All 20 Marvel Cinematic Universe films, ranked (Movie commentary)

With “Ant-Man and the Wasp” (in theaters Friday, July 6) marking the Big Two-Oh for the Marvel Cinematic Universe film franchise, we figured it’s high time we reveal our rankings of all the MCU movies so far, from worst to first. Surely, this hasn’t been done anywhere else on the web. Oh wait, it has – literally hundreds of times? Well, here are two more lists. Enjoy.

(Updated in December 2018 to include “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”)

John’s rankings

20. “Iron Man 2” – The only MCU film that completely misses the mark, it repeats the plot of the original “Iron Man” in the way lazy sequels did in decades long past. Tony again fusses with damage to his suit’s energy source and again fights an evil doppelganger (well, two of them, since he and War Machine are also quibbling over something). Standout actors Sam Rockwell and Mickey Rourke can’t raise the level, but there is a saving grace: Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is introduced in all her badass martial-arts glory.

19. “Thor” – Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman seem game for a fish-out-of-water comedy (or god-out-of-Asgard comedy, as it were). But aside from a few moments – such as Thor slamming down a beverage cup in a diner and demanding another – the film doesn’t capitalize. The thing that most rubs me the wrong way, though, is how S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) aggressively steals Jane’s research into the extraterrestrial anomaly rather than simply working with her. It’s not his finest hour, to say the least.

18. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Writer-director Joss Whedon’s second go-around in the MCU is hampered from the get-go by a villain problem: Despite a game vocal performance by James Spader, Ultron is just the latest repeat of sentient-computer fears that date back to the HAL-9000. Another problem is that while Tony Stark creates Ultron through his own hubris in classic Dr. Frankenstein fashion, he learns no lesson from this, nor is the film interested in teaching him a lesson. And even the jokes don’t land like they usually do. “Hide the zucchini”? Really?

17. “Iron Man” – Robert Downey Jr. is perfect as the arrogant-but-likeable Tony Stark, and it’s refreshing to see a military industry magnate reject the old ways and use his wealth and technical brilliance for good. But viewed today, the structure of this debut MCU entry is strikingly standard, as Iron Man essentially fights his own doppelganger in the final “Transformers”-type battle. There’s an air of cautious filmmaking throughout as we wait for the next moment of seeing what Tony’s amazing suit can do.

16. “The Incredible Hulk” – I’m a proud apologist for this film, which boasts the MCU’s most heartfelt love story – that of Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner and Liv Tyler’s Betty. The relationship hasn’t been revisited, but it still subtly informs the character of the brooding Hulk, who – in classic beastly superhero fashion – believes he’s too dangerous to let people get close. The film has impressive locations, from the slums of Brazil to the lived-in streets of New York City. On the down side, the special effects aren’t as good as the high standards that later MCU films would achieve, and the villains (especially the anti-Hulk) are generic.

15. “Doctor Strange” – The MCU’s first step into the mystical realm, via the origin story of Benedict Cumberbatch’s grumbly medical-doctor-turned-mystic-artist, is a visual companion piece to the dreamscape epic “Inception.” It boasts gravity-defying fights on shifting surfaces, and the grand finale hinges on time manipulation. The notion that magic can be used for good or evil is familiar, but as “Guardians of the Galaxy” does for outer space and “Ant-Man” does for the quantum realm, “Doctor Strange” does for the mystic plane. It’s one of the most accessible “weird” movies ever made.

14. “Guardians of the Galaxy” – You have to be in the right mood for this one, which throws together an Earth abductee, a green-skinned hottie, a talking raccoon (who doesn’t know what a raccoon is), a monosyllabic tree and a vengeance-seeking muscleman. I wasn’t ready on my first viewing, but I appreciated it more on my second as a celebration of those four-color Marvel comics of the 1970s – an era the soundtrack smartly evokes. It’s also a crucial entry for expanding the MCU from the confines of Earth to a galactic stage, with Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord being a lovable audience surrogate on this journey to new planets and new perils.

13. “Ant-Man” – Sometimes a lighter movie can be refreshing as you’re working your way through the MCU. I found that to be the case with “Ant-Man,” about a Robin Hood wannabe (Paul Rudd) whose theft of Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) amazing suit soon has him bumbling along an origin-story path. The film achieves the tricky task of explaining how Ant-Man can shrink and grow through judicious use of the suit’s powers, and how he can use discs to make other objects change size. Hank’s daughter (Evangeline Lilly) being on the bench is a bad look for a gender-imbalanced saga, but that will be rectified in the upcoming sequel.

12. “Thor: The Dark World” – I find myself an apologist for this second “Thor” entry, which starts slow and has a bland placeholder for a villain but ultimately becomes a ton of fun. A big reason is Kat Dennings, who shows effortless comedic chops as a scientist bemused by the insane extraterrestrial battle that Thor has brought with him from the magical space lanes (“Mew-mew!”). This sequel gives hopeless romantics the across-the-stars love story of Thor and Jane, but – after she dutifully plays the damsel in distress role – ultimately allows Jane to save the day.

11. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – I was won over by this one more so than the original, as it finds a comfortable balance between silliness and action. Sometimes the balance is found within a single sequence; for example, we feel the tension of the Guardians’ escape from a starfighter squadron even as we chuckle at those starfighters being operated like a video game. Mantis and Drax are delightfully weird as an arguably Asperger’s-afflicted pair and Kurt Russell personalizes the proceedings as Star-Lord’s father, but the conclusion finds emotional depth from an unexpected source. (And FYI, Rocket, “trash panda” is worse … it’s so much worse.)

10. “Avengers: Infinity War” – This nearly three-hour epic doesn’t feel that long. It smoothly bounces between our diverse groups of heroes – from Earth-bound to spacefaring – in a veritable celebration of the MCU to this point. Their common goal is to take down Thanos, who aims to eliminate half of the galaxy’s population in an insane attempt to reset the ledger of resources. The film is certainly funny, especially when Star-Lord is measuring himself against Thor or when Drax is trying to be invisible, but the sense of impending dread is never far from our minds.

9. “Ant-Man and the Wasp” – In this sequel, the filmmakers master the action scenes where things can get big or get small with the press of a button. Lilly’s Wasp becomes the long-overdue first female to get title billing in an MCU film, and she has an easy chemistry with Rudd’s Ant-Man, whether they are talking or being a superhero duo. Amid the steady light humor — like Michael Pena’s Luis bringing back the Budweiser “Whasaaaa!” – this is a wild chase film that ends up in the quantum realm yet still makes logical sense (within its internal logic, at least).

8. “Black Panther” – The most gorgeous piece of world-building in the MCU brings us to the African nation of Wakanda, which has such amazing technology that the whole country is able to hide behind an invisible barrier. It shields its scientific genius, military might and mining-industry wealth from the world, a delicate commentary on both the tragedy of isolationism and the intelligence of avoiding imperialist overreach. Chadwick Boseman’s titular hero is easy to root for as he navigates cultural tradition and personal morality, and he’s surrounded by lovable allies such as his kid-sister tech genius, Letitia Wright’s Shuri.

7. “Captain America: The First Avenger” – Cap’s (Chris Evans) introductory film is a rare MCU period piece that captures the simpler time of a “good” war, as the U.S. military takes on Nazis – and, this being a comic-book film, Hydra. Although Joe Johnston directs the movie in the style of nationalist propaganda, it’s ultimately a take-down of that very mode of thought. Cap becomes disillusioned by his role as a red-white-and-blue symbol that’s so blunt even the soldiers themselves think he’s absurd. He ultimately becomes a legitimate symbol when he leads those same men on a daring rescue mission.

6. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” – In 2002, Spider-Man was the A-lister and Iron Man was the B-lister. The perception of these superheroes has since flipped, and “Homecoming” uses that to its advantage. It works a teenagers’ point of view into the MCU movies for the first time via Tom Holland’s Spidey, who grows up on the job: rescuing classmates, getting ribbings from his mentor Iron Man, and – scariest of all – asking a girl to the dance. Unlike in 2002’s “Spider-Man,” we get a strong sense of why Peter Parker can do more good on the city streets if his identity is secret.

5. “Thor: Ragnarok” – This one is just plain fun. It starts with Thor breaking out of a trap to the strains of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” and later features a Thor-versus-Hulk arena battle, a chase across waters and reefs featuring colorful ships and lasers, a great new ally in Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, and a delicious scenery-chewing villain – Jeff Goldblum playing, um, Jeff Goldblum. The movie is so entertaining it makes me forget that Jane and Darcy are no longer around, and I’m possibly the world’s biggest fan of Jane and Darcy.

4. “Iron Man 3” – Writer-director Shane Black’s love-it-or-hate-it entry is, to me, a perfect encapsulation of Tony’s character even as it throws new challenges at him. As he tellingly develops autonomous suits, Tony grapples with his brush with death in the Battle of New York, his crumbling relationship with Pepper, a kid who needs his help … and one of the MCU’s best villains. No, not the Mandarin, but just a regular guy in sensible tan slacks (Guy Pearce) who – unlike most comic-book villains – is able to adjust his scheme on the fly and use the world’s state of terror to his advantage.

3. “Captain America: Civil War” – That it came on the heels of “Batman v Superman” only enhances this film’s wise realization that audiences don’t just want superheroes to throw down like in a video game; we need to know the reasons why they are fighting. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Anthony and Joe Russo – the MCU’s A-listers – nicely outline the points of view of Iron Man’s team, which believes it’s the correct PR play to toe the line with government officials, and Cap’s team, which knows it can do the most good if it is autonomous.

2. “The Avengers” – The most perfect comic-book superhero team-up movie ever made, “Avengers” doesn’t merely feature Whedon’s knack for banter among allies. It also demonstrates his deep understanding of Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye – and how they work with the established structure of S.H.I.E.L.D. Some of the introductory films for these characters were shaky, but this epic makes a case that the Avengers are better together than apart.

1. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” – This beautiful crystallization of Captain America’s character smartly weaves post-9/11 political issues into the narrative while also being a kick-butt actioner. Cap stands up for individual rights while Robert Redford’s villainous senator aims to pinpoint insufficiently loyal citizens with laser weapons in the ultimate wrongful use of metadata. Putting a personal spin on matters is Cap’s titular friend, who has been brainwashed to become a killing machine for Hydra.

Michael’s rankings

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 would you rank the MCU movies? Share your lists in the comment threads.

One Reply to “All 20 Marvel Cinematic Universe films, ranked (Movie commentary)”

  1. 19. Incredible Hulk
    18. Iron Man 2
    17. Thor
    16. Captain America: The First Avenger
    15. Ant-Man
    14. Thor: Ragnarok
    13. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2
    12. Thor: Dark World
    11. Iron Man 3
    10. Dr. Strange
    9. Captain America: Winter Soldier
    8. Avengers
    7. Avengers: Age of Ultron
    6. Guardians of the Galaxy
    5. Iron Man
    4. Captain America: Civil War
    3. Spider-Man: Homecoming
    2. Black Panther
    1. Avengers: Infinity War

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