Ever since Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man made his big screen debut in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the highest grossing franchise in Hollywood history. From demigods and superhuman soldiers to a talking tree, the MCU has brought amazing characters to the big screen and has been a major factor in bringing geek culture to the mainstream market.
With 13 movies on their current roster, Captain America: Civil War now in theaters, and many more either filming or in pre-production, it’s time to open the floor for discussion on the best and weakest installments in the MCU. The following are my picks for these movies, ranked in order of least to greatest. Please note that this list is non-inclusive and I want to hear your opinions as well.
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Set sometime after the first Iron Man movie, the sequel features villain Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) as he seeks vengeance on Tony Stark for his father exiling him and is after his suit, along with half the world. Now that the world knows who he is, Tony must deal with Vanko and rival arms dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell). Meanwhile, Nick Fury is still trying to recruit him for the Avengers initiative.
While not necessarily terrible, we can all agree that Iron Man 2 is a less than stellar sequel. Whereas the first one tells a nice, cohesive narrative, the second installment is a bit clunkier in its storytelling. It suffers from the “trying to set up future MCU events” problem, which causes it to lose focus on more than one occasion and is ultimately responsible for Rourke’s Whiplash being a one-dimensional villain. While director Jon Favreau wanted to do more with this character and explore his background, he was also tasked with introducing Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and setting up key events which would build up to The Avengers.
Though there are some great moments in the film, such as seeing Rhodey in the War Machine armor and when Tony says to Col. Fury “I told you I don’t wanna join your super secret boy band,” the overall story and execution are major factors which make this movie one of the weaker installments in the MCU.
Chronicling the origins of the god of thunder, Thor begins with the titular protagonist being stripped of his powers and exiled to Earth after defying his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). During his time there, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) meets the young scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her companions, and must live among them until he can prove himself worthy of once again wielding the mighty hammer Mjolnir. Meanwhile on Asgard, the wicked Loki (Tom Hiddleston) takes full advantage of his brother’s absence to push his own agenda and steal Odin’s throne.
As simple popcorn entertainment, the Thor movies are decent, but they have yet to capture the same essence as some of the better MCU movies. While the first one has its fair share of humor and the casting is pretty spot on, at the same time the action scenes tend to showcase director Kenneth Branaugh’s lack of experience in this genre. The battles with the Frost Giants feel too much like a video game, and the fight between Thor and the giant robot in the end isn’t exactly memorable either. Though Branaugh’s Shakespearean background works great here, some of the other elements don’t work quite as well.
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Following the events of The Avengers, the second Thor movie opens with our hero back on Asgard as he seeks to restore order to the nine realms. Back on Earth, Jane Foster, who still reminisces about her guardian angel even though she hasn’t seen him in two years, stumbles upon a mysterious magical object which unleashes a powerful curse. In order to protect her and the orb from the villain Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and his dark elf army, Thor must leave his home world and engage in a loose alliance with Loki.
Stylistically, The Dark World is definitely several steps above its predecessor, thanks to director and Game of Thrones veteran Alan Taylor. The action sequences and other visual components are much more appealing and there are some great stunts and set pieces in the scenes on Asgard. However, story wise the film lacks any real substance. Malekith is once again a completely flat villain who audiences couldn’t care less about, and the whole chasing after an orb plot is used far too often in this universe. Like Iron Man 2, this one started shooting before a script was even finished, which may be why Taylor opted not to return for the third installment.
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
The Hulk’s cinematic history has been far more complicated than his fellow Avengers. Following the universally hated 2003 Ang Lee film with Eric Bana, director Louis Letterier and actor Edward Norton introduced the character in the MCU in the somewhat forgotten 2008 movie The Incredible Hulk. Though Joss Whedon and Mark Ruffalo’s version finally became the definitive Hulk in 2012, I wouldn’t call this one a misfire.
Despite its flaws, what I like about this movie is that it’s not an origin story and I rather enjoyed Norton’s portrayal of Bruce Banner. Now on the run from General Ross (William Hurt) and trying to find a cure for the Gamma Ray virus which transformed him, Banner must also battle Ross’ super soldier puppet Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth). The movie also of course continues to explore the romantic subplot between Banner and Ross’ daughter Betty (Liv Tyler).
As a big fan of the 90s animated Hulk series, I like how this one pays tribute to classic characters and could’ve been a good starting point for more Hulk solo movies. Though Whedon’s version is of course the best and makes effective use of CGI, this one is at least ten times better than the Lee one. Whether or not we’ll see another standalone film for the raging green monster remains uncertain.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
The third and supposedly final standalone Iron Man movie features a more serious Tony Stark and an overall darker tone. Still recovering from the alien invasion in The Avengers, Tony faces a new threat as a terrorist called The Mandarin (disguised in the form of Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian) comes to destroy him. Desperate to end his superhero career so he can be with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Tony sets out on a retribution mission.
Many fanboys still haven’t gotten over director and co-writer Shane Black’s infamous decision to completely reinvent the Mandarin’s mythology. While everyone eagerly anticipated seeing Ben Kingsley portray the iconic villain from the comics, I still remember the outrage across the Internet upon learning that his character was just an actor hired to fool everyone. Beyond that, a more serious Tony didn’t sit well with a lot of people either, which likely lead to the more fun version of the character returning for Age of Ultron.
Nevertheless, Iron Man 3 does have its positive elements, such as Pearce’s performance and the epic final battle in which dozens of Iron Man suits come to Tony’s aid. Despite its plot holes and its pissing off the bulk of the comic book community, the movie does showcase Black’s talent as an action movie director, with its aesthetic and fight sequences reminding viewers of his work on the Lethal Weapon series.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Desperate to create a safe alternate to The Avengers and thus provide a catalyst for world peace, Stark teams up with Banner to create an A.I. named Ultron (voiced by James Spader), using Loki’s scepter as a power source. But as in all A.I. stories, the plan backfires and Ultron becomes a threat unlike any other foe the Avengers have faced before.
Writer-director Joss Whedon received a wealth of criticism in this sequel to his 2012 smash hit, mostly because of the supposedly sexist way in which he portrayed Black Widow and her out of left field romance with Banner. Beyond that, Whedon has revealed that he clashed with Marvel on more than one occasion over story details throughout production. As a result, many scenes in Age of Ultron have little relevancy to the film’s core storyline and are only included to set up future events in the MCU.
Though these are noticeable problems, upon my second viewing of the movie I realized that Whedon’s ambition has its payoffs here. Despite its unnecessarily excessive use of a bleaker cinematic aesthetic, it does create tension between these characters and thus lays the groundwork for Civil War. It also has the Hulkbuster fight, so there’s that.
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Though not as great as its sequel, the first Cap movie with Chris Evans is a delightfully entertaining and stylistically engaging treat for all Marvel fans. Combining stellar WW2 sci-fi action with a heartfelt story about an underdog hero, The First Avenger is everything you could want in a purely fun comic book movie.
Chronicling the origins of Steve Rogers as he uses the super soldier serum to go from skinny Brooklyn kid to Captain America, the movie does a particularly great job with both his character and his disfigured nemesis Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).
Director Joe Johnston brings a kinetic energy to the movie’s action, humor and characters, which makes the ending all the more rewarding. Though the Russo brothers were better suited to handle the slightly more grounded themes in the sequel, Johnston delivered one heck of an origin story in this movie which paved the way for Cap to become one of the central figures in the MCU.
The latest addition to the MCU is one many of my non-nerd friends have been asking me for months why it exists. Now I can finally show them the reason: because it’s two hours of non-stop B movie fun with delightful characters and a plot line so ridiculous that it’s brilliant.
As the original Ant-Man Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) work to recover the Pym particle technology from Pym’s former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), they train ex-con Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) to become the next Ant-Man. Pym knows that the technology, which minimizes the space between atoms in an object and thus enables that object to shrink down to a miniature version of itself, would be dangerous if left in the wrong hands, and as such needs Lang to help him pull off the ultimate heist job.
While I am a big Edgar Wright fan and was greatly disappointed when he left the project last summer, what’s great about this movie is that Marvel remained as faithful to the Shaun of the Dead director’s vision as possible, and also gave him his proper credit as a lead writer/executive producer (Wright was instrumental in the casting of Rudd, Douglas and Lilly). Despite the challenge of filling the shoes of such a well respected filmmaker, Peyton Reed has proved himself the right man for the job. Utilizing his comedy background with films like Yes Man and The Break Up, Reed brings just the right amount of energy to this one and keeps it self contained from some of the larger events in the MCU. In an age of post-911 big scale disaster superhero movies where the bad guys want to destroy the world, Ant-Man proves that no project is too small for Marvel.
Iron Man (2008)
The movie that started it all, the first Iron Man is as much a breakthrough superhero movie as it is a career comeback for its star Robert Downey Jr. Before this film, Downey Jr. had fallen from his popularity and was reported to have alcohol and drug addictions. Hence, Iron Man did as much for him as it did for Hollywood.
Unlike the common “one-dimensional villain” problem many MCU movies have suffered from, this one gives us a great antagonist in the form of Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stain. Instead of having a “hey I’m the villain” sign written on him from the start of the movie, Stain is a less conventional nemesis with a commanding screen presence.
As director Jon Favreau shows us Tony’s origin, from billionaire weapons dealer to the prisoner of Middle-Eastern terrorists to robotic superhero, viewers go from seeing him as a jerk playboy to a guy everyone roots for. With stellar action, engaging characters and our first big screen introduction to Stark and his quick-witted, snarky humor, there’s no question that this one remains one of the best installments in this series of movies.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Civil War proves that a comic book movie can incorporate multiple characters and plot elements, so long as the story comes first and is handled delicately. Both the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely expertly tackle this juggling act of a blockbuster, which pivots Earth’s Mightiest Heroes against one another in an epic showdown.
Why the Captain America Trilogy is the Best Part of the MCU
Though bigger in scope than the creative team’s previous outing The Winter Soldier, the third entry in the Captain America series nonetheless manages to provide the perfect balance of action, humor and character-based drama.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
The Winter Soldier is a great example of Marvel experimenting with different genres, as this one is a 70s style spy thriller. Brought to us by brother filmmakers Anthony and Joe Russo, this one raises the stakes for Cap and sets itself apart from the more adventurous tone of The First Avenger.
With S.H.I.E.L.D. infiltrated by HYDRA, Nick Fury down and Cap’s sidekick Bucky Barnes revived as a HYDRA super weapon, Steve Rogers can no longer be a goody two shoes kind of hero. Driven by the Russo brothers’ style and a well paced script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who are now equally important MCU architects), The Winter Soldier quickly acquired critical attention and is hailed as one of the better superhero movies.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Prior to this movie, writer-director James Gunn had a cult following as a successful indie filmmaker, but was relatively unknown to mainstream audiences. But thanks to a talking tree and a quick-witted raccoon, Gunn is now one of the most widely discussed directors in Hollywood.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a beautifully put together space opera which captures the imagination from start to finish. Delivering the same kind of “wow” factor as the original Star Wars, the movie really does take viewers to another galaxy. Following a band of space pirates as they try to keep an infinity stone from falling into the hands of intergalactic terrorist Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace), the unlikely team of outlaws must put aside their differences and become the space version of the Avengers.
Though it does contain familiar plot tropes, Guardians is just pure fun. Whether it’s Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, the great 70s soundtrack or the duo of Rocket Raccoon and Groot, there’s something for everyone in this movie that will make you want to watch it again and again.
The Avengers (2012)
Joss Whedon set a new high for superhero movies when he brought together a team of iconic characters for a mega hit of a blockbuster. Whether or not you’re into this genre, no one can deny the pure geekiness everyone felt the first time they saw the famous tracking shot in The Avengers of Cap, Iron Man and the whole team, accompanied by the fantastic score by the great Alan Silvestri.
While simple in its plot, it’s the dialogue, characters and stylized action sequences which make this movie what it is. Between the epic New York City battle, Loki’s presence and Marvel finally getting Hulk right, The Avengers remains the definitive fanboy film and a game changer which took superhero movies to the next level.
Conclusion: The impact of the MCU is now more obvious than ever before, with DC now building its own extended universe and other major franchises trying to do the same. Though it’s had its ups and downs, it continues to grow in popularity every day, with phase three off to a great start.
How would you rank the MCU movies? Sound off in the comments!