TV + FILM
A Definitive Ranking List of ALL the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Writer, Speaker, + Podcast Host
W e’ve all experienced it: you’re having lunch with some friends when you toss out an incontrovertible statement like “The Walking Dead sucks” or “winter is the worst season” just knowing they’ll all agree with your correct assessment. But then something weird happens; someone, bereft of wisdom because they have not asked God for it, disagrees with you. At that moment you’ve probably thought “it’s too bad there’s not a document that has decided this issue once and for all, so we don’t have to waste time disagreeing.”
This. Is. That. Document.
At a time when Marvel movies are dominating pop culture, you’ve probably asked “sure they’re all pretty okay, and some are great, but which ones are BEST?” Behold, my definitive list of the Marvel movies ranked in order of quality. Feel free to print this out and carry it around with you the next time you someone says that Age of Ultron wasn’t good, or that Ant-Man is underrated. Instead of arguing, look at them with pity, hand them this, and say “I’ll be praying for you.”
Okay. Here we go.
19. Thor: The Dark World
I don’t remember much about this movie. I think maybe Dr. Who was the bad guy? No not the Jessica Jones one, the other one. I also remember Kat Dennings being told “OKAY! BE QUIRKY AND FUNNY NOW” and it not working.
It was like someone took a student production set of Lord of the Rings and used it for the background half the time. Okay I lied, this one kind of is a trainwreck.
18. Incredible Hulk
Edward Norton is one of my favorite actors, and I think he captures a lot of nuance in his portrayal of Bruce Banner. Unfortunately, no one told the screenwriters to do the same thing, which leaves us with a bunch of one-dimensional characters, a wasted Liv Tyler, a weird lack of fight scenes, and a movie even Marvel itself pretends never happened.
17. Iron Man 2
This is a movie of half-measures, and if there’s one thing Mike Ehrmantraut has taught us it’s
the beauty of a grandfather’s love, that half-measures don’t work. Iron Man 2 sets up an interesting villain in Whiplash and then has him talk to a parrot for the rest of the film. It unleashes Sam Rockwell, one of the few actors who can match Robert Downey’s charisma but with some crazy on the side, and then makes him the fifth most important person in the film. It’s about Tony’s alcohol abuse until it isn’t. There aren’t any memorable setpieces after the racetrack scene. The whole movie is… fine? Yeah, it’s fine.
This movie played better at the time, because it proceeded Iron Man 2 and Hulk, and introduced us to the man Chris Pratt would eventually be intimidated by. Putting a Norse god in a fish out of water scenario was so different from everything we’d seen to date, and it was great. But since then we’ve seen everything this movie does, done better.
I rewatched this movie last week trying to understand why I like it so much less than everyone else. Conclusion: because it involves teaming up with ants. I know, I know, with all the crazytown stuff in the Marvel Universe why are “ants” the dealbreaker? I don’t know. But they are.
Also, this movie falls thematically flat for a simple reason: no matter how charming Paul Rudd is, I don’t care about him, or his family, or anything else. Scott Lang is far less interesting a character than Hank and Hope Pym, and even their arc is hurt by not revealing why Hank won’t let Hope wear the suit until the third act. This movie is visually stunning, which is why I have it higher on this list, but it’s a movie as emotionally distant from us as the characters are to each other.
14. Captain America: The First Avenger
Pros of this film: it made me care about Captain America, someone I had zero interest in (I’m not a comic book guy). Pretty much every other Marvel hero is given powers they have to mature into (great power, great responsibility, and whatnot). The First Avenger inverts that - Rogers is given a hero’s body because he’s already heroic - and it works like gangbusters.
Cons: the rest of the movie is… fine? But it never captures the power of its first half, mostly because it falls victim to the Marvel Fatal Flaw: a boring villain (also, bald shaming).
13. Spiderman: Homecoming
Okay first let me say that there’s a lot to love about this movie and all the ones that follow. Also, if you find yourself objecting to a movie’s placement remember this list is definitive and if you disagree you probably haven’t had enough quiet times lately.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is the Spidey we’ve been waiting for, and Tom Holland is the absolute best. Tom Holland is so good I can’t even remember Mr. Emma Stone’s name. Tom Holland is so good it reminds us that Tobey Maguire is really, really off-putting and not to be trusted (just me?). Tom Holland is so good he goes toe-to-toe with the heaviest hitters of the Marvel Universe in both Civil War and Infinity War and holds his own (seriously though, can you even imagine Tobey in this universe? Gross).
This movie is a lot of fun, Michael Keaton is more physically menacing sitting in a car and talking than any villain not named Thanos or Killmonger, and Oscar winner Marisa Tomei is in it, and she’s the best. The only thing this movie doesn’t do is provide a narrative arc to its main character. Quick, tell me what Peter Parker learns in this film. That’s okay, just think about it for a minute. Still drawing a blank? Me too.
12. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
A lot of heroes in the Marvel Universe are supposed to be outsiders, but it’s hard to look at Tom Holland or Chris Evans and feel sorry for them. And sure, the same is true of Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana, but the Guardians movies sell their isolation (more about that later).
Vol. 2 is far from perfect, but it’s riotously funny, visually stunning, and packs a heckuva emotional punch in the end. If Guardians Vol. 1 is about creating a family, Guardians Vol. 2 is about how our pasts keep us from doing that. When Rocket tears up at the tribute to Yondu, I do too. I kinda am right now… SHUT UP YOU’RE CRYING!
11. Dr. Strange
This movie often gets placed lower on the list of Marvel movies, but I give it points solely for being the most visually bonkers film in the MCU. This is a hallucinogenic, mind-trip of a moviegoing experience, and it was released right as the Marvel universe was starting to feel visually stale. I would watch this movie over and over again just for its Inception-esque fight scenes, but on top of that we have Benedict Cumberbatch being all Cumberbatchy, Tilda Swinton smiling, and Mads Mikkelsen taking what should have been yet another undercooked villain role and turning it into something subversive and fun.
10. Iron Man 3
I was a Shane Black fan years before I knew who Shane Black was, primarily because I grew up watching the (TV edited) versions of the Lethal Weapon movies he wrote over and over again. So when I found out Black was reteaming with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang star Robert Downey Jr, I was ecstatic. The movie doesn’t disappoint.
By the time Iron Man 3 came out, we’d had a lot of Tony Stark exposure. He’s the hub of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s wheel, and he’d already gone on an extended character arc between Iron Man and Avengers. The problem is where do you take the character next? Black’s decision was to get Tony out of his suit of armor that protects him and force Tony to grapple his PTSD to the ground.
This movie is all over the place regarding plot (though I’ll defend The Mandarin twist to the death), but the film is funny, charming, insightful, and gives us multiple scenes of Tony belittling a child, and that’s always fun.
9. Thor: Ragnarok
Here’s the problem with the whole “Thor” thing: it’s ridiculous. Asgard is ridiculous. Fighting with a hammer is ridiculous. It’s all silly, and the effort to make it feel NOT silly is exhausting. This film’s solution was to own how silly this all is. Make Thor a little dense, team him up with the Avenger most similar to him (the Hulk), pack the movie with wall-to-wall jokes, and let it ride. What’s that? Do you want more? WELL HERE’S JEFF FREAKING GOLDBLUM.
Not only did this approach work as comedy, but it also allowed director Taika Waititi to sneak in a profoundly moving story about how holding on to or ignoring the past will destroy you, so learn from it, let it go, and move forward.
8. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
People like to hate on this film for reasons I legitimately don’t understand. I recently watched it again and around every five minutes found myself saying “oooh I love this part” from the opening snow battle to the post-party Thor’s hammer competition, to Ultron’s sentience, to the Hulkbuster fight, and on and on it goes.
But don’t sleep on how bleak this film is. Ultron’s primary drive (other than some half-baked Daddy Stark issues) is to create “peace in our time.” Unfortunately for humanity, he believes human extinction is the only way to bring that about, and that the Avengers are mistaking “quiet for peace.” At the end of the film, Ultron tells Vision that humans are doomed to self-destruction. “Yes,” Vision replies, “but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.”
Existential doubt about humanity’s ultimate redemption. Nice.
7. The Avengers
But seriously, if you catch me on the right day, this might be my favorite Marvel film. This is going to shock you young ‘uns, but there was a time when the idea of putting SIX WHOLE SUPERHEROES in one movie sounded like a train wreck ready to happen. I mean, how could you possibly do justice to so many characters in one film? Hahaha. Simpler times.
As we all know Whedon not only was up to the challenge, he made it look effortless, and set the bar for Marvel movie excellence. Civil War, Winter Soldier, and Infinity War would not exist if the MCU stayed on its pre-Avengers path. Instead, Whedon set the mold for how to tell a compelling story with multiple heroes, genuine emotional stakes, an exciting plot, and lots of humor. This is the film that gave us Loki — until recently the best Marvel villain there was. It tapped into the competing worldviews of each hero. It gave us a not-just-eye-candy Black Widow.
The only reason I don’t have this ranked higher is that the Russo brothers took this formula and applied it on even grander scales, but I could make the argument this movie still is the one that did it best.
6. Iron Man
Remember when superhero movies sucked and Robert Downey Jr. barely existed, and your primary reference point for Iron Man was Ozzy? Yeah, me neither. This is the O.G. kids. Show respect.
5. Captain America: Civil War
This is the best-written movie in the MCU, full stop. Whereas Batman v. Superman (released in the same year) couldn’t manage one coherent character motivation, Civil War created — and I am not exaggerating — 10 different character POVs that were relatable, understandable, and in some cases emotionally affecting.
There is not a wasted scene in this film, with even the content of Tony’s presentation at MIT (his weird VR self-therapy session) playing into what would ultimately be the heart of the film. I seriously have no idea how this film managed to accomplish so much, so seamlessly. Like I alluded to before, they took Whedon’s blueprint from Avengers, gave it some super serum, and cleared the second highest bar of the difficulty of any movie in the MCU. It also introduced us to the new Spider-Man and he is a delight. Crazy!
My only complaint about this film isn’t actually about this film. I wish future movies had let us live in a fractured Avengers world a little more, rather than walking it back thirty minutes into Infinity War, but that’s more a complaint about the MCU’s lack of permanent stakes, which is a different conversation.
4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1
I had heard of Thor and Iron Man, even if I didn’t know much about them. I had no freaking idea what a Guardian of the Galaxy was before learning that the guy who directed Slither would be directing it. Until this point, the MCU had been grounded on earth except for The Dark World which you might remember me giving an unflattering review a few thousand words ago.
Guardians were free of creeping MCU-universe-tie-ins, and for the first time, we saw what an imaginative auteur director could do when given room to create their visual palette, humor-style, and sensibilities. Sure, this movie is the very definition of a MacGuffin-driven plot, and Ronan the Accuser is a BOOOOORING villain, but when a movie is this fun who cares? These “bunch of a-holes” were a believable bunch of losers. Gamora ran away from an abusive dad. Rocket was a genetic experiment. Drax’s family was slaughtered. And sure, Chris Pratt is so handsome and charming it’s hard to see him as a loser, which is why the movie leads with his mom dying of cancer and him being immediately kidnapped. Geez. Oh and there’s a sentient tree named Groot.
But dang it if that sentient tree doesn’t provide the moment that chokes me up more than any other in the MCU: “We are Groot.” Yes, we are Groot. Yes, we freaking are.
3. Black Panther
Black Panther will never be a film I watch as often as say, Civil War. I found the third act to be annoyingly Marvel and predictable. It bugged me they didn’t have the guts to kill off Martin Freeman’s character (a character so insignificant I refuse to waste time looking up his name). It doesn’t have the breezy, feel-good fun of a film like Ragnarok, and it’s far less into quippy cleverness than Avengers.
Instead, this film uses a superhero movie to make a compelling, insightful statement about two dueling ideologies people of color in America have been wrestling with for decades: do they fight the violence enacted against them with violence of their own, or do they rise above that and point to a better world? It’s Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King, and how could it be any other way considering what the term “black panther” means during the civil rights era?
The movie successfully tackling that theme alone would place it high on this list, but Black Panther also creates a villain whose point of view makes us say “he’s kinda right,” features multiple black women in heroic roles, creates a fully-realized African culture, and features songs by Kendrick Lamar.
Is this movie flawed? Sure. All the Marvel films are in different ways. But if any of these films still matter in 50 years, it’ll be this one.
2. The Avengers: Infinity War
I don’t like ranking this movie so soon after seeing it, and I fully reserve the right to change my mind after seeing it again, but if you ignore the broader Hollywood industry and pretend like nothing outside this movie exists, it’s a near perfect endgame for everything the MCU has established. As mentioned earlier Iron Man has been the main protagonist of the MCU, going from a self-aggrandizing playboy to a swashbuckling war machine, to a humbled hero haunted by PTSD who wants to keep people (though really, himself) safe.
This is why Thanos’s shared moment with Tony in this film carries such weight. Thanos is Tony’s desire to keep people safe, twisted by insanity and driven to the extreme. Tony was willing to create Ultron or sign the Accords — in both cases limiting others’ freedoms for them - in the name of “The Greater Good.” When Thanos says “I too bear the weight of knowledge” he’s saying “I see myself in you.”
In other words, not only does Infinity War bring around twenty heroes together, successfully pair them off, create a propulsive plot filled with humor and emotion, and ends with a jaw-dropping final act unlike anything we’ve seen in the MCU, it also brings the narrative arc of our main protagonist to its breaking point.
I don’t know if Infinity War is the best Marvel film, but it performed the hardest to execute dive off the highest board, and as of right now I’d argue it stuck the landing.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I watched this film last night because I knew I was supposed to think it was one of the MCU’s best films but I couldn’t remember why. Now I remember.
Winter Soldier is about how to be an idealist in a cynical world. Or maybe it’s about the struggle to believe in the American experiment in the face of government corruption. Or maybe it’s about friendship? But it’s a 70s-era throwback espionage film. Or an “on the run” thriller. Or, you know, a superhero movie.
Hey, remember when we find out Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D., hiding in plain sight, manipulating human events to the point where we would willingly surrender our freedom? Remember how that was a complete, out-of-nowhere bombshell, one of the few “AHA!” moments in the MCU that wasn’t immediately undone by the end of the film?
Also, remember when Natasha was someone we weren’t sure we trusted? Or the time Captain America took down that helicopter? Or that elevator fight scene? Or the opening scene on that ship where we see the payoff to all of Cap’s punching bag training? Or how terrifying the Winter Soldier is when he’s in brainwashed killer mode?
This movie is the best of Marvel: exciting, funny, character-based, and profound. It created a new visual palette (that would be overused soon after). It has clear, crisp action scenes. And it successfully brought Captain America into the modern day by making him represent the best of us.
How do you work for good, when every power system around you is broken? You continue to faithfully live out who you are, even if no one else will join you. Because some things are worth fighting for.
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