In 2008 Marvel Studios set out to do something that has never been done in cinema before. Create a living breathing cinematic world that would be shared by all of it’s upcoming projects. And here we are, 12 movies later, and not only have they pulled it off, they also keep raising the bar for action movies each and every year. So, with 12 movies released, which one is the best? Well, let’s talk about it.
- Iron Man (2008)
- The Incredible Hulk (2008)
- Iron Man 2 (2010)
- Thor (2011)
- Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
- The Avengers (2012)
- Iron Man 3 (2013)
- Thor: The Dark (2013)
- Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
- Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
- Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
- Ant-Man (2015)
We are currently on pace to get 2 new Marvel Studio films a year for the foreseeable future. So I thought it would be fun to keep a ranking of where they stand. And I plan to update the list annually as new movies are released. The ranking is based primarily on my opinions of each film and where I feel they fit as (1) A Standalone Films and (2) As a part of the Cinematic Universe. Let’s get started.
(Disclaimer: There may be spoilers for any or all of the MCU movies, you’ve been warned!)
Hulk is not a bad movie. In fact, I think it’s quite good. But there are a few major issues that I have with the film which cause it to be at the bottom on this list.
First, it just doesn’t really fit within the Cinematic Universe. Sure, they say that it does and they even had a cameo from Tony Stark at the end of the film, but even rewatching it, it feels like it takes place in a different world. And, recasting Hulk in Avengers with Mark Ruffalo doesn’t really help that feeling.
Second, it was a very “by the numbers” story that didn’t add anything new to the character. Next to Spider-Man, Hulk is probably the most well known hero that Marvel has. We have been watching him on screen since Lou Ferrigno brought him to life in 1978. This is nothing we haven’t seen before, hulk gets mad, destroys stuff, military tries to stop him, saves Betty, run off again. It was fun and action packed but in the end it was expected and cliche.
The first Thor might have been the most divisive of the Marvel movies so far (probably a toss up between this and Guardians, more on that later). So, the Dark World had an uphill battle from day one. But what I really liked about the movie is that it starts and ends with Thor and Loki. Hemsworth and Hiddleston are two of the most charismatic actors that share the screen in the MCU. Even their moments in Avengers stand out among the crowd. So the fact that the Dark World gives us a Thor/Loki team up is really the thing that makes it so good. Their chemistry is electric.
What is really disappointing is that everything else was just OK. The story is…OK. The writing is…OK. The Earth stuff is just OK. It’s not bad but it’s not great, it is just all…OK.
Iron Man 2 is a good movie but suffers from a very common problem with follow up films: Let’s take everything that people liked about movie one and do it again but turned up a little louder. You liked cocky Stark? Let him host an event about himself. You liked Iron Clad Heroes? Here’s War Machine. You liked the irreverent humor? Here’s Tony drunk in the Iron Man Suit. You liked Iron Man vs. another, bigger Iron Man? Here’s Iron Man vs War Machine…and watch out, here’s Iron Man vs. 20 War Machines…and look out, it’s Iron Man vs. Whiplash. See where I’m coming from? It was everything good from Iron Man, turned up to eleven.
The problem with this is, things shouldn’t always been turned up. My favorite moments from Iron Man 2 is the character stuff between Tony and Howard, his father. Having him watch the old reels and piecing together his dad’s work was amazing. It’s the small character moments that will always win over a true fan of the medium. At the end of the day, Iron Man 2 was light on character and heavy on action and while it was fun and entertaining, it’s far from the milestone that the original was.
Thor is really a tale of two cities. There is Earth, Oklahoma to be exact. And there is Asgard. Outside of Guardians, this is still the most ambitions of the movies so far. They had the task of explaining how a Norse god was not only an actual Norse god but also how he interacts with the world that we know. And they needed to do it all in the same tone and focus of the MCU. No easy task.
So first, the good. Hemsworth is great as Thor. He looks the part, to a T. He is also much funnier than I would have imagined. Him trying to relate to modern day Earth is comedy gold, “I’ll have another!.” And the supporting cast of Skarsgard, Dennings, and Portman fit perfectly. Of course you can’t talk about Thor without mentioning Tom Hiddleston’s brilliant portrayal of Loki, who is still to this day the only fleshed out villain that the MCU has. As for the bad, I would only say the movie suffers from exposition. They spend a lot of time trying to explain how these worlds work. There are few times in Thor that I just complete check out. The movie stars a chiseled blonde haired stud who flies around using a big mallet. Seriously, at some point you just have to accept it for what it is and press on.
When all’s said and done, Thor still remains one of my favorite Marvel films simply for just being so different. Up to this point, the conversation was Tony is Science, Thor is Magic, which is real, which is not? In the end, the answer is simple, science and magic work together and the MCU is only stronger because of that.
(NOTE: This could contain Spoilers….you’ve been warned!)
Coming into the release of Age of Ultron (AoU), the question was really: “Can it live up to the first Avengers?” The simple answer, for me, is no. But it’s not all black and white.
The first Avengers was very special and I feel that no matter what AoU did or didn’t do, you just can’t capture the magic of seeing your favorite heroes team up for the very first time on the big screen. AoU is, without a doubt, a very good movie. It has amazing action, gorgeous locations, and unmatched production value. I laughed, I teared up, I fist pumped, and I enjoyed myself every single moment of the film. But that doesn’t mean it was without flaws.
The biggest issue with AoU was character development. Please understand, I separate character development from character moments. Thor talking up Hulk after the first battle or watch your language or “Oh….sorry about your hand.” are all great character moments. What I missed from AoU where actual development of the character’s themselves. You get some of that with Widow and Hulk, but it felt forced and unresolved. You get some with Cap and Stark to fuel the tension for Civil War, but it’s surface level at most. You get some back story but hardly any motivation for Wanda and Pietro. In fact, IMO, Hawkeye is the only person that receives a good and important level of development.
AoU was a really good movie. The effects are great, the character moments are fitting, and the adrenaline is high. From start to finish I think I was smiling the entire time and isn’t that the point.
Iron Man 3 was my biggest concern so far in the MCU. Jon Favreau pretty much created the MCU. He lead the charge with IM1 and IM2. Without Favreau, the MCU would be as dull and boring as a DC movie. So when they announced that he wasn’t returning to direct IM3, it immediately set off my Spider-Sense. Could someone else tell a decent Iron Man story? Well, the good news is that, not only can someone else tell a good story, but someone else can tell the best story yet!
I’ve mentioned this several times already, the thing that really works for me is character development, and I think IM3 is full of it. From the beginning, struggling with the battle of New York (in Avengers), you see Tony slowly lose his true super power: ego. The guy straps on a suit of solid metal, flies around shooting things, and tells jokes while doing it. The guy is so cocky he won’t even share the technology to help make the world a better place because he doesn’t trust them. But in IM3 they start to strip that away from him and he becomes very vulnerable and weak. The movie is fun and surprisingly deep. The problem comes with the finale. To have such a well told, personal story end with a dozen empty metal robots beating each other up, was dismissive to the gravity of rest of the film. It was a little too over the top and overall brings the quality of the film down just a peg. And we won’t even mention “The Mandarin”. But I greatly enjoyed IM3, so much to say that is might just be my favorite Iron Man yet.
Captain America is my favorite Avenger. He’s just an average guy who wants to help stand for what’s right who is given the ability to make a difference. When Marvel started down this road, Cap was the movie I most looked forward to. So I came into “The First Avenger” with very high expectations.I am glad to say that almost all of my expectations were met and most exceeded.
For me, the most important thing to nail with Captain America is the spirit of the character. Cap is a no nonsense, boy scout who stands up for those not strong enough to stand for themselves, no matter the odds. That character also had to fit in the a universe with Tony Stark’s “I am Iron Man” speech. Such sharp contrast in character and tone. But Marvel nailed it. Steve Rogers, from the very beginning of the film, is that guy. He is smaller and weaker in body than most around him, but he refuses to step aside at the injustice that he sees in the world. That is not just the tale of Captain America, but it’s the story of the America that birthed the Captain. When Cap was originally introduced in the comics we were at war. A war that at it’s core was about the world at large standing up for a people who couldn’t defend themselves against a giant bully! This is what Captain America is, less of just one man and more of an ideal.
The movie isn’t perfect. The Red Skull leaves a lot to be desired. Hugo Weaving is a great actor, but was given very little to work with. Some of the CGI work is telling, especially in the finale. But from start to finish, I feel like they nailed who Cap was and I enjoyed every minute of it.
The Avengers took everything before it to another level. The idea, way back in 2008, that you could establish a group of heroes over 4 years and have them team up was not only far fetched, but also uncharted territory. Just think about it, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Sam Jackson, Mark Ruffalo, and Jeremy Renner on the screen at the same time. To imagine that amount of talent working together is bonkers by itself, but then trying to imagine them working WELL together is almost impossible. And that is why it works so well. It’s not just that the Avengers themselves meld together, but that the actors are believable in their teamwork. Robert Downey is top billed and is clearly the star, but even with that I don’t feel he is ever pushed in your face. They all just work well together the way you would expect them to. And it goes without saying that having Joss Whedon at the helm turned what could have been a CGI punch fest into a fun and smart character drama…with a lot of CGI punching.
The biggest issue I have with Avengers is that it was much more popcorn than probably anything that came before it. Most of the big character development was done prior to Avengers. Cap, Thor, and Iron Man have all had their origins spelled out and characters established. What the movie doesn’t do well is fleshing out the rest of the team. You get a few decent moments with Black Widow, while Hawkeye is mostly lost for the entire movie. He feels more out of place than anyone. And I would argue that while Hulk was a ton of fun to have on screen, there is very little development with him as well. The saving grace of the movie is that you really don’t miss it. It’s just that much fun from start to finish, and for anyone who has been a comic fan and has rooted for these characters for decades, to see them join forces on the big screen is like a dream come true. And it totally delivered!
(NOTE: This could contain Spoilers….you’ve been warned!)
Ant-Man isn’t a name that resonates with most people, but, just a few short years ago, the average person didn’t know who Iron Man or Hawkeye or Starlord was. Marvel is proving, one film at a time, that if you tell a great story with great characters, written, directed, and acted by talented people, it will work…every time. Ant-Man takes a character next to no one knows and in less than 2 hours makes you not only relate to that character but longing to see him get a call from Cap to join the Avengers. Paul Rudd couldn’t have been cast any better. Michael Douglas, serving as the aged Hank Pym, only raises the quality. But it was Michael Pena that completely steals the show. It’s a heist movie with an excellent ensemble cast. It’s funny, action packed, and clever. And, in the bigger picture, it bridges the gap of the 40s Marvel from Cap to the MCU of today by showing a young Hank Pym working for Shield in the 80’s.
The problem that Ant-Man has is what I’m starting to refer to as the Marvel Villain Complex. All of their villains are starting to become the same thing: Evil versions of the hero with little to no character development. Outside of Loki, that is the formula for almost all of the Marvel villains. Yellowjacket fits the bill, he has the same powers as Ant-Man and has almost no character moments. What’s worse, in Ant-Man, is that the Yellowjacket stuff is there. We know that Pym chose Cross specifically and it appears, at some point, they had a good relationship. That is completely lost in the film. We are also aware that Cross has worked with Hope for what seems to be a long time, but their relationship is also just tossed aside. What makes this sting is that it’s all there, great character stuff, and nothing is really done with it.
In many ways, Iron Man is the MVP of the MCU (haha, acronyms!). The reason I think it’s the “most valuable” is because it is the cornerstone on which everything else is built. Without Favreau’s tone, RDJ.’s personality, and Feige’s vision, we wouldn’t have a MCU. So, in that case, this might be the most important and valuable of the movies to date. However, being valuable does not make you the best.
Iron Man does everything it’s supposed to do and most of it is handled excellent. The origin is both poetic and dramatic while being believable in today’s world. You can completely buy Tony as the overconfident, narcissistic futurist that he is. You cheer when he learns to fly and you hold your breath when he makes his first save. The movie has a great 1st act, a good 2nd act, but falls apart in the end. The Iron Monger is a weak villain and is basically just there to give Tony something to punch. The fight, while acceptable, shows some dated CGI and just isn’t very exciting or threatening. The only thing that redeems the finale is Tony’s speech, “I AM Iron Man.” Such a classic moment.
My biggest disappointment with Iron Man is Jeff Bridges. And not because he wasn’t good. In fact, it’s the opposite. He was very good. But he was given nothing to work with. He was the first of a very long line of good/great actors cast as lifeless, empty super villains. I would have rather Stane stuck around, survived the movie, and became an actual threat to Tony Stark, not just Iron Man. Stane had a Lex Luthor sort of vibe, and that could have been milked for the entire trilogy, as a lurking menace. There was also little development for anyone outside of Tony, but it was an origin story so that can be expected to some degree.
I love Iron Man and MCU wouldn’t exist without it. If you had to had a movie as your cornerstone, Marvel picked the right one.
To say that Guardian’s of the Galaxy is amazing is almost a discredit. Outside of Thor’s journey to Asgard, all of the MCU has taken place on Earth. With Guardians, they decided to not even mention earth…mostly. They jumped into the cosmic deep end and gave the keys to James Gunn. What he did was craft probably the best Marvel movie to date and one of my favorite films of all time.
From the first shot, the movie knows what it is and never let’s go. You are introduced to aliens and strange worlds and new powers and at the same time you are finding character and loss and hurt and ultimately heroes. You will laugh, you will cry, you will fist pump. I stand by my original statement, the movie is about as Flawless as I can imagine. I believe that it is the single best, stand alone film that Marvel has done. So, why is it number 2?
For me, although tonally it fits within the MCU, I feel like it is so far removed that it is irrelevant to the story at hand. Sure, there is some background with Thanos and the Infinity Stones, but nothing that matters in the scheme of what is happening right now in the MCU. That will not be the case in 2019 when Infinity War starts, but for now, it just doesn’t really matter to the greater whole. Great standalone, but best MCU film…..not quite.
If you were surprised that Winter Soldier is number 1, you need to stop reading and go back and watch it again. The second Captain America film defines the universe more than any other entry since Iron Man. The landscape of who the Avengers are and the role superheroes play in our world and the scope of generations of evil are all at play here. Cap is still a man out of time. And he lives in a modern world that wants to prevent wars by arresting our freedoms. This is as much a political espionage film as it is a superhero movie. And what you may notice is that I haven’t even mentioned The Winter Soldier….yet.
The film is roughly based on Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier run in the comics. Where Bucky is revealed to be alive and brainwashed to work for the Red Skull. Some liberties were taken here, but it’s a pretty good adaptation. And he is a great part of this movie. He is just a bad dude, a guy you wouldn’t want to be face to face with, unless you are Captain America, of course.
The movie culminates in a Shield showdown with Robert Redford at the same time Cap and Falcon take down three helicarriers. Yep, you read that correct, THREE! And when the dust settles, nothing in the MCU would be the same again.
The movie is engaging, funny, action packed, and character driven. It might be the most perfect and well rounded movie in the Marvel lineup so far and easily deserves the #1 spot.
So there is it. How I rank the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Do you agree? Do you think I’m out of my mind? Leave a comment below and let’s talk about it.