With the release of Avengers: Endgame, the first saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – ‘The Infinity Saga’ – was completed. We may not know what grand form the franchise is set to compose next, even with the following few years’ worth of content mapped out, but the series will continue to weave its epic narrative. The global pandemic may have temporarily scuppered plans for cinema releases but the MCU has adapted, now setting its sights on streaming with its recent additions ‘airing’ on Disney+.
Across 23 films and a new influx of miniseries, it’s amazing just how consistently strong the franchise has been over its 12-year lifespan, watching many other cinematic universes fail as it rose in success. So, in a series of upstanding quality, what are the best movies and miniseries and what are the worst? How do the initial instalments compare to the much grander, later chapters? Below is my personal ranking of the complete Marvel Cinematic Universe… so far.
24 – Thor: The Dark World
I know it’s the common pick for the worst of the MCU and I wish I could choose some other shocking choice as my least favourite of the franchise but I can’t. Thor: The Dark World is the worst film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But when Thor: The Dark World is the worst movie in your franchise you know you’re doing something right. It’s not even a bad movie. It’s just not a particularly good one either. It’s dull, has the worst villain of the series and flipping the idea of the first film and having Jane come to Asgard instead of Thor going to Earth is decent but they do nothing with it. And then Earth is the centre of the third act anyway. Not a bad film, just tremendously bland.
23 – Thor
The first Thor instalment is a film of two halves. A good half and a bad half. I very much enjoy everything set on Asgard, with Kenneth Branagh perfectly bringing his Shakespearean qualities to the familial feud between Odin, Thor and Loki. But when the action moves to Earth it gets incredibly boring. Gone is the grandiose intrigue and action, and instead we have bad comedy, a couple with no chemistry, a glacial pace and more Dutch angles than an episode of 60’s Batman. It really makes you think what the Thor franchise could have been from the beginning if Marvel had the confidence to be bold and set the film entirely, or the majority, away from Earth.
22 – Iron Man 2
The first Iron Man has a fantastically clear arc for Tony, while Iron Man 2 tries to explore his character from several different directions but never fully commits to any. Is it about sons dealing with the sins of their fathers? Legacy? Mortality? The humanity needed to wear the suit? It’s about all of those things and yet makes little headway on any of them. If it had just picked one direction to explore it could have been a really good film. As it stands it’s a bit of a mess but an enjoyable one at that. I love Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer, most of what they do with War Machine and the proper introduction of Nick Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. That again makes the film take another direction but I think it was necessary to set up The Avengers and, while Iron Man 2 is worse off for it, makes that film work even better.
21 – The Incredible Hulk
To prepare for Endgame, and this list, I went back and rewatched the whole MCU and The Incredible Hulk was the film which unveiled the most surprises. It holds an almost B-canon status in the MCU with very few references and call-backs, which are noticeable in a franchise built around interconnectivity. I was prepared to call The Incredible Hulk the worst of the franchise, but it’s not. It’s pretty good. The opening act with Bruce hiding in Brazil is fantastic and, while the film gets progressively less interesting as it goes along and ends in a big fight between two CGI characters, it’s actually quite enjoyable throughout. The film is the black sheep of the MCU, tonally doesn’t quite fit and there’s no way I could see Edward Norton’s version of Banner interact with the other Avengers. But as its own thing it’s pretty good.
20 – Avengers: Age of Ultron
For a film spinning as many plates as it is, Age of Ultron does a great job in keeping them all going. Ultron is a relatively compelling villain, Vision steals the show, I love what it does with Tony Stark and the Avengers have the best dynamic that they’ve ever had onscreen. The party sequence in Avengers tower is one of the best of the entire MCU and the film itself, with its multitude of characters and story-lines, feels very much like a comic-book. The biggest problem is that it has the most boring third act of the entire MCU. The fight in Sokovia is so long and entirely forgetful. I like that it focuses on the Avengers saving civilians but it just keeps going and going and going. It’s a fight to stay awake. But until that point its good fun.
19 – Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange introduced a new side of the MCU, but it isn’t as unique as it thinks it is, or could have been. Visually, the magic and dimensions are superb and make for some great sequences and a cool third act, but it still feels restricted in some way. Most of the magic in the film simply summons weapons and shields to fight with, making it seem similar to every other action superhero film. The magic could have done with being, you know, more magical. I like the character of Strange and his journey a lot, and it shows just how adept the MCU is at character-building by introducing yet another arrogant hero, alongside Tony Stark, Peter Quill and Scott Lang, but having him feel different. Doctor Strange is the MCU taking a step into a new exciting world, just not as large a step as I would have liked.
18 – Ant-Man and The Wasp
After the heavy and epic Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and The Wasp was the perfect breather. A fast and fun sequel that’s a much lower stakes affair. The issue is that that’s all it is. It’s a funny adventure film with a lightning-fast pace and some good laughs, rushing from one MacGuffin to the next with little breathing room. I like spending time with these characters and the overall plot but compared to many other MCU entries, and the first Ant-Man, it’s a little light on character and once the credits roll very little has changed. A good time but fairly inconsequential.
17 – Ant-Man
Ant-Man is an incredibly likable film. It’s entertaining, funny and is an appropriately smaller interlude than most other MCU movies. It’s a solid outing and one I can always happily rewatch but it’s unspectacularly good. It does everything it sets out to accomplish but what it accomplishes is fairly minor. Underdeveloped villain aside, it has good character arcs, a cool heist vibe and a high laugh count. It’s hard not to ponder how the film could have been under Edgar Wright’s direction but as it stands it’s a dependable entry of the MCU.
16 – Captain America: The First Avenger
The opening two acts of Captain America: The First Avenger are among the best content the MCU has ever produced. It’s just a shame the closing 30 minutes lets it down as much as it does. Bucky disappears from the film for too long, and his unmemorable ‘death’ happens far too early considering what will happen in later films. The ending also makes no sense. Steve crashes into the arctic and sacrifices himself for no reason, the bombs having to be piloted to their destination and all the pilots are dead. But before all of that, I kind of love the film. It’s got spirit, heart and a sense of adventure that few other films have matched, and Steve’s journey from skinny kid to propaganda figure to genuine superhero is fantastic. Captain America is now a household name and a serious character, whereas before the idea of Captain America was almost laughable to many non-comic readers, and that change is down to The First Avenger.
15 – Spider-Man: Homecoming
I’m not a huge Spider-Man fan. Sure, I loved the first two Sam Raimi films as a kid and I enjoyed the recent PS4 game, but as a character he’s never been my favourite and I’ve never cared much for school-set teen drama. So, it’s amazing that Homecoming makes me care about the character and his world as much as it does, although I still find his perky attitude grating at times. What works so well in the film is the balance between small and large scale. It’s a high school drama and yet Iron Man and the Avengers are involved. It’s largely contained to New York and based around realistic characters, heroes and villains alike, yet it connects to the wider MCU significantly. It’s a testament to the MCU that Spider-Man, in a relatively small story, can fit in so well with the rest of the franchise; and it’s just a really entertaining film.
14 – Captain Marvel
The first 15 minutes of Captain Marvel can be a little rough and it feels like the film is just biding its time to get to Earth, but once it does it’s so much fun. Whereas Thor’s downfall was spending too long on Earth, it works for Captain Marvel because her arc is about rediscovering her humanity and how that makes her a hero instead what the Kree did to her. I really love the vibe of the film, from the 90’s styling to the humour and the pacing. There are big action beats but it’s not afraid to slow down and focus on character drama for large chunks of time. It’s a film where scenes of the characters washing dishes are just as enjoyable as the car chases. Brie Larson is great in the role, the film manages to work in some real-world messages in a natural way, and the more I think about it the higher it ranks on my list.
13 – Spider-Man: Far From Home
After the heavy and huge drama of Endgame, Far From Home – when it’s at its best – works as a refreshing pit-stop in the franchise; a comedy road trip movie that turns out to be one of the most effortlessly funny films in the MCU. ‘The Snap’ changed everything in the world – hell, the whole universe – and there are still many questions surrounding it, but the film rightfully chooses to focus purely on Peter Parker. Part of me would have liked the film to explore the consequences of ‘The Snap’, or ‘The Blip’ as it’s now officially known, in a deeper and more serious way, but I feel that Far From Home is the film the MCU needed at this time. Peter’s dilemma of whether to choose his superhero life over his personal life continues, only now it’s greatly expanded after Tony’s death, with his legacy and inheritance up for grabs. I enjoy Mysterio as a villain and how he highlights the mistrust in the news and of public figures we currently feel in the real world, without it being eyerolling-ly blunt. It’s a film that’s trying to achieve a lot, including ending one phase of the series while setting up the next, but just like Peter throughout the movie, all the film really wants to do is have a laugh on a fun European road trip. At that it succeeds enormously and might just be my favourite live-action Spider-Man movie.
WandaVision began with so much potential. The opening five episodes are some of my favourite content in the MCU, offering something new, bold, and weird in a franchise that can too often feel homogeneous. What better way for the MCU to enter the realm of television than to simultaneously tell the new chapter of the epic narrative while also playfully deconstructing the tropes and style of the medium itself. It’s a shame then that the almost Lynchian mystery is gradually eroded by the generic superhero fare the series embraces in its final episodes. The themes and ideas are intriguing but ultimately it feels as if the show doesn’t have much of anything interesting to say, and the show ends with CGI magic battles, uninteresting villains, and characters clearly included purely to set up future content. While the performances dazzle, the key relationship is well developed, the production is incredible, and the series never stops being fun, the show was hamstrung by how much it embraced the MCU at large, never committing to either being something new or a piece of the familiar MCU tapestry. An admirable attempt but muddled execution.
11 – Black Panther
I came to Black Panther late. For whatever reason I didn’t see it at the cinema and had to wait until the home media release. It was acclaimed, getting rave reviews and becoming a cultural hit just as much of a commercial and critical one. Seeing it under those circumstances it’s hard not to be disappointed by it after so much build up. But I wasn’t. It’s a testament to the MCU and the filmmakers that the film works so well and feels so unique. It’s part superhero movie, part royal family drama, part fantasy, part sci-fi and part political commentary all while never feeling out of place in the wider franchise, and is visually spectacular. And as a huge James Bond fan, the sequence in the Korean casino is one of my all-time favourite MCU scenes. Give Ryan Coogler a Bond movie already!
10 – Guardians of the Galaxy
The MCU is now a film series like none other and its progression into what it has become can be traced to a few major milestones. First Iron Man for starting everything, The Avengers for proving the idea of this kind of cinematic universe could work and then the next was Guardians of the Galaxy for offering a wholly different kind of film for the franchise. Now it doesn’t seem like a big deal but that only echoes its success. This comedic space opera was an incredibly bold step for Marvel and helped shape what the MCU is now. And even away from all that, it’s just an incredibly charming, unique and funny film with a cast of characters you want to spend hours watching. It has a weak villain but that barely matters, the film is all about introducing the crew of ‘The Milano’ and James Gunn absolutely nails it.
9 – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2
Yep, I’m one of those freaks that prefer the second Guardians movie to the first. Why? Well, I find it funnier, especially on rewatch, and I think it has more heart too. The first film was about setting up the team and little else, while the sequel continues the great rapport between the titular Guardians but also connects the villain and side characters in a more personal way. The relationship between Peter and his dad – and also Yondu – is genuinely touching, and has a way better dramatic pull than an evil blue guy who wants to destroy the galaxy for some reason. The film is visually striking, Drax (the best character in the MCU) is on top form and Baby Groot. Need I say more?
8 – The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)
The prologue is a little dull. The plot a little stale. The third act a little long. But I can’t help but be overcome with childlike glee and love for the first Avengers movie. Everything it does has been done better since but it still has to be applauded for its pioneership and pure entertainment value. It’s the second act that truly shines, with all our characters from previous films coming together to joke, argue and even fight in the most natural and yet unprecedented way. No matter how much bigger the series has gotten, it’s impossible not to get chills every time I see that shot of all the core Avengers sharing the screen together.
7 – Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War feels like the ultimate MCU movie. There’s no time for any real character introductions or explanations of motivations, and a newcomer would feel totally lost. It’s a film for the fans. The first half of a culmination of 20 movies. The film’s philosophy is that at this point you’re either in or you’re out. And I’m in. Big time. Thanos is one of the series’ best villains because they spend some actual time with him and, every time I watch it, I’m shocked at how good the CGI looks. It’s quite easy to be impressed by long-awaited team ups and character meetings, but the film is great at making each subplot interesting in its own right. I also like that you spend plenty of time with each and it’s not constantly cutting back and forth to create tension. And no matter how temporary it was, there’s no denying the drama of “The Snap”.
6 – Iron Man
Looking back and revisiting Iron Man now is a joy. Not just to witness the franchise’s humble beginnings from the film it will all spawn from, but because it’s a fantastic film of its own accord. It sets a great tone: serious (Stark getting kidnapped by terrorists in the opening few minutes) and yet humorous. I love the tactile feel of the technology – something that has been lost in recent films – and Tony is written and performed to perfection. Now, in hindsight, it’s clear that Iron Man’s greatest strength as the first instalment of a cinematic universe is that it’s not treated as the first instalment of a cinematic universe. Other than the obligatory post credit scene there’s nothing to suggest a universe beyond the running time of the film, and it’s all the better for it.
5 – Captain America: Civil War
Civil War does what the Avengers movies do better than most Avengers movies. Sure, at its heart it’s still a Captain America movie and his journey of standing up for his ideals and becoming a criminal along the way is the core of the movie, but it successfully branches out into the wider MCU to fill up its roster of characters and make the drama even more impactful. The sheer sight of seeing all these characters – including Spider-Man, Black Panther and Ant-Man – fight each other in an airport is incredibly entertaining but the film’s much deeper than that. Every character’s personal journey is wonderfully crafted as the film drastically alters the status quo of the MCU even more so than The Winter Soldier did. With successful franchises there’s always the desire to continue the proceedings past their appropriate endpoint, and while of course Cap and his allies/frenemies return, this feels like a conclusion to the Captain America trilogy and the core part of his story.
4 – Thor: Ragnarok
And the prize for the most improved goes to… the Thor franchise. Learning from the success of the Guardians films, the third Thor film finally stays away from Earth (mostly) and embraces the absurdity of the Marvel universe. Director Taika Waititi brings his brand of humour to the series and the film is just so much fun. But this is not to say that the film is only good because of how much fun it is. I think a more serious Thor film can be just as successful, but what truly makes Ragnarok great is that it manages to be so humorous and flippant, and yet is a great end to the trilogy and ends dramatic arcs that began in the first film. We finally see Thor become king, a position he coveted in the first film before denying to take on the role in the second, and Loki’s relationship with his brother mollifies into a perfect place. And all while being the MCU film that is simply the most enjoyable to watch.
3 – Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 isn’t an Iron Man movie but a Tony Stark movie. It delves deep into the character and his fears, removing him from the suit for an extended period of time as a way to highlight the character’s true strengths and weaknesses. The film takes chances, all of which are successfully pulled off, and writer/director Shane Black’s style and humour fits the character of Tony Stark perfectly. I think the film has one of the more interesting villains of the MCU in Killian and The Mandarin, who tap into realistic cultural fears and manipulation of the masses. It’s a film with a lot to say but sadly many don’t see that side of it because they get stuck up on the twist – a twist I happen to love. Iron Man 3 is a great end to the initial arc of Tony Stark in the MCU before Age of Ultron builds a new one, and it’s the best showing for his character out of the whole franchise.
2 – Avengers: Endgame
Endgame is three films in one, and all of them outstanding. The appropriate amount of weight is given to the ending of Infinity War in the first hour; a dour character drama that still amazingly houses some great MCU humour. The second is a riveting time travel adventure, and the third is, well, some of the nerdiest and most epic comic-book action ever put on screen, with numerous cheer-worthy and misty-eyed moments. At times Endgame plays as the greatest hits of the MCU, but the franchise has earned the right to look back and admire its own success. The film not only works because of how much it relishes the franchise’s past, but also by satisfyingly concluding character arcs a decade in the making, instead of including them as just pointless fan service. Endgame is the perfect cap on the franchise’s first saga, making everything that has come before shine brighter, and showing how successful a cinematic universe it truly is. All while being an incredible film in its own right.
1 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a near flawless film. It balances superhero level action with contained spy movie fight scenes, grand schemes of world domination and personal character development and is perfectly paced. The First Avenger introduced the character and successfully demonstrated his naïve patriotism in a way that wasn’t laughable, but The Winter Soldier truly creates the character of Captain America in the MCU by having everything he believes in challenged with the Hydra reveal and the choices he makes regarding it. Not only does it build Cap’s character, but it creates the most interesting and developed version of this world seen so far. Without this movie my interest in the MCU and everything that’s happening off screen and between films would be significantly lower. For that reason, it’s not only the best film in the MCU but it’s also the best MCU film, fleshing out this universe more thoroughly than the big event team-up movies.
What’s your personal ranking of the MCU so far? Which of my choices do you disagree with the most? Let me know in the comments and be sure to geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.