There are many reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful. Compelling characters and fun storytelling are some of the most important, but these films wouldn’t be half as effective if the superheroes on screen didn’t look and act like we imagine they would based off how they’re presented in comic books. While good action scenes have arguably become less important as the MCU has continued to expand — Black Panther, one of the most commercially and critically successful films in the franchise, actually has some rather lackluster fight scenes — there’s still something to be said for a great superhero battle. While everyone has their favorites — and a few of your own most likely didn’t make the cut for this list — here are some of MCU action scenes that stick out the most for us.
15. Tony Stark’s Escape – Iron Man
Sure, the Jon Favreau-directed Iron Man can’t compete with later installments when it comes to action set pieces (bigger budgets and more characters go a long way in this regard), but that doesn’t mean that the movie that kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe is lacking in exciting, heroic sequences. Case in point: the escape sequence that caps off Iron Man’s first act is wonderfully executed, benefiting from some excellent setup work. At the center of it is Tony Stark himself, as Robert Downey Jr. imbues the character with a sense of pathos as we follow his redemption arc from cocky arms dealer to a prisoner desperate to escape his brutal captors and take back control of his life.
The sequence itself begins with a period of intense buildup as we see Tony and his ally Yinsen desperately try to get the Mark I armor powered up. When Tony finally puts on the armor and starts his escape from his cave prison, it’s a cathartic moment as he lays waste to his enemies on his way out. Alas, poor Yinsen doesn’t make it, but this loss only helps fuel Tony’s hero’s journey and puts him on a path that will eventually lead to the formation of the Avengers and beyond.
14. Guardians Vs. Abilisk – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is just as funny and irreverent as the original, but none of its action scenes top that film’s prison escape sequence or its bombastic finale. That being said, Vol. 2’s opening might just be the best opening of any Marvel movie, combining dancing, a pitched battle with an ugly alien, and one of the best pop songs of the 70s for a sequence that could put a smile on anyone’s face. Much like Guardians Vol. 1, which had its opening credits sequence set to a solo dance number from Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Vol. 2 opens with a dance number, but one that is much more ambitious in its scope.
As his teammates fight the savage Abilisk in the background, the camera follows Baby Groot as he dances to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” seemingly oblivious to the destruction all around him. The other Guardians essentially have to play babysitter duty with their child-like teammate, a theme that will be carried through the rest of the movie. Impressively choreographed and edited, it’s hard to imagine what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is going to do to top this.
13. Chase Through The Mirror Dimension – Doctor Strange
Doctor Strange is one of the weaker entries in the MCU but at the end of the day, it’s still a slickly-produced superhero origin story sporting some pretty impressive visuals. One of the film’s biggest strengths is its action sequences, as director Scott Derrickson and cinematographer Ben Davis go above and beyond in making sure Doctor Strange feels like a Marvel movie by way of a hallucinogenic acid trip.
Watching Doctor Strange and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) run away from Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) and a couple of the villain’s cronies would be a tedious affair if it wasn’t for the scene’s kaleidoscopic imagery. Buildings fold in on themselves, Inception style, and reality bends around the characters as they race up and down the sides of skyscrapers in their pursuit. It all leads to an equally mind-bending battle between Kaecilius and the Ancient One, adding up to one of the strangest and most unique action scenes in the MCU. It’s just too bad the movie itself wasn’t more engaging or this could have been much higher on the list.
12. Suits Sequence – Iron Man 3
The first two Iron Man movies kind of fall apart in their third acts, primarily because neither offers up a particularly thrilling final battle. Iron Man 3 flips the script by throwing as much Iron Man action as possible at the screen, with Tony Stark calling on the services of the dozens of suits he’s built to assist him in his fight against the Mandarin/Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). In the larger context of the film, we can view the suit onslaught as a mental cleansing of sorts for Tony, who had compulsively created them all as a means of coping with his PTSD. Here, we get to see those suits actually have a positive effect not only Tony, but the world as a whole, as they help defeat a very real threat. It’s also just supremely cool to see a whole bunch of different Iron Man suits fighting together, even if most of them are destroyed in the process.
11. Ant-Man VS. Yellowjacket – Ant-Man
Much like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, Ant-Man succeeds in blending traditional action beats with more silly, comedic moments, which is a tough balance to strike. Take, for instance, the film’s final battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket, which is set in a child’s bedroom. Of course, the nature of both character’s abilities makes that setup much more thrilling than it sounds, as the two combatants wage a pitched battle on a small-scale. The result of this is that tiny objects in the room, such as a model train set, become a part of the action, and the scene plays out like a child’s action figure diorama come to life. Whereas the Avengers level whole cities when they’re trying to save the world, Ant-Man just kind of makes a little household mess to clean up later, proving that superhero actions scenes can be thrilling in any context as long as they’re creative and fun.
10. Elevator Fight – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Russo brothers’ ability to direct thrilling action sequences is undisputed at this point, but the pair had quite a bit to prove with 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, their Marvel directorial debut. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long to see what they could do, as pretty much every action sequence in The Winter Soldier — from the opening S.H.I.E.L.D. assault on a hijacked vessel to the final bombastic battle over the Potomac River — is a sight to behold. The best action scene in the film appears later on this list, but the Captain America’s elevator brawl is almost just as good.
Making great use of a small physical space, the scene plays out like something you’d see from an auteur action filmmaker, as Cap is assaulted by around a dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents inside a crowded elevator, where his superhuman strength and reflexes are not quite as effective as they’d otherwise be. Still, despite a few close calls, Cap is able to gain the upper hand and dispatch all of his foes, and the fight ends with an excellent birds-eye view shot of the hero snapping up his shield in the middle of a pile of unconscious bodies. Moral of the story: don’t try to pull a fast one on Captain America.
9. Thor VS. Hulk Round 1 – The Avengers
Part of the appeal of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers when it was released was getting to see characters like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and the Incredible Hulk share the screen for the first time in live-action. The Avengers delivered on this novelty by not only having the characters fight together, but with each other. We get a glimpse of the team’s conflicting personalities early on when Iron and Thor spar in a forest, but the most thrilling rivalry belongs to the team’s most powerful characters: Thor and Hulk.
Hulk’s rampage through the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier is jaw-dropping in itself, but then it’s capped off with a fight comic fans spent decades dreaming of when the God of Thunder steps in to try and quell the green beast. Although it’s brief, getting to see these two titans wallop each other is a true sight to behold and the best part is that it kicked off a rivalry between the two that’s been carried forward into other movies, most notably Thor: Ragnarok, in which the duo repeatedly tease each other about who’s the strongest Avenger.
8. Avengers Vs. Hydra – Avengers: Age of Ultron
While certain aspects of Age of Ultron have received mixed reactions, such as its lack of narrative focus and too much time spent developing future plots for the MCU, it’s hard to deny that the film’s opening is really strong, offering a suitably bombastic look at The Avengers in action. The heroes’ assault on Baron Von Strucker’s Hydra base is expertly designed, from the opening moments showing the Hydra forces preparing for an off-screen attack, to the reveal of the various members of the Avengers team, who all converge for a triumphant group shot before separating again. It’s a heck of a way to open the film and emphasizes how confident Marvel were at this point in the franchise.
7. Highway Fight – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
The Winter Soldier hangs like a specter over the first half of the second Captain America movie, so that when the Hydra assassin finally squares off against Steve Rogers, we already know that Cap is in for the fight of his life. Of course, the highway ambush that occurs about halfway through The Winter Soldier is filled with all sorts of other cool moments, such as getting to see Anthony Mackie’s Falcon in action for the first time and Black Widow being hunted by — and eventually turning the tables on — the Winter Soldier, but the pitched hand-to-hand combat sequence between Steve and Bucky is the true highlight and arguably the best sequence in the entire film.
With their enhanced abilities and rigorous training, the two are evenly matched and engage in a brutal, momentous close-quarters fight that is impressively choreographed. The fight also makes great use of each character’s special item, with Cap’s shield being tossed around and the Winter Soldier’s bionic metal arm punching holes in the sides of cars. And then it’s all capped with the reveal of the Winter Soldier’s true identity, paving the way for Steve and Bucky’s also fun, but not quite as good third act confrontation.
6. Thor VS. Hulk Round 2 – Thor Ragnarok
More than five years after their first bout aboard the S.H.I.E.L.D. Helicarrier, Thor and Hulk got a chance at a rematch in Thor: Ragnarok. Imprisoned by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, delightful as ever), Thor is first to do battle with the ruler’s champion in the Contest of Champions, who turns out to be one none other than the Hulk, who has become a popular attraction on Sakaar thanks to his knack for pummeling anyone dumb enough to challenge him. What follows is a gladiator match for the ages, as Thor reluctantly (at least at first) fights his “friend from work” in an epic clash that again sees the pair matching each other shot for shot. And yet again, no true winner emerges, as while Thor defeats Hulk with a giant blast of lighting, an act of sabotage by the Grandmaster ensures Hulk the victory.
5. Hulk VS. Hulk-Buster – Avengers: Age of Ultron
The showdown between Iron Man and The Hulk was featured prominently in trailers for the film, and deservedly so because the battle turns out to be everything fans could want and then some. Seeing these two powerful beings clash in a populated urban setting is thrilling enough as it is, but the real reason this scene works so well is because of how smartly it’s put together.
Unlike a similar battle between Superman and Zod in 2013’s Man of Steel, Age of Ultron doesn’t simply forget about the innocent bystanders that are unfortunate enough to be close to the destruction. Iron Man goes out of his way to try and protect civilians while fighting the rage-induced Hulk and even verbally references his desire to try and get The Hulk away from the city. It’s also just a fun fight filled with humorous touches, like when Iron Man tells Hulk to go to sleep as he pummels him repeatedly in the face.
4. Guardians Vs. Ronan – Guardians of the Galaxy
While Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the most unconventional movie Marvel has ever made, it’s true that its third act climax feels quite similar to other finales in the MCU. That being said, even if the Guardians’ clash with Ronan the Accuser is a bit conventional in terms of setup, it’s still fun as hell and gives each hero a chance to shine. A thrilling assault on Ronan’s ship leads to pitched battle with the villain’s goons in the ship’s interior, which includes such highlights as Groot clearing an entire hallway by himself.
With no hope of defeating Ronan in a conventional fight, especially with an Infinity Stone in his possession, the Guardians find a way to trick their adversary by having Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill distract him with singing and dancing. This kind of offbeat humor fits in perfectly with the film’s irreverent tone and actually proves effective, as Ronan’s bafflement lowers his defenses, allowing the rest of the team to steal the Gem away and put an end to Ronan’s galaxy-destroying antics.
3. Captain America and Winter Soldier VS. Iron Man – Captain America: Civil War
Possibly the most emotionally impactful fight yet seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the closing battle in Captain America: Civil War is a devastating affair that sees two allies who have been somewhat at odds since moment one finally come to blows. After discovering that Steve Rogers is protecting Bucky Barnes, aka the man who killed his parents, Tony Stark loses his composure and lashes out at both of them in a fit of rage, blinded by revenge.
The fight itself is well put together, as Bucky desperately tries to escape the Soviet bunker before the trio end up in a close quarters fight that, among other things, sees Bucky lose his metal arm, while Steve comes terrifyingly close to killing Tony with his shield before deciding to spare his life and walk away. This fight underlines how fallible the individual members of the Avengers are and that if pushed far enough, they can be a danger to not just themselves, but those they’re closest to.
2. The Battle For New York – The Avengers
While it had been clear that the Marvel Cinematic Universe was onto something special long before The Avengers hit theaters, it wasn’t until the film’s third act, with all of its central heroes gathered together in a sweeping group shot, that the reality of what we were seeing truly crystallized. Even though the Battle of New York is just several characters punching a bunch of identical enemies for about half an hour if you really boil it down, it’s still one of the most impressive and cheer-worthy sequences the MCU has produced.
We get to see the heroes play off one another in a variety of ways, such as Thor and Hulk taking down one of the large Chitauri beasts together, or Iron Man deflecting his laser beam off of Captain America’s scenes, the latter of which feels like it was ripped right out of the comics. This scene probably wouldn’t have worked half as well if director Joss Whedon hadn’t done such a good job building up to it throughout the rest of the film but thankfully, it all worked out. Oh and extra points are awarded for the “Puny God” scene.
1. Team Cap VS. Team Iron Man – Captain America: Civil War
There is no other superhero action scene that rivals the airport battle that takes place a little over halfway through Civil War; not in any Marvel film, not in any DC film, not anywhere. If that sounds like hyperbole, we promise you, it’s not. As good as something like the New York battle in The Avengers is, it’s a bit deflating because the adversaries are mostly just nameless droves of CGI enemies. Civil War’s hero vs. hero airport battle solves this problem by having each combatant actually be someone audiences recognize, which ups the stakes considerably and leads to frequent moments of cool character interactions.
Each character uses every trick and ability in their repertoire to try and overcome the opposition, which leads to some absolutely jaw-dropping scenes (Ant-Man, anyone?). This is probably the closest any superhero film has gotten to choreographing a fight scene that feels like it could have been lifted straight off the page of a comic book and it will be a tough one for Marvel to best.
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