With the release of Ant-Man, Phase Two of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films has concluded. Before Phase Three begins with Captain America: Civil War, now would be a good time to rank the twelve MCU films released so far.
1. The Avengers (2012) – As the culmination of years of careful seeding by previous MCU films The Avengers was a bold, energetic triumph. Director Joss Whedon accomplished the impossible by bringing together completely different characters and molding them into a superhero team just like in the comic books.
As the most successful superhero film of all time, The Avengers excited numerous viewers and changed the landscape of superhero films. Before this film, the usual superhero films operated in their own realities without any indication of a rich universe as seen in comic books. But The Avengers embraced the richness of its comic book lore and it paid off. Now, shared cinematic universes are the rage. However, The Avengers is the best of the MCU films because it was so energetic, witty, and snappy, and had the novelty of our favorite heroes meeting for the first time. It all led to one of the most exciting finales presented on film that still reverberates with viewers.
2. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – Marvel Studios showed they were willing to take a chance with this quirky and exciting space adventure yarn. Who would’ve imagined that a sci-fi movie about a bumbling space pirate, violent green aliens, a foul-mouthed raccoon and a walking tree would strike a chord with audiences?
Technically, Guardians of the Galaxy isn’t a superhero film, but this demonstrates how this MCU entry is quite different from its standard superhero repertoire. What made it special wasn’t just the premise, beautiful visuals or production design, but a toe-tapping soundtrack that ingeniously used ’70s pop songs. It was a unique signature for this space opera tale about a group of space losers who banded together to save the galaxy. Chris Pratt became a star thanks to his silly, but good-hearted role as Star-Lord, the self-proclaimed legendary outlaw.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – The best MCU solo superhero film and one of the greatest superhero films ever made. More importantly, this was arguably the most volatile entry in the MCU because by the time the film ended, the cinematic universe was forever changed by the film’s events.
Chris Evans as Captain America/Steve Rogers has demonstrated how he has grown in stature in these films. As a man out of time, Steve Rogers faced his greatest threats from a former friend (one of the deadliest and most frightening supervillains on film) and a shocking global conspiracy that rocked the MCU to its roots. Adding to the film’s specialness were a tightly written script, well-executed and riveting fight scenes and terrific performances from the cast.
4. Ant-Man (2015) – The final Phase Two film is known for its numerous behind-the-scenes hurdles where the original director quit after having developed the film for years. Yet, in spite of that and the titular character’s obscurity, Ant-Man was an unexpectedly great superhero film that’s full of panache.
As one of the more humorous MCU films, Ant-Man quickly won over viewers with its outlandish premise: a man who can shrink and communicate with ants. Wrapped around that was a swift-paced heist story that deftly integrated itself into the larger MCU in a natural way that eluded other films that attempted this. Adding to the film’s enjoyment were many winning performances, fantastic special effects and unlike other MCU films, Ant-Man was able to deliver an astonishing final act that helped pave the future for the MCU.
5. Thor (2011) – What sets Marvel Studios apart with their MCU films is its willingness to remain faithful to the comic book source material. At the same time, Marvel Studios has the ability to make organic changes and updates to its characters and situations. Thor is a perfect example. The film wisely eschewed its magic-based comic book roots that Thor and his ilk were actual gods and cleverly used science fiction tropes instead.
Thor followed the winning formula of MCU films by having an egotistical, flawed character learn some humility and become a hero. Thanks to director Kenneth Branagh, Thor also had a sense of grandeur that evoked a Shakespearean family drama. In this case, that involved otherworldly aliens mistaken for gods. It was also noted for its humorous fish-out-of-water scenario and Tom Hiddleston’s star-making performance as Loki, the MCU’s best villain.
6. Iron Man (2008) – The one that started the MCU phenomenon still holds up as a well-made origin story. Robert Downey, Jr. shined as he made a personal and professional comeback in the role of a lifetime. His trend-setting Tony Stark/Iron Man was a self-centered narcissist who learned to become something more.
The first part of Iron Man was engrossing, particularly during the moments when Tony Stark first faced his mortality and was forced to construct a crude armored suit. However, the film faltered a bit in the second half. The pace dragged as we waited for him to construct a proper Iron Man suit. Things weren’t helped by the final battle that looked like something out of the Transformers and was just as cartoony. But Iron Man’s successful formula set the tone for the rest of the MCU.
7. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Although this sequel to The Avengers doesn’t measure up to the original, it still was a highly entertaining viewing experience. Avengers: Age of Ultron lacked the novelty and energy of the first film even though this film was jammed with extensive and at-times eye-popping fight scenes that looked like comic book splash pages come to life.
But what was more damning was that it clumsily shoehorned in references to other aspects of the MCU that had little bearing in this film’s main narrative. The film was so busy setting up the next phase of the MCU that it lost its bearing. Still, this sequel to The Avengers had many exciting moments and memorable new characters. Despite the complaint about too many subplots, one setup that felt organic and portends to an exciting new development was that of an upcoming superhero civil war.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) – The patriotic superhero’s earnest introduction was memorable thanks to the nostalgic direction from Joe Johnston that recalled his work in The Rocketeer. This film departed from the standard MCU film being that it took place largely during World War II and reflected a different America than what modern viewers are used to.
After a thrilling first half, the film falters in the second half once Chris Evans’ character became a superhero. Instead of reveling in superheroics, Johnston rushed through what could’ve been exciting action pieces and the lack of a central plot was apparent. But Captain America: The First Avenger‘s concluding scenes were a jarring, unforgettable jolt for the good captain and unaware viewers.
9. The Incredible Hulk (2008) – After the pretentious and dull big screen debut of Ang Lee’s Hulk, this reboot turned to what worked in the Hulk comic books and successfully translated that to The Incredible Hulk. At the same time, this second entry of the MCU used elements of the old Hulk TV show (Bruce Banner as a fugitive) and had clever Easter eggs.
By no means was this film perfect; it was rough around the edges as the MCU and the title hero were undergoing growing pains. But what made the second Hulk film so entertaining were the competent action scenes and Ed Norton’s performance as a haunted Banner literally grappling with his inner green demon. It’s unfortunate that studio politics has prevented a followup from being produced to date.
10. Iron Man 3 (2013) – The most controversial MCU film due to the use of its villain, the Mandarin, Iron Man’s premier foe. While the Mandarin may be Iron Man’s greatest foe in the comic books, Disney and Marvel Studios were in a bind if they brought this character to life with his racial stereotyping.
The result was to give the Mandarin a makeover as a super terrorist that was chilling thanks to Ben Kingsley’s performance. But the villain’s true nature, among other story ideas like Tony Stark’s PTSD, tore apart fans who decried or applauded the film. Although significantly better and more focused than Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3 was an uneven effort.
11. Thor: The Dark World (2013) – This by-the-numbers sequel, while nominally interesting, felt lackluster. Most of the charm from the original was gone as Thor came off as a rather dull hero now that he has his full powers. What was worse was that the big handicap of the MCU films, the weak villain, was especially apparent here. The main foe was so pedestrian that Loki had to be brought back to add some much needed humor and pizzazz.
12. Iron Man 2 (2010) – The fledging MCU was nearly derailed by this lackluster sequel that tried to cram too many plot developments and references to the growing MCU. This followup to Iron Man had several nuggets of good ideas (the government’s reaction to the Iron Man armor, Tony Stark’s drunken behavior hiding his fear of dying, the father/son dilemma Stark and his nemesis face) that got lost in aimless execution and lazy storytelling.
Lewis T. Grove