Not all Marvel Cinematic Universe films are built the same, but they are all pieces of a larger puzzle. Each one of them serves some sort of purpose to tell its own story while also moving the universe towards a certain direction. So with each and every new installment comes new praises and criticisms.
While it is easy to say that every new Marvel Studios film is better than the last, the truth is, they are not. Some are better than others. With Spider-Man: Homecoming hitting theaters this weekend, I decided to rank all 16 MCU films that have been released, from worst to the best.
16 – Iron Man 2
A hugely successful Iron Man would open the doors to the Marvel Cinematic Universe by introducing more heroes who would eventually team up in The Avengers. Iron Man 2 was supposed to be the film that bridged that gap but ultimately fails in following up those ideas and telling an Iron Man story. It’s understandable that the film uses evaluating Stark’s readiness to be an Avenger as a means to lead up to the ensemble blockbuster, but it was just one of the too many subplots that made the film bloated. Whatever threads that are established to build a connection to the MCU feels forced. Then there’s Whiplash (Mickey Rourke), a villain with no real motivation other than just to make Stark’s life miserable.
There’s really nothing cohesive about this film as it shoehorns the Avengers Initiative into the plot thereby sacrificing Tony’s crisis just so the film can remind audiences there will be an Avengers film. And while that may have looked good on paper, it certainly did not play out well on screen.
15 – Avengers: Age of Ultron
With almost all sequels, the sequel must be bigger than the original. And that is true for Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is bigger, a lot bigger, than the original. The film is trying to do too much at once. Or maybe it’s guilty of being overly ambitious by introducing a fun and very powerful villain, named Ultron (James Spader). Trouble is, Ultron is a near god-like cybernetic being whose powers had to be watered down so that the heroes can thwart his evil plan to destroy Earth.
There are times where this movie is literally all over the place with a very weak explanation as to why our heroes are there in the first place. Often times, the characters look like they are fighting for screentime, and of course, we are treated to a moment where our heroes’ greatest fears and weaknesses are revealed to themselves. While it does give us a look into who they are, the whole thing feels rushed as if it wants to get to the next set piece and is willing to sacrifice a great storytelling. But at least Hawkeye got a respectable story and even a chance to redeem himself.
14 – Thor: The Dark World
I honestly believe that the film’s sole purpose is to introduce an Infinity Stone for the sake of introducing it. There’s nothing remotely interesting about the film or its story other than the step brother dynamic between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). That may play well with two very likable characters, it hardly factors into the film considering that the film has one of the weakest villains in the entire MCU. While Loki’s “self-sacrifice” was a great way to push the film in the right direction, it all seems wasted by a dreadful third act that doesn’t amount to anything than yet another world ending event.
However, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Darcy (Kat Dennings) do provide some of the light and more humorous moments in the film. And the brotherly banter between Loki and Thor gives the film some much-needed humor. But it isn’t nearly enough to make the film memorable.
13 – The Incredible Hulk
One of The Incredible Hulk‘s biggest issues is that it doesn’t thread through the MCU properly. The fugitive on the run plot is really fun as we see a Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) hide from General Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) in probably the last place anyone would suspect, the slums of South America and working in a soda factory. He won’t accept a promotion out of fear that his identity will be revealed, but a one-in-a-million chance accident reveals his location. But the film had some unfortunate lack of foresight for the MCU, which was in its infancy. Little nods to Tony Stark’s tech help establish its connection to the MCU, but honestly, if that wasn’t there to begin with, the film wouldn’t even be considered to be a part of the MCU.
Hurt is also the only other actor to appear in future Marvel films, but even then, his character doesn’t seem to express any interest in where the Hulk is. But Ross is obsessed with finding the Hulk. Still, one of the film’s most redeeming characteristics is that it bypasses the whole origins story, and lets the audience reacquaint themselves with the title character by showing snappy clips of how he got his powers and headlines that detail his journey to being a fugitive. Though there are some great villains, we will never hear from them ever again, which only adds to the confusion of whether or not this film belongs in the MCU. Honestly, I need more than just a Stark name drop to validate its place in the MCU.
12 – Thor
Oddly enough, Thor‘s fish out of water plot is a huge step up over the lack of a plot its sequel has. The film does a much better job of acting as a bridge to The Avengers than Thor: The Dark World does to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Those plot devices have more of an organic feel to them than the sequels. And a lot of what makes this film work is the fact that Loki and Thor’s relationship is so infectious. Loki is a manipulative SOB who takes advantage of Thor’s ego, while Thor is an immature demi-god who needs to have a harsh lesson in humility.
But what makes Thor work is that it expands the MCU as it takes audiences into the world of fantasy. A genre that has been rarely explored in superhero films. Here magic and science collide as the barrier to these two world’s opens when Thor is banished to New Mexico and must learn what it means to be king. Is it perfect? Not really, at least in my opinion. But without it, we wouldn’t have Loki.
11 – Doctor Strange
What makes the MCU work so well is that the films aren’t just run-of-the-mill superhero films, but superhero films with a sub-genre. Iron Man has the buddy cop feel, Captain America has political thriller vibes, while Guardians of the Galaxy is a straight up space opera. So Doctor Strange takes a deep dive into the world of magic and mysticism. However, it has some huge identity issues to work out. For one thing, the entire film feels like Iron Man with magic. Doctor Strange looks like Iron Man; he’s insanely rich, like Iron Man; he’s arrogant and he knows it, just like Iron Man; he goes through a terrible yet life-altering accident, just like Iron Man; and he learns a lesson in humility from a wise sage, okay maybe not quite like Iron Man but it has its similarities. Sure it stays true to the source material, but something needed to be done in order to distinguish these two from each other.
Still, Doctor Strange has some jaw dropping hypnotic effects that dazzle on the big screen. The M.C. Escher inspired psychedelic designs danced across the screen as if you were looking into a kaleidoscope. But the film fails to distinguish itself from the rest of the MCU title heroes. It may introduce a new character to the MCU, but it doesn’t do anything to feel fresh and chooses to play it safe using a script that draws on familiar story elements. Still, the title character’s lesson in humility works as he is willing to give up his chance to be a rich arrogant snobby surgeon to be the Sorcerer Supreme. And he still maintains that witty sarcasm with a knack for riffing off pop culture references and Top 40 songs.
10 – Captain America: Civil War
We’ve seen Captain America and Iron Man have their philosophical disputes in two Avengers films. But somehow they’ve always found a way to come to a resolution. Their conflicts would also allow them to build a friendship. However, there would come a time where their differences would reach a boiling point. Now those opposing beliefs get addressed in an entire film. And while I liked a lot of what I saw, especially the first time around, Civil War doesn’t age particularly well, at least not when compared to other films.
The film adapts the comic book storyline of the same name, but it doesn’t use those political tones the same way that Captain America: The Winter Soldier does. Using the international incident involving the Avengers to force the UN to creative political oversight to control the team works well on paper – and maybe in the comics. But it isn’t executed well in the film. Here, our characters’ motivations and reasoning to be on each faction are merely glossed over. There is a lot to digest, and those political ones get overlooked. On the bright side, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) finally makes his big screen MCU debut. Honestly, Spidey webslinging into the MCU and that epic splash page make the film worth the watch.
9 – Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3 is just another one of those polarizing MCU films. As a follow-up to The Avengers and a sequel in the Iron Man franchise, the film could not quite figure out what it was supposed to be or at least find an answer to that conundrum. Shane Black‘s film attempts to answer that question by giving Tony PSTD and having him push away those closest to him so that he can build a wide array of Iron Man suits that could manage any sort of situation no matter how absurd it may be. But it is still bogged down by a couple of weak villains: Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) and Maya (Rebecca Hall) – whose role has been reduced for all the wrong reasons.
Still, a lot of those problems are overshadowed by the fact that the script is sharp and witty, and uses Stark’s arrogance and sarcasm more effectively than it was used in Iron Man 2. It’s a superhero comic book buddy cop humor with a touch of Christmas. Although the twists and changes may leave fans divided, these changes exist so that it can define itself and separate itself from the comics. Remember, these films aren’t a direct adaptation of the source material. But the film, in its most basic form, tells the story of Tony Stark struggling to figure who he is when he doesn’t have his suit. So while the film as a whole may not know what it’s suppose to be, it does give Tony Stark something to work with and strive to find an answer to.
8 – Ant-Man
Ant-Man is yet another example of a polarizing MCU film. One, it isn’t necessarily weighed down by what is going on in the MCU, yet it takes place within the same universe that makes more than a few hat tips. But one of the major hurdles the film needed to overcome was telling a story about a hero who could shrink to the size of an ant. It may sound absurd at first, but turning the film into a heist comedy is what makes Ant-Man memorable.
It’s a light film with a more focused plot involving a dad who is looking to do right by her daughter and will use the suit to achieve that goal. There is no world-ending action sequence in the third act, instead, we get a fun and snappy heist that involves the cranky Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the awesome Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly) who will undoubtedly be even more awesome in Ant-Man and the Wasp, and the scene-stealing Michael Pena. Sure Darren Cross/Yellow Jacket (Corey Stoll) may be one of the least memorable villains, but Ant-Man is still a nice side step to everything else that is going on in the MCU.
7 – Iron Man
This is where it all started. A joyous blockbuster about comic book hero, who at the time would have been considered B-rated. So give credit to Jon Favreau for giving us a film that works on nearly every level imaginable. Here we have Stark, a snobbish and arrogant megalomaniac who comes to grips with the fact that the very thing he is making a profit from is also killing innocent people. That road to redemption story could not have played out any better than it did during his desert imprisonment where he learns about how is weapons are doing more harm than profit from his fellow inmate Yinsen (Shaun Toub).
With absolutely nothing to lose, Stark experiences a life-changing moment, and from there we see him try to make up for those mistakes. The film has enough world-building going around it, but who would have thought that Marvel would have taken it ten steps further by introducing us to the Avengers? Though the sequels aren’t nearly as developed as the first, Iron Man still feels fresh, no matter how many cliches it uses – rich guy using his wealth to fund his heroics, walking away from an explosion, love interests in danger, etc. And if using an after credit scene with a major actor to introduce the Avengers wasn’t risky, let’s not forget casting Robert Downey Jr. was a risk. Of course, hindsight is only 2020.
6 – Captain America: The First Avenger
Much like Iron Man and Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger is a purely fun origins story that works. It’s a tale of an underdog who on the surface may not look like a hero, but he has the heart to be one. A lot of that is conveyed very well thanks in part to Chris Evans‘ performance as the wholesome Avenger. He’s the type of guy to throw his own body on a grenade but also unable to understand relationship nuances. It is that kind of innocence and naivety adds charm to the character and the film itself.
Sure The First Avenger doesn’t fully utilize a great villain in the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), but it doesn’t completely waste it either. For all his flaws, Red Skull has a far greater ambition and goals than the rest of the MCU villains. Plus Toby Jones provides a sinister supporting role in Arnim Zola. So, Captain America: The First Avenger is genuinely fun and well-paced film that truly stands out from the rest. And yes, it has one of those dreaded Infinity Stone MacGuffins, but it ties in very well with the overall plot and doesn’t overshadow what the film is trying to accomplish. Which is tell a very good origins story for Captain America.
5 – The Avengers
If you were to tell me that we would be getting an Avengers film in 2012 – had I not watched any of the title hero films that came before it – I would say that you are crazy. But one success leads to another, giving Marvel Studios the utmost confidence that large ensemble superhero film could work. And it does. The chemistry and relationships between each of these characters felt like they were ripped right out of the pages of the comic book and given life on the big screen. The film was bright, colorful, and fun, not to mention intense and heavy on the action. Not to mention it expands on an already massive world by giving us a teaser shot of Thanos, the Mad Titan.
Each and every one of those loose connections that we saw in the previous films has led up to this very moment. And director Joss Whedon makes sure that moment isn’t wasted. He knows how to write ensembles and strong female characters. Using all the momentum that the origin films had, The Avengers rocketed straight towards the top of success getting the approval of fans, audiences, and critics alike. So it comes as no surprise that The Avengers set the standard on what an ensemble superhero film should be.
4 – Guardians of the Galaxy
At this point, the MCU was in need of something new. We’ve already familiarized ourselves with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and Hulk, so any other film about them or set on Earth or Asgard would be the same old story. That’s why James Gunn‘s Guardians of the Galaxy felt so different and new. While it does loosely tie into the MCU with another Infinity Stone MacGuffin and Thanos, the tone and themes of the film were refreshing. And unlike other MCU films, music played such a huge part into Guardians, so much so that it felt like a character in the film.
At the time, the film was considered a huge risk because the film introduces us to lesser-known heroes. Well calling them heroes would be a major stretch. They’re more like outcasts and misfits. Actually, that’s a little too nice. Let’s just call them what they are: the coolest A-holes in the galaxy. There’s Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) a charming, roguish, handsome, selfish con artist. Then there’s Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a deadly assassin with a sense of honor. Drax (Dave Bautista) brings in the comedic charm with his literal sense of humor. And finally, there’s Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), an anthropomorphic raccoon with a thirst for violence, and Groot (Vin Diesel), a giant talking tree who can only communicate by saying “I am Groot.” So a film that has protagonists who lack heroic qualities was a huge gamble for Marvel
But it is a gamble that paid off. Though they may be of an alien race with a criminal streak, they have plenty of likability and more importantly, they have humanistic traits. That brings in a sense of relatability and makes audiences like the characters even more. Drax may be a literal muscular alien, but he still mourns the loss of his family. Gamora is a fearless woman. Star-Lord is dashing yet snarky. And how could any of us not relate to Groot? So despite their difference, they come together as a badass family to save the galaxy.
3 – Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
Here’s the thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It really doesn’t care about what’s going on in the MCU or within its own universe for that matter. James Gunn doesn’t even bother with inserting the film with obligatory Infinity Stone MacGuffins. Instead, we get a more character-driven story that explores the relationships between each character. The sisterly bond between Gamora and Nebula (Karen Gillan). The father and son relationship between Star-Lord and surrogate father, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his biological father Ego (Kurt Russell).
While the film does lack a plot, it does make up for it by exploring those relationships and also expanding the universe itself by introducing new elements, like Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) creating Adam. The sequel is bright and colorful, not to mention visually stunning – especially when Groot, Rocket, and Yondu make the daring jump through hyperspace. Then, of course, there is the music and how it plays a huge part in the story. So while it may be a little flawed, Vol. 2 prides itself on being different from the rest of the MCU by exploring themes that other MCU films wouldn’t even bother to address.
So, it’s easy to understand why this may be a polarizing film. But it is still a bold and brash in terms of suggestive content. That’s what makes Vol. 2 standout from the rest of the MCU. It takes the kind of risks other films will not take. And because of that, it is a far more enjoyable film.
2 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
If there was one film that felt like a complete reinvention of the MCU, it’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. While it may be a sequel to both the first Captain America and The Avengers, it doesn’t play like a traditional sequel. Instead, it goes about the entire thing differently by bringing in a political thriller element to the film. The plot is so intricate and precise that it’s hard to believe that the film is a sequel, at all. In fact, you could go into the film without having watched any of the previous MCU films that came before it, and still come out thoroughly entertained. That’s how good the Russo Brothers‘ film is.
The sequel never really forgets its roots, but it also doesn’t layer it on thick. Instead, The Russos pepper in a few nods and focus on telling a riveting story of espionage. That moment where Arnim Zola reveals that H.Y.D.R.A. parasites have infected S.H.I.E.L.D. still has much of an impact now as it did the first time I watched it. But it’s not all about the conspiracy, here we get to see Cap adapt to a new world where the lines between good and evil are blurred. Now there are agendas and politics, the kind of themes that are a reflection of today’s world. Public surveillance all in the same for safety and national security, that’s as close to a comic book feeling real as you can get.
The Winter Soldier really plays to the characters’ strengths. The high seas boat infiltration, Nick Fury’s heart-pounding car chase sequence, the highway shootout and knife fight scene, and the comic book-esque battle on three Helicarriers. All of these are great action set pieces that are highly stylized and pure rushes. Not only do we get a better backstory from Black Widow, but the sequel also introduces fleshed out likable characters in Sam Wilson aka The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the dreaded Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and the enigmatic Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) whose political agenda conceals a darker truth. All of that makes Captain America: The Winter Soldier standout from the rest of the MCU films and sets the standard on what a superhero movie should be.
1 – Spider-Man: Homecoming
Just as its subtitle suggests, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a homecoming for the Webslinger, who is considered the crown jewel of Marvel Comics. Though he made a delightful MCU entry in Captain America: Civil War, it was only a small peek at what was to come now that Spidey can play in the Marvel sandbox. So rather than tie him into an over-complicated plot and shoehorn MCU threads, Homecoming narrows its focus – if you can say six writers is narrowing – on the Wallcrawler and building around his character rather than the other way around. This allows the title character to develop organically and not have to worry about whether or not his decision will have an impact on the MCU as a whole.
The film stays true to the mythology while also reinventing itself to fit within the MCU. By returning to its roots, we get a much younger Peter Parker who realizes that there is so much more to being a hero than wearing a suit. Though that may be a premise that almost all superheroes go through, by having a younger Parker, we can watch him mature as the MCU expands. So we get to see a little bit of that as Iron Man drops some wise words and tells Parker to keep his feet on the ground and be a more Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. But Peter also has a great and diverse supporting cast, and the film doesn’t even bother to explain why a diverse cast plays characters who were originally portrayed as Caucasian in the comics. It’s not only a reflection of our society today but a celebration of why diversity is so important.
Director Jon Watts finds that delicate balance of high school drama with superhero thrills. Here Peter is a sweet kid who has a hard time talking to his crush, has classmates who depend on him to be on time for decathlon events, and goes to detention. But as Spider-Man, he’s courageous, heroic, and at times, cheeky. So in an attempt to find that balance, Parker makes mistakes both as himself and as Spider-Man, learning that people depend on both identities.
It also helps to have a villain with an actual motivation. Vulture (Michael Keaton) is this blue-collar worker whose alien salvage business he started up after The Avengers is ripped away from him by Stark. This gives him the inspiration he needs to use the alien tech that he has in his possession to start dealing alien weaponry thereby providing food for his family. It’s a nice change of pace for the MCU villains who generally want to destroy the world.
So for a film that everyone has been waiting to see, Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers. It’s bright, bold, and colorful, not to mention it’s the most faithful Spider-Man we’ve seen yet. As sweet and innocent as he is as Parker, Holland is this cheeky hero with an attitude. And that’s the Spider-Man we’ve been waiting 15 long years to see.