Note: Will update with Infinity War after the weekend.
I love the MCU dearly. Some less than others, specifically the last three but whatever. All the others I’d happily put on my television screen in a moments notice. Remember, kids: art is subjective so subjectively this is my ranking.
18. Thor: The Dark World
After the destruction of the Bifrost, Thor has been cleaning up the Nine Realms while Jane Foster accidentally uncovers an Infinity Stone. It should set up a decent flip on the dynamics of the first Thor, but is essentially a nothing of a movie thematically. I don’t feel any particular disdain for this other than what could have been Patty Jenkins pitched a film as Romeo and Juliet in space, Alan Taylor’s Game of Thrones credits should have really put this one over the edge and post-Avengers anticipation revitalized every standalone series. There’s some really outstanding production design on the Dark Elves, down to even the weapons they use. For instance: BLACK HOLE GRENADES. The whole look of the titular Dark World/Svartalfheim is weird and probably the most Jack Kirby style flavor in the entire movie. Unfortunately, it’s also kind of the biggest filler film in the MCU. For all the consistent complaints about each film working to promote another movie (a bs complaint imo), The Dark World is not a great counterpoint to that. Throughout Thor’s journey, he closes his film by deciding to stay on Earth with Jane and Loki posing as Odin on the throne. A great cliffhanger but Thor is the most passive he’s ever been. I would have liked to have seen a Lord of the Rings style adventure film or some romantic space opera. At least we got some great Loki bits and BLACK HOLE GRENADES. If this is the worst your franchise has to offer, you’re doing pretty good.
17. The Incredible Hulk
Marvel’s The Fugitive. Works as both a secret-sequel to Ang Lee’s flawed but fascinating Hulk and prequel to the events of The Avengers by giving us a small scale story for a big scale hero. The stakes aren’t world ending. They’re city destroying marathons. Not a complaint for a Hulk movie! The Incredible Hulk is made by some solid pre-viz and stitched together scenes of the most boring iteration of Bruce Banner to date for me. Even Joss Whedon would go on record saying he wasn’t envious of the director’s who tackled the character’s standalone outings. Louis Leterrier still manages to compose interesting framing in the action sequences, giving an almost Bayhem aesthetic when the chases really get going. And check out the way the camera moves with the imagery in the abundance of lab sequences. John Hurt as Thunderbolt Ross is basically as perfect a casting choice as Sam Elliot as the character’s previous iteration. Two fantastic mustaches in two flawed films. For me, Ang Lee’s Hulk looks pretty dang good next to this. The rare film in the MCU where the action far supersedes any of the character work.
16. Captain America: Civil War
The reverse-event film, engineered as the “dark” Avengers movie while also trying to fulfill a Captain America story. It’s entertaining enough but the Russo Brother’s handheld camera action is too messy here. Where in The Winter Soldier, the faux-Paul Greengrass Bourne style worked as an extension of current spy thrills married to older 70’s political thrillers, it’s tonally and visually jarring here. The muted grays and desaturation fit nicely in their previous outing as well, servicing a literal moral grey area of Cap’s conflict. Here, Earth’s Mightiest look their least cinematic. Civil War at least touches upon interesting ideas regarding escalation, comparisons to nuclear weapons, etc. But these are only passing flourishes. The decision to make this Civil War story directly a Captain America finale could have worked, but you don’t need Bucky for that. Because you based it around Bucky, you don’t need the other Avengers. Because the Avengers are here, you need to spend time talking about the conflict at hands (becoming an official paramilitary force vs. maintaining individual identities). Every story is at war with itself and never establishes the conflicts enough for them to be the tearjerkers they could have been. Still, Black Panther and his arc is a major highlight. The airport fight is a riot. Kaiju Paul Rudd is objectively one of the greatest movie moments ever. Spider-Man is cute. All these smaller moments go to show how much I can still enjoy here, even if I feel robbed of a proper conclusion for my favorite Avenger.
It’s hard out here for Peyton Reed. People still discredit his quality feature Bring It On and never take the time to talk about how capable he is of handling tone. Following in the footsteps of Edgar Wright’s original concept for Ant-Man, a legitimate soul-crushing breakup between artist and producers, this was an almost no-win battle. So when Peyton Reed delivered a quality mid-tier Marvel movie, the results were better than expected. The comedy never really undercuts the drama. The visual effects are legitimately outstanding – all hail the microverse! Paul Rudd contains more charisma and charm in his dopey face than most people do in their entire bodies. It’s hard not to fall in love with this guy in anything he does. His supporting cast is cute too but it’s also where the movie runs into major issues. Hope Van Dyne can’t put on the Ant-Man suit because her dad is worried about her? That’s, uh, an odd arc for a grown woman who we are shown is every bit more capable than the men around her. And as much as I love Corey Stoll, he is really just being devilishly evil businessman we’ve seen done much better in the Iron Man series. Though, I must admit, I love the Yellowjacket design and the third act is a hoot. It’s also a touching story about fathers trying to make the world a better place for their daughters, albeit with some regressive gender politics around Hope’s arc. At least the post-credit scene and hopeful sequel attempt to rectify that?
14. Iron Man 2
This is a very good movie. I don’t think it’s as good as the first Iron Man, but it’s hardly the complete misfire it’s constantly framed as in online circles. All conflicts in this resonant internally or externally from Tony Stark. His suits, what he perceives to be his defining characteristic now, are literally poisoning him! Iron Man is a hero whose superhero persona isn’t a mask, but an extension of himself rather than a mantle that could (or rather, should) be handed down. Now that Stark has stepped into the spotlight, he’s a rockstar. It’s all going to his head, but it’s not like he’s unaware of it. He’s hiding in plain sight, avoiding legitimate issues that have come up since he’s made that casual world-shattering revelation. “The suit and I are one.” But what does it mean for Tony now that he’s out there? He’s evolved from his no-accountability, playboy attitude into excessive-accountability to the point where he has to figure out his place in the world while confronting his family’s shady past. Sam Rockwell dances on stage, Rhodey puts on the War Machine armor and Mickey Rourke vants his boird. Black Widow gets her debut appearance but gets an unfortunate short end of the stick, while still getting a badass fight sequence. Iron Man 2 is also one of the last MCU movies shot on film and while I think it depends on the film maker’s intent, dang this a good looking movie. Go back to shooting on film unless you’re going to put effort into your digital looks, please (see further down the list).
13. Doctor Strange
Problematic and culturally confused from time to time. Director Scott Derrickson has been more open to learning and understanding about his misconceptions on race in our art (address it, don’t ignore it) which goes a big way for me overlooking some of the smaller shortcomings. Because honestly, I think this is one of Marvel’s more introspective movies. It does have the rough Iron Man outline of an arrogant smart-ass learning to use his skills for a greater good, but Dr. Strange’s journey is less an extension of himself and rather an exploration of his inner-self. He is a small piece of a larger picture. The world is a large tapestry with variables, expectations and inevitable consequences. Death. As The Ancient One and Dr. Strange discuss life and death on the astral plane, she tells Strange, “Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered. Your time is short. You’d think after all this time, I’d be ready. But look at me. Stretching one moment out into a thousand… just so that I can watch the snow.” This grand idea that it’s not about an individual, but our individual purposes to tell a larger story. Not just a meta-textual metaphor for Strange’s place in the MCU but a literal examination of life itself from the openly religious Derrickson. The visuals and action are stupendous and pure Jack Kirby. But it’s those aforementioned ideas that keep me coming back to this one.
12. Spider-Man: Homecoming
With the third onscreen iteration of the character in 15 years, the easy answer to mixing up the Spidey formula is adding other heroes into the mix. An easy feat considering the MCU’s bread and butter is cross mixing brands to further their own banner. But where other films find their detriment in that, HOMECOMING actually utilizes that to tell the story of a kid lost in a world that is far too big for him. Peter Parker’s uncertainty in his own identity on the ground level is reflected differently through his Spider-Man persona. He’s trying to fit in at school? Of course he’s going to try to fit in with the quintessential “cool kids” of the superhero world too. While the visual aesthetics leave plenty to be desired (it’s unfortunately the flattest looking Spider-Man movie ever) Homecoming still succeeds through strength of story and character. Vulture’s complete overhaul is also super cool. I love that he literally scavengers parts here and there, taking what he can because he’s been fucked over by a system he needs but has no care for in him. Hard to argue for a world against a guy who has been screwed over by it. The blue collar villain juxtaposed against an optimistic, slightly naive blue collar hero. Love it. The blue collar nature definitely takes a hit when Spidey’s suit is built by a genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist. Though, the nature of the ending and Peter’s choice regarding his position in this hero business does solidify him as someone who understands that Vulture isn’t entirely wrong and Tony’s big picture can tend to leave the little guy shuffled out of the picture. What’s slightly concerning for future entries is Peter’s status as a member of the working class. The ending of the movie seems to indicate I won’t have to worry about his “fighting for the little guy” approach, but hey, can’t be too cautious. These movies have burned me before. But I’m still happy to be rooting for this new one.
11. Iron Man
“Don’t waste it. Don’t waste your life.” Jon Favreau’s major blockbuster is still a major winner all these years later. Genius, billionaire, playboy (not yet philanthropist) Tony Stark is physically confronted by the foundations of his war profiteering and sees his true legacy is nothing but terror. He wasn’t destined for greatness. Tony Stark just got a harsh wake up call. So he vows to protect the people he put in harm’s way. The moment where his friend/savior Ho Yinsen passes on that aforementioned quote never ceases to make me tear up. Even now, years later after everything Stark has accomplished, I can’t help but imagine Tony keeps those words close to his heart. The Marvel “villain curse” could be attributed to this movie but I’d go further and argue most of these movies don’t need a grand-standing villain. All of Tony’s villains are reflective of his journey. White, male businessmen taking advantage of a system that allowed them to thrive. Tony wasn’t part of them but he sure as hell didn’t help stop them before either. Credit to Jon Favreau for putting together a great movie when they had no idea how the audience would react to something as fresh as this in the superhero landscape. Bonus shout out to Matthew Libatique, DP on this and Iron Man 2 for his gorgeous work. Grounded but still a more colorful looking reality rather than directly our own.
10. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
A man out of time. Updates the pulp serial adventures with influence from political thrillers and no clear versions of good and evil. Until the movie reveals HYDRA has secretly been rebuilding itself inside SHIELD, then it’s basically good vs. evil. Regardless, it’s pretty telling that SHIELD’s goals initially lined up with those of a secret Nazi death cult’s and it took Captain America to say it over speakers to get the message into people’s heads. While there was some criticism for the “unrealistic” nature of HYDRA infiltrating our domestic agencies, a secret Nazi death cult hiding in the government is, uh, not something one anticipates being relevant a few years after release. Encompassed by a desaturated color palette in a way that seems fitting to the story they’re telling, the action hits hard and Cap continues fighting the good fight. Cap doesn’t so much have an arc here as much as he inspires others to undergo arcs themselves. Cap’s conflict is juxtaposed with his relationship to the Winter Soldier: a seemingly ageless, super-assassin who turns out to be a mind-controlled Bucky Barnes. Cap has the freedom to choose his fights and what he wants to fight for. Of course Cap is going to save the day. He’s gotta be in Age of Ultron. So the fight in the finale isn’t whether or not he can beat Bucky, it’s about whether or not he can save him. These institutions want what the men offer in strength without dealing with individualistic identity. Even with the world literally crumbling around them, Steve Rogers doesn’t care about any of it if he can’t save his friend.
9. Thor: Ragnarok
Fantasy set to punk rock and synth. FANTASYNTH. Thor finally gets the sequel he deserves. All it took was Taika Waititi to hard-reboot the franchise aesthetics. A love letter to Jack Kirby and re-contextualization of the legacy of Thor. Odin’s death brings together the Sons of Odin but his death also forces the sons to confront his own dark history with Asgard. Ragnarok takes cues from great fantasy storytelling and uses its fictional trappings to tell an emotional story of Thor’s acceptance of his father’s legacy, for better and worse. “I’m not as strong as you,” Thor tells Odin. “No.” Odin responds, “You’re stronger.” Touching stuff and honestly I wish the movie spent more time with beats like that. Hela, the MCU’s Maleficent equivalent and surprise third Odin-sibling, is the personification of Thor’s conflict. She taps into the imperialist roots of Asgard (every empire is built from blood) in all its royal terror.
8. Iron Man 3
It’s Christmas season in the MCU. With that comes more Tony Stark taking time for self-reflection. Shane Black and co-writer Drew Pearce completely breakdown Tony Stark physically, psychologically and thematically. Suffering from PTSD and massive anxiety attacks, Tony is at his most human. Hell, he even spends most of his time outside the suits. Instead, we’re Tony forced out from behind his armor. There’s a man beneath it all. A fascinating, flawed but ultimately good man. The Mandarin Twist (which should be an alcoholic beverage name) is great, btw. A capitalist arms dealer works behind the scenes, using eastern iconography to create some terrorist boogeyman with no discernible identity, other than the idea that some scary foreigner wants to destroy America. It’s all a ruse, of course. It is not a mistake for Ben Kingsley to play an actor playing The Mandarin. Shane Black is just casually tossing in an indictment of the military industrial complex in his mega summer blockbuster – ex: the Extremis soldiers being amputees going to AIM for assistance is not a mistake either. Black structures his sequel like a Christmas Carol: Tony confronts demons from his past, looks to a future generation, all before grounding himself in the present to ask the question: Does the man make the suit, or does the suit make the man?
7. Guardians of the Galaxy
Hooked on a feeling. James Gunn’s introduction to the MCU contains a rough outline of Firefly meets Star Wars. It’s a little nastier and meaner than other entries up to this point (please hold for Vol. 2) but it also comes with an infectious sense of charm from the director’s Troma days. It’s scrappy. Not in the filmmaking sense, but in the spirit of its characters. Guardians of the Galaxy is ultimately about a bunch of trashy losers who decide to make a difference. Angry, immature, emotionally stunted assholes who have had practically everything taken from them. But when push comes to shove, these are a bunch of people willing to do the right thing. Even if it means losing a paycheck. They aren’t the mightiest heroes. They’re definitely not the smartest. They’re not the nicest either. Set to a funky 70s soundtrack of all the music our grandparents hated our parents listening to, Gunn wrings out any possible conflict with these characters given place in the universe. Structurally, it feels safe. But what Gunn does with a one-note (albeit, entertaining) villain like Ronan. For heroes as oddball and idiotic as the Guardians, they’re not going to physically best a villain who could casually toss aside Dave Bautista. But they might just dance their way to a moment where they get the upper hand. They’re far from what many would consider “the best” but they’re trying to be better. What’s more heroic than that?
Phase One was mostly well received but what would the world of pop culture even look like if Avengers didn’t work? It essentially sets the template of excess wit, pop, city destroying finales that curse many of our big budget blockbusters. Where the event film sets itself apart is in the execution. Watch how efficiently Whedon moves the story from character to character in the opening act. The effortless chemistry between the cast, each one building upon prior characterization and new material. The Whedon dialogue flair with its dry rhythms and subtly revealing characters traits, punctuating with moments that are engrained as pop culture mythos. The final 45 minutes of blockbuster bliss where action geography is still clearer than most finales in this same franchise. Stakes consistently raise themselves. Born for corporate interests, formed with its own identity. Superficially “fun” but beneath its candy coated surface is a bookend about the necessities of heroes and the story we cultivate around them. “They’ll come back… because we’ll need them to.”
How do you even adapt something like Thor? The Guardians, while filled with oddball characters and designs, grows out of the affection audiences have for Star Wars and a pop 70s soundtrack. Thor Odinson is a demigod, is a valiant warrior. Brash, but loving to his friends and family. He’s also basically a fascist at the start of this, which is bad. So Kenneth Branagh takes away everything that would define Thor’s warrior persona. Our hero is stripped of his armor, his hammer and power. It’s doing the “If you’re nothing without the suit, you don’t deserve to have it,” story beat before Iron Man 3 and Spider-Man: Homecoming. And when we do first see Thor in action, big beat-down of Frost Giants is the emotional low-point of a superhero movie! That’s insane. Once Thor is brought down to earth (get it??? metaphor), he comes across the a trio of scientists, each one in a different age group and each with their own defined relationship to Thor. It’s a tonally nifty balancing act, shot with excessive dutch angles and the best cinematography in the MCU. Thor would be the last movie in the series shot on film, and Branagh captures pure alien majesty with it. But even the digital attributions are stunning, with Asgard’s cosmic sky littered with nebula and neutron stars. It’s the first step into Marvel cosmic but it might be one of the few modern movies to truly capture something romantic in its fantasy. Patrick Doyle’s score is a huge help, triumphant and sweeping, perfectly attuned to the journey of Thor. When Thor is going to claim his rightful place on the throne, it’s bold and triumphant. After Thor has spent the last two hours being humbled, the music accompanying the Son of Odin grows more solemn, melancholy even. We always ask for our superhero movies to be about something different, I can’t think of a weirder, more “different” introduction to a superhero mythos than this unsung classic.
4. Captain America: The First Avenger
The star-spangled man with a plan. Joe Johnston doing a Captain America origin movie is about as perfect as Tim Burton doing a Batman movie. It’s a no-brainer. Johnston easily captures the pulpy adventure tone of his genre predecessors, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Even when Cap isn’t running through a montage of battle sequences in the second half, the first contains the best character building in the MCU. But there’s a sadness to this one in Steve’s journey, where he just can’t do enough. When he’s a petite man, frail as glass, he just wants the opportunity to help make things better. “I don’t want to hurt anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” Even after becoming the most powerful soldier on the planet, Steve can’t save his best friend from falling to his death (coughcough). He can’t make his date with Peggy. Cap doesn’t get a happy ending. He makes sure everyone around him does. Those traits wouldn’t be inherent in anyone who took the super-soldier serum. Those are inherent Steve Rogers traits. Tony Stark is the god father of the MCU but Steve Rogers is its heart. Thor is a valiant warrior who learns to be a good man. Steve Rogers is a good man who becomes a valiant warrior. Steve Rogers is the leader of the Avengers for good reason. He’s the one we all strive to be. “Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.” No other film in the series captures that so elegantly. Bonus: Alan Silvestri’s score is my favorite in the series.
3. Avengers: Age of Ultron
The continuous arc of Tony Stark being the best/worst hero on the team is personified by Ultron, but the artificial intelligence is also a dirty mirror held up to the Avengers. The living-automaton makes Cap confronts the worldview he now holds, his only home is with the team and by proxy, at war. Black Widow has no place in the world because she’s a killer, and she’ll always see herself as that. Thor is on a quest to understand the nature of a higher power. The Hulk is Banner’s living nightmare, a creation destined to haunt him and leaves him without a place he truly belongs. Hawkeye gets the benefit of already having his place in the world, with his secret family. He’s a grounded person, with the Avengers not an all-consuming force of his life like it is with the other team members. It’s not the crowd-pleasing epic of the first movie. Age of Ultron is a movie that makes our heroes confront what they truly want. More importantly, about why they can’t have it. The thematic conclusion of this 200 million dollar blockbuster is two synthetic lifeforms agreeing humanity is doomed. One of them recognizes beauty and privilege in merely existing. The other scoffs at the audacity of existence when it’s full of contradictions and impermanence. Pretty nifty. It would be a perfect movie if it had some more breathing room and more dynamic action sequences. But it’s not every day the most interesting part of a billion dollar franchise is people coming to terms with their own imperfections.
2. Black Panther
Ryan Coogler movies may honestly make the world a better place. Another round of Shakespeare for the MCU as bloodlines and faulty lineages make the world a more difficult place for the current generation. T’Challa, coming off his fantastic arc in Civil War, now steps up to the mantle to become king. With it, comes the tragic realization that his father was not everything he believed him to be. T’Chaka made mistakes, mainly in the form of murdering his brother and leaving his nephew stranded in Oakland, California, never able to see the glory of Wakanda. Coogler’s films have always been about black identity and Black Panther is no different. Where Ragnarok tackles colonialism, Black Panther takes on the effects of isolationism. By leaving this child vulnerable to the failures of the western world, T’Chaka left behind a legacy of conflict for his son to face. The fight between the hero and villain in this is less physically interesting and more fascinating in their differing philosophies. The most shocking thing: Erik Killmonger, a man attempting to overthrow the foundations of the world in the name of Wakanda, isn’t actually wrong. The world is severely fucked up, black people are marginalized and have to fight every single day. But the answer is more complicated than just burning the earth down to its core. The most heroic thing T’Challa does by embracing his status as king is not to physically best his opponent but rather extend his hand to the world, to make it better by being part of it.
1.Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2
Structured through emotion, cathartic in its exploration of acceptance, this is hands down my favorite of the MCU and a prime example of what the genre is capable of. If the first Guardians is about these assholes coming together to form a family, this one is about whether or not they want to be a family in the first place. Their biggest conflict is within themselves, via ego, but also that giant planet named Ego. There’s not much of a “plot” to speak of, rather these people stumble from disparate scenarios where they go on journeys of self-discovery. Rocket is the biggest asshole on the team, pushing people away for fear of abandonment, so he is thrown together with Yondu, who has already gone through that arc. Peter, Gamora and Drax go to Ego’s planet with newcomer Mantis. Peter and Gamora have a will they/won’t they based on genuine stunted emotional growth. Drax is the happiest member of the Guardians, just happy to have a family together. But there is pain in all of them. Pain of abandonment, abuse, loss. I think the key to getting into the rhythm of Vol. 2 is with Baby Groot. Not the incarnation we came to love in the first movie, instead a wholly new individual. The Guardians raise Groot as they were never raised: with love and compassion. There’s frustration, of course. Anger, even. But at the end of the day, these idiots are more than just guarding a galaxy. They’re guarding one another, guiding them to be the best possible versions of themselves. It’s painful, it’s hilarious, it’s heartbreaking. It’s my favorite movie in the MCU and one of my favorite movies. Period. Those last 15 minutes? Devastating. Every time.