When I was putting together my map of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (see here) as a way of ignoring the fact that Infinity War is coming this week and I’m not ready, I knew that at some point that I would have had to look at the MCU as a whole. There is always trepidation when looking at lists like this because first how do you actually nail down your top five and then not want to change it moments later. As well as this, these are deeply personal films for people and my list is not going to look anything like your list, maybe, maybe not.
With these lists, I don’t rank them 1-18 as I feel that does not adequately reflect my feeling about each of the films and where they fit in relation to each other. As you can see in our X-Men countdown (see here) what we do is the group the films into categories Fantastic, Great Good, Ok, and Trash. Fantastic are those films which get as close to perfect as we can on this side of Heaven, with compelling characters stories and visuals. Great are those films which I thoroughly enjoyed but they did not move me emotionally. Good are solid films that while they have some issues they still work and are still enjoyable. Ok are films that work, they have some good moments, but you can start to see some of the flaws that almost scuttle the film. Trash are those films which just don’t work, whether it is the story, the characters, the visuals, or a combination of all three, they are simply letdowns. Also within those categories, I have listed the films not in a ranked order but in chronological order.
So let’s dive into a world of gritty spy thrillers, fun heist films, moral tales on not watching your AI experiments as you steal alien technology, high school drama, a Technicolour Dreamcoat, and the greatest collection of Chris’ since the invention of the word Chris.
Marvel’s The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)
These days Cinematic Universes are all the rage, indeed we have a whole page dedicated to them (see here) but none of that would be the case if this film had not been as amazing as it was. Now when I grew up I didn’t have any real experience with The Avengers as a property. Here in Australia we only really got the cartoons that focused on the X-Men and Spider-Man. So while I was excited about the big team-up film, I have no idea how excited someone who grew up with the comic might be. We got to watch in real time as all those little hints, all those Easter Eggs and post-credit scenes came together, and it actually worked. Look there is that moment during the Battle of New York where the team join together and the camera pans around the group as they kit up for the next wave, well frankly this film would be where it is on this list for that moment alone.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The status quo is something that most very successful media franchises cling too when they have found a formula that is successful because successful equals profit. There is almost a deep hesitation to do anything that could mess with that formula, but ultimately this is what leads to properties feeling stale. While this whole connected universe was a risk at some point, in no way did I think they were about to tear down the status quo and destroy the one organisation they had spent nine films building at this point. SHIELD was the framework for building the shared universe and they went nope not anymore in this film. As well as this, we got to see Chris Evans really come into his own as the titular Captain America, and also see some of the side characters have their moment to shine. In the end what really sets this film apart is that it is a story about a friend trying to bring another friend back from the brink, and that was the emotional heart of the film that really resonated with me.
Captain America: Civil War
So take everything I just said about Winter Soldier and take it to the next level, this is the only way I can explain the impact that was Civil War (see review) for me. The conflict felt real, and it was also clear why friends could come to a different opinion on it, mostly because both sides had valid points. Having a US-based superpower team going and doing what they want is a potential recipe for disaster, but also once you bring in the UN you have that layer of bureaucracy and politics that could dilute the very essence of the Avengers. So we have all the misdirection and spy subterfuge, we have the team gallivanting around Europe as pawns in a game they don’t know they are playing, and we even have the big battle in the airport with the long-awaited addition of Black Panther and Spider-Man. However, for me what makes Civil War fantastic is the final fight between Cap and Tony. Trying to get two friends, historic allies to turn on each other and have it not feel forced is so hard to pull off and frankly they nail that emotional push. It improved on the comics and left the world in a state of the unknown that five films later we are still dealing with.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians Vol. 1 is a great film and I really love it and how it deals with a group of individuals becoming a family, however, what Vol. 2 (see review) takes to heart is coming together as a family is one thing, but living as a family is something completely different. Part of this is several of the characters working through their deeply abusive upbringings and with maybe the exception of Mantis they deal with this deeply difficult issue with a lot of depth. These are people who have lived lives of isolation coming together and showing their flaws to each other. It is a film that created depth to one-note characters from the first film and honestly made me cry in the cinema. “He may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy.” I mean damn Marvel goodness, that is not just hitting me in the feels, that is taking my heart out and crushing it while I watch. Beautifully filmed, a strong story, and hits you in the feels, brilliant. Also if not for Vol. 2 we would never have gotten this gem.
So we are going to soft reboot an entire film series with dramatic repercussions for both Thor’s universe and the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe and all of that will happen in what might be the funniest film to date. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall as Taika Waititi and the writers pitched a complete change in tone, story, and character here in Thor: Ragnarok (see review). However, all the changes make Thor and his universe maybe one of the best thing they are doing at the moment and gives a great stylistic boost to the cosmic side of the MCU. The stakes are higher, there is some real emotional weight to the Loki/Thor relationship, and that play which might be the best single scene in the MCU. Every member of this cast is clearly having a ball and the addition of the Valkyrie and Hela to the film were masterstrokes. Also within a film all about goofs and reboots, it also has time to delve into the realm of post-colonial critiques of empire, and wow. This might be the biggest surprise on my list, I did not expect to love it as much as I did but I enjoyed every minute it was on. “Piss off ghost”.
So three of the last four films in the build-up to Infinity Wars find themselves on this fantastic list and from a franchise which was starting to stagnate it feels like it just got its second wind and no other film encapsulates this more than Black Panther (see review). Black Panther is not a film that is one for half measures it about Afrofuturism, post-colonialism, pan-Africanism, and peace and conflict studies. It is also a Spy thriller, a dynasty epic, an action film, a revenge film, and break down in the impact of colonial powers on the world and the many different ways you could respond to that. This should not work, it should feel like a disconnected mess, but it just works. Part of this has to be the commitment of writer/director Ryan Coogler, and also the whole cast and the whole crew giving everything to bring this to the big screen. With Black Panther, they created a world that takes the best of Afrofuturism to create a Wakanda that feels real and not a gimmick, someplace you wish was real with all your heart. This is even before we get into the cultural significance of the film which can’t be understated. Black Panther is a film that will be studied in the years to come and there is a reason it ended up on the front cover of a Time magazine. Also that soundtrack.
Captain America: The First Avenger
If you are going to have one of your main tent poll heroes be called Captain America you have to be one hundred percent sure in your casting. They have to embody everything that is good about a country but be believable when they question its faults. Well, they found him in Chris Evans, so many of his lines would have come off cheesy with another actor. His commitment also works because they surrounded him with a great supporting cast with Hayley Atwell just killing it. However, it is held back by its one-note villain that doesn’t translate all that well onto the big screen, but that is just a small issue on what is a great film
Guardians of the Galaxy
We have talked about risk already on this list, but while it looks like a perfectly clear option now, this was a big risk when it came out. Of its lead cast only Zoe Saldana had made it big before the film, yes there was a time when Chris Pratt was just that guy on Parks and Recreation. It wasn’t headed by big-name stars, even with Marvel comics this was an obscure reference to turn into a film, but goodness did it work. First, it opens with a scene that hits you in the gut but then takes you on an interstellar romp in the vein of a Technicolor Dreamcoat. This was such a tonal shift for the MCU, and it was the first non-Avengers film to have collective at the core rather than one character. It also has probably one of the more unique soundtracks that we have seen so far. This is a fun film with a few rough edges, but you will be humming along with it for weeks afterwards.
Marvel and Sony have a history of not playing well together, indeed everything about the Spider-Man deal felt like it was destined to fail, but then comes Tom Holland swinging out on his web in Civil War. So I went from being not interested, to really interested, and Homecoming (see review) did not disappoint. Tom is for me one of the best Spider-Mans (Spider-Men, Spider-Man’s?) we have had. He is earnest, a little naïve, but also caring with a big heart. Add to this what I think might be the MCU’s best villain in Vulture played by Michael Keaton, who you immediately sympathise with any kind of root for before he goes after Spidey. All of this leads to one of the best scenes when Peter opens up the door to find out that Liz’s dad is actually the Vulture, and during this and the car ride we watch as both of them put it all together with mostly just facial expressions. Yes, there is a sub-plot with Tony that is a bit hit and miss at times, but the dynamic still feels real. I am so glad Marvel and Sony were able to work this out so we got to see Spider-Man back in the MCU.
It was the film that started it all, the very core of the MCU, it was the film that could have scuttled the ship before it had even left the harbour and even after all these years it still holds up. Robert Downey Jr. was a bold choice to be the face of your new universe and even at these first moments, you can see all of the tentative steps they make. This was all new ground for everyone involved, trying to work out what would and would not fly when trying to adapt the comics into films. Yes, it sufferers a bit from a lacklustre villain, but that is a bit of a Marvel-wide issue. But it is an electric film as you watch Tony build his suit under the noses of his captors and a great first entry into this fascinating MCU.
When the first Marvel films we being adapted to the film they lost a lot of the things iconic from the comic books that maybe they didn’t feel confidence would play to a wider audience, like the costumes in X-Men. So it showed a strength in their writing that they committed to the Norse Gods living in their high Sci-Fi world. One of the good things Marvel has been doing from almost the start is casting these immortal actors like Anthony Hopkins as Odin and letting them just go for it. As well as this, Chris Hemsworth expertly sells the fish out of the water as the Asgardian trying to find a selfless life after being banished to Earth. Also, who doesn’t love a little Tom Hiddleston in their films? The only big issue is that Puente Antiguo feels like a set rather than a real town, that is in no way big enough for its own pet store.
Iron Man 3
This was the first film post-Avengers and set the tone for Phase 2 and for Iron Man as a character. In this film, we get to see the self-doubt and failure creep into Tony’s life as the fallout from the Battle of New York constantly hovers waiting to strike. We get to see Tony brought low as he almost loses everything to his past hubris and now after three films he finally feels like he is moving forward with his life rather than living in a constant walking dead. Now with Iron Man 3, there is always the Mandarin divide, and for me, I come on the side of really liking it. The did something completely unexpected and I didn’t see it coming and I am happy for them to stray away from the comics if it is done well and works with the context of this new universe they are building.
Avengers: Age of Ultron
It is time for the second Avengers and did it live up to the first one, no, but nothing could capture that one moment again. The one thing that works more than ever in Age of Ultron (see review) is, of course, the titular Ultron himself played by the amazing James Spader. This is an alien entity that when exploring the internet for the first time decided that humans must die, and well fair point. We get the introduction of Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Vision, all great additions to the hero roster, and they send a city flying into the air. There is a big fight sequence, the new powers work in interesting ways, they bond, they fight, one of them dies in a not too subtitle dig at a competitor. Where it gets held up is that it is trying to set up too many other films rather than just being its own thing, which is something that has killed other attempted cinematic universes. However, it takes the time to have quiet moments, in-between the destruction, even if all the relationships don’t quite work.
Out of all the films in the MCU Ant-Man (see review) had the rockiest road to creation, with long-time collaborator Edgar Wright eventually walking away from the project leaving Peyton Reed to try and merge what Edgar had done with what Marvel wanted to do. When you watch the film you can see some of those sides hitting up against each other. Add to this some really underused characters like Evangeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne (though this is not an issue just here, see IM3, Doc Strange and more) and this should have been a mess, but somehow it does come together in the end. It is weird and wonderful, and they made an ant called Antony, they made you invested in Antony and then they killed him before having a tiny fight inside a briefcase as it falls out of the crashing helicopter into a family’s BBQ party. This is a weird film at times but Paul Rudd sells it and the design of the ants makes you engage with the premise, it also has a step-parent that is not evil so go you Disney. When watching it you can see the hints of that Edgar Wright film and it was a shame that they couldn’t come to an agreement, but I feel like they have learnt from Ant-Man and that is why we got such fantastic films like Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok.
If you want to have a full on MCU debate just ask the question as to when is Doctor Strange (see review) set? And you will experience first-hand a theological debate on the level of the Book of Daniel writ large (though of course one the awards seen on the wall of his house before the crash it says it is 2017 so that shouldn’t really be a debate). Benedict Cumberbatch plays a man of science that has to accept that something exists outside of the scientific method, and that could be at best preachy or at worse disconnected mess but he sells it. Add to this Benedict Wong who always makes every film he is in better by just being there and you have a really good film. We also have a sentient cape with some strong feelings, an interesting final battle technique of basically annoying the big bad into retreating, and some amazing visuals out of an acid trip. Now there was the whitewashing controversy around the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and well given the problematic aspects of the source material this was probably a better option but it still probably not the best.
The Incredible Hulk
So why is The Incredible Hulk only an Ok film, well it is in itself a perfectly fine film, with some solid action set pieces, and it was good the see The Hulk work a lot better the second time around? It is here because in all honesty it is quite unremarkable, and if you were doing a re-watch of all the movies in preparation for Infinity War you could skip this one and not lose anything. The fact that they re-cast The Hulk after this film and a distribution deal has kind of stopped there being any follow-ups have also limited it, unfortunately.
Iron Man 2
One of the big problems with Iron Man 2 is that it takes a lot of the problems that are in Iron Man 1 and then runs with them. We have not one but two kinds of weak villains this time around, just wasting poor Sam Rockwell. The sub-plot of the arc reactor killing Tony also feels more forced than anything. However, this is the film that gave us Black Widow, and the final fight scene as Tony and Rhodey working together to take down the drones is still a lot of fun.
Thor: The Dark World
Adding to the second film slump is, of course, Thor 2 a film which at one point had Patty Jenkins set to be a director but it all fell through, this probably just as big as a mistake as Ant-Man, though probably more considering how the film turned out. The first Thor was this almost Shakespearian tragedy of a god falling to Earth to find humility. It was kind of fun but here it feels like they are just going through the motions, and no one is really having that good of a time. However, it is just saved by some great moments, like Heimdall seeing the cloaked ship and taking it down, the escape from Asgard, and anything Stellan Skarsgård is doing as Erik Selvig. As well as this, the death of Frigga and her funeral is one of the more touching moments in the MCU. In the end, Thor 2 just feels rushed out and was a victim of Marvel not getting that release balance right like they have in later years.
Well for me there are no trash films in the MCU yet, and while that might be different for you, I think it has been some of the strengths of the MCU that at the time of writing and only a couple of hours away from seeing Infinity War nothing yet has truly bombed.
So that was my ranking of all the films in the MCU? How would you rank them? Do you have a film that should be in the Trash category? Is there a film here that you think I have been too harsh on? Let me know in the comments below.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
How would you rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe?, let us know what you thought in the comments below, feel free to share this review on any of the social medias and you can follow us Here. Check out all our past reviews and articles Here, and have a happy day.
Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe