This Friday, Thor: Ragnarok will hit theaters, which represents the 17th film to be released in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. It all comes to a head next May with the Avengers: Infinity War (film #19 after February’s Black Panther), when the MCU as we know it will completely change.
But today, we’re looking back at the previous 16 films. There’s nothing objective about the order below; it’s just my personal opinion. This debate constantly seems to draw “blood” on the internet, so I’m braced for some negative feedback on this one (Kessler).
16. Thor: The Dark World (RT 66%)
The lowest-ranked of the MCU films by far, this film has some solid scenes, but as a whole, it barely makes sense. Massive tragedy is almost immediately followed by light comedy, and the whole thing doesn’t really stick at the end.
15. Avengers: Age of Ultron (RT 75%)
I hate putting a Joss Whedon film this far down the list, but even the writer/director himself spoke often of his constant troubles with the studio, saying how the film “almost killed him”. Overall, the film is a near incomprehensible mess of story fragments cut together with setup for other films down the line. By the time the climax comes, it’s hard to care what’s happening.
14. The Incredible Hulk (RT 75%)
The “forgotten” MCU film, largely because Edward Norton was replaced with Mark Ruffalo immediately following the filming. Norton, notoriously hard to work with, clashed with the creative team, and even refused to do promotion for the film afterwards. Ruffalo has pretty much nailed the role since then and though it’s highly unlikely there will ever be another Hulk solo film in the MCU, fans can catch him in a starring role in Thor: Ragnarok this weekend.
13. Ant-Man (RT 81%)
Visionary filmmaker Edgar Wright developed this film for eight years, before leaving due to creative differences with the studio. That’s always colored this one for me, which ultimately felt too paint-by-numbers in the end, despite the fantastic talent in front of the camera. It was a serviceable introduction to the character, but that’s all really.
12. Iron Man 2 (RT 72%)
More action, more Stark humor and the introduction of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. Not quite as fresh as the first film, ultimately, and felt like a placeholder until the MCU really expanded in 2011 with the introductions of Thor and Cap.
11. Thor (RT 77%)
From the trailers, Ragnarok would seem to easily be the best Thor film, as this franchise has lacked somewhat in consistent creative direction. This one had ace director Kenneth Branagh behind the camera, and it certainly looked the part. Natalie Portman’s character didn’t have a lot to do, and she ultimately wound up being wasted in the series as a whole. No film franchise should waste talent like that.
10. Doctor Strange (RT 89%)
Speaking of wasting talent, I’m hoping Rachel McAdams will have a lot more to do in the Avengers films, or in the next Doctor Strange because otherwise, I’m not sure what she’s doing there. The film itself was a dazzling spectacle of images and I’m much more interested in the universe Strange resides in than the rushed origin story. I get they were getting him up to speed for Infinity War (and Ragnarok, apparently), but it seemed like there was more good stuff to mine there beforehand.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2 (RT 81%)
Guardians 2 managed to avoid the over-stuffed feeling that a lot of franchise first sequels seem to feel (IM2, Thor 2, Avengers 2), and ultimately improved in some areas over the original. The tonal issues of the first were smoothed over, while the humor was taken up a notch. The 2nd act of the film dragged a bit though, and though the music (more important on GotG than other films) was good, it wasn’t as driving as the first.
8. Spider-Man: Homecoming (RT 92%)
I didn’t love this one as much as others did. Yes – Holland’s Spider-Man is a solid fit into the MCU, and he owns every inch of the oft-rebooted character. Keaton was great as the big-bad, and his interplay with Spidey was terrific. However – the film’s pacing suffered, particularly in the first hour, and the ending of the film was hokey and cliche. I’m excited to see this character develop more down the line.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger (RT 79%)
The MCU’s version of a “period piece”; I just love how this was shot. The photography felt like it would be right at home against some of the other films from the era. While also kind of a standard origin story, it avoided some of the usual traps that come with it, by giving Steve Rodgers the heart of a hero before the body, and an immediate threat to fight against. Peggy Carter is also one of the better female sidekicks/love interests in super hero history, so much so she got her own show.
6. Iron Man 3 (RT 79%)
I’m sure I’m going to hear it on this one – a lot of people disliked and even hated Iron Man 3. I’ll give you the ending – it looked the part, but it made little sense in the context both in what came before it and what followed. Beyond that, though, it was pretty damned good. The first film to follow the Battle of New York in The Avengers, Tony Stark’s post-9/11-style PTSD felt right on for his character – he’s just starting to understand who he has become in the world, and his responsibility. Having him go low-tech, sans Iron Man, on a personal mission of vengeance also felt just about perfect. I’d change the ending and the attack on his house, but other than that, damn fine entry.
5. Captain America: Civil War (RT 90%)
Everything you want a super-hero film to be, and hey – they’re not saving the world this time! The big battle scene was cool, but felt strangely off and somewhat contrived. The ending scenes were fantastic though, and really set the scene for more films down the line. Still can’t wait to see where Cap is come next May.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy (RT 91%)
The combination of humor, music and sci-fi adventure reminded me of Firefly, and I can give the film no greater compliment than that. Guardians suffered a little bit from some tonal problems linking its scenes, but holds up well on repeat viewings.
3. Iron Man (RT 94%)
The film that started it all, and it started with a bang. Iron Man should have been drowned out by The Dark Knight, which came out a few weeks later in the summer of 2008, but managed to hold its own by providing a fresh, funny and bold vision, held down by a terrific, comeback performance by Robert Downey Jr (who is still probably the most popular MCU character).
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (RT 89%)
As much an old-fashioned spy film as a super hero flick, Cap 2 is often spoken of as the best film in the MCU. The story had plenty of nice twists and turns, with good core performances and chemistry between Chris Evans and Johansson. While Black Widow plays no real love interest to Cap, the film really sings when the two of them are on screen together. Take note, super hero film wannabes – make the girl a great character and make sure she has something to do as well. One of the reasons Wonder Woman was so good was Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor; now just make sure to do that for a woman when she’s playing opposite a man.
1. The Avengers (RT 92%)
Though I ultimately think that Cap 2 is probably a better film overall, The Avengers had a lot more to do and a lot riding on it. Trying to bring in six major characters, almost all of whom had significant screen time in advance (Hawkeye being the lone exception), and trying to incorporate them into a single story without losing story was a huge challenge. But Joss Whedon, the writer and director, pulled it off better than anyone could have expected. Ultimately, it’s also one of the few superhero films that is consistent from beginning to finish, and have a third act that’s both a huge spectacular set piece and felt earned within the story.