From Iron Man to Captain Marvel
It’s been a big few years for Marvel Studios. Iron Man marked its 10th anniversary in 2018, and the studio celebrated the occasion with some of its biggest and best films yet. Things aren’t slowing down this year, either. Captain Marvel marks the studio’s first solo female-led film, while Avengers: Endgame represents the end of…something. Ahead of these new releases, EW has revised and refurbished our official rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. From Tony Stark’s desert enlightenment to Killmonger’s coup, here’s how we rate the many movies of Marvel.
21. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Look, there’s a reason why no one talks about (or really remembers) Marvel’s Louis Leterrier-directed second movie, and that’s because it is mostly forgettable and not great. Sure, the sequence with Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner Hulk-ing out in a Brazilian factory and ripping those men to shreds in the shadows is pretty rad, but the fun ends there because the rest of the movie is a slog that lacks Marvel’s trademark zippiness and spirit (To be fair: This was the second MCU movie, so they were still figuring some things out). It’s frankly insane that William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross is still around. —Chancellor Agard
20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The second entry in the God of Thunder’s trilogy is not the worst film in the MCU for one reason, and one reason only: that bonkers third act. Yes, this film covered up Christopher Eccleston’s face underneath some truly hideous Dark Elf makeup; yes, it poorly handled dead-then-not-dead Loki’s arc; and yes, Natalie Portman couldn’t stand returning after this installment, but look: hijinks with the Aether! Portals to other worlds! A frost monster scampering around Earth in a mid-credits scene just because! It’s the precursor to the weirdness to come, even if the film itself is, objectively, a complete mess. —Shirley Li
19. Iron Man 2 (2010)
Whereas director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. had some freedom in the first Iron Man movie, the same can’t be said of the second, which had not to only tell a good Tony Stark story but also set up, well, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Naturally, the result is an over-stuffed mess that includes, but is not limited to: exploring Tony’s daddy issues; a half-hearted spin on the iconic “Demon in a Bottle” arc; two villains; the introduction of Black Widow; and Nick Fury, who is mostly there to talk about “problems in the southwest region.” That being said, Iron Man 2 is watchable mess, because it’s clear everyone involved was having fun. —C.A.
18. Ant-Man (2015)
History will remember Marvel’s least flavorful spin-off as “the one without the Wasp.” All the Michael Peña in the world can’t rescue a bland techno-heist thriller. Corey Stoll plays a glowering boss baddie, the kind of villain even Iron Man 2 couldn’t take seriously. The horrid digital-botox prologue feels like an explosion at the Unnecessary Cameo Factory. Has there ever been a recent ex-con as agelessly cute as Paul Rudd? Do we really need a “wacky” Marvel movie when even the straightest-edge Marvel movies are comedies? This is a wrong that shall never be Wrighted. —Darren Franich
17. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
After the zippy and quippy fun of the original Avengers, Age of Ultron feels like the crash after a sugar high. There are a few brief, shining glimpses of the chemistry and character moments that made the first movie such a joy — like the early party scene where the team tries to lift Thor’s hammer — but Ultron is otherwise a slog. Director Joss Whedon has spoken before about behind-the-scenes fights with Marvel, and those creative disagreements are evident in Ultron’s disjointed action scenes and messy tone. —Devan Coggan
16. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Despite being a fun Ant-Man sequel with enjoyable set pieces and the addition of The Pfeiffer, the film suffers from a lack of focus. There’s no real core conflict: Is the film about Scott grappling with fatherhood and heroic duty, or is it about Hope living up to her family’s legacy? Is it about two people learning to work in tandem, or is it about a woman who can’t stop phasing through matter? Wasp was a welcome breath of light Marvel air after the grim finale of Infinity War, but that’s not enough to justify entry into the top 10. —S.L.
15. Thor (2011)
Thor 1 isn’t so bad, I told everyone. Lets rank it higher! Patrick Doyle wrote the MCU’s most romantic orchestral score. Director Kenneth Branagh films Asgard with swoopy-silly grandeur, Peter Jackson gone to summer stock. Natalie Portman (post-Oscar) and Chris Hemsworth (pre-everything) have an old-school goofy dynamic. Here’s a fish-out-of-water rom-com wedged into, um, a spy thriller about aliens in New Mexico. Why was this whole movie in the desert? Why does it take half the movie for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki to fully break bad? Why is S.H.I.E.L.D. always so boring? Why, Hawkeye, why? Nevermind, No. 14 sounds right. —D.F.
14. Doctor Strange (2016)
Few MCU heroes are as arrogant or insufferable as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Stephen Strange. As a result, the character has since worked far better in group settings where he can act as a foil to Thor or Iron Man. But what else would you expect from a character shaped by Steve Ditko? The influential artist never had much interest in crafting pleasant people, but he could produce mind-blowing visuals that retain their power to this day. In that regard Doctor Strange does its creator justice, from Tilda Swinton’s trippy “Intro to Magic” dream-lesson to Strange’s own timey-wimey confrontation with the living dimension Dormammu. —Christian Holub
13. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
More of a backdoor pilot for future MCU installments than a coherent movie in and of itself, the weakest Captain America film showcases the limits of the Russo brothers’ cinematic style. The big battle between Team Cap and Team Iron Man exudes all the fun of mashing together your favorite childhood toys, but it’d be nice to have a backdrop that was just a little more visually exciting than a drab airport. Plus, the main characters’ motivations are so thinly drawn that their radical actions pretty much only make sense if you buy the popular fan theory that Cap and Bucky are in love. —C.H.
12. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Was anyone really clamoring for a new Spider-Man movie? No, but director Jon Watts delivered a fresh new take on the teenage webslinger anyway. Homecoming’s joyful coming-of-age story jettisons some of the old clichés (no one needed to see Uncle Ben’s death again) while still maintaining the personal elements that make Spidey so moving. It never delves as deep as some of Marvel’s other, better installments. But in a cinematic universe where the stakes are always end-of-the-world high, Homecoming smartly keeps things small, following Tom Holland’s Peter as he figures out where he fits in this world of heroes and villains. —D.C.
11. Captain Marvel (2019)
The MCU’s long overdue solo female superhero film lifts off with an excellent cast and an inspired 1995 setting — but doesn’t quite soar. There are sterling character moments between Carol Danvers and her supporting ensemble (de-aged Nick Fury! Skrull leader Talos! Maria Rambeau! That cat!), but Captain Marvel struggles to figure out its titular character. (She does spend much of the film amnesiac and confused, after all.) Marvel services fans with a bevy of delightful Easter eggs, but the film works better as an extended prelude to Endgame than as its own story. In other words, there’s room for Carol to go higher, further, and faster. —S.L.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
All credit to James Gunn’s MCU debut for reintroducing a more colorful palette back into the superhero genre. Chris Pratt’s Han Solo turn is still magnetic as hell, though Star-Lord’s caddishness hasn’t aged super well. Parts of this movie do seem dimmer in retrospect. At the time, its playful personality and outside-the-box casting distracted everyone from the reality that it’s basically a standard team movie — The Avengers in space, a particularly apt analogy during the climactic battle against (sigh) another army of nameless drones. The first Guardians made Marvel Studios feel okay getting weird, but a more confident sequel was required to maximize the concept’s strange potential. —C.H.
9. Iron Man 3 (2013)
The Mandarin twist alone would’ve landed Iron Man 3 in the top 10, but that’s just one aspect of this movie’s delightful irreverence. Whereas Iron Man 2 was focused on world-building, this film’s interest in the greater universe mostly begins and ends with Tony’s PTSD after the events of Avengers. Instead, director Shane Black spends most of the movie taking the piss out of the entire Iron Man concept. Just look at how many times the suits fails, either because it malfunctions, falls apart, or gets blown up. Sure, Tony goes through yet another rebirth cycle, (as does every hero in their origin story film), but the film’s cheekiness makes that trope feel fresh and fun once again. —C.A.
8. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Marvel’s most ambitious crossover event and most ambitious disintegration of said crossover event, Infinity War delivers in both devastating and groundbreaking fashion. How many comic-book films would dare to leave its audience in a lurch, even for just a few minutes? (Thanks for the call to Carol, Nick Fury!) Anchored by a surprisingly poignant motion-capture performance from Josh Brolin, the film, for the most part, pulls off the tricky balance of delivering sensational sequences and a catharsis that grounds the unimaginable stakes. Plus, it somehow juggles dozens of characters, including new ones. (Hi there, giant Peter Dinklage!) Infinity War is super-sized, sure, but it’s never overstuffed. —S.L.
7. Iron Man (2008)
Here’s an aerospace bro with big Malibu house and a stripper pole on his private jet. His existence midpoints Entourage and Blackwater and every freakish tale ever told about Silicon Valley billionaires. (He flirts with reporters, subordinates, soldiers, everyone.) But Downey, Gwyneth Paltrow, and director Jon Favreau found a screwball rhythm, wry and fast-talking. So our hero’s a delightful cad, and then his own missiles explode him toward tin-man redemption. A couple solid set-pieces, a lame Evil Corporate Villain, a limp Act 1 origin story, and the perfect scene where Pepper performs open-heart surgery on Tony. —D.F.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
There’s a reason Phil Coulson carries around those Captain America trading cards. Steve Rogers could easily come off as a bland or naïve Boy Scout, but Chris Evans imbues the scrawny-wimp-turned-super-soldier with an irresistible, optimistic charm — from the moment he declares that he doesn‘t like bullies. Sure, First Avenger hits a lot of the familiar origin story beats, but it also takes the time to explore its protagonist’s war-torn psyche and investigate exactly what it means to be a hero. Plus, it introduces one of the MCU’s most brilliant and capable female characters: Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). And ugh, that ending! It’s no wonder audiences everywhere decided that we’ll follow Cap to the end of the line. —D.C.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
The decade’s best film about star wars and star treks. Goldskinned eugenicists pilot drone armies from a Riefenstahlian video arcade. Bounty hunters honor their dead with a fireworks space fleet. Writer-director Gunn loves all his far-out space nuts, excavating poignance for Michael Rooker’s ruminative Yondu and Karen Gillan’s Frankenlimbed Nebula. Kurt Russell’s Ego is a chill dudedly despot, quoting ‘70s rock to explain why he murders girlfriends and eats his children. Oozing snake-oil charm, Russell’s the closest the MCU comes to a Trump analogue — unless, Tony Stark? — and Ego’s all-consuming narcissism quietly targets a nerd generation raised to believe the universe was built for them. Unexpectedly Gunn’s final franchise statement, Guardians 2 is a funny-sad ensemble ramble disguised as a greenscreen epic, the only Marvel movie so far that doesn’t feel made by committee. —D.F.
4. Marvel's The Avengers (2012)
Anyone who’s ever picked up a Marvel comic knows that whole fictional universe revolves around one location in particular: New York City. So what better place to fight off alien invaders in a battle that would go on to define the following decade’s worth of blockbusters? The battle of New York had personality in a way that no previous MCU installment had; here you can see Thor blast Chitauri dragons with lightning from atop the real-life Chrysler building. These characters have New York in their souls, making midtown Manhattan the perfect setting to cap off a movie about people from different walks of life bickering and fighting before learning how to work and live with each other.
The MCU will never be able to replicate the feeling of seeing The Avengers for the first time, and neither will anybody else. At long last, the joy of reading comics — and following the intersecting adventures of characters who lived separate lives but could come together as needed — had been replicated on screen, thanks to director Joss Whedon’s masterful storytelling and the supergroup cast’s unexpectedly dynamic chemistry. No wonder every studio executive apparently walked out of The Avengers intent on creating their own interconnected fictional universe. Every attempt to replicate the magic has brought diminishing returns (R.I.P. the Dark Universe), but hey, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right? —C.H.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
When Winter Soldier was released in 2014, it felt relevant in a way other MCU films had not: It repainted S.H.I.E.L.D. as a national security organization that used its intelligence against its own, and it told a story that, critics observed, was about the military-industrial complex and national leadership gone bad — themes that rarely appear in bombastic, colorful comic-book movies. But that’s why the film works so well: It’s a white-knuckle, high-octane spy story told through a superhero lens, with a deeply affecting character-driven central conflict. (“Who’s Bucky?”) The film feels real and contemporary, and it opened doors for the MCU to be more than just a collection of origin stories and epic team-ups. In his second solo outing, Cap teaches us that protecting what we believe in is just as important as protecting our home, whatever that may be. —S.L.
2. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
How in the Nine Realms did Thor — a bland, long-haired jock set to inherit his daddy’s empire — become one of Marvel’s most interesting and likeable heroes? Director Taika Waititi deconstructs the Norse god by putting him through Hel(l) and stripping him of his homeland, his hair, and his hammer. As a result, Hemsworth’s Thor feels more human than ever before — and a whole lot funnier. Waititi’s nutty neon space opera is the goofiest, most delightful entry in the MCU. And if that wasn’t enough, Ragnarok also boasts Tessa Thompson as the sword-swinging badass Valkyrie. And Jeff Goldblum as the preening king of a trash planet. And blatantly anti-colonialist themes that probe how a child can reckon with their parents’ bloody legacy. And multiple battle scenes set to Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” And “Get Help.” And Waititi himself as a soft-spoken revolutionary rock monster!!! What more could you want!!!!!!!!!! —D.C.
1. Black Panther (2018)
Ryan Coogler’s stunning 2018 film raised the bar for Marvel movies. After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War, Chadwick Boseman finally took center stage as Black Panther, along with an exceptional cast of immediately compelling characters; from T’Challa’s smart-alecky genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), to the steadfast warrior Okoye (Danai Gurira). It helped that the world of Wakanda was beautifully rendered and immediately welcoming to all audiences, too. However, the film never becomes too taken with this idealistic country and even questions its place in the world (What is its responsibility to the African diaspora?), which opens the film up to explore real and imperative issues about race, social change, and power. The movie grapples with these difficult issues and recognizes that there aren’t easy answers.
Furthermore, Black Panther features Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, the franchise’s best villain who runs away with the movie on the rhino. Unlike most baddies, Killmonger has a point (Hey, maybe Wakanda should use its powers to right years of racial injustice around the world?), and more importantly an effect on the hero that will (hopefully) last way beyond this film.
At the end of the day, though, what helped push Black Panther past Thor: Ragnarok, our other contender for the No. 1 spot, was the movie’s cultural impact. It not only made tons of money, but “Wakanda Forever” has taken on such a life of its own that even Boseman seems somewhat tired of hearing the phrase. And, of course, it also just won three Oscars for Best Costume Design, Best Score, and Best Production Design. While awards don’t necessarily equal quality, it does say something that this film carried such weight that even the traditionally anti-superhero Academy couldn’t ignore it. (Bonus points: There isn’t a single Infinity Stone in sight.) —C.A.