All 11 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked.

On Friday, Ant-Man will open across the country. The film, the 12th in the acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and final in Marvel’s “Phase 2”, doesn’t project as a billion-dollar entity, but Marvel’s name alone should carry it to at least a $60M domestic opening. The MCU will be turning a corner moving forward by adding a plethora of new characters including Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and the Inhumans. Before looking ahead, I’ll look back and give my personal hierarchy of all eleven films the franchise has released thus far.

A few notes:

  • I AM considering, to an extent, each film within the larger context of the MCU. There are simply too many tie-ins in all of them not to. How a film contributes to the larger picture matters.
  • I am NOT considering the comic books in any way. If a film makes serious changes to a story or look of a classic character, I don’t care. Cinema is a completely different storytelling medium and certain changes are necessary.
  • At different points in time, my “rankings” of these films have been different. But after a little more thought and having re-watched every film over the last few months, I’m pretty damn sure these are my final answers.

Let’s start from the back with the one you probably forgot about, for good justifiable reasons.

#11) The Incredible Hulk

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Year: 2008

Director: Louis Leterrier

Global Box Office: $263 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 67%/61

Best Quote: “You know, I know a few techniques that could help you manage that anger effectively”

What’s so frustrating about The Incredible Hulk within the larger context of the MCU is that, despite its many flaws, it feels like the best Hulk film Hollywood is capable of making. It may very well be impossible to explore the character of Bruce Banner while also saving enough time for the green guy to smash things. It’s a difficult contrast. Ang Lee went with a slower, more character-driven tone in his extremely polarizing 2003 telling, whereas this entry from French filmmaker Louis Leterrier ramps up the action at the expense of Bruce Banner. Perhaps there’s a balance somewhere in the middle that could be aided by modern motion capture. But the fact that the folks at Marvel Studios haven’t given any indication that they plan to take the character forward in the cinematic medium suggests that they’ve given up.

Edward Norton was a fine Bruce Banner, just not a great Hulk. He does an adequate job showing Banner’s fear and self-doubt, but simply lacks the facial girth to preform the motion capture necessary. The same goes for Tim Roth as Abomination here, and the visual effects artists had to use more CGI than is ideal to make the action sequences work. Those sequences, cut together briskly by a team of SIX editors, do everything they can to hide the fact that this version of the Hulk and his enemy just didn’t look that good. Elsewhere in the cast, William Hurt is great as Gen. Thunderbolt Ross, a role he’ll be reprising in Captain America: Civil War. This is actually a well-acted movie, save for the predictable struggle from Liv Tyler (we’re done giving her roles in blockbusters, right?).

I appreciate the decision by Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn to start the film right in the midst of the action rather than give us another “checks all the boxes” type origin story. I want to like The Incredible Hulk. I really do. Critiquing it in any way seems futile and unfair to those involved. But I just can’t get on board with the Hulk as a movie headliner. Not yet.

#10) Thor: The Dark World

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Year: 2013

Director: Alan Taylor

Global Box Office: $645 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 65%/54

Best Quote: “It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just….I don’t love them.”

Thor: The Dark World is a movie that’s quite literally, and on every level, saved by Loki. Tom Hiddleston is exceptional in the role, speaking with this drawn-out cadence that makes his sense of self and power seem even more warped. This was his third appearance in the MCU. Not only did the character save the day within the plot, but Hiddleston saved what is an otherwise forgettable movie due his hilarious brotherly/mortal enemy banter with Thor. The events that went down prior to this one in The Avengers add extra fuel to this relationship. Unfortunately, the Thor-Loki dynamic is the only aspect of the film that even pretends what went down in New York actually happened. The rest of Thor: The Dark World is insignificant and feels compulsory within the universe’s larger story despite the reveal of the Aether as one of the all-important “Infinity Stones” (Marvel seem to be putting all their plotting eggs in this basket).

Alan Taylor, making his transition from TV director, surprisingly nails key action sequences such as the final fight and the escape from Asgard. But the rest of the film doesn’t establish its own tone, or even conform to the tone we’ve come to expect from the MCU. The sequences on earth with Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings aren’t as funny as those in the first film, and once Portman’s character joins Thor in Asgard, the screenwriters squandered the opportunity to pry good jokes out of this change in scenery. When Loki isn’t speaking or Thor isn’t swinging his hammer, this is a boring movie.

As villains, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and the rest of the Dark Elves aren’t exactly the most interesting foes. The first film and opening sequences of this one do such a nice job establishing the different realms of space within this universe, and then it feels as if our attention is supposed to focus in on the least captivating of all the different types at play. Malekith had no clear motivations, no connection to Thanos or anybody else, no real purpose other than to be another scary-looking dude in possession of a mysterious and powerful space object. Thor: The Dark World is probably the most forgettable project that Marvel Studios has churned out. The fact that it’s still a damned entertaining action-comedy is a testament to the abilities of the cast and the all-around aura surrounding the MCU.

#9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Year: 2015

Director: Joss Whedon

Global Box Office: $1.38 billion (and counting)

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 74%/66

Best Quote: “The city is flying and we’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. Nothing makes sense.”

As I’ve stated before, my gripes with Avengers: Age of Ultron rest more with Marvel’s larger ideas than this films actual execution. Joss Whedon, who admitted that this film made him very tired and frustrated, did everything he could. He crafted a genuinely funny script with a GREAT villain (thank you, James Spader) and loaded it with references (Pinocchio, Banksy, prima nocte). Whedon is of course capable of keeping scenes with tremendous amounts of CGI grounded, and he’s very good at placing his camera in the middle of the combat.

But much like Thor: The Dark World, this film felt, frankly, pointless and repetitive. Ultron may have been an interesting foil for our heroes, but when the climax hit and we saw an army attacking a city again, why are we supposed to care? It’s already been confirmed that everybody will be back for the next Avengers film, and we know all that really matters in terms of larger conflict are the infinity stones. Joss Whedon got tired making this film over a couple years. I got tired watching it over a couple hours. Also, Aaron Taylor-Johnson with a Russian accent. NEVER AGAIN.

With that said, I seem to deviate far from the accepted opinion when it comes to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Maybe I just have bad taste. Many of my favorite aspects of the film were the most universally panned. I really enjoyed the Bruce Banner-Natasha Romanoff romance. I found the quiet moments at Hawkeye’s house to be rewarding. The top moment in the entire movie for me was when all the character’s were joking around at the party. The action in this film, no matter how technically impressive, failed to captivate me because so little was really at stake. I understand that comic-book films are always going to be a bit repetitive in a “let’s save the world again” sort of way, but I just don’t get what made this film so appealing to the surprisingly large crowd that believes it’s better than the first. Maybe the introductions of a few new players was exciting. When we look back at Avengers: Age of Ultron years later as Marvel is well into “Phase 3”, I believe that this film will be viewed as little more than filler that happens to introduce a couple of fan favorites in the Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

 #8) Iron Man 2

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Year: 2010

Director: Jon Favreau

Global Box Office: $624 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 73%/57

Best Quote: “She is from legal and is potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that.”

In defense of the oft-criticized Iron Man 2

Mickey Rourke as primary villain Ivan Ranko/Whiplash, with a Russian accent only slightly better than Taylor-Johnson’s and his peculiar avian afición, proved to be laughable, I’ll admit that. But I’m pretty sure that being a bit laughable is the point of the character. He’s supposed to be absolutely fucking ridiculous. It ties back into another popular complaint about the Iron Man 2; that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., obviously) didn’t change at all from the first film. Again, isn’t that sort of the point?

Iron Man 2 was about Stark’s ego, an ego exemplified beautifully by Downey’s rampant sarcasm, and how that ego inspired enemies. Whether it be Ranko or rival weapons mogul Justin Hammer (the always great Sam Rockwell), it became abundantly clear that Stark would have to change his nature, at least slightly, moving forward. Rockwell’s Hammer was a unique creation that deviated heavily from the comics in a good way, and of course there’s the introduction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) into the universe. Johansson would prove to be a true scene-stealer for Marvel Studios moving forward. She’s more than a simple sidekick, and her contributions were integral to films such as The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She’s stated that her role in these films is essentially to spend countless hours with the stunt team both in pre-production and on set and then let them do their thing. It certainly pays off here, as her ass-kicking moment is the films best action sequence.

Another pleasant addition to Iron Man 2 was Don Cheadle replacing Terrance Howard as Col. Rhodes. Howard wasn’t bad in the role, but Cheadle has much sharper on-screen chemistry with Downey, and ultimately, that’s all that really matters for the character. Iron Man 2 is far from Marvel’s best film, but it’s also far the being the worst of the studios major productions.

#7) Iron Man

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Year: 2008

Director: Jon Favreau

Global Box Office: $585 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 93%/79

Best Quote: “They say the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

The one that started it all is widely considered one of the studio’s best. While I disagree with that notion, there’s so much to love about Iron Man beyond the fact that it officially launched the universe.

It all starts with Downey Jr. His turn as the titular hero -with its unabashed arrogance and comedic quibbling- feels remarkably personal for an oft-troubled actor giving his take on a popular superhero. Downey experienced a remarkable career comeback by acting the same way he often does. It was a perfect piece of casting. Downey’s performance as Stark established a tone for the entire MCU, a tone that super-producer/Marvel president Kevin Fiege has made sure is matched in the studios other films, regardless of who the director is. Add Downey’s turn to some of the spectacular set pieces and genuinely compelling origin story at play in Iron Man, and you have a smash hit that launched the most successful film franchise of all time.

Iron Man is not perfect. Gwyenth Paltrow is tough to watch as Stark’s assistant/love interest Pepper Potts (though she’d do much better in later MCU films). She does too much with her eyes, and the script never gives her a chance to really do anything besides be there. It’s probably not Paltrow’s fault, but where the first Captain America and Thor films crafted impactful and interesting female players, Iron Man does the opposite. But this is all nit-picking. There’s a reason that Iron Man held the “best superhero film of all-time” billing for a few months until The Dark Knight came out; it’s really a great movie.

#6) Thor

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Year: 2011

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Global Box Office: $449 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 77%/57

Best Quote: “Is there a Renaissance fair in town?”

Even after the first two Iron Man films proved very successful, the MCU was still walking on shaky ground in terms of their larger plans. Thor, the film that essentially introduced “space” to the franchise, needed to do well. We needed to plausibly believe that a freakin’ Norse god could fit into this story. The space scenes needed to be impressive enough to carry the action components of the film, and the earth scenes needed to be charming enough to continue the lighthearted momentum of the previous films. Luckily for us, thanks to the steady direction of Kenneth Branagh and some great casting, they were.

I spent a few words singing Hiddleston’s praises as Loki earlier, so I’ll focus on former Aussie TV star turned “Sexiest Man Alive” Chris Hemsworth as Thor here. Much like Downey as Stark, it’s now impossible to imagine an actor other than Hemsworth as Thor. He simply looks the part, with his long blond hair and gigantic muscles. But Hemsworth has proved himself to be much more than a pretty boy. He’s grown as an actor both inside the MCU and out of it (tell me he wasn’t great in Rush). Hemsworth is very very funny. He does a great job of nailing the strange adjustment to earth. Have talented co-stars such as Portman and Stellan Skarsgård helps this transition.

There were a lot of complaints regarding how the moments on earth in Thor didn’t live up to the adrenaline rush provided by the spectacular space sequences. I don’t agree. Yes, some of the unique digital work done on Asgard and in the wormholes was thrilling, but I found all of the human interactions to be funny. Thor is a very difficult character to tackle given the fact that he’s from another planet. Branagh & Co. did a nice job.

#5) Captain America: The First Avenger

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Year: 2011

Director: Joe Johnston

Global Box Office: $371 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 79%/66

Best Quote: “I’m gonna need a rain check on that dance.”

The nostalgic feel of Captain America: The First Avenger made me so happy. I love the unapologetic patriotism. I love the intentionally campy training sequences. I love the 1940’s conservative flirting between Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell. While you’d expect the action to be scaled back a bit given the lack of technology in this context, it’s not. There are a lot of pretty explosions and well-staged stunts.

As an origin story, the film works because it’s interesting before Steve Rogers becomes Captain America. Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine provide both wisdom and comedic relief. The angry drill sergeant role sort of feels like it had to go to Tommy Lee Jones, right? And unlike in the some of the other MCU films, the “end of the world” stakes were more riveting in The First Avenger because they didn’t seem like retread and, you know, Nazis.

There are some complaints about the film regarding how the character of a Cap is a bit cheesy in modern times, with his strong sense of national pride and white or black morals. But that’s simply who Captain America is. If you’re looking for intelligent political commentary in a film, don’t choose one about a superhero who wears a red-white-and-blue suit and fights Nazis with a shield, yeesh. Captain America: The First Avenger is a refreshingly formulaic blockbuster, and still ranks as one of the best superhero films ever made.

#4) Iron Man 3

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Year: 2013

Director: Shane Black

Global Box Office: $1.2 billion

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 78%/62

Best Quote: “Is that all you got? A cheap trick and a cheesy one-liner?”…”Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography.”

Maybe this is where I lose you. It’s generally accepted that the first Iron Man is the best of the trilogy. But my vote goes to the grim yet hilarious Iron Man 3. The decision to replace Favreau with writer/director Shane Black proved to be a wise calculated risk. Black’s trademark cynicism and wit was on full display, and it should come as no surprise that it brought the best out in Downey (an actor whose best performance came in Black’s 2005 classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

There are plenty of twists in Iron Man 3, but what really keeps the film interesting is the way it explores the psyche of Tony Stark. Something had to change after the catastrophic events of The Avengers. So Black wrote a story that put Stark in a rough place, having to handle his own PTSD and attempting to develop a defense program that wouldn’t require him to personally suit-up and get involved in the carnage every time there’s a threat. This would, of course, indirectly lead to events in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But Iron Man 3 is far from a set-up film. At any given moment it can be spectacular, depressing, or charming (they frustrated some, but I LOVED the scenes between Downey and the kid- Ty Simpkins)

Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, James Badge Dale, and Rebecca Hall are all welcome additions to a cast that needed some new life. My only problem with Iron Man 3 is that the action sequences are very hit-or-miss. The destruction of Stark’s Malibu pad was engaging, as was the street fight filled with great one-liners. But the finale with the various suits was a bit messy from a visual perspective.

#3) Guardians of the Galaxy

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Year: 2014

Director: James Gunn

Global Box Office: $774 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/76

Best Quote: “She has no idea. If I had a blacklight, this place would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.”

When I first saw Guardians of the Galaxy, I thought, “Now THAT was the best Marvel film I’ve ever seen”. I was laughing the whole time, happy to see Chris Pratt working as an action star, and surprised with how well Dave Bautista handled the comedic aspects of Drax the Destroyer. And yes, I streamed the soundtrack a million goddamn times.

But after repeated viewings, once you’re over the pure joy the film gives off, some serious flaws expose themselves. Ronan, as a primary villain, despite the talented Lee Pace, is very underwhelming once we see Thanos. In terms of story, Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from the typical “mysterious and powerful space object falls into the wrong hands” plotline. And despite some very impressive CGI work, the finale battle isn’t all that compelling since these heroes are most interesting when not fighting via spaceship.

Honestly, none of that really matters though. Guardians is hilarious. It is heartwarming. It is perfectly cast. The soundtrack consisting of relatively obscure late-60’s/early-70’s hits is more than simply a soundtrack. With the exception of one song (the Bowie one), James Gunn wrote them all into the script and told the cast, D.P. Ben Davis, and the large editing team to consider his selections on set and in post-production work. Somehow, the reliance on these songs worked. It gave some of the films craziest moments, like the prison escape, a more light-hearted tone; something that is essential considering that two of the main characters here are a talking raccoon and a walking tree. Sinking over $200M into a film about a gang of relatively unknown characters was a huge risk for Marvel Studios. They nailed it, and moving forward, the Guardians may very well be their most valuable entity.

#2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Year: 2014

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Global Box Office: $715 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 89%/70

Best Quote: “Hey, fellas. Either one of you know where the Smithsonian is? I’m here to pick up a fossil.”

Much like Iron Man 3 used Starks PTSD to create an interesting story in a post-Avengers world, Captain America: The Winter Soldier functioned as a throwback espionage thriller focusing on corruption within S.H.I.E.L.D. This stigma was aided by the referential casting of the great Robert Redford. The Russo Bros. -who will direct the Captain America: Civil War as well as the next two Avengers films- didn’t really too heavily on CGI, showing favor towards more practical effects and hand-to-hand combat. It was a welcome change, and a fitting one given that Cap 2 was more of a “who do you trust?” movie than an “end of the world” one.

There were a number of tremendous action sequences and set pieces, my two favorite being the attempted assassination of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson had more to do than ever here) and the shootout with the Winter Soldier in the middle of the highway. I also believe the nonsexual charisma between Cap and Black Widow gave both characters more depth than they had in previous films. Then there’s the addition of Anthony Mackie as Falcon; which on top of being the “first prominent black Hollywood superhero” was also just a really fun character to add to the team moving forward. His camaraderie with Cap is enjoyable. As far as I’m concerned, the more that Marvel uses Mackie moving forward, the better.

A common complaint about Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that the actual Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) was a relatively minor part of the movie, taking a background spot to the corruption angle. I found the films conflict and balance of screentime to be perfect, perhaps they should’ve just used a less misleading title. Though I do think the script did a fine job making the “mystery” surrounding identity of the Winter Soldier -Cap’s thought to be long-dead best friend Bucky Barnes- part of the movie. I love everything about the film and gave it serious consideration for the #1 spot. But, you know, The Avengers.

#1) The Avengers

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Year: 2012

Director: Joss Whedon

Global Box Office: $1.52 billion

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 92%/69

Best Quote: “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll have that drink now.”

The Avengers should’ve failed, both as an inventive piece of blockbuster promotion and as a singular film. You can’t expect the average movie-goer to wait patiently and fork over dollars while you tease the idea of a team (the less than outstanding box office figures of the first Hulk, Thor, and Cap films tell us that). You can’t pack in a bunch of characters into one film and find a way to realize them all (the travesty that was Spider-Man 3 told us that). Except…you can. At least when you have Joss Whedon at the helm.

What Whedon manages to do with both the dialogue and action scenes in the film is nothing short of remarkable. Every character has their own set of conflicts and quality zingers. During the fighting, Whedon’s camera moves around effortlessly and checks in on everybody. He uses perspective so well. We see where everyone is, what they’re doing, and how what they’re doing impacts the fight for the rest of the team. Every set piece is detailed and vast. The CGI never gets distracting. This is an even bigger accomplishment when you consider that the only prior film Whedon directed (Serenity) cost a mere $39M to make.

The Avengers not only changed Marvel movies moving forward, it changed superhero films in general. It’s success, and the continued success of the individual characters, has inspired DC/Warners to essentially take the same approach with their properties. Whether that team of filmmakers is capable of creating an expansive universe that brings with it the sheer entertainment of the MCU remains to be seen. The Avengers was culmination of everything in Marvel’s “Phase 1”, and the engine that drove everything in “Phase 2”. As the studio heads into “Phase 3”, The Avengers remains its most resounding success.

That’s all folks. I’ll probably see Ant-Man on Thursday or Friday and try and get up a review as soon as I have time, so check back later this week if you’re still unsure of whether or not to see the film.

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