Marvel movies have been part of our cinematic lexicon for ten years now and will have released 20 films by the end of 2018. While the quality of said films have ebbed-and-flowed through the years, the achievement alone of getting to this point is unprecedented. Unfortunately, with such a large franchise, the films can all start to feel the same and become victims to a particular formula. The ones that have stood the test of time, for the most part, are ones that ultimately forgo that formula and reach for something higher and to be different. How do these films stack up ahead of Infinity War? Well…
22. Iron Man 2
It’s pretty easy to beat up on Iron Man 2, it was the first big misstep in the franchise but a necessary one as it does all the heavy-lifting of setting up what would be known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately having other movies on your mind is not the best strategy for making a lasting piece of cinema. Overloaded with multiple villains and supporting characters, Iron Man 2 doesn’t have much of a story on its own and the one that’s there isn’t particularly engaging either.
21. Thor: The Dark World
The first 30 minutes of Thor: The Dark World is quite a bit of sci-fi/fantasy fun, almost like the Masters of the Universe film we never got to have. Unfortunately it gets bogged down in a sluggish and dull storyline with an even duller villain (what was his name again?). What’s worse is that the story feels unnecessary – like a mid-season episode that treads water until we get to the season finale arc. This may be the most forgettable of all Marvel movies.
20. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Guardians Vol. 2 is quite charming and gives fans of the first film everything they could want again… and that’s the problem. Vol. 2 is more of the same zany action, slapstick comedy, and cool tunes you loved the first time around and that’s all we got. The film just sits around and hangs out with itself. You have the relationship between Star-Lord and his dad, but Peter meeting his dad is not a movie. Vol. 2 hopes its charms make up for the lack of story, but unfortunately it makes the whole well feel dry.
19. Avengers: Age of Ultron
While it has its moments (Vision casually picking up Thor’s hammer), Age of Ultron falls prey to the usual problems that befall big blockbuster sequels — over-bloated, over-long, and unnecessarily convoluted. More is more is the creed of most sequels, and unfortunately the characters are forgotten amidst all the spectacle which feels empty and disposable by the end.
18. The Incredible Hulk
The forgotten step-child of the MCU. Edward Norton’s take on the Hulk, not long after Ang Lee’s Hulk, works to bring the character back to his TV-based roots as a loner on the run and looking for a cure. Norton is quite good as Bruce Banner though very different from what Ruffalo would later bring to the role. The movie does its best to play it safe – bringing Hulk to the screen has never been easy – and it ends up being a solid, if not spectacular, entry into the Marvel canon.
17. Iron Man 3
After two Iron Man films and The Avengers, it seemed there was little room left to go with Tony Stark. It’s good then that Shane Black (who wrote and directed Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, relaunching his career and helping him land the role of Iron Man in the first place) stripped everything away from Tony Stark and forced him to face himself as a man. The villain is typically weak (as are most in Marvel movies) and the climax is a bit of a bore, but what comes before is compelling introspection with the kind of sharp wit only Black can do.
16. Captain America: Civil War
The airport fight is perhaps the greatest sequence in all of Marvel (maybe even all superhero movies). It really is a show-stopper that’s worth the price of admission alone. Unfortunately everything leading up to it is a tedious slog – two hours of moving our characters around the chess board until we’re ready for them to collide. It plays with interesting ideas such as collateral damage and superhero oversight, but replaying the plot from The Winter Soldier with more heroes involved turns this 2 1/2 hour film into a bit of a bore. Not to mention it has the weakest of all Marvel villains with the most nonsensical of schemes.
15. Doctor Strange
We’re basically just replaying the same beats as the original Iron Man, just with a bit more Batman Begins this time around. Cumberbatch delivers a fun performance and I’ll watch Tilda Swinton do anything, but the story beats of this film feel rather perfunctory and forgettable. The psychedelic visuals however are not forgettable and are really what sets this film apart from not just Marvel but any other superhero movie that matter. It’s an exercise of style over substance, but what style indeed!
14. Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War brings together all of the heroes of the Marvel universe in an unprecedented team-up filled with great moments, some of the most spectacular action you’ve seen in a superhero film, and one of the franchise’s best villains. So why then does this film seem less than the sum of its parts when it’s all over? Most of the problems are by design – this is the first half of a story and the film itself suffers for it. Our heroes are all separated into sub-groups and not given much to do rather than travel to some place for a big fight scene. That’s it. For how jam-packed it is, there’s very little story being told. The ending, while jaw-dropping and bold, feels a bit empty upon further reflection because we know there’s no real stakes attached to it. Avengers 4 may very well raise the esteem of this entry upon its release, but as of now and on its own, Infinity War feels hollow.
After so many doomsday scenarios, Marvel needed to scale it back — wayyyy back. Enter Ant-Man, the guy with a suit that makes him the size of ant which somehow also gives him super-powered strength. Where Ant-Man succeeds is with its characters — all richly drawn, engaging, and down-to-earth. Ant-Man feels more like Ocean’s 11 than a superhero movie and that’s precisely why it stands out. It’s fun and unique and our characters aren’t trying to save the world — just themselves and those they care about. It’s a breath of fresh air amidst all the CG-carnage.
At the beginning of the MCU, this looked like the riskiest bet of all the core characters. If Thor had failed, it’s hard to wonder if the franchise would have continued in the way it has. Thankfully Kenneth Branagh, known for his work directing Shakespeare film adaptations, was an ideal choice to bring the Norse God of Thunder to life. But the real victory was casting Chris Hemsworth as Thor, at that time only known for a small role as Captain Kirk’s dad. Turning this into a fish-out-of-water story with Thor stuck in New Mexico allows Hemsworth to display his comedic chops and charm, winning us all over in the process.
11. Captain Marvel
While Marvel’s first female-led superhero has its charms as a 90’s Action Movie throwback, it never really finds its footing until the final act and feels rather flat for the majority of its running time. Despite the immense talents of star Brie Larson, this issue is largely by design as the title character is a blank slate for most of the movie and we don’t get much of an emotional hook until her backstory is fully revealed. That being said, Larson’s chemistry with Samuel L. Jackson is a lot of fun and Ben Mendelsohn gives one of the most entertaining performances in the entire MCU. Also, the de-aging visual effects on Jackson are utterly breathtaking.
10. Ant-Man and The Wasp
Peyton Reed’s original Ant-Man felt like a refreshing palette cleanser from the usual doom-and-gloom stakes of the rest of the Marvel Universe, and here we are once again with the same job to do and this sequel is mostly successful on all fronts. Paul Rudd is as charming as ever, but the real star here is Evangeline Lilly as The Wasp. She carries the brunt of the film on her shoulders and does so with aplomb and would be well-deserving of her own film as the character. There are a number of hilarious and inspired sequences throughout the film, and without needing to learn the rules of this world, we can just enjoy and have fun with it. It is one of the most purely entertaining MCU films that also finds some resonant emotional depths through both Lilly and Michael Douglas’ characters.
9. Captain America: The First Avenger
Chris Evans had just finished playing the Human Torch in two disappointing Fantastic Four films, so giving him the reins to one of the most beloved characters in all of comics felt a little dubious. Fortunately, Evans had way more talent than anybody gave him credit for (save for those us who saw Sunshine). Evans fills Rogers with hope, optimism, and good-nature — a big contrast to The Dark Knight films being released at the time. Hugo Weaving is having a blast overplaying Red Skull and the World War 2 setting provides for lots of great fun. Plus Hayley Atwell’s Agent Carter still remains as the best love interest in the MCU.
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
People LOVE Guardians of the Galaxy — I mean, REALLY love it. Which is pretty strange considering the characters come from an obscure comic that most people had never heard of. Give credit to Marvel for developing a brand strong enough to take these bets and also giving them to filmmakers with a distinct voice like James Gunn. While I really like Guardians, I don’t love it. It has the usual villain problems and a number of overly familiar action set-pieces, but the team and performance therein are wonderful.
7. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
After setting Steve Rogers up in The First Avenger and then thrusting him into world-saving action in The Avengers, we finally now take some time to dig into all he’s been through. This marks the first outing for the Russo brothers, who would go on to become the go-to directing team for Marvel, and you can feel the love and respect they have for this character shine through. What is it like to be man out of time like this? To know everything you’ve loved is long gone? The Russo brothers pair this character study with a fun 1970’s-esque conspiracy thriller where Hydra has infiltrated SHIELD. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a great foil for Rogers (and thankfully never a love interest) and Bucky Barnes is a more-than-compelling foe for Rogers given their shared history.
6. Spider-Man: Homecoming
Are we really doing this again? Another Spider-Man reboot? I can still read my ticket stub from Sam Raimi’s 2002 origin story (which is still great, btw). Unfortunately Raimi’s trilogy ended on a disappointing note, and although Andrew Garfield was a capable Peter Parker, his movies were not up to par. So when Marvel was able to partly wrestle the rights from Sony, it provided hope, but would this new incarnation be? Yes we’re putting Spider-man back in high school, but that’s where he’s staying. And his movie? Well it’s basically a John Hughes movie, which is its greatest strength. Like Ant-Man, it feels down-to-earth and relatable. It’s about people, not planet-destroying aliens. Tom Holland is a perfect choice to play the web-slinger and Michael Keaton needs to be in everything.
5. Avengers: Endgame
The final chapter in the Infinity War saga (and the MCU as we know it) is an impressive distillation of over 20 movies’ worth of storytelling that finds our heroes at their lowest point imaginable. Infinity War felt like an extended prologue to tell this story, which takes us through the entire history of the MCU in mind-boggling coherent fashion. Whereas Infinity War was overloaded with spectacle, Endgame focuses on the emotional stakes of its characters and this massive ensemble has never had better material to work with. Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, and Scarlett Johansson give their best performances as these characters and this series capper is one of the most powerful and moving entries in the entire superhero genre.
4. Iron Man
The granddaddy that started it all. Jon Favreau’s original Iron Man film is template from which all future Marvel films would be built from. Robert Downey Jr. shows this is a role he was born to play and embodies Tony Stark as much as any other actor/character pair. The whole film is a fun-filled action-packed adventure from start to finish with a great cast to match. Jeff Bridges is a worthy villain to Stark and the film’s final moment – “I am Iron Man” – is one for the ages.
3. The Avengers
It’s all lead to this (isn’t that every marketing campaign now?). Well back in 2012 it really had a led to this. Marvel’s bold plan would finally come to fruition in a film that featured all of its major characters, introduced in their own films, coming to together as a team for an unprecedented super-film. How could they possibly make this work? Enter Joss Whedon, whose specialty is writing team dynamics for super-powered people (see Buffy, Angel, Firefly). Each character gets their due and seeing these larger-than-life personalities come together and clash is a real treat. Just scenes of everyone sitting in a room talking would be entertaining enough, but the big action set-pieces also stand out with the final battle in New York being one of the best in the genre.
2. Thor: Ragnarok
At this point Marvel was handing over the solo films to filmmakers who could bring their own distinct voice to the proceedings (see: Gunn, James). Which is makes it a stroke of genius to hand Thor over to Taika Waititi – best known for the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows. Waititi turns Thor: Ragnarok into a zany, strange, and hilariously cosmic adventure in the vein of Flash Gordon. You can almost hear Queen getting ready to blast from its soundtrack. What’s even better is that it tells a fairly straight-forward and easy-to-navigate story. No mystical MacGuffins and no elaborate hoops to jump through — just escape this prison planet and get back to save home. It allows us to just enjoy the ride and ends up being the most purely entertaining film in Marvel’s lineup.
1. Black Panther
Yep, it really is that good. Does its story have a couple moments of typical Marvel formula necessary to push the plot forward? Sure. But what it offers is more than any other Marvel film. Ryan Coogler vividly creates a brand new world unlike anything we’ve ever seen on screen. It is populated by a multitude of rich and dynamic characters that immediately become some of the most memorable in comic cinema. Michael B. Jordan’s villain is the most deeply drawn in any of the previous films. What really makes Black Panther stand out though is that it’s the first comic book film since The Dark Knight that puts our culture under a microscope. It doesn’t mean to just entertain (which it does brilliantly) but also has something to say and teach us as a society. It reaches for more than any other Marvel movies have and grasps it powerfully.