It’s that time again: blow into the ram’s horn, light the tapered candles, and prepare the sacrificial offering. The ceremony is about to commence — the ceremony of ranking! It’s time for a new addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU if you want to be really cool about it. As Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 rockets its way to the top of the box office, it’s time to obsessively look back and quantify and collate the previous films in the MCU. How else can we, as a culture of film-goers, adequately express our feelings regarding a brand designed to make everyone but us loads of money? As is the case with any list or ranking, all these choices are absolute and final and should not be questioned for a second.
15. Iron Man 2 (2010)
The dead-last placement of Iron Man 2 should surprise no one at this point. Jon Favreau’s follow-up to the film that launched the MCU as we know it was a hollow, rushed mess that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, as if we had spent the running time of the film sucking on some old pennies found at the bottom of our grandma’s change purse. While the film introduced us to the MCU’s most interesting character, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, it also introduced us to Mickey Rourke playing some guy with a bird. How bad is Iron Man 2? It’s so bad it wastes the usually wonderful Sam Rockwell in a role everyone’s already forgotten about.
14. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Edward Norton gives it his all as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk in this mostly forgotten MCU outing. Hulk remained an incredibly tough character to crack until Joss Whedon came along and Mark Ruffalo slipped into the purple pants for The Avengers. The Incredible Hulk dips into TV-level quality at times, and I’m not talking Peak TV here. That said, while Ruffalo is perfect in the part, I can’t help but wish we had seen a few more films with Norton. Oh well, we’ll always have Keeping the Faith.
13. Thor (2011)
Kenneth Branagh seemed an inspired choice to helm the first film about the God of Thunder himself, with the hope that he’d bring a certain Shakespearean charm to the proceedings. Instead he delivered a dutch-angle heavy slog that somehow managed to make a bunch of god-like aliens seem rather dull. There are some bright spots: Chris Hemsworth’s lunkhead Thor is charming, and Tom Hiddleston’s Loki remains the only good villain the MCU has had to date. But the film is astonishingly forgettable overall.
12. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
This is a marginal improvement over the first film, but Thor remains one of the least interesting standalone characters in the MCU. Maybe we just don’t really need Thor to have his own adventures? How about a Black Widow standalone instead? Nope! But we are getting Thor: Ragnarok in 2017. Lucky us! This film has Thor battling “dark elves”, whatever the hell they are. Do you even care? Don’t lie and say you do.
11. Ant-Man (2015)
Ant-Man could’ve been a game changer for the MCU. Edgar Wright was attached to the project for years, working hard to develop what was initially described as a heist film. Paul Rudd took the lead role based on Wright’s involvement. Early test footage promised something special. And then it all fell apart. Wright walked away due to “creative differences” with Marvel, and Peyton Reed stepped in behind the camera. Reed is talented, but he’s nowhere near as talented as Wright, and the film that hit theaters in 2015 was a safe and sort-of boring story that felt like a step backwards for Marvel. On top of all that, the usually hilarious Rudd felt restrained, as if he was given notes to intentionally downplay any natural charisma. Luckily this problem is resolved in Captain America: Civil War, which allows Rudd to cut loose and have fun.
10. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel made a great choice when they brought in Joe Johnston to helm Captain America: The First Avenger. Johnston directed the highly underrated The Rocketeer, and that film’s whiz-bang, aw-shucks energy was exactly what a character like Captain America needed! Unfortunately, the results were spotty. The First Avenger can be very fun, and the World War II setting makes a great backdrop for the franchise. But the film feels way too safe — Cap’s supposedly battling an organization that’s so evil even the Nazis want nothing to do with them! But there’s no real menace here, and Captain America ends up frozen in ice at the end, denying us any further period piece adventures for the character.
9. Doctor Strange (2016)
There was a time when a film like Doctor Strange might seem new and exciting, but Marvel’s successful business model has had a consequence: it’s made spectacle boring. To be clear, Doctor Strange isn’t a bad film. Instead, like most recent Marvel movies, it’s adequate. It has a great cast — Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, and Tilda Swinton! — and director Scott Derrickson conjures up some memorable visuals. But the film is following a cookie-cutter Marvel formula that was set in place all the way back in 2008 with Iron Man. You could argue that if ain’t broke, why fix it? But I’m growing weary of the same old, same old. It’s time to take the MCU in a different direction. Then again, at least these films aren’t going in whatever gonzo direction the DC films are headed.
8. Iron Man (2008)
The film that started it all! Iron Man was a blast when it hit theaters in 2008, mostly due to how refreshing it was to see someone like Robert Downey Jr. leading a blockbuster. At the time, Downey Jr. was known more for roles in smaller films, and handing over the keys to a franchise to him seemed like a gamble. Luckily the gamble paid off. It paid off so well, in fact, that Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance went a long way towards distracting people from a really crappy screenplay with an incredibly dumb third act.
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Poor Age of Ultron. The film had an uphill battle from the start — how was it ever going to live-up to the manic hype that surrounded the first Avengers film? When Avengers: Age of Ultron clobbered its way into theaters, critics and fans alike were a bit harsh towards it. So much so that a year later, director Joss Whedon admitted the whole experience made him feel like a “miserable failure“. To be clear, Age of Ultron is an absolute mess — but it’s an interesting mess that’s brimming with ideas. Sure, a lot of the ideas don’t work, but I’d rather have a film that tries and fails instead of one that doesn’t try at all. The film also introduced a romance between Black Widow and Hulk that a lot of people hated, despite the fact that it was one of the most interesting things in the entire movie. Near the end of the film Hulk (in human Bruce Banner form) suggests to Black Widow that they run off together instead of engaging in the big final battle, and oh how I wished they had, and that we had gone with them. I’d rather watch that then another film that ends with a big, dumb doomsday device. Age of Ultron is also the closest we’ve gotten to a Black Widow standalone movie, as the film delves into her rather traumatic past. It’s all really interesting and engrossing, but Marvel continues to not give her her own movie for some stupid reason.
6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
The biggest MCU film yet, Captain America: Civil War packs almost all of the saga’s characters into a narrative involving Iron Man and Captain America coming to blows over collateral damage. Despite its weighty material and overstuffed cast, the film is breezy, moving at a clipped pace towards the finish. It also introduces us to the best on-screen Spider-Man yet in the form of Tom Holland’s teenage web-slinger. Yet for all Civil War gets right, it also feels strangely empty when the credits roll. It also has perhaps the most boring Marvel villain to date, and that’s saying something since almost all of their villains stink. A film like this should’ve been a big game-changer for the MCU — instead it’s more of the same.
5. The Avengers (2012)
Joss Whedon became the granddaddy of the MCU with 2012’s The Avengers, and everyone was thrilled (until Whedon was eventually burned out and walked away from it all after Ultron, that is). The Avengers gathers all the various Marvel characters who had been introduced together in previous films into one epic adventure. It’s nowhere close to a perfect movie (everything involving the “tesseract”, and designed to get us closer and closer to Marvel big bad Thanos, is an absolute snore), but Whedon knows how to have fun with the material and stage great set pieces in the process. The climactic Battle of New York in this film makes almost every other major fight in the other Marvel movies look like a joke.
4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The Russo Brothers joined the MCU in 2014, and delivered one of the most surprisingly enjoyable entries so far with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. A more intimate type of adventure for Cap following The Avengers (as intimate as these movies get, at least), The Winter Soldier takes its inspiration from paranoia-laced political thrillers like Three Days of the Condor to craft a spy-flick that just happens to feature a guy dressed like an American flag. Once again, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a standout, and Johansson and star Chris Evans have great chemistry together — something the Russos exploit to the fullest. Have I mentioned how goddamn stupid it is that Marvel hasn’t made a standalone Black Widow movie yet?
2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has problems: at times, it can feel cluttered and unfocused. On top of that, many of the jokes fall completely flat, and the roguish charisma Chris Pratt displayed in the first film seems to have vanished. Yet James Gunn’s sequel succeeds and indeed, surpasses most Marvel movies due to how surprisingly emotional the film is. This is one of the few MCU films that truly feels as if it has both a heart and soul, and there’s an emotional honesty on display here that will catch many off-guard. In addition to all of this, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the rare Marvel sequel that doesn’t feel beholden to the other MCU films. Aside from a brief mention of Infinity Stones, GotG Vol. 2 feels like a completely stand-alone adventure. And hey, surprise! This film has the first truly interesting MCU villain! Better late than never. Now, more Mantis in Vol. 3, please.
2. Iron Man 3 (2013)
Marvel is frequently criticized for the lack of personality that prevails through their films. This criticism isn’t entirely unfair — the studio frequently hires talented directors but seems to clip their wings in the process, making sure they toe the company line and deliver films that all look the same. Yet no matter how true this may be for most MCU films, Marvel deserves some credit for hiring Shane Black to direct Iron Man 3, and then letting him deliver what is more or less a Shane Black movie. By far the best entry in the entire Iron Man franchise, Iron Man 3 finds Tony Stark dealing with PTSD while trying to bring down the mysterious terrorist known as the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), all against that most Shane Black of holidays, Christmas. There’s a twist involving the Mandarin that many fans hated, but it works perfectly in the context of the film, so really those unhappy about it should probably shut the hell up.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Someone will no doubt tell me I’m “wrong” for choosing James Gunn’s 2014 sci-fi romp Guardians of the Galaxy as the best MCU film. Guess what — I don’t care. Guardians of the Galaxy has problems — it once again suffers from the Marvel conundrum that is the “boring villain” — but Gunn delivered a film that’s bursting with personality, something other Marvel adventures sorely lack. If Marvel truly is guilty of “directing-by-committee” — as they clearly are sometimes — they must’ve either gotten the formula right, or stayed the hell out of Gunn’s way here, because Guardians feels more alive than any of the MCU films put together. It’s funny, adventurous, gorgeous to look at it, and has one killer soundtrack. And don’t even act like you didn’t want your own dancing baby Groot the minute you walked out of the theater. The MCU films are pop art, and Guardians of the Galaxy is pop art at its absolute finest.
What say you — is our ranking spot-on, or do we deserve to be sent to the Gulag for such blasphemy? Feel free to holler back at us in the comments below.