Halfway through the summer of 2018, we’re now 10 years, 20 movies, and somewhere around 30 heroes — talk about symmetry! — into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We’ve visited different galaxies, different time periods, and even different realms known to the common laws of physics.
And we’re still waiting for the introduction of the superhero who’s supposed to be the most powerful of them all, and next summer’s resolution to one of the greatest cliffhanger endings we’ve seen from any movie in years (specifically, what many people have started calling “The Snappening” … and we’re not talking about the recent hack of photos from SnapChat).
You’ve undoubtedly read at least a half-dozen or so of such stories by now, but with the eight-month pause in MCU releases — between this summer’s Ant-Man and the Wasp and next spring’s Captain Marvel — I wanted to re-assess the oft-discussed “Rankings Of the Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies,” and determine where the hugely-hyped Avengers: Infinity War and the Ant-Man sequel fit amongst their counterparts.
To help with such rankings, I enlisted two buddies of mine (Tim and John), whose opinions I respect and trust when it comes to such an endeavor. We each provided our own individual rankings for all 20 movies, added up the rankings college football AP-poll voting style (first place got 20 points, second place got 19 points, etc.), and averaged out the scores.
Without further ado, our collective and (relatively) conclusive results below (in order from worst-to-first), plus thoughts on each movie.
20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Rajan: Can anyone clearly explain that Malekith was trying to accomplish with the Aether? Were those hockey-mask wearing elves really that evil? And where is this universe of things Heimdall can’t see (where the Aether was originally hidden)?
Also, do you mean to tell me that, after Loki snuck in the Frost Giants in the first Thor film, nobody went around looking for any other portals between Asgard and other realms? And then, you had an entire bladey spaceship invade England, and the people with the best chance to stop it were Jane Foster, Eric Selvig, Jane’s intern Chesty Larue (that’s her name in my head), and the completely pointless intern-to-the-intern?
This movie had more “don’t worry about that detail — it’s not important” gaps than us trying to explain to our wives about why we love going to Vegas.
Tim: Stuck between a solid introduction and the irreverence of Thor: Ragnarok, Thor: The Dark World existed just to check a few boxes on its way from titles to credits: the Bifrost is already fixed; the Aether is a weird, red Infinity Stone; Loki is still tricky; and here’s a guy called The Collector.
Other than that, it’s pretty standard bad-guy-wants-McGuffin-to-destroy-the-world because… reasons. Malekith was the absolute worst. Actually, second-worst — next to Darcy.
Thankfully, Marvel already had enough steam behind it from The Avengers to keep the franchise on track.
19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Tim: I probably liked this one a little more than most people. Enough so, that it wasn’t last on my list.
The story was relatively generic and the acting hamfisted, but I dug Ed Norton’s tantric version of the Hulk more than Eric Bana’s.
Until Mark Ruffalo came along, at least.
John: This was the second Marvel movie to come out, and at the time, I thought it was pretty good. But how could it not be, in comparison to it’s terrible predecessor?
The CGI Hulk was very well done, the action was good, and it had a pretty good cast with Norton and Tim Roth. But in hindsight, it doesn’t stack up… and I actually prefer Ruffalo as well.
Rajan: The villain of this movie was known as “The Abomination.” If you told me that was the IMDB description of this movie, I would’ve believed you.
This one earned dead last on my personal rankings, though just-ever-so slightly behind our next entry…
18. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Rajan: Pull up a chair, get comfortable, and pour yourself a beverage of choice before you read this review, because I’ve got PLENTY I want to get off my chest about this movie.
Let me be clear: Tony Stark is my favorite character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But I can’t emphasize enough how stupid and pointless this movie was. How or why anyone liked this movie (it finished at 78% on RottenTomatoes.com) is completely beyond my understanding. I agonized over giving Iron Man 3 or The Incredible Hulk my personal “worst MCU film” ranking, and could easily be convinced to flip-flop my final result(s).
Let’s get the good parts out of the way, because there weren’t many. Guy Pierce did a great job of being a totally unlikable superdouche villain (Aldrich Killian) whom you were totally rooting against (even if he was an instrument of the “scorned scientist comes back for revenge against those who scorned him” plot concept). The House Party Protocol, featuring all of Tony Stark’s specialized suits, was really cool, and probably my lone highlight of the film (and the sole reason I didn’t personally rank this movie dead last). And that’s all the nice things I have to say about this movie.
As far as the bad? Where to start. It’s like Director Shane Black decided to half-ass a major storyline in Iron Man history (Extremis), and turn one of the top 25 villains in Marvel Comics history (The Mandarin) into a forgettable and ultimately irrelevant joke of a bad guy (and waste the talents of a brilliant actor in Sir Ben Kingsley in the process). And the idea of putting both of these completely botched storylines into the same movie went about as well as combining Chinese food and chocolate pudding.
Then there’s the fact that Black made an Iron Man movie in which Tony Stark wore the Iron Man suit for less than 10% of the film. The rest of the movie involved a PTSD-riddled Stark MacGyvering not-ready-Iron Man suits and random hardware store parts into a way to fight Killian.
But the proverbial icing on the cake, and the one scene — lasting only a few seconds — that makes me want to throw my remote through my television every time I watch it, is when Stark gets the arc reactor surgically removed from his chest towards the very end of the movie.
Riddle me this, Shane: if Stark could’ve so easily gotten the stray bullet fragments approaching his heart surgically removed (as you purport), wouldn’t he have gotten this done immediately upon returning from captivity in Afghanistan? Why would we have spent the last two films watching 1) Stark create an upgraded version of the Arc Reactor in his chest after first returning from Afghanistan, only to almost die after Obadiah Stane stole it from his chest in the first Iron Man movie, and 2) Stark going on a self-destructive bender after realizing the Palladium in his chest is poisoning him as much as it is keeping him alive, and then destroy his amazing Malibu bachelor pad while creating a new element that previously didn’t exist to cleanly power his arc reactor, in the second Iron Man movie, if he could’ve had a seemingly simple surgery to remove the aforementioned shrapnel?
Couldn’t you have just left things at Stark blowing up all his suits (to reassure Pepper Potts) and spending his life becoming a pioneer in clean energy (via the arc reactor technology), without turning one of the most fundamental parts of the fictional character that is Tony Stark into a colossal plot hole?
To me, Iron Man 3 is the Rocky V of MCU films: I know it exists, I acknowledge it exists, but the world would be a better place if it never did exist.
Tim: That Inhumans angle really paid off, huh?
17. Iron Man 2 (2010)
John: This movie was the peak of the Mickey Rourke comeback tour after his success in Sin City and The Wrestler. But the real star of the movie was our introduction to Natasha Romanoff. Scarlett Johansson plays this role perfectly, and to be honest, I’m a fan of the outfit. You were also introduced to another important character in War Machine; it was disappointing to learn that Terrence Howard wouldn’t continue in this series, but Don Cheadle isn’t a bad back up plan.
To me, this movie also has some similarities to Captain America: Civil War, in that it was the first time that a government body tried to regulate a superhero Except in this movie, instead of siding with the government, Tony Stark still shows his signature immaturity and arrogance, knowing that he’s the best has no equal — best represented when he’s in front of Congress and takes control of all the TV’s to show just how far away anyone is from developing technology like his (and taking every opportunity available to embarrass Justin Hammer, the latter of whom does a pretty good job of doing that on his own, with weapons like “the ex-wife.”).
Rajan: There are two ways to look at Iron Man 2.
If you look at it as an individual film, it’s not very good. The villain (Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko, aka Whiplash) might be the most forgettable bad guy on this entire list (fine — second-most, behind Malekith). The plotline was another “let’s mix a bunch of subplots together — like Tony’s palladium poisoning, Tony’s “high-tech prosthesis” potentially being replicated by rogue nations and certain entities with nefarious motives, Tony being haunted by a ghost-from-the-past with the aforementioned nefarious motives, Tony going mano-a-mano with another Tech-titan CEO (I do think Sam Rockwell’s portrayal of Justin Hammer was highly underrated), Tony being monitored by S.H.I.E.L.D., Tony straining his relationship with his love interest only for them to officially become “a thing” at the end — and distract people from the fact that there’s no cohesive storyline in this movie.”
But, if you look at it from the perspective of “an essential bridge to set up the Marvel Cinematic Universe,” then it’s a lot more fun. We meet Natasha Romanoff (every red-blooded male would agree with Stark’s statement of “I want one”). We meet the Variable Threat Response Battle Suit (aka War Machine). We meet (fictional) United States Senator (and Hydra agent) Stern. We meet Mjölnir. We even, ever-so-briefly, meet Peter Parker.
My grown-up self fully acknowledges viewpoint #1, but the joy of my inner comic book nerd regarding viewpoint #2 gets the slight edge.
16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Rajan: I admittedly look at each MCU film (in the first three phases) as a puzzle piece that, when assembled collectively, concludes with the Infinity War plotline.
With that being said: if Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was never made, would anything in the MCU be different? Here are our key takeaways from that movie:
- Peter Quill’s dad was a skirt-chasing celestial, so Quill is a half celestial.
- Rocket Raccoon evolved from “entertaining asshole” to “genuine asshole” to “regular asshole with a heart” over the two Guardians films.
- Yondu wasn’t such a bad guy after all — he’s Mary Poppins, y’all — but now he’s dead.
- Baby Groot dancing.
- Drax going from socially obtuse badass to a more-comedic-but-slightly-less-bad-ass-badass (“they’re called harbulary batteries”).
- Introducing Mantis.
- Teasing Adam Warlock (but as a bad guy?).
Outside of #6 (and the potential for #7), GotG2 was 138 minutes of very enjoyable comedy, albeit where nothing happened from an overall story perspective.
John: I thought Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was really funny. The first time I watched it, I laughed my butt off, but the humor wears off the more you watch it, and it does become less and less relevant.
15. Ant-Man (2015)
John: Ant-Man is turning into one of those guilty pleasure movies that you watch when it is on TV even though you have seen it a few times… but not on par with the ultimate guilty pleasure movie, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.
I don’t love Ant-Man and the cast is kind of B-rated if you ask me, but it is still a fun movie that seems to trap me when there is nothing else on.
Rajan: This movie is fun enough, in a “Honey I Shrunk The Superhero”-kind of way, carried by the comedic stylings of Paul Rudd and “the Wombats.” And am I the only one who didn’t think Michael Douglas was totally creepy in this movie?
Conversely, I don’t know what it is about Corey Stoll’s face (he was Darren Cross/Yellowjacket), but I wanted to deliver my fist to it every time he talked.
But let’s be real: if You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is being aired on another channel, between that and Ant-Man, i’m flipping over to the other channel faster than you can say “Phantom Muchentuchen”.
14. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Tim: The Ant-Man sequel might have benefited from not having to do all of the setup work in explaining a shrinky-growy suit, but there was still a hefty amount of exposition dedicated to exploring the Quantum Realm and what rules it’s governed by. Feels like that’s going to be important going forward. The comedy stylings of Paul Rudd and Michael Peña — and the always-welcome Randall Parks — also got a little more prominence too. Unfortunately, they didn’t really land all that consistently for me.
All in all, it’s a fine entry in the series on par with the first Ant-Man, but audiences will probably talk more about a 30-second credits scene than the two hours before it.
Having said all that, I just want to note: I really dug that costume design for Ghost.
Rajan: Ant-Man and The Wasp had a lot of your classic sequel movie elements: call-back references and jokes from the original movie (highlighted by Michael Peña’s always enjoyable all-over-the-place storytelling), the random secondary villain who most people will ultimately forget about (Walton Goggins’ character), and the introduction of new characters to “spice” things up for future films (Hope Van Dyne and Janet Van Dyne, obviously, as part of Marvel’s clear focus on introducing more female heroes). All of this was wrapped up in a plot line (the Quantum Realm) that will almost certainly have enormous importance for forthcoming Marvel movies, but could’ve/should’ve gotten a bit more exploration and focus amidst all the other things they were trying to jam into this movie (like another depiction of Lang as Giant-Man, the “Easter Egg” backstory of Laurence Fishburne’s character, a possible entire world/civilization existing in the Quantum Realm, and/or teasing the idea of Cassie Lang being a more prominent character in the future of the MCU).
I get that one of they intentions of this film was to be a “palate cleanser,” being the immediate follow-up to the dark cliffhanger we were left with in Avengers: Infinity War, but I think they took that intention a bit too far towards the silly side. Case in point: my wife came out of the theater and said: “this would be a great movie for kids.”
The film was enjoyable, but I didn’t love it to the extent of its 86% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
13. Thor (2011)
Tim: I always remember liking this one better than I actually did. Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean depiction of the Nine Realms and Asgardian politics was a natural fit for the Norse mythos. Sir Anthony Hopkins’ Odin was as convincing as any of his recent roles. Chris Hemsworth had the archetypical Thor look and bravado. And, of course, Tom Hiddleston brought us Marvel’s best and most complex villain to date: Loki.
If it weren’t for the melodrama in New Mexico, this movie would have probably ended up higher on the list. (Sorry, Natalie. The prequels were soooo good though!)
Rajan: Concur with all of the above. I had high hopes for this movie, given Branagh being named the director, but everything that took place on Earth (Midgard) kinda ruined it… aside from Natalie Portman looking fine as hell, as always.
(I had this film ranked the lowest — finishing in the bottom five — among the three of us, for what it’s worth.)
John: Of all the Phase I films, Thor really felt like a filler movie. It’s main purpose is to introduce you to Thor and Loki, so you are ready for the Avengers. They should have spent more time fighting Frost Giants and less time in New Mexico.
12. Doctor Strange (2016)
Rajan: Given the unprecedented (for the MCU) visual effects of this movie, the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch — another fantastic actor in general — as Stephen Strange (can you believe Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige once considered Matthew McConaughey for this role?), introducing a highly badass villain in Dormammu (whom they hopefully use again in future Doctor Strange/MCU films), and of course, introducing The Eye of Agamotto (aka the Time Stone), this ranking feels a bit low (to me) on first glance. I really enjoyed the “Dormammu, i’ve come to bargain” final battle sequence, and thought it was the most creative use of an Infinity Stone by a MCU character to date.
(Also, i’m pretty sure i’m in the minority on this, but I really liked Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of “The Ancient One;” the backlash against having a woman portray this character was totally stupid, but I do understand the backlash from having a white woman — as opposed to an Asian one — portray this character).
The two main reasons I don’t love this film more, and am ultimately okay with where it ended up on the list?
- I’m not the slightest bit intrigued about a Dr. Strange sequel featuring Mordo as the main antagonist.
- At least as depicted in this origin story, Stephen Strange is just a (less charming) medical doctor version of Tony Stark.
John: Doctor Strange almost feels like it stands on its own in the MCU.
The folks at Marvel created this mystics art world that only relates to the rest of the MCU because of The Eye of Agamotto (aka the Time Stone), although the only mention of it is at the end when Doctor Strange is returning the Eye and Wong says something to the effect of it being hard to carry around an Infinity Stone all day. That one line is the only thing that ties this movie to the rest, and it was done intentionally.
In the comics, the Eye of Agamotto is not the time stone, but when you are creating a billion dollar universe you can change some facts to make everything fit.
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
John: I had really high hopes for Avengers: Age of Ultron. The previews with the ominous “I got no strings on me” really setup this movie nicely… but it just didn’t quite live up. They had a lot of boxes to check: introduce Vision, destroy Sokovia, and start a rift between Cap and Tony. They also furthered the story of Wakanda and vibranium.
But the part that lost me was the end game for Ultron. Couldn’t he have easily launched a bunch of nukes, or unleashed a horde of robots to terrorize humanity? His best option was to lift a city into the sky and drop it?
Tim: Avengers: Age of Ultron probably suffers from having been overhyped. The first Avengers lived up to high expectations and Marvel’s track record was basically on par with Pixar at that point.
On its own, the movie entertains well enough and James Spader’s menacing Ultron is wholly underappreciated. Trying to establish too many acorns for the future, trying to make us care about Quicksilver before killing him and, ultimately, giving Ultron a pretty dumb plan muddled up the final product. It probably wouldn’t have made it any better, but it’s kind of disappointing we were robbed of an Ultron Megazord.
Rajan: I would’ve totally dug an Ultron Megazord… as long as they didn’t turn Ultron into a gorilla-like creature with protruding gonads (I’M LOOKING AT YOU, MICHAEL BAY).
And while James Spader did a nice job voicing Ultron, I did wonder, when Ultron captured Natasha Romanoff in the third act of the movie, if it was going to lead to some Robert California-esque type of situation.
10. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Tim: Possible Dez/Troy Dallas Cowboys reference from Skurge aside (#HTTR, right?), Thor: Ragnarok was the most fun entry in the MCU — possibly my favorite. Actually, you have to scroll down a bit further to find my (other) favorite. I have two favorites. Got it? We cool? Okay, good.
With Thor having to take up the mantle of King of Ass-burg, Marvel sidelining the super-serious God of Thunder for a more jovial version was refreshing. When Christopher Nolan started that whole brooding superhero trend, Batman was somewhat grounded in science but Marvel has now (successfully) brought much more obscure concepts to the big screen, including aliens, nanotech, the mystic arts, multiverses and even the quantum realm — so why not just have fun with it all now?
Enter Taika Waititi. The director from New Zealand known more for his awesome brand of Kiwi humor was an interesting choice for the MCU at first glance but his approach was perfect for putting the “comic” back into the comic book franchise. I loved Korg and I hope Valkyrie survived the Snap, but the casting coup here was getting getting Jeff Goldblum on board. I’d be highly interested in an Elders of the Universe spin-off storyline alongside Benicio del Toro’s Collector.
In retrospect, I should have probably ranked this one higher.
(Korg slays me every time.)
Also, big props to Taika Waititi for placing an attractive and fun female protagonist (Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie) opposite Marvel’s top “heartthrob,” and not insulting our intelligence by making her a love interest (or another thirsty but unrequited Asgardian love interest).
John: I was a little late seeing Thor: Ragnarok (like two nights before I saw Avengers: Infinity War), but I instantly loved it.
The first two Thor movies were so serious, and it was about time they had some fun. Unlike a lot of movies where the trailers show all the funny parts — like Thor spinning on a chain when talking to Surtur, or when he’s in the gladiator arena on Sakaar and cheers when he sees “his friend from work”— there is still so much more humor to enjoy in the movie.
Also, I’m not a big Cate Blanchett fan, but for some reason, Hela really does it for me.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Rajan: I am 100% certain of, and comfortable with, my heterosexuality. But the only time that’s ever been remotely challenged is when Steve Rogers emerged from that body pod thing, after being injected with the super soldier serum.
Upon hearing that Chris Evans — whom we formerly knew as The Human Torch in the (rather terrible) Fantastic Four films — would be cast as Captain America, I was a little suspect of the idea, but he continues to embodies the character as well as anyone possibly could (in this film, and throughout the subsequent films). The ‘wholesomeness’ of this movie can get a bit kitschy at times, along with the ‘the star-spangled man with a plan’ song & dance number, but from a plot/story development perspective, I get it.
Outside of being an origin story for Captain America, introducing James Buchanan (“Bucky”) Barnes was a major part of this film, even if his role in the film was just one step in a much longer journey in the MCU. Tommy Lee Jones as General Phillips and Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine were excellent role characters. And Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull might be the third best villain of all the MCU films, right alongside Loki and Thanos; if there’s a real knock on this film, it’s that they got rid of him too early (in the scope of the MCU as a whole) and easily.
Obviously, the movie introduced the Tesseract/Space stone, so that’s a major factor in the ranking as well (at least to me).
Overall, as Marvel’s third origin story for one of it’s centerpiece characters, Captain America: The First Avenger did a great job of introducing Rogers as a unique, compelling, inspiring, and likable character, while contrasting him from the Asgardian demigod roots of Thor and the “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” background of Tony Stark.
Tim: Unlike Thor, I actually appreciated the first Captain America more on re-watch than I originally did.
The Red Skull was cartoony to me at first but a dozen and a half comic book movies later, he became a lot more palatable. Seeing how the Tesseract fit into the MCU running through Nazi Germany/Hydra was mildly interesting, but the story line was pretty run-of-the-mill in general. Captain America: The First Avenger was most successful at dropping the emotional anchors that the MCU would come back to for raising the stakes in future movies.
8. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Rajan: I enjoyed Age of Ultron as a vacuous popcorn movie, but if we’re being honest, Captain America: Civil War was the Avengers sequel that AoU should’ve been. We saw virtually every member of the Avengers — swapping out Thor and Bruce Banner with T’Challa and Peter Parker — and actually had them fight each other with real consequences (Rhodes getting paralyzed, Bucky losing his arm, and even Rogers & Stark both getting their asses kicked pretty badly by each other towards the end).
Speaking of which: John and I had this debate in regards to the film’s final act: as a male, you can’t honestly believe you’d act differently than how Tony Stark did, upon learning that Bucky was the one who killed his parents, even with the knowledge that he was brainwashed into doing so. That’s what made an interesting and entertaining film that much more compelling. If you stood in front of your parents’ murderer, wouldn’t you react the same way, and fuck up anyone who dares to take his side? That dilemma alone brought a level of emotional grit into the MCU which hadn’t otherwise been there.
If I have one criticism of this film, it was the fact that they took two rather substantial villains in Baron Zemo and Crossbones, and effectively made them something between a role character and a glorified cameo. Marvel has a bad habit of doing this in many it’s films — see Ulysses Klaue, Kaecilius, Batroc the Leaper, Baron Strucker, and even Surtur — under the premise of appealing to the comic-book fanatics. But in my opinion, you’re cheapening said characters.
I love the subtext of “the heroes are actually the villains” in this movie, but the fact that the Russo brothers turned the guy who was responsible for the death of Captain America in the comics into a rather small (though somewhat integral) part of one subplot within this movie, doesn’t fully sit well with me.
John: The action in this movie was great, especially the fight scene at the airport, and the final battle between Iron Man, Captain America, and Bucky. And they were some really great subplots, like introducing Black Panther, Spider-Man, and Tony’s parents.
But I didn’t love this movie.
The hardest thing for me to grasp was: why are they fighting each other? I understand Tony’s side wants to sign the Sokovia Accords and Captain America didn’t want to be regulated. But that’s the wedge between you guys? You are superheros and can pretty much do whatever you want. You think signing a silly document is really going to prohibit you?
Captain America has more faith in himself then the government (don’t disagree with that), but why not just do what I do with my boss: shake your head when he is around, but when it comes time to get things done, you do what you know you have to?
I do give credit to Helmut Zemo for crafting a pretty creative plan to destroy the Avengers from the inside. At least in this movie, he is a pretty ordinary guy — though a skilled covert operative, but still — that was able to manipulate Stark and Rogers by using the intel he gathered on the Winder Solider to expose Bucky’s past (murdering of Tony’s parents), to get the two to fight each other. That’s how you play the long game.
Tim: When this came out, I remember articles that said things like ‘Captain America: Civil War’ is one of the best superhero movies of all time.
[pushes up glasses] While it’s a very enjoyable spectacle, I disagree.
Since the first Avengers was able to handle six heroes respectably, Civil War was basically a dare to see how many characters could be stuffed into a movie without turning it into X-Men 3. Of course, Infinity War came along to double down on that only two years later. Generally, it succeeded in handling the bloat — and provided some fairly iconic shots along the way. But Zemo never felt like a real threat and I don’t think the animosity between Tony Stark and Cap felt as organic as it should have. At least, not to the level of an airport gang fight. It was really cool to watch, though.
7. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Getting people to care about stories like Black Panther and Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time is a really tough task. But, giving a ubiquitously popular character a refresh (for the third time), with five movies over the past 15 years, is pretty freaking hard, too. Ditching the origin and focusing more on Peter Parker’s own superhero coming of age keeps this story more grounded than the other films.
There may be alien tech to salvage, but Vulture’s aspirations don’t include dark magic or giant sky beams, just financial security for his family. The progression of opportunistic businessman Adrian Toomes to ruthless villain Vulture is possibly the most natural bad guy arc in the MCU. Michael Keaton brought his usual magnetic enthusiasm and I can’t think of anyone else that looks as comfortable wearing wings.
Rajan: Did I like this movie? Sure. It’s astounding how it took Marvel just one attempt to make us completely forget the tire-fire that was Sony’s original Spider-Man trilogy.
And in a moment in time when racial tensions are at their highest since the Civil Rights era, I give major respect to Marvel for making Peter Parker’s love interest an African-American woman (both in this film, and likely in the future ones), political correctness be damned.
Now, Did I like this movie as much as Tim did? Maybe not, mostly on account of my “Infinity War puzzle piece” doctrine: if someone skipped watching this movie entirely, they would’ve missed virtually nothing that would have required explaining prior to watching Infinity War.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
John: Captain America: The Winter Soldier has one of the best car chases I have ever seen — possibly better than the one in Ronin. They took a great chase sequence and spiced it up with some S.H.I.E.L.D. tech. This is also one of the few moments that Nick Fury gets to show you why he is such a badass; don’t you know you can’t kill Nick Fury (or at least not in this movie)?
The plot of this movie doesn’t unfold like a typical linear action film where the hero is introduced to a bad guy and then spends the entire movie trying to defeat them. In Winter Soldier, you don’t know who the bad guy is, and even the bad guy really isn’t a bad guy. Instead, the movie is a classic thriller with a superhero costume.
The moments when you question Nick Fury’s integrity were a really interesting wrinkle. Steve Rogers is also faced with a choice: stick with S.H.I.E.L.D., the only home he has in the future, or follow Fury’s instinct that there is corruption in the agency. As we see again later on, Captain America isn’t afraid to pick a side that he knows is right, even if it makes him an outcast.
He then proceeds on his quest for answers and finds that Hydra has played the extreme long game setting up a plot that is coming to fruition after 60+ years. I know Hydra is evil, but that is some impressive commitment and a really fascinating twist to take the security of humanity and use that as a weapon to control them. Thankfully, Cap was there to stop them, blow everything up, and then literally dump everything into the Potomac River.
On a side note: In 2013, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. first aired on ABC… and it was pretty terrible. The characters and story line just weren’t compelling. Then, after The Winter Soldier was released and S.H.I.E.L.D. was destroyed, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. picked up right where the movie left off and the show had meaning. It was so cool to see a movie release tie in with a TV series so perfectly.
Rajan: You could have very legitimate debate between Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Dark Knight being the be best sequel superhero film of all time.
Also, I would be completely fine with Marvel bringing back “kinda-slutty Natasha Romanoff” (especially with the straight hair).
5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Rajan: In the spirit of transparency: even as someone who loathes recency bias, Avengers: Infinity War finished #2 on my personal rankings. Two main reasons for this:
- I love the way they told so many little stories — and gave them each their due — and then wove them together into a larger story, in a very “22 Short Films About Springfield” (one of the top-15 episodes of The Simpsons) type of way. Seeing Iron Man and Spider-Man fight alongside Doctor Strange and The Guardians of the Galaxy, plus Captain America and Bucky fight alongside Wakanda’s finest, was pure nerdgasm.
- The fact that the Russo brothers had the cojones to include “The Snap” in the film, and — major spoiler warning — kill off heavyweights like Doctor Strange, T’Challa, Peter Parker, all the Guardians except Rocket, and Nick Fury (after already killing off Loki and Gamora earlier in the film).
As an aside: i’m surprised how many people criticized Infinity War for the fact that “you know they’re making a sequel of this movie (and other MCU movies), so you know the characters who got dusted are coming back.” Yes, we do know that; not only are Spider-Man and the Black Panther coming back, but Gamora probably is too (and I wouldn’t be surprised if Loki is not dead anymore after the yet-to-be-named Avengers 4).
But, again, it’s the fact that Russo’s had the huevos to kill them off in the first place. So many Marvel films are criticized under the “none of the heroes die” umbrella, so when you have a supervillain actually “kill” them off (and unmercifully whoop the previously invincible Hulk’s ass), and leave the movie with them being dead (if just for the time being), that still counts for a lot (even if they’re not really/fully/irreparably dead).
Tim: By my count, Infinity War includes 30 heroes, 8 villains, 11 locations (including the Soul Realm) and six Infinity Stones. With those ingredients, simply putting together a coherent storyline would have been a moviemaking miracle.
Thankfully, the Russo brothers knew the key to making all of that into a good movie was: keep the plot simple, provide a bit of empathy for the villain and pack it full of cool action. Infinity War delivered on those points and gave us a little unexpected twist, as well.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Rajan: Kevin Feige didn’t make things easy on Director Peter Gunn, with the former asking the latter to direct a movie encompassing four mini-origin stories of five vastly different “main” characters (headlined by a leader whom everyone has to love and empathize with), having all five of said characters come together in an organic and non-contrived manner, setting the entire film in outer space without making it seem like a spin-off of Star Wars or Star Trek, AND tying it all back together with the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. OH, and introduce both an Infinity Stone and the shadowy supervillain of the first three phases of the MCU as well.
Yet Gunn (and Feige) took this entire premise, with all those individual nuances, and absolutely crushed it. Guardians of the Galaxy has action, humor (both of the kid and adult variety), emotion (the “We Are Groot” scene brings the feels bigtime), and a hint of romance, all in perfect balance, all while masterfully paying homage to its comic book origin.
From a pure rewatchability standpoint you could argue that this movie is #1 on this entire list; it’s re-shown all the damn time on the FX channel, which has led me to lose many hours of weekday evening productivity.
After a string of successes, Marvel picked its spot to roll the dice on a colorful, planet-hopping tale centering around mostly unknown characters. Led by Burt Macklin, of all people. And of course, they hit it out of the park — all while establishing a lot of the building blocks that would be necessary for the Infinity War to come. The MCU probably looks very different in the parallel universe where Guardians was a flop.
3. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
Tim: Joss Whedon’s first of two Avengers movies accomplished what had been thought impossible up to this point: make a superhero team-up movie where everyone got their due.
Others tried before and had come up short, even with much smaller scopes, but it took the success of Avengers that transitioned the Marvel movies from a bunch of cross-referencing Easter eggs into a full-fledged shared cinematic universe.
John: Marvel’s The Avengers was set in motion from day one, when Stark met Nick Fury at the end of Iron Man. And even after four years of hype, it delivered.
You already were introduced to the main characters and even the villain; the trick was pulling them together. Nick Fury had to channel his inner Phil Jackson to manage all the egos and push through the infighting to create a cohesive team.
Then you add the brilliant performance by Tom Hiddleston as Loki to give the perfect antagonist. Like Thor, us fans go through a love/hate thing with Loki, but in this movie it was all hate. There was no better scene then when he is smashed by the Hulk (“puny god”). I still laugh and fist pump when I see that.
What made this so great was it wasn’t even a collection of Marvel’s most popular characters. Before this movie, the X-Men and Spider-Man were easily the more household names. But Marvel took characters that few people really cared about, introduced them with compelling origin stories, and then made them fit perfectly together. It set the standard for crossover movies and no one has done it better.
In contrast, DC took characters that everyone knows, threw them together and you got the poop sandwich that is Justice League. It just goes to show what good storytelling can do.
Rajan: If you ever have anything negative to say about The Avengers, go back and watch Justice League; you’ll instantly appreciate the former infinitely more.
The Avengers was the Citizen Kane of superhero ensemble movies, and Justice League was Gigli.
2. Black Panther (2018)
Tim: Wakanda first showed up as an Easter egg eight years earlier in Iron Man 2 and was officially announced as part of Marvel’s Phase 3 back in 2014. All that anticipation and the cultural importance of seeing T’Challa and the Dora Milaje in the MCU raised the bar pretty high for a character new to the big screen.
Bringing in gifted young director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) and frequent collaborator Michael B. Jordan — not to mention the rest of the amazing cast — put this franchise in Hollywood’s most capable hands.
Blending science and mysticism, Black Panther provides much of the glue for bringing the many Marvel worlds together.
And, apropos of nothing: Shuri’s Voltron gauntlets!
Rajan: Can we all go ahead and agree on the fact that Ryan Coogler is a fucking fantastic director? Directing and writing Creed, and subsequently Black Panther, is like a quarterback having back-to-back games with 400+ yards passing and five touchdowns.
One of the reasons Guardians of the Galaxy was a fantastic film was because it shifted your paradigm of what a “superhero movie” could be; Black Panther did the same, only taking it one step further (but in a totally different direction), while gracefully lacing in socio-political commentary to boot.
There is literally nothing wrong with Black Panther; it’s flawless. And the acting? Just, wow; calling it “world-class” feels like i’m still selling it short (it takes a pretty special film to have a character played by Forest Whitaker fail to land among the top 5–7 characters you immediately think of in the movie).
Chadwick Boseman is an unbelievable actor — how many other actors could pull off brilliant portrayals of Jackie Robinson, James Brown, and Thurgood Marshall? — and even with a superb portrayal of T’Challa, he might’ve done the third-best job in this film. Michael B. Jordan stole the show as Erik Killmonger, and Danai Gurira as Okoye was secretly my co-MVP of this film.
1. Iron Man (2008)
Rajan: The “Original Gangster” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in more ways than one.
Somebody else said it, but i’m borrowing it: Tony Stark is the role that Robert Downey Jr. was born to play. Without a sliver of doubt, you believe Downey IS Tony Stark in real life (even though his performance as Sherlock Holmes — combined with the fact that it’s a Guy Ritchie film — put another one of his movies among my top 10 personal favorites).
From a cinematic perspective, Iron Man works because they kept things simple: taking an unbelievably charismatic yet relatably flawed protagonist who has that near-death experience, which leads him to fight against the megalomaniacal capitalist establishment he was once a part of, thanks to his unceasingly cool Iron Man armor.
And with his unparalleled performance in this movie, Downey/Stark became “The Godfather” for the next 20 films (if you count Avengers 4) to follow.
And even though it was in the post-credits scene, the final line of this movie — “I’m here to talk to you about the Avengers Initiative” — was the pièce de résistance, considering it changed the course of Hollywood for the next decade (and beyond).
Bringing Iron Man to the screen was risky enough that Marvel didn’t need to take any chances with the story. Crimson Dynamo and the Mandarin were in the plans as the bad guys at different points, but settling on the more trope-like Obadiah Stane played by Jeff Bridges made it a more understandable starting point for audiences. Without Robert Downey, Jr’s charisma, it’s doubtful it would have worked at all. It’s probably not an overstatement to say that the MCU might not have gone twenty movies and counting without RDJ selling us his version of Tony Stark.