Tomorrow night, theaters will be packed with viewers ready to absorb another chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the form of Star Lord, Baby Groot, and The Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. In preparation for the event, I thought it might be time to look back at my MCU list, originally published here in May of 2015, and add in the newbies while evaluating my previous rankings, as my feelings toward most films (most good ones, anyway) change and evolve over time and further viewings. Here’s what I came up with this time around.
14. Thor: The Dark World (2013) ORIGINAL RANK: 10/10
THEN: 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.
NOW: Dark World actually gets worse with age. This is still the massive outlier in the MCU.
13. The Incredible Hulk (2008) ORIGINAL RANK: 9/10
THEN: 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. The Incredible Hulk is a perfectly reasonable, acceptable summer blockbuster.
NOW: I continue to enjoy this one for what it is but rarely do I think, “I’m really hankering for some Incredible Hulk action.”
12. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) ORIGINAL RANK: N/A
Age of Ultron gets my vote as the most uneven film in the MCU. I love the introduction and the downtimes during which the characters simply exist in each other’s strange orbits, outside of the action. I enjoy James Spader’s embodiment of Ultron. And the action set pieces are grandiose. But the studio meddling is evident at times (this is the only film that exhibits a clash between director and studio) and the story gets convoluted as a result. Thor spends the entire movie being confused for reasons that are never completely evident on screen, Ultron’s motives are defined but not in any sort of interesting way, and of course, it all ends in yet another round of Iron Man Suit Overload. I was high on Age of Ultron after my initial viewing, less so on subsequent viewings. In fact, I had this movie higher on the list when I started working on it but talked myself down a couple notches.
11. Ant-Man (2015) ORIGINAL RANK: N/A
I pine for what Ant-Man would’ve been in the hands of Edgar Wright. There are traces of it that bleed through the screen from time to time but ultimately, I think the film suffers from the change in direction. With respect to Peyton Reed, Wright has such a singular style, almost any director would’ve struggled to fit into his shoes. What I love about Ant-Man are the three principles: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and Evangeline Lilly. Each of them latches on to their respective roles and brings the characters to life in highly enjoyable ways. To be clear, I like Ant-Man quite a bit; it’s a solid, B+ kind of movie. But I’m much more excited about its potential than anything within the movie itself.
10. Iron Man 2 (2010) ORIGINAL RANK: 8/10
THEN: 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 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.
NOW: Seven years out from IM2’s debut, I think the most damning thing about it is it’s forgettability. Most of the plotting and happenings around Tony Stark are fine but altogether forgettable.
9. Doctor Strange (2016) ORIGINAL RANK: N/A
This one has a chance to move up with future viewings. I’m high on Cumberbatch’s performance, I’m always happy to see Rachel McAdams (though I’m assuming they had to convince her that teleporting was the same thing as time travel in order for her to sign on), and it is easily the most visually compelling film in the MCU. In fact, I think Scott Derrickson’s directorial work here stands with the Russo’s on Winter Soldier and Whedon’s on Avengers as the best in the best in the franchise. Most of my complaints with Doctor Strange come down to the presence of yet another weak villain and the Doctor himself, who is somewhat dull and uninteresting, at least in his first MCU foray.
8. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) ORIGINAL RANK: 7/10
THEN: The old-school sentimentality and the sense of nostalgia within First Avenger 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 characters espouse. Captain America does it incredibly well and also manages to bring along one of the better villains this franchise has to offer.
NOW: The only real downside to First Avenger for me is the strength of its descendants. This movie sets the tone for the Cap series beautifully. So beautifully, in fact, that the Russo brothers could come in and build upon the foundation to create the strongest standalone Avenger franchise in the MCU. As a result, I think First Avenger feels lesser than it would if the movies that followed were only “good” instead of “great.”
7. Thor (2011) ORIGINAL RANK: 5/10
THEN: 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 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.
NOW: I might be looking for an exit from the “Chris Hemsworth is a Movie Star” train but the remarkability of Thor being even decent if not full-on good is still key here. I grow more excited for Thor: Ragnarok by the day and a big part of that is knowing how well Thor can be used in the right hands.
6. Iron Man 3 (2013) ORIGINAL RANK: 6/10
THEN: I found this one to be the toughest in the series to place. I think the highs of Iron Man 3 are better than almost 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.
NOW: For comic nerds, it seems placing IM3 this high on the list is heresy and I admit to being less sure of this placement than I would like given my propensity for hardened opinions. The last 20 minutes is still a major issue but I so enjoy the first two acts, even the reveal of the villain that so many people seem to hate.
5. Captain America: Civil War (2016) ORIGINAL RANK: N/A
I have a tough time slotting Civil War. There are vast chunks of the film that I love and I give the Russos immense credit for pulling off the feat of bringing together such a large and complicated story. Civil War’s central themes and the A-story work very well for me on repeat viewings. Stretches of the movie, however, play simultaneously as too long and too rushed, which leads me to the idea that there are just too many characters contained herein to pace the movie properly. (This doesn’t bode especially well for next year’s Infinity War.) When Civil War is moving and the action is flowing, it’s very good. It is in the moments of rest and lead up that the movie struggles a bit for me.
4. Iron Man (2008) ORIGINAL RANK: 4/10
THEN: 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.
NOW: History has been rewritten a bit in the wake of how successful this universe has turned out to be but never forget that Disney/Marvel put a LOT on the line to make Iron Man. That they were able to pump out one of their most iconic, enduring films under such pressure is an achievement in and of itself.
3. The Avengers (2012) ORIGINAL RANK: 2/10
THEN: 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 way, despite 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 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.
NOW: Whether that’s because of superhero overload or because we’ve seen the familiar notes from this movie played again and again through the subsequent MCU films, it feels like we’ve downgraded our appreciation for The Avengers. This is a shame, as the film holds up beautifully five years out and its degree of difficulty remains off the charts.
2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ORIGINAL RANK: 3/10
THEN: 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.
NOW: If Winter Soldier gets your vote for the best MCU film, I have zero complaints. The realism sets it apart from the rest of the films in this series, even Civil War.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) ORIGINAL RANK: 1/10
THEN: 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!
NOW: Whenever I’m in the mood for a Marvel movie, Guardians remains my starting point. There’s nothing I don’t love about this movie even after what has to be a dozen or more viewings. It is blockbuster filmmaking at its finest, wrapped up in a Marvel-y ribbon.