TV & Movies
A highly subjective, entirely correct evaluation.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has expanded exponentially in the past 13 years. What started with Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man (2008) has grown into a sprawling franchise spanning more than two dozen films — and over a decade on, Marvel Studios is showing no signs of slowing. Year after year, the MCU continues to introduce new characters, often with interesting backstories, and find a home for them in its snarky, high-energy world. It wasn’t always a smooth ride: Some roles were recast, and not every new film added something substantive to the canon, but there are definitely more than a few standouts. Anyone who turns their nose up at superhero films has clearly missed out on Marvel’s best flicks.
There’s a bit of controversy over how best to watch Marvel movies. In release order? Chronologically, since so many are origin stories? Maybe another route altogether, which skips some of the more lackluster installments. But however you choose to make your way through the MCU, given how Phase 4 of the franchise is going to mess with the past — think multiverses and twisted timelines — it’ll be useful to know which ones are relevant and worth your time. You could spend days watching these films, so stick to the best ones first.
So, without further ado, here is my extremely biased ranking of Marvel movies, from worst to best. Of note: this list is only movies, not the Disney+ TV shows like WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki, even though plot points from those series will play a role in future movies. Also, light spoilers follow.
23. Iron Man 2
A Russian physicist (Mickey Rourke) seeks revenge against Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) by building his own tech! Speaking of sequel placeholders... Downey carries the film, as usual, on his very snarky shoulders. And Sam Rockwell, who plays Stark’s rival arms manufacturer, does what he can — even though the movie doesn’t give him much to work with. But, to be honest, “there’s no there there” unless you count the introduction of Black Widow. And Scarlett Johansson wasn’t actually a fan of her character’s original depiction as a “bombshell” anyways.
22. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Tony Stark creates a peacekeeping tech program that, surprise, becomes sentient and very un-peaceful. Maybe it’s the Joss Whedon off-camera drama seeping through to the screen, maybe it’s that the plot feels superfluous, maybe it’s the fact that Civil War handled a lot of the same themes much better, but I regularly forget this movie exists. Subsequent Marvel films keep harkening back to it, though, and it did play an important role in advancing the plot and introducing new characters.
Amid family drama with his dad and adopted brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor travels to Earth to find his hammer and talk science (read: flirt) with Jane. The “where did this god from another dimension come from?” story just isn’t that interesting — and it’s really a story about Loki, who’s way more compelling. The Shakespearean-sounding characters from Asgard take themselves very seriously in their first outing — almost jarringly so, when compared to their appearances in later movies. Altogether, while Thor isn’t quite as bad as its sequel, it doesn’t hold a candle to the third movie (more on that later).
20. Doctor Strange
After a car accident that robs him of the ability to perform surgery, Doctor Strange turns to magic in a last-ditch effort to regain his former glory — and finds much more in the process. Placing Doctor Strange near the bottom of this list is an admittedly low rating for a pretty good movie, but it does have its issues. The film stumbles over a few of the compulsory “origin story” beats, and also features some controversial casting. And while Benedict Cumberbatch is, objectively, awesome, he shines more in subsequent films. Really, this is a villain problem: The main Big Bad, Kaecilius (the otherwise awesome Mads Mikkelsen), is one-dimensional. But the real antagonist, Dormammu, is cool and creepy and (spoiler alert) absolutely should have been in more than a few minutes of the movie.
19. Black Widow
Black Widow goes back to Russia to confront her past and reconnect with the “family” she knew as a spy. While the faux-family dynamics are fun, they take a backseat to the final, much less compelling third act, which features a boring antagonist, a setting that’s been used before, and a series of fights and set pieces that give Natasha Romanoff a whimper, not a bang of a finale. Which is a bummer, given the importance and heart of Black Widow.
18. Captain America: The First Avenger
Learn how Captain America (Chris Evans) got his shield! Steve Rogers gets injected with super-soldier serum, becomes insanely muscular, and fights Nazi offshoot organization called H.Y.D.R.A. This was an early MCU movie, and the franchise had yet to figure out how to introduce some of its older characters (in this case, literally: 95% of the movie is set during World War II). The end result is a bit clunky — and the not-quite-there CGI made for an unsettling-looking “skinny Steve.” On the bright side, this is one of the few MCU films to feature a semi-decent romance.
Master thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is recruited to don the Ant-Man suit, size down, and control an army of ants. I mean, this was always going to be a silly premise for a movie, and it’s sometimes hard to care about the (literal) little guy, but Rudd does his best to sell it. All in all, it’s a good setup for a great character. Also, Marvel should make sure to put Michael Peña in all movies going forward, please.
16. Iron Man
Tech billionaire Tony Stark is injured and kidnapped, builds a suit to escape, and finds new purpose as a superhero. Like many later films, Marvel Studios’ first-ever movie has “origin story” written all over it. But, thanks to Downey’s charisma, the MCU formula was immediately solidified: Take a character who’s simply bursting with personality, add in real stakes, have them question their identity, and make them grow. And scene. Iron Man also has a semi-decent romance, with Stark and Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) having a blast snipping at each other.
15. Captain America: Civil War
The superheroes argue over how to superhero, leading to an all-out, ideologically-driven civil war. This is probably the most controversial take on this list: I did not care for Civil War as much as a lot of people did. Largely seen as the superior film to the second Avengers, this movie brings a host of MCU characters and storylines together — and then blows the world to bits. But barring one very good fight and a universe-altering revelation at the end, it’s probably summed up best by Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) sentiments during the big here-on-hero battle: “You were pulling your punches.”
14. Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) gets a cool subversion on an origin story. We meet her as alien amnesiac Vers, and assume she’s working as a good guy with the Kree. Spoiler alert: Everything she knows about herself is a lie. Viewers learn all about her former life on Earth alongside Danvers herself. Fans had strong opinions about this film, to say the least, but given how powerful Captain Marvel is, her presence in the MCU going forward will be epic to watch.
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The premise is the same as the first Guardians movie: A group of misfits get up to shenanigans in space. But fans also learn about the origins of the team’s half-human leader, Peter Quill (Christ Pratt), when he reunites with his dad, Ego (Kurt Russell). That, plus the addition of new characters like Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), elevates the film from good to great. This movie also has a surprising amount of heart; the great redemption of Quill’s quasi-stepdad Yondu (Michael Rooker) is a bit retconned, sure, but it’s still moving — as is the sisterly bonding between Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana).
12. The Avengers
Loki comes to take over the planet, and Earth’s superheroes must band together to defeat him. What makes the first Avengers shine is how it plays against expectations. All these super-powered people come together... and they’re an absolute train wreck, at first. This is the start of the MCU’s quippy superhero schtick, and it’s done to incredible effect here, because the group is a disaster. Viewers watch the Avengers learn how to be the Avengers in real-time. The Avengers also, obviously, sets the stage for several team-ups to come.
11. Ant-Man and the Wasp
Fortunately, the Ant-Man sequel finds a much better way to showcase Ant-Man and his ant-ics (get it?). This time, he’s joined by The Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), and the two try to find her mom and deal with a quantum-ly unstable woman. It’s weird, but in a brilliant way (thanks, in part, to Michael Peña... Marvel execs, please cast him in all the things). It also introduces us to the Quantum Realm, which plays an integral part in the MCU and establishes Ant-Man as more relevant to the overall universe.
10. Guardians of the Galaxy
Sometimes a simple premise really does pay off: Take four members of a makeshift, ragtag group, and have them go on the run with a mysterious orb. Essentially an alien-filled buddy comedy, Guardians of the Galaxy has a different look and feel than some of the Earthbound MCU stories, as it really leans in on outer-space visuals. It also introduces a team, rather than a single superhero, which allows for a variety of impressive and varied performances (hello, Diesel as Groot), but Dave Bautista as Drax basically steals every scene he’s in.
9. Spider-Man: Far From Home
Not as good as Spider-Man: Homecoming but still very good, Far From Home is another solid vehicle for the revamped Spider-Man. Tom Holland play the hero as a high schooler trying to balance schoolwork with his secret life as a caped crusader, to charming effect. In this case, Spidey’s fighting against four elemental creatures that come out of a hole torn in the universe. The film switches up the locale by sending its characters to Europe, and there are some nice tie-ins to other important elements of the MCU. But the best part, by far, is the teens and their very teen methods of handling cataclysmic events.
8. Avengers: Infinity War
The Empire Strikes Back of the Avengers films, the movie’s a real bummer, thanks to long-time franchise villain Thanos’ quest to destroy half of all life in the universe. But that’s what makes it top-10 worthy: The franchise has the courage to (spoiler alert) kill off half its cast, and really sticks the landing. Also, Thanos, as played by Josh Brolin, is just as scary — and, weirdly, almost relatable — as advertised.
7. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
No spoilers, since this film is a recent release, but: Go see this. Simu Liu kills it as the titular Shang-Chi in the MCU’s first Asian-led film, which builds on the legacy of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan’s martial arts movies while also telling a novel story. Shang-Chi also manages to rescue its hero from his notoriously racist depiction in the Marvel Comics. And, unlike a lot of films on this list, it’s also got an impressive villain whose storyline actually, you know, makes sense.
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
I basically had to be dragged to see this film (“Why do I want to see Spider-Man again?”), but it proved to be the movie many fans didn’t see coming. Spider-Man fights against arms traffickers shilling alien tech, led by Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Keaton is great in this — the villain’s surprise tie-in to Peter’s life was a genuine shock — and the movie skips over the Spidey backstory, correctly assuming you get it already. But the secret weapon is Holland, who’s sweet and earnest and basically the opposite of his mentor, Iron Man.
5. Iron Man 3
Speaking of! Downey always elevates the material he’s in, but in Iron Man 3, the caliber of the writing and direction finally matches his performance. (Director and co-writer Shane Black also worked with Downey on the underrated Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and you can tell.) Tony Stark, shaken after the events of The Avengers, must battle a mysterious figure named the Mandarin. This would be the last solo Iron Man film, and it delivers on all fronts: humor, a decent villain (the real and the fake one), character development for Tony, action for Pepper, and, on top of all that, a thoughtful depiction of PTSD.
4. Thor: Ragnarok
The funniest Marvel film ever made, this was a hard pivot from the generic, self-serious, and forgettable Thor 2. The comedic tone wasn’t a sure bet, since the film is about the literal destruction of Asgard (and Thor losing an eye!) at the hands of his sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett). But director Taika Waititi makes it work, largely by playing up Thor and Loki’s back-and-forth — they’re the best MCU characters, thanks to Ragnarok.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
If you want to talk about films that redefined the MCU, this is it. Much more so than Civil War, this took the franchise to new heights by breaking its fundamental framework: S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency that supports the superheroes, is secretly overrun by the terrorist organization H.Y.D.R.A., and the effects ripple out over the whole universe. Captain America goes from the deeply patriotic symbol of America to a vigilante in the blink of an eye. And, oh my god, that Winter Soldier reveal.
2. Avengers: Endgame
Simply put, Endgame is the film that brought the team together — the whole team, from all corners of the galaxy — for the most important fight in history: the quest to undo Thanos’ “snap.” Pulling threads from the movies that came before it, bringing every hero together, providing a fitting sendoff for some fan-favorite characters — there are a million ways this movie could have failed. But it walks that tightrope beautifully. I dare you not to cry at the line: “Avengers... assemble.”
1. Black Panther
Yes indeed. This historic film also has all the aspects of a great MCU movie: a dream cast, cool tech, great stunts, a brilliant and highly relatable villain (Michael B. Jordan). But it’s the late Chadwick Boseman who shines the brightest as T’Challa, the new king of Wakanda who must fight to protect his homeland. Boseman takes the character from stoic to fiery to romantic to wistful, sometimes in the same scene. And it only gets better upon rewatching.
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