In just a few days Avengers: Infinity War will finally be unleashed upon the world. The culmination of 10 years’ worth of storytelling and filmmaking finally culminating something that will hopefully have been worth the wait. So, in the lead up to the grand crossover event of the year, I want to take a look over the past 18 feature instalments of the MCU as my own personal ranking and my reasons for their placement within the list.
18. The Incredible Hulk
More an adaptation paying homage to the original television series with Bill Bixby, the film is ultimately just a typical monster movie. It’s hardly a bore, but beyond the monster clash of the climax, it’s not the most terribly compelling or interestingly put together of the series. Even seen as just a reboot of the character, at least the Ang Lee adaptation from 2003 took more risks and chances with the material.
But it’s efforts to integrate it into the MCU offer up some neat little easter eggs for fans regarding the direction of the franchise at the time – even though little to none of the actual plot developments beyond a couple of characters finally made it through in the end. Norton basically ruled over the production to such an extent that it’s no wonder he was eventually recast entirely as a kind of soft reset without sacrificing the continuity.
17. Thor: The Dark World
It’s a change of pace from the bombastic Shakespearian theatrics of the original, but the sweeping grandeur by director Alan Taylor falls flat thanks to a glib colour pallet, as does the human drama that really is a half-measure of unrealised plot threads and relationships. Most of this stems from the nature of the edit, the film moves way to fast and is messily structured, and the villain is a boring waste by a performer who’s just picking up the check.
Having said that, it’s not unenjoyable at points. The comedic banter still works – as do the sight gags of the Asgardian reaction with the modern world – and the moment it switches into a buddy comedy with Thor and Loki it begins to briefly lighten up a bit.
16. Iron Man 2
A sequel quickly pushed out because the original was a surprise hit, you get the sense that from a story perspective they didn’t really know what to do beyond pad the time with Downey Jr. eating up the scenery whenever he can. Everything that worked in the first one is still here but just MORE. From the overbearing use of AC/DC to dialogue that feels thought up on the spot to extend scenes.
It’s a structural mess with a wasted opportunity, but the stuff it does add more than extraneous and extensive references to films to come are the character details. The first act really works, the lifted elements from Demon in a Bottle brings more of Stark’s vulnerability to the surface, and Favreau’s direction is still energetic even when all he’s doing is placing a camera in front of Sam Rockwell and letting him do his stuff (how has he not come back into the series proper yet?)
15. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Even without comparison to the legacy left behind by the redefining efforts of the Sam Rami films, Homecoming just doesn’t quite get there in the ends very much because of the fact that nobody was expecting much from it other than a fun and light distraction – and that it is.
It uses this approach in its favour (for the most part), the atmosphere is fun, Holland is great and it boasts a threatening villain in Michael Keaton with a strong supporting cast. But overall, it’s just not as memorable as it probably could be. Not because of its lack of stakes (although that is a minor issue considering the way it skirts the origin story entirely and doesn’t find much else to fill it), but because of its direction, the general design and the throwaway nature of its narrative. Although cuteness of the ‘after school special’ theme does work.
14. Doctor Strange
Iron Man but for wizards, basically.
Structurally and in terms of character definition it's more or less the same film from a structural jumping off point with a different paint job, but for the most part, it works. While it's not the most compelling or engaging of the series, with yet another vaguely forgettable villain, the action sequences are visually spectacular, the score is good and the ending is genuinely unique for a film of its calibre.
This was probably one of the studio’s biggest gambles pre-Avengers, and it pays off by leaning into the silly fun of the source material. It’s nowhere near as cosmically weird as the series would eventually become, with a sadly small-scale and mostly earthbound setting, but Kenneth Branagh comes at the film like it’s a goof and directs it very well.
What helps is that the characters are really strong, especially with a great villain on hand digging into the Shakespearian familial strife ruling over the loud Asgard drama, and Hemsworth is a real find and brings some levity to it even if he’s not quite as well attuned to comedy as he will later become.
12. Iron Man
The casting of Downey Jr. was one of the best calls the franchise ever made and epitomises the character as well as the best performers in the genre, so much so that he really just IS Tony Stark now, and it’s really fun and directed with a lot of oomph. The first and second act is really great but the film pretty much peaks in the middle, with a weaker third act and a highly uninteresting villain even despite Jeff Bridges mugging of the screen.
The reason for placing it here might come down to it being a grandfather clause for being the first of these, but the film is definitely good though not quite great.
Honestly, given the production trouble that it took to get it to the screen, Ant-Man being as good as it is would have been enough. Even with the creative leftovers of the film that never was still hanging around, the film just works as a terrifically mounted science-fiction heist movie as well as a comedy.
It also has a real heart to it with a motivational main character, a great cast and a third act that puts so many other films like it to shame in terms of goofy creativity and visual design. Once again, the villain kind of lets it down but the rest of it is solidly entertaining with a great tease of things to come. Bring on the Wasp!
10. Avengers: Age of Ultron
Age of Ultron feels like slightly less than the sum of its parts, especially when compared to the tightly constructed storyline of the first film. It’s trying to juggle its own storyline with setting up the pieces for film’s to come, to such an extent that Thor just leaves the film halfway through to act as a kind of ambassador for the next few movies.
But the film is still a tremendous deal of fun. Whenever it’s just allowing its terrific cast to just bounce off one another the screen crackles with energy and life. The action scenes are very well staged, Joss Whedon’s direction and script is good, and although Ultron’s ultimate plan falls into the familiar well of third act conflicts in Phase 2, James Spader is having a great time in the role and he’s very memorable.
9. Thor: Ragnarok
Turns out that jettisoning the tone and feel of the first two films entirely to root itself in the reverent action comedy grounds of the Guardians of the Galaxy series was just what the Thor series needed to pick itself up.
It’s not all the way great, the introductory first act detour as it wraps up loose plot threads is a little tedious, it’s almost constant upending of otherwise sincere moments with a joke gets a little tiresome, and as fun as Cate Blanchett is Hella is not as interesting a character as one would hope for.
Even with those shortcomings, this is easily the best of the three with a great setting, brilliant supporting characters and performances (including one of the MCU’s best female characters in Valkyrie), and an unexpectedly thoughtful contemplation on the ravages of colonialism while also upending the traditional narrative values of these apocalyptic narratives.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Vol. 2 falters in the moments where it’s trying way too hard to make you laugh, and sadly that’s for a lot of its second act in the B-storyline. It also has the same issue as Ragnarok where moments of actual sincerity are being constantly undercut at the wrong moments.
Everything else pretty much works as well as it possibly could have. The cast are still excellent, the dynamics feel real and fleshed out, the setting is incredible with one of the MCU’s best villains on hand in the form of a brilliantly cast Kurt Russell. But it’s the emotions and relationships that linger the most and hit the hardest, and it grants the MCU with the heart it really needs.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger
CGI wobbles and near non-existent second act aside, The First Avenger is the best version of the Captain America origin story anyone could have possibly hoped for. It’s as utterly sincere and in love with its source material and character as some of the best of the genre, with a fantastic climax and Phase 1’s most underappreciated and defining villain in Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull.
The period detail and design are astonishing, Joe Johnston’s direction is pitch perfect and toned wonderfully with Alan Silvestri’s score, and the insidiously well cast Chris Evans comes fully formed as the MCU’s most valuable character and moral compass.
6. Iron Man 3
As much uproar as it caused upon release with some fans (a persistent problem with genre films like this it seems when they diverge from expectation), Iron Man 3 is the best film of the trilogy and a perfect narrative close for the Tony Stark even if they continued to build on him afterwards.
Even though it wastes a few side characters and runs a little too long, Shane Black’s direction and his work with Downey Jr. is phenomenal, the action scenes are great, the script is sharp and funny but also incredibly dark at points with great tonal fluctuations. It feels like as much of a roast of the action-comedy genre as it does a phenomenal deconstruction of what we’ve learned so far. A fantastic piece of character work that has only proven itself more potent and valuable to the MCU series as time has gone by.
5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
If Winter Soldier proved anything it was that the otherwise frothy and brightly coloured MCU was ready to take on a darker shade of action movie, and the result isn’t just a brilliant sequel that builds on the work of its predecessor, but also one of the most efficiently directed and involving instalments of the series.
Taking Captain America and using his very presence, title and character as a stark commentary of the modern world and watching him react to it is such a compelling way to construct a narrative it's astonishing they’ve managed to pull it off more than once. As an action film, it’s one of the best of its kind in the genre with real physicality and weight to it, and all this espionage business and character work working around one of the MCU’s biggest world reshaping developments unfolding right at the centre of it. It’s not perfect, but it’s a terrific piece of blockbuster filmmaking, and wasn’t even the best MCU film to be released that year…
4. Guardians of the Galaxy
More than just a superhero film, this pushes the series into new regions with as one of the most enjoyable and surprising blockbusters of its kind this decade. Besides some loose plot threads and a familiar state of threat, the film embraces the cosmic weirdness it was always capable of with a fantastic line-up of actors and characters.
The entire film carries a similar attitude with the audience towards its content; that they are in for the ride just as much as the characters, and James Gunn’s imaginatively stages action, world design and dramatic sensibilities push emotion to the forefront of every decision made.
3. Black Panther
Even though this is the most recently released instalment and its full effects might not feel full worked out in the collective consciousness for some time, Black Panther stands as one of the MCU’s most definitive achievements and contributions to 21st-century blockbuster cinema for reasons beyond the aspects of race.
Not just a great showcase for it’s cast of characters and performers, director Ryan Coogler’s breathless fusion of visuals and action, and a spectacularly realised world with a rich heritage and source material, it’s a genre-bending piece of popular filmmaking that steers right into the heart of its conflict with Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger standing as the most accomplished and emotionally resonant villain the series has ever produced… so far.
2. Captain America: Civil War
This really shouldn’t work as well as it does considering the number of plates it has spinning at once, but this might be the MCU’s proudest moment; a towering testament to the power of its storytelling, its performers, its characters and the investment and faith that audiences have placed within them.
The action sequences are some of the best ever mounted in the genre, the character work is phenomenally handled by a robust well-made structure and moves at a breakneck pace, with a devastating final coda and fight sequence in which the emotions of the film overwhelm the mechanics of the plot in the best way possible.
It’s as dense and mature as it is dizzyingly enjoyable and fun – a richly layered, impeccably managed piece of genre cinema that brings a close to the Captain America trilogy as the strongest in the genre.
1. Avengers Assemble
I really struggled as to whether or not to place this at first or second place to Civil War, but Avengers Assemble feels like the most satisfying and perfectly mounted picture they’ve made so far, as well as standing as a high-water mark for the genre and a watershed moment in the landscape of 21st century filmmaking.
The key being that it’s simple without being stupid, and a knowing celebration of its own accomplishments in a manner of unabashed spectacle that works its way back into the narrative as a form of engagement. Joss Whedon’s screenplay and direction are nearly faultless constructions (even with harsher than usual interior lighting conditions), the cast are on the best form of their lives, and the final act blow out remains one of the most singularly satisfying and memorable cinematic experiences in recent Hollywood history. It’s a modern classic, plain and simple.