Now that Avengers: Infinity War is upon us, it’s time to have a very important discussion: Just where does it rank in the pantheon of the 19(!!) Marvel Cinematic Universe films? I promised myself a few years back that ranking these was a fool’s errand and I wouldn’t do it again. But given the 10 year anniversary of the studio, and Infinity War being something of a celebration and culmination of Kevin Feige and company’s monumental, historical effort that has reshaped blockbuster cinema, I’m going to give it one more go.
Also, I promised Heidi I would, so…man of my word and all that.
One quick caveat about these rankings. I rather enjoy about 95% of Marvel Studios’ output, so if something is towards the bottom or not as high as you think it should be – it’s not because I don’t like it. It’s a studio with a solid baseline of quality that makes even their lesser efforts mostly watchable in that “I’m folding laundry” way. There’s a reason why they still don’t have a “rotten” film on Rotten Tomatoes yet, after all these years.
Alright, let’s do this! From the bottom up.
19. Thor: The Dark World
Okay, what I just said about watchable? This is the Marvel movie that most challenges that assertion. This pointless sequel basically tries to amp up the things that the studio thought viewers liked about the first Thor (more Loki, more Darcy), but doesn’t give itself any real reason to exist beyond those points. The story is gibberish, but gibberish they try to explain at least 4-5 times. What does the Aether have to do with the Convergence again? And poor Christopher Eccleston. Literally anyone could have been under all that makeup. The Thor-Loki interactions are good, and become nice fodder for a much, much better film. And at least it’s rather short. But as Roger Ebert used to say: “bad movies are always too long”.
18. Iron Man 2
A messy, messy follow-up. Downey, Favreau, and Justin Theroux try to bring in the same free-wheeling, improvisational energy that permeated the initial lightning in a bottle (so it seemed at the time) entry, but it just doesn’t work, mainly due to having way too much on its plate. Honestly, slice out a lot of the Avengers set-up and the worst, most sluggish scenes – Tony’s drunken antics at the party, everything to do with the mysterious element his father left for him, Black Widow – and you’d probably have a pretty decent flick about the terrible lineage that preceded Tony and how he just barely missed becoming exactly what his father was. But everything gets undercut by the need to clumsily serve the larger plans. It’s a lot like Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice in that way.
17. The Incredible Hulk
The MCU film that I personally don’t even count as part of the canon anymore – an argument I was feeling pretty great about until General Ross popped up again years later. It’s funny to go back and look at this lone entry in their canon (originally planned as a sequel to Ang Lee’s Hulk) for this nascent franchise and see some of the threads that will never get picked up on again. Norton was a bad Bruce Banner, the Hulk looks like crap (and nothing like Norton), the Brooklyn battle is boring and reminds me of the “one giant blob fights another giant blob” of the recent DC movies, and the Tony Stark cameo doesn’t actually make any sense in the context of future movies – yes, I know they tried to explain it away in some short, but that kind of reverse engineering is eye-roll worthy at best. That it’s only marginally better than the two movies that precede it on this list is due to its relatively straight-forward nature. It knows what it wants to do, and while it does it pretty blandly, it never devolves into narrative nonsense.
16. Avengers: Age of Ultron
I think the first 30-45 minutes of Whedon’s follow-up to Avengers is quite good, the party scene in particular has the sense of ensemble banter-y fun that marks a lot of his best television efforts. But right around the time they hit the farmhouse, things start to go awry. Thor runs off to go bathe in a mystical pond, we have to deal with the most chemistry-free romance this side of Cloud Atlas in the Banner-Black Widow pairing, and ugly, dull action scenes basically permeate the second half. I legitimately think the final Sokovia showdown with Ultron and his drones might be the least satisfying third act closer of the entire MCU, or at least right there with Iron Man 2‘s. Also, Ultron himself looks awful, wasting a pretty good James Spader performance. I wish it wasn’t as consequential to the whole of the series canon as it is. It’s easily the biggest disappointment of the entire run, to my eyes.
15. Iron Man 3
Here’s where I start to get into that middle-ground of movies where my opinions are a little less hard-held. I recently tried to rewatch this entry on FX when it was playing in the background during a game session at our house. I think it’s a tale of two movies, one that Shane Black is really into (anytime Tony isn’t in the suit and is getting into Kiss Kiss Bang Bang type shenanigans) and one that he isn’t (anything that involves Iron Man). The Extremis stuff doesn’t work at all, and neither does the larger machinations of the corruption of the Vice President, but the smaller moments are pretty golden, particularly the Mandarin reveal, which I still love. But there’s still a part of me that thinks they probably just shouldn’t have bothered with any more Iron Man movies after the first. None of the subsequent films feel at all worth the effort.
Sometimes I think about Ant-Man and what could have been, but that’s not very helpful for the purposes of this ranking. The movie we got is a solid, fun little adventure that you can’t think too hard about (wait, this suit took a toll on Hank Pym’s body, so he’s going to have someone else wear it and risk that same long-term damage?), and it suffers due to a clear combining of villains after Patrick Wilson left the movie. But I mostly like it pretty well. It’s a straight-forward tale peppered with humor, and I frankly kind of like Corey Stoll’s over the top, playing to the back row, performance. Plus, shrinking hero is kind of hard to mess up with me. Not essential, but a nice breather from the dour experience of Ultron that just preceded it.
I’ve grown to like the first Thor a lot more over the years – sure, the makeup and costuming department looks like it had a 150 dollar budget per cast member (they dyed Hemsworth’s eyebrows and beard! Gross), and the New Mexico town 75% of it takes place in looks less convincing than the setting of Westworld, but it’s got a lot of heart and there’s an argument to be made that it’s one of the more complete Marvel films in terms of its central character’s arc. I also think there’s a sense of majesty that Kenneth Branagh and team bring to the Asgard scenes that, for whatever reason, never got replicated in subsequent appearances. Too bad, really. Also, the clearly cut and paste Hawkeye appearance is hilarious in how obvious it is that Jeremy Renner was nowhere near that set at any time. But if you can get past the seriously rushed romantic subplot, it’s a nicely self-contained feature.
12. Doctor Strange
Not a big Scott Derrickson fan, so I was really surprised when I ended up liking this as much as I did at the theater. Admittedly, I do wish I had watched it while under the influence, but the way it transmuted my favorite Steve Ditko Marvel work to the big screen was really something to behold. It does lose a bit at home, especially when you have to get through Benedict Cumberbatch trying to figure his way around Stephen Strange, jerkoff neurosurgeon, a character that just isn’t terribly “right” for his type…but once he gets to Kamar-Taj, and both Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton hit the scene, the whole thing really takes off. Lots of cool action set-ups, and what is easily my favorite Marvel third-act set-piece, really elevate the proceedings. I love how Dormammu is envisioned especially. Probably the least of the Phase 3 offerings, but when it almost cracks the top 10, that’s saying a lot.
11. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
And now, to make you all mad. I think Joe and Anthony Russo’s debut for the studio is the least of the three Captain America films. Again, that’s not as big an insult as it sounds, but it’s really more a case of a film whose reach exceeds its grasp. It opens wonderfully, with Cap taking on Batroc the Leaper in a thrilling little bit of hand to hand work, and the eventual SHIELD is HYDRA twist is good (though you can’t think about it too hard, especially from Nick Fury’s perspective). But like with Ultron, the wheels start to come off right around a certain point, which for this is just after it all peaks with Arnim Zola revealing the nefarious deeds occurring under Operation Paperclip. Once it all turns into a big video game style fetch-quest with the Helicarriers, and people getting killed by their nametags, and faked deaths, and blah blah blah, my brain starts to turn off. It’s a shame too, as I much prefer the Russos approach to Steve Rogers over Joss Whedon’s. Here he’s more of a living, breathing human vs. a walking anachronism, but they haven’t quite cracked the code. They will though.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
James Gunn’s first foray into Marvel territory is great fun, so long as you can see your way past the not very good action beats and maybe, just maybe the worst Marvel villain this side of Malekith. Also…Rocket is pretty annoying here…but beyond all that, this is a welcome opening up of the Marvel U right before your eyes. New planets, new aliens, a broader color palette, it’s also in retrospect the most important film of Marvel’s Phase 2 in that – despite a few bumps in the road – gave them cover to create slightly weirder, more filmmaker-driven projects. If Guardians hadn’t taken off, I doubt we would have gotten Taika Waititi on Thor, Ryan Coogler on Black Panther or a Doctor Strange adaptation at all. The Russos might be the ideal “Marvel house-style” guys, but James Gunn paved the way for its more individualized off-shoots.
9. Spider-Man: Homecoming
One of the few of these that I actually liked better at home than at the theater. When I went to its press screening, I noted that I really enjoyed the fact that it was probably the only attempt at a secondary genre within the MCU that actually works (No, The Winter Soldier is not a political thriller. No, Ant-Man is not a heist movie.), and the Vulture was a great, GREAT villain. But a rewatch from the comforts of my couch underscored just how charming it all is. Tom Holland doing Michael J. Fox as Peter Parker remains really inspired, the cast is uniformly quite funny, the Tony/Happy larger universe intrusions work a lot better than they have any right to, the script is snappy and fun…What can I say? It’s all really great, and my initial lukewarm feelings towards it were dead wrong.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger
Joe Johnston rules. So does Chris Evans. To this day, The First Avenger, by virtue of its semi-sepia tones and period backdrop, is a wholly unique experience in the overall lineup of these movies. Evans, like Downey before him, is the only other main MCU player to walk into their role instantly owning it, and honestly I can’t think of much I don’t like about this one. It maybe leaves a little too much heavy lifting for its sequel to pick up regarding the Steve-Bucky friendship, but as a singular experience, I can give it a pass. Toss Superman, Indiana Jones, and The Rocketeer all in a blender and you get this perfectly composed, virtuous piece of Summer entertainment. This was the point when I knew this whole shared universe thing was going to work.
7. The Avengers
There’s a lot to be said about Joss Whedon the writer vs. Joss Whedon the director. The former is much, much stronger than the latter, but its hard to not see the wisdom behind the coup Feige pulled off when he enlisted the brain behind a number of beloved geek-friendly franchises. Whedon’s trademark wit combined with his deep affection for superhero tropes worked as a wonderfully melding influence of disparate parts. Prior to The Avengers, I can’t count the number of times somebody said to me “how are they gonna put Thor in the same picture as Iron Man believably?” or some other iteration of that same question. But Whedon pulled it off expertly. And he did so with a really clever and tight screenplay. Sure, there’s a clunker line or two, especially now that his brand of humor has really run its course through fandom; but there’s really no denying what an experience the thing really is. It also turned out to be incredibly difficult to replicate too, as the studio spent three years over the course of Phase 2 trying to figure out what to do next, with even Whedon not able to recapture that same magic. Still on it’s own, The Avengers is a minor miracle.
6. Iron Man
I’ve seen the first Iron Man more than any other film within this shared universe. Part of that is because anytime I embark upon a rewatch, I obviously always start here, and sometimes just kind of stop here thanks to other distractions. But the other key factor is that I just really like Iron Man a lot. Taking the Batman Begins origin formula and turning it into a brighter, poppier affair; Favreau, Downey and the rest of the cast make a tremendous case for a hero very few people gave a second thought to, while also laying down a backbone for a historic cinematic tidal wave. I’ll never forget, one of my much missed colleagues at my old job, a woman in her 60s, approaching her 70s, came to me a few weeks after it came out and said, “Kyle, my husband and I saw that Iron Man in the theater, and we don’t usually like that kind of thing, but I had such a fun time”. Like I said, lightning in a bottle.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
Speaking of bottles, it’s the first and probably only ever example of a Marvel bottle episode. Based on the comments here and others I speak with here and there, it’s not a particularly popular follow-up, but I find that surprising I guess. To me, it’s Gunn dumping the more standard Marvel template stuff, and ratcheting up all the elements that he’s most interested in. Even the dull spaceship battles get better here, because he spends more time focusing on the people inside the cockpits rather than the “pew pew pew” action. Kurt Russell as Ego is one of my favorite bits of veteran stunt casting, the soundtrack is better, Rocket is WAY less awful and even kind of funny once in a while, Baby Groot is actually kind of amazing, and the Peter-Yondu/Gamora-Nebula relationships really ring true and vividly. I really love this movie.
4. Black Panther
It’s still pretty fresh, and I’ve said everything I can say about this one, so I won’t add much here. Marvel’s best lived-in world, its strongest thematic effort, its best villain, and a cultural landmark unlike any I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s very possible this will be the first superhero movie nominated for Best Picture. Wakanda forever. Ryan Coogler for even longer.
3. Captain America: Civil War
Basically, if Mark Gruenwald had written the Civil War event comic, I think it might have looked a lot like this. I fully admit, throw a bunch of characters on the screen in a semi-coherent plot, and there’s a good chance I’m going to go along for the ride, but there’s something about Civil War that clicks together for me in a way that sluggish Ultron couldn’t manage. In many ways, it’s the proper follow-up to The Avengers that I had been looking for: upping the stakes, increasing the roster, deeply tying together Tony and Steve in a brutal twist that was inevitably going to pull them apart, while it’s also a film that firmly has its eyes on the future of the franchise introducing two of its most important new players just as the final chapter probably dawns on their original cast. Zemo is, again, one of these things you can’t think too hard about – but provided you take his machinations at face value, this is one fun ride – and combined with the next two entries, make for perhaps my favorite cinematic superhero experience.
2. Avengers: Infinity War
Yes! Basically Civil War x 20. I mean, you all saw it this weekend, and either its non-stop cavalcade of action works for you or it doesn’t. But for me, the combination of just awesome spectacle peppered with those Starlin-derived moments of introspection was everything I was looking for. The incorporation of the Guardians of the Galaxy works so much more smoothly than I could have imagined, and Doctor Strange (much like Ant-Man in Civil War) is better here as an individualized hero than in his own solo feature. And while these films get fairly dinged on how paper-thin so many of their villains are, Josh Brolin imbues Thanos with a surprising amount of pathos and threat. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the superhero epic crossover, for better or worse maybe, but for me, it’s exactly what I’ve always wanted out of one of these.
1. Thor: Ragnarok
Imagine if you will, one of those fun 80’s sci-fi adventures from when you were a kid – something like Buckaroo Banzai perhaps. Now imagine if those movies were brought to modern day and were actually great. That’s Thor: Ragnarok in a nutshell. The best movie Marvel Studios has produced. It basically single-handedly rebooted Thor into the best Avenger and played right into Chris Hemsworth strongest acting gift that was quickly becoming more and more apparent in his appearances just prior: his comedic timing. It also is the live-action realization of that Matt Fraction concept of a “Led Zeppelin III-style Thor”. I mean, how great is this? The brilliant Taika Waititi was given clearance to just jettison anything that didn’t interest him, such as the Warriors Three (one of the consistent low-points of these Thor outings) and just when Hela starts her rule of Asgard, Taika turns away for Thor and Loki’s interstellar Planet Hulk adventure. The stones on this guy! And as a companion piece to Civil War (ex: this is what Thor and Hulk were up to while the team was falling apart), it becomes invaluable to the interiors of the wider universe. It might be my favorite superhero movie actually. Yes, I think I’m ready to die on that hill.
Ant-Man and the Wasp, you have a lot to live up to, but I’m rooting for you to keep that Phase 3 streak alive. What a time to be a fan of this stuff.