Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranked 1-17
The 18th entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) debuts in theaters this weekend. As a long-time entertainment writer, I’ve covered all of them. As Black Panther prepares to dominate the box office with an expected record-setting performance, I figure the time is right to rank the MCU movies. This is just one person’s opinion, so please direct all torches and pitchforks to me rather than the other contributors on the site.
17) Thor: The Dark World
I defy you to name one memorable moment from this film. To date, MCU movies are bulletproof with regards to critical reviews, but this one came the closest to receiving a Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Frankly, I suspect that many of the folks in 66 percent Fresh camp would like their votes back.
16) The Incredible Hulk
Ed Norton isn’t very popular in Marvel circles due to his behavior on the set during this film. A notorious prima donna, he wore out his welcome so much that Marvel recast the role for The Avengers, and for that we all owe Norton our gratitude. Mark Ruffalo is a better Hulk in 20 minutes of screen time than Norton was in two hours.
What you’re starting to suspect with these rankings is correct. Most MCU titles fall somewhere between “entertaining” and “phenomena” on the grading scale. Ant-Man is like the bottom of the barrel on the former side. It’s silly and pointless and probably ill-served by Edgar Wright’s decision to drop out late in pre-production. I’m confident that the auteur behind Baby Driver would have crafted a better movie, but who doesn’t love Paul Rudd in this role? Also, Michael Peña’s storytelling shtick is always good for a laugh.
14) Iron Man 3
I would have rated this film much higher in the weeks after I watched it. I quite liked Iron Man 3 in spite of its excess. It leveled up the character of Pepper Potts by making her (dangerously) super, a worthy choice. The MCU is decidedly phallocentric thus far, and Gwyneth Paltrow has proven herself every bit the equal of Robert Downey Jr. onscreen. The problem is Michael Bay-ish nature of the action sequences. They simply aren’t memorable enough, exactly the problem all recent DC comic book movies except Wonder Woman have had.
13) Guardians of the Galaxy
Yeah, I’m that guy. Everybody loves the moment at the end of the film when Star-Lord distracts the villain by dancing. Me, I’m actively annoyed that all the would-be ruler of the universe has to do is touch his staff on the ground to kill everybody. It’s lazy storytelling and a microcosm of the issues that Marvel faced in putting together a cohesive edit of the film. If you think I’m being too critical, watch the film again. Try to figure out where and why Glenn Close’s character vanishes, only to reappear suddenly when it’s convenient to the plot. Alternately, just take my word for it. I’d hate to ruin a film that you love by injecting an undesired perspective.
12) Dr. Strange
“Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain.”
We’re at the point in the rankings where everything is at least very good. Dr. Strange has a strong lead character, an interesting and visually stimulating villain, and one of the finest endings of any MCU film to date. I also quite like the plausible heel turn that sets up the future of the franchise. The only complaint that I have is that the action sequences are overwrought. I find the complex motion dynamic distracting rather than exciting. After Iron Man, I consider Dr. Strange the most Marvel of characters introduced in the movie series, though. He’s talented (probably too much so), arrogant, and a special sort of self-destructive. Basically, he’s Tony Stark as a surgeon, but if you’re going to rip somebody off, mimic the best.
You’ll notice that my opinions don’t line up with conventional wisdom on several of these. Thor is a goofy idea for a character, and the first film plays up this odd sort of mania. We know as viewers that he’s not crazy. It’s perfectly reasonable for every human he encounters to stare at him like he’s a madman, though. I also don’t think that Kat Dennings gets enough credit for her work on this film. She’s the best example of comic relief in the MCU so far, save for a caveat in the number one film, Michael Peña‘s work notwithstanding.
10) Iron Man 2
This is where I really don’t line up with public opinion. Most people view this as one of the worst MCU titles to date. I think that’s insane. Iron Man 2 has a splendid spy versus spy element wherein Tony Stark meets his match. As he relishes in the limelight as a famous celebrity, the villain toils away in anonymity, plotting his revenge. And this character finally reveals himself by lashing out in a literal sense during a gripping car chase sequence. One of the things that should come across in these rankings is that I grew up a James Bond fan, which is to say that the villain matters to me. Iron Man 2’s Whiplash is among the greatest MCU baddies to date.
9) Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Basically nobody agrees with me here, as the perception is that Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is just more of the same. I disagree strongly with this assessment. Whereas the first film was an incoherent mess about 40 percent of the time, Disney takes the story seriously here. Once the Guardians franchise started making them billions of dollars, the company wasn’t going to jeopardize the golden goose with another odd plot. Instead, they went Shakespearean by introducing a man who may be Star-Lord’s father. Fittingly, Marvel cast Kurt Russell, whose name also happens to be the last two works that Walt Disney ever spoke. Russell was a Disney icon during the 1960s and 1970s, and he elevates the proceedings by plausibly showing why he would have a need to reconnect with his ex’s son after all this time. Guardians 2 even ties in another Disney classic by turning a former bad guy into “Mary Poppins.”
8) The Avengers: Age of Ultron
After the perfection of the original Avengers movie, MCU fans had unreasonable expectations about all the films that followed. These high standards directly impacted the perception of the titles I rank eighth and seventh. They’re both exceptional movies in many ways, just not as good as their ballyhooed predecessor. Age of Ultron’s titular villain is sublime, an unfeeling monster who incongruously has daddy issues. The story also has a lot of humor, including a decided funny (but dark) dismemberment that will play a factor in Black Panther. Plus, the mentoring of Scarlet Witch by Hawkeye is wonderful. He’s a ridiculous character who seems out of his depth in The Avengers, but those moments aptly display why he’s a member.
7) Captain America: Civil War
I’m of the opinion and these rankings will reflect that Captain America is in the discussion for greatest movie trilogy of all-time. My vote would probably go to the Bourne trilogy (ignoring the last two films) or Mission: Impossible (ignoring the first two films), but Cappy’s right there. Civil War is the most personal of the stories, as Steve Rogers must choose between his friend of 80 years and his new bestie, who happens to lead the Avengers. His choice leads to a schism amongst the most powerful mortals on the planet, and the Russo Brothers deftly explore how this ideological debate would influence more than a dozen characters. And the airport scene is probably the purest Marvel moment in the franchise to date.
6) Spider-Man: Homecoming
The best part of Spider-Man 2 was that train sequence punctuated by the unmasking of the character. A bystander noted that Peter Parker is “just a kid.” Spider-Man: Homecoming takes that premise and runs with it, bringing the character back to the days of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, a short-lived but beloved comic. It played up the high school student aspect of Peter Parker more than the superhero part. Homecoming is more balanced, but the premise is still the same. It’s hard to save lives when you have a big group project due that week. Plus, Michael Keaton is equal parts plausible and chilling as an unlucky businessman who pivots into a new business model. And the reveal in this film is the best in the MCU to date.
5) Thor: Ragnarok
Since Thor is outlandish and over the top, he’s the perfect comic foil. Someone at Marvel recognized this and constructed an entire story wherein the title character is the butt of all the best jokes. He’s weaker than The Hulk, he’s not serious enough for Valkyrie, and he’s not smart enough to realize just how much trouble he’s in. My lone criticism about this film is that I wish it’d been more of a buddy movie between The Hulk and Thor. Instead, they use the big green guy in short bursts, generally as a way of humiliating Thor. That works for me, too. The other four Marvel movies on this list are better, but Thor: Ragnarok is the most fun.
4) Captain America: The First Avenger
I lost you here, and I know it. Just accept that everyone has different taste in movies. I happen to own more than 2,000 films in my Ultraviolet library. The first Captain America film is one of the 10 titles that I’ve re-watched the most. I’m actively obsessed with the straightforward storytelling that’s every bit as much a relic as its title character. This is a World War II movie that’s impossibly optimistic in tone yet bittersweet in the end. It reveals how a good man can somehow win a war, save a planet, and still lose the girl in the end. The First Avenger also does the finest job of enumerating the key qualities of a superhero of any MCU title to date. Captain America doesn’t jump on what he believes to be a live grenade to save his fellow soldiers. 130-pound Steve Rogers does. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.
3) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
And The Winter Soldier takes that baseline of Steve Rogers, leveling him up to the unbeatable human who anchors The Avengers. The Winter Soldier starts with a brilliant introduction of a silly comic character, Falcon, in a believable way as a disaffected soldier. From there, it shows that Rogers lives in a gilded cage, carefully watched by someone he naively believes is just a neighbor. Next, it blows up the man behind the Avengers Initiative. Also, we learn along the way that it’s never a good idea to get on the same elevator as Captain America. The second film in the franchise has gripping action scenes, a terrific cast, and impeccable quality throughout. It was in my top three for 2014 and is a legit A+ feature.
2) Iron Man
I almost died 10 years ago. A couple of holes popped in my stomach and, like the idiot that I am, I went to bed rather than the hospital. For about four months, those holes were my life. When I was finally healthy enough to go back outside after what seemed like forever, Iron Man was the first movie I saw. Keeping in mind that I run a movie website, this was a big deal to me. And a scene in this film was so relatable that it felt written especially for me.
After a trying few months in a desert cave, Tony Stark declares that he needs a cheeseburger before he does anything. By this point, I’d had hospital food and soup for months on end. I could relate. Iron Man delivered more than simply a funny anecdote, though. It was the film that proved Marvel movies could compete with DC.
As comical as the idea is a decade later, 2008 was the year of The Dark Knight. The perception at the time was that DC was a known and trustworthy movie brand. Marvel was a huge unknown. Iron Man fundamentally altered people’s opinions on Marvel while the next half a dozen DC films ruined their reputation. Iron Man was my favorite film of 2008, a year when I saw 98 titles. For the longest time, I thought no Marvel film could top it…until one did.
1) The Avengers
I don’t feel like I’m going out on a limb by saying that this is the perfect MCU movie. It’s got everything including humor, action, and character development. Director Joss Whedon hits on all cylinders here by using his lifelong love of comics to maximum impact. He understands how to make Hawkeye cool, how to show the darkness and light in Tony Stark, and how best to use The Hulk.
In the Thor discussion, I mentioned the skilled comic relief work of Kat Dennings. Well, she is surpassed by a character in this film, presuming that we view The Hulk as comic relief. The first two movies starring the character were too somber, prioritizing the tortured psyche of Bruce Banner. Whedon felt no such compunction, instead showing the fun elements of a green CGI monster fighting on the side of the angels. Then, when we least expected it, he hit us with the boomstick, the revelation that his Banner is the most tormented of all, the one who’s always angry.
The Avengers is a doctoral thesis in team-based storytelling. Each character has a backstory, a motivation, a reason to question his new allies, and a cause to believe in the impossible dream of a superhero team-up. It’s not just the best thing in the MCU to date. It’s likely to hold that title forever. After all, nothing beats perfect.
David Mumpower is the author of the Disney Demystified series. You can purchase Volume 1 (Disneyland) or Volume 2 for $4.99 each on Amazon. Alternately, you can go old school and buy a physical copy for $14.95.