Growing and expanding since 2008, Marvel Studios has managed to create the most successful franchises of all time. Year after year they manage to release hit after hit, and it doesn't look like they will be slowing down any time soon. With the release of Captain Marvel, there are now 21 films in canon -- but that begs the question: how do they rank against each other?
Well, I've done my part in answering that question. I've taken a look back at the entirety of the big screen Marvel Cinematic Universe and as you will see below and on the next few pages, ranked them from worst to best. Read on and see where the various films place!
If Marvel Studios has had any one consistent issue with their films, it's that the villains for the most part have been small-time and forgettable. Perhaps the best example of this is featured in Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World, as Christopher Eccleston's Malekith never manages to get interesting, and it's a shame because the entire plot is dictated by his actions. The movie definitely has one of the best spectacle-driven third acts in the MCU, but the movie still can't really be called one of Marvel's best, and to date it's really the franchise's worst.
While it didn't hit the bottom of our rankings, there definitely is a degree to which The Incredible Hulk is the forgotten sibling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe family. For years, the only actor from the movie to actually reprise their role in a second film was Robert Downey Jr. On beyond that, though, the 2008 movie is really the only title in the catalogue that doesn't have the trademark tongue-in-cheek humor and sense of fun that has made Marvel so popular. It's not a bad movie, but Marvel would go on to do much better work.
When looked at from the macro perspective, Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2 honestly serves as a key piece of the puzzle in building the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it has some great things going for it (the Monaco Historic Grand Prix sequence in particular is memorable and cool). All by its lonesome, however, it is a bit of a mess. It's also very jumbled plot-wise (trying to do way too much), has a poor villain in Mickey Rourke's Whiplash, and it never really properly hangs together.
Given its origins in Norse mythology, and a fantasy-esque element not really seen before in comic book movies, Kenneth Branagh's Thor in many ways felt like the first big risk that Marvel Studios took (beyond just the launch of the MCU). That being said, it wound up paying off in a great way, and established both Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston as bona fide stars. It strikes the perfect Marvel tone, and introduces some great new concepts to the world -- and while it has its flaws (pacing is too fast, not enough Asgard,etc.), it ultimately holds up.
Peyton Reed's Ant-Man works on a much smaller scale than many of the other titles in Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and is a bit more straight-forward than you want it to be -- but boy, is it a hell of a lot of fun. The 2015 movie succeeds by featuring a handful of fantastically entertaining performances and characters, with the most important piece of the puzzle being Paul Rudd -- who will surely keep MCU fans entertained for years to come.
From a visual standpoint, director Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange is unlike anything audiences have ever seen. Interdimensional travel and magic create some absolutely gorgeous and bombastic set pieces that audiences will remember for a very long time, and the triumvirate of Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange), Tilda Swinton (The Ancient One), and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Mordo) is fantastic. Unfortunately it's all weighed down by a standard origin story and an underdeveloped villain, but it's definitely an exciting introduction for the future Sorcerer Supreme.
Joss Whedon carried some incredible weight bringing The Avengers: Age of Ultron to the big screen, working under immense pressure and scrutiny. While the final product isn't as good as its predecessor, it's still an impressive, epic blockbuster that honestly feels like a major Marvel Comics event brought to life. The stakes are big, some great new characters are introduced, and it sets an interesting table for the events that transpire in Phase Three.
With Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Captain Marvel, audiences everywhere have the chance to meet one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it's definitely one of the most exciting debuts we've seen thus far in this franchise. It is a bit dragged down by the familiar aspects of its origin story, but it also has a number of unexpected twists, and provides fans with is plenty of exciting new looks at the expanded continuity - such as events from the MCU in the 1990s, the Kree-Skrull War, and even a bit more of the Tesseract. Of course, at the center of it all is also a badass new protagonist who has tremendous potential for awesome cosmic and Earthbound stories in the future.
As will be discussed later, James Gunn totally changed the Marvel game with 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy, but in doing so set the most ridiculous of high bars for its sequel to reach. The bad news is that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 isn't quite as good as its predecessor, but the great news is that it's an incredibly fun intergalactic romp. It smartly sacrifices scope in favor of character, and it's a legitimate cinematic treat to see Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket and Groot back up on the big screen.
Landing right in the middle of this list is Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger: another origin story, but one that takes the audience back in time to the days of World War II. There is a rightful complaint in that the third act of the film doesn't have quite the punch of Marvel's better titles, but it's also one of the studio's best introductory tales, and features some perfect performances from both Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell (performances that would completely change their individual careers).
Shane Black's Iron Man 3 is unquestionably the most underrated Marvel movie. While some audiences complained about the Mandarin twist and lack of Iron Man screentime, the other way to look at those two things is the power of the movie's ability to defy expectation, and the way in which it enriches Tony Stark as a character outside of his armor. It's a fun piece of noir storytelling, and a great comeback after the mediocre Iron Man 2.
There is an argument to be made that first sequels in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have a specific advantage over their predecessors. After all, origin stories are essentially fixed expositional vehicles used to establish key characters; but once those introductions are made, what's left is the purely creative opportunity to craft a wholly original, specific story natural to those heroes. Peyton Reed's Ant-Man And The Wasp is a perfect example of this. The movie beautifully capitalizes on everything we loved about the first Ant-Man (Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly are genuinely perfect together), putting its wonderful ensemble through an expertly-molded comedic thrill ride in the vein of After Hours and Midnight Run - ultimately coming together as a romp that is hilarious from beginning to end.
The Thor movies have never been one of Marvel's strongest series - as evidenced by their rankings on this list. That's why Marvel had director Taika Waititi rebrand the whole thing with Thor: Ragnarok, and the results are fantastic. The tone is not only much lighter than its predecessors, resulting in one of the funniest titles in the franchise to date, but the character work is just phenomenal. It's the most compelling arc we've seen for Chris Hemsworth's God of Thunder, Mark Ruffalo is phenomenal as a Hulk who can finally have a conversation, and their thrust together in one of Marvel's most vibrant and fun adventures.
As a big screen character, Spider-Man was at big risk of reboot fatigue going into Jon Watts' Spider-Man: Homecoming, but nothing dissipates audience apprehension quite like quality - and boy, did this one bring it. In his second Marvel Cinematic Universe appearance, Tom Holland perfects both being Peter Parker and the wall-crawler, and the film succeeds by actively differentiating itself from anything that's come before - skipping the overdone origin story and fully embracing the new movie's position in MCU continuity with a strong supporting role for Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. It's a crazy fun adventure, full of youthful energy that gets us excited for the web-slinger's franchise future.
Jon Favreau's Iron Man, of course, was the film that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but while that's a significant feat, it's only part of the larger reason why we have it ranked so high. It's also the film that brought the amazing Robert Downey Jr. back to us, the actor doing his part to create what has become a truly iconic character, and the movie in and of itself is a fantastic story of redemption and facing down demons. It's a superhero blockbuster that will go down in history -- which makes it actually kind of impressive on Marvel's part that it's only number five on our list.
Marvel's Phase One films are, on the whole, enjoyable pieces of entertainment, but Joss Whedon's The Avengers was when the Marvel Cinematic Universe truly became the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not only one of the greatest event movies of all time, it also beautifully, dazzlingly,, and unexpectedly delivers on a four year long promise of bringing some of comics' greatest heroes together on the big screen for the first time ever. For the longest time the whole thing just seemed like an impossible dream, but Whedon and Marvel delivered in the biggest way imaginable, and it's a finished product that can be rewatched endlessly with enjoyment
After 10 years of franchise-building and 17 films, you'd think that Marvel Studios would struggle at this point putting together effective introductory solo films. The truth, however, is that they'll keep being successful so long as the studio continues to hire filmmakers with vision - and that's exactly what they did bringing in writer/director Ryan Coogler to make Black Panther. The movie is not only a remarkable exercise in world-building - introducing audiences to the remarkable land of Wakanda - but also very much has something important to say, and says it compellingly. The narrative regarding the African nation's relationship with the rest of the planet is impressively sophisticated in a blockbuster package, and Michael B. Jordan's Erik Killmonger, equipped with understandable and powerful ideology, is arguably Marvel's greatest villain to date.
To paraphrase Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, Joe and Anthony Russo's Avengers: Infinity War was built on the idea of it being the capstone for every Marvel Cinematic Universe film that preceded it. A full decade was spent watching Infinity Stones be revealed, and Thanos being teased, and it seemed like there was just far too much pressure on the blockbuster for it to actually be any good. Boy, did they prove us wrong. Finally getting his chance in the spotlight, the Mad Titan proves to be an absolutely terrifying force of nature, and the film is filled with too many shocking, disturbing and amazing moments to count. Its in every way the movie fans were promised.
For Phase Two, Marvel Studios made a point of not just making superhero movies, but making complex genre films that happen to feature superheroes. For Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directors Joe and Anthony Russo infused the blockbuster with the structure and spirit of a 1970s conspiracy thriller, and the result is absolutely stunning. No other feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe features fight choreography that is as visceral, and the character dynamics between Cap, Black Widow, and Falcon are thoughtful, unique, and fun.
James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy is a legitimately special movie. Only tangentially part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the film is unlike any comic book feature we've seen -- even in the modern era -- and has everything a person could want from a summer blockbuster. It's hilarious, with not just star Chris Pratt getting fantastic laugh-out-loud lines; it's action-packed, with a third-act spectacle that will boggle the mind; and it's even emotional, creating amazing bonds between characters. It stood as Marvel's best work for a couple years... but then 2016 rolled around.
As ridiculously huge as the first two Avengers blockbusers were, directors Joe and Anthony Russo somehow managed to up the ante even further with Captain America: Civil War. A film that feels like the capstone of the 12 movies that preceded it, the third Captain America movie is shockingly emotional (particularly in the showdown between Cap and Iron Man), stunningly action packed (the Leipzig Halle Airport fight is the best we've ever seen), and gives us some amazing new characters in Spider-Man and Black Panther. It's spectacularly crafted storytelling with a real gut-punch ending, and to date the best film in the MCU.
How do you personally rank the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? We want to hear from you, so hit the comments section below with your thoughts on the last decade-plus of Marvel Studios titles.