Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ranking the Films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Captain America: Civil War is set to kick off the summer movie season tonight, and perhaps more significantly, it is kicking off the third and by far most ambitious phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This is the company’s thirteenth film, and it is amazing to me how many of those movies so far I outright love – and how unabashedly excited I remain for their new movies this far into things.

With that in mind, I found myself doing the requisite thought-exercise of ranking all the MCU movies earlier this morning – and before I knew it, had written an entire list. So in preparation for Civil War, let us take a trip down Marvel memory lane, ranking from least-good to most-good (as I don’t particularly dislike any of these movies) the films of Marvel’s cinematic universe. I have included links to my original reviews of each of the movies (for those where written reviews don’t exist, I have included links to podcast episodes where we discussed them), so you may see how my thoughts have evolved over time.

The countdown begins after the jump…

The black sheep of the MCU, The Incredible Hulk is not without its merits – Edward Norton makes a decent Bruce Banner, the animation on the Hulk himself is solid, and the film admirably managed to reboot the character in mostly-interesting fashion without resorting to a rehashed origin story – but with the film having been more or less swept under the rug when Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo expertly re-tooled the character in The Avengers, it’s hard not to look at this one as the most forgettable, inessential moment in Marvel’s cinematic canon. Whatever good things Louis Leterrier and company did with the character, Ruffalo and Whedon did them so much better that it’s kind of impossible to go back to this movie and see it as anything other than a necessary bit of throat-clearing before the definitive version of the cinematic Hulk would come along four years later.

The most critically reviled film of the lot, Iron Man 2 gets a lot of flack it probably doesn’t deserve, for although there are absolutely flaws – this is one of the most structurally bizarre superhero films ever made, and the climax somehow manages to feel even smaller in scale than the underwhelming third act of its predecessor – this sequel really does have it where it counts. Robert Downey Jr. is just as fantastic as ever, and the exploration of a fully self-destructive Tony Stark, while probably not taken as far as it could go, makes for genuinely compelling superhero drama. Gwyneth Paltrow is equally terrific – no duo in the MCU has ever managed to match the chemistry of Tony Stark and Pepper Potts – and Don Cheadle was inspired recasting as James Rhodes, whose transformation into War Machine here is a lot of fun. I’ll even defend Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, who might not be the most intimidating villain ever to grace a superhero movie, but is, to me, one of the most bizarre and memorable to ever come out of the MCU. Jon Favreau’s last Marvel at-bat wasn’t perfect, but if he ever wanted to return to the fold, I for one would welcome him with open arms, because warts and all, Iron Man 2 remains a blast. (And as the start of my unrequited love for all things Scarlett Johansson, Iron Man 2 will always hold a special place in my heart).

10. Thor

Although I absolutely love Chris Hemsworth’s portrayal of Thor throughout the MCU, along with the broader Asgardian mythology, I’ve always regarded his first solo outing as one of Marvel’s lesser efforts. The film comes out swinging where it counts – Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, and especially Tom Hiddleston, one of the biggest breakout stars of the MCU to date, make for a pretty stellar ensemble – but you can also feel the growing pains in Marvel dipping its toes into full-on fantasy, as the story tends to move in fits and starts, the integration of SHIELD feels mostly clumsy, and the action climax is the most flaccid in all the Marvel films. Still, for introducing us to this side of the universe, and for establishing the sibling rivalry between Thor and Loki, Thor’s inaugural outing is nothing if not a solid early effort.

9. Ant-Man

Given the almost ludicrously troubled production history behind this one, it’s sort of amazing Ant-Man came out coherent at all, let alone one of the most pleasantly surprising moments in the MCU to date. The film feels a little too lightweight overall – the plot, an obvious rehash of the first Iron Man, is the most lacking of any MCU film – but Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and especially Evangeline Lilly are so good, their characterization and chemistry so sharp and enjoyable, that it’s impossible to walk away from this one without a pretty sizable smile. And with the ‘macro’ photography used to depict the world as seen by Ant-Man, this is also one of the most visually striking and memorable films Marvel has yet produced.

Less of an ‘event’ than the first Avengers was, and with moments where the whole thing threatens to sink under the weight of too many characters and too scattered a plot, Age of Ultron is nevertheless a pretty substantial pleasure, with Joss Whedon’s lazer-sharp character writing back in full-force, the utter joy of seeing all these characters interact returning in full force. Whedon handles the top-tier characters just fine, but it’s those heroes who don’t get solo outings – namely Black Widow, Hulk, and Hawkeye – who shine brightest this time out. Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeremy Renner easily steal the show, and given that we don’t get to see them quite as much as Cap, Iron Man, or Thor, that is just fine with me. Age of Ultron feels less like a culmination than it does a stepping stone, but if it’s a stepping stone to an MCU where the cast feels richer, deeper, more diverse and more human than ever before, than that’s fine by me.

Those who dismiss this film have no heart. How can you not smile when Thor hangs up his hammer on the coat rack? When Kat Dennings greets of the god of thunder and asks him “How’s space?” only to hear Thor respond that “Space is good”? When Natalie Portman reacts to Asgard with one of the widest, most infectious smiles ever glimpsed in a superhero movie? When Loki transforms himself into Captain America just to annoy his brother? The Dark World is one of the most joyous, unabashedly comic-booky comic-book movies ever made, an absolute riot from top-to-bottom, and if its story feels a little lightweight, the film more than makes up for it in inventiveness and charm. I love this movie, and if you have a pulse and a sense of humor, you should too.

With Iron Man 3, Shane Black got the keys to one of the biggest and most anticipated superhero films yet, and he used the opportunity to make something that pretty well resembles a Shane Black movie, through and through. A comic espionage variation on the usual Iron Man bombast, this third outing has a pretty incredible sense of voice and style, and a tremendous exploration of Tony Stark’s underlying demons to boot. I can absolutely understand how the Mandarin twist might be infuriating to some – if nothing else, it renders what looked like a major event picture into something much smaller-scale than expected – but judged on its own merits, I think it all works just fine, and as the first post-Avengers MCU film, Iron Man 3 proved there was plenty left to do with characters who may have started to seem more or less definitively explored.

Perhaps the most fundamentally passionate movie ever made within the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy loses a few points from me for an overly MacGuffin-oriented plot and a few narrative hiccups, but gains a whole lot more for what a wonderful cast of characters it boasts, and for the absolutely overwhelming sense of love for the material that is poured into each and every frame. Visually the most ravishing movie Marvel has ever made, James Gunn’s film is as tonally assured and emotionally rich as any superhero film ever made, and establishes a rock solid foundation for future interstellar Marvel adventures.

I love this movie. I love this movie so, so much. Joe Johnston took the opportunity to do a superhero period piece and effectively turned it into one of modern Hollywood’s great adventure throwback yarns, a much better Indiana Jones film than the actual Indiana Jones film that came out three years prior. But moreover, this is of course a great Captain America film, made with a deep and abiding love and understanding for its title character, who emerged from this film the most fully-formed, dynamic, and interesting hero the MCU has to offer, proving that just because a hero has a strong, unflappable moral center, doesn’t mean he cannot also be fascinating and three-dimensional in his own right. If you want to understand just how wrong Zack Snyder has gotten Superman in his recent DC movies, look no further than to The First Avenger for a lesson on how a seemingly simple American symbol can actually contain a rich reservoir of emotion, entertainment, and depth.

Remember what I just said about The First Avenger mining such rich pathos out of a seemingly simplistic character? Take all of that and multiply it tenfold for The Winter Soldier, which brings Captain America into the modern era, complete with many of the ethical complexities of our time, and manages to make the character’s strong, moral heart beat stronger and in more compelling ways than ever before. As filmmakers, Joe and Anthony Russo are unquestionably the major discovery of the MCU to date, as The Winter Soldier is sturdy, confident, and gripping in ways most Hollywood blockbusters, Marvel or no, can barely even dream of. And in welcoming in a host of new and returning characters from the larger MCU – Black Widow, Nick Fury, Falcon, etc. – The Winter Soldier proved Marvel needn’t wait for big ‘team-up’ films to put pieces of their broader ensemble together and watch the sparks fly, a revelation that seems primed to pay off big time with Civil War.

The film that started it all, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man undoubtedly gets extra points for being the MCU’s starting point – none of the other films on this list would be in any way possible without the achievement of this first installment – but it is also a damn fine film in its own right, and at the time of its release, it was nothing short of a revolutionary blueprint for what superhero films could be. At a time when comic-book movies largely seemed ashamed to be comic-book movies, Iron Man boldly declared that it was okay to embrace the silly and the fanciful, all while proving one needn’t sacrifice character depth or emotional stakes to do so. Robert Downey Jr. brought his career roaring back to life in what still remains the greatest and most significant match between actor and character in the annals of live-action superhero history, and in so doing ushered in an audience that would be fully on-board and enthusiastic for the Marvel deluge to come. Iron Man is more than just a triumph – it is a modern Hollywood classic, and while Marvel has gone on to do many bigger things, it has rarely done anything better.

It’s almost impossible to remember how enormous a risk The Avengers seemed when it was announced. It’s like trying to put oneself in the shoes of viewers in 1937, when Walt Disney was planning to make the world’s first animated feature, or in 1997, when James Cameron built a 90% scale model of the Titanic for a romantic epic, or any other act of cinematic folly that seemed destined to be too big a dream to ever fully pay off. But with the groundwork laid so carefully and lovingly in the Phase One films, and with the inspired hiring of dyed-in-the-wool comic aficionado Joss Whedon to tie the whole thing together, The Avengers turned out to be everything one hoped it could be and more, a rich and entertaining intersection of great characters and great performances, bolstered by what is perhaps the sharpest character writing ever to grace a superhero epic. The Avengers understands the conventions of a team-up film deeply, but it also makes better use of those possibilities than I think anyone predicted it would or could, with the action climax in New York remaining the shining pinnacle of the MCU to date, a confident and jaw-dropping cinematic miracle. For now, The Avengers is the high mark not just for Marvel to continue aiming for, but for anyone in Hollywood focused on franchise-minded filmmaking, a transcendent watershed moment for the industry as a whole.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.


  1. After listening to your last podcast - best American action movie trilogy:
    Bourne vs Captain America

  2. Bourne wins, but after seeing Civil War tonight, it's a closer fight than I might have thought.

  3. Just out of curiosity where would Civil War, Guardians 2 and Dr. Strange rank on this list? :)

    1. Hmm. Good question! Civil War would be at 1 or 2. I think it's maybe their best film alongside Avengers. Guardians 2 would be ahead of Guardians 1, but not ahead of the others above it. And Doctor Strange would be above Age of Ultron but below Thor 2. That sounds about right.

      15. Hulk
      14. Iron Man 2
      13. Thor
      12. Ant Man
      11. Age of Ultron
      10. Doctor Strange
      9. Thor 2
      8. Iron man 3
      7. Guardians
      6. Guardians 2
      5. Cap 1
      4. Cap 2
      3. Iron Man
      2. Avengers
      1. Civil War

    2. Thanks for asking for it! I might go back and update this article soon, and keep it updated on a rolling basis. Could be a fun feature as we get more and more Marvel movies.