Tonight, across the country, The Avengers: Age of Ultron makes its debuts in thousands of theaters. Of course you know this, as this is likely to be one of the two biggest films of the year (maybe ever) and has already taken in ALL of the money overseas. Mad About Movies has been talking this movie up for literally years now but before we head off on a brand new adventure, I felt it only proper to have a look back at the 10 existing films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (hereto referred to as the MCU) and rank them from worst to first. This turned out to be a much more difficult process than I would’ve imagined in that I think I could’ve ranked films four through seven in almost any order and movies one through three were similarly interchangeable. Nevertheless, after a week spent reviewing and revisiting these movies, this is where I sit at the moment but hey, this sort of list is always fluid in my mind and tomorrow I might decide The Incredible Hulk is the best film in the series (unlikely). Feel free to chime in here, through Twitter, or over email and shoot me your own rankings.
10. Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The only MCU movie that doesn’t reside in my massive Blu-Ray/DVD collection and the only entry I didn’t rewatch for the purpose of making this list. Thor is, perhaps, the toughest of the core Avenger crew to pull off on his own (more on this in a moment) but having seen it done correctly in the first film, I came out of Dark World incredibly disappointed and thoroughly unimpressed. This was the first (and to this point, only) time that the Marvel formula felt tired to me. The term “cash grab” doesn’t quite fit but Dark World is a relatively ugly film that feels flat and uninspired.
9. The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Words/phrases I would use to describe The Incredible Hulk would include: “Not bad.” “Entertaining.” “Consistently good enough.” “Solid.” There’s really nothing especially good about this movie but there’s nothing wrong with it, either. In fact, there are several movies ranked about The Incredible Hulk that have significantly lower lows than this film does; it’s just that the highs never amount to all that much. Norton is good as Banner/Hulk but not irreplaceable (obviously) and the rest of the movie hums along at about the same level of quality. In essence, The Incredible Hulk is a perfectly reasonable, acceptable summer blockbuster.
8. Iron Man 2 (2010)
I find it very easy to get sucked into Iron Man 2 and ignore its flaws. More than anything else, I just enjoy watching Robert Downey, Jr. be Robert Down--- er, I mean Tony Snark. This is Tony at his cockiest and that’s just a lot of fun to sit back and enjoy. The narrative is weak, however, and Favreau (whom I quite like as both a director and performer) misuses Sam Rockwell badly, leaving Iron Man 2 feeling a little thin. The movie could have fattened up (as it were) a bit on a more compelling villain but Mickey Rourke’s Ivan Vanko doesn’t quite fit the bill. On the whole, I think Iron Man 2 is a great “TNT on a Sunday afternoon” sort of movie but inferior to the rest of the Stark entries.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
I dig Captain America quite a bit more than the average Marvel movie fan. I could very easily move it up the ladder a notch or two (or three). For some reason, the old school sentimentality and the sense of nostalgia work for me where others found it corny or pandering. You could argue that the degree of difficulty is lower on Captain America than it is on most of these other films and even I would agree that Chris Evans, while talented and incredibly well-cast, is the most replaceable actor in the MCU (again, besides Norton). But I would counter your argument by pointing out the list of Superman properties that have come and gone as an indicator of just how difficult it is, after all, to successfully convey the sort of old fashioned, deep-rooted American values that both of these characters espouse. Captain America does it incredibly well and also manages to bring along one of the better villains this franchise has to offer.
6. Iron Man 3 (2013)
I found this one to be the toughest in the series to place. I think the highs of Iron Man 3 are better than any other in the MCU. The movie is a blast, Robert Downey, Jr. is tremendous, Shane Black working in a franchise setting is a riot, and I think pound for pound, the airborne passenger rescue is probably the best sequence in the entire series of films. But then there’s that final act. “Bombastic” is a word I used to describe the third act after my first viewing but now I prefer, “Iron Man suit vomit.” It’s just too much and the battle between Stark and Guy Pearce’s villain, capped off by a semi-absurd ascension to power by Gwyneth Paltrow, is an enormous let down compared to the first two-thirds of the movie. I’ll watch Iron Man 3 a thousand more times in my lifetime and I think I’ll always be a little disappointed in its finish.
5. Thor (2011)
Thor should not work. The protagonist isn’t relatable, the Asgardian setting is too galactic, and the earth-bound story is too cliché. But through it all, Thor not only works, it’s also the only Marvel film that, in my mind, gets better with age and multiple viewings. It might not be my first choice for a rewatch but every time I do, I come away with a greater appreciation. Thor succeeds for two reasons: One, Chris Hemsworth is a bona fide movie star. And two, Kenneth Branagh is a fantastic director (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit aside). Branagh deserves unending credit for making Thor even a remotely enjoyable film, let alone a very good one, and if you need proof of that, look no further than Thor: The Dark World.
4. Iron Man (2008)
The patriarch of the MCU still stands just as strong as it did when it burst on to the scene in 2008. In retrospect, Iron Man was the perfect feature to kickoff this whole crazy thing and of course Robert Downey, Jr. is the perfect leader for the movement. Iron Man is a completely different kind of superhero movie than anything we had seen previously and it set the tone for films to come. It is a highly enjoyable, quality piece of blockbuster filmmaking. The only thing that holds it back is the ho-hum villain (even by Marvel standards) and the fact that it started the, “Iron Man battles Iron Man suits!” trend.
3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Because, as mentioned previously, I’m a big fan of the original Captain America, I think I had a higher level of anticipation for The Winter Soldier than most. Even I was blown away. The Russo Brothers took a strong, moralistic character and gave him an edge without betraying his sense of right and wrong. It was, to my mind, a huge leap forward for the whole MCU in terms of tone and look. The action sequences are incredibly strong and the Russos were able to make Cap much more powerful (yet still realistically so) than he’d ever been before. Upon subsequent viewings, I’m not totally in love with the final act and I really wish Robert Redford could be replaced by someone who actually cares even a little. But these are small flaws.
2. The Avengers (2012)
Were you nervous about whether or not Joss Whedon could pull this thing together before The Avengers debuted? I was. Not because I didn’t believe in Whedon or because I didn’t see the merits of the property but because the stakes were so stinking high. Marvel had been building toward this moment for so long and if it didn’t work, the previous films would have been cheapened in some ways, in spite of how much I liked them all. I imagine the folks at Marvel/Disney would admit to the same anxiety if they were being honest. But it all worked out thanks to the remarkable talent both on and off the screen. The actors have excellent chemistry together and they’re all (okay, maybe not poor Jeremy Renner) able to work off of each other quite well while staying in character, not a totally easy task in an ensemble like this. And Whedon blends the heroes together nearly seamlessly (again, poor Jeremy Renner) by playing up their respective strengths and weaknesses and mixing in an obligatory Whedon-y script that did wonders for this universe. Moreover, I think Avengers has the ONLY compelling villain in the MCU and Whedon deserves a ton of credit for building Loki up appropriately from his tepid run in Thor.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
I considered excluding Guardians from this conversation simply because it is obviously the least connected film within the MCU. It’s almost “MCU adjacent” rather than “MCU proper.” But since Marvel considers it part of the expanded universe, so will I. In my mind, there is almost nothing to quibble over when it comes to Guardians. Sure, a stronger villain would be nice (this is something Marvel seriously needs to work on) but this is not a story that’s begging for a compelling bad guy and the sheer enjoyableness of the mismatched main characters overshadows that shortcoming. I have very rarely had as much fun in a theater as I had with Guardians and it brings a level of freshness to this universe that I think it desperately needed. The beats may be the same as the average Marvel movie but the music is completely different and oh, what a blast it is to behold! Guardians could’ve been a massive misfire in the wrong hands and instead, I think it stands out as one of the absolute best pieces of blockbuster filmmaking I’ve ever seen.