After the release of every new Marvel film I am forced (practically at gunpoint) to rethink the entirety of the cinematic universe and where each individual film fits into the framework. Having finally seen Ant-Man, which wraps up Phase 2 of the MCU, I decided it would would be fun to rank the films from worst to best. This list is incredibly arbitrary, based on my preferences, and open to wild disagreement. In fact, I am writing this in conjunction with my friend and fellow MoviePilot contributor Zane Sanders who has also produced a list that we will then look at side-by-side.
A couple of quick things before I jump in:
- 1) In my opinion, there are no "bad" Marvel films in the MCU. I would remind people that Daredevil, The Fantastic Four films, X-Men Last Stand, and Ghost Rider, all of which I think are awful, are NOT a part of the MCU proper. The MCU is made up of the 12 films put out by Marvel studios beginning with 2008's Iron Man. Even the weakest of the MCU is watchable and entertaining.
- 2) Despite there not being any duds, I do think that there are tiers. The bottom tier of films tend to be the films that serve more as connective tissue for the universe, while the top tier are films that standalone as great films while still giving nods to the larger world.
- 3) And finally, building off my last observation, the films are pretty much evenly split between Phase 1 and Phase 2. One of the concerns when Iron Man came out was whether or not Marvel would be able to keep up the momentum. Would such an ambitious endeavor work and could it maintain itself past the first Avengers film? I think Marvel has answered those questions and then some. My top tier includes a strong mix of Phase 1 and Phase 2 films, which I think speaks to the MCU's consistency.
So without further ado... the list.
12. Iron Man 3
Let me say again, this is not a "bad" movie, it's just not my favorite. The first film gave hints that the Mandarin would appear at some point. Despite my love for Sir Ben Kingsley, what they did with that character was inexcusable. Yes, I've seen the Marvel one-shot that hints that the "real" Mandarin might still be out there, but how much of that was a reaction to fanboys being upset with what this film did to the character?
Another gripe I have with the film are the long periods of time without Tony in the suit. It may have been interesting for them to call the film Tony Stark. This wouldn't be so bad if those portions of the film were interesting. I just found them to be dry.
I did find the premise of Tony having PTSD after the events of The Avengers to be compelling. It added a sense of real world consequence to this outlandish world. I think more could have been done with it.
IM3 also has one of my favorite post-credit scenes. Though not affecting the larger MCU, the idea that the whole film was a story that Tony was telling Bruce Banner was pretty fun. Tony's headspace in the film explains his actions in AOU and maybe even some of what we'll see in Civil War, so I give it props for the contribution to the overall narrative.
At the time of it's release, Thor had the steepest hill to climb. The other films had some grounding in our reality. Thor introduced us to idea of other worlds and dimensions existing within the MCU. The question was, would we buy it? To a large extent, the answer was "yes". Thor has great world-building elements as SHIELD is heavily involved in the story and we get our first glimpse of Hawkeye.
Honestly, what lowers Thor's ranking for me is that we see much more interesting iterations of the characters later. That's not really this film's fault, but let's be honest, the Loki we see in this film isn't nearly as fun as the character's appearance in Avengers or the sequel. I also have to admit that I don't buy the chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman. I mean, it's not Hayden Christensen bad, but it ain't good.
10. Iron Man 2
It's possible I threw Thor in between the Iron Man sequels so that they weren't back to back. It's possible. I give IM2 the edge over IM3 because the action is better, it sets up the Avengers Initiative as a "thing", and it introduces Scarlett Johannson to the MCU. For that alone it gets the nod over IM3. IM2 is very enjoyable while watching it, but unlike the rest of the MCU, it's pretty forgettable. Nothing about it stands out. I think it's more fun than IM3 or Thor, but I could probably be talked off of that position.
9. The Incredible Hulk
Another film that, in my mind, is hurt by later films. Edward Norton was good as Bruce Banner. Mark Ruffalo was great! That said, I think this is one of the more underrated MCU films. Norton gives us a protagonist we deeply care about. Tim Roth plays a very fun antagonist as does William Hurt as Gen. Ross. I love the scene where Blonsky takes on Hulk after his first dose of the super soldier serum! I do hope that the MCU follows through on the tease of having The Leader in the universe.
8. Thor: The Dark World
There's something to be said for low expectations. I really didn't give this film much thought. I didn't even bother to see it in the theater. I regret that because this movie boasts some of the stronger visual elements in the entire MCU. Asgard looks amazing! The fight scenes are appropriately epic. Loki is the Loki we've grown to love! To me, this takes everything that works about the first film and makes it better. I still don't buy Hemsworth/Portman and Malekith is a ho-hum villain, but I think this film is more fun than the first one.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger
Captain America's first film is either the best of the bottom tier or the worst of the top tier. Either way, this is a great film. Thor gives the MCU a sense of other-worldliness. Cap gives the universe a sense of history. In some ways, the whole of the MCU is birthed out of the Second World War. Cap really has been the anchor of the MCU and his origin story is fun to watch. Chris Evans is incredibly likable in the role. Hugo Weaving's Red Skull is one of the MCU's stronger villains. Captain America is a great action/adventure film that gives the whole universe a focal point.
6. Iron Man
The movie that started it all! The greatest thing about Iron Man is Tony Stark. this movie revived Robert Downey Jr's career and rightfully so. He does arrogant, playboy billionaire so well. He's witty, he's smug, and he has the wealth and charm to back up all of his boasts. Iron Man is never anything less than an expression of Tony's ego, even when he's doing heroic things. It's easy in hindsight to look at Iron Man's origins and compare them with Cap's and realize that they were always fated to go down divergent paths. Iron Man is also blessed with a great cast! Terrance Howard, Jeff Bridges, and Gwyneth Paltrow are all great in this.
I struggled with whether or not I should put this above Iron Man and Captain America. I'm wondering if I'm just basking in the afterglow. I'm going to go out on a limb and venture that this one will hold up. It's hard to do an origin story now that we have so many established heroes and think this movie did it perfectly. Paul Rudd is likable in a way that is similar to Tony Stark, but far more identifiable as an every-man. Michael Douglas plays a Hank Pym as an anti-social curmudgeon who is already thoroughly embedded in the MCU's world. Paul Rudd's Ant-Man feels like a character that phases 3 and 4 of the MCU could be built around, so this film also works as a world builder. And it's just funny! As a father with a son who has been obsessed with Thomas the train for years, I could not stop laughing at the fight scene on the train tracks. It was ridiculous in all the best ways.
4. Avengers: Age of Ultron
For some, this will be too high. I'm wondering if it's too low. There was no way to recapture the "wow!" factor of the first Avengers, but I think this film tells a better story. I Ultron is probably the second best villain in the MCU and what makes him effective is his connection to Tony. While IM3 is at the bottom of this list, I give it props for setting up a Tony Stark that would unleash his own crazed artificial intelligence on the world in order to ensure peace. This is the natural progression for Tony. Hawkeye's story gives the film heart and a sense of danger. The splintering that is happening between Tony and Cap is more subtle than the pissing contest they have in the first film, but it's deeper. It's not just that they want to kick each other's asses, they have an ideological split. I love the introduction of new Avengers, and the unveiling of the new roster at the end. The team is very different by the end and that makes for a compelling story.
3. The Avengers
The climax of phase 1. An ambitious movie that had the arduous task of bringing all of these heroes together, balancing their personalities, and bringing it together for one cohesive story. I mentioned the Age of Ultron's lack of "wow" factor? This movie has so much "wow!". As fun as it is to watch the heroes fight aliens and Loki (easily the MCU's best villain so far), this movie gets a lot of mileage off of heroes fighting each other. Iron Man vs. Thor. Thor vs. Hulk, Iron Man vs. Cap vs. Thor. All fun, "wow" moments! Anytime you see the team together you get goosebumps! Joss Whedon wrote a great script for this one. It is consistently funny and fast paced. We don't get bogged down too much in the villain's plot. The real meat is the relationships between the heroes.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy
This is the film that convinced me that Marvel could do no wrong. It has no right to be as good as it is. This was Marvel's biggest gamble and it more than paid off. The script is funny, each character gets a great moment or two, the visuals are stunning and the action is exhilarating. Oh, and the music. Such good music! As much as the ensemble works, this movie goes nowhere if Chris Pratt isn't so insanely likable.
Guardians expands the scope of the MCU much further than Thor did. We're reminded that there is a villain out there in the form of Thanos who is incredibly powerful and acting as puppet master over some of our other villains, including Loki. We're given our first explanation of the infinity stones which have been popping up since Captain America: The First Avenger. We know that at some point Thanos will get his hands on all of the stones and deal with all of these pesky heroes who keep interfering with his plans.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
This was the one easy choice for me. Winter Soldier is simply a great film. The story is compelling, the characters are well fleshed out, the acting is outstanding. It's not just a comic book movie, it's a political thriller given additional gravitas by the presence of Robert Redford.
What I love about this film is that we see a mature superhero trying to do his job in a complex and sophisticated world. The man who was bred to follow orders and be a "good solider" wrestles with a sense of right and wrong that goes beyond just executing the next mission. Despite being driven by a man with superhuman strength fighting another man with superhuman strength and a metal arm with the aid of a man with a jet-propelled flying suit, Winter Soldier feels strikingly grounded in reality and real world choices.
Okay, that's my list. Let me know what you think!