To ‘Infinite’ and Beyond: Ranking Marvel’s ‘Infinity Saga’

The end has finally come for Marvel’s Infinity Saga: a three-act, franchise-spanning meta-narrative that stretches all the way back to the first Iron Man and has informed, inspired, crossed streams with or retroactively written itself into every single one of the twenty-two (going on twenty-three) movies released in the mega-franchise to date.  It is a monstrous undertaking of filmmaking, a colossal testament to its audience’s attention span and honestly one of the most singularly impressive spectacles to ever come out of Hollywood when all is said and done.  And here, for the last time, is how the so-called “Marvel Experiment” shook out over its tenure as the biggest movie-making venture in Hollywood.

22 . Iron Man 2 (2010) — For all of its failings, Iron Man 2 is actually a good movie.  No, it isn’t as good as the first Iron Man.  It isn’t as refreshingly bizarre as the Thor movies.  It isn’t as brazenly different as the first Captain America.  It didn’t reshape the industry like the first Avengers.  Despite being an obvious (and obviously rushed) cash-grab on a surprise hit before its fledgling studio could quite figure out exactly why that first movie connected so well with audiences, it proved to be a solid continuation of the nascent mega-franchise’s early narratives, a successful exercise in its ongoing worldbuilding efforts and a decidedly above-average action movie that was still more exciting than most of the blockbusters it was released against.  And even if it ultimately is the worst MCU movie there is, I will nevertheless happily sit down and watch it at the drop of a hat with as confident, fun and thoroughly watchable as it has proven to be over the years.

21 . Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) — Looking back on it, Ant-Man and the Wasp was always going to face an uphill battle.  Released in the confused interim between Infinity War and Endgame, the story was always going to lack forward momentum: forever stuk spinning its wheels between two giant-sized Avengers releases that refused to let it go in whatever interesting direction it would have been better served going in.  And yet, despite the unbridled superfluousness of its own existence, the resulting movie was made with as much fun and polish as anything else in the MCU.  It features one of Stan Lee’s all-time great cameos, gave us even more of the riotously funny supporting cast and worked in a few more visual gags based on the absurd set of powers bequeathed to its title character.  It may just be spinning its wheels for two hours, but it’s an incredibly fun show while it’s on-screen.  And while we should always demand more than that from out blockbusters, it doesn’t hurt to wind up with an amusing distraction every once and a while.

20 . Thor (2011) — Although all-around solid blockbusters in their own right, the Phase 1 Marvel movies — and, to a lesser extent, all of the MCU’s origin stories — have never held up as well as their later outings: where the filmmakers were able take all of the scene-setting and now-familiar characters as established in their first outings and take them in new, interesting and increasingly compelling directions.  To this end, the Thor franchise is emblematic of this gradual, feeling-out process that has epitomized the larger Marvel brand.  The first movie, a capable Shakespearian drama elevated by its science fantasy trappings, understood what was great about its intimate cast of characters, but had no idea what to actually do with them.  Thor: The Dark World began playing more with the bizarre aspects of the franchise, much to its benefits.  By the time that Ragnarok came around, however, Marvel understood that these characters were best utilized on their own terms: thoroughly immersed in their retro-futuristic, Flash Gordon-adjacent, neo-mythological, garishly pop-art tone, setting and aesthetic.  And though they were still working out the franchise kinks back in 2011, they skeleton of the amazing franchise it would eventually turn into were all there from the start: the inspired direction from Shakespearian director Kenneth Branagh, elevated performances by Hemsworth, Hiddleston and Hopkins and an eye for visuals generally absent in the larger MCU as a whole.

19 . Thor: The Dark World (2013) — Although The Dark World lacks much of the Branagh-directed flair that made the first film such an unexpected surprise among the early MCU offerings, the increasingly confident direction that its producers and newly-installed director would take it in made all the different. Yes, it might have been a case of “two steps forward, one step back,” but it was a net gain in a franchise that still hadn’t fully found its place in the more science-leaning mega-franchise it was a part of.  The buddy-cop chemistry between Thor and Loki was a decided improvement over their more mercurial relationship two years prior, the increased emphasis on the Nine Realms (and not just Midgard) made the wacky space-adventure all the more fun and immersive and the returning Earth-bound cast were as fun here as they ever were.  It would still take a few years for them to truly figure out the best direction for these characters and this franchise, but The Dark World was a deftly-done course-correction that inched them closer to Ragnarok.

18 . Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) — Blasphemous as it might be to say, it is Tom Holland — not Tobe Maguire — that is the best Peter Parker we’ve ever gotten on screen.  Holland’s version is far more even-handed, exciting and flat-out endearing than any of its predecessors, even if his movies lack much of Raimi’s charm, frustratingly resists giving us a Spidey origin story (even in flashback) and oftentimes plays out more like Iron Man 3.5 than as a proper Spider-Man movie.  By now, though, it’s obvious that the MCU’s Spider-Man is leaning hard into his status as a scientific wiz-kid and the heir-apparent to Tony Stark’s Iron Man, just as much as it’s committed to Parker being an awkward dork who is the root cause (and solution to) all of his own problems.  And what can I say, Michae Keaton’s Vulture is very nearly the most interesting villain in the entire MCU (to say nothing of the cinematic Spider-Man movies) and the decision to play this movie off more as a throwback, coming of age teen comedy than a traditional superhero movie was a stroke of sheer brilliance.

17 . Captain Marvel (2019) — Although they are two very different movies, beholden to two very different franchises and interested in two very different thematic conceits, the comparisons between Wonder Woman (2017) and Captain Marvel are nevertheless fascinating.  And while there is a lot to get into regarding these films (certainly in much greater depth than a one-paragraph summation can account for), I’m particularly torn by this one: Captain Marvel was easily the better of the two movies (better paced, better structured, more interesting villain, more engaging writing, more compelling plotline), but Wonder Woman was ultimately the more compelling of the two movies — the more meaningful, the one that stuck with me the longest.  That’s not to say that Captain Marvel is a bad or unworthy movie by any means, just that the production constraints of being a prequel set between Infinity War‘s world-shattering cliffhanger and Endgame‘s hotly-anticipated conclusion meant that there just wasn’t much for it to do besides reminding people to preorder their Endgame tickets when they eventually went on sale.  Captain Marvel is a fun, flighty and funny movie that slots comfortably within the established Marvel oeuvre.  The fact that it is also their first female-led solo movie — and what it has to say about the state of the blockbuster film industry that made it — is merely icing on the cake.

16 . Iron Man (2008) — The first Marvel movie, 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 even when Iron Man falters, it does it so gracefully that most movie-goers understandably gloss over whatever minor shortcoming has reared up out of the woodwork.  In short, what doesn’t work about the movie is almost inconsequential and is largely overshadowed by everything it nails out of the gate.

15 . Doctor Strange (2016)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 runtime.  Between its inspired choice of directors (with horror aficionado Scott Derrickson), solid choice in actors (emblematized by genre-favorite Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role) and breathtaking use of special effects and set design, it is an absolute must-see for any blockbuster fan.  And, paradoxically, it actually plays out better on the small screen than the big one, meaning that the real joy in watching this isn’t from some fleetingly rare rerelease, but sitting at home with your friends and family, the way that most people actually watch movies.

14 . Ant-Man (2015) — Although in many ways a step back from the exponentially raised stakes of the MCU.  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 and Age of Ultron: a movie confident enough and capable enough at what it’s doing that the climactic showdown can involve staring down a toy-sized Thomas the Train for the sake of one little girl.  This is a fun, retro-throwback to 90s heist movies that works so perfectly on its own terms that it honestly doesn’t even matter that they lost director Edgar Wright mid-production.

13 . The Incredible Hulk (2008) — Given the general dismissal that this movie’s received by Marvel fans over the years, The Incredible Hulk is an easy and worthwhile pick for the most under-appreciated movie in the entire franchise.  Coming out the same year as Iron Man, it did much of the necessary heavy lifting necessary to connect the fledgling franchise movies together.  It established a tone, pace and overall narrative structure — not unlike the work done by Steven Spielberg in Jaws (1975) — in conceptualizing and then gradually revealing its titular monster-protagonist before exploding into a bombastic, city-smashing monster-mash during its third act.  Smarter and more capably helmed than you likely remember, The Incredible Hulk is a far better movie than its legacy a decade after its release would suggest.

12 . Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) — While the earlier Marvel movies generally ranged from good to great, Captain America was their first “perfect” movie.  More immaculately realized than Thor, better structured than Iron Man and more instantly iconic than The Incredible Hulk, the resulting film by director Joe Johnston was ultimately as solid and structurally flawless as something like Saving Private Ryan (1998).  More a period-set war drama than anything resembling a traditional superhero narrative, it succeeded on its own terms in a way that none of the preceding movies — and few of the following ones — ultimately did.

11 . Iron Man 3 (2013) — After The Avengers, we all thought that we knew Iron Man.  He was the smartest man in the room and he knew it, backed up by a hundred suits of sci-fi battle armor and a snippy AI assistant.  We even thought that we knew what we were in for when it was revealed that the Mandarin, his comic book arch nemesis, would be squaring off against him in the third franchise outing for the iron avenger.  Boy, were we ever wrong.  With every fiber of its being, Iron Man 3 resists the natural compulsion to give audiences more of what they want.  Instead, it strips Tony Stark down to his inner-most mechanisms and reminds everybody watching that he, Tony Stark, is Iron Man — and in fact was before he ever cobbled together his suit of armor in the desert.

10 . Avengers: Infinity War (2018) — I actually wasn’t as high on this movie when I first saw it in theaters as I am now.  Don’t get me wrong: I loved the movie.  It was a satisfying payoff to a decade-long buildup and the kind of once-in-a-lifetime spectacle that my inner child could only dream of until now.  It’s just that the movie was, by design, incomplete, and the full scope of its buildup, payoff and emotional arc could not have possibly been understood until the bookended release of Endgame a full year later.  And now that we do have that long-awaited companion peace — now that we know the story in full — the film is all the richer and more striking because of it.

9 . Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)Age of Ultron had the impossible mission of outdoing its predecessor, The Avengers: the biggest movie on the face of the planet that singlehandedly 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.  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.

8 . Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) — Why anybody ever thought that some Z-list, sci-fi comic property consisting of no-name heroes would ever possibly work on the big screen is beyond me: let alone from the scribe-turned-director of the live-action Scooby Doo movies.  But with the benefit of hindsight, I now have to question why I ever doubted it in the first place.  The characters were ideally suited for the glib, light-hearted, action-comedy vibe that the MCU had been going for since the first Iron Man.  The setting was bold and refreshing and, quite frankly, a welcome shakeup to the now-familiar terrestrial happenings in the broader franchise.  It connected easily with the coming of Thanos and the slow-reveal of the Infinity Stones and opened fans up to a whole new world of possibilities beyond what they had already come to know.  And coming from the low-genre visionary behind the likes of Super (2010) and Slither (2006), how could it have been anything less than resplendent?

7 . Black Panther (2018) — Although it seems like the most obvious blockbuster franchise when observing it in 2019, it is actually some kind of moviemaking miracle that this film ever got off the ground in the first place.  Based on a character with historically niche appeal, introduced on the big screen only two years prior alongside almost a dozen other Avengers (not the least of which was the long-awaited introduction of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man to the MCU) and adopting a commercially untested afro-futurist aesthetic that flew in the face of decades worth of sacrosanct movie marketing, and none of this — at least on paper — should have worked.  And yet what we got was one of the most visually, aurally and narratively rich entries in the MCU to date: something that I never even realized I needed in my lift until I was staring it down opening night at the multiplex.  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.

6 . Thor: Ragnarok (2017) — Despite several passes and no lack of trying, Marvel was never quite able to make Thor work in the MCU: at least, not the way that he was supposed to, not the way that they wanted him to.  He had a great hook (magical space Viking and his friends go on high science-fantasy adventures), a deep supporting cast and the first recognizably great Marvel villain to square off against time and time again.  But, despite the inherent depth and weirdness of the franchise, Marvel always seemed reticent to really let the character cut loose the way that he always should have.  He was always tied down to the Earth and all of his cosmic weirdness invariably grounded in the mundane.  That all changed with Ragnarok, however, which finally — thankfully — embraced everything bizarre about this character and where he comes from.  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 these characters that always basked in the neon glow of outer space.  And the outright upgrade of supporting characters like the Warriors Three with the likes of  Hulk and Valkyrie is simply chef’s kiss perfection.

5 . Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) — 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 2014 debut: 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.  And yet, despite everything that it had going against it, everything about this movie simply works, ranging from its one-of-a-kind character dynamics to its thematically-rich 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 is willing to trust the talented men and women it hires to make these movies to explore their characters as deeply and as intimately as they need to.

4 . Avengers: Endgame (2019) — Every year, there is always a movie or two that perfectly encapsulates that 12-month period of time: a stretch celluloid that tells us everything that we need to know about the 365 days surrounding it.  Two years ago, we had Wonder Woman, Logan (2017) and Get Out (2017).  Last year we had movies like Black Panther (2018), BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Eighth Grade (2018).  And although we have yet to fully appreciate what movies this present year will be known for, Avengers: Endgame will doubtless be front-and-center among them.  The last entry into both Marvel’s Phase 3 and decade-spanning Infinity Saga, the culmination and standard for this century’s studio filmmaking, Endgame is a class apart from every other blockbuster — except for maybe The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight (2008) — in recent memory.  And the simple fact that it doesn’t top this list out-of-hand is proof positive for the unimpeachably high level of craftsmanship that the MCU is operating on in the present moment.

3 . The Avengers (2012) — 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.  Beyond its obvious historical and narrative importance, however, the film effortlessly proved to be the perfect summer action movie: stuffed to brim 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.

2 . Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) — For the longest time, this was my favorite Marvel movie.  Not any of the 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.  And even now, playing second fiddle to the actual best MCU movie, The Winter Soldier serves as a testament to the endearing power of these characters and the world that they inhabit.  We don’t come to see them blow up weapons of mass destruction or punch bad guys in the face, but their simple choices as people: 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, and it’s what make the hard lines in the sand drawn in this film so endlessly compelling and acutely rewatchable.

1 . Captain America: Civil War (2016) — It’s kind of amazing to think that after everything else we’ve seen in this third production cycle of the MCU — two Avengers team-ups, the cultural touchstones of Black Panther and Captain Marvel and Marvel Studios finally sticking the landing with a Thor movie — that the opening chapter to Phase 3 was ultimately it’s best work overall.  Essentially Avengers 2.5, its deconstructionist approach to the film’s meta-narrative, which raked the franchise’s feat over the coals for its various unspoken in-universe failings, proved to be potent fuel for every Marvel movie between it and Endgame.  And even just taken on its own terms, it’s given us perhaps the richest, most dynamic and most intimately fleshed out movie in the now 23-movie deep franchise, and when its being held up to the likes of The Avengers (2012), Black Panther and Endgame, that alone is an accomplishment worth taking note of.

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