With the release of Doctor Strange, Marvel Studios has now advanced two films into Phase 3 with a remarkable tally of fourteen feature films produced over eight years — the most prolific blockbuster franchise ever. More remarkable is the level of quality the series has maintained. There’s only one entry so far I’d classify as a legit bad movie, and Marvel got that one out of the way early. Marvel Studios keeps its comic book movie engine chugging steadily along because it’s woven together a mesh of characters audiences love, and because it varies tone, style, and genre with each movie. Tech adventures, space opera, fantasy, war, espionage… Marvel offers something for everyone.
And since the Internet loves numbered lists, and I like writing my opinions, here’s my personal ranking of the fourteen MCU films so far. It’s a wobbly list, but I’m fine with wobbly if the reason is that most of the entries are just so good that they crowd close together. With one exception, I’d gladly sit down to watch any of these films on a whim.
#14 – Iron Man 2 (2010)
Here’s the one that doesn’t come off the shelf and into the Blu-ray player. Ranking films by numbers gives the illusion of arithmetic progression, but if drawn as a chart Iron Man 2 would scrape the bottom and the rise to the next entry would be a steep grade. But to be fair, Iron Man 2 is simply a mundane bad film; it’s no disaster, merely directionless and dull. The story treads water for a long stretch while Tony Stark mopes, only to launch into a finale that finishes up with “ho-hum” quickness. Marvel was stuffing their newborn cinematic universe with excess busywork that distracted from the characters. Thankfully, they learned their lesson moving forward. Iron Man 2 does contain a few joys: Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, and the quick discarding the “demon in a bottle” storyline so Tony could be free to go different directions in the future films.
#13 – Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The Thor films haven’t wowed me the way I’ve wanted them too — although I believe Thor: Ragnarok may soon change that. I initially thought Thor: The Dark World superior to Thor, but its re-watch value has proved significantly less. A boilerplate adventure with the dullest villain yet in the MCU (Malekith), it is light and easily disposable popcorn entertainment. The workmanlike direction from Alan Taylor doesn’t help. There’s scant personal stamp on the film, living up to the criticism lobbed (mostly unfairly) at Marvel for taking a “filmmaking-by-committee” approach. At least the first Thor had Kenneth Branagh’s sense of Shakespearean grandiosity to liven it up. Hiddleston’s Loki is a high point, and I’m surprised how much I enjoyed the return of Kat Dennings’s Darcy.
#12 – The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Incredible Hulk hovers at the bottom of most lists of MCU movies, and it’s frequently consigned to the memory hole — it’s the film the other films don’t seem to want to talk about. For the record, I thought it was terrific back in 2008. It filled my chaotic desire to see a green behemoth wail the hell out of another behemoth using two ends of a patrol car as boxing gloves. I still defend this one, even though I acknowledge it repeats the same sequence three times and that Ed Norton is a lesser Bruce Banner than Mark Ruffalo. Hey, just hearing “HULK SMASH!” makes me smile.
#11 – Iron Man (2008)
The MCU origin point, Iron Man has lost some of its luster as the universe matured. It feels strangely slow now, and the action too sporadic. But it has Robert Downey Jr. finding his way back into the mainstream with an engaging, funny, and tragic portrayal of Tony Stark. He ignited a franchise that’s grown to be self-sustaining, and his performance here still retains that joy of discovery. But it was the arrival of Iron Man Three that pushed this movie a few rungs down the ladder. (And why is Jeff Bridges of all people such a forgettable villain? Marvel should’ve saved him up for another part.)
#10 – Thor (2011)
Thor is a touch silly when you come down to it, although the garish Jack Kirby-esque design has grown on me. That barrage of Dutch angles… not so much. Chris Hemsworth is a pleasure as the blustery God of Thunder and Breaking Coffee Cups, but of course it’s Tom Hiddleston’s Loki who stylishly stalks off with the show. When set in Asgard, the movie has zing, but loses its snap when it hunkers down in a little New Mexico town. Kenneth Branagh’s classical touch as director is something Marvel should have harvested again, but he’s now off making other fairy tales and Agatha Christie adaptations. Thor isn’t a top-notch fantasy adventure, but it goes down easy on repeat viewings and has the right dollops of charm.
#9 – Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The second movie featuring the full team of Avengers had a lot to live up to, so it was no great shock when it didn’t quite stick the landing. The pressure of replicating the lighting-in-a-bottle magic of the first movie weighs down on this mega epic, and as spectacle it turns wearying by the time of the overlong battle of Sokovia, where swarms of robots attack a dizzying roster of heroes. But Age of Ultron still nails the characters and creates conflicts that pay off beautifully in Civil War, which is a better Avengers follow-up than this actual sequel. James Spader as an Evil Tony Stark in robot form is also a hoot.
#8 & #7 (Tie) – Ant-Man (2015) / Doctor Strange (2016)
A tie was inevitable on this list. I’d make more ties if I didn’t fear a loss of list structural integrity. (You gotta watch out for these things, ya’ know?) But Ant-Man and Doctor Strange function in so much the same way — origin stories isolated from the extremely busy MCU, redemptive character arcs, emphasis on ingenious action scenes centered on clever visual conceits — that placing them in a dead heat is natural. Each has separate pleasures: Ant-Man is an often hilarious heist movie with a comedian star, and Doctor Strange is reality bending multi-dimensional trippiness. But both deliver standard origin tales well-told and well-cast. That Ant-Man survived the creative upheavals of losing its director right before the start of production to emerge as something I can watch over and over is a miracle that Stephen Strange would be proud to create. I’ll be thrilled to see both heroes return again and again and again.
#6 – Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This is the MCU film I’ve re-watched more than any other because it has the most personal meaning: Cap has been my favorite superhero since I was twelve, and watching him brought to life in a perfect realization that also extended to his greatest nemesis, the Red Skull, was an exhilarating experience. The period setting emphasizes the power of stalwart heroism vs. detestable evil that harkens to the way I digested comics as a kid. I understand that as a movie it’s a cut below the other Cap sequels. But I’m content with its simple existence, knowing I can revel in it whenever I want — it’s a 4th of July tradition for me now. (Hail Hydra.)
#5 – Iron Man Three (2013)
Shane Black worked wonders in this fantastic comeback for Shellhead after the disappointment of Iron Man 2. This is the wittiest MCU film yet, and also the most subversive with a villain who works with Washington insiders to manufacture a bogus terrorist threat in order to control the War on Terror for his own profit. That’s a great and grim starting place, but Shane Black keeps it all fun as well. Robert Downey Jr. goes on a personal journey battling PTSD from the Battle of New York and the expanding MCU — a more interesting character place to go than standard alcoholism — and gives his best performance as Stark so far. And you get two great Ben Kingsley performances for the price of one!
#4 – Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Iron Man Three is the university wit; Guardians of the Galaxy is the high school clown. The success of Guardians showed how ready the world was to welcome back Star Wars, because it turned out everyone wanted a colorful space opera with lovable heroes. Director James Gunn admirably handles streamlining the story to make the massive info dump of worlds and aliens hardly a burden for viewers: Big Bad Blue Guy wants to get a powerful artifact so he can do Big Bad Things. Good, got it. Now enjoy your gun-toting raccoon, super-powered tree, green butt-kicker, deadpan comic, and smart aleck with a retro mixtape. Fine times, fine times… and possibly the most non-fan-friendly movie of the franchise.
#3 – Captain America: Civil War (2016)
During the showdown at the Leipzig airport, featuring the current Avengers (minus Hulk and Thor) plus new additions like Spider-Man, I experienced an epiphany: I can’t believe I’m watching this in a movie theater. The most comic-book thing ever put on screen and it’s a head rush. This scene alone would score the #3 slot for Civil War. But it’s an all-around marvelous filmmaking feat that balances the numerous characters of the MCU, who are almost family to us at this point, while still telling a great Captain America tale. The most impressive feat of all is that this epic story of heroes vs. heroes comes down to the most grounded and simple villain plot. The fate of the world isn’t at stake — it’s only the fate of the Avengers, but this deep in the series that means everything. And how pumped are you now for the Black Panther movie and Spider-Man: Homecoming?
#2 – The Avengers (2012)
The word zeitgeist exists for movies like The Avengers. You remember when you saw it, whom you were with, and how the shawarma tasted afterward. The movie imprinted itself on the global consciousness, and suddenly Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye were the most popular heroes in the world. An insane franchise gamble paid off, and this cross-over of all cross-overs was a mega smash. The Avengers has flaws, such as a uneven first half hour, but works in spite of them. One great moment after another piles on as the movie progresses until Hulk does, you known, that: this is what all blockbusters wish to achieve and so few do. The Avengers is an all-timer, and as someone who read the team’s comic books in high school it’s astonishing to me that this really happened.
#1 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Winter Soldier isn’t only Marvel’s finest hour (or two), it’s a high-water mark for comic book movies and espionage thrillers. This is a best-of-both-worlds scenario, where a grounded story of intrigue, assassination, and intelligence infiltration meets a man in a flying suit, hovering super-gun ships, a dead Swiss scientist who uploaded his consciousness into a computer, and a revived World War II hero in bright star-spangled clothing. The screenplay is Marvel’s best, twisting and turning through the shadowy world of SHIELD and HYDRA, yet always remembering who Captain America is and what he stands for. Time will tell if The Winter Soldier becomes one of the enduring comic book movie classics and a template for “this is how ya’ do it!” — but I’m betting on Cap.
Thank you, and be alert of all HYDRA agents in your area.
Ryan Harvey is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate, starting in 2008. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is currently available as an e-book. Ryan lives in Costa Mesa, California where he works as a professional writer for a marketing company. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Godzilla on interviews.