Marvelous: Ranking the Movies of the MCU, Part 3 (7-1)
—by Nathan on March 12, 2019—
We really need no introduction, do we? If you followed the previous lists, follow on ahead here to read the final series of seven MCU movies. If you have yet to browse those two blogs, I suppose you have a choice: go back and read those first, or find out my favorite MCU film and then see which ones I left in the dust. Your choice, True Believer.
7. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The third installment in the Thor trilogy (is that a thing? “Thor trilogy”? “Thorilogy”?) had a lot riding on it. It was the last film of 2017 after Guardians 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming—could it be as successful? It was the third Thor movie in a mediocre trilogy—could it do better? Could it give us a fresh Thor and Hulk after two years of silence from either character?
The answer to all is “Yes.” Thor: Ragnarok brought about a hated enemy of fans—change—and completely retooled and revitalized the franchise. Gone were most of the mythical elements from the film, symbolized largely by the destruction of Thor’s hammer. Gone were characters like Jane Foster, Darcy, Selvig, Odin, and the Warriors Three. Thor was once again cast from his home, but onto an alien planet that allowed the MCU to continue branching out into other corners of space without feeling forced. Comic story lines like Ragnorak and Planet Hulk were adapted well into the tale, giving us a fresh Hulk/Thor debacle with a clear winner. The humor was top-notch, an aspect not much seen in previous Thor movies, allowing the hero to find his groove somewhere on more comedic grounds. Plot threads from previous movies—the disappearance of the Hulk, Loki’s takeover of Asgard, Heimdal’s expulsion from his duties—were tethered nicely here, and Cate Blanchett made for a terrifying Goddess of Death, a villain far superior to Malekith. Oh, and Skurge’s sacrifice is a great reproduction from the comics.
The characterization here is fantastic as well. Banner continues growing comfortable with his status as the Hulk; the Hulk himself seems at least a bit more intelligent; Thor refuses to be double-crossed by his brother Loki again, showing great maturity on his part. New characters the Grandmaster and Valkyrie are cool additions from the comics and continue to add to the scope of the universe. And the uniqueness of Ragnarok—the physical “end” of Valhala rather than the “twilight of the gods” that kills everyone as the event is portrayed in Norse mythology and the original comic book tale—offers a nice solution for Thor to save everybody as well as showcasing the destruction of his home world; this may be one of the first MCU films that offers a specific change that is going to have a long-lasting impact.
Does it have its flaws? Yes. Like Guardians, the pacing seems a bit too swift at moments, dragging Thor and Loki from place to place rapidly; Tom Hiddleston is great as Loki, but his charm (dare I say it) began to wear off just a little here; certain jokes seem too fond of referencing previous films—such as Thor getting pounded by the Hulk in the exact same manner as Loki was in The Avengers—instead of embracing their own originality, thus getting chuckles via memory from audiences rather than on the merit of the jokes themselves (a fantastic bit of humor, however, is when Banner hits the Rainbow Bridge after jumping from a jet—I knew it was gonna happen, but it got me laughing hard anyway). But the film has a strong story, great new characters, and some of the best humor in the whole MCU, making up for its shortcomings by and large.
6. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Ever since the release of the original Iron Man, Marvel Studios has had a kind of “mojo” about them. Right off the bat, they released a successful film about one of their B-rated comic book heroes and continued pumping out stories until the mega-blockbuster team-up that was The Avengers in 2012. Unfortunately, as indicated by both this list and general fan reactions, 2013 wasn’t Marvel’s most stellar year to date, with Thor: The Dark World being largely disappointing for movie fans and Iron Man 3 rubbing fans of the comic the wrong way. Fortunately, Marvel picked up the pieces in 2014 in perhaps their most timely and grounded movie to date.
Winter Soldier managed to successfully navigate Steve Rogers through the 21st century he found himself in. Following the events of The Avengers, Marvel definitely needed to capitalize on Cap’s “post New York” world, especially following lackluster results with previous films. Winter Soldier managed to explore that world perfectly, focusing on Cap’s relationships with both SHIELD and the outside world, while managing to provide a stellar supporting cast with Nick Fury, the Black Widow, and newcomers Sharon Carter and the Falcon. For any fan of Cap comics at the time, Winter Soldier—through its themes of surveillance, protection, and espionage—modeled the ever-American spirit of the good Captain while infusing it with 21st century rhetoric and themes. Plus, a series of fantastic action scenes—including the hostage situation at the beginning, Fury’s car chase, Cap’s multiple confrontations with the Winter Soldier, the final battle aboard the miniature Helicarriers, and the beloved elevator fight—make the movie one of Marvel’s most action-packed films to this day, with splendid choreography and clever moves.
Finally, the plot twist that Hydra had infiltrated SHIELD is excellent. Brought about by a great cameo by Arnim Zola (a character from the previous movie, updated as a computer screen similar to his appearance in the comics), it’s the one revelation that has impacted almost every Marvel movie after it. The fallout of this event has played into Ant-Man, Age of Ultron, Civil War, and arguably even Spider-Man: Homecoming, not to mention that it’s a twist that became the crux of Agents of SHIELD. Unlike other movies, which may have reestablished the status quo at the end, Winter Soldier came with repercussions for the universe as a whole that continue to shake up the world almost five years later. It’s a milestone movie for Marvel in multiple ways, and while the movie itself is fantastic, it’s the ripple effect which places this film so ahead of many others.
5. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Last year’s Infinity War promised to be the culmination of ten years of filmmaking, a story spanning the entirety of the universe and pulling together several threads woven throughout the previous movies. On that, I feel, it delivered. Upon its back, Infinity War carries the strength of interconnectedness—seeing character interactions (such as Thor and the Guardians, or Tony Stark and Dr. Strange) was really one of the huge aspects we’d been waiting for; having Thanos finally make his mark after hanging out in the shadows for so long felt refreshing as Marvel debuted their greatest villain since Loki; having the Infinity Stones get pulled together made for a thrilling film.
It’s action set piece after action set piece, with crazy battles ranging from New York to the crumbled planet of Titan. Some fans feel like the movie is stuffed to brimming over, and while this is certainly a valid criticism, the comic geek inside of me couldn’t help but just enjoy the pure nerdiness of all these characters and powers and fights. I grinned ear-to-ear when Spidey first appeared on the scene. The theater I first saw it in was filled with fellow filmgoers and all added to the incredible experience of enjoyment with their laughs, gasps, and cheers. Moments like the Red Skull’s sudden cameo appearance made me and everyone around me freak; Thor coming down with his new battle axe, shouting “Bring me Thanos!” to seemingly turn the tide was epic; and while the end “Snap!” scene was always a possibility in my mind, it was such a foreign and minute one I really didn’t seriously consider Marvel pulling it off. But they did, and the shock of it had me going “Wow…” the entire way home.
Like others, the movie isn’t without its own flaws the filmmakers may have wished to magically “snap” away. Scenes that could’ve been included—the destruction of Xandar or Nebula sneaking in to kill Thanos—are reduced to unfortunately clunky exposition; Star Lord’s outburst seems like a slightly forced, hokey maneuver to give Thanos the upper hand; and, of course, not everyone gets the screen time they could have. Nevertheless, the action is still bombastic, the jokes are some of the best in the whole series (“Why is Gamora?” killed me), the tethers to previous movies continue Marvel’s impressive world-building, and the ending is shocking enough to lead audiences to the second film. Though we know our heroes are coming back, the “how” is more exciting than knowing the “what” for the upcoming Avengers: Endgame.
4. Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
It’s the sixth Spider-Man movie in 16 years. That’s a lot of Spidey, but as a dear fan of the beloved icon, I can guarantee there’s no better film. I’ve always enjoyed Amazing Spider-Man 2, but this movie beats that one by a country mile. Because, not too surprisingly, Marvel’s input was needed to make the best rebooted Spidey film.
This is Spidey at his finest and most pure—awkward teenage high schooler Peter Parker who can only really find his true groove under a mask while shooting webbing. It’s a fun follow-up to Civil War, asking what a kid with powers who had just experienced the incredible would do after such a zany adventure. And, of course, it brings Spidey into the MCU fold at long last. Guys like Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man had held their own for a nice, long while. Allowing Spider-Man to have his own time to shine in his own film—albeit, somewhat shadowed by Tony Stark at moments—was a dream come true for fans like me. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker feels, by far, the most relatable to me as a viewer. Forgoing the origin story, Homecoming drops us into the world of a Peter I already enjoyed in Civil War but could not get enough of here.
And let’s not forget the movie’s insanely well-done plot twist. It’s done simply, but when you look back at the pieces, they all fit together. The reveal that the Vulture is Liz’s father is one of the rare times that my jaw dropped in the middle of the theater; the tension this twist creates makes for an unsettling viewing as the final battle between Spidey and his foe draws close. My only minor complaint would be Vulture putting two-and-two together that Peter and Spidey are one and the same—seriously, has there been a Spidey movie yet where a villain HASN’T found out who the hero was?—but other than that minor guff, the twist is probably the best part of the film and kept me hooked the entire time.
3. Iron Man (2008)
The movie that started it all, Iron Man kicked off the MCU as we know it today. Back then, Marvel movies (and, honestly, superhero movies in general) had no cohesive universe to share in, with disparate Spider-Man, X-Men, Fantastic Four, and Hulk franchises at three different stuidos offering nothing in the way of a unified story. Though we didn’t know it at the time, this is the film that promised a universe continually explored through today. And, almost eleven years later, it still holds up as one of the dang finest films Marvel has crafted. Part of that is, naturally, the source material: Stan Lee’s classic tale of a selfish, greedy billionaire who undergoes a change of heart after his literal heart is almost pierced by shrapnel makes for a fundamental Marvel redemption story. The character change and growth in just a few illustrated pages is translated beautifully from comic to screen, turning a B-hero at best in 2008 to a household name today. Seriously, this is the guy everyone thinks is gonna die in Endgame, but he’s also the same hero nobody wants to see go.
Injured in a convoy attack while visiting Afghanistan, Tony Stark is taken captive by a terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings and, alongside scientist Ho Yinsen, crafts a suit of armor to escape his confines. After Yinsen sacrifices himself to save Stark, the fan-favorite genius billionaire playboy philanthropist takes on the guise of Iron Man, the Armored Avenger, striking back at the weapons dealers who’ve obtained his company’s technology. The film is lightning in a bottle, striking the chords of narrative simplicity, raw emotion, thematic undertones, and action-packed goodness. With a powerhouse, perfect performance by Robert Downey Jr., this film wouldn’t have needed to kick off a universe of eleven-plus years of films to be good. On its own, Iron Man works wonderfully.
That might just be the magic of the film, at its heart. Iron Man serves as the impetus for the most ambitious superhero film franchise of all time, but even as a standalone film, it stands sturdily. Other movies in the franchise can’t always make this claim—Age of Ultron, entertaining as it is, is frustratingly difficult to separate from its future-movie-building subplots—but Iron Man can. If this movie had flopped and our only tether to a larger Marvel Cinematic Universe was Nick Fury’s end credits scene, sure, it would have been disappointing. But Iron Man worked, maybe because of the fans who loved the character already and became infatuated with the potential it contained, but also because it’s just a good movie.
2. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
If we’re looking at these character as distinct franchises, we currently have three trilogies (Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor) along with a soon-to-be quartet of Avengers movies and a handful of franchises potentially destined to become trilogies of their own (Ant Man, Spider-Man, possibly Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel). Out of the aforementioned trilogies, Cap’s is the strongest across the board. Iron Man 2 was nowhere near as good as the first film, and the third was, for me upon its release, abysmal; the first and second Thor are unfortunately two of Marvel’s weaker films, with the third being the push the franchise needed. Cap’s films, however, continued getting better with each movie.
After a mediocre but entertaining origin movie, followed up a daring political thriller of a sequel that shook the MCU to its core, the third Captain America movie promised to be a bombastic ride. And it’s a heckuva roller coaster at that. Jokingly referred to as “Avengers 2.5,” the movie took its comic source material and adapted it nicely for the screen. In the wake of several devastating superhuman confrontations, the U.N. crafts the Sokovia Accords, a divisive document that gives the powerful body the ability to oversee the Avengers. This, plus a bombing seemingly perpetrated by the Winter Soldier, leaves the Avengers divided, with one faction headed by Tony Stark squaring off against another team led by Cap. The action here alone is more than worth the price of admission—the opening Lagos fight delivers a tense conclusion to Brock Rumlow’s story and offers a snapshot of the Avengers’ coherence as a team (mostly); Black Panther is introduced during a beautiful chase sequence, giving audiences a new character with motivations already fleshed out; and the airport battle goes down as my second favorite fight scene in the entire MCU. When you’ve got an out-and-out battle between heroes that shows Spider-Man and Giant Man in action for the first time, delivers some great zingers, and showcases the breadth of every hero’s abilities and functions, you get a scene unlike any other.
The beauty of the movie is that it spins several plates at any given time but never at any point feels forced, slow, or hokey. Okay, maybe Zemo’s backstory and plan don’t work perfectly in synch with the rest of the film, but this minor gripe aside, this movie is, for me, the moment Marvel went from making already pretty good films to making top-notch masterpieces of excellence. Spidey and Panther are woven into the franchise without missing a step, Cap and Iron Man’s character arcs flow smoothly from previously established movies, and the final battle’s twist (that Bucky killed Tony’s parents) creates a fantastically believable motivation for the heroes to duke it out. This film tore the Avengers apart, and with no other tethers to any upcoming Avengers film, succinctly and quietly laid the groundwork for Infinity War. A ton of material is here to unpack, making it all the more rewatchable in the future.
1. The Avengers (2012)
In 2008, fans were promised the Avengers. In 2012, that promise was delivered. I like smiling at movies. Like, grinning goofily out of the sheer pleasure of just enjoying a film. Not necessarily nitpicking the story, keeping an eye out for details, or anything like that. Just watching a film for the fun of it. The Avengers is that kind of movie. Sure, at first, my reason for falling in love with it was that the film really brought the individual franchises together in the best way possible. We’d waited four years to see Iron Man, Cap, Thor, and the Hulk team up together onscreen…and this film makes us wait even longer for the team’s true formation, until the climatic New York scene. But the material given in the interim—from character “introductions,” to pulling everyone aboard the Helicarrier, to Loki’s plan unleashed—is just chock full of crowd-pleasing moments.
Joss Whedon’s writing comes to the forefront. Each character is given their moments to shine: Black Widow kicks the snot out of Russian mobsters with a chair and interrogates Loki later on; Cap stands up against the God of Mischief in Germany and beats down a bunch of thugs on the Helicarrier; Thor has his little tete-a-tetes against Iron Man and the Hulk and engages his brother in New York; Iron Man works alongside Banner, throwing around pithy one-liners, and keeps the Heliarrier from plummeting to earth; and the Hulk trashes the Helicarrier, punches a Chitauri space worm, and beats the crap out of Loki in maybe the funniest moment in the entire MCU. Oh, and Hawkeye? Okay, fine, Hawkeye could’ve done more, but other than that, Whedon’s character work is terrific. Everybody is defined, fleshed out, allowed to speak and grow and fight.
Like Civil War, it’s a balancing act, but unlike Civil War, Whedon keeps it simpler. The story is relatively plain—heroes band together to keep an alien invasion from decimating New York. This was before we knew Hydra infested SHIELD, Infinity Stones were gathered, or tons of heroes introduced into the pantheon. Six individuals team-up and take on an army and a god. Because of this modest structure, characters are fleshed out wonderfully, actors offer a range of emotions, and Whedon’s fantastic writing carries beautiful jokes, pop culture references, and enough dramatic lines to ground our heroes in humanity. Culminating in a massive action sequence where the Avengers band together for the first time against the Chitauri—a scene that, again, enables everyone to shine, never slows down, and continues to explore Whedon’s mastery at making several distinct elements flow in tandem—this movie pulled out and the stops and, honestly, never has an MCU been so thoroughly entertaining.
And that’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it appears to date. Honestly, a list like this is difficult to craft because it keeps changing with each new movie in the Marvel pantheon. We’re up to three movies a year at this point. This is a blog I started back before Black Panther was released, but distractions and new films kept me from putting it out. I am, however, glad to have added the 2018 and first 2019 MCU installments. This is a celebration of the road leading to the Endgame. And who knows? Maybe in seven years (that’d be 21 more movies at this rate, right?), I’ll lump all 40+ films together for an ensemble list to see what’s changed over the course of close to two decades of movies.