Not everyone has time to go back and review or re-watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film or show before a new entry's theatrical release (or maybe you did during the 2020 quarantine and spent nearly all your time doing that). It's a daunting task, and requires a lot of time attention. Luckily, I already marathoned those first 20 a while back, and have been keeping up with each entry since, so I’m re-posting my thoughts on each individual entry in a definitive, objectively correct ranking without fault (but I kid), adapted from the twitter thread I made back when I did this the first time. Some of these will be added to or subtracted from, so if you’d rather get the short version, I’ll leave a link to my original thread right...here. Now, let's rank some movies!
32. Iron Man 2
Everything about RDJ as Tony Stark, Black Widow's role, Pepper, Happy, most things with Rhody/War Machine, still work fantastically in this sequel to the 2008 original. Basically nothing else does though. The movie’s slowly paced, and nothing interesting happens apart from the creation of a new element and the final 5 minutes of the film. Whiplash/Justin Hammer are purely underwhelming as villains, and while I love Sam Rockwell, his character is actually pretty annoying and insufferable to watch in this upon re-visiting it. It’s not an entirely bad movie (in fact, as the worst of them so far, it’s still pretty okay), just incredibly underwhelming after the heights the first Iron Man soared to.
31. Thor: The Dark World
Wow. I actually forgot how boring most of the first half of the movie is. Literally nothing happens during that time. Malekith and the Dark Elves are hollow, vaguely defined, and their motivation is generic. The film really picks up during the second half, but most of the damage has already been done, so anything interesting just feels like that was all of what the studio came up with first and then felt obligated to fill in the rest later. The action is decent, and at least a little more interesting during the climax, but again, most of the good will has already been wasted, so all that’s of value about it is that it looks cool and introduces some new ideas way too late. Loki is cool for what he's in, and Hiddelston acts the hell out of that character, but unfortunately doesn’t make the movie any better because the focus isn’t on his relationship with Thor, which is what works best about this movie. It’s not terrible (certainly not badly made on a technical level), and it’s better than Iron Man 2, but this was definitely a step down from that first Thor.
30. Ant-Man and the Wasp
This one will get a lot of praise for going lighter in tone and being a “breather” after Infinity War, but even with/without that element in play, it’s easily the weakest of the solo ones since Thor 2. I get that it wants to play up how much more efficient Hope is at this stuff as the titular Wasp, and that’s supposed to be part of the fun, but the movie sort of feels like it trades in Scott's intelligence for Hope's efficiency, when it easily could have had both. Paul Rudd is once again perfect as the character, but most of what he does is just bumble around and react to other characters doing stuff while playing tag with a super-lab. The Walton Goggins character is completely unnecessary as well, and doesn’t pay off in any meaningful way after the first action sequence. And speaking of that sequence, Ghost is too underdeveloped. There’s a bit towards the middle where it seems like they could take things in an interesting direction, but then it’s just forgotten about in order to include yet another multi-tier chase sequence. Michelle Pfeiffer's "thing" is too vague too. There’s no explanation or even throwaway line that has a narrative-based reason for what she does there at the end other than “yeah, she can do that now.” This movie spends so much time talking about the quantum realm that you just wish you could do more exploring of the quantum realm…and then you’re only there for like five minutes. The action sequences and comedy are great in this (and pretty inventive too), but not much apart from one or two plot elements end up justifying this movie existing, and there’s nothing to say why it matters.
29. The Incredible Hulk
This is easily the most underrated of the MCU Phase One films, and the best they probably could have done given how difficult the Hulk can be to make interesting as a leading character (I mean, they tried once already). There’s actually quite a bit more universe-building for the MCU in this movie than I remember there being initially, especially during the opening credits, so I give this movie props for that. The Hulk action is awesome to watch and pretty well-staged overall, but Betty Ross basically doesn't have a character arc and her boyfriend gets completely forgotten about after the Culver U fight (seriously, Billy Crudup literally just doesn’t show up again). I’m not sure what Liv Tyler was trying to do by whispering every time she says “Bruce,” but it does not work.
28. Captain Marvel
We’re not going to get into the non-troversy that is whiny bro-hards online being mad about Brie Larson’s presence in the MCU (except to say it’s stupid); that being said, it really is a shame that arguably the most powerful character in the entirety of the MCU up to this point didn’t have a better script to propel her narrative. Given that she’s the first female superhero to lead a feature for this universe, the bare-bones character development the story gives her simply isn’t enough to make her compelling, and hiding most of her past ends up being more of a detriment to the film than a fun mystery. Also, Ronan doesn’t matter at all and there’s no reason for him to be here. Still, what the film does right it does mostly pretty right, and the chemistry between Brie Larson and a remarkably de-aged Samuel L. Jackson is a real treat to watch. The action in the film is largely pretty good for what little there actually is of it, and most (but not all) of the 90’s jokes land with a charming sense of fun. Goose and Ben Mendelsohn’s characters are hands down the best parts of the film, and the story itself is a wonderful allegory for immigration and breaking free of the chains society gives you; it’s just a bit disappointing that the character development is rather poor on part of the main character, and some of the easter eggs the movie throws in force some weird ret-cons into the universe that don’t quite work out logically.
Perhaps I’ll feel differently about this one as it ages, but to me Eternals is the textbook example of an MCU film being too ambitious for its own good. It’s certainly the most unique entry in the wider Marvel Universe by a decent stretch, but that uniqueness often works against it just as often as it plays in the film’s favor. It’s beautifully shot and lit, as nearly all Chloé Zhao projects are, but in terms of story and character, I expected significantly better from the Oscar-winning helmer of Nomadland, especially after one of the year’s most stunning trailers. That said, there is a lot to like about the film – especially Kumail Nanjiani’s character and his hilarious valet – and the action sequences are pretty solid for a director who up to this point has not made any sort of action movie or big budget project. Eternals is consistently at war with itself in trying to do something very different for the MCU, but being in constant contrast to the tone the MCU often takes, and stretching itself too thin trying to tell far too big of a story for all of it to fit together cohesively. That said, it is extremely different than pretty much any other entry on this list, and I’ll take a heavy swing and miss over a bunt like the previous entries almost any day of the week.
26. Black Widow
As unfortunate as it is, the first MCU entry to hit theaters in 2021 (after two years without it) just doesn’t measure up to the fullness of its potential, making it a fairly average action romp with some solid set-pieces and decent jokes, but not much else to offer. Just because the MCU can do this sort of thing in its sleep now doesn’t mean it has to, and without getting into deeper plot material or major spoiler territory, Dreykov just isn’t a very interesting villain, his placement in the story leaving a lot to be desired in terms of making him an intimidating or even all that compelling presence. Taskmaster as a secondary villain would have been really cool to see given the whole conceit surrounding that character, but the movie doesn’t actually do much with that apart from one or two decent-looking fights, one of which just cuts away as soon as it starts. Also, Rachel Weisz just isn’t in it nearly enough, and her character really doesn’t do much that we get to see either. ScarJo is as good as ever as Natasha, but it’s David Harbour and Florence Pugh (especially Florence Pugh) who really steal this one, both of whom just chew up every bit of scenery that dares to enter their immediate vicinity. For a movie called Black Widow, the audience isn’t really let in on much more of the character than they already were in on before the movie started, so it mostly craps out character-wise, but nevertheless, one could do a lot worse for a mainline blockbuster in 2021 after not having anything quite to its scale in a long time.
25. Doctor Strange
I really want to love Doctor Strange a lot more than I actually do, and to be fair, I enjoy it as a casual watch with some neat stuff in it, but really, this is just a mostly disposable discount Iron Man movie with some neat visual effects you've seen before. When the movie came out, a lot of critics praised its “groundbreaking” visual effects, and maybe the methods to come up with some of those were what was groundbreaking, but most of these visual effects (apart from maybe the Dormmamu sequence) I’d seen in stuff like Inception and even Ant-Man before this, or at least things that were strikingly similar. Aside from that, Cumberbatch works as Strange (even though he struggles with his accent sometimes), but Mads Mikkelsen is wasted as Kaecilius, which is a real bummer considering how great of an actor Mikkelsen is. He’s really of no consequence to the movie’s ending, and it’s disappointing. Now yeah, the obvious whitewashing of the Ancient One is still bothersome, but it’s been long enough now that there’s not much point in complaining about it cause it’s not like this movie’s still making money or anything and the character’s said their goodbyes anyway. The Dormmamu finale scene is cool/inventive, and I wish they’d done more stuff like this, playing around with more of the mystical aspect of it all. It’s not a bad movie, and is the first of these things to be just “fine,” but it’s a lesser version of something we’ve seen before.
24. Spider-Man: Far From Home
Spider-Man: Far From Home is a good movie, but that’s all it gets to be, and the further one thinks on it, that’s all it ever stacks up to be: good. Mysterio is a cool new villain we haven’t seen before, but it’s very clear that apart from that, returning Homecoming director Jon Watts didn’t have much an idea of how to get out from under Avengers: Endgame’s far-cast shadow. One of the main criticisms of Spider-Man in the MCU is that he’s treated too much like a miniature version of Iron Man rather than his own thing, and this movie makes it clearer than ever why that should be one of the MCU and Sony’s top issues to solve. Still, it is the first Spidey movie since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 to actually show frequently and effectively how Peter Parker struggles between living his own life and the responsibility of being Spider-Man, and it has two of the best credits scenes in the whole of the MCU (exactly one of which is made good on in No Way Home); those things don’t count for nothing.
The MCU is always at its best when it gets really epic, really weird, or really personal. Hawkeye is none of those things…but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good show. The low-stakes world it inhabits fits the character well, and was a good approach to take in telling this kind of story; it's just that in attempting to set up a lot of the things for the television future of this whole franchise, the series loses itself between the decent beginnings and cliffhanger endings of each episode, so most of the runtime feels like a lot of filler for very little payoff. Really, once a certain favorite blonde of ours shows up at the end of Episode 4, the show finds its main stride and really starts singing, but by then, enough damage has already been done that the show feels lesser than the sum of its many moving parts, and not all of them work (Maya’s in particular doesn’t really go anywhere meaningful). A lot of supporting threads in the show just don’t hold the same weight as the main story, so each time cutting back to them meant that I was less engaged than usual, and the episodes cut back to them a lot. The series is likely too low-stakes to have been a movie in the first place, but perhaps it would have been better as a shorter version of what it is, like a three-part Christmas special. Luckily, the finale is good enough to assuage some of the show’s bad will, lifting its overall impression from “just okay” to “pretty good,” and the series does sport some terrific action sequences (no matter how badly filmed some of them are), the car chase being a particular highlight. I have no idea where the Hawkeye character, Kate Bishop, and the rest go from here, but at least the show is good enough that I’m interested in finding out. (Although please don’t show us anymore of Rogers: The Musical. That was one of the cringiest credits scenes the MCU has had to date, and the music itself was also pretty bad.)
22. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
The second-lowest ranked Disney+ series on this list, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is one of the first MCU entrants to deal with the legacy of Captain America beyond what it means for Steve Rogers (which it kind of has to since he’s no longer part of the picture, but still), which makes for an interesting show when it’s just focused on the Sam/Bucky stuff. However, the show does bungle the ending pretty hard, especially wherein it concerns the villains. The Power Broker material feels tacked on, the Zemo stuff feels like it runs out of steam pretty fast, and the Karli Morgenthau material seems to constantly recycle the same beats over and over with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer hitting gong. And Sam essentially giving a “talking to” to those responsible for the whole mess at the end of the season feels a little deflating after all that he’s been through just trying to piece things back together without his own government to back him up. That said, the show does tackle a lot of hard material to grapple with, including the notion of a Black super soldier that was medically experimented on and tossed aside, and the idea of what it means for a Black man to take on the title of Captain America. When the show deals with that, it’s firing on all cylinders.
21. Guardians of the Galaxy
This one’s…not as amazing as everyone says, and a lot of the humor falls flat for me, but it is still pretty good fun. It was very unique within Marvel's library at this stage of building their universe, and the ensemble is fun to watch, but Ronan's just a whiny baby, which gets annoying. I honestly didn’t think Chris Pratt’s character was all that different from other big-budget movie characters he played at this point, but he’s grown in his performance since, and the supporting cast does a nice job with their stuff that it’s not a huge deal. Guardians expanded the universe more than any other film up to it, and for that, and its boldness in embracing that weirdness, I give it props.
20. Avengers: Age of Ultron
This is a good (not great) Avengers movie with the weight of studio expectations all over it. From pretty much the beginning, one can tell that Whedon was struggling to make a great movie that was as good or better than the original, and the studio only made it harder on him by trying to make this one be the original. Ultron is a pretty good villain but there’s no personal weight to him, and his connection to Tony is pretty much only played for humor that only works half the time. Introducing Wanda and Pietro is cool, but they killed Quicksilver way too soon, and trying to pass that off as real consequences to the Avengers’ heroics doesn’t really work since his character wasn’t that developed to begin with. The Banner/Widow romance/Clint's family angle the movie takes is definitely unexpected but not entirely unfair since the movies never actually established that Clint and Natasha were a thing anyway, and I can roll with it if it means we get a really solid farm scene in the middle.
19. Spider-Man: Homecoming
This is a really solid comedy, with solid performances (including two perfect ones in Tom Holland and Michael Keaton), but just an okay Spider-Man movie. I know we’re all supposed to act like this is one of the best in the MCU because Spider-Man’s here now, but to be honest, a lot of it feels pretty inconsequential, like it doesn’t ultimately last in any meaningful way. Some of that can be put on the other films for just immediately going back on some of this film’s more signature plot points (I mean, he gets the Iron Spider suit basically as soon as Infinity War starts, anyway, and that was supposed to be a big lesson he learned), but this movie sometimes forgets that Peter’s actions are meant to have consequences outside of people just being disappointed in him, and what consequences there are rarely fall back on him. The Vulture is the first villain since Loki to actually have a relatable/understandable motivation as a blue collar working man, and Keaton is fantastic, but there’s no larger MCU consequences, so it all ends up feeling kind of…safe.
Yeah, I know Edgar Wright left the project, but that’s not what we’re discussing here, and reflecting on it too much takes away from the conversation about the film proper. As for the movie? It’s small, self-contained, quirky, and good fun. Paul Rudd is a perfect casting choice for this character. Yes, the movie’s caught between two different directors’ visions, but it’s less noticeable than you might think. A lot of it feels like one cohesive unit, and although that unit doesn’t do a lot in terms of the world it inhabits, it’s a nice little palette cleanser after Age of Ultron’s heavy ensemble weight. Michael Douglas is always great in this, as is Evangeline Lily, and you know I can’t mention this movie without shouting out Michael Pena as a scene-stealing performer (this guys is seriously underrated). The villain's kind of weak overall, but most of them are, and the movie’s fun enough that by this point, that’s okay.
Thor is far better than I remember it being but please Marvel, never let Kenneth Branagh near a dutch angle ever again. The Asgard stuff is when this one's at its most interesting, and Chris Hemsworth/Tom Hiddelston is genius casting as Thor/Loki, but it’s all shot at odd angles, which really diminishes the incentive to re-visit it. Props to Marvel for introducing Hawkeye in an organic way (even though he does nothing). Thor’s romance with Jane is decent but noticeably under-developed, and it’s a real shame that Kat Dennings doesn’t actually get to do a lot in either of these first two Thor films considering she’s actually quite a refreshing comedic presence, but doesn’t feel like she has an ounce of impact on the story.
16. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
It was really brave of James Gunn to go more introspective with the sequel to perhaps the biggest indicator of Marvel’s success since The Avengers. Some criticisms leveled at it say it does compromise key areas like plot in favor of expositional dialogue, which is fair, but to be honest, I liked that it didn’t feel the need to rush another plot along, and instead let the characters breathe and experience more of a reflection of who they are and what family ultimately means to them. The themes of legacy, fatherhood, family are all great, particularly with the added character development for Nebula and Yondu. Even the jokes are funnier in this one, with Mantis proving a wonderful addition to the cast and Kurt Russell damn-near stealing the show as Ego. Sure, everyone getting a joke is a little tiresome but it pales in comparison to the character development that occurs here.
15. Spider-Man: No Way Home
By far the most ambitious of the MCU Spider-Man films, Jon Watts’ trilogy closer isn’t particularly amazing when it comes to how the story is told, but the fan service absolutely smothering its admittedly thin plot does serve to make it quite enjoyable. There’s a lot that works about it, and some significant things that don’t, but considering that what works is either largely covered by significant plot details or just something the MCU typically does really well anyway – solid humor, good performances, fantastic action sequences – that working material isn’t really all that interesting to talk about. This is definitely the MCU Spidey entry with the most heart on its sleeve, and no matter how poorly directed it might feel, it is a story well-told at the end of the day. Tom Holland gives by far his most emotionally-charged performance as the title character, and even when one knows the film is being emotionally manipulative, the tears come nonetheless. All that said, this is the third Spider-Man MCU film without a significant relationship to NYC beyond just being a locale where the events of the movie take place, and the consistency of the humor undercutting moments of genuine warmth instead of letting them just be there does get a little bit annoying. This one is definitely a fun time, and a significant improvement for the MCU after having stumbled with Eternals earlier in 2021, but it’s still just a very good Spider-Man movie, where it could have been a great one.
14. Marvel’s “What If…?”
This entry doesn’t really fit into the more linear timeline of the others on this list, but it is technically part of the wider MCU, so on this list it goes. What If is more of a series of experiments set to determine whether certain ideas can work if they want to make them live-action or not, but what’s unexpected about it is that they might actually work better in animated form. I could have done without the convergence of a lot of these stories into one big one at the series’ end, but some of these episodes are even stronger stories than some of the live-action films have to offer. There are ones that don’t work as well, like the Thor party episode, and ones that are mostly just pretty fun (like the Captain Carter one), but there are also some particularly mature entries, like the Doctor Strange and Killmonger episodes. Not all of it works, but it’s a significantly different series for the MCU to be putting out after 3 live-action ones and no anthology films yet to speak of. That said, different is almost always good, and in the case of What If…?, I’ll take my chances with it as often as it takes chances with its storytelling.
13. Iron Man 3
Man, this was really a great Tony Stark movie that could have used maybe like 12% more Iron Man. It’s not really a problem that more Iron Man isn’t in there considering how creatively Shane Black works around the suit being out-of-commission for most of the film, but it would have been nice to see. The Mandarin twist is genius considering his comics counterpart is kind of a racist caricature you can’t put in a movie anymore, and Ben Kingsley nails his scenes, particularly during that reveal. Guy Pierce is having such fun as Killian; it’s really entertaining to watch him chew up the scenery. I give major props to Shane Black for bringing back Tony’s intellect as his greatest weapon, and for making a kid character who’s with us for pretty much the entire second act not suck (kid performances did not have a great track record in 2013). In fact, Harley actually grows on you. It’s a shame that Tony’s PTSD isn’t really talked about in later films, but there’s only so much you can choose to focus on later, so having it here works.
The beginnings of Loki are fun and mysterious, but lack the emotional stakes in its first half mean the show is relegated to having at least one episode (that would be episode 3) devoted almost entirely to passing the time until the next true story beat, and it’s easily the weakest of the bunch. Unlike The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, however, which starts strong but squanders its ending, Loki actually improves with almost every episode, right up to the very end. Seeing Jonathan Majors chew all the beautiful scenery in the finale as one of the infinite Kang the Conqueror variants was a real treat, and it’s here that the true beginnings of the multiverse stories really start to sing. Sylvie is a brilliantly dynamic Loki variant to pair with the one we know, and the show’s stellar writing and production design make it consistently engaging to watch. Bring on season 2!
11. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
By nature both different and very similar to some other MCU projects, Shang-Chi is perhaps the most cohesive of the MCU’s Phase 4 projects which were released in 2021. It’s not perfect – there are some dodgy green screens in more than a few places – but to take a martial arts movie and put a Marvel skin on it was a pretty inspired choice to further diversify this ever-expanding universe. Everyone does a great job in this movie, but Tony Leung as the film’s re-worked Mandarin villain is the true standout, even in a movie with Ben Kingsley putting on a masterclass in re-establishing a character a lot of people hated just cause he existed. Since the stunner that was Black Panther, no MCU film has added this much new mythos and lore the world it inhabits, and the ways in which it introduces this new world are simultaneously emblematic of that previous film but also unique to this one. As we’ve established, Marvel isn’t afraid to get weird with it, and even with a third act that’s not nearly as strong as the first two, plus another “sky beam” sequence to tie it all off, Shang-Chi manages to impress with perhaps the MCU’s best hand-to-hand action sequences and a vision/tone it keeps almost entirely to itself.
We would all have to wait until 2021 to get the MCU back in theaters, but the first piece of definitive MCU material to grace our screens after a year-plus hiatus came in the most meta form it possibly could, and quite by accident at that. Given how COVID-19 was ravaging the world, most production in movies and film was shut down, including much of Marvel Studios’ upcoming slate. This meant that Black Widow and Eternals would both be postponed (though to what extent we did not yet know), and the Disney+ shows that needed more crew or more location shoots to work would have to pause production for a little while, including shows like Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which was meant to be first out of the gate for the streaming service. However, a show which used mostly limited crew and cast, set on various sitcom-inspired soundstages, which meant limited locales and a shooting style more in line with restriction standards? That could keep going right up until it was completed, and so we got WandaVision as the Disney+ MCU debut, a series about staying inside and taking comfort in old shows we used to love as a means of grieving life as we once knew it. The parallels to real-world events and the very real traumas of losing so many people to a relentless pandemic could not have been more striking, and Marvel Studios kind of had the ultimate, most unsettling luck-out they’d had in years in that way. And that’s before we get into what works about the miniseries, of which there are many things. Elizabeth Olsen’s performance throughout is miraculous, channeling so much grief, anger, sadness, pain, shock, joy, and everything in between, and managing to make it all work from episode to episode. Paul Bettany and Teyonah Paris also kill it in the show, and it’s one of the first pieces of MCU material to deal with how terrifying it would be for everyone to suddenly come back 5 years after Thanos’ snap to a world they don’t know and to people who have been fundamentally and permanently changed by the events they all went through. The technical affects of the show are striking as well; whether or not the various styles of comedy are your bag or not is subjective, but they all work within themselves as genuine homages to nuclear family-style sitcoms and adaptations of more modern fare, and it’s only when the show deviates from those towards the MCU we know that things actually start to get scary. The show does somewhat bungle the ending with Kathryn Hahn’s Agatha Harkness not really leading to much (although Hahn does steal the show more than a few times), and the alternate universe Quicksilver thing crapping the bed with a boner joke, but most everything up to that, from Wanda’s background of always having powers to the creation and self-actualization of the Scarlet Witch to Wanda accepting Vision’s death works really well. This is meant to lead right into both Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multi-Verse of Madness, and I can’t wait to see how those two films handle Wanda as a potentially antagonistic force.
9. Thor: Ragnarok
Back when this was first announced, it didn’t look anything like the Ragnarok we now know. But then the reins were handed to then small-time director Taika Waititi and everything went off the rails. The half-gothic/half-retro-futurist aesthetic makes for a beautiful looking film with some iconic images, but it doesn’t quite feel like a Thor movie in spirit, largely because most of the elements of the first two films are missing in favor of a more colorful/cosmic, vibrant, and playful aesthetic and comedic drive, as well as having left behind/forgotten some of the elements of those first two Thor films that really worked. Sometimes the (admittedly great) comedy is at the expense of more emotional moments, but it’s fun nonetheless, and the additions of Korg and Valkyrie will be fondly remembered as some of the best in the MCU. In short, this may not be the best Thor movie, but it’s the best movie that Thor is the leading character in.
8. Iron Man
Robert Downey Jr. is as iconic a casting of a comic book movie role as Heath Ledger's Joker or Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. This one still holds up quite a lot. Forcing Tony Stark (and by extension, America) to reckon with his war-and-weapons profiteering legacy was a brilliant move to start with, and even if it gets a little less interesting after the village invasion, it's still almost as great as you remember. My favorite scene is still probably when Rhodey (RIP Terrance Howard) tries to take down Tony by scrambling some jets. And that mid-credits tag? The most legendary in cinematic history. Without the critical and financial success of this movie, we wouldn’t have the MCU as we know it today, and for that, I will forever be grateful.
7. Avengers: Endgame
Even though it may not be as good of a film on balance as Infinity War, the way Avengers: Endgame makes you feel is worth the 3-hour runtime and the price of admission all by itself. 22 movies of storytelling and world-building all lead up to this, an ambitious, brilliant crossover event that made us cry, cheer, and laugh probably more than we ever have in any MCU movie before. The third act of this film is easily the largest and probably the best in any of these movies to date, and the way the story takes its time to makes us care about all these characters in this story, despite how well we’ve already come to know them, is a testament to just how well the brain-trust at Marvel Studios tells a compelling story. I’ll stay wary of major spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (if you have, here’s my spoiler review), but suffice it to say, despite some logical issues and a few character elements I wasn’t personally a fan of, there has been no better experience watching an MCU movie in the theater for me than this. What a way to finish off this grand Infinity Saga (well, at least until Spider-Man: Far From Home), and what a colossal, towering tribute to our O.G. six.
6. Captain America: The First Avenger
This is easily the best of the MCU Phase One solo efforts, largely because it leans into the sincerity of Steve Rogers to find the sincerity of the movie. It knows exactly what it is and recognizes there’s no shame in enjoying that. It also has by far the most well-rounded cast/story, and although there could have been one or two more action set-pieces, that’s not the kind of movie this is, so not having them doesn’t hurt it (in other words, the montage fits this movie like a glove). Hugo Weaving is the first truly great one appearance Marvel villain (well, until Infinity War, anyway), and he’s having so much fun playing this gleefully evil character that you can’t help but smile. Haley Atwell steals the show as Peggy Carter in every scene, and Tommy Lee Jones fits perfectly into his character.
5. Avengers: Infinity War
This was always going to be a risky project for anyone who decided to take it on, but it was a smart decision on the part of Marvel to hand this off to their most accomplished duo so far and the only directors who’d managed to successfully do two of these things in a row (besides Gunn, but the Russos were put on this project before that). Considering where the ending goes, getting the guys who constantly left this universe irreparably different than they found it and always introduced new elements into it to helm this project was the smartest move anyone could have made here. It balances a massive array of characters, but does strain in a few parts. I would've liked to see more of the half of life disappearing from other locations in the finale just to see how everyone else in the universe would have reacted to it, and there could have been some really great opportunities there to delve into the horror aspect of literally watching people disintegrate, but it’s still a showstopper finale. The film’s greatest strength and weakness at the same time is how much time it spends on Thanos. He’s a great villain and making him the protagonist of the film is ingenious, but it’s hard not to feel a tad short-changed on some of the heroes for a movie that has Avengers in the title. The Russos still direct action better than anyone in the MCU, but after seeing what they did with Black Panther in Civil War (purely in terms of combat), it’s hard to accept that we’re just never going to see that more practical-effect suit and hand-to-hand combat style again (for that character anyway). Thor’s arrival in Wakanda though? Cinematic perfection, and boy oh boy, did it feel ever so good to hear Alan Silvestri’s classic, now iconic Avengers theme roar through a movie again.
4. Captain America: Civil War
The action and story in this one are once again top notch for Marvel films, and it’s truly impressive that each subsequent Russo brothers entry in the MCU leaves the universe drastically altered from when each of their films started. The airport fight is one of the most legendary superhero action sequences of all time to be sure, but the twist in the third act is conceived so perfectly to give us the Cap/Iron Man fight that the emotion of it really sinks in deep. As far as negatives, there really aren’t many, except that Zemo is a good villain but feels kind of unnecessary, considering Cap and Tony probably could have gotten to these emotional places on their own just fine, and narratively the film’s not quite as focused as Winter Soldier. Going back to the positives, the intros of Spidey/Black Panther are great (particularly the latter). In fact, I still consider T’Challa’s action scenes in this one to be superior to those in his solo film. Tom Holland is immediately endearing as Peter Parker, and his dynamic with Tony is an interesting direction to take that character (probably the one that makes the most sense for the movies too).
3. The Avengers
Yes, the first twenty minutes or so are slower than the next two acts, but it’s important to re-establish all the characters for those of us who didn’t re-watch the other movies leading up to it and for those who started out with this one. It takes a bit to really kick into high gear, but even before that the wheels are turning beautifully. Before any of the larger action hits, it’s still just so much fun to be hanging out with all of these characters together. There’s a reason this continues to be one of the highest grossing films of all time, and a reason it’s stayed in the cultural pantheon of the most influential movies of all time. Nothing was the same in Hollywood after this movie hit, and not only did they pull it off, it’s still listed as one of the greatest comic book films of all time (in my top 3), and Marvel continues to reap the benefits of its success (as evidenced by the box office for Infinity War and Endgame's $2.7 billion success).
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I remember back in 2014 when I first saw The Winter Soldier, and defending it as the Marvel champion of that year over the first Guardians because it was so. damn. good. Almost everything about it holds up like gangbusters to this day. The Russo Brothers are the best action directors in the MCU, and a perfect fit for Cap's second go. It didn’t stop at the action though. This movie also fleshes out better than any other MCU movie to this point how Captain America fits into a version of America that he no longer recognizes, and it’s a brilliant reflection on the national security vs. personal privacy debate in a superhero movie. Black Widow also gets more characterization, and Falcon is just awesome. The Winter Soldier himself being Bucky is a brilliant foil for Cap (menacing, determined, and emotionally resonant), and that highway fight remains my favorite MCU action sequence.
1. Black Panther
I’ll come right out and say it: this is the best film in the MCU to date, and no amount of pissed-off fanboys that are angry this film and not Infinity War got the Best Picture nomination this past year (seriously, I’ve never seen anyone jump so fast to call a movie “overrated”) changes the fact that it’s got the best mythology/world building, production/costume design, and villain in the MCU, full stop. The culture of Wakanda is massive, and features so much color, differentiation between tribes/classes, and different geographical areas, it makes you wish there was an entire movie set in Wakanda alone. The performances are all fantastic, but Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, and particularly Michael B. Jordan steal the show. I had hoped Jordan’s performance would land him a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but unfortunately, such was not to be. Yes, there are some shoddy VFX in a couple of sequences, but if critics not docking it a bunch of points because of that is honestly an indicator of a movie being “wildly overpraised” to you, you might want to go back to school and consider what focused, narrative-driven storytelling actually is (if you just don’t like the film or have legitimate problems with it, that’s fine though; all film is subjective, after all). This is the first and (so far) only movie in the MCU where the villain actually changes the hero’s mind by being right about what side of the conflict he’s on (even while his methods are less than ideal), and it genuinely works toward the betterment of all involved.
And there’s my definitive ranking of the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus far! How would you rank these films/shows? What are your top 5? Top 10? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
This post was originally published on April 21st, 2019 and last updated on December 23, 2021. It now includes all currently streaming Disney+ shows, Black Widow, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals, and Spider-Man: No Way Home.
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Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time.