Marvelous: Ranking the Movies of the MCU, Part 1 (21-15)
—by Nathan on March 10, 2019—
Marvel movies tend to be fantastic. Sure, there are some stinkers—and I’m talking about all universes for the moment, so you’ve got your Daredevil and Fan4stic reboot thrown in there—and there are some supposed stinkers I don’t think stink as much (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: Apocalypse, to name a few). But, a lot of times, Marvel can really craft decent movies with good stories, great characters, fantastic action pieces, memorable quotes, and some hilarious moments. Their massive Marvel Cinematic Universe—comprising of most of the members of their comics-oriented Avengers teams, minus X-Men and FF characters who have served their stints, as well as cosmically-charged individuals such as the Guardians of the Galaxy—has been going strong for over ten years. Last year marked the 10th anniversary of the first film, Iron Man in 2008, and one gets the (Spidey) sense that this Juggernaut isn’t slowing down any time soon.
In honor of the upcoming film Avengers: Endgame, the movie fated to wrap up eleven years of storytelling, I’ve decided to do my own ranking of the MCU films, from 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Captain Marvel. From the worst to the best. Yes, this list has been done to death, just about, but as a blogger, I love being able to put my own spin on things. Sure, I can read and agree/disagree with other lists, but what do I personally think? Where do these movies fall on my own personal scale? And, based on other lists I’ve read, it’s always interesting to compare my views with those of others, to offer a unique look that may disagree with another’s and see why they believe something worked when I didn’t, or vice versa.
As a note, I’m not using any words like “definitive” here. This is purely personal, purely opinion-driven. So feel free to agree or disagree as you see fit. I will be starting at the lowest and working my way up to the top, so climb the ladder with me as we ascend to see which Marvel movies are the best of the best.
21. Iron Man 3 (2013)
I rarely walk out of movie theaters completely disappointed. Even when it comes to movies I don’t enjoy a lot, I still try to find the good. Maybe Justice League wasn’t as good as Wonder Woman, but it was still a lot better than Dawn of Justice! Still, on the occasion, I am thoroughly disappointed with the direction a film takes. Case in point: Iron Man 3.
The trailers led me to believe that Shane Black was finally—finally!—going to give us a showdown with the Mandarin, Tony Stark’s arch-enemy from the comics. Yes, the take on the villain was a bit different—this Mandarin was portrayed along the lines of a Middle Eastern terrorist, considering the comics’ origin of a Chinese Communist villain no longer made sense and the Middle East is a place of global conflict—but it looked like it was going to work. I was still excited for Iron Man to go toe-to-toe with his greatest foe.
And then Ben Kingsley goes from his sinister “You’ll never see me coming” snarl to his “I’m an actor!” mumbling and worrywarting halfway through the film, and all of a sudden the guy who’s supposed to be Iron Man’s greatest foe is a joke, and the real villain is the evil scientist pretty much everyone either knew or should’ve known was a bad guy the whole time. Really, Marvel? Really? Sha(m)e Black took Iron Man’s arch-enemy and gave him a terrible makeover, and while the “All Hail the King” one-shot tried to make up for it, there’s been no fruit from that seed. Tony Stark’s PTSD issues were interesting, the post-Avengers status quo was being put into place, the whole “Tony Stark has no armor” concept was unique…there were interesting threads, and Black tossed them aside for a cheesy, lame plot twist and a kid with a potato gun. For a film that was supposed to explore the post-Battle of New York world, this was a sad way for that ball to start rolling, making it Marvel’s weakest film to date. So much potential, wasted.
20. Ant Man (2015)
Where Iron Man 3 was a complete letdown, Ant Man was just stale. The whole Edgar Wright fiasco aside, I just think it was a movie that could have been improved with some additional effort. It’s a rather convoluted origin story, based on Scott Lang’s luck mostly, and introduced another “evil businessman becomes a supervillain with abilities mirroring the hero” antagonist in Yellowjacket. Perhaps my biggest complaint is the humor: I’m not a fan of Michael Pena’s Luis, whose jokes rely on his cheesy storytelling and bland repetition; Paul Rudd, though a comedic actor, comes across as dull instead of droll; the dialogue feels half-baked and corny rather than funny; and the best scene (the Thomas the Tank Engine fight) debuted in the trailer. I watched that moment a bunch and laughed every time, so I was excited for it to happen in Ant Man, but it just didn’t have the same resonance in the film.
But what makes this film marginally better than IM3 is the concept. Ant Man’s abilities to shrink make for some cool scenes, whether it’s him using the suit for the first time and toppling all over the place, breaking into Cross’ company to steal his stuff, or the final battle between him and Yellowjacket, featuring a briefcase, a swimming pool, and the aforementioned toy railway. These parts are cool to watch, but backed with a mediocre story and a failed attempt at humor, it doesn’t do much. Perhaps Ant Man’s slapstick humor was decent, but its shot at being the next funny Guardians of the Galaxy style movie by (unsuccessfully) aping Joss Whedon’s clever Avengers dialogue missed the mark. A recent rewatch was more amusing, admittedly, but there’s several points I cringe rather than laugh at.
19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
This is hard to place here, considering the Hulk is my dad’s favorite superhero (sorry, Dad). This was Marvel’s second outing, and for a studio that really started churning out two movies a year beginning in 2013, having this one come out so soon after Iron Man is impressive. And that might be part of the problem. Coming off of Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk was sort of left on its own. It was like Marvel went, “Look at this financially successful film we just made about a B-rated superhero! Oh, and here’s another movie.” Heck, I’m not even sure I knew it was part of the same universe until I was in the theater!
Unlike the previous two films, the Hulk was not necessarily disappointing. It featured some fun fight scenes with the Jolly Green Giant, including the debut of the Abomination, and is far superior to the 2003 Ang Lee-directed CGI mess. The bummer here is that it had loads of potential that really went nowhere. Since this movie, we haven’t seen Betty Ross (and, in fact, Bruce Banner seems to be pursuing a relationship with Black Widow instead) or Leonard Samson (who becomes the green-haired muscle-bound hero known as Doc Samson in the comics), and we haven’t heard anything from the Abomination or Samuel Sterns, who the movie teased was turning into the Leader. The only character introduced in this film, other than Bruce, who appeared in another film was General Ross, and he only made his appearance in Captain America: Civil War, eight years after his debut. The “golf swing” joke in Civil War is hilarious, but it doesn’t excuse how a character like his was wasted in the rest of the MCU.
Perhaps the best part of the film comes at the very end, without having anything to do with the Hulk. In this post credit-scene, Ross, after failing to capture the Hulk, is approached by Tony Stark, who tells them they’re putting together a team. This was really the first hint—okay, the second, but I missed the Nick Fury scene in Iron Man—that these movies were part of a larger, Avengers-centric universe. It’s a great moment, but it more so helps establish the rest of the continuity as opposed to bolstering the Hulk’s own film.
18. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The second Iron Man is held by a lot of fans as a bit of a disappointment. I’ve never been a detractor of the film, but I’m not its biggest fan either. Honestly, for as awesome as the MCU is, I tend to separate the films into three categories: films I don’t like (Iron Man 3 and Ant Man), films that are enjoyable but okay (which include the Hulk, this one, and others), and movies that are pretty spectacular (which will appear later on down the list). Iron Man 2 being the studio’s third film following 2008’s Iron Man and the Hulk, you get the feeling here that Marvel was really trying to find its footing.
Are there things in this film that work? Heck, yes. Primarily, Iron Man’s second film does a lot of world building, possibly even necessary world building. Nick Fury makes a return and a much larger splash than he did in the first film; Rhodey finally gets to wear the War Machine armor he put aside in the first movie, leading to a pretty cool scrap with Iron Man himself; and Natasha Romanov, aka the Black Widow, makes her debut in a way that doesn’t feel forced or cheesy. Even the irritating senator overseeing Stark’s talk with the government cameoed as a Hydra agent in Winter Soldier. So, unlike the Hulk’s main story, IM2 gave us elements that have grown across multiple movies.
There are, however, various misplaced elements within this film. After having the conniving Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger as the primary villain in the first movie, IM2 seems to try to outdo the first film by having the evil businessman and robot baddie be two different antagonists in the forms of Justin Hammer and Whiplash. All three Iron Man films go with the “businessman who’s jealous of Tony Stark and tries to kill him” angle, and it was a stale approach by the time this movie came around. This is also really the first movie which incorporates the “faceless henchmen” drudgery in the guise of Hammer’s henchmen. Here, it’s fine, but knowing how often Marvel resorts to that tactic makes me like it a little less here. I love my villains, so this was really the first MCU film that had “meh” level bad guys. While the movie is entertaining, it’s not without its faults. Better than Iron Man 3, IM2 can’t be placed in the “best sequel” category alongside films such as The Empire Strikes Back and The Dark Knight.
17. Thor (2011)
There’s a period in comic book TV shows that I like to call the “they only did it because it was necessary” period (which needs a better title, but we’ll stick with this for now). For example, the only reason Elektra was featured in season 2 of Daredevil was because she’s so important in the comics; likewise, the only reason the CW Flash show did Flashpoint was because it was a popular story line for comic geeks. It’s just a story the audience has to sit through, whether they like it or not, because the showrunners know that, at some point, this particular character must be brought in or story used.
Thor is that kind of film. Up until this point, both Iron Man movies and the Hulk were connected fairly solidly to the Avengers build-up. And while Thor does introduce a key hero to the mix, as well as the first Avengers’ primary antagonist Loki, upon re-watching it, you just feel like this is one of those films Marvel needed to make because they had to introduce these elements. Don’t get me wrong, the story’s a lot of fun: Thor is cast from Asgard by Odin to learn humility by being stripped of his powers, connecting with Jane Foster while Loki plans the takeover of Asgard and destruction of Jotunheim. There’s some good conflict. And, like the second Iron Man movie, there’s some great world-building here. Not only are we introduced to Thor (with Chris Hemsworth as a dead-ringer for the title role) and Loki (played by the always impressive Tom Hiddleston), but we see other Asgardians come into play (like Odin, Freya, the Warriors Three, and Sif), the return of Agent Coulson, a nod to Bruce Banner, and the first appearances of both Hawkeye and the Cosmic Cube, known as “the Tesseract” in this universe.
At the end of the day, this is a movie for comic geeks. This may not be the last time I say that, but perhaps Marvel’s biggest struggle here is that the film is so focused on that particular audience. Sure, they were expanding at the time, and as a comic geek I enjoy the film for that; but instead of crafting a completely excellent story with excellent characters and excellent writing, Marvel tried to draw in the fans. Yes, Thor’s redemption and battle with the Destroyer and Loki are excellent, the story is a bit more poignant that IM2’s, and Loki makes his first grand appearance as one of the universe’s greatest villains, but it is not a film stamped with Marvel’s best effort.
16. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Like IM2, this is yet another film that is not overly beloved by fans, but there are moments where I can give it some additional love. But first, to address the qualms: the main hate towards this film is in its villain (yet again), Malekith the Dark Elf. I will be completely honest that I agree with most fans that, alongside Ronan the Accuser and Whiplash, Malekith is probably the dullest villain in these films. All we know about him is that he’s a Dark Elf seeking a mystical force called the Aether he wishes to use to…to…I’m gonna say destroy the universe…okay, Google agrees with me.
Yeah, as a villain, Malekith sucks. No backstory, too much rambling, not enough depth or screen time. As far as other characters go, there’s not a lot set up in this movie which adds to the universe as a whole: this is the last appearance of Jane Foster and her buddy Darcy, the first and only appearance of one-off character Ian the intern, and the third and oddest appearance of Erik Selvig. Except for a cameo in Age of Ultron by Selvig, none of these other characters have yet to return. The tone is a little off as well. The first Thor nicely blended the fantasy and real world aspects, and while this film interestingly brings in more Norse mythology, it goes a bit too heavy on the fantasy elements for a superhero film. Suddenly, fans are supposed to understand what different worlds are, what the Convergence is, ancient Asgardian/Dark Elf history…oh, and an Infinity Gem, too.
Perhaps the story’s a bit messy, but two elements push it ahead of the first Thor: first, Freya’s death. As outlined in another blog of mine, I think this is a fantastic death to put in here, as it carries emotional weight with it for both Thor and Loki and really helps them bond a little, especially following Loki’s incursion onto Earth. This is probably the second best death in the MCU (more on that later), considering Coulson’s was retconned through Agents of Shield. Second, the whole “Loki isn’t really dead” plot twist was excellent, in my opinion, and setting him up on the throne of Asgard on the end was a great cliffhanger we waited four years to have resolved. I loved it. And you get the feeling that Tom Hiddleston truly found his groove as Loki in this film, showing various levels of emotion and pulling away from the one-dimensional whiny brat he portrayed in the first Thor. Again, like its predecessor, The Dark World isn’t a stunning movie, but it did something as a sequel that IM2 failed to do: it got better.
15. Captain America: The First Avenger (2010)
Boy, it really seems like I’m ragging on Marvel’s Phase 1, doesn’t it? Well, it kinda makes sense. Over time, things improve, right? As Marvel found their niche, refined their storytelling abilities, and became comfortable with their characters, things were bound to get better. And they do, they really do. But, much like the first Thor movie, First Avenger just felt like one of those films you had to get through. Cap is, like, the lead guy in the Avengers; he’s the leader, the patriot, so of course Marvel was gonna explore his story.
It is, fortunately, a film that improves as you rewatch it, and the takes on classic characters are really fun. Seeing guys like Cap, the Red Skull, Arnim Zola, Bucky Barnes, and the Howling Commandos make the transition from page to film is a real treat, taking so many cool comic book aspects and bringing them to life on the big screen. The action here is really good—from the opening chase scene to the final battle in the Skull’s plane—and Marvel’s direction with acting and costuming is top notch, giving us another vibrant hero in his signature uniform. Chris Evans gives the role his patriotic best and Hugo Weaving makes for a delightfully ridiculous yet sinister Red Skull. Still, great acting can’t make up for the plot points fans know are coming: Cap’s origin, the death of Erskine, Bucky’s “death,” and the crash into freezing water at the end. Yes, there’s a level of enjoyment here, as fans delight in seeing their favorite comic book moments ripped from the screen, but let’s face it: if you knew Cap’s origin, you basically knew the entire plot of the movie already. It didn’t leave you with much of a “didn’t see that coming” aspect.
Nevertheless, Cap’s first solo outing is a nice nod to the source material and places itself firmly in the historical past of World War II (minus the unrealistic cosmically-powered weaponry, natch). Where the Thor films felt a bit disjointed trying to mesh fantasy and reality together at points, Cap completely embraces the world of the 1940s, with only scant minutes spent at the beginning and end of the film in present day as Cap’s frozen body is discovered and revived. Also, since this was the last film prior to the Avengers, viewers got a great teaser for that upcoming ensemble flick, and the “Captain America Will Return” tease was pleasing to behold. Perhaps we needed to get through a Cap movie before the Avengers could truly assemble, but this film promised the team was finally coming together.
These first seven films kick off a list of (currently) twenty-one MCU movies. While the films listed here may be on the weaker end of Marvel’s films, most of them came early on in the process. Within the past few years, Marvel’s really stepped up the quality of their movies, crafting some of their finest films to date. These movies will be appearing further down the list as we explore the multi-faceted universe that Marvel has created.