It’s a super time to be a superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The once impossible idea of packing six superheroes into a single onscreen universe, the MCU’s built some of the biggest superhero movies of all time, if not the most in any given year. Seven years and a dozen movies later, it doesn’t look like Marvel’s multimedia franchise is slowing down anytime soon as its multi-billion dollar future is just getting bigger. If the past has taught us anything, it’s that the MCU’s getting better all the time, but not without its share of bumps along the way.
With Ant-Man’s big-screen debut this summer, Marvel’s second helping of superhero movies have finally come to a close and as we enter its third cinematic phase, we take a look back at the MCU’s winners and washouts so far. For reference, we’ll only be ranking the movies considered a part of the Avengers world, so if you’re looking for any X-Men or web slingers, you’re out of luck.
Here are the best, worst, and weirdest of the MCU.
12. IRON MAN 2
It was hard to know what to expect from Iron Man‘s surprising blockbuster success. By all accounts, Iron Man 2 didn’t seem to know either. From its jerky characterization to its flighty script, Iron Man 2 felt like a half-drunken hangover of its predecessor, smarter and funnier in its own head. We doubt anyone wanted to see Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark take on Mickey Rourke’s grungy Mickey Rourke waving electric jump ropes, much less see him take a dump in his suit.
Tony and Pepper Potts’ banter seemed stuck in the mud and Don Cheadle was simply there. Sam Rockwell’s weaselly Justin Hammer was another empty suit, meanwhile, and Black Widow’s flat entrance didn’t produce much fanfare. A new arc reactor was arguably the most Tony got out of his second go-round, because we sure don’t remember daydreaming about director Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 3.
11. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
“Incredible” might not be the word for Louis Leterrier’s take on Marvel’s green goliath, but at the time, it might’ve been an adequate shot in the arm for the Hulk, at the very least. Its man-on-the-run storyline proved a better fit for the Incredible Hulk than Ang Lee’s angst-ridden silliness with Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner a suitable everyman. The tenser action sequences complimented its bigger, better set-pieces at the expense of the film’s dramatic aims. The movie’s love story fell as hard as Bruce did from that darn plane and Tim Roth’s criminally underdeveloped Emil Blonsky is still a crying shame, as is Tim Blake Nelson’s offbeat Samuel Sterns.
The Incredible Hulk was certainly the Hulk story that deserved to be told, if not the one that deserved to see. Though Mark Ruffalo’s green goliath would pave over the movie’s already loose connections to the MCU, Captain America: Civil War will at least welcome back William Hurt’s coolheaded General Ross. It’s still sad that we’re unlikely to see a solo outing for the Hulk as the star of the MCU’s darker corners, because the Hulk and the Abomination’s beat-down was something else.
10. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
There’s probably no hero more righteous in the Marvel stable than good ‘ole Captain America and not a film more faithful to its inspiration than Captain America: The First Avenger. Marvel’s steadfast salute to its earliest superhero had something going for it. It gave Chris Evans the chance to throw out his Fantastic Four suit and into the star-spangled tights of comics’ most mild-mannered patriot, playing to all the bygone idealism of the character, if not to a fault. Its cheery, upbeat tone allowed for a kind of innocence rare to superhero movies, though at a cost to its fluffy characterization of the Red Skull as a joke villain and Bucky as the forgettable best friend.
Cap and Peggy Carter’s doomed romance didn’t amount to much, thought it did earn Haley Atwell a decent spotlight in her own right. Nevertheless, First Avenger did give us the enemy to plague every Marvel movie to come in HYDRA and a direct bridge to the Avengers with the moral that one man with the right steroids can make a difference. What’s more American than that?
At its core, Thor is probably like a bunch of movies you’ve already seen and probably liked. A big guy too big for his britches screws up, gets taught a lesson, hijinks ensue, and he walks away learning something. That’s basically Kenneth Branagh’s Thor in a nutshell, but it still has a lot to like in spite of itself. Chris Hemsworth plays a very mighty Thor with Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster as his likably grounding guides on earth. Of course, there’s Tom Hiddleston being his delightfully wicked self, stealing whatever scene he can get – however briefly – as Loki, otherwise known as Thor’s cooler stepbrother.
A classic fish-out-of-water origin story, Thor‘s amusing antics left no gag unturned for how many times Thor can get hit by a car or acquire a love for pop tarts in his big timeout on our planet. Its lighthearted humor appreciated the most human side of the character, though its uninspired finale leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, it did leave enough fans clamoring for a sequel. Another!
8. IRON MAN
It’s hard to think back to a time that the name “Robert Downey Jr.” didn’t carry with it the guitar chords of AC/DC. It was, frankly, the film that started a lot. The multi-annual superhero releases, the Sam Jackson cameos, the MCU itself – all of them can still thank Jon Favreau’s initial vision for how a stuck-up, genius, playboy billionaire got less stuck up. The film seemingly set up more than a decade of superhero movies going forward, but more importantly was its hero of the hour, one that could outthink as much as outmuscle the odds with swagger to match.
Though we’ll always wish Jeff Bridges’s Obadiah Stane left more of an impression, Tony Stark taking on The Dude is still a treat. Seven years into his big-screen debut, it doesn’t look like Marvel’s heavy metal hero’s lost any of his selling power from the looks of Robert Downey Jr.’s pay checks these days. Before long, the man’s going to be able to afford his own Iron Man suits.
Good things come in small packages and the same can generally be said about Ant-Man. Fresh, funny, family-friendly fun, Ant-Man took us back to a simpler time in the genre were good guys smirked for the camera and bad guys scared were the boogeymen under kids’ beds. Its tongue-in-cheek humor and physics-defying effects all make for a rewarding spectacle, but it’s Paul Rudd’s smart-mouthed Scott Lang and Michael Douglas’ sagely Hank Pym that provide the greatest gravitas amidst all the absurdity.
A heist movie, an origin story, and a family film all at once, Ant-Man clips by at a mile-a-minute with too many characters left unexplored, The Wasp notwithstanding. When you consider Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross as a young Obadiah Stane, Evangeline Lilly is a doe-eyed Hope Van Dyne as a briefcase-wielding Pepper Potts, and yet another high-tech suit, Ant-Man‘s just a kiddier Iron Man at heart, good as that is. In the absence of a true sequel, Scott’s arguably best off piggybacking off of the Avengers with Ant-Man’s world really having nothing more to show. Just give us more Michael Peña. The guy’s hilarious.
6. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
More Loki, more money seems to be the equation that Thor movies write and that’s certainly among Thor: The Dark World’s better highlights. A more fully-realized Asgard and a better look at the Warrior’s Three in action all made The Dark World feel a little more like home to Thor fans, but it’s the sibling rivalry between our Asgardian stepbrothers that really set the movie apart from its predecessor. Somewhere along the way, the film lost us with its generic dark elves and their search for magical fart gas, but it’s not ever movie in which you watch Tom Hiddleston channel his best Captain America.
The Dark World brought everything appreciatively full circle making Jane a part of Thor’s world as much as he was a part of hers and they did the latter brilliantly. We still have yet to know what The Dark World‘s “WTF?!” of an ending means in the meantime, but we can probably be rest assured that there’s a whole other Pandora’s box that Thor: Ragnarok has yet to open. Maybe we can finally see what happens when power corrupts or when old man Anthony Hopkins’ Odin finally wakes up. Again.
5. IRON MAN 3
Yes, we know. Iron Man 3 tricked us and tricked us. It got your nose as you begged like a baby to get it back from mean, old Mandarin. Frankly, it got us and got us good – as great a film as director Shane Black almost made. A buddy movie reminiscent of his work on Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, Iron Man 3 saw the best of the trilogy’s wisecracking humor underlining its wry political commentary. Robert Downey Jr. once again proved why he’s the man behind Iron Man who could cobble together a plan in a garage and confront his greatest fears with wit and candor alongside his friends. Iron Man 3 grew its character more than any movie prior, so much so that it’s a shame it’s largely gone ignored.
If nothing else, we can at least talk about more problems with Iron Man 3 than Ben Kingsley, like that Disney-esque kid that Tony shares a garage with? He’s the worst. How about the fire-breathing Extremis virus carriers? That was weird. What about Tony never using his 50 Iron Man suits to save his own damn house? Lame. Priorities, people. Priorities.
4. THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
The Avengers: Age of Ultron plays out much like any blockbuster sequel does. The stakes are higher, the characters deeper, and the world a whole lot bigger – so much so that it quite often collapses around them. A slapdash thrill-ride of CGI spectacle, Age of Ultron seemingly juggles a million things at once onscreen that lets up only for the time director Joss Whedon makes it count. While so many lesser movies would be content being a nerd nirvana of comic book beats and quippy one-liners, the Age of Ultron doesn’t shy away from asking who its superheroes are at home and abroad, though it’s short on answers.
Scarlett Johansson and Mark Ruffalo’s Black Widow and Bruce Banner both have their moments here, but it’s the Hulk Buster versus the Hulk that the casual viewer will remember. James Spader’s Utron may lack the menace of a Darth Vader while Quicksilver and Scarlett Witch are set aside too early, but Paul Bettany’s newfound role befits the film’s spectacular finish. Age of Ultron can be summed up as the mere byproduct of repeating the same joke twice – but boy can that joke still hit.
3. THE AVENGERS
The Avengers was the movie every Marvel nerd prayed about and one midsummer’s day, it came true in full force. Five years and five movies in the making, Marvel’s The Avengers rocked box offices so hard the studio was proud enough to put their own name on it. Reveling in all the flair and adrenaline-pumping action as advertised, The Avengers brought us the earth’s mightiest heroes in one, spectacular package more novel than anything anyone had seen at the time.
Each hero complimented one another perfectly, all their quirks fitting together like a jigsaw puzzle for awesome. Captain America was the leader, Iron Man was the brains, Thor was the muscle, Hulk was the loose canon, Hawkeye was that other guy, and Black Widow was…the girl? Admittedly, there’s no deep threat at work here. It’s Loki and some aliens taking down New York City, but it doesn’t take much for The Avengers to be dumb fun at its best when you have Hulk squashing Tom Hiddleston into the ground.
2. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
In a universe full of down-to-earth superheroes, Guardians of the Galaxy felt like a blast of air-freshener in a genre so often mired in its own blood, sweat, and tears. A fast-taking guy, a hard-hitting girl, a world class killer, a talking tree, a gun-toting raccoon – they all seemed too weird for cinema and all too hilarious an idea not to try. Through it, nearly everyone learned to love Chris Pratt and just how many sweet tunes the 80’s gave us. Marvel’s lovable little band of misfits share grief put into practice.
So much of Guardians is just too fun for its own good. Rocket’s master prison break, Starlord’s dance-off, there’s not a dull moment being a Guardian of the Galaxy and, of course, ours save the universe holding hands. Granted, a few of its jokes come a little too strong (C’mon, Kevin Bacon?) and its villains a bit weak, Guardians proved that just about anyone could be a superhero and any comic could carry a superhero franchise with the right people. We want you back, Guardians. We want you back so bad.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Captain America: The Winter Soldier could’ve been any average blockbuster. Cap could’ve fought the bad guys and gone home in time for dinner and a movie. Instead, The Winter Soldier hit where it hurt the most for its characters and shook the MCU to its core, blurring the line that separates heroes and villains. The daring vision of the Russo Brothers, The Winter Soldier is as interested in big set-pieces as it is in Big Brother, flirting with smart political theater and smarter action in only the way a superhero film can.
The Winter Soldier molded Captain America into a hero for the 21st century, standing proud as one of Marvel’s crowning achievements in action as much as storytelling. It showed us that superhero movies don’t always have to paint its heroes in shades of grey so much as they explore how they navigate their moral choices, as do their friends. While the Marvel universe tears itself apart preparing for civil war, we’ll always remember how things started to crumble as the Captain stood tall at its center.