With the release of Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” in cinemas, I decided it was time to look back at the fifteen films so far of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and figure out a best to worst list. It’s hardly the most original idea, pretty much every film writer has done such an editorial in their time, but I was also aware that some of my choices are a little different to others with two particular examples differing greatly from the consensus.
With this series of films, I find I’m more inclined to feel passion for the more auteur-driven entries of the series, the ones that break out of the constraints of the superhero formula as much as possible both in terms of storytelling and look. Like good science fiction, superhero films work best when they’re mashed up with other genres and styles to result in something that will utilise the best of both worlds. Marvel’s push for a combined cinematic universe also seems to demand a certain conformity of tone and visual style, so the ones that take risks and try and do their own thing are often the ones I’m much more inclined to like. Without further ado:
TIER 1: The Very Good Ones
1. “Guardians of the Galaxy”
Even more than Whedon with “Avengers” and Black with “Iron Man 3,” this is the movie of this universe where the filmmaker’s sensibilities can be felt the most in every frame. Given an obvious great amount of freedom by being both tonally and physically separated from the rest of the MCU, James Gunn’s trippy space fantasy film boasts a wonderful aesthetic, robust character comedy, the best soundtrack of the series, and ambition on every level. The regular MCU flaws of a weak villain, awkward foreshadowing and some bloated third act issues remain, but the rest is so strong it’s not really a problem.
2. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
Up there amongst the best superhero films made, certainly one of the best sequels, the “Raiders”-inspired first film gives way to a far more fascinating “Three Days of the Condor”-esque contemporary political paranoia thriller. Steve Rogers’ bland incorruptibility, that which made him a frustrating one-dimensional lead in his first film, becomes a strength here – the stalwart and inspiring man of principles who stands alone against a hopelessly corrupt system.
Kudos also to an excellent supporting cast with Johansson & Jackson, along with those new to the franchise like Mackie and Redford, really fleshing things out and allowing the film to deal with serious themes and adult concepts in between the moments of crowd-pleasing action. It’s the most ‘adult’ movie of the MCU thus far and works all the better for it.
3. “Iron Man 3”
The most controversial placement on this list by far as “Iron Man 3” is nothing if not divisive and a film which a lot of the hardcore Marvel fans HATE with a passion for its deliberate slap in the face of comic book canon. As someone unfamiliar with the comics though, that twist is a brilliantly subversive expectation smasher and totally in line with the rest of this effortlessly enjoyable film.
The wonderful Shane Black is let loose with a big budget and an actor like Downey Jr. who is a perfect fit for his material, resulting in some of their best work to date. The middle hour in particular – between Tony’s snowy crash land and the thrilling Air Force One rescue sequence – is my favorite hour of the MCU. In fact it is when the “Iron Man” parts of the film have to be focused on, like the opening and closing half hours, that it feels less engaging but still quite robust. If the first and last half-hour were as strong as that middle hour, it’d easily be my favourite MCU film.
4. “The Avengers”
Still held up as the gold standard not just for the MCU but comic book films as a whole, there’s little point denying that Joss Whedon’s first “The Avengers” is one of the most entertaining and crowd pleasing superhero films, and certainly the most accessible for a general audience.
The often unwieldy and sandwiched in elements setting up this were the clunkiest parts of the individual ‘Phase One’ films, but the payoff is worth it – delivering a true ensemble piece with distinct personalities colliding, clashing and collaborating in fascinating ways. Combined with Joss Whedon’s deft focus on character and knack for humor, the results are very strong bar some quibbles over the action sequences which can and do drag – mostly in repeated viewings.
TIER 2: The Good Ones
No scene better epitomises “Thor” than the one in which our hero on horseback gallops along a giant wormhole generating energy conduit. Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V…In Space” is gloriously bats–t insane – a blend of Shakespearean and space opera tropes, challenging world building and myth creation, a hero with an actually compelling personal arc of humility, and what is still easily the only truly great villain the MCU has produced thus far.
Its romance scenes are weak and the Earth-bound scenes in the middle are a weak spot, plus the camp is certainly not for everyone. Yet – if you go with its weird blend of sci-fi, family melodrama and comic book adventure – you’ll see a really wonderful and distinct vision up on screen.
6. “Iron Man”
The film that started it all remains one of the best to date – Robert Downey Jr. is a casting coup that can’t really be beat, and his sheer charisma and style helps power through some of the film’s more problematic plot issues and overly familiar beats.
These beats thankfully don’t really prove much of an issue until the final half-hour or so, director Jon Favreau keeping things tight and simple as he fills out some of the supporting roles with great talent such as Gwyneth Paltrow as the MCU’s still most interesting love interest, and Paul Bettany as pretty much the best A.I. put to screen. Favreau even displays a welcome knack for action with some of the year’s best taking place during much of the film’s mid-point. Still one of the best and most enjoyable superhero origin tales to date.
7. “Captain America: The First Avenger”
Another controversial choice, this is probably lower on the list than others would place. I was never a fan of the character before, and Joe Johnston’s “Raiders”-lite period piece is handsomely made but never really clicked with me – leaving me wondering why it still gets so much love. Even so, there’s an earnestness here that’s missing from the cookie cutter-style of the more recent movies that I do admire.
Arguably it’s the most easily emotional of the MCU films, certainly of the first phase, and the story of a physically weak man with such a strong inner humanity being able to become a warrior for that ideal (albeit via a cheat) has an easy appeal. Evans is good, as is Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan, but Hugo Weaving’s Red Skull and other elements just feel like clunky knock offs of stuff even Johnston himself did better in “The Rocketeer”.
TIER 3: The OK Ones
8. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”
James Gunn tries for something a little different with the sequel, which neither falls into the trap of carbon copy repeating its predecessor or falling back on MCU formula (for the most part). Instead, the humor and easy appeal of the first gets nudged to the back burner as the heart comes to the fore and a storyline is built around it. It’s great big heart that hurts and asks you to behold its beauty as it shares its very specific pain with the world.
Gunn however hasn’t mastered emotional filmmaking beats as well as he has comedic ones, and the greater focus on the former comes at something of a cost to the latter – at times making this akin to a heavy-handed Pixar film squeezed into a lesser pre-reboot “Star Trek” film where the labored metaphors are too often made manifest. The film’s greatest supporters will recognise that it is quite overstuffed, while its greatest detractors will admire some of the inventive ideas and bravura on display.
9. “Captain America: Civil War”
A far better sequel to “The Avengers” than ‘Ultron,’ the third “Captain America” deftly balances a solid action style with time between practically all the members of a massive ensemble. At the same time it also pays more than just lip service to its central idea of a political and ethical divide coming between the heroes. Three characters steal the whole show – a new Spider-Man, the first appearance of Black Panther, and Ant-Man’s first team-up with other Avengers – that are brilliantly introduced into the action as the wild card, moral heart and comic relief respectively.
Sadly the film lacks the pacing and cohesiveness of ‘Winter Solider’, the setup to get these heroes fighting feeling a bit forced while the villain and third act problem that has been an issue in the past for MCU films raises its head again here. Even more than ‘Winter Soldier,’ the Russo’s films don’t feel as distinctive or cinematic as other MCU helmers which gives this film more of a TV feel than expected despite being so highly polished.
10. “Avengers: Age of Ultron”
Certainly a more ambitious film than the first, this attempts to dive a bit deeper into the characters this time out whilst retaining the balance that made the original so fun. Yet even Whedon, who is such a master with large ensembles, is juggling too many balls in the air with this and can’t help but drop a few even as he impresses so well with what ones he can keep up.
James Spader’s Ultron proves very disappointing in his rote evilness, the additions of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch leave much to be desired, and poor Thor is given the strangest subplot of the MCU to date. Yet the film’s handling of The Vision is wonderful, same for the Hulk-Black Widow relationship and giving Hawkeye some proper development. Despite its fundamental flaws, it’s still a highly polished effort.
11. “Doctor Strange”
Scott Derrickson brings the wild stylings of Steve Ditko’s illustrations to life with some of the best visuals of the franchise. From chases that would make MC Esher envious to a wildly trippy visit into a blacklight universe, it’s certainly inventive from a visual perspective. At times it also takes a couple of risks which give you hope of something fresh.
Unfortunately, all too often, it falls back into incredibly safe and familiar territory – remaking Tony Stark’s story but with a far less charismatic lead. A superb cast does what they can but the material is just too thin to work – Cumberbatch and Swinton come out well, but the likes of Ejiofor, Mikkelsen and McAdams are utterly wasted. It’s a shame a film that’s often glorious in looks is so ordinary at heart.
Much like the “Thor” sequel, Marvel’s “Ant-Man” is one of its safest and most by the numbers films – which also makes it one of its least interesting. There’s a welcome reduction in stakes here to just the fate of individuals and a man’s legacy, some familiar inventiveness that makes use of fun “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”-style scale differentials, a playful but sanitised sense of humor, and very likable lead turns from both Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas. Yet there’s also arguably the weakest villain of the MCU to date, one of the most forgettably generic heist stories I’ve ever seen in a heist film, and a real feeling of this being only a very minor entry in the whole canon.
TIER 4: The Bad Ones
13. “Thor: The Dark World”
The “Thor” sequel remains a great example of too much polishing. On the surface to many people it’s a film better than its predecessor in almost every way – a much larger scale, a more lived in and less fantastical universe, a decidedly more serious tone with less irksome comedy, and a greater sense of ensemble with smoother tie-ins to the rest of the MCU.
Yet it sits on the bottom of many lists because, quite frankly, it’s dull. The first one’s campiness, clunky edges and silly elements are the very things that made it what it was and give it a real individual flavour. With most of that scrubbed away, the sequel feels incredibly generic on every level – to the point that there’s no need for more than one viewing.
14. “Iron Man 2”
The energetic drive and carefree spirit that made the original such a welcome change of pace from the superhero films that came before gets muted in this problematic and over-stuffed sequel. Much like the problems that would plague ‘Ultron’ a few years later, the far more ambitious narrative often loses track of itself and is overly self-conscious.
The result is Downey Jr.’s charismatic charmer becomes more obnoxious, the villains more interesting in concept but blander in execution, and of all the films this is the one where the setting up of the greater MCU has the most crippling effect on this solo film’s structure. A noble failure, but a failure nonetheless.
15. “The Incredible Hulk”
The saving grace of the film is its pre-Hulk first half-hour as Edward Norton’s Bruce Banner hides out in a Brazillian favela trying to curb his anger. Essentially “The Bourne Irradiation,” this bit is well paced, grounded, serious and gives star Edward Norton the chance to do most of his acting as a proactive and sympathetic Banner whom we get to know before all the green computer animation fully takes over.
Once it does though it unfortunately becomes a victim of the worst superhero film tropes – multiple overacted arch villains, bombastic set pieces more akin to a video game, and really nothing beyond the most conventional of thrills.