emotionally draining as Infinity War? It seems like an impossible task, and the answer is…well, honestly, the movie right after. But seeing half of your favorite heroes disintegrate into black dust is a lot to process, so maybe it’s better to lighten things up for a bit. Who better to do that than by far the silliest of the bunch, Ant-Man? 

It’s easy to forget amidst the tumult of Thanos’ inevitability, but Scott Lang wasn’t present for the action. He’s been under house arrest for his shenanigans in Civil War, estranging him from his scientific colleagues in the process. But when Dr. Hank Pym and his daughter Hope discover a chance to enter the quantum realm and potentially save their long lost wife and mother, Lang is sprung back into action. 

Wasp is fun enough, and benefits from giving Evangeline Lilly an equal billing with the title character. But it also illustrates the reality that Ant-Man is a pretty limited standalone franchise. True, it does tie into Endgame setup with its final scene…but that just reminds you of how much you’d rather be watching that or Infinity War again. 

Yet even the worst and most middling Marvel movies have at least one element that stands tall. The winner here is easily the truth serum scene, where Michael Pena’s Luis gives an especially gut-busting motor-mouthed explanation of events. Bonus points for touching on the unique affection Latinos have for the Smiths, one of the savviest cultural moments in any Marvel film. Now if only they would release the footage of Luis recapping the entire MCU. Give it to us, you cowards! 

Rating: *** out of *****

17. Captain Marvel (2019)

The only conceivable downside to Infinity War is that anything that came between it and Endgame was bound to feel small by comparison. But this origin story does go for a fairly epic reach in exploring the mythos of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), who must battle through years of nightmares and amnesia to discover her true identity. Especially with a standalone female protagonist, Captain Marvel had potential to be a truly special origin tale.  

Yet in spite of its serious ambitions, it never quite gets there. The film feels rushed for the sake of Endgame setup, and would have benefited from being less in proximity to the climactic epics of the MCU. Captain Marvel is a character that clearly has a complicated backstory and, especially when embodied by an actress as talented as Brie Larson, deserves more breathing room. Yet the movie doesn’t really make it clear just who she is, and comes across more like exposition than a dedicated character study. While there are admirable tropes about female empowerment and overcoming gaslighting, their impact is muted as a result.  

It’s still enjoyable, the greatest value to the MCU lore being a young Nick Fury before his S.H.I.E.L.D days. There’s also enough ‘90s nostalgia to bring a smile to fans of certain ages. By now, though, Marvel had proven they could do offbeat origin stories with more than just exposition in mind, as evidenced by Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy. Those films made clear what their characters were about by the end, and connected them deeply with many fans. Save for her Arya Stark-level buzzer beater in Endgame, Captain Marvel remains something of an enigma, and a character whose greatest potential has yet to be realized. 

Rating: *** out of *****


16. Ant-Man (2015) 

As touched on frequently throughout this ranking, a common problem for Marvel Studios for many years was their frequent creative clashes with many directors and actors. Jon Favreau, Edward Norton, Alan Taylor, and Mickey Rourke were some of the most publicized instances of big names who grew disgruntled with the way the studio handled their contributions. 

To be fair, a blockbuster studio owned by a borderline monopolistic company like Disney isn’t exactly going to be a haven for auteurs to begin with. But the trend became even more egregious in the case of Ant-Man, a project that was originally entrusted to the brilliant Edgar Wright. As a writer, director or both, Wright has curated or aided some of the best and most original cinematic entertainment of the millennium (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Adventures of Tintin). 

Given that track record, the prospect of Wright doing a superhero film for Marvel seemed like a recipe for surefire brilliance. Hired to take on Ant-Man in 2006, Wright and co-writer Joe Cornish worked on the project for years before leaving in 2014 due to creative differences. While the details as to why exactly remain unclear, it’s reasonable to surmise Marvel Studios and Wright didn’t see eye to eye on how the film would fit into the expanded universe. As a result, moviegoers likely lost a top-notch product. 

What we got instead was…actually, pretty good. Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man walks on the sillier side of heroism, and succeeds as a result. Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a recently sprung convict trying to readjust to civilian life in San Francisco, and reconnect with his estranged daughter. It doesn’t go so well…until he’s suddenly recruited by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to carry out missions by wearing a suit that allows him to shrink to the size of, well, you know what. 

The cast is strong top to bottom, but it’s Rudd who steals the show. Charismatic and loose, he makes Lang perhaps the most relatable hero in the MCU lineage. (Seriously, who doesn’t feel that Baskin Robbins scene on some level?) The movie altogether isn’t a mold-breaker by any means, playing smoothly within the confines of the Marvel origin formula. But it has a blast doing so, freshly combining incidental humor and scientific exposition that doesn’t miss a beat. 

Far removed from the toy commercial infantilism of Iron Man 2, Ant-Man does strike a decent middle ground in that while it was the umpteenth case of Marvel Studios creatively splitting with a reputable filmmaker, it still managed to be a good movie. It’s a fun ride through and through. But you just can’t help but wonder how much better it would have been if Wright had been allowed to commandeer the project from beginning to end. 

Rating: ***½ out of ***** 


15. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) 

Almost a decade into the Marvel movie parade, the roster of superheroes seemed complete. Well…almost complete. A certain web-slinging teenager from New York City was absent from the fun until Marvel reacquired the rights from Sony. His new iteration with Tom Holland got a fun (if perhaps superfluous) introduction in the airport battle of Civil War, and fans would only have to wait a year before his first solo adventure in the MCU. 

In assessing Homecoming, I have to acknowledge my relative disinterest going in due to overload of the title character overall. By the time it premiered in 2017, audiences had already sat through an entire trilogy from Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire from 2002 to 2007, which was quickly followed by the Andrew Garfield reboots that were supposed to be their own expanded universe. These movies collectively vacillate in quality, and both ended on widely unpopular notes. So having another iteration pop up so soon just felt excessive in a way, at least to me. 

Thus, I would defer to those more engaged in the Spidey fandom to best judge the Holland franchise. Ultimately, how one views Homecoming boils down to how they like Holland’s more juvenile take on the character. On the one hand, it is refreshing to have a Peter Parker that actually looks and sounds like an awkward teenager. Yet while fairly charismatic, Holland doesn’t quite strike the balance of awkwardness and relatability that Maguire did. Marisa Tomei’s MILF-ey Aunt May, on the other hand, just feels entirely weird. 

There are two characters, however, who make Homecoming function well on its own. The first is obviously Tony Stark, who supplants Uncle Ben as the father figure for Peter. The second is Michael Keaton’s Vulture, entertaining both for the meta quality and conventional villainy. Just three years removed from Birdman, which felt like many a wry self-observation of his time as Batman, it’s tempting to see this as a furtherance of an inside joke. But Keaton isn’t tongue-in-cheek in handling a comic villain role, playing it straight to great effect. (That ride to the homecoming is a particularly well-executed moment of suspense.) 

Homecoming straddles the line of individual redundancy amidst so many Spider-Man movies and importance to the MCU’s cohesion as a whole. Ultimately, it works for building the surrogate father-son relationship between Tony and Peter that pays off later on. It’s far from the best Spidey movie we’ve had, an honor that belongs to either Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 or the delightfully subversive Into the Spiderverse. But it’s far from the worst too, and it does a fine job setting up young Peter’s integral part in spectacular ensembles that were soon to come. 

Rating: ***½ out of *****

14. Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019) 

For years, audiences waited for the grandiose culmination of Endgame. It felt like a wait that couldn’t end fast enough, yet could also be comforting in how long it was. But when the villains are eviscerated, the box office receipts have been counted, loose ends have been tied up, and some painful goodbyes are said…what now? 

It turns out, have your rookie bat lead-off. A fitting choice, as young Peter Parker is indeed thrust into the spotlight anew by the heroic death of his mentor. But adolescence is still a pressing matter, as it’s time for a class trip to Europe that provides an ample opportunity to court MJ (Zendaya). But absconding to Italy or the Czech Republic doesn’t absolve Peter of his duties as an Avenger, a test that will be especially hard to pass. 

Far From Home continues the teenage Parker’s struggles in balancing his rapidly expanding superhero responsibilities with his commensurate growing pains. The parts dedicated to the latter part drag a bit, Holland’s chemistry with Zendaya’s MJ lagging far behind Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst in the better installments of Sam Raimi’s trilogy. But the movie revs up with the arrival of Jake Gyllenhaal’s self-aggrandizing Mysterio. Deliciously chewing up the scenery at every moment, Gyllenhaal’s rendition of the character as a smugly deceptive maestro of illusion (complete with a crack team of sycophants who carry them out) gives the film much more flavor. 

Marvel will need to deliver a Ragnarok or The Winter Soldier-level gem soon to really validate another protracted string of movies. But Far From Home is a sound first step into a new era. Holland’s Spider-Man has the potential to mature over time, especially with superb villains for him to push off of. 

Rating: ***½ out of *****


13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) 

Coming a full three years after the Avengers first assembled, Age of Ultron sought to raise the stakes for everyone’s favorite superhero All-Star team. (Sorry, Justice League.) Like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Dark Knight, the good guys have survived their first test, and are now in a high-stakes battle against a merciless adversary. 

In terms of villainy, Age certainly delivers a foe on par with Khan Noonien Singh and The Joker. Brought to life by a gleefully malevolent James Spader, Ultron is the perfect villain. Originally built by Tony Stark as a defense program to protect the human race, he becomes unexpectedly sentient and determines humans a threat that must be eradicated to save the Earth. What’s even more haunting is that Stark created Ultron after a vision of the Avengers dying, a melancholy visual that ranks among the finest moments in any MCU film.

The movie itself, however, doesn’t quite live up to its enormous potential. The threat of mortality, paired with a cybernetic juggernaut capable of uploading himself to computers the world over, marked a chance for the MCU to reach serious levels of drama. While solid, the movie doesn’t reach those heights, in part because it ultimately throws its title villain away in a manner comparable to Bane’s flippant demise in The Dark Knight Rises. Ultron suffers even more from its hasty, borderline passive introduction of Vision (Paul Bettany). The Avengers literally creating a human life is a compelling plot element that requires far more time to explore, and instead it’s treated as little more than a quick convenience for the story to move to its final act. 

Age of Ultron isn’t bereft of redeeming qualities. The action sequences are honed to perfection, Joss Whedon clearly giving his all in his final effort for the MCU. Spader’s performance is worthy of celebration too, even if Ultron isn’t used to the ruthless extent he was capable of. Ultimately, however, it would be up to vastly better successors to fulfill the tragic potential that was teased so much. 

Rating: ***½ out of ***** 


12. Doctor Strange (2016) 

Origin stories have become woefully played out in superhero movies altogether, let alone in the MCU. We get it: introduce hero, set up adversity and villain, discover superpower, suffer setback, then rally to save the day at the end. By 2016, it seemed highly unlikely anyone could wring something fresh out of this tired formula. But in a Guardians-esque chapter, Marvel reached into the concealed innards of their catalogue for another offbeat hit in this spiritual trip. 

Story-wise, Doctor Strange is nothing special. It’s basically just Inception and Batman Begins put together, complete with the latter’s mentor character a derided case of Hollywood whitewashing. Add in a dash of Iron Man with a cocksure protagonist in an affluent position who’s then stripped down, and it seems like pure formula. This time it’s Dr. Stephen Strange, a top surgeon who loses control of his hands in a car accident, thus turning to Eastern monks to learn the art of inter-dimensional plane-shifting.  

On paper, it’s a by-the-numbers tale. But the movie expounds on that basic story with an entertaining armada of trippy visuals and metaphysical jargon. More important, the use of spirituality gives Stephen Strange’s journey more resonance. As a renowned surgeon, the element of him losing the power of his very hands and turning to mysticism to reclaim them is simple yet strangely (pun intended) profound. 

Strange is also a testament to how much a choice of actor can make a difference for a character and, consequently, the movie as a whole. Benedict Cumberbatch, already ubiquitous in popular franchise installments good (Sherlock) and bad (Star Trek: Into Darkness), gives Stephen Strange the equal parts gravitas and charm that makes him one of the most irresistible heroes in the Marvel gallery. It’s a surprisingly fresh and clever first turn for a previously overlooked character, but his best moments would admittedly come later in the universe-altering clashes with Thanos. 

Rating: **** out of *****


11. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

The MCU may have started with Iron Man, but no character embodies Marvel quite like Steve Rogers and his bulked-up alter ego. He made his debut in March 1941 (months before Pearl Harbor) for Timely Comics, a predecessor to Marvel Comics. In 2011, Chris Evans (no doubt ready to cleanse himself of the stigma of Fantastic Four) took up the mantle as the First Avenger in his origin story. The puny Brooklynite Rogers has been selected by the U.S. Army to be the guinea pig for a “superhuman” experiment that turns him into Captain America, who’s sent off to stop the Nazi division Hydra from taking over the world with the Tesseract. 

While much of Phase One’s introductory films were little more than perfunctory setups for The Avengers, with little distinguishing characteristics of their own, The First Avenger blessedly doesn’t fall into that trap. With Star Wars and Indiana Jones effects maestro Joe Johnston at the director’s helm, Rogers’ old-fashioned tale was given new life 70 years later in a solid actioner that plays like Sergeant York by way of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The vintage action aesthetic is fleshed out not only by Evans’ breakthrough performance, but a superb supporting cast highlighted by Tommy Lee Jones, Liev Schreiber, and Hayley Atwell as Rogers’ sassy British flame Peggy Carter. 

But it’s one sequence in particular that really ties it together. There has been no shortage of ink spilled over Marvel Studios’ Top Gun-levels of incest with the military industrial complex. But in one wry montage, Captain America’s very roots as military propaganda in the ‘40s are gleefully subverted as he’s paraded around the country as a veritable dancing monkey for the USO. His increasingly joyless performances from city to city (even sending up the signature image of him punching Hitler) make for a hilarious dose of self-aware parody that is sorely lacking in the rest of the MCU.

Rating: **** out of *****

10. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

When the Russo Brothers first took a crack at Captain America with The Winter Soldier, they multiplied the quality of the character and Marvel films altogether exponentially. So it only makes sense they’d be entrusted with the next step in the First Avenger’s modernization. Not only that, but Civil War is tasked with developing a new set of stakes for the Avengers as a whole: their splitting apart into adversarial factions. 

Civil War thrives primarily in filling in all of the apparent consequential gaps from previous films. Fun as the Avengers taming villains across the globe was, one couldn’t help but be bugged that their relentless trashing of major cities didn’t seem to have any real consequences. As it turns out, all the collateral destruction wrought from NYC to Johannesburg has come home to roost. The United Nations has had enough, and proposes bringing the team under their supervision. 

Iron Man, as reticent as he was after his near-death experience in New York and a premonition of the Avengers’ mortality, is eager to play by the rules. But Captain America, fresh off his disenchanting experience with the U.S government’s treachery, is less compliant. As a result, the team is divided, an engrossing turn from the unity that brought them together so naturally years ago. The movie is just as compelling in exploring the complicated relationship between Vision and Scarlet Witch, an especially important subplot given how rushed the former’s introduction was in Age of Ultron

Civil War, much like The Winter Soldier, marks a crucial step in the dramatic maturity of the MCU. So why doesn’t it rank higher on this list? One reason: that airport fight. Yes, the fight itself is fun, with Spider-Man’s innocent The Empire Strikes Back reference eliciting a good laugh. The problem is that the film completely halts its story in order to facilitate it, making the whole sequence feel more like fan service rather than a necessary plot development. 

Fortunately, Civil War does recoup a good portion of its lost momentum with an impactful ending. A leap and a bound from the milquetoast anticlimax of Ultron, Captain America and Iron Man’s showdown carries real emotional weight. Their battle is established by an irreconcilable difference over Bucky/The Winter Soldier, one that doesn’t feel contrived in the slightest. This is the moment where the MCU finally went with a bitter ending rather than a reassuring crowd-pleaser, setting the stage for the dramatic apogee of Infinity War two years later. 

Rating: **** out of *****


9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Of all of the individual franchises that comprise the MCU, none was more of a longshot to strike a chord with audiences than this. An incredibly obscure, tertiary entry in the Marvel archives, Guardians of the Galaxy was previously known to only the most exhaustive of comic geeks. Its celluloid debut was put in the even more unlikely hands of James Gunn, a former shock film director whose most notable forays into mainstream cinema were the live action Scooby-Doo movies. 

The movie’s underdog spirit was embodied perfectly by its ragtag lead characters. These are not Norse gods, billionaire high-tech playboys, scientifically engineered soldiers, or Russian assassins. They’re more like if the clumsiest Star Wars bounty hunters banded together and pulled off two-bit schemes across the galaxy. Perhaps even lower than that…it’s hard to imagine Darth Vader ever considering a mercenary with an inflated view of himself, a talking raccoon, a tree capable of saying one expression, an alien who takes everything literally, and a green-skinned assassin. 

Turns out, they’re the best heroes you could ask for. Guardians of the Galaxy brims with a rare kind of energy, deftly using humor more than any Marvel film had up to that point. The plot involves the banding together of Star Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot as they dart across the galaxy in search of the Infinity Stone, before the villainous Ronan can get his hands on it. Said plot is, in all honesty, a convoluted mess. And per usual for many early Marvel films, Ronan is an utterly forgettable foe. 

But that’s totally fine, because the movie is such an ebullient ride that the story almost doesn’t matter. Most importantly, the casting for the Guardians is pitch perfect. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, and Vin Diesel make each character stand out, imbuing them with affection that balances out the slapstick shenanigans. That humanity resonated with audiences in some pretty special ways.

The movie is infectious in its buoyancy, the characters bouncing through a neon-soaked space to the rhythm of a perfect ‘70s mixtape. Guardians does scuffle a bit in its occasional tonal clunkiness, a shortcoming that can be forgiven as a result of Gunn’s clear effort to stretch his capabilities as a writer and director. The only moment that truly doesn’t work is Ronan’s scene with Thanos, a typical Marvel-forced exposition dump that Gunn admitted he had trouble inserting into the story

Moreover, the imperfection adds to the film’s ragged charm in a way. By contrast, the failure of DC’s Suicide Squad in 2016 (with better known characters to boot) makes GotG’s popularity with the masses all the more remarkable. Gunn understood the key to bringing these characters from obscurity to the hearts of millions wasn’t just perfect casting, but a singular style that stood out on its own. 

Guardians of the Galaxy seemed, on paper, like a movie destined to fail. Instead, it took its weird mishmash of old ingredients and unknown characters and created something new and eccentric. We couldn’t have imagined something like it when the MCU started. Now, we can’t imagine what it would be like without these goofballs every step of the way. 

Rating: **** out of *****

8. Iron Man (2008)

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe now so omnipresent and even capable of shattering Avatar‘s box office record, it’s easy to forget just how much of an uncertain gambit this whole enterprise was in the beginning. When Iron Man rolled into theaters in May 2008, its title character hadn’t been prominent in popular culture for quite some time.

That was also the case for Robert Downey Jr., who was just beginning to return to feature film prominence after bottoming out from substance abuse in the late ‘90s through 2001. To raise the stakes further, the project had been through endless development hell since 1990, hot-potatoing from Universal Pictures to 20th Century Fox to New Line Cinema before being reacquired by Marvel Studios.

It turned out to be the perfect convergence of circumstances. Iron Man took the superhero origin format and imbued it with a rare level of wit and verve, dominantly on the strength of its rejuvenated star. It’s a refreshing departure from the usual proceedings, often a linear sequence of the protagonist discovering their powers and coming to terms with them. Tony Stark is no superhuman, but rather the gin-soaked, swaggering embodiment of the military-industrial complex. 

The inheritor of his father’s defense contractor company, Stark Industries, he’s an ordinary human with an extraordinary ego and wealth. But when he sees firsthand the death and destruction his weapons cause, he has a change of heart. And a change of identity to boot…while trapped in a cave in Afghanistan after an ambush during a weapons test, he cobbles together a rudimentary suit capable of flying. You know the rest. 

In a manner comparable to Sylvester Stallone/Rocky Balboa, Robert Downey Jr./Tony Stark/Iron Man is one of the emblematic instances where an actor and their character become one and the same. As a once-beloved star who had fallen from grace, he brings authenticity to Stark’s humane character arc. The ending scene of Tony chomping down on Burger King before first uttering his catchphrase, seemingly product placement, alludes to the crucial part of Downey’s recovery. As a result, the film has a naturally character-driven aesthetic that stands out in comparison to the CGI-ridden muck of most superhero films. 

Even in the same year when The Dark Knight dominated the cultural landscape and redefined superhero movies, Iron Man was just as paramount in elevating the genre to the forefront of the popular conscious. It is a stellar film, arguably great. In my view, it falls just a tad short of true greatness due to a weak third act, the biggest failing being Jeff Bridges’ bland corporate villain. (The first of many weak adversaries in Marvel films, unfortunately.) 

All the same, that doesn’t dilute how special it is. Over a decade later, Iron Man remains a blockbuster of rare originality and charm. It would have been satisfying as a one-off venture. Luckily, it was just the humble first step of an industry-changing parade of interconnected tales. Still, as the saying goes…there’s none like your first. 

Rating: **** out of *****


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

The first Guardians of the Galaxy was an adventure whose success was boosted in part by its novelty. But you can only surprise audiences once, and by following a sleeper hit that quickly became an entrenched fan favorite, Guardians Vol. 2 had an extra layer of challenge in furthering a popular brand. 

In this, and every other regard, the second adventure of Marvel’s misfit family excels. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a rare blockbuster that comes straight from the heart, and one whose every element flows seamlessly. The rough edges and tonal inconsistency of the first movie are smoothed out here, and the story is smartly untethered from anything involving Infinity Stones. Instead, it ingeniously centers around themes of parenthood and masculinity, stemming from Peter Quill/Starlord’s attempt to bond with his celestial father (Kurt Russell). For a superlative unpacking of those themes, Lindsay Ellis made an especially in-depth video examining them

While the first film will always stand out for its originality, Vol. 2 succeeds by taking each element it established and naturally improving them. The more humane story allows each of the Guardians’ characters to flourish. The soundtrack is somehow even better too, kicking off with Baby Groot’s adorable (and thematically prescient) dance to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” and rolling through comical battle sequences set to Glen Campbell and Jay and the Americans. More than anything, Vol. 2 benefits from the expanded role of Michael Rooker’s Yondu, who goes from a tertiary mercenary to the embodiment of the movie’s pure, outsized heart. 

Oh, and admit it: You cried during that final scene with Yondu. You absolutely, 100%, did. 

Rating: ****½ out of ***** 


6. The Avengers (2012) 

From the beginning, there was one movie on Marvel executives’ minds above all else: The Avengers. Plans to finally assemble Marvel’s superteam started way back in 2003, and would become the centerpiece of their interconnected film universe in the coming years. The eagerness to hype it up had excesses, leading to the tampering with Iron Man 2 that turned it into the worst film of the entire canon. When it came time for the big moment, however, Marvel didn’t screw around. To ensure its success, they gave the writing and directing keys to the castle to nerd culture behemoth Joss Whedon. 

The result? In a sense, perhaps the best comic book movie ever made. And by that I mean a movie that feels like the purest distillation of the giddy sensation of reading a comic book. The Avengers is two-and-a-half hours of nonstop action, one-liners, and juicy fan service. (Harry Dean Stanton!) It exudes pure fanboy enthusiasm in banding our favorite heroes together, a pop culture milestone that had been many years (and many movies) in the making. The moment the camera circles around the Avengers as they prepare to take on Loki’s forces in New York remains one of the ultimate “f*** yeah!” scenes of the decade. 

It’s an entertaining joyride from beginning to end, but it wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t have ample chemistry between all six of the lead heroes. Their interplay never misses a beat, a tribute to the pitch-perfect casting of each role. The seamless fusion of their divergent personalities and powers is all the more remarkable given two of them (Hawkeye and Black Widow) didn’t have their own movies, and Bruce Banner/Hulk is essentially reintroduced in Mark Ruffalo’s demure first turn after Edward Norton’s departure. By the end, you feel as if you’ve already spent many movies cheering them on. Which makes the realization there are many more to come so exciting. 

Especially as the conclusion of a mostly weak first phase, Whedon’s ensemble joyride was a resounding triumph for the Marvel machine. The Avengers is absolutely mindless entertainment. But goddamn, it is mindless entertainment done right

Rating: ****½ out of ***** 

5. Black Panther (2018) 

As superhero movies have engulfed mainstream cinema nonstop in recent years, the chorus of detractors who consider them cookie-cutter entertainment has mushroomed accordingly. Fun and escapist as they can be, it’s not unreasonable to see them as formulaic and repetitive after awhile. That, to put it mildly, would not be the case when Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther barreled into theaters in early 2018. 

It is not hyperbolic to call Black Panther a milestone in African American history. It is a moment of cultural significance on par with Jackie Robinson breaking the MLB color barrier and Michael Jackson redefining pop music with Thriller. And it achieves that distinction by being an unapologetic celebration of blackness at every turn. The story of T’Challa/Black Panther’s (Chadwick Boseman) redemptive ascension to the Wakandan throne incorporates everything from African tribal regalia to early ‘90s Oakland fluidly. Wakanda itself is the finest world realized in any Marvel movie, one viewers will hopefully get so spend more time at in the coming years. 

Black Panther adds further nuance to the superhero genre with a villain who arguably steals the show from the protagonist, Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger. Coogler and Jordan had spun magic before with Fruitvale Station and Creed, and this might be their most powerful collaboration yet. Killmonger’s motives of liberating the black populace (albeit through violent means) are conveyed in a balanced manner, to the point where some viewers pulled for him. Let’s also not forget just how much the women of Wakanda strengthen the movie, making Black Panther a much-needed elevation of black women we could use a lot more of in cinema.   

With its overwhelming hype now long subsided, it is admittedly easier to acknowledge some of the film’s flaws. The third act isn’t quite as strong as the first two, with some particularly debatable elements. (The optics of a CIA agent helping to quell a pan-African liberation movement are, well…troublesome.) Even as someone who’s far from hesitant to treat blockbusters like prestige pictures (I called Mad Max: Fury Road the #1 movie of 2015 for god’s sake), its Oscar nomination for Best Picture feels like risible pandering. 

Yet the fact that we’re even debating Black Panther’s questionable elements and nominations in the first place is a testament to its much-needed vitality. For decades, black stories have been either overlooked or entirely absent in the film industry. Coogler’s Afrocentric celebration marks a turning point by showing that, yes, those stories can be both profitable and palatable to the masses. Wakanda forever, indeed. 

Rating: ****½ out of *****


4. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

It’s not often a movie series gets it right on the third try. To the contrary, it’s usually the third time around where a franchise goes to die, such as Alien 3, The Matrix Revolutions and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. In those instances, however, the third movie was at least a disappointing drop-off from a strong movie or two that preceded it. 

Thor: Ragnarok, on the other hand, presented the opposite scenario, as it was the follow-up to two largely forgettable first and second movies. But it would end up blowing them out of the water and then some thanks to the creativity of New Zealand director Taika Waititi. While respectful of the previous Thor films, Waititi made an enthusiastic pitch to Marvel in his own vein. His sizzle reel combined jokes with Big Trouble in Little China and “The Immigrant Song,” an offbeat approach unbecoming of what Marvel usually wanted from their directors. But after years of (justified) criticism for interfering with acclaimed directors, they acquiesced and let Waititi run wild with his fervent imagination. 

The result was one of the freshest, savviest blockbusters in recent memory. Ragnarok is the Thor moviegoers deserved right from the start, with suffusive comedy, Led Zeppelin cranked to 11 on the soundtrack, gladiator arena fights, and no Natalie Portman or scientific ogling to drag down the proceedings. The sibling rivalry that made for the better segments of the first two movies and the first Avengers finally reaches a delicious zenith thanks to the addition of Cate Blanchett’s sister from the Inferno, Hela. She’s also the first female villain in the Marvel films, and by far one of the best. 

What ties these elements together is that Ragnarok excels in a crucial area where the first two failed: setting. The previous movies had glimpses of promise when they took place on Asgard, but slowed to a crawl when things shifted to Earth. Most of the action here wisely takes place primarily on Asgard and the literal garbage planet of Sakaar, with a glossy interstellar aesthetic that’s ripe with energy in each frame. Yet Ragnarok gets setting right by simultaneously subverting it. Asgard’s full impact is ironically magnified by its subtle revelation as a blood-soaked colonial empire, as well as its prophesied destruction in the blood-pumping final showdown with Hela. 

The movie also perfects the MCU’s crossover gimmick, smoothly incorporating Doctor Strange in the beginning and elements of the “Planet Hulk” comic book arc. Another reason to love Ragnarok: its emphasis on a more comic tone sets up the Thor/Guardians crossover that provides one of the strongest threads of Infinity War. Plus: Quentin Tarantino’s favorite MCU movie! 

Rating: ****½ out of *****


3. Avengers: Endgame (2019) 

With the release of Avengers: Endgame, 2019 marked the end of the line for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. OK…not really. We’ve already got another phase of movies and miniseries to look forward to. But Endgame is in fact a definite end, capping off a decade of movies and storylines that can’t be replicated. It’s the finale to an era that forever redefined what popcorn movies can aspire to be. 

While Infinity War succeeded as an ensemble epic, Endgame hits all the right notes by working in different phases. The first third is a somber capsule of Earth after Thanos successfully wiped out half of all known life. Especially after the cliffhanger ending of the previous film, having the chance to digest the scope of devastation wrought by Thanos magnifies the impact. The desolation of every major city (poor Citi Field) is downright eerie.  

Then, things shift gears to a gleeful time travel escapade that doubles as a Marvel victory lap. Yes, the plot necessitates it through a serious (if somewhat self-aware) development that can allow the few surviving heroes to change the course of events. But it’s really just an excuse for a big nostalgia trip, allowing the audience to relive scenes from their favorite movies…and others. (Seriously, it takes some chutzpah to go back to events in Thor 2 expecting anyone to care…and for it to work.) 

The final third, of course, is the (truly) final showdown with Thanos. It’s not as brutal as what happened in the comics, and that’s fine. It’s the finale audiences deserved all these years. Yet most of all, Endgame finds its greatest resonance in its most tender moments and farewells. Stan Lee’s final cameo, Tony’s time travel meeting with his father, and of course, that painful final sacrifice…the totality of what this 20-plus movie adventure means to the world really hits home with each heart-pulling scene. 

It doesn’t go for the head like Infinity War, but in its sweeping emotional reach, Endgame is a gallant triumph. It also boasts one of the sweetest endings in recent movie history. After all the heroism, redemption, death, and destruction, to end on a note as delicate as that proved to be perfect. Steve Rogers wouldn’t have had it any other way. And neither would we. 

Rating: ****½ out of *****


2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

After the mixed bag of Phase One ended gloriously with The Avengers, Phase Two of Marvel’s grand project started on a blase note with Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. But by every measure, the second phase – and the MCU as a whole – officially kicked into gear once and for all with this high-tech conspiracy thriller. The key was the enlistment of Joe and Anthony Russo as directors, who had forged elite resumes in television with Arrested Development and Community

Cap is wisely liberated from the dated style of the first movie, instead thrown into a modern surveillance state caper that apes ‘70s political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor. Thawed from the ice and already having saved New York City, Steve Rogers is now working for S.H.I.E.L.D in Washington, D.C. while adjusting to the 21st century. Out of nowhere, his world is thrown upside down when the mysterious Winter Soldier assassin strikes, setting off a labyrinthian chain of events that leads Rogers to find out the U.S. government isn’t as opposed to the forces of evil as he was led to believe in days of old. 

After so many individual MCU films that were pedestrian and only seemed to care about setting up the expanded universe, The Winter Soldier proved a refreshing jolt of life. It pulsates with energy and carries a consistent tone throughout, each white-knuckle action sequence drawing vitality from every paranoid twist and turn. Most importantly, Captain America’s character is at his most compelling with his “man out of time” struggles, and Evans delivers his best turn in the role yet. 

The plot is exceedingly complex, but in a way that’s cohesive and builds to a satisfying payoff. It’s self-contained, with no pandering or shelving the action to set up a later movie. The Winter Soldier laid the blueprint for Marvel’s cinematic evolution, proof that their superhero escapism could be rendered in a sophisticated, serious manner. In that regard, it arguably hasn’t been exceeded. 

Rating: ****½ out of *****


1. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

18 movies of build-up, 76 characters in total, and a $316-400 million budget that ranks among the most expensive in film history. Infinity War was a culmination exactly a decade in the making, not just for Marvel’s ambitious film universe, but effectively the superhero/comic book movie genre altogether. The Russo Brothers, having established MCU’s dramatic bona fides with The Winter Soldier and Civil War, were wisely entrusted with directing this high-stakes epic. 

If ever there was a Marvel movie that not only had to succeed, but take itself seriously, it was this one. Thanos (Josh Brolin) is on a quest to collect every Infinity Stone, thus giving him the power to wipe out half of all life in the universe. One by one, the heroes we know and love band together to take on their most ruthless foe and his forces across the galaxy. Unlike most of the previous films, however, it’s far, far from guaranteed to end well for them. 

With so many beloved characters crossing paths, it could have been easy, even tempting, to merely throw them together for novelty at the expense of story. Yet Infinity War is remarkably balanced in threading together each hero’s individual motives and struggles, making each moment count. Clearly drawing influence from the likes of Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the movie hits the perfect ensemble zenith where the pacing doesn’t drag, the chemistry between each actor is lively, and the build-up towards the climax is exhilarating beginning to end. It’s also a rare kind of movie: sprawling juggernauts that extract a special level of entertainment from having so many beloved stars and characters chase one goal. We simply don’t get those kinds of blockbusters much these days like we did in the ‘60s, and Infinity War marks a much-needed revival for them.

The balance of characters is augmented by the film’s admirable tonal consistency. Infinity War has plenty of moments of fun and comic relief, to be sure. (Thor and the Guardians’ partnership in particular is such a riot, you wonder why they hadn’t been paired up even sooner.) Yet when things need to get serious, Infinity War wisely lets the dramatic moments breathe without interruption. Deaths of critical characters and many others are rendered without compromise, and characters who experience loss are allowed to grieve. This embrace of tragedy is an admirable step for Marvel, one that had honestly been due for quite awhile.  

The element that secures Infinity War’s place atop the MCU canon, and high in the realm of comic book movies, is Josh Brolin’s Thanos. This calmly genocidal seeker of Infinity Stones is not only Marvel’s best villain to date, but a standout in movies in general. It’s rare to see a superhero villain driven by motivations that are (technically) human rather than just out of formulaic, unspecified evil. The heart of this lies in his surrogate fatherhood of Gamora, which provides the painful dramatic crux of the entire film. It’s even rarer to see a villain whose every moment on screen instills fear in the heart of the viewer. Whenever he steps into the frame, no hero, no matter how powerful, feels safe. 

Heroism, loss, tragedy, triumph, humanity, longing, regret, escapism, suspense, pathos…it’s all present in the operatic sprawl of Infinity War. Marvel may have many more films up their sleeve, but it’s hard to imagine them ever topping this one. 

Rating: ***** out of *****