Our ranking of all the MCU movies from worst to best, as we enter Phase IV and approach the return of theatrical blockbusters.
As Black Widow’s release finally approaches (::fingers crossed!::) and Marvel Studios has seen its first successful foray into television with the release of WandaVision and the upcoming release of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, it’s time to check in on and rank all the MCU movies. Yes, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through 23 movies (and some shorts and TV shows), the MCU has been one of the most successful endeavors in entertainment history. Here is our ranking, from worst to best!
23. THOR: THE DARK WORLD
Director: Alan Taylor
Marvel’s deepest foray into high fantasy is also the cinematic universe’s weakest film. The film is marred by countless underutilized characters (Siff and The Warriors Three, in particular) and perhaps the weakest villain in the entire series, Christopher Eccleston positively devoured by heavy make-up. The real question for me is if this first Thor sequel is a bad movie or not. I come down lightly positive on this one (and thus that there is no “bad” MCU movie, at least by the standards of Hollywood blockbuster entertainment). It is, at worst, competent made with a solid lead performance from a Chris Hemsworth who is just starting to find his comedic voice. While the film’s middle act sags with CGI addled green screen action and the last act is as conventional as they come, one constant keeps the movie humming: Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston’s Loki, perhaps the stealth MVP of the entire mega-franchise, is the only character who really finds any vibrancy in Alan Taylor’s staid superhero yarn.
22. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Director: Louis Leterrier
The MCU’s second, and perhaps only quasi-canonical, film is one of its weakest entries. Edward Norton, an actor of immense intensity and focus, is an awkward fit for nerdy scientist Bruce Banner. Really the film is little more than a long chase movie that happens to shoehorn in a decent amount of Hulk mythology. It has one great action scene – the army’s attempt to capture the Hulk at Culver University – and one of the series very worst, the poorly lit final battle between Hulk and Abomination that was clearly filmed on a backlot with a rapidly deteriorating budget. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Hulk is how many really good performances it wastes, from Tim Roth’s Emil Blonsky (perhaps the film’s MVP) to William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross there are a lot of good performers trying to elevate the material here. I go back and forth on this film and Thor: The Dark World for my nadir of the MCU, but this time Hulk smashes just a little harder.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Where fore art thou, better performances? By relying on a director known for Shakespearean drama to introduce the Norse world, Marvel trapped itself into creating a movie that would necessarily take things Very Seriously. We’ve come to learn well that Chris Hemsworth’s best skill as an actor is his self-effacing sense of humor and that’s ground to nothingness here. Perhaps the only moments of the movie where his performance really works are when he’s getting drunk with Stellan Skarsgard or demanding more coffee in over-the-top fashion at a New Mexico diner. For a film that opens up the MCU to myth and magic, it’s frustrating to see something that can feel so staid and safe. Still, the casting here is top notch. Ten years later, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman, Idris Elba, and Stellan Skarsgard reads like the cast of a best picture contender. Branagh’s direction is never worse than blandly competent. I tend to view Thor as a necessary evil – it was the safe way to introduce a character that was quite far from a sure thing a decade ago.
20. IRON MAN 2
Directors: Jon Favreau
There’s a multiverse where Iron Man 2 exists in a world where shoehorned character introductions and flagrant worldbuilding were already the norm, and the movie feels more natural. I wish I was in that universe. Perhaps for my son, Iron Man 2 will feel natural – just an early story in the life of these heroes – but I cannot escape how flagrantly, and awkwardly, shoehorned in so much of the film’s secondary storytelling feels. We go from one hero and one villain to multiple heroes, a villain, a side villain, and whatever the hell Nick Fury, Black Widow, and Agent Coulson are doing here.
There really is a lot of good here, though. Mickey Rourke is doing some A+ scenery chewing as Whiplash, his assault on Stark’s racecar remains an iconic action beat in the franchise and his mano-a-mano face-offs with Stark resonate even now. And Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer is the best quick appearance villain in the entire series – he’s going big in a way that fits spectacularly within the framework of superhero villainy. I don’t want to quibble too deeply about the plotting of a movie filled with people wearing metal supersuits, but the overarching plot here is basically that Tony’s long dead father managed to design the exactly the element that Tony would go on to need to save himself from the shrapnel in his heart and keep him alive.
19. DOCTOR STRANGE
Director: Scott Derrickson
It remains weird to see Iron Man so precisely remade by the same studio only 8 years later. While Doctor Strange lacks the snarky humor of Tony Stark’s initial outing, it does deliver some tremendous visual creativity. Standing as a deep homage to Jack Kirby’s stylized art, Doctor Strange is perhaps the first MCU film to really pursue something creative visually. Nevertheless, Cumberbatch is simply not as good a leading man as Downey and the film feels like too much of a retread to really resonate. I am, however, deeply excited to see how Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness evolves the character.
Director: Peyton Reed
I feel bad that Ant-Man is in 18th place, as I really do like the movie. Paul Rudd is wonderfully cast as Scott Lang, a thief who steals the Ant-Man suit from the original hero Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas. The movie is light and pleasant and airy – it was a panacea just as the MCU was reaching a fever pitch of solemnity at the end of its second phase. That the superhero action takes a backseat to a lighthearted heist is the film’s best element in concept, but in reality too much time is still spent on lukewarm superheroics and one of the lesser MCU villains. At least the film benefits from a cute father-daughter focus and a scene stealing performance from Michael Pena.
17. AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
Director: Joss Whedon
I had thought Age of Ultron was going to drop in my esteem with a recent rewatch. I recalled the film as deeply over-busy with far more characters than any film could ever adequately service and some of the most awkward “franchise building” of any film in the last decade. And that’s all entirely still true. Nevertheless, and perhaps WandaVision has simply warmed me to the characters, I found the Wanda and Pietro arc more effective than I had remembered. Jeremy Renner remains the standout here. Joss Whedon is really good at find the humanity in the absurdity of these superhero narratives so I’m not surprised that it’s through Hawkeye, now with a family and kids, that he has found his everyman entrée into this story. Renner’s spiel to Wanda when her courage falters in the film’s climax is the film’s strongest, most human moment and one worth appreciating.
16. CAPTAIN MARVEL
Directors: Ryan Fleck, Anna Boden
For me Captain Marvel is the battle of two movies, a mediocre space action origin story and a wonderful period themed buddy comedy. When Captain Marvel is set in the 90s as Brie Larson and a beautifully de-aged Samuel L. Jackson banter winningly, the film is a delight. I’d have killed for two hours of Sam and Brie bantering in Blockbuster. Emphasize Ben Mendelsohn’s brilliant subversion of his type-casting and Brie’s sapphic subtext with Lashana Lynch, and we’d have some top tier MCU. However, when it’s stuck making a flaccid cinematic version of Mass Effect in its space focused sequences, Captain Marvel is a dull slog. Jude Law is wasted, along with a talented crew of heavily made-up performers, in the sci-fi sequences.
15. ANT-MAN AND THE WASP
Director: Peyton Reed
The Ant-Man sequel is kind of a mess in the best way: just a joyous mishmash of character actors giving deeply strange performances and sci-fi mumbo jumbo. As with the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp serves as a palette cleanser after some heavy Avengers shenanigans, and Paul Rudd remains up to the task of relaxing us. Here, the comic book storytelling is better integrated with the goofier elements and Ant-Man’s powers are expanded to embrace his Giant Man identity. The action meshes well with comedy as gigantic Pez dispensers become integral to the set pieces. And Walton Goggins will forever be a welcome presence in any project.
14. IRON MAN 3
Director: Shane Black
Iron Man 3 serves as a grounding for Tony Stark after his near death at the hands of the Chitauri in the events of The Avengers. That he’s stripped of his tech and forced to “rough it” while embracing the trauma of the Battle of New York gives the film an edgier feel than most MCU movies. The film is also the first in the MCU to actively and aggressively troll its fanbase – now more commonplace like the “multiverse” in Far From Home and “Fietro” in WandaVision – with the “fake Mandarin.” I know it’s the cause of a major circuit split on the film’s quality, but, as far as I’m concerned, the reveal that fearsome villain The Mandarin is a coked out, prostitute loving failed actor is one of the MCU’s most joyous surprises. I love Iron Man 3’s shaggy dog feel and appreciate how Shane Black manages to affix his particular style to the broader cinematic universe.
13. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2
Director: James Gunn
I wish I could convince myself to ignore how ineffective the last act of this film. Michael Rooker is stupendous as Yondu, here, and his “he may have been your father, boy, but he wasn’t your daddy” is the MCU’s best tearjerker not involving the number 3,000. But it has the inescapable feel of weightless CGI nonsense slamming into each other for far too long. It’s too bad, because there’s a lot to love in Vol. 2, from a delightful opening dance sequence to Grogu’s forerunner Baby Groot. On a personal note, my wife told me we were going to have our first child (who just turned 3 the week this story was published) during the lovely “ugly” sequence between Drax and Mantis, and this movie will forever have a special place in my heart.
12. SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME
Director: Jon Watts
Let’s start at the end. Far From Home has, by far, the best stinger in the history of the MCU. From the massive plot implications for the future of the franchise to the surprise reveal of J.K. Simmons’ return to the J. Jonah Jameson role to the clandestine teases of the new Fantastic Four, no movie has done more world building in less time and with more pizzaz. And really, the fun of Far From Home is that it manages to shunt so much of the “necessary” building blocks of the grander Marvel lore into funny little school announcement montages and a stinger.
Our “answers” for what a post-Snap MCU looks like are doled out in funny, lived-in character beats. Tom Holland continues to be the best version of Peter Parker we’ve ever seen on film. I love what Zendaya brings to the table as Peter’s love interest (though she continues to not really be playing someone recognizable as the Mary Jane we know from decades of comic lore) and Jacob Batalon is the best sidekick in the superhero business. We’re dealing with an awful lot of very good superhero movies here, so the quibbles need to take on greater impart than they probably should, and here there are a lot of awkward moments arising from Peter’s efforts to utilize Stark tech to improve his life. The film is just a bit messier in storytelling than many of the other MCU entries.
11. BLACK PANTHER
Director: Ryan Coogler
Black Panther is, without question, the hardest MCU movie for me to rank. In terms of craft, it’s truly top of the charts. The score, the production designs, the costumes, the casting? All legitimately the best the MCU has ever seen. The film’s first half, which sees King T’Challa head to South Korea in a James Bond-esque spy sequence, is some of the most energetic filmmaking seen in the MCU. Michael B. Jordan brings his fountains of raw emotion to bring to life one of the MCU’s strongest villains. Unfortunately, I can’t escape how little I care for the film’s last act. The Killmonger character’s arc feels sold out to get us to the requisite action climax, and the action itself is a weak conclusion filled with weak CGI and weightless bodies clanging into one another. The film’s place in movie lore is inescapable. Chadwick Boseman has given an absolutely iconic performance here. What he means to children of color is inescapable and I hope my ranking here – quibbling with superhero plotting – isn’t viewed as trying to undercut the brilliance and importance of his work.
10. CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR
Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo
I’ll never forget the visceral feeling in my nerd gut when I saw Team Captain America and Team Iron Man square off for the first time on screen. I get there are reasons to quibble with this movie and the logic of said confrontation, but it was a comic book splash page brought to life in a way nothing had ever mustered before. When Spider-Man, Black Panther and Ant-Man show up to complete the conflict roster, the film kicks into a gear of loving fan service that I’m not sure a movie had ever mustered before. I even appreciate that the film boils down to a far more intimate character conflict between our triumvirate of heroes while intellect fells the villain. This is great popcorn storytelling.
9. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Director: James Gunn
The first big gamble of the MCU is also one of its most successful. To team up a whole hodgepodge of unknown characters who had never even really formed a version of the comic book Guardians before this film’s genesis full of unproven actors at the box office and a director best known for low budget extreme genre faire was insanity. But then Guardians appeared on the scene with an otherworldly charming trailer and a s*it-talking raccoon, and the world took notice. I have some little quibbles with Guardians, such as the villain, but the alchemy of the cast remains nearly perfect. James Gunn has crafted a world where Dave Bautista is “winning” scenes over superstars like Bradley Cooper, and that’s a delicate achievement. And Guardians still has one of the best soundtracks in recent film.
8. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING
Director: Jon Watts
As far as I’m concerned, this is the best live action encapsulation of everything that makes Spider-Man such a resonant hero. Tom Holland captures the optimism and derring-do of Peter Parker in a way neither Maguire nor Garfield has ever mustered. That the film takes its cues from great 80s high school comedies is perhaps the perfect way to infuse fusion in the typical superhero shenanigans. Michael Keaton brings his A Game as the villainous Vulture and serves as one of the MCU’s top tier antagonists. The sequence where he and Peter drive home together practically vibrating with conflict just beneath the surface is an absolute masterclass in villain acting. And, put simply, this movie is just incredibly fun.
7. IRON MAN
Director: Jon Favreau
The granddaddy of them all, Iron Man changed the film industry forever. And it’s still a damn fine superhero origin story carried on the shoulders of an absolutely amazing star turn by Robert Downey Jr. Downey has always been a charismatic dynamo, but this is The Role that has perhaps best actualized his unique set of skills as an actor. Nearly every minute he’s on screen is electric and in hindsight it’s crazy to see how well this movie sets up everything to come. I wouldn’t quibble with someone who shouted this has to be at the top of an MCU ranking – it’s a great movie.
6. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR
Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo
I hate quibbling with Infinity War, because it’s amazing popcorn entertainment. It brings together so many threads from so many movies in a way that’s almost astonishingly effective. It ended with the sort of big twist that may legitimately traumatize some young filmwatchers (I remember a child near me actively weeping when Spider-Man disappeared in the Snap). And it is packed to the gills with moments that still feel almost impossible to believe someone actually put into a movie… and then that movie became the biggest hit in the world. But we’re in the nitpicking game here, when doing this list, and Infinity War is burdened by not really having an ending. Even Endgame basically handwaves away much of Infinity War in the efforts to undo the Snap. It’s a great rollercoaster ride of a movie, and I mean that in the most affectionate way possible.
5. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
Director: Joe Johnston
I know, this is my most controversial ranking. In a lot of ways, The First Avengers is sort of hokey. It has this sort of derring-do energy that is so easy to snark in the age of the internet, but I appreciate the fearlessness with which The First Avenger sells simple human decency as the greatest superpower there is. Aside from a truly spectacular list of supporting players, from MCU love interest MVP Hayley Atwell to a delightfully grumpy Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Evans is tasked with making the most earnest man on Earth cool. That he pulls it off is a tribute both to his talents but also to Joe Johnston’s savvy ability to make what probably should feel antiquated cool again. I simply adore the production values on display here, and I appreciate the way it scratches a Raiders of the Lost Ark itch in my heart. This is the single movie in the canon that has grown the most for me over the year. I’m honestly not sure how much, if any, of that is how effectively the Russos pay off Cap’s arc in Endgame, or if it’s something simpler and Joe Johnston’s retro-cool story telling is really just that good.
4. THE AVENGERS
Director: Joss Whedon
Bringing all these characters together for the first time quite literally changed how studios conceptualize moviemaking. That the movie is dynamite popcorn entertainment only makes it better. Look, I can sit here now and say some of the action sequences are weak (especially Tony trying to turn the propellors back on the helicarrier) or that some characters are underutilized (Renner, raise your hand!). But when I think of The Avengers, I cannot divorce it from the feeling of the rotating “hero shot” Joss Whedon employs as our Avengers come together to save New York. I grew up on comic book nerdery and seeing it brought to life with that sort of fidelity and passion is not something I ever imagined could be real as a kid. There’s real movie making magic here.
3. AVENGERS: ENDGAME
Director: Anthony & Joe Russo
Full Review: Avengers: Endgame is the Emotional Reunion We Needed
I am a staunch believer that the MCU is so effective for people because it has so well repurposed the best elements of television. And I view Avengers: Endgame as one of the all time great season finales. By snapping away half the cast, Endgame is allowed to operate with a tighter, more character driven focus than Infinity War. The film’s ending pays off, at least to my mind, anything that anyone could have ever reasonably hoped for in a conclusion to this story. It is the perfect amalgamation of fan service and credible storytelling. The Russos are so deft in the way they can pivot from the audience stoking joy of Captain America wielding Thor’s hammer to Tony Stark’s final goodbye. It is one of the pinnacles of crowd pleasing mass market entertainment. I love you 3000, Endgame.
2. THOR: RAGNAROK
Director: Taika Waititi
Each time I watch Thor: Ragnarok, it grows in my esteem. It is one of the high water marks in action comedy. Benefitting from Taika Waititi’s unique style and wit, Ragnarok is uproariously funny in a way that only feels savvier on additional viewings. That it largely dispenses with the Shakespearean intrigue that has defined the Thor franchise is a perk, not a bug. Hemsworth, Hiddleston, Ruffalo, and new addition Tessa Thompson all bring the funny while still maintaining elite Marvel action sequences. Cate Blanchett is a perfect villain and the movie serves as a wonderful transition in Thor’s character arc. And the The Dark World spoof with Luke Hemsworth and Matt Damon remains the best sly joke in the entire franchise.
1. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo
The Winter Soldier is the gold standard of superhero movies for me. Leaving aside all of Marvel’s propagandistic messaging about the film as a superhero answer to 70s conspiracy thrillers, it’s really just a brilliant superhero story and action movie. The Bucky-Cap conflict is absolutely perfect in execution, and the reveal of Hydra’s long game is (with respect to the Snap) the franchise’s best reveal. The Russos bring a rough, harsh edge to the action that beautifully fits the film’s spy vs spy storytelling. Every actor, from Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan to relative bit players like Loud & Clear favorite Frank Grillo and a surprisingly engaged Robert Redford. The Winter Soldier is both my comfort food and my full meal in the MCU, and the very best story the franchise has told.
THE MARVEL TV UNIVERSE
Before WandaVision, the Marvel TV shows appear to exist in a world of “one-way canon.” The movies influence the shows, but the shows don’t influence the movies (aside from a few minor tie-ins). For fun, here’s my quick ranking of the shows:
- Daredevil (the gold standard of superhero TV)
- Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (awful first seasons, great later)
- Agent Carter (an absolute joy)
- The Punisher (good and gritty, gets bogged down in a lot of weak subplots)
- Jessica Jones (very good seasons bookend a very bad middle season)
- Cloak and Dagger (pleasant teen romance)
- Runaways (spins its wheels too much to ever reach the heights of the comics)
- Luke Cage (badly runs out of steam in each season)
- Iron Fist (a wonderful second season, but the first might be the non-Inhumans low point for Marvel TV)
- The Defenders (disappointing team-up of the Netflix MCU crew)
- Helstrom (it’s not surprising it was not renewed before the first episode aired)
- The Inhumans (nothing here works aside from maybe Iwan Rheon’s scenery chewing)
Marvel made a series of short-films that have largely been forgotten. Generally, they’re pleasant little stories that help tie-up loose ends in the franchise’s meta-narrative.
- All Hail the King
- Agent Carter
- Team Thor
- Team Thor: Part 2
- Team Darryl
- Item 47
- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer
- The Consultant
Some “senior superlatives” of the MCU:
- Best Love Interest: Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger
- Best Villain: Tom Hiddleston as Loki
- Best Secondary Villain: Sam Rockwell as Justin Hammer
- Best Callback: Cap wields Thor’s Hammer
- Best Fight Scene: The elevator fight in The Winter Soldier
- Best Bit Part: Shaun Toub as Yinsen in Iron Man
- Best Stinger: J. Jonah Jameson in Far from Home
- Best Actor: Chris Evans
- Best Actress: Scarlett Johansson
- Best Score: Thor: Ragnarok
- Best Theme: “Portals” from Avengers: Endgame
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