Ranking lists of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
The MCU has changed the nature of cinematic franchises – every studio is trying desperately to ape the model that they have created, without truly understanding what they’ve done and how they’ve done it (which is standard operating procedure for Hollywood, but that’s another story). But the MCU did it first and did it (and continues to do it) best. There are now 20 films in the MCU, which is a nice round number to put in a list.
I’ve always been a big fan of Marvel comic book universe, so I was very happy when it made the successful transition to the silver screen. What was particularly wonderful was the way the films captured the magic that made the comic book universe so special – the interconnected, shared reality where the characters are all part of the same world, casually meeting each other while battling their foes, enhancing the texture of the fiction and making it more believable.
This is my ranking of the 20 MCU films so far (see the MCU tag on this blog for my full thoughts). I used the MCU Rank app to help because it asks the important question: which film would you rather watch now? That’s what this list is about – I can watch nearly all the MCU films on a regular basis, putting in the Blu-ray or streaming via Netflix if I can’t be bothered to get up, but there are some films you want to watch more than others. It’s not necessarily a ranking of the best MCU films, although there can be a correlation, but about the ones that get that alchemy of plot, story, characters, action pieces, dialogue, the way it’s filmed and the overall effect all into the right package.
This list is a work in progress. It’s based on my preferences, which are different to yours (and critics and the box office) and are still developing – newer films haven’t had the time to intercalate in the same way as repeated viewings and thus form the same attachments and inform my selections. So, this is not definitive or reliable or worth anything, but it’s fun to write about and to try to rationalise instincts. Your mileage will definitely vary. Let the fun begin.
20. Iron Man 2
Where do you start with this film? That it’s got Elon Musk in it? That it bluntly forces the MCU aspects onto the story? That Tony Stark invents a new element in an afternoon? There are many things to complain about, but for me the worst is perhaps Mickey Rourke as the villain: every time he speaks, I feel the same pain as if he were using the whiplashes on me.
19. The Incredible Hulk
I think this gets a spot above Iron Man 2 solely because of how much I don’t like Iron Man 2. However, while this film doesn’t really connect in the same way that other films in the MCU have, it deserves some points for the purity of having the Hulk smash things and using cars as boxing gloves. Not a great film, but with a nugget of something in there. And will we ever get Tim Blake Nelson as the Leader, as suggested by this movie?
18. Thor: The Dark World
I really enjoyed Thor (see later) but this film is a disappointment in comparison, with the negatives outweighing the positives. Natalie Portman is reduced to damsel-in-macguffin, Rene Russo is killed off, Christopher Eccleston is non-descript as Malekith, and Malekith’s machinations are one-note and absurd, which is a big difference from the character in the comic books. There are some nice moments, although Londoners rightly mock it for the scene on the underground and getting to Greenwich in three stops.
17. Spider-Man: Homecoming
This is probably a surprise so low down the list but the reason for it is that I’m not a big fan of Spider-Man as a character – I don’t have any of the levels of affection for Peter Parker that he seems to hold on the rest of the world, so even a film with the best Spider-Man so far is still going to hold no sway with me. Tom Holland is great in the role, but turning Spider-Man into Iron Man with the AI-based suit seemed to miss the point of the character, and having too much Robert Downey Jr doesn’t help. However, I was pleasantly surprised when Michael Keaton opened the front door in that scene, so props for that.
16. Iron Man 3
This is probably the biggest shock on the list: I know this film gets a lot of love elsewhere, and I’m a big fan of Shane Black, but this doesn’t instil the same affection in me. It’s fine and entertaining and has some great lines and set pieces, and a great central twist with the Mandarin, which makes it sound better than my feelings for; I know I’m out of step with the rest of the world but this is my list.
15. Ant-Man and the Wasp
It’s hard to place this exactly on the list because of its recentness and coming out so soon after Avengers: Infinity War, so this is a probationary position for what is an enjoyable little film (no pun intended) that is a bit of throwback but is held together by its leads, who are charming and engaging, without ever ascending to anything more. However, a re-evaluation will occur with some distance.
14. Captain America: The First Avenger
I still find this an old-fashioned B-movie that does a very good job of bringing Captain America to the screen (I really enjoyed the story change of having him as a poster boy for buying bonds), so don’t see the same level of love for it that appears elsewhere. I think that the fact the later Captain America films are fantastic and the fact that Chris Evans made Steve Rogers his own and into something greater reflects back on the first film. However, there is lots to enjoy in it and I will easily watch it if it appears on TV.
13. Iron Man
The film that really started the MCU means that it should appear higher up the list but compared with the other, later movies, it’s still quite formative, a little too long for what it is setting out to do, and suffers a bit by the CGI-heavy last quarter of the film. However, it’s still a good film that sets the template for MCU movies, used Robert Downey Jr to the max and made you want to see Iron Man, something the comic books have rarely done for me.
Despite the last-minute replacement of Edgar Wright as director (of whom I am a huge fan), Ant-Man is still an enjoyable movie that sparkles with the easy-going charm of its lead, a good cast that works (with the standout comic turn from Michael Peña) and inventive and fun demonstrations of the shrinking powers on screen. It’s a lively, entertaining heist caper that just happens to have a super-powered character as the lead, which showed the world that like the comic books, the MCU can handle a wide range of genres.
I really enjoy Thor for a variety of reasons – I’m a big fan of the Walt Simonson run (he’s even the film as an Asguardian) and the film is heavily influenced by that; it’s an entertaining romp with Chris Hemsworth making Thor shine as a character; there are plenty of laughs and great moments; but mainly for the fact that they made Thor work in a film as well as in the context of the MCU, which was always going to be tricky. It’s also a believable character arc of the arrogant, entitled jock who actually changes for the better by the end of the film, encapsulating the character of Thor while being an all-round entertaining movie.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
I’m a big fan of GotG and the sequel – I wasn’t one of the dissenters that thought it didn’t match the original – and the only reason that it is lower down the list is because the top ten films are separated by the slenderest of scores. This sequel is as charming and as entertaining as the first film, while being an even more personal and character-based story than the original, despite the fact that it is essentially a film about sons and their fathers, a cliché that Hollywood never seems to tire of, but works here really well.
9. Black Panther
Black Panther is an excellent film with a great cast with a perfect capturing of Wakanda that is a great origin story for T’Challa; the only reason that it isn’t higher is because the T’Challa in the film isn’t the T’Challa I know and love from Priest’s Black Panther run. In that, T’Challa was the smartest man in the room, dozens of steps ahead of everyone; in the film, he challenges a professionally trained soldier to a fight without a second thought. A single moment that frustrates me and thus keep it at number nine in the list.
8. Doctor Strange
Much like the fact that Thor did a great job of making a mythological character work within the MCU, Doctor Strange went even further by making full-on magic work within the context of the MCU. Watching the Ditko-influenced visuals splashed on the silver screen in a classic origin story that hits all the right beats is a delight, and with perhaps the best cast in a solo-character MCU film (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Mads Mikkelsen and Rachel McAdams all in the same film? I mean, come on).
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
A talking raccoon firing a gun while sat on top of a giant tree – and that is only one wonderful moment from the charming, funny, eye-popping sci-fi caper that was the big gamble from Marvel that paid off. Entertaining, exciting, off-the-wall, yet personal and genuine at the same time – an impressive spectacle that nobody expected and with a great soundtrack to boot.
6. Avengers: Age of Ultron
This is probably the biggest surprise for being so high up the list – apparently, this film gets a lot of negativity thrown at it for reasons I can’t fathom. I enjoyed the hell out of this for its complete comic-book geekery charm, from the splash panel in the opening battle through to the 360-shot when the team is defending the switch from the Ultron robots. It’s also got three of the great moments in the MCU (Hawkeye’s speech to Wanda about what it means to be an Avenger; the team hanging out after the party and the look on Thor’s face when Cap is trying to lift the hammer; Vision handing Mjolnir back to Thor), wonderful dialogue from Joss Whedon, and it’s got James Spader voicing Ultron, for goodness sake.
5. Thor: Ragnarok
The MCU film that is an outright comedy, albeit with the destruction of Asgard and the casual deaths of the Warriors Three. I’ve never been a big fan of Led Zeppelin but that song now makes me smile by association. This plays everything for laughs and succeeds, even if it has jokes that make no logical sense, and is a testament to how dependable and entertaining the MCU films had become. There might be bleakness and sadness involved, but you start smiling as soon as you start watching the film and don’t stop until the end, and that’s why you want to watch it again and again.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Steve Rogers in the comic books is a character I never really got until Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America clicked a lot of pieces into place. Setting the character in the espionage thriller arena just works, and I enjoyed the hell out of the early tenure of Brubaker, which did the impressive job of bringing back Bucky to the comic books and made it work. The shift from the B-movie vibe to the 1970s conspiracy thrillers was a great move, and the fact that the Russo brothers, who I knew mostly for their comedy work (from Welcome to Collinwood through Arrested Development and Community), turned in a stylish, atmospheric thriller was a delightful surprise. And you’ve got the best fight in a lift ever (‘Before we get started, does anyone want to get out?’), so there’s that.
3. The Avengers
All the hard work spent in building up the characters before they became a team worked, and worked perfectly. Joss Whedon did a masterful job of bringing together the different characters and making them work together (compare this with Justice League and see the difference), before having the amazing last third of the film being an almost continuous set piece. There are so many good moments in this, something that should be difficult for a film that has so much work to do, but ‘Puny god’ has to win as one of the greatest moments in MCU films. With this movie, the MCU took over the world and hasn’t looked back.
2. Captain America: Civil War
This is an Avengers movie in all but name. The comic book that provides inspiration is not very good. There’s perhaps too much Tony Stark in what is supposed to be a Captain America movie. But, damn – this is a great movie. The Russo brothers and the continuing writing team craft a perfect movie that has the single best superheroes-fighting-each-other battle (so far), done in daylight (none of that DCEU darkness nonsense), and the best use of Spider-Man in a non-Spidey film and casually introduces the world to Black Panther being awesome. Quite an achievement. I absolutely love this movie and can keep watching it again and again.
1. Avengers: Infinity War
This film shouldn’t be on top of the list. It’s one of the newest, so it hasn’t had enough time to sink in fully and allow complete appraisal. It’s actually rather downbeat, something I don’t enjoy. And, it’s only half a film – the sequel has so much riding on it after this film. But the delirious, giddy, mind-boggling joy I experienced while watching this film was unbelievable. This film was the culmination of all the other films before it, so it had to be worth it and live up to what had gone before – it did it from the very beginning. It’s a non-stop rollercoaster of action, excitement, gags and breathless entertainment, and the perfect distillation of the experience of a comic-book crossover in cinematic form. People wonder why people read superhero comic books – this film shows them what it’s like when you’ve been reading comic books in a shared universe for a long time and the sheer joy they can bring when it all comes together. Welcome to our world, and enjoy the ride.