Now in its third phase, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) remains one of, if not the most, engaging franchise in blockbuster filmmaking. Although Marvel’s movies have gained a reputaion with audiences for being quality cinematic experiences — part of the reason they continue to perform so well at the box office is that audiences have been trained to know what to expect — not all of these films are created equal; in fact, some of them are quite bad. With 18 films now released under the MCU banner, it’s a good time to take a look back and figure out which Marvel film is truly the best.
Here are our rankings of the Marvel Cinematic Universe rankings in ascending order from worst to best.
UPDATE 8/23/17: We’ve added Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Spider-Man: Homecoming to the list.
UPDATE 4/20/18: We’ve added Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther to the list.
18. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
For a film about a man who transforms into a giant green rage monster, The Incredible Hulk is surprisingly boring. Most of the film revolves around Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) trying to keep his heart rate under his control so that he doesn’t transform into the Hulk. Logically, this makes sense, since the Hulk is an uncontrollable, destructive force, but that doesn’t mean that watching a man deliberately avoid turning into the creature we all came to see makes for good storytelling.
The other thing working against The Incredible Hulk — and the reason it’s the worst entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — is that it doesn’t feel like it fits with the rest of the franchise. A lot of that has to do with the fact that it was made at a time when the MCU wasn’t yet established and the replacement of Norton with Mark Ruffalo afterward, but regardless, The Incredible Hulk remains the oft-forgotten black sheep of the franchise and for good reason.
17. Iron Man 2 (2010)
In many ways, Iron Man 2 is Marvel’s first true jump into franchise-building. Whereas both The Incredible Hulk and the first Iron Man bury their references to a larger Marvel universe in post-credits scenes, one of Iron Man 2’s central plot points is devoted to the “Avengers Initiative,” for good and ill. Iron Man 2 suffers from a lack of direction, as Marvel was still in the infancy of its shared universe initiative, which rather than enhance the film only seems to drag it down. There’s also a noticeable lack of action or excitement and other than Sam Rockwell’s delightfully incompetent weapons maker Justin Hammer, there’s really not much in Iron Man 2 that stands up to repeat viewings. At least Mickey Rourke gets one cool scene as Whiplash, casually walking onto a Formula One race course and proceeding to slice Tony Stark’s car in half.
16. Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange has all the right ingredients for an epic superhero blockbuster: a powerful hero with an impressive array of abilities, a mysterious new world with its own visual language, and a stellar cast featuring top talent like Benedict Cumberbatch, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, and Mads Mikkelsen, to list a few names of this film’s ridiculous cast list. Yet, director Scott Derrickson fails to bring these elements together into a cohesive unit, resulting in a film that constantly tries to impress its audience with striking displays of special effects and trippy visuals, but can’t seem to nail some fundamental storytelling principles.
The central problem is Doctor Strange himself. Despite being ably played by Cumberbatch, who really is perfectly cast here, there’s just nothing about Stephen Strange’s arc that feels original or all that interesting, especially when compared it hits familiar beats found in previous films like Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which did a much better job of nailing the reluctant hero thing. Nobody really makes much of an impression here outside of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and in the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Doctor Strange will end up being a much better supporting player in the MCU than a character capable of anchoring his own movie.
15. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor: The Dark World is woefully forgettable. While Marvel gets points for going even further down the cosmic lunacy rabbit hole than they did with the original Thor (the brief renaissance fair-style battle near the beginning is a visual treat), The Dark World is a stopgap film through and through. Christopher Eccleston’s villain Malekith is generic and has no personality, the earthbound characters feel ancillary and annoying, and other than a notable character death in the middle act, there’s not much that is truly memorable about this disappointing sequel. The one saving grace is that Tom Hiddleston is as fantastic ever as the trickster god Loki, but unfortunately, he exits the film far too quickly.
14. Thor (2011)
Thor is, at his core, a silly character, something that Marvel was evidently aware of when they introduced him to the MCU in the 2011 film directed by Kenneth Branagh. Hiring Branagh was a great decision, as his theater background and Shakespearian sensibilities feel like a perfect fit for the grandiose narrative focus of a film about the God of Thunder. Although Thor overall is actually a rather dull superhero movie, it’s saved by its excellent casting and some standout performances, particularly Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. In many ways, Thor is the first (and one of the few) Marvel movies to be more about its villain than its hero, as Loki’s narrative journey from Thor’s loyal brother to the spurned, adopted son of Odin is actually more interesting than Thor’s tale of how he becomes “worthy” enough to wield a funny-looking hammer.
13. Iron Man 3 (2013)
The first Marvel solo movie to be released after the gargantuan crossover event The Avengers, Iron Man 3 had a tough assignment: convince audiences that standalone entries in the MCU could still work in a post-Avengers world. Despite a few stumbles, Iron Man 3 largely succeeds at this initiative by putting the focus squarely on Tony Stark as a character and his post-traumatic stress in the wake of the Battle of New York.
The Marvel movies are often criticized for never upsetting the status quo or having their characters develop over time, and while this is certainly a fair (and in some cases, accurate) criticism, Iron Man 3 feels like a statement piece on Marvel’s part, as Tony Stark is most certainly changed by the events of the film. Yes, it all kind of falls apart in the third act and nothing ever quite tops the bonding scenes between Tony and the little kid played by Ty Simpkins, but thanks to director Shane Black and his superb script, Iron Man 3 holds together fine.
12. Ant-Man (2015)
Perhaps the most troubled film that Marvel Studios has yet produced, Ant-Man very well could have been a disaster. In addition to the concerns most viewers probably had prior to watching it (“Really, an Ant-Man movie? Marvel must be running out of ideas”), the production also suffered from the highly-publicized exit of director Edgar Wright, who reportedly left the project over a creative conflict with Marvel executives. Fortunately Wright’s replacement, Peyton Reed, found a way to salvage the project and turned it into one of the most purely enjoyable installments in the MCU.
Fun is the focus of Ant-Man and it has this in spades. Paul Rudd proves that he’s incapable of not being charming and Ant-Man is the rare example of a Marvel movie with a third act that actually delivers, with a creative final battle that takes place largely in a child’s bedroom. Admittedly, Corey Stoll’s villain is pretty awful and Evangeline Lilly definitely should have been given more to do (fortunately, she will co-star alongside Rudd in the sequel) but Ant-Man definitely shouldn’t have worked as well as it does and for that, it’s kind of an admirable feat.
11. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
If Thor represented a tough sell as a superhero that modern audiences could get behind, Captain America must have seemed like an impossibility. One of Marvel’s earliest creations, with his goofy red, white, and blue-themed outfit and boy scout attitude, Captain America is absolutely a relic of the past and arguably shouldn’t work as a hero that appeals to 21st century audiences. Somehow though, Marvel not only got Captain America right, they turned him into the MCU’s best character and it all started with The First Avenger.
Directed by Joe Johnston, The First Avenger has a distinctly retro feel; a nostalgic throwback to the Greatest Generation, with Captain America at the helm. Chris Evans makes a great first impression with the title role and although the latter half is noticeably inferior to the first — with too many montage sequences and a bit too much emphasis on Avengers set-up work — the film makes up for these shortcomings by being an enjoyable period picture in a genre that rarely tries stuff like this.
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Avengers: Age of Ultron is noticeably inferior to its gamechanging predecessor, but looking back on it now, how could Joss Whedon have possibly topped himself? The first Avengers felt like nothing short of a miracle when it was initially released and although Age of Ultron does quite a few things better than its predecessor, it doesn’t have the same surprise or heart to hold it all together. Whedon notably exited the MCU with this film, citing studio pressure and exhaustion, and it’s all up there on the screen.
Age of Ultron crumples under its own weight at times, with too many scenes devoted to setting up future installments in the franchise that detract from the film’s flow (who can forget that studio-mandated Thor cave scene that added nothing to the plot?). Still, despite its shortcomings, Age of Ultron is still a very enjoyable superhero crossover film, with much better action scenes than its predecessor and a fascinating (though underutilized) villain in James Spader’s Ultron.
9. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Homecoming is easily the best Spider-Man film since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2; a fun, hilarious, and occasionally dramatic take on the wall-crawler’s high school years that presents how fun being Spider-Man would actually be better than any film before it. Tom Holland excels as a less disciplined Peter Parker, who is still trying to figure out how to be a hero and as such, spends a considerable portion of the movie screwing up, something that dumb teenagers do all the time. Additionally, Michael Keaton proves to be one of the MCU’s best villains to date as Adrian Toomes / Vulture, a blue-collar criminal with reasonably believable motivations for the things he does.
As much fun as Homecoming is though, it’s held back from consideration as one of the MCU’s best installments because it commits a little too much to presenting a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” and spends very little time exploring the emotional and tragic sides of the character, as well as his backstory. We didn’t need yet another retelling of Uncle Ben’s murder, of course, but when a Spider-Man film can’t even mention that character by name, it feels like a fundamental piece of who Spider-Man is is missing. Hopefully the upcoming sequel puts a little more emphasis on these elements.
8. Iron Man (2008)
In 2016, Iron Man is one of the most popular superheroes in the world, but back in 2008, he was a B-list Marvel character that many outside of the Marvel Comics sphere had likely never even heard of. In other words, making an Iron Man movie was a risky venture for Marvel but fortunately for them, they had a legitimately good superhero film on their hands.
Iron Man simultaneously reignited the career of Robert Downey Jr. and gave birth to the MCU, and will always have a rarefied air surrounding it for that reason. However, at its core, it tells a very personal story about a man who accepts his flaws and makes concerted efforts to fix them. That’s a good narrative framework to begin with, but in the hands of the sarcastically charming Downey, it becomes something more. Iron Man has certainly been eclipsed by subsequent films in the franchise it essentially created, but as the opening salvo in the MCU, you could do a lot worse.
7. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
The first Guardians of the Galaxy was so irreverent and original that it was hard to imagine a sequel that could top it. Fortunately, writer-director James Gunn comes about as close as possible to surpassing his original creation and in some instances, he definitely does with Vol. 2. This second installment expands upon the central relationships between Peter Quill/ Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradly Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), finding new wrinkles to their dysfunctional family dynamic, while also introducing some compelling new characters.
Kurt Russell very nearly steals the show as Star-Lord’s godlike father Ego the Living Planet, but it’s Michael Rooker’s Yondu who ends up being the surprise MVP, as the film goes to some emotional places in its exploration of his role as Peter’s adoptive father. The only thing that holds Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 back from truly topping its predecessor is that it lacks that film’s surprise and originality, and suffers from pacing issues in its middle act. Still, this is a better sequel than any of us could have asked for and bodes well for the eventual GotG Vol. 3, which will again see Gunn write and direct.
6. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Despite great work from Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and the legendary Sir Anthony Hopkins, the first two Thor movies represent low points in the MCU – uneven, melodramatic affairs that, while visually compelling, feel like they never found the right tone. Apparently, the solution to fixing the series was to simply bring in director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows) and let him turn Thor into farce, as Thor: Ragnarok is a hilariously entertaining romp of a space adventure that finally gives the God of Thunder his due.
Pairing Thor with the Hulk was a stroke of genius, as the two “strongest Avengers” form a buddy comedy duo (with just the right amount of animosity simmering between them) that works even when the big green guy takes a backseat and Mark Ruffalo gets to be his ever-charming self as Bruce Banner. And while it’s a shame that the film wasn’t able to bring back Natalie Portman and actually try to redeem her character Jane Foster, it’s hard to complain when Ragnarok’s two female leads – Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie and Cate Blanchett’s scenery-chewing villain Hela – are so damn good. Sure, Thor: Ragnarok continues the all-too-familiar Marvel trope of never making you feel like any of its characters are in actual danger (though Thor does lose an eye!), it’s so much fun and so well-executed that it’s hard to really care.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy offers definitive proof that Marvel can seemingly create a compelling movie out of any of its characters, no matter how obscure or silly they may at first seem. Focused on a team of C-list characters and set in the far reaches of space, Guardians could have easily been a disaster, but thanks to some superb casting and a hilarious script from director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman, it not only works, it’s one of the most entertaining superhero movies ever made.
Like most other Marvel movies, Guardians has a pretty forgettable villain, but it’s not as much of a glaring issue here given how interesting and diverse the main cast is. Chris Pratt gets the chance to show off his leading man qualities and Zoe Saldana holds her own as the team’s only female character, but it’s the rest of group that makes the biggest impression. Dave Bautista’s deadpanning Drax the Destroyer is a comic delight, while the duo of Rocket Raccoon and Groot may just be the best couple in the MCU. The Avengers may still most of the attention, but the B-Team proves to be just as compelling and arguably, more fun to watch.
4. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Captain America: Civil War is most certainly a great superhero film, but the main reason it succeeds so admirably is because of the groundwork laid out in multiple films preceding it. Although it isn’t a final film in anyway shape or form (in fact, it’s the opening entry in Marvel’s Phase Three plan), Civil War feels like the culmination of Marvel’s shared universe plan and proof that this sort of longform storytelling was a winning conceptual decision.
You can poke holes in the actual plot of Civil War all day, but this is a movie driven by characters. The superhero vs. superhero conflict is Civil War’s main attraction, but it’s commendable how even with its large cast (this is definitely an unofficial Avengers move), the central Cap and Bucky remains the beating heart of the whole enterprise. Civil War also distinguishes itself by featuring arguably the greatest superhero brawl yet seen in live action filmmaking, which gives it top 5 consideration by itself.
3. Black Panther (2018)
By far the most thought-provoking Marvel movie to date, Black Panther is an incredibly ambitious superhero picture that not only introduces fans to an all-new corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but actually makes them think about how it all fits together. Co-writer and director Ryan Coogler’s depiction of the fictional African nation of Wakanda is nothing short of a revelation, as employs Wakanda’s status as a wealthy first-world in possession of highly advanced technology to explore deep racial themes of colonialism, diaspora, wealth disparity, and family legacy, just to name a few.
Black Panther is also overflowing with awesome characters who have quickly become some of the most beloved in the MCU, from Letitia Wright’s intelligent and sophisticated Shuri to Chadwick Boseman’s understated performance in the lead role. The film also accomplishes something Marvel has routinely struggled with by offering a compelling villain, as Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is easily one of the greatest antagonists the MCU has yet produced. In terms of pure superhero movie action, Black Panther leaves a bit to be desired, as the final clash between T’Challa and Killmonger is admittedly rather forgettable, but as a standalone piece of superhero cinema, Black Panther stands as one of the best.
2. The Avengers (2012)
Other than the first Iron Man, 2012’s The Avengers is arguably Marvel’s most important film to date and fortunately, it’s also one of its best. Although the studio proved that it could make some pretty decent standalone films in the form of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger prior to this film’s release, The Avengers was still an incredibly risky gamble. No one had really attempted a crossover event of this magnitude before and The Avengers could have easily buckled under those kinds of expectations.
Hiring geek icon Joss Whedon to write and direct was a good sign that showed that Marvel was taking this whole thing very seriously, but even now, it’s hard to believe that it worked so well. The Avengers balances out the expected flashy superheroics with a plot that digs into each of its characters personalities and portrays them as a group of damaged misfits who really should not get along. Subsequent films in the franchise (and other movie franchises for that matter) have tried to replicate it, but overall, this is still widely considered the gold standard of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Well, almost anyway …
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Who would have thought that Captain America would have the best installments in the MCU by quite a wide margin? Civil War pretty much cemented this sentiment, but it’s The Winter Soldier that proves to be the best of all. The Winter Soldier works so well because it is more thematically rich than any other entry in the MCU, while being a great popcorn flick at the same time. The reveal that S.H.I.E.L.D. is really Captain America’s greatest enemy Hydra is a stroke of genius from a narrative standpoint, as it not only offers an excellent twist within the actual film, but affects the entire MCU as a whole going forward.
That being said, The Winter Solider is still really about the personal story of Steve Rogers finding his place in an era he’s not comfortable with and what it means when the line between the good guys and the bad is increasingly blurred. The Winter Soldier is a superhero movie for our troubled political times and stands as Marvel’s greatest cinematic triumph to date.