Who will live? Who will die? Who will be resurrected? How will our heroes defeat Thanos? Big questions are on the minds of Marvel Cinematic Universe fans heading into the 22nd outing, “Avengers: Endgame,” which will hit theaters Friday, April 26. It’s not the end of the saga by any means (trailers for July’s “Spider-Man: Far From Home” are already out, so I have a good feeling about Spidey’s fortunes), but it’s definitely the end of an era as some of the original Avengers – such as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America – might be calling it quits with this film, one way or another.
Before you battle for opening-weekend tickets, I invite you to take one last look back at the first 21 films of this saga that dates back to 2008. Here are my rankings, from mediocre to magnificent. (Click here for a second opinion — and here for a third opinion — and click on the movie titles below for full-length reviews.)
Note: This post is revised and updated from a July 5, 2018, post ranking the first 19 MCU films.
21. “Iron Man 2” (2010) – 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 Stark 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.
20. “Thor” (2011) – 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.
19. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) – 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 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?
18. “Iron Man” (2008) – Downey Jr. is perfect as the arrogant-but-likeable Tony, 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.
17. “The Incredible Hulk” (2008) – 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.
16. “Doctor Strange” (2016) – 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.
15. “Captain Marvel” (2019) – Brie Larson’s Carol/Captain Marvel is in fine form as the first solo female lead of an MCU film, and she pairs well with Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, the latest character to benefit from flawless de-aging computer effects in this 1995-set entry. The (not quite) Skrull villain, played by Ben Mendelsohn, is refreshingly relatable, and the reveal of the cat Goose’s true nature is delightful. Carol’s bizarre comic-book backstory and ill-defined superpowers remain convoluted as she jumps to the big screen, but she’ll certainly be a welcome addition in “Endgame’s” battle against Thanos.
14. “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014) – 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” (2015) – 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 gets rectified in the sequel.
12. “Thor: The Dark World” (2013) – 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 Darcy, 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” (2017) – 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 (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) 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” (2018) – This 2.5-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 (Josh Brolin), 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” (2018) – 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” (2018) – 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” (2011) – Cap’s 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” (2017) – 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” (2017) – 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 (Mark Ruffalo) 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” (2013) – 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 (Gwyneth Paltrow), 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” (2016) – 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” (2012) – 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 (Jeremy Renner) – 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” (2014) – 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.