Ranking the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Film Edition

So I’m one of those people who has a running tally of where each part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) lines up in my mind, and every time there’s a new film one of the first things I’m asked is where it falls on the lineup. Having now had time to digest the most recent addition to the MCU, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, it’s time to officially update the list.

This will be a continuing column for us, that I’ll update 3 times a year (THREE FILMS. MCU Fan squee!), as each film comes up. And yes, there’s likely to be a TV edition coming too. Though that one’s a little tougher.

Check out my list below (and on subsequent pages), and then feel free to argue against my judgement in the comments. 😉

#15 of 15 – The Incredible Hulk

I’m going to guess this is the least controversial choice on this list, because I think everyone agrees that The Incredible Hulk is the worst movie in the MCU so far. In fact, it even looked like Marvel were going to mostly ignore the film in continuity, what with a new actor taking on the role, and the only other mention of it having been quick allusions to the events in background or quick comments. That is until William Hurt showed up as Thaddeus Ross (this time promoted to Secretary of State) in Captain America: Civil War, and suddenly we weren’t forgetting The Incredible Hulk existed anymore.

#14 of 15 – Thor

Yes, the original Thor is lower on my list than Thor: The Dark World, and there’s one simple reason for that. Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster comes off as too much of a bimbo in the first film (and slightly less of one in the second), and so much of the story is centered on the non-existent chemistry between Portman and Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, that it’s almost painful to watch. Even with the gorgeous scenery (Bravo to Kenneth Branagh for creating such a rich, full world out of what was the riskiest property in the MCU up until Guardians of the Galaxy), and some great performances from the likes of Tom Hiddleston (Loki), and Clark Gregg (everyone’s favorite S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent, Phil Coulson), there’s just not enough to counteract the cringeworthy forced romance.

#13 of 15 – Thor: The Dark World

As I said in the post about Thor, Portman was slightly more bearable in this film than the first, and though the romance plot is still front and center, and Portman and Hemsworth’s chemistry is still non-existent, it feels like the actors do a better job of hiding that fact in The Dark World. As ridiculous as the whole Dark Elf plot is, at least they got an amazing actor (Christopher Eccleston) to play the character, and we got to spend a lot of time watching the gorgeous scenery of Asgard.

#12 of 15 – Iron Man 2

After such a promising start to the MCU, and such a great origin story, in the first Iron Man, they followed it up with this? Robert Downey Jr. IS Tony Stark, and of course as a Black Widow fan I have to appreciate her introduction in the film. But the rest of the story? Forgettable at best. The biggest crime of the entire movie is the absolute waste of Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer), who is the best part of the film, and needs to be redeemed with another appearance in the MCU. If Tony Stark doesn’t die in Avengers 4 (speculation, I know nothing), and they can afford to keep paying RDJ his ridiculously high salary… Justin Hammer in Iron Man 4, anyone?

#11 of 15 – The Avengers: Age of Ultron

I feel like there’s a really great version of this movie somewhere. A film that actually captures the story that Director/Writer Joss Whedon wanted to tell, before things got complicated with higher ups at Marvel Entertainment. Whedon famously gave in to demands to change/cut a large portion of the storyline surrounding Thor in order to keep the Farm and Hawkeye’s family in the film. The result is a film that screams studio meddling, and not only led to Whedon’s exiting the MCU, but a shakeup in management at Marvel Studios and Disney. So in the end, we’re still stuck with Age of Ultron, which is helped by a spectacular performance by Ultron himself, James Spader, but only just. While it’s refreshing to see the development of a previously underused Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), it’s not enough to save the film. And neither are a few memorable quotes (“LANGUAGE!”).

#10 of 15 – Iron Man 3

So I actually love this movie, but I do recognize it’s not the best. Still, seeing the very real fallout of Tony’s near death experience in the original The Avengers film was refreshing. So often that kind of thing is just glossed over in films, and I believe a lot of people expected that to happen in the MCU. Instead we have an film of Tony dealing with the reality of his own mortality, and the way that affects his mental health and the relationships with those most important to him. Sure, the villain is kind of meh, but the deeper emotional turmoil of arguably the most important figure in the MCU is the more important part of this story. And the joyful relationship between Tony and his young helper, Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins) is fun to watch.

#9 of 15 – Ant-Man

Full disclosure, this and #8 are probably on par, in my opinion, and the only reason this one ended up lower is I decided to judge based on which sequel I was more interested in seeing. Sorry Ant-Man and The Wasp, I’m just not that into you (yet?). Probably because you seem to be too removed from the real action of the MCU at this point, and Infinity War and Avengers 4 are where it’s at right now. However, the original Ant-Man is ridiculous, in a good way. A film that would serve as a fun heist film if you removed the Superheroes from the mix, it’s laugh out loud funny for the majority of the ride. And yes, Michael Peña’s Luis is the highlight of the whole film. I mean, who doesn’t want to see every single MCU film told from his tangential rambling perspective? It might even make a film like The Incredible Hulk more watchable?

#8 of 15 – Doctor Strange

This one’s likely to be divisive (understatement?). But ignoring the controversy, and that it’s yet another rehash of the general Iron Man origin story plot (complete with narcissistic lead who undergoes a drastic personality change after an accident nearly kills/cripples him), it’s a fun and beautiful movie. And knowing that Doctor Strange is likely to be a major player in the MCU going forward (those pesky contracts ending means we have to have some new blood taking on the mantle) makes the film far more fascinating. You can almost see it as a soft reboot of the MCU thus far. New guard, new stories coming. Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch’s accent is a little weird (we couldn’t just make him British?), but you get used to it. Tilda Swinton may not be an Asian Man (sigh, why Marvel, WHY?!), but she’s appropriately strange enough to work as The Ancient One. And any reason to have Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo) on my screen is a good one.

#7 of 15 – Iron Man

Yes, the movie that started it all falls almost right in the middle. It’s a great film and great introduction to a character who has spent 9 years as the symbolic lead of the MCU. But with 9 movies in 15 years, you’d hope that they’d have improved on the formula a bit. Still, the fact that the basic plots of several MCU films trace back to the Iron Man formula, goes to show just how special “the original” was. It was a huge risk, betting an entire universe on a character that wasn’t even the most important in the Marvel Comics universe (Iron Man actually disappeared for a while there after his original introduction in the 60s), and an even bigger risk to rest the whole thing on an actor, Robert Downey Jr., who had had several run ins with the law over drug-related issues. But the bet paid off, mostly because RDJ is Tony Stark. Updating Iron Man’s origin story to include the more recent struggles in Afghanistan, while keeping the general story of an arms dealer who has a change of heart after seeing firsthand the destruction his weapons cause, proved that comics could be just as relevant in a modern age as when they were first introduced. And that apparently humanity doesn’t change much in the interim. Iron Man gave us the MCU. For that I’m eternally grateful.

#6 of 15 – Captain America: The First Avenger

Full disclosure: Captain America and The Winter Soldier are my favorite characters in the MCU, and I’m a history buff. So no one should be surprised that I cherish this film. Ahem, back on track, Valerie. In all honesty, nearly every character introduction in the MCU is a risk. Servicing a character beloved by fans from decades of comics, translating them to the big screen and making them beloved by the general audience, while not alienating those original fans, is a challenge. Especially with a character introduced nearly 70 years before, in a time that many idealize as a “simpler time.” The danger was making Captain America too quaint, or worse, condescending. Instead, Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers manages to encapsulate everything that is great about the United States, while also revealing her (and his own) flaws. He’s not a yes man. He’s constantly questioning authority, and doing what he believes is right despite the consequences (how very American of him). The MCU’s Captain America is exactly the kind of “Symbol of America” that is needed at a time when a conservative push seems to want to force Americans to give up their civil liberties in order to return to some idealized reality that never existed in the first place. To be continued…

#5 of 15 – The Avengers

The biggest challenge facing Director/Writer Joss Whedon on The Avengers was bringing the team together, while also making sure to give them all ample screen time. It also had to serve as an introductory piece to the MCU for those who hadn’t seen the origin stories that came before it (why anyone would do that, I don’t know, but it happens). The result is arguably one of the best team up movies ever. The movie is witty and clever, while also being compelling. And finally, The Hulk was done well! Whedon’s been asked what he was most proud of after that film, and he says The Hulk. I think he’s spot on with that one.

#4 of 15 – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

This is where the newbie falls. The only reason it does fall here and not higher is because the films above it are just so spectacular. What a problem to have, ey Marvel? Your movies are so good that even when another good movie comes out, it might just not be as good as another? DC is sure to be envious. GOTG2 is great largely because James Gunn was allowed and able to take a formula that worked, and deliver on it a second time. The team is the focus of the story, and their family dynamic is both heartwarming and hilarious (who doesn’t love to watch the team caring for Baby Groot?). The story even features a romantic subplot (Quill/Gamora), but it’s not heavy handed, or even a very big part of the story (where romance has derailed Superhero films before). But really, the focus is the family, and not just the Guardians themselves, but fathers and sons (Ego/Quill and Yondu/Quill) and sisters (Gamora/Nebula). It’s a plot we can only hope is developed further going forward, instead of those pesky romances (this self proclaimed romantic is not here for romance in her Superhero movies).

#3 of 15 – Captain America: Civil War

It feels like the MCU may be moving away from romance, and more towards the far more interesting story of family. Sadly, Civil War is the story of family being torn apart, with a backdrop of geopolitical politics. Civil War has been lovingly (and not so lovingly) nicknamed Avengers 2.5, and the title is apt. While Captain America and his choices and feelings are center stage, the film reflects the increasingly intertwined MCU and the fact that these people are all connected, whether they like it or not. Family is the center of the MCU now, because the heroes have all grown close on a level not before seen in film. It’s jarring to see any of these characters in their own adventures without the team behind them.

But with family comes conflict, and when you’re playing on a stage as big as the Avengers, shit gets real. However, there’s a reason this is a Captain America story, and not an Avengers one. Because Cap is the heart and soul of the film. Where Iron Man 3 dealt with the fallout of Tony’s near sacrifice and resulting PTSD, Civil War finally dealt with the reality of a man who wakes up 70 years in the future, where everything and nearly everyone he knows is gone. Is it any wonder that as Peggy Carter, dies, Steve Rogers clings even more to the last remaining thread of his original life: Bucky Barnes? But it’s not just that. At a time when the powers-that-be in our real lives seem to be trying to get us to tow the party line and just trust them, it’s important to see the “symbol of America” questioning authority. Because how can anyone hold our leaders accountable without questioning them? The only complaint I can come up with for this film is: please can we skip the romantic subplot next time? Steve being interested in Peggy’s great niece is just icky and gross, and no one wants the romance in this story anyway. Just hit something already.

#2 of 15 – Guardians of the Galaxy

No one saw GOTG coming. No one. Even Marvel obviously didn’t expect much from it, considering they released in August (notoriously a month to dump films you’re not sure will connect with audiences). Yet it’s consistently held as one of the best films of the franchise. James Gunn managed to introduce an entirely new cast, complete with talking Raccoon and Tree (who says only 4 words for the entirety of the film), and make audiences connect with them. More importantly, you have 5 entirely new heroes, with complex backstories that have not yet been established in this universe, and they’re all serviced in a relatively short period of time, without feeling glossed over. Though there are obviously still questions that can be explored with each and every member of the Guardians, the audience leaves feeling they know them and care about them. And that moment at the end? “You said it yourself, bitch. We’re the Guardians of the Galaxy,” still gives me chills whenever I watch it. But of course, you can’t talk about Guardians without mentioning the absolutely stellar soundtrack. Has music, especially decades-old songs many people may have never heard before, ever connected with a film so well?

#1 of 15 – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

And so we get to the film that blows everything else in the MCU out of the water, effortlessly. Take the superheroes out of The Winter Soldier, and you still have one of the best spy thrillers ever made, in my opinion. But then there ARE Superheroes, and so it’s one of my favorite films of all time. In fact, I’m having a hard time imagining Marvel delivering anything that can dethrone it (Black Panther, maybe?). GAH. I’m having a hard time not just gushing about how it’s just SO GOOD, and you just need to watch it again (or for the first time, but then I’m judging you), OK?!

Ok, let’s get serious here. One of the best features of the MCU is that so many different genres are represented, but the dark and complex The Winter Soldier gives the MCU a maturity few expected.  The idea of policing a community before a crime can be committed is a topic that was also addressed in Minority Report, but the timeliness of The Winter Soldier made a statement about the post 9/11 political reality, where our government wants us to give up liberties in exchange for our own “protection” (historically a very bad idea that just leads to an even more dangerous society). The Winter Soldier is also the first time we get to see America’s Golden Boy, Captain America, take on that authority, and find the horror that lies behind the smiling faces of those highest in government (Did screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeeley, or directors Anthony and Joe Russo have a crystal ball that let them see into the future?). Important for the MCU, post-The Avengers, it’s also the first time we really see the team appearing in each others films, with both Nick Fury and Black Widow playing an integral role in Captain America’s film, as well as introducing future team member The Falcon, and presumably future member (and possibly even future Captain America), Bucky Barnes, aka The Winter Soldier.

And there we have it. All 15 films ranked. And I for one can’t wait to see where we go next. We know we can expect 2 new Avengers films, with appearances by the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, and more, and we have more from Spider-Man, Thor, Black Panther, Captain Marvel, Ant-Man and The Wasp on the horizon. And with Phase 4 (or whatever we’re getting instead of another Phase), we can expect many more crossovers and new introductions in the years tocome.

You can expect updates to my MCU rankings as new films get added, starting with Spider-Man: Homecoming in less than 2 months!

What do you think of my rankings? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to argue your point (politely?) in the comments below.