Nine years and seventeen films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most prominent take-away from this massive geek fest remains this: Marvel Studios set a milestone in cinema. Sure, they have inspired a number of film universes, all of which can’t quite do what the original has done, but Marvel themselves have been able to create an entire world that has lasted seventeen films – and quite a few more in the foreseeable future – without collapsing in on itself. Nine years ago, that was unheard of, and now we’ve come so far that films like Guardians of the Galaxy are mainstream.
So, it is natural that some films in the MCU are better than others, and it is likely that everyone has a definitive ‘best’. It is quite a challenge, however, to rank them all in a list, but I’ve decided to anyway because I like doing this.
As I usually mention whenever I write one of these, my opinion does not have to agree with yours.
17: Iron Man 2 (2010)
I may have given this one away in the title. Spoiler alert, sorry.
Iron Man 2 is the most pointless film in the MCU. With the character of Iron Man already introduced in Iron Man, this film did nothing but set up The Avengers, and also feature laughable villains and a story that you have no reason to care about. This is the only film in the MCU that really shouldn’t exist.
16: The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Incredible Hulk isn’t necessarily bad. It’s just rather forgettable. Maybe the fact that The Hulk was recast for The Avengers (which was definitely for the better), or maybe it’s the fact that it’s actually the least Marvel of all the films on this list (thank you, Universal).
What this film did prove, along with the 2003 monstrosity Hulk, is that the Hulk is far better a character with other superheroes, rather than on his own. And that he was, in both Avengers films and Thor: Ragnarok.
15: Iron Man 3 (2013)
It’s quite sad that both Iron Man sequels rank so low on this list.
There are two things that are good about Iron Man 3. The first is that it tries to tell a very personal Tony Stark story, which I thought was wise, even if the execution was questionable. The second is that it is definitely a Shane Black film.
What doesn’t work is everything else. Having Guy Pearce and Ben Kingsley play the villains sounds fantastic, until you watch the film and see that one of them is a joke… And the other is a fake. It doesn’t help that The Mandarin is one of Iron Man’s greatest foes, and the updated version of the character (supposedly) in this film was actually working magnificently, until the reveal. If he was a serious character, Iron Man 3 would have been much, much higher on the list.
Sadly, it isn’t.
14: Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The second Thor film is… Fine. It introduces an infinity stone, but it also gives us a truly terrible villain. It’s entertaining enough.
There’s not really much else to say about the film. It’s fine. Nothing less and certainly nothing more.
13: Thor (2011)
Having two Thor films be back to back on this list should speak for itself.
There is actually some really good stuff in the first Thor, though. I actually like the fact that his powers were taken away. It made the character… Human. He had to rediscover himself, and that was nice to watch.
However, it does not fare well in comparison to all the films that come above it in this list, and personally, I’m not the biggest fan of how Kenneth Branagh directed this film. It feels rather… Flimsy? I’m not sure how to explain it. Let me just say, the often tilted camera angles didn’t really work for me.
12: Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
This, by far, is the biggest tragedy on the list.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film I actually really like, but I cannot deny that it is very flawed.
Ultron, although beautifully voiced by James Spader, is tremendously underwhelming. Beyond this, the film can be rather unfocused at times because it sets up way too much.
However, I do like what they do with Hawkeye. The character needed it a lot.
11: Ant-Man (2015)
Ant-Man is a film that I actually love. It’s only at number eleven because the films at higher spots are better.
Ant-Man is a great origin story whose biggest flaw is that it has a rubbish villain. I am a fan of the heist element of the film, and the supporting cast too. It manages to take a film that everyone thought would be a joke and make it a solid closing chapter for Phase 2.
And Paul Rudd is always amazing.
10: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
This is a film I happen to like a little more than most people.
Captain America: The First Avenger is rather strange, but it does own the fact that it is set during World War II, and doesn’t shy away from making itself feel that way, even if that means it’s a little over the top sometimes.
Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull was a standout villain for Marvel, and fans still hope to see him make a comeback because he technically didn’t die in the film. One can only hope.
9: Doctor Strange (2016)
Doctor Strange, contrary to the previous entry, is a film I actually like less than most people. The villain, especially since he was played by Mads Mikkelsen, was a disappointment.
However, Doctor Strange’s originality, breathtaking visuals and clever ending certainly earn it a lot of points. I’ll never quite have the same experience with this film as the first time I watched it in theatres, but it is one of the stronger ones in the MCU.
8: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017)
Admittedly, this film is likely to be this high because it’s fresh in my mind, having just watched it again. I do not care.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 can be rather slow at times, and some of the humour doesn’t work, but it is still a touching, funny, personal story, with a good villain. I particularly connected to Rocket, somehow.
It also helps that the Guardians truly do feel like a family, and that Yondu is elevated significantly. This film does have more feels than most – if not all – MCU films, so, it deserves to be this high up.
7: Iron Man (2008)
From this point on, making this list became incredibly difficult. All seven at the top of this list are so good, and so frustratingly close in terms of how good they all are, that I will certainly rank them in a way that perhaps nobody would agree with me. This being the internet, of course, I wouldn’t even be surprised if I received death threats for this.
The first ever film in the MCU was a spectacular one. Iron Man, sadly, is not the best comic book movie of 2008, and that’s only because the greatest comic book movie came out in the same year (and I’m not talking about The Incredible Hulk). The original origin story, which Ant-Man and Doctor Strange may have some parallels with, is gripping, entertaining, and it took Robert Downey Jr. to all new heights. I only wish Iron Monger was a little better.
The excellence of the first Iron Man is what makes its two sequels such sad letdowns.
6: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
You either love this movie, or you hate it (because, obviously, on the internet, you aren’t allowed to have an opinion that isn’t an extreme), and I’m gladly on the side that loves it.
Following two films that rank so low on this list, Taika Waititi took Ragnarok and made it his own, creating the funniest (with all the humour being great) Marvel film to date, but one which is not without heart. Thor: Ragnarok’s main problem is that it is quite heavy with exposition, but looking past that, it’s a tale that gives us the Thor we’ve all waited to see, and a Hulk that has changed a lot since the last time we saw him.
It’s a film that sets itself apart from the rest of the MCU, and that’s its biggest strength (absolutely not foreshadowing anything here).
5: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
This is probably the spot on the list that is most likely to get me killed.
The Winter Soldier is a fantastic film. It made Captain America, a previously cheesy character, gritty and awesome. It is arguably the most grounded Marvel movie, and is more of a political thriller than a superhero movie, which is a plus.
The only thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the scene pictured above, in which a computer version of Arnim Zola dumps information onto the audience, complete with visual aids, and is then immediately destroyed because he has served his purpose. In a film that worked so well because of its subtlety and realism, this scene felt horribly out of place in an otherwise perfect film.
The Winter Soldier: very, very nearly flawless.
4: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Embarrassingly, I did call Spider-Man: Homecoming the ‘best MCU film to date’ in the very title of its review, and to be honest, a part of me does stand by this.
The top spot of the MCU is currently being contested by four films, and honestly, I do think Homecoming has the fewest flaws of them all. I love how it feels like a John Hughes film. I love how the cast is filled with actual teenagers. I love how perfect Tom Holland is. I love Michael Keaton’s Vulture. And I pretty much love everything else about the film too.
But the top three are just more (and I hate to use this word)… Epic.
3: Captain America: Civil War (2016)
It is worth acknowledging that Captain America: Civil War isn’t without flaws. It does have a couple of plot inconsistencies. But at the end of the day, this is my opinionated list, so I just don’t care.
Civil War’s greatest accomplishment is making its conflict not only about the idea of The Avengers being associated with a government, but also something personal. This is a great improvement upon the comic series. There is so much more weight to the story.
The airport battle may have everyone pulling their punches a little bit, but the point is that they are all still close friends and most of them don’t even want to hurt anyone and are just there out of loyalty or other reasons. The only ones with real interest in doing whatever it takes to emerge victorious are Captain America, Iron Man, The Winter Soldier, Black Panther and possibly War Machine and Vision.
The contrast comes later on, when the conflict is very personal. After Tony Stark finds out what really happened to his parents, the following fight is raw, unhinged and real.
This is what is really overlooked with Civil War, and the Russo Brothers. Nothing happens just because. Everyone could have tried to kill each other at the airport, but they didn’t because they can’t just forget about their histories, and they don’t have anything really worth killing each other over. That changes when the characters really do have something that could urge them to fight to kill.
Another criticism is that nobody dies, and the Russos answered this themselves by saying nobody needed to die to further the story along. This is one of the most unspoken strong points of the MCU. Apart from the villains, the three major deaths in the MCU are Phil Coulson (still dead in the movies), Quicksilver and Yondu. The first death is the very thing that propels the Avengers to be better, and to be a team. The second is what allows Scarlett Witch to really unleash her powers to their full ability. The last one is the perfect ending to Yondu’s tale. After being alone and living a life of mistakes, he died in a family, doing the right thing by sacrificing himself to save Peter Quill.
Every major death in the MCU has deep significance, and that deserves to be recognised.
Anyway, Civil War is a massive nerd extravaganza that makes me go insane, and be quite moved by its wonderful plot, at the same time.
2: The Avengers (2012)
The Avengers is a treasure.
Culminating Phase 1 and finally bringing all these characters together, The Avengers could have been a disaster by not being able to balance so many elements.
Thankfully, Joss Whedon crafted a masterpiece, one that only gets better every time you watch it because you appreciate all the fine details even more.
Loki serves as the perfect villain, and the chemistry and interactions between all the characters are beautiful. Marvel could have fallen flat on their faces and never have been able to pick themselves up, but the exact opposite happened.
Also, it’s just awesome.
1: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Now this is where everyone who has thought about killing me so far but hasn’t tried yet will definitely try to kill me.
Guardians of the Galaxy is not as flawless as Spider-Man: Homecoming, not as deep as Captain America: Civil War and not as mouth-watering as The Avengers. The villain is not the best. But when it comes down to me having to choose my favourite film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s this one. No other has a place in my heart quite like it.
Marvel Studios has never taken a bigger risk, and probably will never take a bigger risk, than with this film. Guardians of the Galaxy is funny, wildly entertaining and just balls to the wall insane.
James Gunn’s space opera is so removed from the rest of the MCU, and so greatly original (okay, maybe I was foreshadowing this earlier), that it becomes its own thing entirely. It’s the Marvel film that stands out the most because it’s the most different, tonally, musically, structurally and almost in every other way. Guardians of the Galaxy, in one film alone, was able to create a more detailed and vivid world of film than the rest of the MCU up to that point combined.
The biggest strength, of course, is the Guardians. This oddball group of weirdos aren’t your conventional team that saves the world (or galaxy), and that makes the film feel fresh and makes for some great fun. But it’s this non-cohesive nature that makes you connect to the characters more, and makes their journey of finding trust and love in each other more touching.
The Avengers are a team. The Guardians are a family.
James Gunn took some of the most obscure Marvel comics material and turned it into something special. I don’t think Guardians of the Galaxy can ever be topped. At least for me.