Marvel Cinematic Universe Movies Ranked from Worst to Best
Taken as a whole, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is an undeniable achievement in cinema. It began with a simple idea, thrown in after the credits of the first, risky movie: “You’ve become part of a bigger universe. You just don’t know it yet.” That idea blossomed into movies that crossed over with each other, sometimes with incredible results and other times with diminished returns. With the latest installment in the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok, now in theaters, I decided to look back at the films in the universe and rank them from worst to best.
17) Iron Man 2
If Nick Fury’s words to Tony Stark at the end of Iron Man were a confident declaration about the intentions to create the “Avengers Initiative”, then Iron Man 2 is tripping over your shoelaces and faceplanting.
Iron Man 2 suffers from trying to do too much in the span of one movie, and no one seeming to agree on what needs to take priority. Yes, there needs to be some time given to setting up The Avengers, but Iron Man 2 does it awkwardly by introducing Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) but forgetting to give her a character. It tacks on the Coulson stuff, which is still a little stiff, but Clark Gregg does his best to make it work even though his dialogue may as well read: “Thor: Coming Next Summer!”
The Avengers stuff could be forgiven if the A-plot worked a little better, but like just about every Marvel movie, it suffers from a weak villain with a lousy motivation. While Mickey Rourke definitely had some clout coming off The Wrestler, director Jon Favreau just got a campy performance out of the actor, who clearly thinks the material is beneath him, as opposed to Darren Aronofsky, who got the best performance of Rourke’s career.
This is to say nothing about Tony’s palladium poisoning and how it just so happens that his dad invented the one thing that could save his son’s life, built it decades before his son miniaturized it, and then hid the plans in a table. It makes you wonder if Howard Stark put any other revolutionary ideas in mundane objects.
The one consistently great aspect of Iron Man 2 is Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer, and it makes sense considering he’s pretty much freed from the sinking ship of everything else going around him. He’s not caught up in Avengers business, he’s pretty much making fun of Rourke’s unengaged performance, and he gets to look good doing everything. But when an actor who doesn’t even get top billing is the one who steals the movie, something has gone amiss.
16) Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is a weird beast. It feels cobbled together in a way that it goes by the familiar beats of previous Marvel movies–notably Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy–but it also feels rote and uninteresting despite the trappings of putting its protagonist into a magical world. It seems like Marvel stuck close to a familiar playbook because they knew they were making a bit of a leap with “magic”, but when it came time to make that magic, it was fairly uninteresting.
I understand the difficulty Strange presents with magic because magic needs rules or else everything falls apart. That being said, the film leans far too heavily on the “cocky guy becomes a nicer guy” story Marvel has done before, and does so in a largely uninteresting way. Benedict Cumberbatch is fine in the title role, but there’s always a feeling of “been there, done that” with the movie even its eye-popping action scenes that feel either ripped from Jack Kirby or Inception on steroids.
The film’s greatest strength is in its thematic subtext where Strange’s arc is learning that he has to be okay with being broken. Although I think the film could have leaned a little more heavily into this, I still like that the climax of the movie is Strange–a man who has spent his life fighting death–embracing death in order to save mankind. Yes, the willingness to sacrifice one’s life is a standard part of MCU heroics, but Strange does it on overdrive and it actually means something to the character’s arc.
But overall, Doctor Strange is largely disappointing. It wastes a terrific cast, features mostly uninteresting characters, and struggles to find the sense of whimsy of humor found in most other Marvel movies. Walking out of Doctor Strange was the first time I felt with a Marvel movie, “Yeah, I’m okay if we don’t get a sequel to this.”
15) The Incredible Hulk
It’s almost unfair to include The Incredible Hulk on a list of MCU movies since it was clearly added to the Universe after the fact. There are a few second unit shots and additions to make it feel like it’s part of something bigger (like a quick glimpse of the “Stark Industries” logo), but it’s so clearly meant to stand on its own, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. I’m not of the opinion that just because these movies are part of a shared universe they’re somehow lesser because they’re not actively sharing all the time.
The problem with Incredible Hulk is that it’s tonally so dissonant from the other movies, and it’s actually a bit of a downer. It’s a film that, when paired with Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk, makes you wonder if the character can carry his own movie or if he needs to be paired with other superheroes to work to his full extent. Left to his own devices, you have a character who rejects his own superpower and feels ambivalent about it at best. You need other characters to draw it out as a force for good and to give the loner Bruce Banner a sense of belonging.
The Incredible Hulk is too early in the MCU to take advantage of this kind of dynamic, so it’s adrift, and as a result lacks the proper tone, voice, and attitude to quality as a proper Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Until William Hurt pops up in Civil War, it’s the only movie where its actors don’t appear in other Marvel movies. Edward Norton is acceptable as Banner, but Mark Ruffalo is so much better in a well-rounded version of the character. It seems like Marvel didn’t know what they had yet with Hulk, so everything is just slightly off-center.
That doesn’t make The Incredible Hulk a “bad” movie as much as it’s a painfully mediocre one that’s constantly trying to reconcile its tone and its lead character, and while it has yet to figure out the former, we’ve at least come to a good place with the latter.
When you consider that it had a rough pre-production, Ant-Man turned out far better than it could have. That being said, it still feels like a film that’s caught between two visions, and the vision it settled on is the less exciting of the two. That’s not trying to show favoritism towards Edgar Wright, and I’m eager to see what director Peyton Reed will do when he has full run of the show on Ant-Man and the Wasp, but his version of Ant-Man feels like it’s been stripped down to My First Heist Film.
It meets the genre requirements, but it meets them in such a simplistic way that it feels like the greatest achievement is so that Kevin Feige can point to Ant-Man as an example of saying “We don’t make superhero movies; we make heist movies,” and then compares Captain America: The Winter Soldier to a 70s political thriller even though it’s only like those movies in the loosest sense of the genre possible. It’s fairer to say that Ant-Man is a superhero movie through the lens of the heist genre, and once you’ve checked your expectations, it’s fairly enjoyable.
And yet (no pun intended), there’s a feeling that Ant-Man should go bigger. It has terrific stakes—a father wanting to earn his way back into his daughter’s life—and it’s a nice palette cleanser after the “Something big is going to drop from the sky” climaxes of the previous four MCU movies. And yet it doesn’t give us a particularly complex character with Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is a nothing villain, and the Quantum Realm could have been a really exciting, psychedelic place, but instead it’s just a pretty kaleidoscope.
Thankfully, the movie ultimately hints at something grander just around the bend, and while the first Ant-Man may not achieve everything it wanted to, it succeeds as a minor Marvel film that still manages to charm despite some glaring shortcomings.
Thor seems fairly counterintuitive: Here’s a Norse god. He has awesome powers. Now let’s strip him of those powers for the majority of this movie and stick him in New Mexico.
Thor’s lesson of humility in the Land of Enchantment is at least tempered by the fact that director Kenneth Branagh, despite having the incredibly poor idea to constantly use canted angles when filming, was dead on when it came to casting, especially Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston. So much of the MCU’s greater success rests on these two actors that if you messed up this part, other films would suffer. The same could be said of casting on other movies, but Branagh basically found two unknowns and trusted that they could serve as bridges between the lofty realm of Asgard to the most mundane places on Earth. He absolutely succeeded, and when Hemsworth grins, you don’t care that the film has taken away his superpowers. When Hiddleston seethes, you love being wrapped up in the grandiose family dispute in Asgard.
Sadly, the rest of the film isn’t as strong as its two lead characters (I consider Loki as much of a lead as Thor, which is one of the reasons the character succeeds as a villain; Marvel should really take note of how they did this character right and apply it to their other antagonists). While Branagh succeeds at bringing Asgard to life, which is an impressive task, everything on Earth feels fairly limp.
Additionally, as time has gone on, we’ve seen that Thor’s willingness to sacrifice himself isn’t a unique trait as much as it’s something that Marvel superheroes are just willing to do at the climax of every movie. If that’s all it takes to wield Mjolnir, then more than just Thor and Vision should be able to pick up the hammer.
12) Thor: The Dark World
You can pinpoint the exact moment when Thor: The Dark World goes from being a slog to being a great movie. The entire movie picks up at Freya’s funeral (killing off a female character to give your male heroes motivation is a tired trope, but it’s a deeply flawed film), but it takes a while for the film to get there. First you have to go through Sad Thor cleaning up the Nine Realms, unceremoniously ditching Hogun for some reason, Jane meandering around Earth, Loki trapped in a cell, and yet another dull Marvel villain who suffers from a dearth of personality.
But after Freya’s funeral and Loki getting sprung from captivity, the film takes off and finds it energy. Between Thor and Thor: The Dark World, it’s not enough to have just Thor or even Thor and Jane. You have to have the relationship between Thor and Loki because that’s where these movies get their power. Even after Loki “dies”, his presence is still felt as a driving force for Thor and the movie keeps up the energy it found in their relationship.
It’s also clear that what Thor movies need more than anything is a sense of humor. The first half is pretty remote and dour, but the second half finds a pulse and throws in plenty of jokes and memorable little moments that give the movie a personality. Yes, it can be a little slapstick in some regards, but Thor shouldn’t take itself so seriously. When the stakes are interdimensional, that’s about all the seriousness these movies can handle, and it’s better to let the God of Thunder just have some fun.
11) Captain America: Civil War
I really liked Captain America: Civil War the first time I saw it, and I still think it has plenty of great stuff going on. I think it shows the power of its lead characters by putting them both in the wrong and yet they’re still likable regardless. I don’t walk out of Civil War hating Captain America or Iron Man, and I hope that they’re bond can be repaired. It’s a movie that finds stakes outside of life and death, and what’s on the line is not only a partnership, but also the Avengers. Granted, we know that the Avengers will eventually be called back in, but now Infinity War has to deal with the fallout.
That being said, Civil War struggles to hold up on repeating viewings. It’s a movie that has some interesting ideas about government oversight and whether personal responsibility to all outweighs personal responsibility to an individual, but it really chugs along in order to get to these moments. It’s a big movie that feels like a big movie and at points it lumbers along like a big movie. There are a lot of moving parts, and while it’s nice to get a payoff like Spider-Man showing up, you also have to stop your movie to reintroduce Spider-Man. The character is thematically important, but he’s also a bit of fan service.
But what gives me greater pause for Civil War is that it’s a movie that’s highly competent, and yet bereft of personality. The Russo Brothers have shown that they’re highly adept at playing by Marvel’s playbook, and it’s a playbook that says, “Make me an expensive episode of television.” The film may feint at having big ideas and it can spur conversations, but there’s nothing particularly daring about Civil War. I suppose it’s a risk to pack your movie with too many characters, but there’s nothing particularly challenging about the film. It’s bombast and tone doesn’t match the scale of its rhetoric.
Civil War is still a fine film, and it has a lot that works for it, but I think when contrasted against other Marvel movies as opposed to the weak crop of superhero films we got in 2016, it has a harder time standing on its own.
10) Spider-Man: Homecoming
This movie is so much fun. For some Spider-Man fans, Spider-Man: Homecoming is the Spider-Man movie they’ve been waiting for their entire lives after being let down by the angst permeating the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb franchises. Whether you like the previous Spider-Man movies or not, Homecoming distinguishes itself by going all-in with its high-school age Peter Parker and seeing his youth as a defining feature not just among Spider-Man movies, but in the superhero genre as a whole.
But what makes Homecoming stand apart are all of the great little touches. This is truly Spider-Man as a novice and Peter Parker as a diminutive figure. He may be able to lift a row of lockers with one hand, but he’s still shorter than the girl he has a crush on. Rather than running from his responsibilities or trying to figure out how he’ll pay the bills, he’s totally focused on trying to be a hero even if he’s not sure exactly how to do it. It’s an endearing take on the character that doesn’t lose sight of the stakes.
The only thing that really stops Homecoming from being among the best Marvel movies is that it doesn’t really take any chances. Perhaps those chances will come later in the franchise, but Homecoming is all about putting the “friendly” and “neighborhood” into “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” It’s a cheerful film that doesn’t even mention Uncle Ben by name, and while I’m glad it isn’t weighted down by tragedy, it’s not weighted down by much of anything. And that makes it an incredibly fun movie, but one that doesn’t leave as much of an impression as other Marvel films.
9) Guardians of the Galaxy
This is just a fun movie. It’s not particularly deep. It’s not super challenging. And that is perfectly okay when your movie is this much fun. Looking back at Guardians of the Galaxy, it’s a little bizarre how we treated it as such a “weird” film when really it’s pretty conventional, and it’s only the dearth of creativity in the larger Hollywood system that makes GOTG an outlier rather than the norm. There’s nothing inherently unusual about endearing characters or alien worlds, but we’ve come to accept that it’s the film that’s odd rather than Hollywood’s method of thinking.
Granted, there’s no way a studio would have greenlit this film without the success of Marvel’s previous hits, and it’s the strength of the Marvel brand that helped get people in the door, but Guardians is a fairly tame movie. Its band of outlaws aren’t bad guys; they’re outsiders, and they’re lovable outsiders at that. Hopefully the sequel will let its sole female member, Gamora, get to have a little fun beyond just her excellent “pelvic sorcery” line rather than playing the straight woman to a bunch of boys having a good time.
Like with most other Marvel movies, you have to skip past the non-villain (He wants to drop something big from the sky and kill billions of people? Get in line, Ronan) and Thanos coming off quite poorly (the big bad of the MCU got dissed in an intergalactic Skype call), but this movie is about the heroes and that’s where it shines. Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot are all lovable, and writer-director James Gunn gave them a big, shiny, colorful world to play in.
8) Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 is a fascinating and incredibly divisive film in the MCU. It’s a film that should carry the entire burden of The Avengers on its back, and instead just shrugs it off, and shrugs off the responsibility of being part of a shared universe to just go off and do its own thing. It’s kind of a “Fuck you” to people who have expectations, not just in terms of the MCU, but also with the Mandarin Twist, and yet that irreverence is also part of the film’s charm.
Shane Black is a filmmaker who likes messing with conventions, so in that sense, perhaps he wasn’t the best choice to tackle the first post-Avengers film. And yet if you support filmmaker-driven cinema, he’s one of Marvel’s most inspired choices, and he gives Iron Man 3 a personality that’s completely unique to the MCU rather than having a film that could have just as easily blended in and faded away. Iron Man 3 is a terrific litmus test even if its plot is a bit scattershot and overstuffed.
That’s the complication of Iron Man 3: Do you view it as a standalone feature, as a sequel to two Iron Man movies, a sequel to The Avengers, or a continuation of the MCU? It doesn’t seem like Marvel was entirely sure how to approach a post-Avengers world, and yet given the choice between a movie that can work on its own merits and one that’s constantly trying to do housekeeping for the larger franchise, I’m going to side with the former, warts and all. Iron Man 3 is a bold film that doesn’t always work, but I love its enthusiasm and attitude.
7) Thor: Ragnarok
In the broadest sense, Thor: Ragnarok is just plain fun. It’s ridiculous, silly, and it’s all clearly in director Taika Waititi’s voice. It’s a credit to Marvel that they tried to do something radically different rather than keep plugging away at a Thor franchise that never clicked completely. Some may see Ragnarok as throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but after two movies, it smacked of a series that needed a new direction and to take advantage of its strengths: Chris Hemsworth’s comic timing and the cosmic setting. The result is a movie that’s not only hilarious, but also big, bold, bright and colorful.
On the one hand, I can sympathize with people who wish that they had gotten a Thor sequel that was more in line with the previous movies–more Thor/Jane Foster relationship, royal intrigue, leaning harder into the fantasy setting. But Waititi’s vision is clear, and it works, moving the Marvel superhero firmly into the realm of sci-fi comedy, and using that strong take to give the character definition that previous Thor films lacked.
Even in the movie’s weakest moments, specifically when it goes for a joke over an emotional beat or having to spend time with Hela, you still have a movie that works. You may not get the emotional impact, but you’ll be laughing too hard at Korg’s dry humor. Hela may not have the sympathetic shading of someone like Loki, but it’s hard to argue with Cate Blanchett’s charismatic performance and how her character represents the past we try to bury in favor of a pretty mythology. I’ll be curious to see how the film holds up in six months, but after two viewings, it’s easy to see it as among Marvel’s best.
5) Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers: Age of Ultron is far from perfect, but I have an admiration for it because of how imperfect it is. It’s a film whose greatest sin is in trying to do too much, but it does so much of it well that I don’t begrudge the picture in the same way I do other movies that are larger just for the sake of being larger. AoU is bigger by the studio and audience demands of sequels being bigger, but it also carries bigger ideas with it too.
Where Age of Ultron could really stand to be stronger and where it needs its spine is in making Ultron a better character. James Spader does what he can, but ultimately, we never get to know more of Ultron and the gap between what Joss Whedon wants his antagonist to be and how he actually comes across is a bridge too far. There’s not enough menace, not enough sadness, not enough humanity in his detached robot, and while he hates The Avengers, it feels like he hates them because they’re the protagonists rather than any ideological difference. In hindsight, Ultron is a character that probably should have been birthed out of Iron Man 3 or at least the inklings of the character (this is if the studio leaned hard on a cohesive vision; Iron Man 3, as I said, is torn between being part of the MCU and an independent vision).
And yet there’s so much of Age of Ultron that goes right. The Hulkbuster fight is everything you could want from a set piece. The relationship between Hulk and Black Widow is thoughtful and inspired. AoU gets flack for not playing into audience expectations, but those expectations overlook everything that Whedon was doing right rather than judging the movie on its own merits. If he comes up short on his own attempt, its fine to call him on it (like trying to wedge in the Thor subplot), but don’t try to call Whedon out on your pre-conceived notions.
Perhaps more than any other MCU movie, Age of Ultron demands a second or third viewing, one that’s freed from expectations and where you can see the film’s strengths and weaknesses with the benefit of time.
5) Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Let’s set aside the “It’s like a 70s conspiracy thriller!” because that’s nonsense, and it’s trying to build up the movie to more than it is. Just because your movie has Robert Redford and addresses political surveillance, that doesn’t make you an heir to Three Days of the Condor. What’s frustrating about this description is that The Winter Soldier doesn’t need it. It’s an excellent film without trying to force a genre label.
It’s nice that the film has subtext about surveillance and that it comes within a superhero film rather than a straight drama (but again, that’s nothing new; mainstream entertainment usually carries messages about the day’s current events and issues), but that’s not what makes The Winter Soldier a top-tier MCU movie. It’s about what the darker issues of our world mean in relation to Captain America (Chris Evans).
The folks behind Winter Soldier were smart enough to understand that Captain America is an old-fashioned throwback, and that he represents what we want the world to be. There’s a rich vein of conflict when he’s thrown up against what cynics cite as pragmatism and viewing the world “as it is.” From there, you get a character, who lifts us up and inspires us to be better rather than getting us dragged down in the mud.
This is all in addition to some of the best set pieces the MCU has had to offer. While I’m not crazy about the helicarriers falling out of the sky, all of the stuff on the ground level is superb, and it takes full advantage of Cap’s strength and speed to make him look superhuman but not at the level of Superman. He comes off as the world’s toughest athlete times 100, but he’s not invulnerable. The action is top-notch, the characterization is insightful, and it’s helped to establish Captain America as one of my favorite superheroes.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is probably going to be a divisive film among MCU fans because, like Iron Man 3, it seems largely unconcerned with the plots of the other movies or even with its own plot. If you’re someone who thinks that the MCU’s greatest strength is in how it’s basically a gigantic TV show, and that to eschew universe building is to avoid what makes the MCU unique, then GOTG 2 will probably be a letdown. But if you believe that it’s great when Marvel lets filmmakers tell their own story without worrying about setting up the pieces to future movies, then Guardians 2 is a rousing success. I fall into the later camp.
It’s not that I mind movies that build connections to sequels, and the first Guardians does a nice job of balancing its own personality with links to future Marvel movies. But given the choice between leaning heavily on plot or heavily on character, I like that James Gunn’s sequel choose the latter. Vol. 2 isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere. It splits up the team and focuses largely on the characters. There’s no MacGuffin to obtain and the movie’s true villain isn’t even revealed until about halfway through the picture.
Instead, Vol. 2 is focused on characters and tone, and it works wonderfully. While some have leveled the criticism that the movie is “bloated”, I think that’s an unfair accusation. If anything, its plot is shockingly thin because it’s mostly interested in just meandering with its characters. It knows that you like these people, so it just hangs out with them. It’s Everybody Wants Some!! but in space and with Kurt Russell instead of Wyatt Russell.
And despite being a largely plot-free picture, it never loses sight of its thematic core, which is to further the theme of family, specifically how we’re raised, which was introduced in the first movie. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is really the full package; the question comes down to whether or not this is a package MCU fans want.
3) Iron Man
In the history of superhero movies, the importance of Iron Man can’t be understated. Here was a character that was largely an unknown, and through the strength of perfect casting and Jon Favreau’s unshakable vision (despite lacking a script through production), they came away with a film that largely defined the MCU. If Iron Man had faltered in any significant way, the MCU, and the landscape of superhero movies as a whole, would look largely different today.
As it stands, Iron Man is a joyful origin story that’s incredibly well told and rests comfortably on the back of Robert Downey Jr., rebooting his career. Keep in mind that back in 2008, Downey was still a huge risk, and yet fans knew that he was an inspired choice to play narcissistic playboy inventor Tony Stark. The stuff with the suit and the action scenes were important too, but putting character and casting first became a Marvel trademark, and it’s because they hit it out of the park on their first go-round with Downey.
The film itself remains an absolute delight. It sets the template for everything going forward, and it doesn’t have to worry about the implications of the larger MCU. While world-building is all well and good, the MCU got a strong start because the start focused on just one film rather than rushing towards The Avengers. We invested in Tony Stark and his journey rather than how a franchise will benefit a studio. When The Avengers finally came along, it was well worth the wait.
2) The Avengers
Once you get past the rough opening twenty minutes (the film heats up once Black Widow goes to India to recruit the Hulk), The Avengers is pretty much the crown jewel of the MCU, and it’s easy to see why every studio continues to chase its success. While they might be able to mimic the formula of a cinematic universe, there’s only one Joss Whedon, and his understanding of character and tone is what carries this movie through even its weakest moments.
Thankfully, this movie had all of the building blocks it needed to be superb, and when compiled together, they make Avengers a top-notch anytime movie. This is a film I’ve put on in the background and just let it play while I’m working because it’s just so much fun but I don’t have to give it my full attention. It’s good company, it’s incredibly quotable, and it’s unabashedly comic book.
The Avengers is just a barrage of what to do right, and yet it’s remarkable when you think about how it could have gone horribly wrong. What if these actors weren’t perfect for their roles? What if there was a weak antagonist? What if Whedon misunderstood the real conflict, which isn’t the Avengers against Loki but the Avengers against the Avengers? Everyone knew the score going in, and the audience was the beneficiary of the filmmaker’s wisdom, and cinema has few gambles that have paid off as big as The Avengers.
1) Captain America: The First Avenger
What gives Captain America: The First Avenger a slight edge over The Avengers is how it establishes Captain America as the hero we need for our time by pulling him out of our time. It’s an unapologetically rock’em, sock’em action-adventure movie that feels like a throwback in the best way possible. When Marvel head Kevin Feige talks about how their movies can transcend genres, The First Avenger is that transcendence. It’s a superhero movie where the character actually feels heroic.
Before I saw Captain America, I didn’t have any strong feelings about the character on way or the other. But after seeing the film, he’s become one of my all-time favorites. He’s perfectly cast, he’s unflinchingly earnest, and the character gets to the heart of heroism, which is what superhero movies should be about on some level. It’s not enough to simply say, “Don’t be a jerk.” It should be about the little guy who jumps on the grenade and knows the value of strength because he’s never had it before.
For those who dismiss the film because it’s not “complicated” enough, that’s kind of an unfair criticism because it’s not like the film was trying to confuse the audience, or that it needs to reach some pre-determined height of psychological complexity for us to take it seriously. Captain America: The First Avenger gets to the heart of the MCU at its best. It’s bright, colorful, funny, and surprisingly emotional (“I had a date,” gets me every time). There have been plenty of great movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but for me, Captain America: The First Avenger is still the one to beat.