Ranking the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to be a phenomenon that can’t quite properly be described — 10s of superheroes and 17 films all wrapped into the same overarching story that will soon culminate with the third and fourth Avengers movies. Film hasn’t seen anything like it.

Such a universe is ripe to produce some of the most purely entertaining and wonderful blockbusters of contemporary cinema. These are heroes that, with the biggest budgets, can be fully realized and, with talented filmmakers, delivered in movies that will stick with us just as many of the best blockbusters of the 70s and 80s did for the generation prior.

But that kind of system also needs careful planning and execution, meaning, unfortunately, that some of its films feel rather by the books and safe.

Truly, the quality of MCU films is a wide spectrum. So, it only seems right to determine how each one compares to the others. Here are our rankings of the MCU films:

17. Thor: The Dark World

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The worst film in the MCU is downright dreary. How dreary? The third act is set in London. Not dreary enough? The word “dark” is in the title, so I guess it must be just like “The Dark Knight,” or something like that. It’s not all bad though. We get introduced to an important Infinity Stone that nobody will remember after the credits roll, multiple characters say the word “Svartalfheim” and we get to dream about what a Patty Jenkins-directed “Thor” movie would’ve been like.

— Harrison Tunggal

16. Iron Man 2

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It’s almost as though the thematic concerns of Iron Man 3 should’ve been the central idea of Tony Stark’s second film, as it’s hard to really find the value of Iron Man 2. Is it meant to reassert that Stark is a rebel and will do what he wants? That’s not worthy of a film. Is it meant to realize the consequences of Iron Man’s existence? It doesn’t pull that off well at all. Is it meant to develop Stark’s character? It doesn’t seem too concerned with genuinely doing that. With all of those uncertainties, and the fact that the action feels like a video game played by an amatuer, Iron Man 2 is a shame. Thankfully, Robert Downey Jr.’s charisma and Black Widow’s introduction are enough to find something to latch onto, but there’s so much that could’ve been done that isn’t. Perhaps, though, the value of Iron Man 2 is that it let those interesting questions be answered by films that could actually do something with them.

— Kyle Kizu

15. The Incredible Hulk

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It’s hard to pull off a Hulk film. We need a character study of Bruce Banner, of the consequences of his alter ego and the effects it has on his psyche and his loved ones, but there’s only so much you can do there and for so long before audiences get agitated because they just want to see Hulk smash. The character’s predicaments are both the fault of the character as well as of how audiences are conditioned in this day and age. With that in mind, The Incredible Hulk deserves credit for what it does do. The film and Edward Norton’s performance do good by and more with the character than most other MCU films, and the fight between the Hulk and Abomination is popcorn entertainment manifested. But the film delves into the excessive, into the over-the-top without being aware of it and never quite finishes the arc that it lays out for Banner. It’s a movie you watch once, but just so you can be in the know for the rest of the MCU.

— Kyle Kizu

14. Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is bloated. It attempts to remain very Joss Whedon-esque, but it also tries to do too much with the thematic aspects of Ultron and Tony, the setup of events down the line and the introduction of too many new heroes. It’s concept and attempt at something singular, at something that continues to expand on this idea of the repercussions of superheroes are undeniably commendable. But the film is poorly paced, almost mischaracterizes and misuses its villain as more of a whiny kid of Tony’s than a true mirror image, problematically handles the character of Black Widow and ends with yet another over-the-top, excessive, incoherent final act. It’s not a bad film, but it is absolutely a glaringly missed opportunity.

— Kyle Kizu

13. Thor

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Thor is a ridiculous character, a literal God full of Shakespearean quips and with rather two-dimensional traits and motivations. His first movie tends to embrace those aspects, finding humor in his fish-out-of-water situation and being nearly self-aware of the camp nature of Thor. Chris Hemsworth is also rather good in the role, and placing the story in a small town is a refreshing starting point that humanizes this massive superhero personality. But that’s reaching for things in a film that is otherwise boring and unengaging, and doesn’t do that much with the character. It’s serviceable, but only just that.

— Kyle Kizu

12. Ant-Man

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It’s hard not think about what Edgar Wright would’ve given us had he remained the director of Ant-Man, which is really a testament to the fact that, no matter how fun and funny the final product is, it feels like it’s missing something. The villain seems like a ripoff of Iron Man’s and the family troubles of Scott Lang are genuinely never gripping or emotional. But, as said before, Ant-Man is some great superhero entertainment, and, sometimes, that’s all that’s needed. Scott Lang’s family may be one-dimensional, but Lang himself is rendered lovable by the perfect casting choice of Paul Rudd. The history of the Ant-Man and of Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) lend a sense of depth that drives this story along, and Evangeline Lilly stands toe-to-toe with Rudd as a kickass supporting character. Thankfully, Ant-Man also takes advantage of the visual possibilities of the superhero. While logically frustrating at points, the many action scenes, epitomized by the final showdown on a toy train set, are hilarious, dynamic and informed. While Wright might have doubled down on sensibilities such as those, the final product is not wholly missing of them and, for that, Ant-Man is more than worth it.

— Kyle Kizu

11. Doctor Strange

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In Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch is pitch-perfect as the titular Sorcerer Supreme, and director Scott Derrickson really leans into the gonzo, acid-trip visuals of the source material. For once, it’s a film that deserves to be seen in 3-D. As a bonus, Doctor Strange stands out with its truly inventive, time-bending finale, whereas most Marvel films get flack for uninspired third act battles. Still, the film’s origin story is a bland one, taking a page (this literally happens within the first three minutes) from Iron Man.

— Harrison Tunggal

10. Thor: Ragnarok

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Thor: Ragnarok has a lot going for it — some of the best visuals in the MCU, the debut of the franchise’s greatest character (“Hey man, I’m Korg.”) and the Planet Hulk-inspired story that Marvel fans have been waiting for. Still, the film ultimately misses the opportunity to truly humanize Thor, suffering from a script that could have used just one more draft. Nevertheless, the film launched director Taika Waititi and his unique brand of humor into the mainstream, which is more than we could have ever asked for. Werewolves not swearwolves, y’all.

— Harrison Tunggal

9. Captain America: The First Avenger

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Captain America: The First Avenger lacks the thematic complexities that the second and third film have. But does that really matter? This film didn’t have to be complex. Rather, it simply had to nail the character of Steve Rogers and solidify his values, and in that, The First Avengers succeeds in spades. The two Guardians of the Galaxy films take the first two spots, but the first Cap film is right behind them as an MCU film with a whole lot of heart, finding that basis in a moving, heart-filled performance by Chris Evans. Juxtaposed next to Cap, we get one of the better villains in Red Skull, who is as simply evil as Cap is simply good. While, on visual and story levels, the film could’ve been more engaging, it’s a perfectly fine superhero picture, and we’ll take it.

— Kyle Kizu

8. Iron Man 3

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Iron Man 3 gets more flak than it deserves. It may have upended expectations and completely diverted from the comics, but are those really points of genuine criticism of the film itself? The film is not without faults — it’s villain doesn’t hold as much weight as it should, it’s handling of Piper is as questionable as it is commendable and it’s paced strangely. But it’s one of the more fascinating character studies of the MCU, questioning who Tony Stark really is without the suit. We see him dealing with PTSD and a loss of power, which is where a film in the trilogy had to go to make the most out of Tony. On that basis, and considering some of its distinguishable visual flare, Iron Man 3 is a worthy entry.

— Kyle Kizu

7. Marvel’s The Avengers

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It’s hard to deny that The Avengers is just a damn good movie. But the MCU has plenty of them, and Joss Whedon’s first team-up picture doesn’t age as well as one would think. The final battle feels less engaging than it should, Loki isn’t that interesting of a villain here and much of the narrative progression is a bit standard with the stakes between the heroes falling flatter as years pass. But there still remains the pure joy of seeing these characters on screen together for the first time, the unmatched world-building of a forming alliance and system of superheroes, the humanity within each character and the vibrant chemistry between them. It’s host to some of Marvel’s pitfalls, but it’s also representative of the best of Joss Whedon — with little of his worst — making it one of the more entertaining films of the MCU. And really, that’s all an Avengers film needs to be.

— Kyle Kizu

6. Captain America: Civil War

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The third Captain America film continues the brilliant thematic approach that started in the second. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo somehow make a film that is equal parts a story about Captain America, a story about Iron Man, a story about government repercussions to the simple existence of heroes and just one hell of an action flick. Where this film suffers is in the sense of stakes involved — as much of an unbelievably fun sequence the airport fight is, it was never going to end with anything drastic. But it makes up for it with some of the best filmmaking of the whole of the MCU, further solidification of both Captain America and Iron Man as two sides of the heart and soul of the Avengers and a sense of storytelling intelligence that the MCU could use more of.

— Kyle Kizu

5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 may not be the best Marvel film, but it is easily the most emotional. As Starlord/Peter Quill meets his father (but not necessarily his daddy), Ego the Living Planet (Kurt Russell), he must come to grips with who he really cares about, and must set aside his own pride in the process. As with the first installment, this film is all about family, but it ratchets up the emotional stakes to heights previously unseen in the MCU. Vol. 2 is an unabashed, two-eye-cry movie, one that requires as much Kleenex as it does popcorn.

— Harrison Tunggal

4. Iron Man

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The film that started it all, Iron Man remains one of the best executed outings of the MCU. Tony Stark is a difficult character to pull off, but Jon Favreau and crew follow an efficient, polished and engaging path to informing the origins of a billionaire dealing with the guilt of his corporate creations. The mirror between Obadiah and Tony is salient, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance perfectly nails the spirit of the character. But simply seeing Iron Man in action for the first time will forever remain one of the most badass moments in the superhero genre.

— Kyle Kizu

3. Spider-Man: Homecoming

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There hasn’t been a Spider-Man film that’s gotten the character right since 2004’s Spider-Man 2 — that is, until Spider-Man: Homecoming. While Tobey Maguire was great, those films were never convincing as true examinations of a high school Peter Parker (Maguire was nearly 30). But with Tom Holland and a John Hughes-esque approach, Homecoming gives us that examination, and then some. As much as it is a film about Parker truly becoming Spider-Man and accepting superhero responsibilities as it is a film about him dealing with the pains and responsibilities adolescence and leaving youth behind, Marvel’s first solo Spidey film is a gem. Hilarious, sweet and as fun of a ride as any other, Homecoming proves that the webslinger is in good hands.

— Kyle Kizu

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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As Marvel developed, they realized that, to get the most out of these films, they ought to make use of sub-genres that fit best with the specific superhero at play. And with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel takes a page out of the political thriller, resulting in the most dynamic and engaging portrayal of a singular hero since, at the time of release, The Dark Knight. As informed by the character’s origins as it is expanding on those very themes, the second Captain America film asks the kind of questions, not just of Cap, but of the world that’s been created, that superhero films need to start asking to remain genuine — on a very human basis, but also on a post-9/11 level, what are the costs of these systems and is this all worth it? Not just that, but The Winter Soldier is also host to the MCU’s most visceral and exhilarating action sequences. It’s the epitome of blockbuster excellence.

— Kyle Kizu

1. Guardians of the Galaxy

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Marvel’s biggest risk wound up being its most wonderful, brilliant reward. As we approached the film’s release, nearly everyone was harping about how a movie with a talking raccoon, a giant tree, an angry buff dude, a green lady and a typical asshole could work. But, by embracing those very bizarre, weird and lovely personalities not just on an individual level, but in how they would mesh among a family, co-writer/director James Gunn struck gold, offering the most memorable characters in the universe. While its story may fall a bit bland like most of the MCU films, Guardians of the Galaxy proves that character, theme and humor — accompanied by visual flare that accentuates all of that — can do wonders in regard to storytelling, and that heart is, perhaps, the most important aspect of them all.

— Kyle Kizu

 

Featured image via Marvel/Sony.

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