After a first half of a countdown that contained some mixed emotions, now we get to the good stuff. For anyone who missed that first half, moviepilot.com/posts/3767455 here it is! As I mentioned in Phase One, mistakes can bring even the most entertaining movies down. From this point on, I consider these final six movies almost mistake free. Not only are they great; they’re also incredibly well thought out.
Captain America wasn’t exactly a household name until his subsequent appearances, so I’m able to calm my appreciation for his first film and rank it more appropriately. Captain America: The First Avenger was not the mega hit that we’ve seen from several other films from the MCU. However, given a closer look, it stands face to face with Iron Man as the two greatest origin stories they have to offer. Steve Rogers is a well-developed character, whose zero to hero transition is nothing if not believable (in terms of him as a person, at least. You might have to suspend some disbelief towards the science of it all). The only real fault I can place on The First Avenger is the disappointing underdevelopment of Cap’s arch nemesis, The Red Skull. No one should let a Hugo Weaving villain portrayal go to waste. He’s not a bad character, just a simple one. The supporting cast is arguably the strongest we’ve seen from an MCU standalone film, with the only exception being the film’s sequel. Marvel’s still squeezing every ounce of screen time they can take from Hayley Atwell’s magnetic Peggy Carter. Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci fill in important gaps that could’ve easily been given to lesser actors. And Sebastian Stan gives us the friendship that came all the way back around to be the centerpiece of this franchise. This is by far the most underrated movie in the MCU, and suffered from fans saying “Give us The Avengers, already!” The First Avenger captures an era, tells a quality underdog story, and only gets better when you watch it again.
The modern gymnastics ratings system takes two major things into account: execution and degree of difficulty. When you attempt something difficult, you’re given a small margin of error that will allow you to triumph over lesser challenges despite maybe making a mistake here and there. Guardians of the Galaxy is what happens when you draw up the hardest possible routine, and then nail the execution score anyway. Good music selection makes a movie so much better, and few movies demonstrate that better than this one. I am proudly among the many concerned fans who had zero faith in this source material. It’s entertaining in a small vacuum, but had no place standing next to these other movies. The settings are too silly. The raccoon is stupid. You can’t just go make any movie because you’re Marvel. Well, turns out you can. By the end of the first trailer, I had done a complete 180. By the time the film was actually released, I couldn’t wait any longer. And they delivered. Tone is arguably the most crucial aspect of a successful movie. Of course, you like to see everything done well, but if all else fails you at least want to believe the tone is both balanced and a good match for the story. This was the silliest movie at face value, but the humor was clever and even a little more irreverent than the Marvel norm. It was an incredibly self aware project, built on passion and executed to perfection. Many fans have this as their number one in these rankings, and I don’t blame them. I actually didn’t love this movie as much as most did, because I only thought it was amazing. Either way, it sits comfortably as one of the greatest achievements in cinematic superhero history.
This one wasn’t so easy to pull of either. While Ant-Man may be a strong second tier Marvel comics character, the difficulties behind a film adaptation are clear. His powers are silly and, when Hank Pym is done correctly, he isn’t a very likeable guy. Marvel Studios instead decided to defer to the next generation’s Ant-Man, Scott Lang, using Pym as a fiery supporting character. The three leads are equally great, with Paul Rudd being the only man on Earth who could take this role so far beyond its potential. The trio makes it very easy to buy into Ant-Man and everything that comes with him. Much like Guardians, the clever humor blends seamlessly with the more serious elements of the plot. The bedroom fight must be a top-five fight scene in this franchise, but that’s a countdown for another day. The only way to properly follow up a massive Avengers movie is to think small, pun intended. So Marvel used an unconventional heist movie to turn the relative insignificance of this story into an advantage, closing out Phase 2 with a tiny bang.
A top-three ranking for the one that started it all isn’t just a godfather vote. Iron Man may have been the first, but it’s also one of the best. Speaking of being the only man for the job, Robert Downey Jr. either became Tony Stark or Tony Stark became him. Taking the comics into account, what we got ended up being somewhere in the middle. But this new Stark is now the definitive portrayal of the character. On top of a cinema-altering performance, there’s a great origin story. There’s great music. There’s a great script. There’s the single best “cool guy doesn’t look at explosion” moment in movie history. If there’s one thing that isn’t perfect about this movie, it’s a final fight that becomes a battle of “which suit can withstand lower temperatures” and Gwyneth Paltrow pushing a button. But from the opening song to the final line, there are a select few superhero movies in history that can stand up to Iron Man. Fortunately for us, two of them are right here.
If Age of Ultron battled hype, I don’t know what you’d call what this movie was up against. A movie of this nature had never even been attempted before, but Marvel dove head first into the biggest superhero team-up of all time. We grew to appreciate these characters on their own, but each one took on new life when given the opportunity to share the stage and show audiences something they had never seen. The Easter eggs throughout Phase 1 were cute, but The Avengers marked the official creation of one connected cinematic universe. While Iron Man shares this claim, The Avengers is effectively the birth of the MCU. Of course this all would’ve lost its effect if the movie fell short. But Joss Whedon’s vision and writing, combined with the outstanding cast, left even the most critical fans digging for something negative to say. The action is fantastic, the hero vs. hero matchups don’t feel forced, and each character is given times to shine and showcase their abilities. Loki is still the best MCU villain to date, a status I do not see changing anytime soon. Despite being inferior in battle to almost every one of the Avengers, he poses a terrible threat that forces the team to overcome their differences and save the world. He’s arguably the best character in the movie, despite at least half of the super-team giving outstanding performances. This movie is quotable, monumental, and immeasurably fun without ever taking the laughs too far. It would take a perfect superhero movie to top The Avengers.
There is only one movie in the MCU for which I cannot think of a single criticism, one that hits at every angle without once stumbling over its own feet. I’m sure there are holes to poke, depending on your opinion as a fan, but to me Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best MCU movie ever made. As mentioned earlier, no MCU movie should be without jokes. But if this universe has a tragic flaw, it’s a confused tone that occasionally turns the end of the world into a punch line. Sometimes, the balance between hard-hitting content and family fun isn’t all there. This movie has all the personality and humor you’d wish for. It also has the best fight choreography of the dozen movies by several miles. The first fight between Cap and (spoiler alert) Bucky channels more adrenaline than a thousand explosions or aliens ever could. Winter Soldier is precise, well paced and well scaled, resisting the ever-present temptation of superhero hyperbole. The tone is darker, but doesn’t dumb down the universe in doing so or ignore the fact that this is a superhero movie. Each recurring character (Cap, Bucky, Widow and Fury) gives us the best appearance we’ve seen from them. Falcon is a welcome addition that cements the chemistry of this cast. The movie goes from great to ridiculous as soon as he joins the runaway team. If I had to compare it to something, this is the fourth Bourne movie we never got (because that’s right, there is no fourth Bourne movie.) And with all the shield flinging and Marvel properties, one could argue it’s even better. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is everything the MCU needs to be doing, and everything we need to see in Civil War. With an almost full Avengers roster, gripping premise, and the Winter Soldier filmmakers led by the Russo brothers, Civil War has every opportunity to leapfrog this entire list in three short months.
It's been a one of a kind journey for moviemakers and fans alike. Marvel Studios created an opportunity for franchises everywhere by creating the ultimate one for themselves. As these competing universes clash throughout 2016, no matter who gives us the best pair of movies, we are the ones who ultimately win.