Marvel Studios makes superhero movies. Only superhero movies. They currently happen to make the best superhero movies in the biz, but because of the singular focus of their production, it can be easy to underestimate the formative impact they’ve had on the state of contemporary cinema. We take the concept of a shared universe for granted now, but perhaps no other idea has more directly shaped the structure of modern blockbuster moviemaking over the last twenty years.
We see it widespread — not just in the landscape of superhero cinema, though the X-Men and DCEU films were certainly the first adopters, but throughout blockbuster filmmaking at large with the new Universal Monsters universe and the magically insane MIB23 concept. A series of franchises interconnected to ultimately create something larger — a brand, sure, but also an opportunity for long-form storytelling. An opportunity for long arcs that doesn’t just lead to redundant sequels (though admittedly, Iron Man 2 and Thor: The Dark World suffered a bit of the old sequelitis), but an evolving larger story told over decades.
However, it’s not only the long-form approach that makes Marvel’s universe so dynamic, but the genre’s flexibility. “Universe” is the operative word in Marvel’s “shared universe”. It’s not just an ingenious business model, but the groundwork for stories that can span galaxies, dimensions, and realms. Marvel’s powers-that-be have by and large allowed their filmmakers to tell superhero stories through their own lens. The result is a back catalogue of films that reflect the sensibilities of their creators — Kenneth Branagh‘s grand drama, Joss Whedon‘s poppy dialogue and unabashed comic bookishness, James Gunn‘s offbeat humor…hell, they even let Shane Black turn Iron Man 3 into a Shane Black movie. And yet, the overarching characters and tonality are handled with enough consistency that we can believe all these stories take place in the same universe. While that consistency is oft-derided as a “Marvel formula”, it’s also the “shared” part of shared universe. A bond that allows far-reaching films to feel cohesive.
With Captain America: Civil War arriving in theaters, we here on the Collider editorial staff are looking back and celebrating our favorite films in the MCU. When I put out the call to the staff for this article, it was with two understandings. 1) It was fine if our picks overlapped, but 2) we would scrap it if everyone picked the same film. I’m pleased as punch that there were ultimately no overlaps because it’s a pretty cool representation of the widely diverse tastes of the staff here at Collider (Well, as diverse as you can get within the context of a single studio’s output).
Without further ado, here are our personal picks for the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, presented in no particular order.