19 . Iron Man 2 — Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it was the very definition of unpredictable. The mega-franchise had not yet settled into the cinematic juggernaut that it would become and had not definitively settled on what, exactly, it even was trying to be. It was a lot like slasher movies in the early 1980s: the genre hadn’t yet settled into its familiar trappings and every new film, no matter how derivative or cheaply made, was a unique experiment in drawing the borders of what was possible.
For all of its failings, Iron Man 2 was a good movie. No, it wasn’t as good as Iron Man. It wasn’t as refreshingly bizarre as Thor. It wasn’t as brazenly different as Captain America. What it was, though, was a solid continuation of the mega-franchise’s early world-building. And if the worst Marvel movie out there is as fun and watchable as Iron Man 2, than I will happily take that as a point in the MCU’s favor.
18 . Thor — When it comes down to it, Thor is about as good as Iron Man 2. Neither are, strictly speaking, great, but both are as good as any other blockbuster on the market, with as much eye-popping polish, and even a few moments of genuine greatness in them. For as meandering as Thor’s fish-out-of-water storyline proves to be, the Shakespearean politics of Asgard — from Loki’s obsessive quest for vindication and Odin’s calculated political maneuvering — is fascinating to play out across Marvel’s breathtaking cosmic expanse.
Where Thor beats out Iron Man 2 is in how much it establishes, and is willing to risk, across its brief runtime. It establishes a world of myth and magic, even if most of its more fantastical elements are explained via Arthur C. Clark’s third law (“any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), in turn laying the groundwork for Doctor Strange. The mystical adventures of everybody’s favorites magical space Viking also lay the groundwork for the worlds-spanning antics of Guardians of the Galaxy. Loki not only solved Marvel’s alleged villain problem, but established him as a franchise-spanning antagonist whose machinations continue to pay off well into Infinity War.
17 . Thor: The Dark World — Although undoubtedly the weakest of Marvel’s post-Avengers production cycle, Thor’s second solo outing never-the-less proved to be a monumental gain for the MCU as a whole and this franchise in particular. It may have come in the form of baby steps, but The Dark World both set up and enabled everything from Guardians of the Galaxy, Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War.
Gradually, Marvel learned that Thor was far more interesting when taken on his own terms: when drenched in the trappings of Norse mythology and Marvel’s on cosmic weirdness, as opposed to the everyday mundanity of 21st Century Earth. We see Thor dispatched throughout the Nine Realms: not just to Midgard (Earth) and Asgard, but Jotunheim, Alfheim and Svartalfheim. It proved to be a crucial link between the pissant New Mexican town in Thor and Ragnarok‘s Sakaar.
16 . Spider-Man: Homecoming — As much as I love this movie, and as much as it pains me to rank it so low within Marvel’s continuing continuity of movies, I really can’t justify putting it anywhere else. Outside of being the grand return of Spider-Man to the MCU (outside of an Avengers-level team-up, that is), it really doesn’t have anything going for it that its competition doesn’t already have in spades.
It doesn’t take the entire meta-franchise to task like Civil War does. It’s not the trippy reinvention of the blockbuster like Doctor Strange was. It wasn’t the emotional tour de force that Vol. 2 was. It wasn’t the franchise reinvention that Ragnarok was. It wasn’t the revelation that Black Panther was. It wasn’t the generational event that Infinity War was. Sadly, it was just a great movie, and that doesn’t get you very far in the MCU anymore.
15 . Iron Man — The first Marvel movie, and often credited as one of the franchise’s best, deserves every bit of praise it has ever received, even if the movie itself simply doesn’t hold up like it did upon first viewing. In one fell swoop, it established the basics of what made a Marvel movie: from the lively, action-comedy tone to wholesale abandoning secret identities. By combining physical costumes with CG effects, it also went a long way to solving the problem of costumed heroes looking good on the big screen.
And where Iron Man falters, it does so so gracefully that most movie-goers understandably gloss over whatever minor shortcoming has reared up out of the woodwork. So while its third act may spin its wheels while we race along from the attack on the captive Middle Eastern village to “I am Iron Man,” it does so so entertainingly and after such a strong two-act start that it hardly matters at that point. Iron Monger might be a boring villain, but his role is more mechanical than anything, existing only to give something for Tony to punch in the finale after he works out his midlife crisis during the second act. In short, what doesn’t work about the movie is almost inconsequential and is largely overshadowed by everything it nails out of the gate.
14 . Doctor Strange — Talk about a trip of a movie. Doctor Strange takes the bizarre, cosmic and fantastical side of the MCU and runs with it just as far as it can given its clipped under two-hour runtime. And while it pays lip service to the idea that Marvel Magic is just highly advanced science, it really can’t be bothered to care about any of it. It’s magic as far as the good Doctor, or any of his fellow sorcerers, are concerned, and that should be good enough for us.
Between its inspired choice of directors, solid choice in actors and breathtaking use of special effects and set design, it is an absolute must-see for any blockbuster far, be they Marvel aficionados or otherwise. And, paradoxically, it actually plays out better on the small screen than the big one. Rather than all of the sensuous detail is lost in rapid flurries of motion, the compression actually reduces the dizzying action into a more manageable package..
13 . Ant-Man — Although in many ways a step back from the exponentially raised stakes of this and future phase, Ant-Man answered a nagging question on the minds of many Marvel fans: is the MCU big enough to dial back the scales. Is there room, in other words, for (pardon the pun) smaller stories and smsaller heroes, or does every last movie have to be The Avengers in order to draw in a crowd.
The answer, of course, is a resounding “no.’ Not only are smaller, less Earth-shattering movies possible in the post-Avengers world, but they are wholly welcome. Ant-Man is the perfect chaser for the likes of The Winter Soldier of Age of Ultron: a movie confident enough it what it wants to be that the climactic showdown can involve staring down a toy-sized Thomas the Train for the sake of one little girl.
12 . The Incredible Hulk — As far as the movie-going public is concerned, even the Marvel-obsessed among us, The Incredible Hulk may as well not have been made at all. Due to the still-confusing rights hang-ups surrounding the franchise, Marvel Studios has seen fit to not release a proper sequel to the character’s origin story, inserting him instead other Avengers’ movies. As of the character’s second MCU appearance in The Avengers, the actor was changed to celebrated thespian Mark Ruffalo, who has unreservedly proven to be the superior Bruce Banner. And perhaps because of these two mitigating factors, later Marvel movies have tried setting the character up with all manner of different romantic interests — ranging from Black Widow to Valkyrie — leaving future prospects for franchise staple Betty White in the dark.
And that’s a real shame, too, because despite how retroactively incongruous the movie is to the modern MCU, The Incredible Hulk really is one of its best outing. Between its smart direction and polished script, it perfectly executes on its premise of a scientist on the run (not just from the United States government, but also from himself). It further proved that Marvel movies didn’t have to be strictly action-movies, branching off into horror the same way that later movies delved into the tropes and motifs of teen comedies, heist flicks and political thrillers.
11 . Captain America: The First Avenger — While the earlier Marvel movies generally ranged from good to great, Captain America was their first “perfect” movie. Along with Thor, it solved Marvel’s issue with forgettable villains. Along with The Incredible Hulk, it proved that the superhero genre was elastic enough not to just be action movies (in this case, acting as a period war drama). And unlike any of the movies that it followed, Captain America did not suffer from any crippling flaws that ultimately dragged down even the great parts about the movie.
Looking back on it, Captain America was an astonishing risk for the nascent mega-franchise: flying in the face of everything that Marvel had worked to build up over the preceding years. It existed outside of the previously established continuity of the movies. It starred a hero that nobody had cared about since World War II. And yet despite all of this, or maybe because of it, its old-fashioned sensibilities and perfect execution created one of the most unexpectedly endearing corners of the MCU.
10 . Iron Man 3 — After The Avengers, we thought that we knew Iron Man. We thought that we had his shtick down pat. He was the smartest man in the room and he knew it, backed up by a hundred suits of futuretech armor and facing down an increasingly sophisticated breed of tech-based villains. We even thought that we knew what we were in for when it was revealed that the Mandarin, his arch nemesis from the comics, would be squaring off against him in the third franchise outing for the iron avenger. We were wrong.
With every fiber of its being, Iron Man 3 resists the natural compulsion to give audiences more of what they want. Thankfully, the studio and director Shane Black had learned from Iron Man 2 and instead deconstructed the very concept of the character: stripping him down to bits and pieces that he bought from the local Home Depot and reminding everybody watching that he is Iron Man — and in fact was before he ever cobbled together his suit of armor.
9 . Avengers: Infinity War — Although Infinity War isn’t the best movie in the MCU (despite more than a decade of buildup), it is easily the best event in it: an epic coming-together of characters and storylines the likes of which we genuinely had never seen before. With the few unfortunate examples mentioned previously, we got to see every major character from every one of the preceding eighteen movies brought together in one jaw-dropping film. We got to watch the creative teams at Marvel tear apart our favorite teams, wantonly killing beloved characters off left and right up to its heartbreaking finale, where they saw fit to kill off half of those that managed to make it that far. We saw defeat being snatched from the jaws of victories, and the good guys lose the very fight that, by rights, they had just won.
We saw history: a shakeup of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that brought the mega-franchise to its knees and set it up for what may yet prove to be an even bigger sequel on the way. And while these deaths will doubtlessly be righted by the time that Avengers 4 rolls into theaters a year from now (I mean, they do have an omnipotence-granting superweapon that can grant the wielder absolute control over time, space, minds, souls, power and reality itself), the defeat and the loss is palpable and profound.
8 . Avengers: Age of Ultron — Age of Ultron had the impossible mission of outdoing its predecessor, The Avengers: the biggest movie on the face of the planet that single-handedly remade the modern blockbuster in its image. In a lot of ways, it even succeeded. It gave us a far more complex villain than the admittedly already sophisticated Loki. It worked overtime to develop characters that had thus far drawn the short end of the franchise stick. It even managed to take everybody’s favorite superheroes to task for their failings since the franchise’s conception.
While it is hardly the best Avengers movie, it more than earns its high ranking in the Marvel pantheon. It is a fun, fast-paced and deceptively deep film that improves mightily on repeat viewings. Ultron is perhaps Marvel’s most interesting villain: which is saying something, seeing as how the studio now has Loki, Mandarin, the Winter Soldier and Thanos to boast of. Ultimately, it was the perfect follow-up to what has since proven to be the perfect blockbuster.
7 . Guardians of the Galaxy — Why anybody ever thought that this Z-list comic property would work on the big screen is beyond me. Set in the far-flung reaches of Marvels bizarre galaxies, it more fully embraced the possibilities of the Marvel universe than anything that came before it: up to and including The Avengers itself.
Its heroes included a man-child. An Orion slave girl, a wrestler, an Ent and a talking raccoon with a gun fetish and they on-again / off-again fought angry Papa Smurf for control of a shiny space rock. And yet, everything about it worked. No matter how head-scratchingly weird or brazenly unorthodox, it told the story of its character with absolute sincerity and transformed a scene of a crying raccoon clutching a twig getting pet by a half-naked brawler into one of the most memorable and touching scenes that entire year.
6 . Black Panther — In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious that it is some minor miracle that this movie even exists in the first place. Based on a character that none but one of the most die-hard niches of comic fandom new about, let alone cared about, until his cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War two years earlier. And even then, he appeared alongside almost a dozen other Avengers, including Spider-Man making his long-anticipated return to Marvel after more than a decade under the yoke of studio rival Sony.
And yet, somehow, this movie did get made — a gorgeous window into an afro-futurist nation and a world in which colonialism’s hold over the world was mercifully not so complete — and we are all the richer for it. From its nearly all-Black cast (save for Martin Freeman as the token White onlooker and Andy Serkis as a second-string villain) to its jaw-dropping visuals, it was a narrative portrait that couldn’t help but impress. But combined with its smartly crafted screenplay, exceptional direction and powerful message of family, tradition and legacy, it is a genuine 21st century masterpiece in blockbuster form.
5 . Thor: Ragnarok — Despite several passes at the concept and no lack of trying, Thor never really worked in the MCU: at least, not the way that he was supposed to. Given the inherent weirdness of the property, Marvel always seemed a little reluctant to well and truly let him off of the leash. He was always contextualized with Earth, his weirdness always contrasted with the mundane. His franchise, no matter how loftily Shakespearean or cosmically ambitious, was always cut with an overbearing dose of real-worldliness, whereas Ragnarok proved that Thor, as a poperty, is so much more infectiously fun when taken on his own terms, and when the madcap nature of the series is leaned into as hard as possible.
Not only is Ragnarok a perfectly uncompromised version of exactly what it was always meant to be, but it was mixed into with a little retro flair for good measure. Looking, sounding and ultimately feeling like the Thor movie that they would have made in the 1980s — with the synth-pop vibe of movies like Tron and Flash Gordon — it never felt like a better fit for the space Viking and his magical hammer. Throw in the Hulk and a drastically reimagined Valkyrie, and you have what is unquestionably one of the most original-feeling and overall best Marvel movies to date.
4 . Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — It’s genuinely remarkable what Marvel was able to make out of this Z-list property that sounded like the world’s most bizarre game of D&D before its debut in 2014. An 80’s man-child, an Orion slave girl, an Ent, a Raccoon and Dave Bautista team-up against a living planet and his bug-faced friend in order to literally reshape the galaxy in his image… it’s honestly just too much in every sense of the phrase. If the first movie was like the world’s weirdest remake of The Ice Pirates, that this was, at least on paper, it’s acid-tripping cousin.
And yet, despite everything that it had going against it, everything about this movie worked: from the interplay of its characters to its familial narrative to its one-of-a-kind soundtrack. It proves not just that Marvel can make blockbuster hits out of anything, but that it can do so because it understands and respects its characters on such a deep level. It’s willing not only to take a chance on these characters, but dig in deep to see what makes them tick. And, because of that, they made what proved to unreservedly be the most emotionally resonant movie of the year out of a Pac-Man gag and red-finned man’s space funeral.
3 . The Avengers — 2012 was the moment that the MCU stopped being a series of tangentially related franchises and truly became a shared universe. The Avengers was the proof of concept that fans had been waiting half a decade for: proof-positive that characters as radically different as these could not only exist in the same setting, but regularly interact with one another. Its success is the reason why Chris Evans appeared in Thor: The Dark World, why Anthony Mackie was in Ant-Man and why Captain America: Civil War was allowed to exist at all.
Beyond that, the film is the perfect summer action movie: stuffed to bursting with quippy one-liners, memorable character interactions and a world-ending narrative that still holds up as the best third-act climax of any movie in the genre. Joss Whedon, whatever his present-day shortcomings, knows how to film around characters, and that’s exactly what The Avengers is: an intelligent character drama dressed up like an action movie.
2 . Captain America: The Winter Soldier — For the longest time, this was my favorite Marvel movie. Not either Avengers. Not Iron Man. Not Guardians of the Galaxy. For all of the wonderful weirdness only beginning to be tapped by the mega-franchise, the series’ most polished and evocative entry was perhaps its most mundane: not a cosmically inflated battle for the galaxy nor an extra-dimensional invasion of the planet, but a starry-eyed boy scout battling for the fate of his best friend.
No matter how out-there or complex the series became, The Winter Soldier serves as a testament to the endearing power of these characters. We don’t come to see them blow up weapons of mass destruction or punch bad guys in the face — not really — but to see how they grow and develop and affect the world around them. Its their choices, the hard ones that stick with you long after the credits stop rolling, that is the real strength of these movies. It’s why we keep coming back for more, again and again, movie after movie.
1 . Captain America: Civil War — I’m honestly at a loss to think of what else could possibly take this movie’s place. It is the best Phase 3 movie, the best Captain America movie and, I would argue, easily the best MCU movie overall. It’s large, bombastic and brings back everything that made the mega-franchise great to begin with. We not only get to watch these characters bounce off of each other, but grow and develop and struggle as people in a vast and uncaring world seeking only to drive them apart from one another.
It is features a tightly woven and thematically rich narrative brought to bear by two of the most talented directors working today: men who are capable of balancing large and otherwise unwieldly casts against not just one another, but an internally consistent narrative and the mounting needs of the larger franchise’s narrative. It not only deconstructs a lot of what everybody loves about the MCU, but takes it to task for everything that has happened in it since Phase 1.
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