We’re most of the way through the year, with just one more Marvel movie, the much awaited Spider-Man: No Way Home, left before January. What better time to rank every film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Eternals?
26.) The Incredible Hulk
The biggest crime of The Incredible Hulk is that it’s instantly forgettable. It’s not even that bad a movie. It’s got a solid cast, a cool final fight scene, and enough Hulk rampaging to be at least mildly entertaining. Still, nothing really clicks, and it’s hard to care much about the characters. That being said, there’s nothing particularly offensive about it either. It may be Marvel’s worst effort but I doubt it’d even get on the list of worst superhero movies. Which just goes to show how damn good they are at making films.
25.) Iron Man 2
I’m gonna be honest, I have a lot of nostalgia for this film. It came out just as I was getting into Marvel and the first time I saw it, I really enjoyed it. However, it has not aged well. It was the first film where a lot of the problems with a lot of Marvel films started to become clear. It’s a bit of a mess. There are a bunch of plot points that don’t really make any sense and the third act is a boring, noisy and over-the-top CGI-fest. It also continues the tradition of getting a really pretty good actor (Mickey Rourke) to play a villain without enough development or screen time. It’s pretty forgettable, but there is fun to be had, chiefly from the charisma of the stars (including RDJ, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlet Johannson and a severely underused Sam Rockwell).
24.) Dr Strange
By no means is Dr Strange the worst Marvel film. It has a good cast, fun visuals and a few laughs (mainly provided by Benedict Wong). But it is the one that annoys me the most. The main reason is that it repeats all the mistakes previous Marvel films have made at a time when they should have learned better. The villain is played by a great actor who is shockingly wasted, the plot is a boring rehash of Iron Man, and the same goes for the character of Dr Strange. Worse still, Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t have the same charisma as RDJ, meaning Strange irritates more than inspires. When a cape is more charismatic than your lead, you know you have a problem.
The first Thor film seems to be suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. On the one hand, it wants to be a Shakespearean family drama about ancient gods. On the other, it’s pretty much Doc Hollywood if Michael J. Fox took steroids. Not a lot happens for most of the film, and it swings between winking to its audience and taking itself way too seriously. What saves Thor is the casting; namely, Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. Hemsworth is charming all hell as Thor, playing him like a big, slightly arrogant but loveable teddy bear. But Hiddleston steals the film away from him, playing a god who will betray just about anyone to gain the approval of his father. The truth is that their performances are much better than the film itself, and they almost manage to carry it out of mediocrity.
Eternals would have made a fantastic miniseries. It boasts loveable, three dimensional characters, bold thematic questions and enough exposition to justify a thirty minute powerpoint. It takes risks in a way that Marvel has often been scared to. Which is why it hurts quite so much to put it this low. There are two big problems; first of all, that there is simply too much to fit into one film, even if that film comes in at just under three hours. Plot points are forgotten, interesting questions go unanswered and some characters get notably short shrift, resulting in a film that never achieves what it set out to do. The other issue is the two leads, played by Gemma Chan and Richard Madden. In a film chock-full of colourful characters, from the rebellious Druig to the boisterous Gilgamesh, this pair of star-crossed lovers are painfully dull, making it much more painful when they get centre-screen at the expense of others. On the one hand, it’s exciting that Marvel is becoming increasingly willing to take these bold swings. On the other, it needs to be done better than this in future.
21.) Thor: The Dark World
Thor 2’s actually kind of fun. The plot is painfully generic, sure, and it’s practically criminal how much it wasted both Natalie Portman and Christopher Eccleston – his Malekith is perhaps the epitome of everything wrong with Marvel villains. But once Freyja dies and the action actually gets into gear, it’s really quite entertaining. Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry is as brilliant as ever and they get to add more layers to their characters’ relationship. On top of that, the use of portals in the final fight is surprisingly imaginative. A fun movie, as long as you’ve had a few to drink.
Bless Paul Rudd. Just bless him. He’s so insanely likeable. In truth, he probably rescues this movie from obscurity. It falls into a lot of Marvel traps, like a bland villain, a generic origins story and an uninspired third act. Still, Rudd has a lot of backup from the supporting cast, with Michael Douglas, Michael Peña and Evangeline Lilly all providing plenty of sparring material. Unfortunately you can practically see the disconnect between what Edgar Wright envisioned and what we actually got, and there are some really boring stretches. Still, it’s got enough wholesome energy that it’s hard not to like.
19.) Black Widow
Marvel films work best when they wholeheartedly embrace the look and feel of a certain genre, whether it’s superhero, sci-fi, fantasy or even 1970s conspiracy thriller. Perhaps that’s why Black Widow feels like such a missed opportunity. After a promising opening that explores Natasha’s past through the lens of a gritty, Bourne-like spy film, the film quickly spirals into a generic, overproduced action film that struggles to get the audience’s pulse racing. Add to that some outrageously misjudged performances and what began as a streamlined thriller ends up a sloppy mess. Once again, it’s the chemistry of the leads that stops Black Widow from becoming a complete chore, with Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh anchoring the film and giving it the kind of pathos that will stick with you far longer than the ludicrous set pieces. Even then, it’s hard not to feel that Black Widow would have worked far better had it been released chronologically (the film is set between Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War) rather than after Widow’s death in Endgame.
18.) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
It’s understandable that Marvel felt like they had to throw everything and the kitchen sink at this film; after all, Shang-Chi is one of the most obscure characters they’ve ever adapted, even when compared to the pure absurdity of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Unfortunately, this approach ultimately makes it feel like the studio just lacked faith in the strength of its story. Which is a real shame, because it’s a doozy, a battle between a ruthless warlord and his reluctant son. Shang-Chi is at its strongest when this core relationship is given room to breathe, but it gets too easily distracted by unnecessary camera trickery, a plethora of comedic sidekicks and, of course, a giant CGI monster. There’s a lot of potential here, but Marvel just needs to have a little more faith in the character they’ve created.
17.) Avengers: Age of Ultron
This film got (and still gets) a lot of flack upon release. I understand that, to an extent. It is definitely overly long, leading to the middle feeling pretty flat, and it’s got way too much to try to set up. Still, I think there’s a lot to like; most of the characters are given interesting storylines, Hawkeye gets some much needed development and it continues the trend of actually being quite funny. However, the real reason that I like this film so much is that it embraces the full comic book-y vibe, with grand, ludicrous battles in the sky and characters with absolutely batshit origin stories (looking at you Vision). Underrated, over-criticised.
16.) Captain Marvel
Much like Ant-Man, Captain Marvel is a fairly mediocre film elevated by a brilliant leading performance. But there are a few differences that make it go a bit further. One; Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers is way less vanilla than Scott Lang, being a genuine badass who also manages to have a sweet side. Two; it feels much more cohesive, having managed to avoid the same production troubles that plagued the diminutive hero’s first film. Three; aliens. And last, but not least, Goose the cat. Goose is a badass. Why isn’t he in the Avengers? Why? Add to that Captain Marvel having a more coherent and resounding message, and you can see why it edged out Paul Rudd’s first endeavour.
15.) Ant-Man and the Wasp
After the somewhat overbearing heaviness of Infinity War, Marvel turned to their favourite comedian, Paul Rudd, and director Peyton Reed to give us something with a little more levity. And thank god they did. Ant-Man and the Wasp is the perfect antidote to self-seriousness, content to just give us plenty of likeable characters and inventive action. Freed from production turmoil, Peyton Reed is able to find his own voice behind the camera, giving us both the silliest and yet possibly most human MCU film to date. It also develops Scott Lang much more, making him a man struggling (and often failing) to do right by everyone, resulting in him becoming much more interesting and relatable than he was in the first film, where he was both an expert cat-burglar and also the nicest man in the world.
14.) Captain America: The First Avenger
I actually really enjoy this film. Again, it may not be as good as the later Cap films. It’s got a pretty boring villain and the grand sacrifice at the end just…doesn’t seem thought out. However, I love the pulpy, retro vibe of it, and its a genuine pleasure to have an unironically kindhearted hero who just wants to do good. I’d argue Cap’s never been more likeable than in his first instalment, with Chris Evans’ earnestness selling the potentially goofy character. On top of that, if you want to have a bunch of completely expendable henchmen for your hero to beat the shit out of, then Nazis are absolutely your best choice.
13.) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The first time I watched this I actually wondered whether I preferred it to the first one. On second viewing, it doesn’t stand up as well, but it’s entertaining enough that for the most part you don’t really care. It’s definitely funnier than the first, and there’s less focus on Star-lord (which isn’t a bad thing in my book). It develops all the other characters nicely, to the extent that I actually like Nebula now. Kurt Russell is an above average villain. But this is Yondu’s (Michael Rooker) movie, and he enjoys every second he’s on screen. Sure, sometimes the daddy issue themes are a bit too obvious, but still a damn fun movie with another good soundtrack and characters you care about.
12.) Black Panther
If this was a list of the best first two thirds of a film, Black Panther would top this list. It features a great cast, some cool villains and a strange mix of espionage and political intrigue that works way better than it should. Unfortunately, everything past T’Challa and Killmonger’s first fight is…well, it’s a mess. The action is impossible to follow and full of painfully bad CGI, whilst the story becomes devoid of any of the complexity that made the start so good. In truth, Black Panther was probably a victim of its own hype; people were so eager to proclaim it was the best Marvel film ever that the actual product was almost inevitably disappointing. Yet it’s still a strong effort, and should absolutely be applauded for bringing a new level of representation to superhero films.
11.) Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 is pretty polarising. Most people think this film is either brilliant or fairly crap. But because I’m an awkward bastard, I think it’s just quite good. Shane Black really does write RDJ like no other, and the darker tone and buddy comedy atmosphere actually works quite nicely. The biggest problem is the bad guy. Now, I’m not someone who particularly hates the twist, it’s actually pretty funny. But rewatching the film, it robs the film of a potentially great villain and replaces him with a much less interesting one. That then makes the final battle reasonably stale, and stops this movie going any higher.
10.) Spider-Man: Far From Home
The first film following the era-ending Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home had a lot riding on it, namely the future of the MCU. The first half had me genuinely worrying, as it attempted to recreate the charming high school comedy appeal of Homecoming but without the same energy or freshness. Had it continued down that path, it would have most likely ended up in the bottom half of this list. What actually happens, however, is a sudden and drastic change of pace, one that keeps building momentum right up to the moment the credits role (and beyond, in fact). Add to that some of the most visually brilliant scenes in the MCU, and you get a film that reassures you that Marvel’s going to be okay. It’s issues may stop it reaching the highest echelons of this list, but it’s definitely one worth watching.
9.) Thor: Ragnarok
I don’t think anyone was very excited for the third movie back in 2015. Surely there was only so much of messrs Hemsworth and Hiddleston we could have before we got bored? Then came the trailer. Mjolnir destroyed? Hulk and Thor on a gladiator planet? Led Zepplin’s Immigrant Song? It looked insanely campy, like Flash Gordon for the 21st century. And suddenly we were all excited. And we were right to be. The film is a shot in the arm for Marvel, funny, good looking and less self-serious than the previous Thor films. It embraces the ridiculousness of its own premise, and Korg is just gold. However, both Cate Blanchett and Karl Urban are wasted as the villains, and the humour unfortunately undercuts some of the more supposedly poignant moments of the film. Nevertheless, a lot of fun for anybody with a pulse.
8.) Avengers: Assemble
I don’t think the first Avengers could be better. That’s not to say it’s perfect, but considering the sheer number of things it had to do (bringing the team together, finishing individual character arcs and setting up the next 6 years of the MCU) you’d be hard pressed to improve it. Whedon’s script is brilliantly quick and funny, the cast are all clearly enjoying themselves, and the action makes your inner 8 year old squeal with excitement. The film that finally convinced people that the cinematic universe could work, and other studios have been desperately trying to replicate it ever since.
7.) Iron Man
The one that started it all. And one that stands up pretty damn well ten years later. Enough has been said about RDJ’s performance. And it is all you’ve heard about it. It’s fantastic. It’s complex, hilarious and somehow incredibly likeable. But that’s not all; the supporting cast all fill their roles admirably, and Favreau directs with just a touch of flair. But what makes it really special is that it’s the first; the plot and writing feel new and exciting, the villain issue hasn’t become so damn obvious, and honestly, we were just surprised by how damn good it was.
6.) Guardians of the Galaxy
This is the one where Marvel realised they could sell anything. A talking racoon and a talking tree? It seemed like a long shot, even to hardcore comic fans. But that’s what makes this film so great. It’s something completely different. Even some of the usual Marvel complaints (again, boring finale and even more boring villain) don’t seem as obvious with the bonkers space setting and genuinely entertaining characters that make Guardians eminently rewatchable. Also, ‘We Are Groot’ is still one of the most emotional moments of the entire franchise.
5.) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
If this was an objective list of the best Marvel movies, there’s a decent chance that Winter Soldier would be at the top. It’s probably the best integration of Marvel’s traditional formula with the trappings of another genre (in this case the ‘70s spy thriller, as evidenced by the fact Robert Redford is in it), and some of the action is absolutely brutal. It even makes Cap, Marvel’s version of the Big Blue Boy Scout, pretty badass. And Anthony Mackie’s just great as Falcon. The only reason it’s not higher is the fact that it rarely captures that schoolboy giddiness that makes me love Marvel quite as much as the films above it.
4.) Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War deserves to be this high for ambition alone. There are something like 63 established characters, most of whom have some kind of fanbase, all of whom want their favourite character to get some screentime. On top of that, Thanos had been teased since the first Avengers movie, and if he had underwhelmed cinemagoers would have been seriously disappointed. The Russo’s (and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) stroke of genius was to make Thanos the main character, giving him the development he deserved and allowing each of the heroes to have their moment in the limelight. Instead of shying away from it, they embrace the cosmic insanity of the premise. If I had one complaint, it’s just that they could have been a little more ruthless.
3.) Avengers: Endgame
Where Infinity War was a masterclass in precision, finely balancing a huge cast of characters in order to give each of them a moment to shine, Endgame is an exercise in crowd-pleasing. It’s messier than it’s predecessor, and prioritises certain characters in order to give them the endings that they deserve. What it has that Infinity War lacks, however, is that childhood sense of wonder and joy. Admittedly, that makes sense; Infinity War wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without the all pervading sense of doom. But at times it felt a little clinical. Endgame, on the other hand, is so full of passion that it’s hard not to buy in. Accusations of excessive fanservice may be valid, but that only makes the final climactic battle even more cheer-worthy. Where many third acts begin to suffer from a lack of new ideas, Endgame’s just gives and gives and gives. And who could say a bad thing about a film so generous?
2.) Spider-Man: Homecoming
This really feels like the film where Marvel finally learned how to solve the problems that have plagued their movies. It takes inspiration from the old John Hughes films, separating it from the rest of Marvel’s catalogue. Michael Keaton is hugely charismatic and actually quite sympathetic as the Vulture (who should have been completely ridiculous but wasn’t). And the third act, whilst still a bit too CGI, doesn’t go over the top, keeping the stakes real. Yet it does all this whilst keeping all the strengths of other Marvel films; it’s still funny, the plot skips along brilliantly, the cast are all great and it’s got Tony Stark. The Spider-Man we deserve.
1.) Captain America: Civil War
I have a soft spot for the Civil War comic book; it was the first one I ever bought. But the film improves upon it in almost every way. The conflict makes more sense, with Tony’s recent personal troubles helping to explain his behaviour, and Daniel Brühl’s Zemo is understatedly menacing whilst providing some urgency to the idealogical conflict. That’s not to mention the note perfect introductions of Black Panther and Spider-Man, the growing tension, and the fact that the final battle is actually pretty small, but with far more palpable stakes than any CGI alien army they can dream up. Yet, unlike Winter Soldier, it somehow keeps the humour and spectacle which normally define Marvel. And the airport battle is pure fanboy escapism, at its very best.