Welcome to my comprehensive ranking of all of the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This list does not include Marvel properties that have been developed by Sony, Fox, or whoever is responsible for the atrocity known as Ang Lee’s Hulk. For each entry, I will give a brief explanation to justify the movie’s placement on this list. Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments!
Before we start, I should say that even the worst film on this list is not a bad movie. The MCU has not turned out a bad film since taking the reigns in 2008. So the “worst” movies aren’t bad, just the “least best.” After this, I will be working on a comprehensive list ranking all superhero movies ever. You’ll see how all of the MCU ranks against the rest of the genre and there will be plenty of duds below all of these on the list. I will also be updating this list as the new Phase 3 movies come out, so check back in to see where they fall!
13. Iron Man 2 (2010): Truly the “least best” of the MCU, the second installment of Iron Man had big shoes to fill after the inspiring first installment. However, the delivery faltered a bit, partly due to Iron Man’s limited rogues gallery in the comics world, giving the writers a limited number of villains to choose from. Even so, the hodgepodge effort to make a D-list baddie, Whiplash, into Iron Man’s new nemesis didn’t come across very well. Sure, there were good elements in the Vanko storyline, but all of those elements were stolen from a much better comic villain, the Crimson Dynamo: a Soviet-era Iron Man imitation who combined the Cold War ideological struggle with a personal vendetta against Tony Stark. The Hammer sub-plot is kind of lame and more of a distraction. Tony’s personal struggles in this film were all pretty solidly done: the fame getting to his head, the “Demon in a Bottle” parallels with alcohol, and the dichotomy of the Iron Man suit simultaneously keeping him alive and killing him. But, unfortunately, these bright moments are overshadowed by the Whiplash/Hammer story. The biggest reason to watch is the introduction of three key characters in the MCU: Black Widow, War Machine, and Phil Coulson.
12. Thor: Dark World (2013): This story has some great moments, mostly due to Tom Hiddleston’s exceptional portrayal of Loki. Loki pretending to be Captain America, his complicated ally/enemy/brother/rival relationship with Thor is the highlight of the movie. The supporting cast is solid, Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings are great, but the normally wonderful Natalie Portman seemed almost as wooden as if she were acting opposite Hayden Christensen again.* Plot-wise, Thor 2 is mostly about developing a second Infinity Stone and conjuring up a villain (Malekith) to go along with it. But if the “fate of the realms” is so dire, why does only Thor show up? The scope got a little out of hand for a single-hero film. Chris Hemsworth is solid again as Thor and the adventure is certainly enjoyable, but it’s Loki who keeps you interested.
11. Iron Man 3 (2013): Ok, so I should be up-front about this. My enjoyment of this movie was ruined by my knowledge of the comics upon which this movie drew. The quality of development of the story was much stronger in this movie than in Iron Man 2 and character development was solid, I just take issue with a handful of specific plot points and how they relate back to source material. The mysterious elements of the movie, the background of AIM, and why people kept exploding was actually very well done. The fear behind the Mandarin was also quite convincing. But my two favorite parts of the film are: the opening credits with “I’m Blue” and the well-developed “Tony the Tinkerer” scenes with the young genius kid in Tennessee. Guy Pearce as Aldrich Killian did work, but the big reveal (*SPOILER*) that Mandarin was just a puppet? Come on! That’s Iron Man’s arch-nemesis you just completely wrote out of the MCU! I get the appeal of the surprise, but I don’t like that it’s the Mandarin they chose to ruin that way. Lastly, Pepper as Rescue from the comics was fine, but she shouldn’t have had the weird transformation. That kind of invalidates the rest of it. Why is she special enough to survive? Implausible. Overall, a great concept, but some weak points stray too far from the comics and distract from a movie that, otherwise, has some brilliant moments.
10. The Incredible Hulk (2008): A very solid movie, which made Edward Norton seem like the perfect Bruce Banner — up until Mark Ruffalo showed up in The Avengers. The strength of this movie is the portrayal of the inner struggle with the monster inside. This movie makes for a modern twist on the classic man vs. self storyline, opening with Banner’s struggles to find control and to hide from his past. Opening the movie with the Hulk already established created some suspense and anticipation before the monster was revealed. I also like how this is the only movie on this list that isn’t really a superhero movie. Though the Hulk does try to save Betsy (played by Liv Tyler), he isn’t really a hero until the very end. The acting was strong, led by Norton, but supported nicely by Liv Tyler, William Hurt, and Tim Roth. My primary gripes with this movie are largely not its fault. This film has the most difficulty integrating into the greater MCU because of the Banner actor change. While I did enjoy Norton’s portrayal, I think I like Ruffalo’s even better. The gratuitous fight scene in Harlem was largely unnecessary at the end, and the ending left us with unanswered questions that have been largely ignored by the MCU: where did General Ross and Betsy go? What ever happened to Abomination or the allusion to Tim Blake Nelson’s character becoming the Leader? Overall, this movie is definitely enjoyable and a true interpretation of Bruce Banner, but don’t think too hard about its fit in the MCU.
9. Thor (2009): This was the film I was not sure would work. After the blockbuster success of Iron Man and even the slightly less blockbustery success of the Incredible Hulk, Thor was still a challenge. How could Marvel portray the might of the God of Thunder without invalidating all other superheroes? Answer: with a tongue-in-cheek, borderline-campy epic CGI explosion-fest. It was a huge success and the cast was terrific, the humor was spot-on, and the beautiful computer-generated Asgardian landscape was a wonderful blend of mystical magic and futuristic science fiction. Chris Hemsworth really sold his character and his enormity next to the tiny Natalie Portman helped to further the idea of his godliness. The supporting cast of Anthony Hopkins, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, and Kat Dennings added a good mix of power, poise, smarts, and levity, respectively. And let’s not forget, this is the first movie to introduce Hawkeye, one of the greatest characters in Avengers comics. But, once again, the true star of this film is Tom Hiddleston as Loki. Loki the trickster is so compelling, I almost find myself rooting for him against Thor. He is such a believable character and his motives are so well-developed, that it was an easy transition for him to become the main villain in the first Avengers film. Overall, this movie really embraced what it was and was carried by a wonderful supporting cast and some great humorous moments. I definitely recommend it to all, but even though I enjoyed the cheekiness of the tone, I just can’t bring myself to rate it higher than any of the next movies with that much cheese.
8. Ant-Man (2015): Marvel’s biggest risk to date. A risk that would not have been possible if their previous big risk (Guardians of the Galaxy) had not been an enormous hit. The decision to make a superhero movie that was a full-on comedic heist film and use a hero whose power is the ability to shrink to the size of an ant? Not to mention using the less-popular, second iteration of an already B-list character? How could this possibly work? Answer: Paul Rudd. The man is more than just a lovable, ageless wonder. He’s a genuine actor who truly succeeded in selling the travails of Scott Lang, a good guy who makes bad decisions for good reasons. Let’s not forget that he’s supported by an awesome cast of Michael Douglas as the original Ant-Man (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly as the eventual Wasp, and Corey Stoll as Darren Cross. At first, I was highly skeptical of Marvel’s decision to abandon the complicated character of Hank Pym and his tale of self-doubt, his fall from grace, and his eventual redemption. How could they overlook the dramatic story-telling potential that Pym created? Well, this movie sold me on Scott Lang. The ascent of a convicted criminal to the role of hero provided some diversity to the MCU cannon, and a well-developed back story for Pym’s character ensured that the comic legacy wasn’t sold short. Overall, this movie turned out to be a carefully crafted, seriously funny, and innovative story of a hero whose effectiveness relies upon not being noticed. The risk paid off and Marvel definitely won the confidence of their fans, who will trust them to execute just about any off-the-wall movie idea they can come up with. Go watch it, you won’t regret it.
7. The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015): Joss Whedon’s second rodeo with the full cast of the Avengers was even tougher than the first. He had to add three new Avengers (Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and the Vision), developing the new massive enemy in Ultron, and tying all of this back into a world that has changed a lot since the first Avengers movie. The endings of Cap 2, Iron Man 3, and Thor 2 didn’t tie everything off neatly, so Whedon had to use some valuable movie time to tie off loose ends and set the scene. This story also draws upon one of my personal favorites, Ultron Unlimited.** In the comic version, the fictional country of Slorenia is invaded and massacred by Ultron, before the Avengers go in to Avenge the fallen and limit his destruction before he takes the slaughter to neighboring countries. The movie does not include any mass slaughter, presumably because the preposterous city-bomb did not show the slaughter of that many innocent people, it merely threatened it. It also took place in a different fictional Eastern European country called Sokovia. This difference is of little import, but it made it sound a little more Slavic and lent better to some of the Quicksilver/Scarlet Witch storylines. Whedon’s integration of so many new characters and finally providing some character development to Hawkeye were big pluses. His handling of the Vision was possibly the highlight. But another movie littered with cameos (Ulysses Klaue, Nick Fury, War Machine, Falcon, Agent Hill, Baron Strucker, and more) all worked pretty well. Even the decision (of which I was again skeptical) to change Ultron’s creator from Hank Pym to Tony Stark worked, largely because of how it is likely to motivate him going forward. James Spader’s slow, brooding voice was a perfect fit for Ultron, and Whedon’s ability to pull off another epic showdown was a definite success. The only weakness of the film were in how it felt somewhat rushed to accomplish so much in under 2.5 hours, and the premise of using the city as a bomb. That was pretty far-fetched, I would have liked Ultron’s plan to be something a little more feasible or more digitally-focused: a nuclear launch, maybe? Overall, definitely worth seeing, but make sure you don’t step away or you’re sure to get lost.
6. Captain America: First Avenger (2011): The challenge of this movie was to sell the idea of a moral, modest, all-around good guy to a modern audience. The seemingly antiquated boy scout mindset was thought to make a believable portrayal of Captain America impossible. But all of that was soon thrown out the window. Captain America became almost a fictionalized historical drama and leaned into that nostalgia that fans feared would ruin the tone, instead turning that same nostalgia back into a believable origin story for the “Man out of Time.” Evans lived up to the character, showing heart, courage, and a kind of calm humility that has epitomized Cap’s comic portrayals. Supported by a wonderful cast of allies and villains, this film recreates a classic comic story (The Cosmic Cube) and integrates it seamlessly into the MCU. The large time gap between this and the other films also gives a certain creative license, and plenty of space for offshoots like the Agent Carter TV miniseries that just completed its second season. Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter leads the supporting cast which includes wonderful performances from Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes and two of my all-time favorite actors: Hugo Weaving as Red Skull and Stanley Tucci as Professor Erskine. Overall, this is a wonderful, wholesome movie that truly feels like a vestige of a bygone age and a very fitting origin story for Marvel’s greatest and first Avenger.
5. The Avengers (2012): By 2012, the success of the MCU was unquestioned. Feige and his band of merry men (and women) had released 5 high-grossing movies into the MCU, but the question remained of whether they could pull it all together into one massive super-team extravaganza. The Avengers provided the answer to that question: an unequivocal, resounding “Yes!” Under the directorship and careful crafting of renowned super-nerd and creative genius, Joss Whedon, the film was a roaring success and became the third-highest grossing film of all time (at the time, now fifth). What Whedon accomplished in this first Avengers film was to fit all of the six featured Avengers from their own movies, plus the supporting cast, and Tom Hiddleston’s masterful Loki into one big blockbuster movie. The real strength of the movie is the banter between the main heroes and the believability of their relationships. This movie single-handedly doubled the scope of the MCU’s possibilities, showing that a movie with so many moving parts could work. This project was beautifully managed by the brilliant Joss Whedon and Kevin Feige and is an absolute must-see for all superhero fans. A beautiful mix of comic book action, humor, and a genuine story that highlights all of the Avengers (well, except Hawkeye), this movie was unprecedented in its scope. You won’t be disappointed.
4. Captain America: Civil War (2016): Leading up to Civil War‘s release, everyone was talking about how the large cast and semi-political commentary inherent in this ideological struggle was going to render it unwieldly and over-crowded. Much maligned as “Avengers 2.5” and following hot on the heels of DC/WB’s Batman vs. Superman disaster, many viewers were skeptical. They could not have been more wrong. The Russo brothers delivered another iconic Captain America tale and beautifully captured the essence of each character featured in the film. The introductions of two huge characters in the MCU’s future, Spider-Man and Black Panther, went extraordinarily well and fans will be anxiously awaiting their solo films in the next couple of years. Despite the alignment of Team Cap and Team Iron Man being slightly rushed, the character development and genuine dilemma over friends fighting one another was portrayed very well. Cap and his supporting cast, notably Anthony Mackie as Falcon, were spot-on and the writers brilliantly blended humor and levity into the grandiosity of superhero battles. It really felt like a natural successor to the Russo brothers’ first MCU film, Winter Soldier, which only edges this sequel out slightly because of the espionage elements in the former. Civil War was everything I hoped it would be and nothing I feared. Even more than Age of Ultron, this really feels like the launching point for Phase 3, and leaves viewers excited for what’s next.
3. Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014): After the success of The Avengers, Marvel started to experiment with genres. The second Captain America installment was a political thriller, featuring espionage, an invisible secret organization trying to topple the government. The political intrigue and secrecy are real and done as well as any Jason Bourne movie. The political thriller style works really well with Cap’s character and power set, relying more on strategy and grit than overwhelming might. It is a much more subtle superhero film and, apart from the giant flying aircraft carriers of death, a more believable story than most superhero movies tend to have. The Russo brothers really proved their mettle with this film and earned themselves a few more gigs in the MCU, with Captain America: Civil War and the two Infinity War films in the works. Chris Evans again delivered a strong performance as Steve Rogers, the unrelenting optimist and serial do-gooder, and he is complemented by Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, and the introduction of Anthony Mackie as the Falcon. From start to finish, the movie captures audiences’ attention and develops a really heart-felt plot that finally proves Cap’s relevance in the modern day, elevating him beyond his WWII imagery and almost anachronistic morality. Loaded with intrigue and loaded with action, Winter Soldier is an instant Marvel classic.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014): It was really close. I almost picked this over the ground-breaking, MCU-establishing Iron Man. That’s how good this was. A movie about a bunch of C-list (at best) characters on a comedic and Star Wars-like jaunt through space: pure gold. Guardians has a star-studded and hilarious cast cracking jokes as a band of unlikely heroes journey across the galaxy with top-notch special effects and a fun soundtrack of 80s classic pop hits blaring in the background. James Gunn did a wonderful job directing and writing the plot of the movie to introduce these quirky characters and all of the weirdness of the Marvel Cosmic universe to movie audiences. Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s (DnA) run on the Guardians of the Galaxy in the late 2000s paved the way for this movie, and I would be remiss if I didn’t offer a solid plug for that comic run in this review. If you like the movie, all of the Marvel Cosmic comics of the early-to-mid 2000s are a good bet – starting with “Annihilation” by DnA and Keith Gillen. Overall, I give this movie a hundred thumbs up. It is one of my all-time favorite movies, another instant classic for Marvel, and a truly fun experience for fans of superheroes, science fiction, or even creative comedies. I can’t think of anything bad to say about it. Just go watch it already!
… And now, the moment, you’ve been waiting for…
1. Iron Man (2008): People may disagree with me on this one, but I think that breaking ground on the MCU was Kevin Feige’s most significant accomplishment. With no rights to Spider-Man, the X-Men, or even the Fantastic Four, Marvel had an uphill battle in making some of their lesser-known properties into hits. What followed was a thoughtful and believable adaptation of this decidedly Cold War era character and reinvigorating him for the modern audience. The reinvention of Tony Stark’s story in another brutal, guerrilla war worked perfectly, substituting Afghanistan for Vietnam. The combination of a perfectly cast Robert Downey Jr., wonderful directing by Jon Favreau, and cutting-edge special effects, made the character of Iron Man, and even more notably of Tony Stark, the man behind the armor, a household name. This movie paved the way for Marvel movies about increasingly bizarre and unconventional heroes, but the power of the Marvel brand was established here. After Iron Man‘s release, there was no doubt that Marvel was here to stay.
Coming Soon: Phase 3 MCU movies will be added to this list as they come out!
- Doctor Strange – November 4, 2016
- Guardians of the Galaxy 2 – May 5, 2017
- Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017
- Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017
- Black Panther – February 16, 2018
- Avengers: Infinity War, Part I – May 4, 2018
- Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018
- Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019
- Avengers: Infinity War, Part II – May 3, 2019
- Untitled Movie 1 – May 1, 2020
- Untitled Movie 2 – July 10, 2020
- Untitled Movie 3 – November 6, 2020
Inhumans – no longer slated to a particular date
*Star Wars, Episode II: The Clone Wars. See below:
** Ultron Unlimited written by Kurt Busiek, drawn by George Perez #19-22 Avengers (1998)
Feature Image Credit: Art by Matthew Ferguson, Owned by Marvel.com