Everyone is giving a final rating of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies as they stand after the events of Avengers: Endgame. Which is a fair assessment to make; there was a definite end to the MCU as we know it, and a total shift of personalities and motivations lie ahead of the franchise now.
Admittedly, I have only seen some of the MCU movies more than once; I am not a die hard fan, and I did not rewatch them all in preparation for Endgame. So you must appreciate that I am ranking mostly through memory, but more importantly how the films have withstood the test of time. Which ones I remember fondly, which ones upon reflection have had less-than-optimal effect on the MCU as a whole.
… And a sprinkling of personal opinion.
Oh, and spoilers. Spoilers everywhere.
22. The Incredible Hulk
It is a hard deal Louis Leterrier’s 2008 film has… Doomed to be at the bottom of everyone’s list, simply because the lead star, Edward Norton as Bruce Banner, dropped out and was replaced by Mark Ruffalo. The only hanger-on from this film is William Hurt as General “Thunderbolt” Ross.
Which is a shame. Thinking back on it, The Incredible Hulk was a decent movie! Good effects on Hulk and his nemesis Abomination (Tim Roth). Remember, before this we had Ang Lee’s HULK movie in 2003… Yeah, the lowest MCU film is not that bad!
It even explained the purple shorts!
21. Iron Man 3
I am sorry… but Iron Man 3 is not that good. Straight off the back of 2012’s Avengers Assemble, we are very accustomed to the heroes helping each other out. So when Stark’s home gets blown up by terrorists, it is a unbelievable that none of his companions came to help. But this is a small fry issue. While the film nicely dials things back and has Robert Downey Jr acting outside of the Iron Man persona… we also have the biggest example of back-pedalling the MCU producers have ever made: The Mandarin. It is the only time the producers had to film a short to explain away fandom backlash.
This, and Tony Stark’s “and I got better” speech, where he removes the device from his heart that’s been his original conflict (an event that even weakens Avengers: Endgame; imagine if that light was always his “heart”, and we see it finally go dark. Crying even more. But no…) Also that annoying kid.
20. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Talk about not living up to the hype. Avengers Assemble in 2012 was such a massive event that the idea of a returning cast, director Joss Whedon taking the helm again, and even bigger threats with super-villain Ultron… the possibilities were endless!
Sadly we didn’t expect a shambolic mess of editing, de-powered female heroes (Black Widow is imprisoned for most of the film, has a weird non-relationship with Bruce Banner, and newcomer Scarlet Witch is afraid of her abilities). Not to mention Ultron simply leaving no impact on the MCU at all. Newcomer Vision also had no lasting purpose in the MCU, and the late Quicksilver has been utterly forgotten by literally everyone.
19. Doctor Strange
While Benedict Cumberbatch has excelled as the titular Doctor Stephen Strange in future films Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame, his first outing wasn’t great…
Possibly the weakest MCU villain with Ka… Kaeli… Kaecilius, a criminal waste of Mads Mikkelsen’s talents. An overuse of (otherwise beautiful) kaleidoscope visuals makes everything very samey, while Strange himself has the most unbelievable character arc, possibly the most rushed of any of the MCU heroes. High hopes for this character and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo returning in the future with better hands on the reins.
18. Thor: The Dark World
The second Thor film is a strange one. Upon first viewing back in 2013, you could be forgiven to think it was alright. Fun action sequences with portals, sadness with what happens to Thor’s mother, and of course… Tom Hiddleston as Loki basically stealing the entire show. But as time passed, you realise that there’s a lot of distinctly average elements. Christopher Eccleston is wasted as the MCU’s second worst villain Malekith (dissolving into a joke in Avengers: Endgame) and the loss of Natalie Portman from the MCU, making the purpose of Jane Foster redundant. But perhaps the worst element is the Aether, or the Reality Stone… which could have provided some incredible action sequences and visuals (see Avengers: Infinity War). All we get are portals?
17. Iron Man 2
Everyone loves to say Iron Man 2 is the worst MCU film. This is not true. We get more Iron Man than we do in Iron Man 3, we also get more development of Tony’s self-destructive personality straight off the back of the first film. We also get iconic MCU actors Scarlett Johansson and Don Cheadle joining the fray.
But it is true, Whiplash (Mickey Rourke) and Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) never really worked as a villain pairing, despite both actors delivering in their roles as best they could with the material. It feels like the film ends before it has really gotten started, giving us only a glimpse of Iron Man and War Machine working together.
16. Captain Marvel
For Phase 3 of the MCU, Captain Marvel was strangely underwhelming. With a narrative device of amnesia for our leading woman played by Brie Larson, her personality is tonally lost. Is she sassy? Is she cold and unfeeling? The film lurches from flashbacks to present day, from planet-to-planet without setup, half dozen characters, as well as being a prequel to 98% of MCU films. I really hope Carol Danvers gets more personality soon, because right now she has Superman-syndrome.
While it does have some decent fight and chase sequences, some nice ideas with the Skrulls, allowing for a setting in the 1990s (that soundtrack too) as well as great chemistry between Danvers and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, it has a sensation that Marvel/Disney didn’t know how to represent the character to the masses.
(also how Nick Fury lost an eye was stupid)
15. Captain America: Civil War
Civil War is not as hot as people think it is. The Captain America film that, instead of following Steve Rogers’s incredible battles during Winter Soldier, makes itself out as Avengers 2.5. A mess of executive decisions: Bucky was freed of his mind-control problem in the previous film… nah, let’s just have him evil again. Oh, btw, Bucky killed Mr and Mrs Stark, this was never hinted at, but just believe us. The film was overburdened with the acquisition of Spider-Man from Sony Pictures. While Black Panther was to be introduced here, gaining Spider-Man meant he had to be written into it as well; extending the run time even further, making Black Panther’s story feel rushed. The “teams” felt contrived, without enough motivation for these few heroes to act; WHY would Hawkeye join this fight? Also, Steve Rogers getting it on with Sharon Carter was creepy. Vision, for such a powerful entity, does literally nothing.
Without that airport fight scene being so tremendous, Civil War is extremely forgettable in light of all the praise people throw at it.
14. Captain America: The First Avenger
Usually, the first Captain America would be lower on my list… The special effects have not aged well (I can say this as they weren’t great at the time either) and the WWII setting is a little hokey. But since Avengers: Endgame made a big deal of Rogers’s past, this film has a lot more importance to the MCU than originally perceived.
Credit where credit is due though. A hero called “Captain America” is a hard sell, but actor Chris Evans and director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) did well to make the hero have a satisfying origin, as well as showcasing the MCU’s future at digitally changing actors with Evans’s bulky Captain America starting out scrawny and thin. Plus we have the great Hugo Weaving as the iconic Red Skull, who else could have played that?
Probably worth a rewatch.
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy was always going to be a tough act to follow for the returning cast and director James Gunn. Vol. 2 delivered a surprisingly emotional ending, gave Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill more backstory and personal demons, while the film was flashy as ever. But Gamora and Nebula’s relationship is the real winner here.
But the start of the film is overly brash, losing the audience almost immediately, Dave Bautista needs to dial back what might be some excessive improv comedy; depriving a Guardians film of worthwhile jokes is a sad thing. The middle act is cumbersome with exposition, and why was Mantis even a returning character yet Quicksilver wasn’t?
I remember back in the early years of the MCU. We had Iron Man (who I had never heard of) and the Hulk, who had recovered after his 2003 feature. But then we were supposed to believe Thor, the Norse god of thunder, was a Marvel character? Please. That’s the stupidest idea.
Kenneth Branagh is directing? Oh, you are serious.
While Thor is a fish-out-of-water story, the character’s brash, loyal, and lovable demeanour translates perfectly into this brash and simple movie. Introducing some awesome performances, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki, Anthony Hopkins as Odin, Idris Elba, and of course Hemsworth. Perhaps a little forgotten, but this one really did break the walls of the MCU for the first time.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, suspected Ant-Man would be the first stumble of the MCU. Not only did it release after Age of Ultron (a stumble in itself) but before the end of Phase 2, fans weren’t convinced of having Hank Pym introduced after Ultron. This and original director Edgar Wright leaving the project after production started…
But in actuality, Ant-Man was a lot of fun. After witnessing the expanding jaws of the MCU’s possibilities, it was refreshing to see a grounded, down-to-earth story, and Paul Rudd as Scott Lang was a joy. Michael Peña too, easily one of the funniest sidekicks the MCU has had.
It is just a shame that the villain, Yellowjacket, was immensely forgettable.
10. Thor: Ragnarok
Many people suggest that Thor: Ragnarok is a huge step forward for the character. While the film is a poppy, bright and flashy experience, taking a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy‘s notes and merging them into Asgardian settings… a lot of what made Thor unique to the others was lost. But having Thor and Hulk team up did provide a lot of fun action sequences, especially as they missed out on the Civil War.
Instantly enjoyable, but upon reflection a little dispassionate: bye bye Asgard, goodbye Thor’s friends and allies, cut down without regret. Hello dick jokes. Hela is an awesome villain and wonderfully performed by Cate Blanchett, but was defeated far too easily; the goddess of death has so much potential but did very little.
9. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Greeted by a warm reception after his opening movie’s quiet success, Paul Rudd is joined by Evangeline Lily as the Wasp for a great little superhero caper. With confidence the film throws around its toys with abandon; playing around with shrinking things and growing things in size, with cars becoming Hot Wheel-sized toys, buildings becoming suitcases. There’s a lot to love in the style of Ant-Man and the Wasp.
On top of that, Ghost, a compelling villain for such a small-scale movie (only let down by an incredibly rushed origin and resolution) should not be so easily forgotten. The side-story with Michael Peña’s Luis did feel forced, however, taking too much of the run time.
8. Avengers: Endgame
The conclusion. I am sure that younger readers would put Endgame well within their top 5, as the nostalgia-induced earthshaker that is this film’s plot would pull on their heartstrings. Personally, Endgame is 50% incredible spectacle and fitting conclusion, and 50% showboating.
In today’s cinema, with fans happily watching over forty-two hours of movies in preparation for this finale, having your plot revolve around time travelling back into those movies is unnecessary. After Infinity War‘s brutal gut-punch, levity was needed, but at the same time, severity was still required. Endgame feels tonally strange as a result.
But… that last thirty minutes or so (and the grim beginning) cannot be ignored. Gripping, exciting, dread-filled, and saddening. That was the finale that these films were waiting for; an excellent send off, and masterfully crafted chaos.
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming
A title has never said so much in the MCU. Spider-Man has had a troubled existence in cinema. While I still vouch for the 2002 and 2004 films with Toby Maguire and director Sam Raimi, Sony Pictures proceeded to drive the character into the dirt before releasing it back to its rightful place.
People were sick to death of Spider-Man; there was a span of seven years where we had three different Spider-Men… But despite that, Homecoming was a huge success. Dialling things back down to a street-level superhero movie, Tom Holland is a great fit for the character, Tony Stark’s addition was wonderful, and Michael Keaton as Vulture was a miracle of casting. Not to mention that Vulture can return.
I like to think that Spider-Man is truly home and safe.
6. Black Panther
Like the original Thor film, Black Panther set out to carve its own space from the MCU; to define itself in an overwhelming sea of movies and characters. It succeeded. While I can only criticise some woeful CGI (especially towards the end) and action sequences we had seen before from Captain America: Civil War, the film otherwise was captivating and full of characters who were a joy to watch on screen.
Chadwick Boseman elevates our lead hero T’Challa out of the messy writing of Civil War and into his own, while Michael B. Jordan bursts into the MCU as one of the franchise’s greatest villains. The chemistry these two have is mesmerising. Danai Gurira, Winston Duke, and Letitia Wright fill out the supporting cast wonderfully with memorable characters we all want to see again. Plus, it is even Academy Award nominated!
5. Iron Man
Patient zero of the MCU effect, the beginning, all heavily resting on Robert Downey Jr’s shoulders and yet, it was made with such innocent intentions… No one could have expected it to explode the way it did. All we had was a smirking Samuel L. Jackson talk about an “Avengers Initiative”, whatever that was.
While our villain, Jeff Bridges as Obadiah Stane wasn’t especially memorable (and the recast of Rhodes makes Terrence Howard stand out) Tony Stark was so perfectly realised; perhaps one of the best character arcs that the MCU has had. With current MCU often determined to have cameos and hints at the future, Iron Man is one of the very few examples of an origin story done right. Laughs, excitement, an absolutely solid effort.
Years to come, other Iron Men will appear on our cinema screens… It is inevitable. But Robert Downey Jr will be remembered as the original and best.
4. Avengers: Infinity War
While Infinity War was a huge convergence of stories, characters, references from ten years of cinema, and me being an advocate of insular stories that I can watch and enjoy without baggage of ten other required films… the ending of Infinity War is one I won’t ever forget.
Witnessing an opening week audience of fans, a sold out cinema of popcorn guzzling hero-worshippers, having all of their hearts simultaneously crushed as an MCU villain wins… is a moment of giddy joy. Is that wrong?
Villain Thanos has been built up for a decade, and the MCU at this point has only barely begun writing good villains. It was always a risk that they wouldn’t deliver… but not only did they deliver, they gave us one of the most complex and riveting characters in the franchise. A mad titan who is instantly hateful, yet audiences learn so much about him while he systematically gets what he wants. Our heroes are small fry, and they needed to learn that before they could rise up to the challenge. Awesome.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
To this day, Guardians of the Galaxy is the only MCU movie I saw more than twice in the cinema, and unless something remarkable happens, I don’t see that changing. Taking z-list characters from Marvel comics, James Gunn created his own Avengers Assemble-style movie, with a bunch of alien misfits tasked with taking down a galactic tyrant.
The movie is a modern sci-fi joy; a popping, toe-tapping extravaganza with memorable characters, vibrant visuals, and it truly opened the possibilities of the MCU for all to see. Despite its ties to other MCU films (it does introduce the Infinity Stones better than the Avengers films did) I often give GotG a pass as an insular experience. It is just so darn fun to watch.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I don’t think anyone expected the second Captain America film to be this intense, or this challenging. The Russo Brothers first directorial salvo into the MCU franchise was such a huge success that they would go on to helm the Avengers movies over pioneer Joss Whedon.
Like the first Cap film grappling with what it means to have “Captain America” in your film, The Winter Soldier takes this in both hands: a man from the past, a symbol of justice, honour, and freedom, realises the country he is defending and the company he keeps… are all corrupt. Add a dollop of Big Brother politics, public surveillance, as well as a wickedly cool villain in the Winter Soldier, and we have an MCU espionage thriller. A movie that shook the foundations of what audiences knew about the MCU without having to go into space to do it.
I really hope we get more MCU films like this… But up until 2019, there hasn’t been one. Truly remarkable.
1. Avengers Assemble
Something of a given. Perhaps it will be dethroned over time as opinions and perspectives change, but the importance of Avengers Assemble succeeding cannot be stressed enough.
So we have insular movies: two Iron Man films, one Thor film, and a Hulk film that isn’t fitting anymore as Ed Norton dropped out. Marvel Studios were just bought by Disney, Joss Whedon (a master at ensemble cast writing) is directing. The time was now; the MCU was about to be born.
With the lovable villain Loki leading the chaos, the first Avengers film has something the future Avengers films do not: stability. We are seeing characters who have no reason to be together interact for the first time, we are seeing heroes fight each other for the first time (something that is later overused) the film takes its time. We have moments for discussion, we have wonderful skirmishes and Whedon quips, and a huge battle to end it all. You can’t forget that if this film didn’t work… the MCU would never have happened.