The Marvel Cinematic Universe has revolutionized the way that movie franchises work. Now, it’s not good enough to have part one, then part two, then part three. You have to have a wide, sprawling universe of interconnected stories and characters that flit in and out of one another like an elaborate puzzle. Every other franchise has since followed suit, from DC Comics to the Universal monsters to the video games of Activision to Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse to Hasbro to Jump Street to Lego to Star Wars. The list is endless! And yet, none of them have come anywhere near close to matching the resounding success of the MCU. Almost twenty movies in, the MCU is still knocking it out of the park and they’re not showing any signs of running out of steam any time soon. They just released Black Panther, which has been universally acclaimed by critics for its storytelling, character development, and African representation. It’s had a heck of a first week, grossing more than half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office in a matter of days. Marvel’s on a roll! They’ve been on a roll for over a decade now, amassing 18 brilliant movies, and that looks to be continuing later this summer with the release of Avengers: Infinity War. In anticipation of Infinity War, we’ve ranked the existing 18 MCU movies from worst to best.
18. Thor: The Dark World
There’s no question that Thor: The Dark World is the weakest movie in the MCU. There’s just nothing interesting or spectacular about it. When Kenneth Branagh directed the first Thor movie, he brought something to it. He brought his Shakespearean background and his British comic wit to it. That’s what distinguished Thor from all the other superhero blockbusters and made it so darn entertaining. But with Thor: The Dark World, director Alan Taylor just gave us a run of the mill, by the numbers comic book movie. Taylor’s used to directing TV episodes, and that’s pretty much what he did here. He matched the house style of the MCU and directed an episode of it. These movies are better when the directors bring a personal touch, like James Gunn or Joss Whedon.
17. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 is the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice of the MCU. It’s the one that was made as soon as the studio brass decided they wanted to build up a shared cinematic universe of their characters and stories. Therefore, it’s less its own movie and more universe setup. It’s rammed with new characters and settings and plotlines that are designed to pay off in other movies. As a movie itself, Iron Man 2 is very slapdash, and as a setup of the cinematic universe, it’s a complete mess. But hey, it gave us Black Widow and Nick Fury, so it’s not all bad. And Mickey Rourke plays an interesting villain.
16. The Incredible Hulk
The most glaring inconsistency in the MCU is that in his first and so far only solo movie, Bruce Banner is played by Edward Norton from Fight Club and American History X, but in every other movie that followed, he’s played by Mark Ruffalo. Now, Ruffalo’s portrayal Banner has been better received and everyone has come to see him as the one and only Bruce Banner. But you can’t forget Edward Norton. His portrayal as the conflicted and temperamental Banner trying to get his anger under control was actually pretty masterful. But the story and the villain and everything else is just mediocre, so the movie as a whole suffers, unfortunately.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron
The problem with Avengers: Age of Ultron is that it’s less its own film and more a bridge between various MCU movies that came before it and various MCU movies that were coming after it. Age of Ultron is there to set up the legal quarrel in Captain America: Civil War, Thor and the Hulk’s adventure through space in Thor: Ragnarok, and the Black Panther’s home country of Wakanda and his villain Ulysses Klaue. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot to love – the villain is fiercely menacing and unsettling, and he’s played perfectly by James Spader, there are many terrific set pieces (like Iron Man breaking out his Hulkbuster armor and the Avengers all trying to lift Thor’s hammer at a party). But at the end of the day, it doesn’t feel like you’re watching a movie – it feels more like you’re watching an episode. Plus, there’s that weird detour halfway through where you meet Hawkeye’s family.
14. Captain America: The First Avenger
When Wonder Woman came out last year, a lot of critics compared it to Captain America: The First Avenger in that it introduced a key character’s origin story by taking them back to one of the World Wars. But the difference with Cap is that World War II is integral to his story. There’s a reason that that’s his origin story. He’s a patriot who wanted to fight for his country, so American scientists used him as a test subject to create the perfect soldier, and then he went on to become the world’s first superhero. That’s all great and everything, and Chris Evans is the perfect guy for the role, but the story after the initial setup isn’t all that interesting. Also, the villain Red Skull doesn’t translate too well to the big screen. He looks cool in comic book form, but against the backdrop of Saving Private Ryan-grade cinematic war aesthetic, it’s just odd.
13. Iron Man 3
The biggest disappointment about Iron Man 3 is that it was written and directed by Shane Black. This is the guy who gave us Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He had a great track record! And he was making the next solo Iron Man movie, using his signature wit to bring the character of Tony Stark to life on the silver screen like never before. But alas, Shane Black is not cut out for big budget filmmaking. You can’t make your menacing villain a bumbling buffoon. It’s an interesting idea, sure, but it’s a huge letdown. And you can’t make your central superhero, who gets his powers from a suit of armor, lose that suit of armor and have to take on the bad guys with makeshift MacGyver weapons. Yeah, it’s good for conflict and tension and plot development – but it’s not good for a superhero movie. Luckily, Black managed to redeem his reputation a couple of years later with the terrific action comedy The Nice Guys. But still, Iron Man 3 exists and we can’t forget about it.
12. Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange starts off with a lot of superhero clichés – the Achilles’ heel is introduced, the love interest is clear, the hero meets a mentor, all that crap. But it starts to become different as the action starts to kick in, because it’s the most mind-boggling, awe-inspiring, magical stuff you’ll see in the whole MCU. All of that trippy cinematography where the streets fold in on themselves and the characters are fighting each other from dimension to dimension is awesome! It’s mind-bending stuff. You’ll give yourself vertigo just by watching it and it’ll send you spinning in your seat, but you can’t take your eyes off the screen. It’s like Inception times a thousand!
Like the Guardians of the Galaxy, this bite-sized Marvel hero was not particularly well known when the studio brass decided to give him his own movie. And like Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man was a very overtly comedic. They cast Paul Rudd in the lead role and had him rewrite the script with his Anchorman director Adam McKay. Ant-Man is light, fun, breezy entertainment – unlike some of the best superhero movies like The Dark Knight and Logan, which are a fair bit darker – but in this case, it works. Peyton Reed is a competent director, but while you’re watching it, you can’t help thinking how much more special and idiosyncratic and detailed the movie would’ve been in the hands of its original director, the great Edgar Wright. But hey, Wright dropping out of Ant-Man gave way to his brilliant action-packed jukebox musical Baby Driver – and Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man is a pretty good movie.
10. Thor: Ragnarok
Ever since the success of Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel guys have been pushing for all of their movies to be funny. But with Thor: Ragnarok, they may have taken that a step too far. They got Taika Waititi, the guy who gave us the fiercely funny vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and he went a little overboard with the comedy side of things. There is a lot of great humor mined from Thor’s inflated ego in the movie, but at the end of the day, this is not a comedy. There needs to be drama, tension, action, suspense, thrills, threats, violence, twists, turns – but there’s none of that. Guardians of the Galaxy was a heartfelt, emotionally driven, action-packed superhero blockbuster that happened to have a lot of humor in it. Thor: Ragnarok was a comedy. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a good one, but it should be more than that.
9. Captain America: Civil War
Civil War was billed as the third solo Captain America movie, but let’s face it, it’s really an Avengers movie. It’s like Avengers Lite. A lot of critics dubbed it Avengers 2.5. It has an equal focus on both Iron Man and Captain America as the two sides of an argument – that argument being over whether or not superheroes should be subject to the law – and they each get half the Avengers on their side. It’s a rich and exciting and colorful superhero spectacle, but it is a little overstuffed and busy. But on the whole, a pretty great entry in the MCU.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a fantastic sequel. It takes the characters we fell in love with in the first one and develops them further, delves a little deeper into their backstories and their insecurities and their personalities, and it uses all of that to advance the plot and create new obstacles for the characters. And the script does a fine job of balancing all of this with that trademark sense of humor that made the first one such a unique and popular blockbuster. However, through no fault of anyone involved, Vol. 2 doesn’t feel as fresh and original and game-changing as its predecessor did. It’s a shame, and it was unavoidable, but it’s still a really terrific movie – and surprisingly emotional.
It was an inspired choice by Marvel Studios to get Kenneth Branagh to direct Thor. He’d directed so many Shakespeare adaptations – Twelfth Night, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labor’s Lost – that when he came to a script about the struggles of a royal family and a sibling rivalry and two star-crossed lovers, he saw, not a comic book superhero movie, but a Shakespeare play. He adapted it accordingly, and what we ended up with was a fun, theatrical, beautiful movie that stands out as a unique highlight in the MCU. Branagh is not a blockbuster director, so instead of focusing on the action and the visual effects, he focused on his strengths: story and character. More directors need to do that.
6. Iron Man
Iron Man is the movie that started it all, and it stands out as one of the best, purely because it wasn’t made with the intentions of setting up future movies or bridging the gaps between various movies. It wasn’t made as a universe film – it was made as a film. So, it stands out for just that reason. But it’s also a great superhero movie and origin story in its own right. The masterful thing about the screenplay is that it tells the story of how Tony Stark became Iron Man, but it does so through the lens of our current sociopolitical climate: it touches on the immoral nature of the arms trade and the troubles in the Middle East and the privilege of the 1%. And it was Robert Downey, Jr.’s big comeback. All round great movie.
5. Spider-Man: Homecoming
There were a lot of skeptics when Marvel Studios announced that they had worked out a deal with Sony to get the rights to the Spider-Man character for use in MCU movies. Did we really need yet another reboot of this character? Andrew Garfield was cast as the new Peter Parker just five years after the last Tobey Maguire movie – and Tom Holland was cast to replaced Andrew Garfield after just two years! Many of those skeptics rested their case when they saw Spider-Man make his first MCU appearance in Captain America: Civil War – but some of them still weren’t taken by Tom Holland’s performance. Well, suffice to say, anyone with any doubts whatsoever were floored by Spider-Man: Homecoming, a movie that nailed the tone of the comics – it’s fun, colorful, loaded with humor, and you really get a sense of Peter Parker’s hectic double life. And that twist!
4. Black Panther
There’s a reason that Black Panther has been acclaimed by critics the world over and eaten up by audiences who have given it a half a billion dollars for an astounding opening week. It’s because the movie is so damn good! Marvel Studios have an eye for great directors, and when they saw Ryan Coogler, the director of Fruitvale Station and Creed, they knew he was the guy to bring their first solo outing for an African-American superhero to the big screen. And they were right! The movie has been praised, not only for its incredible storytelling and character development and production design, but also for its representation of black characters and African settings. Some experts are predicting that Black Panther will encourage young black boys to go into the field of science and technology in the way that The Hunger Games encouraged girls to take up archery. That’s some feat for a big budget superhero spectacle!
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
No one had heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy before 2014. It was just an obscure sci-fi comic book about a bunch of intergalactic adventurers, including a talking raccoon and an anthropomorphic tree. But that all changed when James Gunn wrote and directed a movie based on the comics for the MCU and cast a newly jacked up Chris Pratt in the lead role. Guardians of the Galaxy is definitely the funniest MCU movie of the lot, but it’s also surprisingly thrilling and emotionally engaging and, at times, even heartbreaking. You really start to care about these characters. I mean, “We are Groot.” Remember that scene? Enough said. It’s a fantastic movie!
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the first of many MCU movies directed by the Russo brothers, who before then were known for directing episodes of Arrested Development and Community. Any skeptics became immediately aware of the brothers’ blockbuster chops after watching The Winter Soldier, which blends Marvel superhero action with the paranoid political thrillers of the post-Watergate 1970s, even going as far as casting Robert Redford, a staple of those movies. Captain America’s second solo outing was a vast improvement on his lacklustre first. The Winter Soldier is thrilling, funny, engaging, smart, sharp, action-packed, visually stunning – it’s everything you want it to be.
1. The Avengers
The Avengers was the first movie that abundantly started to tie together all the movies in the MCU to show the audience that all of these things are connected. All the superheroes came together as a team to face a threat that none of them could face alone. It was the perfect way to unite them. Joss Whedon, who both wrote and directed the movie, really knows how to handle an ensemble, as he gives everyone their due screen time, in equal doses, all within the confines of a perfect three-act story. The Avengers is masterfully structured, from a screenwriting point of view. All the action set pieces are thrilling and original and advance the plot and the character development. It’s not just the best movie in the MCU – it might be the best superhero movie of all time.