This week marks the worldwide release of Black Widow, the first Marvel film in two years, and the first chapter of Phase Four in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. The superhero flick is almost certain to be a financial success, and with good reason – the consistently-high quality of the MCU’s output means that each and every instalment is eagerly anticipated by cinemagoers.
In readiness for this new era of the MCU, yours truly has been looking back at the first three phases of this monolithic franchise, considering how the films compare to each other and determining which ones are most worth revisiting. Those thoughts are encapsulated below in the Definitive Ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Phases 1-3), with all 23 pictures listed from worst to best.
23. Thor: The Dark World
Although the overall quality of the MCU is great, the franchise has not been without its letdowns, and this represents the closest Kevin Feige and his team have come to producing a certifiably “bad” movie. The second Thor film is brimmed with jokes that don’t land, Dark in tone, Darker still visually, has the blandest villain and contains too many subplots for it to be considered enjoyable. In short, Thor: The Dark World is a Marvel film to be skipped.
22. The Incredible Hulk
Here’s a film that can best be described in three words: unremarkable, if charming. There’s nothing inherently wrong with The Incredible Hulk, yet there’s nothing particularly special about the film either, lacking the laughs, thrills and impressive effects that have come to be associated with the Marvel name. It gets a place above Thor 2 solely for being the most… individual picture of the MCU.
21. Iron Man 2
While the first Iron Man was a global success, there were some circles who bemoaned the blockbuster’s lack of action. Iron Man 2 served to address that criticism by increasing the amount of fight sequences, in doing so forgot to include many of the qualities that made its predecessor a success. A likeable cast adds to the thrills, ensuring the film rises above the depths of mediocrity.
20. Spider-Man: Far From Home
The most recent release on this list, the MCU’s second Spider-Man falls short because it adheres much too closely to the formula of other Marvel films, rather than forging an identity for itself. Like Iron Man 2, it leans too heavily on the action; like The Dark World, it throws too many gags at the viewer; yet Spider-Man: Far From Home is not without its pleasures, chief among which is the crowd-pleasing mid-credits scene.
There’s much to be admired about this Kenneth Branagh-helmed origin story, including its regal tone, performances, and remarkable cast which boasted then-newcomers Hemsworth and Hiddleston. Sadly, the arid New Mexico setting dullens the atmosphere, as does a secondary antagonist who is best described as underwhelming. This doesn’t make Thor a bad movie, rather one that pales in comparison to other Marvel flicks.
Scott Lang’s feature-length debut appears better primed for success than most MCU films, benefiting from the screenwriting contributions of Edgar Wright; but the writing is easily the weakest element of Ant-Man, which fails to produce a memorable villain and sidelines the most interesting character in the film. Thankfully, some solid gags help to alleviate these issues, as does the presence of the ever-so-delightful Paul Rudd.
17. Guardians of the Galaxy
Hamstrung by an uninspiring script that is rife with cliches, the origin story for Marvel’s space-faring bounty hunters doesn’t compel from a narrative standpoint. What’s offered instead is a group of loveable characters who are perfectly cast, some rather creative visuals and a nostalgic soundtrack, making Guardians of the Galaxy a sweet and fun science-fiction flick.
16. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2
In his original review, this author described the Guardians sequel as “no better, nor any worse than its predecessor”, a statement he stands by; but on this list, the sequel narrowly pips the original for not being an origin story, and for having villains who are slightly more interesting than those who appeared previously. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 is a delight, even if it doesn’t break any conventions.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron
There are hints here of a film that is equal to the first Avengers, for it deftly balances action with comedy; there are even glimpses of it being a better film, with the characters possessing more nuance than they did previously. What drags Avengers: Age of Ultron down though is the substitution of Brian Tyler as composer, the groan-inducing product placement, and (yet again) the unshakeable feeling that this has all been done before.
14. Captain America: The First Avenger
MCU films succeed because of their leads, and this one is no different – Chris Evans is key to the appeal of Captain America: The First Avenger, being nothing but sincere in the title role and offering plenty of humanity. While the somewhat-campy movie does skimp on the action when compared to other Marvel flicks, its World War setting allows for some old-school thrills, the kind that wouldn’t look out-of-place in an adventure serial.
13. Iron Man 3
Here’s a rare second sequel fulfils its obligations in terms of laughs and action, even going further in eliciting some probing questions for its protagonist and the audience. Despite all this, Iron Man 3 isn’t an outright success because it cannot explain why the world needs Tony Stark – despite providing several compelling reasons as to why it doesn’t.
12. Captain Marvel
At the midway point of this list is the first MCU picture to have a female lead, which isn’t the only noteworthy aspect, since Captain Marvel also impresses with its Nineties references, complex antagonists, and by having a better knack for comedy than its contemporaries. A rushed first act draws some concern, as does an elongated third, but in between is a movie that delights as much as the franchise’s best offerings.
11. Ant-Man and the Wasp
What an improvement this is over its precursor. In addition to being funnier and more action-packed than the first Ant-Man, this picture sees a strong female protagonist share the lead with her male counterpart, and puts forward a villain who is smartly written and can be sympathised with. What lowers the experience of Ant-Man and the Wasp though is the overly-light tone, a move that appeases only the youngest of viewers.
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
If The First Avenger showed that Marvel’s star-spangled hero could be taken seriously, then its sequel made damn well sure that he was. Tense, gritty, and filled with spectacular fight sequences, Captain America: The Winter Soldier transforms a soldier of yesteryear into a modern-day action star, yet is soured by inelegant camerawork, an uninspiring soundtrack, and a dour spectrum of colours.
9. Black Panther
Never has there been a celebration of African culture quite like Black Panther, with the continent’s influence being seen and heard in just about every part of the production. Making the film even more engrossing are the nuanced political discussions, and the smart female characters who are given the lead on multiple occasions. Although the editing and effects aren’t up to Marvel’s usual standards, this remains a decent watch.
8. Doctor Strange
Topics like philosophy and existentialism are rarely applied to the superhero genre, so this title is already unique in that regard; yet it also differs from its brethren by having characters battle each other using brains rather than brawn. Doctor Strange is a clever and intriguing film with some mesmeric visuals, let down only by some awkward dialogue and lacklustre comedy.
7. Thor: Ragnarok
A reinvigoration so drastic that it barely correlates with the films that came before it, the God of Thunder’s third solo outing is quite the treat. Bright colours, electronic music and a litany of perfectly-timed jokes ensure Thor: Ragnarok is more memorable and entertaining than the previous two films; making it less so are the darker moments that clash with the upbeat atmosphere.
6. Iron Man
The blockbuster that gave birth to the Universe, Jon Favreau’s decade-old film remains one of the strongest Marvel titles, and a perfect entry-point for the franchise’s newcomers. Robert Downey Jr is witty and charismatic in the lead role; Jeff Bridges is a thoroughly menacing antagonist; and the serious tone is balanced by a healthy dose of humour. Though it lacks the visual splendour of subsequent releases, Iron Man is nonetheless a fantastic picture.
5. Captain America: Civil War
This sequel to The Winter Soldier is adored largely for its action sequences, which are nothing short of exciting; but it also deserves commendation for its politics, with nuanced discussions about the ethics of superhero work. On top of that, the film introduces two new superheroes to the MCU, and yet never feels over-stuffed with characters or exposition. Put simply, Captain America: Civil War is thrilling and cleverly written.
4. The Avengers
A brilliant cast whose chemistry and talents are to be envied. Visual effects so advanced they’re almost lifelike. Moments of humour that delight just as much as the action sequences, if not more so. These are just some of the qualities that characterise The Avengers, all of which would become hallmarks of the franchise in the sequels that followed. It’s a brilliant film, sullied only by the petty disagreements between the protagonists.
3. Avengers: Endgame
It’s the most epic and ambitious superhero blockbuster of them all, one with the highest of expectations – and it very nearly meets them. Avengers: Endgame offers, naturally, plenty of action and comedy to satisfy the MCU’s most ardent fans, all while providing plenty of twists and turns in an unpredictable, yet enthralling screenplay. There are misgivings to be had about the movie’s treatment of Thor, though.
2. Avengers: Infinity War
Yes, another Avengers film has made the Top Five of this author’s list, and with good reason. It contains multiple superheroes who all make worthwhile contributions to the story, crisp cinematography, a rousing score from Alan Silvestri and the franchise’s best antagonist to date. The ending is a bit of a tease; beyond that, Avengers: Infinity War cannot be faulted.
1. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Yours truly has sung the praises of this picture many a time, even heralding it to be the Perfect Blockbuster; four years since its release, nothing has changed and Spider-Man: Homecoming remains a superhero movie beyond compare. No other film in the past decade has been so deft in delivering thrills, laughs, angst and heart, nor has one so comfortably fitted into the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also being a phenomenal feature in its own right. An achievement like Homecoming is unlikely ever to be replicated, so chances are we’ll be basking in its glory for many years to come.
3 thoughts on “Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe”
Kudos on ranking the entire MCU so far! I wouldn’t know where to begin! I’ve seen a lot of horrid takes on the MCU Spider-Man movies, but they are miles superior than whatever those Amazing Spider-Man movies were. Homecoming is a blast. It distinctly carves out its own tiny corner in the MCU and feels more like a neighborhood odyssey than the Sam Raimi movies, surprisingly. Also, it never hurts to have some earnest homages to John Hughes.
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You’re spot-on as always, Adrian! ‘Homecoming’ gets nowhere near the love it deserves and I can’t fathom why. Maybe it’s nostalgia for the Raimi movies?
Admittedly, I’m forever nostalgic for the Raimi films bc 1 and 2 were the first superhero movies I saw in theaters. But I love Homecoming because it separates itself from its forebears. Raimi perfected the comic book formula, Watts went another way – the earnest high school route. I think enough time passed for Watts to do so, maybe not from the Amazing Spider-Man movies but those are better left forgotten anyway imo. I can’t fathom why either!
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