Given that the DCEU, something I genuinely love, is pretty consistently torn apart, I spend a lot of time talking about how I think Zack Snyder’s entries are misunderstood masterpieces with depth most other comic book films could never hope to achieve. While I stand by that statement, I don’t want it to be misinterpreted that I dislike the MCU. It’s quite the opposite actually. We are fifteen films in and continuity is almost entirely airtight. The action is pretty consistently great and, while it’s true that there is a formula many entries seem to operate by, that doesn’t keep the films from being unique stories, distinct from others in the genre. That being said, this is how I rank the films released thus far, from my least favorite to favorite. Let’s get started. (Potential spoilers for all.)
15. The Incredible Hulk
Fifteen films, and this is the only one I don’t consider to be, at the very least, a good film. I’m one of the few people to actually think Ang Lee’s Hulk was a better film. At least Lee was aiming high in his, and the movie, while messy, had some really cool things going for it. The Incredible Hulk, however, is pretty boring start to finish. Characters consistently make stupid decisions, Norton and Tyler have almost no chemistry, and there’s only one good fight scene. Really, the only good thing I have to say about this movie is that it does have a really cool ending fight scene. Other than that, it’s pretty much just running, running, and more running.
14. Thor: The Dark World
From here on out, I actually like all the rest, which is a testament to how consistently solid the films are. As for Thor: The Dark World, I think it’s actually a mostly good movie with some glaring issues, most notably one of the worst, most underdeveloped villains ever. The movie can sometimes feel fairly boring, and the characters often seem more interested in what’s going on than the audience does. That being said, it still has plenty going for it. Thor’s arc is continuing incredibly well from where it was left off and I personally think this movie is Loki at his best. Plus, the Viking Funeral and escape from Asgard sequences are absolute cinematic gold.
13. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
I know I’ll get hate for this one, but boy was I disappointed. This movie has such an immense love for its characters and the aesthetics and visuals of the film are unbelievably phenomenal. Unfortunately, everything that works for this movie is buried under humor that often doesn’t work, a horrendously structured plot, and half baked character arcs. It feels like the movie starts already halfway through Yondu’s and ends halfway through Rocket’s. Drax is just kind of there, Gamora wants Peter to spend time with his dad, then scolds him for spending time with his dad, and Baby Groot exists to sell toys and drag jokes out for two minutes too long. Oh, also Nebula still hates Gamora, but it’s ok because they hugged it out at the end. That doesn’t even cover the fact that any semblance of plot doesn’t even really surface until well into the movie, only to drag for an hour, finishing out with a very rushed finale. This goes to show how positive I find the positives to be. Like I said, the visuals are genuinely fantastic, and Gunn and his cast are having so much fun, it’s still kinda hard not to yourself.
12. Iron Man 2
Iron Man 2 gets a lot of unnecessary hate, in my opinion. Yes, it’s one of the most anti-climactic climaxes, and thinking that party scene was a proper adaptation of the Demon in a Bottle story is insulting, but between those low points, the movie’s actually pretty great. Sam Rockwell is an underrated treasure, and he turns in a really great performance as Justin Hammer, AKA Tony Stark without the charm. Also, I don’t care if I’m in the minority, but I think Rourke was pretty fantastic as Whiplash. The fight on the race track and fight with the drone army are both fantastically well made action sequences, and the opening scene with Senator Finch captures everything there is to love about Tony Stark.
11. Avengers: Age of Ultron
It’s frustrating, knowing there’s a superior cut of this film we’ll never see, but what we did get isn’t half as bad as people would have you believe. It’s rushed and overstuffed, features a climax full of faceless cgi cannon fodder, and Ultron is pretty much just an even more mean spirited Tony Stark, but I think all that is overshadowed by how genuinely entertaining it is. In true Whedon fashion, the action is exceptionally staged, and the group dynamic continues to be great. The movie single handedly made Hawkeye one of my new favorite characters. Plus, how much fault can we really find in the film that gave us Paul Bettany’s Vision?
10. Ant Man
Really, this movie shouldn’t be as good as it was. It’s a totally silly idea at face value, but they took this concept and played it for all it’s worth, with the end product being a surprisingly great stand alone addition to the series. The movie is very consistently funny, and it almost never feels forced, because it naturally arises from what’s happening in the film. Paul Rudd proves he’s not just hilarious, but has the chops to be a genuine leading man. He has a great dynamic with the always wonderful Michael Douglas, and has very believable chemistry with Evangeline Lilly. Speaking of which, Lilly proved she’s not just a beautiful face that’s included to check off the love interest box, but is able to act alongside the best of them, and actually ends up with the films most emotional moment. The action is also not just well shot, but entirely unique in execution, playing the heroes powers for all they’re worth.
This might be the most simple of all the films. So much of the time of this movie is spent with a powerless Thor in a very small desert town. Yet, Kenneth Branagh, being the brilliant storyteller he is, managed to create a fully engaging and downright charming film that stands confidently with the rest of Marvel’s solo films. The casting of Thor and Loki could not have possibly been more perfect, with both Hemsworth and Hiddleston knocking it out of the park. While the action is maybe a little more sparse than in other entries, it’s not really missed because that time is instead spent fleshing out a fantastic cast of side characters and explaining to the audience parts of the world of comics more out there than just weaponized suits. Plus, it’s one of the few times Marvel gave us a legitimately great score, perfectly matching the tone and visuals of the film.
8. Doctor Strange
I often go back and forth between the placement of this and Thor. It’s a tossup between the Shakespearian charm of Branagh, or the visual creativity and imagination of Derrickson. Doctor Strange adheres pretty closely to the standard Hero’s Journey structure, but arrives at a refreshing conclusion, one that Marvel too often doesn’t: it’s not about you. Doctor Strange, as a film, is mature enough to take a step back and remind the hero what being a hero is all about. Doctor Strange is not a hero for the sake of being a hero, but because the movie took him on a legitimate arc from the narcissistic, albeit charming, jerk, to learning that he’s not the center of the universe. And controversy aside, Swinton is mesmerizing as The Ancient One. Her last scene? Genuinely moving. Points deducted for underutilizing Mads Mikkelson, though.
7. Captain America: The First Avenger
While it’s easy to get lost in the larger than life personalities heroes are oft to have, I’ll always have a soft spot for the good old-fashioned hero. This is such an underrated gem of a film. You couldn’t find an actor who looked or played the part better than Chris Evans, who gives an overlooked, but nuanced performance as Steve Rogers. He plays the often naïve, but always morally upright character to a tee, and shows subtle, yet impressive changes in the character before and after becoming Captain America that goes beyond just physicality. And while Joe Johnston may not direct the prettiest of action, pretty much everything else about this movie is perfect. The comic book, more high tech, 1940’s is brilliantly realized on screen, and somehow manages to fit in just fine with the rest of the film when the war aspect becomes front and center. It also introduces one of my favorite on screen friendships ever with Steve and Bucky. Plus, Hayley Atwell couldn’t have been more awesome as Peggy Carter if she tried. Oh yeah, and Tommy Lee Jones is in this movie, and he’s one of my favorite side characters in a comic book movie to date. Man, I just really love this movie…
6. Iron Man
It’s hard to overstate this films importance in regard to modern pop culture. It pretty much single handedly launched the modern shared universe craze. Yet, as large of a universe as this serves as the foundation for, it works exceptionally well as a standalone story. Some actors were put on this earth to play certain roles. Ian McKellin as Gandalf, Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and in this case, Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. The film strikes the perfect balance in tone. It’s often very serious and consistently character driven, but also manages to inject humor throughout that never undermines the gravity of the film, a criticism often laid at the feet of future entries in the MCU. The movie is also perfectly paced, never dragging, nor feeling rushed. Even when the film stops moving with the energetic momentum it often carries, it’s usually to stop for excellent character moments. Apart from some third act quibbles I have with it, I think it’s pretty much above reproach as a film.
5. Iron Man 3
Aside from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, this is probably my most controversial placement, but I will never recant my love for this film. How the majority of audiences didn’t fall in love with this movie like I did is beyond me. Almost everything I love about it can be traced back to Shane Black. The movies best quality, in my opinion, is how confidently it carries itself, managing to fit in nicely with the established universe while very firmly existing as a Shane Black movie. That confidence in vision, and subsequent execution I find very similar with what Guy Ritchie was able to do with Sherlock Homes and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The movie features Tony at arguably his funniest and his most serious. He’s battling demons he never thought he would have to battle, but he still manages to include the very dry wit we’ve come to expect. And the humor works so well because it doesn’t feel like lines written in a writers room to make an external audience laugh, but natural lines Tony would say to cope with his situation. And while he’s not in his suit as much as most would like, that modern MacGyver scene was awesome. I’m fully aware that a lot of peoples enjoyment of the film depended on how they took the big reveal with The Mandarin, but I can’t help but applaud the boldness and self surety in vision it took to make that happen, and I think enough time has passed that people should be able to revisit the film and enjoy it on its own terms, now that they know what to expect.
4. Captain America: Civil War
The fact that this film was even coherent and watchable is a testament to the focused vision of Kevin Feige, but anyone who’s seen the film know it’s so much more than simply coherent and watchable. The way the film weaves character arcs from previous films and balances recurring characters with newcomers is nothing short of admirable. The plot is much more personal this time around, and ends up drawing out the best performances Downey, Jr. and Evans have given in the series to date. It also features some of the best action scenes not just of the series, but of the genre, ranging from the hugely entertaining airport sequence, to the absurdly well-executed final confrontation. The only reason this film isn’t higher up on the list is because some change in motivation for some side characters don’t make a lot of sense, and I think Zemo should have either been developed much further, or excluded entirely. However, the movie does such a fantastic job with its chief characters, those complaints are mostly forgivable.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
What an amazing surprise this movie turned out to be. Just when people start to wonder if Marvel is getting stale, they’re able to pull things like this movie out of their sleeve. Guardians of the Galaxy is without a doubt, for me, the funniest film in the genre. The vibe of the film is wholly unique to it, and it’s lead by a fantastic and diverse set of characters played to perfection by an immensely talented cast. Like Shane Black, James Gunn had a very clear vision specific to him, and brought that vision so confidently to the screen. His personality is stamped on nearly every frame of this movie and it’s all the better for it. Endlessly quotable and often exhilarating, there is nearly nothing wrong with this film.
2. The Avengers
If it’s difficult to overstate the importance Iron Man had on the genre, it’s nigh impossible with The Avengers. While many claim that the film contains many flaws that are willfully overlooked, and it isn’t nearly as good now with several years separating us from its release, I myself reject that claim. I find this movie to be near perfect in almost every aspect. It has possibly the best pacing of any film in the genre, a completely engaging and charismatic villain, and a group dynamic second to none, this movie will no doubt stand the test of time. The action of the movie is so well thought out, staged, and executed it’s nearly impossible to not be on the edge of your seat throughout. It’s also Marvel’s humor at peak performance. While I don’t think that comic books are supposed to be innately fun, a large number of them are, and this film celebrates that with gusto.
1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
I don’t think there’s enough good things I could say about this movie. I certainly never thought the guys partially behind shows like Arrested Development and Community could be the guys to somehow craft action scenes better than Whedon did with The Avengers, but here we are. This movie moves in such an exciting way. One scene after the next ramps up the tension and intrigue, and is peppered with action sequences second to none. And not only are they all great, but there is a great range of diversity to them. The stealth invasion of the ship, the elevator fight, the motorcycle vs. the jet, Nick Fury’s car chase, the finale with the helicarriers, and the incredible duel between Cap and the titular Winter Soldier. Any of those moments have the potential to be the standout scene in a movie, yet are all contained in one. And this praise is without getting into the personal emotion the film is heavy with, nor its political commentary. It’s just as well made and well rounded as The Avengers, I find the action to be a hair more exciting. Plus, The Avengers lacks the emotional weight that our characters feel in The Winter Soldier, so overall I can’t help but give top spot to the Russo Brothers’ action/spy/thriller masterpiece.