Ranking All the Marvel Movies (Again)

So a long time ago on this blog I posted a ranking of my favourite Marvel Studios movies, back when there were only 10 out in the wild and the idea of a proper shared cinematic universe was fresh and exciting. Time moves so fast nowadays that we’ve already blown right past 20, and while the MCU is now a household term with more familiarity around it, the films that have released since are also more confident and the average quality level is arguably higher. With a rather clear sense of finality hanging over the upcoming Avengers: Endgame, I’ve been rewatching a bunch of Marvel films to refresh myself – with the ultimate goal of having watched each film available on Blu-ray at least twice overall – and so a list refresh is also in order. This is all expressly my opinion, of course.

21. The Incredible Hulk

This may be the bottom of the list, but let it not be said that I didn’t enjoy re-watching The Incredible Hulk regardless. I don’t believe that any MCU movie is outright bad, after all. If you pretend Ed Norton is Mark Ruffalo it kinda still works. Once upon a time I looked at this particular story as the less exciting of the two modern Hulk movies (the other being Ang Lee’s utterly bizarre 2003 Eric Banner-led Hulk), and nowadays it still looks more unnecessarily self-serious and grim than almost every other Marvel movie. But because it does so without that colour-washed filter a lot of other Marvel movies use, the majority of the film still stands apart with a grainy-yet-saturated grime. Every scene in Brazil is a surprisingly vivid delight as a result – though the bombastic finale’s reliance on a bucketload of dated shades-of-grey CGI makes it a bit cringey to watch nowadays, not to mention hard to follow. Liv Tyler is a polarising performer at the best of times but I don’t like her in this movie, though Tim Roth makes for a fun, believable villain. There are more wider MCU connections here than you might remember – including an important final shot – but it’s still the black sheep of the Marvel Studios output.


20. Thor: The Dark World

Hindsight does a lot for the older movies in the MCU canon, and it turns out that the famously disliked Thor: The Dark World does have quite a bit to offer re-watchers after all. In the shadow of its very different and overall superior sequel, The Dark World stands alone as the only real sustained hit of that Lord of the Rings-style action that Thor’s cinematic debut promised all those years ago, and it arguably plays even better in this post-God of War reboot age. It’s spliced with some really cool sci-fi laser/starfighter action set pieces too – often in the same frame as the old-timey viking stuff – and no-one blinks an eye. This is also maybe Loki’s second-most enjoyable MCU appearance (for the record my ranking there is Infinity War < Thor < Avengers < The Dark World < Ragnarok), and that counts for something. Of course none of that can fully make up for how utterly forgettable Malekith is as a primary villain, or the drab buzz-kill of a colour palette, or the mostly forgettable supporting cast, or the minor issue that every movie I’m about to talk about is better.

19. Ant-Man and the Wasp

This is arguably the weakest of the Phase Three films, which in general tend to be of a higher quality than the earlier Marvel movies. A lot of that is due to the inherent problems faced by all comedy sequels, though Paul Rudd is again fantastic in the lead role (That scene where he plays Janet Van Dyne is golden). The villains don’t feel as impactful as in the other more recent films and the action/stakes don’t truly come together until the final half-hour, but that last act contains one of Marvel’s best car chases and some stunning quantum realm shenanigans. Even though the novelty of Luis’ bongo-boosted rants is reduced from the first Ant-Man, the one that shows up here serves as a hilariously efficient solution to the gaps in the history of the movie’s central relationship, and Randall Park is great whenever he’s on screen. The movie’s alright.

18. Captain America: The First Avenger

Though I promise you my opinion on Cap’s first adventure has improved since I first watched it, the fact remains it still ranks lower than most because it kind of doesn’t have anywhere interesting to go after that fantastic maximum-camp war propaganda montage. This is an extremely important film for the first half of its run time, as it serves to set up the impossibly endearing and admirable qualities of one Steve Rogers and the depth of his friendship with Sargent James Buchanon Barnes, both of which ended up being far more important to the direction of the larger MCU narrative than we all thought back in 2011. The fake grenade scene is still one of the most powerful moments in the Marvel cinematic canon, and the alleyway bully fight is a prescient one in hindsight. Hugo Weaving and Tommy Lee Jones give their performances with decent gusto – and let’s not forget that Hayley Atwell made enough of an impression to launch her own standalone spinoff TV series – but after Stanley Tucci exits stage right the generic chase shenanigans drag The First Avenger down a bit.

17. Thor

It’s well-documented among critics of the MCU’s modern output that the majority of the post-Avengers films have the same kind of colour-muted filter and shooting style. So watching the first Thor nowadays is a unique experience to say the least, even among the Phase One outings. Every second shot of Kenneth Branagh’s melodramatic family drama is tilted twenty degrees and bathed in opulent light. Most of the Asgardian supporting cast is hamming it up and loving it, while Thor’s earth-dwelling friends look far less bored than they do in the sequel. Hawkeye’s series debut is a blast, as is Agent Coulson’s smarmy confidence while at the brief peak of his influence. The Destroyer is wicked cool. Most importantly, the movie is good fun, and aside from Chris Hemsworth’s dyed eyebrows, it’s really only the MCU trademark window dressing it lacks that keeps it on the bottom half of this list.

16. Ant-Man

It feels a bit gross having Ant-Man this low, because I’m a big fan of its manic energy, inventive size-changing action set pieces and near-constant stream of witty dialogue. To me the Ant-Man movies are in the same boat as the first two Thors – they’re fresher the first time and then try to hit too many similar beats on the second attempt. You might say – and people certainly have – that if Edgar Wright had stayed on as the director of Ant-Man it would be more of a top-tier Marvel movie. But for my money Peyton Reed still does a fantastic job with a disparate cast of characters running the gamut of motivations and plot significance. Some of the MCU’s best sequences come from this movie – The surprising flashback opening, that pair of Michael Pena storytelling scenes, the amazing train set finale. A good ‘un.

15. Iron Man 2

This was possibly the biggest grower since I did the last list. In all of the MCU there is no film quite like Iron Man 2, and while its original release was understandably poorly received back in a pre-Avengers world – such is its ridiculous lack of focus and clear middle-chapter mood – when looking back on it the ongoing party atmosphere of this sequel is somewhat of a unique treat. The improvisational tone of both the comedy and the plot mechanics make for an utterly bizarre spectacle bolstered by the one-of-a-kind Sam Rockwell, who Marvel Studios should absolutely be trying to work back into a future movie. And make no mistake – that back-to-back Iron Man / War Machine finale in the park dome still holds up as one of the single coolest action scenes in the whole MCU, despite (maybe because of) its infamous brevity.

14. Iron Man

The movie that launched the Marvel Cinematic Universe to critical acclaim and the movie that inspired me to undertake this extensive re-watch (It was on TV a few weeks ago), Iron Man still works well on a number of levels and is well regarded for a reason. Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark is one of the most inspired major Hollywood casting choices of this century so far, the first act of the film is just brilliant, and that iconic Samuel L Jackson cameo after the credits forever changed the expectations of the general cinema-going public when it comes to blockbuster movies (So did the line just before the credits, which often gets forgotten). Despite an enjoyable-enough performance from Jeff Bridges in an admittedly cartoony villain role, the third act isn’t exactly a home run. Otherwise it might be higher on the list.

13. Black Panther

Of all the movies on this page, Black Panther arguably features the least compelling title character, but it allows its lead the room to take a back seat because not only has another movie already given him a satisfying arc, this follow-up is bursting at the seams with other characters you could imagine helming their own individual movies – with performances to match. In places the CGI on screen is quite simply among the worst in the entire MCU, let alone just the newer movies, but the production design and music are absolutely phenomenal. The action isn’t exemplary outside of that one part in the Seoul casino and the surrounding streets – which is admittedly really cool – but the character interactions, fantastical lore and geopolitical themes drive the plot in thrilling fashion regardless. Killmonger is one of the MCU’s greatest villains. Ulysses Klaue is an underrated accomplice. This is such a flawed movie, but I’m jonesing to see more from Wakanda, and I’m not alone.

12. Doctor Strange

I know a fair few people don’t have a high opinion of this movie, though I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who outright hates it. I have a slightly more favourable take on Benedict Cumberbatch’s MCU debut than mere indifference, however. You could say Doctor Stephen Strange is essentially a second Tony Stark – what with his haughty demeanour and extreme ego – and that his origin story follows some stock-standard structural beats for a superhero flick. But leaving it at that would do a huge disservice to the film’s utterly cathartic central character arc, finely-balanced humour spawned from multiple sources and, of course, franchise-topping level of visual spectacle. Seriously, Doctor Strange is a trip and a half to watch and its impact does not deteriorate on the second viewing. What’s more, this is the only MCU movie to feature a scene-stealing non-robotic inanimate object, and one of the only action movies I’ve ever seen that successfully uses visual gimmicks to better itself with each successive major set piece. How about that ending, hey?

11. Captain Marvel

The newest MCU movie goes right in the middle of the list. To get above the ten (mostly) entertaining films beneath it, Captain Marvel brings plenty of fire-power, mostly in the score and supporting cast departments. Jude Law and Gemma Chan’s MCU debut is good fun, Samuel L Jackson’s digitally (and impressively) de-aged Nick Fury is a camera magnet having the time of his life, Lashana Lynch announces herself in a big way with a show-stopping monologue and Ben Mendelsohn – well he just steals the show. The stuff keeping it out of the top ten is mostly related to Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel herself, as the film seems to be in such a big hurry to set up Avengers: Endgame that it rushes her kind-of-origin story without even letting her have a solid character arc. All indicators so far point to a lot more development happening in the likely sequel, and I am definitely on board for that.

10. Iron Man 3

This was one of the movies I was most excited to re-watch, because back when it first came out I felt like I was in the clear minority for liking it. Over time the discourse over that Mandarin plot twist has evened out somewhat, and people are more willing to talk about the rest of the movie. While Iron Man 2‘s sheer zany spirit and sense of humour is almost entirely absent here, 3 is arguably the only Iron Man movie with enough quality moving parts that it might have held up even without Robert Downey Jr’s unfair levels of charisma. Of course the fact that he’s the star is still a big plus and it elevates the movie regardless – particularly given that this marks the moment where Tony Stark’s more dramatic material starts to rear its head – but Guy Pearce’s maniacal gazes, Gwyneth Paltrow’s more action-oriented character arc and everything about Ben Kingsley’s dual performance are all huge strengths. To this day the movie still holds the most inventive uses of Iron Man-related action set pieces in the MCU, even if the inconsistency around the rules that govern the Extremis-powered bad guys is frustratingly loose. And I had totally forgotten about that amazing civilian freefall rescue scene.

9. Avengers: Age of Ultron

I have no doubt that Age of Ultron is the MCU movie that cops the most undeserving amount of flak from fans, but it can take it. Sure, this is Thor’s worst movie as a meaningful character, the Black Widow / Bruce Banner romance feels forced, and in parts you can feel the seams of the story buckling under all the simultaneous setup it tries to perform for the still-to-come Infinity War / Black Panther / Thor Ragnarok / Civil War films. But ultimately its greatest sin is one it can have little control over – It just doesn’t feel as consequential, as “big” as either the first or third Avengers movies. Everything else you could want from an MCU team-up is here. The opening half-hour is amazing, comprising that iconic slow-mo shot, the genuinely chilling birth of Ultron in a black void and the golden non-stop character banter / Mjolnir-lifting shenanigans of the “revels” party. Hawkeye also gets a massive character upgrade, Hulkbuster vs Hulk is delirious action movie fun, Vision and Scarlet Witch have memorable MCU debuts and Ultron himself is brought to life with unpredictable glee by James Spader. Hindsight has shown us that Age of Ultron‘s setup work paid off and then some, which arguably improves the movie retroactively, but that isn’t the only thing that makes it an unskippable chapter of any MCU re-watch.

8. Spider-Man Homecoming

Spider-Man Homecoming earns plenty of its brownie points simply by virtue of what it doesn’t do – namely show us yet another Spidey origin story – and it also helps that by the time the film swings around this Tom Holland version of the character has already been successfully introduced in Civil War. From there, Homecoming does its own thing and it does it supremely well, packing one of the MCU’s most cleverly-cast (and just straight-up best) villains in the form of Michael Keaton’s Vulture (This movie holds a strong contender for the best scene in the entirety of the MCU thanks to his incredibly imposing yet down-to-earth performance at the wheel of a car). Iron Man works well as a prominent supporting player throughout the movie, not only helping to sell the long-awaited live-action cinematic debut of an actual teenage Peter Parker by letting him be naive and inexperienced, but providing a meaningful stop on the larger Tony Stark character arc. Since Homecoming is also functionally a high school comedy, it feels unlike any of its Marvel Studios contemporaries, but it takes its unique structure a step further by flipping the usual superhero costume narrative on its head and subverting plenty of the expectations inherent to a Spider-Man adventure. Fresh and delicious.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2

Ah yes, the one known for that ending. Admit it, you cried like everybody else. I sure did. Three times. But what about that Baby Groot dancing opening spectacular, set against the impeccable backdrop of ELO’s Mr Blue Sky? What about the rest of the soundtrack? That delicious Kurt Russell performance, equal parts fabulous charm and deliciously campy villainy? The introduction of Mantis? The redemption of Yondu and Nebula? Rocket’s forest trap? The horde of spaceships piloted remotely via gold-painted people on arcade machines? The Ravager prison breakout? The Avengers-style spin-around shot in the planet’s core? No less than Sylvester freaking Stallone? This is a quality two hours and fifteen minutes of well-rounded entertainment up there with the best Marvel Studios has to offer.

6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

If you divorce The Winter Soldier from the elite status it obtained five years ago, which we now take for granted, it’s still really weird that this is so universally regarded as one of the best Marvel movies, right? There’s almost nothing about it that qualifies it as a superhero flick. This is an espionage thriller with bone-crunchingly physical fights and a man-against-organisation theme that just so happens to hinge off a crucial point in Captain America’s evolution as a cinematic character. But those things are exactly what make the film so good. Once a symbol of a greater institution, Cap begins his transformation into a man who answers exclusively to his own moral code by coming face-to-face with an ethically compromised S.H.I.E.L.D that reveals itself to be the housing for a resurgent Hydra via one of the heaviest twists in the entire MCU. Steve Rogers’ idealistic evolution comes alongside a huge on-screen power upgrade that results in the best hand-to-hand choreography you’ll find on this page, as well as two of its best car chases – One of them doubling as Nick Fury’s best MCU scene. What’s more, The Winter Soldier is the most fitting film for that infamous visual filter. It’s a great time all around.

5. Captain America: Civil War

When this movie came out it was understandably compared to the divisive Avengers: Age of Ultron, and even with the benefit of hindsight it’s still incredibly difficult not to do the same thing again. But what makes Civil War so great is that not only does it come out of that comparison extremely favourably – feeling like the single most consequential film to watch before Infinity War in terms of moving pieces – it also serves as the introductory spark for two important new faces in Spider-Man and Black Panther, a coherent continuation of the Cap-centric plot from The Winter Soldier and a vehicle for the MCU’s most memorable battle sequence yet. The sheer number of plates it juggles with alarming success renders any of its poorly-greased elements miniscule, but ultimately it is the performances of Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr in that heart-rending finale that seals the deal on its top five position for me.

4. Avengers: Infinity War

I know if you’re reading this there’s a decent chance you’ve seen Infinity War more than once, if a bunch of my friends are any indication. But this re-watch was all leading up to only my second viewing, and though I already knew I liked it, it’s truly astonishing to me how well the two-and-a-half-hour epic holds up when you’re divorced from the sheer unrelenting stress and uncertainty of the initial viewing, let alone with such immediate prior context of the other MCU entries. It’s a fair bit easier to pick up on themes, character through-lines and small moments of continuity, of which there are plenty (and then some). It takes well over an hour for the final major character (re)introduction to take place and each one of them is a crowd-pleasing hit. The countless character meetings are just as good – particularly so for anything involving the Guardians – and it still feels super surreal that Thanos turns out to be such a fully-realised, despicable character. Wakanda looks better than it does in its own movie, Captain America/The Nomad does an awful lot with very little screen time and yes, after watching his prior two movies so close to this one, I fully buy into that divisive Star Lord moment. Bring on Endgame.

3. Guardians of the Galaxy

Speaking of which, Star Lord and Thanos’ proper debut is one of the very best movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. One thing made stunningly clear to me over the last month is just how good James Gunn’s vision for the Guardians of the Galaxy actually looks alongside its more Earth-centric colleagues. The CGI is consistently more impressive in every facet than most of the movies that arrived after it, which stacks on top of the phenomenally weird art direction to make for an experience best put on the biggest screen available. The soundtrack of course stands head-and-shoulders above every other MCU outing aside from its own direct sequel, and some of the off-beat jokes are somehow even funnier after the first watch. But there’s no talking about Guardians of the Galaxy without mention of its considerable emotional beats, which help to sell the formation of an unlikely family out of the husks of five damaged galactic criminals without the benefit of any prior movies for setup. This one holds up better than most.

2. Thor Ragnarok

The Marvel movie I’ve seen the most amount of times, and for good reason. What a film. With all the calculated decision-making of a Phase Three movie, the visual imagination of a super-nerdy indie adaptation inexplicably backed by millions of dollars (It seriously sings in 4K HDR) and the most consistent stream of comedic gems in the MCU, Thor Ragnarok takes a sledgehammer to a mountain of established Marvel Studios characterisations and builds one of their best properties from the ashes of arguably its worst. Tessa Thompson, Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum prove to be tremendous newcomers, assisting the rebirth of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor into a true charismatic powerhouse, the launch of a new Hulk storyline that takes the character to outrageous new places, the long-awaited redemption of Loki and, of course, Korg. Taika Waititi’s big budget debut is a statement of magnificent intent to this day and likely will be for a long time to come.

1. The Avengers

Though many worthy films have put up strong challenges, none have yet topped the original MCU team-up extravaganza in my eyes. At least not yet. Every time I watch this movie again I notice something new (most recently the tiny moment of continuity when Iron Man pops off his laser cannisters after fixing the helicarrier – after doing the same thing in Iron Man 2). Depending on which individual movie I’ve watched most recently, I get a different reading and perspective on the film’s interactions and events. Heck, after watching Captain Marvel even the oft-maligned intro scene has another interesting layer to it. According to the rules I set for myself to guide this recent re-watch, I did not need to go back to this film, but I did anyway, just like I would if someone fired up the Blu-ray today. It’s just so good. The titanic upgrades this movie gives to Hulk and Black Widow are often underappreciated today, but going back to watch their respective debuts is a great way to remind yourself. Joss Whedon’s first taste of Asgard makes Thor and Loki tremendous fun, and even in a post-Infinity War world, the cool team-up moments in the final extended battle sequence reign supreme. No character comes out of The Avengers worse off. The movie that ignited the MCU is, in my opinion, still its greatest.

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