With “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (in theaters Friday, July 6) marking the Big Two-Oh for the Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise, it’s high time I reveal my rankings of all the MCU movies so far, from worst to first.
Notes: Updated in December 2018 to include “Ant-Man and the Wasp.” You can find John’s rankings here.
20. “The Incredible Hulk” – A stridently average superhero offering in almost all regards, this instantly forgettable affair has almost no impact on the larger MCU. Almost all the world-building it tries for is later ignored or ret-conned away. Beyond that, the film is clunky and awkwardly paced. It provides for some pretty cool action sequences here and there and is pretty good-looking, but those aren’t accomplishments for Marvel, they’re a baseline.
19. “Thor: The Dark World” – Kenneth Branagh’s original “Thor” got by on the ample charisma of its cast and direction that was, to put it bluntly, better than the film deserved. The charms of the cast are still on display here, but gone is Branagh’s superlative direction. As a result the film casts about, listless and unnecessary, spinning the MCU’s wheels, wasting time reminding us that Thor exists until the next “Avengers” comes along. Also, this movie has the lamest villain of the entire MCU.
18. “Iron Man 2” – Sam Rockwell’s performance as Justin Hammer. RDJ chewing the scenery in the role that brought him back from obscurity. Ample screen time for Nick Fury and the introduction of Black Widow. Those are the precious morsels tossed to the audience in this sea of mediocrity. Mickey Rourke does his level best to bring some depth to his villain, but the script gives him little to work with. The story is a paint-by-numbers affair, leading to a climax where metal-suit guy again fights metal-suit guy, this time with drones.
17. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Marvel’s villain problem strikes again as the talented James Spader is wasted in the role of an evil AI attempting to destroy the earth for … reasons. Also, he likes singing a song from “Pinnochio.” Why? Because it makes for a creepy trailer and Disney had just purchased Marvel at the time? Those explanations make about as much sense as any other. It’s still fun to watch these characters team up, though, and their chemistry goes a long way toward making this an intermittently fun chapter in the MCU, even if it never fires on all cylinders.
16. “Iron Man 3” – Confession time: This is actually a good movie. It is a good Shane Black movie. I don’t know quite how good it is as an “Iron Man” movie, but it is just what you’d hope for from Shane Black. You have a precocious kid that talks like an adult, a shadowy villain whose true nature isn’t revealed until the final reel, and a winking self-awareness that adds a smart sheen to the proceedings. As an “Iron Man” movie, though, I never really bought it. Unlike “Thor,” it isn’t like Tony Stark was calling out for a reinvention, and the MCU spends the next several films undoing what Black did here. It is fun, don’t get me wrong. It just feels out of place.
15. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” – This is a nice change of pace after the operatic intensity of “Avengers: Infinity War,” which came out a few months before this. It’s nice to cool down into a nifty little superhero story with lower stakes and more of a sense of fun throughout. In that way, it serves the same purpose the first movie does, which is to be the jester of the MCU. In that regard, it works really well and holds its own with the first “Ant-Man.”
14. “Doctor Strange” – Admittedly Dr. Stephen Strange can, and often does, come off like a supernatural version of Tony Stark. He’s every bit as arrogant and snarky, which means at times his origin movie can feel like a rerun. However, in exploring its supernatural themes, it is able to carve out just enough of an identity for itself. Aside from that, the kaleidoscopic visuals director Scott Derrickson brings to the table are among the most surreal and captivating I’ve ever seen. Watching reality fold in on itself and reflect itself in infinite forms is an absolute wonder.
13. “Ant-Man” – This is just a good, old-fashioned, dopey, fun little heist flick in superhero clothing. That might sound like a rip, but it is meant as a sincere compliment. “Ant-Man” is feather light, and as such is a nice counterbalance to some of the MCU’s more serious entries. While it may be slight, it is boundlessly clever in the way it handles its central gimmick, with army tanks on key chains and a hero triumphantly riding a trusty ant steed into battle. Yes, compared to other chapters the stakes are lower here, but as an origin story, this movie already has a lot on its plate, and it leaves you wanting more.
12. “Thor” – This was the first time Marvel really gambled with the MCU, which up to now had stayed inside the lines of science fiction. With this film, the saga dives head first into fantasy and it is a credit to the work of director Branagh and the cast that the film works at all. Out of that cast, though, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki deserves special mention. He was the MCU’s best big bad until 2018’s one-two punch of Killmonger and Thanos. Loki alone moves this flick two or three places up on my list. There’s a lot to like here even if not quite everything works.
11. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” – Tobey Maguire will always be near and dear to me for his performance in Sam Raimi’s first two “Spider-Man” movies, but if I’m being honest, Tom Holland is a better fit for the character. He is awkward and charming, and his first leading-man appearance in the MCU is both of those things as well. Wisely eschewing the origin story we’ve all seen too many times, this movie gives Peter Parker a nerdy best friend and Iron Man as a mentor. It also brings the funny in ample measure, and shows us a superhero in training throughout. This Spider-Man is still learning. He is capable of mistakes and growth, and the movie gives him more time than a montage to do it.
10. “Iron Man” – There is no MCU without this first film being as solid as it is. The snarky and fun but socially relevant storytelling that is representative of most movies in the franchise? This movie laid out the blueprint. Robert Downey Jr. was born to play Tony Stark, and his work here is astounding. Unfortunately, this movie starts the infamous MCU “villain problem” at the same time it kicks off the franchise, so it would be wrong to rank it higher. Still, if you revisit this movie 10 years on, you can see the Marvel DNA developing.
9. “Captain America: The First Avenger” – Joe Johnston delivers a sepia-drenched comic-book homage to the war films of yesteryear with this deeply nostalgic and earnest first appearance of Captain America in the MCU. Chris Evans plays the selfless lantern-jawed hero without a hint of irony or a single wink at the camera. Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell and Stanley Tucci do amazing supporting work, and Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones provide nice villain turns. The “aw, shucks” gravitas of the film does a nice job of grounding Cap and earning our sympathy, leading to one of the most quietly sad moments in the entire MCU as the film comes to a close.
8. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – Marvel by way of Tom Clancy, “Winter Soldier” is all government conspiracies and paranoia and disillusionment. This movie more concretely explores the notion of Cap losing the innocence and blind patriotism that “The Avengers” began exploring. Cap grows a lot in this movie as the scales fall from his eyes and he sees that even the country he loves is capable of great evil. That the film can still be funny and exciting while exploring such a somber theme is a cherry on top.
7. “Captain America: Civil War” – Essentially, this is “Avengers 2.5,” with most of the team showing up in one way or another for the MCU’s ethical debate/superhero smackdown. By intelligently considering the moral dilemma at its core, “Civil War” makes fan discussions of “Team Tony” or “Team Cap” so much more significant than which hero is cooler. This movie does the most heavy lifting in terms of trying to make the reality of the MCU believable, and it does a damned good job.
6. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – What I love most about the first “Guardians” is all the effort put into realizing these ridiculous heroes as three-dimensional beings. Without all that work, we wouldn’t much care about the adventures of this ragtag crew, especially the talking raccoon or the sentient tree. The brilliance of “Guardians 2” is that it doubles down on the character moments. While still action-packed, this is a smaller, more intimate and personal film. Even the villain is intimately tied to the heroes. Moments of cathartic humor are stacked next to moments of profound sadness. There’s nothing not to love here.
5. “Black Panther” – Vibrant, culturally alive, and wonderfully realized, writer/director Ryan Coogler’s trip to Wakanda is a powerful story about race, culture, marginalization and the sins of the past catching up with the present. The film works hard to tell a story that can be enjoyed on two levels. For those who opt not to dig, it’s a nifty action flick filled with palace intrigue. For those looking for more, “Black Panther” offers the most moral complexity of the entire MCU, and its most fully realized villain. As Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan plays a deeply wounded man whose outrage at the world and Wakanda specifically is entirely justified. This is the MCU’s most mature movie to date …
4. “Thor: Ragnarok” – … And this gleefully silly spectacle is the most immature. “Thor: Ragnarok” strikes an utterly goofy tone thanks to director Taika Waititi, and it is all the better for it. Every scene is subverted with humor, most of it sublimely weird. Cate Blanchett is a badass as Thor’s long-lost sister Hela, Hiddleston is great as Loki, and Jeff Goldblum steals every scene he’s in. And all of that is without mentioning Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk or Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. While every MCU movie has some humor, none share this movie’s unique spark of madness. It’s Marvel’s answer to “Monty Python.”
3. “The Avengers” – This is sheer, unadulterated comic-book spectacle. After establishing most of the main characters in standalone movies, Marvel does the seemingly impossible and brings them together in a movie with real stakes bolstered with genuine heart and humor. Writer-director Joss Whedon is owed much of the kudos, as he makes sure every character gets their moment in the sun. The final battle is truly epic. The one-liners fly a mile a minute while never slowing the story’s momentum. The movie brims with classic moments and iconic images. The release of “The Avengers” was a make-or-break moment for the MCU. It sticks the landing.
2. “Avengers: Infinity War” – The first “Avengers” had a hard enough time bringing six superheroes together into a cohesive narrative. This movie has to do the same with 30, and it has the weight of 18 previous movies on its shoulders. What results is an epic, exhilarating, emotionally taxing, rollicking good time. No character gets more than 20 minutes of screen time, but the movie relentlessly raises the stakes and moves things along in an organic way. What’s more, the Russo brothers navigate an impressive tonal high-wire that balances the disparate vibes of each component of the MCU. Lastly, the ending. Good god. And that’s all I’ll say about that.
1. “Guardians of the Galaxy” – James Gunn’s tale of intergalactic misfits who band together as a surrogate family has more heart than any other MCU movie. Every character is a lovingly crafted hodgepodge of ego, flaws and good intentions, and watching them grow individually and collectively is a joy. Beyond that, this is a blissfully, brazenly bizarre flick with thrilling action set pieces, and it’s gorgeous to look at. This movie revels in its oddness and loves the losers at its core. The Guardians exist at the fringes of society, and only find belonging within each other. There is a beauty and poetry to that.
How do you rank the films of the MCU? Share your thoughts in the comment threads below.