Best Action Scenes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

13 minute read

By Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)

There are many reasons why the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been so successful. While compelling characters and fun storytelling are the most important, these films wouldn’t be half as effective if the superheroes didn’t look and act like we imagine they would based off how they’re presented in comic books.

While 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, here are Goliath’s favorite MCU action scenes.

Tony Stark’s Escape – Iron Man

Sure, the Jon Favreau-directed Iron Man can’t compete with later installments when it comes to action setpieces. Bigger budgets and more characters go a long way in this regard. However, that doesn’t mean that the movie that kicked off the MCU is lacking in exciting, heroic sequences.

Case in point: the escape sequence that caps off Iron Man‘s first act. The scene benefits from excellent setup and wonderfully execution. At the center of it is Tony Stark himself, 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. This loss 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.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

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 bombastic finale. That being said, Vol. 2‘s opening might just be the best opening of any Marvel movie. It combines dancing, a battle with an ugly alien, and one of the top pop songs of the ’70s for a sequence that could put a smile on anyone’s face.

Much like Guardians of the Galaxy, which had its opening credits sequence set to a solo dance number from Star-Lord, Vol. 2 opens with a dance number. However, one that’s 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 Vol. 3 will do to top this.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Chase Through the Mirror Dimension – Doctor Strange

Although one of the weaker entries in the MCU, Doctor Strange is still a slickly-produced superhero origin story sporting some pretty impressive visuals. One of the film’s strengths is its action sequences. 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 run away from Kaecilius and his 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.

This all adds up to one of the strangest and most unique action scenes in the MCU. It’s just too bad the movie itself isn’t more engaging or this could have been much higher on the list.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

The Iron Legion – 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.

In the third act, Tony Stark calls on the services of the Iron Legion, dozens of suits he’s built to support the Avengers in battle, to fight Aldrich Killian. 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 on not only Tony but the world as a whole. 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 the majority are destroyed in the process.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

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.

For instance, take the film’s final battle between Ant-Man and Yellowjacket that’s 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 fight on a small-scale. The result is tiny objects in the room, such as a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, become a part of the action. As such, 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 destroys one room in a house. It proves that superhero action scenes can be thrilling in any context as long as they’re creative and fun.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Elevator Fight – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The Russo brothers’ ability to direct thrilling action sequences is undisputed at this point. However, 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. While the best action scene in the film appears later on this list, Captain America’s elevator brawl is a close second.

Making great use of a small physical space, the scene plays out like something you’d see from an auteur action filmmaker. Cap is assaulted by a dozen rogue 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 his foes. 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.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Thor vs. Hulk Round 1 – The Avengers

When it released, part of the appeal of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers was getting to see 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 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.

The best part is that it kicked off a rivalry between the two that’s been carried forward into other movies — notably Thor: Ragnarok — in which the duo repeatedly tease each other about who’s the strongest Avenger. Source: TopMovieClipsSource: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Avengers vs. HYDRA – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Certain aspects of Avengers: Age of Ultron, such as its lack of narrative focus and too much time spent developing future plots for the MCU, have received mixed reactions. However, it’s hard to deny that the film’s opening is an incredibly strong look at The Avengers in action.

From the opening moments showing HYDRA forces preparing for an off-screen attack to the Avengers, converging for a triumphant group shot before separating, the heroes’ assault on Baron Von Strucker’s HYDRA base is expertly designed. It’s a heck of a way to open the film and emphasizes how confident Marvel was at this point in the franchise.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

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 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. This includes getting to see Falcon in action for the first time and Black Widow being hunted by — and eventually turning the tables on —  the Winter Soldier. Despite all the excellent action, the hand-to-hand fight between Steve and Bucky is the true highlight.

With their enhanced abilities and rigorous training, the two are evenly matched. As such, they engage in a brutal, momentous close-quarters fight that is impressively choreographed. The fight makes great use of each character’s signature weapon as Cap tosses his shield around with great effectiveness and the Winter Soldier’s bionic metal arm effortlessly punches holes in the sides of cars.

The fight is capped with the reveal of the Winter Soldier’s true identity as Cap’s best friend Bucky Barnes. The reveal sets up Steve and Bucky’s fun yet not quite as good third act confrontation.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

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, Thor is first to do battle with the ruler’s champion in the Contest of Champions. It 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 a climactic clash that again sees the pair matching each other shot for shot. And yet again, no true winner emerges. While Thor defeats Hulk with a giant blast of lighting, an act of sabotage by the Grandmaster ensures Hulk the victory.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Hulk vs. Hulkbuster – Avengers: Age of Ultron

The showdown between Iron Man and The Hulk was featured prominently in trailers for Avengers: Age of Ultron. Deservedly so because the battle turns out to be everything fans could want and then some. Although seeing these two powerful beings clash in a populated urban setting is thrilling enough as it is, 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 Man of SteelAge 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. Tony even verbally references his desire to try and get The Hulk away from the city. Moreover, it’s just a fun fight filled with humorous touches. For instance, when Iron Man tells Hulk to go to sleep as he pummels Hulk repeatedly in the face.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Guardians vs. Ronan – Guardians of the Galaxy

While Guardians of the Galaxy is probably the most unconventional movie Marvel has ever made, its third act climax feels quite similar to other finales in the MCU. 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 a pitch-perfect battle with the antagonist’s goons in the ship’s interior.

With no hope of defeating Ronan in a conventional fight — especially with the Power Stone in his possession — the Guardians find a way to trick their adversary by having Star-Lord distract him with singing and dancing. This kind of offbeat humor fits in perfectly with the film’s irreverent tone. Plus, it actually proves effective as Ronan’s bafflement lowers his defenses. This distraction allows the rest of the team to destroy the hammer housing the Stone and put an end to Ronan’s galaxy-destroying antics.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Captain America and Winter Soldier vs. Iron Man – Captain America: Civil War

Possibly the most emotionally impactful fight seen in the MCU, the closing battle in Captain America: Civil War is a devastating affair that sees two allies who have been at odds since moment one finally come to blows. After discovering that Cap is protecting Bucky Barnes, the man who killed his parents, Tony 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 ends up in a close-quarters fight. Among other things, the fight sees Bucky lose his metal arm, while Cap comes terrifyingly close to killing Tony with his shield.

This fight underlines how fallible the individual members of the Avengers are. That if pushed far enough, they can be a danger to not just themselves, but those they’re closest to.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Battle of New York – The Avengers

It had been clear that the MCU was onto something special long before The Avengers hit theaters. However, it took 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 an impressive and cheer-worthy sequence. We get to see the heroes play off one another in a variety of ways. This includes such moments as Thor and Hulk taking down one of the large Chitauri beasts together and Iron Man deflecting his laser beam off of Captain America’s shield, 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 entire film. And extra points are awarded for the “Puny God” scene. Source: CBRSource: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man – Captain America: Civil War

As good as something like the Battle of New York 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 the audience recognizes. This attachment ups the stakes considerably and leads to 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 moments.

Civil War‘s airport fight 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. It would be a tough one for Marvel to best. Well, until they reached the end of the Infinity Saga.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Battle of Wakanda – Avengers: Infinity War

While smaller more intimate action scenes like Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man can be a better showcase of the heroes, there’s something special about the spectacle of a massive battle. For a short while, no MCU action scene did it better than the Battle of Wakanda from Avengers: Infinity War.

As the Avengers’ last-ditch effort to keep Thanos from completing the Infinity Gauntlet, the Battle of Wakanda is a full-scale war between the tribes of Wakanda and Thanos’ army. Considering the scale of the scene, it’s fairly easy to follow. Plus, it helps that scene is intercut with Thanos’ battle with the Guardians, Doctor Strange, Iron Man, and Spider-Man, which keeps the pace at a fever pitch.

What makes the Battle of Wakanda such an excellent action scene is how its tone completely changes once Thanos arrives. While the battle is fierce, the Avengers eventually defeat Thanos’ army. However, Thanos doesn’t need an army when he has the Infinity Stones.

Seeing Thanos dispatch of the Avengers one-by-one with the power of the Infinity Stones is incredibly frightening. Even shattering the Mind Stone — thus killing Vision — doesn’t stop Thanos. He just turns back time and plucks the stone from Vision’s forehead.

Despite the initial victory, the Battle of Wakanda serves as the Avengers’ greatest defeat in the MCU. As such, the action is top-class. But more importantly, it establishes Thanos as an unstoppable monster, which makes the future action scenes in Avengers: Endgame even better.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Battle of Earth – Avengers: Endgame

Serving as the culmination of 11 years and 22 films, the Battle of Earth from Avengers: Endgame is everything the first three phases of the MCU built to. As such, it’s nearly 30 minutes of intense fighting, grand spectacle, and spinetingling moments.

The battle begins with Thanos bombing Avengers HQ from orbit. From that explosive start, the scene never lets up. It takes viewers through so many peaks and troughs of emotions. You’re down when Thanos singlehandedly fights off Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor. Then Cap lifts Mjolnir and there’s a slight chance that all hope isn’t lost. Unfortunately, Thanos matches Cap and destroys his iconic shield. However, when all hope is lost, an entire army of Avengers arrives to even the odds.

What ensues is the most stunning game of hot potato ever. As the Avengers try to keep the Infinity Gauntlet away from Thanos, every hero gets their time to shine. This all leads up to an unforgettable conclusion that fans are still reeling from.

All in all, Endgame‘s Battle of Earth is everything people love from the MCU boiled down into one action scene. An action scene that may even transcend cinema.

Source: Screenshot via Marvel Studios

Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)